Cerbere, Collioure, Port-la-Nouvelle … we’re in France! 🇫🇷

After a wonderful few days in Girona we caught the train to Cerbere in France. It is the first French town over the boarder (or the last if you are heading south!). We booked ourselves into a small apartment with kitchenette in a complex with a pool and close to the beach. We were hoping to just relax, walk on the sand and perhaps even have a swim in the Mediterranean.

Travail – “travel fail” (thanks Mum!). We arrived in Cerbere [by train] and couldn’t find a taxi. We started walking, then a very friendly teenager stopped and offered help! His English was no better than our French but nonetheless he called his mum, got a number for a taxi and tried to call a taxi for us BUT here in Europe 12-2pm is closed! After doing a hundred [well maybe at least 10!] ‘merci’s / thankyou’s’ he ran to catch his train and we walked into town – 15mins (which wasn’t that far compared to the next town!) found a place that was open and had a casual lunch. We finally communicated with them about a taxi and asked them to call for us and when it finally arrived we transferred to our holiday destination [for three nights!! – pre-paid of course!!].

As we arrived I had that sinking feeling that all was not well 🤔 When we finally found our ‘apartment’ it was to discover that we were in a resort which would be all good if the rest of the resort was open!!!!! After an hour, we messaged the owner and told him we weren’t staying, and caught a taxi back to ‘town’. It would have been fine if it was as advertised, but it wasn’t – the supermarket was closed! It was 5km from town – not the 1.5km advertised and the restaurant was closed!! EPIC fail !! I immediately asked for a full refund, which we thankfully received.

We ended up staying the night in a lovely (but tiny) hotel with incredible views over the bay. If you were here on a Pyrenees hiking trip it would be perfect! We walked the 500m into town had a quick dinner, bought a few beers then headed back to sit on the tincy balcony!, planned our next destination and watched the sun set. After a lovely breakfast on the main balcony the next morning, the hotel owner dropped us to catch the train to Collioure.

OMG it [Collioure] was fantastic, the accommodation was wonderful and we had a fabulous three nights here – had only booked two but was so lovely we stayed one extra . We paid a bit extra one night and had tapas and sangria, delivered to our wee patio by the hosts daughter! If you are on Facebook, you will by now have seen the hilarious video from that night! I think perhaps you needed to be there to ‘get it’. We have met so many people who have said they couldn’t travel ‘together’ like we are … but we are still laughing 😂

Collioure is such a pretty seaside town, charming, romantic, relaxing and full of history (and vineyards!). We walked and walked here, especially in the old city which is ‘footsteps’ only. The wonderful lanes with colourful houses and cute cafes, the ‘Château Royal de Collioure’ [semi-ruin built by the Templar Knights] on the promenade, which just sort of rises up out of the shimmering blue Mediterranean and commands its place as the guardian of the city. Then high on the hills behind is Fort Saint Elme.

In centuries gone by Collioure was two villages – one on each side of the river. But back sometime in 16th century [after lots of fighting with the Spanish] the Fort was modernised for the King of Aragon and the two small cities became one, although they still have a different charm. Then Spain besieged it again during the 17th century, before the French won it back in the 18th century. So much fighting!! Somewhere in the middle of all that it was a fortified army fortress.

It is the home base for training the French Divers/Army and they were doing some of there training while we were there – “CNEC (Centre National d’Entrainement de Commando) trains men and women in the armed services to survive in war zones.  In the mountains around Mont Louis (the highest garrison in France) and in the sea at Collioure trainees, subjected to permanent mental stress and physical fatigue, learn to manage both and find the strength to accomplish their military objective.” Hmmmmm – is this where they learned to bomb the Rainbow Warrior back in July 1985?!? Greenpeace were to commence anti-nuclear protests [in the Pacific] when the French Secret Service went to NZ and put a stop to their [Greenpeace] mission by placing ‘limpet mines’ on the Rainbow Warrior blowing it up and killing one person. A bit a of hiccup in our otherwise friendly relations – except for Rugby! We were leaving for Europe in 1985 and then were actually in France in 1987 when we won the Rugby World Cup … just a bit of trivia [our travels last time, not the bombing] for you 😂

The Pryenees which are covered in snow, rise up steeply behind the port, are overlaid with terraced vineyards, which have been growing grapes here for hundreds of years – since the Phoenicians! And it is still hand picked and crafted. Lots of Red varietals which is great for Sangria. There is so much work in the terracing and it is said that if the terracing was laid in a line, it would be as long as the Great Wall of China. The other thing that Collioure is famous for is its anchovies … they nearly came on our tapas plate, until we confessed we don’t like them!

Every time we walked to the beach there were artists all sitting and sketching, painting trying to recreate ‘art’ like the masters’ – Matisse, Picasso and Derain [and a host of others]. I found some of the original works by the masters a bit child like! Apparently the ‘light’ here is famous for luminous quality. Anyway we did visit the small art museum, that houses a reputable collection of ‘originals’ but I wasn’t inspired by any of it!! Actually they didn’t have any Picasso or Matisse, so maybe that was the problem. In several places around town there are copies of the famous pictures, from where the artist created his famous work.

One day we took the wee tourist train up to Fort Saint Elme, through the vineyards, and another afternoon we did a three harbour boat cruise. We just loved our time here walking and exploring – I can only imagine in summer it would be crowded and if you were a local you would want to scarper for the hills, except you need to make a living as it is the opposite in winter and there are hardly any people about. The ‘beaches’ are pebbly so not comfy for lying on but the two bays are so beautiful and we thankfully had fabulous weather.

From charming Collioure we headed to pitiful Port-la-nouvelle [sounds okay], which is described as a wonderful seaside resort town, safe beaches with walks and trails. Also a busy port town. We booked ourselves three nights here – our second ‘travail’!! Firstly the weather was terrible, secondly our accommodation was below par, thirdly because the weather was terrible everything closed!!

We arrived after a short train trip to discover that the even the train station wasn’t open! We asked some young men about catching a taxi and they said there were no taxis, but to catch the bus. So while it was pouring with rain we waited for the bus … it did turn up but it wasn’t going in our direction on this loop, but he would do a loop that got us closer to town in 45 mins or so!!

Even though is was raining steadily we decided to walk!! I am not sure why we did this, we should have just taken a sightseeing tour on the ‘other loop’. Anyway walk we did!! Approximately half way (20 mins) we came across a largish supermarket that had a cafe [and the WC!], so we grabbed a quick lunch and then we were off again. When we arrived at our accommodation and we were shown to our room I felt like we were going to be prisoners for the next two days if the weather didn’t ease up!! We did get a few hours here and there, but essentially we wasted two days here and it was even more maddening as there was no tea/coffee making, very poor WiFi and no TV!!! Arrrrrgh … just as well we had a book to read and the bed was comfy!

So that is us for now – lessons learnt 1. Port-la-nouvelle is a July/August destination only, together with Cerbere and 2. Collioure is fabulous and everyone should visit!

“Never get so busy making a living … that you have no time to make a life”

Girona es absolutamente fabulosa! 💖

We caught the high speed train from Barcelona to Girona and it was a short 200kph (40mins) trip. The rolling fields of grasses blowing in the wind, the paddocks carpeted with red poppies and rural Spain dotted along the train track all went past in a semi-blur!

Girona (Spain) is absolutely gorgeous! And beautiful, full of history and such a delight. How lucky we were to discover that the spring flower festival was on – ‘Temps de Flors’. We found ourselves staying in a fantastic apartment which was only a 15 minute walk down to the heart of the ‘old city’ [but a 2hr walk back up! 😂 ], on a great bus route and a supermarket, almost next door. Everything to make our stay there so easy and just wonderful.

Girona is the perfect place to visit if you don’t like big cities, you can walk about in the ‘old city’ easily enough and the buses are great for everything else. It is a medieval city with the rivers Onya [main river] and Ter running through it. Several bridges cross the river and they are all from different eras. The most famous being the ‘Eiffel’ bridge [also called the ‘Pont de les Peixateries Velles’] being designed by Mr Eiffel himself, before he did the Eiffel Tower. There are 5 pedestrian bridges up and down the river [Onya], and all give you a fabulous view of the city. During the festival this year they had ‘woven telescopes’ so you could view the city – such a cool idea and made for wonderful photo opportunities.

The festival lured us into the romantic side of Girona and I fell in love! Girona is trumped by Barcelona [and maybe that is a good thing!], but I truly believe if you are to visit Barcelona you should do more than a day trip to Girona. It won’t disappoint and maybe if you go with your significant other … you will feel the romance 💖 If you ever have the chance to visit Girona, it is a must do. 😊

We walked along the ‘Rambla de la Llibertat’ which is very beautiful and has a very charming feel to it. From the market stalls, to the wonderful cafes and all the Gelato stands it is a perfect place to start your journey.

The Jewish (Jueu) Quarter is an amazing area of wonderful winding cobbled streets that were established in the 12th century. From charming cafes to cobbled lanes this was an enchanting part of the city, within the walls and has been a part of the city for over 500 years.

We we first arrived in Girona we had no idea that the festival was on and so we are sitting in a wonderful cafe, below the Cathedral, and wondered what was happening!! There was a hive of activity and an explosion of colour as the ‘steps’ were decorated for the festival. After a leisurely lunch we wandered along to the tourist information centre to discover that the ‘Temps de Flors’ was commencing that weekend and everyone was in setup mode.

This festival has been a highlight of Girona since 1956 when it was a bouquet competition and has since morphed into the most spectacular ‘FREE’ festival I have ever had the privilege of attending. Of course it has become bigger than ‘itself’ and now all the shops, cafes, restaurants, museums and the city itself have evolved into an incredible exhibition, that now lasts a week!

The wall walk [also called the Passeig de la Muralla] of the medieval city is almost horseshoe-shaped and is so incredible. I loved being able to peer into the houses and gardens below, especially as so many business and homes,had taken the time to join the festival. The wall itself it amazing just on its own, with incredible views over the city across the tiled roofs and beyond to the snow capped mountains.

We climbed several of the ‘lookouts’ to give it just a wee bit more ‘height’ … most were okay for me and I was so transfixed with the view I forgot how high I was!! …. until it was time to climb down!! Some of the tiny spiral staircases made my heart beat a little faster …. taking me back to our stay in Malta! The view of the public gardens, church’s, alley-ways and the city itself were just fantastic …. I want to come back here!!

So the Temps de Flors is just beyond your tiny imaginations [well mine anyway!!] … I have populated this blog with [a few] photos from in and around the city. Most business, and all the museums are involved, which made visiting any of them, just not possible [in the normal sense] as the volume of people was overwhelming!

So Game of Thrones (GOT) fun fact ! We have NEVER seen it but, it has been filmed here – where hasn’t GOT been filmed?!? Anway I suppose if you were a GOT fan, you would have got an extra ‘hit’ out of visiting here?!?

So fun fact about Girona …. they speak Catalan, here although Spanish is widely recognised!! So as you can see we loved it here, a truly wonderful and romantic city 💖

We are heading to France … stand by for that update!

“Because at the end … you won’t remember the time you spent working”

Hola from Barcelona, Spain – a return visit!

We when arrived in Barcelona off the ship, we didn’t even have any accommodation booked! 30 minutes free WiFi in the port terminal [and it is on the ‘go-slow’ as everyone tries to log-on] and we are both madly searching for a place to stay. Found a cheapish and cheerful place just off La Ramblas which included breakfast, so we booked that for three nights. Turns out it was pretty good and such a central location.

It is 32 years since we were in Barcelona and I had forgotten just how beautiful it is. We walked everywhere, one day doing 21,352 steps – I think I am, I know I am … getting skinny!! Yeah right! We walked up and down La Rambla, saw all the flowers sellers, hawkers, street performers, living statues and gelato stalls and mixed in amongst all of that a few people begging. The ‘plane’ trees are so beautiful and the buildings just gorgeous. It is such a big wide promenade and you can just imagine it being the place to be [in days gone by], especially when all the alley-ways everywhere else are narrow and winding. “It takes its name from a seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran here. From the early Middle Ages, it was better known as the Cagalell (Stream of Shit) and lay outside the city walls until the 14th century.

We visited the markets, which are just fabulous and full of wonderful food and it is all so beautifully presented. It is a visual symphony and I wanted to eat everything and buy everything!! If you lived close to these markets you would never cook again! Well maybe at least never buy fruit that wasn’t cut up for you, or the freshly squeezed juices and not forgetting the dried fruit and nuts, and of course the chocolate!

We walked to Guell Park (along with hundreds of others!) and really enjoyed looking at the ‘living statues’, the beautiful buildings and people watching! It is located on Carmen Hill and we walked there! Guell designed the park with Gaudi architecture in mind and it really is the most wonderful place. I did laugh when I saw signs asking people to “respect the residents” … there is little or no regard for them [the residents] as bus loads of tourists unload by the hundreds! We spent a few hours here and walked to the top for views of the city – not quite fabulous as it was very ‘murky’!

I love the living statues and I love it even more that people don’t notice them and then they scream and jump when they move … actually I think Colin may have been ‘jumped’ when we were in Bellingham [nearly a year ago!!!!] when we walked past one on a corner. This one wasn’t quite as good as some … she really needed to loose her ‘wings’!

Then we walked to ‘the famous basilica’ – we didn’t see this last time we were here! Well not that we can rembember!! It has being built for 130 years … and they hope to have it finished for the 100 year anniversary [2026] of the architects [Gaudi’s] death! It is the most fascinating building – ‘avant-gaude’ is the only way to describe it. It is only May and a two hour queue to go inside! Not for us on this trip, but a great reason to have to return to Barcelona.

I loved that it had a permanent Christmas Tree included in its structure.

I really wanted to do the cable-car ride across the marina, as we had done this last time. It was a very long wait and cost €12 … I am not really sure it was worth it, but it does give lovely views of the city, marinas and beach for a mere 7 or 8 minutes – if you can get close enough to a window!

We spent our last afternoon walking around the gothic quarter, people watching and eating Gelato. Barcelona is a wonderful city, so vibrant and busy. The graffiti was like we have never seen before. Some of it was just amazing, but the rest is just a mess. In some parts of town you can’t even park your car overnight on the street without it getting tagged and when you walk up the alleyways at night [as you head back to your hotel] all the shops pull down their shutters and they all have graffiti on them.

I am thinking that Barcelona rivalled Athens for graffiti … and won!

We loved being here, having casual dinners and of course drinking Sangria. There is more of Spain to come.

“Never be too busy to stop and smell the roses”

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”