Jeff Harris Travels

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I ♥ BG

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My trip to Bulgaria from Thursday the 18th to Friday, the 26th was one of the best weeks of my life. I think I fell in love with the country. It might not be the richest country (actually, it’s one of the poorer countries of Europe), but the land is beautiful, with mountains, young and old, constantly in view. Some of the people are really cool too.

The food was delicious. From homemade honey (from Peter’s family’s village home) to yogurt, to flat sausage and white cheese, and MUCH more, Bulgaria’s cuisine is a delicious one.

On Thursday, after being picked up from the airport in Sofia, we headed to the dorm Peter, Mariana (his girlfriend) and Damien (his brother) are staying in. Mariana had lots of food ready to eat. It was a bit overwhelming by the last bites. It was so much food, but it was all so good.

After some rest on Thursday and after Peter’s exam on Friday, we headed to the Vitosha mountain and made a barbeque with some of their friends, some Bulgarians and Kenny (his name in an American way) from Turkey. The food, again, was delicious. We had chicken wings, sausage, and shish kebabs with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and meat. We sat around, cooked, and talked for a few hours. It was a nice place, and my first real experience in the wilderness of Bulgaria.

On Saturday the four of us (Peter, his girlfriend, and his brother and I) visited the Rila Lakes. After a couple hour drive, we made it to the mountain. There was a ski lift in operation, so we took advantage of that for 15 leva (Bulgaria’s currency for the next year or so, before switching to the Euro). It took longer to get to the top than I had expected. Having never ridden a ski lift before, it was a daunting task to make sure I was lined up with the lift seat so that when it swung around to pick us up, I was on it all the way and not half way. Safely at the top of the lift, the full beauty of the Rila Mountains was exposed. There was still some ice/snow dotting the mountain. The air was fresh, the oxygen lower, and the smell was relaxing. We promptly made some ham and cheese sandwiches at the top. After we finished our lunch, the hike up part of the mountain (not that high, compared to the others) started. Peter and Damien quickly made it up the hill, five to ten minutes ahead of Mariana and myself. It felt good to hike, but the elevation was definitely felt. On the way up we met a magician who performed a card trick for us. I wasn’t expecting that. He showed us photos of himself with a famous Bulgarian magician. Then he started running up the mountain, suit jacket and all.

The view from the top was gorgeous. I wasn’t expecting to see such a sight during my time in Bulgaria. From the top, the seven Rila lakes were visible. Reflecting sunlight, they almost appeared metallic at one time, and later, after the clouds rolled in, blocking the sun, the clearness of the water was apparent. I didn’t get a chance to taste the water, but I’m sure if I did, it would have been some of the best water I’ve tasted.

After we made it down the mountain (almost as hard as hiking up it), we stood in line to take the lift back down. A woman ahead of us had injured her leg. Though feeling sorry for her, I was definitely glad it wasn’t me. To add to the woman’s stress, and all the other’s riding at the time, a thunderstorm rolled in. Lightning started and a steady rain fell as we slowly made our way down on the almost fully metal lift. We survived, and by the time we reached the bottom and hopped of the thing, the rain had stopped.

Sunday was sleepy day. I slept, off and on, for almost 13 hours, not so unexpected after walking up with mountain the day before. That evening (if I am remembering correctly) we ate dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. We had a hot pot of flat sausage mixed with vegetables, broccoli with cheese, and some other kind of dish I can’t remember very well. It was a lot of food, to say the least. At the end, I had yogurt with honey and walnuts. It was scrumptious.

Then Monday came, the day we started our journey across Bulgaria. After an exam, Peter and I made our way to Kaufland (a grocery/Wal-Mart type store) to get some canned food for our next dinner and breakfast. We drove for a few hours and made it to Koprivshtitsa, an old, small mountain town filled with traditional Bulgarian houses and traditional Bulgarian people. Despite the rain, we walked around the city and made our way along a little path leading to the forest. There was a little water spring/fountain that we stopped at to refresh ourselves. As we were drinking, a horse on a hill about the fountain tumbled down the hill and got wrapped up in the rope that was tied down to the ground. She (I think it was female) didn’t move much, so Peter went to see what was up with it as I took photos. Then I made my way up and we grabbed the front legs and rolled her over. She still didn’t move, but after some claps and nudges she rose and promptly began eating some grass, without even a little thank you.

After some more touring we entered a empty boarding school, which was very eerie and strange. We walked to the second floor and peeked into some of the rooms. In on of the rooms, a student’s identification was still there. It was like they had abandoned the place, with some rooms a mess, and others still with soda bottles on the ground and lights on. Spooky!

We debated sleeping in the car or finding a place to sleep, since it was getting late and we wouldn’t drive any further for the day. We settled on a guesthouse overlooking the town and went to sleep soon after. In the morning we ate canned meat and bread on the balcony of the room. It was a very peaceful place. And beautiful too, with the edge of the forest only feet away.

After breakfast we toured a little more of Koprivshtitsa and continued our journey. We zig-zagged across Bulgaria, stopping to see an old Monastery and the city it’s in, a Russian Orthodox church on the side of a mountain, and another small town that contained many a home topped with large stone shingles. It was a whirlwind kind of day and an awesome day. I never thought I’d see so much in one day. By 9 or 10 in the evening, we made it to Peter’s hometown of Yambol.

Waiting for us in Yambol, was his parents, a large dinner, and comfy beds. It was really neat to meet Peter’s parents and talk to them, despite my lack of Bulgarian.

The following day, Wednesday, Peter and I walked around Yambol. I’m envious of the park and pedestrian streets Yambol has. It’s nice to be able to walk in a street, without worrying if a car is coming. Sitting and talking in a park/garden was so much fun. Watching the old men and women sitting and conversing was nice. And the constantly running water fountain was also a nice reprieve from the hot sun. A little later we made our way to Peter’s dad’s (Toshko) TV repair shop. It seemed to be a steady amount of customers, all with some sort of problem with their TVs or related device.

For dinner that evening, we had more cold cucumber soup (yum), a baked meat and potato casserole-like dish, yogurt and plenty of juice and soda to drink. It appeared obvious that one of the cultural differences was that I drank a lot with the meal. Still, everything was delicious and the cake and ice cream that followed ensured I would quickly fall asleep.

The next day Peter and I eventually made our way out of Yambol and back to Sofia, after saying bye to his parents at the repair shop and saying hello and goodbye to a friend of Peter’s (a bike repairman). We drove for about 3.5 hours, almost running out of fuel by the time we entered Sofia. We made it to the Shell station and filled her up half way, after she drank the whole tank on our 1000-plus kilometer drive.

We drove another five minutes after filling up and parked and made our way to the top floor of the dorm building in Student City (the area where the dorm buildings are) and back to the room. It was sad, since it was my last night in Bulgaria, but I tried not to think about and and, instead, tried to enjoy the last remaining time I had there. We looked at some of the photos and ate food Peter’s mom had sent back with us. I fell asleep little later, slept for five or so hours and woke at 5:30, ready to drive to the airport for my flight back to Spain. It was a real sad time, as we were reaching the airport. It really made me realize how much I had came to like, well, actually, love Bulgaria and how strong my friendship with Peter had become over the week. It was a rather sad four hour plane ride across Europe. I am determined, though, that I will be back, sooner rather than later.

I’m sure I didn’t write all that happened during my week in Bulgaria. It would be more than enough for a novel. But I think I’ve explained the gist of my time in Bulgaria. I recommend checking out this interesting country.

Photos to come soon! Stay tuned!

See ya again soon, Bulgaria!

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Written by Jeff

June 28, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Bulgaria, Traveling

Madrid & Marrakech

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My trip to Madrid and Marrakech, Morocco was definitely a unique and enriching experience. On Saturday, April 11 I traveled by train to Madrid. After checking into my hotel, I took the metro it down to the Reina Sofía and Prado art museums. I first went to Reina Sofía to see my favorite painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso. I was able to snap a few photos with my phone, which I suppose is better than nothing. After checking out the other works of art in Reina Sofía, I walked over to the Museo del Prado, which houses older works of art. There I got to see my second favorite painting Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Seeing the works in person after studying them last semester in Art History II was amazing and was something I didn’t think I’d get a chance to do. It was an interesting contrast to see these artworks the day before traveling to Morocco.

Guernica
Guernica by Picasso

Garden of Earthly Delights
Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch

After a night in Madrid, I departed Spain for Morocco. It had only been a week since I had solidified the plan for the trip, and luckily everything went near perfectly. No lost passports this time!

Once I arrived in Marrakech I exchanged some euros and dollars and hopped on the bus headed into the city. For 30 Moroccan Dirhams (about $3.50) I got a roundtrip ticket for the bus. I’m sure it was much easier and potentially cheaper than trying to settle on a price with the taxi drivers!

Once I got off the bus, the loudness and liveliness of the Djemaa el Fna (the main square of Marrakech and what Marrakech is known for) was overwhelming. Carrying luggage made me a target for lots of teenagers trying to make a buck, directing tourists to their riads (like the equivalent to a bed and breakfast). I had the map in my head, so I knew I was in the right area, but after passing where I later learned I had to turn and noticing the sun setting fast, I gave in and accepted help. The lowest denomination of money I had was a 100 dirham bill (about $11.71), so I figured I had no other choice. Once I made it to my riad, the Amour de Riad, my guide’s friend showed up and said that I owed him money too. Ha! I made sure when I first agreed to let them show me that I said 100 dirhams only, not per person. No more. And when we turned into the dark alley leading to the riad, his friend stayed behind. As I refused to pay more and hoping one of them didn’t have a knife I rang the doorbell of the riad and a pleasant woman managing the place opened the door. It was a relief to be inside someplace calm. Once I made it to my closet-sized room containing a bed, a coat rack, a plastic stool, two power outlets and a window and door, I thought what did I get myself into? Seeing women covered head to toe, walking past carts pulled by donkeys, and being hustled for help was a bit overwhelming at first. I didn’t venture back out until the morning.

On Monday I walked all over the place. And again I was hustled by the young and old. They would say “the place you’re looking for is closed,” or “there is nothing good that way, follow me,” or “come look at my shop, I give you good price, best in Marrakech!” Usually I would just brush them off and tell them I was just walking, taking in the sights. Other times they were more persistent so I would just ignore them. One time a boy warned me that an area I was headed towards was closed. I pretended to know only Spanish. Surprisingly the boy replied with “my amigo, cerrado” (“my friend, closed”).

The people in Marrakech were awful friendly. They all considered me to be their friend. Whether it was the orange juice sellers or the shopkeepers, the waiters or the young Moroccans trying to make a buck by selling their knowledge of Marrakech’s street plan or their hashish, they all wanted to be my friend (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic : P).

For dinner on Monday night I walked the outskirts of the food stalls in the Djemaa el Fna. The waiters stood outside, along where people walked, trying to get each passerby to take a look at their menu and spread of food. Being pushed around or pressured is a real turn off for me, but every single stall did it, so finally gave into the pressuring and settled on stall 114. I ended up eating there the next two nights, partly because I didn’t feel like getting pressured by the other stalls and partly because they had pretty good couscous the first night. After making it back to the riad after my first real Djemaa el Fna experience, I settled in for the night, a little more confident that I could withstand the culture shock.

On Tuesday, after a hearty breakfast of a crepe, croissant and orange juice and coffee (with lots of milk added since I’m not really a coffee drinker) in my riad, I bought a 24 hour ticket for the hop-on hop-off double decker, open-top tour bus. After a few circuits around the city, I got off near the Bahia Palace. There were a lot of similarities between this palace and the Alhambra in Granada. The tiles and wall calligraphy were almost identical in some instances. The gardens were beautiful and lush and the courtyards were expansive.

Next, I rode the tour bus another time and took more photos from my seat atop the bus. After a thirty minute ride, I got off at the Djemaa el Fna stop and had walked the five minutes back to my riad. After a little siesta, I walked back into the Djemaa el Fna and to stall 114 for dinner. I had a chicken tagine with a orange fanta for dinner. The complimentary mint tea was refreshing!

By Tuesday night I had a change in perspective. I was disappointed that I only had Wednesday left, which was a great change from the feelings I had on Sunday night.

Wednesday morning came and I made it out into the medina to catch the sightseeing bus one last time, before my ticket’s validity expired. After the tour, I had pretty good understanding of the layout of the city, though I never traveled out of the medina by foot.

After getting off at my usual stop at the Djemaa el Fna, I decided to walk through the souks and to the Musée de Marrakech. I never found the museum and didn’t think it was worth it to hire a guide. I was offered hashish several times though.

After that little walk and getting lost in the souks after thinking I knew where I was going, I made it back to the Djemaa el Fna with the aid of the Koutoubia mosque’s tall minaret. I decided to have lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the square. I was there for nearly two hours, I reckon. I had some chicken couscous with carrots and some sort of squash (I think). I took hundreds of photos from my seat, snapping shots of the snake charmers, monkeys, and henna tattooers. It was nice to get some photos without being hassled for money at street level.

Dinner at stall 114 on Wednesday was bittersweet. In the three days I had eaten there, me and my waiter Akheem had developed a rapport and I wished I had more days to try a variety of other Moroccan foods. After saying our goodbyes, I made by way over to the orange juice stands and sipped a glass among the locals. While on my way back to my riad for my last sleep in Morocco, I bought some Moroccan pastries I had first tried in Granada.

Thursday morning came too fast. I hastily ate breakfast and headed to the bus stop to catch the bus back to the airport to make my 1 o’clock flight back to Madrid. Everything went smoothly and I made it to Madrid’s Atocha train station with a couple hours to spare before taking the train back to Valencia, arriving back to my apartment at about midnight. My trip had been a success.

That’s one spring break I’ll always remember!

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Written by Jeff

April 18, 2009 at 7:12 am

St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin & Back to “Fallasland”

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Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day from Dublin, Ireland!!! (well actually I’m back in Valencia, but only about fifteen hours removed!)

Yesterday was a long day. Dublin’s parade was a two hour long extravaganza with several bands from the U.S., groups from around the world, and elaborate and colorful floats and flags. I even ended up next to a Dubliner, but I could hardly make out a word he said to me. I made it to the parade route about two and a half hours before show time, but where I was became a crossing zone, so the cops told me and those around me that it would be best to move. After waiting for a while in that location, it was a bit frustrating to have to move somewhere else, already four of five people deep. After the parade concluded it was near stampede as people tried to make there way out, as people just stood blocking the way out. If you don’t like people, a St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin might not be for you.

After the parade I made my way over to the area of the Guinness’ St James’s Gate Brewery. I stopped in a O’Brien’s for lunch (equivalent to a, maybe, a Subway in America, though they had them there too). Then I made my way over to the Guinness Storehouse, where they have a five or so story high tour of what makes Guinness Guinness. I had never tried it before, so I was a bit afraid the tour would be a waste of time if I didn’t wholeheartedly enjoy the free pint at the end of the tour. But I also figured it was something unique to Ireland, as much as the Blarney Stone or St. Patrick, so either way it would be worth it to check it out. And, since it was St. Paddy’s day, bands from the parade performed, there were free samples of Guinness (in addition to the free pint at the Gravity bar, overlooking Dublin) and samples of foods with ingredients including Guinness. I thought it would be a madhouse, but it wasn’t as bad as would be expected for Ireland’s national holiday. But it did seem like a madhouse in the store, when I was purchasing some pint glasses the woman next to me bought 230€ worth of stuff. Crazy woman. She must have been drunk.

I think I wrote Guinness about 4293 times in the above paragraph. Moving on…

So this morning I got up at 4:30 to catch the AirCoach bus to the airport. I nearly missed it since I was waiting at the stop directly in front of the hotel. The stop to get on to go the airport was about a block up the street. I made it though and, as you can see, made it to Madrid and Valencia without a hitch, unlike Saturday. I’m super paranoid about my passport now, so I was checking for it every five minutes. The woman at the RyanAir check in desk remembered me from Saturday. I guess I’m memorable when I run around like a chicken with its head cut off.

So Fallas seems to be in full swing here. Fireworks and firecrackers go off every few minutes. There’s a fireworks display tonight, or should I say tomorrow morning, at 1:30 AM. Maybe I’ll take an hourlong nap and check it out. Dublin drained me.

Tomorrow and early Friday morning is the big day and finale for Fallas. I’ve read that this year’s winning ninot (the structures that will be burnt tomorrow night) is the Nou Campanar falla, which, I’m guessing, is in the Nou Campanar neighborhood. The budget for its creation was 900,000€. Almost one million euros! Just to be burnt to the ground tomorrow night. Loco!

Ok, now for some photos from Dublin.

Click the link below to continue to view photos from Dublin on Saint Patrick’s Day.
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Written by Jeff

March 18, 2009 at 4:28 pm

On the Eve of St. Paddy’s Day

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I made it to Dublin yesterday (Sunday) after missing my flight after misplacing my passport in Madrid on Saturday, before the flight to Dublin. I still do not know when or how I lost it, but somehow it was found. It was an absentminded mistake that hopefully will never happen again. But it was also a miracle that it was found. I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to Dublin and would have needed to get a new passport and student visa. S*** happens, I guess.

Anyway, I arrived in Dublin on Sunday evening. I went out for a walk to the city center and found a Mexican restaurant for dinner. That was about the extent of my activities for Sunday.

Today, I bought a tour bus pass that allows riders and hop on and hop off to see different sights around Dublin. I checked out St. Stephen’s Green, which is a park near the city center. I also visited Phoenix Park where the largest obelisk in the European Union is located. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was also one of the stops I got off at. It was definitely interesting to see such an old cathedral. Supposedly the author of Gulliver’s Travels is buried there, but I missed anything regarding that.

Tomorrow’s the big day! St. Patrick’s Day!! The parade is at noon. I plan on making it to the Guinness Brewery for the Storehouse tour that I’ve already booked. I’m sure it will be a madhouse!

St Stephen's Green
St. Stephen’s Green

Click the link below to view some photos from today.
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Written by Jeff

March 16, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Mascletà Video

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Here is the video of Wednesday’s mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. Sorry for the shakiness, it can be a challenge to operate the photo camera and video camera at the same time.


Click here to view the video in HD

On to Dublin today! My flight out of Valencia to Madrid is at 3:35. I should get to Dublin by 9:30 (4:30PM EST) tonight. Posts and photos of Dublin to come soon!

Written by Jeff

March 14, 2009 at 2:50 am

Plane Tickets Purchased

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StudentUniverse.com finally came back alive this morning, after being offline since early Wednesday morning. I would recommend StudentUniverse if you’re a student and need plane tickets. They had the cheapest I could find. Since no flights were available (at least this morning) for Tuesday, January 6 from Washington to Madrid, I went with a flight taking off on Monday. All flights are on Iberia, the national airline of Spain.

My itinerary:

  • Washington DC to Chicago, leaving at 3pm
  • Chicago to Madrid, overnight
  • Madrid to Granada around noon, Central European Time

Don’t ask me why the flight goes from Washington to Chicago, then to Madrid. Why doesn’t the flight go from Chicago to Washington to Madrid? 

Since I’ll be arriving a day earlier than expected, I reserved a room at Hotel Carlos V in central Granada for Tuesday night.

The only thing I need now is my passport with my student visa. I dreamt last night that I was holding it in my hands. That dream needs to come true!

Written by Jeff

December 4, 2008 at 11:05 pm