When in Wien

Vienna (or Wien) was mostly a place to break up the trip from Prague/Cesky Krumlov to Budapest. People told us it was pretty, there are a lot of famous composers from there, and it cut an eight-hour bus trip in half. We spent just a couple of days and nights there. We walked for eight or nine hours the full day we had trying to make a good loop around the major sights. The historic center of Vienna has all of the fabulous, decorative buildings that you would expect of a major European city. It also has a ton of museums and a strong coffeehouse culture. We found one with couches and accidentally took a little nap in one! We also admired some street art (I see Space Invader everywhere since watching “Exit through the Gift Shop”), saw the house where Mozart livedgaped at the awesome St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and toured the lovely Naschmarket, where you can sip wine, buy tulips, or greatly expand your vinegar collection. I don’t think we gave Vienna enough time to get a feel for whether it is a great city. It was beautiful but it didn’t feel as alive and warm as many of the places we’ve been. I would like to go back and spend more time with Vienna’s title as the “City of Music” someday, but our penultimate country of the year was shouting at us to hurry up so we could slow down.

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Cesky Krumlov

I love how the manhole covers in the Czech Republic are all decorative.

Cesky Krumlov is a small town in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. We ventured there for just one day and night, although we could have soaked up the beauty and quiet atmosphere for much longer than that if our return home wasn’t suddenly looming on the horizon. There isn’t much to say about the town that pictures can’t say better. For a brief overview, there is a great castle at one end of town that looks out over all of the red roofs on all the buildings in town. It is walkable from end to end in about a half an hour. The river cuts prettily through town, adding to the views and ambiance. I really liked the manhole covers, which just add to Cesky Krumlov’s charm.

The original Bud, Budweiser Budvar, is from Cesky Budejovice, near Cesky Krumlov, in Bohemia.

These pastries, made by wrapping the dough around a thick stick that spins slowly over the heat, are sweet and tasty, especially when you can get them hot.

Cesky Krumlov's castle looks a lot more imposing that Prague's did.

The aqueduct links sections of the castle in spectacular fashion.

The castle tower is decorated in trompe l'oeil style, like many of the buildings in Cesky Krumlov.

I would love to see the castle gardens when it is fully springtime.

The castle has two bears living in its moat. I can't really see how they might like it, as the space is fairly small and it is just the two of them down there and all of us up top with our cameras.

Here we are standing on the castle's aqueduct.

Views from the castle show Cesky Krumlov's picturesque jumble of red rooftops.

You can look over the whole town from the castle. I suppose that is the point.

I could have stayed just looking at the town for days.

It is a very vibrant city with all the red roofs and lovingly painted homes and businesses.

Like the building, this picture is an optical illusion. Those stones are just painted on for show! This style of decoration is common in Cesky Krumlov.

The town is particularly beautiful as the sun sets and all the buildings start to glow.

Prague Blog

Dylan and I were going to take a train to Serbia and head up to Budapest from Belgrade.  We were really unexcited about doing either an all-day train or an all-night train.  We talked to lots of travelers at our fantastic hostel in Sofia – Hostel Mostel, also fantastic in Veliko Tarnovo – and after mulling it over and doing some pro and con lists, we decided to instead fly to Prague.  Dylan loved it when he was there in 1996, and it was higher on my wish list than most other places in Europe.  We just couldn’t face another train, too, after the midnight “express” to Plovdiv.  As our days are winding down quickly, we didn’t want to have any more bad days!

Dylan thought Prague’s center had changed quite a bit in 15 years.  Where there used to be crystal shops clustered together, there are now many more souvenir shops and TGI Friday’s restaurants.  It is also very crowded in the major tourist spots.  We still wanted to spend enough time in those areas to see the good bits, but we had several days in Prague so it was easy to get to a bunch of quieter places. 

The old Jewish quarter is popular but not as crowded as the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square.  In the Old Jewish Cemetery, in certain corners I felt like I was all alone.  It is completely removed from the hustle and bustle outside of the walls and somehow feels quite peaceful.  It is really expensive to get in, because you have to buy a combination ticket that includes six other sites, mostly synagogues that now house museums.  I was determined to get my money’s worth and went to all of them.  I was a little artifact-ed out by the end, but my last stop, the Spanish Synagoge, was absolutely gorgeous.  The Holocaust victims’ memorial was also, unsurprisingly, incredibly moving.  Alas, no cameras were allowed anywhere, and my picture of the cemetery is from a peephole on the outside.

Prague has a fortress south of the center that is really more of a huge park.  Before I got to see these fortress in eastern Europe, I was expecting them to be a lot more imposing and, I don’t know, fortress-like!  But it turns out that fortress and even castles, as far as I can tell, are walled cliffs and parks.  I’m hoping to visit Transylvania in the future (another trip) and see if all the castles there are the same way.  Not to knock Prague’s Castle – it is cool to climb the stairs and see the lovely narrow streets and old church – but there it didn’t feel particularly castle-y to me.

We ended up in another great hostel in Prague.  We had made a booking at a place called Sir Toby’s.  I booked a “double ensuite” – meaning a room with a double bed and a private bathroom.  They accidentally put us in a twin bed room with shared bathroom.  When I asked if I was mistaken or they were – mainly to make sure we weren’t overpaying, since we have stayed in many a twin, shared bathroom room – they moved us to a fabulous hostel that was basically a hotel in the center of town, instead of the tram ride away where the first hostel was located.  I had looked at the new place, Mosaic House, online, and I think it was more than worth the price they were charging if you had a few extra dollars.  So another two thumbs up for this hostel chain.  Sir Toby’s was adorable and eager to please, and I would still recommend it for a budget traveler.  Mosaic House is also recommended for a budget/mid-range traveler.  It was funny watching the travelers in the Mosaic House bar.  Dylan and I decided it was the kind of place that 22-year old backpackers with money must stay, because they all looked so shiny and clean.

There is a lot of delicious beer to be had in the Czech Republic, home of Pilsen, the original pilsner, and Cesky Budjovice, the original Budweiser (seriously, it was around a long time before Anheuser Busch thought the name sounded good).  We’ve gotten a little fatigued with the meat-heavy menus in eastern Europe, but if you are willing to look, you can find some pretty good food in Prague.

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All in all, no regrets about our last-minute itinerary change.  Prague is a stunning city, and it was worth its spot at the top of my list!

Sofia & Rila, Bulgaria

Our last stop in Bulgaria was Sofia, the capital. We thought that we had been told that it was breathtaking, so we were kind of disappointed that it was not so, and we figured out the recommendation was for somewhere else. There was a pretty downtown area, and we had a good time wandering around, but the great highlight of the area, and maybe the country, is a couple hours outside of Sofia. Here are a few pictures of Sofia first, though.

Street art in Sofia

We saw more cool street art and were touched by an origami paper crane tribute for Japan.

Paper cranes in Sofia

We visited the large, outdoor Ladies’ Market, where beer and olives are sold in bulk (in addition to plenty of other wares).

The ladies' market is a mix of food, clothing and trinkets. I loved the olive tables with their spittoons set out below.

Beer in Bulgaria was dirt cheap. Here you could bring any old bottle to fill it from a cask.

We also went to a stunning indoor market that was like a giant deli in a greenhouse.

Sofia's gorgeous indoor market is like a giant deli.

Sofia’s synagogue had a two-ton chandelier illuminating an impressive, lovely space that has detailed decorative painting everywhere.

The Sofia's Synagogue's chandelier weighs two tons.

Now for the real treat, the Rila Monastery. We rode in a mini-van that reeked of body odor for almost three hours to get to Rila. It was our third monastery in Bulgaria and by far the most impressive. I had read something that talked about its harmonious painting and architecture, and it was indeed harmonious. The setting is alpine, and the monastery is a surprise to enter, because the painting is so bold and the buildings are so grand. We first visited a little cave where the monk after whom the monastery is named lived for years, so we could climb through the cave and see the valley and mountains. Then we got to spend a couple of hours marvelling at the stunning monastery. It was well worth the smelly ride. I kind of wish I could have a model of it to sit on my desk!

Rila Monastery Ceiling Painting

Rila Monastery

Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo is a wonderfully-named town in central Bulgaria. It is set in an amazing location. The town basically hugs the cliffs around a U-shaped riverbend. A fortress looms over it on the open end of the U. There is a park and big monument in the middle of the peninsula formed by the U.

Most of the buildings hugging the cliffs have red tile roofs. Many are stucco. All look like they could slide down the cliff on a moments notice.

I love the use of public space in the peninsula formed by the river. There is a really sad old hotel on one side of the U, but the park is vast and has one of those spring water fountains and the monument in the middle is huge and entertainingly celebratory of the Soviets.

Around ton there are a lot of pretty buildings, but there are also crumbly buildings and quirky graffitti. We were waiting for someone to walk by the cool walls and doors and finally took matters into our own hands.

The fortress is like a big park up on a hill with a really cool walkway. It is not as imposing as I thought a fortress would be, but it is in a great location. I would have built my fortress there, too.

The church at the top of the fortress hill has the creepiest murals I have ever seen. They would be creepy anywhere, but these suckers are in a church. I can’t imagine finding piece in a place covered in this business. Fire and brimstone in Bulgaria!

This guy is part of a mural in the church. I kid you not.

We rented a car one day in VT so we could visit small town Bulgaria. I think that VT is probably small enough. The towns we rolled through bore the marks of the Soviet days without any of the old town charm. We made it to a monastery and a winery that were interesting, though, for different reasons. The monastery was way up a mountain, totally hidden from view, and eerily quiet. The main chapel is covered in striking murals.

Lovico winery was unlike any winery I’d ever seen. In sum, it looked like an oil refinery. The “tasting room”, where the only tasting on offer was a glug of cabernet in a disposable cup, looked like a lackluster mini-mart. There was a winery cow. The wine we bought to share at our hostel, a Lovico gamza (a Bulgarian grape), was pretty good!

The guy who rented the car to us told us it was not meant for heights or distances.

Let's play winery or refinery!

Romans and Monks

Although our train-bus-train ride there was a bit rough, we really enjoyed Plovdiv once we caught up on sleep.  The old town is very pretty to wander around, as it is a jumble of cobblestone streets and preserved old buildings.  My favorite part was the Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 3rd century A.D.  It is still used in the summer!

We spent one of our days in Plovdiv taking the bus to Bachkovo Monastery and going on a hike there.  Getting there was half the fun.  Our hostel gave us directions to the bus station and then told us to catch us a certain bus and tell the driver where we needed to get out.  Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet (fun fact: Bulgarians invented that alphabet), so we needed some help with signage.  At the bus station, a security guard took pity on us and basically escorted us to the right ticket counter and then to the right bus.  On the bus, I guess we talked about and asked about Bachkovo a few times, because when we got to the town, the entire bus was shouting “Bachkovo” at us.  The driver knew we wanted the monastery and signalled for us to wait.  Another round of shouting ensued when we finally got to the monastery.   It was a great welcome.  We couldn’t take pictures of the monastery, but we actually enjoyed our hike to the remote buildings on the monastery grounds better anyway.

We took lots of pictures of the amphitheatre and on our hike, so I’ll let those tell the story.

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It has been awhile since I had a good story for you. But then we found ourselves on a midnight to train Bulgaria, and I have one that is long if nothing else.

We went to the train station in Istanbul to book our ticket to Plovdiv, our first stop in Bulgaria. We read that it would be ten hours in a two-bed sleeper car leaving at 10 p.m. We envisioned a romantic cabin where we could open a bottle of wine and have a little Turkish late night snack plate then settle in for a cozy night of sleep. Our hopes were dashed when the ticket agent told us that, due to work on the tracks, we would have to change to a bus at some point on the trip, then change back to a train, with a stop somewhere in there to walk across the border. Oh, and the first train would not have sleeper cars. Dylan said, “Maybe we should look at flights.” I said, “Maybe we should look at the bus.” We bought the train tickets.

We got to the train station nice and early so we could try to get good seats. It was completely deserted, so much so that we were nervous we were there at the wrong time. The only other guy in the waiting room was snoring at top volume. We did enough hand signaling with the two people working there to learn that we were fine, our train was on Platform 2, and we were welcome to board when the conductor opened the doors. At about 9:35, we climbed in and were pleasantly surprised to see that one car had sleeper compartments. It had six seats below on two benches and two beds up top, so we could actually sleep bottom or top if we were alone. Dylan said, “I hope we don’t have to share.” It became apparent we wouldn’t have to share when ten minutes in, there were only two other people in the station.

At 9:45, Dylan jumped out to buy us some waters from the station mini-mart. There was a knock on the compartment door, and a young, single, male traveler was standing there. We exchanged pleasantries of the “I’m from San Francisco and going to Plovdiv” / “I’m from Japan and going to Sofia” variety. Then, boom, he asked if he could share our compartment with us. We had our luggage up top and I pointed to the bench seats and said we wanted to sleep, was that okay? He said sure and went back next door. Dylan returned and I told him what happened and that I was completely guilt-stricken over saying no to a fellow traveler who had worked up the nerve to ask a favor, but I had panicked. Dylan, with me on not really wanting to share but equally sympathetic, agreed with me that I should tell our neighbor that he could become our bunkmate. I knocked on his door and asked him if he still wanted to come over, and he hopped up, grabbed his bag, and joined us.

It was a bit weird, but it was also fine and guilt-free. We didn’t have wine and cheese or any chance at romance anyway. We exhausted easy topics then Akito, after bashfully admitting this trip was his first time traveling alone, climbed up top, we lay down on the benches, and we pretty much went to dozing as much as possible for the next few hours. As far as I could tell, we were four travelers, one conductor, and one attendant on a four car train. I figured we’d pick up more people along the way as our rickety, noisy old train seemed to stop to wake me up every half hour. After cranking up the heat as high as we could – I was covered in my towel and all my jackets and scarves – I was actually asleep when a pounding on our door roused us from our stupors. Dylan opened the door, and the attendant shouted at us “KAPIKALE! KAPIKALE!” We didn’t know if this was the bus or maybe the border, or maybe a snack cart? We tried to ask, and the response was “KAPIKALE! KAPIKALE!” but he also made a rolling over motion with his hands, and we figured out it was time to get out.

We disembarked at 3:00 a.m. to discover that in five hours, our train had picked up one, lone Turkish guy, making the travelers a party of five. We all stumbled into the train station expecting passport control, only to be directed out the back door after ten minutes, where a bus pulled up. We boarded and our passports were inspected on board. Now we were five travellers, one driver, one passport guy, and one attendant. We ambled to the border on the bus. A Turkish border agent got on board and checked our passports again while we waited. We ambled into no man’s land between borders. We were told to get out and walk through the Bulgarian checkpoint ourselves. We got in line behind two guys who had appeared from somewhere else, and when the agent finished with them, he decided he needed a smoke break, so we were sent back to the bus. Ten minutes later, we were fetched for try #2.

Dylan went through while I was spaced out. Our two original fellow travelers were looked at with suspicion as their Japanese passports were studied intensely – yes, despite the fact that were was another twenty-something, single, Japanese dude who was wearing nearly identical sand-colored bucks and hip clothes to his also on our train, somehow Akito wanted to bunk with us – but they each got through next. When I got up there, I felt like the agent spent five whole minutes studying the extra pages that I’d had sewn into my passport and the tape that the State Department used to hold it all together, but he eventually let me through. Dylan said the same thing happened to him. As soon as I was through, the four of us walked to the bus to wait for a few minutes. I can’t deny a thrill at walking across a border, even if it was past 4 a.m. We were in Bulgaria! We then took off without the Turkish guy! We asked the attendant where he went, and the driver, too, but no one could answer. All four of us were sort of deliriously, amusedly worried, but to no avail. We never saw him again.

After an hour on the bus, we pulled up to another train station and left the bus for our second train. This one was the one that was not in fact a sleeper. It was also not clean, new, comfortable, smooth or anything else you might want in a train. We were removed from the first train so abruptly that none of us had time to use the bathroom for hours, which was a real shame because the only bathroom on our four car, four person train had evidently had many crimes committed inside of it. We settled in for what should have been two but was instead almost four-and-a-half hours of devil train. The best part was that at about 9:30, eleven-and-a-half hours into our journey, the other two guys finally spoke to each other and were chatting away when we finally exited in Sofia at 10 a.m.

Our hostel had given us good directions, so one more short bus ride and an uphill hike later, we got to our candy pink temporary home. The young woman at the desk told us that the room was not ready because it was only 10:30 and we should come back at noon. Defeated, we left our bags in search of breakfast. We eventually found an open cafe after stumbling upon Plovdiv’s magnificent Roman amphitheater (more on this soon), and we dragged ourselves back up the hill at noon. We got checked in and Dylan, exhausted, told the clerk that we were very happy to get to our room, because we hadn’t slept in two days. Her eyes got huge and she blurted out “Sorry!” as we were going upstairs. We were two of maybe four guests in a hostel that had four rooms on the third floor alone. We surely could have started our day of sleep when we first got in. But after the night we had, we just had to be grateful to get into a bed at all.