One of the best things about international teaching is the people. You tend to meet a whole lot of interesting people with interesting stories from many different places. Sam has been a great friend of ours since we met him teaching in China. Good heart. Solid dude. Great friend. Always down to meet up. He came and visited us in Feb when he had a break from school; we recently just happened to have a nice long weekend and decided to pop over for a visit. We can’t thank Sam enough for giving us a proper English tour; we hit some killer spots in a few short days. We gave him a few ideas of things that could be cool to do together but he really put together an awesome itinerary!
Sam said, “Since you’ve only got a few days, I said to myself ‘What are a few things everyone should do when they visit England?’ Well, you’ve got to visit a pub, eat fish and chips, and see a castle, at least!” (Great dude, like I said.)
Within an hour after landing we found ourselves walking through the beautiful Epping Forest. We were staying under the wonderful hospitality of Bill and Gina (Sam’s dad and his partner) and they live just across the road from this lovely forest that many people cycle and/or walk their dogs through. Beautiful forest paths and a couple of dogs who happen to need a walk were a welcome sight for us!
A short while later we were heading to one of the most magical places on Earth; The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour! Those of you reading this who don’t know me as well should know that I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd. Much of the Potter movies were filmed outside London and the studio space that was used during the filming was turned into a “making of” tour after the final movie completed production. Many of the sets, props, and costumes are on display while friendly (and just as nerdy) staff chat you up about your favorite films, give out some trade secrets and tell you stuff to watch out for during your next HP movie marathon. Walking down Diagon Alley was absolute magic! So was standing in Dumbledore’s office, walking through the Forbidden Forest, and seeing many of the special f/x and animatronics were just some of the many highlights. As the day turned into night, I remember standing by the Knight Bus, looking at No. 4 Privet Drive, sipping a butterbeer thinking, “This is so fucking cool.”
The next day following a wonderful English breakfast made by Bill and Gina, we hopped on the short train ride to downtown London. London is a really cool city; it has a flow and energy all of its own. It’s big, busy, and a touch mad at times, but along the way you hear so many different languages and see people of all sorts taking in the wonders of this place. Our first stop was the amazing Natural History Museum. Not only was it an impressive building, but it housed so many incredible artifacts like a first edition copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and not one but two archaeopteryx fossils (only twelve have ever been found). Like almost every Natural History Museum we’ve ever been to, you simply can’t see it all in one day. A return trip is needed;)
After a few pints at a proper English pub, we found ourselves near the Camden Market for lunch. The market is this huge series of outdoor alleys and corridors full of food stalls and little indie shops. It’s a great place for a meal since it has a huge variety of cuisine and everyone in your group can get whatever they want! We ended up meeting friends of Alison and her family from back home in Vermont. Always great to catch-up with some fine folks from the 802.
Feeling the need to walk off our big lunch and earn some hunger points towards our upcoming dinner, we walked from Camden Market to Buckingham Palace. This was an awesome 3 (ish) mile walk that us through both Regent’s Park and Green Park. We also were able to see the upscale Mayfair district in all its bougie glory! Buckingham Palace was quite a sight; a must see while you’re in the city!
Alison had been in contact with some of our former Chinese students who are now in various universities around the UK. Many of them were eager to meet up and have a meal with us and they knew just the place! They picked out an amazing Chinese food restaurant which transported us all back to our time together in Qingdao. As a teacher it’s always nice to see your former students growing up, living their lives, and doing their thing. (We’d like to take a moment to wish all our former students the best in their future endeavors! Love you guys!!)
The next day we hopped back in the car and made our way to Wales. Just over the border is Chepstow Castle, the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain. The castle stretches out along a limestone cliff above the Wye river in a beautiful location. Not only does the remains of the castle give visitors a good understanding of castle design and purpose, it was also really quaint, charming, and peaceful. Definitely worth a stop!
Later that afternoon we found ourselves in the lovely little village of Cheddar, England (yes, that Cheddar!) We sampled some cheese before walking up the famous Cheddar Gorge. Beautiful cliffs tower over both sides of the road as cyclists, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts take in the remarkable and bucolic landscape. The top of our hike offered beautiful views of rolling country hills, charming little farms and villages, as well as the English seaside.
For our last evening in England, Sam brought us to the OG fish and chips shop of Weston-super Mare, Papa’s. Outstanding fish and chips! We also got it to-go so we could sit on the beach and watch the sunset over the water; what an amazing bonus!
The next morning we were flying back to Sofia but not until Sam showed us his last surprise of our weekend trip; Stonehenge! This was always something both Alison and I really wanted to see! Learning the history and significance of this prehistoric monument was so incredible! These stones are absolutely massive! The whole site and exhibit was really well done! I remembered learning about the henge on some Discovery Channel show when I was a kid and it was incredible to be to be seeing for myself!
We can’t thank Sam enough for organizing such a steller trip! (And for driving us around!) So good to see him again and share some really cool experiences! The UK has so much to offer. We’ll definitely need to take another pass through sometime in the near future. For now, Sam’s off to teach in the Bahamas, we’re off to do the same in Bali. Until next time, dear friend!
Some ships are sail ships, some ships are steam ships, but the best ships are friendships. The true friendships. The pick-up-where-you-left-off kind. The travel-three-hours-in-one-direction-because-someone-said-there-is-a-thermal-spring kind. The ask-a-stranger-in-a-foreign-language-if-you-can-pet-the-baby-goat kind. The awkward-sunburn kind. The hike-with-an-unhired-tour-guide-german-sheperd kind. This is the Goth & Griff kind of friendship. Hilary Alison Doulos (maiden name Griffin = Griff) aka Sugar Muffin aka Salmon Muffin aka Gyros Muffin, came to visit me, Alison Heidi Gauthier (Gauthier = Goth) aka Sugar Muffin aka Coffee Muffin aka Mussels Muffin, during April school break. Like all great friendships often yield, shenanigans ensued. Don’t worry to our dear sweethearts at home, we stayed safe and paid for accommodations… the majority of the time.
Hilary arrived at the Sofia Airport in the middle of a tornado gray sky. This apocalyptic overhanging had been in Sofia for two days when Hil flew in, and we weren’t sure what would happen. Thunderous rain, monstrous snow, or tornadoes; all options were on the table. We dropped off Grant at home for his staycation and hit the open road south towards Greece for the girls’ road trip. An hour south of Sofia and the skies opened up with thumbnail-sized hail. Zeus was truly calling us down to Greece. Traffic came to a standstill along the highways as I yelled out, “Dupnitsa! Of all the places; Dupnitsa for the hail storm!” I had some prior interesting interactions in this town on a bike ride.
We made it to the border around 10:00, and crossed near 10:30pm. Not bad considering the past record for me and Grant crossing the Bulgarian-Greek border was 45 minutes. At the Greek half of the border crossing, the tired and jaded control man asked me where we were staying. I pleasantly told him, “Litochoro.” He looked at me, confused at first, but then annoyed at my sheer presence on Planet Earth. “LitoHHHHoro, you mean?” The H sound came from the depths of his soul and was a solid two seconds too long. “Yes,” I nodded politely. He slammed the stamps down on our passports and shooed us along. After the border, we looked up a couple of places to stay for the evening in LitoHoro, and called up a Greek woman on the phone. Words were exchanged, but neither party knew their meanings. We considered this as a positive sign and typed in her hotel to Google Maps. Near 1am, we arrived at the woman’s hotel. All lights were off and the place was locked up for the evening. We called the number again and, praise Jesus, we heard the phone ringing inside. She came down to let us in and show us to the room. The place looked pretty deserted when we woke up in the morning; she was thankful for the business after all.
Off the bat, we drove to one of the starting points of Mt. Olympus National Park for a morning hike. Prior to Hil’s arrival, I had done a supermarket run to pick up the essentials – carrots, peanut butter, organic Nutella, raspberry jelly, wheat bread, bananas, apples, and, of course, Cheetos. During the hike, we walked and chatted along while eating a banana and sandwich. Once, many April breaks ago, Hil and I drove from Elmira, NY to the Floridian panhandle in one shift (20+ hours straight) to go camping for a week. We drained Hil’s campus meal card in order to buy the non-perishable essentials for the week. One of my favorite memories of that trip was sitting on the beach reading trashy novels while making PB&J sandwiches. They truly became “sand”wiches when the winds picked up at the exact moment to land sand in the bread-making process. A crunchy condiment, we agreed.
After the picturesque Mt. Olympus hike, Hil and I drove into the village center of Litohoro for a delicious spanakopita. On our way out of the town, we found a side road to take us directly to the sea. Litohoro is an awe-inspiring place in the sense that it truly has the sea to mountain views. We dipped our toes in the freezing water (“You didn’t want to go for a dip, Muffin?”), and looked for unique pebbles along the coast. I allowed myself to take only two tiny pebbles; I am trying to cut back. We continued driving southbound to the Pelion Peninsula.
On one of our epic past road trips, Hillary and I found ourselves in Yellowstone driving, hiking, and geysering along. We had arrived very late at night (wait, this seems to be a theme) to our campsite and set up the tent in the dark via flashlight-in-mouth maneuvers. In the morning, we drove through the National Park in search of elk, bison, and bears (oh my!). At one point, the miles of RV and car traffic was at a standstill due to a large bison herd passing. The forest rangers were directing the traffic along. Apparently, we stopped a few seconds too long to get a video, because, all of a sudden, the ranger’s voice came on the megaphone, “SOUTHBOUND TRAFFIC CONTINUE!” We thought this was a bit rude; don’t shout at everyone due to only our tardiness. This story came to mind as we traveled, southbound again, through Greece.
For the Pelion Peninsula, I had never been here, but knew some friends from Sofia had moved down the previous school year. They remarked on its beauty, and I couldn’t agree more. Set against countless olive trees, jagged mountains, and blue seas, Pelion Peninsula is a Greek oasis. We arrived at a campground we found on Google Maps during the drive. With olive tree branches strewn each way and construction at some of the tent sites, the place didn’t look open. And the reality was… it wasn’t. We arrived on April 1st, but its opening day was April 20th. We talked to two people whose family owns the place and begged them to let us stay. They said, “The bathrooms are filthy. They might not even be working.” We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Doesn’t bother us. Not a problem.” When they saw the desperation in our eyes, they agreed to one campsite that we pointed towards. They raked the tree branches a bit, and must have thought us absurd for setting up camp on this dirty plot. “Thank you; we will write you an outstanding review on TripAdvisor”, we told them.
We drove the car to the other side of the Peninsula (the Aegean side) for a cool hike along the coast. Here, we were greeted by countless more olive trees, flowers, and beautiful scenery as the waves crashed against the rocks below the trail. We came up to a cute town and ordered a couple strong coffees at a local very-Greek restaurant. Hmm, how can I describe a proper very-Greek restaurant? Here are the criteria:
Very loud traditional music playing (We needed to yell to order a couple cafes)
Large photo of grandfather restaurant in corner with judging eyes
Shells collected from the sea… and glued to the fireplace… all along the fireplace
Strong smell of fish… and oregano
With coffees in hand, we walked to the village pier because we saw some people were fishing. I should actually say, they had been fishing. Now, they were sitting around a grill, laughing and chatting while passing around some hooch in a clear glass bottle. Hilary walked up to them and asked, “Did you guys catch anything?” Again, words that don’t mean anything, so we hastily mimed a fishing pole and excitement. They said something to us, then took the lid off a pot to show us some fried anchovies inside. They ushered the pot towards us, and we each grabbed one morsel. We thanked them and headed back along the pier.
At the car, we drove back over the mountain to our campsite. We parked and walked downtown to meet Wendy and Jonathan Thompson (friends who lived in Sofia last year) for dinner at a local spot. Per the great counsel of Wendy and Jonathan, we ordered the house specials featuring local vegetables and seafood. It was indeed a treat. The Thompsons gave us some recommendations for hiking the next day as well. We slept soundly that evening with bellies full of calamari, fava beans, and red wine.
The next morning, we did a wee jog by the coast on the gulf side. Then we took down the tent and gave the kind girl 10 euros for the site. She said it was too much honestly for what we used, but we insisted. We continued south to Trikeri and parked at the head of a great seaside hike. We hiked in the heat while chatting and observing the wildlife in the area.
Again, many olive trees lined this trail all around. In one small bay by the sea, we saw countless translucent items. At first, I was ashamed of the humans of the world because I thought they were plastic bags. Upon closer inspection, we saw them slightly pulsing. There were thousands of jellyfish, of all various sizes, stuck in this small bay. We didn’t know if it was a good (mating, taking a rest) or bad (dying, stuck here) sign to find them here.
Another aspect of hiking in the peninsula were the goat and sheep herds. We were in awe of the playful yet obedient dogs bringing their herds for grazing. The sound of a herd is like nothing else – the farmers attach bells to the necks of each animal. The chimes of a herd moving along is a chaotic yet charming cacophony. Muffin and I got back in the car following the hike and drove to a local farm stand that the Thompsons had also recommended for local honey, etc.. Sadly, no one was home when we passed by. However, we stopped for a coffee (first for the day) in a mountainous town before heading back north. Hil and I debated which we couldn’t live without; coffee or beer. She chose beer and, I, coffee.
We drove back North and inward into the heart of Greece to arrive at Meteora that evening. Meteora was a favorite for Grant and me from this past summer. Hil was also in awe of these unique rock formations. We found a spot that had open tent sites, and grabbed some Greek dinner at a local restaurant up the road. However, with bellies full of chicken, tzatziki and olives, we did not sleep well this evening. The Meteora dogs were out in droves. All night long, there was a cacophony of barking and… rooster crowing. Stray dogs and pets alike; the noise continued all night. We woke up a bit worse for wear… and headed right for a cafe with strong espresso in mind.
In the morning and early afternoon, we walked along the “loop” of Meteora up a hiking path and then along all the monasteries. When Grant and I had visited this iconic location back in July, it was almost too hot to handle. Due to the heat, we couldn’t bring ourselves to be inside at all, so we hadn’t seen any of the monasteries. With Hilary, the weather was ideal, and we toured inside Holy Trinity and Varlaam Monasteries. We made it back to our campsite, took everything down, and drove through downtown Meteora in search of a proper Gyro. We found a good spot, devoured a chicken Gyro, and headed to the Meteora Mushroom Museum. Hil is a huge fan of mushrooms and knew many of the common fungi at hand, but it was all new information to me. It was a very unique and thought-provoking museum.
While ending the Meteora walkabout and getting a Gyro, Hil and I had been debating about where to go next. We both had some ideas, but none seemed to stick. For example, we thought about driving through Macedonia on the way back to Bulgaria, but I wasn’t confident that the car was allowed to go through that non-EU country. So, at the Mushroom Museum, we asked the gift shop manager about any cool places around, and he told us about Pozar. To Pozar we went!
Pozar Thermal Springs are in Northern Greece; almost to the Macedonian border. We arrived there around 8:30 at night, figured out how to buy the tickets, and then soaked in the mineral hot baths. The town is situated along the hot springs river. They have a few pools to soak in and we enjoyed the small (authentic) one as well as the large (pool) spring. We looked at Google Maps and saw that the area had some cool hiking, so we decided to stay there for the night. However, we didn’t have a campsite for that evening and it was after 10pm. Soooooo, we did what any normal Goth & Griff girls would do; we drove the car out behind one of the municipal buildings, brushed our teeth, pulled the sleeping bags from the trunk, fed a stray dog some leftover fava beans and bread, and reclined the front car two seats. We set the alarm for 8am to get in a good hike before crossing back over the border in the morning.
However… we awoke at 2:30am to a HONK HONK! A man had driven a motorcycle up beside the car window and was honking at us. Hilary rolled down the window, and again, HONK HONK “something something Taxi!”. We didn’t know what he said but the message was clearly received. We drove out of the Pozar hot springs area and back towards the nearest town. Clearly, the area shuts down between 2:30am and morning. We got to the nearest town, weighed our options, and realized we wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again any time soon. “The worst part, Al, is that I was having such good sleep” said Hil. “So good”, I replied, “…so good.” After the dogs of Meteora symphony the evening before, the sleep had been much needed and was actually warm/comfortable.
In conclusion, we decided to head for the border. We drove northeast and arrived at the Bulgarian-Greek border at 5:30am. We crossed in a record time of 8 minutes. Beyond epic silver lining!
Once in Bulgaria, we set Google Maps to Melnik. I told Hilary the timing might be perfect. We might get to Melnik just in time for a sunrise hike. We arrived in the quiet and sleepy Melnik around 7am, grabbed some peanut butter, bread, and water from the backseat, and headed for a hike up the side of the sand pillars. As soon as we exited the car, this giant of a German Shepherd came bounding over to us. He had a chain collar on and was dragging about 3 feet of additional chain behind him wherever he went. Clearly he had just escaped and had energy to spare! We headed for the trail head, and he ran up ahead of us. This particular trail is steep at first with stairs going up to a plateau and then leveling off from there. He followed us the whole way up, ran ahead of us, ran behind us, and then ran in circles around us. The sound was awful with the chain dragging behind him and kicking up mud and sand everywhere. I managed to grab him and unhook the chain. Untethered, he was faster than ever and stayed right with us. We thought at any moment he would go on his merry way, but he stayed with us the entire hike. Even when we wanted to lose him (at one point we played hide and go seek), we couldn’t. We paid him for his (unasked) tour guide services with peanut butter on bread; he was a huge fan!
Unfortunately, the fog clouded out the sunrise. However, the hike was beautiful and the views looking down onto sleepy Melnik were . We came back to the car and drove towards downtown. The dog followed along beside the car and waited outside our breakfast spot. We filled up on omelet, coffee, fried bread, and cheese before searching around for a wine shop that was open. I bought some wine to bring back to friends in Sofia and we headed north again towards Sofia. Our plan was to stay at Rila for a night, but we greatly underestimated how much snow was still present in the National Park. The winter this year had been unusually long; this was apparent as the car climbed up the switchbacks. We turned the car around when there was too much snow to continue. We found a waterfall hike in a town at the bottom of the hill that ended up being an unexpected gem. We drove back home to Sofia via Relyovo so Hil could meet Katie.
Back in Sofia, Grant made us a delicious dinner. The next morning, we went for Hil’s antigen test to fly (negative thank goodness) then went for a trail run at Pancharevo. I showed Hil our favorite cafe near the lake and, naturally, we got some Banitsa. At the Childrens’ Bells Park, Muffin rang the USA bell (“It’s not too flashy, I like it!”), and then we headed downtown.
For lunch, we met up with another Elmira College Alumnae, Tanya. She is from Sofia and was a Resident Assistant on Hilary’s floor during her first year at EC. It was great to catch up and remember old times from EC and its sweet traditions. It’s a small world, isn’t it?
Hil and I walked around downtown; of course careful to dodge the pro-Russian protests on the way to the famous Sofian landmarks. Protest, anyone? Protests? We met up with Grant by Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral (he had just gotten a tattoo) and headed for the Museum of Illusions.
We met up with Svetla at the Museum of Illusions. Grant had seen the advertisements for this Museum since we arrived, but we had never been. It was really interactive, interesting and thought-provoking. I still don’t know how a couple of the illusions work! Then we met up with Mary and all went out to dinner together at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The Mavrud red wine, shopska, and sach was a great way to celebrate Hil’s last evening in Bulgaria.
We sent Hil off on her early morning flight with a heavy heart. To the next time, Anchovy Muffin! Let’s make it a Vietnam moped road trip?
Seeing the year “2022” was a little surreal. Honesty time; I still think the 90’s was like 10 years ago. I know right, “But don’t you teach history?!” Yes, I do, but feeling time and reading it in a textbook are two very different things. When someone mentions that the 90s was 30ish years ago, in my heart, it feels closer. It’s funny how time is more of an emotion than a tangible thing.
I’ve always found the New Year serves as a good benchmark for reflection. What went well in the past year, what didn’t, and what you’re working on in the new one. For us, we wanted to reclaim a bit of what COVID had removed in the past year. With travel restrictions loosening, exploring a bit further and potentially visiting with some friends was back on the table.
Unlike last year’s rather mild winter, this January was long, dark, and snowy, but we filled it with household projects, puzzles, and cooking up some great food. There was much paperwork and planning in preparation for our upcoming move to Bali. At the same time, I needed to submit all my paperwork and materials to renew my teaching license back in Vermont. Needless to say, loads of “adulting” needed to happen; far too much in my opinion. There are always challenges and difficulties doing things in a foreign country that you wouldn’t think twice about back at home. Like mailing documents or getting fingerprinted for a background check. Many thanks to our Bulgarian friends who helped us navigate the red tape.
February saw our dear friend Sam visiting us from the UK. We like playing the roles of hosts and tour guides. Being able to show Sam some of our favorite spots was a fun time! We walked around downtown Sofia to take in some of the sights and food, walked at Pancharevo for some fresh air and great views, and stayed over one night in the nearby city of Plovdiv (the cultural capital of Bulgaria). Sam also saw our high school firsthand when he came for a visit one day when both Alison and I were working.
The first of March signifies the quaint Bulgarian tradition of Baba Marta. On the 1st, people hand out little red ‘n white bracelets to their friends and family. When someone gives you one, you give them one in return. By the end of the day, teachers and students leave school with their arms full of the colorful bracelets. You’re supposed to wear the bracelets until you see some sign of spring such as tree buds or storks returning from the south. At that point, you take your bracelets off and put them on a nearby tree branch. This is such a cool tradition that we love! However, we weren’t able to take our bracelets off so quickly this year because winter continued to drag on with snowstorms continuing in this month.
Naturally, there were a few sporting events/trail runs that we attended this spring as well. There is a great sporting community here that puts on many local running events, one of the organizations is called trailseriesbg. Alison and our friend, Douwe, have taken part in some of their weekend runs and I’ve tagged along to a couple of them. Alison’s not one to brag about her accomplishments, so I’ll do it for her! During the Baba Marta 6k run, Alison beat out the other female competitors to take first place! Trailseriesbg gives out one-of-a-kind homemade clay medals for the top three men and women in each distance. A few weeks later came the 7 Hills 18k race. This trail run was in a beautiful little village outside Sofia which contained, yep, 7 different hills for competitors to run up and down. Again, Alison *rose* to the challenge (literally up through the clouds and back down again) to take first place! So proud of this little race fiend!
Winter hikes with our good friends Douwe, Yana, Tobias, and Tonks are shown here. Hikes happened on Vitosha Chimneys, Bistritsa, and Bankya.
We’d heard about the skiing in Bulgaria and knew it was a destination for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts all over Europe. Just head to the airport during the winter and you’ll see bus loads of people shuffling off planes from various places all wanting to hit the slopes. We didn’t manage to go last winter, but this year we were determined to get out there and give it a try! Alison grew up skiing and myself snowboarding, but neither of us had really done much in the past 10-15 years. It was truly like riding a bike. We handled ourselves very well and had the most excellent day at Borovets skiing village. We were saying it’s almost too bad we’re not staying somewhere cold for our next teaching gig so we could make this more of a routine hobby! Maybe someday 😉
During one of our weekend getaways, Ali’s friend, Ventsi, from a local biking group invited us to travel to a village in the southern part of the country to do some cycling around and sightseeing. The main attraction for cycling was the town of Suhovo in the Rhodope Mountains. In this area, there is a river that winds through the mountains; forming a horseshoe at one unique spot. It was a great chance to visit a part of the country we hadn’t seen before and explore other unique sights of Bulgaria like the Arda River and the Devil’s Bridge.
With only a short time left here in Bulgaria, we’re attempting to capitalize on these next few weeks and try to check-out some other places and activities we’ve always wanted to. We’ve got some ideas but who knows what will happen! Check back soon!
For us, December was an absolute whirlwind of emotions. One day, we’re on cruise control and going through the motions of our normal lives. Next, we’re drinking more coffee than is advisable by medical science because we’re out of gas and spent the last few days running on fumes. Early in the month, our job hunting process had reached full speed which involved staying up late or waking up early to do interviews with various schools in differing time zones. Coupled with the background research needed for each interview and the actual application process for each school, it turns out casual job hunting is a part-time job. Adding to this emotional rollercoaster ride were our actual jobs, which continued to challenge us by mixing both in-person and online learning; often in the same day!
We stayed strong and braved the storm as best we could by cooking up some wonderful food at home and spending time with our friends. Our weekly date-night ritual also helped us to recenter and stay focused. As we mentioned in a previous post, our job-hunting season officially ended when we very excitedly accepted positions at a small community school in Bali, Indonesia. This huge, challenging, often daunting task was now behind us! We spent the rest of December working hard with our current students as exams are right around the corner! But we also had a bit more time for the fun stuff! We did some cool running events and hit the rock climbing gym together. We visited one of Sofia’s outdoor Christmas markets where we sampled the delicious mulled wine, sausages, and other goodies for sale. One of the vendors was selling Bulgarian-made hot sauces; naturally we bought a few to try and spent the next week eating spicy wings and having friends over to try the new sauces we found!
For our holiday break this winter, we traveled to Jordan for a fun mixture of diving and desert exploring. After weeks of hybrid school learning we were itching to head out and explore some new places. We had three decent snow falls here in Sofia and were eager to pack up our diving gear, grab our hiking boots, and head out.
We decided to spend the first week diving around the city of Aqaba. It was very convenient since our flights were direct to Aqaba from Sofia. We purposely left the second week unplanned. We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, but thought we’d talk to some people once we established ourselves and got a feel for things on the ground.
Diving the upper Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba was remarkable! We spent most of that first week underwater exploring various dive sites that are all just a few meters from the shore. We dove some amazing wrecks including a passenger ship and even a sunken C-130 airplane! One of the highlights for us was a dive site called the Military Museum. In an attempt to encourage reef growth and an overall healthier ecosystem, the king of Jordan (who we learned is also an avid diver), had various jeeps, tanks, helicopters, and other military machines sunken just off the South Beach shore. Within a few short years the reef is starting to grow and various fish and other marine life are now calling this place home. It was quite a sight! We both remarked on how interesting it was to see these former tools of war and violence used for such a life-giving purpose. All I could think of was the timeless Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”
We became friends with a young couple who owns one of the dive shops we dove with. As it turns out, his mother is Taiwanese, and both her and her Jordanian husband had been running a traditional Taiwanese restaurant in Aqaba for many years. Since leaving China, Alison and I have both been craving authentic Chinese food and were seriously not disappointed! OMG, the ginger beef! The spring rolls! We almost ordered two of everything and had to roll ourselves back to our hotel room; smiling the whole way.
After talking with some locals and other tour guides, we made a plan for our second week. Half we’d spend in the Wadi Rum desert and the other half in the famous ancient city of Petra. We hopped on a bus and made our way to our first stop, Wadi Rum.
So here’s how Wadi Rum basically works. The Bedouin people run all of the tours in and out of this protected area. For a nightly fee, you stay in tents or camps run by the Bedouin community. They offer different types of tours that involve riding in the back of a Jeep/pickup truck to various sites and excursions. One such excursion is camel rides; but we did not partake in this. The tour guide drives the Jeep from place to place along the “highways” in the sand of this ever-expanding desert. The Bedouin tour guide cooks traditional meals and shares their stories and experiences from living in this unique landscape. Pita was served with every meal and sometimes the bands of roaming camels get spoiled by the leftovers. Some of the highlights included seeing 3,000 year old carvings, seeing the night sky without a hint of light pollution, scrambling up vast rock structures, and walking through gorgeous sandstone canyons that offered breathtaking views and wonderful photo opportunities. One of our guides, Yusif, taught us a very fun traditional Bedouin strategy game that uses nothing but sand, sticks, and stones. The silence of the desert was at first haunting, but then addictive. The sound of wind blowing along the sand dunes was most calming and restoring.
Our next stop was THE most visited tourist attraction in Jordan, the ancient city of Petra. Made famous by National Geographic and the third (and possibly the best) Indiana Jones film, the city Petra was constructed around 2,000 years ago. There was much to see and explore along this ~8 kilometer trail from the visitors center to the end of the gorge, where a beautiful carving called “The Monastery” awaits all who make it there. The ancient city has many beautiful carved walls, tombs, and various structures. We knew that there was more to offer than just the single “Treasury” carving (the one from Indiana Jones) but we were shocked at how many other unique and equally beautiful sights this location had to offer. Some of our highlights from Petra include the Monastery at the end of the trail, the night walk where the trail from the visitor center to The Treasury is lit only by candles, mouth-watering traditional Jordanian food, and some much needed canine snuggles from our B & B host’s dog, Bessie.
We returned to Aqaba briefly to get a COVID test before our flight, walked around the downtown area, and also indulged in yet another delicious Chinese meal! We had an absolute blast touring and exploring just a few of the many places that Jordan has to offer. We also had the opportunity to meet many nice and lovely people, fellow tourists and locals alike. It may not surprise anyone reading this, but Alison and I don’t look Jordanian. Needless to say, we stick out a bit. But during some of our walks around, many people stopped us and simply asked where we were from and wanted to welcome us to Jordan. It was just the recharge we needed!
This month was…unforgettable. Amidst online teaching, I headed down to Athens for the Authentic (original) Marathon from Marathon, Greece to Athens, Greece. This was the most “proper” training I had done for a marathon, even including the Ironman. When we arrived back at school in September, my friend, Tess, and I sat down and worked out our marathon training plan including some long weekend runs (30k, 35k) aside from routine running during the weekdays. This marathon also happened to be the same weekend of online Parent-Teacher Conferences; a huge schedule conflict that influenced Grant to skip the trip. Here was the schedule: Thursday evening fly down, all day Friday and Saturday online parent teacher conferences, dash out to get our bib numbers after saying ta-ta to the last parent, and then marathon on Sunday. I stayed a few extra days (well worth it). I taught online, and wandered around when I wasn’t due for class.
The day of the marathon was one for the books. As “the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn” (if you can’t quote the Odyssey in Greece, then when can you?) arrived, the four of us from ACS boarded a bus from Athens proper to the town of Marathon. We were in Marathon town by 07:00 solid, and didn’t start running until 09:45. This staggered start was a COVID precaution; another precaution was that every single runner of 9,800 was fully vaccinated. Let’s say that we were very warmed up and STRETCHED by the time 09:45 rolled around.
The actual event was good … then ugly … then good again. Let’s just call it a roller coaster. The original and authentic roller coaster marathon. The Athens Marathon is considered one of the most challenging road race marathons due to its elevation change. Here are some fun stats: Total climb: 352 m (1155 ft) – Total descent: 299 m (981 ft) You might be thinking, “Whoa! So much downhill! That is easy!” You couldn’t be more wrong. After climbing the “hill” for 14 km, there is no pain like downhill pain. I was one of MANY people who pulled over to the side of the road (or heck just in the middle of the dang road) to stretch calves, hamstrings, abs… anything that can be stretched was stretched. To make matters worse, I couldn’t get any food down after 25k so 25-42k was pure pain. It felt like someone was weighing down my legs and it took all of me to keep forcing one foot in front of the other.
Kilometers 37 and after were rough and tough; my pace decreased, but I took the advice from someone earlier in the race. He told us to “just keep following the blue line” – a line painted on the road to mark the entire route from Marathon to Athens. At one point, it became a mantra – follow the blue line… follow the blue line. Just like Dorothy. Despite all the pain and cramps, the fans along the route were second to none. Each mile had people cheering us on. Children towards Marathon handed out olive branches. A nice woman in Athens gave me an American flag. Adidas Cheerleaders danced with pom-poms near the city center. When I arrived at the end in the picturesque Olympic stadium, I knew it had all been worth it.
…And then I found a corner and sat down. And then I willed myself to get up, and take ten steps. And then ten more. And then twenty more. All I could think about was sleep. Sleep. Must sleep. Ten more steps. Where are my friends? I don’t even know I am dying. Sleep. Take emergency blanket out of my pack. Sit down. Ten more steps. Is this what it feels like to die? Drink water. No, don’t drink water that hurts. Ten more steps. Until I was back at my apartment. Sleeping. Sleeping. Grant (on the phone), wake me up in two hours. ….
It hurt. But I don’t regret it…. And I would do it again.
When not teaching online, I explored Athens. Never in my lifetime did I think I would stand on top of the Acropolis and gaze at the timeless construction (and current reconstruction). The Parthenon was made to pay homage to the Gods. How am I so fortunate to see this epic monument? How lucky am I. My only regret is that Grant didn’t see the Parthenon. And that he didn’t see me get yelled at by the security guard – apparently you can’t put your marathon medal on an ancient rock for a photo? Whoops. Where were my manners honestly?… Still high from my Olympic feat of running 26.2 miles apparently.
Back in Sofia, Grant and I stepped into mid-November with rock climbing, and, shocker, more running. Grant joined the likes of the mountain goats when they stumbled upon him and his climbing buddies at the Lakatnik crag, just a few minutes away from a series of tiny Bulgarian villages nestled in the mountains 90-minutes north of Sofia.
A week after Athens, I found myself at a trail run in the “Bones Meadow” (literal translation) with my friend, Ventsi. The third place girl for my distance was just in front of me on the uphills, but darn those Bulgarians and their irresponsible speeds down hills. She slipped away for the third place win. Don’t worry, I’ll get her next time…
For Thanksgiving break, we made our way to the dreamy town of Kovachevitsa in Southern Bulgaria. With road construction, a 3.5 hour trip south became 5.5 hours. Let’s just say we kissed the ground when we arrived in Kovachevitsa… or I should say that we kissed the cobblestones. This quaint and picturesque town is made up entirely of slate. Houses, roads, roofs, you name it; it is made of slate. And it is beautiful. Grant and I went up to the Brother’s Tavern after our arrival for some divine homemade food and wine/rakia.
The next morning, we lazily walked about in the fairy tale that is Kovachevitsa. We made our way up to the mountaintop where there is a sweet church and overlook of the town, then all the way down to the river that runs through it. For dinner that evening (Thanksgiving to be precise), our bed and breakfast hosts made an exquisite four-course meal fit and true to a feast.
The location in general was phenomenal and a must if anyone travels to this sweet village. We were told the actual population of the village is 36.
When Grant and I were wandering around, we saw many properties and old bed and breakfasts for sale. It’s tough to know if the village is simply getting smaller over time, or if Covid has hit hard in this part of the country. The hours slipped past as we got lost in a day dream fantasizing about buying a fixer-upper and running an eco B&B.
We headed back to Sofia on a different route and arrived back in the expected three hours. After teaching online for over a month, we received an email to return to in-person learning on November 29th. A Begach Tech Run later with friends (Geri and Douwe) and we reached the end of an unforgettable November.
While the motto “work hard play hard” isn’t sustainable long-term, it feels like we have been living it this past September and October. When we aren’t working our tails off in school to provide engaging instruction and thoughtful feedback for our students, we are traveling, running, cycling, rock climbing, hiking, and spending time with friends. Usually, multiple of the aforementioned fun times are happening at the same exact time; after all, friends that share your hobbies are the best, right?
Early September brought an athletic event that Alison was super keen to do since last year – Bulgaria’s OWN Triathlon. Known as Lion Heart, this Ultra triathlon combines the toughest elements possible into one event in the town of Primorsko on the Black Sea. The three disciplines are sea swim, mountain biking and trail run. Each element is challenging in its own way. Alison doesn’t mountain bike (…yet) so she needed to find someone to do that “leg” of the triathlon. Luckily, last May on a bike trip, she found someone who would join the 2-person team. We named the team BulgariAmerica because Oleg is from Pernik, Bulgaria. Alison did the 3k sea swim (while dodging piles of jellyfish everywhere and sea currents) and handed off the ankle chip to Oleg for the 116k mountain bike. When Oleg returned covered in dust and mud, Alison was changed and all ready for the 21k trail run. The bike and trail runs were no joke – with tremendous elevation and rough conditions. It’s not called Lion Heart for nothing 🙂
Lion Heart happened on a three-day weekend so we took the next two days as leisure in the close by sea town of Sozopol. This was an unexpected gem. Our friends had recommended it last year, and we caught the tail-end of the tourist season with few crowds and people. We honestly don’t know how more people (and cars) can physically be in the town with the tiny one-way streets. We devoured the local cuisine and watched the serene waves outside our hotel window. We were fortunate for this last “piece of summer” before school got into full swing.
Also in September, we were grateful for a visit from Inga and Tom. You may remember them from before; we originally met them on a liveaboard in Thailand and they became great friends. We stayed with them when we visited Berlin, Germany in the summer of 2019. In Sofia, we dined out at the Quartal Food Trucks and Annette Moroccan food. We went to The Red Flat (which has actually changed quite a bit from a year ago when we first went), Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral, and a couple other local spots downtown. On Sunday, we went rock climbing/hiking at Grant’s favorite Vitosha spot, the Chimneys. It is always great to see them and catch up with these two outgoing mates!
Before we knew it, school was fully back in session with all students. Last year, school began in mid-September on a rotational basis so that less students were on campus on any given day. This year, everyone started together on campus. We were hopeful it could last through the end of the fall; however, on October 21st, the entire school transitioned to distance learning.
At the end of October, Grant fulfilled a lifelong dream, and Alison was more than happy to join along for the fun times. We took advantage of a 3-day weekend at the end of October to visit Romania; more specifically, Transylvania. Shrouded in myth and folklore, Transylvania was home to Vlad the Impaler; a cruel 15th century ruler who made it a common practice of impaling his enemies on large spikes and displaying them at the borders of his lands. His bloodlust earned him his well-deserved title and a nasty reputation. This reputation carried itself to Bram Stoker, who used him as the inspiration for the title character in his famous book, Dracula. The Romanian people don’t really celebrate Halloween, but they lean into it for the tourist dollars it brings to the country’s most famous tourist attraction, Bran Castle. The description for Dracula’s home in the book fits best with Bran Castle, found in Bran, Romania. Naturally, around Halloween, Romania (Bucharest) and Bran light up for this occasion.
We flew from Sofia to Bucharest on Friday evening after school, and hit the hay after a long week and evening traveling. Early on Saturday morning, we met our tour guide, Bogi. We are not usually travelers who book guided tours, but with the time constraints, we knew this was the best option to see Bran in one day (and learn some interesting information about the culture and history). We hit it off instantly with Bogi; when Grant said we are from Vermont, Bogi immediately replied, “No way! I used to work in Stowe!” We were in a tour group with some fellas from Italy and one priest from Kenya, but we were in the front of the van so we chatted the most with Bogi. After 13 hours in a car with Bogi, no topic was left uncovered. We had interesting and candid chats about both the history of Romania and where Bogi sees the country going in the next few years.
Highlights of the tour included Peles Castle, Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle) and the town of Brasov (a gem, reminiscent of our times walking the streets of Tallinn in August). Of the three, of course Bran was our favorite. Not simply because it’s Dracula’s Castle 🙂 but because it was the most homey. Peles Castle was elaborate, and clearly created for royalty. However, at Bran Castle, it felt like you could sit down with a book by the fireplace. It was “no fuss no frills”; just beautiful old winding staircases and a humble courtyard in the center of the stone pillars. All we are saying is if the castle goes up for sale… we would put in a bid.
We arrived back to Bucharest Saturday evening exhausted but also with so much energy after what we had seen and our engaging chats with Bogi. We grabbed a doner from a local joint where the cooks intentionally mess with people (it’s tough to explain, but it was freaking funny). With full bellies, we hit the hay. On Sunday morning, I woke up early for a long run. To my great surprise, I stepped outside of our Airbnb building, and literally the Bucharest Marathon was happening in front of me. Talk about some motivation for your Sunday morning 🙂 I did my 15k on the sidewalk next to the runners. After a nice brunch, we walked to a local cemetery that Bogi had recommended the day before. When it’s Halloween, where better to go but a cemetery? We enjoyed each other’s company as we walked through Bucharest.
Back at the Airbnb on Sunday afternoon, we donned our Halloween makeup and headed out. Grant had booked us a table for Halloween Trivia at a local British pub. It’s always fun to dress up as blood-thirty zombies and walk down the streets of a metropolis; the looks from people are second to none.
Before & After: Grant’s Special Effects Makeup
In case you all have missed the past three years of blog posts, we are HUGE Halloween fans; Grant being the biggest Halloween fan in all the land. It is no surprise that, of the 25 teams (ranging from 2-6 people) in the British pub, we were strong competitors. We were a small team with a large amount of Halloween knowledge. At one point, I was holding the iPad to answer a question, and the announcer said, “Put these Stephen King books in order of publication date.” Within a millisecond, I handed Grant the iPad and our team pushed into second place due to Grant’s impeccable Stephen King knowledge.
We fell from 2nd place glory to last place when we (and the three other top 3 teams) all answered this question incorrectly: Is a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable? We didn’t know that pumpkin pie is defined as a fruit pie, but now we do. We agree; that rule to drop us to last place wasn’t fair, but we didn’t stay down for very long. We ended in fourth place. To finish the night, we were donned the “scariest costume” champions. I think I saw a blood-stained zombie teardrop trickle down Grant’s face; for Halloween fanatics, being awarded as the scariest is an honor.
The next morning, we had a gorgeous brunch and headed to the airport. Romania, it is the little things that make you sweet. Like people wearing masks while walking outside in order to keep everyone super safe. Or the gorgeous cobblestone streets. Or the pavement that lacks potholes.
Other highlights from the fall include rock climbing and running adventures. I have been training for the Athens Marathon (November), so preparation included long weekend runs with my friend, Tess, and running events (in order to get into the competitive environment). Such events included Kyustendil 21k, Bulgarian Independence Day 5k for both of us, and Wizz Air Sofia 21k. Notable rock climbing this fall for Grant and the boys has been at Vitosha and Lakatnik. This fall, Grant started attending Krav Maga classes at a local martial arts studio. He is very excited about building these skills again, but we have put a pin in it for now due to current Covid numbers in Bulgaria.
Sending you loads of love and falling leaves as the winter draws near. Love, Ali & Grant
The fact that I am writing this blog post during a couple days off of school for Thanksgiving Break is a clear indication of the organized chaos that has been this fall. However, Thanksgiving provides each person with the much-needed time to reflect on what we are grateful for. When I think back to the end of this past summer, deep gratitude is what I feel.
When we left you with our last post, we had been in Greece for (nearly all) July; living the Corfu beach life but also training daily for Ironman. We came back to Bulgaria for a much-needed one week transition (physically and mentally) to Estonia.
The main reason to travel to Tallinn, Estonia was Ironman (August 7, 2021), but we ended up having quite a time in this charming and historic city. My mom and sister came over from VT, USA. One of our best friends that we met when teaching together in China, Sam Gray, came over from the UK for the race. You might recall Sam was the main reason Alison got into triathlon in China. It is safe to say that we can blame him for all the Ironman shenanigans that have, and continue to, ensue. Sam’s daughter, Olivia, and friend, Tabea, flew out from Holland. Our Airbnb home consisted of a GREAT group of people.
Ironman Tallinn (August 7th, 2021) was an unforgettable and immensely tough experience; a day I will remember as long as I live. Now, nearly four months after the event, it is still challenging for me to completely process what happened and how it all unraveled. I am not being dramatic or kidding in the slightest when I write that I almost did not finish the race that I had prepared and dedicated 8 months of my life to. Sam and I crossed the finish line together at 21:36; for me, this was 14:30 hours from the start. Some day, I will record everything that happened from the moment my feet touched the water until the finish line was behind us. However, that day is not today. Everyone has their own unique Ironman story, and I am no different.
What I do know about Ironman is that Sam and I are the LUCKIEST people in the entire world because we had the most amazing cheerleaders! My mom, Sarah, Olivia, Tabea, and Grant cheered the entire day for us (15+ hours); until their voices were lost from screaming, their legs tired from standing, and their arms fatigued from ringing the cow bells and holding the signs. They are the real heroes because they pushed us to keep going; even when we lost faith in ourselves. To all our fans, both online following us through the Ironman Tracker and in Tallinn, I am eternally grateful.
After Ironman, we enjoyed ourselves in Tallinn. We found ourselves walking (a couple days after Ironman…when Sam and I could walk again) along the old Tallinn cobblestone streets, and under the city for the historic bunker tour. We also went to some old antique shops; very interesting artifacts from the USSR days. We got educated at the Tallinn Maritime Museum. We highly recommend this museum; it was informative yet highly interactive about the importance of Tallinn as a port city throughout the history of Estonia.
With a heavy heart, Grant, Sarah, my mom, and I said goodbye to Sam, Olivia, and Tabea. They headed back west, and the four of us headed south to Bulgaria. One of the toughest things about being an international teacher is that your strongest friendships are from a distance. However, if Sam thinks he can get rid of us easily because he lives in the UK now, he is definitely wrong. Sam will always be stuck with me and Grant; we are lifelong besties.
Sarah was able to visit Bulgaria for only a couple of days, but this didn’t stop us from making the most of this time. In one day, Sarah, mom, and I visited the historic/beautiful town of Koprivshtitsa and then stayed at the Starosel wine spa. Starosel is a MUST-SEE in Bulgaria; it is basically a combination of the best things in the world. Good food. Great wine. The multi-building spa is complete with a workout room, sauna, pools galore (indoor, outdoor, kid pool, you name it they got it), and hot tubs. Laying in the sun underneath the vineyards was second to none. My highlight was playing pool (billiards) with Sarah late at night. When the three of us got back home to Sofia the next day, homemade pizza awaited us, courtesy of Grant.
Thankfully, mom was able to stay longer in Bulgaria, and we passed each hot August day with a grateful heart. We had an epic road trip to Varna; accompanied by Michelle Obama’s soothing voice in the car. We ate polenta in Veliko Tarnovo, and wandered into a church that could only be inspired by Dali. We got lost looking for the God’s Eye Cave (“What? You didn’t see that small piece of cardboard that signified the entrance to the cave?… It was obvious…”). We made Shopska salad on a daily basis. We saw the oldest lighthouse in Bulgaria. We drove down the sketchiest road you have ever seen; only because someone told us good mussels where found down there. And guess what? … They were right. We ate mussels until we were stuffed to the brim. We “rang the bells” at the Children’s Park in Sofia. We walked along the sandy coast in Varna, and swam in the Black Sea (actually less salty than you think a sea would be). We ate vegan food at Sun Moon in downtown Sofia. We got rained on in Balchik gardens while inspecting the local cacti. Mom made us prize-winning eggplant lasagna. Grant, mom and I walked around Pancharevo lake, and then went to our favorite local coffee shop. I begged them, and Grant and mom humored me with an Old Time Bulgarian photo shoot. For a solid twenty minutes, mom and I watched jellyfish the size of hubcaps swim in the Black Sea. We treated my mom to a Plovdivian birthday dinner. We surprised my mom with a birthday firework in her Czech dessert in Plovdiv. We reflected in Alexander-Nevsky’s Cathedral in Sofia. Mom and I threw Grant a chicken wings “hot ones” birthday party complete with Cally’s carrot cake.
It is safe to say that August was… amazing. Unreal. Unprecedented. Challenging. Delicious. Adventurous. New. Inspirational. When we look for it, and accept it, gratitude comes every day and every moment of our lives. I am grateful for every moment in August.
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!