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Veliko Tarnovo: Tsarevets Fortress, Bulgarian cuisine & more

Veliko Tarnovo


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I've had a lovely few days here since my arrival on Monday. The sun has shone, I've had a lovely wander round the town and I still cannot get over how amazing the view is from my bedroom and kitchen windows, the terrace outside and the road in front!

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On Thursday afternoon I visited Tsarevets Fortress, a restored medieval stronghold that was the seat of the Tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1393. The bridge to the fortress hill is only five minutes' walk from my flat! It was perfect weather - barely a cloud in the sky - and as I walked across the bridge and then around the fortress I felt so happy and relaxed. It felt quite surreal to know that although I probably looked like a tourist, I actually live here. I could see where I live, a building just beyond the light turquoise domes of an Orthodox church, with a cobbled road below it and then the river Yantra flowing even further below that, at the bottom of the valley.

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There are three big hills in Veliko Tarnovo; one has the fortress on it, one (where I live) contains most of the town, and the third has part of the town running round some of the base, some medieval foundations/ ruins further up (apparently they are part of the fortress too, despite being on a different hill) and then forest at the top. Beyond these hills there are forested mountains/ even higher hills/ enscarpments - some of them have a layer of bare rock below their summits.

Anyway, back to the fortress... the information on the signs came in Bulgarian, Russian and German, but no English beyond the names of the different sections of the fortress. The area of the fortress is pretty wide, because in its pomp it contained many separate buildings; 18 churches, monasteries, the royal palace, the Patriarchate tower right at the top of the hill, craftsmen's workshops and so on. Of most of these, only the foundations and parts of the walls remain, but the Patriarchate was completely reconstructed in 1981. The inner walls are covered in modernist frescoes of religious and historical subjects. For an extra 2 leva I was taken upstairs to the top of the tower for even more spectacular views over Veliko Tarnovo and the surrounding countryside. I could still see my bedroom windows, on the hill opposite.

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Once I left the Patriarchate, came down the hill and turned right to wander round the rest of the fortress, the number of other people gradually tailed away until finally I was the only person around. I looked round the ruins of the palace and passed through/ around many foundations of very small churches.

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Eventually I reached an overhanging rock nicknamed the 'Execution Rock' because traitors used to be pushed off it to their deaths in the river far below. All this while I kept my eyes out for sightings of lizards lying on top of the sun baked foundation walls, because a sign had told me to look out for reptiles, but I only saw one very small brown one. There were more wonderful views here and as I walked round the outer wall to exit where I'd come in.

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On Thursday evening I was taken out for dinner with the other teachers at Han Hadji Nikoli Restaurant. This turned out to be in a historic building that used to be an inn and now contains a small museum and an art gallery as well as the restaurant. It lies on a cobbled street within the historic craftsman's quarter where some craftsmen still work. It's within five minutes' walk from my flat. I had baked trout with almonds for my main (it came with sautéed potatoes and onions) and créme brulée for dessert. I was also offered some plum rakia, a very strong traditional fruit brandy, but I'm afraid I didn't like it at all. I was hoping it would taste quite sweet and very fruity, like cherry brandy or like the Portuguese ginjinha and fruity Cape Verdian firewater that Dave and I tried in Lisbon, but it didn't. Oh well, at least I tried it! I also tried some 'liqueur wine', made from a type of grape that the Romans grew, and loved it. Now that was sweet and fruity. I'll definitely bear that in mind for future visits! After dinner most of us went to 'Tequila Bar' for a couple of drinks.

Speaking of food, I've tried 'Tarator' for the first of what I know will be many times; this is a cold, yoghurt-based soup made from unsweetened yoghurt, cucumber chunks, garlic, dill and very finely chopped nuts. In the same meal I also had a chicken dish I can't remember the name of but was cooked and served in a clay pot. It was basically chicken stew with sliced tomato and mushrooms, with cottage cheese-like white cheese and a fried egg on top. With a dessert, the whole lot came to nearly 15 leva - just over £6! Everything is so cheap here.

I bought some vegetables at a fruit and veg market on Wednesday; although I hadn't intended to get quite so many, I ended up with a sackful of red peppers! Peppers and aubergines seem to be the main vegetables in season here right now. I don't think I've ever seen such large aubergines before. Walnuts also seem to be very popular here. The almonds are just about to start dropping - there are two trees within a few metres from my front door!

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Earlier today I walked down to the river, visited the little Church of the Forty Martyrs and watched two fishermen at work in the river. One of them was using a three-cornered net which looked only about a square metre wide.

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The church is made from a peculiar type of stone with holes in, a bit like Swiss cheese! I saw some ancient murals inside, and lit a beeswax candle for Dad in a tiny chapel in the garden.

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I've met my new employers and colleagues, had a couple of training sessions (one of which was about TOEFL, something I never taught in Ecuador) and have been taken to the immigration centre to sort out my residency/ work permit and ID card. I've also been told about the Bulgarian way of indicating 'yes' and 'no'. They nod very decisively to mean 'no' and kind of wobble their heads from side to side to mean 'yes', though apparently the younger generations more often do it the way most other countries do.

I've been given my provisional timetable for next week; so far I have an FCE class, two Elementary classes and a Pre-Intermediate class. Thursday is my weekday day off (everyone gets Sundays off because the school closes then). The week after that I'll definitely be given more classes to add to these.

Last winter was very mild here, apparently, but when it's not mild there is usually loads of snow, with easily four feet falling in one night. Apparently the town and hills look magical in the snow; I can well believe it, considering how beautiful they look already.

I'm going out for some drinks tonight so I'd better go now and get ready!

Posted by 3Traveller 08:26 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art lizards market dad bulgaria veliko_tarnovo explorations english_teaching fortifications orthodox_church tsarevets_fortress han_hadji_nikoli bulgarian_cuisine river_yantra Comments (0)

Oxford: Lardy cake, witch in a bottle, shark & more

Cumnor and Oxford


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Breakfast at the Bear & Ragged Staff was excellent (I had Eggs Benedict for the first time) and afterwards we admired a small display of objects that had been found under the floorboards of the pub in 1988. There was an empty Player's Navy Cut cigarette packet, an empty Martins Gold Leaf cigarette packet, several marbles (including clay ones), an old handpainted King of Spades playing card, an ink bottle, a key, some buttons and one or two other things.

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After this we checked out and drove into Oxford. The first thing we did was browse in and buy lots of books from the Oxfam Bookshop on St Giles.

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Then we went on to the Covered Market, home of the famous Oxfordshire lardy cake, venison sausages and much much more. Mum bought some special pies at a butcher/ piemaker's and both of us bought two lardy cakes at a bakery stand. Oxfordshire lardy cake is one of the most delicious sweet things I've ever tasted, especially when heated.

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A quick look at the High Street followed. First of all we went into Payne & Son, the silversmith where Dad got Mum her engagement ring.

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While Mum was still in there, I walked down the road a little bit to have a quick look at Queen's College, where Dad went. Unfortunately the place was closed to tourists, but through the open main door I did get a view of part of the quadrangle.

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Mum then went off to sort the car out before the parking ticket ran out and I paid a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum. To get there I passed through part of the Natural History Museum. From left to right: the museum, the jaw of a sperm whale, a dinosaur skeleton, a stuffed flamingo and the Oxford Dodo.

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I'd recommend both of these to anyone, but especially Pitt Rivers. It's one of the best anthropology museums in the world and is an absolute treasure trove. Totally fascinating. I wandered round for ages looking at a variety of exhibits, including amulets, charms and other objects used for divination in Africa, Asia and the Americas...

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...a small silver bottle said to have a witch inside...

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...unusual musical instruments from around the world, including a shell used as a trumpet for fog warnings at sea in Cornwall in the 19th century, nose flutes from the Pacific, and an Indian fiddle in the shape of a peacock...

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...weapons, shields, armour, masks, shrunken heads, Native American clothing and 'moss figures' from Russia (carved wooden figures covered in moss, who were used to worship a god who guarded the forest).

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The armour included some from Kiribati made from coconut fibre with a helmet made from a porcupine fish;

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Eventually Mum picked me up and we drove back to St Albans the quick way. On our way out of Oxford we passed by the famous model of a shark a man has sticking out of his rooftop. A very surreal sight anywhere, the fact that it's in an otherwise perfectly normal house in the suburbs makes it even more so.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:16 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art united_kingdom hotel market museum oxford mum traditional_customs british_cuisine Comments (0)

St Albans: Re-acquaintance with my hometown

St Albans


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Edit from January 2019: Little Marrakesh is still there, and is still one of my favourite restaurants in St Albans. St Albans Museum moved into the refurbished Town Hall on St Peter's Street in 2018.

I've had a very nice couple of days at home, revisiting the familiar and also looking at part of it in a new light.

Yesterday morning Mum, Emma and I went on a St Albans heritage walk round the Abbey parish, looking at the WW1 wall memorials with an official guide. These war memorials are either unique in the UK or very close to that. Instead of having a 'normal' war memorial, memorials were put on walls around the parish instead, some on private houses. Each memorial has the names of men from that street who died in the war. I'd passed by one or two of these before but never stopped to look properly, so it was interesting to find out a bit more about them. Our guide was very informative. What brought it alive were the stories behind some of the soldiers; many of them were brothers, brothers-in-law, cousins or friends of others either on the same memorial or other ones that the guide showed us. A couple of times she also pointed out a house close to one of the memorials and said that one of the soldiers on the memorial had lived there.

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After the walk finished Mum went round to Edward & Maria's for lunch and Emma and I walked round the market. I bought a chocolate brownie from a particular bakery stall which does especially thick, moist and tasty ones; I saved it for later, though, instead of having it there and then. After this quick look round the market we had lunch at Little Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant I'm very fond of. They do a good set lunch deal; a starter and main for £9.95. They do an exceptionally well-flavoured salmon steak with vegetables in a creamy sauce, served sizzling in a tagine. The hummous and bread was very good as well. Another thing I love about Little Marrakesh is its atmosphere and decoration. I haven't been to Morocco yet but it's almost exactly how I've always imagined a restaurant there to be like.

From Little Marrakesh Emma and I went to the cathedral to have a look at a small temporary exhibition of photos of and more background information about the soldiers from the wall memorials we had heard about earlier. I took a few photos of the inside of the cathedral while I was at it.

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The Clock Tower and an ice cream van were our next stops, before continuing on to St Albans Museum.

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Mum met up with us there and we all had a look round the new temporary exhibition, which was also WW1 themed; the 'home front' in St Albans and in Worms, St Albans' German twin town. I thought it was a really good idea to have information about the experience from both sides. From the temporary exhibition we moved upstairs to the permanent one. I've been to this museum several times over the 29 years of my life and so I have some favourite exhibits; the helmet and chainmail of Sir Richard Lee (knighted by Henry VIII), the colourfully painted Tudor roundels (small wooden discs/ mats used to hold sweets or sugared fruit), medieval leather childrens' shoes, the fishtank with fish in it, the 15th-century book printed in English in St Albans and the stuffed woodland animals and birds.

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Today for pudding at dinnertime we had fresh strawberries, sugar and cream - something I really wanted to have while I was in England this summer. It's one of my all-time favourite puddings! I had the occasional strawberry in Ecuador but they were always slightly sour. Maybe because they have such a wide range of sweet, ripe and juicy tropical fruits, non-tropical fruit like strawberries aren't quite at the same level there and are actually better in a non-tropical country like the UK. (That's my theory, anyway.)

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Posted by 3Traveller 12:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged united_kingdom market museum cathedral sisters mum clock_tower st_albans st_albans_cathedral Comments (0)

Madrid: Art, anthropology, El Rastro flea market and more

Madrid


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Off to the airport soon...

These are the highlights of the last couple of days in Madrid.

- The Museum of Anthropology - quite small but interesting, especially because it concentrated on countries that were formerly owned/controlled by Spain or at least had a significant Spanish presence; for example Latin America, the USA, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo. It also contained a mummy discovered in a cave in Tenerife in the eighteenth century and the skeleton of a 'giant' who was born in Spain in 1849.

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Andean masks



- General street scenes and beautiful buildings that I've passed - Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, colourful buildings in side streets, a busker playing a set of glasses (running his finger round the rims with water) outside the Royal Palace, the grandness of Gran Vía (the main street; I came across a National Geographic shop there where I bought a lovely t-shirt on special offer at a 40% reduction)...

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- El Rastro, the enormous street flea market held every Sunday morning. I didn't buy anything but it was lovely to browse all the same.

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- The Museum of the Americas. There were lots of really interesting exhibits, just as I guessed there would be; highlights for me were the pre-Columbian objects, especially the exquisite gold figures from the Quimbaya culture of Colombia, a carved wooden statue made by the Chimú culture of Peru, and a Peruvian mummy with the gold jewellery she'd been buried with. There was also a 19th-century Guatemalan violin and sheet music which I was very taken with.

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There was a lovely little park opposite the entrance, too, with a statue of Simón Bolívar, one of the liberators of Spanish South America.

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- A special weekend lunch deal of a starter, main, dessert and drink for 13 euros at a Thai restaurant. It might seem strange to have Thai food in Madrid, but I suddenly had a craving for it. Hadn't had any Thai food since January, after all. I had stir-fried vegetables in a really tasty sauce for my starter, stir-fried chicken with a vegetable and peanut sauce and rice for the main and tapioca for pudding.

- Reina Sofía Museum, where I saw Picasso's 'Guernica', lots of works by Salvador Dalí, Miró and other artists, plus a Richard Hamilton exhibition. I bought a fridge magnet of Guernica in the shop. I've always liked the Surrealists and I remember doing a study on Picasso for A-Level Art back in 2003...

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- Gazpacho, grilled grouper with salad, ice cream, churros...

Posted by 3Traveller 08:49 Archived in Spain Tagged art market museum spain madrid pre_columbian_artifacts spanish_cuisine Comments (0)

Goodbye to Guayaquil

Guayaquil


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Monday 28th

Today I went back to my now-former-workplace to do a few final things and say goodbye to everyone. These things included: paying a visit to Western Union to transfer most of the money from my Ecuadorian bank account to the UK, making use of the printer to print off my flight e-tickets and my Madrid hostel reservation email, collecting a parcel from Emma from the post office using a slip that had arrived at work while I was away, going up onto the flat roof of the building to take photos of the view on each side, going out for lunch (seco de pollo) at the booths round the corner for the last time, and having an exit interview with the Director of Studies.

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It was relatively late in the afternoon by the time I got back, so I didn't do much else apart from go out for dinner. I had a churrasco (at this place, a thin steak with ratatouille-type vegetables and two fried eggs on top, with chips and rice) and then a cup of morocho for pudding.

Tuesday 29th

In the morning I got a bus into Guayaquil city centre for a last look-around. I visited the Central Market for the first time - as soon as I entered I really wished I'd discovered it much sooner. It was filled with fruit, vegetable and herb stalls, stalls of sausages hanging up, stalls selling sacks of flour, beans, pulses etc., and stalls selling tins and packets of food as well as more general non-edible household goods. It was very much like the Daily Market in Otavalo and the general market in Banos, only without the café-stands selling guinea pig, other typical Ecuadorian dishes and slices taken from whole roasted pigs.

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Then I walked past the hotel where I stayed with Mum in February, so on an impulse I went into its café and had a cup of their wonderful hot chocolate. Then I said goodbye to the iguanas in Iguana Square and carried on straight ahead to the Malecón.

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I climbed up one of the viewing towers next to the River Guayas, which is what I'd done on my first visit to the city centre on my second full day in Ecuador. It was perfectly sunny, without a cloud in the sky.

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My next stop was the Artisan Market, another place I had never been inside before for some reason. On the way there I walked past La Barca Azul, the lunch restaurant where I ate several times and took most of my visitors to, but I didn't feel hungry enough for lunch yet so I didn't go in. At the market I had a quick look round and then took a bus back to Urdesa.

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As soon as I'd dumped my stuff I went straight out again, this time to the Banco Pichincha cash machine to take out the rest of the money I had left in my account. I'd left enough in there to change into Euros once I got to Madrid, so I wouldn't need to use my HSBC card there at all, and hopefully have some left over as well. Before I took the bus back to my street corner, first of all I bought a sandwich and a carton of coffee milk from Oki Doki (a convenience store... I remember finding the name very amusing when I first got here) and then I did a little bit of shopping at Mi Comisariato supermarket. Amongst other things, I bought a bottle of Ecuadorian créme de cacao to take back to the UK.

Two minutes before I had to get off the bus, 'Vivir mi Vida' by Marc Antony came onto the radio. I've heard this played so often on the buses (and elsewhere) ever since I arrived in Ecuador that I've come to consider it my Ecuadorian anthem; it felt very appropriate and right that it was playing on my last bus journey here. It played on my arrival and now it was accompanying me on my way out.

Then I packed everything and at 4pm I somehow managed to get my big and incredibly heavy case down four flights of stairs and out onto the pavement, along with my rucksack, laptop case and a couple of bags of rubbish to put out.

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Then I flagged down a taxi to the airport. The fare was $4, so since all the change I had left came to just above that, I just gave the driver all of it.

Posted by 3Traveller 03:53 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotel market airport cathedral buses iguanas ecuador guayaquil english_teaching malecon_2000 guayaquil_metropolitan_cathedra ecuadorian_cuisine river_guayas Comments (0)

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