Bulgaria on my mind: go for the tomatoes, stay for the yogurt.

Pat and I have been back from Europe for two weeks now, but we still are thinking about our wonderful trip to Bulgaria — and the questions so many of you asked “why Bulgaria”?

We were going on a Rick Steves trip, and we felt like we were more likely to need a guide in a place like Bulgaria than in the more familiar climes of Western Europe.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

As with many of our far flung trips we felt we’d needed help with the logistics and the language. And that’s clearly true of Bulgaria — not only is the language obscure, even the alphabet is strange. They use the Cyrillic alphabet, which means not only can you not understand what they are saying, you can’t read signs or menus, either.

Icon in Bulgarian church.

Modern-day icon just painted in this craft area of Veliko Tarnovo

The Bulgarians are very proud of Cyrillic, incidentally. It was introduced to them by 9th Century theologians — Cyril and Methodius — and spread from there to Russia and other parts of the East. The Bulgarians we met — and particularly our tour guide, Stefan — were intensely proud of their country and their freedom from the Ottomans (in the late 19th Century) and the Nazis and Russians after World War II and the fall of communism.

So the reasons for going to Bulgaria, after all, are several;

First, the food is great. We weren’t expecting much. During our trip to the Balkans a couple of years ago, we ate a lot of cabbage. Bulgaria has a thriving agricultural sector. We had tomato-and-cucumber salad

A daily indulgence.

almost daily. There was fresh fish — much of it driven up from Greece — and a lot of variety. We had some great Bulgarian wine. The local drink is rakia — a very strong drink something like grappa. You have to be careful with rakia, but that’s not difficult.

Because the civilization is so old here — Bulgaria is part of ancient Thrace — there are some spectacular history museums, ancient tombs, Roman

Roman theater in Plovdiv

ruins, etc. Plovdiv, the second-largest city, is one of the oldest in Europe and sits on extensive Roman building.

There is the chance to experience some cultures that we hadn’t seen in other parts of Europe. We visited a Roma village and a Muslim village and were hosted for lunch in both places.

This family in a small Muslim village prepared our traditional lunch — both beef soup and bean soup — and then sang folk songs.

And there is very interesting architecture from the Ottoman era and 19th and early 20th Centuries.

 

 

My advice is like that you hear about many developing areas. Come while its still affordable.

This Russian-style church was built to commemorate Russian soldiers. My sandwich was very forgettable.

This monastery, which dates to the 13th Century, is important for both religious and nationalistic reasons.

 

 

Traveling through history in a family pub

I remember meeting Uncle Sam once on a visit to London. He was a big, blustery man – as I recall – owner of several pubs, and my grandmother’s youngest brother: hence, my mother’s uncle and my great uncle.

But I had never been to his famous – or notorious – pub in London’s east end until we met my “cousin” Amy there for a drink while visiting London this week.

Outside the Blind Beggar

I know how Amy and I are related – her mother and my mother were first cousins – but I am not sure what to call that. In any case, we first met a couple of years ago and have managed to stay in contact. She suggested going for a drink at Sam’s former pub – the Blind Beggar, down the street from the Whitechapel Underground station.

When I was a kid spending summers in London, I would come to Whitechapel with my aunts to visit various shops in this very Jewish neighborhood. Now, every storefront is Muslim-owned. We had a great dinner at a Pakistani restaurant nearby, the waiter apologized for the slow service because the cooks were just breaking fast during Ramadan.

The Blind Beggar is just on the edge of the area. It is not upscale but quite a nice place. You can see that the menu is not traditional pub fare,

No steak and kidney pie here.

although the beer selection seemed to be.

Besides my own memories, the place has an interesting history. It is named for Henry de Montfort, a son of Simon de Montfort, who lost his sight in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. His father, Simon, had led a rebellion against the king — he was killed in that same battle — and is credited with helping limit the power of the king. And that’s where the name the Blind Beggar comes from.

It was, according to the history, the first pub to serve modern brown ale – in 1654 – and was the site of a speech by William Booth, in 1865, that led to the founding of the Salvation Army. More recently, in the 1960’s, a mob shooting took place here.

It ‘s nice to have at least a little bit of that history in your background.

The inside of the Blind Beggar.

On the Black Sea, looking for Ivan

We actually had left the Black Sea towns of Varna and Nesebar, and were on our way inland on the next leg of our tour of Bulgaria, when our tour guide, Stefan, complained specifically about organized crime.

Gotta be a cocktail lounge around here somewhere.

A new Porsche was in the road holding up the tour bus while the owner was doing business in some shop and Stefan said that was an example of the group which reportedly had been dominating these Black Sea ports since the fall of communism in 1989-90.

I had long been interested in the cities on the Black Sea, and getting a chance to visit them was a big part of the reason for this tour of Bulgaria in the first place. Like so much of this region, they have been influenced over the millennia by invaders from Central Asia, contrapuntal dominance by the Russian, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the role of Greece and its predecessor in Thrace. Most recently, they are known as the playground of rich Russians, as well as sun seekers from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia.

Stefan, who is half tour guide and half Bulgarian nationalist, has mostly confirmed those rumors, although the role of the European Union reportedly has lessened significantly the influence of crime in the area. Apparently it is difficult both to operate a criminal enterprise and launder money, and abide by the EU’s strict rules. So the same rules that are annoying the Brits and Dutch because of their inflexibility are apparently a help to Bulgarians.

In some ways traveling here feels a little like we have been transported back to the 1970’s. Besides the concrete communist-era buildings, tourism is not a slick or modern as we see in the U.S. or Western Europe. Many fur shops are visible in the shopping areas. We, as Americans are a bit of a spectacle with school children wanting to greet us with “hello”, “hi” sometimes ciao.

Early church in Nesebar.

 

Our first seaside stop was Nesebar. Much of the city consists of new hotels and condos that cater to vacationers from Russia and other northern areas. We avoided the new development called “Sunnybeach” and stayed on the island – now connected by a causeway – that has been a settlement for centuries. Half seaside vacation area and half historical antiquities, built over Roman ruins, this little island includes 14th, 15th, and 16th Century Orthodox churches, traditional 19th and 20th Century Bulgarian domestic architecture, seafood restaurants and tourist shops.

Next stop was Varna, up the coast about an hour. Varna has been

Varna building undergoing restoration.

a major economic, social and cultural center for 3,000 years. Most recently a stop for cruise ships but now, because of the unrest in Greece and Turkey, cruise ships no longer dock. Beginning as a Thracian seaport settlement, it now is the third largest city in Bulgaria, home to the navy, a major seaport, with a beautiful stock of 19th and 20th Century mansions – in various states of disrepair and renovation – and a wonderful, 5 km-long park along the seaside.

Clearly there are elements of the communist past: One of the ugliest hotels in existence, a concrete monstrosity for a city hall. Nothing unusual there. We’ve seen communist dreck alongside wonderful buildings from the 19th Century Austro-Hungarian style and 20th Century Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods. If it takes the mob to use their ill-gotten wealth to restore the buildings, maybe that’s the price of doing business.

We had a glass of wine in a bar on the beach, exceeded by 40 percent our 10,000 steps on Fitbit, but saw no apparent Russians. Maybe they were in a nicer hotel.

 

 

First impressions in Bulgaria

“Why Bulgaria?” we were asked repeatedly when we said where were going for a trip this spring.

The answer is complicated: we had purchased a tour of Istanbul from the Edmonds-based travel guru, Rick Steves, but decided not to go because of a coup attempt. So we needed to pick another tour. Since we have traveled quite a bit in Western Europe and didn’t feel we needed a tour guide for Rome or Paris, Bulgaria seemed like a good choice. Traveling with a Rick Steves tour brings a bit of chat in the group, since we live in Edmonds, his home base. There are folks for whom this is their sixth or eighth Rick Steves tour. Fellow travelers want to know if we have ever actually seen the travel guru and are interested in personal Edmonds lore. Our guide Stephan has been known to call him “Uncle Rick”. The Steves tours always appear to get priority and the travelers aren’t your usual hoard of aging tourists following the umbrella. It is an amiable group and we are enjoying having meals with and getting to know other folks from around the country both in large groups and small excursions in our free time.

On Bulgaria, I have been interested in this area for a long time – the crossroads of empires between Russia, the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empire, and Rome and Western Europe. Our trip a couple of years ago to the Balkans was really fascinating and so Bulgaria. For those not immediately familiar

with the geography, we are adding a map of the region as well as the route of our tour. So far, in a few days, we have seen the capital, Sofia, and the Rila

Vaults in the church at the Rila Monastery.

Monastery, a key cultural and religious shrine located in the Rila mountains,

The route of our tour.

where we spent a night without heat and very few creature comforts. Today we are in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria and one of the oldest in Europe, dating well before the Romans.

I can’t say that I have gained real insight about the country in a few days here – just impressions. And because we are on a guided tour, I want to make sure the impressions are our own, and not the intellectual property of the Rick Steves organization.

Sofia is a beautiful capital with many monuments, civic and religious buildings and parks. The Alexander Nevski cathedral may be the most famous. You can see the influence of Russia as well as Turkey and the Ottomans, but the Bulgarians we have met are very proud of their national heritage and independence – especially after disappearing from the map for five centuries under the Ottomans, and then under what they call the “Russian yoke” until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in

Guards at the presidential residence.

1998-9. They are particularly proud that the Cyrillic alphabet began here and spread to Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The current government is pro-Russian, and there is an area in the south where Bulgarians with Turkish heritage are pro-Turkey and Erdogan. Like other countries in the Balkans, they must deal with a history of conquest and wars and changing alliances. As you drive out of Sofia, you can still see the influence of the late communist period in the blocks of ugly and rundown Soviet-era apartment blocks.

Plovdiv, the second city, is very different and very compelling. There are a number of universities, so that adds a flavor. There are extensive Roman ruins and one of the most intact Roman theaters I have seen. The old town is full of restored 18th and 19th Century buildings, and there is an area with an

Roman theater in Plovdiv.

amazing number of art deco buildings. Unfortunately, the first floors of many of these now have modern storefronts for companies like Adidas and Burger King. Apparently, as the buildings were restored, may of the old, small, individually owned shops gave way to more modern retailers.

The food is wonderful. We have been eating tomato and cucumber salads every day, hoping to get our fill before going back to hothouse tomatoes at the QFC. There is drinkable red wine and awful white wine. We just spent the equivalent of $15 on lunch and drinks. Pat bought a tube of hand cream at the Maybelline store for the equivalent of 60 cents. Of course it won’t last as tourism increases.

Art deco buildings in the Plovdiv downtown.

We are headed tomorrow for the Black Sea coast.

 

 

Amsterdam: life among the burghers.

We have been in Amsterdam for a few days at the beginning of three weeks in Europe that will take us to Bulgaria for about 10 days, and then a week in London.

Over the years, we have found that flying to Europe from

Canal-side dining

Seattle — an overnight flight to a new time zone extracts quite a toll in how we feel for a few days. So it’s nice to be able to get somewhere directly, stay put for a few days, and get over the jet lag. Amsterdam is a great choice not only because there is efficient service from Seattle, but also because of the destination, itself.

This is our first time here, but we are finding it to be a fascinating city and one that is easy to get around.

We are staying near the old city center, or Dam Square, on the edge of the Jordaan neighborhood. We are in a wealthy area of canal houses but within a quick walk of the more middle-class Jordaan (or once middle-class) and its many bars and

Blogging from the canal house garden.

restaurants.

We are staying in a 16th Century canal house that has been redone into modern apartments. We are in the back, so there’s no view of the canal outside, but we have a very nice garden to sit in, so it is a decent trade-off. Finding a place to sit and have a beer or a cup of coffee next to the canal has not been difficult. We manage that a couple of times a day.

Another good thing: everyone speaks English. On the down side – and while we have found plenty to eat – the Dutch cuisine is nothing to write home about (although that’s kind of what this is, isn’t it?) They do seem to have a lot in my favorite food group – fried. And hamburgers are a big thing. We have avoided the “California burrito” place down the street. There are hot dog stands near the Westerkirk nearby, but I have avoided those as well.

Amsterdam requires a lot of walking, and that is a real pleasure. You do have to watch out for all the bikers, but it is a fascinating place to walk around. Pat has found that the uneven brick streets are giving her bad knee fits, but she’s still managing to get the required 10,000 steps on her Fitbit.

A typical Amsterdam commute.

The natives all appear to commute on bikes. There are bikes parked everywhere, and I don’t know how people find their own bike again at the end of the day. They are not fancy – mostly big workman-like bikes that would be too ugly to steal. Many have wheelbarrow-like bins on the front to haul stuff, even children. I have only seen one bike helmet so far but no indication of a national epidemic of brain trauma, so it seems to be working OK.

We did buy a pass to take the trams that run through the city but only have used them once. I think we would use the trams a lot once we figured out where we are going. The center of town is contained within a group of concentric canals – the Dutch built additional canals when they needed to be able to expand the city – so everything is pretty compact.

The question is: how do you find your own bike?

One interesting thing about these canal houses; They are all quite narrow but go back a long distance from the street. So one might own a quite large house that is only two or three window bays wide on the street side. As a result, all the houses need to have a hook at the top, which can be used with a rope and pulley to deliver things like furniture and appliances. We watched, as the photo here shows, a couple of guys hoist a desk up to the second floor. The houses are pitched outward a little at the top so that when you are hauling your desk or washing machine up by pulley, you don’t smack it into the front of your house.

Tomorrow we are off to Bulgaria. We’ll try to post a couple of blogs from there as well.

 

 

On the Mediterranean at Cassis

The harbor in Cassis

The harbor in Cassis

We took a great side trip to the old Mediterranean fishing town of Cassis, on the coast just southeast of Marseille. With Charlie driving, on freeways with a speed limit of 130 kmh, we made it in about an hour and a half and met our friends, Tom and Margaret Mesaros, who have been staying nearby in Aix en Provence.

The Mesaroses are hardy travelers and are on a three-week trip that included the beaches in Normandy and an auto trip down through France to Provence. We also joined them for a walking tour of Avignon a couple of days ago.

While Cassis retains its look and function as a fishing town – folks were buying fresh-caught sea bream

The calanques rise dramatically out of the sea.

The calanques rise dramatically out of the sea.

on the waterfront from the fishermen, who cleaned the fish while they waited – the attraction now is boat rides along the coast to see the amazing limestone cliffs (calanques) rising abruptly out of the sea. We went on a 90-minute tour that went into about eight of the calanques, two of them with little villages of their own. Then, after lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants that line the harbor, Pat and Charlie, and Tom and Margaret took a hike along the cliffs.

I was a little sleepy after a lunch that included some of the rose’ grown nearby, so I stayed back and napped and then listened to NPR podcasts about what was then the third and thankfully last debate between the two presidential candidates.

But here is Pat and Charlies’ description of the hike:

Pat and Charlie hiked down from the calanques to the beach.

Pat and Charlie hiked down from the calanques to the beach.

After taking the boat tour, hiking through the calanques and climbing the steep limestone cliffs afforded us a spectacular view from high above the crystal blue water.  

 There were many different routes depending on your skill level and willingness to climb, and if you were really daring you could climb down the cliffs on narrow paths to the water, but the tourist office did strongly recommend hiking equipment. Nevertheless we stayed on the main paths and did fine.

 The length of the hike depends on how many Calanques you want to see, each requires climbing a steep rocky path and then scrambling down the other side to the next inlet, and the quality of the views and the amount of solitude both improve the farther you go. We made it to the second inlet, which featured a small beach, and people swimming even in the relatively cool October sun, and we heard that the third calanque was truly scenic, but we were a bit pressed for time.

Back in our adopted hometown, we took a less spectacular, but still pretty interesting short side trip to the little town of Fontaine-de-

Fontaine-de-vaucluse

Fontaine-de-vaucluse

Vaucluse. It is only 6 km from where we are staying. The source of the Sorgue River begins here, and the town was once important for paper-making, again using water wheels as the source of industry. It also is where the pet Petrarch mourned the loss of his lover, Laura.

Our Edmonds neighbor and travel expert Rick Steves, in his guide to Provence, said Fontaine-de-Vaucluse can be overrun with tourists in the summer and may be the most overrated tourist site in France when the spring is not flowing.

We had a nice hike and enjoyed the beautiful setting, but we were close by. It is probably not worth a trip out of your way to get here.

Water wheel at an old paper mill.

Water wheel at an old paper mill.

We are getting to the end of our trip. We take Charlie to the train today, and we head out on Saturday. We hope to do one more blog after that with some other thoughts about France.

We’re with hill

L’isle sur la Sorgue, where we are staying, is a handy jumping-off point to see the hill towns of the Luberon – a significant recreational area for the natives and one made popular with Americans and the British by Peter Mayle in “A Year in Provence” and his subsequent other books, movie and TV series. The book is a real treat; I have not seen the TV show, but a BBC critic referred to it as the worst television show ever made.

Gordes is home to the rich and famous.

Gordes is home to the rich and famous.

That’s not true of the experience. We have had a very good time exploring these medieval towns, built on hills and often fortified. Many are now very fashionable, and not only because of Peter Mayle.

Nearby Gordes, a beautiful example, is now dotted by chateaux and swimming pools of the rich and famous. Lacoste’s (now ruined) 42-room chateau was once the home of the Marquis to Sade and now is owned by Pierre Cardin. The Savannah School of Design has a campus here. It is not the home of the shirts, however.

Roussillon is built on ocher cliffs and was the center of ocher production.

Roussillon is built on ocher cliffs and was the center of ocher production.

Pat and I began going to hill towns on one of our first trips to Europe – more than 30 years ago. The first I remember is the town of Eze, high above the Mediterranean, on the corniches between Monaco and Nice. I think Pat still has a scarf she bought there in an early indulgence. It is near where Princess Grace was killed in a car accident.

One of our best trips ever was a few years ago to the hill towns in Tuscany – we stayed within driving distance of Montepulciano, Montalcino, Orvieto. There are more substantial towns, but like the others, perched way up long, winding roads with thick walls that could be defended against outsiders.

A couple of years ago, we traveled through the white hill towns of Southern Spain, on the way to

12th C. church in Bonnieux

12th C. church in Bonnieux

Seville. So we know our hill towns.

A common thread is the need of a rental car, as many of these are off the main roads. Of course we see plenty of tour buses, so there is probably another way to do this, but we have enjoyed the freedom of a rental car, despite the occasional inconvenience of having the find a place to park it, as many of the city centers are closed to vehicle traffic. Also, we have done our traveling in the fall or spring. I understand that many of these places get pretty jammed in the summer. Even now, we had trouble getting reservations for a tour near Cassis, and Charlie found it difficult to get a train reservation back to Paris from Avignon.

And the stairs you climb to reach it.

And the stairs you climb to reach it.

In any case, we have really enjoyed seeing these old towns, which I guess are similar enough, but each different in its own way – interesting residents or an old church or natural formation. On this trip, Pat is carrying an iPhone which has an app that counts her footsteps: 10,000 is not an issue – and 15,000 is normal. All uphill.

One more note about L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Avid readers of this blog (both of you,) will recall that I said the Thursday market wasn’t much to write home about. That’s not true on Sunday. It has the reputation of being the largest antique market in France. I do not know how to judge that, but the streets are full of all kinds of stalls, foods, clothing, various household items, and the side streets and antique shops all are open. Even in mid-October, it was a very busy place and clearly worth the wait.
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Scenes from the Sunday market in L'isle sur la Sorgue.

Scenes from the Sunday market in L’isle sur la Sorgue.