Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Crankin' Along

Sofia from 2000 meters.

So after gorging myself on John and Nancy's high-speed internet uploading videos to YouTube during our first day in Sofia, we finally got out of the house and saw the town. Well, let me back up a minute. Greg and Joel did visit the US Embassy on the first day, and returned from the "American Store" with peanut butter, Dinty More and Ruffles. That night John and Nancy grilled hamburgers and we enjoyed our first "American" meal of the trip.

St Nedelya Church

Russian Church in Sofia.

The following day we decided to get back to nature (sort of) and explore Mt Vitosha, which rises high above Sofia on the south side of the city. We rode two ski lifts to avoid hiking up, and this was a good thing, because we didn't get started 'till well after noon. It felt amazing to be in big mountains again, and looking down across the wide valley below, the smog-choked city of Sofia might as well have been Denver. After a few hours in the alpine, we began walking down the mountain (we missed the last chair) before Nancy met us in the car. That night we met John and had dinner at a local microbrewery.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral - note gold-brick roads below.

It wasn't before our final day "in Sofia" that we actually made it into Sofia. We followed the Lonely Planet's suggested walking route of the town and enjoyed being full-on tourists for an afternoon. Sofia is beautiful and yet undeniably the product of many years of communism. Near the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral you'll find things like the National Palace of Culture, which is perfectly ugly (and not surprisingly opened under the Iron Curtain). However, after walking around the golden brick streets for an afternoon, we felt satiated with Sofia and returned to John and Nancy's for a traditional Bulgarian dinner of shopska salad and stuffed peppers. We followed it with some Rakia and cigars, courtesy of John. It was tough to leave the next day. We'd experienced unmatched hospitality and kindness and we all felt as "at home" as we had since, well, leaving home. So, John and Nancy, thank you again for everything.

John and Nancy with "the smelly boys."

We call him "Joel the Lionhearted."

We headed out of town by train to Karlovo, and with some fellow Peace Corps contacts from John, we met up with Matt Sumpter, a volunteer living in Kalofer. Matt works with the local municipality on a few different projects, but spends a lot of his time "advertising" the community and nearby national park in an attempt to bring more visitors to the region. Their website is actually modeled on the state of Colorado's tourism site, so check it out if your planning a trip to Bulgaria any time soon. Matt opened his flat to us and we all enjoyed dinner in town that night. As a note, we also saw our second burning car of the trip.

The Balkan Range

Biking through central Bulgaria.

The next morning we headed out on the bikes for one of our better rides. Heading east, we soon began our accent of Shipka Pass, passing through the town of Shipka and the most heavily plated, gold-domed church I've ever seen. It shown brightly on the hillside from miles away, and upon approach became more impressive. That was before the 14-km climb to the top of the pass, which was long and challenging. The view was alright, but the mass amounts of traffic (the pass to the east was closed for repair) made the climb longer, louder and smokier than it should have been. The decent was steep and fast as we passed through dense forests approaching Gabravo, where we'd meet up with Casey and Lindsey Foltz, also Peace Corps volunteers.

High country on Mt Vitosha

Casey and Lindsey welcomed us into their spacious flat and even let us do a load of laundry. So after stashing our bikes on their neighbor Amanda's porch, we showered and headed out for dinner. Casey and Lindsay also work for the municipality on a number of local projects. The next morning they took us to the local orphanage, which they explained is actually one of the nicer facilities of its kind in Bulgaria. We met many of the kids and spent about an hour with them before heading to lunch and back on the road. We rode on toward Veliko Tarnovo and met Melanie (yeah, also Peace Corps) in another town just up the hill.

John and Nancy would call this a "Bulgarian moment." Trash dumpster in the middle of town burning, and no one seems to mind.

VT, as it's called, has received a lot of attention of late, and the Lonely Planet has even gone as far as calling it the "new Prague." We all agreed that's blasphemy, but it's a town not without charms. It was once the capital of Bulgaria, and a fortress stands proudly above a large kink in the river. At night, a laser-light show captivates tourists. We missed it last night because we were still eating dinner, but we'll try and make it tonight. Tomorrow we're headed north toward the Danube River, which we'll see for the third time this trip. It's also the border with Romania, and with any luck we'll be in Bucharest in two days time. Thanks again to everyone with the Peace Corps who've welcomed us along our journey. It's been wonderful to speak with Americans again, and your hospitality won't be forgotten.

Fortress by night.

Fortress by day.

route update

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