Plovdiv – A Pleasant Surprise

On Tuesday, I decided to conquer the bus in Bulgaria. It’s not that I haven’t taken busses before; I have. I commuted by bus for a good portion of the time I lived in Minneapolis. But, when traveling, I typically only opt for the bus if there’s no rail option. And, this time, I also had to grapple with Cyrillic letters.

Getting to Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second-largest city) from Sofia isn’t terribly challenging in itself — options abound: plane, train, bus or something called BlaBla Car, which best I can tell is like a long-distance Uber.

I opted to leave Sofia by bus because various companies departed on the hour versus the train, which departed early morning. Both the busses and trains depart from essentially the same spot, the Central Railway Station and Central Bus Station, which is served by the Metro.

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The bus was full, but I was lucky to get a window seat. And the scenery was lovely. Fields of sunflowers reminiscent of Romania but surrounded by hills covered with evergreen trees.

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Pulling into Plovdiv, my expectations were low. But, I was quickly overwhelmed. I walked a short distance from the South Bus Station to find Tsar Simeon’s Garden, which was created in the 1890s by a Swiss architect. As you can see, the Singing Fountain is stunning.

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After the garden, expected the rest of Plovdiv to be a letdown. But, I was shocked. There are plenty of reasons they city has been named Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture.

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I highly recommend visiting the city.  It’s definitely worth a day or two (as you’ll see) and there are some amazing day trip options nearby, like the Rila Monastery.

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Another shot from the marvelous Tsar Simeon’s Garden, where I spent a good hour enjoying a beautiful summer day.  After relaxing in the park, I walked up toward the historic part of town, where I found this cool weathervane (?) in one of the many public squares. Check out which American city is listed… how odd? Turns out Columbia, South Carolina is one of Plovdiv’s sister cities. Who knew?!

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Plovdiv has a number of impressive sites of Roman ruins, like this Roman Forum.

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The main pedestrian street in Plovdiv is lined with cafes and shops. It makes for a lovely stroll and great people-watching. Plus, it leads you to many of the city’s most-impressive sites.

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The city has an impressive collection of religious buildings, like this 16th Century stunner, Sveta Marina church, with murals from the Old Testament up in the arches outside.

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The Dzhumaya Mosque isn’t far away, and it is located just above one of the more impressive Roman ruins sites, the ancient stadium of Philipopolis, which is still used as an open-air venue in Plovdiv.

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Bulgarian streets are full of inventive, artsy water fountains, like this goat-shaped one in Plovdiv.

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Cafe culture thrives in Plovdiv, and the side streets were always impressive.

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Of course, a trip to this part of the world isn’t complete without some sweets. Regardless of whether you call it Turkish Delight, Bulgarian delight or lokum, it’s certainly tasty. I’d call this the European version of Pik-a-Mix.

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Sitting high on a hilltop in the city is the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, with amazing views of the surrounding landscape and quite near to the the Ancient Theater ruins.

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Although the Ancient Theater was a pain to find (snuggled in a series of dead-end streets), it was worth the hunt.

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Bucharest to Sofia by Train

The train from Bucharest to Sofia isn’t fancy. And, for less than $30, you can’t expect it to be. It has no air conditioning, no WiFi, not even a dining car. I left Gara de Nord in Bucharest at 12:45 p.m. Sunday, with all my belongings and a newly purchase cooler tote carrying all my goodies for the trip — you can drink alcohol on the train (if you remember a bottle opener). The train, no changes required in the summer, was scheduled to pull into Sofia Central at 10:30 p.m.

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On this international train, unlike my train to Constanta, there was no First Class. Instead, each Second Class car had 7-10 cabins that sat 6 passengers. There was a window in each cabin and then one outside the cabin in the narrow aisle that passed.

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Pokey the Rhino, who is accustomed to traveling Business Class, was less than thrilled about the idea of 10 hours in a train with strangers. But, in the end, his window seat turned out to be pretty good.

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What the train lacks in luxury, it more than makes up for in scenery. During the trip through Romania, massive fields of sunflowers (Romania’s third-largest crop after corn and wheat) line the tracks. You can check out amazing video on Instagram.

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At times, it did remind me a bit of my home in the United States, with cows in field and farmers tending to their crops.

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Along the way, we passed a number of freight trains, which are still common in this part of Europe to convey goods from one country to another.

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The line winds its way through southern Romania, crossing the Danube River on one of only two bridges between Romania and Bulgaria. Video of the river crossing on Instagram.

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We then passed through Border Control as neither Romania nor Bulgaria are full EU members (not yet a part of the Schengen Area).

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Along the way in Bulgaria, the scenery got even better with more rolling hills, charming villages and eventually the Iskar Gorge.

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The train stations and towns we passed were particularly scenic as well.

 

But, the real showstopper was sunset.

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Finally, around 11 p.m. (not bad for a train), we pulled into Sofia Central. A quick walk across the street, and I hopped the Metro to my AirBnB for the week.

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It was a long, tiring journey. But, taking the train is always one of the best ways to really see a country and experience its people. Stay tuned for my next long-distance train ride from Sofia to Belgrade.

Finances: A Week in Romania ±$700

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I’m headed to Sofia today, so it’s time to calculate how much I spent for the week in Romania. I’ve converted all expenses to U.S. dollars for ease of comparison throughout my trip.

Airfare: Booked with Qatar Airways miles + $23 in taxes

AirBnB: $348 — first host canceled two days prior, causing an additional $110 in cost

Aerobus from airport: $2.25

10-ride Metro Card: $5

Groceries & Food: $125

Souvenirs: $1.25

Markets & Mahallas Day Tour: $65

Transylvania Day Trip: $85

Constanta Day Trip: $47

GRAND TOTAL: $701.50

As you can see, the uptick in AirBnB costs really inflated my spend here in Romania. My loose goal was basically to spend $500 per week for my trip, brings my total cost to about $3500. Perhaps I can get back on target in Bulgaria.

That said, I’m not going to be a slave to cost on this trip. I will likely never be back to the Balkans — too many other places on my “must see” list to make repeat trips — so I’m not going to pinch pennies if it means missing out on the things I want to see or do.

Bucharest’s Eclectic Architecture

Romania has a fascinating history and it plays outs in the architecture. In particular, here in Bucharest, you can find influences of the French, Germans and Spanish. Very few, if any, of the buildings pre-date the Great Fire of Bucharest, which burned most of the city in the late 1840s. Most of those structures were made of wood, so they were quickly consumed by the flames. Since then, though, a number of gorgeous structures were built — often out of stone and more substantial materials — that remain. You will also find lots of Communist-era concrete residential blocks, which weren’t attractive enough to merit photos.

Clockwise from the top: The view of Biserica Baratia from my AirBnB; Biserica Cretulescu near Piata Revolutiei; one of many historic structures with the glass canopy over the front door; inside an Orthodox church in the Armenian neighborhood; the former US Embassy; Ateneul Roman; Curtea de apel Bucarest (Romanian Court of Appeal).

Outside the modern National Theater, this public art project commemorates one of Romania’s most notable playwrights, Ion Luca Caragiale. It represents actors on a rolling stage. In the background, the buildings from the University of Bucharest display the French architectural influence.

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An example of the Neo-Romanian style of architecture that was popular until the Communist government came to power.

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Even the influence of Gaudy can be seen in this private home restored by a wealthy Romanian architect.

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This city is full of beautiful courtyards and gardens, which makes exploring on foot an enjoyable trip that turns up a new surprise around each corner.

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And when you get tired, you just stop and have a drink.

What I packed for 7 weeks on the road…

I’m packing up tonight here in Romania after a fabulous, and I head to Bulgaria tomorrow on the train so I thought it would be a good time (as promised earlier) to show you what I’ve brought with me on the road.

As you’ll recall, I’m engaging in semi-minimalist travel. This is in no way going to approximate the die-hard backpackers who carry everything for 6 months in a 40L pack. That’s not me. Not in my 20s and certainly not now. So here we go… what can you fit in a carry-on rollerboard and small shoulder pack?

Note that items marked with an asterisk would most definitely be seen as a non-essential by a minimalist traveler.

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Clothing & Shoes

  • 3 sleeveless dresses (2 long, 1 short)
  • 1 long-sleeve dress (long)
  • 1 cotton short-sleeve T-shirt
  • 1 pair cotton capris
  • 1 long-sleeve cardigan
  • 1 pair black leggings
  • 1 short-sleeve tunic
  • 1 pair Qatar Airways pajamas
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 3 bras (1 black, 1 nude, 1 strapless)
  • 1 Eddie Bauer rain jacket
  • 1 floral-print scarf
  • 1 pair Nike running shoes
  • 1 pair Vionic Wave orthotic sandals

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Toiletries and Medicine/First Aid

  • Cosmedix Purity Detox Scrub (face cleanser)*
  • Cosmedix Hydrate+ (lotion + SPF)*
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush and floss (it’s in the photo, Mom!)
  • Gillette Mach 3 razor and King of Shave shave oil*
  • Refresh tears + extra contact lenses and case
  • Elemis Quiet Mind Temple Balm* (for headaches and migraines)
  • Folding travel brush/comb
  • Tweezer, fingernail clipper, emery board and pore cleaner*
  • OGX shampoo and conditioner
  • Dry shampoo*
  • Q-tips*
  • Purifying soap bar (a gift from my friend Pam)
  • Advil, allergy medicine and acid controller (I’m not 20 anymore)
  • Bodyglide & a blister bandage (for running and hiking wounds)
  • Off bug repellent wipes*
  • Soap nuts for doing laundtry
  • Hair ties

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Health & Fitness

  • Jay Robb whey protein* (7 packets)
  • Swim suit and sarong
  • Addidas workout top & capris
  • Headband
  • No-show, quick-dry athletic socks (2 pair)
  • Champion sports bras (3)
  • SPRI resistance bands*
  • Golds Gym sliders*
  • Quest protein bar*
  • Stevia tablets* (for my tea)
  • Nuun electrolyte tablets*

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Electronics & Tech

  • Macbook Air laptop & power cord
  • Apple iPhone 7 (not pictured)
  • Bose noise-canceling headphones and splitter
  • Back-up headphones* (no charging required)
  • Audio cable & car USB charger* (for rental cars)
  • USB drive* (I am working)
  • Uniball signo pens (2)
  • Battery powered travel light*
  • 3-in-1 USB charging cable
  • Apple iPod Nano
  • Multi-adapter/USB charger
  • AIBCON 10000mAh battery pack
  • Misc. charging cords/adapters*

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Miscellaneous Items

  • Travel blanket*
  • Eyeglasses and case
  • Sunbrella (SPF 50+ umbrella that also works for rain)*
  • Blender bottle
  • Eastern Europe & Romania/Bulgaria Lonely Planet
  • Robe*
  • House slippers*
  • Sunglasses
  • Collapsable shopping sack*

“Slow” Travel

At one point in my life, I considered taking a year off to travel around the world. As I’ve stated earlier, the idea came from a cool trip taken by a former colleague. But, given where I am in my career (pushing toward promotion to full professor), that simply isn’t going to happen in the near future.

That said, being a professor means I have lots of flexibility with my schedule during the summer and over the university’s winter break. Until now, I’ve never really thought about how to make the most of that time. I have colleagues who spend the whole summer away, but I couldn’t imagine how to make that happen either from a cost perspective or a time perspective. I do my best research and writing when classes aren’t in session. Enter “slow travel.”

Living in the Middle East has allowed me to visit an astonishing number of countries. In 2017, I set foot in Bahrain, Philippines, Maldives, Egypt, Indonesia, Germany, Jordan, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, South Korea, Georgia and Australia along with several work trips to the U.S.

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Standing on the banks of the Kura River in Tbilisi, Georgia.

For the longest time, my goal had been to see as many countries as possible, but that often comes into conflict with who I am as a person. I love my job — especially writing and research. And, I’m pretty fiscally conservative (thanks, Dad!). After reading up on slow travel, I designed my Bound for the Balkans trip to embrace some of its principles.

For a majority of the trip, I’m spending 7 nights in one location. Instead of checking into fancy hotels — I love a nice Hilton as much as the next girl — I’m using AirBnB. Most weeks, my lodging costs between 250-300USD. Could I have stayed cheaper? Yes. But, I have some ground rules for my own comfort:

  • I don’t do hostels or any place with communal bathrooms. I like privacy.
  • Each apartment has to have air conditioning — I’m American, sorry.
  • I need a kitchen so I can eat as many meals in as I want.
  • WiFi was a must — I have work to do.
  • They needed to be walkable to the market and public transit.

I tend to pick AirBnB’s that look like IKEA showroom models, so you can certainly get by on less (often 15USD/night) if shabby chic is your thing.

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Home, sweet home in Bulgaria

My “slow travel” approach helps me save money (I’ll post more about this later) and still be able to get some research and writing done while I’m on the road.

The flight to Bucharest

As a part of my semi-minimalist approach to travel for this trip, all my flights will be in economy. None of the Business Class luxury I’ve grown accustomed to with Qatar Airways.

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The usual accoutrement: fancy amenity kit, bottle of water, Godiva chocolates

That’s OK. It’s only a five-hour flight from Doha to Bucharest, so I wouldn’t typically even upgrade on a flight shorter than six hours, especially since I’m not changing time zones. But, because I’m a Platinum frequent flier on QA, I managed to score a window seat in the exit row with no one in the middle; often QA will block the middle seat when a Platinum flyer is in economy. Thank goodness because we were in an old-school A320. Based on its lack of in-flight entertainment (no individual screens or WiFi) and power ports, I’d guess it was one of the older planes in QA’s fleet. The upside, however, were the extra roomy Recaro seats with foot rest in the economy cabin. The 18-inch seats were a real win — especially with the middle seat open.

But, what was I supposed to do without in-flight entertainment? I’ve grown accustomed to QA’s array of movies and TV shows, and we’ve already covered the fact that I didn’t have my crossword puzzles or Sudoku. So I listened to some music on my iPod, skimmed my Lonely Planet Romania and Bulgaria and enjoyed the scenery — the mountains in Iran were amazing!

We landed at Henri Coanda International Airport without incident, and I hopped the local express bus (#783) to Piata Unirii. The trip cost roughly 1USD. Can you believe it? My local AirBnB was only a couple blocks away from the stop, but first Pokey and I settled in for some lunch at Borsalino.

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Peroni pint and prosciutto pizza for less than 10USD. 

It rained lightly most of the afternoon, which was lovely if you live in the desert, so I ran to the nearby Carrefour to pick up some provisions and spent a “quiet” evening at home. My AirBnB is in the heart of the action, which makes going to the market easy and quick. It also means I get quite the view of the night lights.

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The view out my window to a nearby shopping mall

Semi-minimalist travel

If you’ve ever been the person lugging three bags through Europe from plane to train to automobile, you’ll understand why I wanted to do this trip as a semi-minimalist undertaking. But, that’s not my typical mode of transit.

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Returning from the United States on a typical work trip.

Living in the Middle East, I’ve become accustomed to traveling with luggage. Between Platinum-level frequent flier status on Qatar Airways and an abundant amount of Business Class travel, I routinely return with 3 checked bags (70 lbs each), a wheeled carry-on and a shoulder bag.

So, I had to figure out how to survive for seven weeks, with a wheeled carry-on and a small backpack. Normally, I’d say that would require some serious planning… and it should have. But, as I suggested in a previous post, I didn’t have time to really think things through. But, it’s Europe — not the most rugged of destinations. If I forget something major, I’m sure I can buy it.

After reading up on minimalist travel (not for me, thank you), I needed a compromise between the lifestyle that requires you to turn your underwear inside out and the one that permits me to travel with an entourage of porters.

So, what’s semi-minimalist travel?

Semi-minimalist travel will allow me to easily move about Europe — hopping cheap flights on budget airlines without breaking the bank or taking the train from one city to another without breaking my back. It also allows me some of the creature comforts I need to feel at home:

But, it requires that I forgo things I’d normally pack if I had an entourage. That’s right. For the next seven weeks, I’m traveling without:

  • Make-up (pretty sure I heard angels sign when I typed that)
  • A hair dryer, curling iron or hair straightener
  • My beloved Bose noise-canceling headphones (I packed the in-ear version)
  • Travel-size memory foam contour pillow
  • Grid Foam Roller
  • My usual third, fourth and fifth pairs of shoes
  • Crossword puzzle and Sudoku (I’m told these exist digitally now)

We will see how this goes. In another post, I’ll go over what I did bring along for the trip (with photos).

And we’re off…

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Pokey keeping an eye on the bags

I’m playing a bit of catch-up with the blog, to be honest. It was all I could do to get packed and head out of Doha before this trip because I had just gotten back from a two-week work trip to the U.S. four days prior to departure. So, between catching up with friends, trying to shake a horrible case of jet lag (which I don’t normally get) and doing mountains of laundry in my tiny washing machine, I was basically overwhelmed. All the time I’d planned to use to set up Bound for the Balkans seemed to vanish.

Coming into this trip, I had three goals (in no particular order):

  • Get some writing done; it isn’t completely a holiday!
  • Authentically explore a new part of the world.
  • Improve my overall mental and physical health.

But, I also wanted to see what long-term travel (as opposed to short-term holiday) was all about. I’d read quite a bit on the subject. A former co-worker and her husband wrote a great blog about their yearlong travel experience that’s still one of my go-to sites when I’m visiting a new country. And, I’m a regular at all the “avid traveler” sites that offer great tips and hacks for seeing the world. One Mile at a Time and The Points Guy are among my faves.

So, on July 8, Pokey the Rhino and I set off — Bound for the Balkans!

Planning the trip

Balkans Trip (1)

You might wondering why travel to the Balkans… or even where are the Balkans? So, here’s a quick post to set up the next seven weeks of my journey. Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first!

Where are the Balkans?

Located in southeast Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is largely bordered by three major seas: Adriatic on the west, Aegean to the south and Black to the east. The region takes its name from a mountain range — you guessed it, the Balkan Mountains — that runs through Bulgaria from the Black Sea westward to Serbia.

What countries make up the Balkans?

Good question. But not one with an easy answer. So I’ll amend your question (we attorneys do that frequently) and tell you what countries I’ll be visiting instead. This trip will take me to:

  • Albania
  • Bosnia & Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Kosovo
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • Romania (not strictly in the Balkans)
  • Serbia (not strictly in the Balkans)

Why the Balkans?

Simply put: By American standards, these countries are cheap. Cost was the primary factor in my decision-making process because I knew I’d be on the road for seven weeks. But, a number of other things also played into my decision, including weather, ease of travel between countries, proximity to Qatar and the “off-the-beaten-path” nature of the region.

What’s the plan?

Before leaving, I’d only loosely planned the trip. Here’s what I’ve got nailed down:

  • One-way airfare from Doha (where I live) to Bucharest, Romania on July 8
  • AirBnB reservations in each country I plan to visit
  • One-way airfare from Sarajevo (where I’ll end my trip) to Doha on August 26

All the rest, including what to see, where to eat and how to get from one country to another will be decided in real-time while I’m on the road. So, follow along. It’s sure to be an adventure.