Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunday with... us!


Yesterday we went on a Bulgarian t.v. show called "Every Sunday with..." The theme for the four hour long show was the weekend, and we were the final guests, supposedly providing an American perspective on weekend life.

We had instructions to meet a woman from the show "in the underground passage near hall 2 of the palace of culture (NDK) next to a fountain with big metallic balls." We left an hour early, assuming it would be quite a quest to find such a place, but it was easy.

At 3:30 we were whisked underground NDK into make-up and hair booths (well, they didn't change Brett's hair much) and interviewed on camera for a little backstage piece. Then we walked up a hallway and into the back wing of a live studio. A large team of purple clad dancers filed out of the stage entrance just before we filed in. I had the sense we might be a bit less exciting for the audience than they were, but what can you do?

Twenty minutes of questions later, we were done. We gave our perspective on any number of things - some of which we knew about, and some of which we didn't. But it was fun. And weird. And certainly not something we do everyday...

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Word seems to be getting around about the fantastic hikes that the ACS Hiking Club has taken so far. This weekend I accompanied 23 students to Stara Planina, the mountain range that runs through central Bulgaria. We took a lift to the ridge and walked around for awhile, enjoying lunch on rock outcroppings overlooking the central plains of Bulgaria. Sopot, the town where we started, is famous for its mountain biking, and we found ourselves sharing the chair lift with many a mountain biker preparing for next weekend's European competition on this very mountain. Several of them whizzed by beneath us as we were carried up. Adding to the excitement was a group of about a dozen para-sails floating down the mountain.

At the beginning of the year, I mandated that we have a faculty-student ration of 1-7 on these trips. But as I have gotten to know the students, I've slowly realized that this isn't really necessary. They're so well behaved, and so supportive of one another, that it's really a privilege just to accompany them. When they proposed a hike on the last weekend of the quarter, I knew that most teachers would be finishing grades and I may well be the only faculty member on the trip. No problem. On the train ride back, we even got into a 15-person game of 20 questions, or at least the Bulgarian version of it. Their group dynamic is astounding, and I've been grateful this year to see so much of this incredible country with some of its most enthusiastic guides.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Though Sofia is Bulgaria's capitol, most people in the country consider Plovdiv, the city with the second highest population, more representative of Bulgaria's culture. It's cleaner, the roads are smoother, and the town has preserved much of its architectural flair from the Bulgarian Revival. On our way back from the Rhodopes on Sunday, Betsy and I stopped off in Plovdiv for a quick tour of the old town. You can see why Bulgarians are so proud.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring in the Rhodopis

A rainstorm approaches our meadow

Did you know pussy willows turn pink and orange?

This Way to Beauty

One of Bulgaria's Sunflowers, 8 months later

Maybe I should get a smoke blue hat too, it's quite becoming.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Through the Seasons in Four Hours

Right before Will went back to Italy, we took one more hike on Mt. Vitosha, in what turned out to be a walk from spring, into winter, and back into spring. We did a loop hike that seemed to encounter the best of Vitosha: rolling streams, snow and ice, views of Sofia, wild flowers, a monastery, and a lake. It's my new favorite hike on Vitosha. It was also a fitting end to Will's visit, during which we were lucky enough to go on four or five fantastic hikes, continuing our string that started at Webb. I'm not sure what it is about our hiking mojo, but wherever we've been so far seems to present its best side for us.

Will doing his best to blend into the rock field.

Sofia in a sun spot below.

And then there was winter. Fog, dripping snow, and a soft trail.

Ice shards collected under the trees where they fell in the slightly above freezing temperatures.

Boyana lake, fed by the waterfall that Will and I visited last January.

And finally, back to spring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shiroka Laka

Shiroka Laka is now one of my favorite Bulgarian towns. Will, Georgi, and I spent a day there on our recent swing through the Rhodopes; we were enchanted by its old-world atmosphere and enthralled by the stunning hiking available in the surrounding hills. The tiny village is composed of about 100 homes, virtually all of which are constructed in the Bulgarian Revival style of wood beams and jutting windows, often with stone foundations. Unlike the colorful houses of Koprivshtitsa, though, these are mostly white or cream color with dark wood accents, rendering them more aesthetically consistent with the mountainous environment. It's a thoroughly charming walk back in time, further enhanced by the fact that these houses are painstakingly preserved as such; there is even new building going on in the same style. Wood smoke and arch bridges complete the experience. On Monday, after a hike to a nearby ridge that brought us to an alpine pasture, we returned to town for dinner at a local restaurant. Sitting outside in the crisp mountain air, we enjoyed patatnik (a Rhodopean potato specialty), kachamak (a Rhodopean corn meal specialty), and other local dishes (bean stew, shopska salad). As the sun went down, we remarked about how there was nowhere else in the world that we could have had the combined outdoor-culinary experience that we had that day.

This was one of several stone arch bridges we saw in the Rhodopes.

The sun sets on a home built in typical Bulgarian Revival style.

Will and me outside the Ethnographic Museum.

The town church

Will enjoying our last few moments in Shiroka Laka, as we waited for our breakfast outside a restaurant

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Barcelona's Chocolate Museum

Dark Chocolate Fringe on a Vast White Chocolate Egg

Antique Chocolate Advertising

A Print of an Old National Geographic Cover, featuring a Chocolate Artist

A Chocolate Version of the Gaudi Dragon Statue in Parc Guell

A Chocolate Bullfight

I'm not sure I can really recommend Barcelona's Chocolate Museum. My favorite thing about it was that they hand out bars of chocolate as tickets. But it was kind of fun seeing famous Spanish scenes depicted in chocolate, and finding out unusual facts about the history of cacao.

A few unexpected facts:
1. Cocoa beans were once used as currency. Trying to fake beans could result in enslavement.
2. Early Europeans thought the native drink made from cocoa beans disgusting and bitter.
3. Bonbons first appeared in the French court, and their name simply translates "good, good."
4. "Viento Chocolatero" means the chocolate wind, and is the Mexican description of the most favorable breezes for navigation.

Wonderful Bridges (literally!)

On our way to the Rhodopes, Georgi, Will and I took a 20 km detour over somewhat bumpy roads to natural stone arches, the names of which translate literally to "Wonderful Bridges." After doing a little circuit around the stone monuments, we set off on a hike of the area. The highlight was these little purple flowers that seemed to be peeking up right on the edge of the snow line. They must love the cold. Once the snow recedes, you can see fields of them all over the Rhodopes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Barcelona Snapshots, Round #2

The Rhodopes at Sunset

Will, Georgi and I headed off into the Rhodopes on Sunday morning. After a stop at the "Wonderful Bridges" (I'll post about that later), we arrived in late afternoon, just enough time to grab some dinner and head into the hills to find a camp spot. The Rhodopes are the Appalachians of Bulgaria -- the softer, friendlier mountains. While they don't contain the sheer jagged peaks of the Pirins, or the alpine lakes of the Rilas, the Rhodopes are home to dozens of villages and gently rolling hills, along with innumerable hiking paths networking them all. While other mountains often make the postcards, ask most Bulgarians where they'd rather go, and they'll express a preference for the Rhodopes, with all the villages that remind them of their youth, the old-style architecture, and the traditional food. We drove through a town famous for its yogurt, camped outside a town known for its woodwork, and drove by countless roadside stands selling homemade honey, jam, and wicker baskets. The Rhodopes are both an outdoor and cultural experience, and we made the most of it.

Sunset light lived up to its billing, goldening the hills as we hiked to find a camp spot.

I took the picture above as Georgi and Will set up tents (below).

After they finished, the sunset looked more like this.

And the distant ridges like this. Remind anyone of the Blue Ridge?

And then we hiked out the next morning, by perfectly manicured fields and well-used wood sheds.