Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Merely peeping toms

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It never seizes to amaze me that in the early morning I was in foggy Tirana (we had to depart the hotel at 3AM to catch the plane at 6), then in the late morning I was in Munich and hours later in the afternoon in sunny London. The phone rang and rang and then the sound of someone dropping the luggage down the stairs. It was 1:30AM and it woke me up. I had gone to bed around 10:30 and had a 2:30 wake up call. By 3 we were all waiting for the ride to Nene Teresa airport which I've never seen in daylight. The aerial view of London was sunny and now I regret I didnt take any pictures. When I landed in SFO, it was 27C. My luggage never showed up. Welcome home Hippo! Gosh, I love these trips.

I didnt care much for Bulgaria but Albania stole my heart. What I saw was beyond the litter on the streets and the broken roads. What I saw was the smile and honesty of its people, their tolerance, the deep history and the struggle to catch up to a modern civilized and free 21st century. But a mere few days was not enough to really understand the country. It takes more than a lifetime to understand people and culture. Like Kathleen said we shouldnt boast of knowing the country just because we've been here; we were only Peeping Toms.

Museum facade-Tirana

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Garbage

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:55 PM 0 comments Links to this post
And like all things good and bad, it comes to an end. The months planning and waiting for the big trip. Oh so soon ...

On our way to Kruja, we passed through the town that George W Bush visited. The cafe where he had coffee and talked to the locals had a sign with his name on it. Here his watch was stolen. It is now called Bush city. The US had pumped in a lot of money to this country, started with Woodrow Wilson who at the end of WWI went against European powers to help gain independence for Albania. Albania loves Americans special W Bush.

The morning was spent in Kruja, the ethnographic museum, another old house and the modern Scanderbeg museum, designed by Hoxha's daughter. An old bazaar full of souvenirs. We lunched at a restaurant overlooking the fortress. Here is Scanderbeg everything.

Back to Tirana in the afternoon barely enough time to visit the museum then hopped over to see the Ethem Bey Mosque with beautiful decorations. Women had to cover their heads. In defiance, I didnt wrap the scarf around my neck. Kathleen didnt even wear hers. I had wanted to explore Tirana more but there was no time. I really didnt get to see much of the capital. Sigh.

The Theranda hotel owner and Gert's boss showed up at our dinner. I was surprised he was a young man, with fluent English. Obviously educated and from a wealthy family. He told us Albanians understood their problem with the garbage. They had no dump sites or refuse/recycle centers. He used the analogy of a dog locked up for years and finally let loose. He said Albania was dirty was not because of its people but because of its system or better, for lack of a system. They're still learning. Like the dog that went wild not because he's a bad dog, but because the dog was locked up for so long. In communist time they didnt have plastic bottles and bags. I'd like to return in 5-10 years and see Albania again. Just to see if they've improved. Give them some more time to catch up. 16 years of freedom and independence was just not long enough.

scanderbeg museum-Kruja

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Durres

Posted by Hippo Bean at 5:12 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Amazing how small this world really is. This morning we were 800m above sea level in the mountain over looking the deepest lake in the Balkans. In the afternoon I found myself on the 3rd floor overlooking the Adriatic. That's why I like these trips. We crossed the border back to Albania. Elbasan was vivacious but we only got a few minutes to explore. The fortress had nothing remaining except a wall. Inside new houses were built. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel by the Adriatic with wonderful and cheap seafood. The Italian chef came out with a big plate of fish, prawns and an entire lobster. The salty smell of the sea was welcoming. Near Durres the houses were again painted with bright colors. The newly discovered Roman theater where Gert excavated, was not yet fully exposed. Only resemblance of the theater seatings showed and I was a bit disappointed. Gert said while they completely rebuilt the theater in Ohrid, here in Albania, they dont touch the archaeological sites. Everything was original. Yeah sure. The amphitheater was still under rubbles. My room in Durres had sea front view. The room was small but the view paid for everything. For dinner we again had seafood pasta. After dinner Joan and I braved the beach and the water was warm. We strolled a little while next to the sea. People were out and about. Last night we had close to the sea. I looked out my room window and wished hard that the trip was not coming to an end.

tower-Durres

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What lake view?

Posted by Hippo Bean at 2:09 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In the monastery of Sveti Naum (sounds like sweaty now) we ran into the same pilgrimage group we saw at St Dimitri yesterday. It turned out they're from Lake City CA. Yesterday we heard the monk inside the church who sounded very learned and american, lecturing about the icons. The monks were iconologists and were painting a Greek orthodox church in Santa Rosa. All the women in the group wore long dresses. The Sveti Naum had a hotel and Gert said a couple of weeks ago he stayed in a second floor room with wonderful views of the lake. I really dont much like a monastery with a hotel. There was a big group of Bulgarian students there too. But both Rila and Grand St Bernard had accommodations. But they were more for pilgrims than for tourists. Didnt actually like this monastery too much. The church and the complex were very small. I looked out to the lake and again it was misty. What view? Later we drove up the mountain and down to the lake Pespa which is the largest in the Balkans. This lake however had no resorts and no hotels because the lake was not swimmable. What a contrast. Ohrid was developed and had many hotels along its shore. Pespa was totally bare and empty. Seems quite a waste of natural resource. I thought from up the mountain we could see both lakes. But we couldnt. Besides, up in that altitude (some 1800m above sea level), was very cloudy. And very cold.

Later I've asked Tanja where the name of their country came from. Boy, she went on and on about how Greece didnt recognize them because it claimed the name Macedonia was a Greek city. North of Macedonia was part of the old Bulgarian kingdom while the south was part of Greece. Alexander the Great came from the part that is now Tessaloniki in northern Greece. Gert said Macedonians were Bulgarian, Slavs. They even use the Cyrillic alphabet and can understand Bulgarian. But Macedonians say they have their own ethnicity apart from Bulgarian and Greek. At the end I was just as confused as before.

sveti naum-Ohrid

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Too much time on our hands

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:06 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In the morning we visited St Dimitri and St Sofia churches, and took a quick (too short) boat ride on the lake. It was wonderful. The view from the lake was beautiful. Gorgeous weather. I had hoped for a longer boat ride. St Sofia had marvelous frescoes, the biggest I've seen so far. Incense was burning and it gave the place a magical feel and smell. They had concerts in this place. When we walked by the fortress, Tanja told us the story about the blind soldiers, but Gert said Samuil was not a Macedonian king. He was Bulgarian.

Another free afternoon and I swore I didnt know what else to do to spend the time. I went everywhere already. I ended up walking in the old town with Kathleen and finally found the minor churches that I missed the day before. They were empty and forgotten. Found another pottery shop but nothing appealing.

In the evening after dinner I walked along the lake shore with Joan. The evenings and nights were very cold but the walk was nice along the misty lake.

st sofia-Ohrid

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Great Alex - Ohrid, Macedonia

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:22 PM 0 comments Links to this post
First we stopped at Pogradec to see lake Ohrid from the Albanian side. Not much there, just a beach. A fisherman pulled up his boat but there was no catch. I was photographing the view from the beach when Laura laughed and asked me why I was photographing the man peeing. I didnt even see him. So she thought I was taking a picture of a man pissing on the beach!

Next we stopped right before the border for coffee in Hoxha's summer residence which now is a park. There was a picture of him and his wife in the restaurant. He was old already but still tall and quite handsome. He died peacefully while his wife went to prison. Now she's living in a flat somewhere in Tirana. Lucky he who didnt had to pay for his crimes against humanity.

Border crossing was an adventure. The border guard insisted to come into the van and see our passports. He was courteous though. Gert said he tipped him even though we saw a big sign saying no tipping. The car in front of us was searched and refused passage. The driver then just parked it next to the border building. He looked pissed and the woman (his wife?) sitting next to him started yelling at him. Must had done something wrong. A car coming from the opposite side, from Macedonia, was also refused passage. It went passed the white line and was ordered to back up to behind the line and then searched. But we got through. And suddenly it was like back to civilization. Roads were paved and in good condition. After bumpy, rocky and broken roads and passing through a smoky village (they burned their extra crop to remix in the soil), Macedonia was clean and organized. The houses looked clean and new, the air was fresh and even the foliage seemed more beautiful. Lake Ohrid, the deepest in the Balkans, was big but hazy. Our hotel, the Alexandrija, was modern and cute and lake front. My room had a tiny balcony that had partial lake view and city view. The tiny bathroom had a modern glass sink that was transparent. Cute but hardly practical. The shelves were clear glass and every time I put something down, I thought I was dropping them to the floor.

In the square near our hotel, there's a statue of St Clement holding the city of Ohrid, and another statue of brothers Cyrill and Methodius holder a book in Cyrillic.

We had free time (again) and I walked up to the Samuil fortress and down to the new St Clement church, the site where St Clement founded the Ohrid Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire. They were excavating in front of the church and I was delighted to see an archaeological dig. The basilica had 2 beautiful mosaics and the lake view was spectacular. There was a service going on inside with good singing. If the rest of Macedonia is like Ohrid, then I like it very much. However, I had a sneaky suspicion that Ohrid was probably the best Macedonia had to offer. But the pottery leaves much to be desired. I had expected them to be more Greek but they were simple with very simple design. Nothing like the ones in Bulgaria or in Greece. I was told Macedonian wanted their own identity and so purposely made their pottery different and without any Greek motifs. Gert said the Macedonian wine was good and at the restaurant I saw small bottles, so I made a point of getting a couple to take home. Nothing else much in terms of souvenirs but I did see the same pashmina scarfs like the ones we found in Bulgaria.

lake ohrid

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chai

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:20 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In Voskopoja, finally a church we could take pictures. The three we visited, Shen Marise (St Mary), Shen Athanatit and St Nicolas had frescoes that havent been restored but some of the original colors were still visible, which made the icons so much more beautiful. The day was warm and sky an immense blue. Our walk through the village was most enjoyable, the place tranquil and serene. This place used to be a major and prosperous city during the Ottoman empire. Now the streets are broken and mud everywhere. Most of the beautiful churches destroyed but new houses had been built and some were quite beautiful with gates adorned with the double headed eagle of Albania. This place was famous for their chai which tasted like coca tea that I miss so much, and I had 2 cups since no place else had this tea. It's supposed to have medicinal properties. Our local guide picked us some grapes and local red berries and apricots that were used to make raki. The berries were bitter and tart. The afternoon was free and I ran out of things to do.

This evening meal was a traditional Albanian banquet which none of us did enough justice. Mediterranean salad with lots of eggplant and peppers, followed by a flat pasta, then a big plate of sausages, lamb and pork. I was beginning to feel ill with so much eating.

voskopoja

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Never ending mountains - Korça

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:17 PM 0 comments Links to this post
How can a tiny country have so many mountains? We travelled about 200km through the mountains from Saranda to Korça (pronounced korsha). It took all day. We left at 8AM and arrived around 5PM with only 1 stop for lunch and a few quick stops for photos and restrooms. We passed the Nemercka range and suddenly dramatic peaks loomed before us that reminded me of the palis in Kauai except the Albanian range was misty and not as colorful. Mountains and mountains that never seemed to end. I dozed off and woke up, dozed and woke and still we were driving through curvy narrow roads among hills and mountains. The drive was long and I began to tire of it even though I've always enjoyed sitting in a bus looking out as the scenery went by.

We stopped at the 'blue eye' effervescent waterhole. The spring bubbled and looked very blue and the water was crystal clear and cool and tasted pure.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere for lunch and I had the tripe soup. This time it was quite delicious. Specially with lots of lemon juice!

Right before we reached town, we stopped and bought local apples. Gert got us 3 kinds but the golden and red ones were the most sweet and juicy. I'm not an apple person but these were truly fantastic. I've never tasted apples this good.

Laura said Korça was an energy town. True to her words, people were out and about. We saw people everywhere. But the buildings were old, the sidewalks broken and garbage everywhere, as in the rest of Albania.

For dinner we had egg and lemon soup. A simple soup but it was the best I've ever had. Albania had good soup and I loved all the ones I've tasted. But this simple one was the best. I must get the recipe and make it at home.

korca

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mosquitoes had a field day - Butrinti

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:15 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In the morning we drove the narrow road along the Corfu strait to Butrinti. It means cow. Named it so because Aeneas sacrificed a cow here for escaping the fire. At one point on the road, a big bus came (of course) in the opposite direction. We had to back up. The bus got so close to the edge of the road that some in the group were a little concerned it might flip over to the sea. But of course, the local drivers were used to this kind of thing. When we told Toni back in Sofia we were going to Albania, he said (after asking 'what on earth are you going to Albania for', again like everyone asked when I've told them I was going to Albania) he hated it because the roads were bad, bumpy and slow, and described how some roads on the hill were so narrow that barely allowed 2 cars to pass. That reminded me of the dangerous road in Bolivia and secretly I was hoping we would encountered one in Albania. But so far we havent.

The ruins in Butrinti werent very impressive but it had both Greek and Roman architecture. There were water everywhere and we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. At one point they were so bad that Gert simply said "let's get out of here". We returned to Saranda scratching all over!

butrinti

Monday, October 13, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wars and dictatorship

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:01 PM 0 comments Links to this post
To understand Albania was to know its wars. There were bunkers (we dubbed them mushrooms because they were round) everywhere. While other post-communist countries built roads and resorts for tourism, Albania built bunkers. First was the Romans. Then Byzantine. Then came the Turks. And after WWII, communism. The country saw nothing but occupation and war. No wonder they built bunkers and neglected the roads. The roads were bad. Broken. We visited the weapons museum and a former political prison. In the war museum a statue of a women pointed her finger gesturing 'out' to a priest and a soldier. Women were in the military. Everyone from 14 to 60 must spend 3 months out of each year to be trained for war. No one liberated Albania. She gained her independence all by her own sweat and blood.

On our way to Gjirokastra, we passed by a town with petro fields and saw many old pumps that were still in operation. Didnt know Albania had oil.

Gjirokastra, the birthplace of the dictator Enver Hoxha (good looking but very bad dude) was a quaint town perched on the hill, all cobblestoned. The citadel had black rocks. We also visited the house Hoxha was born and it's now a museum. It's a big house with never ending rooms. The dude was lucky. I've enjoyed walking up the narrow cobblestoned streets lined with shops. Wanted to take more shots of the town but Kathleen kept talking to me. She showed me how to use different settings in a digital camera for different shots. Trouble was, she talked and I couldnt take any pictures!

Everywhere we drove we saw mountains of garbage, plastic bottles and bags, piled up on the side of the roads, on the side of the hills.

Saranda (means 40 in Greek. Was named for the 40 Ottoman soldiers who were executed because they've converted to Christianity and wont convert back to Islam) was a resort town. Mussolini called this town Porto Eda, after his daughter because he liked it so much. The weather was hot. Our 5 star hotel was sea front. From my hotel room I could see Corfu. Never knew the island was so big. It looked so close I could reach out and touch it. I told Gert I wanted an ocean front room. He corrected me saying the Corfu channel was a sea. Guess only Californians would make that mistake. We're so used to the ocean. We had wanted to go to Corfu. It's only a 25 euros ferry. But we didnt have time. Tons of tour buses brought crowds to the hotel. One group was in a tour of 1 city per country. They flew in their private jet to Corfu and ferried over to Saranda.

We had a delicious seafood dinner in front of the Corfu channel. My seafood risotto had a fantastic tomato based sauce. Squid, shrimp and lightly battered fried calamari kept coming with free wine. Best meal I had on this trip. After dinner, Chantal, Bill and I had a leisure stroll along the Ionian sea. Pleasant weather. I liked Saranda very much.

saranda

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hot water - Berat

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:59 PM 0 comments Links to this post
And suddenly the people were more friendly and smiled. In Bulgaria, I havent gotten a single smile not even from the hotel staff. First stop in Albania was the Adriatic. We stopped at a beach front cafe near Durres. The weather was warm and the salty smell of the sea inviting. The buildings were painted in bright colors. Tired of soviet grey and depressing apartment blocks, with finally freedom, the Albanians went wild painting their buildings. First thing we noticed was the garbage everywhere; plastic bottles and bags just dumped on the side of the road. First thing we visited in Albania was the fortress in Berat. The cobblestoned walkway up to the fortress gate was truly European and the walls and stones were white. The view from the fortress was spectacular. We could see both the Tomori and the Shpirag mountains, and the city of Berat nestled between them. Legend said the Tomorr mountain was originally a giant, who fought with another giant, called Shpirag over a young woman. They killed each other and the girl cried and her tears became the Osum river which forever separated the 2 suitors. Later we visited the Leaden Mosque (made of iron and copper), the King's Mosque and the modern St Dimitri Orthodox church which had Turkish design, all in the center of town, across from our hotel. The hotel room was bare, no TV and no hot water. So I resigned to another showerless day. But from my hotel room I could see Mtn Tomorri. Later after a sumptuous dinner of Mediterranean salad, pizza and lamb, I've tried the water again because Gert said there was something wrong with the water and we should have water later the evening. I wasnt entirely convinced. Thought he said it as an excuse for his country. But after letting the water run for over 5 minutes, it finally got hot enough for a shower and to wash my hair. It's nice to feel clean again. Little thing we took for granted.

The village was illuminated at night and couples came out for their Sunday night strolls. The bridge over the Ossum river was lite up and so were the houses on the other bank, the houses with lots of windows, giving Berat the name of 'the city of a thousand windows'.

While waiting for the rest of the group for dinner, rock music blasted from across the street from the hotel while suddenly the call for prayer also began from the mosque minaret. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to either. This was simply wild! Albania was known for religious tolerance but I've never thought rock music and Moslem prayer could go side by side.

Today at the Onufri castle museum the curator pointed out that the Madonna and Child icon (all Orthodox churches had an icon of Madonna and Child on the left of the iconostasis - wall of icons that separates the nave from the sanctuary) had baby Jesus on Mary's right arm instead of left. Baby Jesus was always on Mary's left arm as a standard in Eastern Orthodox churches. I've never noticed this before. There's a painting of the Last Supper depicting Jesus and the Apostles sitting around a low round table with utensils and cups showing Turkish influence. This is what I like about Albania. A blend of cultures and religion. Tolerance and peaceful cohabitation.

I walked everywhere on my own. Men were always sitting drinking and smoking in the cafes. No women out except in pairs. People (men) stared at me. I wondered if it's because they seldom saw Asians or because I was a female and out without a chaperone. Maybe both. But I didnt mind. They didnt bother me. I was used to being stared at. Later Gert said in provinces women didnt go out by themselves unaccompanied. He even joked about the women being locked at home watching soap. It's not because of religion or the way women were regarded. It's just tradition. Big cities like Durres and Tirana would be different. But I walked alone and felt safe.

berat

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Convoluted flight

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A free day before our convoluted flight to Tirana. I ran out of places to go in Sofia. Looking at the map, I've tried the boulevards. But they had more upscale shops - united colors of benetton, coach, versace, timberland. Originally we were booked on Alitalia with the stop at Fiumicino but when the final docs came, it had changed to Olympic air with a stop in Athens. We thought it was because Alitalia folded. But now we were reverted back to Alitalia. We actually preferred the Olympic Air one because we would have arrived in Tirana in the afternoon instead of midnight with Alitalia. Alitalia flights offered pretty good cakes but when I was asked what I wanted to drink and I said coke, the flight attendant said "water, juice or ice tea". The flight from Sofia to Da Vinci di Fiumicino was only half full but I was surprised from Rome to Tirana it was almost filled up. Didnt think that many people were going to (back to?) Tirana.

We arrived at midnight. The airport was far from the town. The hotel in Tirana was a disaster. Probably luxurious to their standards, it had no hot water (just luke warm), not a chair in the hotel room and one had to make one's bed. The sheet was folded at the foot of the bed and the blankets (just 2 light duvets really) were in the tiny closet. It was cold at night. The light duvets barely gave me enough warmth. And poor Bill and Chantal slept without blankets. What was the hotel owner thinking?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday, October 10, 2008

Finally liked Sofia a bit more

Posted by Hippo Bean at 9:48 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The National museum of History was filled with Tracian gold. A wall showed pre-cyrillic and early cyrillic alphabets. I had a field day taking photos inside the museum. Finally a place that lets you photograph at will providing you pay 15 leva! While we're leaving, we saw the president of South Korea getting into his car. And while getting in to the museum we saw the president of Bulgaria motorcar speeding away from the presidential palace which is located next door to the museum. A day of presidents!

In the afternoon we visited the synagogue. It's very small and nothing compared to the Dohany in Budapest. Niki showed me on the map the street where she bought her leather jackets. A pedestrian street lined with leather good shops. None accepted credit cards so I didnt buy anything. Just as well. I didnt need another leather jacket or boots. Walking back to the hotel, I stopped by Alexender Nevski golden dome cathedral. Stunningly beautiful and big. For dinner we went back to the same restaurant as 2 nights before. This time we had fish - bass. It was quite delicious. Dave said the cathedral was lite up at night so we went there after dinner to photograph it with the full moon as a backdrop. Gorgeous!

sofia

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Rila

Posted by Hippo Bean at 10:43 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Seen it so many times on TV and finally here. Rila Monastery was gorgeous. And filled with never ending tourists. When you first entered the compound you're awestruck by the grandeur of the church and surrounding buildings with mountains as backdrop. After that sank in one would notice the tourists all around taking pictures. I could imagine the place without tourists and noise, and how serene and tranquil and beautiful it would be.

For dinner we went to a traditional restaurant with Bulgarian music and dancing (15 leva each). Didnt care for the music nor the dance (and of course the dancers came to get the guests to dance and of course they came to get me) nor the food (horribly bland chicken).

rila

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Freedom worth the price - Koprivshtitsa

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:40 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I looked at his statue. Todor Kableshkov, the 25 year old who was considered the one who started the rebellion against the turks, the author of the 'bloody letter' looked quite handsome. I like the Koprivshtitsa town. The houses with painted facades, were quite unique and the interiors nicely decorated. The Topolnitsa river cuts through the town and the cloudy misty day made the town look romantic. Here I bought a small ceramic plate that cost only 2 leva. I first saw this design in Castello di Amorosa about a month ago when we went wine tasting in St Helena. Identical plate but bigger at the Castello cost $35.

We made a stop at the Troyan monastery, Bulgarian's third largest. But since photos were not allowed, I cant remember a thing about this monastery.

Back in Sofia and the weather continued to be quite cold. We had some horribly salty flat sausages (Bulgarians like their sausages flat) for dinner. But the restaurant was in an old house decorated very homely.

I had to have my hotel room changed because it smelled horribly. They gave me one in the new wing, far from the reception, but quiet and bigger and it even had a bath tub. I was quite happy with this room, but it started to smell sewage gas on the second day.

koprishvtitsa

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The town I liked - Veliko Turnovo

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:34 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Finally a fortress with ancient walls and commanding view of the old town. Been in Bulgaria for 2.5 days and havent seen a castle or palace yet. How can an European country be without a castle/fortress? Well finally here, there was one. The Patriarch's Church of the Ascension on top of the Tsarevets citadel had gruesome modern paintings and one of Cyrill and Methodius holding a scroll of cyrillic alphabets being welcomed by King Boris. Then more greek orthodox churches that reminded me of the painted monasteries in Romania. The Nativity church in the village of Arbanassi, another open air museum town with revival houses, had the most brilliant frescoes I've seen. Of course no photos were allowed. Curious that above the entrance of the church, there's a star of David. In the church of Transfiguration, situated on a hill opposite of the fortress, we got good views of the citadel and a chance to take photos of the frescoes on the exterior walls of the church.

In the afternoon we had wine tasting in the oldest winery in the country. The local wine was light like Italian. The merlot was good and the sparkling a bit sweet and very bubbly. We had lunch served at the winery and it was very good. White beans, pork with potatoes in a light tomato sauce, much like how Mom does it, but the dolmades were just rice. So far Bulgaria did nothing for me. Nothing in particular stood out. A lot of open air museums that were replicas of old communities, nothing much was the real thing. The Arbanasi one today was not much more interesting than Etera which we visited yesterday. Dunno. Bulgaria just doesnt tug my heart. Something seems to be missing here.

Back in the hotel at night I just happened to see the light show of the fortress from my hotel room. Red lights followed by green followed by white displaying the Bulgarian flag colors. The sequence then ended with a laser beam towards the mosque. It was quite a display.

veliko

Monday, October 06, 2008

Monday, October 06, 2008

Just a replica - Thracian plains

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:29 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Something about Bulgaria that isnt real. The Tracian tomb in Kazanlak was a replica and they charged 2 leva to see it. The real tomb was locked inside a stone building. To preserve it they said. What's the point of showing a fake and charging you for it. I went inside and stole a picture. We drove through the 'valley of the roses' but didnt see any roses because it's autumn. Didnt know Bulgaria was famous for its rose oil, soap, lotion, perfume and specially the rose water. The Balkan mountains arent very impressive. Snow covered their tops. For lunch I've tried the tripe soup that Niki so raved about. It's horribly bland. I love tripe but Bulgarians didnt seem to know how to make it tasty. The open air ethnographic museum at Etera wasnt too interesting either. Besides it was freaking cold. We went through it rather quickly. When we arrived at Veliko Turnovo I came alive. Shop after shop after shop of shoes. But when I finally made it there, the prices went up - about 100 leva. Disappointed.

My room at the Yantra hotel was again big and to my luck, the view was of the old city, the fortress wall, and it was illuminated at night. Could also view part of the Yantra river as the curved into the city. The city looked very chic, all the young girls sported leather jackets and boots. Dinner was at the hotel - chicken in a pot of carrots, onion and tomato broth. Just so so.

kazanlak

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Snow in Oct - Plovdiv

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:24 PM 0 comments Links to this post
At 3AM the European storm hit Sofia. Big drops hit my hotel room window. It was pouring, lightning and thundering. My sleep was intermitten. The rain didnt stop all night and it continued to pour during the morning. Yesterday when I arrived, it was warm. Today the temperature plunged at least 5 degrees C. The breakfast buffet was very good. It even had smoked salmon. We were on our way to Plovdiv and everywhere was flooding. About half way through, we saw snow on the road and on the trees. The wind was howling when we stopped at a gas station. It was freezing cold. This was only the beginning of Oct. So we walked through Plovdiv old town in the cold and rain. The revival houses were spectacularly beautiful. The exteriors were painted with leaf motifs and bright colors. Painted columns and art design that gave the walls a 3D feel. Reminded me of the designs of the CA missions. The interiors were Turkish style, long couches along the walls, first floor generally for storage, upper floors bigger, and the best and biggest rooms reserved for guests. Photos were not allowed. Shame! You couldnt even get inside the Roman amphitheater. It looked well preserved or reconstructed. They have concerts there. But it's locked otherwise. We could only look at and photograph it from behind the locked gates. Shame.

Everyone smokes here. I hardly see anyone without a cigarette on their fingers. My Novotel hotel room overlooked the river Marica and had a view of the mountains. Not bad. On the bridge shops I spotted cheap leather boots - about 70 leva. But most of the shops were closed already. Disappointed. Dinner tonight was mixed meat - chicken, pork and beef. I was disappointed there wasnt enough for a second serving.

plovdiv

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Saturday, October 04, 2008

she's been had! - Sofia

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:23 PM 1 comments Links to this post
There was no aerial shots of London. The sun was just about to shine and I only managed 1 or 2 of the Millenium wheel. From the plane I saw the Thames meandering through the city. I've never seen London from above before. LHR terminal 2 was still disgustingly ugly. Not a window. Lufthansa to Munich was pleasant enough. I got a window seat again. The Munich airport was just as confusing and hard to navigate as Frankfurt. No time to spare here.

In Sofia I paid the most expensive taxi ride ever. 130 leva. That's 7.5/Km + 3.5/min waiting in traffic. The driver was most courteous and polite but boy over $100 for a cab ride. And they told me the taxi would cost only 20 euros. Some of my money had already gone and I havent started my vacation yet. Dont remember if Rick Steves warned of the the expensive taxis. Sigh. Aside from this, everything else went smoothly. I knew my luck would run out sooner or later. Welcome to Bulgaria Hippo!

While Munich was under pouring rain, Sofia was warm and sunny. My hotel room faced the side street but it's rather a good size. Dinner this night was a kind of shepard's pie with scallop potatoes on top and mixed ground meat. It's very good except I was already stuffed with airplane food. Side dishes included fried olives that was very tasty.

See Bulgaria photos

Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday, October 03, 2008

Somewhere 30,000ft above the Atlantic

Posted by Hippo Bean at 11:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Actually I really like it. Among strangers riding mass transit. It makes me feel like living in a big metropolitan city. Pa kept me company at the samtran stop. It's nice to have nice parents. But I dont appreciate it. Isnt how daughters are supposed to be? The short bus ride felt good as I dont usually ride the bus. The 10 minutes wait the Colma Bart station wasnt in the cold and fog. In the train, I wasnt the only one carrying luggage. I dont remember the last time when I flew in a 747. It's an outdated model but United seems to still have a fleet of them for transatlantic flights. It's double decker that you dont see too often anymore. It's really gigantic. I sat on the lounge and looked at this enormous metal bird - did humans really made such an enormous thing that can fly? The seat I picked was next to the last row, in a row of 2 seats. The window seat has extra space between the seat and the window and for a tiny girl like me, it's spacious. I was quite comfortable and really liked this space. Trouble was, the old man sitting next to me started to change his socks and file his nails. For 15 minutes right after take off, we hit turbulence. The gihugic jumbo jet shook. For a long time. Now I look out of the tiny window and it's getting dark. We've just past the eat coast. Another 5 more hours to go. This time I will take aerial photos of London, if weather permits. I began to look forward to this trip.
 

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