Monday, 24 October 2016

Up some mountains and stalked by goats in Bulgaria

Hello there. I went to Bulgaria for 10 days at the beginning of October to do a bit of exploring and now I'm going to tell you what I found.

It was odd arriving in Sofia and getting on the metro system, only to see a poster for a snooker match between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Mark Selby but that's how the trip started. I found myself in a few places with snooker on the TV too, so there's a fact for you about modern Bulgarians: they like a bit of snooker.

Another fun Bulgaria fact is that if you go into a restaurant expecting attentive service with a smile, the majority of the time you ain't getting it. That's not to say waiters are grumpy exactly, but they just care less than you might expect and aren't so fussed about getting a tip. It's oddly refreshing in some way, and was the same in Romania when I went there six years ago.

A lot of people (including Bulgarians) asked me: "why did you choose Bulgaria for a holiday?" Most of the time I said something along the lines of I'd enjoyed Romania so thought I'd give Bulgaria a go or it was a cheap place to visit from the UK or I wanted to do some hiking in the mountains. All of which were true but it's also fun to go to a country where there's a bit of a challenge involved. Bulgaria doesn't have a big tourist industry so you've got to do things for yourself and hope you'll be able to find someone who speaks English at the bus station to point you in the right direction. Which you can, most of the time.

Anyway, enough jibber-jabber, onto the photos...

Sunset from the airplane, as I was flying to Bulgaria. Something Ryanair haven't figured out a way to charge extra for yet.

Rila Monastery was built in 927 AD so it's pretty damn old. I stayed there overnight before heading off into the mountains the next day and it was one of the most peaceful places I've ever stayed at. As you'd expect from a monastery built by a hermit, I guess. They close the gates at 8pm so you have to be done in the restaurant next door before then or the monks might not let you back in.

Luckily I didn't have to set off into the mountains alone but found a couple of  guys from Israel going the same way. Autumn was in full effect at the lower altitudes, as you can see here.

(Some of the photos have a time-stamp on them because I was trying out a new Olfi camera and didn't realise the time-stamp was turned on until it was too late...)

After a mostly ascending six-hour trek up Ivan Vazov, we came to the house we would be staying in for the night. I don't think I've ever stayed somewhere so remote. The only way they could get building materials there was by horse, coming up from the valley below. The menu there was concise - bean soup, bean soup or bean soup. When it snowed and clouded over the next day, visibility out the front door was about 10 metres.

Our shoes (and my socks) were a bit damp but soon warmed up next to the wood burning stove. We thought our six hours was pretty good going until a Kiwi named Scott arrived just before dark, having powered through in about 4.5 hours. Bloody show off. He joined us on the next leg of the trip the following day. 

We weren't sure if the weather was going to let us leave the house the next day but we wanted to get to the Seven Lakes, so off we went. There was still a fair bit of snow on the ground up there but it wasn't too cold as long as we kept moving. 

When we got near the top of a mountain pass it was pretty windy. Enough for the snow on this signpost to be frozen horizontally.

Oh yes, it's an eight-second video. Hit play and be transported to the Rila Mountains. Kind of.

The sight that awaited us when we came down out of the clouds to see the Seven lakes was incredible. Makes a long walk worthwhile.

Ofri, me and Itamal, celebrating reaching the Seven Lakes. You'll notice they look a lot better equipped for mountain hiking than me. That's because they were a lot better equipped. Big thanks to Ofri and Itamal for letting me join them for a couple of days and avoiding freezing in the mountains like Jack Nicholson in the hedge maze at the end of The Shining.

Striking a manly pose on top of a mountain is what I do best.

The day after the mountains, it was on to Koprivshtitsa, a small town but a crucial one in the April Uprising of 1876. You're all familiar with that uprising, I'm sure. In case you're not, it was the one when Bulgaria decided it had had enough of Ottoman rule and kicked off, with the help of Russia.

A Roman amphitheatre in the old town area of Plovdiv. Built in around 97 AD and still used today.  I liked Plovdiv, friendly place. After watching Bulgaria get hammered 4-1 by France in the football, I played table football with some locals and helped them drown their sporting sorrows.

I painting of Plovdiv that I liked in the city's art gallery. Not sure what drew me to it, maybe all the pretty colours. Probably wasn't meant to be taking photos in there but that's the kind of loose cannon, reckless, don't play by the rules, maverick I am.

A lion guards the gates of Tsarevets Fortess in Veliko Tarnovo, northern Bulgaria. This was the next destination after Plovdiv and was a cool little mountain town/city. The fortress was built in the 12th century and was the "tsars medieval stronghold" according to history-types.

A sign on the wall of Tsarverets Fortress. No sitting forwards, no sitting backwards and no ballerinas.

The day after the fortress I went on a hike to Arbanasi. Just a few hours this time and no snowy mountains involved. This photo was taken from a bridge that was roughly the starting point on the walk. Although it took me a while to figure that out because the signposting was a bit sparse. Ended up getting a bit lost and charged at by a massive junkyard dog which was luckily on a leash.

On the way to Arbanasi I got stalked by goats, as the title of this blog so intriguingly hints at. A herd of them decided to follow me. I was a bit worried that I would take them away from their shepherds so had to keep stopping, facing them and sort of waving my arms at them. Which made them stop following for a moment. Then I would turn my back and keep walking and they would follow again. It was a bit like a game of musical statues, but with goats.

Decent view of Veliko Tarnovo from the window of a pizza restaurant called Ego on the high street. The city is built around the Yantra River, which snakes around a bit so there are quite a few dramatic backdrops like this if you have a wander.

On my last night in Veliko Tarnovo I went to a bar called Melon Live Music Club with a couple of guys from the hostel I was staying in. I drank some pretty good beer, the name of which now eludes me, and watched some guys play jazz. Bulgarian jazz is much like English jazz, except you can't understand what they're saying between songs.

I used to love the sitcom Allo Allo when I was a kid, so it pleased me to discover a theatre was doing stage version of it in Sofia. Didn't get to see it, unfortunately, but did discover that the sitcom is a still-popular favourite in Bulgaria. 

Ivan Vazov Theatre in Sofia. Same name as the mountain I climbed, named after a popular Bulgarian poet, novelist and playwright.

An imposing looking statue of Tsar Samuil in Sofia. He ruled Bulgaria in the 10th century and at night the eyes of this statue glow in the dark, which is probably how all great leaders wish to be commemorated.

For the last couple of days of my trip, I was joined in Sofia by none other than Alastair aka The International Gentleman Traveller (IGT for short). Some say if there's a country he hasn't been to then it's probably not really a country at all. Either way, he was excellent company to end my holiday with and we went to a restaurant where there were things like 'Hooded Pheasant' and 'Rabbit killed with gun with expired shooting license' on the menu. I guess they were trying to be a bit whacky but the food was damn fine.

And that was Bulgaria.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Scotland: Hanging out in Cromarty and hiking Ben Nevis

This holiday came just a day after my trip to Seville. Now that may sound a bit flash but I had two weeks booked off work and decided to squeeze in two holidays. That doesn't really make it sound any less flash and neither will the photo below of Cromarty House, where we stayed. But I promise you I haven't become some kind of extravagant double holidaying, champagne swigging bastard. 

After five days of Spanish heat, I needed reminding what rain looked like and Scotland duly obliged. Not that it rained a lot, but the weather was definitely more Scottish than Spanish - as you might expect.

Cromarty is a small coastal town an hour's drive from Inverness, with a population of about 800. The pace of life is pretty relaxed and the average age of the population somewhere towards the greyer end of the scale. The coastal scenery and surrounding countryside is very pretty and there's a restaurant in the town called Sutor Creek (the only restaurant in the town) that has won all sorts of awards for its amazing food. 

But it wasn't all relaxing strolls around Cromarty, eating delicious things and generally taking it easy. Oh no. We rented a car, headed south and climbed Ben Nevis. And much like when I climbed Scafell Pike with Tom a few years ago, the weather was decent on ground level but very wet and very cold once you get about halfway up and disappear into the clouds. I expect the views from the top are amazing, but as you'll see from a couple of the photos, visibility was not so good. A wall of grey in every direction, so thick in some places that you just follow what you hope is the path in a straight line until you see the next marker for walkers. 

The next day, after a very solid night's sleep in an Airbnb in Gairlochy with an incredible Hollywood Boulevard style bathroom (should have taken a photo but didn't), we headed back to Cromarty via Loch Ness to see if we could spot the monster. No monster appeared but we did visit the Loch Ness Exhibition, which takes you through all the expeditions down the years to find Nessie and all the people who have supposedly caught a glimpse. Some were more convincing than others...

So, that was Scotland. You may look at the photos now.

Cromarty House. Quite big. Quite old. Very different to the hostels I'd been staying at in Spain.

The peacocks at Cromarty House seem to enjoy sitting on the window ledges outside. I don't know if this is normal peacock behaviour.

A trial was taking place in Cromarty Courthouse when I arrived. Turns out Harriet had been disturbing the peace outside the local pub after a wee dram too many.

Ever wondered what I'd look like delivering a church sermon? Like this.

The gate of East Church in Cromarty, the exterior of the church in the previous photo.

A fallen tree in the Fairy Glen, Rosemarkie, covered in rusting coins that have all been pushed into the soft damp wood over the years. It makes the log look like it has scales.

The Fairy Glen again with some waterfall action included in the shot.

Harriet took this photo from the shore of Cromarty. Not a bad sunset as they go. Probably better than any of my photos too, which is obviously quite annoying.

The view from the lower half of Ben Nevis before we disappeared into the clouds and there was no more view.

There was still snow on Ben Nevis in July, which we had to walk through. I'm gazing thoughtfully off into the distance, preparing to manfully pick my way through the rocks and ice. 

We reached the top! Didn't stop for long though as it was bloody freezing up there. Just long enough to eat some sandwiches and Jelly Babies.
On our way back down the Ben, with feeling returning to my fingers and the left side of my face after some frostier moments at the top.
A panorama of Loch Ness. No monster in sight.

BUT WAIT, WHAT IS THIS?!? Maybe the stories are true after all...
(Or a hotel on the loch has built a big fibreglass Nessie for the tourists, you decide.)
And a thistle because it's Scotland

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Five days in Andalucia: a tapas odyssey in Seville and Cadiz

A couple of years ago I joined an evening class to learn Spanish, in an attempt to learn a second language. The ability to speak a second, third or fourth language is something I've always been immensely impressed by and envious of in others.

However, I only managed a couple of months worth of lessons and then decided not to continue, fool that I am. Instead I started to use handy little apps like Duolingo. So, predictably, I still can't speak fluent Spanish but enough to get by, I reckon. Time to try it out with a tapas odyssey to Seville and Cadiz, in southwest Spain. Delicioso = delicious. Mas, por favor = more please. Easy, what more would I need?

The idea to visit Seville came along when I was writing an article about filming locations for Game of Thrones around Europe. Seville has one, called the Alcazar of Seville, which was the setting of Dorne, tropical-looking home of House Martell. An incredibly impressive palace and gardens dating from somewhere around the 12th century. But obviously even more significant now it's a Game of Thrones location.

Seville was a bit hot for an Englishman, it hit the high 30s while I was there. So it made sense to escape to the cooler coastal town of Cadiz for a few days in the middle of the trip. Hit the beach, amble round the town, eat tapas, check out cool old historical buildings and generally do whatever I felt like doing. Oh, and occasionally apologise to European people for my country and that whole EU referendum thing. 

On to the photos then...

One of the most impressive areas of the Alcazar. It's got a shallow pool running through the middle of the courtyard.
An underground cellar in the Alcazar gardens, which stays cool even when it's hot outside. Handy considering it was really bloody hot. 

Big fountain statue of Neptune in the gardens of the Alcazar.

An artist paints the scene in the Alcazar's meticulously kept gardens

It's me in the gardens of the Alcazar. And for comparison, below is Jamie Lannister in a similar location. 
"Come on back to King's Landing with me, where nothing bad ever happens because your mum is definitely not psychotic" (or something like that).
The Metropol Parasol in the middle of Seville's shopping district. Big curvy wooden structure that looks out over the city. Great views up there and a free glass of  sangria flavoured lemonade in a cafe at the top included in the ticket price. Can't sniff at that.
Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de CaballerĂ­a de Sevilla aka Seville's bullring. Now, I am definitely not endorsing bullfighting. It is pointless and barbaric. But the bullring is still an impressive building.

A panorama of the bullring interior
Again, not endorsing bullfighting but it's got a lot of history. The most successful matadors are local legends. It's a rare occurrence, but every now and then a bull is deemed to have fought so well it can live out the rest of its life in a field and be used for breeding. 
One of the larger town squares in Cadiz at night, with multicoloured fountain in the foreground.

Cadiz Cathedral at night

Went to see some flamenco in Cadiz. Intimate (sweaty) little venue by the sea, but this guitarist and singer had the crowd enraptured by their moving music. 

Simple, delicious tapas. So much of this in Spain that I had to crack and take a food photo eventually. 

View over Cadiz from the top of Cadiz Cathedral

Mad looking old tree near the northern tip of Cadiz

The faded grandeur of a large wooden door in Cadiz with bunting hanging next to it

My incredibly successful (or completely inept) first attempt at sandboarding. Like snowboarding, but on sand. I can't do either. No balance, you see. All limbs.

Bolonia beach, a couple of hours south of Cadiz

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral
Massive gold alter in Seville Cathedral. They like their shiny gold things, those Catholics
View from somewhere up the Giralda, a big tower that's part of Seville Cathedral.

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia and one of the rubbish Star Wars prequels that we don't like to talk about.

So, there you go, Seville and Cadiz. To anyone thinking of a trip to Seville, I'd recommend avoiding the stifling heat of the summer months and go during spring/autumn. Cadiz is probably good all year round and is a bit more relaxed than Seville.