A Travellerspoint blog

The Ups and Downs Enroute to the Black Sea Coast

sunny 30 °C

It wasn't my best day, but I think I've landed in heaven. I left Plovdiv early this morning by bus, and for almost the entire 5 hour journey, we traveled through massive fields of sunflowers. Some were in full bloom, while others are not too far away. There must have been millions of them, which I kept trying to photograph, while everyone else on the bus seemed oblivious. I guess it's a familiar sight here. Who knew Bulgaria grew so many sunflowers?

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Not long after the bus pulled away from the station, I realised I had lost my handy fold-away water bottle that I have carried with me throughout the journey. I can get another one, so it's not the end of the world, but I did mourn its loss for a while, until the sunflowers cheered me up. My first destination was Burgas, from where I needed to get a connection to Nesebar. Initially, everything went well. The bus was modern, the music was Bulgarian (as opposed to the usual Celine Dion), and we stopped somewhere long enough to get lunch. When we got to Burgas, I thought we'd go to the bus station, but after stopping at a couple of road side stops then continuing on, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes, looked around, shouted "Burgas" and promptly dumped me, my bindle, and another guy on a grass verge of a busy road. Thank god, the guy dumped with me goes to uni in Scotland and spoke good English. Otherwise, I would have been completely screwed. We walked to a bus station nearby, at which time I realised I had lost my hoodie that I have faithfully tied around my waist every day. It must have fallen off in the scramble to get off and get my backpack. I later tried to retrace my steps, but it was gone. Some lucky Bulgarian has a brand new Katmandu hoodie. But haha them, I hadn't washed it yet, and I've been very sweaty.

The guy with me started to tease me that I had started out with 3 bags, and only managed to keep hold of one. It didn't help when I went to get on another bus with him in Burgas and dropped 10 leva on the ground. I tried to tell him that I have been all over Romania and Bulgaria without any problems, but he looked rather doubtful. So, once we worked out where we were, we took a local bus to another bus station and from there he caught a bus to the airport, and I boarded one bound for Nesebar. Before we said goodbye, he went with me to buy my ticket to Istanbul, so he was a really nice guy to go to so much trouble for me.

When I finally arrived in Nesebar, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the place. I'm staying in the old town, which is out on a rocky island in the Black Sea, connected to the mainland by a modern causeway. It is drop-dead gorgeous, no doubt helped by the stunning weather. The bus station in Burgas said 42 degrees, but it's probably more like 32. I checked into my hotel, and then had to drag myself away from my little balcony overlooking the harbour.

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Nesebar is filled with four things - the ruins of ancient churches:

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souvenir shops and Eastern European tourists

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and restaurants so pleasantly situated that you just want to dine at each of them.

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Once I'd calmed down about my balcony view, I went for a little walk around the old town. It's so picturesque that I started getting all creative with my camera.

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Everywhere I looked was another beautiful seaview shot.

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When I knelt down to take a photo of a seagull, I realised I had become totally intoxicated by the place. I have seagulls at home that I never photograph. Having explored the old town, I walked across the causeway to the new town, which gave me a good view back to where I will be staying for the next few days.

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Nesebar Old Town

I think I've reached the end of the line. If anyone at home or at work needs me, they will have to come over and drag me back. For now, "waiter, one more litre of beer" (for $1.80).

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Posted by Gotmybindle 07:59 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria nesebar black_sea_coast Comments (2)

Roman around Plovdiv

sunny 35 °C

I woke up this morning feeling a little under the weather and put the blame squarely on a frappe I had yesterday. For the last couple of weeks I've been drinking bottled water, but the frappe was filled with ice, so I guessed that was the culprit. However, I soon came right and once I was on the bus I had good reason not to feel sorry for myself, when a boy aged about 8 or 9 threw up for our entire three and a half hour trip. I had some travel calm ginger tablets which I gave him, but nothing would help, and I felt so sorry for him.

Needless to say, the road was winding and bumpy, and we traveled over a mountain pass. The scenery up in the mountains reminded me a lot of what I saw in Romania, with small villages and people working in the fields. I think many of these communities must be muslim, considering each seemed to have a minaret, and the local women getting on and off the bus were all wearing head scarves. Perhaps its part of the legacy that remains from the time of Ottoman rule.

I am now in Plovdiv, the longest continuously inhabited city in all of Europe. For over 8000 years people have lived here, and they've all left their mark in one way or another. Once I'd checked in, I set out with my Lonely Planet guide book to see if I could follow their suggested walking tour. I skipped the first bit because it was coffee and shopping, but soon found myself at the centre of the old town where you can see what remains of a Roman stadium and forum.

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It's quite interesting to see young people sitting on the ancient seats chatting and enjoying a cold drink, when you consider what the view from that seat would have been thousands of years ago.

Just near the stadium, is the mosque with its towering minaret. One thing that really makes an impression on me in Bulgaria, is the way all the various religious buildings sit so close together. Bulgarians seem to be very proud of their cultural, religious, and historic diversity. And rightly so.

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I then followed Lonely Planet's directions to reach Plovdiv's most famous landmark - the 2nd century AD Roman amphitheatre. It really is quite stunning and as you can see, they still use it today.

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After this, I left the Romans behind and headed up the hill to the 5000 BC ruins of the Thracian settlement. Unfortunately, there is a lot of modern rock art now (graffiti tagging), but it was still pretty cool to romp around on such a historic site. The view of modern Plovdiv is good from up there too.

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After seeing all these ancient sites, I went for a complete contrast, and walked along the main pedestrian shopping street.

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Bulgaria has been a test of endurance for me. How can one country have so many shoe shops?? I tortured myself for a while by having a look in some, while mentally calculating how much I could dump from my backpack to fit my purchases. Fortunately, I didn't give in to temptation, as the receptionist at my hotel said later that the quality of the shoes isn't the best. Still, I felt like I'd let this bloke down, as he was holding the shopping centre roof up for me, which doesn't look easy.

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Finally, I figured out why 7 million people need so many new shoes. The "cobblestone" pavements here, are nothing of the sort. They're just stone pavements, and not suitable for any type of shoe other than tramping boots. Not surprisingly, I have yet to see a baby stroller here.

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Despite my interest in history, I have been a bit slack visiting museums on this trip. Generally, I've been content just to wander around looking at historic things. However, given the history of Plovdiv, I was keen to check out the Archaeological Museum. It's quite small, but excellent. They have items on display from the Neolithic period right through to medieval times. Perhaps what I liked most was the collection of coins, dating back to 500 BC, and even before that, the fish hooks they used as money. There is jewellery, statues, carvings, pottery, weapons, and tools from all through the ages. Most of it was found here, so visiting the museum was a good way to get an overall view of the 8000 year history of Bulgaria's second largest city.

Posted by Gotmybindle 07:34 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria plovdiv Comments (0)

Bansko

sunny

I caught the enterprise bus this morning, i.e., the little car driven by a big Eastern European bloke who drives along the bus route 15 minutes ahead of the bus to offer waiting passengers cheaper transport in his car. I was quite happy to take the bus, but when I got to the bus stop, there was an Austrian guy who talked me into joining him in the car. He'd walked to Melnik over the mountains from Bansko, my destination for today. It took him two days, and I am continually surprised by the people I meet who are out there, living life to the full.

We picked up another couple of people on the way, so by the time we reached Sandanski bus station, the little car was full. Austrian guy was hoping to go to Plovdiv, which meant that for the next stage, we would need to catch the same bus, so we filled in the short wait with a coffee (a plastic cup containing about an inch of the strongest, blackest coffee possible). Our next leg was to Blagoevglad, which I have given up even trying to pronounce. Unfortunately for Austrian guy, the only bus for Plovdiv had already departed, so he headed off back to Sofia to get a connection, and I jumped on the mini bus bound for Bansko. I think I had my best driver yet, so I made a point of telling him so when we arrived safely.

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Blagoevglad Bus Station

Due to being stupid, I had booked a hotel at the complete opposite end of Bansko, from the bus station. It was a long walk on another sweltering day but eventually I found the place. They didn't seem to know much about my booking and quoted me less than half of what my booking was, so I wasn't expecting my room to be much. However, I was happily surprised to find one of the nicest rooms I've had yet, with a balcony and a beautiful view out to the Pirin Mountains and Bansko ski field, one of the top 5 in the world. It was 37 degrees today, so there wasn't a lot of skiing going on, but the view is fabulous, all the same.

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The Pirin Mountains, Bansko

I went for a walk around town, but as it's neither summer or winter season here, many of the businesses (shops, supermarkets, bars) are closed. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants open, but not a lot happening.

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Still, it's a lovely place to while away a few hours, and I enjoyed another Bulgarian lunch which I have discovered is reversing all the weight loss that occurred in Romania.

I've seen several storks nests on my journey, usually on the top of power poles, but this one on the church in Bansko is my favourite so far.

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After lunch, I walked up towards the mountains along a road shaded with trees. On the way, I stopped to chat with a couple of local men, one of whom owns a hotel here. I promised to call in for a wine on the way back, but got distracted by a picture of the bar of a luxury hotel, and went there instead. It was lovely, despite the one glass of wine costing me more than my lunch of a full cooked meal, bread, and a drink.

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I haven't seen any other tourists here, other than Bulgarians. In fact, this evening, there was just me and the free dogs wandering around the streets in search of water, our heads hanging down and tongues hanging out. Now it sounds like there is a bit of a party downstairs in the mehana (tavern), so I really should be sociable and go mingle with the locals.

The temperatures for the rest of the week are forecast to be 38 degrees, so I'm cutting short my time inland, and heading for the seaside.

Posted by Gotmybindle 09:38 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria bansko Comments (0)

Making the Most of Melnik

sunny 36 °C

Thank goodness I didn't leave Melnik early, or I would have missed out on one of my best days yet.

After breakfast at my hotel, I set out for the monastery over the hill, reportedly a two hour trek. My interpreter last night told me to go early to avoid the heat, take plenty of water, and watch out for snakes. When I said I'd heard the snakes in Bulgaria are not dangerous, she agreed but said there were two that if bitten by them, I would need to get to hospital within an hour. Right. My guide to the 7 Lakes told me the views on the walk to this monastery are best on the way back to Melnik, but by my reasoning, when you're walking along watching out for venomous snakes, the view is the same either way.

Initially, the path is along a road built by the Romans. I found this fascinating, but kept walking into Roman walls that I couldn't get over, and then having to back track until I found the actual path again.

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For the first hour, the path was through trees, so it was reasonably shaded and quite pleasant. After that, the climb started and I was met by fabulous views of the sand pyramids that surround Melnik.

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It was so peaceful and beautiful, walking along the sandy path, through the trees. I was quite surprised to come across a couple resting on a seat, as even in the shade the temperature had reached 33 degrees before lunch.

When we reached the highest point, there was a seat at the end of a side-trail, under a solitary tree, with an amazing view of the pyramids and the mountains that separate Bulgaria from Greece just to the south, and Macedonia to the west. It was absolutely stunning, and as I sat there looking out towards the other countries, I wondered how I might just keep going. I'm so sad that my journey will be over in a couple of weeks, and I just don't want it to end, ever.

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The remainder of the path was slightly more perilous, and parts of it were literally breaking away with the erosion of the sand.

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Once over the hill, the Rozhen Monastery was very close. Now that I've seen a few monasteries, I can say with some certainty, that this one is very nice. It's fully enclosed, and having been rebuilt several times due to raids and fires, the colour in the paintings in still quite vivid. Since I had shorts and a t-shirt on, I had to cover up to enter. I had a long sleeved top, but had to put on a long skirt that they have there for visitors. The first one I tried wouldn't fit much past my knees, thanks to all this Bulgarian food I've been eating. Fortunately they had a bigger one with elastic and I was soon suitably covered enough to go in.

Afterwards, I walked down into the village and found somewhere for lunch. I tried the local soup made with watery yoghurt, chopped cucumber, and twigs. It was wonderful.

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Then I decided to take the path over the mountains back, since I'd enjoyed it so much on the way over. By now it was ridiculously hot, and then I fell over. Well, the path gave way under my left foot, and my right knee hit the ground with a crunch. I had plenty of water, so I cleaned all the sand and dirt out and soldiered on.

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On a happy note, it now means my first aid kit has not been a complete waste of space. When I arrived back in Melnik, I ran into the woman who speaks good English. I showed her my wound and she said "oh, that's not so bad" in typical Bulgarian fashion. "No, you're not looking close enough, it's quite serious" I thought. "Yeah, it's just a little scratch" I said.

After freshening up and getting more water (by now it was about 36 degrees), I went on a mini trek up the hill behind Melnik to see the ruined fortress and churches. I didn't make it to all of them due to the heat, but I was amazed when suddenly on the path in front of me, I saw a tortoise.

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Next on my agenda was the House Museum, apparently the largest of it's kind in the Balkans, with a huge wine cellar below that is perfect for exploring. The wine was pretty good too!

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Finally, I made my way up a little stone path to a winery that was built into the hill more than 250 years ago and has now been in the hands of the same family for 5 generations. A group of Americans joined me for some wine tasting, and it was nice and cool inside the cellar. The local wine is free of all chemicals and preservatives and is quite delicious. The man that runs it yelled at me for talking too fast when I said "a glass of wine please", but I chose to rise above it, and by the time I'd finished my second glass chatting to him, he was a lot less grumpy. When I gave him a generous tip, he was positively pleasant.

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So, I found plenty to do in Melnik. There are so few tourists here, I felt like I was the only one most of the time. Melnik is most famous for it's wine, but I have been a bit shy drinking it, due to the high temperatures and the fact that I have a big day of travel ahead of me tomorrow. I'm looking forward to dinner and bed.

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Melnik

Posted by Gotmybindle 10:00 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged sofia melnik rozhen Comments (5)

Southern Bulgaria

sunny 31 °C

Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, has been a highlight of my journey. One reason people don't like it is because the pavement blocks are all broken and loose. I think that adds to the charm, walking down the street, wobbling and clunking, past Versace and Dior.

My bus wasn't until mid-afternoon, so I visited some of the places I'd seen on the walking tour, but hadn't been into. First, I went to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It's much darker inside than the other churches and monasteries I've seen so far. The cathedral was built in honour of the Bulgarian, Roman, Russian, and other nationalities who died freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire's 500 year stranglehold. I sat down for a while taking it all in, and was fascinated by the figureof a young woman with long dark hair, in a full length dress, holding a candle and praying in front of a chandelier of candles. She looked like she could have been a woman from 500 years ago, so serene and still, with her dress trailing behind her. Next, I called into the nearby St Sophia 4th century church, which the city is most likely named after. There was a wedding in progress and it was quite surreal to see the ceremony taking place in an ancient building, with tourists and worshippers coming and going. On the way back to my hotel, I visited the small Russian church, St Nicholas, where a christening was underway.

Back at my hotel, the excellent staff talked me into getting a taxi instead of a tram. I agreed, as it was only a few dollars more. However, I actually felt quite disappointed in myself, as I've really enjoyed navigating the local public transport systems and it's a great feeling of achievement when I make my way somewhere. I kind of felt like I'd cheated by taking a taxi.

My bus journey today was four hours, through more of Bulgaria's seemingly endless mountains. I had a good view of the peaks I'd visited yesterday.

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Traveling to Melnik

The further south we traveled, the more dry and brown the landscape became. My destination today, Melnik, is only 20km north of the border with Greece. The bus was a large modern coach, and the journey was pretty good. Once we reached Sandanski (Spartacus territory), before I had time to say “Hey, where's the big bus going?”, my bindle and I were bundled off and onto the Bulgarian equivalent of a Romanian mini bus. In fact, I think this might have been worse. As we jiggled and bumped along a rough country road, I imagined all the components in my laptop rearranging themselves, and I kept checking over the back seat to make sure my luggage hadn't fallen out completely. After staying in a brand new hotel, having a personal guide for a day, and living it up in general, I started to feel a bit miffed about the downward spiral my comfort level had taken. But, then I remembered the taxi and reminded myself that it's all part of the adventure.

Melnik is officially Bulgaria's smallest town. They say the main street is only a couple of hundred metres long, but that must be an exageration. It can't more than 150. Still, its very quaint, and at least I didn't have too far to walk to my hotel. It was fairly late by the time I arrived, so I checked in , and took a stroll around. There are a few souvenir shops and plenty of beautiful old houses to look at, but basically the only thing to do here is drink the famous local red wine and eat.

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The street in Melnik

Since I'm absolutely hopeless at doing nothing, I thought I'd cut my stay here short and leave again in the morning. However, the hotel proprietor is being so kind and bending over backwards to make my stay as nice as possible, that I haven't got the heart to leave early. He even asked a local woman over to translate, since he doesn't speak a word of English. She's given me some ideas of things to do tomorrow, and let's face it, there are worse places to be than eating dinner and drinking wine on the balcony of a traditional tavern in a tiny Bulgarian village, watching the warm summer evening air sparkle with fire flies.

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Dinner

Posted by Gotmybindle 09:33 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged sofia bulgaria melnick Comments (0)

Rila 7 Lakes, Bulgaria

sunny 28 °C

I treated myself to a private guided trip with Traventuria today to see the 7 lakes in the Rila Mountains. Although it was quite a lot for one person to pay, I figured it's the same price as a nice pair of shoes (which I probably wouldn't wear) and I may never be back again, so I want to make the most of it.

Since it was just me going, I asked for the tour to start half an hour later than advertised so I could have breakfast at the hotel, which was totally awesome. When I saw the buffet, I wondered how I was going to eat so much in only half an hour, but I had a good go. When my guide arrived, we headed south out of Sofia into the mountains for about an hour and a half. When we got to the chairlift to take us up the mountain, it stopped working. Although we didn't know why at the time, the winds were a bit strong up the top, but after maybe an hour, we had our ticket and off we set. I don't know how people get on and off those chairlifts so casually. My heart was thumping waiting for it to collect me on its way past, and I had visions of getting tangled in it and dangling all the way up by just one foot. Getting off was just as nerve wracking. Guess who's not a skier.

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The ride up takes 22 minutes and it was actually quite relaxing. On the way down it seemed a lot longer when I could see how far I was from the ground. Once we were safely up the mountain, we just had to climb for another hour or so to get right to the top. The weather was absolutely perfect with gorgeous blue skies. For a start, I was a bit surprised at how small the lakes are, but when I started to see them from different view points, they were quite beautiful. The glacial lakes are situated between 2100 and 2500 metres above sea level and each have a name according to their shape. This one is called "the kidney". Fortunately, the lake is a lot prettier than its name.

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This past winter in Bulgaria was severe, with ridiculously low temperatures and huge snow falls. Two of the lakes were still frozen over, and my guide was quite surprised at the amount of snow still around. Several times we had to walk through it when climbing up and down from the peak, so rather than end up on my butt, I just clung on to my guide's backpack and used him to stay upright. This lake is called "the eye", due to its shape and colour, but it was all closed over by snow and ice today.

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The climb up to the highest point was fairly steep, made slightly more difficult by the loose rocks we had to walk over. Today was the first day the chairlift was going since winter, and being a weekend, there were a lot of people around which added to the atmosphere, and the views were spectacular, so it was a great experience.

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We didn't stay too long when we reached the top, as the chairlift was only operating until 4pm, and we had an hours walk back down the other side. It didn't seem as hot up there as it has been lately, but I certainly got burnt. My haphazard method of applying sunblock means I now have legs like a patchwork quilt. My guide was really good, a local who has been doing this for years, so we had lots of interesting conversations and he managed to get me back off the mountain in one piece, without having fallen face first in the snow.

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My original plan for today had been to visit Bulgaria's most famous tourist destination, Rila Monastery. However, I think I made the right choice leaving it out so I could visit the 7 lakes instead. They really were beautiful and it was a great experience, that I will remember for a long time to come. Plus, I will sleep very well tonight.

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I've just been out for a delicious meal in Sofia. I could definitely live in this city, it just has a great feel about it. I love the people, the atmosphere, the food, the weather, the fashion, and the location. It's Saturday night so everyone is out and about, including a few weirdos. Whenever they ask me for money, I panic and blurt out "I don't speak English". Fortunately, neither do they.

Posted by Gotmybindle 08:53 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged sofia bulgaria rila_seven_lakes Comments (2)

Getting to know Sofia

sunny 28 °C

I took my first taxi ride today, since it was a fair hike to the bus station. During the short trip, we pulled over and picked up the boss of the taxi company, who appeared to be waiting for a bus? It was a pretty cheap ride and saved me lugging my backpack uphill for 20 minutes.

The next bus didn't leave for another hour and a half, so I stored my luggage and went for a last stroll around town. It's a nice place, but there's clearly never been a town planner, as "turn left at the corner" always seems to have about three left options. I guess these towns are so old the streets just sprung up as they were needed, rather than being planned.

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One last look at Veliko Tarnovo - town of the Tsars

For the first time since the Czech Republic, my bus was a big modern coach. However, there seemed to be a glitch with my seat, so whenever we went uphill I lay down, and whenever we went downhill, I sat up again. Bulgaria is mountainous. As much as I as struck by how green Romania is, I'm surprised at how much of this country is mountains. We drove through them for pretty much the entire 3 hour journey, only coming out into flat ground when we reached the capital, Sofia. As with Bucharest, I have read so many times how awful Sofia is and not to bother coming here. And as with Bucharest, I couldn't disagree more. Sofia is beautiful. I did have a small nightmare trying to figure out which tram to catch into the city, when everyone told me a different number, but I got there in the end. I think my timing is lucky too, because the street which normally only allows trams down it is under construction, so it's completely traffic free.

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Vitosha Boulevard, with Mt Vitosha in the distance

After checking in (to a rather nice hotel), I had a couple of hours to fill in before I joined the city walking tour. The shopping here is amazing, but more expensive than you'd expect for Bulgaria. I think if I did a trip through the Balkans countries, I'd finish in Sofia, just to enjoy some shopping before heading home. I don't think I've ever seen so many shoe shops in one place.

There was a big group for the walking tour, but we moved along quite quickly, as there is a lot to see here including Roman ruins, a 3rd century church, a mosque, synagogue, beautiful theatre, and of course the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It's even more impressive than it appears in photos and as the sun was just beginning to set, the light made it quite an amazing sight.

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We also passed the presidential palace, being guarded by a couple of Bulgarian soldiers in their parade uniforms. We were told photos were OK, but not to get too close.

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During the tour, we heard and saw a large stream of people moving along a nearby boulevard. This was the third day of protests against the government's decision to relax laws prohibiting development of natural reserves, including Vitosha mountain which lies inside the city limits and is a favourite hiking spot for locals and tourists.

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Although it was a peaceful demonstration, and there was a large police presence, I was a bit dismayed when the guide said I should just walk down the boulevard through the crowd to get back to my hotel. Fortunately, a British couple were headed in the same direction, so we decided to walk together and we skirted around the edge via some side streets. It turned out we were staying at the same hotel.

I really like Sofia. In the city centre at least, it's lovely. The people seem happy and relaxed, there are loads of high end shops, and of course lots of places to eat the wonderful Bulgarian cuisine.

Posted by Gotmybindle 12:08 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

Visiting Arbanassi

sunny 26 °C

I've been staying at a great hostel in Veliko Tarnovo, Hostel Mostel. It's in a lovely old building and despite the heat, I've had a great sleep both nights.

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Hostel Mostel

Since they had no planned tours today, I decided to walk a 4km path over the hills to a village called Arbanassi. A kiwi woman I met on the tour yesterday wanted to do the walk too, so we set out together. I'm really impressed by this woman, her children have grown, so she's sold her house, quit her job, and set off around the world for a year. What an amazing thing to do.

We both had visions of it being a lovely winding path, but as soon as we got off the road, we were in for a rude awakening. It was mostly uphill, though long grass, prickly twigs, trees with thorns, and just generally scratchy things. The wild flowers were lovely though, and the views pretty good. We could see 65 km across the valley to the abandoned building we visited yesterday.

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The walk to Arbanassi with a pile of rocks marking the "track"

After about an hour, the path disappeared and we carried on blindly, aiming for the houses high on the hill above us. We only saw one dead snake. Eventually, we climbed up over what I am pretty sure was a hotel's compost heap and onto the village road.

Arbanassi was a favourite village of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, before they destroyed it. Today, it is a collection of old houses, churches, monasteries, and holiday homes of the wealthy from Sofia. Our first stop was a restaurant recommended by our hostel for lunch. The salads are fantastic here, but I always get carried away and order another dish as well.

After lunch, we wandered around the streets, with not another tourist in sight, admiring the old buildings, stone walls, and cobblestone streets. We stopped to chat to a few local artists, but both felt guilty that we're not buying anything for fear of adding extra weight to our backpacks.

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Most of the historic buildings have been converted into hotels with mehana (taverns). As with everywhere I've been so far in Romania and Bulgaria, they have flowers everywhere and lovely outdoor dining areas. I liked this little wagon filled with flowers.

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By early evening, we decided it was time to head back to Veliko Tarnovo. The only problem was, we couldn't find the track. We ended up asking a front-end loader driver who thought we were completely nuts walking over the hills. He couldn't speak a word of English but was having a fit and making hand gestures that roughly translated to "you're going to get eaten by something" much to his friend's amusement. Once we did find the trail, we were off and racing. It turned out the guy could have been right, as when we got back down to the road, a rather large wolf looking dog was blocking our path. We scrambled around in the stinging nettle arming ourselves with big sticks in case he threatened us, but fortunately a few cars passed and he moved off the road.

Back at the hostel, we had a dinner of Bulgarian Bean Stew and Beer waiting for us. After our adventure, the beans were pretty good, and the beer was bloody great.

Posted by Gotmybindle 11:06 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria veliko_tarnovo arbanassi Comments (3)

High and Dry in Veliko Tarnovo

sunny 35 °C

In the evenings, Euro 2012 games are being shown in the hostel courtyard. I tried to watch one last night, but fire flies kept appearing and it was all I could do not to chase them around and squeal with delight.

It wasn't quite so delightful to wake up this morning to no water. You can imagine 22 backpackers in 35 degrees, and not a shower between them. Apparently it happens once a month here, when they have to turn the area's water off to patch up the last patch up job they did on the ancient system. Since I had plans for the day and having had recent natural disaster experience, I managed to go without.

A small group of us joined the hostel's Great Tour, which is an understatement to say the least. First we headed up a forest covered mountain, past Gypsy camp sites and views over the Valley of the Roses, to Shipka pass, the highest point between northern and southern Bulgaria. It's a special place for Bulgarians and a monument sits at the top to commemorate the local heroes who died in a lost battle against the Ottoman Empire there. Further on up the road was our first destination - Buzludzha. Built by the Russians in the early 1980s as a symbol of their friendship with Bulgaria, it was a strategically positioned conference centre, set high on a mountain in the hope that the backlit red star would be seen as far away as Turkey. The shape of the building may be due to the space race at that time.

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From a distance it's impressive, from close up, it's even more imposing. It cost the Russians 7 million euro, and was used just half a dozen times before the Berlin wall fell, and the Bulgarians fell out with Russia.

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Today it is abandoned and totally gutted, with the locals, vandals, and Gypsies having stripped everything of any value from inside it. In its day, it was adorned with white marble walls and floors, red velvet ceilings, and colourful ceiling high mosaics depicting scenes from Russian history.
Once we had marveled at the outside, the door creaked open and we slowly ventured in. Inside, it was dark, cold, and spooky. I couldn't see a thing, was cursing how dull my torchlight was, and we had to be very careful where we stepped with the debris and rubbish scattered around the floor. After about 10 minutes, I realised I still had my sunglasses on, so removing them brightened things up a bit.

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It was eery though, and just a little bit scary. We went down just one of about 9 underground floors, as the others are too dangerous to reach now. Then we climbed whats left of the staircases to the main conference room, or what remains of it.

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The building won't last much longer. What people haven't already stripped, the weather is eroding every day. Soon the roof and floors will collapse and it will be just a ruined momento of communistic madness. I declined the offer to go further down into the basement and was pleased to be out in the fresh air and daylight.

Next stop on our Great Tour was an excellent restaurant where I enjoyed my first proper Bulgarian meal. Forget about leaving this country early, I have to stay and eat. I had milk salad which is very like Tzatziki, a very tasty garlic bread, and a vegetable and meat dish called sach. One of the guys had mish-mash which looked nothing like I expected, but I definitely have to order it once. Bulgarian food is divine.

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After far too much lunch, we walked across a little bridge and into a museum town where local artisans make crafts in traditional houses from all over Bulgaria. There were potters, turners, weavers, and all sorts making their wares on mostly water powered machinery. I made my first official purchase, a gorgeous sterling silver ring, in a style unique to the maker, for only about NZ$25.

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After a couple of hours wandering around (and stocking up on Bulgarian sweets at one of the shops) we were back in the car and off to our next destinations, Bacho Kiro Cave and Dryanovo Monastery. The cave was once inhabited by 3 metre tall bears, and evidence of Neanderthal communities has been found in it. Since it was getting late in the day, we just did the short tour but it was interesting to see and a nice break from the hot humid conditions outside. After the cave, we took a stroll around the monastery which again, is an important historic site for Bulgarians, due to another losing battle with the Turkish invaders. It's nestled in the top of a horseshoe of towering cliff faces and it's no surprise the soldiers hiding out here never stood a chance once they were discovered, there's nowhere to escape.

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It was a brilliant day out, and after 10 or so hours we were all pretty quiet on the drive home. Fortunately, when we got back, the water was back on and a lovely hot shower awaited us. I was just enjoying a nice beer, updating my blog, when the tell-tale sounds of church bells began to ring and we raced up the hill to see the light and sound show. This is where they light up the entire fortress and hill it sits on with laser beams and blue, red, green, and gold lights. I tried to capture it on camera but couldn't so just sat back and watched in awe. It was something I really wanted to see, so I'm thrilled it was on while I was here. After my less than enthusiastic start yesterday, today I saw a fascinating side of Bulgaria and am looking forward to exploring the rest of the country.

Posted by Gotmybindle 12:39 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged veliko_tarnovo dryanovo buzludzha Comments (0)

Into Bulgaria

sunny 35 °C

The Romanian version of Mrs Doyle made my breakfast this morning, so at one point I had both a cup of tea and a cup of coffee. The bus for Bulgaria departed from right outside my hotel, so I had time for one last walk around before I left.

On the bus was a young Bulgarian woman, returning from four years in the UK. We chatted for most of the one and a half hour journey, other than when we both almost dozed off in the hot sun. The landscape south of Sinaia is flat and cultivated right up to the edge of the Danube, which forms the border with Bulgaria. Although it was sad to leave beautiful Romania, it was exciting crossing over the river into a new country.

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Once we arrived in Ruse, I bought some Bulgarian money and a ticket for the bus to Veliko Tarnovo, leaving in an hour. Compared to the Romania buses, this one was modern with air conditioning and even seat belts. Thank god, for that too. The driver was the worst yet, weaving in and out of traffic, passing on blind sections, and trailing trucks by about half a metre at great speed. He drove with one hand all the way, either one resting over the seat beside him, or the other on his cellphone. Sometimes I suspect he was doing both. The journey took about two hours, and the scenery is quite different. Here, you see brown fields, towering rock faces, and lots of different kinds of trees and shrubs. Of course, the language has changed too, and I face the greater challenge of not being able to read the writing system. Although while I waited for the bus, I practiced with my phrase book, and started to pick out a few words.

Half way through the journey, we stopped for some passengers and a large lady in a pink dress got on and sat on me. Despite the rest of the bus being empty, she wanted to sit opposite her friend, so took the seat beside me and half of mine. Squished in the corner, with a maniac driver, and searing temperatures outside, I wondered whether I might change my travel plans and just head straight for the Mediterranean Coast.

When I reached Veliko Tarnovo, I phoned my hostel who had promised to pick me up from the bus station, only to be told that they didn't do pick ups from the bus station I was at. So, I hauled my bindle over to a local bus, got on, counted six stops, and got off again. Then I trudged up the hill, absolutely sweltering, until I had to phone the hostel again for further directions. Eventually, the hostel guy came walking up the road to meet me and happily stated that it's all part of the experience. When we got to the hostel and someone told me that the information centre said it's 37 degrees, I started to beat the hostel guy with the hostel pamphlet.

After I checked in, and changed clothes, I set out for the Tsarevets Fortress. Built in 1186, it must have been a massive structure (and feat of engineering) as the ruins today are still huge. As I walked up the road, I could just imagine the Tsars riding up to the fortress in their bear hide coats and hats. Or in this weather, just their togs.

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I walked around the site for a couple of hours, but it was just so hot, it was hard to appreciate it properly.

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Still, it was very nice and has some great views out over the surrounding town. The Orthodox Monastery has quite different pictures to those in Romania, so that was interesting*, and the executioners rock hanging out over a drop to certain death was chilling. They have a light show here if there are enough tourists in town, which I hope to see.

I had dinner at a local restaurant and met a Scottish couple who have been here for a week, enjoying the town, but not so much the heat. I need to go and find a nice cold beer to help me sleep as it's 9.30pm and still 31 degrees.

  • I later found out that is because it's now an art gallery rather than a monastery, hence the different paintings.

Posted by Gotmybindle 10:51 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria veliko_tarnovo Comments (2)

Big Bad (but really beautiful) Bucharest

sunny 31 °C

My sleep was interrupted at 2am by a crowd chanting and cheering, and countless car horns sounding on the street outside my hotel. After about an hour, someone addressed the crowd on a loudspeaker and then a fire works display erupted, literally right outside my window. The cause for celebration was the result of local body elections, and although it went on for hours, I can't begrudge the Romanians for having the right to vote. Even if, as a local told me this morning, it was all just an appearance.

While communism took a terrible toll on society, many Romanians also talk about postive aspects of their lives during that time. There are many remnants of communism left here. One of the most noticable is the stray or “free” dogs. They are literally everywhere, and mostly fat and happy, but also rather filthy.

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None seem menacing, and people are kind to them, feeding them and helping them where they can. When people were forced to leave their homes and move into city apartments under communism, they had to set their dogs free and the result is today there are tens of thousands of them on the streets. Many prefer to call them “free” dogs, rather than strays. I was dismayed to see one hit by a car today but given the unbelievable amount of cars in Bucharest, it must happen all the time.

I took my last two train rides in Romania today, the first from Sinaia to Bucharest (about an hour and a half) and then used the city metro to get to my hotel. I had good instructions, so it was pretty easy, and only one taxi driver at the main train station in Bucharest gave me any grief. The backpack makes a pretty big target.

“Taxi?”
“No.”
“Official taxi?”
“No ,thank you”.
“You speak English?”
“No.”
“Taxi?”
“No!!”
“Why not??” shouting at me.

I have heard so many bad things about Bucharest that I was quite apprehensive about coming here. The streets are filled with crime and it's a big, bad, ugly place, or so I was told. After I checked into my hotel, it was time to find out for myself. First, I walked along past a big area filled with fountains, and then down a long, beautiful, green boulevard to the jaw-dropping parliament building.

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That place is massive, the second biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon) and apparently while it's 80 odd metres high, there is another 96 metres deep under the ground including a nuclear bunker. Hence, one of it's nicknames is “the iceberg”. I walked along the front and side to where tours start from, but the only one left going was 2 hours, and I had another tour planned for 2 hours later, so gave it a miss and decided to take the hop-on hop-off bus tour instead. That was easier said than done, but I finally found a bus stop for it, and got on board.

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The mercury had hit 30 by now, so it was very refreshing to be on an open top bus with the wind whistling between my ears. This is because I forgot to ask for a commentary head set when I got on, but for today I was content just to enjoy the ride and watch the people of Bucharest go about their lives.

Half way around, I hopped off and went for a walk in a lovely park with a lake. I have no idea why Bucharest gets such a bad rap. It is a beautiful city, with lots of trees, parks, and stunning architecture. Of course there are the concrete block communist buildings, but that adds to the character of the city.

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I walked through the bar and restaurant precinct tonight and it was absolutely pumping with some very cool bars. This was on my way home from the walking tour which I joined with a few other people. These tours are a great way to find hidden gems in cities that you normally wouldn't find on your own. Tonight we saw a passage between buildings that is transforming into a little Turkish area and many historical landmarks, including Revolution Square, where the down-fall of Ceausescu began.

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The guide was telling us about how the communist leaders wanted to get rid of the churches to build the parliament building (they demolished everything else on the land they needed for it) but decided not to destroy the heritage so just moved them behind big concrete block buildings instead. Now they are hidden from view, but at least they survived.

It's a vibrant city, for sure. They say it's a city that never sleeps, but that may be due to the heat as much as anything else.

Posted by Gotmybindle 06:20 Archived in Romania Tagged romania buchrest Comments (2)

A Day in Sinaia

sunny 27 °C

I treated myself to a full cooked breakfast this morning, since it's the first time I've seen it on a menu here. What I wouldn't give for a decent latte, instead of a small espresso. Fed and watered, I set out to find Peles Castle, the jewel in the Romanian crown. On my way I came across a very moving little cemetery filled with the graves of young Romanian men who were killed in WW1, many of them unknown.

I also found Sinaia Monastery, and since it was a Sunday (or any day ending in a Y), a service was being held. As the doors are always open and the people inside all stand, you can just walk in without really getting in the way. However, when someone looked at me and then crossed themselves (purely coincidental, I think), I decided to back out quietly and continue on to the castle.

I also found the former home of Romanian musician and composer, George Enescu. If Dracula didn't really live at Bran, I'm quite certain he would have liked this place. Either way, you wouldn't catch me in there after dark. Many of the houses and hotels in this town are built in the same style and with the backdrop of the fir clad mountains, it's quite a sight.

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Once again, the tour buses and roadside stalls selling souvenirs and other memorabilia that we have in our $2 shops at home, were a sign that I was approaching the castle. I walked up the path until I reached a clearing, and there it was. The stunning Peles Castle in all its glory.

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Tours are compulsory, so I chose the standard version as the full tour had a very hefty price tag, at least for Romanian standards anyway. Once I had my ticket, I waited with the crowds at the closed entrance door. Every now and then the door would open and someone would shout something about what language the next tour was in, and we'd all push forward in anticipation of getting in. It reminded me of scenes where the peasant villagers all hung round outside the door waiting to be thrown some bread.

One thing about not speaking the local language, when we did get in, the English tour group was quite small (only about 20 people). The interior of palatial Peles Castle has to be seen to be believed. Every single square inch is intricately designed either from pictures carved in wood (2000 carvings and 14 different types of wood) or marble. Every room that we saw was adorned with furniture dating back through the centuries. Cabinets with beautiful pictures of colourful flowers and birds, not painted but made out of semi-precious stones. An impressive weapon collection including a full horse's suit of armor, when coupled with that of the rider, weighs 120kg. A 24kg sword used for executing only noble people. Mirrors situated so that corridors appear never ending, a 16 metre high retractable stain glass ceiling, and scores of beautiful paintings. At the time of its construction, Peles was the most modern castle in Europe, the first to have electricity, air conditioning, and vacuum cleaning. I didn't pay the photography fee (one and half times the entrance fee), but if you search Google Images "inside peles castle" you will see what I mean.

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The view from Peles courtyard

During the tour I got chatting to an Australian woman who is here volunteering in an orphanage. After the tour, we walked around the courtyard and garden together and then went to the nearby cafe where we paid a princely sum for a drink. It was interesting to hear her harrowing but heart-warming stories about her work with the children. Its very inspiring to meet people who do these things. After we said our goodbyes, I walked 100 metres up the road to the smaller Pelisor Palace. It was built for the King's nephew who would be king, so he and his wife (who hated Peles) could live there. I didn't go in, but it's a lovely building too.

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Next on my agenda was the Bucegi mountains that loom over the towns through this region. By the time I got to the cable car, it was scorching hot and once we started our ascent up the mountain, I really started to sweat. I don't do heights. It's the reason I don't like flying. I'd be perfectly happy with turbulence if the plane was sitting on the ground. Mostly it was a smooth ride apart from when we brushed past tree branches and going past the pylon-type towers was like going over a dip in a road in the car.

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I only went up to Cota 1400, but from there you can get another cable car and continue up to 2000. 1400 is my giddy limit. Once I arrived, there really wasn't much to see. It's the starting point for skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. Since I was doing neither, I decided to walk the two hours back down, and as I set out, I found a good spot to enjoy the view.

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It was a bloody long way and once again I found myself on a road in the middle of the forest by myself. Well, just me and the bears.

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But in reality, the greatest threat was the stinging nettle I walked into while getting out of the way of a car. They didn't have signs about that. I kept plodding on around bend after bend, until I reached a sign that said 9km to go. At least that high up, the temperature was cooler. After a while, I found three men who were taking the proper walking track down the mountain (rather than the road) and since they looked harmless enough I trailed along behind them. But they weren't very friendly, so I got back on the road, and eventually met up with an Irish family who had started walking down from Cota 2000! Their two teenage boys were feeling less than enthusiastic by the time I met them. When we reached the bottom, I sent them off in the direction of Peles Castle, and practically crawled the last few hundred metres back to my hotel.

Posted by Gotmybindle 07:18 Archived in Romania Tagged romania sinaia peles_castle Comments (0)

Sights for Sore Eyes

sunny 30 °C

I was still a bit groggy when I woke up this morning, thanks to two Italian guys staying at my hostel and too much Romanian wine. But, it was a fun night and a good way to end my time in Transylvania. When I finally made it out the door, I headed straight for Mt Tampa, the mountain that overlooks Brasov city. I was keen to get rid of my hangover, so chose to walk up the mountain, rather than take the cable car.

It was pretty tough going and I was really in no fit state to be clambering over jagged rocks and tree roots. It's a steep hill, but I only nearly fell off the track three times. Once when I walked a bit sideways due to the wine haze, once while trying to retrieve my tissue pack from over the side, and once when I sneezed unexpectedly. By mid-morning the temperature had hit the high 20s, so I was chugging away on my water bottle all the way up. Eventually, I knocked the bugger off. The view, of course, was amazing.

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After marveling at that for a while, I went to check out the cable car, as I thought I could ride it down. However, it looked a bit vertical and scary for my liking, so I walked back down the trail. By now, I was completely sober, I think.

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I had hoped to check out the collection of Persian rugs in the Black Church, but ran out of time, so called into the hostel to collect my bindle then caught the bus to the train station. It was 30 degrees when the train arrived and like an oven inside, but my journey today was just under an hour so it could have been worse. It was a lovely trip too, climbing up into the mountains, surrounded by towering forest covered peaks. I cannot get over how green Romania is. The fields, the hills, the mountains, everything is just beautiful and green.

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The trains have run like clockwork since I've been here, so at the arrival time printed on my ticket, I said goodbye to the Romanian guy I had been chatting to, and hopped off the train. As I've done all along, I bought my onward journey ticket from the ticket counter as soon as I arrived. Outside the station, I followed my map to find my hotel. However, I couldn't find any of the roads on my map and I was wandering around in the heat, slowing getting more and more bent over from the load on my back. A man called out to ask if I needed help, so I showed him my hotel details. He said my hotel was in Sinaia, and this was Busteni. I'd got off the train in the wrong town, a few kilometres short. The train must have been running late. This is what happens when you travel with a hangover.

The first thing I had to do was walk back to the train station to try to explain what I had done, and see if the lady would change my onward ticket. Thankfully she did and then pointed across the road to the lotto shop where I could catch a bus to Sinaia. The timetable was taped to a lamp-post, and the one remaining bus for the afternoon was due in 10 minutes. God bless Romanian mini buses. It was only a ten minute drive but the rain started just as we arrived, so the temperature has dropped a little.

I was very pleased to see my hotel room. Tonight I'm going to soak in a nice hot bath and watch some Romanian TV for the first time. I'm looking forward to exploring this mountain resort, but right now, I could eat a horse and chase the rider.

Posted by Gotmybindle 07:24 Archived in Romania Tagged romania sinaia brasov Comments (0)

Dracula's Castle

sunny 29 °C

It's a fact that you cannot properly visit Transylvania without making the pilgrimage to Bran Castle, better recognised as Dracula's Castle. So, first thing this morning I stocked up with water and camera batteries at the supermarket near my hostel, then set out for Bran. The return trip, with a detour to Rasnov Fortress, meant catching a total of 5 buses, but it was easily done now that I'm such a pro.

Seeing the castle appear in the distance was very exciting, but once you get close to it, the view is obscured by the surrounding trees.

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Travelers I have met have complained that it is over commercialised and they were disappointed but I thought it was lovely. It's reasonably small, and has whitewashed walls throughout, with wooden beams.

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Although the space is quite confined (especially when a tour group comes stampeding through), it's easy to make your way around. There was a very well sign posted secret stairway to climb between floors.

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The rooms contain actual props from Bram Stoker's Dracula movie, and Queen Maria's furniture including a cards table. Even I wouldn't dare play Shithead with Dracula. "I win! You're the Sh.....um, er, nevermind. Tea?"

There's a great view of Bran village from the castle, and even the view inside the castle is quite something.

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After exiting the castle, I took a stroll down the road to see if I could get the money shot. Not only did I find it, but I also stumbled upon a medieval museum which contains much of the furniture from the castle.

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A roadside stand was selling those delicious deep fried, cheese covered, bread things, so I had one for lunch, and fed some to a dog that keep staring at me with big doe eyes, until guilt got the better of me. Then I forgot my head, and jumped on a minibus to jiggle and bump all the way to Rasnov. It was a scorching day by now, and when I was dropped off on the side of the main road, the fortress looked to be on top of a pretty big hill.

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I walked a kilometre or so up the road to the entrance, and was pleased to see a sign saying there was a train to take me to the top, so I bought a ticket. I was quite surprised when the train showed up, and even more so when a schoolbus arrived with about 40 very chirpy children who promptly hopped on the 'train' with me.

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Rasnov fortress is just ruins now, but I like clambering around sites like this. It was originally founded by the Dacians before the Romans came along, no doubt followed by the Hungarians, Germans, Turks, and everyone else who has run rampant in Romania. Although there are only remnants of it there today, I'm sure the views are still as magnificent as they would have been throughout the centuries when it was inhabited.

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Once back down on flat land, I started to walk along the road through the forest to a nearby cave. Only I could hear voices coming from within the trees, and it all got a bit Blair Witchy for me (and then I remembered the bears), so I turned around and walked back to the main road to catch a bus back to Brasov.

Now, there is just enough sun left in the day to head into town for a beer to celebrate achieving my goal of visiting Transylvania, and having reached the half way mark of my adventure through Eastern Europe.

Posted by Gotmybindle 06:37 Archived in Romania Tagged romania brasov transylvania dracula rasnov bran Comments (2)

Brasov

sunny 23 °C

Today's journey from Sibiu to Brasov was my best yet in Romania. The train was new and almost empty, so it was a very relaxing and smooth 3 hour trip. For the first hour, I chatted to a Dutch couple who were hopping off at a small village to walk along the riverside for the day.
It was a fairly slow journey up into the mountains, but I have now reached Romania tourism's ground zero and I feel like I've stepped back through a portal into the modern world. Even though it's still an ancient city, here there are billboards, highways, designer shops, and far less people walking around with pitchforks.

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I am becoming quite the professional at public transport in Romania. When my transfer didn't turn up at the railway station, I hopped on a city bus and made my own way to my accommodation. It was one of the things that most worried me about this trip, so I'm pleased that so far I've managed pretty well.

After checking in, I had a look around town, and then headed to the main square to join the walking tour. Just before the tour started, the Brasov City Guards showed up and their trumpeters climbed the clock tower to play a few tunes for the crowd below. Let's hope an invasion of the city isn't imminent.

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Our walking tour guide was a young engineering student who was so full of stories and the history of Brasov, that he stretched our two hour tour out to three hours. We saw the Black Church, where they are currently excavating the bones of plague victims so they can carry out some work around the building. He assured us we still have the antibodies, so not to worry if we saw people carrying bags of bones around.

We walked down the narrowest street in Romania, created for fire crews to have an easier passage across the city.

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To end the tour, we climbed up the hill to the top of the White Tower, which forms part of the citadel walls. We sat on the steps listening to the latest information on the population of bears living on the mountain overlooking the city. From there, we had a wonderful evening view.

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Like other cities in Europe, Brasov has a fabulous restaurant and bar precinct, with all the tables in the middle under huge umbrellas, and surrounded by brightly coloured flower planter boxes. Here, the tables stretch for maybe 800 metres down a traffic-free street, with all the bars and restaurants lining both sides and plenty of space for people to walk in between. It creates a great atmosphere. Elections are underway in Romania now, so there is always plenty happening anyway, and tonight in the main square, there was a stage set up with bands playing. I have a big day ahead of me tomorrow, so I didn't stay to watch for long.

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Posted by Gotmybindle 12:40 Archived in Romania Tagged romania brasov Comments (4)

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