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.

img_4270
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.

img_4291
George’s wood working shop, which was in the ground floor of one of the hotel’s buildings. 
img_4294
We don’t often buy souvenirs, but his work was very good. We settled on this walnut tree wood bowl. 

 

img_4295
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!

img_4296
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.

20170721-Pirin Mountains-002
A view of Mt. Vihren from the trailhead
20170721-Pirin Mountains-003
Approaching the last stretch of the trail, which was mostly hiking on skree to the top of the peak.
20170721-Pirin Mountains-004
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.

20170722-Pirin Mountains-012
The Bezbog “hut” at the trailhead, where the ski chair lift had dropped us off to begin our hike.
20170722-Pirin Mountains-001
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.
20170722-Pirin Mountains-003
A view from the trail looking north. Beautiful with the layers of hills off in the distance.
20170722-Pirin Mountains-005
Andrew and I at Popovo Lake, the largest lake in the Pirin Mountains. Photo credit goes to our younger Bulgarian friend George. 
20170722-Pirin Mountains-007
The hike featured many glacial lakes like this one. 

20170722-Pirin Mountains-009

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.
20170717-Sozopol-011
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

20170719-Sozopol-00120170719-Sozopol-005

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.

20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-001
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.
20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-002
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.
20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-004
Andrew and me in front of the fortress
20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-005
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.
20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-006
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.

20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-007
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. 
20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-008
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. 

 

20170715-Veliko Tarnovo-022
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.

20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-009

20170715-Veliko Tarnovo - round 1-010
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!).

IMG_20170615_214352
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. 
img_4195.jpg
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. 
20170713_205851 (2)
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!

A six day trek in the Italian Dolomites

To kick off our summer European trip, Andrew and I went on a six day trek in the Italian Dolomites on the Alta Via 1 North trail with our friends Maddy and Dani. We took the train south on Monday 3 July from Lausanne to Venice where we met up with our friends, who had flown in from the U.S. the previous day. We all then hopped on a 2.5 hour bus to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a mountain resort village tucked up in the Dolomites of the Italian Alps. We stayed at the Hotel Ambra which was conveniently placed within a 5 minute walking radius of the bus station and the town’s main drag.

For this trip we used an adventure travel agency, Mac’s Adventure, to book a self-guided walking tour. For the tour, we walked each day from hut to hut on the Alta Via 1 trail and carried only our clothes and lunch for the day as dinner and breakfast were included in our room fee each night. We paid Mac’s Adventure an agent fee for booking our mountain huts (Italian: rifugi), our hotel in Cortina on either end of the trip, a guide book and also the map for their recommended route. Overall I had some mixed opinions on their service but it was helpful and easier than trying to book everything on our own.

Trek Day 1 – Tuesday 4 July: Our first day of the trek began with two bus rides for a combined two hours to the trail head at Lago di Braies in the Parco Naturale Fanes-Sanes-Braies, a gorgeous, crystal clear, alpine lake.

20170704-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-002
Our Dolomites hiking crew: Maddy, me, Andrew & Dani. We are here at the trail head on Lago di Braies

We hiked upwards immediately for about 2 hours before we reached the highest point of the day, followed by a meandering trail through a high meadow before reaching our first rifugio.

20170704-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-003
View from Forcella Sora Forno (2,388m), the first pass we reached on our trek and first glimpse we had of the expanse of the Dolomites.
20170704-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-004
The high meadows of the Sennes area of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo on the final stretch to the rifugio. 

We ended up hiking 3.5 hours for 6.1 miles to the Rifugio Sennes. We lucked into a private room for the 4 of us to share along with showers (included in our booking).

20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-005
Rifugio Sennes

Dinner was off a menu with a EUR 20 credit towards our choice. We each got the goulash with knödel, which are boiled dumplings that are typically associated Austrian food and not Italian. This is because this province of Italy, South Tyrol, is predominantly German speaking and has been heavily influenced by the close proximity to Austria. This lead to a mix of Germanic and Italian cultures in this area that had been previously unknown to me.

Our knodel with beef goulasch at Rifugio Sennes on Day 1. 
20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-006
Morning view from Rifugio Sennes

Trek Day 2 – 5 July: We had a gorgeous day to hike further south on the trail to Rifugio Lavarella.

20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-007
Dani, me and Maddy hiking as we approached the rifugio. You can see here we had cows for neighbors 🙂 That is our rifugio on the right hand side.

We hiked 3 hours to the rifugio, which included a steep descent down a valley and then a gradual re-ascent back up to a similar elevation.  We checked in, stored our packs and then did another hike up to the Ju de Sant Antone at 2,466 meters (8,090 ft) to total our day’s mileage at 9.8 with an elevation gain of 3’234 ft for the day. It was a hike straight up to a pass and had an incredible view of the Dolomites and snowy peaks of the distant Alps.

20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-008
Walking up through the high meadows above Rifugio Sennes towards the Ju de Sant Antone
20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-009
Our group at the Ju de Sant Antone looking north. We had lunch here in the sun and there was a little shrine to the saint as well.
20170705-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-011
View hiking down from the Ju de Sant Antone

We slept on the top floor under the eaves in a room shared with one other solo German hiker. The room booking included showers, which were welcome after a day on the trail. We passed the evening playing rummy on the porch and making friends with a fellow solo hiker from LA. We had half board at this rifugio which means it’s a set menu with a few options included in our room fee. Dinner for me was a fried egg, cheese and potatoes and fried veal and fries for the others.

My egg and potatoes with a slice of cheese in there. Simple but delish!

Trek Day 3 – 6 July: This was our longest day yet and definitely one of my favorites. The terrain was varied, as it was over high meadows covered in wild flowers, we hiked up two high passes (challenging but so rewarding), went down a super steep pass and entered the World War I ruins area. Overall we hiked 11.8 miles, 6.5 hours and 5,207 feet elevation gain through the day.

20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-012
In the morning, we hiked through these gorgeous meadows. There were herds of cows and horses along the way as well.

Dolomites long hike day

20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-013
A view from Forcella del Lago, the first pass we crossed, looking down and across the valley we hiked. You can see the trail we hiked on the left side and how it meets that trail in the center as it snaked it’s way up to Forcella Lagazuoi, our second pass of the day on the top left.
Dolomites hiking down
Hiking down from the pass – super steep!
20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-014
Our group just below the Rifugio Lagazuoi

A super cool aspect of this section of the trail is that it is full of leftover remnants of World War I (trenches, high mountain hideouts, tunnels and stone huts) due to the vicinity of the former border between the dismantled Hapsburg Empire and Italy. An excerpt from our guidebook:

“During the 1914-1918 conflict Piccolo Lagazuoi was occupied by the troops of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is important to remember that at the time Cortina d’Ampezzo was one of the southernmost parts of the Empire so this was the front as the Italians advanced. Both sides spent massive amounts of time, energy and human lives digging tunnels (11 in all) through the mountains for the purpose of laying explosives to mine enemy positions. Escalated by the Italians from their stronghold it was designed to dislodge the Austrians who occupied the summit.”

It was amazing to walk through these high peaks and to imagine what it was like to wage war and live life as a soldier up here! It is hard to photograph, but the cliff walls above the trails had tons of little hideout holes bored into them, which were used by soldiers as lookouts and perches to ambush the enemy.

20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-016
High up in the Dolomites, we saw many of the ruins of the solder’s former hideouts. Here is one, you can see how well they blend in when they used the stones from the local peaks to build the huts.
20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-017
The girls taking on the defensive from one of the trenches 😉
20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-018
At least the view from the trench was nice!
20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-019
A view of the Cinque Torri on the right and the jagged peaks of the Croda da Lago on the far left. This was our view for a good 1.5 days. Not so shabby!

We stayed this night at Rifugio Angelo Dibona, a rifugio named after a famous guide and mountaineer from Cortina. The hut had an incredible view across the valley and a delicious menu. We lucked into a private room for the four of us, a shower and our choice of 3 courses from a menu of Italian style fare. Unfortunately I discovered I was incredibly allergic to some plant in this valley as I became super sneezy/stuffed up for the next 1.5 days, but such is life. Got to go with it!

20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-020
The Rifugio Dibona in the golden hour. It had a huge deck on the other side with views of these peaks
20170706-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-022
Sunset and moonrise from Rifugio Dibona
The pasta from our dinner at Rifugio Dibona. We all got different pastas so that we could share. We had pasta with tomato sauce & mushrooms, gnocchi with chive sauce and ravioli. After that we each had grilled chicken, pork chops and an omelette. Goodness we ate so well!

The Dolomites are also home to the creation of the via ferrata, which started as a means for the WWI soldiers to scale the mountain peaks. Today, it is a popular sport and people travel here specifically to climb these historic via ferrata routes. Our rifugio was located at a parking lot below a ton of routes and also many rock climbing routes as well. You may recall that Andrew and I climbed a Via Ferrata last year (see post). They’re super fun and I wish we could have done one but we didn’t have the equipment.

Trek Day 4 – 7 July: If we had followed the main trail to hike directly to our next Rifugio we would have had a short day, so we deliberately routed ourselves on a bit of a detour. We hiked high above the valley first, went down into the valley, hiked up the other side to summit the Croda Negra (with incredible views) and then on over to the Rifugio Averau. It turned out to be a very long day and a little tough given that the previous day was long too, but we all had smiles whenever we saw the vast vistas and we’re surrounded by the fields of colorful wild flowers.  The day ended up being 11.8 miles, 6 hours and 3,624 ft elevation gain.

20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-023
In the morning we hiked to the top of an outcropping and met an older German couple from Stuttgart to take our photo
20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-024
One of the most intact ruins from the WWI encampments we saw on the trail.
20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-025
View across the valley and of the Cinque Torri on the right. We can’t see in this photo, but the Rifugio Dibona is just below those high peaks on the left, around the treeline.
20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-026
At the top of the Croda Negra
20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-027
View from rifugio Averau just after an evening thunderstorm
20170707-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-028
Sunset view from the Rifugio Averau

We got to the Rifugio Averau for the night and thunderstorms rolled through. We sat on the covered deck watching storms pass over the tops of the mountains while sipping beers and playing Rummy. Honestly – this is the life!

Dolomites Averau
Rifugio Averau

The food at the rifugio was unbelievable and the best of the trip. We shared local pasta specialties for our first course, including a ravioli filled with beetroot and gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce. The main course was rabbit stuffed with bacon and cheese and a grilled white fish. The dessert was the best tiramisu any of us had ever had and a cheesecake made of the lightest sweet ricotta with chestnuts. Omg I went to bed so full and happy. I will dream of this meal for a lifetime!

Top left: Tiramisu; Top middle: Burrata stuffed ravioli; Top right: Stuffed rabbit: Bottom left: Beetroot stuffed ravioli; Bottom middle: Gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce; Bottom right: View from our table playing cards in the evening

We slept in a room of bunk beds that slept 10, which was the biggest of our trip. It felt a little luxurious as they had sheets (because otherwise you have to sleep with a sleeping bag liner and use a pillow case of your own as we did in all other rifugios) and they provided a shower towel (because otherwise we all used those quick drying travel towels). It was a sweet spot!

Day 5: After two long days of hiking our legs were tired and it was a little bit of a slow start, but we energized again as soon as we got moving and saw the gorgeous scenery again.

We started by walking down to the Cinque Torri, a group of stone towers popular with rock climbers which was also the home to a free open air museum that showed what the trenches and huts were like for soldiers stationed there during the war at this strategic location.

20170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-029
The Cinque Torri. The open air museum was in a spot hidden by the rocks on the bottom left. We walked through the towers of rock before continuing on the trail off to the right.

We hiked on for a total of 8.1 miles in 4 hours with 1,196 feet elevation gain, going over two passes and through vast high meadows full of wildflowers and incredible views.  It was gorgeous!

20170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-03020170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-031

20170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-032
A great showcase of the variety of flowers in the meadows.

20170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-033

20170708-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-035
Hiking down towards the Rifugio Croda da Lago, which is below the peaks on the left. You can also see Cortina down in the center of the valley below us.

We arrived at our last Rifugio of the trip at Rifugio Croda da Lago around 3, took showers (the first and only which required a fee of EUR 3.70 for 25 liters of water) and sat on the deck for the rest of the day enjoying the weather.

The menu of this Rifugio looked good but our half board menu only included a few options, and the food turned out to be fine but our least favorite of the trip (we had been spoiled rotten at previous Rifugi!!). We shared a room of 3 bunk beds with a middle-aged Swedish couple from Stockholm.

That night we got some really intense thunderstorms and sat under the cover of the buildings eaves with a bunch of other people watching the lightning light up the sky. We even saw a lightning bolt strike a tree on a ridge just above our rifugio. For our last night it was perfect!

Trek Day 6 – 9 July: On our last morning of the trek, we had a 2.5 hour, 5.6 mile 2,356 feet descent down from the Rifugio to the valley floor through a forest as we walked back into Cortina to the Hotel Ambra.

20170709-Alta Via 1 Dolomites-036
On the morning of our last day on the trail

We spent the afternoon showering, organizing our luggage and hanging on the patio of the hotel catching up on blogging, photos and life. And gelato! That night we had a delicious dinner outside at the Restaurant Perla for amazing pizza.


Reflection on the Alta Via trek:

This trip was amazing and surpassed my expectations:

– We lucked out with weather. Blue skies every day and it never rained while we were on the trail. It was warm and we sweat plenty but it wasn’t unbearable. We even scored some awesome thunderstorms towards the end.

– The food was far more of a culinary experience than I knew it would be. We got to have incredible German and Italian food.  We were far from starving! Each rifugio was accessible by a 4WD road, so they had no problem getting supplies for such meals.

– We got to have showers every day, which I had not been sure would happen.

– The majority of the people we met on the trail were super friendly and we would even run into the same people from time to time, including our solo hiker friend from LA and a friendly group on a REI guided trip.

– The trails were well marked with plenty of signs and numbered trails.

Dolomites sign

– The wildflowers were lovely. I think we saw flowers of every single color of the rainbow and it was so beautiful. I was so pre-occupied that I didn’t manage to take many flower pictures.

– The Dolomites are lower in elevation than the Swiss Alps but they are so beautiful. The jagged peaks, wide open meadows dotted with wildflowers and the big valleys – it was just so beautiful every minute and we were constantly in awe.

– The WWI artifacts were really cool to see and a neat addition to the hike.

– The rifugios were so much nicer than I expected with far more amenities. We have seen a lot of cabanes in Switzerland that are rather spartan at times, but these were so nice. Of course part of the reason is because they have road access but still – the Italians really know how to do it right!!

– I would definitely like to try to do another similar trek in the future here in Italy or in another country. It was a very cool way to travel by hiking every day but stay in a place with a bed, running water and a restaurant.

So, the end of our memorable Dolomites adventure and the end of the first week of our summer off from work.

On Monday July 10 we all hopped back on the Cortina Express bus at 8:30 am to depart the beautiful Dolomites. We said goodbye to Maddy at the Venice airport as she was catching a flight back to NYC, Dani left us at the main bus station to stay the night in Venice (but we’ll see her again tomorrow in Bucharest) and Andrew and I stayed on the bus until it dropped us in Bologna. We are staying here for one night in an awesome little studio apartment with 4 Star Apartments (thankfully equipped with a clothes washer/dryer to clean all our smelly hiking clothes) on the edge of the old city by the train station and spent a few hours this evening exploring the city before we catch our flight in the morning to Bucharest, Romania. I must say that we were really happy with our short stay in Bologna. It was hot (90s) but the city streets are lined with covered arcades, we ate delicious ragu (aka pasta bolognese, which started here in this city), gelato and did a nice self guided walking tour to explore.

bologna
Top left: Bologna ragu for dinner; Top middle: some canals are left over in parts of the city; top right: the two towers of the city; Bottom left: a church from the 5th century, seen from the arcades lining the street; bottom middle and right a spot at a bar near the Piazza Maggiore where we got local sparkling wine and a charcuterie plate. 

Next up: Romania!

Our last days living in Switzerland

This is it! Our last days living and working in the beautiful country of Switzerland!

Andrew and I have been on a roller coaster over these last weeks. Long days at work, trying to sell furniture, packing, trips to the déchetterie (recycling center + dump), planning logistics to move internationally again aaaaaand wrap up planning 2 months of travelling in Europe and the U.S.. Also sneaking in some Sunday hikes to train for our Dolomites trek. Sit down and let’s have a recap about what’s been going on for us… warning – this will be a long one

Moving out – how is it going? 

We put up all of our furniture for sale on a Swiss website similar to Craigslist called Anibis. The process went well for some things, but some big ticket items proved very difficult to get rid of. Primarily our bed, couch, wardrobe and dresser. In the end, we put up several items for free and STILL had trouble getting rid of the bed and couch. We think most people didn’t want them because no one has a car to transport such big items. Otherwise, we find that the Swiss like NEW things, not used. In the end, we couldn’t sell with a focus to get money back – we just wanted someone to come and move all this stuff out of our apartment for us so that we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves. We finally found a home for everything and it all worked out just fine. But we narrowly made it work before our move-out day of 30 June.

We were pleasantly surprised with how organized the déchetterie was. They had staff to help you sort your items to the appropriate locations for recycling/trash.

It is amazing how much stuff you can acquire in just two years! Here is a pile of stuff we took to the déchetterie on just one of three of our trips. I wish we could keep more, but it simply is not worth the cost or effort to transport back to the U.S.
Massive cardboard recycling pile at the center
Different areas for different products. Far right is couches to dump, far left is a place for household objects containing metal, center is for chairs.

We rented a storage unit in Lausanne, which we are using to keep our belongings while we are traveling in July before we fly back to SF on 27 July. We will fly back to the U.S. with all of our belongings: 13 pieces of luggage (including a ski bag!).

In the midst of packing – we used the guest room as our staging area. That scale was KEY for distributing the weight among all our bags to ensure that we won’t get over-charged by the airlines for overweight bags. Instead of shipping we are flying with all of our stuff. We did the same on our way over to Switzerland and it worked very well. 

As we no longer had a dining room table, coffee table or balcony furniture any longer, we found ourselves sitting on the floor to eat our dinner in the living room.

We had our last day of work on Friday 30 June, where we said goodbye to all our co-workers and our job here in Lausanne. Afterwards we got drinks at a rooftop bar to celebrate the beginning of our summer adventure.

leaving work
All smiles moments after we walked out the door from our last day of work. Not necessarily a reflection of the job but definitely of the feeling of freedom for the next 2 months!
drinks at savoy
The view from the rooftop Sky Lounge bar of the Hotel Savoy in Lausanne

At 4 on Friday we met with an agent from our property management company to do our final apartment inspection and hand in the keys. We had been super nervous about this inspection as the Swiss have a reputation for being very strict with the apartment inspection. We spent HOURS cleaning and trying to get the apartment ready. Some people even pay a cleaning service, but we elected to do it ourselves. Amazingly, the time and effort paid off as our agent had no issue and gave us a clean bill to move out. We will get all of our deposit back and won’t get charged anything for moving out! We couldn’t be happier!

How was our apéro de départ? 

We shared our going away happy hour with three other seniors and assistants. It was a great time to get to have an official goodbye with KPMG and to see some people before we depart. KPMG was very kind and gave us a going away gift of a massage at the spa of the Beau Rivage Palace. Andrew and I have scheduled to use the gift when we are back in Switzerland later this month.

KPMG Lausanne was generous to let us have our party in the office. There’s a nice courtyard in the center of our office building and the night was warm – perfect for the party.

What else have you been doing? 

Training for our Dolomites trek! Every Sunday we have managed to take a hike to train, with enough time to return in the evenings to pack/clean/prepare for moving. Here are some snapshots from our last weekends getting to drive up into the Alps for a day trip (which we will sorely miss!):

20170611-Lac Louvie-009
Here we are at Lac Louvie, above Val de Bagnes
20170611-Lac Louvie-010
We happened upon this herd of ibex during our hike to Lac Louvie. It was a hot day so they were relaxing in the shade. We were in a protected area, so they were clearly used to having humans around. Check out those horns!! If you look closely there are at least 8 of them. 
20170618-Croix de Fer-009
We took a hike up to Croix de Fer, above Trient. This is a view of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. It’s a beautiful mountain! This hike was special for us as we had originally done this hike during our first few months living in Switzerland. It only felt appropriate to return to hike it once more

Our second to last weekend, we took off work on Monday and spent Sunday night in the village of Zinal at the wonderful Hôtel Le Besso. We got an awesome room with a huge terrace overlooking a view of the mountains. It was such a treat! The village of Zinal is down in the valley of Val d’Anniviers, which you may recall from our trip to St. Luc this winter for skiing (see post) or from Grimentz when my Mom visited in December 2016 (see post). This is one of our favorite valleys in the Swiss Alps and one we will likely stay in when we come back to Switzerland in the future.

20170625-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-003
View from our hotel terrace. 

This weekend was special because Monday 26 June was the 2nd anniversary of my father’s death. I wanted to do something on that day that he would have liked, which is why we did this trip in the first place. We rented a convertible for the drive through our Mobility car sharing service, and took the scenic route to drive along the lake while blasting rock’n’roll. It was a really fun time.

Andrew in our convertible. It’s considered a more “top tier” rental, but so awesome to have this available through our mobility membership!

We hiked up to the Cabane Tracuit, with an early start at 7am, and returned to the car at 3:30pm, it was a long and pretty tough hike of 10 miles roundtrip and over 5,000 ft elevation. We reached the highest elevation of any of our Swiss trips as the cabane sits at 3,256 meters elevation (10,682 ft). We had our last rösti of our time in Switzerland and enjoyed watching helicopters arrive to drop off the week’s groceries for the cabane and also transport some equipment for some high alpine construction workers.

20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-004
Our arrival at the cabane timed with the helicopter delivery of the day. It was super cool to watch the helicopter teams receiving the goods of the delivery. It’s thanks to these guys that the cabane is able to operate with so many amenities.
20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-008
The view from the cabane dining room. Andrew and I ordered our last rosti with egg – so delicious
20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-009
The Cabane Tracuit. Looks pretty spacey but it is surprisingly snug and nice inside!
20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-011
View of the glaciers and the mountain peaks from the cabane
20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-014
The wildflowers in the Alps are incredible this time of year. These are some special blooms that are teeny but vibrant!

20170626-Zinal and Cabane Tracuit-015

This is the beginning of the end… 

 

This past weekend, our last weekend in Switzerland, we moved into a guesthouse in the village of Morges, where we have rented a room and we’re 10 km from Lausanne. We had some last minute errands, including putting our last belongings in storage and to set up a new phone plan since our phones had been with KPMG this whole time and now we needed a new service.

Starting on Monday morning we begin our big trip! So, here’s the plan in short (well, as short as I could make it):

  • Monday 3 July we take the train down to Venice, Italy. We meet up with our friends Dani and Maddy (who just flew in from Vermont and NYC respectively) and take a bus to Cortina d’Ampezzo. We are embarking on a 5 night/6 day trek through the Dolomites and staying in high alpine refugios every night.
  • After the Dolomites trek, Andrew and I are taking the bus to Bologna, Italy, where we stay for one night and the following morning catch a flight to Bucharest, Romania. Dani will see Bucharest with us before she moves on in her own travels while Maddy goes back to the States.
  • From Bucharest, we will spent the next 2.5 weeks hopping from Bucharest, over the border into Bulgaria and staying in historic Veliko Tarnovo, Sozopol on the Black Sea, Bansko on the edge of the Pirin Mountains national park, then finally the capital city of Sofia.
  • On 25 July we fly back to Switzerland to collect our belongings at the storage facility and do some last minute things in town (such as that massage…) before we fly back to San Francisco on 27 July.
  • The goal is to return to SF for a week to take time to look for an apartment, get a U.S. phone, Andrew to buy a car, and say hello to our friends and family that have stuck around since we left.
  • After SF, we have some U.S. travel on the agenda.
  • From August 3 – 11 we are doing a road trip in Oregon. We’ll spend time in Portland, the Willamette valley for wine tasting, Sisters to see the Cascade mountains and finally Hood River to see the historic Colombia River Gorge.
  • After Oregon we are hopping on a flight to Spokane, Washington, where we meet up with our friends Cody and Kim from the Bay Area. We’re going to spend some time with them at Cody’s family’s house on the lake in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
  • From Idaho, I am flying to Virginia on 16 August to see my family and go to a friend’s wedding in Richmond. Andrew is going back to San Diego to see his family.
  • Last but not least, Andrew and I will meet again after we fly to Kaua’i where we will spend from the 21-30 hanging out on the island, with our time split staying at two different sides of the island.
  • Andrew starts work with KPMG SF on 5 September and I start on 11 September. Hopefully by then we have found an apartment but we’ll see how it goes.

So, that’s it! That’s our crazy plan! This summer has taken countless hours of planning and preparation, and I am so excited for it to get started tomorrow. Switzerland has been a wonderful home for the past two years, but I won’t lie to say that I am very happy to be returning to live in SF again. But before then, it’s time to travel and live up the next 2+ months of summer!