Wow, can I just say that November ROCKED!? My new-found freedom from The Scrapbook Shack is amazing. I spent the first 3 Saturdays of the month scrapbooking with friends--one of which was part of a weekend retreat--and got together with another friend on a different Sunday for our monthly scrapping get together! I got SO much done, including all of my Christmas cards. I also decorated the house for Christmas, we had a new deck built in the back yard, and all of our Christmas gifts are bought. I finished my Spanish conversational class, made an old-fashioned ink print at a Meetup event, made soap with friends, made another batch of soap as gifts, also made lotion as gifts, went to an awesome Avalanche hockey game, saw Our Lady Peace in concert for the first time in like 20 years, and had a very relaxing and productive Thanksgiving break.
Alright! Let's pick up on our European journey where we left off. Two countries down, two to go!
Friday, October 20 - Belogradchik and Vidin, Bulgaria
Welcome to Bulgaria, woo hoo! We docked at the town of Vidin, then had a really nice and informative bus ride to the town of Belogradchik, built in the valley beneath this really unique set of rock formations on a hill. Up there, a fortress was built during the Roman Empire conquest (so hella old!) as a perch from which to survey the lands for invaders. It doesn't have a castle or any buildings, it's just gates and walls. But the scenery is breathtaking.
This is the first gate.
This is the second gate with the rock formations obviously in the background. And JC's head in the foreground.
Us and the old peeps walking up to the fortress itself. You can see better in this photo the little piece of manmade wall in between the two huge rocks.
The view of what we just walked through from halfway up.
Finally at the top! And totally worth climbing rickety staircases!
Another view. There are practically no railings.
Super cool flowers.
Artistic photo. This is once again the wall piece in between the tall rocks.
A post office, right outside of the fortress entrance. I bought a wooden spoon here for like $2 that has the Cyrillic spelling of Belogradchik and an image of the fortress carved into it. I'm a sucker for Cyrillic!
A short stop in town allowed us to get coffee out of a street vending machine (it cost maybe $1 for two and they were SO GOOD), and see another angle of the rock formations on the hill. Then we drove back to Vidin, and were told that the country is still struggling with democracy and capitalism--in these countries, like Serbia and Romania as well, all of the well-educated doctors and professionals left the country to go to wealthier countries in Europe or the US for a better life. So the educational and healthcare systems suck. Everyone said they were considerably better under socialist rule. So interesting. At the same time, there is high demand for IT professionals...hmmm...I did think Bulgaria was absolutely beautiful...and they did have good coffee...
Anyway, I digress. But yes, the countryside we drove through was honestly stunning. The town of Vidin looked to be of a good size, and their main attraction is the castle called Baba Vida, dating back to the 10th century and the Romans. It's probably the most intact medieval castle I've ever seen.
Well yeah of course!
Once inside, there were small chambers to the right and left, including the jail. Well, frankly, they all were windowless, cold rooms, so they all could've been jails!
This is ancient graffiti inside the jail!!
We climbed up to the second story and had fun exploring all of the tunnels. These usually led down into the towers to small rooms. I just wish I could find out what they actually did in all of these rooms. Castle layouts never make much sense to me. Like, where are the bathrooms??
The short history of Bulgaria in five minutes performed by actors inside the castle walls. We didn't watch the show as we were busy exploring!
Saturday, October 21 - Arbanassi and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Another two-town day. We went to some absolutely jaw-dropping sights and adorable towns. First, we spent the morning in the adorable town of Arbanassi. There were two highlights here: we had an awesome Bulgarian lunch of chicken stew with fresh bread similar to na'an, and this place:
This is a Greek Orthodox church. You'll be seeing many more of these as the trip progresses. This one, though, dates back to medieval times, and what's inside is honestly the most beautiful church I've ever seen. Notre Dame ain't got NOTHING on this.
The ENTIRE church, floor to ceiling, is covered in hand-painted images from Christianity. Usually outside of the church, there are representations of heaven and hell, and in the highest dome is an image of God. Everything else is usually the life of Jesus, saints, and other biblical stories. I am a SUCKER for medieval art so this literally blew me away. I could've stayed in this place for hours.
Here is the chandelier, the gold Templon which is the wall between the nave and the sanctuary, and the start of the dome.
And of course, there's a cool, weather-torn mini-cemetery just outside.
Next, we learned that Bulgaria is the world's largest producer of rose oil products, and got to visit a small gift shop. I hit the JACKPOT in there--I found rose lip balm, rose CANDY, rose essence vials in cute wooden containers, and the best of all, a t-shirt that has the Glagolitic alphabet on it. Here's an explanation of that language, which almost died out and is now being resurrected by countries like Croatia. I had never heard of this language until a few months ago when I was doing a blog post at work about a movement to save endangered scripts. Once I learned that it was from this region of Eastern Europe, I was hoping I could come across a shirt or plaque or something with it. SCORE!!!
Anyway, across from the gift shop is a museum that is an old house that shows village life in medieval Bulgaria. You can see a heavy Moorish influence from the Turkish invasion, as Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for a few hundred years. This is a raised platform that serves as a table and a bed.
Super cool oven. You cooked in the lower two sections and the top compartment is to keep things warm.
Just your typical doorway with an old American tourist in it.
OK so now that we got a glimpse of religious and common life, and had our awesome lunch surrounded by chickens and peacocks, we headed to the next town, Veliko Tarnovo. This town is up and down on narrow hills. But first, beer.
OK here is the city centre, full of narrow, winding streets that mostly house souvenir shops now. But we got to roam around a while after we saw what's next.
This is the Tsarevets Fortress, built in the 1100's and is a huge complex that crosses a river. We had only ten minutes in this place, which was a huge shame, so we didn't get very far into the complex to explore it. But this is the main gate.
Awesome security company logo!
Strolling down one path to the left of the main gate, along the river. Again, I'd love to see a rendition of this complex when it was not in ruins to really see what the buildings all were.
The main tower/gate we walked through. You can see the town in the background.
A great view of the main gate and a church at the top.
The best billboard I've ever seen.
Right where the ship was docked were these incredible sand sculptures.
Sunday, October 22 - Costanţa, Romania
And now for the bonus! Because of the bridge situation in Serbia, and the fact that we lost a day of Hungarian towns, we now had an extra day at the end. Our Cruise Director, Florentin, is from Romania and he whipped up this trip to the seaside town of Costanţa in a week. I have to say, it was AWESOME. It was a jam-packed day full of cool stuff to see, and AmaWaterways had never taken people to this town before.
First, we visited a museum that had a variety of artifacts dating back to the Roman Empire. Romania got its name from being within the Roman Empire for many centuries, and is the only country in this region that kept Roman culture and language (it's surrounded by either Cyrillic-speaking countries or Hungary which does its own thing). Romanian is Latin-based, and actually sounds more Latin than Italian does. I decided that Romanians are more direct descendants of ancient Romans than modern-day Italians are!!
Anyway, next to the museum is the world's largest remaining Roman mosaic--a long boardwalk near the water tiled with beautiful designs.
Impressive, no? I pity the fools that had to set all of those tiles!
This flower was in a pot along the walkway above the mosaic. It's officially the freakiest flower I've EVER seen. If anyone knows what this is, please tell me!
Then we walked around town and arrived at a second, smaller museum, this one of Romanian culture. They had costumes from every region on display.
This is the beach along the Black Sea. Pretty clean, huh?
And here are the super weird cement breakers. The ones in the back look like chess pieces to me, and the ones in front look like pieces from a modern bridge.
Aww, poor doggie!
This is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in town. It is STUNNING inside!
But first, remember up above when I told you that the walls on the outside, flanking the entryway, usually depicted heaven and hell? Well, this is hell. With a scooter. They sure had a great imagination!
And this is heaven. Looks pretty chill in comparison! And the church attendant on the right who ensured that we all wiped our feet before entering.
And THIS is the inside!!
Gorgeous gold seats! Other than a few seats around the edges, the floor is empty. No pews, no chairs. Suffer for your religion, man.
These are Roman ruins right next to the Cathedral.
A better view of the ruins and the Cathedral.
That is me putting my HAND in the BLACK SEA!!! Woo hoo!!!
And this thing of decrepit beauty is the Casino--an abandoned casino from the early 1900's that is just drop-dead gorgeous! I WANT it!!
Lastly, probably a gypsy with a horse and cart. They are predominantly the ones you see with horses because they are poor and live in their own communes. The Romanians dislike them because they refuse to obey the laws and pay taxes.
Monday, October 23 - Bucharest, Romania
Last but not least, we ended the cruise in Bucharest. We got to our hotel, the Hotel Mansion Boutique, and boutique it was. Each room was decorated in a different style, and had a room name, not a number. We were in the Eclectic room--can you see why?
After having an amazing lunch at one of the town's oldest restaurants, we roamed around a bit on our own before our 4-hour guided tour, which was fantastic. THIS, the bits of a wall below, is the remains of the Castle that Vlad Tepeş, aka Vlad the Impaler, built in the 1400's. The castle in Bran dubbed Dracula's Castle (coming next month!) that all the tourists visit has absolutely NOTHING to do with Vlad. He didn't build it, defend it, or stay in it. The other theory behind its name, that Bram Stoker modeled the castle in his book off of it, is also false. He designed the castle in his book from a variety of castles throughout Romania. So THERE. :P
This is a very old Orthodox church, very tiny, with a monastery connected that houses around 6 nuns.
The outside, where again you have heaven and hell.
The inside where you can see a beautiful, old Templon.
The main dome with God up there.
The monastery's cloister.
Now onto our tour. This monstrosity is the Parliament--well it's the parliament of Romania now. It was originally built by the douchebag dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu as his own PRIVATE RESIDENCE. It is actually the second largest building in the WORLD--behind the Pentagon.
We also saw the Cathedral, and then went to the Village Museum. This is an open-air, large expanse housing authentic old buildings from all over Romania that were transported here. So we walked around for a while and saw some really pretty, rustic buildings like this church,
this house that is mostly underground,
this brightly painted house,
and this one that was nice and simple.
Check out this roof!
Back in modern day, we also passed by Revolution Square. The building in the back is where Ceaușescu gave his last ever speech. The monument in front, with the bleeding heart on a stake, is a memorial to all of the innocent lives that he killed while trying to retain power. Fun fact: him and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. Merry Christmas Romania!
Our last stop before flying back home was dinner at the other famous restaurant in town, Caru'cu Bere. It's not super old, founded in 1879, but it's so pretty inside, the food is authentic Romanian, and they do live folk dance performances. We made reservations days in advance, and ate our last meal here with our Transylvania tour guide, Micai. More on him later!!
Here's the view from the back.
Romanian wine! Yum!
Almost there...one more round!