Free to roam…..Lefkes to Prodromos & Antiparos Island

As stated in my previous post, we weren’t expected to work everyday while with Jim and Irini. In fact, Jim made it clear that we needed to take breaks, and that our stay was not all about work. 

We managed to make 2 day trips out and about to see what the area had to offer. 

—Lefkes to Prodromos—

One Friday morning we started looking at bus schedules for the following day, because buses were the best alternative for us to get around. 

Our new friend Tara, a fellow Wwoofer, was leaving on Sunday, and we wanted to be sure to spend a day hanging out with her before she left. 

Tara has biked 8000km in 6 months across Asia and is now headed to Africa! Follow her incredible journey on her blog: Follow Margo Polo 

She has 70 kgs (154 lbs) strapped to that bike!! This is the day she left us to go explore Africa!
 As we read the schedule, we realized that there were very few buses on Saturday and much more on Friday. Irini suggested that it was a nice day, and we should just go that day, instead of waiting till the next. Sounded good to us!

We headed off to a town located in the centre of Paros called Lefkes. Jim had told us that it was a neat mountainside town so we decided to check it out. Before leaving, they also told us about an old trail called the Byzantine Trail, built 10 centuries ago during the Byzantine Era. The section from Lefkes to Prodromos is the most preserved section of a large network that used to connect many of the villages on Paros. And the good news was that we could catch the bus from Prodromos, and it was all downhill!  Perfect!  

Starting in the mountains at Lefkes.
  
 
Ending in Prodromos, closer to the Sea.
  
 We poked around Lefkes for a bit, then decided to find the trail and start heading down to our
potential lunch spot. We looked around for the trail head, referencing our large scale map that we had, hoping for a clue.  
This was such a steep grade, the photo doesn’t do it justice. And YES! this is an actual road cars drive on!
  
Teeny tiny stairs!
  
Little passageways with Bouganvillia.
    
  
Kind of Flintstone-ish.
 
We finally came across 3 construction workers working in the town square. I asked if they spoke English. The answer did not surprise me “a little bit.”  One of them said shyly. Now, it doesn’t seem to matter who we ask this question to, the answer is always some sort of shy rendition of “a little bit” to “yessssss??”, to my favourite taxi driver response “sommmmmetimmmes.”  We always giggle and then ask them our question verrrryyyy slowly, and most of the time they know a great deal more than they think they do, and we are always impressed. 

We showed our map to him and while pointing to the trail I said “We are looking for the Byzantine Trail?”

He knew what we were asking, but he just couldn’t seem to form his words right. For at least a minute he struggled for the words to tell us how to get there. We heard “left” many times, and there was lots of pointing. But that was about the extent of it. Finally he motioned for us to follow him. We literally walked 15 feet, and he pointed to a sign IN ENGLISH pointing to the Byzantine trail, that we had actually already walked past once. HA!!  We thanked him profusely, and went on our way. 

The trail started out amongst the tiny corridors of Lefkes, wound its way between buildings impossibly perched on the hillside, and then finally emerged below the town,showing us the valley below. It was a bumpy old track, and we discussed how difficult it would have been back in the horse (donkey) and cart days, to get around.  

The bumpy trail.
  
Emerging from the narrow valley to witness the view below.
  
The final approach to Prodromos.
 We wandered along the trail, checking out the plants, and stopping for photo ops whenever we would round another corner and a new, and seemingly improved, vista would present itself . We marvelled at the terraced hillsides around us, and envisioned what life may have been like here 1000 years ago. 

We all started to feel pangs of hunger about 3/4 of they way down. Jim had told us that there was a restaurant next to the central square in Prodromos. We were all quite concerned that it may not be open as it’s not exactly the tourist season. 

As we approached  the beginning of the village, there appeared on the side of a building, a neat little map of the town centre, and it had English on it! Clearly someone had thought this through!  We wove our way through the narrow winding streets, and came out exactly where we needed to.  

We loved this persons style!
  
More georgeous little streets.
  
A fun little stone mosaic on the side of a house.
 
YES!  The restaurant was open!  

Lunch was lovely. The waitress, and I’m sure, Owner, knew just enough English to provide us with the options available. We had no idea what the prices were, but it was a modest little spot, and we couldn’t imagine it was too expensive. Besides we were HUNGRY!  (Turns out the price was just fine.)

We ordered some local Paros wine to share, ate 2 plates of Cheese Saganaki (fried cheese, and my new favourite thing!), and other traditional Greek dishes. 

Fun Fact: Wine is so abundant in Greece, restaurants often have their OWN wine that they make, and when they say house wine, they REALLY MEAN house wine!  (Plus it’s usually cheap!)

Chris had an incredible Greek Salad that was topped with heaping scoops of the yummiest feta cheese we have ever seen. It was like they had used an ice cream scoop to scoop it, and it’s consistency was halfway between that of ice cream and whipped butter. It was the creamiest, yummiest, cheese we ever did see!  And we all had to get in there and try it! 

Feta to die for!
 We wandered around Prodroms for another couple hours until our bus came, and we were whisked back to the safety of Living in the Garden, Jim and Irini’s oasis. 

—Antiparos Island—

The idea of our journey to Antiparos Island, the neighbouring island to Paros, was sparked when we learned that the ferry runs every half hour, and that there was quite a quaint and unique village over there to see.  

 We also had another reason.  After much deliberation, we had finally decided to stay at Jim and Irini’s for Christmas Day, instead of joining the throngs of people who would be travelling around prior to the holiday. As they had Christmas plans already, we decided to cook our own Christmas dinner in our adorable cottage kitchen. 

That meant we needed some supplies, so we decided to make Antiparos our grocery shopping mission as well. 

We caught the ferry across to the island at about 9:30am. The tickets were sold once you stepped on the boat, and the man we bought them from attempted to communicate the return schedule to us while we stared at him dumbfounded, clearly not understanding his broken English. He finally just ended up showing us the copy hanging on the wall behind him. Apparently in the low season they only run every hour instead of half hour. 

Now, we live in a ferry dependant community on the West Coast of Canada. One would think we should be sick of ferries. But, for some reason, I LOVE being on ferries. I don’t know if it’s the being on the water thing?, or the not being in a car thing?, or what exactly makes me love them, but I get giddy with excitement pretty much every time I go on one. We went up top to sit outside, and I immediately ran around and snapped pictures with reckless abandon. (But for some silly reason did not get a pic of the ferry itself.) The ride only lasted 10 minutes or so, then we were free to roam. 

   
    

A happy traveller!
  Right away, we were greeted with a very cute and quaint waterfront promenade, that despite the off season, still had a few restaurants open and a couple grocery stores. 

 

Antiparos waterfront.
 
In behind the waterfront was a lovely little village that was mostly pedestrian only. We saw a couple mopeds zip by, but we were told that it’s likely not allowed in the summer months, when there are hoards of people walking around. Many artist boutiques and high end shops lined the main thoroughfares, but unfortunately they were closed for the off season. 

We stopped in a small coffee shop to get a bite to eat. Even though it was only about 10:30 in the morning, we noticed Ouzo on the menu, and thought it was high time that we tried some real Greek Ouzo. Besides, it was almost Christmas, and surely 5:00 somewhere??

 

Ouzo!! It was really yummy!!
 We strolled through town and came out the other side at a rocky headland and a little beach. Here, I finally dipped my feet in the Mediterranean Sea, or more precisely, the Aegean Sea. 

   

Brrrr it was a bit chilly!!
 
Heading back through the village to find a place for lunch, but taking a different route than we had coming out (because exploring every nook and crannie is so much fun!), we came across a centre square with a church and an old castle.  

 As we rounded a corner, and came face to face with the church, 2 monks came walking out, creating a stunning picture. I quickly fumbled for my camera, but it was too late, they had ducked into another doorway. A few minutes later, we came around another corner, and again, they popped out of one doorway, and dashed into another, before I could capture them.  

Stairs up, inside the castle walls.
  
The church and the original sight of the monks.
 
We climbed up on top of the ancient structure in the middle of the courtyard, and took in the views from above. From up there I could hear people talking below. I knew it was those monks, but couldn’t get a good look at where they were. I was obsessed!  At this point I had made it my personal mission to capture those darn monks on camera, if it was the last thing I did! 
From above.
  
We came back down from up above and rounded a corner near the bottom of the stairs.  By now I had my camera in hand and ready to go, and lo and behold, there they went again, popping out of a doorway, and rounding a corner. I was quick enough to get a shot (only of one), but without the dramatic church background, it didn’t really do it justice.  However, I was somewhat satisfied, so we went on our way.  

Got ya!
 As fate would have it, a little while later, we looked back and there they were walking behind us, totally innocent, and completely unaware of my perverse need to get a good picture of them. I stepped aside and pretended to look at my iPhone for a while. They passed us and I FINALLY got my picture. But alas, STILL not as good as what I had seen earlier. I guess some pictures are just meant for our minds. 

  

This cute old guy had his tractor cart full of produce. Maybe he was delivering it?
  
 
A greek parking garage.
 
 
Colourful fishing boats.
 

We wound our way back to the waterfront, had some lunch, and bought our Christmas dinner supplies. Our day on Antiparos was nice and very peaceful, but, I have been told that the island is turning into a sort of small version of Mykonos or Santorini. Apparently Sean Connery and Tom Hanks have houses there, and, if this is the case, it likely won’t be a cute quaint little place for long.  Best to check it out while it still retains its charm. 

Next I will be blogging about our time in Santorini. Despite its beauty, we have very mixed emotions about this place. Our travelling bubble of happiness and complete ecstasy burst a little bit. So to give you a hint of what’s to come, I will be naming the post Santorini or Bust(ed)!

Idle working days on Paros Island. 

Capturing an experience such as this, is difficult to describe in words. However, I feel it necessary to spread the joy that we have experienced, and so, I will give it a whirl. 

Our Wwoofing (see my last post ‘Gone Wwoofin’ to learn about woofing) hosts, Jim (from England) and Irini (from Greece), are fabulous! They have been sculpting the land they live on for 15 years.  And when I say sculpting, I mean sculpting! With the help of numerous Wwoofers, they have turned a hillside of prickle bushes and scrub brush into a venerable landscaped oasis. 

Jim, Irini and their dogs. Taken circa 2013
 
Brilliant plants, constantly bursting into various colours, line impossibly adorable pathways, that lead to even more adorable cottages. We have spent the last two weeks absolutely in awe of the utter beauty around   us, that looks like it has been dropped from the heavens.  

Just one of the beautiful cottages to rent, and the one we were fortunate enough to call home for two weeks.

 

The closeup of ‘our cottage.’
 
 
Gorgeous handbuilt pathways run every which way!
    

Yes, thats a Rosemary bush! And there are many more like it!

 

More adorable cottages, more adorable pathways!
   
On a daily basis, we inspect the plants, and constantly find something new that we didn’t know existed before.  Some days I feel like Alice in Wonderland, completely aware and wide eyed, discovering new and exciting plants and nooks and crannies, around every corner. 

   

Aloe Vera!

  

  

 Yes, there has been work. But it’s been the sort of work that provides so much reward.  At the beginning of our time with them, I asked Jim what he expected in terms of how many hours we needed to contribute in a day, in exchange for our accommodation and meals. We are both very honest, hard working people, and the last thing we want is to be taking more than we are giving.

Succulents bloom everywhere!
Bouganvillia cascading from above.

Yes, that is a Geranium, planted in the ground and huge!
 Jim’s answer wasn’t exactly cut and dried. Instead of demanding 5 or 6 hours per day, Mon-Fri,
with weekends off, he attempted to explain his philosophy while successfully sidestepping my question. 
It became clear to us, quite quickly, that Jim does NOT do the nine to five routine. He is more free wheeling and doesn’t conform to any sort of “societal standards.”  

So, it was no surprise to me to hear his philosophy on the whole Wwoofing process. His philosophy, in basic terms, is that humans are meant to interact, learn things from each other, inspire each other, help each other, lean on each other. We are meant to cooperate as a community. We are meant to trust in each other, see the good in each other, celebrate each other’s talents, and help each other to improve. 

He really wants nothing more than to see people learn and grow, as they contribute to the improvement, and overall vision of his property.  And his hope is that they will take their learned knowledge out into the world, to positively contribute to the growth of humanity. 

He and Irini, have created, from scratch, a place where people can come to explore themselves. Whether it be through Wwoofing, as a guest, or as a paid customer in the cottages, they encourage a space of personal freedom, inspiration and growth.  

The oasis from above
 While his property isn’t technically a “farm”, and we haven’t learned much about what we set out to learn originally (about growing different foods in other parts of the world), we have come away completely inspired, and better as humans than when we arrived. If it wasn’t for some amazing travelling that we still need to do, I would be super excited (and still will be at the end of the trip), to get home and tackle my yard!

They operate the development of the property using perma-culture techniques. Everything that is pulled out of one thing, is used somewhere else. We started out constructing a pathway, and my thoughts were that we need to get it done as quick as possible, which is the hurried, more corporate way of things. However, we spent more time sifting the soil, removing rocks, combing through massive piles of rocks, to find just the right one to line the path, and getting everything ‘just right’ before moving on to the next step. 

For example, the stones we pulled out of the surface of the pathways that we built, were piled up to be used to build walls, or become filler for areas of the property that needed to be raised up a bit. Like I said, everything is used, nothing is wasted.  

Before
After
In progress

 

After. Jim had previously constructed the round concrete bits from leftover concrete used for larger projects. I was happy to put my mosaic skills to good use.
 
Jim made it clear that slow, intentional steps, are more important than rushing about, and doing things hastily, therefore possibly creating problems in the future. He also assured me that if he felt our work wasn’t a fair exchange, he would let me know. Good enough. 

We worked away on an area of the property that started out as a few small plants (and when I say small plants, I mean massive Rosemary bushes,) and ended up as a sculptured garden, with pathways and rock walls, ready to be transformed into another garden oasis. Jim was pleased with our work, and we are thrilled with what we accomplished. As a first Wwoofing experience, we both couldn’t be happier with the results! 

 

Before
 
After
  
Our work days ran from approximately 9:00 or 9:30, and ended pretty much when we had finished a section of what we were working on. Sometimes it was 4:00, other times it was 2:00. As long as progress was made, everyone was happy.  

I think everyone is happy!
 Our evenings were spent in Jim and Irini’s house, sometimes with other Wwoofers, around the fireplace. Here, many philosophical conversations were held, as we imparted our individual views on the world to each other. Incredible meals were constructed by Irini (and sometimes Jim), and we generally followed that up with a movie or tv series of some sort.  

Not alot of room for Humans in this house! :). They like to relax by the fire as well!
 Our accomodations were spectacular!  Normally, Wwoofers stay off the main house, but because another girl was there before us, we were able to stay in our own guest cottage. Let me tell you, it may well be the cutest fairy tale cottage that I have ever stayed in! 

Stairs up to the bedroom, stairs down to the kitchen.
Looking down on our living area and the entrance.
I can’t imagine Hansel and Gretel having a cuter kitchen. Can you?

 In the summer (but also year round if necessary), these beautiful cottages are rented out to vacationers and the like. It’s called ‘Living in the Garden’, and let me be the first to tell you that, YES, you will be living in the garden! 

(Click here for their website and to book a stay.)  

Because they are both artists themselves, they have a special knack for attracting similar craftsmen, that are doing artist retreats, or who come to help with working on the property, in exchange for the chance to work on their art and become inspired. They are open and welcoming to many different arrangements, because, as Jim insists, their aim is to inspire. 

Jim, himself, is currently creating the most magnificent Men’s rings from scratch (but will also do Women’s by request), which, in his words is “managing to finance our way through the diabolical Greek economic crisis.”  His years of craftsmanship are paying off, and he feels extremely lucky to be able to survive in the hard economic times that the entire country is facing.  

 

Visit his Etsy shop here!

Our days on Paros were not all filled with work, we did a couple excursions to explore this island, and also a trip to Antiparos, a neighbouring island. But those stories will have to wait for another post. 

For now, I would just like to wish everyone an amazing Christmas!  We are so very thankful to be exactly where we are, and hope that happiness and joy is finding everyone, today and always.  

  

 

We are off to Santorini tomorrow!  Can’t wait to see this amazing spectacle. 

Gone Wwoofin’!

For a while now (at least 5 or 6 years) I have had a dream in the back of my mind. The dream was to be a Wwoofer.

“A Wwoofer?” You ask. Yes, a Wwoofer! 

The acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and you can find the main website here. Many countries have their own sites, but the main site provides information and access to all of them. 

Basically, being a Wwoofer, means that we are working as volunteers, in exchange for accommodation, food and an opportunity to learn new things. As Chris and I are very interested in growing our own food, and becoming more self sustainable, we felt that Wwoofing would be a good opportunity to see how things are grown around the world, and again, to meet the locals. 

Once we knew what part of the world we were heading to this winter, we started to research opportunities. We “applied” to a few different spots, but Jim was the only one that had indicated that he needed people, and had room for us. Some replied that they already had enough Wwoofers, and others didn’t need anyone for this particular season.  But, Jim did, and he lives on Paros Island, in Greece.   

  
‘Okay, cool’ we thought, ‘guess we are heading to Greece!’And so, the time had come, and our wwoofing was about to commence. 

We awoke early to take the metro from Athens to the main ferry terminal of Piraeus, to catch the 7:30am ferry. Because we live in a ferry dependant community on the west coast of Canada, catching ferries is pretty normal for us. We knew the ferry was about 5 hours long, but we were not prepared for the price. 

We had been warned by other travellers that the ferries were expensive, but we guffawed at that thinking ‘ya right, they can’t be more expensive than BC Ferries!’

Well, I’m here to tell you that indeed they are. Our walk on price (for both of us, one way) was 69 Euros, $107 Canadian! 

Now, I acknowledge that they travel much farther than ours, but WOW!  I couldn’t believe that with the economic hardships going on in the country, that people could afford to travel on them at this price. I have since learned, from my Wwoofing host, that the government is raising prices of EVERYTHING (including ridiculous property taxes), to try and pay off the debts they have incurred to other countries during this crisis. In Jim’s words, “The situation is a complete mess, and they are nowhere near resolving it.”  (On the other hand, as stated before, we have seen no signs of any sort of economic hardships.)

I must say though, the ferry was lavish!  We rode up ESCALATORS, inside the boat, as foot passengers, carrying us to the main floor. Everywhere you looked there were nice comfy chairs to sit at, complete with tables. There was a tiny section of row seating, but most seats were little clusters in various little lounges.  There was even a business class upstairs!  Very posh! 

This is the sight that greats you at the top of the escalator. This is clearly aimed at Tourism.
    
NOT the direction we were heading!
 The trip was uneventful, but rougher than our boats go out in. It was a sunny day but the winds were whipping the sea up, and we bumped and jostled along for about 4.5 hours.  

A live life jacket demonstration!
Our little corner that we occupied for the ride.

 I can tell you one thing, I don’t think the Greeks do well on the ocean. Many were laid out on benches and the floor, and I heard the lovely sounds of someone “losing their breakfast” in the ladies washroom. Eeek! Thankfully we both have sea worthy stomachs, and arrived to Paros feeling fine. 

 

No escalators to get off. Walk ons do it the same way as home.
 In previous email communications, Jim had told us how to get to the village closest to them, Alyki. We caught the bus after bumbling around at the automatic ticket kiosk, and again looking like stupid tourists, as a huge line up of locals formed behind us, waiting with gritted teeth I’m sure. I told the driver about 5 times that we needed to get off at Alyki. He nodded that he understood, no problem. 

We meandered along in our bus, winding in and out of tiny streets, seeming too small for the bus to even fit on them. Outside of the towns, the landscape was dotted with square, buildings everywhere, and they were all white with blue doors and window frames. I found out from Jim that painting your house these colours is the law! Can you imagine?  As a house painter in Greece, I would be incredibly bored! He, on the other hand, has somehow skirted the law, and is remote enough in the hillsides that he is pretty much doing what he wants. He said they bugged him for a while, but have pretty much given up now. 

As we rode along my mind started to conjur up nasty thoughts. I started thinking about how far in the middle of nowhere we had come, to meet strangers, and basically live with them for two weeks. 

Before leaving home, a friend had made a joke about us coming all the way to Greece and ending up in a cult. At the time, we all laughed at the silly idea of it, but in that moment, as I watched the coast line zip by, my mind was jumping around to ‘What if?’  

It is laughable really, but alas, this is the reality of this sort of travel. You REALLY have no idea of what you are getting yourself into for the most part. You just have to have the utmost faith in humanity, and the courage to try new things and meet new people. 

After a few stops and buzzing through some small villages, the bus driver announced “Alyki Beach.”  

Hooray, we had made it! We hopped off the bus, eager to meet our hosts that were coming to pick us up. However, there was no one there. 

We unloaded our packs from under the bus, and grabbed a seat on the stone wall next to the beach. We waited with anxious intrepidation for someone to drive up and grab us. Several cars went by and we stared and analyzed each one, and they stared warily back at us, likely wondering who these two idiots were, that were visiting out of tourist season.  

The quaint streets of Alyki.
  
Alyki beach, waiting for our ride.
  
 
  
Finally, after what seemed like a long time (but was likely only 10 minutes,) a little tracker popped around the corner, driven by a cute Greek lady. She pulled over and jumped out, and with an adorable smile announced “I am Irini.”

And in that instant, I knew, that everything was going to be just fine.  

Stay tuned for stories about our Wwoofing experience!

A Small Taste of Athens

After hearing some different stories about Athens, from various people who had been there previously, we were actually pleasantly surprised with the city. 

It’s no secret that Greece is going through incredible economic hardships, but there aren’t really any visible signs of it, at least not to they eye of a passerby. 

We had the odd beggar wanting money for this or that, but you encounter that abundantly in Canadian cities as well. We never REALLY felt targeted as tourists, and we were able to safely meander the streets and take in tourist sights, and the local markets alike. 

Having only one day in Athens meant that our priority was to visit the Acropolis. I had read in my guide book that the Acropolis literally stares down on the entire city of Athens. Much to my disappointment, when we exited our hotel in the morning, I couldn’t see it anywhere. We were located smack dab in the middle of a jazillion high rises, so it took some effort to snake our way towards it, before we finally caught glimpse of this famous spectacle. 

 

Looking up to the Acropolis.
 
Perched on top of a magnificent marble mountain, it really does look over the entire city, like some sort of guardian taking care of the people. We referenced our map and wound our way through the streets until we came to the base of the entrance. 

   
   

Narrow steets and pathways wind their way up to the base of the Acropolis.
   I must say, the Acropolis is not for the faint of heart. A steep hillside rises up to the base, and then stairs provide access to it. There is no wheel chair access (unless you take the cage lift up the rock face), and I can imagine, for many elderly people, and those not in the best of shape, it could be a difficult climb. Not too mention when you get to the top, it isn’t exactly a nice flat surface that you can stroll around on. Jagged marble, it’s rough edges rounded off over centuries of wear, juts out once you leave the proper pathway. More than once I almost tripped on my face as I gawked at the immensity of the Parthenon, while still trying to walk. Not a good idea!  I finally suggested that we take a seat on one of the nearby benches, and just sit and look for a while.  
Stairway to the entrance.
  
First glimpse of the Parthenon.
  
The light glistens off the shiny, worn down marble at the summit.
 The Parthenon, meaning ‘virgins apartment’, was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, by the people of Athens.  It took 15 years to build (starting in 447BC) and is built entirely of Pentelic Marble. The 17 pillars were absolutely awe inspiring! They are officially Doric columns, and are slightly narrower at the top of the pillar, than they are at the base. The base measures 1.9 metres across, and they are 10.4 metres high.  Truly massive!  They have been fluted all the way up, providing an even more incredible definition to what is already pretty incredible to begin with. Obviously there are other buildings on site, but the Parthenon was by far, the biggest spectacle of them all.  

With the man in the foreground, this gives an idea of the scale of the pillars and the structure itself.
    
 I think what struck me the most about it all, was the fact that they are continuously restoring it. It’s been ongoing for a long time, AT LEAST since the early 1900’s. I can imagine that people are spending their whole lives work, helping to recreate a piece of history. 

I was also struck with HOW they are managing to fit new pieces of marble, into old pieces of marble, lift it up, keep the structure secure…….all of it is just so mind blowing. The pictures will show you just how accurate this procedure is.  

New marble in white, meets old marble in yellow.
  
Men working on the pillars with power tools. Not exactly like they did 400+BC.
 
We walked around up top, investigating all that we could. We stopped at a lookout spot and gazed out over the incredible sprawling city below. We felt the rush of adrenaline as we craned our neck over the rock wall, that one must have felt, being important enough to stand up there and gaze out over the “commoners”. I envisioned cobble  stone streets, donkeys pulling carts, bright and colourful displays of vegetables being sold in the streets, and far, far less buildings. As it stands now, there are buildings as far as the eye can see, like a gentle white wash covering the land and hillsides.  

 We meandered down from the upper portion, eager to get a taste of the quaint little streets that we could see from above, and literally stumbled smack dab into the Acropolis Museum. And we are so happy that we did!  It is a site to behold in itself.  

   
The floor to the entrance, and parts of the floor inside the doors, is made of a thick plexiglass glass, that allows you to see the excavated, original, architectural sites below. Frames of stone buildings could be seen 10-12 feet below our feet, and it really gave a sense of what the scene would have been like 400+BC.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take pictures inside. 

We meandered through many relics that had been excavated from the Acropolis site that rose above it.  Impossibly intricate carvings dotted the landscape inside, and many bits of ancient pottery, tools, and vessels lined the cases on the walls. 

After watching a short documentary on the basic history of the Acropolis, we made our way upstairs to bear witness to the ‘piece de resistance’. The upper floor was an exact size replica of the top of the Parthenon, basically the part that is no longer visible on the real thing. Having been smashed to bits by various vandals and wars, I am assuming it was in many pieces, but they have managed to recreate what it would have looked like, had it been standing. Plaster has been used to fill in areas that were no longer, but the parts that were original, were a thing to behold. The carvings from marble were unbelievably detailed, and I can only imagine that 100’s of workers must have been working on it, for it to be built in 15 years. 

We left feeling so very lucky to have bared witness to such an incredible engineering, artistic, and simply stupefying marvel of the ancient world. 

As we had stumbled across a couple markets in our way up, we were eager to get back to those and check them out. The Monastiraki flea market was at the base of the Acropolis, and although mostly tourist driven, it was an interesting sight none-the-less. Little shops led from from the level of the narrow alleyways, and small staircases carried you up or down to tiny little shops with eager vendors manning them. We stopped for a little bite to eat with one of the street side vendors, and ate the most amazing food. Chris had a real Greek gyro, and I had some pork souvlaki with the most incredible tzaziki that I’m sure I will ever taste. There is nothing like the real thing!! 

Yummy!
  
Eager for food!
   

One thing is for sure in Greece. Wine is cheap and readily available!
  We also were eager to bear witness to more of a locals market. We had seen one in our way to the Acrpolis, and were able to find it once again. Here we found an incredible abundance of fruits and vegetables, eggs, olives, olives and more olives, and a couple incredible antique stalls. Two that come to mind were literally piled so high with different antiques and trinkets, that if you pulled something out from the bottom, you were likely to be killed in an avalanche of stuff. It was unreal! 

  

Yup, those are olives!
  
 
Perfectly stacked Fruits, Vegetables and Nuts.
 
 
A little bit of everything, literally, and this is just the outside!!
 
  We walked along one of the main streets called Ermou street. Along it we found many coffee shops, furniture shops, restaurants and just interesting things to look at. We stumbled into one of the coffee shops and had “Greek Coffees”, the Greek equivalent to the Turkish coffees we had in the Istanbul airport. This time we were wiser, and left the coffee grounds for the compost pile!  

We buzzed our way back towards our hotel, and our afternoon was rounded out with a stop in an incredible patisserie. The smell that was emitting from this shop was to die for, and we knew that we would not be leaving without buying something. We managed to find some simply adorable mousses (meese??), and scurried back to our hotel room to devour them.  

 
We ventured out a little later on for dinner. The receptionist pointed us to a traditional Greek restaurant that was located about 10 blocks away. We had a great dinner that was capped off with a complimentary serving of local Raki. The waiter said it is also made with grapes, but it is incredibly potent!  We prefer to call it the local hooch! 

RAKI!
 
**I apologize for the delay between posts. My access to wifi has been limited, and is unreliable when I do get it. **

Up next, we zip off to The Island of Paros!

A quick hop to Athens!

As much as we hated to leave Varna so quickly, we needed to get to Greece as we had promised to work on a farm on the island of Paros. 

Our flight from Varna wasn’t until 3:50pm, so we had more time to look around the city, plus we needed to do some clothes shopping. 

I have now realized the reason WHY I’m not blogging on packing tips……it’s because my packing is ridiculous!  We both under packed and have had very little to wear. At first we were proud of our thriftiness, but as days wore on, we realized that what we had packed, wasn’t entirely practical. Not only did we need more items, but some of the items are not very effective for this sort of travelling. 

For instance, I packed a pair of flannel lined pants. My thinking, at the time was the need for warmth, in case we got stuck outside waiting for buses etc. However, I didn’t take into account (and had forgotten entirely), that most countries in the world don’t have the luxury of clothes driers like we do. Try washing clothes, and then hanging them to dry in a damp seaside climate, and at only 8 degrees Celsius. It takes forever!  Not appropriate for moving around every day or so. Needless to say, we have towed damp clothes around with us on a couple occasions already. 

Packing Tip#1-Pack clothes that dry quickly and layer up if necessary!

I keep saying that I think we were delerious by the time it came to packing. We worked right up until we left, and I became obsessed with getting the house ready for our house sitter, and wasn’t thinking clearly about practical travel clothes.  Now that I am on the road again (it HAS been 8 years since my last backpacking trip after all), it is all coming back to me, and rather quickly!

Anyways, thankfully there were used clothing shops in Varna, many in fact, and we didn’t have to dump large amounts of money into purchasing a larger wardrobe. 

Our taxi ride to the Varna airport was much less eventful than the one to the Gabrovo bus station. The staff at our hostel phoned the taxi company for us, and told them where we were going. Ah!  MUCH easier!  As a lover of all things colourful, I was delighted at the sight of the Varna airport. The upper portion was awash with bright bold colours. I even took a picture! 

 Our flight to Istanbul was uneventful. When I booked the flight back in Gabrovo, I hate to admit it, but I was a little dismayed that we had to fly through Istanbul. With news reports declaring that The Russian government wanted their citizens to leave the country, and with the crazy Syria issue going on,  I had felt when we left Canada that we had no need to go anywhere near the Turkish border while on this trip. 

  It’s silly really!  Although I had no reservations of coming on this trip after the Paris attacks, the thought of going to Turkey did bother me. Chris and I discussed it and decided that the Istanbul airport was likely the safest place to be, if anything did happen. Don’t even ask me what we thought would happen.  It was total, unequivocal, irrational fear!

This is the kind of fear that I attempt to dispel on Facebook and amongst friends at all times. This is the kind of fear that gets us making bad decisions. This is the kind of fear that creates hatred to others. This is the kind of fear that FEEDS ISIS. This kind of fear is largely unacceptable when travelling (unless of course you are travelling IN a war torn country, which I don’t recommend anyways!)

We landed in Istanbul and disembarked the plane.  As we exited the gangway that linked the plane to the airport, we merged into a thick stream of people. I instantly felt like an ant passing through its tunnels in the ground. I imagine that they come and go from off shoots, but the main corridors are packed with them jostling back and forth. I quickly asked the gate agent if we needed to pick up our  checked bags.  For some reason, of which I can’t even conceive of right now, I thought we may need to transfer them through customs as we were heading on to a different country. He glanced at my boarding pass for the next flight and said “Gate 222, upstairs!”  I assumed at that point that we didn’t need to worry about our bags. 

We ascended the escalator to the upper level and filed in with yet another massive amount of people. I swear I have NEVER seen so many people coming and going in an airport in my life! We found the sign pointing to our gate, and immediately felt like we were swimming upstream. 

Hoardes of people were walking here and there, many with blank looks in their eyes, not sure where to go. One poor guy had his boarding pass in one hand and was looking every direction with an equally frantic and clueless look on his face.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, and a need to help, but we were in a bit of a frantic state ourselves. We kept looking for signs pointing to our gate number. I don’t think I have ever seen so many signs pointing every which way. The gate numbers went into the 500’s!  We even passed a digital clock that told us how long of a walk it was to our gate…it said 15 minutes!  Wow!!!  ‘How bloody big IS this place?’ I thought to myself.  

I must say, I wish we had made the time to stop and smell the roses a bit. I saw all sorts of neat things that we could have checked out. One of them being a little kiosk that was selling Turkish Ice Cream. It was attended by a guy in the cutest little outfit I think I have ever seen. He reminded me of Abu from Aladin, with a cute little boxy hat and everything! However, nothing got more than a sideways glance as trying to move sideways in the wave of people would have been like playing a life or death game of Frogger to get to the far side of the stream. 

After a while, probably about 15 minutes, and much struggling “upstream”, we found our gate. We still had a bit to wait, so we asked the gate attendant when we would be boarding. He said we had half an hour. 

We both really wanted to try Turkish coffee, so we headed off to the nearest food kiosk to place our order. There were tiny bottles of wine available as well, so we got two bottles of that and ordered our coffees. The cashier announced “Fifty six Lira please.”  I cringed and handed over my Visa card with absolutely no idea of the exchange rate. I still haven’t had the guts to check my visa statement yet on online banking. Oh well!  Chalk it up to another experience! 

The coffee was super hot (apparently they boil it three times) so we decided, in Chris’ words to “have our downer, before we have our upper.”  

The coffee was crazy strong, and we were very thankful that we asked for sugar in it as well. I drank mine down first and noticed a thick sludge in the bottom of the cup, filling about 1/3  of the way up. We both examined it, and thinking it looked like pudding (but really not sure at all what it was), we decided I needed a spoon.  So Chris got up and asked for one. I scooped a bit out, tasted it, and immediately realized that it was definitely NOT pudding, but was in fact super finely ground coffee grounds. EW!! 

Crazy Turkish coffee! We were buzzing all the way to Athens…..
 I’m thinking maybe we were drunk off of our wine, as immediately I knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I’m sure the staff were wondering what the hell these stupid tourists were doing.  Either way, the great thing about travelling is that you CAN do stupid things, and people will never see you again. Hooray for that!

Again, our flight to Athens was uneventful, and so was our quick trip to Turkey!  Well, with the exceptions noted above anyways.  

 We arrived in Athens at about 9:00pm and began our journey to our Hotel (which I thought was a hostel as I had booked it on Hostelworld.com.)  We managed to get tickets for the Metro (train) fine but when we made it down to the platform we were totally confused. It wasn’t like the Vancouver skytrain, the airport being the end of the line. This train went both ways, and we didn’t know which side to stand on, or which train went which direction. We gawked around just staring up and down the tracks, looking for any sort of clue as to which way to go. The image of the poor guy in the airport, lost and confused, immediately came to mind, and I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself that we probably looked just as clueless as he did (but less frantic at this point.)

We looked at the metro map, which was all in Greek. The middle of the map was rubbed out and scrawled across it in black sharpie pen was “How about having signs for tourists in English?”  YES! We agreed!

Finally I was able to find a man that spoke English, and he assured us we were on the right side to head into the city. 

We changed trains where we were supposed to, and arrived to our station that was in the directions of how to get to our ho(s)tel. Now, upon booking this place, there were many comments in the recommendations about it being in a dangerous neighbourhood, and not to walk around at night unless in groups. 

Chris and I had discussed possibly catching a cab from the metro station, but I had mapped it out on my phone, and knew it was only a few blocks away. I felt that with the size of Chris, nobody would mess with us. Besides he had our passports in his money belt, and all of our important stuff was tucked away, save for 30 Euros at easy reach. If necessary, I could just grab that and use it to placate a robber if needed. 

As we exited the station, we assessed the area, and felt that we should just wing it. We walked the 6 or 7 blocks with not one bit of worry, or seeing anyone that looked remotely like they gave a damn about us. Again, the fear mongering was, in our experience, unfounded. 

Our Hostel, well Hotel, gladly welcomed us and we celebrated the fact that we had made the hop to Greece!  We crashed on our beds pretty hard, and despite still buzzing from our Turkish coffees, drifted off to sleep with visions of the Acropolis dancing in our heads. 

Next up: The Acropolis, The Athens Market, and a ferry ride to Paros. 

Warmth along the Black Sea. 

Although the Black Sea is very cold this time of year (yes, us crazy Canadians dipped our feet in it), the warmth of the people along it, cannot be over stated.

The morning we left Gabrovo started out as many do, when you are travelling to a distant land, and don’t speak the language. Our new friend Ahmed had told us the night before to call him in the morning when we were ready to go to the bus station, and he would call a cab to pick us up. He said he started work at nine, and that’s when we wanted to go to the station, so it would work out perfectly. However, the next morning came and went, and Ahmed was incommunicado. (We found out later that his phone battery died during the night, and he slept in until 9:30.  Oops!!)

We decided to head out to the street and hail down a cab ourselves. We were able to wave one down, (even though Ahmed told us they likely wouldn’t stop,) but the driver didn’t speak English, and he had no idea where we wanted to go. We got in and he drove off slowly while dialing a number on his cell phone. He said a few words, pulled over to the side of the road, and handed me his phone. 

A very sleepy, broken English, female voice said, “Hello. Where do you go?”  I told her we wanted to go to the bus station. “Okay.”

I handed the phone back. 

The driver drove a block and pulled over again, handing me the phone again. “Hello. Where do you want to go?”  I told her again that we wanted to go to the bus station. “Which bus?”  She asked. 

I told her we wanted to go to Burgas. “Okay.”  She said again. 

After I thanked her for her help, I handed the phone back to the driver.  He sat there and talked with her for another couple minutes and then handed me the phone again. “There is no bus to Burgas right now.”  I told her as simply as I could, that the bus was leaving at 10:00. It was now 9:30. “Okay.” She said. I handed back the phone, and he drove us into the station. He laughed, and we laughed, the three of us satisfied that the mission was accomplished, but it just took a little longer than usual. 

All told, we went about 5 blocks.  The irony was not lost on us that we probably could have walked their faster, had we known where to go. We had a good chuckle at that, and were again just thankful for yet another experience. 

Our bus pulled out of Gabrovo and immediately started ascending a narrow, steep mountain road.  We mosied along at a steady pace, the driver clearly skilled at navigating the tight curves.  Up, up, up we went, until finally we felt like we had emerged from the mountains, and a lush green landscape appeared below, spread out before us like an Emerald blanket. 

We had driven over the Shipka Pass. Apparently battles during the Ottoman Empire were fought on this pass, and it’s steep terrain would make for an interesting battleground to say the least. 

Read more about the Shipka Pass here. 

 

A segment of the twisty road heading down from the Shipka pass. Wireless on the bus allowed me to track our trip.
 
It was about a 5 hour journey down to the coastal city of Burgas, and the landscape was a varied mix of green fields, forested road sides and vineyard after vineyard after vineyard. Somewhere in my Bulgarian research, I had learned that Bulgaria makes a ton of wine. Finally, I could see where it was all coming from.  

Twisty windy roads.
  
The top of the pass!
  
Emerging on the other side we can see the landscape stretching out below.
  
Green fields and vineyards zipped by.
  
Gabrovo to Burgas
 

As we pulled into Burgas, I was struck with how modern it is. Although it isn’t the major summer destination that the rest of the coast line is, it clearly is benefitting from more industrious activities than the country capital of Sofia. Being a major shipping port, the most important in Bulgaria, likely gives it the boost in economy that it needs to give it that little bit of polish. We had to change buses here to get to our final destination of the day, Sozopol.  

First glimpse of the Black Sea from Burgas.
 
I had read that Sozopol was the oldest settlement along the Black Sea coast, and it’s ancient village was still very much intact. It’s also a very modern tourist destination in its summer months, as throngs of European tourists flock there for its quaintness and beautiful beaches.  
Burgas to Sozopol
 
Our accommodation in Sozopol was with Air BnB. Again, this is an online membership data base where you link with people who are either renting out their entire houses, condos, or apartments, or are just renting a room. The prices are generally cheaper than a hotel, and the chance to meet locals, tends to enhance the experience. 

I had communicated via online messaging with our hosts that we would call them from my cell phone when we left Burgas, and that he would not answer (therefore avoiding large usage charges), but would see the number and know that we were on our way.  

We boarded the bus and I tried to call the number provided, but the call would not complete. I tried many different combinations, realizing that the country code may not be necessary from within the country, but to no avail. Nothing worked. I wasn’t really concerned, we were arriving early enough that I knew we would figure out a way to contact them by nightfall. I knew it was a small town that we were going to, and a pretty major European tourism destination to boot. I told Chris that SOMEBODY had to speak English when we got there, we would sort it all out then. 

Driving to Sozopol was an exciting trip. Our bus almost immediately hugged the rugged coast line, providing us beautiful views of the Black Sea, the beaches and the jagged cliff sides spilling into the water.   

 

First glimpse of Sozopol.
  
The path diwn to the beach near our accomodation.
  
Our hosts lived in the basement of this building.
 True to form, we got off the bus, and I went into the nearest store to the station. It happened to be a lovely flower shop, and the smell inside was divine. I asked if she spoke English, which she did, and I told her the situation. 

I showed her the number, She phoned our hosts and told them that we were already in Sozopol, and within 10 minutes they were picking us up.

Our accommodations were owned by a Russian brother and Sister from Moscow (who also lived with their 90 year old Dad,) who had only just started renting on Air BnB, to raise a bit more money for their monthly rent. They were very nice people, and she worked tirelessly to try and make sure we were as comfortable as possible. She fussed and fussed asking us (in very broken English,) if we needed anything, making sure we knew all of our available options. She must have heard us stirring first thing in the morning as she sleepily shoved a blow dryer through the door, apologizing profusely for not thinking of it the night before. We laughed and assured her that we did not need a blow dryer. We had our own room with a bathroom, and we came and went as we pleased for the next couple days. 

Sozopols charm lies mostly in its old quarters, and it’s people. We had many lovely exchanges with business owners who were thrilled that we were there during, what seemed to be, a quite depressing off season. I can imagine, coming from a similar type of town in Canada, that the winter months seem incredibly long, compared to the fast paced summer that is bustling with activity.  

   Many establishments were borded up and the streets were full of leaves and debris. Buildings had construction projects going on, and I’m sure that this is a yearly routine, that comes with the eager anticipation of another busy season, just around the corner. 

However, for all that was lacking for this time of year, the charm was still immeasurable. We were still able to find restaurants with happy owners willing to give us a good meal, and a few small artist run shops were overjoyed to have us pop in and look around.   Not to mention that the quaintness of the old town, kept us occupied enough, as we meandered up and down the tiny cobble stone streets snapping pictures and marvelling at the cuteness of the architecture, until our legs were weary with exhaustion.  

The entire peninsula of Sozopol was once encased entirely by a fortress wall.
    
Stacks of wood lined the tiny streets of Sozopols old quarter.
   
We spent 2 nights here, but knew that we needed to get to Varna, as our flights were booked to fly from there to Athens in a couple days. 

Varna is another major city, located along the north Bulgaria coast of the Black Sea, close-ish to the Romanian border. I had read that it is a lovely city to explore, so we tried to make the best of  it by extending our stay as long as we could. 

 We left Sozopol by 7:30am (our jet lag was still getting us to bed early, and up at the crack of dawn), and consequently caught the bus from Burgas at 8:30.  

Sozopol to Varna
 We arrived in Varna at 11:30am. Unfortunately, we had had a miscommunication with a lady we were meant to couch surf with, so we were left to our own devices to find accommodation when we arrived. We stumbled upon a great little Hostel, shortly after lunch, and got ourselves settled. The hostel staff at Yo Ho Hostel were extremely friendly and helpful. They gave us a map and pointed is in the direction of interesting things to see and do for the day. We thanked them and then set out to explore.  

The theatre in downtown Varna.
 We both immediately fell in love with Varna’s charm, and realized a strong desire to return for longer.  For a city of roughly 300 000 people, it somehow manages to maintain a small town feel, even though it is a bustling port city, and a naval base.  Again, as with most of the Black Sea coast, it is a huge tourist destination in the summer, and it’s beach is fantastic.  

This map shows the massive park that is in downtown Varna. It runs for 6 km along the Sea front. Every waterfront city should have this for all to enjoy!
      
For a long ways along the beach there were bars like this set up. I can imagine in the summer it would be quite the party scene!
 We meandered down the winding pedestrian walkways that flow through the city, and filter out onto the beach side. Along the waterfront, we again found many bars and clubs that likely are thumping during the summer months, but were boarded up for the winter.  However, the odd one was open, and we were able to have an afternoon beverage and dip our feet in the Black Sea while enjoying the huge beach.  

Looking back on Varna from the park.
  
Meandering through an incredibly ornate park.
  

   

We met a wonderful woman in the park who heard us speaking English and wanted to know where we were from. We had a lovely chat with her as we meandered.
  
This public fountain pumps out perfect spring water. There are many taps like this for the public to fill their drinking vessels from.
  
And guess what!? It’s a hot spring that fills this outdoor pool as well!
 
 
  I was told by our bartender, in no uncertain terms, that my double Gin and Tonic was small, compared to Bulgarian standards. His name was Nicolai, and he was born and raised in Varna. His opinion was the same as many we had talked to before him, that we should come back in the summer.        

 In the summer, the Black Sea is not just warmed by its people, but the hot, hot sun brings out another entirely awesome dimension to this fabulous coast line. Yes, we thought, perhaps, just perhaps, we will return in the summer. Maybe not this summer, but some summer in the not so distant future. 

Next up we fly to Athens!

**if you have any questions with regards to traveling in Bulgaria, please message me below and I will be happy to help if I can. 

Gone clubbin’!

As our bus pulled into Gabrovo, located amongst the mountains of Bulgaria, we were eager with anticipation to explore yet another aspect of this lovely country. Our days and nights spent in Sofia were great, but we yearned to explore the country side, and see what it’s people were like. 

About a month before we left on our trip, I was messaged by a young man named Ahmed, through the Couchsurfing network.  One of the features of The Couchsurfing website, is that you can post an upcoming trip to your profile, and it automatically sends out a message to every host of your destination place, letting them know you are coming and in need of accommodation. 
We received offers from 2 hosts, the other in Stara Zagora. However, for this particular period of time, the first host to offer, was not available, so we opted to visit Ahmed in Gabrovo. 

We became friends on Facebook so we could communicate easier, (and so we could stalk each other’s profiles, I’m sure!) and he forewarned me that he really didn’t have room for 2 people, as he lives in a very small apartment with only room for one queen size bed. But, he offered to find us a spot in the village centre for a reasonable price. As our intention on this trip is to meet locals, and really gain experiences through their perspectives, we decided to take him up on his offer. I was also intrigued with the place, as there was no mention of it in our Lonely Planet book, therefore telling me that it is likely worth seeing, and a bit off the beaten track. In general, the Lonely Planet guides feature more common tourist destinations. I like to buy them before trips because they give me a reference point to do some research, and there is always valuable cultural and historical information outlined in them, which generally comes in handy upon arriving in foreign lands. 

I had messaged Ahmed in Sofia, and told him of our plans. Before leaving he told me that he wouldn’t be able to meet us at the bus, but his friend would. We arrived at the bus station, later than we had expected, and initially saw no one that looked to be picking someone up. I immediately checked for a wifi hot spot so that we could communicate with him if need be. 

Now, I must stop here to tell you that Bulgaria has free wifi absolutely EVERYWHERE!  I’m talking in every coffee shop, restaurant, ON THE BUS, bus stations, parks….you name it!  Ahmed told me that having wifi is so normal that if an establishment doesn’t have it, they lose business. We have been very impressed with the access to the Internet, much better than many places in Canada, and it provides very easy means of which to communicate with hosts, arrange transportation, book flights etc. 

So I logged into the wifi at the station and my phone started ringing instantly, a phone call through Facebook. This is something totally new to me, so I hesitantly said “Hello?”

I heard, “Hello Jillian, this is Ahmed.”  His lovely Britishesque accent, and wonderful pronunciations struck me instantly. 

I had obviously checked out his Facebook profile, and had learned that he was 24 years old. His wonderful grasp of our language, made me feel like I was speaking with an old British scholar, positioned somewhere much later in life. 

“I’m sorry that I’m not there to meet you.  But my friend should be there somewhere, maybe just walk to the cafe and you will find him.”

Just as he was saying this, a group of three young men walked up to us. One stepped forward speaking English, and I told him Ahmed was on the phone. I handed it to him, he spoke to him, then he handed it back to me. 

“Hello Jillian, this is how this is going to work. I have arranged accommodation for you in the centre of town for 30 Lev (roughly $22 CAD), I hope that’s okay?”  

“Yes,” I said, “That is fine.”

“Okay good, my friend is going to put you in a taxi and tell the taxi driver where to go. This should cost you no more than 2-3 Lev. Once you arrive, the owner will show you to your room.”

“Okay that sounds really great!  Thank you so much!” I proclaimed, absolutely in awe of the efforts that were being made to accommodate us. He told me that he was helping his family chop wood, and would contact us later to get together for dinner. 

We proceeded with his friends to a waiting  taxi, but the driver didn’t seem to understand where to go. After many phone calls and pondering amongst them all, he seemed to know the directions, so off we headed to, what I expected to be, our hotel. 

The taxi driver went very slowly through the streets of Gabrovo, I’m sure still not certain where this place was.  Finally we stopped at the end of a sort of alleyway, and got out. A man aporoached right away and started talking with the driver. I looked around and didn’t see a typical hotel front, so I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders “Where?”

The man he was speaking with beckoned us to follow him. ‘Ah!  I see, this is the man who is showing us to our room,’ as promised by Ahmed. 

He took us along side of what looked to be an apartment building and let us in with his keys. It was clear that he didn’t speak English. We made our way inside and he let us in to what turned out to be a small little apartment that had to be very new. It had a little fridge, a small bed, pullout couch and a full bathroom. We were astounded with how modern and wonderful it was, for such a good price. 

 

Our lovely little abode.
 
The man informed us in broken English that he didn’t speak English, he only spoke Spanish. 

My eyes widened as I announced “Hablo Español!” (I speak Spanish!)

He immediately started out super fast, and let me tell you, my brain was not ready for it. I stared dumbfounded at him, still shocked that we could both communicate in a totally different language, but communicate none-the-less!  What a blessing!  As he was speaking super fast, I didn’t get it all, but we managed to discuss the wifi, how to turn on the shower, and how many nights we wanted to stay. I paid him what was owed, and he was off. 

Wow!  We were so excited and appreciative with what Ahmed had set up for us! His amazing hospitality did not pass us by.  We marvelled at our cute little abode for a while, then headed out to see the town. 

Stunning architecture lined little pedestrian walkways, large carvings and statues adorned the parks and bridges, and a lovely river ran through the centre of the village. We strolled around for a while, then headed back to our oasis.  Still weary with jet lag, we immediately fell into a long deep sleep.  

  

A river runs through it.
  
 Around 7:00 Ahmed phoned once again, to tell us that he was heading into the village, was going to get ready and pick up his girlfriend, then would head over to meet us so we could go out for dinner. 

Around 9:00 we met up with him and his friend Ivel (his girlfriend was meeting us at the restaurant), and after showing him our room, we headed out to dinner. 

We had a lovely meal with the three of them. We exchanged all sorts of information with each other about our countries. Obviously, they were very intrigued with how we do things in Canada. Ahmed has hosted many travellers before, including a French Canadian, so he was very knowledgable about many other cultures and places. He and Ivel had both travelled within Europe, spending a length of time in both England and Scotland.  

From left to right: Ivel, Ahmed and Ina
 Ahmed works in IT, and is incredibly knowledgable about business start ups, web sites, and all types of marketing. He told me that he spends about 3 hours per day catching up on world news reports from every corner of the planet. We discussed many things, and my mind kept coming back to what a smart, energetic and charismatic young man he is. 

His friend Ivel is an Engineer working with cables and manufacturing. He too spoke excellent English, and had a very broad view in the world. They both make above average salaries, and are very aware that they are living a good life here in Bulgaria. Ahmed’s girlfriend, Ina, is still in study mode, but also wants to work in the IT field. 

We were told at dinner that they were heading out to the club later on, and we were welcome to join them. Apparently it was graduation day for the local technical University, and a famous Bulgarian, from Gabrovo itself, was going to be singing. We were told that he is the Justin Beiber of Bulgaria!

Not two to miss opportunities to party, but despite feeling tired from jet lag, we decided to tag along. 

We arrived at the club in our usual travelling clothes, (t-shirts, hiking boots, and zip off pants), and immediately felt VERY under dressed!  Not too mention, VERY old!  Outside the doors were dozens of University graduates and dates, fancily dressed, clamouring to get in. We stood in line, sort of. Ahmed kept announcing “Come on guys”, as he gripped his girlfriends hand and pushed us ever so gently to the front of the pack. He had a saying that he kept announcing, something to do with impudence, but the gist was that if we wanted to get anywhere in life, we needed to be impudent as well! Needless to say, we were quite entertained. 

We finally broke through the outer doors and jostled and pushed our way through the next wall of people to get into the actual party. I kept thinking that as soon as we got in, there would be room to breathe. I was VERY wrong!  We paid our entry and got our stamp as we heard from the bouncer “Welcome Canada!”  Obviously Ahmed had told him we were visitors. 

We squeeeeeeeeezed ourselves into what had to be the smokiest, smoke filled room I have been in, since being 19 years old!  At least every second person had a cigarette on the go!  Wow!  I thought to myself, ‘did I really subject myself to this pollution in a regular basis as a kid?’

Yes, yes I did!  I remember, vaguely, my Dad complaining of the stench of cigarette smoke from my jacket and clothes, many times after a wild night of partying as a teen. But, I never much noticed back then.  I guess we were just used to it. But, with the smoking laws in Canada now making everyone smoke outside, we simply are not used to it inside, and it was a huge shock. 

People were packed in like sardines. We swerved our way around the room trying to find a spot for 5 of us to stand. Back and forth we snaked through the crowds until we settled on a less than ideal spot. Chris and I were jammed against the stage, and we were in a line of constantly moving people, squeezing past us to go back and forth along this particular corridor. 

The music was blaring from speakers from just below our butts, and it shook us to our core.

I suddenly had the realization that I was too old for this!  How did it happen?  I used to love hanging out in these places, always pushing and shoving to get back and forth. Dancing and partying with reckless abandon.  However, it became very clear to me in that moment that, this was not for me anymore, and maybe coming there had been a mistake. 

I stewed in my misery of the situation for a few minutes, and then I actually took a good look around me. I realized that we were part of a celebration!  A celebration of the excitement of youth, the prospects of a whole big future ahead of them, and the glory of living life!  WE WERE IN BULGARIA, and we were having an EXPERIENCE!  Isn’t this what I have been saying?  Isn’t this what I have wanted? Isn’t this what life is all about? 

 It was with this realization, that I started to focus on all that was good in that moment. I decided that I probably would not die from lung cancer that night, and my hearing would likely not be damaged forever. I decided that I was going to enjoy myself, because we were part of something special and we were ALIVE! 

Possibly the oldest couple in the house!
 
Throwing paper in the air in Bulgaria symbolizes wealth and freedom from Communist rule.
  
  We danced a bit, jostled around amongst the students, had some whiskey and Coke, and hung out for as long as we could. Unfortunately, by 1:30, we were both pretty exhausted. 

We told Ahmed we were leaving (unfortunately the Bulgarian Justin Beiber had not even started yet) and said our goodbyes, promising to see him the next day at some point. 

We headed back to our room, all the while laughing and recalling the adventures of the night. We were ALIVE!  We were in BULGARIA!  And we were having the time of our lives!

We put our stinky clothes in their own zipped up bag, ready for the laundry, had a shower, and drifted off to sleep, with the throngs of a steady bass beat alive in our heads. 

  
Next up: We head off to the Black Sea!

Ponderings from above Gabrovo….

As we sit above Gabrovo, Bulgaria, on an incredible sunny day, I reflect on our past few days here in this special country. A land that, if it could speak, could tell of extreme hardships under communist rule, but also of happier days and a bright future. 

Although officially part of the EU, Bulgaria is still attempting to climb to economic standards that would allow it to use the Euro. It’s currency, now the Lev (BGN), is worth roughly half a Euro and about $0.75 CAD. The prices on regular everyday items, definitely reflect this exchange difference. Bottles of lovely Bulgarian wine ring in at about $6.00 CAD, large beer bottles at $1-2.00 CAD, reasonable accommodation at $15-$20 and fancier restaurant meals $7-$11 per person including wine with the meal.  

Beautiful Bulgarian Wine
 It gets me wondering; Why the push to get the Euro?  I suppose to enjoy the economic benefits of neighbouring countries, they need to climb to their standards?  How come how it is, isn’t enough?  Why as humans are we always striving for the next level, when what we have is serving us fine?  I’m sure many Bulgarians could explain the reasons behind this, but as an outsider looking in, the people seem happy. They enjoy their families, they love to dance and celebrate, they eat completely non-GMO food, and purchase their food from within the country, from the towns’ neighbouring farmers.   However, their less valuable currency also means that they aren’t able to travel, and do many of the things that the western world has the luxury of doing. So, in essence, yes, I do understand the need for growth, industry and the rise of their economic standards. 

The hardship of the iron curtain days are still evident in the massive Russian style apartments that we whizzed past in our taxi from the airport, and first impressions of the older generation, at least in the country capital of Sofia, show faces that have been through much pain and sorrow. As one local we met put it “Sofia isn’t exactly a sparkly shiny capital.”  

Most Buildings are very old, and many in much need of major repairs. Paint and plaster fall of the sides of them like a long, slowly decaying skin, would slowly decompose off a body.  The cobblestone streets are full of potholes, and sidewalks  are likely to send you tripping into next week, if you aren’t paying attention to where you are stepping. 

However, a brighter future is evident in the little coffee shops that have sprung up around the city, with bright and colourful signs, happy patrons lazily enjoying coffees on the verandas, modern sushi restaurants and shopping malls, and a youthful population pushing baby carriages through the many parks that dot the city. The architecture is typical for this part of the world and the buildings that were brightly painted and properly maintained, were a fabulous sight. We were also very impressed with the efforts for tourism, with English maps outlining the attractions, many signs in English, most of the population speaking at least a little English, and menus in restaurants always available in English. Clearly tourism is an industry that is being focused on.    

Help for the Tourists. Locals of any country really appreciate when you make the effort of speaking their language.
  Click here for a list of 84 reasons to love Bulgaria. Written by a local. 

A Russian Church
  
Trams cruise through the city.
  
Alexander Nevski Church. The inside of this was fabulous. It was completely hollow to the top and absolutely full of incredubly detailed murals.
  
Love the bright colors and incredible architecture.
  
    
Our favourite little Cafe serving a varied world wide menu, and also raw and vegan food!
  
The National Theatre
  
 We spent 3 days in Sofia enjoying the sights and sounds of the city. Our welcome was wonderful as most Bulgarians have been warm and friendly, and those that could, and have felt inclined, have announced “Welcome to Bulgaria.”  

We stayed in an Artist run hostel aptly named The Art Hostel.  It is a large, multiple story building that featured a lively bar on the bottom floor. Throughout the day it would fill up with a vibrant cross section of youth either from Bulgaria, or travellers from distant lands, many with sketchbooks in hand. 

The walls were adorned with artwork, tile mosaics, and plain old wonderful creativity!  The owner, Boris, looking to be only about 30 at most, ran a tight ship, and made us feel very welcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t partake much in the rocking bar scene as we were generally in bed by 8:00 due to our nasty jet lag, of which we are still recovering.  

Loved the artwork on every wall, and check out the cool hanging coffee table!
    
The Bar.
 Being 10 hours ahead of home means the clock is pretty much the opposite of what it should be. Day is night, and night is day. We found ourselves exhausted by 7:00pm, only to be wide awake at 2:00am and needing a midnight snack. Luckily we had planned for this and had purchased fruit, nuts, cheese and crackers to tide us over until morning. We would generally get another 2 hours sleep, and then would lay awake waiting for breakfast to be served at 9:00am. Though we have been on the road for roughly 6 days now, we are still adjusting and figuring out how to tackle the strange transformation of the body, as we sync with this foreign time zone. They say it takes one day per hour of change, so I guess we have a few more days to go yet. 

At our hostel, we met a lovely Bulgarian women, Elena, that was very helpful and friendly. She actually took the time to walk with us to the National Art Gallery to see Picasso’s exhibition (super excited to see that!), just to make sure we found it, then pointed us in the direction of many other major icons dotting the city.  

Thank you Elena!
 We shared our floor with 5 young Chinese students that are spending 6 months learning Bulgarian. Wow!  We were astounded!  They exclaimed that it was “Very Hard”, but had only been at it for 4 days so far. We will be returning to this Hostel in January before we fly home, and I assured them that they would be fluent by then. I’m not sure they believed me. Ha!

We also met a young local who stared at us wide eyed asking “Are you American?”  When we corrected him and told him we were Canadian, he announced, “Okay let’s just agree on one thing right now. Canada has the most Moronic comedians don’t you agree?”  Before we could say a word he said, “Okay good, I’m glad we can agree, now we can move on.”  If there is one thing we have found, it’s that Bulgarians have a wonderful sense of humour! Always quick with a smile and often times very quick witted.  

In fact, the man who was hired to repaint the gold on the facade of the National Theatre in Sofia, went the extra mile and painted the Penis on the little boy gold as well. Unfortunately he was fired for his rebellion, but apparently the locals loved it. This is just another example of the light hearted nature of the Bulgarian people.  

That there little boy has a Golden Penis!!
 We spent time eating in cafes, seeing the sights, checking out a Bulgarian market full of all sorts of trinkets, visiting a German Christmas market, and adjusting to our new reality. We had originally booked the Hostel for 4 nights, just to give ourselves time to arrive and unwind before setting out to explore the country. However, the travellers itchy feet creeped in and we decided to leave a day early.  

Entrance to the German Christmas Market
  
Yummy goodies!
  
We couldnt resist the smells!
 The countryside of Bulgaria was calling us, and we longed to see a different part of the country. We left a day early, and caught the bus to Gabrovo, population 17 000, and tucked deep in the mountains. As the bus pulled out of the station, the radio was playing Sail Away, sail away, sail away by Enya. How appropriate I thought, as we glided off into the unknown……..

 

Enroute to Gabrovo!
 Next up: An incredible welcome to Gabrovo!

Just some thoughts…..

As this blog, and our trip progresses, I am finding myself wondering how I should be organizing my blog posts? Should I be doing a chronological order of events? Or should I just be capturing highlights of our trip? 

I feel like everyday there are a hundred different things that I could be reporting on. However, I also realize that this isn’t a travel diary, and maybe I should be keeping one of those on the side as well. In the past I was pretty rigid with myself when it came to my travel diary. I would write in it almost every day, recording where I went and what I did on each specific day. 

However, this is clearly a different medium, and I am quite aware that my readers don’t need to know what I ate for lunch every day, or exactly what museum, church, or attraction that I have visited. So, I have decided that it will specifically highlight events, or information that stands out in my mind. 

I have also been approached by individuals interested in learning about specific travel tips, such as my packing philosophy, lists that I make, how to plan ahead, safety issues etc. Although I realize that this is valuable information for potential travellers, I feel that my strength lies in story telling and recapping my experiences, therefore, hopefully, inspiring others to travel. 

There are many travel blogs out there where travellers help people to learn HOW to travel, but I just want to highlight the EXPERIENCE of travelling. 

I have always been fully aware that every day we live is an experience. I have rarely let great experiences pass me by. If something seems exciting and fun, I will generally get on board. I get very bored with monotony and living day to day without anything to look forward to. 

Travelling, to me, is the ultimate thing to look forward to. The minute I know I’m going somewhere, I start to research. I love knowing about where I am going, gazing at maps to get the lay of the land, learning about their customs and traditions, and possibly learning a few words of the language before hand. This trip has been no exception. And I guess, in realizing what I am writing here, THIS is my preparation.  

I feel with this sort of preparation, I am more able to embrace the local customs, blend into the fabric of the country that I am visiting, and not stand out as the stereotypical tourist that wants to act just like they do at home, and pretend like nothing is different. I believe we MUST be able to adapt, to accept what comes to us, to respect the land and the people of which we are visiting. And I believe that THIS will enrich our experience. 

And so, this blog will highlight my (for this trip “our”) experiences, because, after all, what is life without them??

I think it’s clear now, that I LOVE TO TRAVEL, and I love to share my stories. I hope that I can inspire you to get out there and do some wandering too!!

The next blog post (coming soon!) will highlight our initial experiences in Bulgaria:) 

Finding ourselves LOST in Amsterdam. 

WOW! What can I say about Amsterdam. One thing is for sure……I NEED to go back!  
I’m sure much has been written about this fabulous city, honestly, none of which I’ve read. My perceptions were all based on stories of Marijuana being smoked in the street, and served in coffee shops, The Red Light District alight with seductresses on every corner offering sex on a whim, Bicycles, tons of Bicycles, and of course, the incredible Tulip fields only in bloom in the spring. 

I really had no concept of what we were getting ourselves into, I just knew we had 23.5 hours there, and I didn’t want to miss a thing!!
We arrived at about 10:30 in the morning and hopped the train into the city. We had decided, the night before, that we should probably book a hostel so we would have a place to rest our weary bones if need be. We had thrown around the idea of just sleeping in the airport after running ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion, but thankfully, we realized that this probably wasn’t a good idea. 
Immediately out of the Central Train Station we were in awe of the architecture, the canals, the trams running every which way, and well…..just about everything. As we had only had a tiny bit of sleep on the plane, we were pretty much just walking around in a daze, staring open jawed at everything as we staggered along the sidewalk. We came across a restaurant that had eggs on the menu, so we decided first things first, we NEED to eat. 
 

First things first, Beer and Breakfast
  
Waiting for the Tram
  
Beautiful Canals Everywhere!
 
After breakfast, a beer, and some advice on how to get to our hostel, we caught a tram to Leidseplein. This is an area of the city that is, unbeknownst to us, a very popular night club spot. But it also borders a very quaint Dutch neighbourhood that meanders quietly along the edges of the canals. 
We found our hostel easily, found our beds in a dorm room with 12 others, and sat down for a minute in our respective bunks. Chris went to the bathroom and by the time he came out, I was crawling under the sheets. We decided that maybe it was a good idea to get a couple hours of sleep, so that we would have a better chance to view the nightlife later on. 
True to our word, we set the alarm for 4:00pm and both drifted off into a deep sleep. 
Somehow we got ourselves back up and headed out into the street. It was just starting to get dark and the Christmas lights were sparkling off the canals, all over the city. We felt like we we’re in a magical dream. The cutest little corridors of row houses, lined the canals, mixed with cobblestones and tiny cars everywhere. Oh! And don’t forget the bikes! Those bikes whizzed in and out of everything and the worst part was that you couldn’t hear them coming. 
 
Beautiful xmas lights adorned many streets.
  
Gorgeous little cobblestone alleyways everywhere!
   
We would find ourselves lazily meandering along a “street” (bear in mind they are like 10 feet wide between buildings, definitely sidewalk standards in Canada), not paying attention at all, when a bike would go flashing by, reminding us that we we were in deed walking right down the middle of the street. Ack! Stupid tourists!!
We lazily glided in and out of tiny little alleyways, without much of a care of where we were going, other than in the general direction of The Red Light District. Around every corner was the cutest (Yes! Somehow cuter than the last!) little alleyway that we just had to go down. I must have said “oooohhhhhh look how cute that is” at least 109 times through the night! We took pictures, oogled at the Architecture, gazed at the canals, and just stood in pure amazement of what an incredibly awesome city it truly is. 
 
Simply Beautiful
  
Gorgeous Cathedrals
 
 
Is it just me or is that building crooked??
 

We finally found ourselves approaching the Red Light District, and with that came “coffee shops”. Now, we were in AMSTERDAM after all! How does that saying go…..When in Rome……(sorry mom haha!!). We poked in and out of a few that didn’t have seating space, then found a bar that only served alcohol and had a drink. Then we stumbled across the cutest little place possible. From the outside it didn’t look like anything special, but once inside, we realized that we were in an incredibly cool mushroom cave. The ceiling above the bar was sculpted to look like we were sitting under the protective cover of Red Amanita mushrooms (think Smurfs) and the rest of the place looked like a tiny little burrow that we had crawled into, complete with light sconces on the walls that looked like spiders running around. The creativity was astounding.  

The Red Lights say it all.
  
Our mushroom cave! so cool!!!
  
  
Spiders on the walls and ceilings.
  
Many things to shop for!
 We found a couple stools along the bar and sidled up. I won’t go into extreme detail here, I think the rest is obvious. We hung out there for about an hour and then hit the streets once again. 
We wandered up and down the canal of the main Red Light District. It’s hard to really explain what is going on here. There were women clad in sultry outfits waiting at doors for their perspective clients to come along. There were bill boards announcing that live porn was taking place inside. And there were just lots of people walking along taking it all in. 
Now, I am a self-proclaimed professional people watcher. Watching people’s faces as they read billboards or caught a glimpse of someone through a door, was entertaining to say the least. Some took a good hard look and others just took a sideways glance. Either way, it was definitely pushing peoples comfort  boundaries. 
I have heard that the Dutch in general are very conservative and generally not at all represented as a population, by what goes on in Amsterdam. I found it astounding that this city, known internationally for all of its “taboo” activities, can exist in a conservative society. I also realized that this city, is where the world comes to do all the things that are illegal back in their home countries. We met people from Japan, France and beyond, coming to experience Amsterdam, doing whatever it was that they weren’t allowed to do at home. I also took note of how patient the workers and citizens in this city must be to be able to put up with all of those just coming to get crazy on whatever drug they can, or whatever it is they want to do. But, I also realized that it is an industry, just like any other, and many people are making a living (likely a good living) off of the rest of the worlds dreamed up shenanigans. What a place!!
After we felt like we had seen what we needed to see, we started off again wandering down every little teeny tiny alleyway that we could find, this time heading back to our hostel. We stumbled across large monuments and brightly lit up Squares, decorated alleyways, crooked buildings, cute little bridges, and a Vietnamese noodle shop.  
  
Oh the stories this place could tell!
  
 We stopped to nourish our bodies with some food and it was here that so many emotions came pouring out of me. As I stared out the door watching people go by, I realized how happy I was to be sitting exactly where I was in that moment. I realized how much of who I am has been tucked away for too many years, I realized that travelling is what I am meant to do in my life, and I cried huge crocodile tears in my noodles at the pure joy of having found myself again. 
Poor Chris just sat there and watched me blubber, and the waitresses didn’t know what to do with me. I was crying one minute and laughing the next. ALL of it really, REALLY good. In that moment, that one speck in time, I released so much hurt and heartache that I didn’t even know existed. It felt like my body was being cleansed and reinvigorated to openly accept and experience everything that this trip has to offer. And in that moment, I think it REALLY hit me that we are on an incredible adventure! We are both at pivotal points in our lives where we are really realizing who we are and what we want to be in the world. I became giddy with excitement with it all, and by the time we left the restaurant, I was laughing and smiling like nothing had happened at all (I’m sure confusing the heck out of every waitress and patron in the establishment.) 
My noodle bowl full of tears of Joy.
 THIS is what travelling does to us! Seeing new cultures, exploring new places! It opens our hearts and minds to what is really possible in the world. It brings people together. It allows for us all to just be. And most of all, we, as travellers TRULY realize that we are all just in this together. It’s a beautiful thing!
We were back to our Hostel by 10:00, wanting to get a good sleep in before our 7:00am journey to the airport. We both climbed into our bunks and tossed and turned back and forth. Below our window was a wild party scene and all I could hear over and over again from the guy trying to entice customers into his establishment was “Happy hour all night long!”
I was still giddy with the excitement of my new revelations, and it was only 1:00pm in BC. My body was exhausted but my mind was a buzz. I played music in my head phones, tried to count sheep, focused on my breathing but nothing seemed to work. 
Needless to say, I felt like I was missing something. (I should mention here that my fear of “missing” something has been a constant in my life and goes all the way back to childhood when I was scared to go to bed for fear of missing something.) Here we were in Amsterdam, and we were in bed at 10:00. I thought about going back out but knew that Chris would become worried if he didn’t know where I was, and I wasn’t sure if he was asleep. Finally at 3:00am he was up to go to the bathroom. I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk. He did. He hadn’t been sleeping well either. 
We donned our gear and headed back into the night. Unfortunately, all the bars were emptying and nothing was really open. We ended up chatting in the street with some very intoxicated fellow travellers from France, with whom we shared information about Canada. The hot topic being about whether or not Marijuana was legalized there or not. We also chatted briefly about the Paris attacks, and they are just as confused as the rest of the world as to why it is happening and why they are targeted repeatedly.  
 Finally at 5:00 we crawled back in our bunks to catch a few z’s before our 6:00 alarm clock. The alarm went off, and again I just felt like I was tossing and turning and not really sleeping. 
Instead of having to catch the bus to the airport as planned, a man from Isreal offered to let us ride in his taxi.  
Off to Bulgaria!
  
A perfect blanket of cloud.
  
Getting excited about skiing!
 Our flight was uneventful and after arriving safe and sound in Bulgaria, and checking out our very cool Art Hostel (with our own room), we pretty much hit the pillow and slept solid for the first time in days.  
Now we have been up since about 2:00am (4:00pm yesterday in BC) and are pretty much just waiting for the day to come alive. Tomorrow (or today) we explore Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Can’t wait!!
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone for your enthusiasm of my writing and the many likes and comments on Facebook. I am so happy to share our journey with you, and LOOK, we are just getting started. 
Xo

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