The end of two years living in Switzerland

Wow. I can’t believe our two years living in Switzerland is over. On Thursday 27 July Andrew and I boarded a plane for San Francisco. Between flying back from Bulgaria on Tuesday 25 July and flying back to the U.S. on Thursday, we were busy. Immediately after checking into our hotel, we picked up our Mobility rental van to pick up all our belongings from our storage unit and close the unit.

All of our stuff as we took it out of the storage unit. We used a service called Zebra box, which was conveniently located in the city and had easy access for loading and unloading.
That evening we did our final packing. Similar to when we came over to move to Switzerland, instead of shipping we took all our belongings on the plane with us. We found it is about the same cost as shipping but beneficial to have everything with you rather than waiting for a shipment or needing to know where to have them send it. This is an issue when you don’t have a permanent address but need your belongings close at hand. We distributed weight among all the bags to meet the weight limits and also to help us limit the fees as much as possible. I have United Premier Gold status, which provides me two free overweight (70 lb) bags! This is a huge cost-savings when you’re transporting everything you own halfway around the world and an extra overweight bag can cost $400 a piece. We ended up with 13 bags, including our carry-on and the skis+boot bag (boot bags travel free with a ski bag). We are now self-proclaimed experts at airline baggage policies 🙂

On Wednesday 26 July, we had a wonderful last day in Switzerland. We got up early to go meet our {now former} upstairs neighbor, Esther, from Avenue Juste-Olivier. She has been of invaluable help during our move out of the apartment and was our main line of communication with our non-English speaking property management company. She had agreed for them to mail to her house the letter that documented the agency’s agreement to release the restriction on our rental guarantee account. They had to send it by mail, so we agreed this was the easiest option for us. This account has held three months rent as a deposit on our apartment and the bank required this letter for us to get the money back. Over the past two years, our property management company has proven itself to be inefficient/useless/you-name-it and this time was no exception. Esther had to call four times since our close-out inspection on 30 June to get this darn letter for us, and they finally mailed it the day before we came back. But we got it! Phew! We said our goodbyes to Esther and her golden retriever Milo, some of the best neighbors I’ve ever had. After that we were able to go to our bank and release the cash. Now it’s all ready for a deposit on our next apartment in San Francisco 🙂 We are so thankful to have had Esther as a neighbor. She has proven to be genuinely helpful in many cases and always a friendly face. We’ll definitely miss her!

That afternoon we had scheduled to use our departing gift from KPMG, a 50 minute massage at Lausanne’s beloved Beau Rivage Palace Hotel.  The massage was perfect to relax in anticipation of our 15 hour flight back to the US. Afterwards we walked down to the lake to enjoy the beautiful day by renting a pedalo for an hour to cruise along the coast.


We had a drink at a lakeside bar and capped the day with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe de Grancy.

Drinks at the Terrasse d’Ouchy
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Beef tartare for the last time

Chocolate overload for dessert but it was so good!
On Thursday morning we were up early to go to the airport. We hired a private transport to take us and all of our luggage since we wouldn’t manage on the train or even in a taxi. The transport had to bring a trailer because their van wasn’t big enough!

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Andrew in the morning as we were dropped off at the airport by our transport. This was one of two overloaded trolleys of our stuff 🙂
The airline check-in staff had wide eyes when we arrived with our bags, but we had come early to allow for time. My United Gold status also came in handy a few times this day since I got a little quicker service. The flight went well, with no major delays though we narrowly met our connection in Newark. We made it to San Francisco and while the airline managed to get all of our bags to SFO, we ourselves, in our tired state, managed to leave one of them behind at the airport on the baggage claim belt. We had to go back the next day to claim it. Sigh. After a looong day of traveling we made it back home to our city. San Francisco.
I can’t help but reflect ….
As we have returned to the U.S. I have realized I need to work on my answer to the question that comes once someone finds out we just returned from our time abroad:  “How did you like Switzerland?”
The answer is becoming more refined over time, but I can tell you, my dear reader, a little longer of an answer. While I am so excited to be moving back to San Francisco, where I am familiar with the culture, I can speak the language, and we’re infinitely closer to family and friends; Switzerland was incredible. The country managed to stun me consistently with it’s beauty. I loved having the Alps as our backyard playground. Within a short 45 minute drive we could be hiking, skiing, or on a via ferrata! I’ll never forget how easy it was for us to wake up at a reasonable time on a Sunday morning and hike up in the pristine Alps to 3,000+ meters in a day and return to our apartment that evening in time to cook dinner. Let alone that view of Lake Geneva from our apartment balcony! The country is centrally located, allowing easy travel within Europe – especially by train. We saw and experienced SO MUCH during the past two years. It is mind boggling even to me when I look back at my blog posts and go through photos. I am thankful to having been exposed to the Swiss French culture of the Suisse Romande. We learned to love espresso, attempted the French language, savored the fresh bread, the chocolate … the CHOCOLATE, and always had access to so many amazing wines from our European neighboring countries. Goodness these are things I will miss!
But … Switzerland is far from our families and friends. It was tough to work with the 6-9 hour time difference and to schedule FaceTime dates since only weekends seemed to work with anyone, which is when we’re always on the move. We had trouble finding community. I recognize that we were partially responsible for our limited number of friends because we could have tried harder, but it was difficult. Not speaking French fluently was hard. We both managed to pick up enough to get by in restaurants reading menus and ordering, reading signs, communicating with cashiers in shops, etc but it wasn’t sufficient. It would have required signing up for classes and devoting a lot of time to learning – which we simply were not sure we wanted to commit the time to do. There are reasons why we didn’t decide to stay in Switzerland longer and these things add up enough to make it feel right to not stay.
Regardless of the above, I promise you that as we boarded that plane, I left with a feeling that all was right. We were
so fortunate to have had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go live and work abroad in Switzerland. We experienced so much and this blog is a testament to that fact.
Blogging status …
SO. Clearly the blog posts are on a delay. We’ve been busy having fun and bouncing all over, and we’re still on the move! I took a little break from blogging over the past couple weeks but I promise I am working to get caught up. I’ll continue to blog over the next month or so as we continue to travel and settle back in to SF. I am not yet sure of the future of the blog and whether I’ll stop, but for now I’m going to keep it going. I’ll keep you posted soon 🙂

 

SF: We’re baaaaack ….. for a week.

As you can imagine, Andrew and I spent a lot of time figuring out the logistics to our summer. We had planned over two months off from work and wanted to travel in Europe and the U.S. but also needed to fit in some real-life, administrative stuff in San Francisco to facilitate moving back. So, while the beginning of the summer required the logistics to move out of our Swiss apartment and deconstruct our lives in Switzerland (i.e. banks, utility accounts, lease, job, etc), the next piece of fun was to set all that back up in the U.S.. Since we needed to get our belongings to San Francisco eventually, we decided to make SF our first stop in the U.S. after leaving Switzerland. Also important, this was our first planned time to try to find an apartment. If it didn’t work, we also built in a free weekend before Andrew’s start date on 4 September.

Now, it will appear confusing at first but once I explain it makes sense. We stayed at the Green Tortoise Hostel in San Francisco this whole time. I know, I know. A hostel! First of all, we got a private room and it was in their secondary building that is a block away from the main hostel building and on a quieter part of Broadway. We were a bit nervous to stay in a hostel in the U.S. since these are not a common accommodation, but we were pleasantly surprised. The Green Tortoise was one of the best hostels we have ever stayed in! Our building only had 5 units and it had a back deck with a view of the bay and the city skyline. It was well located, within walking distance of the downtown business district and also North Beach. They had tons of amenities, included breakfast and a few dinners and we met many nice people from all over the world.

Now for the explanation for why a hostel, because some planning ahead was obviously  involved. Andrew receives re-patriation benefits through his global mobility program and they include a housing allowance when we move back. Since we were unsure of whether we would find an apartment immediately, we set up this week in July and also another week in August to apartment search. That meant we had two periods of hotel stays, while only one would be eligible for firm coverage. Therefore, there was a high probability that we would be paying for the time in July if we didn’t find an apartment at first. So, the plan was to bill KPMG for the second stay at the beginning of September when we move back for good. And since staying in SF is super expensive, we got the hostel for our time in July when we would likely be footing the bill. We were being a bit conservative and it all worked out as you will see…

So, here we were with six nights in San Francisco. And boy, the time was unexpectedly successful! Andrew ended up buying a car! The dealer is holding on to it for him until we return at the end of August.

Andrew with his new car – BMW 428i xDrive Gran Coupe

For those of you who are not familiar, SF is a very competitive rental market. We were prepared to see a lot of apartments and to have to work hard to get what we wanted. After viewing nine apartments, none of them met our exact criteria and we were worried we would have to compromise on a less than ideal spot. However on our final viewing, WE FOUND OUR APARTMENT! We signed a lease to start on the 1st of September at Larkin and Union street on Russian Hill. It’s a one bedroom apartment with a parking space, a storage unit, a dishwasher, in-building laundry, and to top it off a killer view from the living room and kitchen of the Golden Gate bridge and the bay. In SF terms, we did pretty well and even found a place with a rent that is at the lower end of the current market rate for that neighborhood. We are super excited about the place! Additional pros are that we now can use our time in the beginning of September to move in and furnish the place, which is great since we have no furniture or house-hold goods. Even better, we don’t have to pay rent in August AND the owner is renovating the apartment, including replacement of carpets, appliances, cabinets and light fixtures. Couldn’t be better!

It was foggy that day, but here is our apartment building. Our apartment is on the third floor on the other side of the building. There is a bus stop on this corner that has two lines that head directly downtown. Perfect for commuting to our office when we aren’t at the client site!
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Part of the view from our new apartment. We’ll be able to watch the sun set over the bridge 🙂

Other than the car and apartment our time was spent eating at restaurants we had missed (including as much Mexican food as possible), going for runs along the Embarcadero, taking care of banking matters, I had some CPA license renewal continuing education to complete, and we were able to catch up with Andrew’s sister and her fiancé, John, and our friend Lauren who recently moved back to SF after her time working abroad in London. Overall, a far more fruitful time spent in SF than we anticipated. Now we are able to relax and enjoy the next four weeks of travel in August!

On that note, we left SF on Thursday 3 August to begin our four weeks of U.S. travel with a nine night vacation in Oregon. Stay posted!

Sofia, Bulgaria

We were in the capital city of Sofia from Sunday 23 July through Tuesday 25 July. Coming here made sense given that it’s the capital city and has an international airport. This was the last stop on our tour of Bulgaria.

Transportation: We still had our rental car and drove 2 hours north to the Sofia airport  from Bansko. We dropped the rental car and took the metro into the city.

Accommodation: We stayed at the 5 Vintage Guest House. This place was awesome. The guest house is a step up from a hostel because we had our own private room on a floor with only 3 other guest rooms. We all shared a bathroom (2 showers and 2 toilets), a kitchen and a common area. It was very clean, had cute decorations and had several amenities included, such as AC in our room (important given the weather was in the 90s), coffee, a clothes washer and dryer and even candies and sweet croissants available for the taking. We only spoke with one other guest during our time, a Danish solo traveler, but everyone was quiet. It was really fantastic!

Left: Our bedroom, with two twin beds, a dresser and an AC unit. Not too big but well sized for European standards. Top right: the hall between each of the four guest rooms on our floor; Bottom right: the common area, including a little kitchen, plenty of seating and a balcony.

Eats: On Sunday night we went out to the restaurant Ascua in our guest house’s neighborhood, which offers fresh fish from the Greek Mediterranean waters. We got an 800 gram red sea bream fish to share, which was grilled to perfection and de-boned table side. For an appetizer we got the Kyopolou eggplant dip again, this time a diced version. It was a wonderful meal and a refreshing cuisine after days of all the heavier traditional Bulgarian fare.


On Monday we kept food simple as we needed a break from the restaurant travel diet. Believe it or not, it gets old eating out constantly! We went to an early dinner/late lunch at Wok to Walk, an international quick-service Asian style eatery that serves made to order stir-fries and had a seating area out on the pedestrian street. It was another welcome break from the cuisine we had over the past few weeks traveling in Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

Activities: We were only in Sofia for two nights and one full day as we had an earlyyy morning flight out on Tuesday morning. On Monday morning we did a free walking tour with Free Sofia Tour. This took us around the main sites of the city while giving us a brief history and insight into the guide’s view of his country.

The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski, an orthodox cathedral completed in 1902. He proudly explained that it is the second biggest orthodox cathedral in the Balkans.
Church St. George Rotunda, an early Christian church built by the Romans in the 4th century. Today it sits encircled by the presidents offices and a nice hotel.
The entrance to the Bulgarian President’s city offices, with the guards. The guide said that the President is not often here but rather at his home on the outskirts of the city.
The old baths of the city
The Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1500s during the Ottoman rule. There are not many Muslims left in Sofia but it is still an operational mosque.

After the walking tour we walked around the city and one of the big parks. We stopped by a shopping mall and then just went back to our hotel to take care of some things. On Tuesday morning we were up at 5 to catch our flight out of Sofia back to Switzerland. Now we have two nights in Lausanne to retrieve our belongings from storage, make a visit to the bank to release our apartment security deposit and see our Swiss home town for the last time for the near future before we fly back to SF on Thursday 27 July.

Overall Impression of Bulgaria: 

We spent 11 days in Bulgaria. During that time we had the opportunity to travel the North, South, East and West. After having all this time and getting to see so much, I thoroughly enjoyed the country. The people we met were so kind (our hotel friend George, our hiking friend George, the walking tour guides, people we met in restaurants, hotels, etc). The Bulgarian restaurants offered a wide variety of cuisine and it was delicious. Thanks to the strength of the Swiss Franc in comparison to the Bulgarian Lev and overall lower prices, the trip was very affordable.

It was fascinating to be in a different part of Europe with a different culture where we experienced little things such as the opposite head nod/shake and the shower by the toilet to learning about the recent history after the fall of communism and the country’s path towards democracy and a market economy. The young tour guides of Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo made it clear that their generation, the children who grew up after fall of the wall, are happy with the changes, but that there is a division and difference of opinion regarding which system is better for the country. A smart point was that their opinion is heavily influenced by whether each person’s family benefited from the communist regime. As an American who has not had such experiences, I am so thankful to have had these conversations with the Bulgarian people to gain more of an understanding of their history, current situation, and vision of the future.

While there are still remnants of the communist regime, such as their monuments and run-down buildings, the European Union investment in the country has clearly made a difference, with a high-speed freeway (with signage to not let people forget the EU helped with funding) and a decent metro system in Sofia from the airport into and around the city.

A first inclination would be to compare Bulgaria to Romania, but we decided we cannot do that. We only saw Bucharest and not any of the Romanian countryside, so we don’t have as much to compare. We can say however that Bulgaria felt far more developed and appeared to have better infrastructure for tourists and for general living purposes.

Would we recommend a trip? A long answer. Yes, but only to someone who has travelled more extensively in Europe (like already seen enough of the top destinations such as Paris, Rome, London, etc) and is looking for a different experience. Bulgaria is not packed with tons of historical monuments or sites like the Eiffel Tower of Paris or the Coliseum of Rome. It doesn’t have the biggest mountains, like Switzerland. A trip here is much more relaxed, slow and a cultural experience rather than packed with activities. This was fine with us as we’re a bit tired of touristy trips but important to point out. Otherwise, the people, the food, the landscape – everything added up to a lovely country to visit.

 


Bansko, Bulgaria and the Pirin National Park

As I was researching for our trip in Bulgaria I could see that this country offers it all. Our tour of Bulgaria has taken us from historic Veliko Tărnovo in the northern hills, to the beach town of Sozopol by the Black Sea, to the mountain resort town of Bansko and soon to the metropolitan capital city of Sofia. As you know, Andrew and I love being in the mountains so we were really looking forward to this chapter of our Bulgarian adventure. And as it turns out, they have some big mountain ranges here in Bulgaria, with Bansko situated on the northern edge of the Pirin Mountain National Park, one of two national parks in this country. It’s nothing like the Swiss Alps, but we came to appreciate their beauty all the same. We were in Bansko from Thursday 20 July – Sunday 23 July.

Transportation: To simplify things for ourselves, we rented a car from the Burgas Airport to drive 4.5 hours to Bansko. It took 2.5 hours on two public buses from Sozopol to get to the airport, but it was cheap and effective. The drive to Bansko was easy as there is a high speed freeway for 75% of the drive, taking us on a traverse across the country from the coast to the mountains in relatively short time.

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Driving through central Bulgaria. A welcome sight, the majority of the fields were sunflowers! Most were either in peak bloom or starting to drop their heads as they were heavy with seeds. We learned that sunflowers are one of the primary crops in this country.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Family Hotel Djangal. It was centrally located in walking distance of the main street with all the restaurants and shops. We got a room with a sitting area inside and a balcony with a view of the mountains. This hotel had a much better Balkan shower design. The shower head was in a corner directly above a drain and we were provided a squeegee brush. This shower didn’t get water everywhere as in our Sozopol experience, and the squeegee helped to clean up the water much better than using a big towel. We’re Balkan shower pros now!

The hosts at the Hotel Djangal were incredibly welcoming and we developed a bit of a friendship with the jovial husband, George. When we first checked in, George pulled us away from starting to retire to our room to take us down to their kitchen, where he insisted on sharing a glass of rakia, a Bulgarian style liquor he had distilled himself from grapes. We were curious if it was customary to sip on the rakia when first offered by our host, but we noticed his portion was missing verrrry quickly 🙂 He explained to us in his broken English that we would not “sip sip” but rather “whoosh” our drink. With such encouragement from our new friend, we took the rakia in one shot each, chased by a glass of water George kindly offered. Welcome to Bansko!

Every morning George sat down to chat with us in a mixture of Bulgarian, English, French and German. He told us “histories” of the hotel, which were stories about his guests; such as the Russian who disappeared for one verrrry cold winter night, to be found in George’s neighbor’s backyard the next morning, curled up fast asleep in a horse wagon. Or another man who went missing for 3 days, only to be found safe and sound later on, but very drunk. He showed us many things, such as his wood working shop where he carved bowls, chairs and wall decorations. One afternoon on our return from a hike he greeted us with fresh cherries from his cherry tree (the sweetest!). One morning he was showing us photographs of an old house on some property he purchased in central Bulgaria (against his wife’s wishes), where he keeps 10 hives of bees. We were given some of the delicious honey with our breakfast. The last evening he proudly introduced us to his daughter, who works in Sofia and was home for the weekend. We did end up deciding to buy a bowl from George’s shop, which he let us carve our names in as a souvenir.

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George’s wood working shop, which was in the ground floor of one of the hotel’s buildings. 
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We don’t often buy souvenirs, but his work was very good. We settled on this walnut tree wood bowl. 

 

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George let us use a wood burning tool to engrave the bowl ourselves. We wrote the city name “Bansko” in the cyrillic alphabet.

When we were packing up the car, George insisted on a departure gift, a bottle of his rakia to take with us. We couldn’t say no!

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Don’t confuse this bottle’s label with it’s contents. This is not Pirin Mountain spring water, but rather the rakia from George!

When we left Bansko, we were sad to say goodbye to George, and were so grateful for his hospitality and sincere friendship during our short time at his hotel. We weren’t sure why he took such a liking to us, as there were plenty of other Bulgarians and Russians at the hotel during our stay who he could converse with easier, but we truly enjoyed getting to know him.

Eats: We had three nights in Bansko to explore Bulgarian cuisine. The first night we randomly picked a restaurant down in the main square, the tavern Mehana Momini Dvori. It had great outdoor seating and it was a beautiful night. We got a “sizzling” dish which was a platter of pork, chicken and vegetables on a sizzling platter – kind of like when fajita meat is served. Not the healthiest, but it was so delicious!


Night #2 we walked into Voyvodata Tavern, which we had seen the previous night while walking around. It’s a bit farther away from the touristy town center but caught our eye for the dining area outside in a courtyard. It was so good the first time that we went again the next night! The second night the service wasn’t as good and they mixed up our order without apology, but the food was still delicious.

My dish, the Bansko style chicken. It is chicken tenderloins in a tomato base sauce with sauteed mushrooms, bell peppers and pearl onions. I will dream of this stuff!
Andrew’s Kavarma. We both agreed this was better than the first time he ordered this stew while in Veliko Tarnovo. I mean, look at how thick that sauce is!
The restaurant dining area. It was in the courtyard of what seemed to be an old inn
Our favorite appetizer so far in Bulgaria: Kyopolou, a roasted eggplant and bell pepper spread that is similar to baba ganoush. I am definitely inspired to try my hand at making this dish once we have our own kitchen again. 

The Bulgarian cuisine continues to please us. The menus at the traditional Bulgarian restaurants and mehanas (taverns) offer a wide variety of dishes. Most have had a book with sections dedicated to salads, sides (most often mushrooms or vegetables in butter, french fries and sautéed potatoes), fish, veal, chicken, pork, pasta, pizza and dessert. The wine lists are often long, listing all Bulgarian wines (which continue to be well priced and good). The menu also will always list the amount of food in grams, which we’ve found is super helpful for portion planning and understanding if something is enough to be shared.

Activities: The reason we came to Bansko was to tour the nearby Pirin National Park. We spent Friday and Saturday exploring two different sections of the park.

On Saturday, we drove up into the park from Bansko to park at the Vihren hut, where we took the trail to hike up the highest peak in the park and second highest peak in Bulgaria, Mt. Vihren, which sits at 2,914 meters (9,560 ft). The hike was 4.5 miles round trip, 3,000 feet up, and took us just under 4 hours to complete.

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A view of Mt. Vihren from the trailhead
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Approaching the last stretch of the trail, which was mostly hiking on skree to the top of the peak.
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Andrew and I on top of Mt. Vihren

On Sunday we drove around the park to a separate entrance where we could take a ski chair lift up into the park to the Bezbog mountain hut. From there we took the trail to go see some glacial lakes. We hiked for 3.5 hours and covered 6.5 miles, seeing many alpine lakes and beautiful vistas. For a portion of the hike we even walked with a younger George, a Bulgarian who is working on his PhD at a Bowling Green State University. He entertained us for a few miles, talking about life in both countries and both of our travels in Bulgaria this summer.

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The Bezbog “hut” at the trailhead, where the ski chair lift had dropped us off to begin our hike.
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A view along the beginning of our hike. You can see one of the lakes we later visited in the center if you look closely.
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A view from the trail looking north. Beautiful with the layers of hills off in the distance.
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Andrew and I at Popovo Lake, the largest lake in the Pirin Mountains. Photo credit goes to our younger Bulgarian friend George. 
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The hike featured many glacial lakes like this one. 

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On Saturday night, George’s daughter had let us know that there would be a free concert on the main square that we should check out. We went after dinner, and were amazed to find that we were joining what must have been a few thousand people out on the town for the night. The “concert” was in fact a bunch of singers and dancers who did covers of pop music while the real music video played on huge screens or kind of lip synced or rapped along with both American and local music. It was interesting to say the least, and definitely provided some good entertainment and people watching.

As we departed Bansko today, we said goodbye to George and his wife of the Hotel Djangal. It was a wonderful mountain village and we were so happy to have come during our tour of Bulgaria. Next up, the capital city of Sofia for two nights before we head back to Switzerland.

 

 

 

Sozopol, Bulgaria

Our next stop on our tour of Bulgaria was to dip our toes in the Black Sea. We stayed in the beach town of Sozopol, which is south of the more internationally popular beach resort towns of Bulgaria, and is geared more toward families and beach-goers that don’t care for parties until sun-up. While most people were Bulgarian there was a healthy crowd of Russians and Germans. At times it felt like like Ocean City, MD (without the boardwalk but throw in all the kitschy shops, restaurants and hoards of people) but it was still a beautiful beach and a bit lower budget. We originally booked to stay for 3 nights, but upon arrival a storm front came through and hovered over the coast, bringing in lots of wind, cooler temperatures and rain. The day we were supposed to leave was when the weather improved, so we moved reservations around and instead stayed from Sunday 16 July through Thursday 20 July to get a full day of sun on the beach.

Transportation: We woke up early on Sunday to catch the local bus from our hostel to the main bus station. We didn’t know when it was coming thanks to a lack of available bus schedules, so we went earrrly. We managed fine and caught our long distance bus at 7:30 AM that took us from Veliko Tărnovo to Burgas, one of the biggest cities on the Black Sea coast. The bus trip went smoothly, with an arrival in Burgas within 3 hours. We tried to locate the next bus down to Sozopol but realized we would need to take another bus to the center of Burgas to catch yet another bus south. We ditched that idea as we were not entirely sure where the right bus stop would be and instead hired a taxi to drive us 30 minutes south to Sozopol. We knowingly got over charged as tourists but given we had no idea of the true value we just accepted an easy way to our destination for what was still a pretty low price of approximately USD 20.

Accommodation: Sozopol is packed to the brim with hotels, resorts and vacation condos. We stayed at the Family Hotel Sofi for the first 3 nights. We got one of their top floor rooms with a balcony that has a view of the city and the Black Sea. The beach-front was only a 10 minute walk down hill. The hotel had a nice little garden area on the ground floor with a pool and a bar. It was simple, walking distance to everything and perfect for our short beach stay. For our fourth, impromptu, night, we stayed at the Hotel Kamea, which was chosen for its convenient location next door to Sofi (guilty for not wanting to walk with our stuff much further) and still getting a view of the water. It wasn’t the best, but it worked.

The pool and garden on the ground floor of the hotel.
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A view of Sozopol from the Hotel Sofi. Large waves are not common in the summer, but the storm clouds overhead brought high winds that whipped up the surf.

Here at the hotel we encountered another Balkan country concept previously unknown to us: the shower-toilet combo. There is no tub to separate your shower from the toilet nor is there a shower curtain. Why would you need a curtain if you create a bathroom with a central drain and tiles all around? At first we were astonished and confused. We had just left a disgusting bathroom in our previous hostel and were ready for a nice shower in our hotel, and then we discover THIS. How would we do it? Isn’t that gross to shower where the water is running off the toilet? Won’t water get EVERYWHERE? Upon closer scrutiny, the floors, toilet and drain appeared to be clean, providing relative comfort. In order to fully understand the mechanics, we resorted to google searches to see how to properly shower. We quickly learned {and subsequently implemented} the trusty 4 P’s to use of Balkan showers (see funny blog article): Preparation, Plenty of towels, Positioning and Power. With the use of these key tactics – we were successful and learned that the shower wasn’t terrible and it is functional. The article has the methodology, but the key solution is to use the towels to wipe up the shower when you’re finished so that the floor dries out. Additionally, we’ve now had the pleasure of learning a different way that people shower in another part of the world that we never expected, and, well, anything is better than our previous hostel.


Eats: We tried a few restaurants where we got fresh salads, freshly grilled seafood and meat. While I did not think that any of the restaurants were the best of our time so far in Bulgaria, we did find some good spots hidden in the corners of this touristy beach town.

Andrew at the restaurant of our late lunch on Tuesday, overlooking the water.
My fresh fish from the Black Sea

Bulgarian Cheese

During our time in Bulgaria we’ve noticed that there are only two types of cheese used in their local dishes and can be served as part of any meal. Кашкавал (Kashkaval) is a yellow semi-hard cheese typically made of cow milk and tastes similar to string cheese, but with better flavor. Сирене (Sirene) is a white brine crumbly cheese typically made of goat’s milk. It is less salty but similar to feta. Both are excellent!.

Activities: When it wasn’t raining, we made time for some nice morning runs and beach time. Otherwise, we relaxed and enjoyed the time to slow down and hang out.

On our first run at the beach on Tuesday we headed south and ran around a little peninsula. It had beautiful views over these grassy cliffs looking over the water
Our first day when we went running was gray but still perfect for a run!
Andrew on our run on Wednesday morning, a much sunnier day!

On Wednesday, the day we were supposed to leave according to our original plan, the weather was beautiful. We woke up early at 5am to catch the sun rise over the sea.

Andrew and I, at the sunrise on Wednesday morning

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Wednesday proved to be a beautiful day at the beach. Warm and clear skies. We were not able to go too far in the water as the lifeguards were not allowing us to swim beyond the first breakers. A bit of a disappointment but it was refreshing to dip our toes now and then and gaze out at the water.

The Black Sea is not black! Quite blue in fact 🙂 During our stay the waves were unusually high. Normally it should be more similar to the Mediterranean with tiny little ripples making it easy for swimming, but the storms brought rough surf.

While the weather could have been better, we were both able to relax and unwind at the beach. It was a great spot by the sea and a welcome respite from our previous touristy days. Next up: Bansko to see the Pirin National Park!

Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria

Our first stop in Bulgaria was Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgarian: Велѝко Търново), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and today is home to one of their biggest universities. Based upon my research it was a must-see and also a convenient stop on the train from Bucharest into Bulgaria. As a result, we were in this lovely northern Bulgarian city from Friday 14 July – Sunday 16 July. This gave us one full day to see the city; which was adequate given its size. This city was also our first introduction to the Bulgarian language and the cyrillic alphabet, which is used for Slavic languages. We’re now in the Balkans! This has made things a little more complicated for navigation but we’re managing 🙂

Transportation: We took the train from Bucharest to the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa (Bulgarian: Горна Оряховица – good luck pronouncing that!) then took a public bus to Veliko Tărnovo. The train took 6 hours, with 1.5 hours stopped at the border control in Romania (where they took our passports for about an hour while we sat on the train) and again for about 45 minutes at border control in Bulgaria. The bus was 20 minutes into the city. Overall, a bus from Romania to Bulgaria might have been faster but the train was easy and comfortable as the train wasn’t crowded, we had plenty of room and we had time to catch up on blogging and personal stuff online.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Hikers’ Hostel in a private room and shared bathroom. How did we like it? I’ll start with the positives: the hostel was located within walking distance of the old town and a bus stop and it had an excellent view of the fortress across the river from both our room and the common area. Unfortunately, that’s where the good points end. The bathroom was disgusting and unclean, the staff who ran the place were a few high school students that always had friends over to hang out, drink beer, party, and play with bow and arrows on the terrace (yes, they had a bow and arrow) and were pretty much useless with any advice. It had good ratings online so we unsure if this is what it is normally like or if things have gone downhill recently. We didn’t change locations since it would have been more trouble, but were SO glad to not be staying there any longer!

Eats: Our introduction to Bulgarian cuisine has had a very good beginning. I had no idea that Bulgaria produces tons of wines, which have turned out to be pretty good! And cheap (for us with CHF and USD). Also, the menus have had tons of variety and apparently they love salads – each menu has a big selection of fresh salads. Here’s some dishes we tried…

Our wine from our first night in Bulgaria. This wine was a blend of a Sauvignon Blanc and Misket, which is an ancient Bulgarian grape that produces light dry white wines. Perfect for a warm evening to cool down and relax.

We had lunch on Saturday at the Gurko Hotel and Tavern after our walking tour, which was recommended by our tour guide. The restaurant was a mehana, which is a traditional Bulgarian tavern that is decorated in a rustic style, adorned with rugs and farming implements, and offering primarily authentic Bulgarian cuisine. They had a nice view of the city as well.

Our lunch at the Gurko Tavern. Top left: Andrew at our table; Top right: My salad and bread, which was kind of like naan or pita; Bottom left: Andrew’s salad, which had yogurt and local cheese on it; Bottom right: Andrew’s Kavarma stew. This is a traditional Bulgarian stew of chicken, pork & carrots in a tomato broth. All of it was so good!


Saturday happened to be my 30th birthday. To celebrate, we went to a restaurant of my choosing, Shtastliveca (Bulgarian: Ресторант Щастливеца, translated as Restaurant Lucky) in the Old City. I had told them it was my birthday, and they gave us one of the best tables on the terrace overlooking the city with rose petals scattered on the table and meringues at each seat. The perfect evening for my 30th birthday!

The food here was from a “mixed kitchen” as our server noted, which basically meant it was modern cuisine with a Bulgarian flair. It was a huge menu with tons of options for every taste. Top left: my dessert, which was kind of like ice box cake in a ball form, but instead of whipped cream it was a sweet icing kind of like the cream in an Oreo. They were heavenly! Bottom left: my main course of duck and mushrooms in a marsala sauce; Bottom middle left: hummus; Bottom middle right: Andrew’s salad of peppers and cucumbers; Bottom right: Andrew’s main course of lamb shank and mushrooms over potatoes.

Activities: We had just one day to tour the city which was the perfect amount of time given the relatively small size. In the morning we did a fantastic free walking tour (donations accepted) with a local high school student. She amazed us with her knowledge and we had a great time going through the Old City with her and a small group of travelers.

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In the Old City. You can see the Turkish influence on the left in the buildings with the arcades and the style of the wooden eaves.
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A view from the Old City looking at the Tsarevets Fortress, a medieval stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1393. On the left, that empty looking hill was the location of the homes of all of the empire’s aristocrats. The photo is a good representation of the local topography, lots of tree-covered hills and the river winding through.
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Andrew and me in front of the fortress
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We had noticed these fliers all over the city, and my first assumption was that they related to an upcoming local election. Our tour guide corrected us, and explained that these fliers are posted to memorialize family members who have passed away. It is local custom to post a flier for a deceased relative on the day of the funeral, and then periodically for the future (at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, 1 year and then annually on the anniversary of their death). We saw some fliers that were for family members that had passed away more than 40 years ago.
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Walking through the Old City, you can see how the city is strategically located on a hill. For many people the hill was annoying but luckily as we lived in SF and Lausanne (both hilly cities), we were fine with it! I love hilly cities because you can see so much from different vantage points and it adds texture to the landscape.

Our visit to Veliko Tărnovo has made it clear that we are not in a top tourist destination for international travelers. We saw our tour and just one other tour on Saturday and the tourist information center was quiet. We did, however, meet people from all over the world on our walking tour (Germans, a Taiwanese, an Argentinian, a Colombian and a Polish girl) which showed that the country is capturing interest.

After lunch on Saturday afternoon we walked over to the Monument of the Asen Dynasty of the second Bulgarian Kingdom (AD 1185-1396). It had a fantastic view of the city.

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Walking across a bridge to the monument. The city of Veliko Tarnovo is carved by a river that winds through the hills. It created an interesting topography. 
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Built in 1985 by the communist regime, this monument was dedicated to the brothers Asen, Petar, Kaloyan and Ivan who lead the liberation of Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire. Their dynasty ruled Bulgaria from 1187 to 1280. An interesting fact from our tour guide is that originally the communist government wanted to make this look like Arthur’s sword in the stone, but with a hilt at the top it would have looked like a Christian cross – not allowed in communism. So instead they put the sword pointing upwards. 

 

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View of the city and the Yantra river

For a last stop we walked to the Tsarevets fortress. There was no guide, but we had a little help through descriptions from our tour book. Apparently the communist government had reconstructed many of the buildings, so the walls you see here are not 100% original. Additionally, historians criticize how the government rebuilt the fortress as they are not confident they held to the original style. Either way, it does help to see the structure a bit and imagine what it might have looked like.

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View of the city from the fortress

Before dinner we went to the grocery store to grab snacks for the next day’s breakfast given our early planned departure. It’s always an adventure to go through local grocery store to see what the locals buy. Here we saw a cheese case packed with many different variations of the two Bulgarian cheeses (Kashkaval and Sirene), many types of sausages and in the dried foods aisles so many kinds of beans! An interesting view of the local cuisine and palette.

First impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria has been a true pleasure so far. Upon arrival it was a little rocky as we arrived in a ghost town of a train station and no bus schedule or map in sight. We googled a bunch and could not find any more information. Welcome to Bulgaria! Luckily our hostel had told us to take the #10 bus, which came within 10 minutes of us standing there wondering if we should just suck it up and pay for a taxi, which would very likely rip us off as we were warned. We had no idea if we took the bus in the right direction as the bus conductor gave us a shrug when we asked her about the direction, but it turned out to take us right into the center of the city within a short walk of our hostel! Success!

We encountered a neat cultural difference (for the first time of many) at dinner the first night. Bulgarians are a culture that have different head nods for “yes” and “no.” It’s opposite from ours! We remembered this because we asked for our bill at the restaurant and the server shook her head to me with what appeared to be a “no” from side to side. I was SO confused why she would do that and why she would NOT bring us our bill, until we both remembered that she was actually acknowledging me that yes, she would come back with it. And sure enough, she did.

Similar to Romania, the people have been kind and helpful. While we were not so happy with our hostel, the young tour guide impressed us and the city charmed us with its romantic red tile roofed houses covering the hill toward the river that carved a “U” through the center. It was a small city but a great introduction and beginning to our tour of Bulgaria. Next up: The lovely Black Sea-side town of Созопол…OK I guess you aren’t fluent in Bulgarian just yet. See you in Sozopol!

Bucharest, Romania

I’m assuming you’re wondering why we went to  Bucharest? Fair question. Essentially, we looked at our big map on the wall of our Lausanne apartment guest room, saw all our pins covering most of western Europe but as we moved east the pins stopped in Budapest and the Greek islands. We had a big empty spot in Romania and the Balkans which made it clear we needed to investigate this area for our European trip. After more research we figured out the whole plan to start in Bucharest and then to spend the majority of our trip in Bulgaria. An added plus, Romania still has their own national currency, the Romanian Leu (Currency abbreviation: RON), which is currently at an exchange of 4 RON/1 USD and prices are significantly lower than elsewhere. This helped to make things verrrry cheap for us. So here we are taking the road a little less travelled (not even Rick Steve’s has a guide!).

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Our travel map with color coded pins. Much of the reason behind our trip to Romania and Bulgaria is to fill in the empty space between Western/Central Europe and Greece. White = Andrew and I have both been, Red = only me, Blue = Only Andrew, Yellow = our old home base of Lausanne.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Podstel Doors Hostel from Tuesday 11 July – Friday 14 July. We had a private room for the two of us and Dani stayed downstairs in a shared room. The house had shared bathrooms. The hostel is in an old building and had a very chill vibe, with a covered lounge area outside, a bar and tons of common space. All the people we met were super nice. A heat wave was going on in Romania, and it was in the high 90s during our stay, so it was pretty tough without A/C but we managed with a big fan at night. The hostel was not the best I have ever stayed in, but it was clean, quiet at night and cheap.

The covered area in the backyard. Pretty sweet spot to hang out! On our first night the hostel hosted a movie night and showed a film comprised of footage of scenery and people from all over the world.

Eats: The food in Romania was rather hearty food, with plenty of meat and potatoes. We tried a few specialties during our time there.

Here we had a “Luca Haiducesc,” which is a typical street food snack. This one is a savory pastry with cheese, ham and onions inside. We had another with a hot dog inside. They also sold some with sweet fillings like apple. It sold for 3.5 Romanian Lei, which is approximately USD 0.87

 

The old city at night

A meat platter with typical items: Grilled pork, mustard, potatoes, pickles, sausages and mici. Mici (also known as mititei) is a traditional ground meat roll made from a mixture of beef, lamb and pork with spices. It was a lot of food for even the three of us to share.

Gardenia Eden
On Wednesday night the three of us went to the Gradina EDEN, this awesome bar in the center of the city. It was hidden behind an old church, but was this huge area of bars with chairs set up under the trees. We hung out ordering cocktails and trying to stay cool – you can see we are glistening with sweat in this picture!

Activities:

We came to Bucharest with no expectations and it was quite different from the western European cities we have visited – which is a great reason to come here. Through reading our guide book and from our tour, we learned that Romania has a very turbulent history and has been occupied and ruled by many others throughout the last two millennia. There are constant reminders of the communist regime that only in the most recent years has started to give way to democracy. Unfortunately, due to all the war and communist dictators, the majority of their old buildings and churches were demolished or ruined – leaving not so much to view but only to hear about through stories. Nevertheless, we enjoyed getting to know the city, the people and the food.

On Wednesday morning Andrew and I went for a run through Parcul Carol and Parcul Tineretului near our hostel before the heat of the day set in. I love running in new cities!

Here I am during our run in the Parcul Carol in front of the Memorialul Eroilor Neamului (Nation’s Heroes Memorial)

On Wednesday afternoon we got tickets for the city Hop On Hop Off bus to see the sites. We stopped at a few places to see.

The Memorialul Renastterii (Rebirth Memorial), a memorial to commemorate the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which overthrew communism. The Romanian people are not so fond of the design and understandably joke that it looks like a doughnut or potato on a stick. It’s clearly a bit damaged as well at the base. 
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The Bucharest Arcul de Triumf. Turns out many cities have a triumphal arch. The arch serves a similar purpose as most others – for military parades.
We visited the National Village Museum, a unique outdoor museum in the Herastrau park. The museum was started in the 1930s and holds real houses from villages typical to different regions of the country. All of the houses were set up inside with typical home furnishings to show you what their homes were like. Most homes were not open for us to go inside, but we were able to peer in windows. It was a neat and very interesting museum to walk through for a while. 

Above, the Biserica Crețulescu, which is a church dating from the 1720s. The majority of the Romanian population is Orthodox and most of the churches we saw were similar construction to this one. We didn’t see any massive cathedrals like what you see in western Europe.
On Thursday we got up early to do a walking tour of the city with Walkabout. The tour was great for giving us a narrative to the history of the city from a local Romanian. This tour is where we learned the most about their history and challenges, especially in the last 50 years.

Above, the Biserica Mănăstirii Stavropoleos, an orthodox church from the 1720s. The church was notable as a good demonstration of the mix of cultures have influenced Romania. The Ottoman Empire left their impression which is noted through the arabesque and arcades on the church. We also saw much French influence in some of the buildings in Bucharest, as the government sent many architects to France to learn their style before building in Bucharest.

Definitely one of the strangest statues, this sculpture is of the Roman emperor Trajan and Dacian wolf. It has become a statue ridiculed by many and several creative photos are taken with it. 
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Sunset in the old city behind the Curtea Veche Church (Church of the Old Princely Court) 
The colossal Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of Parliament)

As I mentioned, we learned a ton on our walking tour about the history of Romania, and especially about the influence of the communist regime. The Palace of Parliament is the second largest building in the world after the United States Pentagon. It is valued at approximately EUR 3 billion, which makes it the most expensive government administration building in the world. Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian president during the communist regime from 1967 until his execution following the Romanian revolution of 1989, was responsible for ordering it to be built. To build the palace and the large boulevard between the palace and the center of the city, Nicolae ordered the destruction of an entire section of the city which included the homes of several thousand people, buildings, markets and churches. This helps to explain why there are not so many historical buildings left in the old town of the city.

Overall impression of Romania:

As I mentioned, visiting Bucharest was unlike any other western European city we have visited. In truth, I won’t say that I absolutely loved it but it was cool to experience such a different place. The history was fascinating to learn, and gave us perspective to see that despite the tough times (which they are still going through as the country continues to try to achieve a democratic government) they have demonstrated themselves as happy and welcoming. Several times we had people go out of their way to help us when we appeared lost. Special thanks to the girl in the grocery store who steered us away from buying the beer that only bums drink and a guy who joked with us (in Romanian) about a statue with no arms. There were not nearly as many bums or homeless people as I was anticipating and I felt very safe the entire time.

Now we’re on the train, moving south into the country of Bulgaria where we will spend the next 10 days. Stay posted!