A Travellerspoint blog

November 2016

Bulgaria's Best Kept Secret

Perfect Plovdiv

sunny 19 °C

Here's an idea. Pull out a map of Europe and stick your finger on Plovdiv – No! Can't place it? Incredible. Like us, you probably thought a Plovdiv was a polite form of 'plonker' or a Polish sausage. Nope – Plovdiv claims to be one of the oldest known cities in the world and it is in southern Bulgaria. Plovdiv, previously known as Philippopolis, has been continuously occupied for at least six thousand years and there is evidence that these ruins are some eight thousand years old...
However, Plovdiv is better known for its modern architecture...
This Roman amphitheatre is not even two thousand years old – the concrete is barely set.
Just to give you an idea of how big this joint is, Sheila, our very own sound tester, is sitting in the upper circle. From there she can see all the action and hear a dagger drop on the stage...
Seven thousand Romans could enjoy a rollicking good show here in 135 AD thanks to Emperor Hadrianus Augustus. He was the same Emperor Hadrian who built a wall across northern England to keep out Scottish immigrants – but did he make the Scots pay for it?

Not content with a monumental theatre, Hadrian then built an Olympic sized sports stadium where thirty thousand people could watch all manner of games and feats of strength. Most of the stadium is still buried under nearly two thousand years of development, but one end was unearthed when Plovdiv's main market square was ripped up in the 1970s...
All manner of Roman buildings are concealed under Plovdiv's 20th century streets and squares. This is the central square...
If you still think that Plovdiv is just an insignificant blob on the map it is worth considering that the oldest American educational institution outside the United States was founded in Plovdiv in 1860. Today it is the American College of Sofia.
Lucian, a Roman writer wrote in the 2nd century A.D. “Philippopolis is the biggest and loveliest of all cities. Its beauty shines from far away.”
And to cap it all, Plovdiv has been selected as the European Culture Capital 2019.
We are not surprised. In addition to the Roman ruins, Plovdiv has masses of beautiful old houses along its winding cobbled streets...
And its restaurants serve meals fit for an emperor...
This is a single portion of mixed grill that cost less than $10 Cdn in a traditional Bulgarian eatery. So, before we explode, we are heading to the hills – the mountains of Bulgaria – in search of more great historical sights.

Posted by Hawkson 07:22 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (5)

Belgrade - A Mixed Bag

overcast 16 °C

The Serbian capital of Belgrade was not high on our bucket list. James visited in 1987, before the Balkan War, and had found the city to be uninspiring at best. Despite heavy NATO bombing in 1991 to end the war the city has managed to recover somewhat. However, although Belgrade is one of the great cities straddling the Danube river, it can't hold a candle to its upstream cousins of Budapest and Vienna. There are some elegant buildings on its wide pedestrianised boulevards...
And it has an enormous Turkish-built fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube... large_Tanks_at_Fortress.jpgD12DFEFA0B866D9033BBEE59ADE72287.jpg
But the whole place needs a facelift. They could start by cleaning off some of the graffiti that is sprayed on almost every building...
The Christmas lights brought some cheer to an otherwise gloomy scene, although, in truth, Belgrade was considerably better than we expected.
However it was somewhat disheartening when the cafeteria manager at the railway station told us that things were much better under Tito and communism than it is today.
On the positive side: the Belgradians were helpful and friendly; our ultra-modern apartment in the old city was as swish as we could expect anywhere in the world and the restaurants served traditional Serbian food that was not only plentiful, but was excellent value for money. This is Skadarlija street - restaurant central in old Belgrade...
Every restaurant has its own gypsy 'orchestra' who will enthusiastically play at your table until you pay them to go away...
And every restaurant not only permitted smoking but actively encouraged it. Even the small 'non-smoking' sections were littered with ashtrays. The Serbians we spoke too are actually proud of the fact that they almost all smoke – they see it as rebellion against the rules of the EU. Smoking has been the norm on this trip all the way from the Baltics and we have been dismayed to see large number of young people lighting up.
If we were cynical we could say that the best thing about Belgrade is the railway line to Bulgaria. But that wouldn't be true. The train was as scruffy as much of the city and we were the only passengers for much of the 10 hour journey to Sofia. The linesides were littered with derelict factories, crumbling villages and dilapidated rolling stock. Belgrade is not Zagreb, (but we didn't expect it to be).
We left the Eurozone sometime ago so now we are changing currencies as we slip from country to country. We have also left the Schengen area of Europe so have to produce passports at every border. How much nicer it is to travel between countries without borders manned by officious petty bureaucrats who view everyone with a suspicious eye. Travelling here in the ex-Eastern Bloc countries reminds us of a time that we hoped had past – an awful time when fences and walls divided people and communities – take note Donald!

Posted by Hawkson 00:07 Archived in Serbia Comments (6)

Zagreb - The City of Squares

semi-overcast 15 °C

From the moment you step out of the magnificent railway station in Zagreb you realise that you are in one of the most elegant cities of Europe...
These are just some of the parliament buildings that surround the decorative church of St. Mark's...
Here is a view of the cathedral from the upper city...
And this is St. George slaying the dragon – a symbolic representation of power used by many European countries...
In addition to the usual national museums and art galleries, Zagreb distinguishes itself with several unique collections of artifacts. We never found the Museum of Illusions and we didn't bother with the Mushroom Museum because there were plenty on offer in the huge outdoor market in the square in front of the cathedral...
Other museums include the descriptively named Torture Museum and the more esoterically named Museum of Broken Relationships. Croatia is a country of broken relationships with a history of alliances and confederations dating from long before it was part of the Roman Empire a couple of thousand years ago. The broken relationships with the other Yugoslavian countries of Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia et al is still fresh in our minds as we walk the beautiful streets of Zagreb among crowds of happy locals. We wonder how they deal with the fact that they were engaged in a bloody war with their neighbours just 25 years ago.
There is certainly no sign of conflict here in Ban Jelacic Square...
...although we were shaken by a very loud explosion at lunchtime - only to discover it was the midday cannon which has been fired daily from the Burglar's Tower since 1871.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is dedicated to the love, pain, drama, irony and even humour in breakups and reconciliations and has proved so popular that a second branch opened in Los Angeles this year.

Zagreb is a city of squares and at night they are thronged with students, tourists and revellers who overflow from the numerous bars and cafes. Nowhere in Europe have we seen such scenes and it reminded us of the festive street life in Hong Kong or Bangkok...
Cheap beer and inexpensive food often end up on the pavements by the morning, but we were assured by our apartment hostess that there is never any trouble in the streets at night and it is a very safe city.
Zagreb was yet another surprisingly beautiful and well presented city on our tour. Gone are any traces of its communist past and recent conflicts. It is full of interesting sights including these chains from Lord Nelson's battleship, HMS Victory, at the city's 13th century Stone Gate. Though how they got there is a mystery.

Posted by Hawkson 01:38 Archived in Croatia Comments (5)

Surprising Slovenia

sunny 11 °C

The railway from Venice to Ljubljana is broken at the moment so we were forced to travel north to Villach in Austria by coach to catch a southbound train through the mountains for the rest of our journey. The alpine scenery was spectacular as we weaved our way alongside rivers and through forested passes painted red and gold by winter's approach...
We really had no expectations of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but we were heartened by the warm reception we received, in English, from the hotel receptionist and restaurant waiters. We soon learned that almost every Slovenian speaks good English and they are proud of their city – as they should be. The old city which spans the river is dominated by the castle...
Beneath the castle are numerous elegant buildings and ancient churches...
But there is nothing 'ancient' about Ljubljana or its citizens. Our hotel had the fastest internet and best selection of English language television channels so far in Europe, and a machine in the central market square dispenses litres of fresh milk for a euro...
Cars are banned from the historic streets so a free electric taxi will take you to your hotel...
An untra-modern all glass funicular will whisk you up to the castle and part of the deck on Ljubljana's historic Trnovo bridge has been glazed – but are you brave enough to trust it?
And we met another world traveller on one of the other bridges in the city..
This is Abhishek Sharma from India. He is travelling the world the hard way – by E-bike – and has already clocked up some 20,000 kilometres in an effort to promote peace and harmony between peoples and to highlight the dangers of climate change. His website is: www.abhishekkumarsharma.com

Another day – another market. We seem to run into markets everywhere we go and Ljubljana was no exception. But here the sauerkraut was the main attraction and dozens lined up to buy it by the barrel load...
Ljubljana is a great little city full of interesting sights and excellent restaurants. One day was sufficient to see the sights and we have to push on to Croatia to keep ahead of the weather, but we would happily have stayed.

Posted by Hawkson 09:09 Archived in Slovenia Comments (6)

Getting About in Padua

semi-overcast 15 °C

As we resume our journey through the great cities of central and eastern Europe we were concerned that we had reached saturation point regarding medieval architecture – and then we came to Padua. How can we not show you the murals painted by Giotto in 1303 that completely cover the walls of the Cappella degli Scrovegni...
If you are not impressed by 700 year old paintings how about an 800 year old palace of justice...
The Palazzo dell Ragione was originally Padua's courthouse. Today it houses the public market and it is surrounded by stalls selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs.
Padua has a wealth of historic buildings, but this blog is about the way the old city has come to grips with the traffic woes that dog so many densely populated communities. Firstly, private cars are totally banned on many of the city's narrow cobbled streets. Other streets are one way only and priority is always given to pedestrians, buses, taxis and cyclists. These cycles are parked in the square in front of the 15th century clock tower...
The builders of this, and other, Italian cities from the 15th to the 18th centuries knew that shoppers would be more likely to dawdle if they were sheltered from the heat and the rain, so they covered all of the sidewalks with lofty colonnades...
This was not just good for business. It enabled the developers to build the upper stories right to the edge of the road without impeding traffic and the contrasts of light and shade makes for interesting photographs...
Perhaps Padua's greatest success has been with the ultra-sleek single track electric trams that run almost silently through the cobblestone streets. This tram is circumnavigating one of Europe's largest public squares - Prato della Valle...
But how does a tram operate using only a single track? And why is a city the size of Vancouver unwilling to invest in such an excellent mode of public transit? Answers on a postcard please to the mayor of Vancouver, BC. Canada.

Our time in Italy is very short on this trip as we are racing to keep ahead of winter. The first snows are already falling in the Alps so we are pushing further east to Slovenia. Arrivaderci Padova - we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 01:51 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

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