From Dubai, UAE to Barcelona … via the Suez Canal.

Our flight to Dubai was at the very respectable time of 12pm. Nice leisurely start to the day, a short taxi ride to the airport, and a shortish flight to Dubai. We were booked to travel on WIZZ Air for the 4.5 hour flight. We checked in fine and proceeded through security where the nightmare began!! Well it wasn’t really a nightmare but just a really disappointing experience. Firstly they were pretty unfriendly, and then they basically hassled everyone as they went through. I mean to say – we have got pretty good at the airport / customs security process, so are usually reasonably relaxed about it, BUT Sofia took it to a new level.

I was putting my stuff on the trays as per the normal regulations and as my trays were going through I went to follow them and then was asked to take off my shoes and sweatshirt. While I undid my laces, they processed the other people behind me and then they made my take off my watch as well. I absolutely hate it when I don’t follow my personal things through. Then I had to have my hand luggage searched and it turned out I had half a bottle of water in it!!! Usually you would get a telling off, drink it and keep going but no, not here in Sofia – bottle confiscated! Not really a big deal, but you would have thought it was something sinister not merely 150mls of water. Anyway the rules are the rules so my lovely green ribbed bottle that I have had for at least seven years is now destined for the dump. The whole time you are being hassled to move along, and there wasn’t really an area to ‘get dressed’ again.

We then proceeded to our departure lounge (it’s not a big airport) and I am sitting there and realise that I don’t have my watch!!!!!! I immediately return and they say they don’t have it and it hasn’t been handed in. By now I am a little bit annoyed (precious watch – one my Mum and Dad gave me). I have to re-present my things for scanning again in case I have hidden it in my things! Really! Then I had to be scanned by the video cameras so they can verify that they actually made me take my watch off. Anyway, as it transpired I flew out of Sofia without my watch. It was most likely stolen, either by another passenger or maybe the security themselves. Gutted!!

We have done 14 flights so far and although our flight with WIZZ was okay (except the boarding process!) Sofia airport left me feeling totally frustrated, but looking for that silver lining, it could have been worse if I had lost my purse / credit cards!! If Sofia wants to become a destination they need to sort out their airport!! I have emailed a complaint and received a reply. I have to tell them what the exact time it was, if I passed through their east or west scanner (really, who would know that!!), and everything about me – height, hair colour, eye colour, what I was wearing (fortunately Colin took a photo there) and describe my watch in exact detail ! I will do all of that, but I don’t feel much hope that my watch will be returned. Anyway, onwards to Dubai.

Because of the way our dates worked out with our house sit and the cruise we decided to spend a bit more time in Sofia than Dubai … figuring that we would get to Dubai again before we got back to Bulgaria! We arrived in Dubai in the evening and were on the ship the next day, so no time really to explore. After a lovely night in a gorgeous hotel (I think that maybe they are all like that here or better) we caught the hotel’s free shuttle to the old town as we had thought the port was close to that area. After wandering around a bit by the river we finally realised that we were nowhere where we needed to be – Colin was in charge of this part of our travel!! A 15 minute taxi ride later and we were finally at the cruise terminal for checkin. Now that we are ‘GOLD’ passengers we can queue jump, so our checkin was pretty speedy! Anyway, we dumped our luggage had a super quick lunch on board and then did the hop on/off bus tour for a couple of hours.

Dubai is A-MAZ-ING!! It is like some sort of futuristic place with all these incredible buildings, islands of the shore like palm fronds, the Burj Khalifa and that fancy pancy hotel on the beach that looks like a sail and is apparently a 7 Star hotel. It was so clean and modern with beautiful Mosques everywhere and funnily enough a lot of very good graffiti art. Our audio tour on the bus told us that the vision for the city, that has risen from the sands, is only a small way into its development – the motto being that nothing is impossible, nothing is too hard and that reminded me of the Monks building there Monasteries in Meteora. There are so many spectacular buildings, everyone trying to build better or bigger ones. The small part of the old city [Al Seef] was incredible as well and I can’t wait to visit Dubai again!

So after that quick tour, and only time to drive past the biggest shopping mall in the world [apparently you could spend a week in here …. not sure I like shopping that much!] we headed onto the ship to unpack. I just love this cruising business, especially on this trip. The chance to empty my suitcase and not have to lug it around with me is fabulous. We had an internal room but with a window into the atrium so I was a happy camper. This cruise was a relocation cruise and we only did it as Dubai was close to Bulgaria and it ends in Barcelona, so we are close again to France. It only had two port stops – one in Athens and one in Malta but we did cruise through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal – a total of 9 days at sea (from Dubai to Piraeus, Athens).

Unfortunately there was a cold on board the ship and within two days Colin was feeling miserable and then I got it!! So we have both relaxed with lazy late starts to the day and then finding a quite place to read during the day. So for the first 9 days we were laid low. It was just wonderful to have someone else doing the cooking and cleaning!!

There was some great entertainment on board, and some awful !! In fact I think that it was the most disappointing of all the cruises we have done. We have loved the ‘enrichment lectures’ on other cruises, but the monotone, boring Professor on this cruise (who has done every single presentation) could put a person who was hard of hearing to sleep!! I decided he couldn’t inspire anybody and that I could have done a better job – much more punchy, with a bit of humour and definitely some passion.

Anyway we have met some very interesting people, and have enjoyed catching up with Jeannie and John who are neighbours of Mum and Dad’s from Ryman. Mum messaged and said she thought they were on the same ship, so after a bit of messaging back and forwards it was confirmed they were and were only a few cabins along the corridor from us!! Very small world sometimes. Jeannie has WiFi on board to I was able to talk to mum and dad a couple of times: once while cruising through the Gulf of Aden [while we were on ‘pirate watch’] and once cruising through the Mediterranean on our way to Valletta in Malta.

So let me tell you about the ‘pirate watch’ – this was for real and we had a very serious letter delivered to our stateroom, saying that for 3 nights that the ship would be closed on the outer decks and that the lights would be turned off where possible, that anyone with a balcony was to remain inside and their curtains were to be closed. The doors were all taped up with cardboard onto the main decks (to prevent light seepage) and they had spotters on the decks ready to use the water cannons if required. We had a drill on how to remain safe – it was all very serious! When I talked to mum she told me she had watched the Captain Phillips movie a few days before! Cruise liners are not usually the target for the Pirates, but no chances were being taken as we made our way towards ‘The Red Sea’ for our passage through the Suez Canal.

Our trip through the Suez Canal was just amazing and nothing like I had imagined. Firstly it is huge! And secondly, in one part of the canal is two ways!! We spent 6 hours cruising up here – bit like a slow boat to China – we saw beautiful Mosques, lush green towns dotted along the way, cities being built and so, so much construction along the nearly 200km of canal. It was 38 degrees, hardly any wind and a sort of like being on a slow moving train.

We spent the whole time on deck and just absorbed the amazing landscape – really wanted to see camels riding by, but alas it was only cars, trains and construction equipment, not forgetting all the other maritime traffic – from big cargo ships to little fishing boats!! As we passed through the canal our ship (Explorer of the Seas) led the marine procession and for us first timers it was just magical.

Then we were back in Greece for the day in the port of Piraeus. Most people all headed into Athens for the big ticket items, but we had already planned to have a leisurely walk around the port town. It has the main port docking area on one side which is where our ship was berthed [it is so busy with all the island ferries coming and going, all the cargo ships and a naval vessel in as well] and then a short walk around you find yourself in a marina with lots of posh boats, lovely cafes and shops. We walked a bit further round to where there is a beach (not a patch on a NZ beach!) and sat in a cafe above it and just watching the world go by and the Mediterranean sparkling below us. Just a lovely relaxing way to spend the day.

Next port of call was Valletta in Malta. It was a lovely sunny, but very windy! We had been offered a ‘2-4-1’ deal for a trip up to the Blue Grotto and the village of Marsaxlokk. We hadn’t visited either of these places back in January so took the opportunity to do this. Being a Sunday Marsaxlokk had the markets on and it was a very busy bustling place, especially with two cruise ships in port. Lots of bargains to be had but the best purchase we made was the nut/toffee/chocolate brittle – only half of it made it back to the ship! If you had never been to Malta before and you did this trip, it certainly wouldn’t have left you in love with Valletta and the three cities … it is so charming, magical and a lot romantic! I felt a bit sad for those who chose this trip and had never been to Valletta before. I should have got organised and done my own tour of Valletta and the Three Cities for those interested in a walking tour – of course if would have been free 🙂

So 13 nights on Explorer of the Seas have been wonderful. Of course nothing is perfect and there has been a few niggles on this ship but nothing that spoilt it for us. It was a great way to travel. So we have arrived in Barcelona and now need to focus on getting ourselves up to Toulouse for our next ‘Mr & Mrs Smith assignment’ which starts in a couple of weeks. Time to explore the North-east of Spain, the South-east of France and hopefully Andorra.

“Take time to do the things that make you happy”


Sofia, Bulgaria

Our three hour bus trip across to Sofia (from Veliko Turnovo) took us across lush green mountains, through lovely fields that looked like they had been carpeted with yellow flowers and villages littered with rubbish! Rubbish of every kind – household rubbish, building materials, old broken vehicles, bikes, mopeds and just about anything else you can imagine. I know I have gone on endlessly about the rubbish, but it is what we see and although we have seen amazing things, in the most beautiful places, I can’t pretend that we don’t see the rubbish!

Once we arrived at the bus station in Sofia we caught a taxi to our hotel for the next three nights. We had a nice room, on the 4th floor with a door opening onto a small balcony. It was a 20 minute walk into the city centre, so we headed out for a walk to sort out the ‘lay of the land’ – it was very easy to get around. We had buses, taxis and trams at the end of the road, but as it turned out we actually walked everywhere.

Our first afternoon took us to the Sofia Cathedral. Because it was Saturday it was busy in and around the Cathedral, so we decided to visit again another day. Instead we wove in and around the ‘yellow brick road’, which is a brick road, that King Ferdinand received as a wedding present back in 1893 and the road were finally paved in 1907 – travels east / west. It has a lot of the ‘must see’ things and it is yellow for an easy point of reference for visitors to the city and was intended to transform Sofia into a fashionable city, up there with the best in Europe. Two world wars, a communist regime and a century later Sofia is fast becoming a must visit destination.

We came across a protest at the Tzar Liberator monument [it is to honour the Russian Emperor who freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Rule and it is made from granite]. There was approximately 300 or so people and nearly as many Police [slight exaggeration with the Police numbers!]. It was seemingly peaceful, although there was a few people being arrested. I did notice that they didn’t resist being arrested but then I suppose with the Police are fully armed you might think twice about pissing them off!! This is the second time we have come across a protest here in Bulgaria and the second time that we have had no idea what was happening. I tried to Google the protests but never actually found anything out – even our walking tour guide had no clue!

As we carried on along the yellow brick road we came across St Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox Church. We popped our head inside for a look and found ourselves at a baptism. The family themselves had a roped of section, but there were a few dozen onlookers [tourists!!] watching. The baby (approx 7/8 months old) was not to impressed with the proceedings [she had just had her warm bath!] and she screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed! The acoustic’s of the Cathedral were pretty impressive – I think maybe she scared herself with the noise [or maybe she didn’t like the sound of her own voice!]. Once she was dressed in her finery she did settle down, so I stood for a while and observed the happiness of the family while their priest gave blessings. You didn’t really need to know what they were saying to know that, that wee girl was being promised love, faith and protection.

The next day we joined the free walking tour of Sofia. These free [they are not really free … although some people don’t make a donation, so for them it is free!] tours are such a great way to get an insight in the local area. We have done a few of these now in different cities and it is a great way to learn about the memorials and buildings, and glean the local facts. Mostly we have had students taking us on these and they are usually pretty passionate about the places the live.

As we were heading to start our walking tour, I tripped on the uneven footpath and did a spectacular roly-poly and ended up lying on my back on the main street!! I had my left hand in my pocket so landed very heavily on my left elbow/upper arm/shoulder, stubbed my left toe, bruised my left ankle and bruised my right thumb/wrist (as if I don’t have enough trouble with them [my thumbs!]). Looking for that silver lining – I didn’t bust my watch or my phone!! Anyway a few tears and a harden up pill later, we carried on to meet the walking tour group! Keep on keeping on … stoic till the end!!

Sofia has some incredible history and it was interesting to note that in the time of the Roman Empire the east /west road was in the same place then as it is now, although it [the original Roman road] was only uncovered in 2012 when they were building one of the city metro stations. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians were delirious when they uncovered the Roman city buried beneath the existing one.

The ruins are quite incredible and as we walked on a part of the original road which they kept and is used to connect the east and west side of the station [below current ground level] the current yellow brick road above ground is in virtually in the same place. It was one of the most fascinating things to be walking above ground in a seemingly modern city and then head down to the Metro and be walking on the original road from the Roman Period. There are several places where the ruins have been uncovered and they have designed the metro station to incorporated them and it is all free! These ruins are of course linked to the other famous sites in Europe – think the Parthenon, Collesium.

Continuing on our walk along the yellow brick road past, the communist buildings that were built in the 1950’s – huge beautiful buildings for those in parliament, while they built stark, bleak buildings for the people!! Several young people [our tour guides] we talked to in Bulgaria just can’t even imagine how their parents/grandparents lived without all the conveniences of a modern world (our lovely Veliko Turnovo guide had told us that her grandparents had never left Bulgaria, and were amazed when she travelled to the USA for a year during her University studies). Even her parents hadn’t really travelled. Coming from a country where most people travel, it is hard to believe that you had Europe on your doorstep and yet you had never even seen it!

We walked past the National Art Gallery and through the beautiful Battenberg Square, which is where the National Theatre Building was – such a beautiful building and one of the buildings that we had seen [as a scale model] at Mini Bulgaria, along with the Cathedral which was where our walking tour concluded.

We then took our time to walk back along the yellow brick road and saw some more of the Roman remains, visited the market place and then had some lunch and resorted to our favourite pastime – people watching. It is fascinating doing this in another country – you can only imagine what they are saying but with the ‘shouty’ voices and oratorical gestures, it somehow doesn’t come across as friendly!

As we walked back to our hotel, we window shopped – Bulgaria has lovely shops and shopping in not too badly priced. There is so, so many bag and shoe shops, that I sorta wished we were a bit closer to heading home, then I may have filled my suitcase with them! Although I think one of the reasons I don’t venture into too many shops is because more often than not the shop keepers are lingering in their doorways smoking or two of them are stood out the front between two shops smoking.

The smoking is unbelievable – everyone smokes … young, old, men, women, the Police and even the army was smoking while they were ‘at ease’, and smoking inside cafes is just the norm! It is so ingrained in the culture and it is sooooooo cheap, that just everyone is smoking. The cigarette butts form an almost litter like carpet – I didn’t notice this when we were travelling in the 80’s but maybe that is because I was wearing ‘rose coloured glasses’. Anyway back to the shopping! I bought two new tops and it is just so nice to have something new, albeit only tops (look out for these new tops in my photos – I am sure that I will wear them heaps!). I may have purchased something for ‘the baby’ too!

We had dinner in a traditional Bulgarian restaurant that had dinner and music, but we missed the music!! I passed on the braised ‘sinews’ and had an amazing pork dish with mushroom sauce. Anyway my arm was throbbing (actually I was sore all over!!!!), so it was back to the hotel for a cocktail of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

The next day we had decided to go on the [free – not really free!] graffiti tour. Another walk around the city, but not on the yellow brick road. The young girl who took us around was incredibly knowledgeable and we are much more enlightened about graffiti as an art than we ever were before. The history of cave drawings conveying messages, to today where pictures on buildings convey messages is so similar, although today graffiti is a variety of many other messages and art. From ‘taggers’ [messy ‘litter’ graffiti] to ‘Kings’ [professional artists] there is a hierarchy and mostly a respect for ‘Kings’. In Bulgaria as they left the ‘regime’ graffiti became a ‘voice’ for young people who were ready to welcome change. A totally fascinating tour, with some incredible graffiti to be seen. It was nice not to be in the busy streets – unless a piece of ‘art’ is commissioned the graffiti is usually off the beaten track as the artists [even emerging ones ie: taggers!] need a bit of time to complete their work!

So that was a snapshot of Sofia – it is a lovely city, feels safe and has the most beautiful pedestrian walkway lined with trees covered in new lime green spring leaves, with tulips and springs flowers popping up everywhere, lovely restaurants, cafe and shops and the hills covered in snow in the near distance. Just so picturesque and so very European. It won’t be long before this is a city that you have to see when in Europe – you will include Sofia in your places to visit as easily as you do Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, Berlin or Athens.

So that is us from Bulgaria … our adventure then took us to Dubai, will tell you about that next time!

“Life is a journey … make the most of it”

Veliko Tărnovo comes to an end….

Outside our apartment they have been redoing the cobbled road and it has been a constant source of entertainment for Colin. He quite can’t believe how long it is taking or understand the methodology…reminds me of the long drawn out garden renovation he watched in the neighbours garden! The streets are being redone to give them the aged look, and it is apparently funded by the EU. They [the old cobbles] were all pulled up when they updated the water mains throughout Varusha area. The dust from the works has just been a pain in the neck, so as much as rainy days are also a pain in the neck, it has been quite good to dampen things down a bit … always a silver lining if you look for one!

We visited Tsarevets, which was the main fortress of medieval Bulgaria in a time gone by. It was the home to sovereigns, churches and nobility. It is hilly outcrop, in the shape of basically a triangle and the river ribbons past it on two sides. The walls, gates and towers have all been partially restored. During the Byzantine Era, it was one of the most popular cities in Europe. There is a a Cathedral at the top [Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God!] which was reconstructed in the 1980’s [having been destroyed during the Ottoman rule] and it [the church] was never consecrated, as Bulgaria was under Communist Rule. The paintings inside are of a gothic nature with dark and ominous tones. Apparently during the communist time, this Cathedral was not of the approved faith. Nowadays the church is just a place to visit, a bit like an art gallery.

Walking around the fortress of Tsarevets and climbing up the lookout towers, visiting the ‘rock of executions’ and seeing the ruins of all the dwellings and buildings, as well as the church itself you can’t help but be impressed by this ancient ‘gated community’. It overlooks the modern [Renaissance] town, Trapezista Hill [which also was a fortified medieval town], across to Varusha and down to the river. I loved visiting here and am so looking forward to the lighting ceremony that is to take place while we are here.

Arbanassi is only 4km away [from Veliko Turnovo (VT)] and easily accessible by the local bus. Over there you can find more monasteries and churches, but the most famous of all is Christ’s Nativity Church with its original paintings. Now a UNESCO site, it attracts thousands of pilgrims every year who come to view the paintings from the 15th century and just ‘be’ at a holy site. It has an amazing painting called ‘the vanity of life’ which is zodiac signs which are from the ‘false world’. I found this a bit fascinating. We also walked to St Nikola Monastery but it was closed. There were fantastic views back down the valley to VT, and all the way to the snow on the mountains in the distance. After a bit of a walk around town and a chat with a local we decided to have lunch before catching our bus. We specifically asked if they could do lunch within the 40 minutes we had (the bus is every two hours!) … but with only five minutes to go we had to hurry them along with take out!

We have spent several days just walking around VT city – up hill and down hill. The streets in the touristy areas are all very clean, swept and welcoming but once you get into the area with less foot traffic it becomes quite incredible – the footpaths and lanes are very unkempt, there is rubbish everywhere, it is very slippery underfoot from all the silt left from the construction, the stairs are uneven and there is cat and dog poo everywhere. If you just visited for a few days you would only see the best bits – like with any tourist destination in the world. There are so many ‘street dogs and cats here, I just find it distressing!

We decided one day to catch a bus to Gabrovo (about 30kms). This small town was once an industrial revolution town, now it is forging itself to being a tourist town. There are more statues here than anywhere else we have been and a number of them are along the Yantra River which makes for an interesting walk, although not being able to read Bulgarian, leaves you a bit clueless!! We have seen a lot of churches and museums so were just happy to wander about until we saw the ‘humour museum’. It was local satire but with great translations into English. Three floors of humour, art and street costumes made for a different kind of outing for us.

When we visited Tsarevets, we could see below some sort of miniature world, so we waited for a reasonable day and headed on down to visit. We were the only ones there!! You would have thought the staff would have been keen to welcome us but they really couldn’t have cared less!! 10Lev each (= $NZ10 approx) to enter and we felt truly welcomed … yeah right! I think some ‘Disney’ training here might help! Anyway, the park is 40 of Bulgaria’s most important buildings/places built to a 1:25 scale. The models themselves were pretty impressive, but it is the small things ie: some of the models needed a bit of a clean, the weeds removed and the half-full ponds that are a bit green and slimy, complete with a floating dead frog need a bit of TLC!

We waited for 1hr for the bus back to town completely unaware that a lot of the roads were closed because it was National Day of Bulgaria the next day. So we walked back to town! We noticed a lot of Police and Army about but couldn’t really work out what was happening. We did ask a few ‘locals’ but were none the wiser!! And of course with no WiFi at hand, it makes doing research a bit of a challenge!

We had planned to visit Trapezista the next morning but when we walked down the hill into town we discovered that all the roads were closed and there were twice as many Police as the day before. We did ask a Policeman what was happening and he told us a parade was happening, so we ask when and he said “now”. We decided the only thing to do was visit the Information centre and ask them. A short walk later and we discovered that it was a parade for Government Officials, bands and celebrations. They told us that it would start at 11.30. So we were close to the Mother Bulgaria monument and could see some people in uniform up there, so we found ourselves a great spot and watched the happenings. 30 minutes later we were moved on as the bomb squad had arrived!!!!

We made our way to the next spot that we thought looked okay, and had other people hanging around, only to be moved again about 20 minutes later. We found another spot – third time lucky and it was a short time later that the Prime Minister and a whole lot of Government Officials walked by before the speeches and wreathes were laid at Mother Bulgaria. We couldn’t really understand what was being said so we walked back up the hill for lunch and could hear all the singing and bands from our balcony.

Finally after lunch we visited Trapezitsa. It is the second fortress of the old capital Tărnovo. We decided to walk [as the roads were still closed] from where we are staying …. down hill, down the path that no-one else seems to use and then across our favourite train bridge! Along the rail tracks to the station where you could catch the funicular up the hill. Only trouble was that the funicular wasn’t available that day! So we took the eco-trail around the hill to the far entrance and then walked up the hill to the top! I tell you I should be as skinny as homeless cat by now! I am not! We visited the small museum they have at the top and saw relics [pottery, tools, buckles etc] from a time gone by. We had great views back up the valley to Arbanassi, of Tsarevets and along the river.

We explored the ruins of 18 small churches [some of which had parts of the original (13th century) paintings on the walls], residential buildings and of course the fortress walls. They have restored the lookout tower which gives great views back across the river to Tsarevets. A lot of the artefacts which had been uncovered, are now on display at the museum, which we did try to visit but we never seemed to be going past when it was actually open!

We knew that there was to be a sound and light show on Tsarevets in the evening, and of course now knew why. We walked back ‘home’ clockwise to complete a whole circle. So after going down the hill, along the river a bit and then back up the hill (did I tell you it was hilly here!!) only to come to a road block where the bomb squad were doing there thing again, before the Government Officials came to watch the show in the evening. 20-30 mins they told us … an hour later, we were finally on our way back up the hill to the pub for a cold beer and some free WiFi!! We had a quick trip up the hill, made ourselves a simple dinner and then headed back on down the hill for the sound and light show. I have to say, it was pretty incredible. It is meant to depict the tumultuous history and liberation of Bulgaria. I think with the fireworks, the church bells tolling and music to symbolise the descent and ascent of the nation it was pretty amazing. Once it was finished we headed back up the hill ‘home’ – we slept very well that night!

So we have pretty much exhausted all there is to do here in VT! We haven’t had a TV, so have read an awful lot! Colin has probably read about 15 books!! Fortunately for him our home owner had a great collect of Lee Childs and John Grisham. I have tried to write my blog where I can and I too have read quite a few books, and believe it or not let Colin beat me at more games of scrabble than I am happy about!

We had two days to go, so we decided to do a walk in the hills behind us (glutens for punishment), a stroll along the famous Gurko Street where the houses are impossibly stacked upon each other and then reflected in the river below and finally found ‘The Book Cave’ where we picked up a couple of books for our next flight. We also visited the art gallery, which didn’t inspire me in the least!!

So I am finishing this from Sophia (the Capital) where we have 3 nights before our flight to Dubai. We found another incredibly cheap (repositioning) cruise, which will take us back to Barcelona, via the Suez Canal, a port stop in Malta and a port stop in Athens. It is 14 days, so we will be off line again, except for any WiFi hotspots along the way.

Will stay in touch as we can.

“Live life by a compass … not a clock”

Zdrasti! Hi from Varusha, Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria!

We have been here 14 days already, past half way! The weather has been a complete mixed bag … one day it is lovely and warm – shorts weather, then it is cold and back to scarf, jacket, then it is cloudy and hazy but not cold or it is like it is today …. cold, foggy and a bit wet. Four seasons, typical spring weather!

So after a very sad start to this assignment, we quickly got into the swing of things with Zsa Zsa and Thomas, although we don’t get up at 5am for them – 7am is the earliest I am ever getting up to feed a cat! We give them tons of love and affection, but not at 5am. They have adjusted well and are pretty friendly, up for lots of love, so you could say all is well in Veliko Tărnovo with our furry friends.

Day 1, travel/arrive [3hr bus trip from the capital Sophia]. Day 2, Trip to vet, you know the rest! Day 3, out and about to explore. As we are situated up the hill (in the middle of a natural amphitheater, with one row of housing behind us) we have a reasonable view of the city below, and the Assen Monument, although cannot really see the river. The Yantra river [which is actually a tributary of the Danube] snakes backwards and forwards through the valleys, with multiple hills reaching up in every direction. Trapezista, Tsarevets and Sveta Gora ‘hills’ have been populated for centuries possibly dating back to 2nd century, and dominate the landscape with their medieval fortifications and the Sveta Gora with the now Veliko Turnovo University.

I had understood that there was a walk by the river, so we headed down the hill towards town took a left, and then headed down the hill some more to the river. Only it took about two km’s of heading left before we found a track down to the river. Clearly we were in the wrong place but we figured we would just go with the flow (pardon the pun!). We came to a bridge and found a couple of people fishing – they didn’t really speak any English, but enough to say that there was no path!! This clearly a dumping ground and all manor of rubbish could be found [even furry friends], together with tons of graffiti. Anyway, we decided that we would cross the bridge and find our way back on the other side, no point walking the same path if you don’t have too, right! So we doubled back to the river and followed ‘a’ path which we [now] think was made by wild animals – not humans!

We carried on along this trail until we were overcome by a smell (clearly something dead) and then saw some ‘leaching’ from beyond the road above us down the bank into the river. It made the ground spongey and the smell was putrid and overwhelming. We couldn’t go over it, we couldn’t get around it on the river side (so reminds me of the book ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ …), so we made our way back up to the highway and walked along as the cars sped by. We know now, that we were actually walking on the main highway!! A few people did actually toot at us!! We carried on along here until we found a train track and some sort of walkway that ran parallel for the most part! We followed this back into the city, across a bridge and then up a very unkempt path to the old city market street, still a couple of km’s from ‘home’!

This path, actually our whole walk was littered with rubbish! We have now seen rubbish in every country we have been to and I am gobsmacked that we ‘humans’ seem to just ignore it! Yet we are quick to say how dirty and awful third world countries are!! Our first world countries are just as bad and we need to collectively clean up the world we live in. I was always picking up rubbish at home when I was out walking our Pepper, so it happens at home as well. I challenge you all to pick up a piece of rubbish today!!

The next day we decided just to have a wander around [in the city and on the streets] and get our bearings. We are staying in Varusha, which translates to ‘the old city’ and was established circa 1850’s. We can see across the river to the ruins of Trapezista, and the church and ruins on Tsarevets Hill. The hills are not mountainous, but feel like it when you are walking up and down them. The trees are exploding with colour, bright green leaves unfurling from buds being warmed in the sun [when it’s out!], pink and white blossom trees scattered throughout and covered in bees, which hum as you pass by. There is a scent of spring in the air and every day it looks greener and greener. The trees providing a softness, to the harshness of the communist style buildings in the newer (circa 1950’s) part of town.

We have visited the monument of the Assens [located on a rocky peak above one of the bends in the river] which is dedicated to celebrate 800 years since the Assen brothers rebellion. It has four [each weighing 11 tons] bronzed horsemen representing the three brothers who liberated Bulgaria from the Byzantine slavery and one heir. It has a sword in the middle and it is inverted so as not to look like a cross. It is quite an incredible memorial and it has a fantastic view back to Varusha [where we are staying] and the river.

We walked past the most horrendous hotel that was maybe built in the 1970’s and is a blot on the landscape – it needs to be pulled down. I can’t even imagine staying there, it just looks depressing. They either need to pull it down or paint it … maybe ask the graffiti artists in town to ‘tart it up’. Anything would be better than its current state! A fictional icon of the Cold War era – something grim and bleak. Brutalist style architecture.

We learnt the brutal architecture actually comes from a French Word and mean buildings built with with a monolithic appearance and with little or no adornments. I don’t think that this building is going to become a ‘architectural icon’ but then what would I know! Most of those type of monolithic buildings are now adorned with satellite dishes and air-con units, which just add to the ugliness.

A few days later we did the walking tour with a local law student. She has studied history as part of her studies – she was knowledgeable and passionate about Turnovo. We learnt an interesting thing about the Assen monument, something that we never knew before and I really can’t explain why we didn’t know!?!? If the horse is rearing up with two legs in the air – then the rider died in battle, if one leg is raised – then the rider was injured in battle or died of battle wounds and if all four legs are on the ground the the rider did not die in battle. Well, there you have it, although here in Bulgaria they have a different interpretation! You learn something new every day. I can’t believe that with all the monuments we have seen (and not just on this trip) that we didn’t know the history behind this very important detail.

Our walking tour started at the Mother Bulgaria monument. Here our lovely guide [Plumia] gave us a brief history of Bulgarian wars. This monument is dedicated to those who lost here lives in four wars: 1. Russian/Turkish, 2. Serbian/Bulgarian, 3. Balkan and 4. WWI. It has an eternal flame symbolising the lives lost. Plumia told us about Bulgaria’s role in WWI & WWII.

As there was only Colin and I on the tour, we had an in-depth tour and had the opportunity to ask lots of questions. We walked past the Monument of the Hanged, which is in a pyramid style, with the names of revolutionaries which were hanged during the Turkish rule, the sky bridge which gives fabulous views back to the Assen Monument and to the river and past the house with the Monkey! We keep hearing about the house with the monkey, so need to find out more about it and visit it!!

We then headed through Varusha [‘old town’]. It was here that we discovered that it wasn’t Veliko we were staying in [we have been saying that for months!!] but Turnovo! Veliko means ‘great’ and because there was another Turnovo [a smaller place, somewhere south] it became known as ‘Veliko Turnovo’ because it was the capital. Q. How come people refer to it as Veliko? A. It is mostly referred to as Veliko by Expats or tourists!! We very quickly picked up that we don’t want to be UK expats here [even though Colin in technically one, and I am moonlighting as one!]. We are very quick to say we are from New Zealand and have taken to saying ‘Kia Ora’!! That usually garners a much friendlier welcome and some conversation! Nearly every Bulgarian we have met knows where New Zealand is.

As we explored with our guide, she told us about how Bulgaria became a Capitalist state in 1990, a fall from Communism. There are a lot of buildings from that era and they are god-awful-ugly. The old buildings built more than a century ago are clinging to the hills, haphazardly piled on top of one another and seemingly falling to pieces but with a romantic charm and mirrored in the river below. The streets here are cobbled (as they are in Varusha, where we are) and are ankle breakers! You really need to be watching you feet the whole time – 1. So you don’t trip and 2. So you don’t walk in dog poo!

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister [Boiko Borisov] is a former body guard with a black belt in karate and was also a nightclub bouncer. He was voted out because of corruption and his costs of living but was seemingly voted back in because no one else wanted the job. He has been a police officer, fire fighter specialising in fire safety and equipment, been the oldest professional football player [in Bulgaria, aged 54] has a doctoral degree in Psychological and Physical Training of Operatives, and has lectured at the Police College (some research from Google!!). He sounds like an all round nice guy and by all accounts seems to be doing okay for the country. Useless information, but next time you are at a Trivia night and they ask what the Bulgarian Prime Minister did in a former life … you have the answer 🙂

So that’s it for now, I will tell you about our trip to Arbanassi and Tsarevets next time.

“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect”

From Meteora, Greece … to Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria!

Our trip to Meteora was fabulous, although the weather was a bit disappointing. We caught a metro train to the Athens main rail station and then the train up to Meteora – five hour journey [+ the metro line ride and transfers]. Because the weather was inclement, we didn’t have the spectacular views which made the 5 hour trip just a little tedious.

When we arrived we were collected by the tour company [unless you have a car, it is the only way to get around the monasteries] and spent 3.5 hours with them, in and around Meteora. The area is just incredible and to look up and see these buildings perched high in the mountains clinging perilously to the top of a rock shrouded in mist was just a little bit surreal.

The monasteries have been up high for centuries, a great protection plan to keep out the riff-raff. As our guide took us around our first two monasteries, we were given the history of the area, the monasteries – the then and now. Five hundred years ago monks, were called hermits and lived in caves high in the mountains. Then one had this amazing idea to build a house on top of a rock, close to god! He shared it with other monks and so boulder by boulder, hauled up the face of [500-600 metre] pillars of rock, not once thinking that it was impossible, but rather with the divine belief that they would succeed. “That their faith and belief would bring them closer to God and that upon their ‘rocks’ that would seperate themselves from the world and stop at nothing to witness the ‘Divine Light’ and experience God in their hearts”!!

There used to be 24 monasteries, but today only 6 remain. They were lost to earthquakes, invasions and bombed during the war. Our guide was great with his history, although he wasn’t allowed in the monasteries with us. The first one we visited was called Holy Monastery of Saint Nikolas. We parked at the bottom!!!!!!! and walked up, needing a couple of rest stops along the way. Once you get to nearly the top, then you take the stairs that wind around the outside of the building!! It was an OMG moment for me! Not really any handrails and a very long way down, I hugged the wall and made it up the further three stories to the entrance. We only had access to a small area [as this is a ‘live’ monastery] and so saw the prayer room, a monks room, the gift shop!! and then through and another set of stairs to the outside!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!! It was just all a bit freaky – windy and misty, and yet a bit magical. Colin got far too close the edge for me, went out on the little balconies, that are clinging perilously to the building [which are clinging perilously to the rocks – I know I said that before, but I want to impress upon you that it is extraordinary!!].

Our next stop was the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephan. This one is the easiest one to visit as you just walk down a small path and then over a two bridges, with drops that are eye-watering! This one had a small museum with artefacts dating back hundreds of years. Some of the paintings in the chapel were at least 500 years old. No photography allowed, but I think Colin may have sneaked one in!!

Our tour guide dropped us to our hotel for the night and said that due to the weather it was unlikely that we could do the 4hr hike the next day. It was only 9km, but up high and on paths that would be narrow and slippery. So we opted to visited another few monasteries. We were dropped at a reasonable hotel which included breakfast and had gorgeous views of these buildings perched atop the pillars, shrouded in mist. After a walk about the small town [and dinner] we retreated for an early night, as we had a very long day ahead.

We were picked up after breakfast and were told that due to the weather and safety, that we would only be visiting one Monastery that was different from yesterday and that we would pick up two other passengers and revisit the two we had already been to! Bugger, but you can’t control the weather. So off we headed and choose to stay in the van for the first one as we had already been, and the weather was cold and wet, and because every other tour group was there [because the other three were closed!].

The next one we visited was called Rousanou and was nunnery monastery! I didn’t know that nuns lived in them! Anyway you could tell it was run by women … it just had the ‘homely’ feel to it, lovely gardens and attention to detail. I found it a bit funny that they all looked miserable! Perhaps the weather meant they couldn’t get their washing dry!! Actually I think that they were over the hundreds of tourists [and their umbrellas] and perhaps wish that their home wasn’t open to the public!!

Then we visited one from the previous day, and just walked up to stretch our legs and go to the loo! One of those ‘starting block’ types, which is the first one we have come across on this trip. Anyway I had a bit of a giggle that I had walked along way up the hill, only for it all to run back down again!! Too much information I know!! 😂

The monasteries themselves have had renovations undertaken over the years as they are now part of UNESCO. They guide told us that they have an average of 20,000 visitors per day in May-August. I am so glad we went here in March, it would have been unbearable on all the little stair cases and balconies when it was busy!!

So our tour finished at 1pm and the train wasn’t until 5.30pm. This is to give you time to have lunch, do some shopping visit the museum or church or the multi-media display. We had time to do everything!! Meteora is not very big and a lot of the shops were still closed, but as it was cold [and wet] we spent the last hour in the travel office so I could get the blog done – I almost get withdrawal if I don’t use up all my words!!

Anyway that done, it was down to the train station for the trip back to Athens … nearly 6 hours of pretty much blackness. Unfortunately we had a long delay as there was an incident somewhere [Louise, it reminded me of our delay home from Carlisle but without such great company x]. That meant getting back into Athens, past the last train to the airport. Such is life and these travel adventures. We walked to the Metro, caught the line back to the city and then caught the bus to the airport (which took about another hour). Then we camped out in the airport until our 6.30am checkin. Hardly anything was open, lots of people about doing a similar thing BUT there was construction happening and jack-hammers for most of the night!! After a very long day and a sleepless night we finally checked in for our flight to Sophia, which is the capital of Bulgaria.

The flight was pretty quick, only a couple of hours and after finally clearing customs with a humourless, unhappy man [we were told to think Cold War welcome, and it is a bit like any Cold War movie you have seen!] We quickly picked up a taxi to the bus station for our 3 hour trip to Veliko Tărnovo where we were to start our next Mr & Mrs Smith ‘assignment’. Lucky for some the bus had free WiFi, but unluckily for us our phones were pretty much flat after 30hrs of travel. Just enough ‘juice’ to send our home owner a messenger to say we were on our way, and to send message home to say we had arrived in Bulgaria.

The trip across to Veliko Tărnovo was pretty scenic – snow on the mountains, lovely green fields … spring busting forth everywhere. The bus was pretty full and we had seats in the back row [no snogging though as we had to share it with the locals!]. We were both exhausted and kept nodding off, but not really sleeping! Pretty much exactly 3 hours later we pulled into the bus station and met Alan who was our home owner (HO). We caught a cab to his place and our culture shock began!

From when we hopped out of the taxi (which takes ups 1/2 way up the hill to the left side – think a small amphitheater), to when we looked of the little balcony all we saw was road construction going on everywhere, no sort of logical order, just everywhere! The streets are being re-cobbled to keep its ancient medieval look. Houses were old, some old but renovated, ancient, some in ruins and people lived in them all. We walked probably 1/2 km (towards the middle of our amphitheater) pretty much carrying our bags through all the rock piles and construction – I am so glad that I have shed 3kg from my suitcase, because I felt sorry for Colin carrying it! His one only weighed 17 kg – he has been travelling light the whole way!! The place which is just off our balcony has that many tarpaulins on its roof, all held in place by rocks or roof tiles slap hazardly holding it all on and every night [it is down to 1 or 2 degrees overnight!!] the chimney puffs up a slow but steady stream of smoke. The power pole in front of us has the street light and power cables stretching up and along the street like some sort of mad hair do and some sort of power boxes. We are at nearly the top of the hill and mostly where cars don’t roam! It is a short walk to the bottom and a long way back to nearly the top. If nothing else our gluteus maximus’s are going to be very toned.

Now Alan and I have been liaising for a few months about this sit – he told me specifically “to keep and open mind”, so that is what we are doing. He is a UK expat living here, along with many others in what they all call Veliko, but more on that later. When we arrived at Alans apartment, we were really pleased to find that it was seemingly quite modern and no tarps of the roof – actually we are on the first floor of two.

We put all our luggage down and relished the thought of the cold beer being poured. Being a small apartment is wasn’t long before we met our three cats – Buster, Zsa Zsa and Thomas. I immediately felt that Buster wasn’t well, but Alan was sure it was stress for all his cleaning/packing over the previous few days. After a couple of hours chatting to him and keeping a watching brief on Buster, I asked him about ‘what if’? His cats are his joy and I needed to know if we were pulling out all stops if something happened. We discovered Buster was probably about 20 years. After a bit more of a chat we agreed that he would visit again in the morning and reassess. We kept a watching brief on him and became more worried as the night went on. He didn’t eat his dinner and again in the morning he didn’t have breakfast, he had in fact barely moved. I took a quick video and decided to send it to Laura in NZ and asked for help from afar, only trouble being that we then discovered we had no WiFi!!

OMG, if I had known that no WiFi was available here, then I probably wouldn’t have applied. So we have no landline, no mobile, no TV and no WiFi and are in a super foreign country with the closet transport probably 1 km down the hill (at least doing down is fast!). We are reliant on WiFi for keeping in touch with all our home owners, family and friends, for making all future travel plans and doing my blog! Horrors of all horrors! Anyway not much we can do about it now, we have made this commitment, invested our time and money into getting here, so it will be up and down the hill to connect to the world. So far it has been a bit hit and miss, some of the cafes/bars have poor connections, so trying to upload any photos takes an age. We had planned to use this three weeks to doing some serious planning as we come towards the end of our adventure!

Anyway, back to Buster! As we couldn’t communicate with Alan we had prearranged that he would visit us in the morning. As we waited for him, I became increasingly worried and when he arrived it was agreed we would go to the vet together. He and I trundled down the hill to catch a taxi and as we arrived at the vet Buster had a heart attack (most probably from the trip!!). So there we are, Alan and I, as Buster takes his last breathe. Alan is very upset, the vet is saying up condolences and I have my arm around Alan trying to utter something comforting while tears are slowly falling as I remember losing our Pepper – the symptoms were the same. The vet calls us a taxi and we head back to the apartment, with Buster, whom Alan wished to bury. After we hop out of the taxi, carried him [Buster] along through the construction to the apartment and let Colin know the happenings, we waited for Alan’s friend to arrive so we could all give Buster a wee funeral. We walked to the end of our little road (opposite side from the taxi drop-off) and up the hill and around the corner a bit to find a suitable place for a wee grave. Colin helped dig and then we laid Buster to rest 😢. R.I.P Buster 💖

So with the WiFi slowing me down, I will do a blog as I can! We have been here a week already, so have plenty to share, will share with you as we can!

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all”

Athens: An experience of a lifetime!

How to describe Athens when your senses are ‘assaulted’ from the minute you arrive!! The madness of the traffic – cars, buses, motorbikes, taxis, trams and trains. You buy a bus ticket and they remind you that pick-pockets are the plague of the Metro and any busy area. Immediately you are on edge, paranoid and hoping you won’t stand out in a crowd – well that wasn’t happening with all our luggage!! Apparently the Athens Metro is one of the worst places in the world to be pick-pocketed! So we were hyper vigilant and ignored everyone!

We finally made it to our destination of Acropolis station and then had to find our hotel. After asking the Police when we came out of the station, we headed of in generally the right direction. We must have been looking lost as a lovely Irish couple stopped and googled the hotel and gave us our next instructions, and then we asked a local who gave us our final destination. Now if we had only followed the first set of instructions, we would have arrived there [the hotel] a bit quicker! Anyway, the lovely local lady [Danai] said how sad she was to hear about what happened in Christchurch (actually everyone we meet who knows we are from New Zealand, offer their sympathies for the terrorism that happened, and can’t believe that it happened in NZ!!), and after chatting for a few minutes she explained that she was a survivor of the bombing in Brussels a couple of years ago.

So finally we make it to our hotel and are completely trashed after travelling all day! It’s hard work this travel business!! I would just like to point out that we had all the instructions to get where we needed to be, but once it gets dark it makes it doubly difficult to get around and as we don’t have a local SIM or any data, we have to travel on a wing and prayer – a bit like the old days!!

We have had 5 nights in Athens and we are exhausted! We have walked approx 15,000 steps every day [and that is taking the hop on / hop of bus]! I am not sure where to start trying to describe this city with its history and being a melting pot of people and cultures. Nearly 5 million people live in Athens – basically the population of New Zealand! The hotel we stayed in was very central, so after a leisurely breakfast we grabbed a map and headed out into the beautiful sunny day. We decided to get the hop on / hop off bus, as the city is just so big and there are so many sights to see. This proved to be invaluable and we certainly got our money’s worth from this and would definitely recommend it. We did the loop of the city [loop 1] to get our bearings.

We got off and walked past Parliament Buildings and saw the changing of the guards and the monument of the unknown solider. What a long drawn out process of leg swinging, foot scraping, gun banging on the ground, slow marching and then standing to attention while the supervisor comes and straightens the uniforms, tassels and checks their feet are together, the hats are on straight, and most importantly stops all of ‘us’ from getting to close!!

We discovered that it was to be Greece’s National Independence Day so there was thousands of people in town for the celebrations. We read that the parade on the 26th of March (my Dad’s birthday 🙂 ) would be a full on military parade, but the day before (25th) would be for schools, bands practicing and cultural groups. After walking around the streets of Plaka, seeing all the markets we headed to the Syntagma Square to find a spot to see the parade.

We were actually in the wrong place, but we did find ourselves in the middle of a protest! We had no idea what was going on, but when the riot team turned up I decided that I would get some photos!!! I was trying to be inconspicuous, hiding behind a man selling helium balloons. Only trouble was I had to try and keep up with him and everytime the wind blew I was exposed. About a dozen or so riot guys quietly just walked them [the protestors] out of the square while the protestors [3 older Greek men] made enough noise for 10.

Anyway we found the parade route and spent the next hour watching everyone marching to celebrate. From the school groups, sports groups, bands, the special olympians and cultural groups it was a pretty colourful affair. A great prelude for the events the next day. From here we got back on our hop on / hop off bus and took the second loop (of three) out to the port.

Athens is not a pretty city! The buildings are either occupied and covered in graffiti or derelict and covered in graffiti, or just empty and covered in graffiti!! Anything that doesn’t move is covered in graffiti – well that’s not quite true, the trains are also covered in graffiti – they actually look like something out of a sci-fi film. Graffiti is actually a word derived from Greek and legend has it that graffiti has been part of Athens, for as long as Athens has been a city. There hasn’t been much rubbish in and around the city, in fact as far as big cities go, the lack of rubbish here may have been the best of any city so far!! I think though that this is where we have been hassled by ‘hawkers ‘ and beggars the most.

Some of the graffiti is amazing and the rest is just an awful mess!! We have seen a few streets that have lovely houses, but again the graffiti.

Finally Independence Day arrived and we headed out into the throngs of people. The parade start was not to far from our hotel, and actually just a few hundred metres away was where the military armament was all lined up ready to go. We had a look at the tanks, surface to air missile carriers, personnel carriers etc, etc, then found a great place to watch the parade. We waited for over an hour for it to start and once is got going everyone was waving flags, clapping and cheering.

When the huge tanks were passing by, the ground shook as their big diesel engines thundered and vibrated which everyone felt. After the military vehicles, there were fire engines, police and then the bands started. This was when the many guards lost control of the crowd. It took one person to decide they were going to sit a bit closer [past the ropes and guards] and a ground swell of people all followed. People all around us were yelling, the guards were yelling and the bands were marching!! In the end it was total chaos and we couldn’t see a thing!! Bugger!! Oh and I forgot to mention that there was fighter jets and helicopters doing flyovers – very cool.

We then decided to head to the Acropolis Museum. What an incredible building housing just some of the precious artefacts and statues and of course with amazing views up to Acropolis itself. Just one small problem here! Because it was National Independence Day it [the museum] was free! So we, along with thousands of others, wove our way through the museum trying to see as much as we could.

The floors, in places, are glass, so when you look below you can see into the past [ruins unearthed] and when you look above, you are looking into the future [with people moving through the museum] – quite a cool concept. The marble statues, the unearthed pottery and the history of another time take some time to absorb.

As it had been such an incredible day, weather wise, we decided that it would be a great day to climb Lycabettucs hill to watch the sun set. Of course hundreds of others did this as well and the sense of anticipation as this amazing glowing orange-red sun, slowly dipped below the horizon and then the Parthenon lights came on leaving everyone a little bit spell bound. Unfortunately trying to get a picture of this on my phone camera was at best mediocre, and again on this trip I found myself wishing I had a bigger and better one [camera].

We walked back to our hotel (I think it was about 4km) past the tomb on the unknown soldier where they had just finished changing the guards. I managed to get this great picture of the guard and his shadow, which almost looks like graffiti.

Our last day in Athens and we had saved the best for last! Acropolis and the Parthenon. We had a fantastic day, so jumped back on the bus and up to the top of the Acropolis we went.

It was really busy, and again I am glad we are not here in the busy season! This was more than busy enough thanks! We spent a couple of hours here just absorbing the buildings, the history, the views and managing to get a few photos with no one else in them! Everywhere you walk here it is marble and it is like walking on an ice-skating rink, as millions of people before you have worn the surface smooth. It is a bit treacherous and even my new anti-slip skechers did not save me from slipping about. I was ‘nannering’ about terrified of falling over … me thinks the marble would be pretty unforgiving!

After a leisurely lunch we got back on the bus [for loop 3] which took us along the coast, past posh houses, nice beaches (The Riveria of Athens) and to the Vouliagmeni Lake – it was a two hour trip and it was great to be out of the madness of the city for a bit. The lake is warm and brackish water – a mixture of sea water from the underground channels and water from the spring. It is meant to be very good for you, so we will have to plan a swim there next time we are in Athens!!

So that is us from Athens, there is so much to see and do here – apparently there is 60 museums! The people are friendly, the food great and we have had fantastic weather. Today we are heading to Meteora which is in the north – a five hour train journey. I will catch you up with that adventure next time.

“Gallivanting (v) the pursuit of experiences while travelling

γεια σας … ‘hello’ from Greece!

It sounds like ‘yasis’

After flying to Athens we spent two nights in Rafina. The flight arrives in at 1.30am, so it was a pretty slow start the next morning! The weather was horrendous – they even cancelled the ferries! We were recommended to visit McArthurglen which is a outlet shopping centre. There is not much happening in Rafina with the terrible weather, so we grabbed a taxi (no buses available!) and headed to the mall. OMG!! It is an outside type of mall !! Hmmmmm! They did have courtesy umbrellas! We spent a couple of hours here deciding it was just a waste of our time. It wasn’t really outlet shopping at all. It is a ‘rabbit warren’ of a place, hard to wander about in any logical order and really hard to get to!

I did however find an amazing children’s shop that had the most beautiful things, but when you look at cashmere babygrows that are €160 (NZ$300) you know you are in the wrong place for a bargain!! No baby shopping here for me! I did by chance happen upon a pair of casual shoes that will get me through the rest of our trip. And we also had lunch at a place called ‘it’s all greek’ which had amazing food and service.

We found a place on line [for Andros] that was cheap and cheerful and booked in for 5 days on the island which is the closest to the mainland. I think they were actually closed, but took our booking anyway. They were doing maintenance and everything was in a bit of a mess. Our shower was broken, everything in the kitchen was a bit hotchpotch, the WiFi was like having dial up and the rubbish out the back was well … rubbish out the back, but despite all that we had amazing views on our deck and the owner was super helpful and friendly. We were able to walk everywhere in the village, so all-in-all it was okay.

We met a New Zealand couple (Sue and Doug) who were on the island for 6 weeks ‘house sitting’. It really is a small world. We met them for lunch and shared our stories. They very kindly took us out the next day for a scenic drive around the southern end of the island. The land is pretty unfriendly for farming, and there are only a few beaches here and there. We had lunch in a very small village before continuing around the coast to Chora which is the main town. Had coffee and crepes here … just amazing. They [Sue & Doug] are heading back to NZ at the end of April. Just amazing to meet some other people who have been on the same journey as us, and from NZ!! I am sure that we will catch up with them once we get home.

We did a hike up the hill behind Batsi on a beautiful day. It was straight up! We were very under prepared for it! No hats, no sunscreen, no water and jandals!! What were we thinking!! Anyway, we soldiered on for a couple of hours and met sheep, goats and a donkey who decided he was our new friend. Actually it was a beautiful walk and we were graced with panoramic views. We could have completed the other 96km to the other side of the island but we decided 4km was enough for us 😂. The picture at the top [of this post] is the little church we found on our way back down. Note the snow on the hills – that is on the mainland.

The hills have all been terraced over many years and there are all these small stone ‘crofter’ houses dotted all over the hills. They are mainly just used as shelter for the animals now.

This donkey had broken its tether line and just seemed happy to have the company and decided he was coming with us. He just followed for a short while and then turned back. I think he must have decided that we were mad heading straight up the mountain!

No long after we left the village we walked through this lovely meadow of daises – it was just so pretty. I really should have had proper shoes on … bees, prickles, stones, rocks and poop put my feet in jeopardy! Never mind that it is warming up enough for snakes to be around!!!

Batsi village is a sleepy village. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed. We did however manage to find a hairdresser! Well Colin did actually. I was waiting for the sun to set [picture above] and he wandered up the road to get a bottle of wine … a very long time later he arrived back, having found a hairdresser!! Anyway, he told the hairdresser that he would bring me back up the next day. If you read my post from Cyprus you will know that I had a very short haircut there – I mean that was back at Christmas and I only need a haircut now. Well it turns out that ‘Joseph’ was a ladies hairdresser, so we went back up the next day for me to have a trim. After an hour of ‘talking and drinking’ he finally decided to cut my hair. Every time I said that “yip, that’s good” he would say “I’m not finished yet”. He also told me that I should not worry about any grey hair as I am married!! Only single ladies need to worry about their grey hairs 😂 Anyway I have a short haircut again, but not quite as short as the cut I had in Cyprus!

We decided to hire a car for our last day and explore the north end of the island. The roads are rugged to say the very least. We followed the ‘white line’ roads where we could, but found ourselves on this hairpin dirt road! It was on the highest part of the mountain! It did have some stunning views.

It made for a nervous trip for me, not that I don’t trust Colin but it was a long way down and in most places there were no barriers of any sort AND there were sheep and goats popping out of nowhere. When we got to the bottom of this hill, we went up through the valley on the other side which was back to a ‘white line’ road again. The photo doesn’t really show how precarious it was!! I am just very glad that we didn’t see any cars coming the other way.

So now we have made it to Mykonos (after a short ferry ride) and have three nights here. There is hardly a person to be seen. It is such a lovely place, but very ‘sleepy’ at the moment. We are staying in an AirBnB apartment which is centrally located and is very modern with views out to the setting sun. It is not very quiet at night!! Our neighbours seem to be very social and had us up very late last night, and tonight is not looking any better. Maybe we should join them!!! The other neighbours where up at the crack of dawn, so feeling a little sleep deprived this morning!

We have walked all around the old town, in around little Venice, seen so many churches and have literally had the streets to ourselves. Only a few shops and restaurants are open. There is plenty of maintenance being done, white paint is being slapped on everywhere – houses, churches, footpaths, stairs and a bit of blue and red everywhere else. I think with it not hustling and bustling, it has lost a bit of its atmosphere. Apparently the best time to visit the Greek Islands is towards the end of the season, not the beginning!

Today we decided to catch a bus to Ornos which is just over the hill. We ended up on the school bus and in a place that was closed!! Clearly they are not ready for tourists yet, although we were told today that the first cruise ship of the season has already been! We had to walk back to Mykonos [glad we didn’t go any further!], and there really isn’t any footpaths! We met a lovely young woman and her mum (who were on holiday from India) and they asked for directions. As it turned out they were heading in the wrong direction and walked back to Mykonos with us. Of course we have invited them to stay!!

So we have decided not to head down to Santorini as we understand that it is going to be just like Mykonos – not really open yet! So we will head back to Athens and do a few days trips from there. We still have a week before our Bulgaria assignment. I think it means that we will just have to come back [to Greece] and that is not a bad thing!

See you in Athens 💖

“Stop dreaming … start doing

Our time in ’Sept Fonts’ comes to an end …

And just like that it’s over and no lambs were delivered! And nothing died! ‘Sept Fonts’ is translated to ‘seven springs’, and there are two lakes fed by those springs! This one with the geese / ducks is lovely. The farmer next door decided to have a bonfire, hence the smoke coming through the trees! I was going to take another picture on a sunny day, but just keeping forgetting and then it kept raining, so this is all you are getting!

We did get the chance to visit a few more places – La Rochelle, Melle, Rockfort ……

Keep out … the mighty towers [in La Rochelle] protecting the city, with a bit of help from me!

The day we went to La Rochelle, it was sunny mostly and a bit chilly. I did brave sandals but ended up with a jacket and a scarf and cold feet! La Rochelle is a coast town with a colourful history. Louis XIII, who stayed in ‘our’ Priory, undertook the Seige of La Rochelle back in some century long ago [circa 1627], and during WWII it was a base for the German Naval Fleet. I think the recent Red Bull ‘divers’ who dive of that tower on the right [St Nicholas Tower] add a more positive note to history!! The other is la Chaine Tower [it housed the ‘chain’ to the port] and these two medieval ‘towers’ guard the entry to the port, and have done since 1345. It now is the entrance for a large marina and of course a lovely place to explore.

Colin is walking along the original part of the wall toward the first lighthouse tower built – it took 30 years [in the 15th century]. It is the oldest medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast, and used to hold prisoners at different times over its life. There were some lovely old houses along these cobbled streets, but none had lovely balconies looking out to the sea ….

This is the entrance to the old city [the Clock Tower], it too is pretty impressive. Beyond are all the cafes, shops and patisseries. I loved the wonderful selection of meringues in this patisserie. We actually had French sticks with ham/salad and then just sat in the square, people watching. It is amazing how many people still smoke here in Europe! It just seems to be a huge part of the culture, young or old – they are all smoking. So very weird coming from a country where it is not the norm anymore!!

Melle was the next town on our travels. We did some of the pilgrim trail walk, passing by the three famous churches. One [Saint-Hilaire’s] is a UNESCO site and was rebuilt in the 12th century! It is still used to this day. Saint-Pierre’s was also built in the 12th century with Zodiac signs lining the entrance doorways. Saint-Savinien’s is the oldest church. From the early 1800’s [and for nearly a century] it was converted to a prison and you can find ‘graffiti’ etched on the door and walls from the prisoners. It has been restored but only for historical purposes – it is not used as a church anymore.

It would have been a cold place as a prison! It did however have perfect acoustics! Ah, eh, eee, oooo, oouuu 🎶 Not that I think the prisoners would have been singing!

I couldn’t read the French prisoners ‘graffiti’, and alas there was not English conversion for us [maybe it said ‘I was here!], or even another soul to ask – we were the only people in all of the buildings. The joys of travelling in the off-season.

How they built these buildings, with such architectural flare, is a wonder – they are incredible. I stood in all three of these churches and did the ‘doh-ray-me’ and the acoustics were just amazing … wished I had a singing voice, but alas Colin tells me I am tone deaf, but I thought my tone deaf sounded great [where is my friend Ulrike when I need her?] A choir would sound a-maz-ing!

Rochfort, another port town was next on our to-do list! It has this incredible building, the Corderie Royale – at 375m long, it was where they used to make ropes for the big old ships of a bygon era! We spent a couple of hours here learning about the history of rope making. The was a ‘corderie expert’ who as part of his display made fantastic ropes items that you could buy in the shop – think placemats, doormats, key-rings and a ton of other things. Such a fantastic building and incredible to think it was built on a bog! Only half is available for the corderie museum, the other half is used for functions.

Next to the corderie was one of the old ships, where you could see all the rope that was used. Just amazing. And next to that was a high ropes course that had been designed to be like an old ship, and was in a dry dock – some very clever thinking here!

We had a walk around town, but again we seemed to time our visit while the shops are all closed for the two hour lunch break – it has been quite strange getting used to this. So stopped for lunch in a lovely cafe on a square, had quiche and cake and watched the world go by. The only thing about these lunch breaks it that means that window shopping is all that is available to me!

So our time in France has come to an end. We have had an amazing time looking after ‘our’ farm, and the home owners were such lovely people! They took a chance on us to look after their amazing priory and all their animals. We have a few new skills to add to our dossier.

For now though we are at Bordeaux airport, all checked in for our flight to Athens [via Paris airport!]. We have two days to begin with [in Athens] and then are heading to one of the islands [Andros] for a few days. We will probably island hop a bit, before returning to Athens for a couple more days and then onto our next Mr and Mrs Smith ‘assignment’ which is in Veliko in Bulgaria.

I will be sure to keep you enlightened of our adventures 😊

The only impossible journey is the one you never begin”

Bonjour from rural France …

We are now relaxing in rural France at ‘Sept Fonts’, after a very busy time in Ireland! Well maybe not relaxing … 60 chickens, 5 sheep, 2 lambs, 8 ducks, 4 geese, 3 rabbits, 2 ginormous pigs [he is probably 300kg and she is probably 250kg – at least], 2 cats and 1 gorgeous dog are keeping us busy!! And also a couple of dozen geese /duck eggs in an incubator!! Which is not good when the power cuts out!!! One of our sheepees may have lambs over the next 10 days, although I think I would prefer them to do that when the Home Owners are back, although it would be very cool if we had brand new lambs! What an adventure 💖

I love pigs, but this girl isn’t the cute pink 🐷 I was thinking of 😂. They both love a scratch, but you wouldn’t get me in their pen, for all the money in the world!!

We applied for this sit a couple of months ago [it is in rural France] and we decided that we were up for the challenge and something different. The ‘home’ is an old Priory House which dates back to the 15th century. The current owners (from Ireland!) have decided to restore it and are currently 3 years into their project. It is going to be amazing [when it is finished], but in the meantime it is a labour of love!! I would love to visit here if we are ever back this way. Louis XIII stayed here in May 1621 during the seige of Saint-Jean Angely [Aulnay] – there is a plaque on the wall to commemorate his stay.

The walls of the ‘house’ are a couple of feet thick and are just amazing. It is the most beautiful limestone. There are several out buildings, but I think that they are past the point of restoration! In fact this beam blew down in the recent stormy weather we had!! It is so heavy, so it must of been some wind we had! I feel like I have been staying in my very ‘own’ castle …. if only I had servants 😂 🏰 💖

Our small village (Aulnay) has a supermarket and it sells wine [but not paracetamol?!?]. We sure don’t need to buy eggs though!! We are enjoying making our own meals again after our few weeks in Ireland – believe it or not, you get very disinterested in eating out night after night. It is only just up the road, so really very handy for us, which is great – less things to look at [because it’s small – although they do sell a variety of household decor things, gardening and a few clothes] It can be trying to decide what things are in French – I wanted tomato soup and got tomato purée – well it did have pictures of tomatoes it!

The landscape that surrounds us is really flat and grows wheat, barley and sunflowers. For as far as the eye can see, it is a kaleidoscope of greens and browns. Spring is in the air but the trees still look ‘lifeless’, bare of leaf with their ‘arms’ stretching out, as they stand silently waiting for their leaves to burst forth. The paddocks are freshly ploughed (dark brown), recently ploughed (light brown), freshly seeded and sprouting, giving them a lime green glow, new growth which is apple green or a few weeks growth giving it a deep sea green. The horizon is scattered with huge wind turbines in every direction – standing like sentinels watching us, as we go about our daily lives (maybe I could write a science fiction book!!). We saw a lot of these [turbines] in Ireland as well.

We had a trip to Saint-Jean d’Angley which is the closet, biggish town! It had very cute buildings and we enjoyed just ambling around here. Because it was Sunday, most shops were closed although we did find a wonderful patisserie 😊 Mr Johnny B, if you are reading this … Colin said you would go mad trying to make things ‘square’ here! Actually, you just wouldn’t be able to! That wood has been in those buildings for hundreds of years … it is a little bit twisted and a lot crooked. 🔨 🔨

The villages around our area of Charente-Martime are all very quaint. You can just imagine them with horse and carts passing up the cobbled lanes – although now a lot them have tarmac over the top! There are not a lot of footpaths to speak of, but it isn’t really very busy, so everyone in cars are pretty relaxed. The houses all look a bit sad at the moment, but I am sure they will be ‘picture perfect’ when the bougainvillea springs to life.

We have visited Cognac, which is home to Cognac!! There are so many distilleries here, most I have never even heard of. We went to Remy Martin and thought we would do a tour, but you don’t just turn up! You book and then you pay €30 each, which is nearly $50NZ each!! That is 10 bottles of wine!! I don’t even like Cognac, so we flagged booking a tour and just had a walk around the city. It is beautiful, has a lovely river and gorgeous park. I just love walking around and soaking up the people, the buildings and window shopping.

Le Jardins are open to the public at Hotel De Ville. They are very beautiful, the bulbs all coming up, the blossom trees all bursting forth. What a lovely park to be able to walk through.

I just love this ‘lady’ relaxing at the end of a waterway. I couldn’t work out who she was, as you were unable to read the plaque!! It has faded to the point of being useless and Google was no help either!

We have sat in a few squares and had coffee and cake, well actually I have had cake and shared a ‘corner’ with Colin. The patisseries are all just so unbelievably beautiful and neeeeeed to be eaten.

So that is us for now! We have visited a few more places, but I will catch you up on those next time!

“Travelling is an education itself”

May the sun shine upon your face …

But alas the rains have certainly fallen while we have been here!

From Derry we travelled to Balleymoney and stayed in an AirBnB with Dave who was a fantastic host, but best of all he had two spaniels – 1 x 7yr old [boss of the house], Oscar and 1 x 5 month old puppy Ruby …. love, love, love.

The next morning we headed to Donegal and travelled through Letterkenny and Ballybofey [just loving these names]. The Irish countryside reminds us so much of home, although it is much flatter with mostly only the rolling hills, taking us along the Wild Atlantic Way scenic drive. We stopped at a lovely BnB and headed into town for some dinner, a pint of Guinness and Irish music – how more Irish could that be 🎶 ☘️

After a lovely breakfast we drive around to Slieve League [which is a rival to Cliffs of Moher]. Wilder and less visited, we are glad we made the effort to head out to the west of Donegal to visit these towering cliffs. They are three times higher than Moher and drop dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean. It was pretty windy [and foggy] so we didn’t do the cliff top walk way, although did climb most of the way to the top.

Colin of course got as close the the edge as he could, with no worries at all about being blown over!!! There are sheep on parts of the cliffs and I can well believe that one or three are lost to the seas below!

We carried on towards Galway through Ballymagroaty, Ballyshannon, Sligo, Ballysadare and Tuan. Another AirBnB for the night (just ok!) and then into Galway in the next morning. It is a lovely city and we spent a couple of hours here walking around and seeing all the lovely sculptures, the canals and the gorgeous shopping village. Fortunately it didn’t rain but was still overcast, windy and a bit cold.

Wherever we go, whether it is in a big city or in a small town, there are always sculptures and art work to commemorate someone or something. This one was to Oscar Wilde.

After lunch we headed for the Cliffs of Moher. It was blowing a gale, had been rainy and the ‘Irish mist’ was hanging in the air, giving the cliffs a moody, melancholy feel. It was unbelievably busy [so glad we didn’t visit in the high season!]. The visitor centre that has recently [circa 2007] been built is incredible and has been built into the hills like a cave and plays host to nearly 1.5 million visitors each year. I asked how many people fall of [the cliffs] and they politely said that “every effort is made to keep people within the ‘walls’, but people make there own choices” – a politician in the making was that young man, that he was! I googled it and someone had only been blown over while taking a selfie a few weeks prior and approx 15 person die each year 😲. The famous ‘table’ is not accessible anymore … you wouldn’t have got me on it for love, nor money anyway – even with the luck of the Irish running in my veins!!

From the cliffs we headed on down to Kilrush for the night where we had booked a glamping pod in Kilrush marina. What an awesome experience! It was pretty wild weather and the marina was pretty choppy, so our wee abode had a slight ‘rock-n-roll’ to it … but we woke up to a nearly perfect morning, the sun was even out and no rain to be seen 😊

Rough when we arrived … calm when we awoke 🌞

Back on our road trip of the Wild Atlantic Way we headed of to catch the ferry to Dingle. While waiting for the ferry, we met a couple who had been in Christchurch as part of the earthquake rebuild. Both Irish, met in Christchurch and returned home together. It was lovely to chat with them, they were fascinated with our travels and invited us to their wedding later in the year!! They are back in New Zealand early next year, so may even visit us at home.

Once of the ferry, it was back on our scenic drive to Dingle. We took the Connor pass which is the highest mountain pass in Ireland. The roads are winding and narrow, the views spectacular even in the mist. We did stop a couple of times for photo ops, but it was so windy and cold that we just carried on for lunch in Dingle, which is such a gorgeous village.

When they say Wild Atlantic Way, it couldn’t be a truer statement. Some parts of the coast are so remote, but all along are outcrops of houses where farmers toil away at the barren and desolate coastline. It does however have a romantic feel here, and the sun rises and sun sets are meant to be incredible [just some sun, would have been good!].

Mile after mile we are seeing ruins – stone buildings that hold long forgotten memories of a time gone by. And if its not houses / barns, then it is churches crumbling, with the graves silently standing guard around them. It is hard to imagine people living in these stone houses, so tiny with little windows and the weather just so unforgiving!

From Dingle we headed [via Inch, which is a lovely peninsular] to Castlemaine for the night in an AirBnB. It took us ages to find it as google maps doesn’t seem to link right through the App! Actually we have had this problem at nearly every single place in Ireland!!! Our hosts took a while to warm up, but really they had no choice with us two 😂. They were a little bit shy, and then we blew in! By the time we left, they probably needed a rest! It was clean and comfortable and nice breakfast, so we were all set up for our drive to Cork. Not sure those hosts are cutout for having people in their home … we probably put them off for life 😂

We had intended to do the Ring of Kerry but we were fogged in! In some places we couldn’t see more than 50m. So to Cork we headed via Ballyvourney, Macroom and Blarney. Of course we stopped in at Blarney, to kiss the stone! I couldn’t do it!! Jesus begorrah, it is madness! Colin did and has now been gifted with eloquence!!

The grounds, castle and Chateau are all gorgeous. The descendants still live in the Chateau. Imagine having that sort of history 😮 All the spring bulbs have popped up and the trees are all budded up ready to burst. Spring is in the air.

Jameson Whisky was on our destination, after visiting Cork, but it was €22 each for the tour… we decided that having already done a whisky tour in the north we wouldn’t bother with this one! It was a beautiful building and lovely grounds. We hadn’t made an accommodation booking as we weren’t sure what was happening, but after a search on AirBnB we found a lovely place, who were happy to take our late booking. Again we had trouble finding it, but our hosts were great with their communication so all was well. Didn’t meet them until the morning [as they were out] but they were very easy to get along with and of course we invited them to NZ!

Next stop Waterford … had a walk around the town and a look at the shop – there is nowhere to see it being made! Some very impressive pieces, but not in our budget!

Waterford is a lovely town, full of Viking history. It is the oldest city in Ireland and has had many battles over the years [the Vikings, the Irish, the Normans …]. It has a lovely feel to the place and we had a wander around before heading to Kilkenny.

We did the tour here, which Colin had on his to-do list. Didn’t really get to see the place in operation but it was still interesting. Kilkenny is the name for the international brand, here is Ireland it is known as Smithwick’s. I don’t really like it, so was happy to have the lager.

Next stop was a wonderful AirBnB in Kilkenny. Our host Hazel was just amazing and we really enjoyed out time at her place. She couldn’t do enough to make sure our stay was perfect and we got to meet her two gorgeous dogs, which always gladdens my heart.

So Dublin was calling! We had a flight to catch to Bordeaux, so we booked ourselves two nights in Dublin. It was a flying stopover here, but we visited Guinness [had to really], did the hop on /off bus tour, Colin went to a museum while I wandered around the park and the shops! We also visited the famous Temple Bar, had this amazing harp bridge outside our window and walked over the Ha’ Penny Bridge along with 30,000 other people! Back in the day it used to be 400 people a day who would pay ha’penny to cross … they should still charge a small amount!

Just loved this incredible street art made from recycling!

So that is Ireland done and dusted. It has been amazing being here, we needed more time and I hope we will be back.

Until we meet again … 💖

“If you are lucky enough to be Irish … then you are lucky enough” ☘️