Hey, everybody. Good news. Despite everything that could’ve gone wrong over break, considering how many elements were involved in the travel planning, I’m alive, well, and had an amazing time. In fact, it was so awesome I don’t even fully know where to begin to talk about it. But I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning, right? So let’s do that.
Break started when my last class ended on Thursday evening (two weeks ago). I was so excited about fall break that my mind had been nothing else the entire week, so it was good that I had nothing major due. I got back to Skaptopara, packed–not an inconsiderable feat, since I (a notorious overpacker, if you remember my very first blog post) had to fit everything for a week of traveling into my backpack. This includes my purse, as the discount airline we flew with to Rome and back allowed one bag, period. I am proud of this accomplishment. I have pictures as proof.
That night, my friend Elizabeth and I were trying to stay up late because (this is going to sound really convoluted probably. And the side note isn’t helping so oops) our flight left from Sofia airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, meaning we had to be there around 3-4 a.m., and we wanted to be tired enough by Friday evening to get a decent amount of sleep so we wanted to stay awake Thursday night/Friday morning. Elizabeth suggested paper-writing until the wee hours. But, yeah, we were on break and didn’t have that much urgent work to do anyway, so instead we went to see the premiere of James Bond: Skyfall. (Hooray for procrastination.) It was really good, actually. Although I think part of the appeal was seeing Istanbul and London in the movie scenes and saying obnoxiously to Elizabeth, “We’ve been there!”
Anyway. We had a late night, napped, and got up early to take a bus to Sofia. We intended to spend the day sightseeing in Sofia, but for reasons I will explain, that didn’t happen. I hadn’t been to Sofia yet (crazy, huh?) so I was excited. Unfortunately, my first experiences with Sofia were pretty bad. Even though we’d been warned by everyone and their brother to be careful with cab drivers in the capital–they’re notorious for overcharging foreigners–we still ended up with a corrupt taxi driver. He had rates posted (though in retrospect they were a little higher than normal) and a meter that started where it should’ve. But magically, after we’d been driving for around 2 minutes, the meter said we owed 30 leva–and we’d barely left the bus station.
Just for reference, taking a cab anywhere in Sofia is supposed to cost no more than 15 leva; that’s from one end to the other. His excuse was “Traffic, there’s traffic. No more than 50 leva to the mall.” We asked him to stop and found a more reputable taxi. From then on we kept an eagle eye on that darn meter. The second cab driver was very nice. We shopped for a while at The Mall (Sofia has a bazillion giant shopping malls apparently), which was fun because it felt very familiar. I found a Lush cosmetics store (yay! I fell in love with their products in England this summer) and ate lunch at Subway, with fountain soda. So much joy.
With food in our bellies and retail therapy, we went out with a newly enthusiastic outlook to find another cab for the trip to our hostel. The third cab didn’t overcharge us; he simply didn’t know where our street was, pretended he figured it out, and dropped us off at one that sounded sort-of similar, driving off very quickly before we realized. We had no clue where we were or how to get to our hostel. After a couple of hours of wandering around, asking very nice Sofians where to go (including two teenage boys who looked it up on Google Maps for us), we finally reached the hostel. Maybe it won’t surprise you that we didn’t feel like exploring after all of that. We ate at a restaurant close by and crashed for a few hours before taking another cab (that our hostel hostess arranged) to the airport at 3 a.m. Unfortunately, we read our boarding passes wrong and asked to be dropped off at the wrong terminal. In a lot of airports that wouldn’t be a problem, since there will be transportation between terminals, right? Not at Sofia airport at 3:30 a.m. We started walking (man that was a cold morning, too) and halfway there, a taxi pulled up beside us to offer a ride. The driver originally said 5 euros to the terminal (10 leva!), and we laughed at him so he changed it to 5 leva. We took it, even though it was still blatant overcharging, because… well… it was cold.
Oh, and how funny! I pointed at his meter and he said “broken.” -_- I was thinking, “Sir, we are on to your tricks, we just don’t care.”
Moral of this very long story: I didn’t originally like Sofia, though that changed when I returned from Rome. And never ever ever take a taxi in Sofia if you don’t speak fluent, unaccented Bulgarian. If you do need one… CONSTANT VIGILANCE. (It’s really a shame because there are so many nice and honest cab drivers out there.)
Enough about Sofia; I promise I’ll have a ton of good things to say about it after Rome, to balance out the negative. If I told you everything I did, and everything that I thought and felt, while I was in Rome it would literally take about ten blog posts. But essentially, I fell in love with that city. I’ve been to Paris, London, and Istanbul (gosh it’s been a good year), and I liked them all and wanted to spend more time there. But Rome… I actually expected to be disappointed, in a way, because for as long as I can remember it’s been the number-one place I’ve wanted to visit. It was such an ideal in my brain that I thought there was no way the reality could hold up. But it did.
Our plane arrived early on Saturday. We waited a little while for Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Nathan, to arrive from the States and then took a bus into the city. We were all sleepy (the stay-up-late plan on Friday didn’t really work), but man, there was no way I could sleep. Jenny and I just kept looking at each other like “WE’RE IN ITALY.” I was traveling with Jenny from Ireland and Elizabeth, Kathleen, and Nathan from the US. When we got into Rome, we walked for a while and then–like something out of a dream, as cheesy as that sounds–we found the Coliseum. We turned a corner and it was there. I texted my parents, even though it was the middle of the night their time, because I just had to share my excitement.
We spent some time hanging around the Coliseum because hey, it’s AWESOME and we couldn’t check into our bed and breakfast until noon. Then we went to our B&B, which was pretty close to the metro but in a more residential part of Rome. Very comfortable and clean; they had two cats (awww! I miss my cat, so that was fun) and when we walked in, bedraggled, the hostess invited us to sit down and have something to drink. We had a great stay there. We were allowed to use the kitchen, and the B&B was close to a supermarket, so we made meals a couple of times. It saved money, and it was also just a nice time. We made pasta, bought fresh bread and mixed some olive oil with cheese and pepper to dip it in, and had a little wine. Breakfast was great too. If anyone happens to travel to Rome, let me know and I will shamelessly plug that place to you.
Now for Rome itself. Saturday we saw the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps were okay–just steps, really, but very nice ones I suppose–but the Trevi Fountain was absolutely incredible. Even though I’ve seen it in movies and whatnot, I guess I still expected a little fountain in the middle of a square somewhere, just burbling along. Nope. It’s an elaborately carved, ginormous monument that’s attached to the back of a fancy building and the water is so powerful, the air is cool and misty. (Not that important in late October, but if you go in summertime, I’d advise just chilling at the Trevi and people-watching for a while.)
We found gelato (!!) and even though it was frigid, I ate it very happily. Mmmm. We had an early night and went to the Vatican the next morning. If you happen to be in Rome on the last Sunday of the month, entrance to the Vatican is free, and we took advantage of it even though it meant the masses (no pun intended) came at the same time. At first the line was insanely long (there’s security to pass through, even though it was free) so we saw St. Peter’s Square and just wandered around Vatican City. It was pretty, and I was a little ashamed that I knew a few of the famous sights only from watching the Angels and Demons movie…
Then we returned to the Vatican line, which was shorter, and ate paninis from a nearby stand while waiting. We got inside, saw lots more pretty things (which is a ridiculously brief summary for seeing ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and the Raphael Rooms, among other galleries, but I can just tell you they were pretty) and then we saw the Sistine Chapel. That sounds nonchalant; it totally wasn’t. I loved that place, despite the irony of automated loudspeakers telling visitors to be quiet in the chapel. Jenny and I just sat for a while on one side and stared up, looking at all of Michelangelo’s paintings, and some other artists’ as well. Just indescribably beautiful.
We spent a lot of the day looking up. At the gorgeous painted ceilings as we walked through the Vatican; the Sistine Chapel; then in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the last stop on the Vatican tour. It’s appropriate, I think, that I had a little stiffness in my neck at the end of the day from being so fixated on what was above me. I’m not Catholic, but the Vatican is a center of Christianity, a place of faith. In the midst of my awe I felt it was right that even a superficial tour of the Vatican directs visitors to look up and marvel.
After the Vatican, Jenny, Kathleen and I tried to go inside the Coliseum but it was closed when we got there. So we just sat on some stones outside the Coliseum and had nice (even somewhat philosophical) conversations for a while, until it got too cold. (We ended up seeing the Coliseum every single day we were in Rome.) We weren’t ready to call it a night yet, so we walked down to Piazza Venezia–the government building, I think–and saw the Coliseum lit up at night when we came back to the metro stop there.
Monday was our last full day in Rome. We went to the Coliseum again and paid to go inside this time. That was really really cool, even though it was a rainy day. One nice part about being in Rome on the offseason–in addition to the cooler weather and probably cheaper prices on some things–is that the touristy things are still busy, but you can move without bumping into somebody. Yay. After the Coliseum we went to the Piazza del Popolo, saw some Caravaggio paintings in a lovely church, ate a delicious lunch (with TIRAMISU! I had tiramisu in Italy and it was yummy!), and walked down to the Pantheon and the Fountain of Four Rivers (by Bernini). It poured for a while, then we walked a little farther to Trastevere Square across the Tiber River. A great place to see. Then back up, walking all the way to the Trevi Fountain to eat a melt-in-your-mouth farewell dinner and see the Trevi glowing at night.
Jenny discovered an authentic Irish pub within walking distance of the Coliseum, and we hung out there for a while so she could have a taste of home before we left Italy. I was thrilled because they were showing American football! I’ve missed it so much :’) at one point I realized I was watching American football in an Irish pub in Italy, on my way back to Bulgaria to travel on to Romania. That was one of those moments that just humbles you. How incredible this experience has been, that I can do things like that and not even really realize it most of the time–how lucky I am. Not least because I was traveling with some really fun, kind people.
The next morning, leaving Rome, was a bit more stressful than I would’ve liked… for some reason when we got to the main Rome bus station, none of the buses for the airport were leaving. I think there was a wreck or something. The buses were there, but none of them left for ages. On the half-hour ride to the airport, I was practically hyperventilating (because when I get worried I do it majorly. Don’t I, Jenny?) and didn’t even thoroughly enjoy our last sight of the Coliseum as the bus took us around it. We made it, though; and God was with us, or traveler’s luck or something, because we made it through security and passport control at the airport in literally 30 seconds, and got to our gate with about 10 minutes to spare. Craaazy morning.
Kathleen flew to Switzerland from Rome to stay with a friend, and Elizabeth and Nathan were going straight back to Blagoevgrad from Sofia. Jenny and I met up with one of my suitemates, Temenuzhka (Titi for short. She’s the RA who was so nice to me when I first got here in August). She’s from Sofia, and she showed us around! My opinion of the city–pretty ugly from my experiences on Friday–changed completely. Sofia is beautiful, despite its sometimes-mean cabbies. We ate warm banitsa, walking through the park on a cold autumn day, and saw the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the President’s House–among lots of other cool things. Seeing it with Titi made navigating easier, of course, but I also enjoyed spending time with her. She took Jenny and me home with her for dinner! One of my roommates, Desi, is Titi’s sister and was there for dinner as well. Their mother made us delicious, traditional Bulgarian foods (kyufte, banitsa, and other yummy things) and it was truly one of the best evenings I’ve had while traveling. It was lovely to be in a warm place with kind and generous people. My second day in Sofia was amazing, which more than made up for the first day.
This blog post is really long. Oops. Ah, well; feel free to go get a snack and come back, or just stop wherever. :p On to Romania! Jenny and I met up with Kevin (who’s a fellow exchange student from West Virginia! Woot!) at the Sofia bus station (impressive because he had to take, like, 4 buses over an entire day from Croatia) to get on the only daily bus to Bucharest. It left a little after midnight and we were able to 1) get student tickets and 2) pre-arrange seats on the bus back on Saturday, which I’d been a little worried about, so that was awesome. I sat beside a friendly Russian man named Leste (I think) who spoke Russian and some German, while I told him I spoke English, some Spanish, and a little Bulgarian. Though we didn’t have any languages in common, we still managed to communicate.
We arrived in Bucharest early Wednesday morning (Halloween!) and reached the first/only real hiccup in the entire trip: we didn’t know which bus station we were at, because Bucharest has a bunch, didn’t know how to get to the train station, and didn’t have any Romanian currency to take a taxi. There were also no ATMs anywhere in sight. So basically we just started walking through residential neighborhoods and almost ran smack into the palatial Parliament Building, one of the main tourist sights in Bucharest. From there we were able to find an ATM, get on a metro, and buy train tickets to Brasov (picking up some delicious McDonald’s for breakfast along the way!). Crisis averted.
That was such a beautiful train trip. I hadn’t really done trains before I went to England this summer, and I still haven’t been on many; train travel is the way to go in Romania, so it was really nice. The train was pretty new and comfortable, and the Romanian countryside kept getting more and more gorgeous as we got higher into the mountains towards Transylvania. The autumn colors were vivid, reminding me of West Virginia in a happy way; Kevin and I agreed that something we really missed this year was seeing the trees turn in WV. We arrived in Brasov around noon, found our hostel, dropped our bags off, and with barely a pause for directions from our hostess set out for Bran Castle.
It was a bit complicated to get there, especially since it closes very early in the fall/winter–4 p.m.–and my guidebook was outdated so we weren’t expecting it to be that early. But as luck would have it, every time we needed a bus there was one. We made it to Bran with time to spare and had a great evening wandering around the castle, through a secret passageway and up and down the terraces. Bran wasn’t a castle-y castle, if that makes sense; it was no Versailles, and it isn’t even really that connected to the Dracula/Vlad Tepes legend. But it was pretty in its own right and worth seeing. Especially on Halloween, just for sentiment’s sake.
The next day, Thursday, we took a day trip up to Sighisoara. It was further north in Transylvania, smack in the middle of Romania as a whole. Sighisoara is a tiny medieval citadel town, and despite the again-rainy weather the day we were there (and the round-trip 6 hour train), we had a great time. It had lots of narrow cobblestone streets, pastel buildings (almost all of which were marked as a historic monument), and the major feature of the city: its citadel. We entered through the looming clock tower, its multicolored roof glistening with rain, and saw lots of old beautiful towers. The house where Vlad Tepes/Vlad Dracul was born is there as well. So worth the trip. However, when we booked our train ticket back to Brasov, we wondered why the return price was dramatically cheaper than the to-price…. it was because it was not a nice train like the others. Imagine shrill brakes, the smell of wet sheep (that’s what Kevin compared it to, I have no idea what wet sheep smell like. Not nice apparently), and it’s also dark outside so we can’t see where we are. Which made it interesting when we were trying to figure out when to get off the train. We ended up saying “Okay, looks sort of like we’re in a city now” and getting off–and it all turned out fine because we were right… :)
Moral of this story: if there’s a suspiciously low-priced train, there is a reason.
Nonetheless, we made it back to Brasov perfectly fine. The next morning, Friday morning, we had originally intended to travel to Sinaia on our way back to Bucharest. Sinaia has the beautiful Peles Castle, among other things; but the castle is closed for restoration every November (boo) and we hadn’t gotten much time to just look around Brasov, so we decided to spend a day doing that instead. We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain above the city and sort-of hiked over to a panorama. Then we went back down (my weak knees, due to fear of heights, were very grateful–even though the cable car was my idea and it was cool) and walked around Brasov’s main square and saw a gorgeous, Gothic-looking Protestant cathedral called the Biserica Neagra, or Black Church.
By this point I was still enjoying myself mightily–Jenny and Kevin were fun to travel with, and we were seeing some incredible, off-the-beaten-track places–but at the same time I was getting very ready to go back to Blagoevgrad. We took a late train to Bucharest, struggled our way towards our hostel (which was nicer than any hotel. It was called The Cozyness, if that gives you any indication, and it lived up to the name), and walked around Bucharest’s Old City for a while before settling in another Irish pub to relax. I actually met some people from Bucharest and made friends with one girl in particular, named Roxana. It was a wonderful last evening in Romania, getting to see part of the city life and not just be tourists.
We didn’t see as much of Bucharest as we should’ve; there just wasn’t enough time to do everything we wanted, and Bucharest is easier to get back to than Brasov, Sighisoara, Bran, etc. so we cut out some time there. But on Saturday we saw the Arch of Triumph (basically a copy of Paris’ monument, because Romania had this one crazy ruler come back sometime after traveling around Europe and declare that Bucharest should look like a Western European capital), Herastrau Park and the Village Museum, and saw the Parliament Building again. It’s the second-largest building in the world, fyi, and pretty darn impressive. We made our way (with map in hand this time) to the bus station and came back to Sofia.
Some closing thoughts on this Atlas-Shrugged-length blog post: I’ve grown up in at least one or two ways that are very visible since I started traveling on my own. When my parents left to go home in London, and I went on by myself to Paddington Station to travel to Oxford, I was nervous and unsure of myself. I felt in some ways like I couldn’t handle figuring out train schedules, tickets, directions, cabs myself. Now it feels old hat, just wandering around Bucharest with map in hand and knowing which metro stop or bus line we should go to. My sense of direction is developing, though it’s by no means innate. In those simple ways, I’ve grown up and become more independent. I’m proud of that. I have confidence that I can travel by myself if necessary–though I don’t have plans to–and I can take care of myself.
Another note to make is that it’s odd how familiar Bulgaria felt when I returned from traveling for a week. It’s like my entire brain breathed a sigh of relief to return to the basic Bulgarian phrases I know, to my dorm room in Blago, to the lev and the now-normal paths and actions I take in everyday life. If this is what it feels like to come to my temporary home after a week away, I’m honestly unsure what it will be like to go back to my home-home after four months. It’s going to be good… but strange. Only 5 weeks left. If the last three months are anything to go by, I’ll be packing before I know it, and the longer I spend here the more my excitement about home joins the realization that I will miss Bulgaria. It doesn’t dilute my love for home or my excitement for going back in December, but it does make me consider every day here as important.
All right. Believe it or not, I’m going to do homework now before bed. Leka nosht!