Thursday, September 20, 2012

Another behind the times update

So, I'd left Romania one wallet poorer, but a lot of new friends richer. Next stop was Macedonia to meet another new friend, Jo. Jo and I had exchanged messages through CouchSurfing and decided to share the road for a while. Once again, the great country of Bulgaria stood between my origin and my destination points. This time however, I had at least a few hours to spare for the capital city.
Bulgaria was never on my original tour list, but neither were most of the countries that Jo and I decided to see together, so I decided to give Sofia a day's chance to impress me. Bulgaria started on a high note when we drove through the border check and cyrillic letters returned. I grew quite fond of cyrillic in Mongolia and seeing it again boosted my opinion of the entire country. I used my wonderful skills during my day walking around exploring Sofia. It is a beautiful city. Nice narrow winding streets filled with shops and restaurants. Public transport is everywhere, but walking is also quick and easy with streets that have visible signs at every corner. I enjoyed a pastry breakfast with my host before heading off to catch Sofia's free walking tour.
The tour was great, as they usually are, and filled with fun and informative stories about all the important parts of Sofia's history. Like Bucharest, Brasov and every city in this region, the tour focused largely on the big two: Communism and Orthodox religion. Unlike most of the cities, it had a little more to offer. Sofia added Islam, Judaism and Catholicism to the religious tour. In one spot in the city all four religious buildings are in sight at the same time. Just below that point is the other special part of Sofia: the roman ruins beneath the city. Roads, gates and even and ampitheatre sit just below the modern roads, houses and restaurants. It's interesting to see and walk around in. There were excavations going on while I was there, so maybe when you visit there will be more to see and read about it. Unfortunately, the descriptions were usually written in Bulgarian without English translations.
I had less than 24 hours in Sofia, but it was enough to decide that I would like to go back and explore some more. If you get the chance, I'd say check it out.

I skipped straight through the capital of Macedonia (Skopje) and arrived around 2 am in Ohrid. No room available at the hostel that I'd had prepared for the next night, so I camped out in a hotel lobby and watch Thor with the night guard. Good times...woke up and walked to the lake where I promptly sat down pulled out the computer and stole wifi from a nearby cafe, while enjoying the beautiful sunrise by the lake.
Checked into my room and dropped off the bags and then went exploring some more. Struga (a village on the north end of the lake) is small and without great big tourist attractions. Luckily, I can make a tourist attraction out of nearly anything. The market was great fun and I got some lovely peaches for practically nothing. Denari (the currency of Macedonia) is wonderfully cheap compared to the Euro/Dollar/Pound. Pastries, local drinks and more fruit still didn't hurt my budget at all. Saw and art show with some beautiful paintings...I wish I could have identified the artist. Then got a call from my landlord saying that Jo had arrived.
With Jo, I wandered through the countries of Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. We swam in lots of different bodies of water, climbed a mountain or two, and lay down on some sandy and some pebbly beaches. But we're gonna skip over most of that just for the sake of brevity. I'll just throw out some of the best bits, in case anyone is reading this for advice on what to do and see.
Macedonia: Do - if you like boats, take the ferry across lake Ohrid from Ohrid to St.Naum. It was 10 euro for a return trip and it's a lovely ride. About 1:30 each way with a monastery and some springs on the St.Naum side.
Don't Do - the Struga international poetry festival. It was boring...The best events were organized just for the actual poets, not for spectators. And the great reading at the end was in Macedonian. The poets read in their native language and everything was translated into Macedonian. I'm not saying that it should have been English, but if you want to understand the poems, just giving you a heads up.
Albania: Do - Pellumbas cave. It wasn't spelunking in the proper sense. No crawling on the ground or lowering yourself through holes in the ceiling/floor. But it was a fascinating cave that I wanted to spend more time it. Take your swim suit with you and go for a dip in the river at the bottom of that mountain, great water and a free fish massage.
Don't Do - Petrella Castle/Fortress. It's an old fortress which has been completely turned into a restaurant. If you're looking for a tea and fancy a climb up a lot of stairs, have fun. But if you want dungeons and towers, look elsewhere.
Montenegro: Do - visit Ulcinj and the 14 km sandy beach. It's beautiful to the ocean side, if a bit rubbish filled to the land side. Also, do take one of the lessons offered by the schools on the beaches. I did windsurfing, but there's also kitesurfing, parasailing and more. Also, do wear watershoes to avoid the weever fish. He stings.
Don't expect buses to run frequently past the 1st of September.
And with that we'll wrap up the post for now. Sorry for the lack of details (or you're welcome), I'll introduce you to Bosnia i Hertzegovia next time.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Travel Update

It's been brought to my attention that I don't update this as often as a traveler probably should, so here goes!

I'm no longer in Turkey. It was an amazing place, but I rushed out to catch a CouchSurfing event in Romania.

A group of CouchSurfers created an "activity" on the website of hunting down Dracula's tomb. It was a trip that had everything. Not only vampires, but a vampire's a secluded monastery...on a forested island...surrounded by a lake and more forest. So the event was sightseeing, hiking and swimming - i.e. exactly my kind of trip.

After taking a late bus from Istanbul, I arrived in Romania (Bucharest) at around midnight. I hadn't gotten a Romanian phone yet and I didn't have wifi access, so I couldn't contact my Romanian host. I ended up sitting in the bus office from midnight to 7 am just watching old TV shows on my laptop. I love my laptop; the battery life is simply amazing.

Then the great WiFi/internet cafe search of 2012 was underway. I walked for hours around that crazy city without success. I inquired for internet cafes at local newstands and from random strangers, but no luck at all. No WiFi stickers in the windows of restaurants, nothing. McDonalds and KFC don't even have the stickers. Eventually a man on the street tells that the McD does have WiFi. So my first Romanian meal = McDonalds Pancakes (anytime you see pancakes while I'm still in Eastern Europe, read Crepes).

So internet problem solved, I contacted my host and walked over to his apartment. Octavian (that's his name) helped orient me around the city, gave me a bus pass, and helped me figure out what to do while I was there.

---I'm being far too detailed.

I took a walking tour in Bucharest and met someone who was also going on the hike the next morning. Great tour with lots of information about how the city was during the communist times (also saw lots and lots of churches).

I got up early the next day and packed my things in a little bag for the hike, just the essentials - camera, sun screen and Hayley Bear - in a little backpack that Octavian lent me. Unfortunately, it was my day to be a careless tourist and my wallet got swiped on the bus while I wasn't paying attention. I really want to stress how careless I was being, wearing a back pack on my back and standing near the door (it might even have been unzipped), because Bucharest and Romania in general get a bad rap for crime and I don't think they really deserve it. If I'd been so irresponsible in UB my wallet would have been taken as well.

So I didn't make the hike, I got off the bus, noticed my wallet was gone and went to the police. I guess I've been trained right, my automatic response was to file a report. But that was the silliest thing I've probably ever gone through and I knew it was pointless the entire time I was doing it. Octavian came down to the station to help me fill out the report since the police didn't speak/write/read English.

No hike for me...:(. That was my saddest feeling at the end of that day.

But light on the horizon!! I check the CS page and there were others who'd really anticipated the hike and missed it. So I met up with Noah and we agreed to go the next day on our own.

The hike was great, we saw the tomb that may or may not hold the headless remains of the Romanian prince who enjoyed impaling the wicked and drinking their blood. We saw pretty ponies hanging out on the island and we went swimming in the lake. It was a good day, then we met up for a game of Catan and a home made meal at Noah's apartment. I've finally learned Catan!!

The next day I met up with some more CouchSurfers for a tour of the natural history museum in town and then a walk around some parks. And we agreed to meet up again to take a trip out of the city to do some hiking in Brasov (Jason's old Romania site for the Mongol PCVs reading this).

They bailed on me at the last minute of course, but introduced me to yet another person who wanted to go hiking as well. Jo and I took a train out of Bucharest and went to Busteni where we climbed up and saw a tiny waterfall (with a cafe right next door).

Next day the museum group from before showed up (with the addition of my host for Brasov) and we all took the cable car up to a giant cross on the highest mountain in the area, then hiked back down. Great day ended with everyone heading back to Bucharest and me heading on to Brasov with Alberto.

Brasov was beautiful, just like Jason always said it was, it has a nice old town that is surrounded by communist apartment blocked. But these blocks aren't the ones I remember from Mongolia. They're tall, they've been updated and renovated. Inside Alberto's apartment was anything but spartan. And he had a gorgeous terrace with a view of the whole city. We took a night time walk around the city and then went up on of the mountains to get a view of all the lights from above.

Next day Alberto had to work, like a grown-up, and I was on my own to explore the city. I met up with another CSer from Brasov and he showed me around the city a little bit and then we took a short drive out to one of the places I most desired to see in Romania - the seven ladders waterfall. Jason had so many pictures of this waterfall on his computer that I was entranced. It was a fun climb all along the waterfall. Then that host had to work, so I joined up with the Guided Brasov walking tour and saw some more of the city (oh...I also climbed up to the big Brasov Hollywood sign). Brasov was less communism and more ancient history, a fun change.

And...the 1am train to Constanta! I really missed my Mongolian train that night. Romanian (and eastern Europe in general) oversells the tickets in 3rd class. But they sell the correct number of seats, then everyone else just has to stand or sit on the floor. I couldn't believe that...for a 7 hour train ride through the middle of the night, people were standing. I fell asleep on my bag on the floor and slept marvelously.

Sea bathing in the black sea with a big fire raging on another beach near me. And then back to Bucharest. I spent the next day arguing with the card companies and delivery companies trying to find out when/where my replacement cards would arrive. Success with FedEx and the card arrived promptly the next afternoon. Had a goodbye night on the town with my museum/hiking group and then hit the road for Sofia (1 day) and Macedonia/Albania/Montenegro.

----Really tired of writing now, so more later, I should be exploring Vienna.