Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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It was late when I finally arrived at Second Home Hostel in Istanbul. I’d suffered though an eight-hour ride from Burgas, Bulgaria, on a bus with no toilet and a driver who stopped just once at the Turkish border, where we had only enough time for immigration. Once at my final destination I looked around for an ATM machine to get Turkish Lira and the metro station that would take me to Sultanahmet, the Old Town area of Istanbul, but neither were anywhere to be seen. Fortunately, I’d met a nice young man on the bus who made it his mission to help me, right down to paying for my metro and tramway tickets. At Sultanahmet I asked shopkeepers for directions to the hostel. Just my luck, it was located at the top of a steep hill, accessed via a lumpy cobblestone street that trapped the wheels of my rolling suitcase every few seconds.

Second Home Hostel, Istanbul, Turkey

Out of breath and exhausted, I checked in and dragged my luggage up one floor, thankful that I’d had the foresight to reserve a private room rather than a dorm bunk in this instance. I collapsed on the bed and didn’t move for the next ten hours. The next morning, Read More

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Five Whirling Dervishes filed slowly into the room, black ankle-length cloaks covering their wide white skirts. Lining up at the side of the room, the men sank to their knees and prostrated, touching tall conical camel-hair hats to the polished wood floor. Standing, they circled three times, bowing in greeting to one another as they circuited the room. After three rounds, they removed their cloaks, revealing long flowing white gowns cinched at the waist.

Beginning of the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony

Beginning of the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony

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Like all visitors to Istanbul, Turkey, I began with the city’s most famous sights. At Sultanahmet Park, I stood aside the central fountain and looked toward the six delicate minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the handmade ceramic blue tiles that adorn its interior walls. Swiveling 180 degrees, I beheld the four minarets and copper dome of the stunning Hagia Sophia. Completed in 537 as a Greek Orthodox Basilica, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin Empire and became a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul. In 1935, it was transformed into a museum by order of Mustafa Atatürk, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey.

Blue Mosque, seen from the central fountain in Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, seen from the central fountain in Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul, Turkey

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By the end of my week in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia I was still suffering from the effects of eating tainted food in a restaurant in Brasov, Romania. I couldn’t seem to shake the the upset stomach and general malaise that had sapped my energy. Just the idea of returning to fast travel mode made me tired, so I decided to forego seeing the cities of Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. Sad as that decision was, I had to make health my first priority. Instead, I began looking for an affordable destination in Bulgaria where I could do a one week yoga retreat, take long walks on the beach, eat healthy food, and recover my stamina. A bit of Internet research led me to Sarah Astbury, a British yogi who offered Yoga, meditation classes, and massage services in Sozopol. A phone call later, I’d not only booked a week of Yoga, but Sarah had arranged for me to stay with the Atanasova family in the historic old town area of this small fishing village on the shores of the Black Sea.

Sarah Astbury strikes a yoga pose on the beaches of Bulgaria

Sarah Astbury strikes a yoga pose on the beaches of Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of Sarah Astbury Yoga.

And so began my week of recuperation. Each morning I meditated in my room for half an hour, then walked the block to Sarah’s studio for a 1.5 hour restorative Yoga class. Afterward, Sarah made me a big brunch of my choice; sometimes I opted for fresh fruit topped with mouth-watering homemade Bulgarian yogurt, other days I craved fluffy three-egg omelets. When I couldn’t eat another bite I burned off those calories with long afternoon walks, during which I discovered Sozopol’s fascinating history. Read More

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During my visit to Sofia I heard repeatedly that the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery was a must see. Based upon this endorsement my expectations were high, but my first view of the monastery’s tall stone walls left me uninspired; it appeared to be nothing more than a simple stone fortress tucked into a pretty mountain glade. Disappointed, I walked through a long tunnel to a vaulted entrance and stopped in my tracks, stunned by the unexpected beauty of the interior courtyard that spread before me.

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

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A tall, gaunt man limped toward me as I dragged my luggage down the steps of the train that had just arrived in Sofia.

“Where are you going?” he asked shyly, bowing his head in deference.

He wanted to ‘guide’ me in return for a fee but I was fairly certain I could find my way, so I waved him off with a smile. Inside the station I exchanged my few remaining Romanian leu for Bulgarian lev, hit the ATM for additional money, then stepped outside and looked around for the tram or the Metro. Finding neither, I returned to the station, searching for an information booth.

He was waiting for me. “Can I help?” he asked.

Tired from a long train ride, I capitulated and allowed him to lead me to the tram station a block away, where he learned that line was under repair and not in service. “You take taxi,” he suggested. Immediately, my radar kicked in. Was this some sort of a scam?

“No, I take Metro.”

Beckoning me to follow, he limped across the street and descended a stairway leading to an underground tunnel. Growing more suspicious, I followed cautiously, wrinkling my nose up at the stench of urine. “Maybe I’ve made a mistake scheduling a week here,” I thought. At the end of the reeking, litter-strewn tunnel he again motioned for me to follow through double glass doors into the Metro office. After helping me buy a ticket and pointing out my destination on the map, he stepped aside, asking for nothing. Gratefully, I gave him a few lev for his time and proceeded through the turnstile, into a sleek, brand new, spotless Metro station.

Sofia's Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city's historic center Bulgaria

Sofia’s Vitosha Street, a broad pedestrian walkway, leads through the city’s historic center

Moments later I boarded a train for a quick trip to NDK station, where I emerged onto Vitosha Street and stopped dead in my tracks. The wide pedestrian boulevard was filled with people out for a stroll or enjoying lunch at curbside cafes. Children played in fountains and a crowd had gathered around break-dancing street performers. Luxuriant baskets of flowers hung from every street lamp, bursting with color in the bright afternoon sunlight. “Maybe a week in Sofia won’t be long enough,” I mused. Read More