Travelogue - May 18 to June 10, 2009 - Wien, Sofia, Smolyan

Last year I won an award from and Wombats Hostels for a free stay.  When Earl said he would be showing his exhibition in Sofia May/June 2009, I decided to use my free stay in Vienna. Unfortunately, Earl didn't want to join me in Vienna since he was lugging his stamp collection.  I decided to add a week before and after Earl's show to take in Vienna and explore more of Bulgaria on my own. 

I am going to supplement this travelogue using some of the emails that I sent to Earl during my trip.
I am hoping to create specialized guides on Sofia, Smolyan, and the flora/fauna of the Rhodopi region in the near future.

Feel free to skip the narration and just look at the photos. Enjoy.

Monday, May 18, 2009 - Wien
First time taking Air Berlin.  For some reason I was called back to the counter after I checked in and received my boarding pass.  However, they told me it was a false alarm.

Chatted with a friendly East Berliner on plane trip over. He had been doing the hostel thing in Florida and had some interesting experiences to relate.  His first night in Miami Beach was disrupted by a very drunk roommate.  Didn't get any sleep until they turned out the lights on the plane. Air Berlin gave out a nice overnight package of disposable blanket and air pillow. The airline made us fill out a big contact form in case of a svine flu scare.

Made it to the Wombat hostel by 5 pm.They gave me excellent instructions on the three ways of getting there.  Took the S-bahn to U3 to get here (West train station) for the 3,40 euros.  Very well posted subway system.  Easy as Washington DC.  Took about 40 minutes to get to center of town and another 15 minutes to get to Westbahnhof.  There is also a shuttle bus directly to the airport which takes 20 minutes for 6 euros. 

Hostel is extremely modern with electronic locks everywhere. Very busy. Computer area has ten workstations. Fifty cents buys 20 minutes of online time. Lots of information on all the concerts in town.  They claim opera tickets can be had for 3 euros but one has to stand.  They are showing Don Giovanni tonight.  Several chamber ensembles playing as well.  Probably just go to bed early after checking out the neighborhood.  Saved sandwich from flight so wont need to buy dinner.  Breakfast is all u can eat and free with my award.  Otherwise costs 3,70 for everyone else. Tour tomorrow starts at 9am. .  Also have a ticket for a free drink in the bar which maybe I will use tomorrow night. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 - WIen
Had a good nights sleep.  14 hrs.  Went by the tour place yesterday to verify and of course the bike tour was NOT available for today.  Will try again when I return to Wien June 10th.  So slept instead and now will walk into town for tourism.  Met a nice older lady at breakfast.  She is from London but originally Finland via Germany.  Married a German guy and lived in Germany for 15 years.  They moved to England but ultimately the guy got homesick and went back to Germany while she stayed in england with the kids.   She frequently does a vacation work stay at the only orthodox monastery in Finland.  She is going to rent a bike to go around the city.  Seems dangerous to me with all the traffic and not necessarily easy biking as there are hills, trams, etc.  Well, guess I will write a note now to the tour people so they know I ran into a problem.  
Decided to walk to Hundretwasser Haus which was recommended by the guy on the airplane.  According to my map I figured it was about an hour walk. I could take the tube 7 stops but then would miss walking the city.  I see the bike stands.  However, the big catch is that if the bike is stolen, one is liable for 600 euros. Ouch.

Saw a sign for Haydn haus on the way so had to stop and see it. Very interesting for Haydn-philes.  I enjoyed it. The entrance had a video of an african gray parrot which was explained later in one of the rooms.  There is a room dedicated to Brahms as Brahms' home no longer exists.

Then walked by Hofburg which was touting their concert for the evening at 7.30 but decided since i have to get up at 4 am tomorrow not a good idea.  Walked by the mozart haus where they sell concert tickets for only 42 euros as the poor musicians have to play in costume.  Onwards pass St Stefans which was under construction and through the Stadt park and finally after taking a 10 minute wrong turn made it to the Hundretwasser house. Had fun watching tourists take photographs of themselves at the fountain and watched a video about the artist.

Apartment block

Drainage face

Looking into fountain

Street color

Interesting people watching -- brightly colored blue and orange hair and some very crippled people.  One poor fellow had knees that went the wrong direction.

Picked up yogurt for 0.25 euro and a can of soup for 1 euro.  So all set for dinner. Took the tube back to hostel for 1,70 euro as I didn't want to walk back after being on my feet for over 6 hours.  Confirmed bus leaves at 5 am for airport. Vic called my mobile phone to confirm that he is picking me up at 10.20 tomorrow. Had my free beer from the hostel and called it an early night.  The hostel kitchen has a free pasta dispenser so no one needs to starve.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 - Sofia
Didn't sleep so well knowing I had to get up at 4am to catch the bus by 5am to the airport.  It's already getting light.  The bus station is only a five minute walk from the hostel so I am a half hour early. 

Got into Sofia around 10:30. Vic took me home and I immediately went to sleep.  Got up around 15:00 and made good use of Vic's laptop.  Bubbe is taking English lessons online -- 2 hrs every night.  Vic has lodge meeting tonight.  Bubbe made po shopshi -- sereni (feta cheese), onions, olives, tomatoes and egg baked in individual pottery for dinner.  To sleep by 20:30.

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - Sofia
Today is dentist. Now up at 7am. Banitsa for breakfast (layered filo dough pastry with cheese). Bubbe has two appointments this morning then it will be my turn.
Walked down to town with Vic. He took me as far as Levski and I found my way to Bubbe just fine.  It took me about an hour. 

Dentist wasnt as bad as last time.  However, Bubbe Lektar still recommends every six months for me. I used the optum health card to pay for 140 lev bill.

Now walking back home is another issue.  I had to keep checking my notes as I didn't remember any landmarks walking into town with Vic except for the Casino.  I did have to ask directions once to find Journalist square but at least I asked at the right spot because the street that I was standing on didn't have a street sign and that's the one I needed to make a right turn.  

Saw some dresses that resembled my ancient blue one but they were beige and gray for 38 lev.  Shop did not have any others colors and all my accessories go with either black or blue.  Patterns are very popular here.  So had to pass.  Came back and took a nice shower.  Weather was not too hot but not too cool either.  Spent almost 3 hours getting back to the apartment.  Did take a side trip to walk along the canal of ugly sculptures.
Dollar was 1.42 to the lev today so changed $200.  Vic tells me that the hotel he got for us during the weekend will run me about 50 lev.  

Bubbe's brother just arrived in town.  He is living in Brussels and complains that it rains there all the time.  He's going white water rafting.  Vic cooked dinner. He made a chicken dish with coconut and mango chutney.  It was spicy and the kids wouldn't eat it.  Watched "Ratatoille" in Bulgarian on TV.  
Friday, May 22, 2009 - Sofia
So I got to meet Sveta who has a little trouble walking and is an animator of the old school.  These days she's mostly teaching and doing script writing. Had courgettes stuffed with meat sauce along with standard shopse salat and airan. She lives by the old city bath fountains mosque region.  She wanted to know if Earl would mind being interviewed by a her friend who is a reporter.
Took the tram back to apartment to save time and also it is pretty warm out.  It is Chrissy school's 75th anniversary. Actually, there is no school today because of the Cyril and Methodius (the folks who created the cyrillic alphabet) holiday.  The school's program includes Bulgarian folk dancing, a kung fu exhibition, lots of patriotic and pop singing, and poetry reciting.   We left before the end while the rock band was blasting away.  The sound system kept getting louder and louder and I didnt bring earplugs.
Bulgarian folk dancers from Chrissy's school production

Oh, near tragedy. Vic poisoned me with "slightly off" pupesh (honeydew).  At 4am I had to expell it.  Happily I recovered in time to go to Belogradchik.

Saturday, May 23, 2009 - Trip to Belogradchik
We get a late start -- 10:30 am.  A lot of traffic getting out of Bulgaria.  We arrive in Belogradchik at 13:30.  First lunch at the fancy 4 star panoramic Skalite hotel. Chrissy has the 100 Interesting places passport for Bulgaria.  She's excited because she'll receive a special stamp for her passport for Belogradchik.
View from top of Belogradchik fortress

View from top of Belogradchik fortress

Left to right: Happy tourists: Chrissy, Bubbe, Philippe, Vic - at entrance to Belogradchik Fortress

Hiked up to top of fortress at Belogradchik this afternoon. Philip at 3-1/2 managed to make it all the way.  Bubbe gave up on the last leg saying it was too scary. The steps were too narrow for her. 

Went to real mehana tonight where they had serious bulgarian dishes like schembe chorba and nettle soup. Many dishes to sample, including polenta and garlic cheese.

Sunday, May 24, 2009 - Magura Caves and back to Sofia
Just visited the Magura caves which were not so interesting but cold and very slippery.  Saw a few bats flying about. The walk back to the parking lot was hot.  Bought Earl a bottle of the rare Magura Merlot cave wine for 8 leva. Vic bought 6 bottles of rakia.

Vic starved everyone until we got back to the edge of Sofia at 15:30 where there was revolt and he had to stop and feed us all kebache.  Philip received a blue toy BMW for being good. Chrissy received toy pets. 

Vic's friend has a birthday party tonight at 19:30. Vic's mother's coming over to babysit Philip.  Philip has already broken his new toy car.  Trying to eat light at dinner, but Vic insists that I have more than just goulash soup so orders me some aubergines and "death by chocolate" dessert cake.

Monday, May 25, 2009 - Earl arrives.

Slept till 13:00.  It is raining but clears up around 16:00 so walked into town.  Got as far as the NDK, then got confused about which road to take to the Hotel Rodina.  Also, it is getting hot so just took a taxi there.  Earl doesn't show up until 19:00 as he had to drop off his exhibit before settling in. We have dinner with director of the Philatelic Magazine and his wife at the hotel.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 
Breakast buffet 8 am.  Walked up the ten flights of stairs to our room to get some exercise. Earl's turn for the dentist.  Late lunch at a local restaurant so Earl can get his schembe chorba (tripe soup).  Cocktail party at 19:15.  Met the commissioner from Egypt.  Called it a night by 21:00  Earl wakes me up at 3 am because he is having terrible back pain.  This is disturbing and we worry whether he should go to the hospital.  He finally gets to sleep and feels better in the morning.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The day is shot for me after last night's worry.  Earl goes off to do some official duties around noon. Slept most of the day and still went to bed early.

Thursday, May 28, 2009
Up at 7am.  Earl invites the Egyptian and Belgium commissioners to a tour of Sofia.  First stop is to find the stamp bourse which is not open. Visited all the well known sights along with the mosque and the synagogue.  Unfortunately, the synagogue is heavily scaffolded in renovation work.  It is troubling that its sign is defaced with graffiti.  Earl decides to take a taxi back and is hit with a 30 leva charge.  Appears he selected the bad taxi service which charges 5 leva a kilometer versus the ones that charge 0,58 leva a kilometer.  Met Vic and the kids for dinner at Happy Bar and Grill.  Vic has sushi for dinner.   Poor Bubbe has a cold.   Vic is appalled about the taxi fare since we paid 10x too much and states that we should have called the police.

Friday, May 29, 2009
It's a rainy day. The stamp show has snacks at 12.15 so we have lunch with Dr Sherif.  Then we meet Sveta and her friend, Xena, the reporter for coffee.  Back to the stamp show where we get a tour from two Portugese brothers on WWI postal history. We miss the last bus to the hotel so walk back in the rain.  The official stamp dinner is at a mehana (folk tavern restaurant) up on Mount Vitosha.  

Photos and email from Romanian judge: 
As a member of jury at the traditional collection I judge North and South Bulgaria 1879-1893 . I have proposed to candidate for the Grand Prix National. Personally I  appreciate very much this superb collection of Bulgarian. We congratulate you for this wonderful collection that I will never forget. It was really nice to spend together on Vitosha. We will send you some photo images. Leonard and Juliet Pascanu 

Left to right: Julieta and Leonard Pascanu, Federatia Filatelica Romana
MM Francisc Ambruc, and, Bucuresti, Romania

Nikolai from Varna shows Earl some dance steps

Dance steps

Kukeri attack - Dancing (jumping) to Kuzel (Goat) bells.

Saturday, May 30, 2009
Still drizzly out.  We go to a stamp shop where Earl finds some interesting things to buy.  I even find a couple of items for myself.  Dinner is the Awards ceremony and Earl is nominated for the Grand Prix Award which is a golden bull.  He doesn't win the bull, but receives a special crystal award instead.

Sunday, May 31, 2009
Earl's off early to the stamp bourse.  I take a walk to find the central bus station to get my ticket for Smolyan tomorrow.  Afternoon is breaking down the stamp show exhibit at the NDK.  We meet Vic for dinner.  Everyone is down with colds in Vic's household but Philip comes to dinner anyway.  Our first choice, a Lebanese restaurant is closed for a private party so we head to "Captain Cook's" and have fish.  Vic tells us that the owner is the same as "Happy Bar and Grill".  He gets sushi again for dinner.

Monday, June 1, 2009 - Earl leaves. Sofia to Smolyan
Earl has to get up at 4am to go to the airport.  Had a leisurely breakfast with Sherif.  Then strolled over to the bus station for the noon schedule.  It was a five hour bus ride from Sofia to Smolyan.  Don't know where the guidebook got the idea that it was 3.5 hours.  On the bus, a woman got on from Plovdiv and tried to chat to me in Bulgarian.  She was from the bani bani village and was only on the bus for about half an hour.  Was surprized that it takes 15 hours to fly to America.  Says she could never do that!

Anyway, found a pension for 30 leva including breakfast and free internet down the road from the bus station.  Didn't have a lot of time to check around for a cheaper place or a home stay as it was already after 5pm and tourist information is in another part of town. Smolyan is 8 km long so not so easy to walk from one part to another. At least the hostess here speaks English.

Supposedly there is a german also here at the pension so may be available for joint excursions to Yagodina and Trigrad which would make a cheaper outing for all concerned.  I'm not sure whether to stay here or move onto a smaller town.  It might be easier to stay put and just do day trips from here.

Appears the Three Fir-tree hotel/pension ( is listed in Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guide books. My first edition LP is from 2002 so didn't list it.  
Have a light dinner of nettle soup.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 - Smolyan - Visit Waterfalls Canyon
Wandered off around 9:30 to hike out to the local waterfall canyon.  Supposedly a 4 hour walk.  I managed to stretch it to 8 hours.
Needless to say my feet are tired. Also saw defunct trout farm and mineral springs.  A little mouse like creature ran across my path.  Huddled up like a hamster but had a long tail. 
Otherwise only saw bugs.  Nice bugs. Mating bugs.  No biting bugs. 
A little rain but always stopped after a few minutes. Kept the weather interesting.
Fellow here at the pension is Stefan from Stuttgart. He is 38 and did the waterfall hike yesterday. Today he did the difficult journey to see a cave south of here which required hitchhiking part of the way. 
We both agreed that the bridges on the waterfall canyon trail were dodgy.  After I crossed my third bridge I decided to head back as there was a fork in the trail and I wasn't sure which path circled back. The lady of the pension (Milena) is willing to take Stefan and me on tours.  Tomorrow is a nearby castle ruin for 30 leva.  Then going to bite the bullet and take the tour from here to Yagodina and Trigrad for 60 leva.  Otherwise it would take 3 days to travel there and back.  So it doesn't look like I will have any leva leftover.

Potato soup tonight. Hopefully I can lose some weight this trip.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 - Momchil's Fortress
First tour with  Мilena Yurukova, manager of "Three Fir-Tree House".  She drives Stefan and me through Smolyan and tells us about the area's industries of tobacco, wood, dairy and carpets.

The legendary musician, Orpheus of Thrace, is honored in the Rhodopi. 
There are many statues of him and Eurydice.  The Rhodopi is 18,000 km, a coniferous and mixed forested region.  Villages are built on southern slopes to catch the sun.  Agriculture these days is mostly potatoes and beans.  Wells to springs are created as special memorials to the deceased with wishes for good health mixed with remembrance.

 We hike up to the fortress which also has thracian overtones and enjoy a hail storm.
Melina knows all the plants and their various tea, medicinal or herbal properties.  She takes us to a mineral spring and shows me the pine tree she uses to create syrup. On the way back we stop for lunch at a cafeteria and I amuse Melina by getting schembe chorba, along with kebache, hot peppers and cuke/tomato salad.

Thursday, June 4, 2009 - Shiroka Luka, Trigrad, Yagodina and Devin
Up at 7:30 to catch tour at 8 am. Milena's younger son who is 26, Dmitri, drives us today.  
First stop is Shiroka Luka which is traditional town under the throes of development so is a strange mixture of old and new.

Stefan by the statue of the Bagpiper -- a Rhodopi Mountain specialty.

Onwards to Trigrad's Devil Throat cave which features a tremendous underground waterfall and 300 steps up. 

The top of the waterfall as it flows down into the cave.

The scenery there is gorgeous.   Saw some birdwatchers from England doing their thing waiting for a wall creeper to come back to its nest.  Ate lamb rodopi style for lunch which consisted of numerous lamb bits (l detected liver among them) fried with onions and peppers.  They also had lamb lung corba soup on the menu. A mosque in each small town here. 
The road gets narrow driving to the caves.  We then went to another cave (Yagodina) and voted against going in.  Stefan had been to one already Wednesday and I have been to several and we didn't feel the 7.5 leva and 45 minutes was necessary for life.  Then we went to Devin to the mineral springs spa and checked out their swimming pool, jacuzzi and hot tub.  Came back and crashed for an hour.  Didn't do as much as yesterday but feeling worn out.  Maybe soaking in the hot tub made me tired.  Milena's 36 year old son is visiting town on holiday.  He works in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Friday, June 5, 2009  - Smolyan
Visited Neviastata and Turluka Rocks this morning.Supposedly Easy Hike.  Bulgarians have a wonderful sense of humor.
This is where a supposed young comely Bulgarian maiden jumped off the cliff rather than become part of the Sultan's harem so the rock is called "The Bride"
Admittedly, it started out very easy. Nice trail. Even signs to tell you the names of flora and fauna.  Picnic tables.  Signs stating don't get any closer than 3 meters to the edge.  All fine and good. Then Milena took us off trail to go to the other side of the mountain and things got really interesting.  The only person I think I know who would do this hike would be Diana.  Thank goodness I had a walking stick.  Milena is 58 but has been hiking this mountain since she was a child.
Anyway I survived and then went to have wonderful fresh grilled trout at a lakeside restaurant.  My splurge meal at 7.50 leva.  Then went to Planetarium where they have a show in English at 2pm but not enough people so waited for the Bulgarian show at 3pm. A big group of school kids came so I walked in as well and got away without paying the 5 leva.  The big laugh, apex of the show was when they stated that the Bulgarian folk music went on Voyager along with Beethoven, etc.

Weather still nice and cool for the most part as soon as it gets warmer it rains and then it is cool again.  Had excellent weather for hike this morning otherwise we could not have done it.

Saturday, June 5, 2009 - Smolyan
Last day here in Smolyan.  Stefan moved on to Burgas. Went first to find bus station at 9am and buy ticket to Sofia for 10am tomorrow which means I'll get into Sofia around 2pm.

Then went to find your tablecloth as Melina told me where to find one. It's 40 leva.  I don't know if that is a good price or not, but bought it anyway. Went back to the pension to drop off the tablecloth. (Checking my notes -- tablecloth in Sofia last September was 45 leva so I got a deal).

Then off to find Rhodope Regional History Museum which is inconveniently placed high on hill above the main street about 2 km from the pension. My first thoughts were "You've got to be kidding, what jokers these Bulgarians are. Who's going to climb up the mountain to see a museum?"
So I trekked up and found only a block of apartments. Came back down and rechecked my notes and asked a pedestrian.  Yup, its up the hill. I guess I should have turned left instead of right where the path forked. A SIGN WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE.  I'm sure there's a secret road for tourist buses.  It was getting hot so I shucked my vest and stuffed it into my backpack and proceeded up the hill once again.

This time I found the museum which is closed from 12 to 1 -- it was 12:10 pm.  However, the door was open and it was air conditioned inside so I went inside and sat.  Eventually the manager came by and after figuring out that I wasn't with a group went ahead and let me inside.  
LOVELY museum and I had the place to myself.  English translations plus a detailed page for each exhibit in various languages if folks are interested in reading more.  Great costumes, folk art, etc.  Got the postcard and pechat. That makes five for this trip.  The manager also gifts me a couple of souvenir medal pins.
Right across the entrance a stone's throw is the Art Gallery so went there as well.  The manager from the Regional Museum hunted up the manager for the gallery so they could open the door for me.  I tried to buy a card there but the woman just gives me the card as a gift souvenir.

No McD or KFC in this region yet.  Have now seen the magical head shake for DA a couple of times and the nodding NE once. 
Milena shows me her tea brew of elderberry flowers which is soaked with lemon for 24 hours in spring water. Sugar is added and it is not boiled.  

Sunday, June 6, 2009 - Smolyan to Sofia

Today was a lot of experience sharing. First with Ken Gillham from Perth Australia who is a stock photographer and passing through Smolyan today. So we chatted during breakfast.

Then on the bus, Jan and David Peacham  from Sussex, England  jumped on and we chatted all the way to Sofia.  They decided to stay at the Arte Hotel  near the center of Sofia for 90 euros (breakfast 10 euros more).  It had very good a/c and its location at Dondukov Street is close to the palace. They treated me to a beer.  It was fun comparing notes.

Too hot to walk so took the tram back to Vic's. Poor 10 year old Chrissy is suffering from chicken pox, day 6.  Of course she is concerned about her appearance and prone to crying fits.

Just had two plates of moussaka. I was hungry for some reason.

Monday, June 7, 2009 - Sofia to Wien
Got into Vienna and checked in. Vic recommended zoo at Schonbrunn so I went there this afternoon. 
GREAT zoo -- supposedly the oldest in Europe. There's an aquarium, interactive bats, insects, birds.
Unfortunately, my camera battery died early into the zoo.

Too bad as I saw some great bugs and beautiful birds. Had bratwurst which was like knockwurst and chips which were like sliced french fries for 6,30 euros at the zoo. That plus 2,20 each way for the tram and 12 euros for the zoo entrance shot my budget for the day so I had some free pasta here at the hostel for dinner. I think Earl would like Vienna.  It has plenty of stuff to do and it is mostly flat to walk and good transportation. Travel Shack folks tell me the bike tour is ON for tomorrow so that will occupy me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - Wachua Valley, Austria
Just got back from the bike tour in Wachau Valley .  It was very nice and I got directions so I can do it on my own by train and boat next time we come to Wien.  Most of the bike ride was fairly easy considering there were a few hills.  The tour normally costs 59 euros so it was a nice award.
A bunch of American college graduates (2 girls from Texas, 2 guys from Madison, Wisconsin and the rest of the guys were from upstate NY) were on the tour. They all got plastered.  A 31 year old surgeon from Brazil kept me company.  There was also a young couple from Ireland and a 1st G Indian from London.  13 of us plus our guide.
The BBQ lunch was very good with sausage wrapped in bacon stuffed with cheese, bratwurst and pork, steaks, german potato salad, beets and mixed salad. 

Plenty of wines to taste -- young ones, peppery ones and sweet ones.

Sugar granules.

There was plenty of white wine to taste but I didn't drink much of it.  I also avoided the apricot soaked snappes. Instead, indulged in an ice cream cone and a coca cola light. 
Watched the kids play ball in the Danube.  I didn't feel like braving the water.

Stopped in Durnstein where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned briefly.

We got back to town by 19:00 and I went to the Wombar to collect my free beer.  Chatted with a guy from San Antonio and a fellow from New Zealand.  Interesting question posed to me -- if it was my last day on earth and could go anywhere in the world, where would I go?

Side note: The fellow from Brazil had boarded the plane flight that took off before the one that went down over the Atlantic.  He was lucky as his flight had been overbooked. Seven people from his flight were put on that fatal journey.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - Return to Miami
I met a fellow from Norway with a substantial hat yesterday at breakfast.  He's still around today but moving on.  So am I.  Caught the 8.40 bus to the airport. It's drizzly out so cooler than yesterday.  The weather won't be very nice for the bike tour people today.  Flight connections were tight but only because the boarding ticket listed its time an hour before the actual flight.  Had enough space on the plane to stretch out for the long flight.  Listened to several hours of "Wait wait don't tell me" that I had downloaded into my I-pod.  Got back to Miami at 18:00 and blasted by the heat getting off the plane.

Marisa Galitz,
Jun 12, 2009, 8:41 PM