Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fall Scenes from die Oberpfalz, Germany

Some (ahem, my husband) say that fall is not as beautiful here in Germany as it is in our beloved New England.  That wouldn't be totally inaccurate, but beauty can still be found all across the Oberpfalz.

Coming down B85, there's a beautiful stretch of changing trees and vast farmland near the town of Königstein.  I've dubbed these "my favorite trees" so I stopped to take a picture of them on my way home one day when it wasn't cloudy or raining.

My favorite part of the changing leaves of fall is when part of the tree is already a striking orange and yellow, while the other part is still green.

If you are visiting or live in Germany, you can NOT use your cell phone and drive.  If you see something beautiful, it's totally fine to pull over and snag a picture of it.  If people pull over to use the bathroom on the side of the road, it's fine for you to stop and take a picture, as I did here.

I'm frequently taking pictures of sunsets here in Germany, but on this particular day, mother nature surprised us with a gorgeous sunrise.  This is pretty rare because mornings around here from September through April are pretty socked in with dense fog.

Although Kürbis is very popular here in Germany, the traditional pumpkin patch, hayride and other New England traditions we have always enjoyed in the past are not as widespread.  We managed to find one east of Nuremberg though at Jerry's Pumpkin Patch.  Honestly, those were there were about 90% Americans!

There were plenty of good looking pumpkins though - we bought two of them!

There were also plenty of other types of gourds, including butternut squash!

For three Euros each, you can ride in the hayride.  I promise Grant isn't grumpy here.  He said, "I'm doing the daddy face!"

The slow tractor ride took us through the fields and up the hill to where there is a little grass runway airport.  All over Bavaria, which is largely Catholic, you'll see these crosses.  This one was randomly in a field!

The airport runway.  We saw several take offs and landings!

Now I can't look at this picture without thinking of Stranger Things.  (If you haven't seen it, you must!  It's such a good show!)

From back at the pumpkin patch, you could see the tractor heading past the airport on it's way back to it's home base.  Fall in Bavaria might not be as pretty as New England, but it isn't half bad.  Until next fall, Oberpfalz!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Sofia, Bulgaria

The biggest thing for me when we embarked on our move to Germany, was that I would finally be able to see places I never would have been able to if we still lived in the States.  You figure, if you make X amount of money every year, and you put some into a travel savings, then maybe you can go to Europe once every 3-5 years.  And when you go to Europe on these trips, you will probably just hit the highlights, as I have done in the past.  London, Paris, Madrid, Venice.  All fantastic cities (in fact, remind me that I still need to take the rest of my family to London!), but there are so many other wonderful European cities that I have always wanted to explore.

Gotta admit though, Sofia, Bulgaria was never on that list!

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, and the city has been inhabited since about 7000 BC. So obviously, there's lots of history here. 

I titled this one, "The Bailey's and that other guy go to Bulgaria."  Let's go to Sofia, shall we?

Our descent into Sofia was magical.  It was Sun Rays and Saturdays and all of that jazz.  Vitosha Mountain was in the background (no snow on it... yet!)

Sofia was exactly how I pictured it.  Lots of graffiti, lots of run down buildings, tons of history and some real architectural gems.  Literally, these two buildings are hollowed out.  As in, you can see right through them!

The view from our AirBnB apartment, above.  Sadly, the person who's laundry that is forgot to bring it in when it poured on Saturday.

Grant might be a bit young to understand Banksy.  Sofia has a ton of great street art.  

Because we arrived sort of later in the evening, that just afforded us enough time to check into our AirBnb, grab some dinner and put the kids to bed.   We went downstairs (literally, right below our apartment) to the Spaghetti Kitchen for dinner.  Sounds pretty much like an American chain restaurant but it was surprisingly good!

As expected, it was raining when we woke up on Saturday.  A LOT. But the rain didn't make the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral any less beautiful!  This cathedral is the highlight of Sofia and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world.  It's also the second largest cathedral in the Balkans (the Cathedral of St. Sava is the largest, which we will see in Belgrade in a few short weeks!) Work began on St. Alexander Nevsky back in 1882 as a "thank you" to the Russians and to honor the soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-1878.  This was kind of a big deal to the Bulgarians, as it freed them from over 500 years of Ottoman rule.  (Interestingly, there isn't much left of this time period.)

The dome is 45 meters high and covered in frescos that are in desperate need of repair.  Years of smoke and incense in the church have badly damaged them.  

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral can hold 10,000 people!  Interestingly though... no chairs!

I so wanted to get up here with a toothbrush and clean these up!  (Because you know I know SO much about restoring frescos!) How beautiful would they be?  The multicolored marble you see at the bottom was imported from Munich!

The Russian Orthodox church gifted the Cathedral a relic from St. Alexander Nevsky himself - a piece of his rib bone.

A rainy day in October and there weren't a lot of visitors to the Cathedral (nice!).  Be aware: if you plan on taking pictures in the Cathedral, make sure you pay the 10 Lev (currently worth about $6) or risk the church employees chasing you down.  I have my camera around my neck with my little slip of paper in my hand (my "receipt" for having paid) and with darn nearly every picture I took, the guy was chasing me down.  AND I HAD CLEARLY PAID! The same guy, too!  Dude, I'm still here. I still have my receipt, that you can clearly see.  Slow your roll!

The cathedral is very much set in the Neo Byzantine style, as you can see Grant is discussing in depth with the masses.

The Last Supper fresco at St. Alexander Nevsky.

Back in the 1200s, a Russian Tsar named Alexander Nevsky saved Russia from being invaded by Sweden (Sweden? Really? They're like the nicest country ever!).  Because of this, he became the patron saint of Tsar Alexander II, who was known as the Liberator in Bulgaria for having finally freed the country from 500 years of Ottoman rule.

Todd took this cool picture of me in the Cathedral.

But only after I took this cool picture of him.

Buy a candle, light it and say a prayer.

I'm singing in the rain! Seriously, that ridiculously overpriced plastic rain cover we bought Natalie at the Hallstatt salt mines has really come in handy on our travels.  The days before this were in the 70s and beautiful and the leaves have barely begun to change.  Even the flowers are still in bloom!  But today was rainy and in the upper 40s.  Sigh.  This little garden was a gift from Japan, in front of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox church (in other words, all of the power and administrative works come from here).

The Russian-Turkish War was fought with around 12,000 volunteers in addition to the Army.  This park and it's monuments is dedicated to those volunteers, who without them, the war would not have been won.  The Bulgarian Volunteers Monument is actually the one in the background.

Walking over toward the Russian Church, I spotted this.  And there's actually a guy up there sitting in it!  Is he traffic control? A government spy? A sniper? A homeless guy who lives there?

I didn't want to add this picture of the Russian Church because we went the following day and took much better pictures in the sunshine. But it's even pretty on a gray day!

I know it's not super exciting that this is the headquarters of an insurance company, but this building was really interesting in that much of the building (and the neighboring building) are bland, but the domed top with it's statues and clock were a nice touch!

Jesus. Rita. Kanye East. I'm sure this is a gang thing I'm promoting here.

As I mentioned above, our rainy day stroll also took us past the Russian Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski, or the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker.  We stopped in and two babies were being baptized!  It was so cute!  (No pictures allowed inside though).  The basement houses relics of St. Archbishop Vladyka Seraphim, and during his lifetime, he would tell people to write him notes with their prayer requests and he would pray for them.  Some of these came true and were thought to be his miracles, hence earning him a sainthood in the Orthodox church.  Naturally, we wrote notes to him and put them in the box!

Walking back through the city toward the Vitosha Boulevard, we spotted this cute little tram! Most of the trams were more modern, but we liked the old tyme feel of this one!

WHAT.  This is a rare site in Europe!  (Never mind that I never actually found any in any restaurant!)

I'm not even going to lie here... we totally ate lunch at McDonalds.  I can't even recall the last time we did that (ever?) as a family.  I once hit up a McD's for some greasy fries when super hungover in Barcelona but ... yeah.  Thank goodness these lovely folks spoke English because Cyrilic is an impossible language for an English speaker. Although I'm pretty sure the phrase "Chicken Nuggets" transcends all languages!

  Afterward, we strolled down the lovely Vitosha Boulevard!  (Side note: Natalie said, "The word Boulevard reminds me of Florida!")  Vitosha Boulevard is a pedestrian road named for the mountain you can (not really) see in the distance, Vitosha Mountain.  There's lots of restaurants, shops (even some high end ones!) and bars along this way.

Ahhhh Communism, I'm so glad you have been kicked to the curb!

Two things to remember about Sofia if you ever plan on visiting is a) bring a sturdy pair of shoes and b) although you may want to look up for interesting architecture or Cold War reminders, you most CERTAINLY want to look down for random holes in the sidewalk.  I took these two photos but really could have taken about 50.  The sidewalks are in extreme disrepair here, with few exceptions. Leave your high heels at home, ladies!

The city of Sofia definitely has some playful spots.  We found several uniquely painted crosswalks in our trek around the city!  I particularly liked the one painted like a watermelon!

All over Europe they have these hideous gray electrical boxes on just about every block.  In some places around Sofia, they were creatively painted!  It kind of reminded me of Wroclaw (and the gnomes) in that you had to search for them and see what you could find.

The rain was RELENTLESS so at some point, we actually gave up and went back to the apartment.  Since the bar was only two floors down, we let the kids play on their tablets in the room while we went down for adult happy hour.  They had Knob Creek so I was pretty stoked.  If I can even find it, this is often how my bourbon and Coke is served here in Europe.  Cup of ice.  Cup for the Coke. Cup containing the bourbon. Bottle of Coke Zero.  They have never understood the concept of putting it all in one glass for me!

After happy hour, we headed out for our dinner at the super cool Rakia Raketa bar.  On the way there, we came across the remnants of some Turkish barracks from back in the 16th century.

We also walked past the famous St. Sofia Church, where a wedding was taking place!  Even though it was built between 300-500 AD, it's actually only the second oldest church in Sofia, but it's the church that gave the city it's name.  Prior to being named Sofia, this area was the Thracian city of Serdica.  But after the first church was built, the pilgrims came from all around and since it had been built on the top of a hill, it was the first thing they saw when they approached the city of Serdica.  Finally in late 1300s, they unofficially renamed the city Sofia which was popular among the new rulers, the Ottomans.  Naturally, this church has done the usual - it became a Mosque during the Ottoman rule, became a church again and was destroyed by a couple of earthquakes in the 1800s - the typical build and rebuild that we see all around Europe!

I think we saw four brides this weekend.  Must have been a popular day to get married.  I felt bad because their weather was so awful!

We got to stroll through Park Zaimov on our way to dinner.   

Ah, our destination!  Rakia Raketa bar!

Oh Lordy, what's going on here? I was just playing around, laughing that I was double fisting a beer and a bit of plum Rakia.  Rakia is a strong fruit brandy popular in Greece, Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans.  There's some evidence that it actually originated in Bulgaria.  We tried a plum and a grape, and we both agreed the grape was pretty tasty!

This place was super cool with it's Communist era knick knacks and machinery.

Just a mini car, standing up in a restaurant.

The Shopska salad was to die for but THIS BREAD.  Whoa. We all agreed it was the best bread we had ever eaten. It was just covered in spices, mostly paprika but just heavenly.  I also got the honey ribs and we had TWO desserts that we all split - the Revane cake (almost a cheesecake type consistency) and a multi layer cake with Oreos in it that I thought my kids would like best, but I think they really liked the Revane!  Of course, we ate it so fast, I didn't get pictures...

Natalie wanted me to take this picture for the old Fanta bottle. I like the string of pearls and the magnifying glass and the ash tray. Such a mish mash of cool things!

Me: "Natalie, I had a computer pretty similar to this when I was in high school.  That's when we got our first computer."  Natalie: (That face you see above.)

Sunday's weather was a bit chilly but at least it was dry and mostly sunny!  Hooray!  So we met up with about 100 other people for the 11 am Free Sofia Tour two hour tour of the city.  Thankfully they had several guides and were able to split up the groups.  I cannot begin to tell you how awesome this tour was.  And did you hear me?  It was free!  The meet up spot is the Palace of Justice where our guide explained that the Lion is the symbol of the city.  In fact, the word lion in Bulgarian is "Lev" which is also the currency.  So when you say, "I have five Lev," you are really saying, "I have five lions!"

This is our guide, Nikola.  He was super knowledgeable and funny!

Our first stop along the way after we left the Palace of Justice was the St. Nedelya church. This was the site of a very deadly terrorist bombing back in 1925.  A prominent Communist general, General Konstantin Georgiev had died and the funeral was being held here at the St. Nedelya church back in April 1925. A lot of important figures in the military and government at the time were there for the funeral, and knowing this, the Bulgarian Communist Party blew up the church's roof with 25kg of explosives, killing 150 people in the process.  The Communist party bribed the head of maintenance for the church to let them have access to the attic where they placed the explosives.  One interesting story that Nikola told was that Bulgarians are ALWAYS late.  One of the main reasons the Communists chose this location and this funeral was because they knew the king of Bulgaria at the time, Tsar Boris III was going to be there.  But guess what?  He was late!

From what I heard on this tour, I gathered this is not a very popular statue among Sofians.  (Side note: locals pronounce it "SO-fi-ah," not the way we would normally say it, "So-FI-ah.")  Google Maps calls this, "The Saint Sofia Statue."  The locals believe this is the pagan goddess, Tyche due to her ahem, exposed cleavage and her pagan symbols of the owl, the wreath and her crown.

Funny story about this statue that Nikola told us - This statue replaced a statue of the former Soviet leader Lenin that had been removed in 1991.  He once was guiding a group around Sofia, and when he mentioned this, some guy said, "Lennon!?  Why would you remove a statue of John Lennon!?"  The kids, having been to Liverpool and knowing who John Lennon is, thought this was hysterical!

You can also slightly see the top of St. Joseph's Catholic church in the bottom left. It's pretty new since (yeah, yeah, yeah.... we know!) it was destroyed in WWII and only recently rebuilt.  Only about 50,000 of the 7 million people in Bulgaria are Catholic as it's mostly Eastern Orthodox.

Our next stop was on our way to the Roman ruins, where we stopped briefly to see the Church of St. Petka of the Saddlers. Although it was built during the Ottoman rule, it was allowed as long as the entire height of the church wasn't any larger than a man on a horse.

Looking back toward the St. Nedelya church, with Vitosha Mountain and it's first snow of the season looming in the background.  We had actually planned on doing this tour on Saturday and possibly hiking Vitosha on Sunday, but the rains changed all of our plans.  Thankfully too, because we didn't have any snow boots!

A big section of the ancient city of Serdica was discovered in 2010-2012 and after a long five year project, it's now open to the public.  Most of it is below street level.

Part of the completion of the project was a bit controversial in that in an attempt to give us, the visitor a better idea of what the structures looked like, a "line was drawn" on top of the original unearthings with rock and concrete from today added on top of it.  Some also thought that it might help stabilize the structure remains, but there's definitely some debate on whether this was a good or bad idea.  Many think the whole thing makes it feel fake or unauthentic.

Just outside of the ruins of Serdica, Banya Bashi mosque sits in the Square of Tolerance, where four major religions all have places of worship within minutes of each other.  I'm sure it won't surprise you that it was built during the Ottoman Empire between 1566-1576.  It's the only functioning mosque in Sofia today.

The whole city of Serdica complex includes eight streets and totals 9000 square meters.  It dates back to between the 4th and 6th centuries.

Super modern above ground, super old below ground.

We continued our tour of Sofia by heading to the east. This building used to be the Central Mineral Baths since it was built in the early 1900s.  However, by the mid 1980s, the building was in such bad disrepair that it ceased operating as a bath.  It was renovated, eventually and became the Museum of Sofia History.

This was definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Sofia!

Sofia is an interesting city in that it's not on a major sea or the ocean, nor is it located on a river.  But the big draw for early settlers was the thermal springs located beneath the city.  The locals STILL come to fill up their massive water bottles with the warm mineral water.

The kiddos went in for a drink!  You can scoop a handful (?) of water or just dive right in like Grant did.

This building used to house the Bulgarian Communist Party in Sofia (you know, the guys who blew up the St. Nedelya Church).  It's a part of the Largo, three Communist-era buildings that now house the administrative offices of the National Assembly (that's the building above), as well as two other buildings that are home to a big department store and the Office of the President!

The second building in the Largo is the TZUM, which is a large shopping center.  It also has offices for the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria.

Beneath the Largo area, you can walk underground and see old remnants of Serdica.  In fact, the flooring you see in the background is part of the original streets of Serdica!

We went behind the gates into the courtyard of the Office of the President, the third building that makes up the Largo. Inside, you can see the Church of St. George.  It was built by the Romans in the 4th century, and it's believed that it's one of the oldest buildings in the world that still has its original roof!  (This is what Nikola told us, although I haven't found any evidence to back this up.)  It's definitely likely that this is the oldest building in Sofia.

Out on the street facing side of the Office of the President, there are a couple of Buckingham Palace-esque looking guards who are very still and always standing at perfect attention.  There are also two of these guards keeping watch over the Bulgarian flag inside of the building.  Since they aren't really on display for all to see, they aren't quite as disciplined as the guys out front!  Nikola told us one time he saw one of the men on his phone, so he knocked on the window and shook his finger at him!

Wiener alert!  Wiener alert!  Love the pink shirt on this cutie!

The Ivan Vazov National Theater is an architectural gem and it was our next stop on the tour.  It's the oldest theater in all of Bulgaria although it was only finished in 1906.

Nikola took our Free Sofia Tour group picture in front of the National Theater (naturally, Grant is hiding behind Natalie). Normally groups are about half this size.

Nearing the end of the tour, we stopped in front of the former royal palace in the city garden so some members of our group (ahem) could reenact the history of Bulgaria, starting with our own little star, Natalie, otherwise known as Alexander of Battenberg.  I informed her later of her characters link to the royal family - Alexander's brother Louis was Prince Phillip's grandfather!  Alexander was the first Prince of Bulgaria after the Russians (and Alexander's uncle, Tsar Alexander II - they really need some new names in this family!) liberated Bulgaria from the Ottomans.  The girl next to her played Ferdinand I, who succeeded Alexander who only ruled for about 7 years.

Our second to last stop on the tour was back at the St. Sofia Church, where you guessed it... we saw another wedding!  Between the Church of St. George and St. Sofia, it's really unknown as to which is older.  Some say this church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world as it was erected within a century of the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire.  Of course, two years earlier, the Edict of Tolerance had been signed right here in Serdica which was truly the first edict to legalize Christianity.

If you look closely at St. Sofia Church, you will notice that it does not have a belfry.  No worries though, they just put a bell in the tree that resides out in front of the church!

The grand finale of the tour was the (even more beautiful in the sunshine) St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral! Love how that dome shines in the sun!  One of the last stories we got to hear was about the cathedral, and how briefly between 1916-1920, when Bulgaria and Russia weren't on the same side during World War I, the name of the church changed to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.  They were brothers who lived during the 9th century who created the Cyrillic alphabet, which is still used in Bulgaria and all over parts of Europe today!

The Free Sofia Tour group recommends some restaurants around town, so we decided to take them up on their recommendation.  On our way to Corso, where we ate, we got to see the beautiful Russian church in all of it's splendor!

A close up of the Russian church.  I just love the beautiful colors!

Despite the fact that the name of the restaurant was Corso, and I felt like I was having lunch at the Game Day Guy's restaurant, the views from this place were spectacular.

I wasn't sure what to expect, because it looked kind of touristy from the outside, and super fancy on the inside (what will I be paying for this?!)  But the food was outstanding. Bone in pork with parmesan truffle fries.  All for $8.35, U.S. Dollars.

We wanted to see a couple of things after our tour and lunch were over - namely some things the tour didn't get to or to go back to inspect more thoroughly some things we did see on the tour.  This is the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, Alexander II who freed Bulgaria from the Ottomans in 1877-1878.

Well if I keep drinking the Johnnie Walker, I won't be able to!  Interesting western choice in signage.

Our next stop was  Knyazheska Garden to the Monument to the Soviet Army, which shows a Soviet soldier flanked by a Bulgarian man, and a Bulgarian woman with a baby.  Anyone else get the "Wolverine" vibe from Red Dawn here?!?

If you are upon the monument and look back toward Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, this is your view.

There's also a gang of Soviet soldiers on the side of the monument.  In the past, artists have dressed these soldiers in American super heroes and other icons.  Not today though!

A close up of the Monument to the Soviet Army.

Also in Knyazheska Garden, just next to the monument was a big old skate ramp.  Little kids were running back and forth, trying to run fast and hard enough to get to the top (which only the much older kids could do).  Notice my kids are in this picture attempting with the other local kids.

I don't know why, but sometimes pictures and moments strike me, and this was one of them.  I just liked the trees in the park and the smattering of leaves on the ground.

Leaving the park, Vitosha Mountain makes a nice backdrop for the Monument to the Soviet Army.

We wanted to head back over to the Serdica ruins but the walk was really long and we had been walking all day.  So we decided to take the Sofia metro, which was surprisingly clean and very modern!

Those Cyrilic letters.  Also known as, "Serdica."

The Serdica metro stop is just outside of the St. Petka of the Saddlers.  I hadn't gotten a picture from the front of it, so I did on my second go round.

Grant and Daddy walking on the original streets of Serdica.

The original city walls were 6 meters thick and 8 meters high!  We had to explain to the kids that this was much taller than Daddy.

We really wanted to check out the Church of St. George again, so we swung by the Office of the President to snap a pic of the kids being very stoic like their Bulgarian counterparts.  Funny story- a group of British tourists were there taking pictures and one of them stepped up on the step where the two guards are standing, only to have one of the guards pound his rifle onto the ground!  Nope!  Not allowed up there!

This church was likely constructed back in the early 4th century, around the time of Constantine the Great, who really loved the city of Serdica.  In fact, he used to say, "Serdica is my Rome" even though he was head of the Roman Empire!   Constantine was actually born nearby in Nis, which is in Serbia but it's only about two and a half hours from Sofia.  Something cool I learned about Constantine the Great was that he was the one who ordered The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to be built!  His influence on Christianity is immeasurable.

The entryway to the Church of St. George.  You can't take pictures of the various frescos on the inside, but there are five layers of them on the inside of the dome.  Apparently frescos would be painted, the next ruling group wouldn't like them, they would concrete over them and paint a new fresco. Frescos inside have been discovered from the 4th, 10th, 11th/12th, and 14th centuries and yet another set painted during the Ottoman rule.

Walking past the City Library, there were lots of books for sale, which reminded me a bit of Skopje except on a much larger scale.  In addition, benches were painted to look like the spines of books!

Our first choice for a restaurant was totally full and we hadn't made reservations (Bailey's, when will you learn!?) so we went elsewhere, where I had Grant draw a portrait of me.  This. Is me. We all decided he was the next Picasso.

Grant had previously mentioned that "dark alleys with lots of graffiti" were very bad places.  So naturally on the way home, I made him confront his fears and take a picture in a "dark alley with lots of graffiti."  I don't know where this child gets these ideas.  I mean, he's not entirely wrong, either!

I have to admit, Sofia really impressed me.  Truly, the Free Sofia Tour made a HUGE difference in my appreciation for the city.  Free (insert city here) Tours should be available EVERYWHERE!  (Maybe they are?)  Our flight back home was uneventful, thankfully and I managed to snap some pics of the city as we flew out.  Pardon any blur- that's actually not my phone for once.  It's the engines and the fumes they shoot out!  Notice you can see the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral just to the left of center with it's gold dome!

You know I love to look out the window.  I'm constantly searching for cities, floodplains, interesting landmarks, etc.  As we were flying home, I snapped this picture of a "city that appears to be kind of large."  Notice the former oxbow in the river, as well as the many bridges that cross the tributary.  I kind of had an idea of what city this was but wasn't sure.  But of course, it's our next family travel destination... Belgrade, Serbia!

Until next time, Sofia!  Your city is more glorious than I would have imagined!

The Bailey Planet

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