A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv
After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….
*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.
This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!
Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.
We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:
- Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
- Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
- Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
- Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
- Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
- Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!
Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!
If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.
In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.
The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.
Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!
So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!