Saturday, April 26, 2014


The whirlwind spring continues! On Monday I got back from my 11 day semana santa "holy week" vacation. As many of you know, I took advantage of this big chunk of time and decided to travel to Bulgaria and Istanbul with my close friend Alexa. It was a big trip, and two very distinct countries with very different cultures, so I've decided to do two separate blog posts; one for each country.

Since my trip started and ended in Bulgaria, I will dedicate this first blog post to the beautiful country. I must say, I had absolutely no expectations going into Bulgaria. I know almost nothing about it, have never talked with someone who has traveled there, and know only one person from there (Yoana, Alexa's former roommate and the person we went to visit!). Since Yoana was nice enough to host and show us around the entire time we were in Bulgaria, Alexa and I didn't have to plan anything for this part of the trip. As nice as it was, it was very strange going into a trip knowing almost nothing about the country and having no idea where you will go and what you will do for the next few days, but it was exciting at the same time!

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexa and I arrived at Sofia's airport late on Friday afternoon.  Yoana was at the airport waiting for us with a big smile! We exchanged our euros for Bulgarian levas, and then we hopped on a bus into town. After we walked to Yoana's apartment and dropped our stuff of, we headed right back out to discover Sofia! The first thing I noticed about Sofia is how beautiful the scenery was. The entire city is surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills. I also quickly noticed the cyrillic alphabet (same one the Russians use) that the Bulgarian language is written in, which is pretty daunting since I had no idea what anything meant. I was excited to get to know this foreign place, and definitely excited to have Yoana to help us out with the language. She showed us all of the main sights of Sofia, and there was a lot more than I expected. Some of the highlights included a beautiful yellow-brick road that reminded us of the Wizard of Oz, historic Sofia University, the eternal flame and the monument of the unknown soldier, old roman ruins, beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox churches, the former communist headquarters, and the crowned jewel of Sofia- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This stunning Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is relatively new by European standards, it was built in 1912. Its age is not what's impressive; it's the neo-byzantine architecture, the giant overlapping bell towers and it's enormity that people come to see. The Alexander Nevsky cathedral not only is the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox religion, but it's also one of the biggest orthodox churches in the world and the second biggest church on the Balkan Peninsula.  After our tour of Sofia, we met Yoana's brother (who we had previously met while he was visiting in Madrid), Ivaylo, and his friend, Valentin. We went to a nice Bulgarian restaurant so we could be introduced to typical Buglarian food. Looking down at the menu, all of the prices seem about the same as normal. 5-6 leva for a salad and 8-15 leva for a main course. Then I remembered that 1 euro is worth 2 levas and I got really excited! Alexa and I got to order wine, salad, and a main course for HALF of what we normally pay in Madrid, and the food was EXCELLENT. I had a shepherds salad with fresh Bulgarian goat cheese, a Bulgarian meatball stuffed with "yellow" cheese and tried some Bulgarian wine! All delicious. After dinner we shared some beers at a cool, local beer bar with a great craft beer selection and then hit the hay.

Day 2 in Bulgaria started with a delicious pastry called banitsa.  It's a flakey breakfast pastry that had various fillings. I tried goat cheese and Alexa tried potato and herbs. They were both absolutely delicious! Then, Yoana took us around Sofia again so we could see all of the famous sights again in the daylight.  Also, since it was daytime we could enter the Alexander Nevsky church to see it on the inside. The first thing I noticed is that there were no pews. Alexa is Greek Orthodox and Yoana Bulgarian Orthodox so they helped educate me on all the differences between Orthodox and Catholicism. During their services, the orthodox communities stand up the whole time, there are a few chairs on the side of the church for the disabled and elderly. Also, the altar is not raised nearly as high as in catholic churches, and although the church is decorated beautiful and ornately, it's not as over-the-top as most catholic cathedrals. Later in the afternoon we met Ivaylo and Valentin for lunch. We had another amazing lunch for an amazing price. Yoana tried to talk us into trying "ayran" with is a beverage composed of yogurt and water and is sometimes salted. Bulgarians LOVE it.  It looked like they were drinking thick, whole milk and then to think it was SALTED! As adventurous of an eater I am, I couldn't stomach the though of drinking it. Alexa either, so we politely declined.  Later on we went to a cafe to try some amazing gelato, and then we called it an early night. It was raining, so Alexa, Yoana and I enjoyed a movie and pizza night in the apartment.

We packed up on day 3 and got in Ivaylo's car. He drove us about an hour outside of Sofia to a bridge we were did bungee jumping! It was my second time, and being the adrenaline junky I am I was VERY excited to be jumping again :) After watching a few jumpers go, it was my turn.  I signed the waiver, paid the fee, and then it was time for them to strap up my ankles and my harness! I smiled at the camera, yelled "THREE, TWO, ONE" and screamed as I swan dove from the bridge. My stomach dropped and my breath escaped me, but I loved it. There's nothing like it! And the scenery was great too. Beautiful, rolling green mountains, trickling waterfalls and bubbling mountain springs (which we had the opportunity to drink from later on). After the jump, we drove just a bit further to the historic town of Koprivshtisa. We only spent about 40 minutes there because it's tiny, but Yoana told us all about the history of the town. It's famous because it was one of the centers of the "April Uprisings" which is the movement that eventually led to Bulgaria's freedom from the tyrannic Ottoman Empire.  Beyond that, it's just a cute, quite Bulgarian town. The village filled with red-roofs, dirt roads, and donkey carriages was so quaint and traditional-looking that it could have been used as a movie set. Simply picturesque. Then, we moved on to the Starosel Winery and Vineyard for lunch.  We once again dined on impossibly-cheap, scrumptious Bulgarian food and wine (I had lamb and Alexa had goat) and then we got to tour the place! Bulgarian wine is fairly unknown in the wine world, but it won't be for long. Their climate is perfect for vineyards, and they take care and pride in their wine. It wouldn't surprise me if the wines from the Balkan Peninsula (Serbia, Croatia, Romania, etc) begin to make a name for themselves in the US very soon. Then, we made the final journey to Yoana's hometown of Plovdiv. She showed us around for the couple remaining hours of sunlight. Plovdiv is even more picturesque than Sofia. Although some of the buildings and sidewalks are crumbling due to their economic crisis, the town makes up for it in it's historic architecture. After getting a tour of the city centre and old town, we climbed one of the "seven hills of Plovdiv" to watch the sunset. We had the most amazing view of the beautiful red-roofed houses and cobblestone roads as we watched the sun go down. Then, we went to Yoana's house for dinner and later caught the night bus to Istanbul!

view of the sunset from one of Plovdiv's 7 hills
Assen's Fortress
5 days later, we returned to Bulgaria for Easter. The first day we spent at her house with her family relaxing. Then, Easter Sunday! Normally the Catholic and Orthodox Easter don't land on the same Sunday (they use different calenders) but this year it did! Orthodox follow many similar traditions of dying eggs and sharing a meal with family but they have a few traditions of their own. Many devout followers of the orthodox faith do not eat animal products for the entirety of lent, so on Easter Sunday they eat lamb to break their fast. Also, at mid-night on Easter morning they light candles and walk around their church three times. Beyond that it was pretty similar, family time and delicious food, wine and rakia, a popular hard liquor in Bulgaria that is similar to brandy. In the morning, we enjoyed some delicious, homemade sweet bread that Yoana's mom made that was very similar to Italian panatonne, yogurt and hard boiled eggs of course! Orthodox christians have egg-wars to see who will have the most luck in the coming year! Basically it just means hitting your hard-boiled egg against another to see who's will break first. Alexa was the winner at the end of the day. After breakfast, Yoana's dad took us into the mountains to visit an old 11th century monastery and a 9th century fortress on top of a mountain! Both were stunningly beautiful and unexpected surprises for our Easter Sunday. By the time we got back, it was lunch time. We dined on homemade bread made by Yoana's grandma, salad, potatoes, deviled eggs, rice with liver and lamb. Although no one else in Yoana's family spoke English, Alexa and I did our best to communicate with smiles and hand gestures while she wasn't translating.  They were all extremely kind and hospitable to us. We all shared a lovely lunch and a relaxing night.

The last day we woke up packed up for good. Yoana's mom spoiled us with homemade banitsa (amazing) for breakfast. After, we said goodbye and thanked Yoana's family for their over-the-top hospitality and hopped on a bus back to Sofia. Later, we got a taxi to the airport and said goodbye to Yoana. It was an amazing trip. Although Bulgaria could use a little fixing up, I'd still recommend visiting it. The people are kind

, the food and wine is great and there is so much history and gorgeous scenery to be discovered.  Go to Bulgaria, and you won't regret it :)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Family Visit 2014

Wow! I feel like my family arrived, I blinked and the trip was over! Man how time flies, but I was so happy to have them here. Unfortunately, not my whole family was able to come as my brother is in medical school and my sister is in her last year of nursing school, but I was still ecstatic to have my 13-year-old sister, Juliana, and my mom and dad come to visit me for 10 days!

Unlike last year, when we moved locations every 2-3 days, we decided that this year it would be nice to not hop around so much. So, we decided on one long weekend trip to the south (Sevilla and Cordoba) and to spent the rest of the time in Madrid. My family arrived on a Thursday, but I wasn't able to meet them until after work at 5:30. This ended up working out well since they were pretty jet-lagged from their journey here and they wanted to rest a bit. **Travel: the only way to beat jet-lag in the first 24 hours is to power through the day with tons of activities and avoiding the hotel/hostel room! Trust me, the bed will be too tempting to sleep in. However, if you're desperate for a nap, go ahead but don't nap for more than a couple of hours or it will throw off your sleep cycle.** After we met I just took them around my neighborhood (known by three names: Antón Martín, Huertas or Las Letras), through the center and to my favorite view of Madrid near Templo de Debod in Parque Oeste.  Later on, we had tapas and called it an early night (early night in Spain meaning 10:30/11:00).

Plaza de España - Sevilla
The next day we woke up early, walked to Atocha station and grabbed an AVE (fast train) to Sevilla. 2.5 short hours later, we were there! Unfortunately, our first day in Sevilla was rainy which is really bad luck considering Sevilla is one of the sunniest cities in Spain. We made the best of it and toured the giant Cathedral there.  It's the largest gothic cathedral and the third largest cathedral in the world. There's lot's to see (Christopher Columbus' tomb for example) and a giant bell tower called "La Giralda" to climb, so we spent a good couple of hours there exploring and staying out of the rain.  In Spanish fashion we enjoyed a long lunch that lasted about 2 hours. Later that night, we went to the "Bellas Artes" or fine arts museum of Sevilla for a dry indoor activity. The museum was much bigger than expected and housed some amazing works of art. Juju got bored pretty quickly, but the rest of us really enjoyed it. We finished our night with a trip to a tapas bar with authentic flare, stuffed bull heads! Not your average dinner decor.  

We were happy to wake up and see some sun on Saturday because I had a guided walking tour lined up for us.  It was the perfect weather to spend the day outside. Before our tour, we enjoyed a traditional Andalusian breakfast of grated tomato on toast in a cute little café. Our tour guide, Alvaro, was a local and definitely knew his stuff. There were only 7 of us on the tour, so it was practically a private tour. We spent 2 hours walking around the center of Sevilla and learning all about it's 3,000 years of history (that's right, 3,000! believed to be the second oldest city in Europe after Cadiz). The tour was so fantastic that we spontaneously decided to sign up for a second tour with Alvaro that same day to see the Real Alcázar of Sevilla (Royal Fortress).  It's somewhat comparable to the Alhambra of Granada considering it's moorish roots, but it's still worth seeing even if you already have seen the Alhambra! It's got amazing arches, incredibly detailed architecture/tile-work, and gorgeous, manicured gardens filled with bushes, tress, flowers, fountains and my least favorite animal, peacocks. It was good to have Alvaro there to help tell us exactly what we were looking at and the history behind it. After the tour, we took some time to wander around the gardens and soak up the warm sun. But that was pretty short lived because we were exhausted and starving after back-to-back tours. We went to a tapas bar recommended to us by Alvaro and we were not disappointed. We enjoyed a delicious "menú del día" which is a fixed menu for a discounted price, usually between 9-15 euros. After lunch we spent our afternoon at the stunning Plaza de España and walking along the Guadalquivir river. On our last night in Sevilla I ended up introducing my family to one of Spain's "fast food chains" called 100 (Cien) Montaditos.  Spainiards consider it "fast food" but it's MUCH higher quality than McDonalds, from 0.50-2 euros you can get a small sandwich topped with anything from calamari, jamón, and chicken to dessert toppings and hot dogs. How many kinds of sandwiches are there did you ask? You guessed it, 100! In addition to sandwiches they have chips, fries, olives, nachos and salads to choose from for a side dish. My parents didn't really know what to expect, but they really liked it! The quality of food is much higher than our American fast food standards, and my mom even commented on the healthy options available there! Juliana loved it because she got to enjoy french fries and orange Fanta (her favorite thing to drink in Spain, and some thing she's only allowed to drink on vacation).

On Sunday we packed up and got on a train to Cordoba. I was especially excited to go to Cordoba because it's somewhere I've never been! Also, because it's the hometown of one of my teacher friends from my school in Madrid and she gave us tons of insider recommendations. We spent 12 hours in Cordoba wandering the streets, trying tapas, soaking up the sun, viewing the beautiful flowered patios and of course, visiting the Mezquita.  Mezquita mean's mosque and La Mezquita de Córdoba is the most iconic mosques in all of Spain. It's history is unique and I won't do it justice but I will try to give you a brief summary of it. The first people to build on the land where the mezquita now stands were the Visigoths near the year 500 who built a basilica. In the late 700's, the moors conquered Cordoba and leveled the basilica and before the year 800 they had begun to build their great mosque.  The mosque was built and expanded over the next 200 years. The mosque was enormous, big enough to house the thousands or moorish citizens for prayer 5 times a day. The moorish reign in Cordoba lasted until the late 13th century, when the catholics reclaimed it for good. Instead of destroying the mosque (which they couldn't do because it was far too beautiful), they just reconstructed a part of it into a Catholic church. Seeing the mezquita and learning about all this history was extremely fascinating for all of us. Later that night we got back on a train and traveled the rest of the way to Madrid.

The week in Madrid was quite a blur, but I'll try to hit some of the highlights:
-Monday: I took my family on my own little city tour. Luckily it was a nice day so we were able to be outside for most of it! We started in Retiro Park and then moved on to Palacio de Cibeles, Plaza Cibeles, Gran Via, Plaza de España and had a paella lunch.  Later that night we also visited the Reina Sofia (contemporary art museum famous for housing Picasso's 'Guernica'), got the best calamari sandwiches EVER at a place called "El Brillante" (located right outside the museum), and went to the San Miguel Market to munch on some yummy food.
Juju and her new Spanish friends
-Tuesday: My parents went on a semi-private wine tour and loved it! I took Juju to school with me which she said was the highlight of her trip :)
-Wednesday: I had to work so my family were on their own in the morning, then in the afternoon I took Juju back to school with me for a couple of hours (since she was so popular the first day) and my parents got to spend some quality time in the Prado museum. Later that night we all went to the apartment of one of my Spanish private lesson families and enjoyed some homemade traditional tapas there. My parents loved meeting the locals and Juju got to hang out with some Spanish girls close to her age, so it was a winning situation for everybody!
Dinner at Isabel's house
-Thurday: Work again for me, so my family went to the Palacio Real (royal palace) in the morning. After school I met my family and we caught a train down to the pueblo (more like a suburb) of Leganes, just 30 minutes south of Madrid center by cercanias train (suburban line train). We had dinner at the house of my Spanish friend Isabel and once again indulged in some delicious Spanish tapas. There was plenty of amazing food and great conversation! In fact, we were having such a good time that we almost missed the last train back to Madrid around midnight. If any of you know my parents, you know that's a late night for them ;)
Toledo <3
-Friday: Day trip to Toledo! After a bit of a messy start (the trains didn't work out and we had to take the bus) we had a wonderful day in Toledo.  It was a breezy but sunny day. At this point in the trip, we had seen lots of museums, cathedrals, etc, so we decided to skip all that and just spend the day walking around the beautiful city, taking a brief tour train (*travel tip: take this train! only 5 euros and the only way to get the most amazing view of Toledo id you don't have a car!*), and having a delicious Moroccan lunch. Also, have to mention the small-world moment when Juju's classmate walked into the same restaurant we were in with his family. What are the odds?! Around 6pm we headed back to Madrid and took an hour or so to pack up. Then, we enjoyed one last dinner as a family and of course, one last gelato for Juliana ;)

I had a wonderful time with my family in Spain! It was great that they spent so much time in Madrid because it was fun for me to show them a glimpse into what my life is like here! They met the woman that runs my favorite frutería, some of my students, the Spanish families I've gotten close to and my best friends here! They stayed at a hotel on the same block as my flat so they got to get to know my neighborhood a little bit. And the best part is that they loved it all as much as I do! Although it seemed to fly by, I am thrilled that I got to spend some quality time with the people I love most <3

Just incase someone reading this is headed to Spain soon, below are links to some of the things I mentioned above!

- The walking tour we took with our incredible guide Alvaro! -
- The amazing Moroccan restaurant we went to in Toledo -
- Best Calamari Sandwiches! -
- Mercardo San Miguel, for people who can't decide what they want to eat! -
- The winery tour that my parents RAVED about -