Paris (it’s pretty nice)

 

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Visiting the Louvre at dusk.

 

We said goodbye to my uncle and his wife, dropped the car in Limoges, and hopped on a train bound for Paris. And Paris is, as far as cities go, pretty nice.

 

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The Eiffel Tower. We’re such terrible tourists that this was as close as we got to it; we didn’t even bother walking across the bridge to the actual park.

 

I’m speaking objectively. I’ve never really been under the sway of the French obsession. Haute couture fashion and makeup? Don’t follow it.

French food? I can agree with them that butter = better.

Romance language? I prefer Italian, or non-romance languages Russian or Japanese.

Paris as a dream destination? The closest I’ve come to learning about sightseeing in the city is listening to David Sedaris’ interview with This American Life.

 

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We came upon these columns on a road along the Seine; they’re strangely attractive for industrial grade metal pylons.

 

So with no expectations for Paris, here’s what I came away with:

1. The food is actually better than the U.S. Like in Italy, even the base quality food is better. You can still find places that are meh (especially bakeries), but the grocery goods are way tastier and there’s a fresh market stall for everything from produce and bread to meet and seafood.

 

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A kouign amann, which is basically just thin sheets of dough held together with butter and caramelized sugar.

 

2. Not everyone is dressed better, but the better-dressed are noticeably more stylish

 

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Look at this random guy. A thousand times more stylish than a random guy in the U.S.

 

3. Everything IS pretty. Forms of function have decoration and embellishment by default. Presentation matters. In this sense, being here reminds me of Japan.

 

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This is a random Metro entrance, apparently in the style of Art Nouveau because of course.

 

Oh, and someone told me that Paris Syndrome is actually a thing. Guess it was good I came without expectations.

Sunrise and Sunset at Grenoble’s Bastille

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Dawn over Grenoble, as seen from the Bastille.

Located on a hill in the north, the Bastille affords some of the best views of Grenoble and is an ideal place to watch the sun rise and set over the city. Though the entrances through the parks at the Bastille’s base are locked and inaccessible outside of business hours (rendering them unusable for hikes up to see sunrise and sunset), there are several routes and trails up the hill to the Bastille. You just have to know where to look.

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The winding multitude of paths down the Bastille to the Isere River (top).

 

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The Bastille at dawn.

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A view of Grenoble just below the Bastille.

Should you plan on doing a sunset or sunrise hike, bring a light, since there are few lights along the Bastille trails. Second, bring water. The Bastille hill isn’t that tall but some of the trails up can be steep, and the only source of water I saw were fountains at the top where the “bubble” gondolas depart. Third, bring a windproof jacket. Even when the air in the city below is still, it whips and chills at the top of the Bastille walls.

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There are no lights along the trail to the Bastille, so bring your own.

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Some of the stairs and paths are pretty steep, so bring water.

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The wind can be pretty rough at the top, so bring a jacket to stay warm.

If you’re coming from the part of the city just south of the Isere River, the easiest route up to the Bastille is at the southwest end of Rue Saint Laurent. Look for the Fontaine du Lion, a massive fountain depicting a lion battling a snake; there are stairs just south or a bit north of this fountain that will take you to a trail that leads up to the Bastille.

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The Fontaine du Lion; there are entrances up the hill to the Bastille to the right and left of this statue.

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One of the entrances up to the Bastille. Just keep heading up.

I’ll try to get an actual trail route up here later, but for now the best instructions I can give are to stay to the left to avoid the road, and keep looking for stairs or switchback trails leading up. After 10-20 minutes you should reach the first Bastille walls with stairs leading up into the ruins. Walk up the stairs and continue climbing, but any tree-free outlook after this point should provide a good view of the city.

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One of the many stairs up/down.

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The gravel paths around the Bastille are favored by walkers and joggers in the morning, so once the sun rises you’re unlikely to be alone.

At the top of the Bastille you’ll find a lookout point and the “bubble” gondola that can take you back down to the city (11 AM – 6 PM). Enjoy the views, and then climb or take the gondola back into town.

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A view of Grenoble at night.

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Spare gondolas in storage.

Gondolas come into the station at the top of the Bastille, overlooking Grenoble.

Sunrise over Grenoble

IMG_6246 I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and I’ve never mixed a drink in my life (unless you count a rare shot of Bailey’s into hot cocoa), but if there was ever a name for a drink, it would be Sunrise over Grenoble. And you would make it with layered peach juice and grenadine and whatever alcohol goes well with those two things, maybe a dark spiced rum. It’s true I don’t know what I’m doing behind the bar here in my mind but it’s my hypothetical drink. Get your own.

Anyway, the point of all of this is if you ever find yourself in Grenoble, wake up predawn and hike up to the Bastille for sunrise. It’s picture (and mixed drink) worthy: IMG_6193

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After sunrise, head back down to the city just in time for breakfast at a local café. Maybe even get a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee.

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The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Mostar

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A lone person traverses the Stari Most in the morning.

A couple hours’ bus ride west of Sarajevo, the city of Mostar is a point of pride for the country. When we asked people in Sarajevo where else we should visit, the answer was also “Mostar, because it’s beautiful.”

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One of the old buildings in the downtown, at dusk.

Situated on the aquamarine Neretva River, Mostar’s most famous landmark and namesake is the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman Bridge made of silken white stone. Destroyed in the Bosnian War, Stari Most was reconstructed with the help of the U.N. Protections Force and funding from several countries, in part using stones from the original bridge that were fished out of the Neretva. Local tradition of jumping off the bridge as a right of passage for men has morphed into a tourism attraction, and on a lucky day you’ll see a tourist or two taking the plunge. The bridge is also now a stop on Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series.

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Staring down into the Neretva River.

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Stari Most at night.

The downtown area is a tourist hotspot, with market stalls packed full of souvenirs, artisan shops, and restaurants. Most of touristic good sold are likely made elsewhere, but if you find a craftsman at work then you’re likely getting the real deal. Hand-hammered copper reliefs and Turkish coffee sets* make ideal take-home gifts, so as you walk through the marketplace listen for the clink of chisels on metal.

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The touristic downtown market.

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A coppersmiths workshop. Jizve are being molded using lead (silver circle) at left.

Outside the downtown area, the city bustles on, a network of roads full of cars and lined with densely built shops and houses. There are fewer physical signs of the war here; fewer bullet holes or mortar shell scars. The neighborhoods get a bit rougher looking at the city’s edge on the west side, but we had no problems walking through at dusk. If you’re not behaving strangely or wearing anything ostentatious, you’ll probably be left alone.

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The remains of a building.

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Modern cars parked in front of a building, likely damaged in the war and now left to decay.

Oh, and when you’re there be sure to stop by Tima Irma to eat the best kebapci money can buy, served with fresh veggies, cheese, and pita bread. You can even wash it down with a local beer.

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A view at the edge of town.

*A slight word of warning: traditionally, the jizveta are formed by pouring lead into the mold, and then removing it afterward. It’s been done this way for centuries, but if you do get one you might want to test it for lead before using it to make coffee.

**A second slight word of warning: the countryside around here may look dreamy, but don’t wander off into the hills without a guide. Mostar sat at one of the fronts during the Bosnian War and much of the area is still mined.

Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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Skakavitza Waterfall Hike

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With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

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Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

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A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.

Map:

A photographic taste of the trail:

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Trail information at the trailhead.

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Follow the red trail markers.

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Other hikers along the trail.

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A wild allium flower.

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A waterfall along the trail.

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Dewspun spider web along the trail.

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The forest along the trail.

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An abandoned electrical building along the trail.

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The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.

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Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.

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An odd flower or bud.

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If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.

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The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!

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Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.

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Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.

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Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.

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Wild violet.

 

Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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Nikolaevo

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A street near the town’s center, looking northward to the nearby hill. You can see the edge of town from here. 

Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.

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Lela Stanka, Stoytcho elder, and Stoytcho younger.

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We offer to help Stoytcho elder with chopping firewood.

We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”

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Old equipment lies in an empty lot near the town’s edge.

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A snake slithers through leaf litter at the edge of town.

Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.

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Wine grapes in a vineyard to the town’s north.

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Two Roma men greet us as they pass. 

Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.

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A herd of sheep and goats wander beneath Nikolaevo’s highway overpass.

Bulgaria: Day trip to Chudnite Mostove

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Staring up at the Chudnite Mostove (Marvelous Bridges), massive holes worn into the karst.

Day trip! We’re driving south of Plovdiv to see the Chudnite Mostove (Wondrous Bridges/Marvelous Bridges), Bachkovo Monastery, and Assen’s Fortress, all nestled in the mountains south of Asenovgrad. Here in Bulgaria summer still lingers and sunlight spills over the landscape, sneaking through the trees and dappling the trails. The hot midday air smells like pine sap and cut grass. And the afternoon stretches the shadows long between the steep mountain peaks, bathing us in shade and cool winds. Though it’s the cheapest (and poorest) member in the E.U., Bulgaria has natural beauty to rival any other country.

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The Chudnite Mostove from above.

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Climbing into the valley below the Chudnite Mostove is steep and difficult, but worth it.

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This Martenitsa has somehow survived 5+ months tied to a tree branch.

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Exploring the karst hollows of the valley.

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The cave below one of the Chudnite Mostove (to the East); this climb had some steep drop offs that I wouldn’t recommend you tackle unless you have water shoes and there hasn’t been recent rain.

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A blue fuzzy mushroom.

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An unusual way of dispersing seeds.

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The valley as seen from inside the Chudnite Mostove to the West. Though it hasn’t rained in the last couple of days, a stream still flows through it.

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The entrance to Bachkovo Monastery, of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

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Murals painted here date back to 1604 (or earlier). The monastery has been in continuous operation since that date, though it was founded in 1083.

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An ornate chandelier reflects light on the golden foil used in the monastery’s ancient murals.

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This trail leads to a small shrine built several kilometers away in the mountains. It also says something about a waterfall on the sign, but hah, we found none. 

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The trail into the mountains.

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A square-spotted blue butterfly drinks nectar from a dandelion.

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A small shack in the woods.

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I think we’ve found the shrine-in-the-rock.

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The iconography of the shrine, clean and bright thanks to the shelter in the rock.

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A catapult on display at Assen’s Fortress.

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The church at Assen’s Fortress, overlooking the valley below.

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At the very top of Assen’s fortress.