A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008


snow 0 °C
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With the trains to Thessalonika all jammed up and no information as to whether I could get one on from there, a bus seemed my only option until I started to wonder how much it would be to fly. $250, it turned out. Sure, it was on Air Bulgaria (not bad actually and they gave me a nice breakfast) and we had to take a bus out to the far reaches of Athens airport to find the plane (and in from the far reaches of Sofia airport) but I did in under two hours what was going to take at least 17 hours (not that getting places fast is the point of the trip).

Getting into town was no problem (although buying a bus ticket for my luggage was a first); then, if course, I got lost finding my hostel. What should have been a simple twenty minute walk was more like two hours of frustration. I had a little more to come: I had the idea of checking out the Odeon Cinema which has a programme of arthouse films and is the centre of the Bulgarian film archive. I had a map and directions, but never found it - instead I walked out through a very cold looking forest to the edge of town, the very end of a tram line. No matter - there was a wee supermarket there which sold me an amazing piece of freshly cooked meat I could gnaw on while I waited for the tram, then took a ride back through the forest - kind of spooky in the dark frozen forest.

Sofia has a bit of a reputation as a place not worth bothering with. My guidebook says "with its drab suburbs and crumbling old buildings Sofia can appear an uninspiring place to first time visitors". Sure, you can find drab bits quite easily, just look at this:
but that photo was taken from the same spot as this one:
a very nice mall where I find lots of posh clothes (and people). Then there is this:
which was the former one stop Department Store
run by the former communist government where you could buy bugger all and had to queue for hours to do so. Now it has everything you could want, and there's another similar place across the road which has a great cafe, right in the centre where you can have a beer and people-watch for hours.

Speaking of the Communist Party, here is its headquarters:
now used as government offices. Directly opposite (and forming a quadrant with the Sheraton) is the Presidency. I managed to wander past just as the guard was changing:

I was amused - they did a very formal hand over and frog marched around the square a couple of times but then when they were done, instead of marching into the building, they basically broke formation and ambled in. I half expected them to stop for a smoke!

Inside the Quadrant formed by the Presidency and Sheraton is a very old church, it is the St Georgi Rotunda Church, dating right back to 4th century Roman Emperor, Constantine and is claimed to be the oldest building in Sofia:
DSC_0297.jpg [need details ex laptop].

I thought the inner city has much to offer; I only had a couple of days to wander it but came away thinking there was much more to do. Of course, it was nice to be away from the heat of Singapore - it was more like zero degrees and one of the first things I did was find shops that would sell me a nice coat (with a ridiculous fake fur fringe) a hat and gloves. But I found that just by moving about, I'd stay warm enough and then I coud go inside for a coffee and let the warmth gradually seep in - its a delicious feeling.

A couple of standout locations were the People's Park and National Art Gallery:
(to the right in the above picture is a great old cafe - leather armchairs, wooden bar, a few people having in depth conversations, an interesting looking back room with a heavily decorated ceiling, one of a number of cafes I'd happily spend time in again (but the production line cafeteria in which I had lunch? Not so much.)

and the Alexander Nevsky Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral

It looks and feels really old, so it came as a surprise that it was built in the first decade of the twentieth century, to celebrate the release from the Ottoman rule (and commemorate those who died in the conflict). Going inside was a revelation - it seemed so much bigger than it looked! Nearby is the Russian Church, built at the same time:
to thank the Russians for their effort in freeing Bulgaria.

I spent a fair while in the Art Gallery. It had a floor virtually devoted to a single 19th century Bulgarian painter (whose name escapes me and whose work was largely forgettable). Upstairs was better - basically a history of Bulgarian art under the label "national revival" i.e. post Ottoman rule. Not allowed to take photos in the Art Gallery, and they were very attentive in making sure we didn't. I became convinced that one of the attendants was a witch - she was dressed entirely in black and very thin and seemed afraid of the light: she spent all the time I was in her galleries staring into the corner of the room, but then whenever I moved, she'd scuttle off and be there in front of me. Up on the top floor was a whole bunch of sculptures, mainly busts of people who meant nothing to me, but I did kind of like this piece (only one attendant for the whole floor, so I got away with it):

Back on the ground floor was the work of Angela Mtukova which I also found fascinating - largely based on mirrors, she had a few pieces involving plaster casts of men either leaping into or out of a mirror.

The first night there, I didn't even go out: I was staying in what has been voted the best hostel in the world and enjoying the experience. The staff made a real effort to include people in the life of the hostel, cooked us all dinner and gave us a beer each as part of the package. So a very social space. The next night, however, I needed to try some Bulgarian food so dined on "chicken and mushroom in sour sauce" at a nearby restaurant. As I was returning to the hostel it began to snow lightly, suggesting I might get to have a white Christmas after all.

Posted by NZBarry 12:20 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)


sunny 18 °C
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Decided to get back to Athens the easy way and just bus it the whole way. Got dumped in a bus station in some random part of town. I did ask for (and get) information on how to get to the nearest Metro stop, so took a local bus. Should have asked for advice on how to recognise a Metro stop! I couldn't work out where I'd started, where I was headed or what any of the signs meant (the thought did cross my mind, sorry, that "its all Greek to me"). I can't really explain why, but I just got off the bus only to then see the Hostelling International symbol on the building opposite. My pathetically relieved response? "Ah, they'll be able to tell me where my hostel is." Damn me if I didn't accidentally get off at the actual hostel I was booked in to.

Initial impressions of Athens were not good; dirty, seedy, crappy scruffy buildings.
I wandered around my area a little, finding the train station (round the corner from the hostel, so I should have just caught the train) only to be laughed at when I asked for a ticket to Thessaloniki (my whole plan of getting to Hamburg by train kind of depended on this, but they were booked solid till after Christmas). I took a walk further afeild, down the main drag past Parliament, into a pedestrianised shopping street with all the flash brands (and very pale people wearing elaborate American Indian costumes perfroming in bands, about four of them - very strange). Billions of people milling about and no sign of food, unless you count McDonalds or Everest, its local equivalent. Lots of cafes, but with people just drinking coffee, smoking and talking very vigourously to each other; no food.

Wandering back through Omonia Square, I decided to try out a place just because it had a couple of nice looking roast chickens in the window. It was pretty much just another fast food joint but with the added bonus of beer and the saddest drug dealer I've ever seen. He came in with a kid, hissing "hasheesh". No takers, as far as I could see. The two cops sitting in the back may have dampened demand. Ten minutes later, he's back, to beg; money from us, food from the shop. He was surprisingly successful on both counts, scarpering with a rather large bag of kebabs and the like.

It was still early, but I didn't really fancy any more of Athens so retired to my hostel.

Things improved remarkably the next day. I wandered up a different street and found a rather nice bakery with a good cafe in back; full of Greeks talking vigourously to each other and smoking, but with free croissants and decent coffee. This was a "Greek History" day for me, so I followed my guidebook fairly faithfully, starting with what is left of Zeus's Sanctuary:
Looks a bit like someone's been playng skittles:

In the same area, there is Hadrian's Arch (posibly built around 131 AD to honour Hadrian as the new Roman Emperor of Greece):

I liked the look of his library better (and the fact that they have this great antique building right in the middle of downtown Athens, next to a Metro station):

Next up was the Acropolis. My guidebook insisted that I follow a wee path, about one person wide, up between some tiny whitewashed houses, built by and for the stonemasons working on the Acropolis. It was a very nice walk, but the houses tended to be hidden away from view so I failed to get any decent photos. My guidebook told me I'd find a road to the Acropolis at the end of the path, but failed to say which way to go. I also ran into a couple of guys wearing leather coats and faces like those of President Putin's bodygiards who were equally bewildered, and Rebekah, a final year Biology student from Germany. For some strange reason, she decided to join forces with me, so we struck out up the hill - a logical way to go to a city in the sky, yes? Apparently not as we hit a dead end; you have to go down to go up, it seems.

On the way we saw lots of bits and pieces of marble and other building materails - at times we were left to wonder if we were looking at a ruin or a building yard, but were left in no doubt with the Odeon of Herodes Atticus:

In fact, we had a bit of an argument over whether the seats might have had restoration work done to them; I couldn't believe they'd look so good (the thing was built in 160 AD, by Atticus to commemorate his wife) but Rebecca insisted that "marble keeps well". Maybe Dionysus just used crap materials when he had his theatre made in 500 BC:

The site was a lot smaller than I imagined - I still don't know if it is where everyone lived back when it was built, but it is only about 3 hectares. The thing that amazed me was all the work involved, in getting verything up on top of a sizable hill to build the fortifications and all the buildings. Its a shame that only the Parthenon really survives:
and it is in bad shape, although under restoration. This provoked another argument: Rebecca is sure it will take centuries to do; I think it will be done in her life time. After all, it didn't actually take centuries to build - I think Pericles pretty much got the job done while he was in charge of Attica. Small data point: the guys who had control before Perciles had their own building project under way - they managed to bring 8000 2 tonne blocks of stone from Pireaus (maybe 50 k away) and get it to the top of the hill! That's teamwork.

We wandered down a different way, only for me to find a long strip oif restaurants down one street, and another strip down another and me being heartily laughed at for not being able to find a restaurant in Athens. So to punish her for laughing at me, I made Rebecca have dinner with me - it was nice to have company.


Posted by NZBarry 13:52 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Náfplion, Greece

sunny 20 °C
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So, yeah, I left Singapore; now the travel starts for real.

Entry into Greece was a breeze. I’d panicked a bit, as immigration people can get a bit funny if your onwards plans aren’t complete and I still had the sector home from the USA to work out. Plus, my passport is going to expire less than six months before the end of the trip, so I thought I should get something right and invested in the trip home. As it happens, the Greek immigration fellow didn’t even say hello (a characteristic I have quickly found to be common here) let alone ask any questions.

With a 7:00 a.m. arrival in Athens, I didn’t quite know what to do; I couldn’t really check in to somewhere and sleep and spending a long day sight-seeing after a long flight didn’t really appeal. So I looked around for possibilities; the Peloponesse area looked inviting, but where? Movenvasia is a town on an immense rock, just off the coast but it would mean all day on a bus. Náfplion is much closer,

and a place lots of Athenians go for their weekend break; perfect. I know all the train services south were disrupted, but my (old) guidebook indicated that Corinth offered a seamless transition from train to bus, and I could get their directly from the airport. Hah! In Corinth, they’ve moved the train and bus stations, in opposite directions. So, I spent an hour at a Corinth bus stop before I could get a transfer out to the bus station, where I spent a couple of hours surrounded by the Greek army (soldiers dispersing for their holidays, I decided).

The bus trip down was OK actually; the road was narrow and windy, with lots of hills. We had to thread our way through Argos and its tiny streets not designed for buses; I began to hope that Napflio was spectacular, as Argos looked pretty good, somewhere I’d like to explore for a while (my guidebook tells me it is the oldest continuously occupied place in Greece, 6000 years old).

Luckily, Nafplio is even better; it is built on the waterfront, with a bunch of grand hotels and cafes. Out in front is a floating fort.

Behind is the old town; beautifully restored, with fancy shops, cafes, hotels, tavernas.

I didn’t quite know where the hotel I had booked was in relation to all this; right in the middle of things, as it happens, this is from my balcony:

Not that there was a lot happening; being the middle of winter (so the standard temperature is about what we might expect in New Zealand in summer) virtually all the restaurants and cafes were empty. There were a few smart bars where I'd find a few people, not really drinking but having a coffee and eating cake and smoking furiously. [There appear to be no restrictions on smoking at all here; when I was getting off the plain, I noticed a smoking area in the airport, created simply by putting up a sign in the main thoroughfare and providing some ashtrays.]

Then, as you move away from the water, things get a little less fancy. Lots of old school butcher shops and corner stores, along with street facing offices in which people were still doing obscure things after dark on a Friday night and the occasional taverna; these ones tended to be populated by small groups of old men. I went in to a shop to get onto the internet. After I'd given my credit card details a couple of times, I discovered it was not an internet cafe at all; it was some sort of online gambling place - luckily for me, I won a billion Euro before I found out.

Behind and above it all is a splendid church,

Looking down these steps, which were at the top of a hill already, it struck me that the people attending this church must REALLY want to go to church!!

Above that is the old fort:
I could not work how to get up to it, the gondola was closed for the winter, I could see paths near the top but nothing else. It was only when I caught the bus to leave that I actually found the beginning of the path up the hill. Ah well, I was happy with the bits I did see - there were fortifications from one of the wings of the fort I could get to.

I was a bit worried about dinner; dozens of restaurants and no-one in them looked a bit weird. I was rescued from my dilemma; a fellow from the restaurant behind my hotel accosted me as I walked past and was friendly so I went in (to be the sole occupant). They prodiced the exact soup I’ve been dreaming of for a long time but never quite been able to find nor get a recipe for – it is a spicy bean soup:

After such a healthy entrée, I didn’t mind that I pigged out on a mountain of lamb chops and chips.

As I was wandering around on the Saturday morning, I saw lots of people dressed up as Santa or his helper

Maybe it is just a local tradition to dress like tha; maybe they were going to put on a show. I have no idea!!

Posted by NZBarry 08:33 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Singapore Sights

sunny 30 °C
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This is my last entry for Singapore; obviously I left a little time ago but am running somewhat behind, but I'll get there. There's a map somewhere on this site I have plotted the points I hit post-Singapore.

This entry is really just a random collection of photos I took while in Singapore; I didn't carry a camera around very often, plus I tended to follow the same path between the hostel, work, food but in the last few days I was better about carrying the camera and discovered something about Singapore; it is really quite small, at least the central city. This is a shot I took while waiting for the Singapore Sling mentioned in the last post:

This is how Singapore was looking by the time I'd finished:

It was a pretty special place to hang out; I could imagine myself becoming a regular if I stayed longer in Singapore. Poor old Dunedin has NOTHING like it - maybe we should take over the top of the Forsyth Barr building and turn it into a bar?

After having my Singapore Sling, I experimented with taking a night shot (it means standing very still, as I keep failing to carry the tripod):
then took off down a street I'd not been down before and within a couple of blocks found myself at the Marina.
There were a fair few people promenading and, for entertainment, Singapore's National Hand bell Choir (about to go on a world tour, I understand):

I took quite a few photos but my ability to stand still was a little lacking, so I'll keep them for my own enjoment.

The next day, my last day, I'd done all I could do at NUS so thought I'd change scene and work in the National Library of Singapore. It offers some pretty decent views, sufficient to keep one from working (these are all taken from inside the library, at the level on which I was working)!!

Finally, a building I had often walked past and admired:

There is nothing anywhere to say what function the building serves, so finally I went inside and found a noticeboard - it is La Salle College of the Arts.

Posted by NZBarry 07:34 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Singapore Food

sunny 30 °C
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Singapore has to be one of the most fantastic places to go for food - it ranges from the very fancy to the humble foodcourt, with everything in between. About the only thing I never found was a good coffee; the best I found was the day I dozed on the bus going to work and missed my stop, only to find there was an entire Bukit Timah shopping centre one stop away from the University, which had an Italian cafe with OK coffee.

I did visit lots of food courts with a view to picking my favourite, and have three contenders. First up is the Kopitiam near the beginning of Orchard Road,
the place I probably visited the most, because it was the place I first visited when I arrived in Singapore the first time, plus it was close, I think it stays open 24/7, has cheap beer and it has this: DSC_0154.jpg

The next I stumbled into when I went walking randomly the day I found it was a holiday so couldn't work - the Clark Quay Kopitiam gets points simply for the view:
But loses because it does not sell beer and I didn't really go for the food:

My winner is the place I remember most fondly from last time, a place I was convinced was going to be wrecked in the revamp, but has come out looking very good and with great food, the Raffles Shopping Food Court:

I didn't only eat in foodcourts: I had such a great lunch, probably the best chicken curry I've ever had, at the Rendezvous Hotel
that I went back for their buffet dinner (and failed to take a camera). I think I pretty much ate an entire steamed sea bass (so called, I believe, because it is the same size as a bass guitar) along with a rather tasty duck curry, among other stuff.

Of course, you can't go to Singapore and not have at least one Singapore Sling.

Tastes rather like marzipan. THE place to go is of course Raffles (the Hotel, not the foodcourt) but I decided I wanted a place with a view (top floor of this, about where the light is:
- 70 floors up).

My final experience of Singapore was rather a surprise; I was flying out of the newest terminal at Changi, and thought it was a bit lacking, until I discovered Brewerkz, who make a fine India Pale Ale but, more interestingly
have installed a brewery in the airport. Damn expensive beer, but it didn't stop me having two.

Posted by NZBarry 12:52 Archived in Singapore Tagged food Comments (0)

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