Sunday, 20 January 2019

Welcome to Bulgaria

Sofia!
Crossing the border in the middle of the night.
Sofia's huge, Soviet-style apartments.
Romania is a great country to travel. It's still very affordable, from the delicious food and beer to accommodation and getting around, the people are friendly and welcoming and the country itself if absolutely gorgeous. But something for me that really stands out is the fact that it isn't yet full of tourists. It's not like nobody goes there or knows about it, but for the most part it is still unspoilt and not overrun. Yet. I'd visited my favourite city Brasov again, ventured to new places to explore, like Sinaia, and really enjoyed what I found. There's always something new to see and enjoy in this country. I was back in Bucharest and decided to jump on an overnight bus to the Bulgarian capital Sofia for a few days. I'd decided Sofia for a few reasons: 1. It was so close, around 10 hours by bus. 2. It was cheap to get there (around $10 each way). 3. A friend had visited Sofia a few months ago and loved it. And 4. I've never been to Bulgaria so why the hell not! Money would be changing, the language again would be different (not that I could speak Romanian anyway), and it would be something completely new - I wouldn't know the layout of the city, where to stay or how to get anywhere... just the excitement I need while on holidays! I'd done a little planning though and had booked a room close to the train station, which also doubled up as the bus terminal. The room was very cheap and looked ok, although when I looked at the address on Maps, the outside of this place looked completely derelict and dangerous. I booked and crossed my fingers that I'd find the place and that Google Maps' street view can sometimes be wrong.

Sofia's old market.

A cool, if somewhat rattly way of getting around the city.

The slightly run-down train station.
Saint Sophia - namesake of the city.
I used an Uber to get to the bus depot in Bucharest, saving a lot of time and stress and it doesn't even cost that much - far cheaper and more reliable than a normal city cab. Bags went on the bus and we grabbed a seat and prepared to bunk down for the night and try and get some sleep. It's never really easy getting sleep on a bumpy bus ride in the middle of the night full of other people, but a hot meal and a few beers definitely help the process. What doesn't help, however, is when you finally manage to drift off and then get woken up by the bus driver yelling at you to get your passports out for the border check. I'd just opened my eyes before the border, by the bright spotlights that lit up the road and surrounding area, enough warning to get my passport out and handed it to the driver, who was accompanied by an armed Bulgarian guard. He walked off the bus with a huge stack of passports and I did think for a moment that I'd never get mine back. One poor guy though, didn't quite wake up and so the bus driver had to shout at him when collecting the passports. America, as the bus driver called him, also fell back to sleep the instant his passport left his hand and so the driver repeatedly had to yell his name to return it, "America! America! Hey! Wake up America!" while pocking him as well. Slightly undignified I must admit, although I couldn't help a little smug grin. Yes, we were all called by our nationalities like we were just nameless foreign tourists. This was my introduction to Bulgarian politeness unfortunately. We woke up again at about 5am as the bus pulled into the terminal, still a bit groggy but having slept a little so it wasn't too bad. Now the mission was to get ourselves to the room and get some real sleep before the sun came up.

Office buildings - not stylish but they have air-con!

Trams run everywhere in this old city.


The New...
... and the Old.
Following the directions given my Google on my phone, we did find the hostel, but at first wasn't sure that this was the actual place. Firstly, the sun wasn't quite up and so it was still quite dark. Secondly, the place Google sent me to was exactly what it had looked like on Streetview, which was very disappointing as it was actually a dodgy looking neighbourhood that looked most likely to house junkies and drug dealers. Thirdly, the street names were hard to read, as Bulgarian is very similar to Greek and thus completely different to English. Finally, there was no hostel - there was just a glass door, no sign, no buzzer. I went up and down the street hoping to find something more like a place to stay than this place, but as I wandered up and down the street, it became very apparent that this place was the place. I peered through the glass door and saw what looked to be a small, hotel foyer, but there was some guy sleeping on the sofa. By pure coincidence, someone got out of a taxi and asked if we were looking to check in. I told the man that we were and he told us that he'll be back, then just disappeared. Nothing to do but wait, and wait is what we did - for about 30 mins until a woman turned up to open the door. We were given a 'room' just off the main 'foyer' and although I wasn't happy about the room or the guy sleeping on the sofa in the next room, sleep was highest on my list of needs so I figured I'd deal with it later. After a short sleep, the room and the hotel looked no better, so I booked another room just down the road in a real hostel (with a private room and a kitchen!), and would just sneak out tomorrow morning, having already paid for tonight's accommodation. It was time to hit the streets and see what Sofia had to offer!

Ruins in the metro.

Immortalised in Bulgarian Matreshkas.

Sofia's mosque in the 'Square of Tolerance.'
Oops! Its food! Not really the greatest name for a kebab shop.
The city of Sofia has has a long and particularly rough history full of occupation and wars. Although people have been living there since around 7000 BC, the Romans started the battles with the conquest of Serdica (now Sofia) in 29 BC, previously owned by the Thracians. It was raided by the Huns in the 4th and 5th Century, conquered by the Visigoths in the 4th Century, then again conquered by the Slavs in 617 AD. Krum of Bulgaria then took the city in 809 and Bulgarian rule last until the Byzantine Empire absorbed it into their lands. The Ottomans also took the city and held it for nearly 500 years until in 1878 the city was finally back in Bulgarian hands. There was a respite for the city until World War II when it was bombed by the Allies for being on the Nazis side. The Russians then moved in and took the city, leading to 40 years of Communist rule until the Revolution in 1989. Such a long history of fighting and occupation, you'd think that there'd be nothing left of the city, but it's quite the opposite in fact! There are ancient ruins everywhere you look - you can find the old Serdica gates under the street at the entrance to a metro stop. There are still the ruins of the old Roman Forum as well, which have been partially built over but are now being uncovered and preserved. Also due to all the occupying nations over time, there is a big mix of religions in the city and in one section of the city, aptly named "The Square of Tolerance" by the locals, there are places of prayer to all the 4 major religions, Catholicism, Orthodox, Judaism and Islam. From the centre of this imaginary square, you can see all of these churches as they are withing a few hundred metres of each other, which I think is quite amazing. During the Second World War, Bulgarian communities actually saved Jews from persecution by the Nazis, even though the country was allied with Germany. The locals (even the Orthodox members) started wearing the yellow stars of the Jews, confusing the soldiers and making it difficult to round up the real Jews, delaying the whole process and in the end saving more than 50,000 people from being shipped off the concentration camps. Many of these Jews moved to Israel in '48 after the state was recognised and only 5-10,000 Jews now live in the city. Also in this 'square' is the 5th and newest religion of the people - McDonald's! Built in 1994, this symbol of Capitalism was extremely popular right from the start and people drove for hours just to eat here.

The city centre.
Churches everywhere in this city.
Hanging out the window of trams.
A museum that was once a bathhouse.
My first impressions of the city while out and walking the streets was one of a city that has seen some very hard times, both in the distant past and not so distant. Although there are ruins and relics of the past everywhere in the centre, I found the suburbs around this very interesting. Huge, Soviet-style apartments are everywhere, rising 15 or more storeys up. Some even looked liked they'd been built at different times or in different stages, where a variety of materials had been used, going from bricks and painted concrete to metal sheeting. Although I wouldn't want to live in these massive, concrete estates, I found them very interesting and great in photos. When I arrived in the centre, the buildings changed a little, more mixed in with modern constructions which stood out against the somewhat crumbling classical architecture. Taking the city's Free Walking Tour is a great idea to get an overall feel as well as a deep and insightful history to the city by someone who is from here. Our walking guide was a chirpy and very informative man called Dimitri, who explained that nearly second guy in this country has the same name. Not only did he tell funny anecdotes and impart important historical events and dates, he also gave out sweets to the members of the group who answered his questions. Yes, I managed to score a sweet here and there too. He told us about the history, the people and how the city became the city it is today - there was so much information that I had to write some of it down to remember later and I struggled with this while trying to also take photos of what he was pointing out. I do remember that the city has a phenomenal amount of casinos, rivalling Los Vegas with more than 4,400 casinos - 40 times more than the US city! The city's Coat of Arms is very interesting too. A shield of 4 square with an overlapping part, the upper left is am unknown woman with a crown who first appeared on 4th century coins; bottom left is a representation of the mountains that can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city; bottom right is a god of healing, showing some hot springs in the city (of which none remain anymore); the top right is the Haiga Sofia (Saint Sofia) church; all of these are overlaid by a lion, which is the symbol of the city. Lions used to exist in the area centuries ago and the Bulgarians loved them so much that there are statues everywhere of the beautiful creatures - even the money here, 'Lef,' means 'Lion' in English!

Saint Sofia... and her 'offensive' nipples.
Lions are everywhere in this city - even the money is named after them!

A friendly stray.
The ex-HQ of the Communist Party.
The tour took a good 4 hours but I wasn't bored for a second. We learnt many things, like a nod here means 'no' and shaking your head means 'yes.' Tsar Alexander II could have been assassinated in this city if it hadn't been for the fact that he was always late to big events, this time for church on a Sunday - the dome wasn't so lucky though and didn't survive. A soft drink factory opened here in the 60s, the peak of Communism, and they sent an expert into the West to find a recipe to bring back - this guy fell in love with Fanta and brought it back. The head of Coca Cola for Russia later brought the World's favourite drink to Bulgaria, setting up a factory to produce it locally and printing the bottles in Cyrillic. There is a bar in the city where you can find all things Communism, including an old bottle of the sweet black stuff. Right in the centre of the city there is a huge statue of Saint Sofia, the city's namesake and favourite woman (the church is hers too). She was a Christian who lived in the 2nd Century AD whose daughter's were tortured and killed in front of her by the Romans as being a Christian was outlawed. The statue, which I found a little spooky, has offended some of the more religious residents, by the way she is dressed - a flowing black robe that clearly shows off her sizeable bosom, and nipples that are clearly feeling the cool breeze. Before Sofia got her pedestal, there was a statue of Lenin, standing there looking right at the then HQ of the Communist Party. I'm sure most people would find a Communist leader slightly more offensive than a pair of nipples, but that's just my opinion. The old building for the party was built there after the Allies bombed the square, and a large Communist star adorned the building, with the hammer of sickle of course, but the legend goes that everyone thought the star was actually made out of rubies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, people managed to get up there to try and steal these 'rubies,' but were disappointed as it was only red glass. Even the hammer and sickle aren't there anymore, chipped off after the Revolution. Now a huge flag flies from the building - the Bulgarian flag is white, green and red, said to be coloured that way for Shopska salad (the country's favourite!), white for the feta cheese, green for the pickles and red for the tomatoes. Reminds me of Italy's flag of a margarita pizza! The tour was great and I now had more respect for Bulgaria and it's people.

Standing guard at Parliament House.

No more Hammer and Sickle on the ex-Communist HQ.
Some cool market finds.
So much more to write about this city to be honest - it was only a short stay but I felt that I'd done so much and seen so many things. How can you do any city justice in just 3 days. Walking is easy and you can see a lot here in Sofia, it's flat and easy, although quite hot in Summer. I really enjoyed catching the old trams around the city - they were cheap (or free if you don't know how to buy a ticket...) and they went everywhere. I love sticking my head out the window, feeling the breeze and getting a different perspective of everything - something you can't really do in too many countries nowadays either! I'd have one more full day here to see what I could before heading off by train to the 2019 European City of Culture - Plovdiv.

The flag - just a big Chopska salad!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Sinaia

Beautiful Brosov - my favourite city in Romania.
I'm hungry!
Hello there!
Summer camp was over and all the kids had gone home. The adventures at Poiana Marlului were over for this year - but I'll be back in 2019 for sure. It'd been a wonderful 4 weeks of working with good people and great kids, hiking, enjoying the countryside and seeing a salamander and even bears. One last thing that I did while at camp, that clearly tops all of the other things, was save the life of 3 little kittens. It was the final week and I'd needed to get out and go for a walk, the stress of summer camp was starting to show and I peace and quiet was needed. There was a storm approaching, I could see it and also hear its loud warnings, but I struck out from the hotel anyway, confident that I could make it to the village and back. Being me, I'd taken too long taking photos on the walk and had left the way back a little late, but I couldn't help myself as the photo opportunities were there, the sky a lovely shade with the storm and the grass so green. I was on my way back when the storm finally couldn't contain itself any longer - there was a loud crack and the sky opened up, drenching me in a few seconds. My wet weather gear was on but there was no stopping this kind of rain - nothing is waterproof forever. Trudging back alone the road, somehow I overheard a faint meowing, I still can't believe that I'd heard it, but at the time I thought that I'd imagined it. I crossed the road and looked down to the now flooded river and saw a plastic bag sitting precariously on a rock in the middle, moving slightly and making a noise. I slid down the 3 metre, muddy banks of the river, splashed through the water, which was running swiftly around my calves, grabbed the bag in one hand and a little kitten, who'd managed to get out of the bag, in the other. I drained the bag of water and found 2 kittens in it - a put all three back in the bag and clambered out of the river and continued my journey home, with 3 additional passengers. They kept quiet for most of the way but just befor reaching the hotel they started to recover a little from their ordeal and meow constantly, even scaring away a deer on the road that hadn't seen me. I got them back to the hotel and blow dried them and make a little bed for them. I'd just saved 3 kittens from death by plastic bag in the river, a fate that sadly many animals still get dealt. I cared for them over the net 4 days in my hotel room, keeping it a secret from the manager (but not the cleaning staff, but they were very cool and understanding), and with the help of the teaching team, found a woman in the nearby village to take them. She runs a shelter of sorts, helping dogs and cats get medical treatment and eventually re-homed. It was sad and tough to let my little babies go after all we'd been through, but I had to let them go and knew they would be looked after.

The 3 newly rescued kittens getting a blow-dry.

The cutest little things in the World!

Celebrating 100 years of the formation of Greater Romania.
Brasov in the summer.
Brasov is a beautiful city and would be hard to top, but I'd only heard good things about Sinaia. I've visited Brasov before and I never get tired of it, there is always something new and exciting to see or do, a new bar to check out, something. The time I stayed here this time was different as I chose a small backpackers out of the centre, right at the opposite end of the city. It turned out to be the quiet end of town, right up against the hills that are all around the city - but this was a good thing! I got off the station and grabbed an Uber, another cool thing about Romania as these private taxis are banned in many countries (including Australia and Spain). The driver Adrian was very friendly, he spoke to me in English and Spanish on the drive to the hostel, and even offered his services for a trip to Bran or anywhere else I wanted to go. I asked him about Uber, and how he became a driver, and found it interesting and surprisingly easy - all you need is a car, registration and insurance papers and you're done! I like Uber.  The 'taxi' ride only took about 10 minutes and didn't cost very much at all either - maybe a few Euros. The first thing I liked about the hostel was their cat - a big, fat and very cuddly moggy. Whenever you sat in the kitchen, she sat with (on) you, liked cuddles and just chilling out with people. The hostel served as a good base to explore from as well, as there was a great restaurant across the road that served traditional Romanian food (I love the soups!), and the sleeping arrangements were interesting too - I slept in the attic with a  load of other people in small beds, but because it was the attic there were cool little windows in the roof. The only downside about this hostel (and it's nothing personal) was a snorer during the night. This guy wouldn't stop, it was as if he was training for the snoring Olympics! I clapped my hands, usually this sudden noise is enough to wake them slightly, threw things at him, kicked the bed, kicked him... nothing worked. He may have been dead apart from all the noise he was making. I finally decided to cover him up with his own blankets, not smother him mind, just hoping it would drown out some of the noise. It made it worse... until he over-heated/ran out of oxygen and woke up. 5 mins later he was back at it. Nobody slept. He wasn't there the next night. Apart from that the hostel was great! I don't want to mention the name, you'll just have to find it yourself!

Brasov.

The chilled out hostel cat.
Goodbye Brasov.
Hello Sinaia!
I got on the train in Bucharest with some friends who were also going the same way and off we went to Sinaia. Train trips in this country are always interesting - the trains usually have a cabin-style arrangement where you sit in a small booth with 5 other people, a little table in the middle, luggage overhead, and the corridor running down one side of the carriage, just like in all those old movies. It didn't take too long, only about 3 hours, and then we were there, right in the mountains and slightly cooler weather. Sinaia is a town in the Bucegi Mountains in the middle of the country, and is mainly a ski and hiking town. More famously than the skiing is Peles Castle, and the reason why most people come here. But more about that later! Walking around the town was lovely, you can clearly see that it's a ski town just by the styles of the buildings and it reminded me of Andorra, Queenstown in NZ and even Aspen (only seen in movies). Although there were plenty of people around, I think it would get a whole lot busier in Winter with all the skiers. Old-fashioned hotels mixed with new, funky hotels, nice cars driving around and people in hiking gear everywhere - not a bad place to be. I would love to come back here and do some serious hiking in these mountains - you can just see them peaking their way out behind the tall hotels, teasing you even. The main part of town is basically a one-street affair, flat and straight, but to get to the castle and Monastery, there is a windy, up-hill road that I saw and thought it would be best to get a taxi up. All four of us got in the cab and gave him our directions, but I'm pretty sure the castle is where everyone goes. There were people walking the hill, but mainly down, and it was only after 5 or so minutes when we reached the top and Peles Castle, not even breathing hard.

My first real view of the castle.

Peles Castle.
Rugs, china, paintings - such decoration.
Amazing craftsmanship.
When King Carol I visited the area, he fell in love with the mountains and the beauty of the location, so much so that in 1866 the Crown bought 1,300 sq kilometres and started the construction of a royal hunting lodge and summer retreat. The first 3 designs were rejected by the King, saying they were copies of other castles in Europe, but finally settled on a design by German architect Johannes Schutz who chose a mix of European styles that suited the mountain hunting lodge feel that the King wanted. The work took some time, as it was no small undertaking, lasting between 1875 and 1914 and slowed down due to the Romanian War of Independence. 300-400 men worked on the project from 14 different nations and the final bill was around 16,000,000 lei on gold, or US$120 million. Wow! After the Second World War and the abdication of King Michael I, the castle was used briefly as a tourist attraction then it was taken over by the Communists, closed down to the public and used for military purposes. The castle is huge, over 3,200 square metres of floor and over 170 rooms, including 30 bathrooms. Each room hallways included, are extremely lavishly furnished in different styles and themes, showcasing rugs, find china, ivory, stained glass, statues, paints, tapestries and even arms and armour. The castle is impressive from the outside, a huge stone and wood structure with pointed roofs and vast gardens. We paid out entrance fee to go in (60ron/$20  for the 1st floor and an additional 30ron/$10 for the 2nd floor) and waiting in line for a long time - sadly the organisational skills of the staff were terrible and there were simply not enough people to cater for large tour groups. There was no option to walk around yourself, instead we were herded around like cattle by a small, boring and very quietly spoken guide with a thick accent which was hard to hear or understand. The staff were rude and kept yelling at people to stop taking photos - there was an additional charge of 60ron for any sort of camera (including a mobile!) which I and many others refused to pay as it's overpriced and rude - not even the Louvre charges for photography! Overall, I enjoyed seeing the castle and the rooms, but felt the whole experience dampened by the rude staff (even the Spanish in our group said they were rude!), stupid rules and the prices.

Inside the great castle
The huge and impressive Peles Castle.
Lest we forget.
The beautiful Sinaia Monastery.
The Monastery is a shorter walk from the centre of town and this one I did on foot, which gave me the chance to see the large mansions nestled along the hilly streets. Although Sinaia gets busy, I'm sure it was much busier in the past and more people lived here - going by the size of these houses and the state of neglect, this was some time ago, but I liked to imagine it as it was, beautiful, opulent and very much the playground of the Romanian wealthy. The Monastery was founded in 1695 and today is inhabited by only 13 Orthodox monks, it's open to the public but woman do have to cover their legs in they go in - a lovely gentleman was ready with long skirts for hire at no extra cost to the entrance fee of a few lei. The first thing you see when you enter is the Great Church, built later in 1897, but very impressive. Fine carvings on the old door and stone columns over the doorway, and the interior is stunning, with colourful paintings so typical of Orthodox churches in this country. You head through a small doorway into the inner courtyard where you'll find the 300 year old building, the Old Church, smaller but still a fine building in its own right. The first buildings were designed not only as a monastery but also as a fortification, like other churches in Romania, and it did actually come under attack during the Russo-Turkish War (1735-39) - the forces inside the walls were defeated and the walls damaged, but before fleeing, the monks hid their treasures in the bell tower, which still stands today. Its a nice place to visit, cheap to see, quiet and very beautiful - smaller and less touristy than the castle but there is not reason not to do both. We walked back down to the town, paying our respects at a small War Memorial for those soldiers who fought in WWI, and headed for the train station. We had a train to catch back to Bucharest (again) but leaving that same night for Sofia by bus. My time in Romania had come to an end but another, new country, was calling from just across the border - Bulgaria!

The interior of the Old Church at the Monestary.
The Great Church.

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