The Charming Town of Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor, Montenegro was an almost accidental destination for me.  The anchor destination for the trip was Italy but my wanderlust wanted me to go further to new places (even though Pompeii was new to me).  So I added Croatia by visiting the gem of the AdriaticDubrovnik.  But then I found out about day trips to Mostar (in Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Montenegro.  It didn’t take much for me to say “sold!”  Kotor was a very picturesque and “alive” town with its cafés and old architecture.

Café scene in old town Kotor, Montenegro Canon EOS Rebel

Part of the café scene

Kotor sits between the bay of the same and the mountain of St. John which was fortified as early as the 6th century.  This town has passed from empire to empire from Roman times, Byzantine times, Republic of Venice’s time, Hapsburg times, Bulgarian times, Ottoman times and Yugoslav times among others (even if not all those officially had the name “empire”…).  You get the picture of the changes this places must have gone through over two millenia!

Sea Gate in Kotor, Montenegro part of the fortifications city wall Canon EOS Rebel

The Sea Gate which dates from the 16th century

Madonna with Child in the Sea Gate of Kotor Montenegro carving Canon EOS Rebel architecture detail

Madonna with Child in the Sea Gate

fortification wall tower Kotor Montenegro St. John history Canon EOS Rebel

Fortifications consist of large walls interspersed with towers along the water and up the mountain

Its architecture, heavily influenced by the Venetian style, contributed to it being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site which seconds my recommendation that this is a place that ought to be checked out – the trip to reach it is both, worth effort AND beautiful as Kotor Bay is a unique setting – in and of itself worth seeing in person.

Architecture in Kotor, Montenegro Canon EOS Rebel balcony

Architecture in Kotor, Montenegro tower Canon EOS Rebel

Architecture in Kotor, Montenegro street Canon EOS Rebel

Architecture in Kotor, Montenegro Canon EOS Rebel

Churches in Kotor

Kotor has quite a few churches from different times – 11 if I counted correctly on the tourist map for this town of around 13,000 inhabitants.

St. Tryphon's Cathedral in Kotor, Montenegro - crucifix, museum Canon EOS Rebel

Crucifix in the small gallery on the second level of St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

St. Tryphon's Cathedral - alter and crucifix in Kotor, Montenegro Canon EOS Rebel

Altar and crucifix in St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in front of St. Lucas in Kotor, Montenegro Canon EOS Rebel

St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church (facing St. Lucas Church) in Kotor, Montenegro

Church of St. Lucas in Kotor, Montenegro Romanesque architecture photo Canon EOS Rebel

12th century Church of St. Lucas – Romanesque style

Getting lost in Kotor -and is true in many places – is a neat way to see this town and, trust me, you won’t be lost for too long as you are bound by the mountain, the moat or the Sea Gate!

A Year (or the World?) Ends… Either Way, I Travel

Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen.  I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet.  BUT, if the end did happen, guess what?  I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story.  Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story.  Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).

So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…

A Texas tweetup in January

January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online.  At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it?  But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with.  So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup!  There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco.  Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?

Normal in February – and other months

Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February.  Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year.  Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen.  I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St.  DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore.  Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.

March Madness:  Mile High Skiing

The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years.  The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010.  Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell.  The bowls of Vail where incredible:  one bowl, then another one behind it, then another.  It seemed to never end!

Statue of skier in Vail, Colorado

How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!

Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April

April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends.  Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary.  It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.

But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored:  Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me.  Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro!  These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.

View from up high of Kotor Bay in Montenegro

One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro

Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago

May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile.  The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything:  from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob.  It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.

Posing in front of the Bean in Chicago at Millenium Park

Being tourists at The Bean

More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings

In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!).  Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others.  Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!):  @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.

A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR

Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing.  Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me.  A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world.  We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s!  An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!

Sphinx-like rock in the Bucegi Mountains near Omu Peak, Romania

Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??

Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova.  So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship.  I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!

The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe.  Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!

Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August

August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC!  I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!

Rest in September

In September, I took a break from travel.  Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!

Architecture and Wine:  Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say?  No, Virginia in October!

I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them.  I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way.  I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country.  And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by!  As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines.  And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored!  I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November

So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food!  Someone STOP the madness! 🙂

I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see.  And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC!   The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about.  I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way:  plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope!  Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example.  I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…

Note:  I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time.  The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!

First Things First:  What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?

Fine questions!  As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day.  More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.

Trekking for Kids

An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness

On to how I planned my itinerary….  The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more.  Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…

Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania.  Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited.  I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future.  That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots.  As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.

My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip.  I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now).  I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer.  As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova.  I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be.  Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted.  Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi.  There had to be a reason…

So off I went to research Iasi.  Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.  That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off.  (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was!  Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)

Researching Trips Rocks

If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct.  Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip:  I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…

Figuring out the Logistics…

In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi.  While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train!  So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled.  Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time).  The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.

My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.


Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers.  I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after.  The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.

The Travels I Did – A Map

I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using.  Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer.  I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.

By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova.  In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country.  Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!

Romania Moldova Map

Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova

To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…

Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.

Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.

Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova.  Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries.  Brief stop in Orhei.  Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.

Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.

Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery.  Fly to Bucharest.

Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.

Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs).  Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.

Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.

Day 10 – Third day of the hike.

Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.

Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov.  Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.

Day 13 – Hike with the kids.  Return to Bucharest.

Day 14 – Depart for Paris.

Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.

Day 16 – Fly back home!


If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

Checking out Kotor and Budva in Montenegro

In my prior blog entry I described how I decided on going to the Balkans and how I found day trips to take.  The first day trip was to visit Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina.  The second day trip was centered on a visit to Kotor in Montenegro, one of the “youngest” countries in the world.

Montenegro may seem obscure but it has been a part of European history (for example, in Italy and Russia) for a while even while buried under this empire or another.


Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an old town nested in Kotor Bay which is kind of behind another bay that opens out to the ocean.  Driving all around the coastline takes a while but provides beautiful scenery and interesting small hamlets to see.  (I wrote more about Kotor in another post if you want to read a little more.)

Kotor Bay, Montenegro

Sights of Kotor Bay: Church built on a man-made island (that took 200yrs to create!)

We went straight to Kotor as we also had planned going all the way up to the mountains and Lovcen National Park and that would require a bit of time.  The town is quite charming and full of life.  Among things to see are parts of the fortifications (which run up the slope of the mountain) and various types of churches (Orthodox, Catholic).  The Church of St. Tryphon is well worth a visit – pay to go upstairs and look at the treasures it keeps!

Orthodox Church in Kotor, Montenegro

Church tower in Kotor, Montenegro

Church tower in Kotor

Lively café scene in Kotor, Montenegro

View of Kotor city walls and churches in Montenegro

Ride up Lovcen mountain

Going up the mountains will reward you with spectacular views over Kotor Bay and other coastline areas.  It is incredible how high you get in such little time.  The road up was built during the Austro-Hungarian empire days (it has been updated since then!) and it is quite impressive as you zigzag your way up pretty quickly.  Again, you do it for the spectacular views!  Hopefully, you won’t have a rainy day (had I done this tour a day earlier, I would have missed them!)  After like curve 32, you officially have entered Lovcen National Park ( and gotten to Lovcen mountain where supposedly Montenegro gets its name from (black mountain – which is not how the locals call it, by the way – they call it Crna Gora).

It is funny to re-read the section of “On the Shores of the Mediterranean” by Eric Newby (first published in 1984) and hear how this road up used to be back then:  full of potholes and gaps in the protective walls that showed how vehicle occupants on this road made a “spectacular exit to eternity”!  The road is still one lane with lay-bys for cars to pass each other but the road is of excellent quality now vs. 1984 (thankfully!).

Mountain town

Our day trip stopped at a mountain hamlet, named Njegusi (famous for being the birthplace in the 19th century of a future Montenegrin ruler), which seemed pretty empty on that day.  Maybe the people were elsewhere working… We stopped at a small restaurant where we visited the smokeroom for the ham and then sampled some of it in a fairly basic ham and cheese sandwich (the cheese also being local) bought at the counter.  Of course, I also got a glass of vino which was actually quite adequate.  The ham was tougher than jamon serrano (Spanish ham) and I had a hard time chewing through it.  But it was interesting nevertheless.

Budva and the Montenegrin Riviera

From the hamlet we drove through the mountain countryside.  We were quite high up and yet all we saw for a while were mountains that looked pretty dark in color (trees hadn’t grown their green back yet) and some with a little snow.

At some point we did get to look in the distance at the lake that is part of Montenegro’s border with Albania and my heart wished we were a lot closer so I could enter Albania!  We made our way down to the town of Cetinje, former seat of the royal house that use to lord over Montenegro and hosted foreign embassies (  We drove through town not stopping on our way to coastal Budva.

Budva seems to be quickly becoming the capital of a Montenegrin riviera.  Well, maybe it already is.  Hotels and many other modern structures abound, including a hotel we were told was used a good bit by the movie Casino Royal (of James Bond fame).  I suspect a lot of Russian tourism hits this part as the countries do have some historical connections and wonder whose money is funding all the construction… But I digress, a favorite weakness of mine.

We got a couple of hours to explore Old Town Budva which is rather charming.  As usual, I got a coffee somewhere to get access to a hopefully clean restroom (which it was).  It was a nice afternoon and it was nice to be able to stretch them legs on a nice stop like this one.

Budva, Montenegro on the Adriatic

Around old town Budva


Montenegro offered me almost two different worlds within a rather small land area!  Budva and the riviera sort of contrasted with earlier in the day when I was seeing something that felt more like a distant world from times long gone.  Budva old town was worth the stop but the riviera aspect of it (since I was not there to enjoy it, I suppose) diluted the charm I felt earlier in the day and in spending time in the old town.  Now, maybe in another visit, I will get to enjoy being seaside and then Budva could become a favorite?  I will have to come back perhaps to the Montenegrin riviera which I assume is broader than just Budva!

I have to say that Kotor Bay would be an area I would stick around another couple of days to take in more slowly.  I would also love to get lost (not literally) inland in those mountain areas that actually felt remote though, in distance, they were not.  They seemed pretty unspoilt as far as the eye could see (which in the very far distance was actually Serbia).

If you do get to go and choose a tour, make sure you get one that takes you up the mountain for the splendid views of Kotor Bay and to see the “hinterlands”.  Your impressions of Montenegro will be different if you don’t see these two things!  I leave you with that phenomenal view!

View from Luvcen mountain of Kotor Bay, Montenegro

A Wedding in Bulgaria

Early this year, one of my cousins told me she had to go to Sofia, Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding and that she was hoping her Dad or another cousin would go with her.  My ears perked up and I offered that, if neither could go, I may be able to go with her.  Bulgaria, that’s a place I remember from my childhood, pre-Berlin Wall fall, as a very Stalinist-type of state (some say even more than the USSR itself), tight with the USSR right along with East Germany; a big mystery to me as a curious child.  Wow, how would the place feel close to 20 yrs post Wall fall…

Bulgaria, Sofia, national theatre, alexander nevsky cathedral, orthodox church, view from above, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Bulgarian National Theatre and a smallish Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the background

As Usual, Planning Is Half the Fun

About a month and a half ago, my cousin confirmed that indeed she didn’t have any takers yet on the trip so I signed up for it.  Cool.  Bulgaria.  Knowing not much really about Bulgaria, my mind filled up with the possibilities.  And there were intereting places nearby that I wouldn’t mind exploring… Macedonia, Serbia, Romania.  Could I fit something else in the trip…  (Oh, and how would it be not only with a place whose language I didn’t speak but also with an alphabet I didn’t understand.)

However, travel logistics ended up settling the matter for me.  I planned to use a free ticket with my frequent flyer miles but the options were limited.  First, the miles couldn’t get me all the way to Sofia and back given limited seat availability for free tickets.  Second, it sure was going to be nicer if at least my cousin and I coincided on the flight into and out of Bulgaria to ease the planning and to not travel alone.  Third, the return flight to Atlanta offered the option of going elsewhere as a complement to the visit to Bulgaria.  While I had time to research things, I also didn’t have all the time I would have needed to explore 100 different ways to do the trip.  So, of the possible ports of departure from Europe, Copenhagen offered both a convenient itinerary plus getting to see a place I had not been to, perfectly meeting requirements!

I had much less time to research what I should do while in Bulgaria outside of the wedding-related events but I managed to get a travel guide and do some brief reading…  Fortunately, the wedding folks had connected all travelers with an apartment renting company in Sofia that they knew so that solved our accommodations logistics – always cheaper to stay in an apartment plus it offers the benefits of full kitchen, washer/dryer, TV with cable, and wi-fi.  Not bad for 26 euro/night per person!

The Wedding Events

The main purpose of the trip to Bulgaria was the wedding so I will describe a little bit what that was like.  The bride, who lives in the US, is Bulgarian-born while the groom is American.  The wedding, therefore, was planned quite similar to what I am used to.  My cousin was the maid of honor so that immediately placed us in the pre-wedding events (parties, rehearsal).  The bride picked us up at the airport and took us to our apartment which was located in ulitsa Gurko.  A smaller but busy side street in Sofia quite close to key government buildings and the key tourist attractions of Alexander Nevsky Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the National Theatre and other key sites.

Friday night the bachelor and bachelorette parties took place.  Sorry, I can’t tell you what happened.  You know the rule… what happens in Sofia, stays in Sofia…  Actually, since there was only a small group of visitors attending the wedding (and a couple of those never made it due to the ash-related airspace closures), the bachelor party was a dinner with the father, father-in-law, uncle-in-law and brother-in-law.  Since my cousin was going to be busy the entire day, the bride offered me participating in the bachelor party though I had not yet met the groom (and had just met the bride at the airport).  Knowing I had nothing better to do and wondering how it would be, I decided to go.  We drove to the outskirts of town to the Eleganza Hotel (a nice hotel in case you are looking outside of the city) to eat at its restaurant since the in-laws knew the owner.  The food and restaurant were very nice and we enjoyed good conversation (at least, those of us who shared a common language since some of the inlaws didn’t speak English; I assume they had a good conversation among themselves!).  I avoided drinking rakia as I knew it could get out of hand given how one of the inlaws was downing it…   It was good to meet the groom and his dad since I was going to be seeing them the next couple of days and I was very glad I went.  From what I hear, the bachelorette party consisted of spending a whole day in a salon, having some drinks and other entertainment.

Saturday was time for the rehearsal.  The wedding church was Saint Sofia, a beautiful church close to the larger Alexander Nevsky Church.  After the church, we went for coffee at the Cafe Vienna next door to finish discussion of logistics, etc.  That evening, we all met up at a nice pizza restaurant outside the city center.  I had grown to love the shopska salad so I had that and a pizza that I shared with my cousin.  The shopska salad is cucumbers, tomatoes, dill and a large serving of sirene cheese, a white cheese made from cow and sheep milk (or so we were told).  I think it was my favorite culinary discovery for the trip!

The Wedding

I got to the church 5-10 mins before it was supposed to start but, not seeing anyone and after confirming in my mind that I was indeed at the right place, I moseyed over to see the magnificent Alexander Nevski Church.  I was not going to have time to explore it in detail but at least I wanted a mental picture.  It is such an amazing church on its exterior yet quite austere inside for such an imposing structure.  The juxtaposition may not have been accidental, I suppose.

Anyhow, back to the wedding since that is what this blog entry is about…  Not being orthodox and not speaking Bulgarian kept me from understanding all that was going on but the ceremony seemed rich in tradition and a high reliance on everything 3.  The rings were crossed by a wedding party member in front of the groom and bride 3 times before they were placed on their final spot on the respective hands of the couple.  The couple walked around the altar 3 times.  The crowns they were to wear were crossed 3 times too.  The priests’ garments were bright orange and gold, pretty spectacular.  The bride looked gorgeous.  The wedding party stood behind the couple in line the entire ceremony.  And the guests stood the entire ceremony.

Petals were thrown at them as they walked outside of the church and a wedding party member passed around sweets on a tray in front of the church.  All part of the traditions and I liked them.  The greeting line for the couple and key wedding party members was held right outside the church before the couple did the pictures.  People brought flowers that they handed the bride.  An old lady was walking around the crowd asking for money until she figured out that her best strategy was to stand at the end of the greeting line right after the bride and groom.  It was hilarious and a good fast assessment of her market’s conditions!

The Reception

Before the reception, we headed to the Arena di Serdica Hotel not far from the church.  It is a magnificent hotel built on top of old Roman ruins (the town was called Serdica back then; I didn’t know but Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe).  The lower levels of the hotel below the lobby open up to the lobby so everyone can see the Roman ruins below the hotel.  The cocktail was held at the lowest level among the ruins and with a band of musicians playing classical music.  It was a perfect setting for the post-wedding cocktail.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Serdica, hotel, Roman ruins, history, architecture, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The basement of the hotel kept the Roman ruins uncovered – great ambiance!

From there, once the bridal party arrived and partook, we left for another hotel to the reception.  The hotel was in the city but a little beyond Alexander Nevsky.  The meal was phenomenal (I had a rabbit-based appetizer and fish for the main course).  Traditional music alternated with music I knew from the States and Latin America making the party quite fun.  The traditional flower bouquet toss took place as well as the local “bread contest” between the couple.  In this contest a massive piece of bread is placed above the couple’s heads and they must wrestle it from each other.  Whoever takes the largest piece will “rule” the household.  The groom won and I heard the bride say “I am not happy”.  🙂

I greatly enjoyed getting to go to a wedding in Bulgaria even if the wedding was a blend of cultures.  In this global world, this will become more and more the norm but I was pleased to see local traditions will not die off any time soon!  Cheers to the happy couple!

Details of Trip to Krakow

Today is Sunday and this coming Friday, I am off to Poland as I mentioned in an earlier entry.  A lot of final details to still take care of and, because I have a very loaded work week, for once I actually have to pack more than 2 days in advance (usually I pack in the 2 days prior to a trip, at most!).

One part for which I am ready is the cold.  It will be very cold.  But that is why we have coats, gloves, and scarves.  I had to upgrade in the glove department but the rest was all good.  Will be using my Gore Tex boots most of the time to handle any ice or snow though the area of the city I will be staying at is likely to be well kept in terms of snow and ice.  However, the same may not be true elsewhere.

We opted to rent an apartment in Krakow as we realized we could make it our home base for the things we wanted to see and visit.  This was a great decision as it would make a lot of things easier (no packing-unpacking moving from one hotel to another) and much cheaper than a hotel ($90 per night for a 2 bedroom which translated to $45 per night for each of us).  It is located close to the city center.  The owners wanted full pre-payment, which may be a common approach, but we settled for 20% upfront, the rest upon arrival.  A few weeks later, they have been very helpful with many details so we are likely to go ahead and settle up before getting there to avoid carrying all the cash and for them the hassle of getting the money to them in the UK from their local contact.

In terms of planning, there is a lot of info available on the Internet, as you can imagine.  Plenty of resources from the local and the national tourism websites:  and  Also, the following interactive map has been an excellent Krakow resource:  Finally, the following link will be very helpful to plan train travel (what I was able to Google in terms of train travel was not as good as this link sent to me by the apartment owners):

We are likely going to be visiting Auschwitz, Wadowice, Czestochowa, and the Salt Mines in Wieliczka in the 5 days we have in town and then, of course, explore Krakow itself for which we are allowing ourselves a couple of days.  We also have received recommendations in terms of restaurants from the apartment owners and from perusing various websites.  We are ready for good food!

Finally, though we expect we will find enough English speakers, I have been trying to learn basic phrases and words just in case we find ourselves lost in a small town.  It is a curious language for me and some words remind me of Latin – whether a real or imaginary connection, I don’t know, but it makes remembering some of the stuff easier.

I am ready to get there and explore a new place!  I will be blogging about my trip as it happens so stay tuned.

Any final advice? 

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