A Travellerspoint blog

June 2017

Free Sofia Walking Tour

And this is only the beginning

sunny 28 °C

Day 8 Wednesday June 1 2017
Sofia, Bulgaria - Rest Day / 0 km

  • We actually need 2 days to work out how to use the various features of our hotel room.

There are design flaws: the lighting system is only operable from one side of the bed - SG has to stay in the dark, whatever she wants to do ( light controls are AG's side ). In the bathroom, towels must remain scattered on the floor because there are insufficient hooks. Towel rail? How old fashioned.

  • Breakfast has a roof top view. The chefs are keen to introduce us to local Bulgarian food.
  • Yes, you've guessed - it's hot & sunny.
  • Today is titled 'Rest Day' but of course it isn't. Rest Days are usually packed with activity, but importantly for AG there is no driving.
  • June 1st is Children's Day - the younger generation are having a day's holiday and so must the people who look after them. It's party in the park time. Apparently museums & art galleries offered reduce prices today - for everyone.
  • We head to the Court of justice to meet up with the guide of Free Walk Sofia @ 11 a.m. We arrive around 10.45 and already there is quite a crowd. In fact at this time of year there are 3 guides available. The first large group leaves around 10.50. To avoid the disadvantages of large numbers we hang back for a later departure. Don't bother. There are numerous latecomers and all groups are of a similar size.
  • Our guide Stanislav is an actor by trade, so he is currently either impoverished or out of work or both. But it means he can tell interesting stories. And this is the beauty of the 2hr free city walks - you are introduced to the basics and then given the options to explore deeper. Our group is predominantly young and mixed nationalities. It's an interesting collection of people.
  • We learn many seemingly unconnected facts that help build the picture of Sofia today. We see several old & historically significant churches, some of which were converted into mosques when Bulgaria was assimilated into the Ottoman Empire (14-19C ). Bulgaria was finally freed from Ottoman control in the aftermath of the Russian / Turkish war which forced the re-drawing of the Balkan map.
  • Sofia is blessed with the source of about 40 different mineral waters. Sadly although the Romans & Bulgarians used to love to bathe in them, no public bath houses remain functional in the city. Our tour does take us to the Old Mineral Bath House but it has recently been converted into a History Museum & no bathing facilities remain.
  • After World War 2 Bulgaria became a Communist state for nearly 45 years, closely allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. In the centre of Sofia there is much architectural evidence of Communist Neo Classical style which is surprisingly grand and attractive. Lenin's statue has long since been removed and been replaced with one of the legendary Saint of Sofia.
  • In amidst these massive Communist era buildings, surrounded, some might say hidden, stands the diminutive St George Rotunda Church. Built in early 4 Century it is the oldest place of Christian worship in Sophia. A daily service is still held according to the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is worth looking inside too to appreciate the interior of the roof - the paintings you see are original from the 6 th Century.
  • Our guide explains that Sofia lacks an 'old part' in the same way as in Zagreb or Belgrade for example. The city has been built in layers - on top of each other rather than outwards from an older core. This is why so many ruins of previous eras have been excavated in relatively recent times as new infrastructure is being built. See for example the ruins of Roman Baths in front of the Banya Bashi Mosque which was itself built in 1576.
  • There were once 70 mosques in Sofia but today the Banya Bashi Mosque is the only one still in use. About 12% of Bulgarians are Muslims but they mostly live in SE Bulgaria nearer to Turkey. This city mosque was designed by one of the greatest Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who also built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The similarities, albeit on a smaller scale are obvious to even the tourist's eye.
  • As we walk towards the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral we pass through a park area adjacent to the National Theatre. It is crowded with children enjoying their special holiday. The trees are heavy with blossom of one sort or another. SG recognises the fluffy yellow mimosa flowers . Ahhh, this explains the surprisingly beautiful aromatic smells in the evenings in both Belgrade & Sofia. It has been a mystery until now. During the day there is no fragrance.
  • Also under a certain type of tree are lots of red & white cords hanging from branches. Stanislav explains that the cords & ribbons are called martenitsi which symbolise health & happiness. The tradition on Baba Marta Day, March 1st, is to exchange with your nearest and dearest a martenitsi. You must keep your collection until you either see the first Stork of the season or the first plum tree in blossom. You should then tie a martenitsi onto a plum tree.
  • The plum tree is also known as the Rakhia tree, from that lethal Balkan brew that is fermented from plums.
  • En route to the cathedral which dominates the skyline in downtown Sofia, we pass by the small Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolas, built in honour of the Russian Expulsion of the Ottomans in 1878. The multiple tiny golden domes, exterior mosaic decoration and the double bar cross are all - well, Russian in design.
  • Pretty much opposite the cathedral is the much older, smaller & humbler St Sophia Basilica with its famous underground museum. Down there are remains of tombs & earlier churches built on this same site, one on top of the other. The first church was built in 4 th century after the Edict of Tolerance was issued by Emperor Constantine. Thereafter religion was tolerated within and by the Roman Empire. There followed a massive scale of conversion to Christianity in the region. When the Ottomans arrived in Sofia they first used the Basilica as a warehouse before later changing it into a mosque.
  • The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is worth seeing by day & by night when it is beautifully illuminated. It was built between 1904-16 and is said to represent Bulgarian & Byzantinian architectural influences. It was formerly the largest cathedral in the Balkans, until the Serbians went and spoilt things by building an even bigger one in Belgrade.
  • It will be obvious that our visits to churches & other places of worship have started here in Sofia.

And since we are heading to the cradles of Christianity, Armenia & Georgia, we will no doubt have many more on our agenda.

  • After a bite to eat at Moma's just off the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard we head back to our hotel for a couple hours of catch up with life and stuff back in the UK. And another swim for SG before an early supper up in the Roof Bar of Sense Hotel.
  • Tomorrow we are on the road again with sightseeing en route and at our end destination - so a busy day ahead.

Rotunda St George

Rotunda St George

Banya Bashi Mosque

Banya Bashi Mosque

Roman Ruins Adjacent to Banya Bashi Mosque

Roman Ruins Adjacent to Banya Bashi Mosque

Well Would You Want to Wear a Hat with an Eagle Feather? Soldier Guarding Government Buildings

Well Would You Want to Wear a Hat with an Eagle Feather? Soldier Guarding Government Buildings

Children's Day in Bulgaria - Adidas Get Involved Too

Children's Day in Bulgaria - Adidas Get Involved Too

Take Note Mr Juncker!

Take Note Mr Juncker!

Old Newspaper Kiosk in Park

Old Newspaper Kiosk in Park

Mimosa Blossom in Full & Aromatic Bloom

Mimosa Blossom in Full & Aromatic Bloom

Martenitsi Hanging in a Plum Tree

Martenitsi Hanging in a Plum Tree

Chess Being Played in the Park - Love the Sun Hats

Chess Being Played in the Park - Love the Sun Hats

St Nikolas Russian Orthodox Church

St Nikolas Russian Orthodox Church

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Moma Restaurant Serves Reasonable Bulgarian Food

Moma Restaurant Serves Reasonable Bulgarian Food

Posted by sagbucks 12:18 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Exploring the Vosges in Alsace

Feeling guilty doing it by truck

sunny 25 °C

Day 3 Saturday May 27 2017
Xonrupt-Longemer to Landsberg am Lech 517 km

  • What bliss to be woken by an alarm set at a respectable time 7-45 a.m. It means AG and SG have had a long overdue & untinterrupted sleep. With house sale, trip planning and other 'stuff', it's been a while.
  • Its another gorgeous day. We really are being spoilt here in Northern Europe. But within just over a week we'll be in Turkey, so it's good acclimatisation.
  • We continue our meanderings on minor roads through the forested hills of the Vosges in Alsace, heading mainly SE. We climb lots of cols ( high spots).
  • It is only 10 a.m. but there is already a hive of outdoor activity: cyclists, pony trekkers, walkers, motorcyclists are out and about in impressive numbers. This region offers lots of beautiful curves for motorcyclists to navigate and a tough day's riding in the saddle or walking by foot.
  • We follow a scenic detour called Route des Cretes. We soon have the feeling of being at the top of the world, the Alsace world at least. The fine weather means the views are outstanding and the wind non existent.
  • We reach the highest point of our journey - Col du Grand Ballon, altitude 1424m. It is the summit of the Vosges area. Guide books warn of adverse weather and strong winds. They do not however mention the swarms of midges that we encounter as soon as we stop the truck for the obligatory summit photo. The air is thick with them & It's not a pleasant experience. It also deters us Sent from my iPad
  • Outside a shop selling local honey ( many different pollen types with presumably unique flavours ) there is a rudimentary collection of apiary tools & equipment. SG momentarily mistakes it for an anti midge suit rather than bee protection gear. Marketed differently they might even sell a few of those netted hats at this time of year.
  • The road' summit is a popular gathering point for those who have just made some substantial effort to get here. The cafe is full of cyclists, hikers and motorcyclists alike. We feel guilty having expended no energy, used no muscle power but rather arrived sat comfortably in our Landcruiser truck.
  • But we would be kidding ourselves not to realise that our truck trip does require a form of both endurance & stamina - to cope with: long & consecutive days of driving in hot climates, a massive agenda of sightseeing, 9 weeks in each other's company and in confined space, a different bed and bathroom almost every night and lastly but not least uncertain & unfamiliar nutrition. Yes we need to be fit physically & mentally for our journey ahead.
  • As we descend from the summit towards the pretty vineyard village of Uffholz we pass by the Hartmanswillerkopf War Memorial (HWK). It's sometimes easy to overlook that there was significant World War 1 hostility that involved no British soldiers and which are not therefore a primary point of military pilgrimage for Brits. This site of fierce trench warfare between 1915-6 in particular is also known as Vieil Armand. 30000 French & German soldiers died here, with another 30000 being wounded or taken prisoner.
  • In 1921 it was declared an historic monument. Bodies from other nearby battlefields and temporary war graves were exhumed and brought here. There are 12000 bodies of unknown soldiers also laid to rest in the crypt here. Imagine such a number. There are 3 chapels on site - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. The HWK is located in an area that back in 1915 had been annexed by Germany since 1871.
  • Not surprisingly HWK has been dedicated to Franco German friendship and there are new (EU sponsored) facilities being built. It is busy with visitors, both French & German. If you are passing it is worth a quick stop.
  • The rest of our journey to Landsberg am Lech is on motorway. Just after Mulhouse, thanks to the Schengen Zone, we pass imperceptibly into Germany and cross the mighty Rhine - Germany's main river artery.
  • Almost counter intuitively we are first heading NE again towards Strasbourg before continuing East from Karlsruhe along the A8 direction Munich. We are impressed with the road infrastructure, both current and being built. We pass by countless zones of light industry & warehousing. But nicely so, interspersed with long stretches of woodland and farms. It is a prosperous part of the world. No wonder Germany is the powerhouse of the EU.
  • Traffic is heavy but flowing. The Germans are escaping for the weekend too. It has been difficult to find accommodation for this evening - most Gasthaüser stipulated a minimum of a 2 night stay. However we are most definitely on the move and do not wish to linger. We have also booked tonight's restaurant, Nonnenbraü - we have been allocated the 8 p.m sitting. No choice was given. They must be busy.
  • We decide to walk to and for our supper. It's important to get some exercise whenever we can. AG navigates the way on maps.me ( a great navigational app for your mobile that uses GPS and is FREE! ). A 40 minute walk is indicated since our hotel is on the outskirts of new suburbs whilst our chosen restaurant is on the other side of the Old Town.
  • Nestled beside the River Lech it is a very attractive place indeed. It's a fine, balmy evening, riverside cafes and bistros are buzzing with people relaxing at the start of the weekend.
  • We find the Nonnenbraü at the top of a steep hill. The garden is full, the nicely decorated interior empty. Fortunately we have reserved a table and we too dine outdoors. Why wouldn't you after so many months of winter.
  • As already mentioned it is asparagus season and in this part of the world they seem to revere the rather insipid looking white variety. There is a special asparagus menu which SG samples - asparagus soup ( creamy white colour) with toasted almonds, followed by grilled fish with more asparagus ( also white ). AG chooses soup as well and then gets stuck into some burger or other. Even he is not sure what kind. We drink a red Austrian wine, recommended by the restaurant owner. He seems to take pride in his wine cellar and nowadays rates Austrian wines. The wine is a mixture of Syrah, Cabernet & Merlot grapes and is very palatable.
  • We opt to walk back to our hotel. Dusk is merging into night. We don't have a torch so we stick to the main roads. In Germany street lights remain switched on and pedestrian crossings are well illuminated. ( SG is having an ongoing 'dialogue' with Bucks County Council - they switch off street lights to save money. And a zebra crossing on the very busy A404 has had a non functioning pedestrian light since before Christmas ).
  • Did SG mention that we have changed hotel rooms? It seems the norm that we are allocated rooms on the noisy side. Maybe it's the booking.com price we pay? Despite specifically requesting a quiet, calm location even at the expense of a view. Frankly we'd rather face a brick wall than be kept awake by traffic. From now on SG must get into routine of first checking rooms before unloading luggage. At Landhotel Erdhart we have to pay an additional 16 euros for peace & quiet.

And Our Room for Tonight - Also to be recommended

And Our Room for Tonight - Also to be recommended

We have That Top of the World Feeling

We have That Top of the World Feeling

You Can Ski in Alsace Too

You Can Ski in Alsace Too

Nearly at the Highest Road Point in the Vosges

Nearly at the Highest Road Point in the Vosges

Some Folk Work Hard to Get Here

Some Folk Work Hard to Get Here

It's Season for Midges & This is the Kit You Need!

It's Season for Midges & This is the Kit You Need!

Hartmanswillerkopf War Memorial

Hartmanswillerkopf War Memorial

And the Statistics

And the Statistics

The Franco German Border in this Area Until 1918

The Franco German Border in this Area Until 1918

Gorgeous Town of Landsberg am Lech

Gorgeous Town of Landsberg am Lech

Landsberg Architecture in Evening Sun

Landsberg Architecture in Evening Sun

Gorgeous Old Town Facades

Gorgeous Old Town Facades

River Lech at Dusk

River Lech at Dusk

A Good Recommendation @ the Nonnenbraü

A Good Recommendation @ the Nonnenbraü

Posted by sagbucks 07:01 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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