Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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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

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When locals in Maramures and Cluj-Napoca learned that my itinerary included Bucharest, they warned me about a cultural divide between the eastern and western portions of Romania. Residents in the west, they insisted, had always felt a stronger affinity with Europe, while cities in the east looked toward Russia. I began to feel the shift in Brasov, where the effects of a struggling economy were evident in unloved squares and a general sense of apathy. Bucharest had more pride in its appearance, but the Soviet-era apartment blocks that towered over lovely Belle Époque buildings lent the city a certain sterility. Initially, Bucharest did not knock my socks off.

Lori Pascal, my friend and fellow travel blogger from Bucharest, at Revolution Square

Lori Pascal, my friend and fellow travel blogger from Bucharest, at Revolution Square

Fortunately, fellow travel blogger Lori Pascal lives in Bucharest. We had long known one another “virtually” and I was excited to finally meet her in person. She and her husband, Andrei, picked me up one day and treated me to a tour of their home town. From Victoria Square we headed north to the entrance to Herastrau Park, marked by the Arch of Triumph, a free-standing arch that is smaller but eerily similar to the better-known Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Further north we circled past the House of the Free Press, a replica (though again, smaller) of Lomonosov University in Moscow, which houses government and media printing presses as well as the Romanian Stock Exchange. Read More

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From the moment I decided to visit Eastern Europe I was obsessed with the idea of Transylvania. My mind conjured images of razorback mountains with rugged roads where one false move would send hikers plunging to their deaths. I imagined black-green forests so dense that not even the midday sun could penetrate and wolves howling beneath the spilled glitter of the Milky Way. Though I’d ignored the Twilight TV series that had gripped the collective fascination, I read Bran Stoker’s Dracula prior to arriving in Romania; as a result the Transylvania in my mind was also peppered with visions of vampires and Dracula. A romantic at heart, I desperately wanted to believe that this corner of the world was still remote, untouched, and mysterious.

However, Transylvania is a very large region in northern Romania, so when I left Turda I had a decision to make. I could head due south to Sibiu or southeast to Brasov. In the end I chose the latter for its proximity to Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle in tourism circles. I arrived in Brasov late one afternoon following a long, hot train ride, only to be held up by a taxi driver who tried to charge me more than four times the normal rate to take me to Old Town. Instead, I squeezed into a few inches of space on the stairs of an overloaded bus and held on for dear life as we careened around curves, simultaneously swiping at the sweat pouring down my forehead while trying to keep my suitcase from rolling out each time we jolted to a stop and the doors flew open.

Piata Sfatului, the main square in Old Town in Brasov, Romania, is dirty and sadly neglected

Piata Sfatului, the main square in Old Town in Brasov, Romania, is dirty and sadly neglected

After a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep I left the frustrations of the precious day behind and headed out to see Brasov. Piata Sfatului, the town’s main square, was a disappointment. The central fountain was dry and trash was strewn around its base. Many of the stone pavers were chipped or cracked and some were missing entirely. A worker trickling water onto spilled ice cream stains succeeded only in making them stickier. Further along I found Nicolae Titulescu Park where I strolled through neglected rose gardens. Circling back, I followed a path alongside earthen fortifications built to protect the town during medieval times. A rank odor rose from a small stream that bordered the path and gray soap scum floated on its surface. Brasov seemed seedy, dilapidated, and poorly maintained – a town in decay. Read More