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.


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.