Category Archives: Europe

That Time I Got Scammed (?) in Istanbul

I don’t know if i technically got scammed.  But here is my story.

On my last full day, I had planned to get up at the crack of dawn and be walking into the Blue Mosque the second it opened.   The night before, I had a horrible night’s sleep.  I was woken up in the middle of the night by a text that kept me up for the rest of the night.

I still manage to get up and out.  I get to the Mosque and I am an hour early because I do not know how to correctly research opening hours.

It is really hot. I am really sun burned. I am so tired.

I sit down on a bench outside the Mosque to rest and collect my thoughts.

A man comes up to me and offers to shine my shoes.  I say “NO”  I am not even wearing shoes, I am wearing cheapo sneakers that are getting thrown out as soon as I get home.   Despite me saying “NO”, he then says “just let me brush off the dirt”.   Now I get mad.  He is already down and brushing the dirt off my sneakers.  All I want to do is sit here in silence and rest and go into my own little world where I figure out the things in my personal life that are now running rampant through my head.

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I tell him “I am not paying you anything”, he says fine.  I know this is not going to be fine.   He starts asking me a bunch of questions.  Where am I from, do I like Turkish rugs.  No.  I don’t.   He is now fully cleaning my sneakers.

Once he is done, he asks me to go to his cousin’s rug shop.  I don’t want to go.   I know how this works.  He gives me a free shoe shine, takes me to a rug place, I buy a rug and we are even.  Except I told him to not shine my shoes several times.  I am not going to buy a rug EVER.  I am so tired and frustrated.  This man is ruining my trip right now.

Yet somehow, I am the one who feels bad.  So I take the walk with him, thinking I will tip him like 5 Turkish Lira for his troubles.  We get to the store.  I tell his cousin “I am not buying anything”  and I go to leave.  I pull out my wallet to give the shoe shiner a $5 bill and he tells me I owe him 60 Turkish Lira, which is about $30 USD.  Oh no I most certainly do not.   Are you insane?

I start yelling at him that I do not even have that much on me.  I really don’t.  He says “That is impossible” OH REALLY?  I am so great at budgeting.  I always have exactly what I need on me.  This is my last day.  I have enough to enter the Underground Cistern and eat for the day.   I already have my Jetons to get to the airport.   I don’t know why I am explaining this to him, but here I am.   Then I get even madder and yell “WHY AM I EXPLAINING THIS TO YOU?”  Then I just really start going off on him. Screaming at him.  “I TOLD YOU TO NOT TOUCH MY SHOES, I TOLD YOU I DID NOT WANT A SHOE SHINE.  YOU FORCED YOURSELF ON ME.  YOU RUINED MY MORNING, YOU ARE RUINING MY VACATION” and yet for some reason, I am still trying to give him $5.  But because I am finger pointing while yelling, the money slips out of my hand and falls into the street.   I did not plan that but since it’s there, it appears I have thrown they money at him.  This pleases me and I now walk away.  He does not follow.

I have no idea if this counts as a scam.  I didn’t end up scammed I don’t think, but I definitely went too far with being polite to him.  If I could do it all over again, I would have stood up and walked away the second he bent down to brush the dirt off my shoes.

Istanbul is really rough for people who just want to be left alone.   You can’t walk more than a foot without someone yelling “HEY LADY” at you, and shoving a flier for an open bus tour in your face, or trying to get you to buy a rug.  I found it really exhausting.  I felt like I was being harassed constantly.   Maybe it is just me who reacts to it so badly.  But I truly hated the endless disruptions to my thoughts.

Top Thirteen Travel Related Happenings in 2013

  • Best Country I Visited:  Bulgaria, by far.  I cannot express enough how much I fell in love with this country.   My favorite moment in this beautiful country was standing on top of the rocks at the Belogradchik Fortress and knowing I got here all by myself.

Belogradchik Fortress, Belogradchik, Bulgaria

  • Not My Best Destination:  Nis, Serbia.  This was not in any way a fault of Nis, it was my own.  You can never blame a city for someone who lacks the ability to read a map.  Or who did not learn basic language so that when she ordered an iced coffee, she was presented with a cherry milk shake. I am very fortunate that the least best time I had still cannot rightfully have the word “worst” associated with it.  I don’t regret that I went.  I will go back.  Plus, I got a fun anecdotal story about ordering iced coffee in Serbia!

Nišava River, Nis, Serbia

  • Bus Ride From Hell:  Overnight from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey.   Using a squat toilet with spiders as big as my head lurking over me, while developing a fear that the hot florescent lights would cause them to be burned to death and drop into my hair.  Yeargh.  It was totally worth it.  Anecdotal story aside, ISTANBUL.

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Blue Mosque Istanbul

  • Getting My First Visa Stamp In My Passport:  Hello Turkey, thank you!

Turkey Visa

  • Taking My First Steps on the Continent of Asia:  I was so excited to visit Istanbul because it meant I could cross the Galata Bridge and be walking on ASIA.   This was one of the top thrills for me in 2013.

Galata Bridge Istanbul

  • That Time in Rome When…  I went to Rome this year.  Why?  Because ROME!   How can you not go to Rome?   It was while I was in Rome that I finally had the realization that I need to stop going to places you are supposed to go to and start going to the places you want to go to.   Yes, it is a MUST for anyone traveling to Italy.  I went here was because it is a MUST for anyone traveling to Italy.   But you know what?   I did not enjoy it as much as everyone else does.   Sure, it is beautiful.  But I honestly would have preferred spending more time in Eastern Europe.  I’m sorry Rome.  It’s not you, it’s me.

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

  • Naples, Italy:  Oh how I fell in love with Naples.   I could have used an extra day here.  I had the best room here, with a terrace that was bigger than the majority of rooms I had on this trip.   I had easy access to Capri,  Sorrento and Pompeii (and Mount Vesuvius, where unfortunately, I never made it to)   I also got my boob grabbed by a crack head.   Anecdotal stories all over the place!

Castel Sant'Elmo, Naples, Italy

(Okay here is one picture, I can’t resist)

monte solaro summit, capri island, italy

  • Bucket List Item I Finally Crossed off:  Niagara Falls.  It is beyond me how it took me so long to get here.   You can actually still find bus fares from New York City to Niagara Falls for one dollar (YES.  ONE DOLLAR)  Or you can fly for as little as $60 each way.  So why did it take so long?  I don’t even know.

Niagara Falls Sunset

  • Biggest Hotel Mishap:  Falling in my bathtub in Paris.   It is hilarious to look back at, but I thought for sure I was going to die as it was happening

bath tub

  • Did someone say “Rila”?  Oh Rila.  You are magical.  I traveled here with a tour group.  It was my first time joining one.  I slept the entire way there to avoid talking to anyone.   Introvert GO.   As it turns out, traveling with others was not the nightmare I envisioned it would be. Plus, I got to see the Rila Monastery!

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

  • Greatest Hotel View:  Taken from my balcony at Lucky Hotel in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

tsarevets fortress view from balcony

  •  www.iputmylifeonashelf.com  That’s right!   2013 saw the debut of my blog.   I have a friend who had been telling me for a couple of  years that I should start a blog.  (Hey YOU!  Pay attention to me!  I am friends with YOU from OUR FRIENDSHIP)  This year, I took his advice.  At first I figured it would just be my friends reading it.  Then I quickly learned that most of my friends actually do not read it.   Or at least, they don’t want anyone (including me) to know they read it.   I felt like I was close to begging people to please acknowledge I have a blog, to PLEASE I AM BEGGING YOU PLEASE JUST SAY ANYTHING ABOUT IT.  FEEDBACK PLEASE.  CAN YOU PLEASE JUST CLICK THE “LIKE” BUTTON. IT’S FREE.  To  times where I was trying to not be a whiny psychopath crying about “WHY DOESN’T ANYBODY LOVE ME?”

But then I began getting feedback from complete strangers.  That was when I  realized that just because I am friends with someone, does not mean they automatically have an interest in reading about me traveling to places they aren’t interested in.  I was now getting traffic from  people who found my blog because  they were looking for information on places I have written about.   People were  saying nice things about me, to me.   That made me feel a lot better.

I ended up just $1 short of making enough ad revenue to cover the costs of web hosting for one year.  I don’t think that’s too shabby for a brand new travel blog written by someone who is not a full time traveler.

I had a goal of getting 300 Facebook followers, I am still just under 200. Oh hey, like  me!  www.facebook.com/iputmylifeonashelf

I had a goal of 500 Twitter followers.  I may make 1000 by midnight tomorrow. Oh hey, follow me!  www.twitter.com/lifeonashelf

To everyone who has ever commented, shared a post, hit the like button, emailed me, messaged me, retweeted me, I thank you. It means a lot to me.

2014 is going to be even greater than 2013. I know this because it is my life and I will  make it so.  I look so forward to writing about it.

Bus Ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Istanbul – Squat Toilets, Spiders, Smuggling and Depeche Mode…Wait…WHAT?

Last transport of my trip – overnight bus from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey.  This was quite the trip.  Finding out information about this journey before leaving home was nearly impossible.  I could never figure out where I was supposed to leave from, Veliko Tarnovo has two bus stations.  I was able to get some bus company names, but they had no internet presence.

There is a train, but the schedules I came up with were so beyond contradictory.  I also found a bunch of websites saying the train wasn’t in operation right now because of construction.  I would really prefer to take the train but all of this research getting me nowhere was really making my head spin.

So I left the USA without having any clue how I was going to be doing the last leg of this trip.

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I took advantage of a free day in Veliko Tarnovo the day before to simply go to a bus station and ask in person.  I hit the jackpot on my first try.  Yug is the south bus station in Veliko Tarnovo.  I walked from my hotel.  The walk was about half an hour, I am shocked I did not get lost.   From the main part of town, it is a downhill walk.   So if you have luggage and arrive at Yug, keep in mind you will be walking uphill.  There is a local bus that stops right outside the station.  You can take that. Or you can take a cab.  A cab will cost you under 5 BGN, which is under $4 USD.

I walked into the bus station.  I saw no English anywhere.  Everything was in Cyrillic.  I looked to my left and right and before I could look left again, a woman came out of a store to walk over and offer me help.  Bulgarians, nicest people on planet Earth.

Veliko Turnovo Bulgaria bus station

I got to buy a ticket to Istanbul!  I was really happy with how easy it was.

The bus company was Huntur Turizm.  The  ticket cost 40 BGN, which was around $27 USD.   They only take cash.  The woman actually writes you out your ticket on a book that uses carbon paper.   The office is super dark and paneled in wood and there is an ashtray on the desk.   It was like the 1970’s all over again.

My bus was scheduled to leave at 8:30 pm. I got to the bus station early, just because that’s what I do.  I paid to use the bathroom so I could change into clean clothes (remember, I just sweated 7348 gallons of sweat at the Tsarevets Fortress).  Good thing my change of clothes was in my handbag because the attendant had a fit when I tried to bring my suitcase into the bathroom.

I wait out front of the station, where the ticket seller had motioned to yesterday.  I assume the bus stops here.  There are no people out here and no signs.  For some reason, this just does not freak me out.  It normally would.  But when I am in Europe by myself, I just get in this zen mode with transportation.  I am really not sure what causes it, but I like it.

The bus shows up about 15 minutes late. Every person on the bus gets off to smoke, save for the bus driver who chose to do that on the bus. I have a window seat, thankfully.  The  girl next to me says something to me.  I tell her I only speak English, then she asks me if I am American.  Yes.  She stops talking to me at this point, which I am grateful for.  I am exhausted, I do not want to talk.

The bus ride is supposed to be ten hours.  There is no bathroom on the bus.  I start flashing back to my bus trip from Sarajevo to Nis.

Little did I know, this would be worse.

The bus driver’s assistant came and said something in some language I do not understand.  My neighbor spoke back and gestured to me and said “American”.  I then had to give up my passport, which is completely normal.  That is something that happens on long distance buses in Eastern Europe.  I got it back shortly.

The bus made a few stops.  Every time, everyone would get off and chain smoke.  My seat neighbor was the only person who did not smoke.  Of course.

The woman in front of my seat neighbor had her seat reclined all the way back so she was basically laying in my neighbor’s lap.  So every time I wanted to get out, there was no room.   This was annoying the first time, it grew more annoying as time went on.

After a few hours, the view outside my window began to look a lot like Stephen King’s “Maximum Overdrive”.  There were 2398473289473289427 trucks lined up on the side of the road.  I mean literally, 2398473289473289427 trucks.  Time to Google on the flip phone!

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/05/17/uk-bulgaria-protest-trucks-idUKBRE94G0O820130517

I find it absolutely bizarre that I am stuck in traffic with Depeche Mode (WHAT) on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey.  Life is so strange.

Other than it being a really weird happening, it had no effect on my trip.

We finally make a stop around midnight near the border of Bulgaria and Istanbul.  It’s a weird little store type of place.  Everyone gets off the bus again.  Some man approaches me and announces in perfect English “So you are the American!”   Yes, I am the American.

I went inside to use the bathroom.  This was the most traumatic experience of my life.  You walk through the back room of this store.   It is typical back room of a store type thing.   Shelves full of crap and it is dark.

I find the bathroom.   I go inside.  It’s a squat toilet.  I can do this, no problem.  There is nowhere to hang my bag, which is fine.  I can still do this.  Then I look up and I see the biggest spiders I have ever seen in my life.  Now I start flipping out.   This room is so small.  My knees are just about touching the door.   It is burning hot.  The lights in here are BURNING florescent.  I do not know how the spiders are not being burned to death.  Oh no.  What if they ARE being burned to death?  What if they burn to death and these enormous spiders turn crispy and start falling on me?  Oh my god.  OH MY GOD.  How long have I been peeing that I have had the time to have all these  thoughts please stop peeing oh my god I am going to scream HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

When I was done, I burst through the door like a maniac, gasping for air.  My heart was pounding, I was sweating from fear.   I have never been happier to exit a room.  Ever.

When it is time to board the bus again, I notice that every person except me has bags full of liquor and cigarettes.   I should have bought a bottle before using the bathroom.

We travel only a tiny bit further before we stop again.  This time at a duty free shop.  Everyone gets off the bus, everyone goes inside, everyone exits with bags full of liquor and cigarettes.  Only this time I notice that the bus driver’s assistant is paying for everyone’s stuff.  This is when I realize that this bus is less public transport and more of a liquor and cigarette smuggling operation.  Everyone is expected to purchase the per person limit for crossing the border.  I am exempt, presumably because of the lack of ability for the assistant to communicate with me.

We get back on the bus.  A tiny bit later, back off the bus for customs.   Then back on the bus.  Then off the bus AGAIN for customs.   Here is where I get my first visa stamp in my passport!   Back on the bus.  Back off the bus.  Now I am getting mad.   We are exiting the bus every three seconds.  It is so annoying because the woman in front of my seat mate has her seat blocking my path.   I am sick of getting off the bus, I am sick of getting on the bus.  I am so fucking tired.  I hiked up to the top of Tsarevets Fortress today.  I am exhausted.  I can’t sleep on the bus because we keep getting off the bus and then back on the bus.

I start yelling out loud “ON THE BUS, OFF THE BUS, ON THE BUS, OFF THE BUS”.   My “You are the American!” buddy from the spider filled toilet store found my outburst amusing and told me “Welcome to Istanbul!”

We finally are done with all customs and places to smuggle liquor from and we take off again.  AND STOP AGAIN.  This time at some fast food restaurant.  I didn’t bother getting off the bus this time.   I tried to sleep and as soon as it came, I got woken up by this loud crashing on my face.  Oh hey, someone is washing the bus and the power washer just hit my window and scared the shit out of me.

This bus ride sucks so bad.

Finally we got to Istanbul.   Much like Sofia, this bus station had a whole lot of entrances to bus company’s individual ticketing offices, which is confusing when you are looking for then entrance to the main bus terminal.

Finally I found where I needed to be.   I found an ATM, I used yet another squat toilet, I got a can of Diet Pepsi, I was golden.

I had to buy tram tokens to get to my hotel.  These are actually called Jetons.  Jeton machines are mean.  They yell at you!   I was so dead asleep from my experiences in the past 20 or so hours.   I was not in the mood for any guff.

The machine began yelling at me to insert money, I began yelling back “JESUS CHRIST, I AM. SHUT UP ALREADY.  I HATE YOU!”

Finally, I have my Jetons.   I am on a tram.  I get off at my stop.  And here is where my commute finally ends.  I survived to tell the tale.

Good morning Istanbul!

Blue Mosque Istanbul Turkey

Tsarevets Fortress – Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The main attraction of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria is Tsarevets Fortress.  I had specifically picked my hotel for the balcony view overlooking it.

tsarevets fortress, veliko turnovo bulgaria,  view from balconyI saved visiting the fortress until my last day, when I had several hours to kill before heading to Istanbul.

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I checked out of my hotel.  The woman working tried to hand me a pre-packaged sandwich.  I shook my head “no,” forgetting again that Bulgarians shake their heads left to right to mean “yes” and up and down to say “no.”  It took a few tries of rejecting her offer before it finally took.

Today is a hot day, as it has been for most of my trip.  It is also very sunny.  I have on so much sunblock and I just know I am going to be burned anyway. I am honestly considering a Kentucky Derby style hat for my Asia adventure in May/June.

Entrance:

Tsarevets Fortress entrance Veliko Tarnovo, bulgaria

This sign freaked me out.  First you prey on my fear of twisting my ankle and falling to my death, then you cleverly work in that I may have the shit scared out of me by random reptiles.

reptile sign veliko turnovo bulgariaMaking my way up:

Tsarevets Fortress Veliko Tarnovo bulgariaSuch a pretty view:

up high tsarevets fortress veliko tarnovo bulgaria

Up near the top is a nice, shady place to take a break:

resting spotThen of course, there is this still looming up top:

Tsarevets fortress, veliko tarnovo, bulgaria

Do you want to know what is up there?  I did.  So I kept going.  Look how high I am now!

Tsarevets fortress, veliko tarnovo, bulgaria

Tsarevets fortress, veliko tarnovo, bulgaria

When you reach what appears to be the very top, you may miss that there is an elevator, unless you know to look for it.  It is up a very scary (to me) staircase, behind a metal door.  I thought I had a picture, but I do not.  i found amusement in that there is an elevator to take you up the tiniest last bit of way, after you just hiked up this high.

Once you take the elevator up (it costs $2 BGN if I remember correctly) you are at the back of the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God.

Church of the Blessed Saviour entrance, Tsarevets fortress, veliko tarnovo, bulgariaYou can sign in upon entering.  Here is a very blurry picture of my sign in.  I wrote the date, “Jennifer from Brooklyn, NY” and my blog name.  I love that the lyrics of my favorite band,  used for my blog name, now reside in a sign in book of a cathedral on top of the world.

blurry sign inInside:

interior The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, tsarevets fortress, veliko turnovo, bulgariaOn my way down, completely burned and soaked in sweat, NOW the clouds come and the sun goes away.   Sigh.

storm coming in tsarevets fortress, veliko tarnovo, bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – Where My Worst Travel Fear Was Realized

Today I woke up in Sofia, Bulgaria and attempted to go to the bus station.  At first I could not find the tram station.  Then I got on a tram going in the wrong direction . Of course I did.  I finally got to the bus stop, bought a ticket and I was on my way.

Before arriving, I was all kinds of confused about the bus station in Veliko Tarnovo.  It appears there are two bus stations, the South bus station (Yug) and the West bus station (Zapad).  I was never sure which bus station I would be getting out at prior to getting there.  When we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo, I wasn’t even sure we were in Veliko Tarnovo since there were no signs.

It turned out that my bus didn’t drop us off at either bus station.  Instead, we were dropped off at Hotel Etar, which is used as a bus stop for only one bus company (Etap.)  I didn’t even know this stop existed at all.  Note, this is way more of a convenient stop than either bus station.

At the time I got off the bus, I was so confused about where the hell we were since nothing matched the map I had.  Rather than deal with it, I took a cab to my hotel.  It cost me $4 BG which is about $3 US.  The driver even tried to give me change from a $5.

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Veliko Tarnovo is shaped like a horse shoe.  At the very bottom is the main bus station.  Up a bit is the bus stop I was let off at.  From here, you continue around the horse shoe.  Once you are at the top, you can see the Tsarevets Fortress.

Here is a map.  On the bottom left is the main bus station.  Up the horse shoe, you see the Hotel Etar bus stop (only used by the bus company Etap)  I still have no freaking clue where the West bus station is.

http://www.hostelmostel.com/wp-content/themes/default/images/VelikoTarnovoMap.gif

Hotel “”Etara” is actually named “Etar”  Either that, or the “A” fell off the sign.

I got to my hotel and checked in.  Have I ever mentioned how Bulgarians are the nicest people on the entire planet?  Well they are.  The woman checking me in didn’t seem to speak English, and I don’t speak Bulgarian.  We mimed our way through the conversation and we both had a laugh when we ended up playing “who’s on first” with her trying to give me the wifi password.

She brought me up to my room and showed me which remote was for the television and which was for the air conditioner.  From there I was all set.

I splurged on my hotel room.   I normally like staying near whatever transit I am leaving from.  I get lost a LOT and I don’t want to have to worry about missing a bus or train.  But for this leg, I had no idea where the bus station I was leaving from was.  So I instead, opted to pay more for a room with a private balcony overlooking the Fortress.  Look how pretty!

tsarevets fortress view from balcony

As an added bonus, the wifi extended to the balcony. Score!

This is a night view.  I promise that before my next epic trip, I will be investing in a better camera.

balcony night view

It took me at least three full minutes to notice the shower in my bathroom.  I was seconds away from going downstairs to ask if the shower was shared and outside my room.

shower

Today was a lazy day.  I walked around the town and took some pictures.  Below the Fortress is a quaint little bridge and the Holy Forty Martyrs Church.  I, idiot, originally thought it was named “Holy Forty Marty’s Church”.  You know, as if some guy named Marty opened a church in his name on his 40th birthday.

Yes, they let me travel the world by myself.

view of veliko tarnovo bulgaria from hotel balconypark near bridge veliko tarnovo bulgariaHoly Forty Martyrs church Veliko Tarnovo, bulgariatsarevets fortress, veliko turnovo, bulgariaWhen you get to the bottom of the hill below the Fortress, you can either walk back up or take a bus.   The bus is is (or back in May was) .70 BG, which is about $.50 US.  What you do is once you enter the bus, walk past the driver and go sit down (or stand or whatever you choose).  Someone will come to you to get your payment.   You do not pay when boarding.

On some nights, there is a sound and light show at the Tsarevets Fortress.  The schedule isn’t a set schedule so it is impossible to find.  There is a phone hotline however, so you can ask your hotel to call for you.

I tried taking pictures, but the ones on this website do it way more justice than my camera ever could.

http://www.velikoturnovo.info/en/sound-and-light/

I don’t really have much planned for my time here.  I really wanted to be in Plovdiv today.  But I thought that with all the high speed flashpacking I was doing on this trip, I would welcome some down time.  Well I was wrong.   Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed sitting on my balcony with a liter of San Benedetto Peach Iced Tea, getting work done while watching the light show at the Fortress down below.  But I kind of wish I would have seen Plovdiv as well.

So maybe now you are wondering what the hell my worst travel fear was.  If so, you missed it.  That’s okay, I did too.

A few months after this trip, I had a friend contact me asking for advice on backpacking Europe.  He was concerned about the language barrier.  I assured him it will be okay.  Hotel workers know that when you walk in with a bag, you are looking to stay there.  They know the drill. Then I started to tell my anecdotal story of the nice woman in Veliko Tarnovo and how we mimed our way though.  That’s when it hit me.  I am such a jackass. For SO LONG I had put off going to Europe because I was scared of so many things.  One big thing I was absolutely terrified of was that I would have problems because I do not understand any language other than English.   Then when I am in Europe, and this stupid fear reveals itself to me, I didn’t even recognize it because it was such a non issue.

Lesson learned:  Do not let stupid things keep you from living  your life to the fullest.

Bulgaria: Rila Monastery and Boyana Church. Featuring Bonus Adorable Dog Pictures!

This morning, I woke up late and had to rush to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to join up with the tour group I was going to be traveling to the Rila Monastery with.  This was my first time joining a tour group.  I had originally wanted to go on my own and spend a night at the monastery (how cool is it that you can sleep there??)  But as I went about fine tuning my itinerary, it turned out I was not going to have enough time for this.  Getting to the monastery on a day trip seemed like a complicated nightmare.  So tour group seemed to be the best option. I was kind of hesitant since the introvert that controls me thought it would be hell on earth.  But it turned out that the only downfall was for the other people who had to deal with me being late to meet them, causing us to leave a few minutes late.

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The tour included Rila Monastery, Boyana Church and an optional stop for lunch.

I left my hotel in a rush and ARGH I got lost.  How am I lost?  HOW AM I LOST?  The other day when I was here, I had done a trial run to make sure I knew how to get to the cathedral from my hotel.  But I didn’t finish the trial run.  I got sidetracked by a DUNKIN DONUTS and jumped off the tram too soon.  God damn me and my need for iced coffee.

So now I am so lost.  Lost lost lost lost lost.   LOST.

My tour group leaves at 9:00.  I get to the cathedral at exactly 9:00.  I run around it like a maniac looking for a bus.  There is one bus.   I ask the driver if this is my tour bus.  Here is when Bulgaria having the nicest people on the planet actually backfires.  No, this is not my bus.  She asks me to show her the confirmation paper in my hand.  I do.  She reads it, then goes and asks someone else about it, have they heard of this company/have they seen the bus/maybe I could call the number on the confirmation…

The entire time this is taking place, I am FREAKING out.  I have to go.  It is now 9:05 I need  to find my bus GIVE ME BACK MY CONFIRMATION PLEASE.

I do another run around the cathedral.  Now I am positive that they left without me.  I try to not cry and instead start to walk back to where I think my hotel is.  While still in the parking lot, I spot it.  A VAN.  A VAN WITH A MAN STANDING OUTSIDE, WATCHING ME.  OH MY GOD ARE YOU MY TOUR GROUP?

Yes, yes it is.  I believe the tour guide had been watching me run around like a maniac this entire time.

The company name was V Travel.  I recommend them.  The driver was awesome and patient and despite my fears of joining a group, it was actually quite pleasant.

The tour company website is here (I paid for my trip, they did not sponsor me, nor do they have any idea I am writing this)
http://www.rilamonasteryshuttle.com/

I slept the entire way to the monastery.  When we arrived, we were greeted with this beautiful entrance.  I love the mountains in the background.

Rila Monastery BulagariaThe Rila Monastery was founded by St. Ivan of Rila, who was a hermit.  I was pretty excited to see how a hermit lived.  On days when I am not wanderlusting, my day dreams revolve around me becoming a hermit.

This place is absolutely beautiful.  I can never get enough of greenery up against a perfect sky.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Taken from the parking lot.  I want to build a tent and sleep here forever.

rila mountains blue sky

And the oh so colorful:

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery, BulgariaRila Monastery, BulgariaRila Monastery, BulgariaRila Monastery, BulgariaI saw two dogs who live at the monastery.  Okay I am sure they are strays, but allow me the fantasy that they have actual beds and food bowls, okay?

The first one I saw, fell in love with me and followed me around.  He broke my heart.

dog

Then came the second dog. Oh no.  Please no.  Do not make me cry.  See this dog here?

rila dogThis is clearly a twin sister of my sister’s dog, who is named Gertie.  See?  This is Gertie:

IMG_0147And this is Gertie as a princess:
gertie

Identical twins!  I kept running after Rila-Gertie yelling “Gertie” This really got me nowhere at all, except maybe on the list of “Crazy American tourist anecdotes” the bus drivers in ear shot of me share with their families over the dinner table at night.

Sigh.

After leaving the Monastery, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where I got to actually talk to the rest of the tour group.  As always, people seem really surprised that I am a solo female traveler.  I don’t really get it.  I mean, you got here so why can’t I?  Companions aren’t required to board a plane, train or bus.

Here is the backdrop to the restaurant.  If there is ever blue sky behind green, I will take a picture.

blue sky behind restaurant

After lunch, we had our final stop at the Boyana church. This church is actually older than the country I live in.  It’s crazy when you think about that.

Being that the frescoes inside are very fragile, there are strict limitations on entering.  No pictures are allowed, and visitors are limited to 15 minutes at a time.

If you choose to enter, and you hear a voice speaking words you can’t really make out, assume that this voice is saying “Mind your head” and avoid smashing your head into the stone entrance like I did.  That really hurt.

Here are some pictures of the grounds:
Boyano Church BulgariaBoyano Church bulgaria entranceBoyano Church - Bulgariagrounds outside Boyano Church BulgariaAnd finally, how could I ever possibly mention Gertie without showing you the two greatest Halloween costumers she has ever worn???  I apologize for the quality but they were taken way back when my sister had a cell phone that was shittier than the one I have now.

Awwwww.  She is quite beautiful, isn’t she?

gerteeyore gertie

Sofia, Bulgaria: the Adventures of an Idiot (a)Broad

So remember when I went to Europe back in May?  And I posted about it regularly?  But then I stopped suddenly and never finished it?  Well I think that was because subconsciously I did not want the trip to end. So if I held out forever, never finishing up blogging about it, it would not be officially over.  But now since 2013 is dangerously close to being over, while I still have four more trips left this year, I figure it is time to get cracking.

When we last left off, I had returned to Sofia from Belogradchik. I also got to use my very first squat toilet.  Oh the adventures one has when one travels.

squat toilet

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So after arriving back in Sofia, I was done.  Hot, burning, filthy, squat toileted, exhausted, hate.  I broke my “no cab” rule and took a cab to my Sofia hotel.  It cost me about $4 USD, which is quite a bargain.  The driver offered that I could smoke in the cab, since he was already lighting up.

I got to my hostel.  I don’t do dorm type rooms because I am old and crabby.  I also don’t like walk ups because I am old and arthritic and don’t use a back pack. Finally, I avoid shared bathrooms like the plague, because you know, PLAGUE.  (I am just kidding there, I know shared bathrooms are relatively clean, I just cannot resist a pun, no matter how bad it is.)

So when the check in guy hands me my key and tells me I am on the fifth floor and it is a walk up AND we are on floor zero, meaning it is really on floor six…I am sure he is mistaken.  Why would I book a fifth (SIXTH) floor walk up?  In Sofia?   One of the cheapest places on the planet?

But I do not argue.  I know damn well I am an idiot and very well could have booked this room.  I just figure I will lug my crap up all those steps and check my confirmation when I get to the room.

I get up all the steps.  I am dying.  Did I mention I was hot, burning, filthy, squat toileted, exhausted, hate?

I open my room door and there it is.   A room without a bathroom.  Up six flights of stairs. In Sofia, where hotels cost less than a pack of cigarettes in New York.  Okay I’m slightly exaggerating there.  It would be equal to TWO packs of cigarettes.

Okay there has got to be no way in hell I booked this. Let me check my confirmation.   I pull out my laptop type thingy and GAH.  I did not ask for the wifi password.  DO. NOT. MAKE. ME. WALK. BACK. DOWN. AND. THEN. BACK. UP. SIX. FLIGHTS. OF. STAIRS. JUST. TO. BE. SURE. I. BOOKED. A. ROOM. THAT. IS. UP. SIX. FLIGHTS. OF. STAIRS. WITH. A. SHARED. BATHROOM.

People!  Are you not listening to me?  I SAID I AM HOT, BURNING, FILTHY, SQUAT TOILETED, EXHAUSTED, HATE.

GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

I walk back down the stairs. While I am down on ground level, I go to the supermarket and pick up some bread and cheese for dinner.   Have I ever mentioned Bulgarians are the nicest people ever?  Well they are.  I tried asking the cashier if they sold Chapstick.  She had no clue what I was talking about.  I pulled out an empty tube and mimed it.  She got so excited understanding what I meant.  She then told me in broken English that there was a DM nearby and began trying to explain to me what a DM is.  Now was my chance to get super excited.  I KNOW WHAT A DM IS!!!!

(DM is a chain of health and beauty supplies, kind of like a Walgreens or CVS in the states)

She gave me clear directions.  I got back to my hostel with dinner, Chapstick and enough brain cells to remember this time to ASK FOR THE WIFI PASSWORD YOU ASSHOLE.

Back up six flights of steps to the room.  I log onto the internet.  I log into Booking.com.  I review my reservation.  It clearly states shared bathroom.  I then look at the hotel page.  It clearly states there is no lift.  I am just too stupid for my own good.

The beds were comfortable and I did have a balcony so I didn’t fuck up completely.

Hostel Lavele, Sofia Bulgaria

Hostel Lavele balcony, Sofia Bulgaria

This was the view.  Very pretty.

Hostel Lavele view, Sofia Bulgaria

After showering, I ate dinner and got all cozy in that comfortable bed and stayed there doing blog stuff.  There is a genuine comfort in doing “normal” things while traveling . It makes you feel like you are at home wherever you are.  I love that feeling.  It just makes me want to push myself to live this life forever.

Belogradchik, Bulgaria – V.1.5

I had originally  made an “out-of-chronological-order” post about my trip to Belogradchik, which you can find here.

I loved it there so much that I could not wait to do it in chronological order.  But there is some information I would like to add, specifically about getting there and back.

When I was researching this, I found out there was a bus.  But the information was really lacking and completely conflicting.  Now that I have been there, I can help.

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At the Sofia bus station, I was told by the information desk that the only bus company that runs to Belogradchik is named Montana.  The internet says there is a second company, I know nothing about this.

The bus leaves at 16:00.  It runs seven days a week, even though some sites on the internet say it does not run on Sundays (I took it on a Sunday).

The Montana ticket window opens late on Sundays since they do not have any early buses going anywhere. I believe it opens at 11:30.  I could not read the Cyrillic sign announcing this, so I spent a few hours trying to not have a nervous breakdown in front of the window, while wondering if it was ever going to open.

The bus was mostly empty.  The seats were fancy and very comfortable.  The air conditioning worked perfectly. We made a couple of stops where we picked up people who were just standing in the road, with no bus signs anywhere.  We also had to stop for a herd of sheep crossing the road.

Here is the only clear picture I have of the scenery outside the window:

bus view sofia to belogradchik

Belogradchik was the place I was the absolute most excited for on this trip.  As we got closer and the rock formations came into sight, I wanted to scream.

Going back to Sofia from Belogradchik:  I confirmed at the Montana ticket window that the only bus they have running back leaves at 6:00 am.   The internet again, has a bunch of other information.  I don’t know anything about anything else first  hand.

I did not want to leave at 6:00 am because it meant I would need to spend two nights there in order to see the Fortress. I did not want to spend two nights in Belogradchik (side effect of having a full time job and needing to see everything RIGHT NOW as you are doing this only on vacation time).

So I decided to take the train back to Sofia.  Advice: do not take the train back to Sofia.

The internet advises you to take the train from Vidin.  There is a bus between Belogradchik and Vidin.  I think this is terrible advice.  Take the train from Oreshets.  It is on the Vidin line, but closer to Sofia than Vidin, so less time on the train.  I took a cab, it was shared with two other people (that the cab driver picked up at the bus station, after leaving me in the cab by myself for about fifteen minutes with no explanation).  It cost me 4 lev, which seemed about right since I had read it was 11.  So he must have charged each person 4.

The train ride is very long.  I believe it was about 4.5 hours (the bus is only 2.5 hours)  There is no air conditioning, it was hot and the train was PACKED.  We also made some random stop for about half an hour, where everyone except me seemed to understand they could get off the train and get some fresh air.

I will never take a train in Bulgaria again.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to post 3298473 pictures of Belodgradchik (even though you may have clicked the original link in the first paragraph of this post, which has lot of pictures in it) because BELOGRADCHIK DAMMIT.

This little guy followed me for a long time, barking at me.  I asked him if he was going to bite my ankles.  He then ran and got some backup in the form of a HUGE dog that was really mad that I insulted the little ankle biter.  I wish I had Huge Dog’s picture.  But he was HUGE and MAD.

little dog

Belogradchik, BulgariaBelogradchik, BulgariaBelogradchik, BulgariaBelogradchik, BulgariaBelogradchik rocks, BulgariaBelogradchik rocks, BulgariaBelogradchik fortress, Bulgaria

Goodbye Niš, Serbia, Hello Sofia, Bulgaria!

I was taking a 4:30 am bus from Niš, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria.   My Niš apartment was on the third floor of a building that had a cement spiral staircase, and no lighting at all in the hallway. Being that I am leaving at this ridiculously early hour, there is also no sunlight in the hallway.

I gave myself an extra half an hour to sit down on the stairs and scoot down them with my suitcase in tow, to avoid breaking my neck and killing myself.  It is times like these that I almost wish I were not solo, just so that someone else could witness how stupid my life is.

steps death

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The walk to the bus only took about fifteen minutes.  As I was boarding the bus, I was shown that on my ticket, it clearly states that there is a charge for storing luggage on the bus.  I cannot recall the exact amount, but it was less than $1 USD.  I flashed back to the conversation I had with the driver’s assistant back in Sarajevo and now realized that I was probably about ten cents short with paying for my luggage on that route.  I had no idea what was even going on.  Now, I know.

The bus ride was relatively uneventful, save for the beautiful scenery outside.  When we crossed over into Bulgaria and had to show our passports, it became clear to everyone that I was from America.   This caused a lot of the usual interested stares I have gotten this trip, but the only person who commented on it was the driver’s assistant who seemed very surprised I was traveling solo.

We arrived in Sofia at around 9:30 am.  I did not even realize we were in Sofia at first.  We were let off at an annex to the main bus station.  All that is over on this side is rows of store fronts that contain only specific bus company ticket desks inside.  It took me a bit to realize that the main bus station was right next door.

I had approximately eight hours to go see Sofia before heading on a bus to Belogradchik (I would be back in Sofia tomorrow for more time to spend here).  I did not want to leave the bus station until I had secured my ticket for Belogradchik.  Finding out the bus information for this route was not the easiest thing.  The internet is so not clear on anything.  As a bonus, today was Sunday and the schedule I had, clearly stated “every day except Sunday”, which I had not realized until I was getting my stuff together when leaving my hotel back in Niš.  Oh I feel a migraine coming on.

The counter for the bus company that goes to Belogradchik was not open yet.  It did not open for two hours.  I spent two hours in the bus station waiting for it to open.

Once I got my ticket, I checked my luggage.  Then off to the tram to head downtown.  This was a headache as well as I could not figure out how to buy a ticket.  OH HEY you can buy one on the tram.  Duh.

My main plans in Sofia for today are:  (a) follow the tram directions for the hotel I am going to be staying at tomorrow night, so I know how to get there tomorrow  to avoid getting lost (I AM ALWAYS LOST) with luggage and (b) visit St. Alexander Nevsky Church.

My plans were slightly thwarted when outside the tram window, I spot the holy grail – DUNKIN FREAKING DONUTS.  AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!  DUNKIN DONUTS.  THERE IS ICED COFFEE AT DUNKIN DONUTS.  I HAVE NOT HAD ICED COFFEE SINCE LEAVING HOME.  I NEED ICED COFFEE.  GIVE ME ICED COFFEE NOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW.

I get off the tram and bolt back to the Dunkin Donuts.  I was so excited.  I think the guy working there probably thought I was a bit off with HOW excited I was.  Not only did they have iced coffee (well, iced lattes, close enough!), they also had donuts with smiley faces on them.  Of COURSE I am going to buy a donut with a smiley face on it.  I am so happy ICED COFFEE (OKAY LATTE, CLOSE ENOUGH).  I place my order in pretty much a sing song voice, which was even singier when i asked for “smiley faced donut please!!!”

EEEEEE!

dunkin donuts

As if this wasn’t cool enough (it totally was!), I managed to then walk to the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral without getting lost!  I read a map correctly!  What a fantastic day.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is gorgeous.  Insanely gorgeous.  One picture will never be enough.

alexander nevsky alexander nevsky church, sofia, bulgaria, sofia, bulgaria alexander nevsky church, sofia, bulgariaalexander nevsky church, sofia, bulgaria

I was really surprised at how empty it was inside.  There were maybe about ten people in there, with about eight of them praying.   You are not allowed to take pictures inside.  Of course, the two other tourists were ignoring  this and doing it anyway until they got told to stop.  I sat in here for quite some time just admiring it.  It was so quiet and peaceful.

After leaving, I wandered a bit around Sofia before heading back to the bus station.

former communist party house, sofia, bulgariarussian orthodox church, former communist party houseCIMG0899central military club, former communist party houseCIMG0890CIMG0889monument to the tsar liberator, sofia, bulgariasofia, bulgariasofia, bulgariasofia, bulgariasofia, bulgaria

How beautiful is Sofia’s backdrop?

sofia, bulgaria

Mentally Melting Down in Niš, Serbia

Today I was able to sleep in a bit since Nis doesn’t have all that much to see.  This means I am up by 8:00 anyway.

First thing I do is Google to see where the train station is, since I had forgotten to do that before I left.  Oh fuck.  It is a 21 minute walk, which is fine.  But there are a lot of turns and stuff on Cyrillic written streets.  There is no way in HELL I am going to be able to find it in the dark at 2:30 am.  FUCK.  This was my whole reason for staying an extra night in my hotel.  I don’t want to trust that I can get a cab.  So I decide that I will just take the bus to Sofia tomorrow.  Good bye dreams of finally taking an overnight sleeper train.  UGH.

Since I am going to the Fortress today, I make that my first stop since it is pretty much at the bus station.  This way I can buy a bus ticket to Sofia for tomorrow. It was an easy walk, passing over the Nišava River.

Nišava River, Nis, Serbia

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Buying a bus ticket was not as hard as I anticipated it would be.  I manage to convey that I want to take the 4:30 am bus tomorrow morning.  The woman working the window manages to convey that it will be 1350 dinar (around $17 USD).  We worked very well together for two people who did not understand a word the other was saying.

After this, I realize I am starving.  I go to a restaurant in the bus station parking lot.  That did not go as well as the bus ticket did.   I asked the waitress if she spoke English.  She did not. I start off by pointing to the huge poster advertising iced coffee.  She brings me a cherry milkshake.  I am not kidding.  She also brought the check so I guess I wasn’t going to get my chance to order food.

I went to the Fortress.  It was so nice.

fortress walls grafitti Nis, Serbia

fortress walls Nis, Serbiapark Nis, Serbiapark Nis, Serbiafortress Nis, Serbia

Obligatory Nis dog picture:

doggie Nis, Serbia

I will admit I wanted to take the tourist train, even though it was clearly for kids.  It had a smiley face on the front and played ice cream truck music.  There were adults on it though.  I just could not figure out where to board so I let it go.

Train in Fortress Park, Nis, SerbiaTrain in Fortress Park, Nis, Serbia

I meander around a bit, being a tourist and taking pictures.  It took forever to get a picture of these fountains because they just KNEW I was waiting with my camera and they were being camera shy. But I got you!

fountains Nis, Serbia

Next stop:  Skull Tower.  I am so excited for this.   I walk to where it is on my map.  I cannot find it.  Flash forward literally two hours of walking around, I do not find it.  I finally give up and decide to go back to the Fortress entrance, where there is a tourist information booth.  It was open when I was here earlier.  It is closed now.

I find a big map of Nis, including all the tourist sites.  On it, they show a picture of the Skull Tower.  But it is not on the actual map.  Are you freaking kidding me?

By now, I am just about done.  I agree to do the following:  go back to my hotel, go online, re-Google the stupid skull tower, consider taking a cab.

I get to my hotel and my key won’t work.  Will not work.  Cannot open the entrance to the door on the third floor.  I know the woman who checked me in yesterday mentions she is one floor above.  I go up one more floor.  There are three doors, none are marked.  I try again and again and again.  I try kicking the door.  I am now freaking out and breaking down and sweating and about to burst into tears.

I go back down  and outside to ring the bell to get her to come out.  She meets me at the door.  “Oh Jennifer” she says.  Then she takes my keys and tries to unlock the door and she can’t.  See?  It is not just me.  Oh but it is because she tries again and on the second time, she gets the stupid freaking door open.

Okay.  Problem solved.  I get to my room and the wifi is not working.  Oh fuck no I am not going back down two flights of stairs again to ring the bell to have her meet me.  I Google the Serbia country code on my flip phone – which will probably cost me a million dollars since my data service isn’t covered in Serbia.  I call the number, and someone appears and fixes my wifi.  I am now supposed to re-Google map the Skull Tower, but instead I opt to just burst into frustrated tears.  I tend to have one meltdown on every trip I take; this was this trip’s meltdown.

I thought I might stay here for a bit and relax and build up the mental strength to go back out and see the ONE THING I AM DYING TO SEE HERE.  But it did not happen.

So now I am in Nis to see one thing I did not see.  I am taking a bus that leaves at 4:30 am, instead of one that left at 6:30 pm, which was the better option all around.  You know, so I could be here later to take the overnight train I am now no longer taking.  Everything from the moment I entered Serbia on my layover two (was it two?) days ago has gone horribly wrong.  Serbia hates me.  I still don’t hate Serbia though.  It is not Serbia’s fault I lost my magic trip planning skills.