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Posts Tagged ‘rick steves tour’

Slowly Back to Sofia

[Aside: Clearly, writing on the road did not go well on this trip. It proved difficult on the tour, and then I caught a bug of some kind in Albania, and even after the cold symptoms cleared up, the cough didn’t, and I needed to devote any available energy to travel rather than writing. Now I’m home, and an antibiotic has improved matters some, so I’m going to try to finish up. And plan the next trip…]

Sept 27, 2011: We left Veliko Tarnovo at 9:00, but we arrived in Sofia at 17:15, with no time for for any last minute activities. Fortunately, I had asked Lyuba on day one whether I would have time to buy a bus ticket when we got back to Sofia, and she had told me not to worry, one of her colleagues would take care of it. Well, I didn’t worry, until around the Black Sea stage, when I learned that a four day holiday might interfere. (The Rick Steves people seem oddly clueless when it comes to scheduling tours around holidays.) Luckily, the trainee guide who met us back in Sofia had been able to buy the ticket, that day.

Outside Glogovo's Kindergarten

So, what did we do on the way? Another village visit. I have to say, some of the group – the extroverts, perhaps – thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Others, not so much. My sympathies lay entirely with the young boy at the high school, giving us the evil eye as we filed past. In his place I’d have done the same, assuming I hadn’t managed to disappear entirely.

The kindergarten kids greeted us with a song, after which we toured their empty classrooms. The school had been built during the Communist era, and impressed us. The main rooms were bright and well-lit, and darker side rooms held rows of cots for naps. One of the teachers took at least as many photos of us as we did of the school. The high school seemed older and shabbier, with outdated equipment. (As an ex-techie I was interested to see the dual-alphabet keyboards in the computer room.)

The kids

The computer room at the high school

After a Q and A session with the village secretary (the mayor had just stepped down to run for re-election), we settled in on benches behind one of the houses for lunch. We were served the foods usually prepared for wedding feasts: potato salad, beef soup and bean soup, with the local fire water, rakija, for those who wanted it. We were entertained by a trio of musicians and a young, award-winning singer, and they sounded pretty good even to me. After lunch Lyuba and one of the women in the group dressed up in local costume, an opportunity for cultural exchange I was happy to pass up.

Our audience - we were on show, too

Two generations

The young singer

When we finally arrived back in Sofia we heard that the area round the Parliament Building should be avoided as there had been demonstrations against the Roma, the Roma “king’s” son had apparently murdered someone….

Our farewell meal at the Architects’ Club round the corner from the Crystal Palace should have been a highlight, but we were separated into small groups and the food was surprisingly bad. Drinks afterwards in the hotel lobby, where we said goodbye to Lyuba and our charming driver with small gifts (wine for the driver and noise makers for Lyuba) went better.

Next morning I shared a final meal with a few of the group and said a fond farewell to my particular friends. But when my taxi eventually arrived, and I was driven off to the bus station to start the next leg of the trip, I experienced a rush of delight at my recovered freedom. On to Skopje!

Lyuba and the noise makers

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Veliko Tarnovo was everything I had hoped Nessebar and Varna would be. True, there were a number of tourist shops, but they were mostly confined to one street, and plenty of interesting buildings were scattered round the rest of the town. Our hotel, too, was more the kind of place I expected on a Rick Steves’ tour – small and cute and family run. My roommate and I even lucked into a suite, with two bathrooms and a balcony!

One couple staying at the hotel were fans of Rick Steves’ guidebooks, although they hadn’t realized he was now running a tour of Bulgaria. I was interested to learn that they, too, had stayed at the Art Home B&B in Belgrade, and had not been registered. I had just sent tripadvisor an email, asking why my review of the Art Home had not been posted – it had been a full week since I submitted it.

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Veliky Tarnovo is built on hills, and its castle looms over the town from the highest of them. The group was scheduled to visit the castle, but instead of starting the morning walk there, when the day was cooler and the light better, Lyuba started down on the souvenir street, with a pottery demo. Now, as with the winery tour, and several other demos that often show up tours, I put pottery demos firmly on the “don’t need to see that again” list. Eventually I got tired of hanging around, and checking out the other shops, and took off on my own.

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I wandered in the general direction of the castle, stopping off in a church with an impressive chandelier on the way. Then I settled in with a cup of coffee to enjoy the excellent views from the foot of the path to the castle, expecting that the group would show up soon. When 11:15 came and went with no group, and I had finished my coffee, I looked at the sun, I looked at the steep path up to the castle, I reread Lonely Planet’s not very inspiring description of the renovated remnants up the hill, and I decided the view from below was good enough. (I later learned that the group didn’t get there until much later, having taken in several other demos, aka shopping previews, first.)

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The bus back to town showed up just as I was about to leave, and deposited me almost opposite the restaurant where I ate lunch. I spent part of the afternoon checking out the newer part of town, and part on the net. Dinner had to be early, as we left the hotel at 7:00 for a folk dance performance. As these things go, it was pretty good, although I would have preferred more dancing and less singing, especially as the singing was, naturally, not in English.

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We had already had one birthday in the group, today there was another, and a beautifully decorated cake was wheeled out on the stage after the performance – and after most of the group had been persuaded to go up and dance (assuming step-step-kick counts as dancing). Back at the hotel Lyuba demonstrated how to fix a noodle and syrup dish using noodles from one of the morning demonstrations, and we got to share the cake which was almost too pretty to eat.

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Thoughts From Varna

It occurs to me that I’ve been writing as much about the tour as about Bulgaria, underlining one of the problems I have with tours. I have a tendency to let details – the quality of the guide, the minutiae of the itinerary, the foibles of my fellow tourists – overshadow the country I’ve come to see. In the case of Bulgaria, a place with a long history and plenty of good scenery, that would be a real pity.

The early history of Bulgaria is that of the Thracians, and the only reason I wanted to visit Varna, our next stop, was to see the Thracian gold in the city’s museum: the oldest gold artifacts in the world (fifth century B.C.E.). (Again, no photos allowed.) While the Thracians seem to have been good warriors, like their neighbors the Greeks they were unable to hold off Philip of Macedon, or the Romans. After the Roman Empire fell, there was a mass influx of Slavs to the area, and a series of wars between the peoples who became Bulgarian and the Byzantine Empire. While the Bulgarians enjoyed periodic success aginst the Byzantines, they lost decisively to the Ottomans.

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After I left the museum, where Lyuba was still explaining the details of a series of icons to a dwindling audience, I visited the nearby Orthodox cathedral. Bulgarian Orthodox, that is. The Eastern Orthodox church is much less monolithic than the Roman Catholic church, although it hardly matches the fragmentation of the Protestants, but all the divides seem to be along national lines: Russian, Greek, Georgian, Armenian, Serbian, etc. etc. I don’t know how that relates to the Ottoman habit of identifying people by their religion rather than their ethnicity, but it can’t have helped in the recent Balkan wars.

The Bulgarian capital, however, is notable for having an Orthodox church (two if you count the Russian church), a (beautifully restored) synagogue and a mosque within easy walking distance of each other. And while the occupied Balkan peoples periodically attempted to get rid of the Ottomans, at least under them, as under earlier Islamic empires, there was a measure of religious toleration for the other “people of the book”. You had to pay higher taxes, there were limits on the height of your church or synagogue, you even saw your eldest son taken to Istanbul to be a janissary, but at least you didn’t have to worry about being hauled off to be tortured and burned to death because a neighbor had denounced you as a heretic or a witch, or that your part of town would be invaded by a murderous mob inflamed by libels about your religious practices.

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Most people, of course, go to Varna for the golden beaches, not the Thracian gold. I have miles of sandy beaches a two hour drive from my house in North Carolina, which I visit maybe every third year for a couple of days. Once I found that there were no cafes overlooking the beaches I lost interest in them, and I found the town pretty unexciting, too. I did take the elevator up to the Panorama Bar for photos of the view – I tend to skip roof-top views these days when I have to climb stairs, but I won’t pass up one that’s elevator-assisted.

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After Varna we had another long drive back across country. While I enjoyed the views, the best part of the longer drives was the descriptions Lyuba gave us of her life under Communism, and during the transition – “when democracy came”, as she put it. She started out as a construction engineer, but was one of the first to lose her job when the system changed. We may like to think of democracy as a panacea, for those who lived through the fall of Communism, in Russia, in Bulgaria, in other former Soviet republics, life suddenly became very difficult indeed, with starvation sometimes a distinct possibility. Even now, a couple of decades later, the transition is not complete. The economics expert who talked with us in Sofia was open about the problem of corruption, which extends to the judiciary. It takes more than elections to create a fully functioning democracy.

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As I have said before (ad nauseam, probably), I’m not a beach person, but although I’d already visited the Black Sea twice, I was moderately interested in seeing it again. At Yalta I had thought the water dirty but the town interesting, while at Batumi in Georgia the pebble beach and the temperature had reminded me of England and of summers shivering beside the Channel. However, the Black Sea resorts were Bulgaria’s biggest mainstream tourist attraction. Of course, that might or might not be a good thing.

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Definitely not good was the distance to the coast from anywhere else of interest. According to the schedule Lyuba had provided, we would leave Plovdiv at 8:00 and not check into our hotel in Nessebar until 18:00. True, that did include visits to one museum (in Kazanluk) and two tombs (Kazanluk and Kosmata). I was keen to see the Thracian gold (from the fifth century B.C.E.), and it was indeed both beautiful and impressive, but the tomb was much smaller than I expected – I had been remembering the big beehive-shaped tomb I had visited at Mycenae. This was a similar shape, but the ceiling frescoes were the real interest. We had to wear white coats and remain silent, and got just two minutes in the tomb. The second tomb was bigger, but had no frescoes. Alas, no photos allowed anywhere.

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Unfortunately, I felt starvation setting in again when Lyuba postponed lunch until after the second tomb, and had to eat my sandwich (a substantial chicken one provided by the Plovdiv hotel) while the others started on the tomb. We all enjoyed the red wine and grapes that were handed round after lunch, and we made a mid-afternoon stop at a Burger King – a rather nice Burger King, with good toilets.

It was a relief to arrive at Nessebar, where I was pleased to find that my room came with a neat balcony with a view of the water. The relief was short-lived, however. I should have read Lonely Planet with more care – this was tourist central with a vengeance. Once upon a time Nessebar was, I feel sure, a small, charming fishing village. Now it was wall-to-wall souvenir shops and cafes. Even without wall-to-wall tourists it was exactly the kind of place I hope to avoid.

The bad news? We were at Nessebar for two nights. The good news was that at least we weren’t at Sunny Beach, a major resort complex we could see across the bay. Lyuba told us that it attracted young, partying Europeans in droves, but that the prices had been driven so slow it might not be sustainable.

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Next morning our tour of the town took in the museum and several churches, giving us some idea of what the place might have been like before the souvenir shops and hotels took over. I was starting to work on plans for my next country, Macedonia, and was pleased when Lyuba ate lunch with me and gave me some contacts and suggestions. (Although I did take her claim that Albanian and Macedonian men, unlike Bulgarians, could be dangerous to solo women travellers with a grain (or two) of salt.)

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After an afternoon stroll with my camera I joined one of the singles on her balcony where we shared wine (the local merlot easily beat the local chardonnay), and she filled me in on the gossip from the west coast. I had thought that Rick Steves’ divorce might have been his ex-wife’s idea – maybe she had tired of having a husband who spent every summer in Europe? But no, it was the same old story – middle-aged man falls for much younger woman.

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The five hour drive from Rila to Plovdiv, our next stop (two nights, this time), was broken by a welcome visit to a winery. Not that I was particularly interested in the tour – seen one lot of stainless steel casks and oak barrels, don’t need to see any more – but I was enthusiastic about the tasting. The Bulgarian wine I had been drinking with dinner had certainly been palatable, and I was interested to try some more.

The stop was at the Bessa Valley Wine Cellar, and the wine was supplemented by bread, cheese and sausages. While I found the rose, as usual, too light for my taste, I enjoyed a quite good red blend and a rather better reserve Cab/Syrah, which we got to taste from the barrel, a first for me.

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I was less enthused by the tour hotel in Plovdiv (Dedeman Trimontium Princess). The interesting part of town, the old part, is up a hill at one end of town. We were staying in what looked like a Soviet-era behemoth (albeit renovated, and next to an unusual fountain), at the other end. As with the Sofia hotel, this one was much bigger, and more main-stream, than those I usually choose, and those I expect on a Rick Steves tour. It really seems that he’s left the back door days behind.

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The next morning’s walking tour was my first encounter with what became my biggest problem with this itinerary: a very long morning, pushing lunch unrealistically late, and leaving a short free afternoon. I would have much preferred a shorter tour in the morning, and then another tour in the afternoon. Not only could I not handle a late lunch after an early breakfast, I found my concentration failing after two or three hours. This day we had started at 9:00, and Lyuba was still taking the group round a house museum at 1:00 pm, at which point I abandoned the group in search of lunch.

Since starvation was threatening, I didn’t have long to find somewhere, and nowhere I saw in the old town seemed to be open. Luckily I found a remarkably cheap falafel place down near the hotel, but then didn’t feel inclined to trek back up the hill to visit any more museums. Fortunately we had visited the ethnographic museum as well as one house museum, but most of the morning seemed to have been devoted to walking around, and checking out the decidedly underwhelming Roman theater.

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I spent rather more on ice cream and coffee that afternoon than I had on lunch, and took advantage of the hotel’s wifi to update my blog and check my credit card bills. Not very exciting, but it was raining. Dinner, chicken stuffed with mushrooms at Philopopolus, with a few of the other tour members, was a definite improvement on the afternoon.

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As with the proverbial curate’s egg, on a tour I expect some good and some bad. This tour had started well: my roommate was very quiet – I practically had to drag her out for coffee – but that was much better than the opposite; the tour guide was interesting and engaged; the initial walking tour had gone well, and the Q and A session with a local economist the second evening had been open and lively – although he had skipped my smuggling question. But I had doubts about day three.

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We were going up to Rila monastery, an iconic complex I very much wanted to see, but we were spending the night in the monastery, rather than in the nearby hotel, and there were rumors there would be no hot water. I had not initially thought that too much of a problem, but now I learned that we wouldn’t check into our next hotel until 6:30 in the evening… Then there was the visit to the Roma Community in Dupnitsa.

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I’m really not fond of these “visit the local village” events. I vividly remember my first, on a misbegotten OAT tour, where we were expected to hand out candy to the kids in a Lao village. I hate feeling like I’m in a human zoo. This one was certainly better than my experience with OAT: Lyuba seemed to have a good relationship with the local contact, and we had another Q and A session with her. The chicken soup and salads served for lunch were good, but I wasn’t particulary impressed with the children’s dance, and was saddened by the dated machines in the computer center. (USAID money stopped when Bulgaria joined the EU, and the Peace Corps volunteer who had been working with the community left.) This was a long-settled Roma community, we didn’t meet any others, and there seemed little reason for the discrimination against them.

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My outlook wasn’t improved by a lunch-time discovery that some of the group thought that only property-owners should be able to vote – did they want to go back to the 17th century, or was that the 18th? Several centuries of progress seemed to be in jeopardy. I felt better when we reached Rila monastery, however, it was just as beautiful as I had hoped. And there was actual hot water! (Well, warm.) But the beds were a disaster – I should have followed my first thought and put the mattress pad on the floor. Whatever passed for springs sagged so much I woke up every time I tried to turn over.

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But being at Rila after the other tour groups and assorted day trippers had gone was a real privilege. We got to wander round the buildings and admire the many frescoes without fighting crowds, to attend the services – heavy with incense and chanting – if we wanted to, and to appreciate the peace and quiet and soaring hills that made it a great site for a monastery.

The next morning Lyuba took us on a very good tour of the museum, church and tower. We were on our own for lunch, and fortunately I had taken Lyuba’s advice to make a sandwich at breakfast, as there didn’t seem to be much else going.

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