Sunday, May 1, 2011

Nasdrave, Bulgaria!

March ended on a (super!) high note; I spent a week in Bulgaria! Maybe you're wondering where the heck Bulgaria is...

We (Divina, my tutora in the primary school, and Toni, a fellow teacher/my Comenius mom!) spent the first six days in Varna, where we attended a "Comenius meeting".  In September 2010, Jarandilla hosted the Comenius meeting with 12 schools from 14 countries. Bulgaria's meeting was smaller, with just 6 schools in attendance - but it didn't mean it was less fun! IT WAS SO MUCH MORE FUN! Seriously, this Bulgaria trip ranks high in my list of places I've traveled. If you ever have the chance to go: GO! The last three days we went site-seeing (just the three of us) in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. 

Like my first time to Morocco, I was taken by the language! I get a thrill out of not being able to understand/read anything... the first experience was on the place from Spain to Sofia.  They were passing out Bulgarian newspapers (it was obvious they were only giving them to Bulgarians/people who looked Bulgarian/people who understood when they said "newspaper") BUT I asked for one: 

Flight attendant: "I'm sorry, they are only in Bulgarian." 
Me: "I don't care. I just want to look at the letters!"
About five pages in I was able to say: "Look! It says Michelle Obama!" 

(The only give away was her picture...or else I would have had no clue!)

The picture on the top right is of our Comenius group visiting the Varna school!
Can you read anything??
Upon arriving in Varna, I noticed that Bulgaria's communist past was still very evident in it's buildings. There was no color - everything was gray - and it was quite depressing. However, it's people couldn't have been more opposite! The teachers in the Varna primary school were some of the nicest people I have ever met! And the food - ah! where to begin about their food?! I was in heaven for 9 days. We went to traditional taverns at night to have dinner...and danced the nights away!
Flats in Varna near the school.
A Typical Bulgarian Restaurant
On any given night in Bulgaria, people go to taverns where they have a nice meal with friends and family. There is live music that makes you want to get up and do traditional dances - well, even if you didn't want to - you would get pulled out of your chair and added to the dancing chain! It's such a cool atmosphere, as all the people are dancing in a circle around the restaurant, holding hands! I wish America had traditional taverns and dances like these (square dancing and line dancing DON'T count!) I got to be quite good at a few of the different foot works (which came in handy in Greece!) 
Dancing around the tavern!
People, Places & Things
We went to visit a Fossil Forrest; a rock forest that use to be at the bottom of the Black Sea. It was very interesting, said to have "magic" and bring good luck if you hugged the rocks. Well, I hugged as many as I could.  I also tasted some wonderful rose jam just before we left...and of course (because I can't say no to buying cultural foods) I bought a jar to send to my family. In the afternoon, we went to see an old Roman bath house.  They weren't too well kept, so we were imaging how it would have looked, which is always necessary when looking at old stones! Calling ruins "old stones" isn't so great, but some of the people (aka Robert from Holland) on the trip always referred to them as "just more old stones" so it has become a part of my vocabulary too, as visting places such as these always make their way into Comenius meeting trips! 
Fossil Forest - Circle of Wishes!
Hugging the rocks for good energy!
The old Roman bath house - where they had fires to heat the bath water above.
A very unique opportunity we had was to be VIPs at the Zachary Stoyanov School spring concert! Students from the Varna school put on dances, songs, and a short play for all of their parents (nearly 750 students' families!) and us!  While I didn't understand anything except "Michael Jackson's Heal the World" that was sung by one of the classes, it was a very exciting evening, followed by a wonderful traditional dinner and more student performances that "WOW-ed" us! 
Traditional vs. Modern dancing performance.
Look how appetizing those stuffed grape leaves are! YUM!
This girl and her younger sister were incredible!
Divina, Toni and I danced all night!
On Sunday March 20th, we went to Cape Kaliakra! We were high above on the cliffs that overlooked the Black Sea, where we enjoyed a nice (cold!) walk in the (very!) windy "breeze".  We had lunch in a nearby town after we toured the Balchik Castle that belonged to an old Romanian queen. We drove by some of the big vacation complexes that attract many tourists in the summer; Golden Sands Resort is the biggest and best if you ever make it to Varna, Bulgaria, in the summer months! The day's activities came to an end with a visit to Aladja Monastary. This monastary was unlike any monastary I've ever visited, as it was carved into the side of a mountain. The monks made their home here, in the rocks, deep within a forest. Lastly, we went for another traditional, wonderful dinner with plenty of dancing! 
High over the Black Sea at Cape Kaliakra
Souvenirs just outside the castle... so many cats!
I wanted to bring one back to Spain!
Balchik Castle
Unlike any other monastery I've seen: only carved rocks!
Monday started off with a visit to a Bulgarian Health Museum, where we learned more about the human body, healthy diet, and watched a film on preserving the Earth (ok, the group watched the film - I took a siesta!) to continue the theme of the Comenius: Eco Friendly Citizens.  After, we went to have lunch in the Zachary Stoyanov School, our Comenius partner. Well... They prepared us a very nice meal - but I regret to say, I didn't have much of an appetite after I entered the school's canteen. I had been having wonderful meals in beautiful taverns the previous nights and this was the first time I experienced poor(er?) Bulgaria. While the classrooms and children were very cheery, I fel really sad in the cafeteria, while the students weren't affected by it. I guess it was just so different than school cafeterias I've visited, that I was left thinking about everything rather than just living it. We ate here on Friday as well, and I had more of an appetite, as I knew what was ahead of me. So, I guess it was really the shock of things that made me not hungry, as those of you who know me well know that I eat anything and everything (except pigs ears!) After the school lunch on Thursday, we had a group working session - YES! WE WORKED! (for just 1.5 hours, with 2 coffee breaks - I can't complain about my "job"!) Monday night was spent wine tasting! Who knew Bulgaria had such wonderful vino! I bought a bottle for my family (to go with the rose jam!) that I hope they can enjoy sometime soon. 
If it weren't for the pictures, I would have been lost!
Zachary Stoyanov School - Our Comenius Partner
Two schools share this same building because there is a lack of schools in Varna.
There are two shifts (7am - 12pm & 1pm - 6pm) and they alternate every other month.

Eating in the school's canteen.
Proof we worked. "Welcome" in Bulgarian!
In the wine cellar where we tested 6 types of wine/liquor.
On Tuesday, we made a trip to Euxinograd Palace, a complex of many royal buildings, just a short walk from a beautiful overlook of the Black Sea. Later, we went to a dolphin show in Bulgaria's only "Delphinarium", just before having our second lunch in the Zachary Stoyanov School. We had free time in the afternoon; Divina, Toni, and I decided to go to the center to see the Cathedral and buy some souvenirs. We went to the beach/sea to be able to say "We touched the Black Sea!" (For some reason, I really expected the water to be black or darker because of it's name, but, it was the prettiest light blue! I guess I should have thought this to myself before mentioning it to a few people... I got lots of responses like "Did you think the Red Sea was red?") I learned that the Black Sea gets its name from the roughness of its waters and is prone to stormy weather, hence its name "Black" Sea. 
Euxinograd Palace
Comenius group in Bulgaria.
Dophin show.
Old Buildings in the center of Varna.
Varna Cathedral
Black Sea (as blue as ever!)
Another wonderful dinner!
Wednesday, our last day in Varna, we toured an archaeology museum to see Bulgarian gold and jewels. We took a long walk in the Sea Garden, a park that goes throughout all of Varna. In the afternoon, we went to the airport to catch our plane to Sofia, where we spent three days. 
Walking in the Sea Garden

Toni, Divina, and I arrived in Sofia late on Wednesday evening.  Thursday we toured all of Sofia, seeing the Alejandro Nevski Cathedral, St. George's Church, a Russian church, street markets, Boyana Church, and many buildings that use to be communist headquarters, that are now art galleries and museums. Roaming the streets we were able to see the great divide between rich and poor Bulgaria. The main street, Vitosha Street, is beautiful - lined with expensive stores, pastry shops, bars and restaurants. The streets just behind were nearly dirt paths; we saw many people looking for things in dumpsters.  It was very depressing and really made me think about all the nice things we had done in the week in Bulgaria. I just don't understand how there is such a great divide. I guess this is the result of a previous communist country. 
Flats across from our hotel.
St. George's Church, surrounded by modern buildings on all sides.
Vitosha Street
Birds in support of Japan's Eathquake, just outside the Alejandro Nevski Cathedral.
Alejandro Nevski Cathedral
This opera theater was so pretty!
WHITNEY graffiti in Bulgaria!
Not Vitosha Street.
A traditional street market.
Friday was our day adventure to Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. We went, by taxi, to Rila - to visit its beautiful monastery. It's located just about two hours south of Sofia. This place was unlike anything I'd ever seen! While I've never visited the mosque in Cordoba, Spain, it reminded me of pictures I had seen of its candy cane stripped arches. Rila, sitting high in the mountains, just below the snow, has space for 300 monks. Pope John Paul visited here during his pilgrimage throughout Bulgaria! If you ever find yourself in Bulgaria - it's a must see! I am so happy we went. (Sorry for the abundance of pictures, but I want to show all aspects of it!)
Rila - the church in the middle of the plaza.
Toni, Divina, Yo
The fresco paintings were so detailed.
At the base of the Rila Mountains...

Taking it all in.

I'll tell you everything we did on Friday and then ask you how much you think it cost us for the entire day! The taxi picked us up from our hotel. We drove two hours to Rila. While we toured the monastery for about 1.5 hours, the driver waited for us. We were hungry so we stopped to eat on the way back to Sofia...this was another hour of waiting for us. Two hours driving back to Sofia, with a few stops to see waterfalls and mountain goats at a small prayer site along the highway, which our driver pointed out to us and wanted us to see! Now, how much would this cost in euros? A 15/20 minute taxi ride in Madrid costs about 25 - 30euro (just guessing from some of the rides I've taken) and a 2 hour taxi ride from Navalmoral to the airport in Madrid cost 150euro (about $200) Well, about 7 hours with our taxi driver cost us 140 levas - which is 70 euro - about $100 - for three people - for nearly an entire day! We left him a generous tip, which was only a few more euro for each of us, but nearly 40 extra levas for our driver/guide "Waman!" He was such a nice man, and I will always remember his hospitality on our trip to Rila! 
Roadside pilgrimage and mountain goats!
Having a coffee with Waman after lunch.

Speaking of currencies... Bulgaria is part of the EU, but it has it's own currency.  Because of this factor, Bulgaria is very cheap! When we would go to dinner at night in Sofia, we would spend just 10 euro for the Bulgarian equilivant of 20 leva. So, basically, we ate the most expensive things on the menu for half price. I felt like VIP - 50% off everything!!! And, because I have a European job that pays me in euros, I was very rich in Bulgaria - what a nice feeling - unlike the feeling I get when I exchange my dollars for euros!!

This trip to Bulgaria only left me yearning for more of this wonderful country. If I can manage, I would love to go back and visit my favorite Bulgarians over the 2011 - 2012 school year in Valladolid.

Until the next time, Bulgaria. Blogadaria! Nasdrave! (Thank you! Cheers!)

On March 1st, everyone exchanges red and white bracelets. When you see a stork, you take it off and put it on a flowering tree to signify that Spring has come! Everywhere you walked, you were reminded of this holiday which represents health, happiness and luck throughout the year! Every time I see my bracelet, I think of the kindness and hospitality that I received during our trip to Bulgaria. (I refuse to take it off because storks are everywhere in Spain.) Nasdrave!