The Garden Route Part 2: Great Waves, Crocodiles and Ronnie’s

We hadn’t planned our return itinerary to Cape Town and were open to suggestions.  Over the past two days, during the down time between game drives at Schotia Private Game Reserve our guide, Edward, shared his love of South Africa with us.  “Did you stop at Stormsriver?” “No.” “It’s a breathtaking stretch of coast. They have cabins you can rent, right on the water, and there’s a spectacular trail with suspension bridges across the gorge.”  “And the Karoo, don’t forget the Karoo and Ronnie’s.” IMG_0095During the morning “golden hour” we watched a family of giraffe walk gracefully through the forest, nibbling thorns from the acacia trees, before saying our goodbyes.  Stormsriver, it was!  Backtracking through Port Elizabeth we retraced our drive past Jeffreys Bay and continued west on the N2 until we stopped to photograph the steep chasm that the Stormsriver Bridge spanned, just before the village of the same name. Mostly folks mean the Tsitsikamma National Park when they mention Stormsriver; they are synonymous with each other, the difference being the village is located far inland, just off the highway, and the park is on the coast. IMG_2188We thought the entrance fee of $17.00 per person for international tourists was steep and we did see some cars turning away, but we had heard such tremendous recommendations we would regret it if we didn’t check it out.  There was a long winding road down from the entrance gate and when we finally rounded a sharp corner, the view of the rugged coastline with crashing waves sending up large white sprays was spectacular! IMG_2176We enjoyed lunch watching and listening to thunderous waves explode against rocks only a short distance away from our table at the Cattle Baron.  It’s the only restaurant in the park and was excellent, along with being very affordable.  A nice surprise after the park entrance fee. IMG_1809After lunch we followed an easy section of the Otter Trail to the three suspension bridges that cross Stormsriver where it meets the sea.  Reservations and a permit are required to trek the full length of this popular and strenuous 28 mile trail that follows the edge of the coastal plateau through evergreen forests, traverses boulder strewn beaches and tidal river crossings. IMG_1977Staying in designated cabins each night, it takes five days to cover the route that stretches from Stormsriver in the Eastern Cape to Nature’s Valley in the Western Cape.  The reverse hike is referred to as the Tsitsikamma Trail.

We were greeted warmly by Bev and Marco, owners of At The Woods Guest House Tsitsikamma in the village.  Their place is a lovingly envisioned and restored eight room B&B in what had been a carpentry workshop.  At check-in Bev noticed that the clasp to the shoulder strap on Donna’s camera bag was broken and offered to repair it.  A huge help, the repair has lasted eight months so far.  We greatly appreciated it.  We walked around the corner to Darnell Street, the village’s restaurant row, with six eateries, and sat down at Marilyn’s 60’s Diner. The place is shrine to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with movie posters, classic cars, motorcycles, juke boxes, checkered floor and chrome, lots of chrome as décor.  Happy Days meets Northern Exposure, it seemed to be a clash of cultures in the woods.

The next morning we enjoyed coffee on our balcony while listening to new bird calls and hoping to spot Narina Trogan, Knysna Turaco (Loerie) and Victorin’s Warblers which inhabit this heavily forested area. IMG_2247After breakfast, on our way to Nature’s Valley, we crossed over the Bloukans River Bridge, which claims to be the world’s highest bungee jump at 710ft and divides the western cape from eastern cape region.  The small resort village is right on the Indian Ocean and borders the Grootrivier lagoon, which is blocked from reaching the ocean by a wide sandbar.  The two waters only merge when a hide tide washes over the sand, or when heavy rains raise the level of the river and it cuts a channel through the sand to the sea.IMG_2289On the way back to the highway we stopped at Nature’s Way Farm Stall for coffee and a snack before continuing or drive to Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo.  Located on a working dairy farm, the stand had a wonderful selection of homemade cheeses, breads, jams and chutneys – we stocked up. They also have cottages available for rent.

Passing through Plettenberg Bay we stopped at the Old Nick Village to check out their mid-week farmers market and the homeware textiles created on site at Mungo Mill, a local South African company that reinvests 1% of its profit back into community projects.  There was also an interesting plant nursery and pottery shop with vervet monkeys scampering across their roofs.  IMG_2356Our steep ascent away from the coast began in George as we headed north on the N9/N12 twisting our way uphill through the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn. This is a challenging stretch of highway with continuous s-turns that required my constant attention.  Passengers can enjoy spectacular views on sunny days that stretch for miles.  If possible, drive the route towards the coast, it’s easier to stop at the scenic lookouts this way.

One thing about traveling in the off-season, things are quieter, especially on the late Sunday afternoon when entered Oudtshoorn, looking for dinner before we checked into our B&B for the night.  It wouldn’t have surprised us to see tumbleweed blowing down the streets.  It was too cold outside to sit by the open firepit in the courtyard of La Dolce Vita, one of the few places we found open. But the staff was friendly, the food was good, and the bartender had a sweet dog to help him keep the conversations going with the ladies. IMG_7085We’ve heard of gold booms, where fortunes were made.  But it was the ostrich booms in 1865 -1885 and 1902-1913 when ostrich feathers were the ultimate fashion accessory in Europe that enriched local farmers here.  At one point 314,000 ostriches were being raised and their feathers were a valuable South African export, only surpassed by gold, diamonds and wool.

Today Oudtshoorn attracts outdoor enthusiasts, with the Cango Marathon endurance race and the “To Hell and Back” mountain bike race. Wine and cultural events like the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) a visual and performing arts festival also dot the high season calendar. The region is on the R62 Wine Route and becoming increasingly known for its port style fortified wines and brandies produced from grapes that thrive in the arid conditions of the karoo.  Ostriches are still raised in the area for their meat and leather.  IMG_2417Die Fonteine, our B&B for the night, was a few miles north of Oudtshoorn, outside the small village of Schoemanshoek.  After a delicous breakfast the next morning we enjoyed exploring the manicured grounds of this beautiful farmette. Caged song birds, chickens and sheep provided our morning entertainment. Anzue, our hostess, gave us a jar of homemade guava jam for our journey back to Cape Town, after we raved about it at breakfast.  “How are you headed back? “Through Montagu.” “It’s a long stretch through the karoo, not much between towns, just Ronnie’s.”

Leaving town, we hammed it up with a jaws of death photo at the Cango Wildlife Ranch. It’s South Africa’s version of a petting zoo, where you can go cage diving with crocodiles for an adrenaline rush, if that’s your thing.IMG_2423The word karoo comes from the Khoisan language meaning “land of thirst” and it precisely describes the terrain along R62 which we followed.  Parched, rock encrusted rolling hills and mountains covered with a fynbos of low heather-like shrubs and proteas occasionally accentuated by taller, lone trees and dry riverbeds crisscrossed the landscape. During the South African spring, in October, it bursts with flowers, but it was July, still winter.  The area endures extreme heat during the summer.  Fortunately for us recent winter rains had spurred some greenery to burst forth and aloe plants to bloom. IMG_2540We stopped in Ladismith, a rural farming community where Vincent, Donna’s friend from seminary, first pastored a church, and enjoyed its colonial Dutch architecture.

Watch for Stray Cattle and Wild Animal Crossing Ahead signs occasionally broke the rhythm of the terrain.  Every few miles now we would pass old battered signs for Ronnie’s.  Somewhere along the way they turned into signs for Ronnie’s Sex Shop! IMG_2683The heat can do strange things to the mind and sometime in the 1970’s Ronnie thought a farm stand on this desolate stretch of highway through the karoo would be a good idea.  Fortunately, his buddies realized it was destined for failure and would soon be another abandoned building along the road if something wasn’t done.  One night they painted SEX into the name of the shop and suggested he open a bar.  They saved his butt!  Famous now worldwide as a dive bar in the middle of nowhere, it draws in the curious.  It’s not the raunchy place the name implies, filled with frustrated farmers between ostrich roundups.  A grey bearded Ronnie, now a cause célèbre, still pours drinks at the bar. It has a tired, dusty bar area filled with foreign money plastered to the walls and lingerie hanging from the ceiling, but aside from that it’s a wholesome oasis with a covered patio where you can get a decent burger with fries, ice cream and coffee along with some hard stuff if that’s your drink.  It’s not worth a detour, but if you are on the R62 traveling between Barrydale and Ladismith, it’s worth the stop.  Actually, it’s the only place to stop.

For some R62 conjures up thoughts of Jack Kerouac and his road trip across America from Chicago to Los Angeles along Rt 66 through the heartland of the country.  Similarly, R62 connects Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean, to Cape Town, on the South Atlantic, while passing through the beautiful karoo region, the core of South Africa.  An epic journey for many of the folks in camper vans and cross-country motorcyclists we passed along the way.  It’s an interesting, inland alternative to the N2.IMG_2516We zoomed past the small village of Barrydale on our way to Montagu, so we could explore the town a little before nightfall.  The farming community is in a valley surrounded by the Langeberg mountain range and has many examples of late 19th century Cape Dutch architecture scattered about town.   Ornate gables, thatched roofs, whitewashed walls and occasionally gingerbread trim define the style, but there are modern interpretations also.IMG_2889In a country not known for Art Deco we booked ourselves into the Montagu Country Hotel, the only original Art Deco hotel in South Africa. In the main building, lounges with fireplaces and guest rooms are filled with stylish Art Deco antiques.  Contrarily, we stayed in their African lodge – after all, this is Africa – which was situated nicely in a lush garden. It was circular structure with a 20ft high thatched roof that had all the conveniences of home.  The bathroom had the largest soaking tub we have ever seen that easily could have held a family of four. We wondered when the last time it was filled.  Guilt about wasting water, during a drought, prevented us from using it.IMG_6089The temperature drops quickly in the mountains once the sun sets so we enjoyed a local wine, in front of a fireplace, in one of the lounges before dinner.  We usually look for a less expensive alternative for dinner, but the hotels’ Wild Apricot Restaurant drew us in with elegant candlelit tables and live piano music.  It was the last night of our road trip – we could splurge.  With Smoked Ostrich Carpaccio and Springbok Tarta for appetizers followed by Cape Malay Bobotie and Karoo Lamb Pie as mains and a traditional Orange Malva Pudding for dessert, we were splendidly sated.

Cruising around the village before heading back to Cape Town, we found some interesting examples of colonial Cape Dutch architecture and a small suspension footbridge over the Kogsmankloofrivier. Water rushes over the road below it when the river runs high.  IMG_3126We followed R62 west through a small tunnel, locally referred to as the “Hole in the Wall,” that was dynamited out in the 1870’s. It’s a dramatic landmark that tells you of your arrival into or departure from the Karoo.  As we left our road trip behind, we looked forward to heading to a new apartment in Cape Town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Cape Town Street Murals: Unexpected Treasures

It was the iconic images of Table Mountain and Lions Head Mountain that drew us to Cape Town, along with the chance to enjoy its incredible coast and game parks.  But the reality of life around Cape Town is more complex and was evident immediately as we drove into the city along the N2 from the airport. Past informal settlements, previously referred to as shanty towns, constructed of mismatched, corrugated tin panels under a tangle of telephone poles strung with powerlines that looked like a forest of Christmas trees.  This cataclysmic landscape improved to newer and featureless concrete block housing developments the closer we got to the city.  But then the palette changed.IMG_7124It’s here that we first noticed the really interesting street murals that could be seen on some of the homes.  Not gratuitous bubble-scripted graffiti, but pictorial or political works of art relating to freedom, equality and hope by talented artists that enhanced their surroundings.

Originally they were just interesting side notes as we discovered Cape Town.  Every city and town seem to have street art nowadays.  But as we encountered more of it around the town, it was evident that the street murals here were of a higher caliber,  and that the communities were willing to provide large walls to local and international artists as blank canvases for creative expression. IMG_4658In our exploration of Cape Town, we accidentally and to our delight, came across many wonderful murals while walking or driving about.  Behind our apartment on Harrington Street a wonderfully, whimsical mural of a dog dreaming about flying, by Belgian artist Smates, always made us smile when we walked by.  IMG_4663Farther down the street in District 6, across from Charlie’s Bakery, a colorful mural graced the back of a small building in a parking lot, while its front wall featured an understated portrait of Nelson Mandela by Mak1one. IMG_4435And at the bus station, under the highway, across from the Gardens Shopping Center the dismal gray walls sprang to life with imagery.

Some of the murals are political, commemorating the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.  On the corner of Longmarket and Adderly Streets, in central Cape Town, side-by-side portraits of Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela have been painted by three different artists.

Even walking through already colorful Bo-Kaap revealed tucked away artistic works scattered across this hilly community under Signal Hill.IMG_4037

Many times while driving through the city we would catch a glimpse of color – something that looked interesting down a side street – and circle around to check it out.  This is exactly what happened one day as we headed to lunch at the Ocean Jewels Fresh Fish shop in the old Woodstock Exchange building on Albert Street.IMG_7328 Turns out the Woodstock and Salt River neighborhoods are ground zero for freedom of expression based on the number of street murals we discovered just by driving around.  One seemed to lead to another around the corner.  IMG_7140When we stopped to photograph the mural of the swimming elephant, one of the unofficial parking guards introduced himself as the “curator of street art” and offered to guide us.

We declined and further along discovered the portrait of an endangered mountain gorilla painted by Louis Masai, a London artist who dedicates his work to wildlife conservation awareness.IMG_7213

The streets surrounding the renovated Old Biscuit Mill where the Saturday only Neighbourgoods Market is held were ripe with interesting street murals. Many are of a monumental scale and are within easy walking distance of the mill.IMG_3359Traveling along Victoria Road in the Salt River district, the large mural of a pangolin, painted by Belgian street artist ROA, covers the wall of a factory.  It was painted one year during Cape Town’s International Public Art Festival (IPAF) when local and international artists are invited to wash the district with color for 5 days in February.  IMG_3368The festival is sponsored by BAZ-ART, an NGO that “is dedicated to harnessing the power of art for the benefit of the public – to engage – empower – uplift.”  In the four years that the festival has been running over 100 murals have been created in the Salt River district.  They have a very good website with a map showing the location of all the murals they have sponsored throughout the community.

Muizenberg has its fair share of street art scattered across its small downtown area and near the Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market.  But one of its most iconic murals of an elephant was painted by Capetonian and District Six artist Falko One on the side of a bath house located on a desolate stretch of Sonwabi Beach on the outskirts of the town.IMG_8435 His style is very distinctive, and we recognized many of his works as we traveled around the Cape.  Back in town the exterior wall of Surfstore Africa is playfully illustrated with a giraffe wearing sunglasses.IMG_3393Our most unexpected discovery happened at the indoor parking garage of the Pick N Pay grocery store in Sea Point.  Here several beautiful portraits were painted on the walls of the driving ramp leading from one level to the next. IMG_8888

Hidden away from public view, their discovery was like finding a Renoir in your grandparents’ attic.  Just stunning.  Hopefully, these talented artists have found larger and more visible walls to grace with their talents.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Cape Town Part 2: The Garden Route to Addo Elephant National Park

Between apartment rentals, we explored South Africa’s famous Garden Route which runs along the southern coast of the country. There’s actually no official route; basically it’s an area that starts at Heidelberg, four hours east of Cape Town, and follows the N2 into the Eastern Cape and ends around Stormsriver.  In between there’s roughly 200 miles of inland scenery and gorgeous coastline at the bottom of the continent.  It’s dotted with small towns and villages, and endless recreational possibilities to satisfy your interests. We mapped an elongated, seven-day road trip that started in L’Agulhas and would end with a safari on a private game reserve, followed by a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before returning inland to Cape Town via Oudtshoorn and Montagu to satisfy our wanderlust.

The Cape of Good Hope, as some mistakenly believe, is not the farthest point south on the African continent.  That distinction goes to L’Agulhas, where a lighthouse and monument marks the collision of the cold South Atlantic and warm South Indian Oceans, creating some of the fiercest storms for sailors to navigate through.IMG_8646Here gale force winds that blow in from Antarctica and colliding warm and cold currents build ferocious waves that can tower to 100 feet high.  These seas have claimed over 140 ships since the Portuguese first sailed here in the 1500s.  Within sight of the lighthouse, the most recent wreck of a Japanese fishing trawler from 1982 lies on the beach rusting away.IMG_8709We stayed the night at the Agulhas Ocean House, a modern B&B across from the ocean run by Allan & Sheryl, a retired couple from Cape Town.  The hosts were warm and gracious and provided a wonderfully comfortable room with an ocean view and delicious breakfast the next morning.  It was a tremendous value in the off-season.  (We found this also to be true of the other hotels we booked for this trip as well.) IMG_8693The next morning we stopped at Struisbaai Harbor, to try to catch a look at the resident stingrays, the most famous of which is named Parrie . Our hosts told us it was easy to spot these monsters because they were not afraid of people and liked to hang around the shallows and snag snacks from the fishing boats. IMG_8737Afterwards we headed toward Wilderness (the town not the idea,) along a route that traversed barren farmlands and coastal pine forests before skirting the coast again at Mossel Bay. We arrived in time to watch the sunset from our balcony at Beach Villa Wilderness another contemporary inn with spacious, modern rooms set above a wide, flat sandy beach that stretched for about 5 miles. IMG_9141Our room was luxurious and larger than several of the apartments we had rented on our round-the-world journey so far. We were hoping the owners, Leane & Deon, would adopt us. On our sunrise walk the next morning we only sighted a few other folks enjoying the quiet of this vast stretch of pristine beach during the winter season. We noted the considerably warmer weather, a result of the Agulhas Current which swoops warm Indian Ocean currents along the bottom of South Africa and wonderfully moderates the temperature. IMG_9110 After breakfast we backtracked on N2 to the pullover above the Kaaimans River Railway Bridge.  For railroad enthusiasts this was a destination for many years to watch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continually operating steam train in Africa, cross the tidal estuary which slowed settlers’ advance along the rugged coast.  The line stopped operating in 2006 when landslides destroyed an extensive stretch of track. Today it’s an interesting photo-op. IMG_9168 Further up the gorge at Map of Africa View Point, raging waters over the eons have eroded a bend in the river to resemble the African continent when viewed from the overlook on the opposite side of the chasm.  The sky was empty mid-week, but across the road hundreds of paragliders launch from the grassy slope on the weekends to catch fantastic thermals and awesome views of the coast below.

SANParks Woodville Big Tree, off the fittingly named Seven Passes Road, was our next stop, to of course visit the appropriately cited Big Tree. A shaded trail led us deep into the Knysna forest to a more than 800-year-old yellow wood that towered 108ft into the canopy, with a 10ft diameter trunk and a 115ft wide crown.  Few of these majestic giants remain, having been over-harvested in the past for their valuable hardwood which was used for ship building, furniture making and construction. IMG_9215After spending hours rattling along dusty back roads we rejoiced to be on Route 2 again. A little while later we pulled over and enjoyed a late lunch and sunny afternoon on the outdoor deck of the Cruise Café, which overlooked Knysna Bay. IMG_9274We weren’t yet synched to the rhythm of life outside of Cape Town in the off-season and were surprised to find the restaurants and grocery stores in Plettenberg Bay closed when we arrived.  Fortunately, we had a wonderful room with an ocean and lagoon view terrace, right on Lookout Beach, at Milkwood Manor.  We were in luck, we had wine and snacks with us, so we had a picnic on the balcony, watching the high tide come in and lift small boats from their sandy berth while darkness fell. IMG_9295 The sun rose quickly the next morning from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains, across the bay, filling our room with light.  We spent the early morning slowly sipping coffee and savoring the view.  Upon checkout we were delighted to find a sparkling clean car.  This was a wonderful service the hotel provided for guests, and an easy way for the gardener to earn some extra money.IMG_9322We kept to a strict schedule, and limited our stops for photos today, because we  needed to be at Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve just outside of Port Elizabeth after lunch for an afternoon game drive.  We chose Schotia for their proximity to Addo Elephant National Park and its herd of 600+ elephants, which is second only to Kruger for elephant viewing.  Unlike the parks in east Africa where you can drive cross country in the pursuit of wildlife, the national parks in Africa restrict all tours to the roads.  But at the Schotia reserve, with a guide, we would have the opportunity for some overlanding to get closer to the animals, during morning, afternoon and evening game drives over the next three days. IMG_0250Three guides and three open-sided 4×4 Toyota safari trucks, each capable of seating 16 people, were waiting for their respective groups at the reserve’s headquarters.  Wonderfully, it was mid-week in the off-season, and we had Edward, our guide/naturalist, and truck all to ourselves, while the other two trucks left with groups of six each.  Schotia’s 4,000 acres of gently rolling hills, bush and forest shelter approximately 2,000 animals from 40 mammal species and its’s amazing how difficult it can be to find them. IMG_0123 But that was our goal as we rattled along the rutted paths to a high vantage point within the reserve, that provided distant views of the terrain surrounding us.  Scanning the vista with binoculars, Edward was searching for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and zebra.  “The animals are constantly on the move. We’re never really sure where they will be,” Edward offered. He seconded with, “There’s clouds of dust being kicked up over there. Can’t tell from here what they are, but let’s go investigate.” And our overlanding began, chasing a cloud of dust that turned out to be a small herd of white faced Blesbok, a stunning antelope species we weren’t familiar with.IMG_9525

A few minutes later the reserve’s massive bull elephant the “Boss” rambled up the track toward us and came within touching distance as we quietly sat in awe!  IMG_9473Sightings of impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, cape buffalo, zebra, hippos and crocodiles rounded out the afternoon.

After snacks and a short rest at the reserve’s traditional lapa, a thatched roof structure supported on wooden poles, we headed out into the twilight for an evening game drive to spot some lions on the prowl.  IMG_1427

Hard to spot during the day, lions are even more difficult to find at dusk.  The three teams and guides spread out in different directions while staying in touch with their walkie-talkies to share information.  The radios were quiet for quite a while until a lioness was spotted hunting in some grasslands on the other side of the reserve.  The last blue of the twilight sky was almost gone when we joined the other groups watching the lioness eat her fresh kill in the semidarkness.  IMG_1274On the way back to the lapa we encountered the hippos we had seen earlier, now grazing far from their waterhole.  Large black masses, they were barely visible when out of the headlights.IMG_1234Glasses of wine and a large, warming fire greeted us when we returned to the lapa for dinner.  Inland the temperature fell quickly, and the warmth from the flames felt good.

We hadn’t realized when we planned this road trip, but tonight was the first anniversary of a year on the road.  No home, just two suitcases and each other – oh dear.

Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of a private game reserve, in South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank, but I quickly burst into laughter when I saw a wry smile across Donna’s face as she finished her complaint. “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.”

IMG_1265Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve. There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounds totally different in the darkness.IMG_9793We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds, while managing to have some wonderful experiences along the way.  Tomorrow, Edward would guide us through Addo Elephant National Park.IMG_0358The eastern cape was once home to tremendous herds of elephant which were hunted by the Xhosa and the Khoe (Khoi) tribes for sustenance, and much like the American Plains Indians and buffalo it did not end well.  As colonization spread across the region in the 1700 and 1800s the tribes succumbed to smallpox and were pushed into different regions, and the elephants were slaughtered to near extinction for their ivory and to protect farming interests in the region. With the killing of 1400 elephants in 1919, public opinion slowly turned.  Only eleven elephants remained when Addo Park was established in 1931 with 5600 acres. IMG_0901 The park was enclosed with an elephant proof fence in 1954, to protect the surrounding citrus farms from their rampages, when the size of the herd had rebounded to 22 elephants.  Today the park is the third largest in South Africa and encompasses 1,700,000 acres.  Home to over 600 elephants now, the reserve has expanded its mission to protect a growing number of mammal species within its borders.IMG_0993We could have done a self-drive tour through Addo, but we thoroughly enjoyed Edward’s knowledge of wildlife and the region.  It was a good decision.  Sitting up high in an SUV provided better visibility into the bush, where in our small rental car we wouldn’t have been able to see much.  And his timing was perfect in getting us to a waterhole just as a very large herd with calves was creating a trail of dust as it emerged from the surrounding dry bush.IMG_0936We witnessed elephants smiling as they drank.  It was a tremendous experience.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Cape Town Part 1: Vibrant, Complex & Beautiful

After spending a month in Bulgaria, we headed to South Africa at the end of May, to continue our pursuit of budget-friendly and interesting places with moderate weather to avoid the heat and humidity of a European summer.  The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so we stayed for three months to take advantage of their mid 60sF (16C) winter weather, which is extremely mild in comparison to the winters of the northeast United States.  So temperate in fact that most homes and apartments are not built with central heat, relying instead on small, portable electric heaters.  Mostly, folks just layered up, and on those gale force, windy days we were amused to see people in fur-trimmed hooded parkas, more suitable for the Alaskan wilderness, than walking around Cape Town. IMG_3489This would be Donna’s fourth trip to Cape Town and my first. Back in 1993 she visited friends she had made while attending Princeton Seminary, and a year later in 1994 she volunteered to be an International Observer for the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.  In 2016 she returned to a city humming with positive energy and a growing economy.  Unfortunately, this situation did not continue, and by 2019 the governance and economy of South Africa and its neighboring countries had stalled.  The city was still beautiful and growing as a tourist destination, an amazing coffee culture had been born, but shuttered construction projects and an increasing homeless population were evident, and across many different socioeconomic groups, people were feeling disenfranchised. A multi-year drought exasperated many infrastructure problems that were being neglected.  Fortunately, exceptional winter rains broke the severe drought and replenished the city’s nearly depleted reservoirs.IMG_4658We immersed ourselves quickly into the neighborhood  around our first apartment on Buitenkant Street, just a few blocks away from the District Six Museum, steam punk themed Truth Coffee and the Jason Bakery.  One block over we followed Harrington Street, past some great street art, to Bootleggers for more coffee and the best peri-per chicken livers in CPT.

A little further along, Nude Foods sold everything by weight and encouraged us to reuse our bags and refill our olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles.  Around the corner Charly’s Bakery, an institution in CPT with an interesting creation story, would make our sweet tooth ache.  We had a memorable evening beginning with dinner at Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, followed by a performance of Kinky Boots at the Fugard Theatre across the street. IMG_7384On the edge of the City Bowl and Zonnebloem districts, formerly District Six, our high-rise apartment building had a rooftop gym with fantastic views of the city, a 24hr doorman, gated parking and balconies with beautiful views of Table and Lion’s Head mountains.  But the area immediately around us was in transition, without enough residential housing to call it a neighborhood.

After work everyone vanished and the streets were nearly deserted.  The multistory construction project adjacent to our balcony was abandoned.  While this offered privacy it had an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vibe that deterred our enjoyment of an otherwise sunny space.  First world whining, we know, but we felt the Airbnb host was deceptive for several reasons regarding the apartment and surrounding area.  Around the corner folks were sleeping rough on the street.  We made a habit of carrying our loose change in our coat pockets to easily give it to the unofficial “car guards” and panhandlers. We had a nice room to enjoy nightly, and plenty to eat. How could we just pass them by?   We walked all over the city, even at night, and never felt unsafe during our time in Cape Town, but using common sense is in order.  During the weeks that we didn’t have a rental car we utilized Uber, which was very affordable, to cover greater distances around town.

We liked to joke that “you know you’re a local when you sign-up for the supermarket discount card.”  Part of our weekly ritual was walking up Buitenkant Street towards Oranjezicht, an upscale neighborhood, with many fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture, to The Gardens, a multi-story shopping and residential complex with Pick-n-Pay and Woolworths grocery stores.  On Prince Street the Hurling Swaaipomp Pump House still stands.  Slaves pumped spring water for the surrounding homes here until the mid-1800s.

The cost of groceries and dining out in Cape Town was extremely favorable.  Grocery items generally cost half of what they would typically cost in the states. A dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee would run less than $40.00.  Seafood was abundant, as you would expect in a coastal city, and inexpensive as well.  We took full advantage of this, enjoying grilled octopus, sword fish, mussels and the best oysters on multiple occassions. Sautéed ostrich filets were a tasty meal we prepared for ourselves.  Disappointingly, wild game was only available at restaurants. The Western Cape Winelands, around Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, covers a vast area and produces some exceptional vintages that are budget friendly.  Winery tours of the area are a must and with over 200 vineyards the possibilities are endless.IMG_4663We had to find a dentist also, as just before our flight into Cape Town one of my crowns broke.  Fortunately, South Africa is recognized for good medical and dental care and is slowly becoming a medical tourism destination.  I found Dr. Ramjee on Google Maps, checked his reviews and made an appointment at his office which was within walking distance of our apartment.  With his jovial and comforting manner, I instantly felt at ease.  Though only a one dental chair office he had a state-of-the-art digital x-ray machine, a dental assistant and a receptionist.  Besides the broken crown, I needed a root canal as well – what fun!  My experiences with Dr. Ramjee were excellent and I raved so much about him Donna decided to use his services when the need arose for an emergency root canal and crown also.  Unexpected expenses that in the states would be costly, even with insurance, were much more affordable and payable out of pocket here.  The savings were tremendous.

Avoiding the past is difficult in Cape Town, with remnants of slavery’s legacy scattered about the city, even on the way to the dentist’s office.  Just across from his door a concrete medallion marks the spot of the Old Slave Tree, where slaves were sold until their emancipation was declared in 1834.  Around the corner the second oldest building in Cape Town – the Slave Lodge, a euphemism for a small pox-plagued, prison like structure for 500 slaves, still stands.  It was built in 1679 to house the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company that worked in the Company’s Garden, a farm.  Today its mission as a museum is to explore the history “Slaves at the Cape: Oppression, Life and Legacy.”

IMG_8198You just can’t walk enough miles along the coast or up and down Loin’s Head to keep the calories off in this foodie-oriented city. The Saturday- and Sunday-only food markets didn’t help, but they are a treasured tradition, throughout the region, that brings family, friends and tourists together to enjoy live music and good food.

Our favorite in Cape Town was the Oranjezicht City Farm Market down by the V&A waterfront.  There’s also The Neighbourgoods Market, located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.  The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw and the Root 44 Market in Stellenbosch. All were enjoyable destinations beyond the city.IMG_6238On the lower end of Buitenkant Street, the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century pentagon-shaped stone bastion fortress, stands surrounded by city streets, its cannons now pointing toward skyscrapers instead of enemy ships.  It was originally built on the water’s edge of Table Bay by the Dutch to protect the harbor from the British.  After a massive waterfront reclamation project in the 1930s and 1940s reshaped Cape Town’s waterfront, the castle now stands far inland.

It houses a military and ceramic museum along with the William Fehr Collection.  This is a controversial exhibit today because the collection only depicts colonial history with no representation of the indigenous KhoiSan people who were the true first inhabitants of the western cape long before the Portuguese stepped ashore, followed later by the Dutch and British. It’s been 25 years since the first genuinely representative government of South Africa has been elected and only four statues of early indigenous leaders who fought colonization, and were imprisoned in the fortress, stand outside.  Yet the lopsided narrative of this collection has not been addressed and many wonder why.IMG_4534In early June the castle hosted the 2019 Cape Town Coffee Festival which celebrated all things caffeinated with growers from across the continent, barista workshops and pop-up coffee stands.  If you ever wanted to see thousands of folks ricocheting off the walls from too much free coffee, this was the place to be.

One of our favorites was a Senegalese coffee prepared by Khadim, a pleasant and engaging expat.  It’s a strong sweet coffee, served with a long dramatic pour.  We enjoyed it so much that we visited his shop, Khadim’s Coffee, repeatedly. So good was the java and food prepared by Khadim that his shop became our de facto rendezvous point for meeting friends in the city.IMG_6322The coffee festival coincided with the Red Bull Cape Town Circuit where their F1 Aston Martin Red Bull racing car roared down Darling Street at over 150mph, passing the spot where Nelson Mandela addressed the nation upon his release from Robben Island, and turning the stretch in front of city hall, lined with bleachers, into a high-speed drag strip.  At the intersections, souped-up street cars burned rubber and spun donuts while the Red Bull Air Force performed aerial acrobatics over the city.  It was a raucous day that we could hear from our apartment.

Closer to the city center the District Six Museum tells the story of an atrocity, an afront to dignity that should never be forgotten.  In 1867 the sixth district in Cape Town was formed as a neighborhood of immigrants, merchants, artisans, laborers and freed African and Asian slaves.  It was close to the port and provided the muscle Cape Town needed to grow.  It was home to ten percent of Cape Town’s population and thrived as a community for decades until 1966 when the apartheid government, seeing prime real estate under Table Mountain, declared it a whites only area.  The district’s 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated with superficial notice into segregated townships 15 miles away, or further, from central Cape Town. IMG_5735Families and neighbors were intentionally sent to different communities to break the spirit of the people.  The apartheid government was so vile it “regarded the district as both physically and morally tainted by miscegenation, wholly unfit for rehabilitation” and flattened every building except for Churches.  Even the original streets were destroyed, and new roadways were created so folks couldn’t find their homes, now vacant lots, that they legally owned.  Much of the area still remains abandoned. The District Six Museum commemorates this tragedy and the lasting heartbreak of this cruelty.

The Company’s Garden was only a few blocks away.  Originally a farm that supplied passing ships with food, it now is a wonderful urban park in the city center with old growth specimen trees, gardens, and café. Adjacent to the entrance of the park, Desmond Tutu used to preach from the pulpit of St. George’s Cathedral, an Anglican Church.  And across the street a section of the Berlin Wall stands in remembrance of the struggles people are willing to make for freedom around the world.

At the far end of the gardens two museums grace the grounds and are perfect for a rainy-day exploration.  The Iziko South African Museum is a natural history and science museum with a planetarium.  It has wonderful collection of early aboriginal tools and rock paintings along with a large compendium of pre-historic fossil remains.  There is something for everyone here and we found it to be fascinating.   Outside, various street performers entertained visitors to the park.

Across the way the South African National Gallery has an eclectic collection of contemporary and tribal art from South Africa and the rest of the continent.  The art scene is thriving in Cape Town with many galleries providing exhibit space to young, talented artists.  The museum’s collection reflects this vibrant art scene.IMG_3471Despite our apartment’s faults, we enjoyed our time on Buitenkant Street.  Watching the brilliant sunrises and the flat clouds – the tablecloth of Table Mountain – cover the summit and then spill down the side like a waterfall. The street life below spanned the gamut from groups of tutu-clad race walkers one day to noisily protesting sex workers or Fridays for Future demonstrators the next.

It would be superficial of us not to address the painful past of this relatively young democracy; apartheid and race are still underlying issues.  Despite this, Cape Town, South Africa, was a wonderful experience: at once contemporary and traditional; challenging, progressive, and hope-filled, it captivated us for three months.

Stay tuned for more as we work our way across the southern tip of the continent.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: UFO’s, Rustic Villages, and a Dragon’s Tail

Discussing our plans at breakfast, our host suggested we stop at the Alba Grups Rose Plantation, a rose oil distillery near Kazanluk.  “It’s interesting and it’s on your way to that monstrosity on the mountain,” he said, referring to the Buzludzha Monument, the abandoned Soviet era conference center built to celebrate the achievements of communism.  It was too early for roses to be in bloom, but we had visited the Alba Grups store in Sofia and the idea of everything roses was tempting, so we added it to our itinerary.  At the end of the day we would spend the night in the historic village of Tryavna.IMG_1128Heading north on Routes 64 and 6 we drove past fallow farmlands waiting for their Spring tilling, and forgotten industrial sites as we worked our way north towards Stara Planina, the Balkans Mountain range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions.

Soon the 7,795 ft summit of snowcapped Botev Peak was visible behind the quiet villages we passed.  The region seemed to be sparsely populated.  On an isolated backroad we stopped across from a rusted Mig jet set high on a plinth in front of what appeared to be an abandoned military site.  I was only able to take one photo before a lone guard emerged from a derelict watch post and waved us away.  Further on there were many larger than life sculptures championing the communal worker.

The area around Kazanluk, south of the Balkan Mountains, is considered Bulgaria’s rose valley and Rosa Damascena, chosen for the quality of oil and high yield, have been planted in Bulgaria for oil distillation since the 1400’s, when the Ottomans introduced the plant to the region from Syria.  Today Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oils in the world.IMG_1157Turning down the long driveway of the Alba plantation, we spotted the silhouette of what looked like the Statue of Liberty.  This is great we thought, new entrepreneurs celebrating a free market economy, that was long denied them under communism.  But first impressions can be deceiving; more detail was revealed the closer we got.  We were dismayed to see that it was indeed Lady Liberty with a dragon tail, standing atop a sphere of the world covered with chains and pierced by arrows.  We asked one of the guides the significance of this and he offered that it was the owner’s interpretation of the negative influences of Western/American culture on the rest of the world.  Ironically, the young restaurant staff was loudly playing a soundtrack of American music from the 90’s. We smiled.  World vision aside, they make wonderful products that are very reasonably priced. IMG_1232On a wintry, cloudy afternoon the silhouette of Buzludzha Monument loomed like an inter-stellar space craft wrecked on an inhospitable planet, as threatening clouds built behind it.  Its deteriorating hulk was majestic in its isolation on the 4700 ft mountain ridge. We’ve known about Buzludzha Monument for years, having seen it mentioned in various media as a fascinating abandoned place, but never thought we would get to see it up close.

In 1891 a group of radicals met on the peak of Buzludzha Mountain, where the monument now stands, and formed the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party.  In 1971 the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to pat itself on the back and celebrate the success of communism.  Others who drank the Kool-Aid hoped it would be a “monument of the people.” Not wanting to put a financial strain on the country’s budget, Bulgarians were encouraged to “willingly donate” money and labor to the project. Georgi Stoilov, a young partisan in WWII, who received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, was chosen to design a timeless memorial.  He cites the Roman Pantheon, 1950’s science fiction movies and the works of western architects Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as inspiration for Buzludzha.  It was completed in 1981 after seven years of construction by crews working around the clock in shifts, from May to September every year to avoid the sub-zero temperatures and    fierce winter winds of the mountaintop. Inside the sphere, glass and stone mosaics lining the walls celebrated the communal worker and communist party leaders.  The communist red stars in the 230-foot-tall tower were reported to be the largest in the world at 39 feet across and were visible from the Romanian border in the north and the border with Greece in the south.IMG_1219At the opening ceremony in 1981, tribute was paid to those who had gathered there ninety years earlier. “Let the work of sacred and pure love that was started by those before us never fall into disrepair.”  Buzludzha was a huge success and a point of national pride for eight years, hosting communist party congresses and educational events.  Schools and businesses booked tours for their students and employees.  Foreign delegations were paraded through to witness socialism’s success.  But then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed like a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier.  The monument to socialism was suddenly ironic, irrelevant and abandoned.  In 1999 the security guards protecting it were removed and the building was left open to the public and it was looted. Anything of value quickly disappeared, and the rest was left to vandals and frustrated citizens who were known to take their anger out on the building with sledgehammers or spray paint.  The red stars in the tower were shattered by gun shots.  Soon the glass skylights broke and water damage from rain and the winter elements hastened its structural decline, and the building was eventually shut tight to protect folks from injury.  The day we visited there was a lone security guard, suffering as he made his rounds in the bitter wind, protecting this crumbling modern ruin from a handful of visitors.

The Balkan Mountains, naturally dividing the country into northern and southern regions, have been pivotal throughout Bulgaria’s history.  Not far from Buzludzha during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) a combined Russian/Bulgarian force seized control of Shipka Pass from the Ottomans.  This victory was a significant milestone towards liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and monuments attesting to that triumph now mark the battlefield.IMG_1385As we continued our journey north through the mountains on Route E85, the picturesque Etar Ethnographic Outdoor Museum and Sokolski Monastery called for brief detours.  Set along the banks of the Yantra River, the ethnographic museum recreated a working mountain village from the mid-1800s with water-powered workshops and colorful timber and stone homes in the Bulgarian Revival style of the time.IMG_1567 Woodcarvers, weavers and other craftspeople dressed in period outfits helped further to transport us to a simpler era at the beginning of the Bulgarian industrial revolution.  We visited on a quiet day, but the museum has an extensive twelve-month calendar of events with many festivals listed that would have been nice to observe. IMG_1457Traveling along an isolated background road we worked our way towards Sokolski Monastery, known for its cliffside chapel overlooking the northern slope of the Balkan Mountain range.  We weren’t disappointed; the church is stunning with its colorful exterior frescoes contrasting with the natural environment surrounding it.IMG_1405 Built in 1833, the monastery has played an important role in Bulgarian history.  During the April Uprising of 1876 eight freedom fighters took sanctuary there.  Later captured by the Ottoman army, they were thrown to their deaths from the cliff behind the chapel.  The short-lived April Rebellion was brutally repressed, but a year later Russia would help the Bulgarian rebels defeat the Turks at Shipka Pass and begin the march towards freedom.  In the courtyard of the monastery an octagon-shaped water fountain was built with eight spouts to commemorate those fallen heroes.  Legend states the fountain has never run dry and its cool water holds healing powers. IMG_1437We made it to Tryavna just in time to have dinner at the restaurant next to our hotel. Enjoying a hot meal after a long chilly day, we were entertained by the waitress trying to keep a determined stray cat from entering the restaurant every time the front door was opened.IMG_1744Generations of skilled woodworkers have lived in the Tryavna River Valley, turning trees harvested from the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains into furniture and ornate wood carvings.

Abundant sheep farms provided wool to the water-powered textile mills along the banks of the river at the beginning of the industrial age.  While other villages in rural Bulgaria have suffered a population exodus, Tryavna has embraced tourism, providing employment for the town.  As one of Bulgaria’s prettiest villages, it is a picturesque escape from city life, with shops, museums and outdoor recreational opportunities nearby. History is literally underfoot in the area, since part of a trail leading to the mountain village of Bozhentsi follows the remnants of an old Roman road.IMG_1522Crossing the footbridge over the Tryavna River at the clock-tower, the pleasant whiff of wood smoke came to us on a chilly Spring morning.  Large woodpiles are essential in this region and we saw plenty of homes with the winter’s firewood neatly stacked, as we wandered around the village, with its parks filled with sculpture and tulips in bloom.

People have inhabited Tryavna since millennia past, but the first record of it dates to the 12th century when Saint Archangel Michael Church was built by in the village by Bulgarian Tzar Asen in tribute to his victory over Byzantine Emperor Isaac II at Tryavna pass. At the battle of Tryavna Pass, Bulgarian troops ambushed and routed the Byzantines, capturing Imperial treasure that included the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers – containing a piece of the Holy Cross.IMG_1710Over the centuries Saint Archangel Michael Church has been reconstructed several times. Its most recent incarnation dates from 1853 when the tall wooden belfry was added. Inside, the interior is richly ornamented with elaborate 19th century woodcarvings and iconography created by members of the Vitan family, famous throughout Bulgaria for generations of skilled artisans.  The carved bishop’s throne is an exquisite masterpiece.IMG_1712The safest way to order your cup of java in parts of Bulgaria is to ask for a traditional coffee, not wanting to offend anyone by calling it Turkish.  The fact is Greek, Albanian, Bosnian, Persian, Turkish andthe same, plus or minus cardamom or a local spice.  But here in Tryavna at the Renaissance Café the coffee was brewed on a very traditional sand stove.  A shallow pan filled with sand was heated over an open flame, and a long handled, brass cezve was filled with coffee and water, then partially buried in the hot sand to brew.  With diligent attendance our coffee was brought to a frothy boil three times before being moved to the top of the sand where it stayed warm while the grounds settled.  The ritual of the event definitely enhanced our enjoyment of the brew.IMG_1656We only just scratched the surface of this lovely country.  There’s so much to see here, especially in its vast countryside.  Hopefully one day we’ll get a chance to return.

Till next time, Craig & DonnaUF

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

The fertile, rolling hills between Sofia and Plovdiv have been traversed by migrating populations and numerous invading armies over the millennia. Today the A1 highway whisks an ever-increasing number of tourists between these historic cities, only two hours apart.  We were heading to Plovdiv, voted a 2019 European Capital of Culture, at the suggestion of one of our Instagram followers to “go see more of Bulgaria.”  It is the oldest city in Europe, having been continuously inhabited since 6000 BCE, three-thousand years older than Athens.  Two nights in Plovdiv then a drive over Stara Planina, the Balkan Mountains range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions, to the beautiful village of Tryavna.IMG_0331Just outside Old Town Plovdiv, Roots Hotel and Wine Bar was ideally located to explore the heights of the historic district and the newer, yet still old, city built below it.  Our host Mitko, an expat who returned from Canada, was an enthusiastic promoter of all things Bulgarian, especially its undiscovered wines.  Under his tutelage we enjoyed some excellent wines.  “We have a wine making tradition in Bulgaria that goes back thousands of years, but because of our recent history no-one knows of it. All the wine was sent to Russia to balance our trade deficit with them. Folks in Sofia only drink Italian wine, thinking it’s better. But ages ago even the Roman Emperors preferred wine from Bulgaria.”

Remnants of Plovdiv’s glorious past are clearly visible in the magnificent ruins of the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis which sits high on the slope of Nebet Tepe and overlooks the newer part of the city below.  Built in the first century, this Roman Amphitheatre could hold 6,000 people.  Today it is still used to host concerts and other cultural events.

Strolling uphill to the summit of Nebet Tepe, we saw fine examples of Bulgarian Revival Architecture lining both sides of the cobbled lanes.  Sometimes the upper floors of the homes jutted out so far, they almost kissed the dwellings across the street.

Just shy of the summit, the Regional Ethnographic Museum and Saints Konstantin and Elena Church offered windows into a past way of life.IMG_0676

The ruins on the summit date to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE, but traces of earlier civilizations have also been found that date back to 6000 BCE.  The site offered a great panoramic view of Plovdiv.  Returning from the summit we were able to enjoy a late lunch outside, on the terrace, at Rahat Tepe, and sample some traditional Bulgarian dishes and cold drafts as reward for our steep hike on a warm Spring day. IMG_0543At just over a mile long the pedestrian mall in the center of Plovdiv is the longest in Europe, running from the Stefan Stambolov Square along Knyaz Alexander I, and Rayko Daskalov Street before ending at the footbridge lined with shopping stalls that crosses the Maritza River.

History erupted along its length, and at times, it felt as if we were traveling back through antiquity.  At the south end of the mall near the Garden of Tsar Simeon park the ruins of a Roman Forum and Odeon from the second century CE can be observed.  Discovered in 1988, its been determined that this central shopping and administrative area of ancient Plovdiv covered a vast twenty acres.IMG_0749 But the jewel of the mall area was the curved ruins of the Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis, with its fourteen tier seating area, unearthed in 1923. Situated below street level and surrounded by modern buildings at Dzhumaya Square, the ruins provided a dramatic juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary, where you can actually see the layering of history and how the city was built over earlier civilizations.  From this excavated section, archeologists have determined that the stadium was a huge 790 feet long and 165 feet wide and could seat nearly 30,000 spectators.IMG_0758Across the square the Dzhumaya Mosque is the main Friday Mosque for Muslims in Plovdiv.  Constructed in 1421, it replaced an earlier mosque built in 1363 on the foundations of a Bulgarian Church destroyed during the Ottoman conquest.  It is one of the oldest and largest Muslim religious buildings in the Balkans. At the café in front of it we enjoyed some sweet Turkish tea and pastries in the warm afternoon sun.

Veering off Rayko Daskalov Street we wandered through the Kapana Creative District.  The area had fallen on hard times and was almost demolished to become a modern trade zone before local architects and historians lobbied to protect its Bulgarian Revival architecture.  Now it’s a destination “go to place.”  The whole neighborhood has been pedestrianized with cafes, hip shops, artist galleries, wine bars, craft beer brewers and small restaurants now filling once vacant storefronts.

The distinctive twisted minaret of the Imaret Mosque towered above the treelined streets on the north side of the Kapana  District as we wandered back to the pedestrian mall and the Maritza River. The unplastered, red brick building and minaret were constructed in 1444 during the Ottoman reign.  Many fine gravestones with Islamic inscriptions were scattered around the yard which once served as a Muslim cemetery.

Under the peaked arches of the mosque’s portico hundreds of chairs were stacked high, waiting to be used for a future event.  The mosque took its name Imaret from the Turkish word used for soup kitchens. For four hundred years, every day hot meals and bread were handed out there for the poor people, regardless of their faith.

The pedestrian only shopping bridge over the Maritsa River will take you to the Karshiaka district, a newer neighborhood on the northern bank of the river.  The bridge itself was disappointing, being a totally enclosed, elevated tunnel with no views of the river, but the bike path along the riverfront offered a nice shady stroll along the water’s edge.

Heading back to our hotel we took our host’s advice and stopped to sample wines at his friend’s shop called Vino Culture.  It’s an intimate gastropub and wine bar with a knowledgeable staff dedicated to promoting small Bulgarian wineries from different regions of the country.  Since we like red wine, Boris, our viniculture expert for the evening, suggested we try a wine made with the Mavrud grape.  It’s an ancient grape that has been cultivated in Bulgaria thousands of years.  Late ripening with a thick and almost black colored skin, the grape produces a strong, full of character wine that is a deep ruby shade.  We loved it.

Tomorrow we look for a UFO.  Really – that’s not the wine talking.

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Living in Sofia

When we departed the states nine months prior, Bulgaria was not part of our travel plans, not even a bleep on our radar. But what a wonderful spontaneous decision it turned out to be.  IMG_2496From Portugal we were to go to England for three months of pet sitting in various locales to save some funds for our push into Africa later in the year.  But just short of heading to the U.K. our first pet sit canceled!  Even though the dollar exchange rate against the pound was the best in decades, it wasn’t favorable enough for an extended stay.  So, we needed a plan B immediately.  It was just the beginning of Spring and we had been spoiled by the pleasant weather in Portugal, so that eliminated going North.  After a couple of quick online searches for weather conditions in various cities and inexpensive flights out of Lisbon, bang – we chose Sofia!IMG_2015 The city was a magnificent surprise with its cosmopolitan vibe and café scene along pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard.  And hundreds of thousands of yellow tulips, planted in the city parks, were blossoming!IMG_2106Sunny days meant coffee on our balcony and a direct line of sight into the baklava bakery on the corner, across the street. The calories accrued from the sweet creations purchased from that den of temptation were only kept in check by long walks throughout the city.  IMG_8013.jpgExploring the neighborhoods surrounding our apartment, we quickly found delightful, small restaurants like Colibri Kitchen, Edgy Veggy, and Made in Home, which offered new interpretations of Bulgarian classics, while Moma Bulgarian served authentic dinners.  Several gourmet food shops, like Bread and Cheese for Friends and Sun Moon Store, specializing in Bulgarian made products, were also nearby as was a butcher’s shop and innumerable bakeries, each with different offerings.  (But for the whole week before Orthodox Easter all they baked was Kozunak, an incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant type of Stollen.)

At the Chili Hills Farm Store we found a line of Balkan Hot Sauces created from fifty different types of chili peppers collected from around the world, but locally grown in the Vitosha Mountains. Farther afield we’d walk across town to Sofia’s Central Market Hall for prepared foods to take-away or to the Lidl supermarket for basics.  Sofia as it turned out was a foodie’s haven!

In the mornings we would arbitrarily wander about the city, continuing our tradition of “walk a bit then café – walk a little more….” or pick a destination in a far-off area, determined to immerse ourselves into Sofia’s life and explore every quadrant of the city.  These walks revealed off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paris or London, full of architectural gems built during the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Bulgarian culture re-asserted itself and blossomed during this short-lived renaissance which coincided with the country’s sixty-seven-years of freedom between the end of Ottoman occupation in 1878 and the beginning of communist rule in 1945.

Many other neighborhoods reflected the brutal designs of communist block housing which were brightened only by some colorful street art.  Knowledge of the city’s layout often led to frustrating experiences with taxi drivers who were intent on building their fares by taking us on roundabout routes. IMG_2334Weekends were especially rewarding when it was more likely we’d come across a street market or dance class in a park.

Intense chess matches were played out on park benches and always drew an audience of curious onlookers. Pensioners playing cards was also a daily ritual in the parks.

Most afternoons we headed over to Vitosha Boulevard to sit at a café and people-watch, or walked along the rows of fountains, surrounded by yellow tulips, in front of the National Palace of Culture, with a still snowcapped Vitosha Mountain rising behind it.

IMG_1991The cost of living in Bulgaria was very favorable with most items in the bakeries costing just one dollar and a nice dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee costing under $40.00.  A visit to a local dentist, recommended by our Airbnb host, to have a cavity filled cost $20.00.  The x-ray needed cost $5.00 from a different facility around the corner. IMG_4282[36950]-2Our lovely, large one-bedroom apartment with living room, dining table and small balcony, just two blocks away from the popular pedestrian mall, cost less than $800.00 for the month.  (We found it amusing that the two-burner electric cook top was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but we made it work for us.)  A 90¢ USD subway fare got us to the airport for our $10.00 per day car rental, with unlimited miles, for our road trips.  There were some oddities though.

Cut flowers were extremely expensive, so much so, that they we sold by the individual stem.  In many grocery stores butter was so highly priced it had those plastic anti-theft tags attached to it.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and found it to be a very interesting and diverse city, full of history. And it was a great low budget destination that kept us fully engaged for a month.  Bulgaria should be on everyone’s radar as a place to head for a fascinating experience.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

We hadn’t done much research on Bulgaria before we arrived, so we asked one of our Bulgarian Instagram followers for tips.  “The monasteries and small villages are a must; the countryside is beautiful,” and our first Bulgarian road trip was born.  Our three-day excursion would take us first to Rila Monastery, then further south near the border with Greece to visit several rustic villages in the mountains and other points of interest along the way. IMG_9484After you crouch to enter through a low door and then look up in this intimate space, the WOW element of Boyana Church Museum can’t be emphasized enough!  It was such a mesmerizing experience we wished we could have stayed longer. But, a maximum of eight people at a time are permitted to enter the church and stay for only ten minutes.

This small, unassuming medieval church, built in the 900s, preserves large fragments of the most amazing Christian frescoes from the 11th, 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. The murals from 1259 are the most famous and are recognized for their skilled, realistic portrayal of the saints’ faces.  Though still within the city limits of Sofia, it’s located in an area far from the city center on the lower slope of Vitosha Mountain.  Fortunately, we arrived early before the bus tours of the day started.IMG_9625Our main destination was Rila Monastery, still seventy-one miles away.  We made good time on the A3, which had recently undergone improvements, before exiting onto Rt 1005 for a drive through pastoral countryside, shadowed by the snowcapped Musala Peak (9,596 ft) in the Rila mountain range.

Following the Rilska river, through a steep, heavily-treed gorge, Rt. 107 wove past blossoming fruit orchards, abandoned campsites, roadside shrines and rockslides the rest of the way to the monastery.

Rila was the first Orthodox monastery built in Bulgaria in the tenth century, by students of beloved St. Ivan of Rila who lived in solitude for twenty years, in a cave not far away. IMG_8586 This is the only monastery to survive during the centuries of Ottoman domination over Bulgaria, when it was rebuilt in defiance of the Turks.  The Bulgarian people have great affection for this monastery, as a symbol of their religion and culture during those turbulent centuries.IMG_8559-2The distinctive architectural style of the monastery, with its arched black and white portico filled with religious murals offset against red brick domes, dates to the 1830’s when it was rebuilt again after a fire destroyed the entire complex except for the stone bell tower.  It is considered to be the finest example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.IMG_8539

It was a cold afternoon in the mountains, and we were happy to find a restaurant with a roaring fire in its fireplace to help warm our chilled bones before we started the drive back.IMG_8926Thirteen miles from the monastery, on a side street in the town of Rila, we spotted a church with three small cupolas, that called for a quick stop.  The church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Mirikliyski” was a surprising find with its cracked bell tower and muraled covered entrance porch, complete with woodpile.IMG_8851 The painter of these hell fire and brimstone murals might have gotten his inspiration from the tortured works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we haven’t been able to find any other information about this off-the beaten-path treasure.

With the Rila mountains in our rearview mirror, we set off again for Blagoevgrad, where we would spend the night.  Twilight was beginning to descend when we caught a glimpse of the Unofficial Junk Museum as we sped past.  It had cars piled high on its roof. “Let’s stop.” “It’s getting late.” “Just for a few quick photos.” Faster than a quick genuflect, the car was parked and we were inside.IMG_8967 The Unofficial Junk Museum is a vast, rusty and dusty collection of whatever the owner deemed representative of Bulgarian culture under communism. Radios, tv’s, typewriters, farming equipment, cars, motorcycles, household items and busts of Stalin are stacked everywhere.  It’s fascinating!  And of all the places to buy a bottle of homemade Rakia from – we did not go blind.

The Diva Hotel, for $22.00 a night was a tremendous bargain and very comfortable.  Always a good sign, its restaurant was lively with local families.IMG_9062In the morning we followed Rt. 1 south for a while as it hugged the Struma River, which would eventually reach the Aegean Sea, before we turned off and headed in to the Pirin Mountains.

Our destination the village of Melnik, known for its long history of winemaking.  We hadn’t expected the Bulgarian countryside to be as beautiful as it was, and it just kept getting better the farther south we went.  As we passed through a landscape of verdant rolling hills alive with sheep and cattle, distant snowcapped mountains occasionally broke the horizon.  Vineyards soon dominated the terrain.IMG_9144Melnik is situated in a wide gorge under striking sandstone rock formations, called hoodoos, that tower hundreds of feet high, created from millennia of erosion.  Locals refer to these geological phenomena as Melnik Earth Pyramids.  The village has been renown for making strong wine since 1346 from a regional red grape varietal, Shiroka Melnishka, and wine cellars still line its main street. IMG_9221 Once a thriving village with one thousand residents, today it is now home to fewer than three hundred.  The village was a delight to explore with its cobbled streets meandering between the whitewashed stone and timber homes built in the Bulgarian Revival style. Ninety-six of the village’s houses are historically protected.  Any new construction in town adhered to that aesthetic. IMG_9237From the ruins of Bolyarska kŭshta, high on a hill above the Church of St. Anthony, we spotted the dome of what looked like a hammam, a Turkish bath, nestled between the traditional homes below, and went to explore. IMG_9321 With the help of a kind woman, who somehow knew what we were looking for, we found the ruins of a small Roman era spa in a small side alley.  Its dome was fully intact and the substructure of its once heated floor remained.  There is also a single arched old roman bridge, near the parking lot, that you can still walk across. Before continuing to Kovachevitsa, we relaxed at one of the sunny cafes in the center of the village.IMG_9504Kovachevitsa, an isolated, rustic stone village in the Rhodope mountains, was only 52 miles away near the border with Greece. However, it took us the bulk of the afternoon to reach because “someone stops every hundred yards to take a photo.”  And stop we did as we were awed by the beauty of the border region as we drove through the mountains.  So close were we to the border that our phones binged with a “Welcome to Greece” message from our cell phone carrier.IMG_9544At one point we stopped to photograph a complete section of an iron truss bridge, just rusting away on the side of the road, only to have our car suddenly surrounded by a flock of bah-ing sheep.

It was slow going into Kovachevitsa as the guard rails along the sinuous route disappeared and the road deteriorated.  Night fell as we followed our GPS to the intersection of three dirt tracks in the village. Where to now? Not a soul was around, but smoke was rising from several chimneys. IMG_9769So, we knocked on the ancient door of the closest building only to be greeted by loud barking.  Retreating back to the car we pondered what to do when a voice behind us said “hello.” That was the only word of English our host spoke until he said “goodbye” two days later.  The barking dog turned out to be a gentle giant, who welcomed us to the inn. In fact, all the dogs of the village were St. Bernard-size, and they must all have been related, because they closely resembled one another. Fortunately, they were good-natured.

On our way into the village we had passed many homes with exceedingly large wood piles. We understood their importance as the heat from the crackling fire allowed us to take off our multiple outer layers and sit comfortably in the stone cellar of our inn, the Basoteva House, a renovated stone home, with huge wooden beams built in 1861.  In the past, this lower level served as the barn area for farm animals; now it’s the kitchen, bar, and dining area.  Rakia was offered and accepted. Cheers! IMG_9765Bulgarians fleeing religious persecution and the forced conversion policies of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in the rugged Rhodope mountains and established Kovachevitsa in 1656.  Agriculture and stockbreeding in the area thrived during the 1800s and the homes still standing in the village date from that time.  The tall stone homes of Kovachevitsa are stunning and unique in an organic way.

The three- and four-story homes are built from locally quarried stone using no mortar.  Even, layered flat stones are used for the roofs.  The natural construction materials blended the village almost seamlessly into the mountainous surrounding environment.  With alleys so narrow and the homes so close together, it’s said you can walk the entire length of the village along the rooftops.IMG_9851At breakfast the next morning Google Translate nicely bridged our communications barrier with the innkeeper’s wife.  Loading the Cyrillic keyboard into the app for our hostess to use, Donna’s phone was passed back and forth repeatedly during a lively conversation about family, each other’s lives, the village and our travels.  Our hosts’ children live with their grandparents in one of the larger towns off the mountain as there isn’t a school in the village anymore.  IMG_9966Most of the young families have moved away to find work, leaving only 28 year-round residents looking after the village till the tourist season starts.   Strolling under blossoming elderberry trees, we had the narrow lanes to ourselves as we worked our way towards St. Nikolas Church.

Built in 1847, the interior of this Bulgarian Orthodox country church was beautiful with its ornate altar, detailed columns and painted ceiling. It too had a large woodpile to feed the woodstove in the sanctuary. IMG_9879On the way back to our inn we stopped to admire the woolen creations knitted by a lone street vendor with a toothless smile who was bundled under layers of clothing to ward off the mountain chill.  Her prospects for a profitable day seemed slim as the street was nearly deserted.  When we expressed interest in only one pair of socks, she assertively pantomimed that we needed more.  Looking up from readying our payment we could only smile and chuckle when we found she had filled our bag with two extra pairs of socks. They were well made and a bargain, so we caved to her sales pressure. I’m wearing a pair now as I write this, and my toes are happy we she insisted. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were her only sale of the day.

The next morning our hostess with smiles and hugs gifted us a jar of homemade elderberry jam to enjoy back in Sofia.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

Bulgaria: Beautiful and Mysterious

The lyrics to the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR “played through my mind as the wing of our plane dipped to reveal an early Spring landscape blanketing the countryside, with fresh shades of vibrant greens, as we were about to land in Sofia.  The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 and Bulgaria, a Soviet satellite country, ousted their communist party at the same time. But I’m a child of the cold war and Eastern Europe seemed as exotic and as full of mystery as the lost kingdom of Tibet, and the Beatles’ tune stuck.IMG_5115-2In the airport, at the tourist information kiosk, multiple large screen tv’s played flashy videos promoting Bulgaria’s culture, tourism, and natural beauty.  We asked the woman staffing the desk for a map of Sofia and directions on how to transfer into the city.  “Follow the line,” she snapped. Not fully understanding I asked again. “Follow the line!” she barked firmly a second time. She scowled in the direction of the arrows painted on the floor and turned away. Her previous career, I’m speculating, was a prison guard in the now closed gulags.  She was obviously better suited commanding prisoners to “assume the position” than to being the first friendly face welcoming visitors to her country.  I’m sure she was hiding handcuffs and would have used them if I asked another question.  But that’s how it was, one day you’re communist and the next day you’re taking customer service courses and trying to embrace a free market economy.  And for some the promise of a better life hasn’t been realized.  Later, one of our hosts would express, “some folks prefer the old way, they’re still communists.” “Come and keep your comrade warm,” another refrain from the Beatles song, didn’t ring true.  We weren’t feeling the love just yet.  Aside from that rocky start, we had very enjoyable time in Bulgaria. IMG_0200The line led to a modern subway station adjacent to the airport terminal and for 1.60 BGN, about 90¢ USD, we rode theM2 line past sad remnants of soviet era block housing, before it descended deeply underground, for a twenty minute ride to the National Palace of Culture station.  IMG_1974We emerged onto the pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard filled with folks enjoying a warm Spring day and an incredible vista of Vitosha Mountain towering over the city.  Inviting outdoor cafes lined the street and we quickly chose which one we’d return to after meeting our Airbnb host.  We stayed on Knyaz Boris just two blocks parallel to Vitosha Boulevard and as majestic as the pedestrian mall was, the side streets, though tree lined and harboring small shops and restaurants, were slightly dismaying with wanton graffiti tags on every apartment building door and utility box.  There was a lack of pride in ownership. IMG_5982 The idea that’s it’s not my responsibility is a leftover from the communist era, when the government owned and was responsible for everything.  The front door to our building was no different, but our third-floor walkup apartment was an oasis with a sun-drenched living room and tiny balcony that we would call home for a month.  And to our delight, but to our waistlines’ detriment, there was a baklava bakery across the street! img_428236950-2.jpgLong at the crossroads of expanding empires, Bulgaria has had a contentious past with Thracian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist influences.  The First Bulgarian Empire, 681-1018, has been deemed the Golden Age of Bulgarian Culture, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in 865 and the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet.  Independent for only short periods of time during the medieval age, the National Revival period between 1762-1878 brought Bulgaria to finally throw off the yoke of Ottoman domination that had lasted from 1396.  Sadly, there were only six decades of self-government before the proud people of Bulgaria became a satellite regime of communist Russia at the end of WWII and fell behind the Iron Curtain.IMG_2015Today Sofia is transforming itself into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan cites in Europe with its pedestrian malls, extensive park system and tram lines that weave throughout the city.  But the past is always present and just around the corner in Sofia.  Walking north along Vitosha past the end of the pedestrian mall there is a three block stretch that displays a vast stretch of that history on the way to the Central Market Hall, where we were headed to stock our pantry.  We got sidetracked.IMG_5796Seven millennia ago, put down the first foundations of what we now call Sofia. The construction of Sofia’s modern subway system in the 1990’s revealed multiple layers of antiquity and many of the amazing artifacts unearthed are displayed, in museum cases, on the subway platforms in the Serdika station and National Archeology Museum nearby.

This is ground zero for history in Sofia as so many interesting sites are nearby.  Some larger stone columns and decorative capitals discovered have been placed in the Doctors’ Garden near Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.IMG_6334A tram passed by quietly as we approached St Nedelya Church, surrounded by trees in a small plaza.  The 19th century structure in front of us replaced a wooden structure that dated to the 10th century.  The inside of the domed church is spectacular with religious murals covering every surface. IMG_5757 Tragically in a 1925 bombing, the Bulgarian Communist Party attempted to kill the King of Bulgaria and other members of the government who were attending a funeral at this church – one hundred-fifty people died, and the cathedral’s dome was razed.  Excavations behind the church in 2015 uncovered early ruins and a treasure of 3,000 Roman silver coins from the 2nd century AD. IMG_2811

The Church of St. Petka stands in the center of Sofia adjacent to the Serdika Metro Station.  Built during Ottoman rule in the 14th century, its entrance was placed below ground level, so that the church’s total height did not exceed that of a cavalry soldier on horseback.  This was an odd condition the Ottomans had imposed on the construction of churches at the time.   From the entrance of the church you can see the archeological excavation of an old Roman road and the buildings that lined it, complete with mosaic floors and plumbing.IMG_5930 It ends just short of Banya Bashi, an Ottoman mosque built in the 16th century.  The towering statue of St. Sofia is also visible just beyond the subway station.  Ancient walls found during the renovation of the Central Market Hall can also be seen in the lower level of that building.IMG_5763Nearby the oldest building in Sofia, the Church of Saint George, built by the Romans in the 4th century, has early Christian frescoes which were painted over by the Ottomans when it was used as a mosque, but they were rediscovered in the 1900s and restored.   It stands surrounded by modern buildings in a courtyard behind the President of the Republic of Bulgaria building, within earshot of the Changing of the Guard.

Across town, our journey back through history continued at St. Sophia Church.  During the reign of Emperor Justinian, when Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire, the cathedral we see today was built atop the ruins of a smaller 4th century church that was centered in an ancient necropolis. Many of Sofia’s elite found their final resting place in the church’s crypt.  Early Christian frescoes gracing the interior were destroyed and minarets were added when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque in the 16th century.  The minarets and some walls collapsed during the 1858 earthquake and the mosque was abandoned due to the extensive damage, left to be used as a warehouse until the early 1900s when restoration began.  Today its cavernous interior, revealing its amazing brick construction and catacombs with ancient mosaic floors and tombs can be toured.  In the park in front of the cathedral The Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis has a fascinating display of discoveries from the area surrounding the church.

More recently the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski, standing adjacent to St. Sofia, was designed in 1884 to commemorate all the brave Bulgarian and Russian soldiers that died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and freed Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. However, the building was delayed repeatedly due to regional conflicts and not finished until 1924.  Its magnificent interior features gilded domes, chandeliers from Munich, Brazilian onyx, Indian alabaster, Italian marble and walls covered with beautiful iconography. It is the most important orthodox church in Bulgaria. IMG_1957 IMG_7803In the crypt of the cathedral a small, state of the art museum showcases the development of Bulgarian orthodox iconography over the centuries. img_7836.jpgNearby, the five gilded spires of the Russian Church, officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, can be seen from the steps of Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Built in 1914 on the site of a mosque that was torn down after the liberation of Bulgaria, it served has the official church for the Russian Embassy and the Russian community in Sofia.  The religious murals that cover the interior of the church were created by Vasily Perminov’s team of talented icon painters, who were also responsible for the iconography in Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Darkened by decades of candle smoke, the fresco paintings in the dome were restored in 2014.

In an outlying area, far from the city center, the Museum of Socialist Art displays forty-five years (1944-1989) of socialist themed art from the former People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a not too distant communist past that has been collected from every town across the country.  Most impressive is the statue park with monumental sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, Che Guevara, along with statues of farm workers and industrial laborers celebrating the communal.  At the time of its inauguration Georgi Lozanov, a noted Bulgarian educator, said, “Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.”

Closer in town, the National Museum of Military History displays an array of deadly modern weaponry, jets, tanks and missile launchers that are slowly rusting away. Also included is a noble little Trabant 601 automobile, the Soviet equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, the significance of which we’re not sure.IMG_1866In 2001 an early Christian mausoleum was unearthed near the American Embassy and it’s fantastic that things are still being discovered in 2019.

It seems you can’t build or conduct any street repairs in Sofia without uncovering an ancient layer of history.

Till next time, Craig & Donna