Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Day 2 in Sofia

gate to the Boyana Church
On our second full day in Sofia, Bulgaria we decided to head out of the city and explore some recommended sights near the mountain. We went to see the Boyana Church and the Dragalevtsi Monastery. Trying to get to both places was definitely interesting! The GPS needed to be updated on the streets, and kept trying to take us on roads that were nonexistent. While driving to the monastery the GPS wanted us to literally drive up the mountain! Well… that wasn’t going to happen. But even when we got to a better area the roads were still really steep and bumpy. Once we found the main road everything was good!

the TINY door to the church
one of the ancient graves

one of the hairy eared squirrels

Interesting facts about Sofia:
·         1.27 million people live there
·         We could see a pollution line on the mountain from the Monastery… people use fires to heat their homes
·         The city was founded near natural mineral springs and the city is known for its mineral water
Boyana Church was an interesting sight- the church is one of the best preserved medieval churches I’ve ever seen (probably because entry to the church costs so much!). Inside there are amazing murals that are hundreds of years old, gravestones that looked like they were from Celtic times,  and crazy squirrels with long hair on their ears. We enjoyed the scenery and the church, but I think the highlight of this monument was watching the squirrels jump from tree to tree! They were just weird!

"The Wingtip Photographer"

the ice on the stream

Benz enjoyed shooting the stream too

The Dragalevtsi Monastery was like a big apartment building with a church on sight. There were also three large bells that you must be able to hear from Sofia (even though it was miles away). The walk from the car up to the monastery was really nice. It was late fall with a lot of colorful leaves on the ground, but it was cold enough to have ice on a stream that was flowing down the mountain.  Josh and Benz decided that this was a great opportunity for pictures, and they spent some time capturing the scenery. In the meantime, Mike and I got to know each other better.  We decided that Josh’s photography business (if he ever starts one) should be called “The Wingtip Photographer” because he was slipping and sliding in his dress shoes trying to get the perfect shot. We had lunch after seeing the monastery at a lodge near the parking lot, and it was amazing typical food for Bulgaria (homemade bread, meats, salads, vegetables). It was good! Although the trip to the restroom was interesting… there was a picture (almost cartoonish) in the stall of a hunter squatting to go to the bathroom, and there was hair coming out of his behind! It was just bizarre!! And this was in the ladies room...

the church at the monastery

the boys

Sofia at twilight

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at night
We ended the day just hanging out in the Presidential Suite with a couple bottles of wine, some cheese, crackers and other snacks we picked up. It was fun to look at pictures from Benz and Mike’s adventure and other cities that were more polluted than Sofia. Overall, it was a great weekend with friends! But I was definitely coughing up gunk for a few days afterwards because of all of the cigarette smoke. I can only imagine how Benz and Mike will feel after their 3 weeks in Eastern Europe!!

My favorite parts of Sofia: the saxophone player at the club and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sofia, Bulgaria

Rotunda of St. George
Our friend Greg Benz and his friend Mike rented a car in Munich and decided to drive through Eastern Europe for three and a half weeks. Talk about an adventure! Our friend Benz has traveled all over the world and when he told us that his latest trip was going to be near us, we thought it would be fun to meet up with him for a weekend. We met his friend Mike and enjoyed a great weekend with the two of them in Sofia, Bulgaria on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

National Theater
Russian Church

Sofia is a walkable town, despite its large population, with some interesting history. There was a monument to the Soviet regime that currently used as a skate park, the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built to commemorate the soldiers who died fighting the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, the old royal palace and the square where the Soviet coup d’├ętat happened in 1944, the national theater, the Rotunda of St. George near our hotel (a church build in the 4th century) and many other places. There were traffic control booths on corners of intersections and there was even a yellow bricked road. Seriously. Sofia is also known for its nightlife. There are fun clubs and great restaurants. People in Sofia really love to dance, and we got to witness it first hand when we went to dinner at a local restaurant. There was a band playing traditional Bulgarian music and the people kept getting up to dance the traditional line dances. At one of the clubs we even saw a guy playing the saxophone to the lounge music. Of course, we got video of both!! I'll try to upload those on the next entry... today they won't upload for some reason.
traffic management booth

random couch we found outside of a bar

the "Yellow Brick Road"
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Benz (left) and Mike (right)

Our first night in Sofia was a rough one... the room at the hotel we were staying at was right next to the ballroom. There was a party going on until 3AM that night. When we returned to the hotel at 1:30 after meeting Benz for a couple of drinks they said the party was going to shut down at 2, so we thought “no problem”. Well, 2:30 rolled around and our room was literally vibrating from the bass. It seemed like the music was getting louder. Josh ended up having to contact the corporate headquarters because the person he spoke with at the front desk didn't do anything to shut things down. Everything finally shut down at 3AM. Of course the next morning at 8AM we were woken up by construction in the building next door (literally on the other side of our wall). Thankfully the hotel manager was aware of our situation and kindly told them to hold off on construction until after 12PM. We were able to go back to sleep for a little more time before meeting up with Benz and Mike.
the park near the Soviet monument

Soviet monument

the side of the Soviet monument

a strange monument under construction, with a lot of graffiti
surrounding the construction barrier

The room manager of the hotel felt so awful about our experience the first night that she wanted to make it up to us. We were just hoping for a different room away from all of the action. She did better than that... she put us in the Presidential Suite for the next two nights after telling us the party was supposed to shut down at 1AM! We were completely shocked with that and we gladly accepted their apologies. The previous night Tom Jones was playing in Sofia, and he stayed in the Presidential Suite. We were in the same room that he stayed in the night before, that was interesting! Honestly, I had no idea who Tom Jones was until Josh pulled up some of his music online. After hearing some of his songs I realized I definitely know his music. We were pretty happy with the news of our new lodgings, and we enjoyed the dining room, living room, monster bedroom and two bathrooms. Ok… it was WAY more space than we needed, but it was definitely nice. And quiet!  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bergamo, shopping and a missed flight!

Laura "Lew"
The first weekend in November Lew came to Milano!! I’ve known Laura for many, many years and I call her Lew (for her last name Lewandowski). We’ve been friends at least since Junior High and we were about 12 or 13 years old.  We used to figure skate together, and then we were in cheerleading together; we even sang and danced in show choir junior and senior years of high school. Needless to say, we go back a long time! She is one of my very best friends, so it was great to see her again and show her where we have been living this year.


Old city gates of Bergamo

While she was here we toured downtown Milan on the day she arrived, took some time the next day to go out to Bergamo (about an hour east of Milan), went shopping down in Serravalle (designer outlets near Genova), and partied like rock stars on her final night. It was a really fun weekend that ended with a bang!

the city center

a little gelato- it was amazing!!

Bergamo was really easy to get to from Milan- we took a train from the central train station (about 5 or 6 euros one way), and then we caught a bus from the train station in Bergamo to go to the old town (Bergamo Alto). It was a really hazy day with lots of fog, so it was difficult to see anything on the train ride out there, but it added a mystique to everything. Bergamo is a beautiful city at the base of the Alps and on a clear day it would be an awesome setting! We grabbed lunch, walked around to take in everything, bought a cake for Josh, and enjoyed exploring the old military artillery they had on display.

on a clear day you would see the Alps in the distance

some of the artillery we found

the park outside of the old military fortress,
that's where we found the artillery

That night we grabbed some Pizzeria Spontini pizza with Josh and I think Laura liked it! She got to meet the Pizza Nazi and experience our favorite spot. She never did mention if it was the best pizza she has ever had though… I have a new experiment going- every time someone visits us I want to take them to Spontini to see if it’s the best pizza they have ever had. Almost each visitor has said that, so I want to see how many people say it’s the best ever.

fall colors in Bergamo

drinks with Josh after Spontini

On Friday we went shopping at the designer outlets at Serravalle. It was a wet and rainy day, but we weren’t going to let that get in our way of some great shopping! Well… it turned out that some disastrous storms rolled through that same day. Literally. At least six people died in Genova that day because of flooding, and that was only about 60 kilometers away from where we were shopping.

flooding in Genova that day

courtesy of Peoples Daily Online

The final day that Laura was here we did some more shopping and walked around Milan. It was a lazy day for us; we slept in and enjoyed a nice nap in the afternoon. We needed to save our energy because that night we hit the town and experience the night life of Hollywood in Corso Como (a famous club in Milan that stays open until 6AM). This may not have been the smartest idea because Laura had to catch a flight out of Malpensa around 10:30AM the next morning. The airport is about an hour from our house (if you time the trains right), so she needed to be on the road pretty early. Well, we ended up staying out until 3:30-4AM… Needless to say, we slept right through her flight! I woke up at 10:45 and realized she had missed it! We scrambled and got her to the airport in time for the next flight at 1PM, but she had to purchase a whole new ticket!! I felt so awful! Now she can officially say that she missed a flight because of staying out too late (which is partially my fault). Talk about ending the weekend with a bang! But it was so great to have her visit Milan and hopefully she won’t have second thoughts about visiting again. It turned out to be a more expensive weekend than she expected!