Posts tagged ‘eastern europe’

weekly photo challenge: lunchtime

it really doesn’t make any difference what part of the world you’re in. people love to have lunch outside on a sunny day.

i snapped this photo while walking around downtown varna last summer. varna is the largest city on the bulgarian black sea coast. it was supposed to be a stolen shot, but the woman on the left caught me in the act.

March 15, 2013 at 10:02 am 13 comments

Inside Bulgaria: Lost in Sofia

It’s easy to get lost in this 5000-year-old capital of Bulgaria. The street signs are in Cyrillic, an alphabet writing system that many would think originated in Russia but it was actually developed in Bulgaria in the 10th century. Most people don’t speak English, so there’s also the language barrier to contend with. In my wanderings, I did manage to go back to the hotel using landmarks like buildings, monuments, and yes, graffiti.

Our group spent three days in Sofia. We considered ourselves lucky to have the sights within walking distance from the hotel where we stayed. The hotel is an attraction by itself. It was built on top of a section of an old Roman amphitheatre built around the 3rd century. The remains could be found on the ground floor of the hotel.

In spite of the rainy weather, I enjoyed exploring the city on foot. When it was raining, I just had to watch for uneven pavements and concrete steps that could be slippery when wet. I also had to watch for those street signs that were placed so low that you could accidentally bump your head into them. If I may say so, placing the signs that way is pure genius. One way or another, they would get your attention.

Sofia has the old European charm with its cobblestone streets, parks, monuments, and beautiful buildings. The British bombed the city during World War II totally destroying 3,000 buildings and damaging 9,000 more. According to our guide, it was done in retaliation for the killing of a British Air Force officer whom the local partisans captured when his plane went down. I could only wonder how much of its architectural heritage was lost because of it. Fortunately, some of its notable landmarks have survived for future generations.

Sofia residents appear to be religious folks. Many places of worship can be found around the city, majority of them belonging to the Orthodox Christian religion.

My favorite is St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that was built in Neo-Byzantine style in the early 1900s in honor of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. One can’t help but be dazzled by its grand design as well as by its gold-plated domes. According to rumors, a visiting Russian acrobat scaled the heights of the Cathedral to steal some of the gold. There was no mention on whether he was caught and hanged befitting his profession.

We were able to attend Sunday service at the cathedral. Even for a nonchurch-goer like me, I found it spiritually uplifting and solemn and the voices from the choir heavenly. I was also in awe of the cathedral interiors with its icons or religious paintings. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. This restriction would hold true for the other churches and historical houses that we visited. Some less prominent ones would allow it for a fee, but I chose not to take advantage of it. I find that taking pictures could somehow get in the way when you want to live in the moment.

The city’s most famous church is St. Sofia church built in the 6th century. I guess there’s no surprise there as the capital was named after the church in the 14th century.

The city’s oldest building is the Rotunda Church of St. George built in the 4th century. It’s located adjacent to an ancient Roman ruins. After it was destroyed by the Huns in the 19th century, the Ottomans rebuilt and turned it into a mosque. it’s now a UNESCO-protected museum.

Other must-see attractions:

The Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker aka Russian Church. It was built in the early 1900s on the site of the Saray Mosque after it was destroyed following liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1882. Beneath the church is the grave of Saint Archbishop Seraphim.

Mosque of Sinan built in the 16th century.

Sofia Synagogue built in the early 1900s to serve the needs of the Sephardic Jewish community.

A brothel. I confess I don’t have firsthand information. The guide just told me.

The central thermal springs of Sofia at the corner of Serdika and Ekzarth Yosif Street, which offers free drinking water to the public. It’s said to be medicinal and supposed to cure some ailments imagined or otherwise.

On our second day in Sofia, we had the opportunity to have coffee with a former high-ranking government minister. I asked him about the estimated timeframe for Bulgaria’s conversion to the euro currency. He answered in half-jest that it would be after the euro ceased to exist. But seriously, he said that it wouldn’t be anytime soon. He mentioned about the current financial crisis in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy that threatens to destabilize the euro. He fears that Greece would abandon the euro and convert back to drachma. Such conversion might cause chaos and political instability in Greece and adversely affect thousands of Bulgarians working there who might be forced to go back home where there are no jobs waiting for them. I also asked about Bulgaria’s energy source. He said that Russia is the main source of their energy needs and that would continue in the foreseeable future because their country’s infrastructures and refineries have been developed by the Russians. I wouldn’t detail the questions the others raised because this narrative is getting long and I don’t want to bore anyone who missed me while i was gone.

After three days in Sofia, I learned a few bulgarian words to get by, such as “da” for “yes”, “ne” for “no”, “molya” for “please”, “blagodaria” for “thank you”, “dobyr den” for “good day”, and “ciao” for “good-bye”. Still, reading Cyrillic continued to befuddle me. Sigh, it still does.

I also learned a little about the culture. When a Bulgarian nods, it means “no” and when he shakes his head, it means “yes”.

Bulgarian restaurants love to play old American music loud. And when you order food, you order by weight in grams. Small portions are about 100 grams.

In addition, I observed the Bulgarian’s tendency for what I’d term self-deprecating nature for lack of a better description. For example, when you ask a Bulgarian how he is doing, he may respond with “good but could be better” with one hand gesturing up and down for emphasis. It maybe the result of a subconscious effort not to appear better than anybody else. I don’t know if our guide was pulling my legs when she said that in the old days, when somebody excelled or stood out, he was killed to become an angel for the less fortunate.

In my next post, I’ll write about the Rila Monastery visit. Ciao for now. See, I still remember my Bulgarian.

June 4, 2012 at 10:52 am 3 comments

bulgaria, here i come

in a few days, i’m leaving for eastern europe. this is my second opportunity to travel there. the first one was in 2009 when i visited the czech republic, poland, hungary, croatia, and slovenia. this time i’m going to bulgaria.

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May 14, 2012 at 6:07 am 8 comments

enchanting slovenia

our tour of eastern europe ended in lake bled, slovenia where we stayed for two days and two nights. it’s an enchanting mountain resort town. it used to be the residence of the yugoslavian royal family in the old days. it’s known for its beautiful scenery that features a lake with a small island in the middle.

we left rab island, croatia early in the morning. after a few hours drive, we crossed the border in jelšane, slovenia. as with other countries in europe, no visa was required for people visiting from the u.s. however, we were asked to get off the bus, fall in line, and present our passports at the border patrol counter.

slovenia is a country the size of new jersey with a population of 2 million people. although it’s the smallest among the countries that we had visited, it has the strongest economy so much so that it has already adopted the euro currency.

before proceeding to lake bled, we visited ljubljana, the capital of slovenia. we found it to be a modern city complete with western amenities.

one exception was the local mcdonald’s. around the world, this fast-food chain with its trademark golden arc has been home away from home for homesick americans if not only for its food but for its restrooms as well. there’s nothing redeeming in its restrooms in ljubljana. they’re portable toilets similar to those found in construction sites and camping grounds. they’re dirty and smell so bad that only the desperate could find relief there.

we spent four hours wandering around the city’s old town center.

we saw a parked car with the sign that reads, “war does not determine who is right. it determines who is left.” slovenes are mostly anti-war.

we walked along the ljubljanica river lined up with restaurants and shops selling souvenirs. we visited an open market selling produce and other stuff. among the landmarks that caught our interest were the tromostovje bridge crossing over the ljubljanica river, statue of poet’s france prešerene, tivoli park, st. mary’s church, and the national and university library. we could have explored more had it not rain hard.

lake bled is very touristy in terms of the number of tourists visiting the place, but it has so much natural beauty to make up for the crowd.

wherever you go, you’d find yourself surrounded by a postcard perfect view.

the summer residence of the late president tito. it’s now an hotel.

the highlight of our stay in lake bled was the visit to the island in the lake.

it’s a half hour ride by boat paddled by an oarsman. while on the way, we were entertained by an young accordion player playing traditional slovenian music.

from the dock, we climbed the 98-step stairway leading to the baroque church of the assumption of mary built in the 17th century. the church has been a popular place for weddings and each groom is bound by tradition to carry his bride up these steps. incidentally, a couple in our tour stayed behind after the tour ended to attend the wedding of a relative from the states who decided to be married here.

at the top of the steps, the panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding mountains and forests was simply magical. it was like seeing a piece of heaven.

inside the church, you’d see images of the madonna that bear resemblance to empress maria theresa who once ruled slovenia. coincidence? your guess is as good as mine.

before the altar, you’d find a rope attached to the church bell. it’s a wishing bell. if you make a wish and ring it 3 times, it’s said, your wish will come true. i rang it as instructed, but darn, i forgot to make a wish.

a farewell dinner was held on our last night in lake bled. over cocktails and drinks, we recalled the places that we had visited and the fun and the times that we had shared.

the tour had provided invaluable insight into the food and culture different from our own. it was further enriched by our local guides who shared personal stories about life under the communist rule and its eventual fall 20 years ago.

it was such a great group of people. for a moment in time, we’d bonded and shared our lives together. i’d miss them dearly.

August 18, 2009 at 3:14 pm 8 comments

croatia on my mind

you know you’ve left hungary when the signs at the bathroom doors have reverted back to geometric shapes (triangle for men and circle for women). in hungary, profiles of a gentleman and a lady are used instead. as you see, the days of knights in shining armour may have been long gone, but the practice of chivalry hasn’t been completely forgotten in this country of 10 million. for instance, no true hungarian will roll his eyes when you bow and kiss the hand of a lady in public.

we crossed the border into croatia in the municipality of gorican in medimurje county, croatia. one of the border patrol guards came up to the bus and collected our passports for inspection. i’d heard that the bus driver may be required to pay up to 4,000 euros or nothing for the “privilege” of checking our passports. it would all depend on who’s in-charge at the time of the crossing.

it started to rain again when we left the border. for lunch, we exited to a dirt road leading to a family-run diner hidden among the trees. the road was flooded about a foot deep due to recent heavy rains. at one time, the bus staggered as if it was gasping for air and stopped. luckily, the driver was able to restart it.

the owner, seen here talking to our driver, was only too happy to welcome us.

the place looked so isolated and rural that i was surprised that anybody would be serving food there.

you could see chickens roaming around. a small deer even came close and allowed to be petted.

we were served different kinds of cheese, bread, cold meats, fruits and vegetables.

after lunch, we headed to the plitvice lakes national park. it’s croatia’s most popular tourist attraction. it’s one of the most beautiful places that i’ve seen or will ever see in this lifetime. in 1979, it was granted the unesco world heritage status.

the park is situated in a deep woodland between mountains populated by varieties of trees and vegetation. it features 12 Upper lakes and four lower lakes inter-connected by waterfalls descending from as high as 2,085 feet. it’s also home to several species of birds and animals.

we arrived at our hotel in plitvice by half past two in the afternoon. at our guide’s suggestion, we went to the park right after we checked in for the night to give us an opportunity to see the lakes and the waterfalls in the afternoon light. he added that they change to green, grey, or blue based on the direction of the sunlight.

when we went back to the park the following morning, we found that the colors of the waters had indeed changed. but i felt it did nothing to diminish the majesty of the place.

the park is truly a hiker’s paradise covering 185 square miles. it offers many trails that lead to hours of exploration. i’d never been in a place where my senses have been engaged all at once. every scenery is breathtaking especially when viewed from the top.

after our morning hike, we drove for three hours across the mountains to jablanac where we took the ferry to rab island. while on the way to jablanac, we passed little villages that show reminders of the last serbio-croatian war in the 1990s.

some of the damaged buildings remain unrepaired and filled with bullet holes.

rab is an island in the adriatic. when we arrived, we found it already full of tourists. it’s a favorite spot among europeans to relax and enjoy the beach and the ocean. we went there for the same purpose. after more than two weeks of touring, we needed a vacation from our vacation.

with no schedules to follow, some (me included) went to explore the island on their own. i knew that i might never have a chance to come back to this place again. the others elected to relax and stayed close to the hotel.

after spending three days and two nights in rab, we went back on the road again. this time our destination was slovenia. i’ll write about it in another post.

August 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm 3 comments

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