Chapter 1: Melnik, Bulgaria
Our last day of school for the 20-21 school year was June 30 (Alison’s birthday!) and we didn’t waste any time getting our summer plans underway. An hour after our last faculty meeting on June 30 we had the car packed up and were on the road. We two bags of scuba gear, a 12kg kettlebell, various running shoes, rash guards, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored camp equipment, water bladders, beach blankets, and clothing… and also a Greek phrasebook, plenty of sunscreen, and a high-end Giant road bike. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious outdoor gear collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
Weeks before we had learned of a fun Bulgarian tradition known as July Morning. The idea is for people stay up all night eating, drinking, and socializing with friends and family on June 30th, then have a bonfire and welcome the first sunrise of the summer on July 1st. After hearing about concept Alison knew what she wanted to do for her birthday this year (June 30th). She had heard from a friend about a winery that hosts a July Morning campout event on their property with food, live music, and space to pitch a tent. So first stop on our summer adventure was the tiny Bulgarian village of Melnik in the south of the country. About halfway there I realized that I had remembered to grab all the various pieces of camping gear except for the god damn tent. Sitting right behind the door at home was the last thing I meant to throw into the car before we took off, and I forgot it. ‘Well what have we here folks? Well yes, I believe it’s the “First Major Decision of the Trip!” Do we drive back to pickup the tent or press on? After some debate and web-browsing we decided to push ahead, consequences be damned with our new-found ‘devil may care’ attitudes. Our smooth summer vibes were not going to be tainted by this minor inconvenience; “We’ll just cowboy camp. It’s just one night” I remembered sounding positive about it. There was no rain in our future; I had checked before we left. It’d be alright.
I was wrong. So wrong. Not alright. Were as a normal person’s blood may be the equivalent of a turkey sandwich or slice of pizza to most mosquitoes, mine must come from a far finer vintage; the little bastards can’t get enough of me. My blood to a mosquito is like that cocaine-laced water they use in those experiments with rats and mice. They would drink me dry if they could.
Aside from that, we had a wonderful time watching the sun go down and looking at the stars. We awoke to a wonderful sunrise coming over the nearby hills, a little mobile coffeeshop converted from an old 70s VW, and a lovely little bonfire. We welcomed the first sun of the summer with a nice warm coffee and a crackling fire. It was a nice way to kick off the summer and celebrate Alison’s Birthday, though I’m fairly sure my good mood had more to do with being a pint low on blood.
Not being able to check in to our night’s AirBnB until about 3pm, we had to some time to kill. We decided to get some hiking miles in while the sun wasn’t yet too hot. The temps around midday the past few weeks had been merciless. It’s worth mentioning here that Bulgarians, in general, are not early risers. You often find the roads a bit more quiet if you happen to be driving around in the early hours of the morning. Most businesses here open around 10am. But before heading out to our hike, we needed to eat and fuel up. Melnik, as I mentioned before, is a small village. Not very many options at 7:30am for two hungry sleep-deprived travelers. 2 is the number of options we ended up with; one of which was this Jack-of-all-trades-type gentlemen who owned a cafe/corner store/tourist knick-knack and information stand/plus this hostel-like thing on the side. It had a lot of layers to it. He was friendly enough and our limited Bulgarian and his limited English got us two coffees and two huge helpings of a traditional Bulgarian cheese-filled puff pastry. It’s crispy crunchy greasy cheesy goodness. Coupled with some tart Bulgarian yogurt, it was a heavy way to start the day; especially with this cafe’s portion size!
Loaded up and ready to go, we found a trailhead and started walking. We were amazed at the different formations and geography of the landscape. It was very unique. Along this particular ridge hike there were multiple viewing points that offered stunning vistas. We also came across the remains of various monasteries, some still crumbing away as nature took them back, others only ancient foundations. All of them collected in this one little expansion of mountain top. We also came across a handful of wild tortoises rummaging in the undergrowth at various spots along the trail; a very cool find.
Our “last evening in Bulgaria for a while” was celebrated by visiting the local Melnik Wine Museum for a tasting. Most of the cute, tiny museum was written in Bulgarian but the host walked us around for a moment and answered our questions. But let’s get to the heart of it, we were there for a tasting. In this very rustic little cave dwelling at the basement of one of the main buildings in the village in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, we had some of the best wine of our lives. The wine was poured straight from huge barrels, adding to the atmosphere of the event. When we liked one enough to buy a bottle, it was poured right from barrel again and corked right there. It was a really nice experience and the host was super lovely.
We had our last Bulgarian feast for dinner at this local tavern-y place, off one of the side streets in Melnik. You can only really find local Bulgarian food in places like this throughout the country and driving down here, the conversation came up about our favorite Bulgaria dishes. Alison, being a salad-fiend, loves the shopska salata, a basic mix of cucumber, peppers, and tomatoes topped with serene cheese (all locally produced). Splash some olive oil and balsamic vinegar on that and damn, it’s good. I still hadn’t found my go-to Bulgarian meal. It’s not that I don’t like it, I find it quite agreeable most of the time. I didn’t have “my thing” until this place. On this unique wooden menu I saw chicken and vegetable sach, and I knew this would be my go-to. A sach is meat and vegetables mixed together with oil and spices and baked in a clay pot/plate with a lid. It comes to the table ripping hot, spewing greasy goodness like an active volcano. It’s so hot that you have to keep stirring it while it’s sitting at your table or it’ll start burning on the bottom. There’s a real element of danger to it when done correctly and you have to have your wits about you when you order it. I suppose that’s why I like it. Regardless, it’s very good.
Chapter 2: Litochoro, Greece
The border crossing into Greece wasn’t seamless, but took under an hour. After hearing from friends that it took up to 6 hours to cross, we were very content with the hour wait. Our first stop in Greece was the small town of Litochoro, located on the base of Olympus Mountains (highest peak Mytikas, 2,918 m./9,570 ft.). It’s also just a few kilometers from the sea; making it a perfect stop for us. Our aim was to do some hiking in the Olympus Mountains. After some research we decided on a valley hike to the base of the main peak. It was a slightly less traveled trail than others in the area, but offered some solid up and downs while traversing wooden bridges that criss-crossed this valley river all the way to the base of the peak. It was wonderful. Along the trail, we saw signs from the recent Olympus Marathon (a trail run up and down the mountain) that had occurred two weeks prior to our hike.
Chapter 3: Meteora, Greece
Our next stop was Meteora and the nearby town of Kalambaka. Meteora is the rock formations home to these gigantic pillars of sandstone with various monasteries built on top of them. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989 and is truly something to see. None of these photos do any of it justice. We found the best way to take this area in was to simply walk it. We started out one morning with the intention of a small hike and it turned into this really nice day just walking from pillar to pillar and lookout point to lookout point. Absolutely amazing place. Not only that, but we had our first real introduction to Greek food. So many good restaurants with incredible food. Meteora is a MUST-SEE in Greece – we absolutely adored the small village and breathtaking formations.
Chapter 4: Corfu, Greece
Our final (and intended) stop of the trip was the island of Corfu on Greece’s northwestern edge. We wanted to get out and get some place where Alison could complete some heavy training sessions in preparation for her upcoming Ironman Race in August and I could do my Rescue Diver course towards my Scuba certifications. We got a place for 3 weeks on the western side of the island (Palaiokastritsa is the name where we stayed) nearest to the dive center I’d be doing my course with. After some settling in, and the purchase of a new bug-net that was in need of some McGyver-ing before it could be used, we found our routine and groove.
One of our favorite things to do is just wander around. Getting lost in new places is a great way to see them. We had some lovely days wandering around some of the smaller villages of Corfu. Lakones, Sokraki, and Lefkimmi were some of our favorites.
Snorkeling and swimming was a 10-minute walk away. Let’s say we were spoiled and we miss the salty sea already! The waters of Palaiokastritsa (and the west side of the island in general) were cold, which meant we drove 40 minutes to the east side for a couple long beach days. The water on the east side was bath water, while the west side temperatures were around 65 degrees F. Those cold waters reminded us of Maine summer vacations!
For years, we’ve wanted a nice wooden salad bowl. We found some beautiful ones years past while traveling around Costa Rica, but we couldn’t ensure the sustainability of the wood. Finding one that was sustainably sourced, made my a local artisan, and within our price range has proven to be a challenge over the years. We found what we were looking for in an olive wood shop in the small village of Sokraki.
The food alone is a highlight. Gyros platter and sandwiches were a daily staple. On a budget, we also made some baller meals at the Airbnb including tacos, chicken bowls, burgers, and salads with the freshest of ingredients.
One of the coolest things we did was a tour of Governor’s Olive Oil. We learned a great deal about the process of making olive oil, what makes it extra virgin, and even a tasting with the different kinds of oil they make. It was a cool experience and the olive oil was delicious. We walked away with 5 liters to take home!
We took a tour of coastal Corfu town on a pirate-themed ship! It was a nice way to see the various historical buildings and elements of the coastline. Plus I got to drink rum on a pirate ship under the Mediterranean sun. So I got that going for me, which is nice.
We did one small tour and wine tasting at the small-scale Theotoky Estate; which also included a small olive oil tasting. The cellar where bottle after bottle sit for two years to ferment was impressive. After the Governor’s Olive Oil tastings, we were better equipped to know a good oil from a cheap one – the Estate’s was very good.
One morning, we visited the Corfu Donkey Rescue. A very friendly teenager led us along the tour around the camp; which currently houses rescued donkeys, dogs, cats, and 1 horse. We brushed a couple of the donkeys – one named Maria was Alison’s favorite. When hearing the explanation about the horse during the tour, Maria walked right up to us and nuzzled Alison in the butt. She was looking for cuddles!
Another very cool experience was our beach day at the beach town of Sadari. One of the things to do in Sadari is swimming in the Canal d’Amour. The old tale is that couples who swim through the canal together will be married soon… we will have to see about that one! We opted to swim into the canal from the neighboring bay, and the snorkeling was cool. It was a bit touristy, but pretty special.
We each had our own personal successes on this trip as well. Alison managed to get in so many miles and miles of swimming, biking, and running in preparation for her upcoming event (she did the full swim and bike distances on two separate days). She didn’t let the heat or hills get in her way! I’m looking forward to cheering her on in August! I was able to complete my Rescue Diver course as well as brush up on my Emergency First Aid. It was challenging overall, but I’m walking away with more understanding and preparation to keep our diving fun and safe.
Chapter 5: Returning Home to Leave Again/IronPeople Estonia
Taking turns at the wheel while listening to “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” on audiobook made the 7-8ish hours of driving go by quickly. Alison had never read the story the famous movie is based on and we had some great discussions about the film vs. story. Our next journey? To Tallinn, Estonia where we will be reunited with Alison’s mom and sister, our best friend, Sam Gray, and his daughter, Olivia. The purpose of the reunion: Ironman for Sam and Alison. We have our cowbells and t-shirts ready to be the best cheering section Ironman has ever seen 🙂 Go Sam! Go Alison!