Madeira is a beautiful island and, even if we went during the summer, I understand that it is even more beautiful during spring, when flowers bloom. Yet if you want to have fun, you must avoid the tourist traps with overinflated prices and know how the island is structured.

What is Madeira

  But first things first: Madeira is a Portuguese island, even when it is clearly closer to Africa than Europe (latitude a bit under Casablanca and above Marrakesh). Like the Azores, its archipelago is an autonomous region, which means it kind of has its own local government, complete with a president, even if still part of Portugal and the European Union. Tourism is by far its greatest source of income (more than 70%) even if at the beginning of its history it provided sugar for most of the world and was also a vibrant place of commerce via ships and funded much of the Portuguese exploration and expansion era.

  As a volcanic island, it's about 800 km2, but its highest elevation is 1861m. And while at a pretty southern latitude, it is surrounded by water, which gives it a distinct climate. Water evaporates around the island, then condenses on the slopes of its surface as a light mist. Rain is relatively rare, but the island has a lot of water through this system. Touristically, this has relevance as the locals have constructed kilometers of tiny cement canals to distribute the water falling down the slopes towards farmlands. Next to these there are paths that can be hiked at low slopes and under the forest shade.  Shade is important, because while the climate is mild, rarely going above 30°C, the sun is relentless, so don't forget your hats and your solar protection.

  The capital of the island is Funchal, home of a little more than a hundred thousand people. Considering the entire island population is a quarter of a million, you can see why most hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and beautiful buildings are there. This is also, I want to say, the least interesting part of the island. In about two or three days you can visit almost everything in the city proper, add one for things farther away like some gardens you can reach using cable cars and stuff like that, and you don't need more than four days. The rest of the island, though, has a lot of beautiful scenery, strange and different little villages, authentic housing, history and is generally more interesting. There is a caveat, though.

Take care

  The roads in Madeira, even if new, very well done and paid for by the European Union, with kilometers long tunnels and good asphalt, are convoluted and very steep. It would be a terrible mistake, in my opinion, to come to the island and rent a car. There are roads where you can't use the break or your car starts to tumble. They are also not very wide, meaning that you have to know the unwritten driving protocol on the island and sometimes have to stop and go in reverse in a curved road that is 45 degrees steep. Luckily, there are a lot of buses you can take, even if they have pretty short schedules (around 18:00 you must start considering taxis or Bolt). BTW, Uber doesn't work in Madeira, so you need to install Bolt, which has the usual "car sharing" service, but also integrates with local taxi cabs. Also, how could you properly enjoy the landscape if in constant fear for your life?

  Don't buy tickets for the Hop on/Hop off buses, as they come rarely (45 minutes to an hour) and their schedule ends at 18:00. The drivers also take lunch breaks, so the gap between getting off and getting back on again is two hours at that time. Local buses might look more daunting, but they are just as good and you can pay when you get in. Mind that they are also rare and you should pay attention to their arrival schedule, but there are a lot more lines.

  Also, while I have not taken the opportunity to see how it is, sea tours (like whale and dolphin watching) might not be as good as you think. Boats are not allowed to go closer than 50m from the animals and the best experience, I am told, is to get on the Zodiac boats with a lot of people for that. I don't know about you, but bobbing up and down at speed in an air filled plastic boat doesn't sound fun. Trips to the neighboring islands, which I hear are beautiful, are also three hours long, so prepare to either stay the night or spend six hours in total just going back and forth. But if you like the sea, all of these might be worth it.

  Last warning is about the tourist traps. Funchal is basically a big tourist trap, where all the prices are at least twice as expensive as for the rest of the island. But even if you go to neighboring towns, there are the visible places people go to and then there are the places where the locals go to. The problem is not so much the price as is the inauthentic experience. You don't want to spend the time and resources to go to Madeira just to get the same experience you would get in any other city in the world, including the one you left from.

The trip

  In order to get to the island, we took a charter plane as part of a touristic agency plan. There was no other direct plane from my city of Bucharest to Madeira and I suspect most travel there is being monopolized by deals between tour agencies and local hotels and airport. However, even if you don't have a lot of choice on where to stay, you don't have to follow the plan that the agency has for you when you get there, so we made our own plans.

  The hotel we were stationed at was Four View Baía (pronounced Bah-ee-ah), which was a decent building with 11 floors, an outdoor pool and a spa complete with an indoor heated pool and sauna, and a pretty good view, too, as you got to see most of Funchal and the ocean, but next to busy noisy streets as well. The most valuable quality of the hotel is that it's 16+, so no kids at meals or in the pool, no noise during the night, etc. However the service was stupidly bad, with a restaurant that offered buffet meals, but would have the cheapest food that didn't even seem local and the lowest paid workforce, if you take into consideration how unprofessional many of them were. They didn't seem local either, BTW. The air conditioner, for example, looked centrally controlled even if you could set up your desired temperature. The result of turning it on, though, was just cold air at 16°C that would never stop. So our feeling was that it was a good hotel with shitty management. Good overall quality spoiled by inattention to detail and no care for the customer experience.

  This could be explained by the Covid pandemic, though. When Covid struck, the entire island realized how dependent they were on tourism. I suppose the smaller businesses quickly collapsed, leaving just the big corporate chains with their unique mentality on cost reduction. But I may be wrong. Four Views hotels might just be bad in general.

  I had the expectation to go to Madeira and eat fish and sea food the entire duration. It was amazing to me that most places didn't serve sea food that much and if they did, it was expensive and the diversity of the offer was pretty low, even in places outside Funchal. We haven't been to many restaurants, though, so we might just have been unlucky. Also, most of the "traditional" food they have in Madeira is really bland, which is surprising considering how much spice the Portuguese were transporting through the island. My recommendation towards the food is to go to the market, buy some chili and keep it with you at all times. Mustard, too, if you can.

  We spent the first two days walking around, which has the level of difficulty of your choice depending on whether you walk around the ocean side, which is flat, or you go towards the center, which is really steep. We took the cable car to two large gardens, there were two of them, one the Botanical Garden and the other Monte Palace Tropical. We went to Monte Palace first, which was wonderful, with two small museums inside - African sculpture and Geological - and a beautiful and carefully cared for garden, tiles, Asian motifs and more. Only then we went to the botanical one, only to find that is was smaller and much less tended for. It was almost a disappointment, even if it had more types of plant life there. Personally, I thought Monte Palace Tropical garden was a lot more beautiful. Coming back we walked, which was funny as we took a 40 degree slope downwards on a street for an hour or so. Hint: cut your toenails before going to Madeira. Tried to find the street on Google Maps, but apparently not even they are adventurous enough to map it in Street View.

  Second day we took the Hop-on bus to a nearby fisherman town called Câmara de Lobos. I liked it there a lot, as it has a big street filled with bars and restaurants, where they do serve local food and the local cocktails. The Poncha (pronounced Ponsha) was originally a combination of rum agricol (traditionally made by steaming sugar cane, not like the industrial rum which is most common today outside Madeira), lemon juice and sugar rubbed lemon zest. It tastes a bit like a gimlet and you find it under the name Pescador Poncha. However, the modern variation of the cocktail (called Traditional Poncha for some reason) is a combination of orange juice, rum agricol and honey. I do believe this one is the better version, as the tastes of orange, rum and honey mix very well together without covering each other up. Anyway, any combination of sugar, citrus juice and rum is a poncha and you can find many variants on the island. Note that there are bars and then there are poncha bars. The cocktail needs to be made fresh, don't get the bottles for tourists. The English word "punch" has the same etymological roots.

  The next two days we had hired a local guide. I have to tell you that this was the best decision we made there (perhaps the second best, next to the one to not rent a car!). Not only did we skip the group tours organized by the tourist agency, but we also looked for a guide that would take only us around - there are others that do a similar thing, but with convoys of cars. We stumbled upon Go Local, run by Valdemar Andrade, who comes to your hotel in his trusty Nissan 4x4 and takes you to see Madeira in ways that only locals see it, then brings you back. I am talking various villages, some so isolated that they have rare contact with anybody, forest roads that no one knows about, restaurants and bars that give you the authentic Madeiran experience, volcanic black sand beaches, mountain top walks and so much more. Valdemar is also a very fun conversationalist, boasting immense pride in his island and knowledgeable about all aspects of Madeira, starting with history, politics, geography, flora and fauna, economy and ending with any small detail you can think of. It was great fun to visit the island from the open roof car, just the way I like it: long trips with a lot of nature, without any effort on my part :) If you decide to go, I warmly recommend him.

  The fifth day we went on a hike next to one of these artificial water gathering channels called levadas. Recommended by Val, I think it may have been the best of them all: Ribeiro Frio - Portela - Levada do Furado (PR10). We looked for another one next day and didn't find any that were as long, beautiful or conveniently placed as it - relative to our hotel, of course. Imagine an 11km hike on a more or less flat path that goes around an entire mountain, under the shade of trees, with the cool of the water in the channel making it as pleasant a temperature as possible, with almost no annoying insects and with mountain vistas that take the breath away. We got there by Bolt and we returned from the other end with a local bus.

  The last full day we went to the Blandy's wine tour, which is a Madeiran wine company tour on how the wine is made and bottled and which gives you the option to buy wine at a discount then grab it at the airport duty-free shop, which I found very convenient. The tour was nice, too, with a very pleasant guide explaining everything. Madeiran wine is a fortified wine, where strong alcohol is added to stop fermentation rather than wait until fermentation naturally reaches that level. It also has unique properties because of the preparation process, which emulates the effects of months long trips on the sea with wine barrels indirectly heated by the sun. It has a very interesting taste that I enjoyed, with intense flavors given by the wood in the barrels and reminding me a bit of Asian rice wines.

  Then we went to the old city, a place of small streets filled with restaurants, but really trappy. Then we walked the ocean side in Funchal and the nearby beach after going there by Hop-on bus - the island doesn't have a lot of beaches, which I believe is a good thing.

  There are a lot of details that I've left out, like the flight or the outdoor pool experience under the Madeiran sun and feeling the breeze, the Portuguese obsession with the sh sound (as in Poncha, Lobos, Seixal, etc.), the laws that prohibit logging or building above the 800m height, which I believe is amazing and should be perhaps implemented in some areas of my country as well or how the local (rather feudal) politics make access to the island by ferry difficult and so stealing on the island is almost non existent (where would you go with the stuff?), or the invasive species like the tobacco tree or eucalyptus which are in constant battle with the native flora and so on. Ask me if you want any specifics.

  What I loved most about Madeira was the landscape and flora. Beautiful trees and flowers, pristine mountain slopes and, in the constructed areas, a common building style that didn't grate the eye. I also had the feeling that this might change in the future. I hope Madeira stays like this, but I feel like private interests are slowly but surely eroding the local culture and legislation. While we were there, there was construction everywhere, four large cranes visible from our hotel room alone.

  More pictures

and has 0 comments
I've just returned from a holiday spent in the lovely Bulgarian town called Obzor. At least other people say it's lovely, I thought it was full of them (people, I mean) which would explain both their assessment and mine. Anyway, my wife and I stayed at this hotel called The Cliff and spent 8 days together celebrating her birthday and 10 years of marriage. Happy birthday, love! These are my impressions of the journey.

First we had to get there and there are two major routes from Bucharest to Obzor: through Ruse and across Bulgaria and through Durankulak, after driving on the newly constructed A2 highway in Romania (the digit two coming from the fact that we only have two highways at the moment and this is the second). We went via Ruse and returned on the highway, with similar time results and positive feelings. The GPS did it again and chose a more scenic route running through small villages like, for example, Sindel. I shouted "Fatality!" when we exited the village, to my wife's dismay. Even so, it was a good quality road, which in Romania you rarely see in small rural areas and we enjoyed the wilderness.

Ok, we got there. The Cliff hotel is located just outside Obzor and is a four star hotel. That means... at the moment I have no idea what it means, I just assumed it would be way better than a three star hotel, but it appears it is about the same, only with a pool and a lot more expensive. Actually, I want to spend some time discussing The Cliff. It is one of those hotels that have so much potential and yet the experience is being spoiled by little details which I suspect are the fault of greedy little owners not understanding that they are serving people, that's their job, not just owning stuff and getting richer.

About The Cliff hotel in Obzor, BulgariaThe hotel is situated on a cliff (surprise!) and is in fact a complex of buildings having a system of interconnected pools at the center. The buildings are nice and the pool almost great. Imagine this medium sized pool that has between 1.3 and 1.7 meters in depth, that connects to a smaller one via a jumping point which doubles as a waterfall. Then a small canal takes the water to an even smaller pool, designed for small children. Somewhere in the middle of the meandering canal there is a small jacuzzi. This pool alone and the way it looked make The Cliff a beautiful hotel. One can get to a rather isolated part of the beach via a long set of stairs or by going with the car in Obzor. A taxi can be employed, charging the enormous sum of 10 leva for a 2-3km run, or one could walk the same way.

The beach is one of those great fine sand beaches, only there are some unexpected rocks further into the water. This freaked me out a little, as I was starting to swim and I found myself hugging a gigantic boulder. The rock was covered with algae, not with razor sharp shells, so it was more of a psychological shock. I suppose that makes that part of the beach so remote and isolated. We didn't even try the commercial part of the beach because of all the people, the noise and the fact that we had a perfectly fine chlorinated pool inside the hotel! I didn't have to suffer floating garbage, stinging eyes or the smell of decaying algae and seashells, which other people find so endearing. I don't know about that, wouldn't the same effect be obtained with a bit of garbage in a salt shaker? But returning to the subject of the beach, can you imagine that 10-20m from the edge of the sea, the depth was still around my waist?

So, The Cliff is a beautiful hotel, isolated, with few people and a great pool. What could possibly go wrong? Everything else, of course.

The staff had almost no knowledge of English or Romanian, except maybe some of the folks at the reception. Even so, the others were morose unhappy people that kind of drifted, like some ghosts from The Shining. The reservation included free breakfast and my wife tried to drink the coffee, only to notice it was instant coffee. She asked for an espresso and was told she had to go to the bar and buy one.

Nobody can stand between my wife and her coffee! Civilisations rise and fall when she gets angry. I am an engineer, I can easily find what is the weakest point in a system and make it break, but she is the destroyer of worlds! She is like a cute sexy Dalek. She exterminates anything standing in the way of her daily coffee.

Also the prices from the restaurant were impossible for the quality of the food. I had to pay 25 leva for 5 shrimps in a plate. For the same amount of money I get a full platter of all kind of seafood at the Regina Maria hotel in Balchik, around 80 kilometres above Obzor. (BTW, I can't recommend that hotel enough, also four stars, but one feels good there).

The room had a TV, an old AllView with only 20 total channels that showed anything 10 seconds after you turned it on. That's OK, since we could only get 15 channels anyway with only BBC World in English and the rest in Bulgarian. Two of those were music televisions, but one had horrible audio and both had horrible music. Seriously, Romanian music television is no bastion of good taste, but that was utter crap. There was wireless Internet, only it only worked when not many people were using it and was slow as hell when it did work. We had air conditioning, but the windows could not open, just the main balcony door. There was easy access from other balconies and even from the hotel stair to our balcony so, in the interest of personal security, we had to choose between torpid fresh air and insects and no security or cool air conditioned stale air in a little safe cocoon. The bath was big and had these retro looking finishes, only they went too far. The bath curtain bar was rusted and stained all towels placed on it and the shower head was like a gardening implement with small pressured water jets that hurt rather than cleaned. The insect repellent smell of the bath went away in about three days.

The hotel also had a spa. That included massages with expensive cosmetics, colon cleansing, sauna, etc. The prices were huge, though. Imagine that you had to pay 80 leva for an hour of massage. What bothered me even more is that, after two days, a "promotional" price list was left under our door. They took 25% off some of the procedures. So if you are stupid enough to pay from the first two days, no promotion for you. So you go to a hotel with spa, you pay 80 euros a double room per day and then they tell you the prices are different for any spa procedure so they don't offer you any in the price of the room.

Now, all the hotels have those little annoying cards that double as keys. You have to place them in a slot in order to have electric current. So you can't charge your devices or leave the air conditioning on while you go to sun tan next to the pool. Unless you have a different, similarly shaped card, which I had, the only possible use for those spammy fidelity cards you get at various medical or shopping facilities. But that's like a general rule when going on holiday: always have a standard shaped card to leave in the electric current slot in the hotel.

To summarize: if they bought a little more Internet bandwidth, paid for satellite TV and upgraded the TVs in the room, made some sort of window that you can open without letting everyone in and, above all, didn't think to rip you off at every opportunity, the hotel would have been great! Instead, it felt like a below average overpriced tourist trap.

We also had an unexpected surprise from them. You see, in order to book a room there, you authorize them to take half of the staying sum from your account. For all practical purposes you pay that sum. You then go to the hotel and pay the rest of the sum. Then, they take the sum you authorized them to take when making the reservation, then the rest of the sum, then they "unblock" the authorized sum when you leave the hotel. That means you pay 1.5 times the actual sum until the original half is returned to you. We left on Sunday, and we were kind of... disconcerted... when we noticed a negative balance on our purely debit card. So take that into account (sorry for the pun).

Getting back. A few hundred meters below The Cliff there is the yooBulgaria resort. One could probably go over the Net, find this hotel and choose it, just like we did with The Cliff, to spend their holidays. We went there. It looked nice, but the entire hotel was surrounded by abandoned buildings, victims of the economic crisis in times of great investment in the tourism business in Bulgaria. Seriously, it looked like the hotel was the lucky building that survived a full aerial bombardment of the entire zone. I am talking about empty concrete scaffolds with graffiti on them. Horror movies and parkour videos could be made there.

The town of Obzor was actually a village till 1984. Then it was promoted and then the Communist era ended and the tourism took hold. As a result it is a combination of greedy tourist corporations, small family owned businesses and a tourism oriented management.

We searched the Internet on the best restaurants there and we found: "Starata Kushta", recommended by three different sites that had the same text in them. We couldn't find this restaurant and so we went to recommendation number two: the Tania restaurant. It is a nice little thing, but rather expensive. The guy recommended the pizza there; he probably never went to Romania. Their pizza is mediocre at best. Try the fish things, but do not, under any circumstances, ask for sauces. They are horrible. Then we tried our luck with what was there (and this is my recommendation for anyone visiting Obzor: try your luck, eventually you will find something you will like) and found Morska Perla, or the Sea Pearl. There was this deliciously looking waitress there. We were, of course, served by the old ugly one that didn't know English. The fish was OK, the prices reasonable, but they had this apricot brandy that was really something. We also tried Dionisi, right next to Tania. The pizza in Tania was about 14 leva and rather small. The one at Dionisi was the same size and 4.5 leva. Unfortunately you paid for what you got: pizza from supermarket dough and some cheap stuff sprinkled over. The spaghetti were floating in oil.

The last restaurant I want to mention was almost great: it's called Rai (Heaven) and it is also located around Tania, about 500 meters from it. They have this Rai Calamari dish that has 500 grams and costs 27 leva. I thought it sounded OK, but I really expected some piece of fried cephalopod and instead got a squid filled with a mix of onions, oyster and small shrimp and served with four jumbo shrimps. So, even if the menu didn't advertise it (bad for them) the dish was actually a seafood plateau, something I had been searching for unsuccessfully in Obzor and went up to Balchik to have at Regina Maria (did I mention the hotel and the restaurant are great? They have sushi!)

The only problem with Obzor restaurants and bars is that they don't have dark beer. None of them! I also asked for lemonade and none of them had any! It's water with lemon and something sweet, for crying out loud... I drank a lot of Grozdova Rakia (grape brandy), a Bulgarian speciality, and Kamenitsa, their beer.

That's about it. We visited close by Nesebar, which is nice, but filled with tourists. There was a cool restaurant there, called Hemingway. Not in any way connected to the writer, but good food. We never got to Burgas and we only passed through Varna a few times. Bottom line: Obzor is a nice see side town, but I wouldn't want to be housed in that cacophony of noises, music and smells. The Cliff was a good option, remote as it was, although the sounds from Obzor occasionally made their way there, as well, but it had its flaws.

Who needs time consuming trips to other countries when you can have it all here, on Siderite's blog, embedded in a blog post? Of course, if you would like the real deal (Hmpf!) don't hesitate to contact me. I can guarantee very good prices and the total trustworthiness of the people there. (Both Silverlight and Photosynth have been somewhat discontinued since the time I wrote this)

You can('t) access the same Photosynth by clicking on this link: Villa in Kyparissi, Greece on Photosynth.

Now, before you start thinking I've gone into tourism marketing, let me explain the technology, what is Photosynth and how to use it.

Photosynth is a Microsoft Research baby and one of the things that they should be terribly proud of, even if not many people have heard of it. I blame this on bad marketing and the stubbornness on using Silverlight only. If you are to read the Wikipedia article, the technology works in two steps. The first step is photo analysis with an algorithm similar to Scale-invariant feature transform for feature extraction. By analyzing subtle differences in the relationships between the features (angle, distance, etc.), the program identifies the 3D position of each feature, as well as the position and angle at which each photograph was taken. This process is known scientifically as Bundle adjustment. You can see it in action if you go to the villa and chose to see the point cloud. The second step is, obviously, navigating the data through the Photosynth viewer.

Now, how does one use it? Surprisingly simple. First take a bunch of photos that overlap themselves. You can use multiple cameras, multiple view angles and times of day, which of course does complicate matters, but the algorithm should be able to run smoothly. Then download the Photosynth software from their site (make sure you have an account there as well) and feed the photos to it. Wait a while (depending on how many photos and their quality) and you are done. I especially liked the option to find the place in the synth on Bing maps and select the angle of one picture in order for it to determine the real location of the objects in the photos. It will also use geographic information embedded in the pictures, if available.

There are, of course, problems. One of the major ones is that it is all done through the Photosynth site. You cannot save it on your HDD and explore it offline. Also, it is not possible to refine the synthing process manually. If your pictures are not good enough, that's it. You will notice, for example, that none of the images rotated to 90 degrees were joined to any others or that there is no correlation between the images of the house outside and those inside. One cannot remove or block pictures in the synth, either. Being all closely connected to the Silverlight viewer also reduces the visibility of the product to the outside world even if, let's face it, I have edited the Photosynth by adding highlights and geographic position and I have navigated it all in the Chrome browser, not Internet Explorer, so if you refuse to install Silverlight to see it, it's a personal problem.

I hope I have opened your eyes to this very nice and free technology and if you are interested in a vacation to the place, just leave me a message on the chat or in a comment. If you have read to this point, you also get a 10% discount, courtesy of yours truly :)

and has 2 comments

This blog post was a long time coming, but I was pretty busy and didn't have the time its writing deserved. My company was invited to a team building weekend in Berlin by our Dutch partner and so I went there last Thursday for about four days. Here are my impressions.

The first feeling that I got coming from the airport by bus was that Berlin is a real city. Not some bullshit tourist attraction, but a place where people live, work and have fun. The combination of factories in the periphery and the new and old styles of the buildings was very pleasing to my eyes. I was, however, convinced that we are at the very edge of the German capital city and so that explained both the "realness" and the small number of people and cars that I was seeing. I was quite a bit shocked to reach the hotel and having the feeling still firmly rooted in my psyche. The hotel, Berlin, Berlin, was somewhere in the southwest of the city, but as close to the center as to the outskirts. Where were the people, the cars, the chaos, the multitudes of banks and pharmacies, the angry honking, the infernal traffic and the tall buildings one comes to expect in a modern city?

Well, it appears that is something rare in Berlin, be it the East or the West side of it. A lot of people use bikes, on lanes that are both on the sidewalk and the car side, there are amazingly few cars and people don't seem to get angry very often. I heard only three honks my entire stay there. The streets are also pretty empty, be it weekend or work day, however the restaurants and public transportation stay active even beyond midnight. It is more of a cultural city, than an industrial one, but I still liked it :)

The buildings are rarely very tall, if one excludes the TV tower, the 200 meter construction that was supposed to show to the West the great technical skill of Eastern engineers. Since Berlin is built on a former marsh (hence the name, which comes from a Slavic word for swamp, not from the bear mascot of the city, which itself comes from Albert the Bear, member of House of Ascania) it might be the reason why Berlin has expanded more horizontally than vertically. It might explain also why the great communist engineers needed to secretly employ Swedish techs to help them out with the TV tower.

As I said, the bars and restaurants (of all nationalities and flavours) are open till very late. Some are a bit expensive (like 4 euro the cheapest beer and 8 euros for a cocktail in a bar we went to in the first evening) some are too cheap, like the Japanese sushi which is more expensive in Bucharest or a Turkish kebab that I took for 3 euros when exiting the above bar. When we left the bar they didn't have beer on tap anymore, we drank it all, and not because of huge excesses. So I asked the owner: "Are you kidding me? A bar in Germany without beer?". The poor guy glared at me for a second they retorted "We are not in Munich, we are in Berlin". It seems the capital of the country is not really characteristic for the whole of Germany. It makes me cringe in horror to wonder if people outside Romania judge the country based on anecdotal stories of provincial attitudes. Ouch!

You have to understand, there are a lot of Romanians who like to bash their own country, to dream of greener pastures right beyond the border or consider everything in Romania shit. I am not one of those people, I like being Romanian and I enjoy living in Bucharest, but frankly, after going to Berlin, I think I would enjoy living there more!

Also, it was a bit shocking for us to see that, after a certain hour, every street became adorned with young women dressed provocatively. Most of them were really hot, although the quality fluctuated wildly. It was amazing to see police cars passing by and ignoring the working girls. We noticed three especially beautiful girls and one of our group went to say hello, so they answered... in Romanian. Is it any wonder that I like living in Bucharest? :)

Anyway, speaking of girls, there were the rare cases of tall blue eyed blond German girls in the city (although one wonders if not every one of them was actually Polish or something), but the vast majority of women there are either immigrants or plain (to use a polite euphemism). What I found especially weird is that younger girls seemed to be fatter than the older ones. If my eyes got drawn by an attractive figure, it was immediately revealed that the person in question was above forty... or Asian.

People in Berlin understood English mostly, although there was a large portion of the serving staff that struggled with it. TV was voice dubbed in German on every channel, so I didn't find it surprising. Amazingly, I understood quite a lot of the language; I was afraid that my TV knowledge of German had vanished from my brain just as Bulgarian did, so I was pleasantly surprised by this.

There was a lot of sight seeing and history lessons from our guides. We went on a bicycle ride with an American woman with Asian roots in her genealogy and it was a bit ironic to get the explanations about Berlin's history from her. But she was cool. If you want history, just go on Wikipedia, though. Enough said, during war or occupation, Germans, English, French, Russians or Americans behaved in the same way: ugly, petty, disregarding the qualities we call "humanity" completely, ridiculously accusing each other of evil while perpetrating the exact same acts on all sides.

No pictures, as I did not bring my photo camera with me. I might use some from my colleagues, but I don't think pictures could do justice to the feeling of peace I got in the city of Berlin. I really liked it.

and has 0 comments

It wasn't a very memorable trip, but I had to write this because of the Bohemi hotel in Arbanasi, which must most certainly be avoided. And it was, overall, a nice holiday. But let me take it from the beginning.

We took the car starting up from Bucharest and went towards Veliko Tarnovo. We passed through Basarbovo, to visit the rock monastery there. Very nice place, if you like churches. They have these small rock dug rooms where priests used to live and pray and then the monastery which was in renovation when we came there, but had a very lovely garden.

We then moved towards Cherven, where we visited the castle dig which is archaeologically active. It is a large XIV century Christian fortress, where one can see how people lived in the day: small one room living quarters and then a gazillion churches, large and small, then some administrative buildings and some defence walls and watch towers. There are about 200 stair steps to reach the castle from where the car road ends.

Next was Ivanovo. Some other rock monasteries, but everything set inside a natural reserve, a very beautiful place.

Then we went towards Arbanasi, a touristic area where there are a lot of hotels and where we arranged for accomodations. The hotel we chose was a three star hotel called Bohemi, boasting internet, minibars, outdoor oven, breakfast, etc, depending on the tourist site you search for it. Let me tell you how it really is: it's a two star hotel with smelly rooms, no parking, invaded by insects and spiders (and a scorpion which scared the craop out of my wife), no internet, no minibars, with a breakfast as the ones from the communist era: some bread and butter and jam and some salami/cheese slices. The hotel itself is one of many owned by the same people, so the person serving there is only an employee, put there to mind the place. In the room, after we got used with the stale odor of moist walls, we noticed that we has not enough sheets and two out of four light bulbs were not functioning. Really, I can't stress enough: 35 euros per night?! In times of economic crisis and with this kind of service? Avoid!

Arbanasi itself is not a bad place to stay, eat, sleep, and then back again. It would have killed me with boredom if I didn't have a car. They have a monastery there, but by then I got tired of any type of religious building. The restaurants where very nice, but service was consistently bad. I haven't seen dumber waiters in quite a while.

Veliko Tarnovo is a large city, once the capital of the second Bulgarian empire.

The stronghold there is a very nice place, where they don't allow sale people and where people can see theater and sound/light shows in the evening. Very large, beautiful and accomodating. Then there are some monuments and some nice streets.
The city itself is pretty cool. Lots of churches, of course :) I am sure that, being with my parents, I missed a lot of the hidden beauty of the town, but it was nice nonetheless.

That was about it. Take the links to get more information. My general opinion of Bulgaria is that it is a nice country, beatiful and wild, but rather poor. All the small towns and villages we passed through looked half abandoned, with many disaffected buildings and very few people. The economic crisis must have hit them pretty hard, too.

and has 0 comments

We intended to go to Thang Long, the Vietnamese restaurant, but so it happends that it was closed. On the same street there was this large, Indian looking (elephants and all), restaurant: Karishma. It looked too flashy, that being the reason why I usually suppressed my curiosity of going in there, but that day I felt curious enough.

As it turns out, it is the real deal: good food at reasonably high prices, real Indians running the shop, even serving the food, and nice people (at least with their customers), beautiful interior. Four people ate enough with 215 lei, that is about 60 euros or 84 USD. We tried the lassi drinks (yoghurt with mango or with cumin and salt), the masala tea (black tea, ginger and cardammon with lots of milk and sugar) and saucy meat foods. We could choose the level of spicyness, I asked for very spicy and it was heaven. My table mates called it poison and stuck to their own meals.

All in all, I highly recommend it. Here is the address and contact information:

Karishma restaurant
Address: Iancu Capitan 36, Bucharest,
Phone: 0040-21-252.51.57

In the blog posts about my trip to Greece I placed some of the pictures taken, but mostly stuff pertaining to the place we were in and the paragraph before. Here are other pictures that have no special meaning other than that I like how they turned out.

Ok, what's done is done, Maria wanted to spend more time with her sister and we both got tired of Kyparissi, so we went back to Sparti. This time we went alone, having gotten directions on how to get there. The GPS was useless, since it had no maps of that area whatsoever. I did pin the house on the map, though, so I knew the general direction.

Back towards Sparti, Greece (5)

Of course, we got a little lost. We entered a town we did not know the name of and we found ourselves on a road to Monevasia. We have been to Monevasia, it was in the south, we wanted to go a little north. What should we do? I pointed out to Maria that the road to Monevasia probably meets another one that comes from Sparti, using her own words from the experience with Kulata and Sofia. Of course, now that the same words of wisdom came from my mouth, she decided to turn back. We again entered the nameless village and we noticed a sign towards Sparti (fixed on a wall, so you can only see it when coming from the other direction) so we took that road. We've had the inspiration to stop next to a guy and ask if that was the road to Sparti. No, of course not, it's the other one! (the one from which we came from).

Sparti, Greece (6)

Finally we got back on track and reached Sparti and the small village next to it where Maria's sister lived. We stayed there a few days, during which the girls either spent talking to each other (and dragging me into it as much as they could, while I was trying to read the boring books I brought with me) or my sister in law spent at work and me and Maria sight seeing.

We first went in the city of Sparti to visit "Ancient Sparti". It was a big sign that directed us to it. It was a bloody park, a small one at that. Just a few stone looking modern roads, olive trees (of course), and some ruins, partly escavated and surrounded by do-not-cross tape. There were people that had parked their cars there, even their RVs! There was a modern contraption in the middle of it, something like a concrete electrical thing or maybe a janitor house, I don't know, full of graffiti. The only good thing that came out of this was a great view from above of the town of Sparti.

When we came back we took the car through the orange orchard from the back of the house and we found a goblin tree! Heh, just look at the picture, you will see what I mean.

Trip to Kalamata, Greece (7)

After that we decided to go to Kalamata, which is a rather large city in the south, taking first a mountain road that would take us directly, then return on a path that would follow the seaside and go around the mountain. It was a very nice trip. The mountain road felt like normal country for once, with actual green, non olive, trees and even rain! The towns on the edge of the sea were all nice, even if we only saw them from afar. In Kalamata, for example, we got lost trying to find the center of the city. There were signs for the center, but after following them, we would always get to the same spot, which was obviously not the center. On this trip we actually noticed vast regions covered with black ash. We theorised it was related to the extended fires that had plagued Greece the previous summer. But it could have been just as well new fires or even some weird agricultural system.

After the few days in Sparti we decided to go back to Bucharest. Again a night trip through Greece that would let us do Bulgaria during the day and reach home in the afternoon. This is were it got interesting. I told the GPS to take me home. Not only did I specify Bucharest, but the exact address. I then trusted it to take us there, without (as Maria would soon point out) actually checking the path. My only defence is that I am a software developer and I instinctively trust the electronics more than any paper map.

So, in the middle of the night, we found ourselves on a twisting road, dark and full of poorly signaled curves. Maria got upset immediately and asked me to look at the GPS. I did and I found out that the highway would take a large curved path and that the road that the GPS put us on was cutting that path. I did remember a setting on the GPS that involved road tolls. I thought the machine wanted us to avoid the tolls so it took us away from the highway. So I checked the setting off.

The road now went on another path. I could see that both previous and current path were taking european roads, but it didn't specify which was a highway and which was not. Maria was angry as hell and I was slowly losing my patience. I can stand hysterical shouting just as any guy, maybe a little better, but I do have my limits. I proposed to stop the car and look at the paper map and decide together on the path we want to take. Maria refused. So we went on.

At one moment I was actually reasoning that impulsive reactions (like swerving the car at high speed off the curve and killing us both) were usually an effect of low levels of serotonin, the comfort hormone. Both in animals and humans, serotonin is produces when the subject is caressed. So I actually caressed my wife, cooing her to close to normal levels of serotonin, when I almost felt like ripping her head off. Of course, that would solve nothing, since I can't drive (not to mention I am a rookie at ripping heads as well).

We passed through the town of Thiba, then we continued on a road that was nothing close to a highway. It was a good road, but not what we expected. The darn GPS took us from the highway because I checked that road toll setting off. Maria finally decided to stop and look at the map. The map showed us that the highway was 2 km from Thiba. We were already 20km away from it. But the small town where we stopped had two clear (albeit very thin) roads taking us directly to the highway. We inquired of the way to the highway to a gas station lady. She said that no, the only way is back to Thiba. So we went 20km back to Thiba, 2 km to the highway, 20km on the highway, where we noticed an exit to the small city we just left from.

At least everything went cool from that. It was good that we looked more attentively on the path home, since the GPS had prepared another surprise for us: it wanted to cross the border to Macedonia, then Bulgaria. I think that it would have been a more interesting road, but Maria insisted we take the known path through Kulata. Remember Kulata? Anyway, we got to Sofia, where the ring road around it was still under contruction!

Bulgaria (8)

After following a long queue of cars going at 4m per minute on dusty unmarked unpaved roads in the middle of Sofia, we got to the ring road again. It was under contruction there as well. So we stopped at a gas station and asked for directions. Bulgarians are different from Greeks. When they say they know a little English, they actually mean they don't know some of the words, not they just know a few. They were nice, showed me where I was on the map, where I should go to exit Sofia and reach the road to Ruse (the border town to Romania) and they even gave me a Bulgarian map. I told them I have no money to pay for it and they gave it to me anyway! I gathered that the map costs less that 5 euros + the repairs to the cracked lateral mirror, but still it was amazingly nice of them.

Then we got to the road to Ruse. This time, the GPS took us on another road that had no more 40 and 60km speed limit signs. I was glad to see it, especially since Maria had exclaimed "oh, now we get on that boring road" only minutes before. I was thus surprised to hear her complain the entire way to Ruse that it was NOT the way we came on when going towards Greece.

And that's about it. We got home, I started writing all this, I enjoyed my last 4days of freedom before going to work, answered my emails, I couldn't believe the people leaving spam and messages on the blog DEMANDING work done for them, etc.

Sparti, Greece (3)

When I first heard my sister in law lived in Sparti, the modern Greek town built at the site of ancient Sparta, next to the medieval settlement of Mystras, I had expected to see myriads of ruins, tourist attractions, museums and so forth. Not that I like this kind of stuff, but if Romanians had a city in Sparta, they would quickly turn it into a tourist attraction, always crowded and nauseatingly full of people and garbage. Not the Greeks. They did have something organized at Mystras, which is a small mountain fortress with a church next to it a mountain fortress towering over a small settlement boasting over 20 churches from different eras (quoting from Maria who was upset I didn't think much of Mystras), but Sparti was just like any other provincial town. We didn't visit the "Ancient Sparta site" yet, at the time we were just looking for a good long sleep in something like a bed.

Anyway, we met with Maria's sister, went to her house-in-progress in a small village next to Sparti and tried to get accommodations. The house is not finished yet. It does have its walls in place, but there are no doors inside, no floors except the raw concrete and so, after spending a day there and sleeping for the night, we decided to relocate to Maria's brother's home, in Kyparissi. But not before I got acquainted with the local cuisine, visited Mystras and made some pictures of the place. It was necessary for me to shed off some preconceptions about Greece as well.

First of all, orange and grapefruit trees don't grow everywhere in Greece. Even if my sister in law's house lay next to an orange orchard, that wasn't really very common. Instead, olive trees were practically everywhere! I love grapefruit juice. I thought I would get tons of it, freshly squeezed from recently picked fruit. The Greeks don't like grapefruit much. I had to make due with the supermarket variety of juice, of which I think I used a significant percentage. When trying to buy it, a clerk warned us that that was not orange juice! To be fair, it wasn't fruit picking season, the oranges in the nearby orchard were still green, so maybe I just visited the place at the wrong time of the year. I think I would have had more fun in the winter.

Then, the food is not that spicy or original. Greek cuisine seems to orbit the suvlaki and gyros, which are medium sized chicken meat on a stick or wrapped in pita bread. Being used to shawarma and döner kebab in Bucharest, I found it banal. I also knew about tzatziki, which is a mixture of yoghurt, cucumbers and garlic. However, most people there were amazed of my willingness to order and then ingest large quantities of the stuff. The mousaka we also have in Romania. We ate a nice one at a road diner just after entering Greece, but from then on every restaurant we asked did not have it available. Also to note is the pastitio, which is like a lasagna made with normal pasta, not sheets of it.

The only spice worth mentioning is the Greek oregano, which they called rigani. Very aromatic and flagrantly different from the Italian sort. Also, if I had ever imagined Greek peasants selling cheap olives on the side of the road (like one would find in Romania), I was sadly disappointed. When leaving the country, we actually bought the olives from a supermarket, after trying a few and not finding any except in small jars.

Driving through Sparti was shocking to us. They had no semaphores, the town was full of steep roads and the cars were packed together making it hard to move through. Or at least that's what we thought at the time. We heard they tried to implement traffic lights in the town, but that only made the situation worse. They also had some roundabouts (we were told that's what they were) which were pretty much poles in the middle of normal road intersection. The houses were the usual block like yellow model, since they never have significant snow to warrant tilted roofs and any color except yellow would probably be burned through by the relentless sun.

The cars are either small, and of all kinds, all pickup trucks, which are almost all Asian cars. Mitsubishi is a popular brand in Greece for trucks, although I have seen only about three Colt and three Lancer models around. Instead zillions of truck/van variations, from the ancient Canter model to the more modern L200. You can find a lot of Nissan, Toyota, some Ford and Isuzu, etc. In the area people seemed to love pickup trucks.

Greek villages are built like mountain villages, even those placed in valleys. The houses are packed together, with barely enough space between for cars to pass by each other and with no sidewalks. If driving through Sparti was a bit new and awkward, driving inside the village where my sister-in-law lived was hell! No straight roads, no markings anywhere. The convex mirrors that I sometimes saw installed in Romania in difficult mountain curves are popular even in flat valley Greek villages. During church days, a side of the road is used for parking so if two cars face each other, one of them must back up all the way to a larger portion or an intersection. Amazingly (for a Bucharest guy like myself), they hardly ever honk.

The logic behind it is that they built the houses in (and with) the rock of the mountain, obviously in the portions that were easiest to support a house, like flat and safe. They left space for two loaded donkeys to pass by each other, they didn't need more. In the ancient Greeks view, the roads had two lanes! Things were perfectly fine until all the nonsense with the cars came along. But why would they apply the same crowded style to their valley villages, I don't know.

I will not linger on the nearby Mystras. It is a ruined fortress on a mountain side full of foreign tourists. I made some quick photos and ran away. It was hot and I found it less than inspiring, although beautiful to look at for a few moments :)

Kyparissi, Greece (4)

Oh, boy! If we were shocked by the roads so far, we were in for a surprise. The village of Kyparissi was over a mountain from Sparti and near the sea. The way there was carved into the rock and both steep and curvy. The same lack of safety installations or warning signs was apparent. We kind of got used to it, in a while, and then we entered the village. Imagine a place where your car has just enough place to squeeze through and where the main road has portions that allow for two cars to pass by, in the others, one must back up in steep, even tightly curved places to allow for the other to pass. How we haven't bumped, scratched, crashed our car is beyond me.

The village itself is nice to look at. Not much to do in it. It consists of houses covering a side of the mountain from the top down to the beach. Whatever space is left is covered in olive and carob trees. With the typical Greek nonchalance, the beach is not regulated in any way, nobody seems to clean it or the water and there are no tourist accommodations to be seen on it. The sea is light blue and very clear, so the combination of mountain, sea with some yachts on it and small houses is very beautiful.

What striked me, a guy used to the sandy beaches of Romania, is that the beach was small and full of rounded rock. I could barely walk on it (although, to be fair, Maria had no problems). There were no birds that I could see, no oyster shells, just a lot of wasps! The Greeks don't seem to mind, I even heard the idea that they enjoy rocks more, since they don't get into their bathing suits. After a first very unpleasant beach day, I found the solution: I would use my slippers on the beach and when entering the sea, then I would move them from my feet to my hands and use them to either support by head when floating around or as swimming accessories. It worked wonders and it allowed me to enjoy the sea.

The sea itself was very clear and very salty. When it entered my nose and eyes it stung to high heaven. I got used to it eventually. There were small fish swimming around and, if there were no waves, the water was very clean. However, when the waves came rolling in, they brought plastic bags, plastic cups, twigs and big red jellyfish! I noticed that if I let the waves bring this crap closer to the shore, it eventually got stuck in some places and the water was clean again in about an hour.

It was funny to see the fish jump from the water one after the other. One less attentive fish jumped right in my shoulder. He probably expected some warning sign that I was there, so maybe it wasn't a Greek fish! One day I noticed something red in the water. I thought of warning Maria, but then I saw the same thing on another wave of water, looking exactly the same. I thought it was a reflection or something until Maria shouted that something touched her. Swimming there I found that the waves brought jellyfish close to shore, big fist sized reddish-brown tentacled jellyfish that now I believe are of the species Pelagia noctiluca. I never seen them glow in the dark, but then again, I didn't go swimming at night either. I was right not to touch them, as they apparently are the stinging type.

While in Kyparissi I visited an abandoned "old village" which consisted of some old buildings that very few people lived in. It was like a good MMORPG map, people could learn a thing or two about how to make games wandering around there. I forgot to bring my camera that time, sorry. Then we went to a cabin higher up the mountain, which provided us with more beautiful scenery and more Greek road horror. Imagine an unpaved road full of broken rock that goes higher and higher, while the wheels of the car are centimeters away from free fall. Made a lot of plant pictures and I even photographed an eagle in the sky.

We also went to the Wine "Panigiri", which is Greek for festival, in the close village of Pistamata. We saw a lot of people in front of a church with lots of wine, we turned the car around and went back :) What did you expect? I am a software developer. If I'd had people skills I would have had some other job!

Other places we've seen are the town of Molaus and the citadel of Monevasia. The latter was a nice castle city at the edge of the sea, something like the Romanian Sighisoara, but with a lot more good taste and with the sea :) Took some pictures there, as well.

We spent a little over a week in Kyparissi, lazing around. I brought a few books with me, but they weren't all so interesting so I ended up watching Romanian satellite TV and eating a lot. It was like an advanced course in couch potatoing. I slept, I ate, I went to the beach (sometimes), I watched TV. I gained like 5 kilograms doing this :)

I promised to tell you about the Greek schooling system. Well, in order to get to a university you have to learn everything you've been taught in highschool. It makes sense. In order to help children to learn it, sometimes parents hire tutors, paying them for the service of upgrading their children's knowledge. Again, understandable. What is really nasty in Greece is that eveybody hires these tutors, so much that then entire educational system pretty much assumes the children will go to these "frontistirio". The demand is so great that the market is not controlled by the parents, but by the tutors. They get to teach and, if things don't work out, blame it on the child! All the time the parents are paying 5000-10000 euros per year for this crap! While it is nice to see Romania doesn't have the crappiest educational system on Earth (although we are working on it), I can't help feeling sorry for all those kids and their parents.

Next post will be about the trips around Sparti and the way home to my beloved computer! Yay! Coming up right after these commercials!

Sorry for being away and not thinking of writing a small explanative post. I went to Greece for my holidays, to visit my wife's brother and sister who moved there some years ago. This is going to be a long post, so grab your popcorn.

Bulgaria (1)

When you have never been to Bulgaria on your own and you plan to go there with your personal car or at least transit the country, you hear the following things:
  • it is an ugly country
  • it is overrun by car thieves, corrupt cops and enterprising murderers
  • it has no, little or bad roads
  • it is poor like a third world country
. Well, I can tell you it is all pretty much bullshit.

I only transited the country, so I can't tell you I did a lot of sight seeing, and all I knew about Bulgaria is from a few years ago when I went to Balchik and I found it charming and full of lovely people. This time we went with our own car (Maria driving, as I am not really into cars) and I found it a beautiful country at least from the road towards Greece. People always helped me out (to an extent that I would have never expected, but that is for later to discuss) and a lot of them knew English to a reasonable degree (which put me to shame, since I all but forgotten the perfect Bulgarian I spoke when at 8 years of age). The roads are better than those in Romania by a long shot, almost highway material, only not with so many lanes.

My only problem lies with the way towards Greece, where the road was peppered with 40 km/h and 60 km/h speed signs accompanied by hidden police cars waiting for you to snap and go over the legal limit. Unfortunately the Bulgarian cops are crooked and even if I find placing a 5 euro banknote in the passport when they stop me - making both the bill and the speed violation disappear as by magic - a lot easier than all that dancing one normally has to do in Romania ("please officer, my grandmother is dying and I have to get to her before my granddad finishes strangling her"), I still found it annoying, especially since almost all local vehicles were passing by us like we were standing still.

Well, only one encounter like this actually took place, the cops pulled us over and then we did the 5 euro magic trick and, as we were preparing to leave, a moron with his trailer door unlocked passes by us and cracks the left rear-view mirror with the aforementioned door. I am grateful that the mirror did not break, that the metal door only hit the mirror and not the car door or (I might add) a child's head or something like that.

Anyway, we traveled all day through Bulgaria in order not to stop (we still gave credit to the third world country hypothesis above) and I took some pictures of what I think was beautiful: green forests on small mountains, long tunnels and bridges, nice straight perfectly asphalted roads (with 40 km/h speed limits on them!). I am not the world's greatest photographer and I have to sift through all the stupid pictures, but I promise I will update this post with media in a few days.

The other incident on our way to Greece was in Sofia. Apparently the ring road around the city was under (re)construction and we had to take a detour. The detour was not clearly marked in any way and the only thing the Bulgarian cop that directed the traffic had to say was "follow that car", showing towards one that was just leaving and which had a more enlightened driver in the way of the Bulgarian language. It all went nicely until the said driver decided to pull over for some reason. We followed the small serpentine road, took some guesses on which direction to take later on and quickly got lost. The GPS we had with us had only the most basic maps loaded so when we left the road it knew, we were pretty much in the Wild West.

At this time my wife decided to go through a PM moment and started shouting at me, at the GPS and blame everything on me. In this kind of emotional state trying to use logical reasoning only works to enforce the idea that I am not empathetic to her feelings and only opaque to the obvious truth that everything that ever went wrong is my fault. The GPS was of no use, the map showed very clearly that we were dangling on the vertical line of the letter F in Sofia and we were going nowhere. Since getting angry would not help, making her more angry would make her more expressive by use of car throttle and breaks and since I didn't want to die I agreed that it was all my fault, lack of preparedness, a lot of laziness and that I was very sorry for it. Then I tried directing the conversation towards a solution.

I mean, how bad could it be? We were next to the darn capital of the country, where could we get lost? At a moment where the panic was going bubbly bubbly on the seat next to me, I got to read a sign that pretty much placed us on the map of Bulgaria we brought with us and this time not on any of the capital letters on it (capital letters, get it?). So we went on a small road that was parallel to the one we should have been on and (at least in my opinion) were fortunate enough to see raw country, beautiful scenery and not to many cars. Of course, the panic ended only 50-60 km or so after, when we were back on the GPS tracked course, but that was still to come.

The next big hop was when trying to decide what road markers to follow. I looked at the map, noticed that the biggest city after Sofia that we were going towards was Blagoevgrad and decided to look for that name. My wife was nagging me constantly that her sister told her we should always go towards Kulata. I could not find any major city called Kulata on the map, so I was skeptical of the information. But we did find Kulata road signs and we followed them until there were none. Did we pass Kulata? Where the hell was Kulata?? Where the fuck was Blagoevgrad?!?

At one time we noticed a big Sofia sign. My wife said we should take it. I didn't understand, we just came from Sofia, what would be the point? She finally (after some shouting from both our parts) articulated that the road going towards Sofia probably comes from somewhere, and we should go that way, once we reach the road. It made sense, but then why would the road sign say only Sofia? What happened to the damn Blagoevgrad? Or Kulata for that matter.

Turns out she was right. People just didn't put all the markers. Why would they? In Romania that would probably happen very rarely, at least our road markers are top of the line (and I was pretty happy with my country at the time). One marker finally told me Kulata was 82 km on the road, so I looked it on the map approximately 82 km from our location. I found it, written with letters about five times smaller than the letters used to spell Blagoevgrad. It was the border town towards Greece. I found it odd; it was like trying to go to Sibiu but finding only Nadlac signs. (they are Romanian cities, mind you).

Well, we did manage to get out of Bulgaria, pretty much upset by the GPS maps, my own performance, Maria's sensitive nerves and the Bulgarian road markers.

Greece (2)

If Bulgaria started up pretty much like Romania in terms of soil and plants, when getting closer the Greece everything got more and more yellow. The soil turned red or disappeared completely, replaced by sun whited rock or yellow-red sediment compression rock. The plants got more and more Mediterranean until only olive trees remained. Imagine a humid air hot, dry soiled, olive tree infested land and you get Greece. They don't have much in terms of railways, so they have a lot of roads. Good roads, only very sinuous, since they have to go up and down a whole range of mountains.

If Bulgarians forgot some cities on their road markings, the Greeks forget the markings completely. You enter small villages or towns and you have no idea where you are. If you are lucky, you find out when you exit. The curves are rarely secured with metal sheeting and sometimes not marked at all. A person could drive into any number of precipices just by missing a turn. Both me and Maria felt that they used "dangerous curve ahead" markings on easy curves, while on the really dangerous ones they used nothing. And to top it all, their writing is both complex, uselessly complicated and there are hardly any markers written in Roman characters. If there are Roman characters markings, they are 10 meters after the Greek ones. My brother in law explained it by a joke: the Greeks are hard headed and need more fore warning. Anyway, it's not that all Greek roads are this badly directed, it's just that some of them really are. And it is shocking to come from a normal, protected, with proper signs and directions on it, road and getting on portions where the signs are missing or wrong and a problem with the steering would probably send you in a beautiful, albeit short, flight.

I knew a little Greek lettering and tried to understand where we were and where we were heading. The GPS was of real help. But it was not without gain. Just by reading the Greek for Exit (Exodos) ,for example, made me realize that both Exit and Exodus are based on the same word.

Our plan was to get to Thessaloniki, visit the city, sleep somewhere, then continue on our way. We got to the city, left the car on a street, asked the people there for the name of the street and how to get to the "White Tower", a construction Maria had heard about that was worth visiting, we were directed there, and started visiting Tessaloniki. Alas, the directions were idiotic, we turned out walking aimlessly through the city, tired, nervous and hot (there were about 35C in the shade at that time).

The city itself was really beautiful. And when I say beautiful, I don't say it lightly. I usually hate sight seeing, I care nothing for buildings and I am interested in the local cuisine more than the local ancient art. But this one was a very balanced mélange of beautiful things. It boasted a great deal of hotels and nice houses and shops, mingled with ruins from the old citadel (which almost no one bothered to mark in any way) having mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Other people that visited Thessaloniki told me they found it crowded with people and didn't enjoy it so much. Maybe it was a good time of the year, but when we visited it, the only people we saw were sitting in outdoor cafés.

A great deal of photos came out of it, but after a while we realized we did not know how to get to the car. I knew where the car was, obviously, and so did Maria. The problem was that our views differed substantially. Tired and in the beginnings of another PM moment, we decided to ask a cabbie where the street where we left the car was. "Do you know English?", the typical Greek answer was "No". On a hunch I asked him if he knew Romanian and turns out he knew more of it than English, since he was married with a Moldavian girl. If you are Romanian, you probably would get a few kicks from seeing a Greek mispronounce Romanian words that he learned with a heavy Moldavian accent anyway. But we got to the car.

The next step was to find somewhere to sleep. We asked in a hotel nearby; they charged 60 euros per night without breakfast. We thought the price might be lower in a motel on the highway. You see, Romania is in the middle of an economic boom. People have and find new business opportunities every day. On the Romanian highways you find a lot of motels, hotels, places to rest, drink or sleep. No, the Greeks had some places to eat and some highway parking places where you could stop the car and fall asleep in it, nothing else. We searched for somewhere to sleep for so long that we got to the point where I was wondering if Maria would fall asleep on the wheel or not.

At one particular bad moment we reached the conclusion to leave the highway and (instead of driving another 40km to Lamia) stop in a place called Sourpi. We immediately found the Greeks gathered around three or more taverns, enjoying their social lives in the relative cool of the night. And just as fast we learned that they have no place for someone to sleep in the whole town! Again, coming with a Romanian mindset I expected some of the Greek people there to offer a place to sleep in exchange for a nominal fee. I was surprised to see that the thought didn’t even cross their tanned little heads. They directed us, though, to a town nearby where they should have had hotels or something like that. The directions sounded like follows: “go 4 km and you will find a biiiig blue sign that says the name of the town (which I immediately forgot, of course)”. After 20 km of pitch black country roads we haven’t found any blue sign. We managed to find a gas station and ask where we could find a place to sleep. They directed us to another town, which boasted two hotels. Enough said, when we found one of the hotels, no one answered the door!

Maria got angry immediately and we went back to Sourpi (in the process finding the biiig blue sign as a little blue tree branch covered tin foil), back to the highway, stopped in a parking and slept there for a few minutes, until we realized that sleeping with the windows closed doesn’t work and keeping the engine running just to have air conditioning wasn’t really cool and also that we care not for mosquitoes. Maria fearlessly drove on. Fortunately her metabolism allows for great surges of energy from just minutes of sleep.

So this is how we got from Bucharest to Sparti in southern Greece in 27 hours, with some visiting, lost and found ways, and some awkward sleeping. (we got some real sleep just before Sparti, fortunately).

See you in the next part, where I explain the horror of driving in small mountain Greek towns, the way they like stony beaches instead of sandy ones and how they live out of tourism, but do nothing to help it out. Also, about the incredible Greek learning system, which pretty much sucks.

and has 2 comments
I've been to a small village near Sibiu, home of my parents in law, called Sarata. First major trip outside Bucharest by car, we managed to reach Sibiu, Ocna Sibiului, Sighisoara, Basna, Balea Lac, Paltinis and to travel the entire area back and forth.

We have become intimately familiar with dust and washing the car, but it was almost worth it, if it wasn't for the permanent noise (yes, I went there for the silence) and I got people (and their atomic children) shouting, screaming (and that without actually fighting, simply communicating), phones ringing (and I thought it was bad they didn't have a phone) and roosters making all kind of noises (man, I hate that rooster!). On top of everything, I've spent around two nights fighting the excessive warmth and another two fighting an intense case of indigestion.

But you won't be interested in that :) Anyway, let me review some of the touristic impressions I had.

Firstly, Sibiu. Because of the "European capital of culture" thing, Sibiu is now transformed. Not that it's not a city like any other, but it is now completely crowded by cars, parking spaces, tourists, etc.

The same impression I got from Sighisoara, where I was expecting a medieval town with cute little taverns and interesting castles, yet I found a city in reconstruction, filled with cafes and "Authentic Souvenir" shops filled with things of incredibly bad taste.

Ocna Sibiului is a small tourist place with salty and iodised waters. I'd expected a place full of old people coming to treat their illnesses, but I did not expect the level of mismanagement of the place. Imagine a few holes in the ground filled with naturally salty water, but not cleaned, with a few old wooden stairs that looked ready to crumble at every step. We had to pay to enter, the prices inside were huge and in order to find a place to change your clothes you had to find a bush somewhere. I had fun in the water, as I could leisurely fall asleep in a water that seemed to easily sustain people of ... lesser gravitational pull as myself.

Basna seemed nice, but we didn't stay long. An expensive hotel is placed there, with pools and everything, and then there are the mountains right there, ready to be hiked.

Balea Lac, just a short trip, even nicer place than Basna, but really commercialized, souvenirs and stuff. The hotel being just a normal mountain hotel.

Paltinis is just like Balea, but villas and hotels are sprouting there like mushrooms.

Some very nice villages and locations are found by travelling between the major place of tourism. We've found a 702 years old evangelic church in Valea Viilor, a small village near Copsa Mica, with an old woman greeting us with Guten Tag, and then by Buna Ziua, even if we were in Romania. The wife loved the architecture and I loved the cool air. Also a nice place was in Cisnadioara.

What was a little off putting was that we were guiding ourselves by a map made in 2000 and after reaching Valea Viilor, for example, we tried taking a road on the map and a villager said "Oh, that road? It isn't functional for more than 20 years now". Also, getting out from a temperature of 19C in one of 30C was not "cool", either, so we preferred watching the beauty of nature from inside the car. Not having to smell the nature was a plus for me, as well.

Sorry for a lack of pictures, but I don't have a camera :) I will remedy this for sure, but it's not a priority right now.

and has 0 comments
The historical figure most associated with Dracula, the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, had this castle, called Poenari, near Curtea de Arges, and the way to get to it is to climb a 1400 steps stair. Apparently, the Step-Master is also a Romanian invention.

But to start from the beginning: my wife was terribly upset by the 40+ Celsius temperatures in Bucharest. That after telling me so many times that she likes it when it's warm. Now 40C... that's warm for you. But no, she really would have liked to exit the city (for the first time in our new Mitsubishi Colt car) and go to the seaside. The sea being that wet big thing where dirty sweaty people go to dive in while other sweaty dirty people are either stealing their money from the wallets on the beach or stealing their money by selling overpriced bottom of the barrel products and services. Oh, and there is sand there.

So I've convinced her to go to the mountains. Me, in my typical optimism, thinking "the mountains" would be a nice little cool resort like Busteni or Sinaia or Predeal, where climbing the mountain is synonymous with walking the mountain. But no, she wanted Poenari, Dracula's bloody castle.

So we've spent 4 hours getting there, the Colt performed admirably and the air conditioning system made my day. Then I was informed that seeing the castle involved the inhuman endeavour of walking The Stairs to Hell. Well, I ride a bike, 1400 steps is like... 100 floors in a bloc of flats. How hard can that be?

After 15 minutes of pure agony while my body was producing my own private sea water version and trying to reach the top by filling the mountain valley and floating me up, we reached the castle. Which is a damn ruin of a castle, with no people getting you water or food or anything. There was one guy, though, who was kind enough to charge us for the privilege to see the castle and had his own private stash of aspirin to counteract the thermal shock of going from a 19C air conditioned car to a 35C stair climb.

Vlad Tepes Dracula has had his revenge and keeps on having it. Somewhere in his grave, the body of this usually negative person must be grinning.

and has 1 comment

I have just returned from a holiday in Balchik, Bulgaria, and this is my view on it.

You might have seen a commercial or heard a friend that Albena and Balchik are a great place to visit and spend your holidays. Even if they are separated by only 10 km the difference between them is the difference between heaven and hell.

Albena is the standard seaside commercial resort, with wide beaches occupied by a string of expensive hotels, with jerks attempting to speak to you in your native language while trying to sell you junk at high prices, a place invaded by tourists and with poor service at any shop, as they are owned by companies and operated by hired help. The useful things you can buy at Albena are of very little variety, meaning that almost every shop has everything you can buy, all drinks are either Pepsi or Coca Cola, etc. Albena is a franchise, and besides the natural reserve (which is a nice forest patch) and the Thracian treasure (that I didn't really go visit), there is nothing nice there.

Balchik, on the other hand, is a small piece of paradise. It is actually a town, a rather old one, with small houses (and villas) sprinkled onto an almost abrupt seawall. The beach is very small and private, while the shops in the area are operated by their owners, which are usually very nice people. The prices are almost half of anything you meet in Albena and the tourist numbers are small during the week and medium during the weekend. Another good thing about Balchik being a town is that you have both seaside hotels, small villas, large villas, apartments for rent or purchase, high profile restaurants, small cozy restaurants, cheap supermarkets, etc. So you have everything you need. The view is spectacular, with a tasteful combination of mountain and sea.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Balchik as a holiday destination or (as I fantasised during my stay there) a remote place where you can buy a house or apartment and write in the quiet atmosphere of the small town.

Now, for the detailed impressions from Balchik

Leaving Bucharest

Both me and my wife wanted a nice holiday where we get to experiment as much as possible, so we decided against an "all inclusive" package. So we arranged with people from Balchik to house us, while we took transportation separately. Searching on the web, we stumbled upon Balchik Holidays, a site owned by a young nice couple, Val and Marta, operating a small local tourism company with very decent prices. As you will see later on, they treated us fairly and nice and we recommend them if you need to make similar arrangements. We decided on Corali as a transportation company. Our opinion of them is poor to very poor. They are plagued by lack of proper organisation, delays in transport and drivers that don't know the cities they pass through. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe there are situations when they perform well, but this was not one of them. Unfortunately, I can't really imagine a Romanian company that would do a lot better, so don't expect too much from the trip to and from Balchik by bus. It could be a good idea to look for a company that goes to Albena, then get a 4 leva bus to Balchik.

The bus left Bucharest at 8:30 and, enough said, arrived in Balchik at 18:00. The bus started from somewhere in Transilvania, though, so there are people who spent a lot more in the bus than we did. Immediately it became apparent that the well organised passenger list contained 51 names. The bus itself had 50 seats. That meant that one lady got her money back and spent the entire road on a small chair with no back placed amidst the rows of seats. I also don't know who makes these buses. While they look nice and are air conditioned, I couldn't fit my legs properly the entire trip. Even if I am a rather tall guy, the length of the femur bone shouldn't be much bigger than the one of a smaller guy, the lucky guy the buses are designed on. I think the highest age at which I would have been comfortable in those seats would have been 14 years old.

Ok, enough with the seats. The bus starts from Bucharest, goes to Constanta, leaves the country through Vama Veche, then proceeds to Balchik. The highway to the sea is not yet finished, so there were delays there, then the customs, which must be "greased" to let us through. The customs officers reached a so high level of comfort that they took money while we all looked through the windows of the bus. We could have had cameras or something, but they didn't care.

Once we reached Balchik we were deposited in a parking lot placed in front of the road towards the Botanical Garden. If I am to continue my religious analogies of heaven and hell, that spot is purgatory. It is the most 'Albenised' place in Balchik. You have restaurants that boast their menus along with greetings in Romanian and waiters that try (annoyingly, I might add) to speak Romanian or whatever your native language happens to be. The prices there are medium to high, the service depends on the place.
For example I was terribly disappointed by the service at Taraleza, a small restaurant that was praised in a Romanian TV news story. The only Romanian they knew was in the greetings outside, the prices were high, the crab rolls they gave us make my wife sick, the tripe soup they gave us had very little tripe in it and (what bugs me most) I asked them for garlic and they brought me a small cup of a clear liquid. They refused to bring me sour cream, they said the soup had enough (as they would know). I poured the entire cup in the soup, only to find it a moment later uneatable. The 'garlic' sauce was garlic in vinegar.
The Sea Horse, the restaurant right in front of the parking lot, had the same tripe soup (even the amount and shape of the tripe bits were uncannily similar), but they brought dried red pepper bits and a sauce that contained yoghurt, as well as garlic and , of course, vinegar. That was more acceptable and I could even feel the garlic inside.
As a parenthesis, Tihia Kat, or at least this is how I remember the name, a serbian grill restaurant on the seaside, have a garlic sauce made from sour cream and very little garlic.
But back to the parking lot, except for their monetary exchange, you shouldn't really use anything there. Besides, when you will leave Balchik you will have extra levas (the Leva is the Bulgarian money) and you will have to wait for the bus (which will be late) so you will be forced to sit somewhere.


When the bus entered the town, we got scared. There were communist style blocks of flats, really ugly ones, and dirty garbage filled road sides. But that's just on the outskirts. As you will see, Balchik is actually made of two distinct parts: the side near the sea, which is the old part of the city, with houses and queen Maria's summer residence, and the expansion zone, where you will have blocks of flats, schools, a large super market, etc.
Our two rooms apartment was 500 m from the beach, as advertised. What was left unsaid is that the road is a continuous hill at maybe a 30 degrees slope. That resulted in muscular pain for the first two days, but we quickly got used to it. What was unexpected was that the pain felt in the lower part of the leg, which is actually very little exercised. And I should know, I ride my bicycle to work.
This side of the city is a combination of modern construction techniques and old stone roads and walls. If you are a computer programmer and you build maps for 3D games, like shooters or, better yet, quests or MMORPGS, then you should definitely go to Balchik and your software company should pay for it. There is something to be said about stone stairs that are hidden from view by the fact the walls are made from the same exact material. If you stay more than a day or two, you will come to know not only the streets, but also these hidden stairs that you can find all over the place.
We also had TV cable in our rented apartment. Something was wrong with it, though, as only a few channels were clearly visible. And, even if I did want to relearn Bulgarian, I couldn't watch anything but National Geographic, Zone Reality and Viasat History. I even stumbled upon a show about a bus going down hill without breaks, entering the water, skidding 80 meters, then drowning most of the people in it. Nice show, huh?
Val and Marta were very nice, they took us for a dinner and they explained the main things we needed to know about the town, then they gave us the house keys and left us be. They weren't a bother in any way and hopefully, neither were we to them.


There was sun there. And lots of it. If it weren't for my wife, I would have cowered in fear in the room, trying to fix the cable. Luckily, she rules my life, so I went down to the beach every morning, then we ate in a restaurant, then we had long walks through the city. If you are like me, you should not disconsider the power of the sun lotion. They seem to have different strengths marked by weird numbers. Just take the highest strength you can find and put it all over you. Else you get your skin burnt. And, if you are like me, you hate having oily things on you that smell like flowers and squeezed animals. Get over it. Not being able to touch anything or having any type of water except very cold one seem hot is not cool. (Pun not intended)
Balchik is truly beautiful. Formerly part of Romanian territory, it was chosen by queen Maria for her summer residence. That means a huge domain was filled with beautiful gardens and a few nice mansions were built. The buildings themselves are not interesting, the small trinkets that are linked to the queen or to her house are nothing more than money wasters, but now the domain was turned into a Botanical Garden. Even if less organised than the one in Bucharest, it is a lot more interesting. It combines slopes, plants of all kinds (including cactae), water falls, a high view of the open sea and the all present stone stairs and hidden passage ways.
The town itself looks a lot like a more crowded version of Maria's residence, with fisherman style houses sprouting amongst the stone roads and plants. This is something that the Romanian seaside lacks: plants. Even Albena had beautiful trees and forest patches near the sea. Romanians destroyed everything that wasn't cheap commercialism.
The prices were all in leva, which was more or less half a euro, and stotinki, hundredths of a leva. Energizer drink: 1 leva. Average restaurant meal: 7 leva per person. Taxi ride: 1-5 leva (for the same distance). Beach umbrella: 3 leva. Beach chaiselong: 3 leva. (as opposed to Albena where a chaise was 5 leva, a pillow was 3 leva, an umbrella 7 leva, etc.) Evening meal from the supermarket: 5 leva for two people. Restaurant bread slice: 20 stotinki.
I have no idea why every Balchik restaurant asked us for the exact number of bread slices we wanted. I asked smilingly for one bread and they brought me a slice. When I asked for ten slices all the waiters turned towards me like they have seen the devil. "Are you sure?".
The sand on the beach was very fine, as well as the sand beneath the water. There were two days after what we gathered was a storm in the open sea, when the shallow water was filled with algae fragments, but it wasn't terribly annoying. The entire Golden Sands-Albena-Balchik beach is in a golf, so there are no big waves and the beach is somewhat protected. The water was warm and pleasant.
People on the beach ranged from very fat people coming in families to skinny young girls. Not many girls, though. The ones that were acceptably attractive were more slim than sexy. There is no distinctive Bulgarian genome. People can look like Turks, Russians, Romanians or anywhere in between. Balchik has amazingly few gypsies.
Language: all Bulgarians know Bulgarian. Some of them understand English, some of them understand Romanian. I guess that some of them understand German, since all the menus were in Bulgarians, English and German, but I didn't try it out.
Music. I have been informed that a few months ago there was a rock festival in Balchik, White Snake and The Scorpions sang there. But I found that this was not a good enough explanation for the fact that almost every song in the town was an American 60-70's song. It wasn't annoying, but it was uncanny. I've even imagined Teal'c observing that the music technology of the planet seemed to be 30-40 years behind our own.

The Dark Side

Search for the supermarket Akvilon, on Hristo Botev street. It marks the start of the dark side of Balchik, the place of ugly grey blocks of flats. They do have regular cable and internet, though. Akvilon does provide for anything you need, as it is similar to Billa or MegaImage shops. The prices are lower than anything you get in the old part of the city, but not by much.

The End

We left on monday, the bus was supposed to pick us up at 18:30 from the parking lot, they were there, but only arrived in Balchik. We had to wait until 20:00 for them to go to the Golden Sands and Albena, leave their passengers, then return. We arrived in Bucharest at 2:00 in the morning.
What else can I say except thank you for sticking to the very boring end of my notes on Balchik. Maybe I will add more as I remember.

Special Notes

    • Cats - Balchik is a town of cats. Everywhere you go you meet a cat of any conceivable color except green. Most are accustomed to humans and grateful for any petting, playing or, of course, food

    • Bread - restaurants give you bread in slices. They ask for the exact number of slices. One bread means one slice.

    • Ayran - in Romania, ayran is a liquid yoghurt drink with salt. In Bulgarian, airan means yoghurt. So you will be able to see Danone Airan. They do have a sortiment of liquid salty yoghurt that is very tasty in rather unpleasant plastic 500ml or 250ml bottles. Ask for airan at Morsko Oko. They used this variety. Then you can buy it at a supermarket

    • Boza - there is a drink made (I guess) from sweetened wheat called Boza. I can't imagine any person except an insane child that could drink boza and like it.

    • Music - most places were tuned to Radio Edno (radio 1) and they played mostly songs from the 60's-70's.

    • Garlic - beware the garlic sauces. They are likely to contain less garlic and a lot of vinegar

    • Romanian speaking waiters - beware! Even if there are some exceptions, Bulgarians trying to communicate in Romanian usually want to sell you overpriced or under quality stuff

    • Taxi drivers - good luck trying to convince them to start their meters. Try not to give them 5 leva for a trip.

    • Botanical Garden/Maria's Castle - you may be intrigued by the ticketing system there. You need to buy a ticket of 10 leva to see a small garden, then advance to a ticketing booth to get another 10 leva ticket for the castle and the actual botanical garden. At the entrance to the castle you will be asked for both tickets. You can't buy them there, you need to go back 10 meters to the above mentioned ticketing booth

    • Muscular pain from climbing up and down Balchik streets - a massage helps, try pressing more on the painful parts. It doesn't help too much though. Walking another day is useful, also.

    • Bus rides - if you are taller than 1.80m, ask for special seating for your legs.

    • Car rides - the Balchik streets are at 30 or more degrees slope. Drive carefully.

    • Toilets - most of the bars and restaurants in the town have the annoying habit of charging for the use of their toilets

    • Albena - it sucks. If you want to go there, there are regular minibuses to Albena, Golden Sands or Varna

    • Recommended restaurants: The Blue Lion , Morsko Oko

    • To avoid: Taraleza, the Irish Rover, the cafeteria in front of the Irish Rover, the bar in Queen Maria's residence.

    • You might notice in Balchik a lot of printed A4 posters glued upon light poles, gates, bulletin boards, etc, representing dead people and when they died. It seems to be a local habit of commemorating the deceased.