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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

6 Sights in Sarajevo

Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, is truly where East meets West. Here, humble wooden Ottoman shops juxtapose the luxurious Austro-Hungarian residences in the old town. Further down into the new city, are Sarajevo’s gritty communist blocs, alive with bars, the art scene, and the U.N.’s permanent mission to Bosnia.

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Serbia: The Heart of the Balkans

Many tourists skip the Balkans, thinking that it’s dangerous, or that there’s nothing worth seeing. The Balkan years ended over a decade ago, so the region is completely safe and there are a million things worth seeing! Serbia is the heart of it all, and a great place to start.

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A weekend on Lake Ohrid, the “Balkan Pearl”

Ohrid, a town in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is a popular tourist destination for Eastern Europeans, for its affordability and range of activities. The entire town and lake of Ohrid are UNESCO World Heritage sites, for their ancient cultural significance and natural beauty. Continue reading “A weekend on Lake Ohrid, the “Balkan Pearl””

Albania: Land of Eagles

Albania is one of Europe’s many hidden gems, and a frugal traveler favorite. From the Northern lakes and mountains to the Southern Riviera, Albania’s landscapes are nearly untouched. Ottoman villages made of stone and wood are scattered throughout the country, built on Illyrian ruins, contrasting Communist-era Tirana, Albania’s trendy capital.

Despite all of Albania’s attractions, this enchanting country has only recently become a backpacker’s destination. Its popularity is increasing as more are realizing Albania’s affordability. I spent 10 days in Albania and only spent $150 (about 130 euros).

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Put Bucharest on Your List

Bucharest, like many capital cities in Eastern Europe, is often overlooked. When I told people I was going to Bucharest, they asked me, “Why would you go there?”. Even in Romania, passing travelers told me to skip it. I didn’t have a choice, I was flying out from Bucharest and ending my three-month long Balkan adventure.

I loved it. In fact, I wish I’d had more time there.

Bucharest at first looks like a post-apocalyptic Paris but is very much alive. This inexpensive city is a great weekend getaway or the beginning of a trip through Romania.

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Best of the Balkans

Growing up, I remember learning European geography: England, France, Spain, Germany, and all those little countries in the East. This summer, I realized that ‘those little countries’, the Balkans, are some of the most enchanting (an inexpensive) places in Europe.

I spent three months in the Balkans and fell in love with the cultures of this small but dense European region. I already want to go back and see everything I missed!

Based on criteria of natural beauty, architecture, food, friendliness/accessibility, and history, these towns are the Best of the Balkans.* (For more in-depth Balkan Backpacking check-out “Three Months in the Balkans” coming soon).

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Istanbul’s Must-See Mosques

Istanbul is an ancient city, where many empires have reigned throughout the centuries, each leaving their mark. The Romans built aqueducts, the Byzantines built churches, and the Ottomans built mosques.

The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire sought to raise the largest and most impressive mosques the world had ever seen, and they succeeded. Today, the minarets of the Ottoman mosques still pierce the skies, as the call-to-prayer reverberates through the city.

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