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Bulgaria

Chaos in Sofia and a Russian Train

Right now I’m on a Russian train heading for Bucharest…the train continues on to Moscow and I feel like that would be so relaxing to just stay on for the next couple days.  Today was fairly exhausting.  Avi didn’t sleep well last night – was up a lot to nurse – and then woke at 630.  So, I started the day tired.  We got breakfast, packed up, and then checked out of Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo.  The drive from their to Sofia was crazy….the ‘freeway’ is basically a two lane road that has limited access.  It was packed with cars driving super close and passing around corners.  The scenery along the way was lovely, and made Bethany and I think of Pennsylvania…just with bigger mountains.  Both the kids slept for a majority of the drive.  I did have to jump in the back and nurse Avi for a bit to get him sleepy.  He seems to be enjoying his bright pink forward-facing car seat. 

Once we arrived in Sofia the challenge was finding the train station.  I had a map, but the train station was just off it.  The traffic and signage in Sofia is also horrible.  Up until now we’ve been out on country roads full of potholes and horse poo, but also roads with English translations.  Here, in the biggest city, the road signs are few and far between and all in Bulgarian.  The map was in English.  So we counted roads and tried for landmarks.  After popping in a casino/hotel to ask directions I was given a crazy look by the bellhop when I asked for directions and “is it far”. The central train station was just around the corner.  tee hee…I’m a tourist.  Anyway, with all the chaotic driving and sleeping kids Bethany dropped me off to buy tix and went around the block until a space opened.  I bought our tickets for the overnight train to Bucharest.  3 beds in a 4 bed berth.  I tried to buy all 4 beds, but the lady just wouldn’t sell them too me.  She insisted the train would not be full and it would’nt be a problem.  I wasn’t sure, but she wouldn’t let me waste my money…good thing, too, as our car seems to have only us in it and 3 other ladies down the hall.  I assume more people will get on as it makes it’s way to Moscow.  We won’t really know, though, since we get off tomorrow at 630 in Bucharest.

 After buying tickets we drove around for an hour or so trying to find the zoo, and it became a wild goose chase.  Even after getting explicit written wording from a hotel desk and ‘turn left’ the zoo remained allusive.  By this time Avi had had enough of the car and was crying, the insane city driving was stressing out Bethany, and I started to feel a bit sick.  So, we scrapped the zoo and found a restaurant with a playground instead.  There was also an apothicary across the street so I got some medicine for my aching flu symptoms (seems to have worked), and we grabbed food at a grocer for dinner on the train.

 Back in the car a less chaotic drive back to the train station to drop the vehicle with the rental agency and then wait an hour or so until we could board the train.  We were allowed on an hour prior to departure which was great!  So at 1940 we promptly walked to platform 1 and found a whole hoard of soldiers lining up to get on the train.  well, they all are in another car.  Our Russian train really favors the one we took in China.  It has a nice hall, and 9 berths down the other side.  We are room 8 – there are 4 beds – two bunks opposite each other with a small table between them at the window.  There is also an enclosed storage area below the bottom bunks.  It’s old – seems 1940’s – but nice and well maintained.  There were big futons to roll out on each bunk and the attendent brought us each a set of sheets and towels.  Fancy and fun!  Unlike the train from Istanbul, the bathroom is quite nice and stocked with TP and even toilet seat covers!  Now the kids are asleep after having some snacky-dinner on the train, and I’m beat.  Tomorrow we are picking up another rental car in Bucharest for the Romania section of our trip…Transylvania here we come!

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Veliko Tarnovo

I think we’ve finally found the best part of Bulgaria.  We woke today at the Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo at 7am thanks to Avi.  He is back to his job as alarm clock.  Downstairs we enjoyed some breakfast – cheese, tomato, cucumber and bread with jam. The Hostel folks then helped us figure out what to do for the day and gave us directions.  Our first stop was the nearby town of Arbanassi.  It’s only a few kilometers away, but at the top of the mountain.  The views into VT were stunning and the day was gorgeous…sunny and warm.  I actually wore short sleeves! 

The appeal of Arbanassi is that its a quiet town to wander, so wander we did.   Wandered into some old and pretty church yards and made daisy chains.  Avi really likes crawling around in the soft daisy and clover mix that seem to be everywhere here.  We also wandered around the winding lanes to see kittys and dogs and a horse eating grass in the central park.  One cat in particular was super friendly and let us pet and play with him for a long time.  Zoe named him pumpkin head. 

For lunch we stopped into an outdoor cafe that we passed on the way up…the attached playground attracted us.  While Zoe played in the playground Bethany and I ordered a couple pizza’s – pizza here is small and individual. They came out super wierd.  The picture of mine in the menu looked like a veggie, but I apparently mistook pickles for peppers and tomatoes for odd sausage.  I tried it as it came, but the pickles just had to go.  Bethanys was odd too with corn and soft white not-mozzerella cheese.  The view from the restaurant down into Veliko Tarnovo was incredible, so we stayed for a while even though the food was odd.  Zoe had fun in the playground with the other kids; I took Avi down for a swing as well.  There was also a nice ‘baby’ play area where Avi started to push around a stand-up toy.  He seems closer to walking everyday. 

After our wonderfully wandering morning in Arbanassi we drove back down the hill to VT; the kids fell asleep in the car so we explored a bit looking for a trailhead to a monastery.  Never found the trailhead, but Bethany was able to perfect her mad tiny-town cobblestone offroading driving skills on the itty bitty windy streets.  I’m amazed. Eventually we gave up on that and found a parking place near the fortress.  Avi rode Bethany’s back in the kid carrier and we hauled Zoe into the big stroller. 

So, with 2 mostly asleep kids we were off to tackle the Tsaravets Fortress.  It was incredible.  First you cross the river from a super super high bridge and enter the fortress grounds.  It is covered with the ruin remains of hundreds of houses and shops and a palace and churches.  It was fun to imagine what the fortress city would’ve looked like during Byzantine times.  The fortress is up on top of one of the prominent hills in town and over a large u-turn in the river.  There are views of cliffs and the river and buildings hanging onto the edge of the cliffs over the river.  There are views of the forested hillsides, of hiking trails, and snow-capped mountains in the distance.  incredible.  Zoe awoke as we walked through the 3rd and primary gate of the fortress; there she could dress up like a Byzantine princess and get her picture taken for 4lev.  She had fun with it and it really set the stage for an enjoyable visit to the fortress.  She enjoyed running around all the ruins, climbing over things, exploring nooks and crannies, and pretending the homes were hers.  At one point we stashed the stroller behind a big tree and hiked up the main hill to the new construction church.  It is stunning from the outside, but has weird soviet-looking art inside.  Odd. 

Originally, we were only going to visit the fortress for a bit and then hike up to a monastery, but when we realized how cool and extensive the fortress was we decided to scrap the monastery and simply hike around the fortress.  First, though, was a visit to the snack bar for some drinks and Avi needed to nurse.  Then we walked all the way out along the walls to the end of the point where ‘execution rock’ juts out over the river waiting for convicts to be thrown off.  We ended up spending hours, all afternoon, at the fortress.  So, we walked downtown and found another nice outdoor cafe with a playground for some dessert and chill out time.  This one was right in town so it was fun to people watch and just hang with the locals.  Zoe enjoyed the playground again.  The food was great, too.  I got a banana pie.  Bethany got a cream and chocolate cake, and Zoe got fruit kabobs.  Yummy.  Our final challenge for the day was finding the car and then the hostel.  Veliko Tarnovo has lots of small alleys and walkways, and the car was parked down one that we entered from a different directions.  So, we headed downhill and eventually found it without too much trouble. 

Bethany drove it back to the hostel while Zoe and I walked with Avi in the stroller.  It was so nice outside that walking seemed a better choice.  I also thought I knew how to get to the hostel and that we’d beat Bethany there.  I was wrong.  We walked downhill and just kept going and going and going while the lane we were on kept getting tinier – it went from a paved one way road to cobblestone to a small dirt path between homes by the river.  Amazingly we came out at the river just below the hostel.  Of course, by the time we arrived Bethany had already gotten herself some tea.  Spent a nice evening at the hostel in the courtyard playing until it got chilly and then in the common room for a while.  Zoe and I made a new artwork on the public easle with Avi crawled around on the giant floor pillows.  Being in Veliko Tarnovo made me want to stay here longer – it’s not only gorgeous, but also a mountain biking and rock climbing haven.  Oh well, tomorrow is another adventure.  We’re driving to Sofia to find the train station, by tickets, spent a few hours in the city and then take the overnight train to Bucharest.

Old soviet housing, horse poo, and amazing scenery

In the states today is Easter, but here in Bulgaria last night was, so today it seems that most families are out and about on treks around the mountains to various spiritual sights.  So are we!  Our amazingly taxi-like rental car was dropped off with us yesterday and sat partially  parked on the sidewalk all night.  Today we packed up, checked out, and hit the open Bulgarian road. 

We have a low-detail road map and have navigated surprisingly well. Bethany decided she’d rather I nav, so she is driving.  I think she finds driving a fun challenge since she doesn’t get to very often.  Well, the driving here is certainly a bit of a challenge and she’s doing amazingly!  Our goal for the end of the day was Veliko Tarnovo, but we had a lot of fun pitstops along the way.  The first was Bachkovo monastery.  It was our first foray into Bulgarian monastery visits; apparently there are numerous monasteries here and this is the second largest.  It was interesting. 

We parked low on a hill after finding our way out of Plovdiv about 19km and off the main road a good ways into the hills where this place is. Leading up to the monastery are lots of stalls selling everything from local jelly, nuts, and foods to dolls, shirts, and casserole dishes.  The monastery itself was pretty crowded with Easter-goers in line to enter the church and kiss a particular icon.  We were able to skirt the line and get inside to watch a bit of the service.  Seems that there is alot going on – men chanting, priests entering and exiting the iconostasis (a big icon-covered wall) and lots of people going in and out.  It was neat to see, but confusing non the less.  Zoe thought seeing the priest in his giant crown was like seeing a king. 

Outside the church Zoe fed the sheep some dandelions  and we snapped a few pictures though the signs said not too.  The Bulgarians were doing it, too.  Done with the crowded monastery we took a bit of a walk up a path with other Easter revelers to another religious building.  It was closed.  We decided to ditch all the local walkers and head back to the car.  Seems that there is a volksmarch type atmosphere to Easter sunday here with people wandering all over the hills to various tiny chapels and sights all around.   A few km down the road was our next sight: the Assanove Fortress.  Cool!! It is a bunch of ruins precariously balanced on top of a cliff with a still-functioning church.  I held Avi and Bethany assisted Zoe while we explored the ruins.  Unlike in the states, there were few guardrails; the place had a very a “don’t be an idiot” atmosphere. The view up and down the valley was awesome, and the tiny church also yielded some pretty cool frescoes.  I liked it much more than visiting the monastery even though the fortress is considered a tack-on to visits to the monastery.  Back in the car we had some snacks, fed Avi, and then got trucking. 

We opted to take a ‘short-cut’ route on the map and much to my surprise it worked out perfectly.   I really thought we’d get unbearably lost.  Most road signs here are in cyrillic until you are right near the town, but our map doesn’t have the cyrillic on it.  I guess I have crazy map skills.  The short cut, though shorter in mileage, was a tiny local road that had potholes the size of Mars.  Huge.  Bethany was swerving all over the road to avoid them and we still hit some biggies.  It was funny to see the rare oncoming traffic doing the same thing.   It was along this road we saw our first tiny Bulgarian towns, horse-drawn carts, and abandoned factories.  An odd, disturbing, mix.

 The kids fell asleep, so it was a great hour or so in the car just chatting grown-up like until we arrived in Kazanlak.  Almost every town in Bulgaria has a less than appealing description in our Lonely Planet book, and this one is about the worst.  It is accurate.  The place looks like a few thousand people just up and left of soviet block housing and then let all their trash and wild dogs run around.  Not a garden spot. We weren’t here for long, however, just time enough to stop into the old Thracian Kings Tombs which was pretty cool. It is a reproduction of the actual tomb that is closed off.  A tiny triangular door leads to a painted mini hallway and a tiny domed room where the bodies and offerings were found buried.  It was gorgeous as the walls and domed ceiling were covered with paintings.  It’s amazing to think that people had such culture in this area during times BC. 

Thank goodness the stop didn’t take much work to find, and made a great pitstop for us all to stretch our legs before continuing our drive to the hamlet of Shipka.  Now this town was truly a tiny village with very rough roads, and an incredible church.  The church was of the Russian style with 5 beautiful golden domes that just shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.  We ended up spending a nice long time here – seeing the church, but then getting some snacks from the snack bar….makes me think of China as there are little kiosks at all the sights ready to sell you some food and drink.  We then played around on the church lawn for a while.  Avi really liked crawling around to pull up the daisies while Zoe occupied herself picking and crushing flowers.  The weather has been amazing – sunny and warm.  So, it was nice to spend an hour just relaxing at this church with the local Bulgarians all doing the same thing. 

When we finally got on our way it was to drive up a super winding and sick road to the top of Shipka pass.  A location notorious in Bulgarian history – we just learned about it, of course – when the Bulgarians on behalf of the Russians were able to hold back the Turks during the Russo-turkish war.  There is a big monument to that at the top – this is amazing, but the best thing is the view.  We could see down the way we came, but also over the mountains the direction we were headed.  This country has amazing geography.  There was even still snow in the shadow up here!!!  Zoe grabbed some for the car.  Down , down down we went and through many nearly abandoned villages, old run down factories, giant crumbling soviet-era apartments, horses tied up outside homes, and a beautiful forest. 

Our next stop was Dryanovo monastery.  We popped in just before close which worked out great since the monks were happy to see us and especially liked Avi.  The one even gave him a little blessing.  The monastery is incredible.  It sits down in a cliff-lined valley along a large river.  If I were a Bulgarian monk, this is where I’d be….that’s what Bethany said and it’s true.  absolutely.  They also had chickens and goats and  an incredible church to see. Zoe and I mostly just enjoyed the incredible location and super cool suspension bridge over the river.  Being at this place was the first I’ve felt a bit of soul-settling since we began this trip.  We stayed for a while wandering around. 

Back in the car, we were racing the sun to go the next 19 km to our goal of Veliko Tarnovo, but we made it just as the twilight was dimming.  Took us a bit of navving and one turn around to find our beds for the night at Hostel Mostel.  When we got here Alex and Randy helped us lug up our bags and gave us the tour.  It’s a great hostel!!  We have our own 3 bed room with bathroom, and there is a great outdoor hang-out patio, a kitchen with nightly food and drinks plus breakfast, and a great common room near the check in.  It’s pretty cool  I could see hanging here for a while if there were time.  Bethany and the kids played in the common room and got settled in the bedroom while I headed out to the grocery for the evening.  I needed diapers, wipes and something for dinner….luckily a few other guys (the main hostellier Alex included) were on their way, so I hitched with them.  Good thing too, as I would’ve gotten lost driving to this place at night.  I got some ramen noodles for dinner among other things which we cooked in the kitchen downstairs and picnicked in our room.  By the time we went to bed it was late-around 9:30.  We were beat for the travelling, but excited to be in Veliko Tarnovo.  This town is markedly different than all the others we’ve driven through.  It’s pretty, it’s bustling, and it’s kept up with the times while keeping old world charm.  Can’t wait to explore it tomorrow.

Bulgarian Easter

This evening, after a nice long nap, we wandered around the sights of Plovdiv Bulgaria.  It’s a fairly dodgy city with a gloriously old and beautiful Old Town.  Our guesthouse was in old town, so it’s perfect for visiting all the old churches, homes, and bungling the stroller along giant cobblestones.  We snagged the ‘must see these things’ map from the hotel desk and went out a-walking.  Stopped to see some houses, but especially the old Orthodox churches.  Apparently, Eastern Orthodoxy celebrates Easter on Saturday night.  That’s the big evening.  Plovdiv old town had lots of tiny ally’s and meandering streets to occupy the afternoon. The coolest thing, though was the tippy top of the hill where there is a city park with old Thracian ruins.  It was cool to see the view of the city while climbing up over ruins and the rocks from the peak of the hill. Zoe loved it and picked all the wildflowers along the way.  She has been quite a team player this trip…sure there have been issues (especially with hand holding), but in general she finds the sights and activities interesting.  It helps alot that there are lots of stray kitties around for her to befriend. We eventually found ourselves lower on the hill and bought some ice cream (and secret bunny egg chocolate) from a small kiosk.  Plopped on the steps of the closed mosque to enjoy our treats in the nice warm sun.  Avi needed some non-stroller time, so he stood along a short wall and then started climbing the mosque steps!  Yeah!  a first for our little man…up the stairs he went to the mosque.  It was like he had done it a million times, too.  Our Plovdiv old town tour then led us back up the hills to the old Roman amphitheater.  It’s a huge place that is actually closed to walk into, but cool to see none the less.  By this point Zoe had had enough walking and was riding piggy back on my back.  We started back to the hotel, but stopped at ‘Art Hotel’ because it boasted a roof top terrace restaurant.  Up three flights of stairs was an amazing tiny restaurant with 4 tables and incredible views.  We settled in for the sunset and ordered some fancy drinks.  I tried the local beer, Bethany got a mixed drink, and we ordered Zoe some mixed juiced with an umbrella to look fancy.  She thought that was cool.  It was the perfect spot to watch the sun set and the city lights turn on.  There was noticeable darkness in the Old Town where we were.  Avi ate a bunch of food – that dehydrated stuff is working out really well – and then played along the ledge by the windows.  He could see out which helped keep him pretty entertained.  Bethany and I both ordered a chicken dish and got some alright food…mostly the fancy atmosphere and view kept us at the restaurant for a long while.  Once back at the hotel we all got a nice long hot shower in our own bathroom – no more running down the hall!  It was so nice.  I got Avi to sleep while Bethany and Zoe watched some animal alphabet on the computer.  I recall hearing D for dolphins, and then Zoe crawling into bed.  At this hotel we have a triple in the form of a big queen size bed and a single.  The kids and I are in the big bed, while Bethany has her own.  We were then woken at 11:30 by the church next door ringing mournful bells for a long time.  Bethany and I initially intended to wake for the Easter service, but then thought it silly to get the kids out of bed.  The tradition goes that before midnight the Easter service starts and is highlighted by a candlelight – type service.  The flame comes from Jerusalem. At midnight, the bells ring in a celebratory way!  It’s Easter – he is risen!!  So, when Bethany and I heard the mournful bells we got up and looked out our upper floor windows to see people in the road walking toward the church.  Over in the bathroom we had a great view into the church yard where a hundred or so folks were standing with candles lit.  We could hear the priest orating.  It sounded like a repetitive chanting.  The service seemed beautiful and peaceful and then all of a sudden FIREWORKS!  The city fireworks were coming from the hill just to our left, so we ran back around to the bedroom windows and watched the fireworks celebrating the arrival of Easter.  It seems like such a joyful holiday!!!  The kids stayed asleep this whole time which amazed me.  So, after lighting all the candles the parishioners followed the priest, holding an icon, in a small parade around the church and back in.  It was such a beautiful procession to watch.  Bethany decided to go down to the road and participate a bit and experience the people on the street.  There were more people out and about tonight with candles than there were all day as we were wandering around.  When she returned we went to bed.  The church service was still going on at the church beside us, but we could hear joyful bells ringing all over the city.  It was amazing and very mystical.   Just before falling asleep I set out Zoe’s Easter candy that I bought earlier at the kiosk.  We put it in her shoe for lack of a basket and hid it in the wardrobe.  She had been playing in there during the afternoon, and actually took a bit of her nap curled up in its tiny space, so it seemed a fitting place for her to find her candy.  I guess the Orthodox Easter services sometimes last until 2 or 3 am.  The whole experience made me think of a Christmas Eve candlelight service, and seems like such a cool way to celebrate Easter.  Why wait til morning, let start at midnight!  Well, not us…we went to bed.  In the morning, a simple reminder to Zoe sent her searching for candy.  She found a few eggs in Bethany’s shoes and then a couple in mine before finding her own.  She was so excited for her bunny, her Fairy Kinder egg and her other chocolate eggs.  What a great Easter!

The Old German Train

Last night after waiting a bit at the hotel common room we packed up all our stuff, got our big bags out of the storage room and meandered heavily-laden to the train station.  The Istanbul Serkeci train station is in a pretty building, but surrounded by construction so we didn’t want to spend too much time there, however, I wanted to arrive early to make sure we made the train.  When we got there the train was parked on platform 1.  Zoe got to see the railway kitty one last time before we walked all the way to the end of the platform to get on our old German train. 

The Bospor Express runs from Istanbul to Bucharest and we were taking it just over halfway to Plodiv, Bulgaria.There were only 3 grafitti-covered cars sold to the bulgarian rail from Germany a while ago  Ours was the last, and we were excited to get on a half hour early to get settled.  Our berth was a 3 bed berth with 3 bunks stacked on top of each other and a little covered sink in the corner.  It was old, a bit run down, and smelled of smoke, but we were happy to be on our way.  The heat was cranked full blast so we opened a window before shoving our bags up into the attic storage area.  Lots of people were in the hall hanging out – Eastern europeans, a few English-speakers, some French ladies.  Quite the variety on this night train…seems the super cheap price fits everyones budget. 

It departed on time, which shocked me as I read it could be 2-3 hours late.  We watched Istanbul go by and then snuggled into bed.  Avi and I had the bottom bunk, Zoe in the middle, and Bethany up top.  There was no curtain so the lights and sounds going by made the room quite bright for a bit until we cleared the city into the hinterland.  I slept pretty well – the ca-thunk-a-thunk of the typical train sound really lulled us to sleep.  There were, however, a few jarring stops that shocked me and Bethany awake a few times.  Of course, Zoe slept on….she can sleep through anything.  The train departed at 10:00pm, and this was the first train running along the route without a stop.  Previous to today there was construction requiring you to get out and ride a bus for 20 minutes.  So glad that ended. 

We DID get awoken for passport control at the border.  Around 4am there were loud knocks on the doors.  The train was stopped at Kapikule station.  We grabbed our passports, bundled the kids in the blankets and walked out into the cold night, down the stairs under the tracks and back up on the main platform where a small building housed a single man checking passports.  To my surprise another train going the other way was also there, so 50 or so people were lined up inside and out.  The conductor of our train led us to an inside waiting room, and then all the folks in line ushered us to the front because of the kids.  Thank you kids!  The man took a while on our passports, and eventually stamped them.  We were on our way back to the train and took some pictures.  The kids woke so it took a half hour or so to get them settled back in.  The train sat there for about an hour until everyone was aboard an then we were off.  In 20 minutes, though, people came banging on the door again to see the passports.  ugh.  Avi woke up.  The Turkish guys checked to make sure we each had been stamped.  Then, after another 10 or 20 minutes people came banging again to check them.  This time it was the Bulgarians….but they were down the hall.  Avi had fallen asleep on my belly, so Bethany got down with the passports.  It took about a half hour before they came back to TAKE our passports and put them in a bag with everyone elses.  We stopped at a station and they took all the passports off the train for stamping.  It took forever.  One French lady was denied entrance.  So, at around 6am the passports were returned to us, with a smile, and the train was on its way. 

At this point we figured it would be late, but the conductor told Bethany it was supposed to arrive at 8.  Of course, he told me to just go back asleep and he’d wake us 20 minutes before Plovdiv.  We fell back asleep, but not well.  Bethany was up at 8 and I slept for a while longer until Avi woke.  When I visited the cesspool of a bathroom (so gross I don’t even want to blog about it other than Zoe peed on the seat and I didn’t clean it because it wouldn’t be noticed)….the conductor said another hour or so.  At 9:30 ish he banged on our door with a half hour warning.  We packed up and around 10 am pulled into Plovdiv Bulgaria.  It looked rough, and we doubted our decision to come to Eastern Europe.

That quickly changed after our taxi drive to Old town and our lovely hotel; the Plovdiv Guesthouse.  This part of town is up high on three hills with gorgeous old buildings, cobbled roads, churchs and some ruins from the Thracians around 3 BC.  It’s cool, but we were tired and hungry.  Our room would be ready after lunch!!  Took the advice of the hotel desk and went to a tavern down the road – there were some fried cheese balls to die for.  Traditional sharp feta-ish cheese breaded and fried.  Zoe and Bethany passed on that so I had them all. We also had some chicken dishes that were uninspired but good.  It didn’t take long for all of us to fall asleep for a long nap after returning to the hotel.  It is quite cheap here.  We have a big triple room with our own bathroom and great views!!

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