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Mount Vitosha

Mount Vitosha


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This morning Dave and I did something I'd been wanting to do since I first got to Bulgaria; we took a cable car up Mount Vitosha, the mountain overlooking Sofia. The cable car trip alone was worth the 10 leva it cost for a return ticket, because it was the longest I've ever been on and we were surrounded by beautiful forested slopes most of the time. Needless to say, the view of Sofia laid out before us in the distance was a grand sight as well; it reminded me of our view of Quito from the top of Pichincha Volcano.

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The cable car didn't take us all the way to the top of any of the peaks (there were at least three peaks of the mountains), but where it dropped us off was lovely, so we didn't feel the need to continue further - we just fancied a lovely stroll around, rather than an extremely strenuous hike in the manner of our Ben Nevis and Cotopaxi Volcano ascents.

Unfortunately, after only five minutes in one direction a man came sprinting past us at full pelt; after we'd continued for five minutes further we saw why. A man was lying on the ground, unconscious, with a small group of people around him trying to bring him to. We really hoped that he'd just fainted (maybe due to the altitude), or maybe tripped over and knocked himself out, rather than anything worse. He was right by the edge of the path ahead of us. As we got closer, we looked back and saw two Bulgarian paramedics come running up the path through the wood, so we got out of the way sharpish. There was clearly nothing we could personally do to help, so we continued, hoping though that the man would be OK.

The scenery was beautiful, with lots of large flattish rocks in piles, rhododendrons, bushes with very fluffy, cotton-like seed clumps, what looked like very large and fleshy-looking thistles and the occasional grove of pine or fir trees.

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The trail was well signposted. After about twenty minutes we reached a plateau of long-grassed heath, with more groves of trees further down the slope on our right hand side and a very high ridge/ peak on our left.

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We looked round for a bit before heading back the way we'd come. The man at the side of the path had now disappeared.

Once we got back to where the cable car had landed, we set off on a trail in the other direction. We had even better views from here than on the other one.

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The sun was still shining and it wasn't very windy at all considering we were very high up a mountain. On our return from there it was now lunchtime, so we stopped at a café and in Bulgarian I ordered us kyufte, kebapche, shopska salad and some chips for us to share, before we took the cable car back down again.

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Posted by 3Traveller 11:27 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged mountains dave bulgaria butterflies bulgarian_cuisine mount_vitosha Comments (0)

Dave arrives - ready for 3 weeks of adventure!

Sofia


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Yesterday I returned to Sofia and checked into my old favourite, Hostel Mostel. The journey from Skopje went smoothly and the border crossing was quicker than on the way in.

Taken on my walk to the hostel;

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Once I'd checked in, I walked down the road to another old favourite - a particular pizza kiosk/ café I know of round the corner from Boulevard Vitosha and the Court of Justice - for a late lunch. After that I just relaxed for a few hours at the hostel, before having their free dinner of pasta, sauce and salad. I met up with 'R' and her brother for a bit before going to bed - I was in a dorm room that night, but after Dave arrived today we moved into a private double.

This morning, before Dave arrived, I took 'R' and her brother to the Monument to the Soviet Army. After looking round it for a bit I left them to explore further, because I needed to get the bus to airport.

Once Dave and I had checked into our double room, we didn't do all that much for the rest of the day. He had had to get up very early to go to the airport, so he was now knackered and needed a rest.

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We did go out for a walk with his DSLR camera, however; we revisited the wonderful pizza place and Dave got a few shots of the Court of Justice and Boulevard Vitosha.

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This pizza place makes all their pizzas by hand; we saw a woman getting freshly-made dough out of a huge tub and then rolling it out into a massive circle. I've seldom seen such massive pizzas before. Every now and then she'd get delicious-looking, well loaded pizzas out of the oven, cut it into slices and transfer them into the glass cases from where customers can take their pick.

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In the evening we played some pool, had our free dinner and saw 'R' and her brother again. Tomorrow we've decided to go to Mount Vitosha, the mountain that provides a picturesque backdrop to Sofia.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:48 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged airport hostel dave sofia bulgaria boulevard_vitosha soviet_monument Comments (0)

Highlights of Skopje

Skopje


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The maze-like big bazaar

Stall after stall of fruit, vegetables, other foods, clothes, household goods and electronics... I passed stalls piled high with hen and duck eggs, cabinets filled with loose frozen chicken legs and fish, stalls with huge mounds of loose rice and beans; the scent of spices filled my nose. I kept walking and walking and at every turn there was something interesting to see! No tourist trinket type stalls at all - it was clearly a place for locals rather than tourists. I would have loved to have taken loads of photos, but although not unfriendly, the stallholders looked at me quite strangely whenever I stopped walking for more than a second or two, so I only took one or two and didn't have time to stop and see if they came out OK. I didn't buy anything as I will be in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul with Dave soon, where I'm sure I'll be able to get anything I could have got here.

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Wandering the old town

The streets were filled with goldsmiths, silversmiths and wedding dress shops, with the occasional kebab counter, antiques shop or other shop thrown in.

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For example, there was one shop that only sold honey, and a tiny one which only sold syrupy batter sweets made in-store by the owner. I bought myself something a lot like the Bulgarian tolumbi, but longer and in a different shape.

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At one point I was just passing a mosque when the muezzins' calls started booming out over loudspeaker from mosques all over the city. One or two minutes after it began, men started streaming past me from all directions. None of them were in traditional Islamic dress, but they all took their shoes off and gathered to one side. I sat down in the shade on a handily placed bench at a discreet distance and watched as the calls continued and the men knelt down and prayed.

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The church of Sveti Spas was in the old town, too. It has the most magnificent iconostasis; the sheer amount of detail the carvings had was simply spectacular, with each section carved from a single piece of wood. I was given a free tour of it; I was shown the figures from the Bible who the artist carved in 19th century Macedonian traditional wedding outfits, and the executioner of St John the Baptist who was portrayed as an Ottoman Turk.

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The shiny new Archaeology Museum of Macedonia, which contains exhibits which were formerly held within the Museum of Macedonia. World class!

Macedonian denari

Banknotes come in 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 10 denari denominations and coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 50. The MKD has become among my favourite currencies to date, because the banknotes are very colourful and instead of having portraits of famous people, they have pictures of icons and artifacts, birds and flowers. The coins also have pictures of native animals, plus a stylised sun (like on the Macedonian flag).

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Kale Fortress

This provided some panoramic views over Skopje and was nice to walk around, though part of it was fenced off.

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I also visited Macedonia Square, which was very impressive...

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...plus the Museum of Macedonia, which was less so. For a national museum the lighting wasn't very good, plus the exhibition of 20th century history wasn't very imaginatively displayed and the signage was poor. In the ethnographical section the lighting was also very poor in places, but had some interesting traditional musical instruments, painted Easter eggs, facsimiles of old photos of traditional buildings (my favourite was the one that looked like it was all made of wicker) and traditional fishing equipment.

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I also had time to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was small but held a lot of sobering information about the fate of the Balkan Jews in WWII, plus more general information about their history until then and their traditional lifstyles. I was particularly interested to read about Ladino, or Judean-Spanish, a language which developed from the Sephardic origins in Spain and has not completely died out yet.

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Something I think Skopje could improve on is the state of their river - the water itself looks OK enough, cleaner than the Thames at any rate, but they haven't really done anything to the banks. The concrete is filled with weeds growing through the cracks. It looks quite incongruous actually, because there are so many obviously shiny new statues and monuments everywhere, plus new walkways further back from the banks.

Pictures from my walk back to the hostel at dusk;

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Miscellaneous pictures of Skopje;

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Posted by 3Traveller 08:19 Archived in Macedonia Tagged bridges mosque market museum skopje macedonia fortifications orthodox_church traditional_customs Comments (0)

Arrival in Macedonia

Skopje


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On the journey from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia I was unlucky enough to miss all the sunflower fields by the side of the main road (I think I dozed off right at the wrong moments), but luckily I didn't miss any of them in Macedonia. The sunflowers are blooming right now and they are a magnificent sight! Aside from fields of waving sunflowers, the landscape in Macedonia was a mixture of dramatic mountains, grassy hills and farmland.

At the border our bags were checked once and our passports twice, but we weren't given passport stamps unfortunately (I was really hoping I'd get a stamp!) Our baggage checks took longer than they should have done because a small group of young British guys had theirs checked extra hard; after the rest of us had been finished with and got back on the minibus, the guards were still out checking their bags with an extra-fine comb. The others told me they they thought it was because when the guards had originally got on the bus to check passports, the guys had annoyed them by laughing and joking around! Nothing dodgy was found though, clearly, because eventually they were allowed back on the bus.

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Just as we drove away from the border there was a moment of shock - we passed right next to an overturned car in the road, either incredibly rusty or burnt out, with policemen next to it. No ambulances were there.

About an hour into Macedonia, the sun set; it looked incredibly pink. My photo doesn't do it justice.

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On arrival at Skopje's main bus station, I found my way to the hostel OK - it was only about 15 minutes' walk. Macedonia also uses the Cyrillic alphabet and in fact the language is very similar to Bulgarian. The girl at reception just told me that there's been a mix-up and I'm actually supposed to be at Shanti Hostel 1 rather than Shanti Hostel 2, and when I said 'nyama problem' (no problem) she asked if I spoke Macedonian! I had to say "no, but I do know a little bit of Bulgarian!"

Just about to move down the road to Shanti Hostel 1! Macedonian time is an hour behind Bulgarian time, so it feels a bit later to me than it actually is. After over seven hours of total travel time today, bed is certainly calling.

Posted by 3Traveller 07:06 Archived in Macedonia Tagged hostel buses bulgarian skopje macedonia Comments (0)

Money-changing in Sofia


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A short time in Sofia to change buses - a much smoother process than I was expecting. I'd heard that I might have to get my ticket to Skopje from Serdika bus station, rather than the central one; my only previous experience of Serdika being my unsuccessful attempt to find a bus to Koprivshtitsa back in April, I thought it might turn out to be a lot of hassle to find one to Skopje. As it turned out, however, I managed to get a ticket for the next bus to Skopje from the central bus station very quickly and easily.

I had a bit of time to kill, so I tried to change some leva into Macedonian denari. No such luck, so I decided to walk along to Serdika bus station after all, just to find another bureau de change. Luckily I managed to find one quickly and got my hands on some denari for the first time. It looked quite exotic to me, very colourful. The name is evocative of the Roman denarii, too - after all, Macedonia did used to be in the Roman Empire...

Posted by 3Traveller 06:57 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged buses sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

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