Archive for April 2013

Belgrade... home to the largest apartment complexes I've ever seen

I arrived in Belgrade after yet another JAT flight delayed by "technical issues"... I shouldn't be surprised, JAT is part of the Star Alliance with Air Canada - the service levels are about the same.

I checked into my hostel and got my own room with a TV! That had English channels!  That I could watch reruns on NCIS on all afternoon long!

On the way from the airport to the hostel, we passed some enormous and extremely dismal looking apartment complexes.  I would guess that some of these complexes had at least 700 apartments in them - they were a couple of city blocks long, black and grungy.  Unfortunately, like most of the Belgrade I saw.

My hostel was about 2.5 km from the city centre - on the first day I walked into town, but like most cities in Europe, you have to climb a giant freaking hill to get anywhere, so after that first venture I took the bus.  I walked around the Belgrade Fortress, took a few pictures, and then headed back to the hostel for the evening.

The next morning I took part in a free walking tour (so far the only city that didn't have a free walking tour was Istanbul!) and while interesting, I felt like we missed out on a lot of the recent history.  One of the reasons that I like the free walking tours is because the guides are usually very honest with the history and will answer any questions.  Granted, this was one of the first tours I'd taken with only young people (I was probably the oldest on the tour) so maybe that's why there wasn't a lot of questions.  But apart from the mention that the citizens saved a bridge from NATO bombing, there was little mention of communism and no mention of Milosevic. 

That afternoon I wandered around my hostel a bit and down to take a few evening pictures of their new bridge... in all it was a very quiet visit.  The city itself seems rather old and rundown... which is not really what I expected from one of the party capitals of the world (not that partying interests me in the least, but I expected more).

Next stop... Athens.  And 32C heat!

Sarajevo... more than just a war city

I honestly wasn't sure what to expect of Bosnia... I mean the only thing I *really* know about the area is that my best friend's boyfriend went on a peacekeeping mission there when I was in university.  So yeah... war.  That's about all I knew.

My first impression of Sarajevo wasn't exactly the best one - I went to my hostel only to find that they'd overbooked and I didn't have a bed for the night. That, and the hostel looked like a bit of a party place.  The front desk guy called over to a couple of other places and got me a room at another hostel with the promise that the next two nights I could go back to his hostel and it would be free of charge.  But, since I liked the other hostel so much (it was quiet and I pretty much had the place to myself) I paid to stay there for three nights.  In the end the first hostel's screwup was the best thing ever.

I arranged a free walking tour the next morning, and it was just myself and an Australian couple.  We were shown around the city - it is a very long and narrow city, mainly along the river.  The city itself had three main "developments"... and older Turkish/Ottoman area, a central Austro-Hungarian area and then the new Yugoslavia area.  We learned about the history, and the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina - and how it is really divided into two areas - a Bosnian area and a Serbian area.  Where I would say that I'm Canadian, they don't associate with their country that way, their either Croat, Serb or Bosnian.  I found this sad.

While Sarajevo doesn't want to be remembered for the war, there are definite reminders.  Almost 12,000 people died, including over 1100 children just in Sarajevo alone.  They have these "roses" in the concrete... where a mortar (shot by the Serbs) struck and killed someone in Sarajevo, they filled the holes in the concrete with a reddish coloured resin.  There were about 100 throughout the city, but the tour guide said that they are in bad repair and not that many are left.

I spent most of my time in the Ottoman area... little shops, restaurants (I had the most awesome steak dinner for about $15) and mosques are all over the area.  I bought my souvenir (I try to only buy one thing per place) on the coppersmith street... buy the guy that actually made it.  I'd seen him working on the first day, and went back on the second.  He was probably my age, and the shop had been in his family for over 100 years.  He showed me some of the work that they do, and it was nice to hear his story.  And the souvenir I bought was way better than some mass-produced stamped copper piece made in Turkey!

In all, the city surprised me.  Although it suffered great tragedy only 20 years ago, the city is quite modern (I saw far less modern cities along the way!). The people were nice, and there is a definite sense that the city wants to move on.

A quick trip to Montenegro

During my stay in Dubrovnik, I scheduled a day trip to Montenegro through one of the local tour agencies.  I mean... I was already visiting ten countries in a month... why not add an eleventh for the sake of it.

I was picked up on "Croatian" time... about 15 minutes after my email said the van would meet me, but having seen the road construction the day before, I wasn't upset at all.  The roads through the Balkans are windy and narrow - for example, I can drive 250km in just over two hours on Canadian highways - in the Balkans you're looking at (at least) a four to five hour trip.

We headed south from Dubrovnik, and were at the border to Montenegro in about an hour.  Our first stop was to look at some Roman ruins (some beautiful mosaic floors) and then to take some pictures of the the scenery in and around the Bay of Kotor (which the tour guide said was really more of a fjord than a bay).

We stopped in Kotor for about an hour, and given that the walled in part of the city is so small, I actually just took the time to sit under a tree (the only shade I could find) and read a book for a bit.  We then carried on to Budva, where we passed a tunnel and an island used in the filming of the James Bond movie Casino Royale.  I now have a reason to watch my second ever Bond movie (I watched Skyfall on the flight from Calgary to Amsterdam) - to try and pick out places I saw in real life!

We walked along the city walls of Budva, and then sat down for lunch.  The German couple that was on the tour (there was just me, an American couple and an elderly German couple) asked to sit with me, and begrudgingly I said yes... no word of a lie these two smoked seven cigarettes each before lunch was served.  So gross.  They missed out on so much because they always just stayed by the van and smoked when the other three of us explored at each stop.

During the free time that we had in Budva, I found this path down past on of the hotels, and it provided me with some awesome pictures of the rock face and of the James Bond island (which is now actually owned by some Russian billionaire).  Then it was back to the van and back to Croatia...

Except the main tour guide got pulled over by the Montenegrin police for doing an illegal u-turn.  He looked really nervous, but handled it well.  The other tour guide explained the situation - the fine could actually be 100 Euro and they could have taken away the permit for the tour company to come to Montenegro.  But, with the police (and country) being so corrupt, they were able to negotiate.  The police wanted 40 Euro, but they managed to talk him down to 20 Euro.  I don't think that would fly in Canada!

On the way back we took a short ferry ride that cut off a bunch of driving time (on the way we circled the whole Bay of Kotor on a windy road... the ferry allowed us to cut right across the bay).  Then it was back to Croatia after a long stop at the Montenegro/Croatia border (but I got passport stamps!) and back to Dubrovnik.

The scenery was beautiful, and totally worth the day trip.

Next... Sarajevo!

Lost in Croatia

First off... Croatia (or what I saw of it) is a really beautiful country... but holy hell is their transit system not my friend.

I arrived in Zagreb after about six hours on a train from Budapest at 8pm.  I had simple instructions - get on the tram, go for two stops, and then find the hostel.

First time I got on the tram, it obviously changed numbers after I got on, and I ended up going in a different direction.  This wouldn't have been a huge deal - you'd think I could get off and then get a tram back in to where I started and then try again... but alas their track splits and the stations are not side-by-side.  So I walked until I did find a tram and went back to where I started.

Because I thought that maybe I'd headed in the wrong direction (they mark their trams with their starting point, not destination - very non-North American and unknown to me at this time) I got back on the same number tram and headed the other way.  Wrong again.  This time though I was able to get a tram back to my starting point fairly easy. 

Get back on the same number tram, heading in the "right" direction... and then damn thing veers off again in the wrong direction.  This time I get off right away and catch a tram back to the starting point.  I'm starting to lose it now - partially because I know that the hostel isn't really that far, but I am lacking a decent map so I don't want to just venture out into the city.

Finally I get on the (same numbered) tram I've been trying unsuccessfully to catch for the past TWO HOURS and it miraculously ends up going in the right direction!  Hallelujah!  Lucky for me I had a whole five hours of time at the hostel before I needed to be up for my flight to Dubrovnik to sleep.

Ha!  Five hours my ass... that's if I didn't have to deal with a bunch of inconsiderate, ignorant Spanish hostel mates (I'm seeing a theme with Spaniards and their disregard for anyone else).  I probably slept about two hours before they came back to the room and started arguing/yelling/acting like jackasses - so I just got up and went to catch my taxi to the airport.

Next time I have that little time in a city, I'm just sleeping in the damn airport.

The sobe that I staying in while in Dubrovnik was in the old city - and recommended in the Rick Steves guidebook.  The owner of sobe was unfortunately in the hospital, but he arranged for me to meet a friend to check in and get settled... the first thing I did was nap!

When I got up I explored the city a bit - I took the cable car to the top of the hill to get a good view of the city below - it was expensive (by the standards I've had during this trip) but I knew that it would be... Dubrovnik is a cruise ship port and the city walls filled each day with cruise ship passengers on mini tours of the city.  The views of the Adriatic were beautiful and I wandered around for an hour or so before going back to the city.

I explored the old port, and wandered the city a bit - the walled section isn't very big - lots of shops and restaurants - and prepaid my trip to Montenegro for the next day.

Montenegro will get it's own post... so I'll skip to day three in Dubrovnik.

I got up late (this was the first place I had my own room - not just an empty hostel room, but my own actual room - so I took advantage of being able to sleep in.  I walked the city walls - it's about 2km around, and got some great views.  I wish I'd been counting the number of stairs that I have walked during this trip - I'm sure I'd be close to a million by now!

The rest of the day was spent relaxing by the old port, eating ice cream and just enjoying some down time.  By this time I was more than halfway into my trip, and honestly I was starting to slow down.  I'm still seeing what I want to, but I'm not feeling the need to see everything at warp speed!

The next morning I packed up and headed to the bus station to buy my ticket to Sarajevo.  Yet another transit mishap... they don't mark the stops in Dubrovnik (either on the bus or at the stops), and I didn't get off at the bus station (in hindsight I'm not sure why as the bus station would have been right in front of me!).  Sadly, I realized this (I knew if I turned the corner of the road I'd gone too far) just a little too late - and of course the next stop wasn't for like 3km!  I got off, expecting (so North American of me!) a return stop to be on the other side of the road... but there was nothing.  I started walking in the direction of the bus (thankfully I'd left lots of time to get to the bus station!), and all of a sudden a car pulled up beside me and the gentleman motioned for me to get in.

And I did something I've never done before... I got in the car. With a guy who barely spoke English, and trusted my life in his hands.

Thankfully I did get in... turns out the next stop wasn't for about another 3km or so.  Since you're reading this post, you know that I wasn't kidnapped or sold into slavery... and I'm thankful that the man took pity on me and dropped me off so I could catch the city bus back to the bus station!

We're not even going to go into the fact that the bus to Sarajevo was almost an hour late and even though I crossed the Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina border three times on the way I didn't get a single passport stamp.

Next post... Montenegro and then Sarajevo!

Budapest... it's "pescht" not "pest"!

My train ride to Budapest was quite nice... I sat with a girl from Australia that had actually been on the overnight train from Krakow with me as well... she's travelling around after spending almost two years working in London.  Those Aussies really have it right travelling so much!

Budapest is a great city - lots of history, and they're not afraid to make fun of their currency (I, for example, had 20 1000-zloty notes, so 20,000 zloty - and that was worth less than $100 Canadian.  I felt rich!) - comparing it to monopoly money at times.

My first night in Budapest I went to a folklore show that I found out about on the internet.  The ticket was less than $20 and I was treated to almost two hours of dancing and magnificent Hungarian music.  Every member of the band played the whole evening's music by memory, there wasn't a piece of sheet music to be seen.  There were ten dancers in all, and they put on quite the show.  It was like Lord of the Dance, Hungarian style!

The next morning, I got up and went on my first of two free walking tours of the city - this was a basic tour of the history of the city and some of the buildings.  We finished the tour by walking up to the Royal Palace on the Buda side of the river which overlooked the Pest side, and the Parliament buildings (the Europeans really like their stats - the Hungarian Parliament building is the fourth longest building in the world).

That afternoon I had to choose between taking a free Jewish walking tour, and visiting the Holocaust Museum (since the museum would be closed the next day). I chose the museum, and it was very well done, and while watching the final video of when the concentration camps were liberated it took everything for me not to cry.

The next day I spend the morning being pampered at the Szechenyi Bath and Spa.  It was also nice that I could wear a bathing suit and not have to be naked in front of everyone!  I treated myself to a massage that I wish could have gone on forever.  It was a great treat in the middle of the trip!

In the afternoon I managed to take my jelly-like self on another free walking tour - this one was about Communist Budapest.  We stayed on the Pest side of the river for this one, and it was nice to get the perspective of two people that actually lived during the Communist regime.  Hungarians actually had it pretty "good" (all in relative terms) during communism as they weren't sensored like many other countries were... they were allowed to travel to non-communist countries (albiet with a different passport than if they were travelling to a communist country), but they had TV, they had radio, and as one of the tour guides said, they got to wear jeans!

Budapest was a great city to visit... I highly recommend it!

Next stop... Croatia.  How many times can I get lost on public transportation in Croatia?  Find out next post!!

Perspective

I just spent the last hour speaking with the girl that is working the front desk of the hostel.

She's 24, from a small town (that she is so proud of... she showed me pictures and also gave me a quick history lesson - I showed her pictures of Calgary and Banff), and is close to finishing her degree in Bosnian and English and has plans on becoming a teacher in her old high school.

She lost her father to the war in 1993. In five days, she will mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

Her mother raised her and her brother on €275 per month (€125 from her wage and €150 as compensation for losing her husband in the war). Her brother and her are at the top of their class in university... and they're paying for it themselves. She is taking some time off school because she can't afford the €500 per course fee for her last two university classes.

She is currently making €250 per month working at the hostel (her friends are in awe... she has one friend that works at a bakery in her hometown that makes €125 per month). Half of that goes to paying rent, and the other half is divided between her own living expenses and sending money home to her mother, who lost her job at the shopping mall awhile ago.

I sheepishly told her how much money I make. She's smart... she knows things cost more in Canada (we compared prices for things like loaves of bread, gas, rent, etc.), but she was awestruck that I could make that much money.

If anything, tonight taught me a few things. First, the Bosnians remember the war, but they don't want to be remembered by it. Second, in a country where there is close to 40% unemployment, any job matters. And third, I've gained perspective - one that you can't learn just googling the minimum wages or walking through town, but by speaking to someone that lives this life every day.

This young girl is going places. I can tell.

Bratislava

My stay in Bratislava was short... honestly one of the only reasons I decided to stop there is that it made good sense as it was located (by train) between Krakow and Budapest.

Since I was only in the city one full day I needed to take full advantage of it... so after I got off my night train from Krakow, I went to the hostel and crashed for a few hours before heading out on a free walking tour of the city.  I've said it before, and I say it again - if a city offers a free walking tour, take it.  I tip on average 5-10 Euro per tour, and it is totally worth it, and way better than paying some old stodgy tour guide 25-30 Euro for the same thing, but without any feeling added to the tour.  I also find that those people operate from a script... and it is boring!

The city of Bratislava is not big, and the tour took about 2 hours.  We were lead around the city, shown a couple of Slovakian dance moves by our tour guide, and learned about the history of the area, including that of communism, the separation from the Czechs and how much they like their hockey.

Sadly, the afternoon was met with rain... my first (and so far only) brush with weather that kept me indoors.  I watched a few movies that evening, and tried dodging yet another creepy guy... this one was a little older and has been everything from an IT professional, to a trainor for the NHL and NBA in New York to a stock broker.  I'm thinking he just made up shit as he went along... and while talking to myself and a guy in the hang-out room tried convincing us that Slovakia was better under Communist rule because he got his education free.  The guy sure knew how to clear a room...

My train to Budapest left around lunch the next day, so I really didn't spend a lot of time exploring Bratislava.  Sadly much of the city's history was destroyed as one regime took over from another, so there isn't tonnes to see.  I did enjoy a nice meal of potato dumplings smothered in cheese and bacon though!!

Next stop... Budapest!


Hostel Living... you take the good and take the bad...

I have spent the better part of the month of April living in hostels, in rooms anywhere in size from four to eight beds.

For the most part they were great... there was the normal complaint that many of the bathrooms weren't up to par (I can handle shower stalls, what I can't handle is literally a closet-sized shower off a hallway with nowhere to change or store your stuff so it doesn't get soaked), that the kitchen facilities were minimal, or that the pillows sucked.

But to me, what really makes a hostel good or bad is your hostel mates.

It is not cool to come into a communal bedroom at 3am, turn on the lights and start arguing.  Sadly, the two times that this happened to me, it was a group of Spanish youth.  Sadly, this has turned me off ever visiting Spain (which is one of the few Western European countries I have yet to visit).

Both groups were inconsiderate, rude and arrogant.  In each situation, they outnumbered me 6 to 1, and I really had no recourse against them except telling them to shut the fuck up.  I have quickly learned that Spanish cannot be spoken quietly, but the level of ignorance that these youth expressed to me was quite amazing.

Here's a few tips for hostel living for those that are new to the idea, or ones that need a few lessons on how to be a decent human...

- 10pm is a generally accepted time to quiet down.  Same goes for keeping noise levels down before 8am.
- if you are going to be up early, pre-arrange your gear the night before... gather up your clothes for the next day, your toiletries and towel.  Nobody likes anyone that rummages through their bag at 4am.
- if you're staying at a place with a communal kitchen, clean up after yourself. It is disgusting to have to cook/eat around a mess that someone else made. Kitchen sink sludge is the worst!
- realize that not everyone is travelling just to see how drunk they can get in each city. That being said, a certain level of understanding has to go to those that are... you are living with each other after all. 
- don't hog the bathroom. Get in, shower, dress, brush your teeth and get out.  You can do your hair in your room or the hallway if necessary.
- Lock up your valuables.  I'm lucky that I've never had an issue with anything going missing, but I do make sure to lock up anything of value.  I don't however lock up my clothes.  If someone wants my dirty laundry they can have it.

- plastic bags, no matter how quiet you try and open, fill or empty them, are loud. Especially at 6am. One should take the same approach with plastic bags as removing bandaids - the quicker you deal with the "issue", the better. 

And most of all... don't be the most annoying people in the hostel.  As I've mentioned, my experiences with Spanish youth have completely deterred me from even visiting that country.  While I understand that they only represent a small portion of the population, if everyone else is even remotely as arrogant and ignorant as these youth, I don't want to have anything to do with the lot.

In the end, hostels are a great (and cheap!) place to stay at as you travel. Do your research (tripadvisor.com, hostels.com and hostelbookers.com are great places to start), and be sure to read the reviews not just for price/cleanliness/size, but also for the vibe of the hostel. 

Krakow... for those who have waited patiently...

Wow... it has been awhile since I have been near a real keyboard.

And of course the one that I have found in Sarajevo has the z and y keys in the opposite spot and I cannot find the ampersand or the apostrophe keys to save my life.  Or the question mark. Le sigh.

But here goes...

On my first day in Krakow I went on two free city walks - a tour of the Old Town in the morning, followed by a Jewish walk in the afternoon.  Both tours were good... the guide spoke good English, but boy it was cold... when I woke up that morning there was actually snow falling out my window!

The Old Town tour took us around some of the main sights, including a few places where Pope John Paul II went to school and lived, and a walk through the Wawal Castle.  The Jewish tour took us to the ghetto area.  I was actually surprised that the Jewish tour wasn't (yay - found the apostrophe) more... intense.  I'm not sure what I expected, but it all just seemed so... calm.

I went to the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum that evening - the museum is so popular that you have to arrange a time to go in.  I'd luckily found this out before I left Canada, so I arranged for a ticket that would closely follow the end of my Jewish walking tour.

The museum was amazingly put together. It took you through the whole history of the Nazi occupation of the city, and honestly didn't focus on Schindler all that much.  Sadly I learned that Schindler wasn't really the man like he was depicted in the movie Schindler's List (I mean, I knew that, but I learned a lot more as well).

The next day, in addition to my tour to Auschwitz, I also went on a tour of the Wielickza Salt Mine.  We went down literally (and yes, I'm using the word correctly) hundreds of steps to over 400 feet below the surface and toured about 3 km of the almost 300 km of tunnels.  There are amazing sculptures that were carved by the miners, and a few underground lakes. And there is also an amazing underground chapel with beautiful salt crystal chandeliers.

My last day in Krakow was long... I had to be out of the hostel by 11am, but my night train to Bratislava didn't leave until 10pm.  That's a lot of time to wander.  I went to the Rynek Underground Museum, and toured parts of the Wawal castle. Sadly I spent a great deal of time in McDonalds, due solely to the free wifi.  I checked out the mall, and got to the train station early.

The night train was quite a good way to travel actually... I was assigned to a bunk, and luckily my little room only had two of us in it.  I probably slept five of the seven hours of the ride, and really was only awake because it was about a billion degrees in the cabin.

Next up... Bratislava!

New updates soon...

I know that I'm begin on my posts... I still need to update you on the rest of Krakow, Bratislava, Bucharest, and now Dubrovnik.

Here are some pretty pictures to tide you over in the meantime!









Auschwitz... words can't do the experience justice

Auschwitz deserves its own post.

It is amazing. In a completely fucked up way.  The only thing that kept crossing my mind was how people could think of doing this to people.

Lining them up. Selecting those to work and those to die.

Performing medical testing. Giving people leprosy just to see how it spreads.

Walking people to the gas chambers.

Taking their bodies, by the hundreds, and putting them into giant crematoriums.

Then putting their ashes into the nearby river.

Not just the Jews.

Two buildings... called Kanada I and Kanada II... named because Canada was seen as the land of plenty... but really it's where the Nazi deloused the belongings of the prisoners to be reused or resold.

I hate that they used *my* country's name like that.

Seeing a room with tonnes of human hair... literally tonnes of hair that was shaved off the prisoners heads upon arrival.

Pictures really can't do it justice.


Bucharest... where Ceausescu loved his marble...

My days in Bucharest were fairly quiet... and it was nice. As much as I want to see everything while I'm on vacation, most place's sights can be seen in a day (and I know I'm missing out on stuff, but if it's not on the "essential" list of sights, I figure I can come back and see them another day).

I took another free walking tour... my guide was Simona, and she was great.  She explained the history, and was very quick to point out that some of the events were her opinions on how they happened.  Bucharest has some great sights, but much like Sofia, it is really just becoming a tourist destination having escaped Communism less than 25 years ago.

Much of the tour focused on Ceausescu's rule and the Communist regime.  The man was a bit of a nutbar. He had churches moved up to 250m (I'm thinking it would've made for some great episodes of Massive Moves!) just so that he could hide them behind blocks of Communist apartment buildings. The Palace of the Parliament that he built is the second largest building in the world next to the Pentagon.  He wanted the boulevard leading to the Palace of the Parliament to be the widest in the world, so he sent people off to measure the Champs-Élysées and then had his boulevard built 1.5m wider.  Really? I guess he was trying to prove to the world how awesome Communism was.  He didn't end up doing that great of a job!

That afternoon I headed back to the Palace of the Parliament for a tour.  I had to hand in my passport (luckily I have two if the Romanian government decided to steal mine), and go on a mandatory walking tour.  My tour guide was kind of a beeyatch... apparently you were supposed to pay extra to be able to take pictures and she sure let everyone on the tour know that time and time again!  The tour guide spews off tonnes of "facts"... there is blah, blah, blah amount of marble, this is the world's largest carpet, there are 6 billion zillion crystals in the chandelier... I mean, it's all cool, but we pretty much ran room to room to see things.  I (like I've done many times before) took pictures when I wasn't supposed to - I mean, there was a lot of marble to oogle at!

I went for a "traditional Romanian meal" that night... and it had nothing on my Turkish and Bulgarian meals.  It was at a place that was recommended by the hostel - and it was gross.  Maybe just my food choices were gross, but honestly it seemed like my meal was microwaved.  And it was the most expensive meal I've had - and wasn't worth it at all.  Don't eat at La Mamas if you ever head to Romania - you'd be better off with a Big Mac and free wifi at McDonalds.

The hostel that I stayed at was pretty good... there were some tarts from Canada giving us a bad name (one conversation they were having was whether or not they should wear bras out to the bar or not).  I was in a room of all guys (including an Italian with a freaky long rat tail braid), but they were pretty good about being quiet, which was appreciated.  I'm loving the free wifi that is at the hostels - it allows me to hang out in my room when I want some down time and watch TV shows and such.  I haven't been watching any hockey because I like my sleep too much though!

My second day in Bucharest was kind of marred by rain - I walked up to the mini Romanian Arc du Triumph, and visited the Museum of the Peasants (where once again, you can't take pictures... but I did).  I thought about going and taking some pictures of the Palace of the Parliament at night, but ended up just hanging at the hostel and chatting with the hostel hosts and a couple of guys from the Netherlands.

That pretty much sums up Bucharest... I'm in Krakow now, and after spending the day on two walking tours and a visit to the Oskar Schindler Factory, I'm pretty much hating on the Nazis right now.  If today ignited rage in me, I'm not sure what Auschwitz will be like tomorrow.  I'm thinking I'll probably just cry at what happened.

Oh - and I've decided that going on a backpack vacation of Europe is the best way to lose weight.  I'm walking on average 10km (more often more) a day, and my pants are getting loose! Booyah!

I'm going to try and post pictures soon... I don't really trust the hostel computers not to erase my memory cards, so we'll see what I can do.

It's Sofya... Sofia is a girl's name...

Sofia itself is a rather industrial looking city on first look... and after my adventure with the Kontroller the city was going to have to do a lot to make up for my first impression of the city.

The hostel that I stayed in was nice... but completely lacking a common hang-out area.  The hosts were great, and the location really couldn't be beat.

My first day was pretty uneventful.  After getting up at the ass-crack of dawn for my flight, I only walked around for a bit before heading back to the hostel for a nap (that turned into going to sleep for the evening).  My only bunkmate at the time was "Steve", and I could tell already that he was an interesting character.  He was a long-term resident of the hostel, having stayed there over two months already, and he didn't disappoint.  He was on the internet all night long, which many would think was a quiet and unintrusive thing, that is until you hear the *click, click, click* of him hitting his trackpad button all. night. long.  I got another roomie late in the night, and I could tell he was from New Zealand, but that's about it.

Until the morning that is.  Mr. NZ and I had the unfortunate circumstances of bonding over freaky Steve trying to go to sleep around 8am by cocooning himself in his blanket and violently rocking back and forth like a severely autistic kid in a corner (this is totally a generalization by the way... I know that autistic kids do not always sit in corners and rock).  NZ and I just looked at eachother and decided that would be the time to get up.

NZ and I met up again later in the morning at the Free Sofia Walking Tour.  I must say, if you're ever travelling abroad, google a free walking tour in the city you're going to.  They won't disappoint.  Fillip was our tour guide and he did an amazing job.  NZ and I hung out and then went for lunch afterwards.  I must say that the walking tour definitely changed my first impression of the city... there is so much history and Fillip did an excellent job showing us around.

Okay... here's an aside about NZ... the extremely hot (think Severide from Chicago Fire) lawyer who'd recently broken up with his girlfriend of six years and decided to spend four months travelling around Europe.  I *may* have contemplated offering to bear his children at some point many points throughout the day. But enough of the hot guy... I'm hear to talk about travel, not the hottest guy with an accent that I've seen in forever.

Lunch was a Bulgarian feast of sorts.  NZ had this chicken skillet that probably could have fed two, and my lamb dish with roasted potatoes did not disappoint. And freaking cheap.  I'm sure that I paid less than $10 for the meal, and I couldn't finish it.

We wondered back to the hostel because NZ had messed up his Achilles heel and needed a break. We ended up shooting the shit with the guy at the hostel for like three hours. We talked cheesy movies, some stuff about the history of Sofia, and just learned a little bit about life.  A great three hours!

That evening, we ventured out again in search of dinner and to take pictures of the Alexander Nevsky church at night. Why is it that men always get lost? I swear I'm the reason we didn't end up in the suburbs of Sofia that evening!  We failed at finding another Bulgarian meal like we had for lunch, but found an Italian place to eat... a large pasta dish and a beer cost me less than $7.  Totally worth it.

Back to the hostel... freaky Steve was clicking away on the internet, and I went to sleep.  The next day I said goodbye to NZ (who was heading to Macedonia) and I wandered the city for a couple of hours before heading to the airport.  This time I stamped my goddamn bus ticket the second I got on the bus, and then hung out at the airport for a few hours as my flight was delayed.  The Sofia Airport is very quiet... and the security personnel don't wear uniforms (the women were in tight jeans and hooker boots).  I pulled up a spot on the floor (as there was only one plug in the entire airport), watched some TV and then got on my short flight to Bucharest.

My venture to my hostel in Bucharest was far less adventurous than in Sofia... partially because the bus system uses scan cards and not an archaic punch system, and partially because they have announcements about the next stops. Much appreciated!

Next... a couple of days in Bucharest.  I'm about a city behind in my posts as I'm actually heading to Krakow tomorrow, but I'll make sure to keep posting!

Istanbul to Sofia... and the run-in with the Bulgarian Transit Kontroller

We'll start this post off on a good note, although I'm sure by the title you know something not-so-awesome happens (nothing threatening me or my well-being... just stupid stuff exacerbated by the fact that I don't speak Bulgarian).
 
My second full day in Istanbul had better weather, which was good and bad (good because I didn't have to deal with wearing a rain jacket, bad because I'm a moron and forgot sunscreen). Istanbul is built on the side of a cliff (okay... it's just rather hilly, but I swear I needed rock climbing equipment to get back to my hostel). I went to the "mosque" and then wandered over to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia and to the Basillica Cisterns. The last three are all very close although that didn't stop me from walking at least 10km each day I was in Istanbul (up hill, both ways... literally!!). I swear 90% of the pictures that I took in Istanbul are of ceilings. The mosques are amazing, their domes decorated so beautifully and when you're in one, you can't help but to get caught up in the enormousness of the buildings themselves, and the Muslim religion. 
 
As someone that is not religious in the least, I am often in aw of most sites of worship. I've been to countless churches, including the Vatican, and can't help but to find a peace there. The muslim mosques were no different. And listening to the call to prayer a few times per day was amazing. Yes, there are a lot of mosques, but unlike most North American churches, they're used daily.

My saving grace for this day was that I found the trolley (called the Tunel) up the hill to my hostel. It was probably the best 4 lira I spent while I was there.  Well, other than the 1 lira bagels that I could have lived on.
 
As I mentioned before, the hostel was great (I'll do a review of them all at the end). The craptastic part was that it was over this seedy Turkish bar that blasted Turkish music at full blast from about midnight onwards. Seriously, it was like being a prisoner of war it was so loud, but with the exception being that I wasn't having water dumped on my face constantly and had no secrets to tell.

The next morning, I was up at 4am so I could catch a 5am bus to the airport to head to Sofia. That part of the venture was fine... except I find it odd (by Canadian standards) to have to go through passport control on the way in and out of the airport. Oh well, more stamps in the passport for me!

When I got to Sofia, I knew that I had to buy a bus ticket for both myself and my bag.  I did so in the little store in the airport and went to wait (in the rain) for my bus.  I got on, and because my bag was so wet, I put it down before punching my tickets in this archaic punch on the wall of the bus.  

In comes in the Kontroller.  A mean looking Bulgarian man demanding 20 Lev from me for not paying. Apparently "not paying" means my bag had a seat before I punched its ticket.  And being the only person on the bus other than the bus driver, I was hooped.  So I paid my fine and then spent the rest of my bus ride to the hostel in a nasty mood, as my $1.50 (2 Lev) bus ride now turned into a $15.00 (20 Lev) bus ride. But really, when you're trying to reason with someone that doesn't speak (or chooses not to speak) English, $15 was the least of my worries.

I'll end this post now... next up will be all about Sofia and the hot New Zealand lawyer that I almost offered to bear children for.

Turkey, I am in You (and damn you have weird keyboards!)

First off, I take no responsibly for my spelling or grammar as there are symbols on this keyboard I´ve never seen before.  The "ı" and the "i" are seperate keys... whıch resulted ın my not beıng able to type my own username and password ınto Google for about 15 trıes.

Oh, and there ıs a "ç" where there ıs supposed to be a period. This could get fun.

I have been ın Istanbul about 24 hours now, the first 16 or so were totally useless though. I dıdn´t sleep a wink on either my flıght from Calgary to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Istanbul, so the nap that I went down for at 6pm turned ınto sleepıng all nıght.  Well, sleepıng untıl 2am, when my roommate arrıved and trıed to rıval my mom ın the snorıng department. Luckıly I have my tablet so I just watched epısodes of "Berıng Sea Gold" wıth my noıce cancellıng headphones on untıl the beast rolled over. She left pretty early, whıch was nıce and allowed me to get up and get ready ın peace.

We won´t go ınto the crappy shower sıtuatıon at my fırst hostel (the nıce one I´m ın now overbooked and paıd for me to stay at thıs other one for a nıght, so I won´t complaın too much, but I´ve serıously had better showers at campgrounds).

The attractıons ın Istanbul are eıther closed Mondays or Tuesdays, so I made sure I noted that. Today I went and saw the Topkapı Palace, wandered the Grand Bazaar and the Spıce Market. Of course at Topkapı Palace we weren´t allowed to photograph any of the good stuff (and comıng from a gırl wıth pıctures of the Sıstıne Chapel, normally I wouldn´t take heed of a "no photography" sıgn, but seeıng a camera get confınscated wıthın 10 seconds of me beıng ın these rooms I dıdn´t chance ıt).  The Grand Bazaar ıs a gıant maze of stalls sellıng everythıng from gold (lots of ugly gold jewellry) to rıp off purses (I´m sure I could´ve gotten an amazıng deal on a Louıse Vuıtton), but nothıng caught my eye. Numerous shopkeepers trıed guessıng my natıonalıty (I got everythıng from Amerıca, to Irısh, to German... and the one guy I told I was Canadıan to told me "same shıt, dıfferent pıle" to hıs guess of Amerıcan... to whıch I told hım off), and I´ve never been more aware of beıng tall and blonde ın my lıfe. Honestly, I thınk I could count the number of blondes I saw today on one hand.

The Spıce Bazaar was more my thıng... I´m not sure what I thınk quıte yet about turkısh delıght, but ıf I ever wanted some, that´s where I would head.

I´m ın the good hostel now... not sure my plans for the rest of the nıght because my feet hurt lıke a bıtch because I decıded to walk up the sıde of a freakıng mountaın to get to my hostel (when the guıdebooks recommend the tram ın Istanbul... take the damn tram).  Tomorrow I´m off to see Hagıa Sofıa, the Blue Mosque and the Basıllıca Cıstern... and maybe take a ferry rıde over to the Asıan sıde of Istanbul before I head off to Bulgarıa on Wednesday.

I just realızed that I typed thıs whole post wıth the wrong "ı"... so sorry ıf you don´t have any lıttle dots above the stıck-part. I´m sure I´ll encounter many weırd keyboards on my travels.