Exploring Buzludzha, the Abandoned Communist Headquarters of Bulgaria

Everyone told us not to do it. It was going to be covered in snow, they said. You’d have to walk a few miles and then crawl through the mud, they said. The police will be there, and they won’t let you in, or they’ll charge you $100 to get inside, they said.

We did it anyway.

Continue reading “Exploring Buzludzha, the Abandoned Communist Headquarters of Bulgaria”

Horseback Riding and Camping in the Judaean Desert

One weekend, Khadija and I met my friend Mohammed in Bethlehem and drove out to the Judean desert. Near the Mar Saba monastery, we met Abu and two other friendly Bedouin men, Feris and Mohammed (not to be confused with my friend Mohammed). We mounted our horses and rode out into the Judaean wilderness. Yalla!

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My trusty steed, Hassan

Confusingly, one of the horses, a mare, was also named Feris. I rode Hassan, a beautiful brown Arabian horse. We rode through the rocky hills until we could see Bethlehem behind us. A little further and we began to see Jerusalem in the distance.

As we pressed on, we began to see the Dead Sea and Jordan across the water. The swirling sunset made everything look pink. After two hours of riding, we arrived at our campsite, a flat-topped hill, from where we could see the lights of Amman and the city of Salt.

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Misty sunset over the Dead Sea

As night fell, Abu began to make a fire and cut up vegetables. He cooked for an hour while we set up ‘camp’–  a simple tarp and a few blankets. He prepared a few vegan dishes for us that we ate with fire-grilled pita and sugary sage tea. The temperature dropped quickly, but the spicy vegetables melted in my mouth and kept me warm.

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Abu making dinner on the fire

Mohammed and the Bedouin sang some Arabic songs around our campfire while we drank tea. Once the wind picked up and we’d finished the tea, we put the fire out and huddled all together until we fell asleep. It was only about 10pm, but felt like at least 1am — we were all exhausted and my legs were still a little shaky from riding.

In the middle of the night, Abu screamed something, and I woke up confused, Mohammed grabbed Khadija and I and we ran from our tarp. Hassan had gotten loose and was running across camp towards Feris, the mare, and we were in his way. Barefoot, Abu was trying to hold Hassan back, but Hassan was fully erect and rearing, up on his hind legs, advancing towards Feris, who was cornered and hissing. Backing up, we nearly tripped over the edge of the hill!

Feris was bucking and kicking at Hassan, but somehow Abu managed to tie him up and calm them both down,

Since we were awake, we took our flashlights and wandered around the hill. It was probably 3 or 4 in the morning, chilly but the wind had strangely stopped. It was completely silent other than the sound of our horses gently breathing.

The hillside was steep, but we, carefully, holding hands, descended. We found a cave — and that’s when things got really strange.

The entrance was a small hole, we crawled into a room with a low-ceiling, which had another hole for a door, deeper into the hillside. We crawled on our bellies through the hole, which opened up to a larger room, with a ceiling high enough that we could stand. The room was strangely hot.. and then we realized it full of bones!

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Super creepy!

There has been human civilization in the Judaean desert for thousands of years, who knows how old these bones were. They certainly weren’t fresh! There were at least 30 skeletons in the cave, but there were no skulls, only bottom jaws. Abu told us that this desert was part of King Herod’s empire, and when we got back to our campsite, he showed us some mosaic tiles he’d found.

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Perhaps a tibia?

We climbed back up to our site, and talked for a while under the stars, which shined brightly above us. The lights of Amman had mostly turned off, and we drifted back to sleep under the swirling Andromeda galaxy.

In the morning, only a few hours later, we woke up to the blazing sunrise. Some of our blankets had blown away in the night, but we didn’t need them anymore!

Abu whipped up some potatoes and grilled pita that we ate with mangos and a strange white melon, which was drippingly ripe. We sat on the edge of the hill, just taking in the view. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

We packed up, and rode about 2 hours back to the Mar Saba monastery, along the canyon walls. From the trail, we could hear the river bubbling below, and birds calling as they flew in formation up around the canyon. In the canyon walls were caves, clearly carved out by humans– ancient Nabatean homes.

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The Kidron Valley. Notice the Nabatean cave-homes on the left face.

I’m not afraid of heights, but it was definitely a little dangerous, the horses seemed to like to walk close to the edge for some reason. I looked out into the distance where the hills of the Kidron Valley continued into the horizon.

We finally arrived back at the Mar Saba monastery, our journey was over. This Greek Orthodox Monastery is one of the longest consistently-functioning Monasteries in the world– why they chose to build it in the middle of NOWHERE in the desert, I can’t tell you. But it’s gorgeous (no pun intended).

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View over Mar Saba Monastery and the surrounding trails

Unfortunately for my friend Khadija, the monastery is men-only, but luckily, they let us both use the toilet before we headed back to Jerusalem. Toilets are something I realized I take for granted. In the desert, there’s no privacy!

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions for more photos.

 

Tel Aviv, “The Nonstop City”

When most people think of Israel, they don’t think of beach parties, street art, or electric bicycles. That’s because they haven’t been to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is a modern, largely-secular, LGBT+ friendly city with a large vegan population located along Israel’s Mediterranean coastline. It’s always sunny in Tel Aviv, making it a great, nearby beach escape from Europe in the Fall and even the beginning of Winter.

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Tel Aviv is an active city, full of beautiful people who enjoy exercising, sitting at cafes, or hanging out at the beach, any time of day or night. (Even at 3am, people are roller skating and walking their dogs in HaYarkon park, it’s crazy.). This is why Tel Aviv is occasionally referred to as the ‘Nonstop City’– there’s always something going on!

Bike along the beach promenade

A bike path stretches from Park HaYarkon in the North down to the end of Tel Aviv and is one of the best ways to see the city. With the sea on the right, and restaurants on the left, it’s easy to stop and go as you please. Beat the heat and catch the sunset over the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv’s hot sandy beaches are alive any time of day, and there are beaches for every kind of person or activity. There’s a dog beach, a surfing beach, a gay beach, a kite-surfing beach, a family beach, a religious/Orthodox beach.. But any of them are perfect for a day in the sun, no matter what you want to do there.

Ben Gurion airport is only a short flight away from most European cities, making Tel Aviv a great weekend getaway. Many discount airlines are starting to offer direct flights, making Israel more accessible than ever before.

Hit the bars on Florentin street

Florentin is Tel Aviv’s young and artsy district. It used to be a Greek working class neighborhood but now it is somewhat gentrified, filled with bars, and covered in street art. Walk deep enough and you’ll discover old carpenter shops covered in graffiti and more of Tel Aviv’s alternative/underground scene.

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A piece by local street artist The MissK

 

Shop and eat at the city’s many markets:

Shuk HaCarmel:

Tel Aviv’s covered market is the best to do your grocery shopping, get a quick bite to eat, or buy a fresh new tracksuit. From fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and football-sized eggplants, Shuk HaCarmel has everything to stock your beach picnic. I go specifically for the 7-shekel falafel ($2) and the 10-shekel bag of hot pita bread.

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The best part of Shuk HaCarmel of course, are the stands dripping with date syrup or honey, the piles of baklava, knafe, and other Mediterranean, Jewish and Arab delicacies.

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Nachlat Binyamin:

The city’s Arts & Crafts market is open every Tuesday and Friday, generally from morning until sunset. Here, local artisans sell their handmade work, such as paintings, photography, clothing, Judaica, clocks, kaleidoscopes, stuffed toys and more. There are also magicians and musicians galore. The craft market runs parallel to Shuk HaCarmel, so knock them out in one day!

Sarona:

This marketplace is a more upscale, indoor experience, with nearly 100 different vendors. Sarona is a great place to sample small portions of local and international food.

Neve Shaanan:

Deeper inland, on the East end of Levinsky street, are the Arab, Persian, Indian and African markets of Tel Aviv. The diverse area of Neve Shaanan is charming and inexpensive. Head down for a cheap haircut or great Ethiopian cuisine.

Tel Aviv’s central bus station is also in this neighborhood, so you’ll end up here one way or another!

Stroll through Neve Tzedek

One of Tel Aviv’s most expensive neighborhoods, Neve Tzedek is a shopper’s haven. Israeli boutiques and bookstores line the cobblestone streets, as well as cozy cafes and gelaterias. Neve Tzedek is in central Tel Aviv, making it an ideal place to rent an Airbnb. It’s close to all of the major sites, but quiet at night.

Visit HaTachana 

The Old Train Station, or HaTachana, was renovated after nearly 50 years of neglect. The old train cars and station, as well as the cement and tile factories, are open to visitors. The entire place is blooming with flowers. Old German templar style houses surround the train station and have been converted into boutiques, cocktail bars, ice cream parlors, and restaurants.

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Party on Rothschild Boulevard

The famous “White City” boulevard is lined with sprawling 100-year old trees and cafe kiosks. During the day, Rothschild Boulevard is a busy street full of bikers, roller blades, electric-scooters, and dog-walkers.

Thursdays and Saturdays specifically, Israelis from all over hit the bars and clubs on Rothschild. It’s busy every night of the week! (Monday and Friday are gay nights at many Tel Aviv clubs such as Lima Lima)

Bigger nightclubs are located in the south, near the central bus station, such as The Block, Ku Club, and the 11.

(Drinks in Tel Aviv clubs are roughly $10-17/ 35-60 shekels depending on where you go, and club entry ranges from 20-50 shekels as well. Better to pick up alcohol at a store or at a cheap bar like Rothschild 22 or Cofix beforehand. Liquor stores in Neve Shaanan are cheapest, with liters of Eastern European vodka as low as $8.)

There’s always something to do in Israel’s ‘modern Hebrew city’. Be sure to check out free events in Rabin Square which you’ll notice posted on tourist maps around the city.

Once you’ve seen everything here, head down the coast to the ancient city of Jaffa, or to the Holy city of Jerusalem!

Thanks for reading! More posts about my 9 months in Israel-Palestine coming soon.

Follow me on Instagram: @tristans_expeditions

 

 

 

 

Plovdiv, Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture

Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, is set to be 2019’s European Capital of Culture. The EU’s ‘Capital of Culture’ program picks a city each year to host traditional and pan-European events, and in turn, helps to revitalize the city and increase tourism.

Plodiv’s major attraction is its sprawling old town, which consists mainly of traditional wooden manors from the late 1800’s, painted with deep or neutral tones with floral embellishments. Greco-Roman ruins, the city’s foundation, are scattered throughout the city, from the hilltop Nebet Tepe, to the Roman theater and Hippodrome. In the heart of the ‘Creative district’, a single Ottoman mosque stands proudly, functioning not only as a prayer space but also as a cafe-restaurant.

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Bulgarian homes are built efficiently to maximize space.

The old city is being restored, and the freshly-painted buildings look great! We wandered further from the main streets and found some older, weathered homes. Even though it’s great that the EU is working to preserve these buildings, there’s a certain charm that is lost when they’re touched up. Luckily, Evan and I arrived ahead of the crowd, and before the end of the restoration process.

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A lot of the homes are empty or under renovation, but many have already been converted into restaurants, inns, and galleries.

We walked around the old city’s cobblestone streets for a few hours, popping in and out of antique shops and ice cream parlors. The streets are full of art galleries, both contemporary and classical, but as Evan put it “We aren’t here to see art”– We were here for the antiques.

At one antique shop, we discovered $2 1970’s Bulgarian records, a pin of Lenin as a baby, and a badge minted with the face of George Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first Communist ‘President’. Jackpot.

Plovdiv is definitely the place for authentic souvenir shopping and seemed much less expensive than Sofia (not that Sofia is particularly expensive). I wanted to buy almost everything I saw: traditional clothing, instruments, gas masks, and all kinds of antique furniture and handmade goods.

We stopped in for lunch at a panoramic restaurant and had a feast of a meal for only a couple of dollars. I enjoyed a big potato pie and a liter of beer while sitting in the sun, taking in the view.

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View over the Creative District from Nebet Tepe hilltop

Wandering into the ‘Creative district’, we squatted down on some wooden seats and watch the people go by for a while. The creative district’s main street is lined with shops and cafes, and at one end, there’s a cozy bar area. The buildings here are a mix of early 1900’s styles in pastel colors, built on top of a Roman Hippodrome, which is still visible. The Ottoman mosque was particularly interesting because the style of the painting inside seemed very European-influenced, as compared to the one in Sofia and others I’ve seen.

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Ancient Greek ruins in old Plovdiv

Before we left to go back to Sofia, we stopped in at a photo studio. We donned traditional Bulgarian garb– loose-fitting pants, red sashes, embroidered tunics and faux-shearling hats, and got some great pictures taken for just $5. Why not.

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Which of us is a Western Spy?

Plovdiv is a great little city; much smaller and more traditional than Sofia, but still large enough to feel like a city, with plenty of shops and restaurants. One day was more than enough to see all of the sites at a slow, comfortable place. I wish we could’ve stayed even longer, we even looked into changing our flights to stay in Bulgaria longer!

Exploring Northern Jordan: Amman, Madaba, and Jerash

Known to the ancient Greeks as ‘Philadelphia’, Amman, Jordan’s capital, is full of ancient ruins, and authentic markets. I spent a month in Amman, studying Arabic, last January, and ventured down from Jordan University into the Wasat Balad (Amman’s old town center) every chance I got.

Below are some of my favorite spots, as well as the best sites in Amman, and day-trips within an hour by public transit. The nearby towns of Madaba and Jerash are not to be missed on a trip to Amman!

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Doves flying over Amman’s city center

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A Weekend in Wadi Rum and Petra

Deep in the deserts of southern Jordan, lie two incredible sights: the mysterious ancient city of Petra, and the boundless Wadi Rum. You could spend one day and one night in each place and see the highlights, or, you could spend days exploring each and every crevice.

Petra, known as the “Red Rock” or “Rose City” was the capital of the ancient Nabatean people. The Nabateans were a cave-dwelling tribe that controlled part of the Silk Road trade routes a long long time ago and much of their history is still debated.

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Visiting the Druze Village of Horfish

This weekend, our program visited the Druze Village of Horfish, in the rolling hills of the upper Galilee region of Israel. Here, we met Sheikh Kasem, and learned about the Druze faith. The Druze are one of many interesting minorities in Israel and they kindly welcomed us with open arms and black coffee.

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The Druze village of Horfish, situated in the hills of the Galilee

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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Nutshell

Today in Hebron, a city in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank territory of Palestine, I was at a small corner store buying hummus for lunch, when IDF soldiers and Palestinians began to clash on Shariya Al-Shuhada. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. (You may want to pull up a map of Israel and it’s territories in another tab to reference.)

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Aswan, the Ancient Gateway into Africa

Aswan, the largest city in Upper Egypt, is a Nile-front paradise, where felucca sailboats gracefully navigate the river and its many islands. Aswan was regarded in the ancient times as the gateway into African trade routes, and today maintains its unique mix of Arab and Nubian culture. Across the water, West Aswan and Elephantine island are brimming with picturesque traditional Nubian homes, beautiful gardens, and ancient ruins from the Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Coptic, and Islamic eras.

There’s no shortage of things to do in Aswan; I spent a week exploring its many sites, and still didn’t see everything!

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