31 August, 2009

Sofia wrap-up

I'm back home, tired, but very happy.

The concert was a lot of fun. The sets were extravagant and she'd mixed a lot of her songs together in a really interesting way with a great mix of old and new. The stadium was full-to-overflowing. (I just saw in a Bulgarian newspaper that there were more than 50,000 people in attendance!) We had tickets out on the field, which turned out to be fun, because everyone was dancing and singing along.

The one complaint I have is that the show started 2+ hours too late! The audience remained remarkably cheerful and well behaved, however, true to my other impressions of the Bulgarian people over the weekend. During the entire evening I think I saw only three people who were visibly intoxicated, and everyone around us was friendly and relaxed!

When I mentioned this to Lyudmil, the owner of our B&B, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said wryly: "We are used to waiting..."

I just can't say enough about how friendly everyone was this weekend. For some reason I'd expected them to be gruff and distant, and I hate to say it, but more like the Russians. (Who can be very friendly if you get to know them, but who are very rude to strangers.) But people in Sofia consistently went out of their way to make us feel welcome! For example, L and I took some pictures of these guards in front of the President's residence. When turned around to leave when a woman suddenly came up to us, tapped L on the shoulder and said: "Wait, you're about to miss something great!" We walked back and got to see the changing of the guard, which was really impressive!

The city is full of green spaces, and the park in front of the national theater has a whole row of stone tables with chessboards on them. At any given moment most of them were manned, and there were small clusters of onlookers crowded around to watch the games.

L and I stopped to watch and one guy sitting at a table on his own kept urging us to play. Suspecting some sort of trap we turned him down a couple of times and he said: "No money! Just play!" So eventually L gave in and sat down and played with him. One of his friends smiled and boomed: "Welcome to open air chess club!" We ended up spending the better part of an hour just enjoying the relaxed, easy demeanor of these guys hanging around in the park!

In fact, we had such a nice time, that as we were leaving L turned to me and said: "You know, I owe you an apology. Yesterday when you texted me and said how lovely the city is and how nice the people are I didn't really believe you. Thought you were gushing, or just plain insane! But you were right, this place is fantastic!"

Another impression: The main streets in the administrative center of Sofia are paved with yellow cobblestones, which were a gift from Austria back at the end of the 19th century. It lends the whole area a warm, friendly feel. This morning I've searched the Internet to see if there was some sort of connection between these yellow bricks and the ones of Oz fame. Can't find anything, but can testify that these are definitely NOT in Kansas...

Another fascinating footnote: There's a residence hotel that's been built in the center of the city at the site where a 3rd century Roman amphitheater used to be. But instead of just building on top of it they've actually incorporated the ruins into the architecture of the building so that it's part of the lobby and decor. It was very elegant and lent the whole atmosphere a very sophisticated feel.

Oh, and the food was surprisingly delicious! I'd been expecting beige Russian-style mystery meats and simple carbs. Instead we got to sample a wide variety of salads and colorful dishes that satisfied even my picky vegetarian palate. And it was so incredibly cheap! We would eat these spreads of really delicious food and even with drinks and then coffee afterwards it rarely came to more than EUR12 for two people!!!

I guess it's time to stop gushing and close this. Of course we also saw our share of decaying courtyards, crazy electrical wiring, stray animals and a handful of homeless people, but on the balance my impressions of Sofia were overwhelmingly positive. It's beautiful, friendly, affordable and unpretentious. Really my kind of city!

I'll leave you with a few more pictures...

29 August, 2009

I heart Sofia!

Sofia is absolutely lovely! I am completely floored! (Seems this is the second time I've been surpised by a city in the last couple of weeks. Maybe I need to review my preconceived notions?)

Yesterday I got in at about lunchtime and spent the afternoon exploring. I'd forgotten how easy it is to sightsee sans enfants and managed to see almost all the major sights, including the Church of St. George, St. Sofia, and the Russian church.

Spent some time at the National Archeological Museum and admired its impressive collection of Roman (what else?!), Greek, and Thracian artifacts. They had some incredibly well-preserved helmets and armor from the 6th century BC, household utensils, jewelry, clothing, books-- it was fascinating!

My favorite piece was a bronze bust. Apparently no one can agree if it was the rendering of a philosopher or a homeless crazy person. It was lifesize and the eyes were made out of alabaster and glass paste in three different colors so that they were very lifelike, perfectly detailed even down to the eyelashes and the tearducts-- it really looked alive!

After that I walked down to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I've been in a loooooooooooot of cathedrals over the years. Some of them were more beautiful, some of them were larger, most of them older, but I've never, ever experienced anything like this one. It was so atmospheric and subtly beautiful! I felt the presence of God in there. I'm not sure if I even believe in God, but I was so moved that I sat on a bench for a half hour soaking in the atmosphere with tears streaming down my face and dripping off onto my blouse.

I think that the main thing that's surprised me about Sofia is how lively it is. The streets are absolutely teeming with people! Even as I was walking back home at 8 pm the parks were full of people out enjoying the good weather. And when I say full, I mean jam packed-- the park benches were all occupied, and there were children running around everywhere! In one park I passed at least 5 different groups of people crowded around chess games.

I don't know why, but I came to Sofia expecting gray buildings and decaying Soviet drudgery. And perhaps that's the case in the outskirts of the city, but the center is colorful and lively. And the main difference I've noticed is that people are smiling and friendly. Even the guy who caught me surreptitiously taking pictures in the museum was nice! And when a cleaning lady caught me in a wing of a church where I didn't belong she shooed me back with a smile and a pat on the back.

The family that runs Casa Ferrari, my bed and breakfast is wonderful. Friendly, open, and very proud of their city and heritage. Yesterday evening I caught a ride with the owner out to the airport to pick up my friend. Her flight was delayed about an hour, and to kill time Lyudmil took me on a drive to see the sights that are not necessarily in the tourist booklets.

Because he knows I'm interested in Sofia's Soviet past he drove me out to a neighborhood populated with towering concrete soviet-style apartment buildings and showed me the central heating system, where gas supplied by Russia is transformed into steam and piped out to heat the city. As we were driving back he asked me wryly: "And? Did this remind you of Russia?" and I had to tell him that it didn't. Not at all! The main street was in a good state, the cars parked along it were relatively new and clean. There was no garbage littering the street, no hopeless air hanging over the place. (Of course I only viewed these things at night through the window of a speeding car, but even at night it's hard to ignore the depressing atmosphere emanating from run-down Soviet-block neighborhoods in Russia...)

I guess I'll close this long travelogue for now. Am happy to see my friend and we've got the whole day to hang out and then the concert this evening, so I'll be posting again soon...

27 August, 2009

Ve vill rrrock you!

I'm going to pop on over to Bulgaria this weekend.

No, seriously! I'm actually not kidding. A friend and I will be spending the weekend exploring this enigmatic city and will see this controversial pop star whip a staunchly Catholic country into a frenzy.

I'm such a sucker for contrasts, and I can't imagine a bigger one than this trip. Am really looking forward to entering the Twilight Zone!

24 August, 2009

More photos

Goofball will probably be relieved to see that I've removed the Wikimedia photos and have uploaded my own pictures into my vacation posts. Here are a few more that didn't fit in with the posts, but which I wanted to post anyway.
Why is there an enormous spider on this sex shop?!
Why on earth, in a country overflowing with delicious ripe peaches would you advertise a dessert with the can in the picture?!

And finally, here's a mosaic I made with a fun tool from Big Huge Labs...

22 August, 2009

Pulling up stakes

Yesterday we spent the day in Venice, and I'm probably the only visitor on earth who was actually surprised at how lovely it is!

I spent a blurry evening there 23 years ago at the tail end of a blowout European tour. It was the umpteenth stop in ten days and we'd already seen so much that I think my brain's memory card was full. We gobbled down pizza, sat in a gondola and then got herded back onto the tour bus. I was so tired and overstimulated that I didn't realize just how spectacular a city it is!

John Berendt wrote that he used to have "random photo days" in which he wandered around and took pictures at random moments, just to see if he could find a single corner in Venice that is not photogenic. (he never did.)

We were completely and utterly charmed by the city despite the heat and the hoards of tourists. Even S and B enjoyed sightseeing, and that's saying a lot considering how we've kind of pushed our limits with them lately with city tours.

M and I really enjoyed seeing the Fenice, Palazzo Barbaro and other sights mentioned in "City of Falling Angels".

The kids spent about an hour feeding pigeons on St. Mark's square and B even coaxed one to sit on his head.

We ate an excellent lunch at VinoVino-- B, being the ever-curious epicurean, ordered polenta and cuttlefish in ink sauce and I enjoyed an exquisite Venetian risotto.

Later we found a little alleyway named after M, which was very funny considering his name is never heard outside of Holland.

D was really suffering in the heat, so every hour or so we would toss her into a canal. This turned out to be doubly useful-- she'd rolled in something unmentionable before we left because she smelled HORRENDOUS! It was really embarrassing-- people would come up to pet her and then would stop a couple of feet away with their smiles frozen on their faces. The canal water cooled her off and thankfully, over time it even neutralized the stench.

Once we'd seen the manditory sights we explored picturesque sidestreets and alleyways. And at the end of the day we took a vaporetto along the Grand Canal from Plaza Roma down to St. Marks.

What a fantastic experience!

Our vacation is drawing quickly to a close. Today we visited a local winery and tasted wines and olive oil. I came out feeling a bit blurry around the edges-- must have been the oil...

We swam for one last time in the lake and I took D for one last hike up the cliff at the shore near our campsite.

Tomorrow we'll pull up stakes and head for home. Although it will be nice to sleep in our own beds again we've all said that we could easily stay another week-- this has been a really great vacation!

19 August, 2009

Vacation update III

Aida was a wonderful, absolutely amazing experience. I was kind of worried at first-- when we got to Verona it was 38 degrees C! But then the music started, and we forgot the heat and got sucked into the magic of the performance. All in all it lasted more than 3 hours-- the kids were tired, but they still enjoyed it, especially B.

This morning he confided that someone in his class once told him that his parents had forced him to sit through an opera, but that he didn't feel like we'd forced him at all yesterday because he'd really enjoyed it. Sounds good to me...

We're hanging out at the campsite today, swimming, reading and hanging out under our handy shade tree. Tomorrow we're headed to Venice.

I think it's time to close this down now. A big snail just fell onto my head from out of our handy-dandy-shade tree! ???!!! Watch out for flying kamikaze gastropods!

18 August, 2009

4 lake drive

Yesterday we escaped the touristy crowds on Lake Garda and took a drive around to 3 other lakes in the area: Lake Idro, Lake Valvestino and Lake Ledro. As you'll see from the picture, the area is mountainous and the scenery was spectacular!

We stopped for lunch at a little lodge nestled into the mountainside and had a local dish of polenta which has been cooked with alpine cheese. (Or more accurately, alpine cheese which has been cooked with a little bit of polenta sprinkled in.) It was creamy and delicious and turned into a boulder-like consistency in our stomachs as soon as we'd eaten it. Luckily Italian espresso functions as the perfect digestive-- by the time we left we were wired and full and very happy.

We went for a swim in Lake Valvestino and played with a beautiful Weimaraner puppy on the shore. B collected pieces of granite from the pebble-strewn shore and S and M coaxed D out into deeper waters for a swim.

On the way back we stopped in Riva for an ice cream and then drove down the western shore of Lake Garda and enjoyed the spectacular views over the water...

Today we're lounging around on the campsite trying to beat the heat. (Yesterday the temperature climbed to 37 degrees C (!!!) and today it's probably not much cooler!)

Tonight we'll drive to Verona to see the opera. I'm really happy with the Internet connection here at the campground, because I've been able to look up the storyline for Aida and have read it to the kids a couple of times so that they'll be able to follow along better.

*picture thanks to Wikimedia

16 August, 2009

vacation update II

Friday we spent the afternoon in Brescia. It was a pleasant surprise to discover how beautiful the center is, because the author of The Rough Guide had described it as industrial and unattractive.
We were in for another surprise as well-- we'd initially gone to visit the fine arts museum, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, but it has been closed for renovations until the end of 2010. This turned out to be fine, though, because we went to the local archeological museum instead, which had a really interesting collection of artifacts and artwork spanning more than 2000 years.

Yesterday we spent the day in Milan. Again I was pleasantly surprised-- for some reason I'd expected a skyscrapered big-city skyline, but the city is actually very beautiful!

We started out at the Duomo and walked north-- both the architecture and people-watching were equally fascinating. The boys fed hoardes of pigeons on the main square. (B, our little bird fanatic, was very impressed with the "cuddly" pigeons and wanted to buy one with his allowance to keep as a pet! I nipped that one in the bud pretty quickly.)

We also stopped to watch a chinese street artist who was cutting incredibly delicate designs out of carrots and turnips. They were as beautiful as they were bizarre!

The temperatures climbed past 35 degrees C, so we tossed poor D into a public fountain so that she could cool off. Then we fished her out again and beat a hasty retreat. Judging from the looks on people's faces Labradors are not exactly welcome to bathe in ancient monuments.

We spent the afternoon at the Brera Art Gallery (Pinacoteca di Brera), which was a real treat. Yesterday must have been some kind of holiday, and they offered free admission! This meant, however, that the lines were horrendous-- literally hundreds of people were waiting to get in. Everything was surprisingly well organized, however, and the lines moved relatively quickly.

We'd been waiting for about a half an hour when museum staff came up to us and said: "You are here with young children-- you are welcome to leave the line." and they ushered us past the last hundred people and right up into the museum! It was a bit embarrassing, but very nice to be able to get out of the heat and into the cool space inside the museum.

They had a really amazing art collection on display. (Our guide book pronounced it the most important collection of Northern Italian art anywhere in the world.) In addition to the paintings by Caravaggio and Hayez that I've included here they also had some really impressive works by Mantegna, Raphael and Crivelli. I don't pretend to be an expert in any shape and form, but I really enjoyed the gallery and the audio tour we rented.

Today we're going to lounge around on the campground-- we've tortured the kids enough with city trips and museums and they want to spend the day playing card games, reading and swimming in the lake. (Which sounds great to me!)

Time to turn off the computer and go stretch out under our shade tree!

*image of Brescia thanks to wikimedia

13 August, 2009

lead me not into temptation...

This morning when I woke up I didn't open my eyes right away, but burrowed deeper into my pillow and revisited the vision:

I'm in a large open dining room in a renovated ancient farmhouse. A sweet-faced woman arrives at our table bearing a large platter piled high with fragrant seafood on a bed of fresh arugula.

The kids and I tuck into trout, perch, and lightly breaded calamari. We extract tender flesh from enormous crayfish dipped in garlic butter and squeeze lemons on steaming shrimp.

My mouth starts to water. I pull the sheets up around my shoulders and sleepily await that moment when I fully wake and realize that I've been enjoying an extravagant dream.

That moment never comes.

It wasn't a dream.

It was a bit of a rude awakening to remember that after three years of strong resolve I’ve fallen off of the vegetarian wagon for the second time this week... (and it was SO worth it!)

Roman Holiday

Yesterday afternoon we wandered around in Desenzano, a charming little port town just south of here. The buildings are colorful and picturesque and many interesting sculptures dot the tree-lined streets.

After lunch we visited the remains of an authentic Roman villa that had been unearthed on the edge of town. Many of the floors were intact and were decorated with beautiful mosaics. There was also a small museum on the grounds which displayed various statues, household implements and coins that had been found on site-- it was a fascinating way to get a feel for how the Romans lived in this area 2,000 years ago!

And I was thinking yesterday evening what a gift it is that we can expose S and B to these kinds of treasures! In the past couple of years they've visited the Colosseum and other well-preserved Roman amphitheatres in Pula (Croatia), Nimes and Verona. They've seen the Maison Carrée, have explored the exquisite Roman baths and gardens in Nimes and have walked across (and later canoed underneath) the Pont du Gard in the Provence.

I keep thinking what a difference all of this would have made for me as I was struggling to stay awake during dry lectures in Latin class back in middle school!

(Not that they can fully appreciate these opportunities yet. For S and B these antiquities are just distractions from their relentless search for the perfect ice cream, which is, of course, a noble and worthy persuit in the eyes of young boys.)

I'm starting to feel a bit like a stalker of the Holy Roman Empire. Either these guys really were everywhere or we just happen to prefer the same type of vacation spots... ;-)

The best is yet to come, however. Verona holds an annual opera festival every August, in which famous operas are performed at the Roman amphitheater! Thanks to Roman ingenuity the acoustics are so exceptional that no microphones are necessary in spite of the size of the arena.

M and I have scored tickets for next week to take the boys to see Aida, and I've heard that the performance is spectacular and even includes horses that thunder around on stage!


10 August, 2009

Vacation update

We spent the first 4 days of our vacation up in the mountains in Valle d'Aosta. The campground was ideally situated with breathtaking views and great trails up into the woods where we took some really nice hikes.

Unfortunately the aesthetic beauty of the scenery was offset by a decidedly unaesthetic sanitation building which housed filthy pit toilets and moldy showers. We avoided the whole area as much as possible-- one evening when I climbed into bed I laughed and said to M: "I think I might be too dirty to sleep!" to which he replied with a good humored: "No, you're too dirty to sleep NEXT TO."

Sunday we roamed around Aosta and saw some really impressive Roman ruins. Monday we spent hiking out near the Matterhorn! The vistas were beautiful! After a steady 2 hour climb through the dust we were rewarded by a beautiful sight when we suddenly came upon a level clearing with an icy turquoise lake where D could swim and the boys skipped stones.

Tuesday we spent the day in Turin. The old center is really interesting because it's filled with covered passageways. This turned out to be handy because it was raining and we were able to wander around and explore without getting wet.

My favorite part of Turin, however, was a special trip to Eataly, a high-end grocery store/ delicatessen / restaurant / coffee bar / utopia that makes Salvaggio's in Rochester seem like a mini-market! Eataly calls itself an alliance of small-scale producers of high-end products and is a champion of the slow-food movement.

We spent a couple of hours in there, much to the chagrin of the kids, who were hungry, tired, and annoyed that they weren't allowed to play on the escalators.

This place was amazing! They had racks and racks of beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables, and clientele were provided plastic gloves so that you could touch and smell all of it! I bought all kinds of exotic things, including some flat peaches, white peaches, fresh figs, tiger-striped tomatoes and fragrant apricots. I think that that the time I spent there, browsing the spices, cheeses, sauces and pastas will end up being one of the highlights of the vacation for me!

Have been devouring books since we left. Read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography-- unbelievable that someone who came from such humble beginninngs can even function in the Western World, much less rise to become such an influential political figure!

After that I read "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini- it was beautiful but oh so sad! Those of you who have read it as well can probably picture me sitting here on the campsite crying my eyes out and blowing my nose noisily. I got more than one strange look from people passing by.

Right now I'm in the middle of "The City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt. It was a gift from Laurie and I'm really enjoying it in preparation for our trip to Venice sometime in the coming couple of weeks! (Thanks again, Laurie!)

We're happily settled in at our new campsite here at Lake Garda. The area is georgeous, and maybe no less importantly, the toilets and showers are clean.

Yesterday we spent the afternoon in Verona, which is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen!

And now I'm running out of steam and think it's time to close this and go make some lunch...

08 August, 2009

La vita é bella!

Hello from beautiful, sunny Lake Garda! We've had a wonderful vacation so far-- have taken some really nice hikes and visited a couple of interesting cities up in the Valle d'Aosta region. I'll write more about the things we've done tomorrow, but right now I want to talk about tonight's dinner. Which was more than a dinner, actually, it was an experience!

We've got a kitchenette in our caravan and I've been cooking all week. Have been inspired by some beautiful vegetables I found at the market and have really enjoyed taking the time to enjoy the whole cooking process. This afternoon, however, we got a tip from some neighbors about a small local grill just a couple of towns further up the coast. They serve local cuisine and most of the clientele is Italian, which is both a rarity and a good sign around these parts, where most restaurants have menus in German and regularly serve Schweinebraten. **shudder**

The evening is balmy, and we sat outside near a huge old tree in a garden bordering an olive grove. Near the tables there was an outdoor sink where two people were cleaning eels and squid. B and I crept up nearby to watch and they smiled and invited us closer. Once the seafood was ready it was passed it on to be grilled over coals right next to the tables! The smell was exquisite!

After that the food orgy started. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I fell off of the vegetarian wagon this evening. Even if I have to wear a hair shirt for a week it will be worth the penance. We ordered plates and plates of food-- B savored grilled polenta and sardines, S had penne alla arribiata, M grilled steak and I lingered over a fresh trout. This was all accompanied by medeterranian vegetables and crisp salad. After that we couldn't help but order some of the calamari that we'd seen them clean shortly before. It was lightly fried and perfect-- the outside was crispy and the inside was soft and had that wonderful subtle flavor that calamari only has when it's really fresh.

M and I also enjoyed a really nice bottle of local wine. Now we're back at the campsite, sipping coffee and reclining in our chairs, gazing out at the twinkling lights on the lake. I've got that warm, sated, happy, relaxed feeling that washes over you after a really exceptional meal...

Will write more soon...