Travel to Bulgaria like I did and you will find yourself clueless as to what an amazing and historical place the capital city of Sofia is. Upon arrival, my new friend Tim sat me down in front of the computer and told me “Watch this, it will save us a lot of time and make your stay here more enjoyable. Later we’ll meet the guy that made it. ”
Now, if you want to see a little of what I’m seeing before I start writing about it and showing you my photos, you should watch it too. Very enjoyable and Tim was right, it saved a lot of time by telling me everything I need to know at the outset.
The next morning Tim took me on an amazing walking tour of Sofia. Here is a bit of what we saw:
In 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.
If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.
Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.
Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.
Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.
Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.
The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.
The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.
Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.
The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”
I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.
Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.
He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.
The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.
In 2011 and 2012, Vagobond was taking me all over Europe and Asia and even into North Africa. I was doing my best to save money so that we could emigrate from Morocco to the USA, and in the process, I often got lucky in discovering places I might have otherwise missed. I’ve placed a small slideshow of this visit at the bottom of this post.
World travel is at it’s best when you find something completely wonderful and completely unexpected. As I mentioned before, in order to get the cheapest flight from Fez, Morocco to Volos, Greece – I had to arrange a couple of stops and layovers along the way. The first one was just to get out of Morocco.
The cheapest flight was to Alicante – which I was tempted to take because I love Alicante – but the problem was getting a connection that would lead me to Volos. I needed to get to Milan and a flight from Alicante to Milan was nearly triple the cost for a flight from Girona to Milan and would have involved going several days earlier. I know, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the truth was, I was already feeling a bit guilty about leaving my wife and new baby at home for a few days so I didn’t want to stretch this out any longer than necessary to get me to the sailboat and then back home.
So, I flew to Girona. I’d been to Barcelona before but never to Girona. I figured it would be just another RyanAir town and I might be able to get lunch, have a nice walk, and then after my 7 hour layover – head on to Bergamo/Milan.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Girona itself is scenic, historic, charming, and filled with a veritable treasure trove of things to see and do. I’m not sure how it would be to spend a few days there, but my seven hours were very nice.
From the airport it was just a couple of Euro to get the bus into the city center. From there, I just started walking.
Geographically set at the confluence of the Ter, Onyar, Galligants and Güell rivers, it has been a focal point of this region in Catalonia since prior to being part of the Roman Empire.
The Old Town is on the east bank of the river, with pedestrianized narrow streets surrounded by the old city walls. The “Rambla”, running parallel to the river, contains many street cafés and touristic restaurants. Tourist information is at the south end of the Rambla, beside the river. The newer town center on the west bank has wider streets contains more shops and hotels, plus slightly cheaper restaurants.
The town around the bus station is pretty blah in terms of just being newish concrete buildings with nothing particularly inspiring in terms of shops, restaurants or architecture. I walked along with what seemed the natural flow of traffic and soon found myself at the riverside La Rambla.
After enjoying a coffee, I walked up the cobblestone streets towards the largest spire in sight. It turned out to be the Saint Felix Church which since I always enjoyed Felix the Cat cartoons appealed to me greatly. With 2000 years of history, Girona is truly a jewel of culture and history.
The Força Vella (the old town) is surrounded by a beautiful wall which appears to have been either preserved or restored in a very authentic way. Inside, I especially enjoyed strolling through the ‘Call’ or Jewish quarter which was like wandering through a veritable maze of cobble-stoned, narrow and steeply sloping streets.
Inside the cathedral, I was told to not take any pictures by the harried attendant who was also telling about twenty other people not to take pictures. I stopped but I had already taken this one.
With a wide Gothic nave and a very impressive Baroque façade it felt like I was stepping back in time.
Of course, I had to visit the Arab Baths, El Banyos d’Arabs. It must have once been an incredible hammam. It was a nice reminder of the power the Arabs once wielded over southern Europe. The legacy of the moors is directly responsible for some of the most beautiful architecture in Spain.
Some interesting facts about Girona:
* The ancient cathedral, which stood on the site of the present one, was used by the Moors as a mosque, and after their final expulsion was either entirely remodelled or rebuilt.
* The cathedral contains the tombs of Ramon Berenger and his wife, the Count and Countess of Barcelona.
* It is possible to walk the entire length of the walls and climb the towers, where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Girona and the surrounding countryside.
* The slogan of Girona is “Girona m’enamora – Girona inspires me with love”
For those interested in famous architects, the Red Bridge of Girona (which truly is red) was designed by Gustav Eiffel. I’m amazed at how many things I’ve seen that he designed – in fact, I’ll probably write a future post about his work.
And for those who are fans of Salvador Dali, there is a Dali Museum in Girona that I wasn’t able to see on this trip but that is reputed to be beautiful and wonderful.
After that, a sandwich and a beer and I hopped on a bus back to the airport to catch my flight to Bergamo/Milan for another 7 hour layover.But first I took a picture of this wine shop- you don’t see a selection like that anywhere in Morocco…
Travel to the places that don’t make it into most magazines or guidebooks is usually much more interesting and exciting than reading about Bali or Boracay from yet another person who has ‘discovered it’. Certainly I didn’t discover Pernik, but it was a pleasure to get to see it in this way.
We woke up bright and early to go up into the forest with my friend Borislav’s grandfather. He was much more bright eyed than either of us, but one thing I figured out quickly is that Balkan people can drink all day and all night and seem to not suffer from it at all. And they usually seem to start the day with a shot of schnapps.
As for me, I usually suffer if I drink the night before. The sidewalk was icy and it was C-O-L-D but that didn’t stop this 80+ year old man from being the first one down the street, the first one up the hill, and the first one to wherever he was leading us. To be fair though, usually the one doing the leading should go first.
He led us past the nuclear reactors and over the river and then past this amazing testosterone driven machine where the testosterone apparently gave out with a flat tire. Then we crossed the road and went up among the gypsy houses and gypsy dogs.
Now, let me be honest here. These were very kind, simple, and humble people. Their apartment was anything but luxurious but filled their needs. That’s why when we got to the massive house they live in during the summer, I was so surprised. It was gorgeous. Decorated like a boutique hotel, each room different with a different flavor. In the basement, the canned preserves, the still, and the big vats of wine just sitting and waiting to be poured into old coke bottles.
The weather was turning worse, we took a winding path through trees and down icy trails and no one fell but if they had I would have remembered Katya telling me that the funniest thing in the world is the confused look on people’s face when they realized they are no longer standing up. Even if it was me.
Finally, our historic guide decided to go back home where it was warm and asked Borislav to complete the tour by showing me the various monuments and statues in the town of Pernik. In fact, we did see those but given the blue faces we had, we deemed it best to duck into a cafe and grab some coffee.
We did manage to see the old church, the statue of the town protector, the old mining building, and some other statues and monuments that the cold weather made impossible for me to remember.
After that we went back to his grandparents for lunch with his aunt and while there was some rakia, I avoided getting so much of the hospitality of these wonderful people this time that my head would feel like it might explode.
There are plenty of things that make Brussels a great place and it’s probably not those stuffy EU suits going about their dull business. Instead it’s the things you don’t have to avoid in the street. Belgian waffles, great beer, and of course, the beautiful comic art murals that grace the sides of buildings that are centuries old.
I love that Brussels is so proud of it’s comic heritage that intermingled with the ancient buildings are full scale murals of famous comic strips.
The Notre Dame church is the Belgian starting point for a very famous Vagabond/Pilgrim trail that runs all the way to Santiago Spain.
The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. Its a route that writer James Michener no stranger to world travel”calls the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world. He did it three times and mentions passing through landscapes of exquisite beauty. The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendoms great pilgrim destinations.
The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to lands end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the areas gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on todays Camino.
Casablanca is famous for the movie, and most espeically for Rick’s Cafe. I admit it – it was one of the first places I visited when I got there. At the time, I had no idea I would end up getting married in the Sahara… However, there is more to Casa than just Rick’s just as there is more to North Africa and Morocco than the Sahara Desert.
Casablanca is the largest and most important city in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in Africa. The King Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in North Africa and the third largest in the world. With a regional population of more than 6.8 million people, there are numerous embassies, consulates, shopping malls, and the widest variety of food choices anywhere in North Africa. Casablanca was a port of the Phoenicians and the Romans and today is home to the Mohammad V International Airport – so if you are flying to or from Morocco – chances are that you will be in Casablanca at some point. While the old medina in Casablanca isn’t as magnificent as that of Fez or Marrakech – it is still a lot more exciting than walking around most other places and you will get a great feel for Morocco as you explore it. The waterfront offers some amazing seafood and grilled meat options. There are fine hotels in Casablanca and then there are really overpriced ones and finally there are run of the mill, share the toilet with the other guests hotels. I’ve stayed in the hostel and stayed in some of the most expensive riads and frankly…the biggest difference was that the wifi was free in the hostel and the people were friendlier. Middle of the road, hundred euro a night is your best bet in Casablanca.
I didn’t realize this until a couple of years after I left Morocco, but I wasn’t the first Damitio to live there. There were Damitio’s brewing beer in Casablanca from the 1930s until 1956 when independence from France was gained. It turns out I wasn’t the first Damitio to live in Hawaii either – we seem to get around.
Here are a few pictures from this magnificent place.
In 2001, I came to Hawaii with $100 and no plan. Through good fortune and good luck, I somehow became the manager of the most rocking backpacker hostel in Waikiki. The Polynesian Hostel Beach Club in Waikiki. It was a terrible time for my liver, but the rest of me enjoyed it immensely as I made friends from all over the world, fell in love with Hawaii and beautiful people from everywhere on the planet, and somehow managed to survive it all over the course of the next two years. These are some of the pictures I took during that time. I will leave it to facial recognition and people who know to identify those in the pictures. I am grateful to the former manager who stole a bunch of money and left the owner in the lurch needing a manager, I’m grateful to the owner who trusted me to become that manager, and I’m grateful to the people who came as strangers sometimes became staff and with a few glaring exceptions left as friends.
As a child, I was fascinated by the pyramids and the culture of the Egyptians. I used to sit on the floor of my grandmonther’s house and look through her vast collection of National Geographic magazines – it was the pyramids and Egyptians that fascinated me. Maybe it was because of Leonard Nemoy and that show he hosted in the 1970s ‘In Search of…” which obsessed about the mysteries of the pyramids, who built them, and how they were…impossible.
Or maybe it was being forced to go to church – the only interesting part of the bible for me was about the Egyptians, the pharaohs, and Egypt. Later, in my twenties, I became enamored of tarot cards – which generally are thought to have come from Egypt and encompass a lot of the esoteric lore connected there.
Lawrence of Arabia was my favorite movie for much of my life. The romance of the desert. I married my wife in the Sahara. All of it connected with these ancient wonders. I had my chance to go to Egypt just after the Arab Spring. Tahrir Square was still in turmoil. Tourist businesses were suffering – there were no tourists – except me. In the Egyptian Museum, I was alone except for the guards who followed me – whether to keep me from being kidnapped, to make sure I didn’t steal anything, or out of curiousity about what kind of person comes to Egypt at a time like that – I don’t really know.
There were seemingly far more guides than tourists – I picked one who was probably the same as many. My first guide was a driver, probably in his late fifties – he drove me to many locations where I seemed to be the only non-Egyptian. I went inside ancient tombs and wandered around freely. My driver was friendly, worried about the future. At Giza, he waited for me while I found a horse and a horseback guide. The young horseback guide was disinterested. We rode to the great pyramids. On the way, we saw five or less tourists – I probably could have climbed the pyramids – there were no guards – but there were signs- so I didn’t.
I walked around the Sphinx – I didn’t climb it either. None of it seems very real now…like a distant dream. I look at these pictures now though and I realize – I was there.
In 2012 – I took a short trip to South Korea. I’d never been there and I wanted to see as much as possible in a short amount of time…I didn’t expect to see this much….
South Korea can be a surprising place – it is a fairly conservative culture but not in every way. For example, you can pay a visit to Haesindang Park (Penis Park) in Samcheok, South Korea.
When I heard about this, I realized I would have to go there. Why? Because it defied my North American imagination that a place like this could even exist..
The legend says that a young couple were engaged to be married in the fishing village of Samcheok. Before they could be wed and before pleasure of the penis on the wedding night, she was swept to sea and drowned, thus dying a virgin and without the penis she so desired.
After her death, the seas around the village stopped yielding fish. No one could figure out why, but one night, a drunk fisherman took a leak facing the water, thus exposing his sizable genitalia to the water (and presumably to the ghost of the virgin). Apparently, she liked what she saw and after that the fish were plentiful. The villagers, understanding intuitively what they needed to do, began exposing themselves regularly and then they began to build larger than life statues of giant cocks to satisfy the nymphomaniac ghost. Over the years, the collection of phallic art was expandend and enlarged and the seashore became swollen with dicks.
Getting there was a bit tricky. I took the bus from Sokcho and then a second bus from another town and a third bus to get to Samcheok. I was sitting next to a very pretty woman in designer sunglasses and I asked her if she knew how to get to the Penis Park. Fortunately, she spoke some English. She said yes, she knew. She told me which stop to get off in Samcheok and then she suggested we get a cup of coffee and wait for her friend who would be able to better tell me how to get there. Soon a second girl showed up and her English was even better. They told me just to sit and wait. Fifteen minutes later a man in a minivan showed up, he was girl #2’s father. The three of us piled into his mini-van and we all headed to the Penis Park on one of the strangest family outings I’ve ever been on. A father, his daughter, her friend, and a strange American man they all just met on the bus and off we went to the Penis Park.
Rather than being filled with gay pickup artists, the park was filled with Korean senior citizens all posing next to the giant phalluses (or on them) and enjoying the scenic beauty of the rocky seashore and the huge collection of giant anthrpomorphic cocks. The father insisted on paying my admission and we all posed together for pictures with the many penises.
At the edge of the park we ate the flat, dried fish which the old women were cooking there. After that since they knew I needed a place to stay, the father dropped me off at his favorite love motel – a topic which I will write about in another post.
And that, my friends, was my wonderful day at the Penis Park in Samcheok, South Korea. Below are some further details and a few more photos to motivate you in case you get the chance to visit. I highly recommend it.
Haesindang Park (more commonly – and creatively – known among Westerners as ‘The Penis Park’) is around 20km (12 miles) from the centre of Samcheok, and is, as the name would suggest, a park full of penises!!!
Entry Fee – this was small, around 2,000 won. There is a ticket desk at the entrance, which also displays a return bus schedule in it’s window. It’s worth having a look to see what your options are for buses back to Samcheok. The stop is right by the road, you’ll see it when you come in.
Phone – 033-570-3568 (for the Korean-speaking Fishery Village Tradition Exhibition Centre)
Getting There – A frequent 50 minute bus will easily take you to the park from the Samcheok Express Bus Terminal. Ask for Haesingdang Park at the ticket window, and they will know what you’re talking about! Come out of the door that they will point you to, and turn right. You’ll see a little bus stop. Just wait there until the bus is scheduled to come. When we went, the bus didn’t actually come over to the bus stop – it just stopped in the middle of the concourse, and everyone walked over to board it. You may need to just check with the driver that you have the right bus, before getting on, especially if you can’t read Hangeul. Let the driver know that you are getting off at the park, and he’ll be sure to make a commotion about your stop when he comes to it at the side of the highway. (In terms of landmarks, the stop is just past the small park dedicated to local Olympian Hwang Young-Cho, who won the marathon event in both the 1992 Summer Olympics and 1994 Asian Games.) The drive itself is lovely, and you will see some great scenery and coastline. If you go at the right time of year, you will also pass the famous yellow rapeseed fields, and see people posing for photographs amongst rapeseed almost as tall as themselves! You can get off the bus here too if you so desire.
“Trust in Allah, but Always Tie Your Camel” this is the punchline of an ancient Arabian proverb. There is both wisdom and humor in the idiom, but at a more basic level – this is a lesson in survival. These walking ships of the desert provide a lifeline to those who survive in the vast reaches of the Sahara and if they should disappear, life becomes much more difficult or in come cases – impossible.
My wife and I were married in a Berber wedding ceremony in the Moroccan Sahara. That’s us in the picture above.She is Moroccan and so when our wedding party mounted a caravan of camels and set off into the massive dunes surrounding Erg Chabi and Merzougha, it was really just another ordinary day and a different family outing.
Yeah, right. It was magnificent and something that mesmerized every one of us from her mother and sisters at the front of the caravan to our Berber nomad guides who had never seen such an astounding juxtaposition of the traditional ways of the desert with the offbeat ways of a romantic American and his Moroccan mountain family. You see, my wife is not of the desert – she is a shepherd’s daughter from the mountains.
Her mother and sister’s were not pleased when we announced that we would be deviating from the standard traditional mountain wedding celebration and instead taking part in the customs of the Sahara – and yet – as they rode camels for the first time – their smiles and laughter lit the early evening sky even before the last light of the day disappeared. Her mother, the one I thought would have the most trouble with the camels settled onto the oddly shaped saddle and allowed the weight of her sixty years to stabilize her better than any of the rest of us. My mother-in-law was built for camels. The rest of us, not so much.
With everyone mounted, I threw out a quote that none of them recognized “If the camels die, we die.” Peter O’Toole playing T.H. Lawrence in one of the most magnificent movies ever made. He shaped my romantic images of the desert, the quote is attributed to one of Lawrence of Arabia’s guides and since most of our party spoke no English, it was only my bride who understood – “Let’s not think of such things,” she told me with complete seriousness. It was no time for me to explain.
Camels are not comfortable creatures to ride – despite the ease which my mother-in-law seemed to take to it. She had never been on a camel before, but you wouldn’t have known it as she sang and laughed to the purple and scarlet sunset. But a look at my sisters-in-law or the other members of our caravan showed it clearly. The Berber Nomads weren’t on the camels – I asked about it later and one of them Assou, told me “It’s very uncomfortable to ride them. We prefer to walk and let them carry things for us.” Huh, imagine that.
It turns out that Peter O’Toole also struggled with riding camels while filming Lawrence. The story goes that he used washing sponges to make the ride more comfortable. At first there were laughs at his expense but by the end of the film, the Beduins had realized how much more comfortable the sponges made things and they copied him! I don’t know if the Beduins of Jordan use sponges today, but I can definitely tell you that in Morocco they do not.
The magic of the Sahara was more than enough to move beyond the discomfort of the camels though. As darkness fell I looked out to the dunes and became transfixed by the eerie quality of nothingness stretching further than I could imagine. As a sailor, it is the sea that soothes me and brings peace when my soul is tormented and in those moments, I realized the allure of the desert. It is the same. The desert is a place where the world can be forgotten and one can come to terms with one’s true inner self.
There is much more to calling camels ships of the desert than simple transport. The metaphor also paints the image of the desert as a vast sea of sand, constantly shifting, containing treacherous shoals, and vast reaches where men (and women) can perish if the simplest mistakes are made.
“If the camels die, we die.” There was really nothing funny about it. It was true. I understood why the Nomads who spoke a bit of English had not smiled when I said it.
If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’d like to see some not-so-ordinary wedding photos…Enjoy!
I’m going to start using the Saturday Slideshow to showcase some of my travels to different places around the world and around the USA – but that will be next week. This week – I’m going to share some splashes of amazing tropical flower power to brighten up the cold and rain that I know are hitting most of the United States and much of Europe. This is how I share a little Aloha before the holidays!
Come to Hawai’i and visit Oahu – the flowers are for everyone – just remember the secret code of the flower – behind the left ear means you are taken, behind the right ear means you are available, behind both ears means that you are taken but willing to consider upgrading…:)