Taking Time To Breathe

With the sun shining like there would be no night, I knew it had to be a summer celebration day. So in the sweltering heat I strolled through the park with an ice cream and lemon water. The band stand had live music swinging through the trees, children ran full steam around the park and old men played chess intently. I took the time to slow down with the exciting plans and just sit on the grass, taking in my surroundings and reading a good book. It was such a beautiful and peaceful afternoon.

20170604_170313.jpg

20170604_104557.jpg

Then when I began to involuntarily bake, it was time to get moving. I went on the hunt for city highlights and first found the Victor monument. He stood tall and proud next to the glistening Danube river and as a welcomer to the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress was built as a defensive structure and so the site featured large weaponry such as missiles and tanks. I walked the streets of the Bohemian Quarter and picked up a few presents, then followed that up with mindless wandering until I had no clue where I was. This led me to a beautiful art gallery where it appeared like the usual still life but really the scene was in the reflections of the objects. It was beautiful and a real secret gem.

20170604_170406.jpg

20170604_105332.jpg

20170604_110010.jpg

I indulged in an ice coffee at a local cafe and people watched for a while. I’ve noticed a lot more people are chatting and smiling when the sun is out. Plus there were some street performers working all they had in such strong heat. So although an uneventful day not jam packed with adrenaline and adventure like normal, it was refreshing to just relax and enjoy the simple parts of life.

The Train From Hell

After delaying my journey to Belgrade so I could spend one more night in Hostel Mostel in Sofia, I got up nice and early to catch my 9 hour train. I arrived at the wrong station, attempted to communicate with 8 people until I found the right one and then proceeded to spend 20 minutes trying to buy a ticket. But still I stayed determined and went for my platform. A man grabbed my suitcase from me and only said “follow”. In my pure panic I attempted to protest and retrieve my bag but he was having none of it. But instead of him stealing my bag or luring me to a murder alleyway, he then dropped my bag on the train I was catching. I had a moment of real gratitude thinking a kind stranger had helped me and then real life punched me in the face and he demanded money. I paid him what little I had as this was clearly not someone I wanted to argue with.

I boarded my train and settled in to my little area, when the announcer informs us all that without moving an inch, we were already running 2 hours late. I accepted my fate of a terribly long journey and just wrote for a while to keep my mind occupied. However this was soon interrupted by an unsettling man sitting across from me and proceeding to stare intently at my chest. Not a couple subtle glances but instead glaring as if his life depended on it. I was however relieved of this uncomfortable situation by a woman that I can only assume he was with, seeing what he was doing and beating him with a newspaper.

I slept some, watched a couple episodes of downloaded Netflix and continued to journal. All of a sudden the train began to violently jerk every 10 seconds. Then stop. Then reverse. Then return to normal. Then speed up rapidly. Then repeating that full process for a good hour. This was obviously not a good sign but I just had to embrace the chaos as questioning a staff member was not an option. Eventually the seats filled up somewhat and a woman with a baby sat next to me. Now this isnt going to turn into a crying baby situation, in fact it was a very well behaved child. What was unique about this situation was that with a few Bulgarian words, she passed me her baby and left! I later came to learn that she obviously needed the toilet and wanted someone to watch her child. But in the moment I felt sheer panic as I had inadvertently acquired a baby – certainly not the usual travel souvenir.

Instead of taking 9 hours, the journey took 14. I dealt with money grabbers, creepers, domestic disputes, babies and the cherry on top; all toilets overflowing and becoming unusable. But I made it in one piece and never gave up, it was just a reminder that not all things travel will be shiny and fun. However the good moments will always be worth the work.

Risking My Life For A View

We started the day road tripping to Plovdiv and spent the day there. Enjoying wandering around such a beautiful town and indulging in some fancy day time cocktails and unique food like frogs legs and liver. We decided to make the extra trip to Buzludzha, a communist monument less than 2 hours from us. We went from small town to smaller town, enjoying the little significant landmarks and cute landscapes shining in the intense sun. Then all of sudden, all hell broke loose in a storm. Aggressive rain poured down and quickly turned to hail. Not a few frozen drops – the kind of giant rocks that forced us to pull over because the smashing against the car sounded like we were being shot at (I would know, I’ve shot a sniper rifle). Eventually it lightened up and we continued our drive, until we reached the important part.

20170602_093554.jpg

20170601_162916.jpg

Driving up the squiggle roads (our adopted technical term) we climbed the mountain, each time so high that every ledge looked like it led to the abyss. We arrived at the “abandoned Communist UFO” and it was on a very grand scale. We were miniscule in comparison to the height this monument stood at. Circling round it, we saw the beautiful various styles of street art covering the base. Then we reached the “entrance”; the rumoured tiny, dangerous and claustrophobic hole in the ground that lead inside.

20170601_201545.jpg

20170601_202213.jpg

20170601_202233

I looked into the hole and paused. I did not hesitate for one second for bungee jumping, paragliding or skydiving, but this….this had no guarantee. No guarantee that I’d be okay, in fact it was the opposite because so much was ready to go wrong. When I say wrong I mean claustrophobic fix, serious injury or fatal fall on the remains of construction. I may have been with pros used to this risk but I’d grown up on instructors and harnesses. If I’m honest, my personal pride and adventurous curiosity was at stake. I am a risk taker, thrill seeker, danger lover. I’m the person that goes down that hole because my heart needs to know – what if?

20170601_202534.jpg

So I did it, I agreed to go in. With the help of¬† new friends/heroes, I clambered down large distances into the collapsed in hole, steadying myself on metal spikes and broken concrete. The guys were incredible in holding me tight the whole time and making me *know* I was safe. I dropped down the several levels and had achieved the underground stage of the discovery. My heart was pumping and adrenaline punching my chest, but I had made it. We ventured through the debris, through the dank tunnels, up the destroyed stairs and through the amphitheatre remains. Then came the view, the view that made it all worth it. I climbed up and dangled my feet over the edge of the monument, looking down at my ant sized friends. I was shaking from the high of the situation, grinning and nervous laughing, saying I was “on top of the world”. We soaked in what we had achieved together, somehow the best experience of my life.

20170601_203233.jpg

As I sat over the edge I was peaceful, quiet and swinging my feet….that was until my shoe fell off, falling who knows how far, disappearing into the fields. This began the ‘oh no, I’m screwed’ portion of the trip. Luckily my heroes came to the rescue again and we bundled up my bare foot in 4 socks and my wrapped up hoodie. We began the even more dangerous route back. With the sun setting, our light was fading fast. I limped through broken glass, puddles, over giant rocks and fallen in ceiling. We made it to the exit and for the large climb up the wall on unsteady structures I was supported and then proudly for the final climb, I made it myself, probably on pure adrenaline. We made it out in one piece and had officially conquered the abandoned Buzludzha.

I hobbled back to the car, resumed my navigator’s seat and we drove home for 4 hours in the pitch black and pouring rain. The lightning lighting up the darkness like a camera flash. Arriving at the hostel at 2am I went to bed, left with cuts, bruises and memories; I’ll take that combo any day.

Road Trips, Caves and Waterfalls

I met some girls who were hiring a car and going on a nature road trip and invited me along. So 8 of us crushed into a car definitely not designed for so many and began our adventure. It was a 2.5 hour drive so we were in for a while, the time was spent chatting, laughing and generally spotting all pretty things around us. The views were incredible dense greenery and the Balkan Mountains, all getting us in the mood to see what nature had to offer. We stopped off for the classic on-the-road snackage in the small town of Lovech and returned to our journey. Eventually we reached the site for Krushuna Waterfalls, after hiking up a hill and stairs we had reached our destination.

20170531_122748.jpg

The waterfall was truly stunning, somehow powerful and peaceful all at once. Crashing down, filling the forest with noise and cancelling out all other sounds. We had hoped for a swim but despite the 30 degree heat, the water was freezing, so we just dipped our toes in. First we went exploring, climbing to the top and experimenting with different directions to see where we came out. Then it was time to just soak in the scene, sat on the edge of the old rickety wooden bridge at the base of the main area. Swinging my feet, head rested on the railings and staring into the waterfall, I was entirely serene and loving life.

20170531_153009.jpg

Once finished at the waterfall, we moved onto the next part of our journey; the Devetashka Cave. It was only a 30 minute drive away and upon arriving there we walked the distance across the bridge to find it. All I can say was that it was magnificent and somewhat incomprehensible. At 2442 metres long and 58 metres high it’s the largest cave chamber in Bulgaria and to even understand the scale you needed the people inside looking like ants. The large 7 holes above us known as Okna let light come piercing through the darkness of the cave and appeared to make areas glow. We explored further into the pitch black (past the barriers I must admit) and found just such natural wonders. The high pitch screech of bats echoed throughout the walls and had my excitement spiking. I love bats with a passion and was lucky enough to see many.

20170531_181441.jpg

20170531_181205.jpg

20170531_181809.jpg

Finally it was time for the return section of our road trip and I was upfront as navigator. I surfed my fingertips through the racing air out the open window and played music to keep us all going. We were blessed with a stunning warm sunset that lit up our scenery in all different ways from before. The perfect ending to a day of nature.

20170531_203052.jpg

Culture in Sofia

I felt like a walking kind of a day so I set out with culture in mind, I wanted to see things that were beautiful, historically significant or that I could learn from. Sometimes you just need some personal brain stimulation time. My first stop was the National Archaeological Museum, something I had not seen similar versions of before. It was amazing, starting with a single unassuming room and expanding into a maze of different treasures. It ranged from prehistoric spear heads and painted pots, to religious carvings and a room of pure gold. Seeing the craftsmanship of a very different time was fascinating. I weaved through the rooms about power and society, extravagant artistry and primitive tools.
20170530_140604.jpg

20170530_141733.jpg
Next I went to the National Art Gallery of Sofia, a confusing, wonderfully uncomfortable and disjointed exhibit. One minute I was looking at 132 hard hats (yes I counted) with only one being blue, the next I was blankly staring at multiple photos of cacti. My favourite part was being taken in by paintings of demons, very unsettling and beautifully illustrated. Different to many galleries was that this place had multiple silent video pieces playing on projectors. Some were as simple as a wasteland horizon and others were as bizarre as a naked woman painted black, dancing in various rooms. I’m sure I didn’t grasp the full extent of what was before me but it was a very enjoyable experience.

20170530_185443

20170530_185506.jpg

20170530_185531.jpg

Afterwards I moved onto the landmark of Sofia; the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, standing grand, green and gold with the sun setting in the background. It was visually stunning and the inside was even more special. The ceilings sky high and the room lit by endless glowing candles. I’m not religious but something that causes such pure awe always results in me needing to sit quietly and contemplate what matters. It was a beautiful thing to experience and one of my favourite cathedrals I’ve visited. I lit a candle for my lost loved ones and left with peace in my heart and mind.

20170530_150056.jpg

20170530_150531.jpg

I spent the rest of the evening strolling through the park and just wandering around the city. I sampled Bulgarian food and looked forward to what I had ahead in my life. Overall it was the perfect balance of mental calming and stimulation.

20170530_152134.jpg

Podstel – Travel Goals

For my time in Romania, I stayed at a hostel called Podstel, the name being inspired by pod hotels in Japan. It was a very new hostel, only opening a few months prior and yet their brand and services were on point. Despite staying during the kind of rainy period that brings everyone’s mood down, the atmosphere was still always lively and buzzing. There was always music, not the ear assaulting music you wish would be turned down in the morning, but the laid back, smile on your face vibe. If you were lucky you’d come across some talented person strumming away on the ukulele.

20170528_161350.jpg

20170527_100044.jpg

One night we had a movie night and most often this would mean being curled up around a laptop screen with a couple of blankets. But instead they decked out the room in all things comfy and had a legitimate set-up of a large projector screen and speakers. In case you’re wondering, the movie choice was Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and yes it was done justice by the Podstel movie operation.

20170525_195232

Whenever the sun graced us with its presence, people flooded out to the amazing scenic garden going on outside. There was a range of hammocks, a cushion filled tent, a stage for performances and a tea house with 46 teas and much more on offer. It was zen, it was cool and it was relaxing. They had everything you needed to kick back and just enjoy the people and the place of a beautiful city.

20170527_200756.jpg

The owners and rest of the staff team were pretty much like an awesome friend that invited you round to chill, but way more helpful. Half the time they were inviting/joining fun adventures throughout the city and the other half they’re running around doing whatever they can to make to make guests’ stays easier and better. (Although the ratio for them is probably more adventure 10% and work 90% with how much they did for us).

20170529_013353.jpg

20170529_013318.jpg

But what stood out the most about the people were the journey they’d been on. They were travels goals, inspiration and aspirations all in one. Hearing about what they had experienced¬† and the times they had built up leading to running a hostel, you can’t help but think about the capable hands you were in. The owners (Sam, Dan and Jason) had travelled over 50 countries in 4 years and collected up all guest and hostel staff knowledge they could, therefore creating essentially the dream hostel.

20170528_161316.jpg

20170528_161334.jpg

20170528_161413.jpg

20170528_161428.jpg

Plus there’s cats, I couldn’t leave out the cats. Just to add to the warm cosy atmosphere, there’s two warm and cosy friends whenever you need a cuddle (which is always when solo travelling). I have to say a huge thanks to the Podstel family for opening their home to me and showing me the best time possible in Bucharest. I hope in a few years I can look back on my travels and have a similar story to tell.

20170527_100035

20170527_125801.jpg

Natura Festival in Romania

Out of the blue a staff member at Podstel, where I was staying, invited me to something called Natura Fest. Being a committed festival girl, regardless of the genre or theme, there was really only one answer. I set out with 3 of the staff and we met with 2 of their friends, making us a world spread group of 4 girls and 2 guys. On our way to the park I got to see the stunning structure that was the Palace of Parliament, that’s almost 300ft in height.

20170527_202611.jpg

We arrived at the festival and it was adorably tiny, not the thousands of people I was used to. As the name suggests, it was all flowers and natural themes. We grabbed our drinks and walked straight up to the barrier, something you couldn’t dream of at a large festival such as Sziget. We listened to a famous Romanian band called Les Elephants Bizarres and not only were they such fun music, but they also had some songs in English. But even the ones that got lost in translation were perfect for chilled dancing in the park. (However one we are convinced translated to the singer’s love of couscous.)

20170527_204439.jpg20170527_204331.jpg

Half way through the set, the rain decided the music was so good that it wanted to be a part of the show. This led to the skies opening up, taking over the sunset and flooding the air with soaking weather. However this wasn’t our first rodeo so we just danced harder, sung louder and laughed at us stood under the darkened sky as the dripping wet messes that we were. Now don’t be thinking this was a light drizzle, because this was a storm of soaked through shoes and clothes that clung to our skin. We may as well have gone for a swim fully dressed and we may have stayed drier.

With neon lights darting through the falling water and beats echoing from speakers through our chests, we lived and became the festival atmosphere. Unfortunately our time had to come to an end and we ran for shelter in a metro station. Instead of letting the night die, we hopped on a train straight to Old Town to see the quiet daytime streets come alive. There were endless dancers, DJs and football watchers lining the streets, all with people enticing us inside. We enjoyed the bars and clubs, dancing ourselves dry and happy. Our night came to an end with music still echoing in our ears and our hearts as we wandered home to bed.

20170527_213039.jpg