Bulgaria, August 2017

Our last country for this summer’s trip was Bulgaria. We spent a couple of days in Sofia first, doing the Sofia walking tour and trying out some Bulgarian delicacies such as horsemeat, tarator soup (a taziki-style cold cucumber dish), stuffed eggplants and stuffed peppers. Sofia is an old city, and actually claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe, with populations living there for more than 6,000 years. The Romans called the city Serdica, and Emperor Constantine was born very close to it. After the Romans, the Slavs came, and then the Byzantine Empire, later the Ottoman Empire, a brief Russian period, and then a Communist Republic- all with brief periods of an official Bulgarian state in between. They joined NATO in 2004.

 

One of our main goals for this trip had been to make it to the Black Sea, so from Sofia we took a bus to Borgas, the gateway to the Black Sea resorts. We wound up staying halfway between Nesebar, a UNESCO historic site old-town, and Sunny Beach, a 5 km long strip of beach, beach resorts, discos, and cafes. We walked into Nesebar once but other than that we just stayed at our beach apartment and enjoyed the pool and the sea, which was warm and pretty awesome.

In between the Black Sea and Sofia, on our way back for our final flight out, we stopped in Plovdiv. This city will be Europe’s Culture Capital in 2019, so they have made some great renovations around the place and are busy getting their transportation hubs up and ready for the crowds that will come. Plovdiv, besides being a university city, is full of Greek and Roman remnants, including a stadium that Emperor Hadrian had built, which residents discovered mid-20th century but was not fully excavated until the 1980s. It seated 30,000 people and is 250 meters long, and 50 meters wide. They could have chariot races, gladiator games, and even naval battles in it. Also in Plovdiv is an old Roman theater built in the Greek style, which sat 12,000, and is still used for operas, chamber music concerts, and other events. The Djumaia Mosque, built in 1634, still stands in Plovdiv as well, and has a delicious sweets shop tucked into one corner, where we had Turkish tea and coffee, with baklava.

And with that, it was time to return to Sofia for a last couple of days to relax and prepare for our flights home. We stayed in a hotel in Central Sofia, up on the 8th floor, and had a beautiful sunset over the city to watch. Very relaxing. Then Chris returned home, and one day later I returned home, after a stopover in London to see my old friend from Haiti, Lisa. And now it’s time to get ready to go back to work!

 

Serbia and Montenegro, July 2017

We left Sarajevo in a small shuttle van, and wound our way through mountains and ancient forests to the Serbian border. From there it was a straight highway to the capital, Belgrade. Originally a fortress at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade, named the “white city” for its limestone, has been destroyed and rebuilt no less than 44 times. Unlike its neighbors Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, there is less Austro-Hungarian influence, and more Greek/Russian Orthodox. They use both Cyrillic and Latin letters, which sounds hard, but is actually not too bad because each letter has one and only one sound, no silent letters, no double letters, etc.

Marko Milijanov Popovic: see that’s not so hard

 

Belgrade Fortress 
Confluence of Sava and Danube Rivers 

While in Belgrade we stayed in a lovely Airbnb (with a much needed washing machine!), visited the Tesla Museum (his personal items were sent to Belgrade, as the capital of Yugoslavia, as he was born in Croatia), went on a 20th century walking tour, and went on another walking tour which focused on older parts of Belgrade’s history and architecture. One of our tour guides was not very knowledgeable about Serbian history, and the other one mentioned the 1999 NATO bombing and how Serbians don’t want to give up their ‘homeland’ of Kosovo, but had little to say about Serbia’s relations with Croatia and Bosnia. Also, the word “vampire” is the main Serbian word they they gave to the world, based on a 1725 news article about a Serbian man with porphyria, who people thought was sucking blood from his townspeople.

Children’s Memorial from NATO Air Strike 
Bohemian Quarter, Belgrade 

 

Hotel Moscow- Einstein stayed there with his first wife!
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Church of St Sava

I had read an article about the Balkan Express to Montenegro, which sounded amazing, and it was. It’s 12 hours from Belgrade to Bar, and the scenery, tunnels, and bridges are just amazing. We sat with a fun Dutch couple and visited the bar car several times and overall the train was highly recommendable.

Not exactly the James Bond Train from Casino Royale 
Chris at Belgrade Train Station 
Over 435 bridges on the Balkan Express 
Monastery in Northern Montenegro 

 

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Lush green fields of Montenegro 

 

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Old Viaduct along the train route 

We actually wanted to see the tiny capital of Podgorica, so we got off the train there, and spent a day walking around the city. Lots of statues! And that’s all I can really say for Podgorica.

Bishop Peter Petrovic

 

There was absolutely no sign or plaque for this one 
This is Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, reading poetry to his wife 
No idea about this one either 

 

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Temple of the Resurrection of Christ 

The other part of Montenegro we wanted to see was the Bay of Boka Katorska, so we took a bus to Kotor. We lucked out with a really lovely hotel just on the edge of the walled old town and the beach, a great location. We spent a couple of days visiting the “Adriatic Bride”; in the words of Lord Byron, “Boka looks like a pile of beautiful pearls, except that they are impossible to steal, as they are so big that they cannot be hidden”. Our favorite activity at Kotor was taking a boat ride that visited the old city of Perast, Our Lady of the Rocks Church Island, a 1940s secret Russian submarine base, and the Blue Caves, three beautiful swim-in caves with crystal clear water with 50 m visibility. Definitely worth doing!

Budva, along the Adriatic Sea 
Once secret Russian Submarine base 

 

Chris, ready to dive in!

 

The Blue Cave 

 

Our Lady of the Rocks Church 

Tomorrow we take a bus to Albania, with a stop at Lake Skodar, which straddles the Montenegrin/Albanian border.

Slovenia and Croatia: July 2017

From Trieste it was only a 2 hour bus ride through Karst province (the only Slovenian word to enter the world lexicon) and then we arrived in Ljubljana.  A walking tour was starting just 15 minutes after we checked in to H2Ostel, so we hurried over and took a tour through old town. The river running through the city, with each distinctive bridge, is really lovely. We took a funicular up to the castle on top of the hill and explored all around. While we were in town, a 4 night street festival was happening, so each night there were acrobatics, stilt dancing, juggling, drum lines, etc going on.

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana
Stilt Dancers
Ljublyana!

We took a bus out to the “impossibly romantic” Lake Bled, just five miles from the Austrian border. We walked around the lake and jumped in and swam in the cold Alpine water. A small island with a castle on it completes the setting. From Lake Bled, a short 2 mile shuttle bus took us to Vintgar Gorge. A wooden walkway and paths twist and turn alongside a blue-green river coming straight out of the Julian Alps, just beautiful.

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Vintgar Gorge
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Chris at Lake Bled

 

Lake Bled and the Island Castle

Then we were off to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. A walking tour helped get us oriented and learn a bit about the history of the city, as well as suggest a few places to eat. We had “struk”, a strudel-like dish, twice while we were there. Omg, so good. I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships while Chris took a break to see a movie. We spent some time in a 200 year old wine cellar. We ate Sri Lankan curry. We liked Zagreb a lot.

Deah in Zagreb

 

Mmmm Struck!
Croatian "Naive" art: oil painting on glass
Croatian “Naive” Art: oil painting on glass

 

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Peasants!

We took a bus south to Plitvice Lakes National Park, staying at a guesthouse just outside the park. We spent two days in the park- 16 terraced lakes  that cascade down into waterfalls created by the travertine rock. The lakes stretch over four miles long, with walking paths alongside and boardwalks crossing over some lakes, allowing some stunning photos of the crystal clear water. A ferry and two trams help take visitors to the farthest reaches of the park, and then you can spend the day strolling back to one of the two main entrances. A UNESCO world heritage site, Plitvice is not to be missed.

Plitvice National Park
Amazing Lakes at Plitvice

Split, the location of Diocletian’s palace- the only Roman Emperor to ever retire from office- was next.  Built in the 4th century, the basic walls still exist, as well as the mausoleum containing Diocletian’s remains, the Temple of Jupiter, a bell tower, and two sphinxes brought from Egypt. We had a great meal in Split consisting of gnocchi with prosciutto and truffles in a Dalmatian cream sauce, and sampled some local wines. We also took a day to visit the beach in Split, our first time in the Adriatic.

At the beach in Split
Deah in the Bell Tower of Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian’s Palace, outside walls
Inside the walls, Diocletian’s Palace

 

What the palace looked like, 400 CE

Our final stop in Croatia was Dubrovnik. After a long but stunning bus ride along the coast, with views of the blue sea, green islands, and holiday villas and resorts, we arrived. Dubrovnik is the “city of stairs” and it took 326 stairs up to reach our guesthouse, or the no.3 bus all the way up and 134 steps down. Our first destination was the walled Old City, now better known as “King’s Landing” from Game of Thrones. We hiked up to the fort above the walled city to get a lovely view of the city from above at sunset. Inside the walled city, the usual mix of restaurants, ice creameries, medieval churches. Byzantine walls, and souvenir shops awaited. Rows and rows of Game of Thrones merchandise- as well as Star Wars VIII, scenes of which were also filmed there. We went to a beach in Dubrovnik as well, and watched the massive cruise ships come and go as we sipped a cool  pivo in the hot sun.

Next stop on our trip: Bosnia.

At the beach; watching the cruise ships come in
Inside Old Dubrovnik
Entering Pile Gate, Old Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik from Fortress
Chris at Dubrovnik

 

Sunset from our guest house