The second week of FISI was much like the first-- informative, beautiful, and maddening all wrapped into one, with the biggest difference being the level of closeness my new friends and I ascended to. I think we all moved beyond that polite stage where everyone wears their best face all day and dug into the more nitty gritty of who each of us are, the good and the bad. In short, the second week brought us all closer as a strange little Bulgarian family unit. I'm definitely going to need these people in the coming year, far flung though we may be.
As far as travels go (get it? as far as travels go? I'm traveling... far... never mind), holy cow where do I begin? Well, at the beginning, of course! Two of my friends and I set out on the 26th from Sophia with a flight to Budapest, Hungary.
Yeah, we were excited and took full advantage of the tourist-y, English language welcome mirror. Hey, at least Budapest is self-aware of itself as an international destination, eh? Moving on. So a quick run-down of the city for those who, like me (til now), don't get out much. Budapest is split into two very different city sections by the Danube River, the Buda side and the Pest side. Creative. Buda towers above the Danube, with the Buda castle at its crest, looming from the top of a large, reinforced hill. It is the quieter, pricier, less tourist-flooded half of the city, all windy streets and colorful residential buildings. It features one of my favorite city sights, St. Mathias Church (seen below)! It is also the site of my first of many encounters with bright pink restrooms...what gives, Europe?
The Pest side is quite the opposite of Buda. It's streets are laid in well-planned grids, it is cheaper, more full of life, and is where most tourists stay. It houses Parliament, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Jewish quarter, and the largest of the city's Turkish baths (high fives for swimming in a thermal pool that feels like everyone took a simultaneous leak).
My favorite part of this Budapest trip was hands down the chance I got to sightsee and catch up with one of my frisbee teammates, who joined me in the city for three days. We shared so many wonderful talks and some nice Hungarian wine, it was a splendid adventure. Other highlights include a night walk of the city, a visit to the museum of terror (a commemoration to those who suffered at the hands of the communist and socialist regimes), and a trip to the baths of course! AND GOULASH. One of the more flavorful nasty looking meat dishes I've tasted.
The travels continued southward on the 29th, with the next stop being Zagreb, Croatia, interceded by a long train ride, a sad omelette, Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies (highly recommended), a stop at Lake Balaton, and the travel version of Apples to Apples. Let this be a lesson to you, friends: always research the currency and conversions of the country you're entering beforehand, saves a headache and a lot of confusion when you're unable to find the conversion rate and have no wifi access in the dead of the night upon arrival in Croatia. Ahem.
So Zagreb. My friends and I rented an apartment a little ways outside the main city center and were met by the apartment owner on a shadowy and graffitied street corner late on the night of our arrival. Sketchy. Quite literally, what with the graffiti. Let me tell you, this man was a CHARACTER. Neon pants, tomato red chucks, salt and peppa Einstein style hair, polo with a sweater draped over the shoulders, and the zaniest electric blue eyes of my life and yours. A really friendly, chatty sort of fellow. The kind who tells you his family history and almost keeps you from getting dinner before the restaurants close with all his talk but who also offers you the gift of Croatian chocolate as a welcome present. I liked this guy. He recommended some wonderful city sights and offered a great, if not ridiculous, introduction to the city. He also said Croatia is safer than Bulgaria. Hmmm... but Zagreb has such a nice pace and houses some wonderfully talented local crafters and artists. And it houses the Museum of Broken Relationships, can't forget that one. I stayed in Zagreb for two nights.
Also visited were Plitvice Park, Zadar, and Dubrovnik, each lovely in its own way and pictured below.
The above is an old Roman forum in Zadar
Cheesin' on the sea steps in Zadar
Above is the fortified old town of Dubrovnik, where I spent three days. GORGEOUS. The most eventful thing to happen to me in Dubrovnik was equal parts disappointing and awesomeness. Shifting into story mode. On my last full day in the city, my group chose to end our hot, walking-heavy day with a late lunch and a few hours spent wading in the Adriatic. We had spotted a secluded-looking beach from the walls of the city, well beyond where most of our fellow sightseerers were venturing and set out after a huge food regret of a lunch, uphill for at least a mile, maybe more. The sun was scorching, our feet were tired, but that beach looked blissful. We crested the hill that leads down to the tiny beach only to be stopped by some security men and were turned back with the explanation that the area was being used for filming. However, on our walk back to the town, we passed a couple who informed us that the filming was for the fourth season of Game of Thrones. !?!?!?!! Obviously, we got out binoculars and our zoom cameras to sneak a peak. Sure enough, we spotted filming crews and some medieval-looking flags. As for our beach time, we just ended up at the crowded beach and were still able to relax and enjoy the deliciously cool little waves. Neat. A shot of the old town rooftops can be seen below.
I think my favorite stay of the trip was the final destination of Kotor, Montenegro. The small city is situated just at the base of the surrounding mountains with sea water filling in the low valleys. Like the places I visited in Croatia, Kotor was also surrounded by high, thick stone walls. The old city's fortifications climb quite high above the city and end in a large ruined fort that overlooks the harbor and mountains. Beyond the walls of the fort climbs a steep, winding trail which leads to the top of the mountains. Fun fact- Montenegro's eleven year old children with barbie backpacks are far more superior hikers than a pack of 20-something Fulbrighters. The city itself is windy and made completely of stone, with old buildings sagging tiredly toward one another in a really beautiful way. Our hostel, Montenegro Hostel (aptly named) was a friendly, welcoming establishment and served the best five euro meal I've tasted. My hat off to you, middle-aged German cook lady. Below are views of the old town, from within the walls and from the fort, followed by a view of the harbor from the highest point I reached on the mountain trail.
Aside from a sleepless 12-hour overnight bus ride that passed through Kosovo, my travels ended pleasantly with a last meal in Kotor of risotto and prawns followed by a highly necessary espresso. I experienced some really magnificent cities and had a really relaxed, worry-free trip, but the sight of Dimitrovgrad's central bus station was perhaps one of the most welcome sights I've laid eyes on since arriving in Bulgaria. Next post will be more entertaining than this whirlwind travel recap and will shed a little more light into my day-to-day life. Til then!