Saturday, April 26, 2014


The whirlwind spring continues! On Monday I got back from my 11 day semana santa "holy week" vacation. As many of you know, I took advantage of this big chunk of time and decided to travel to Bulgaria and Istanbul with my close friend Alexa. It was a big trip, and two very distinct countries with very different cultures, so I've decided to do two separate blog posts; one for each country.

Since my trip started and ended in Bulgaria, I will dedicate this first blog post to the beautiful country. I must say, I had absolutely no expectations going into Bulgaria. I know almost nothing about it, have never talked with someone who has traveled there, and know only one person from there (Yoana, Alexa's former roommate and the person we went to visit!). Since Yoana was nice enough to host and show us around the entire time we were in Bulgaria, Alexa and I didn't have to plan anything for this part of the trip. As nice as it was, it was very strange going into a trip knowing almost nothing about the country and having no idea where you will go and what you will do for the next few days, but it was exciting at the same time!

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexa and I arrived at Sofia's airport late on Friday afternoon.  Yoana was at the airport waiting for us with a big smile! We exchanged our euros for Bulgarian levas, and then we hopped on a bus into town. After we walked to Yoana's apartment and dropped our stuff of, we headed right back out to discover Sofia! The first thing I noticed about Sofia is how beautiful the scenery was. The entire city is surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills. I also quickly noticed the cyrillic alphabet (same one the Russians use) that the Bulgarian language is written in, which is pretty daunting since I had no idea what anything meant. I was excited to get to know this foreign place, and definitely excited to have Yoana to help us out with the language. She showed us all of the main sights of Sofia, and there was a lot more than I expected. Some of the highlights included a beautiful yellow-brick road that reminded us of the Wizard of Oz, historic Sofia University, the eternal flame and the monument of the unknown soldier, old roman ruins, beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox churches, the former communist headquarters, and the crowned jewel of Sofia- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This stunning Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is relatively new by European standards, it was built in 1912. Its age is not what's impressive; it's the neo-byzantine architecture, the giant overlapping bell towers and it's enormity that people come to see. The Alexander Nevsky cathedral not only is the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox religion, but it's also one of the biggest orthodox churches in the world and the second biggest church on the Balkan Peninsula.  After our tour of Sofia, we met Yoana's brother (who we had previously met while he was visiting in Madrid), Ivaylo, and his friend, Valentin. We went to a nice Bulgarian restaurant so we could be introduced to typical Buglarian food. Looking down at the menu, all of the prices seem about the same as normal. 5-6 leva for a salad and 8-15 leva for a main course. Then I remembered that 1 euro is worth 2 levas and I got really excited! Alexa and I got to order wine, salad, and a main course for HALF of what we normally pay in Madrid, and the food was EXCELLENT. I had a shepherds salad with fresh Bulgarian goat cheese, a Bulgarian meatball stuffed with "yellow" cheese and tried some Bulgarian wine! All delicious. After dinner we shared some beers at a cool, local beer bar with a great craft beer selection and then hit the hay.

Day 2 in Bulgaria started with a delicious pastry called banitsa.  It's a flakey breakfast pastry that had various fillings. I tried goat cheese and Alexa tried potato and herbs. They were both absolutely delicious! Then, Yoana took us around Sofia again so we could see all of the famous sights again in the daylight.  Also, since it was daytime we could enter the Alexander Nevsky church to see it on the inside. The first thing I noticed is that there were no pews. Alexa is Greek Orthodox and Yoana Bulgarian Orthodox so they helped educate me on all the differences between Orthodox and Catholicism. During their services, the orthodox communities stand up the whole time, there are a few chairs on the side of the church for the disabled and elderly. Also, the altar is not raised nearly as high as in catholic churches, and although the church is decorated beautiful and ornately, it's not as over-the-top as most catholic cathedrals. Later in the afternoon we met Ivaylo and Valentin for lunch. We had another amazing lunch for an amazing price. Yoana tried to talk us into trying "ayran" with is a beverage composed of yogurt and water and is sometimes salted. Bulgarians LOVE it.  It looked like they were drinking thick, whole milk and then to think it was SALTED! As adventurous of an eater I am, I couldn't stomach the though of drinking it. Alexa either, so we politely declined.  Later on we went to a cafe to try some amazing gelato, and then we called it an early night. It was raining, so Alexa, Yoana and I enjoyed a movie and pizza night in the apartment.

We packed up on day 3 and got in Ivaylo's car. He drove us about an hour outside of Sofia to a bridge we were did bungee jumping! It was my second time, and being the adrenaline junky I am I was VERY excited to be jumping again :) After watching a few jumpers go, it was my turn.  I signed the waiver, paid the fee, and then it was time for them to strap up my ankles and my harness! I smiled at the camera, yelled "THREE, TWO, ONE" and screamed as I swan dove from the bridge. My stomach dropped and my breath escaped me, but I loved it. There's nothing like it! And the scenery was great too. Beautiful, rolling green mountains, trickling waterfalls and bubbling mountain springs (which we had the opportunity to drink from later on). After the jump, we drove just a bit further to the historic town of Koprivshtisa. We only spent about 40 minutes there because it's tiny, but Yoana told us all about the history of the town. It's famous because it was one of the centers of the "April Uprisings" which is the movement that eventually led to Bulgaria's freedom from the tyrannic Ottoman Empire.  Beyond that, it's just a cute, quite Bulgarian town. The village filled with red-roofs, dirt roads, and donkey carriages was so quaint and traditional-looking that it could have been used as a movie set. Simply picturesque. Then, we moved on to the Starosel Winery and Vineyard for lunch.  We once again dined on impossibly-cheap, scrumptious Bulgarian food and wine (I had lamb and Alexa had goat) and then we got to tour the place! Bulgarian wine is fairly unknown in the wine world, but it won't be for long. Their climate is perfect for vineyards, and they take care and pride in their wine. It wouldn't surprise me if the wines from the Balkan Peninsula (Serbia, Croatia, Romania, etc) begin to make a name for themselves in the US very soon. Then, we made the final journey to Yoana's hometown of Plovdiv. She showed us around for the couple remaining hours of sunlight. Plovdiv is even more picturesque than Sofia. Although some of the buildings and sidewalks are crumbling due to their economic crisis, the town makes up for it in it's historic architecture. After getting a tour of the city centre and old town, we climbed one of the "seven hills of Plovdiv" to watch the sunset. We had the most amazing view of the beautiful red-roofed houses and cobblestone roads as we watched the sun go down. Then, we went to Yoana's house for dinner and later caught the night bus to Istanbul!

view of the sunset from one of Plovdiv's 7 hills
Assen's Fortress
5 days later, we returned to Bulgaria for Easter. The first day we spent at her house with her family relaxing. Then, Easter Sunday! Normally the Catholic and Orthodox Easter don't land on the same Sunday (they use different calenders) but this year it did! Orthodox follow many similar traditions of dying eggs and sharing a meal with family but they have a few traditions of their own. Many devout followers of the orthodox faith do not eat animal products for the entirety of lent, so on Easter Sunday they eat lamb to break their fast. Also, at mid-night on Easter morning they light candles and walk around their church three times. Beyond that it was pretty similar, family time and delicious food, wine and rakia, a popular hard liquor in Bulgaria that is similar to brandy. In the morning, we enjoyed some delicious, homemade sweet bread that Yoana's mom made that was very similar to Italian panatonne, yogurt and hard boiled eggs of course! Orthodox christians have egg-wars to see who will have the most luck in the coming year! Basically it just means hitting your hard-boiled egg against another to see who's will break first. Alexa was the winner at the end of the day. After breakfast, Yoana's dad took us into the mountains to visit an old 11th century monastery and a 9th century fortress on top of a mountain! Both were stunningly beautiful and unexpected surprises for our Easter Sunday. By the time we got back, it was lunch time. We dined on homemade bread made by Yoana's grandma, salad, potatoes, deviled eggs, rice with liver and lamb. Although no one else in Yoana's family spoke English, Alexa and I did our best to communicate with smiles and hand gestures while she wasn't translating.  They were all extremely kind and hospitable to us. We all shared a lovely lunch and a relaxing night.

The last day we woke up packed up for good. Yoana's mom spoiled us with homemade banitsa (amazing) for breakfast. After, we said goodbye and thanked Yoana's family for their over-the-top hospitality and hopped on a bus back to Sofia. Later, we got a taxi to the airport and said goodbye to Yoana. It was an amazing trip. Although Bulgaria could use a little fixing up, I'd still recommend visiting it. The people are kind

, the food and wine is great and there is so much history and gorgeous scenery to be discovered.  Go to Bulgaria, and you won't regret it :)

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