Pernik, Bulgaria with Borislav the Moroccan Idol

World travel can bring you face to face with round the world adventures or people from your home town. Pernik, Bulgaria is a place I wouldn’t have experienced without running into someone I already knew.

It’s always fun to run into people you know when you are traveling. I was looking at facebook and saw that my wife’s friend Borislav was posting pictures of Sofia as I was there!

Bulgarian home foodThrough the magic of Facebook we managed to connect and I learned that he was spending some time there with his Bulgarian grandparents. He’s half Moroccan and half Bulgarian, but when we’d met before I had thought he was half Ukranian!

Borislav was a contestant on the Moroccan version of American Idol and has had his face plastered on billboards in Morocco. I was incredibly surprised to find him in Sofia but it was a great chance for us to hang out.

He invited me to come up to Pernik, a cold war era industrial town which sits to the north of Sofia as a relic of a time when communists worked side by side in the coal mines and factories of Pernik. These days, with it’s broken factories, abandoned nuclear power plant, and aging black lung population, Pernik is more like visiting Mordor.
Borislav’s grandparents were amazingly wonderful people and from the time I got there we ate delicious homecooked Bulgarian food, drank homemade wine, homemade rakia, and tried to have conversations.

Bulgarian dinnerI thanked them for their hospitality when I got there and Borislav’s grandfather told me that I hadn’t experienced Bulgarian hospitality until I was drunk from Rakia and homemade wine! By the end of the night, I was the recipient of full Bulgarian hospitality.

Borislav was left in the difficult position of translating as his grandfather and I discussed the glory days of communism and the downfalls of capitalism. Thanks again for that buddy! It was my first time to ever speak with a communist worker who had taken part in everything from the revolution to the collapse. His reminiscence of the days when workers walked and worked in equality were only as powerful as his stories of the days when the communist bosses began to flaunt their wealth and power.
Bulgarian nuclear plant, Pernik

For him and for many other older Bulgarians, the early communist era is remembered as a golden age. Meanwhile, Borislav’s sweet grandmother showered me with smiles and kisses of the kind that I haven’t experienced since my own grandmother passed away. I’ve always suspected though, that under all that old lady affection lies the remains of the smoking hot young flirtatious women they used to be. Seeing her picture in the flower of her youth, I can only imagine what it was like to get such kisses then.

Finally, after finishing the bottle of homemade wine and the homemade rakia we all went to sleep but not before Borislav’s grandfather had offered to take me and Borislav hiking the next day and show me his summer house where he makes the homemade booze. Of course, I was glad to accept. Borislav later told me that he’d been avoiding the trip since he arrived since the weather was icy cold, but I was glad to have the opportunity to see a bit of country life.coal miners communist

The Liberation of Bulgaria turned Pernik from a small stock breeding village into a 20th century powerhouse with the development of the rich coal-beds of the area though the locals had been gathering the coal since the 10th century with shovels and picks. but more about that in my next post.

Bulgaria – Interesting and Surprising

Travel around the world and you certainly find some surprises. While my round the world trip is a slow motion adventure, I have to admit that Bulgaria is one of my favorite surprises.

Before I start talking about my own adventures, it’s more than worthwhile to introduce you to some of the great resources that exist here. Spend a little time reading these articles and you will see why Bulgaria is far more interesting than you might have imagined.Bulgarian map

This article on Eccentric Bulgaria perhaps isn’t fair to all of the people of this country, but certainly it paints a picture of what part of the national psyche is like. This is a country that likes to pickle and display the hearts of it’s national heroes, even when they have bullet holes in them.

In Haskovo during this past Orthodox Easter, thousands of citizens spent the holiday in tents. Some even slept in their cars. The reason was not some weird local custom, but people’s belief in the predictions of astrologist Emil Leshtanski. Shortly before the holiday, he foretold an earthquake as devastating as the one in L’Aquila. When the promised cataclysm did not happen, Haskovo’s citizens threatened to take legal action against Leshtanski.

Bulgarian poet's heartsBut it’s not just the oddness of Bulgaria that has enchanted me. The warmth and beauty of the people and landscape (even though it is in fact very cold at the moment) has really made me happy to be here.

Have a look at Great Places in Bulgaria and you will see that this is a country of mountains, waterfalls, monasteries, beaches, nature, and beautiful ancient cities.

And then there is Bulgarian folk music. I’m an instant fan. Like Turkish Art House music, it touches my soul in ways that I would never expect.

As a funny side note. I want to tell you all that I never know what the hell is going to happen in this life. I don’t know what I will do, but I trust that if I pay attention, the right decision will become obvious. In this case, after I made the decision to come to Bulgaria (and I had really no idea why I made that decision, it just felt right) I requested a couch in Sofia. I got no reply so I posted in Last Minute Couch Requests and a nice guy offered to host me. When I looked at his website, what was it called Vagabond.bg! Later, sitting in a restaurant with friends before my train from Istanbul to Sofia left, a Mexican song came on just as I was telling the story of the Bulgarian vagabond hosting me. The lyrics of the song …Vagabond, Vagabond, Vagabond. I’ve no idea what the song was, but there it was. And since arriving in Bulgaria, I’m in the flow and I’m certain that it’s where I am meant to be at this moment.

And just in case you want more information, here is the Sofia Travel Guide, history of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, and a great free resource for learning Bulgarian language.

How Not To Enjoy World Travel – Part 2

world travel tipsThis is the second part in an ongoing series about how to have the worst time possible during your world travels. Here is the link to part 1.

http://www.vagobond.com/how-not-to-enjoy-world-travel-part-1/

4. Don’t Read
To me, reading is an essential part of travel. As far as I’m concerned, if you are one of those people who ‘doesn’t like to read’ than you are one of those people who should stay home and not travel.

Don’t read anything about the country of place you are going to. That way you won’t understand the culture, the traditions, the history, the climate, or anything else. You will be able to have a completely one dimensional experience. If you should read, for example, about how it is rude to point the bottoms of your feet at someone in Thailand, then you’ll miss out on the ass kicking that results when the kick-boxer tells you to stop pointing your feet at him and you continue to do it. You wouldn’t want to miss that.

Or if you read, you might feel compelled to go fifteen kilometers out of your way on the way between Seattle, Washingon and Vancouver, British Columbia and visit the remote and gorgeous Scenic Hot Springs. Wouldn’t that suck?

Don’t read on your trip. Don’t discover that Mark Twain stayed in the same hotel you are visiting in Honolulu (The Moana Surfrider) or that the lovely looking picnic spot in Cebu, Philippines is where Lapu Lapu ate a famous explorer. Who needs to know details like that?

Don’t read when you are stuck at the airport. It’s much better to just sit and get angry at the workers or eat overpriced food. Don’t read at the beach because it’s much better to sit there wondering what to do now that you are done swimming.

Yes, if you don’t want to enjoy world travel, it is essential that you not read.

world travel tips5) Don’t talk to anyone unless you have to

If you want to have horrible and meaningless travels, don’t talk to anyone unless you have to. Don’t talk to the man next to you on the airplane or bus, he might be a Chinese businessman who would invite you to visit his home and stay with his family.

Don’t talk to the guy who works at the hotel unless you need towels or directions. If he thinks “Hey, this is a nice person” he might actually tell you someplace that he doesn’t recommend to every other rude tourist. You might end up going to a tiny temple in Penang, Malaysia instead of going to the big one that has eighteen tourist buses outside it.

Don’t talk to people in the street. They might try to sell you something. They might want to practice English with you. They might want to share a bit of their culture or learn something about yours. Wow, wouldn’t it be a bummer if that Indonesian guy learned that the USA is not just like Bay Watch and Jerry Springer? Don’t talk to him.

If you want to NOT enjoy your travels, do not talk unless you need something.

world travel tips6) Don’t learn any of the local language

Finally, if you want to be absolutely certain that you don’t enjoy your world travel, pretend your a British Colonist and refuse to speak the local language.

Don’t say Tarima Kasih in Indonesia, don’t ask where to get the gonggongcheecha in China, don’t say Yvet in Turkey, don’t show the grocer in Barcelona you can understand the uno, dos, tres, don’t speak French in Paris (I found Parisians to be very gracious about my bad French), don’t say shukran in Morocco, kapcun kap in Thailand, daijobu in Japan, bollacks in England, dude in California, wienerschnitzel in Germany, or Mahalo in Hawaii.

Speaking the language encourages people to learn about you, to teach about their culture, to make friends, to have relationships, to even fall in love. There is nothing miserable about any of that. So if you want to Not enjoy the world of travel…don’t speak the local language.
Got more tips about how to NOT enjoy world travel, why not leave a comment below or send your tips to me using the contact form.

Kukuri, Torbalan, Baba Marta and The Water Bull of Rabisha

This was originally posted in August of 2011 – as Halloween approaches, it seems appropriate to repost.

Bulgarian MONSTERSI’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated by ethnographic monsters. I visit a country and I ask “What kind of monsters do they have?” I’m a big fan of legendary monster stories. In Turkey, I heard about the story of the Lake Van monster and in Morocco, I revel in the stories of jin and Aisha Kandisha. In Bulgaria, I heard about a few new ones. One old guy I asked simply replied “The only monsters we have here are the criminals” – fair enough, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. Another old man on the bus told me about the Loch Ness Monster of Bulgaria which is known as the ‘Water Bull’.

The water bull lives in a Lake Rabisha near Belogradchik, a small picturesque town in the Bulgarian Northwest. You might have actually heard of the town since the now famous Belogradchik Rocks did pretty well in the competition for the New Seven Wonders of the World or because of the Magurata Cave with its prehistoric paintings.

The legend says that a bull-man lives in the lake which was once thought to be bottomless but now is known to be about 40 meters deep. The head of a bull, the body of a man – yes D &D friends – it’s a Minotaur. The story goes that they used to kill off the most beautiful girl to keep the monster at bay. They would row her out in a boat and throw her off of it. Eventually, the most beautiful girl in the world was born there and taken out in the lake where the water bull fell in love with her and they lived happily ever after. It’s a crap ending to a story that includes Bull and a word that sounds a lot like Rubbish, but at least it’s a monster story.

BABA MARTA RIBBONSMy friends Tim and Peppy in Sofia,  told me about Baba Marta. Baba Marta, an old lady with the touch of death. She is like Jack Frost but an angry old woman and if she doesn’t get treated right, the cold Bulgarian winter just keeps on. The sun only comes out when she is happy. Snow is sometimes referred to as the feathers from her mattress.

Each spring Bulgarian girls make ribbons and when they see the first signs of spring they put them on trees or under rocks. This is all to make Baba Marta happy and bring a nice year.
karankolos Bulgarian monster
The monster which sounded the most interesting to me was a tribe of ghouls called Karakoncolos or Kurkeri who stalk people in the dark and then they jump on the victim’s back, causing them to lose their way home. There are annual festivals where people dress up as these monsters and dance.

Bulgarian boogeymanAnd finally there was Torbalan who carries kids away in his pack if they don’t do what their parents tell them to.

 

Do you know of any Bulgarian monsters?

3 Continents, 4 Countries, & 6 Cities in 24 Hours! #FlashbackFriday

So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast. 

Skopje, MacedoniaThis was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.

What’s your personal best? Comment below.

I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.

From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.

Sofia, BulgariaFrom Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)

So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.

Total distance: 4090 Kilometers

I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.

 

 

Istanbul
Istanbul

Night Train Istanbul to Bulgaria

Casablanca Morocco

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Sofia, Bulgaria – Amazing Ancient, Historical

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:

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Night Train from Istanbul to Bulgaria

Night Train Istanbul to BulgariaIn 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.

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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.

Pernik, Bulgaria – A Brisk winter Walk – #saturdayslideshow

Pernik BulgariaTravel 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.

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