Sofia Week 2

Sorry to be late in posting this week.  While I may have gained my wings this week I am fighting a cold so Saturday and Sunday I pretty much laid around doing nada…well, I did watch the gospel hour on Saturday…wait, Mike tells me it was the royal wedding!  Beautiful bride and groom and that choir..but oh my didn’t look like Her Majesty appreciated them but I sure did.   I also enjoyed the American minister – he used to be bishop in NC according to the Raleigh newspaper…l thought it was great when he quoted MLK but when he started quoting RuPaul “if you can’t love yourself…..” I about fell off of the sofa!

We had a relatively laid back week this week except for last Wednesday.  More on it in a moment, but the other days we have tended to go out for one meal – usually lunch and eaten in for the other-though often something we bring back supplemented with shopska salad.  One day we went into the main cafe street and had Wok & Walk – Bulgaria’s version of Asian Chipotle….you pick what you want in the bowl: base (rice, noodles, etc.), add the veggies and proteins and then pick a sauce.  They wok it up for you.  Lots were doing takeaway but we ate out in their shady outdoor space on a beautiful day.  It was tasty but seemed even less Asian that American Chinese.

That day we also visited some of the churches we had only seen on the outside during the Free Sophia Tour.The churches are generally smaller than expected based on their exteriors – really thick walls I think and very ornate with huge chandeliers.  Lots of icons and frescos.  It was interesting to watch the worshipers move from icon to icon. Unfortunately unlike Italy, admission to the churches is free but no photography is allowed. So you will just have to come to Sophia and see for yourself!

We have also revisited the Ladies Market – needed coffee beans for the fantastic built in coffee maker – I am gonna really miss it! In addition to the usual tomatoes we bought delicious cherries and boy were they cheap-37 cents a pound!

Other walks have taken us around our apartment including lunch today at Happy, the bulgarian version of TGIFridays – the menu was huge (think Cheesecake Factory size but the prices were 1/4 as much).  It was tasty and fun and like everywhere we have eaten here, cheap.  I had a cocktail, Mike a big water, he had soup, salad and sushi and I had hamburger steak, potatoes and salad and the total bill was $20.67.

Our big adventure was last Wednesday, we went on a tour we had arranged from SmartTrans.  This is a start up tour company that was recommended by the Free Sofia Tour folks.  (I’m sure there is a commission involved!).  Anyway, they are trying to build a business doing transfers and tours with clean cabs, english speaking drivers and set prices.  Many things you read talk about Sofia cab drivers cheating you…we haven’t had an issue thankfully!  We were very pleased with the driver and the tour.

The driver picked us up at 8:30 right as scheduled and we headed south of the city into the mountains to visit Rila Monastery.  The drive was beautiful through hills and mountains that reminded me of the Blue Ridge somewhat…but mostly evergreens.  While only 38 miles away as a bird flies, it took almost 2 hours to get there on the small mountain roads.

This monastery was initially built in the 10th century and has been in constant use since then.  It has served (and does today) as a school but also played a historic role in Bulgaria’s history – a way point on their version of the underground railroad, a hiding place for soldiers when pushing out the ottomans, etc.

It is really beautiful and has a real atmosphere about it. Part of that may have been we were there without a zillion other visitors but I think even with more tourists, it would still have that calmness.  You knew you were someplace special.

It is interesting that the entrance facade is protected by a colonnade and every surface is covered with paintings rather than stone sculptures. Really beautiful!

After leaving the monastery we stopped and had a traditional lunch at a little mountain side place.  I had Rakia for the first time.  This is Bulgarian fruit brandy typically homemade but just like moonshine now available commercially.  It is typically served with the first course, the Shopska salad.  The Rakia was fine but the salad was better.  I followed with grilled mountain trout and mashed potatoes (more like smashed – no cream or butter!).  So delicious.  Mike (and our driver) had the potato bake typical here.  From what we can discover online, it is made by grating (though we had it with chunked potatoes once) potatoes and then baking with cheese, eggs, onions and then whatever meats you like.  It is hearty and very tasty.  Mike started his meal with Tarator – the yogurt cucumber soup and some tasty tasty garlic bread.

From there, we headed back through the mountains to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and the oldest city if Europe (or so they say).  There are about 500,000 citizens in the city and we entered through the new part which appeared to be thriving…but we were there for the old part of the city.

Like Rome it was founded on 7 hills, except these hills are MUCH steeper and the paving is much more  treacherous.  Talk about a death march – I couldn’t decide which was worse, the hills up and down or the uneven, slippery, pavers none of which were the same size!

But the beauty of the town made up for it! From the Roman stadium that was discovered under the newer part of town while excavating for a new building – and then one end uncovered and turned into a public space, to the amphitheater in the old part of the city, to the 19th century homes that are just beautiful, its a lovely town.

Plovdiv is the European Union’s Cultural Center for 2019 and they are already getting ready for that – there were signs around town.  The city is already a center of arts and is known throughout the country for the graffiti artists among other more traditional artists.  In one case, as punishment for graffiting (is that a word) a building, one of the artists was sentenced to paint the heroes of Bulgaria on the exposed rock of one of the seven hills – of course that hill is now known as Hero Hill.

We made it back to our apartment, eleven hours and 5.4 miles of walking after we started, tired but happy.  Needless to say we slept in the next day….and frankly everyday since!

It is hard to believe that we only have a few more days here in Sofia.  It is a lovely place but I feel like we have only scratched its surface…..unfortunately, because of the language barrier, I think it will be hard for us to ever do much more than that.  I do so wish I could pick up languages faster.  Oh well.  Glad we came, wouldn’t mind coming back….especially for Shopska Salad and the other cheap eats!

We head to Barcelona next Saturday afternoon where we will spend four nights visiting with Mike’s Brother and his family who arrive on Sunday morning for their vacation.  On Wednesday we head to Lisbon.

It is really hard to believe that we are already approaching the halfway mark of our adventure.  Time flies when you aren’t working!

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Sofia Week One

What an interesting place Sofia is!

Bustling, full of people, some dressed up, most not.  The main pedestrian street runs for blocks and is full of cafes, stores, and people – lots of people, reminds you of Paris or what we think Paris is like.  You hear today’s music on the street and the kids look more or less like others around the world, but behind it all not buried very far there is the communist past.  It comes to the fore when you notice the modern architecture is surrounded by some truly horrendous blocky communist concrete blocks, or the remnants of the old communists “cafeterias”.  Small storefronts with a few tables that serve three or four hot dishes and an equal number of salads – cheap cheap lunch and tasty food…so maybe communism wasn’t so bad after all. After our first week we are intrigued and glad we have come to visit.

My biggest issue is the language.  It is written in cyrillic so it is difficult to figure out what anything means.  For example, in Valencia it was easy to know  that “farmacia” was a pharmacy but when you see “аптекa” would you know whether to buy your aspirin or ask to have your hair trimmed?  And then even if you don’t have to read bulgarian, pronouncing it is very difficult for anyone who grew up speaking english. Even saying thank you is tough “Blagodarya ti” doesn’t just roll off my tongue.

Luckily, many Bulgarians speak enough english for us to get by with nodding…oh wait, thats right, they nod their heads for “no” and shake their heads for “yes” so that too has caused some confusion!…but we get by with pointing.

After settling in last Monday and finding the closest supermarket – not as impressive as in Valencia and Italy on Tuesday we took the “Free Sophia Tour” which was great.  We have done these tours elsewhere, you give a tip at the end.  This one like the others was a good introduction to the city and boy did we walk!

After meeting the guides and group at the Courthouse and being broken into two groups, we visited the Square of Tolerance, this area has a mosque, two churches, and a synagogue.  The Bulgarians are very proud that unlike their brethren in other Nazi annexed countries they protected their jewish population and none were sent to the camps.

We then walked through the central metro station which took over 10 years to build as with each excavation they found another level of the city’s history which had to be excavated and protected.  The pedestrian level of the metro station is built at the Roman level using the ancient pavement.  The ruins of that era’s buildings are left exposed.  Above it but not yet at the current street level is the oldest church in town which you pass while walking down the stairs to the metro.

One stop on the tour was at one of (there are 14 across the city) the public fountains. Sofia is blessed with mineral springs and many believe the water has healing powers and come to take drinking water home. There were lots of people with lots of big bottles getting water from the 30-40 fountains. The water is warm and tasted mineraly-is that a word?

Our tour also took us by the President’s Office, the old communist party headquarters, now the parliament, the “Russian Church” and the tour ended at symbol of Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  This church was built in the early 1900s but was built to resemble a byzantine  structure.

After our tour, we took our guide’s suggestion and went to a nearby restaurant for a typical Bulgarian meal.  It was very good. We shared everything as we usually do – below you can see a Shopska Salad – basically a greek salad but the cheese is milder and rather than being a hunk, is shredded, Tarator – a cold yogurt and cucumber soup with walnuts and dill. We both wanted more of both!

For our entrees we had stuffed cabbage made with pickled (not sauerkraut) cabbage and a pork, sausage and cabbage dish baked with a pastry top.  Both were ver good, we especially liked the warm spices used – cumin, cinnamon, etc.  The dishes looked german but tasted middle eastern…which makes sense given our location.

Other activities this week have been visiting two of the city markets – one is is inside and wasn’t that great – though we did buy some prepared dishes there that were tasty.

The other is an outdoor market – Ladies Market – I swear that is it’s historic name so no shaming me.  It was great, beautiful vegetables, clothing, housewares, and even wine that they put in your bottle.  But we learned our lesson, it wasn’t very tasty, so rather than $2 a bottle, I will pay the $4 at the store.

We have found that unlike most everywhere else we have ever lived, it is as cheap and perhaps cheaper to eat out here than to buy food and cook it yourself.  We are still making our breakfast and so far have eaten one meal in each day, but we are enjoying having lunch out while we are exploring.

So far we have had very good gyro type platters at a place around the corner, pork & potatoes and Spanish omelets at a “communist” cafeteria, salads, soups, potatoes, pizza while walking on the street, and asian food at a place on Vitosha Street which is the great pedestrian main street.

Vitosha is the continuation of the main street a block from us – unfortunately, to get to the happening part of the street, is a 15-20 minute walk but then we do need to keep our steps up.  (Don’t want to brag too much but so far this week we have done over 5 miles three times.  Hopefully our May average daily miles will exceed that of April which was 2.6….still much better than it was in January!)

The street was busy on the weekday we did the free tour but when we were there yesterday on a beautiful (at least until the rain started) Saturday, it was packed. From the street, you can see the nearby mountains from which the street takes it name…and even though it is in the mid 70s here, up there some snow remains.

In addition to some tourists, it appears that Sofians enjoy their time here and it appears that Sofia is the place that Bachelor and Bachelorettes come for their stag/hen parties – we saw several male groups dressed in similar t-shirts usually with one of them (the groom we presume) wearing a skirt, or wig or some other costume.  And we saw the group of ladies below in more traditional costumes.  Given the good time they were having at lunch time, I can only imagine what it was like after dark!

Some of you have asked how we are doing versus our budget – I am please to report that in both March and April, we underspent what we set as our budget for each month of 2018.  That wasn’t a surprise in March since almost half of of the time was spent on the ship where we didn’t have many expenditures.  However, in April, we came out ahead by over $1,600 so we are pleased and hopeful that we won’t be looking for a job at Walmart anytime soon.

Hope everyone has a great week – we are planning on visiting the insides of some of the places we saw on the free tour and taking a day trip to Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s second largest city.

Made it.

Sorry for not posting yesterday after we arrived in Sofia but we were busy doing laundry, unpacking and finding sustenance before it got dark.

That’s Mike standing on the balcony of our $37 per night (well below our $50 per night Budget) apartment on the next to top floor. The windows to his left are the master bedroom. The second bedroom (where no friends wanted to join us 😢) is on the backside and overlooks the courtyard and also has a balcony set up for drying clothes. So we have cross ventilation for the first time since we left which is nice as it’s in the mid 70s during the day and in the 50s at night.

Apartment is as advertised and we have a huge TV (50″?) and refrigerator and a built in automatic coffee maker. You push a button and it grinds the beans and then makes the coffee into your cup. I love it! That’s it between the built in microwave and regular oven in the stack in the left of the kitchen picture. The refrigerator is to the left of them at the very edge. It has a two burner stove top which will hopefully be sufficient. The dishwasher is to the right of the sinks and behind the last cabinet to the far right is the washing machine. Unlike our other places, this one appears to be lived in on s regular basis so there are plenty of pots, pans, utensils-didn’t even have to unpack the small cheese grater we bought in Milano-this pace even had an electric pepper mill!

The two bathrooms are nice. One has a fancy jetted tub-haven’t tried it yet (after my experience with the soaking tub at the Park Hyatt in NYC I’m a little afeared) but the shower in the other one is great. Body sprays, rainhead and a handheld. So all my parts and pieces are squeaky clean.

We just got back from the supermarket-Fantastico. (I swear that’s what that sign must say!)

Veggies are going to be an issue as there weren’t many except for potatoes and cabbage. The other fresh things they had were expensive, well at least for here. It’s also going to be a challenge figuring out how to order meats and such from the counter. Looks like there will be lots of pointing and nodding.

Off to make lunch-it’s a holiday here so most things are closed and it’s supposed to rain so we are likely to lay low this afternoon and enjoy our new digs.

Last Greek Salad.

We headed out about 4 to wander Oia and have a very late lunch/early supper.

Below are some of the sights and photos of our final meal which was similar to all the others we have had here except for my birthday lunch. We have been forced to survive on gyro and Greek salads…how terrible! LOL. With the occasional baclava (apparently that’s how the Greeks spell it in English here?).

The shot above is from the “Minoan” Castle looking towards our hotel. Below is the view we have up to it.

Here is the great place we have patronized. Notice their gyro is horizontal and over charcoal.

And just to reinforce the whole stair situation below are a couple of shots of Stavros-one is our hotel’s porter toting other guests luggage to the hotel. Typically the porters have one bag in their shoulder and and carry another. But in this case, it appears overpacker’s anonymous hasn’t reached these new guests. I’m sure they are only here for one night!

In order to get to the first picture he has already come down at least 100 steps/ramps and made his way through throngs of picture taking tourists. You couldn’t pay me enough to be him (as if I could even think about doing it).

We have been amazed by the number of visitors here especially given this is the very beginning of season. It has been particularly interesting to see how many couples are here having their wedding pictures taken. It isn’t clear if they are getting married here. Most of them are Asian. They are wandering around town in BIG pouffy dresses and tuxedoes stopping every and anywhere to set up their shots-usually with a photographer and at least one assistant. And some like you can see in the pictures below go way off the trail to get just the right picture!

Of course everywhere in this town there are tourists in each others way trying to take the perfect picture. Mike and I laughed for s good 15 minutes watching the three ladies below taking selfies and posed shots of each other after trespassing into our hotel. What you see below is only a portion of what we witnessed.

It has been a great birthday and I’m so glad we were able to come to Santorini now as I sincerely believe that I don’t have many more of these steps in me…..wonder if I don’t make it back up to the shuttle tomorrow if they will let me move in?

So here is my wisdom for today…when you have a wish to do something, be sure and do it while you can.

I am so so happy I happened to see “that” pool 10 years ago and let it become the reason for this whole adventure Mike and I are on to commence. Thanks to his frugality, our great employers, and our wish to make it happen NOW, I got to fulfill this dream.

Last Day.

After enjoying a huge breakfast, I’m now spending my last few hours in “that” pool. Above is my view literally as I type this post. Hope I don’t drop the iPad! Now that I achieved this one guess it’s time for a new life goal!

Any suggestions?

Milan Week Three (part 2).

After our very long day to Firenze, we slept late and barely left the apartment. Did wash and started packing to leave. Our airport hotel (we have a 7am flight to Santorini) in Milan is going to hold our rollsboards so we are taking just our backpacks. We spend a night back at the hotel Saturday night. Just like in the US sometimes the cheapest way to get from point A to Point B that aren’t very far apart is to go to Point C which is miles out if the way!

In this case, to get from Santorini to Sofia and not have to leave at crack o’dawn or arrive in Sofia at midnight was to fly through someplace other than Athens…low and behold flying EastJet back to Milan works out pretty perfect…will leave Santorini at 11:20 am and after spending the night leave Milan on Sunday at 11ish arriving in Sofia about 3:30 pm. (Time change).

On Saturday we decided it was time to have a haircut. As some of you may know, I’m trying to have long hair for the first time in my life so my last haircut was at Raymond’s in Houston in late January. Mike got his cut onboard Viking Sky in order to use up some of our onboard credit. So his new faux hawk/shark fin needed some TLC and my head and beard were a mess!

We had passed a barber shop every time we walked to the train station in Paderno Dugano and the barber always smiled as we walked by. So after using google translate to prepare what we wanted-a ponytail sometime in the future for me and a redo of his new style for Mike, we stopped by only to find them having a crowd at 10 in the morning….”come back at 2″….same thing….hmm, we thought we had an appointment but I guess not….”come back at 4″ the nice lady at the desk says, barber smiles and says sorry but see you soon. At four we arrive to there still being a crowd. So we decide we better wait. Soon the nice lady introduces us to her son whom she has called in to translate. His English is better than my Italian but we still have some issues but it just makes the experience all the more fun!

“Do you wish beard haircut?” Si I respond. Suddenly a tiny elderly man appears from the back and I’m ushered into his spotless cubicle which has an old fashioned barber chair.

Turns out this whole place is a family – grandpa now does beards, Son hair, Son’s wife the front desk, and grandson is in his last year of barber training and does the washing (and in our case translating).

What a great experience, the grandfather and I “discussed” me loosing some or all of my beard-I’ve said for years that when I get old it’s coming off so I get my babyface back and loose all this white hair! But he convinced me that with his efforts he would make me younger and thinner and that I had too pretty a beard to loose. So I guess I’ll wait til 65 to loose it! Anyway, he proceed to use scissors, lather and a straight razor to clean up my face. Amazing….I’ve only had an electric trim before.

After he finished with me, I was moved to the washing station while Gramps did the same for Mike.

After my wash Son took over and also used a straight blade (a first for me) to reduce some of the volume and trim the ends which from my reading is exactly what is supposed to be done. After me, the same was done for Mike.

Throughout both we and they took pictures, us for this blog and Mike’s Facebook and they for their Instagram and Facebook as you can see below- we are now their friends from Texas!

All in all it was a great experience that will be hard for the Portuguese to top I’m afraid (since I figure that’s when we will next need a trim.)

Sunday we finished packing, and had the best carbonara Mike has ever made. Late afternoon we walked into the center of our village for our last gelato and found the fixer upper pictured at the top of this post. If we were younger we might consider trying to save it!

For dinner that night we went to the little restaurant at the end of our street for our last real pizza for a while…so tasty and a great way to end our stay.

Monday ate our final caprese salad-poor basil plant, it gave its life for enjoyment.

Also gave the apartment a good cleaning. While we probably don’t have to leave the place as nice as we are are doing,as new Airbnb-ers we need good reviews so we try to leave it as we found it when we arrive.

After lunch we were heading out and Cinzia’s daughter offered us a ride to the train station…so nice to not have to roll our bags there!

Out Train from the village to the station where we were to catch the Malpensa (Milano’s airport) Express train was on time and the five stop ride was uneventful. But the next leg not so much!

We were here to catch the 15:03 to the airport. When we arrived the previous train to the airport was on Binaro 1 so we ran but missed it.

That board over Mike’s head showed “our” train but not a binaro. So we decided to just wait there until they told us which one our train would be on. At 15:04 they finally notified us it was bin 3, up the escalator, wait for slow elevator, go down, get off on bin 3, and of course by then the train had shut and locked the doors. Jeez, no notice and now we gotta wait for the next one. Of course the next train had it’s binaro posted the whole time….wait for it. Yes, binario 1!

Anyway, made it to the airport, found our shuttle to the Hilton Garden Inn (yes David, your favorite) and checked in. After a restless short sleep, we caught the 5:15 shuttle back to the airport to catch our EasyJet flight (which was easy!) to glorious Santorini.

The driver from our hotel was waiting when we exited the airport and after a drive up to the top through incredibly awful traffic -cruise ship excursion busses causing most of it, we made it to Oia.

Thank god for the hotel porters who carried our backpacks through town and down the 100 or so steps to our hotel.

We checked in and they showed us our beautiful cave suite. We had originally booked the low end room but do to a credit card rejection which we think was due to our change of address, we lucked out and were able to rebook at a savings or almost $1000 AND be in s suite with a living room and kitchenette. It only added about $75 to the cost of the total stay over our original room and I think we will save at least that much by eating in some meals and have 925 bucks leftover!

After getting in “that pool” a day early and exactly 10 years after seeing it for the first time, we had our first (of many) Greek salads-no lettuce! By that pool.

Later we reclimbed the stairs up to the Main Street and bought some wine and dips along with real Gyros ( so much better than that pressed meat crap) and had it on our terrace at sunset. After such a long day, went to bed by 9:30!

Awoke on the first day of my 60th year and has a delicious breakfast by “that” pool. About noontime we headed down to Ammoudi, the fishing village right below us.

That death march had us taking the “stairs” down to the fishing village on the Caldera and then taking a path that required rock climbing to get to a spot to get in the Mediterranean Sea where there is an island with a hot spring and a 15 foot place to jump in the water-needless to say after my Cozumel experience I did not jump off that cliff!

The hard part was climbing over the rocks to get out then hike back to the village. It might look familiar from Mamma Mia.

We had Birthday lunch of Greek Salad, olives, spicy cheese spread (Greek pimiento cheese), grilled octopus and grilled swordfish and a birthday baklava.

A nice couple sitting nearby bought us beers after seeing the birthday baklava so we had a nice chat with them. They live in the U.K. but she is from Estonia. Notice it’s the local brew, Donkey, this one was yellow sorta s blue moon style…but they have red, brown, etc donkey brews too

The extra beer did not help the 200 steps back to hotel. They are not normal stops they are slopped and have donkeys going up and down. We both had to fall in the pool after that climb! Thank we have been walking 5-8 miles regularly but the stairs were still murder.

All in all a great way to start my 60th year. But I’ve told Mike that while I want to swim in the Med for my 70th, it has to be from somewhere flatter!

So now you’re all caught up and I’m headed back to “that” pool!

Made it!

Promise I will finish posting about our the last couple of days in Milan but just a quickie to say we made it to Santorini and finally after a zillion steps to our hotel which is as beautiful as I had hoped. And as you can see, I made it into “that” pool and it isn’t even my birthday yet!