Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bulgaria - Varna

So these are the trips I did in Bulgaria.  They were some of the best trips on this voyage in terms of getting to know the culture and people.  The tour agency was fabulous.  At one point the lady (who went on many of the trips) said that they were so worried that they wouldn’t be able to accommodate us and we wouldn’t have a good time.  They usually don’t have such big groups, but they did an amazing job.

VAR06 WONDERS OF BULGARIA (1430-1845 Friday, 24 July) This tour provides a spectacular introduction to the wonders of nature, ancient history and culture along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Depart the pier and travel west of Varna to explore the interesting yet strange-looking geological formation known as the Pobitite Kamuni (Stone Forest). This natural phenomenon is situated about 18 kilometers from the city and is the only preserve of its kind in Europe. This four-square kilometer sandy area is studded with colossal limestone columns in varying forms. It is believed that these strange geological shapes formed 45-50 million years ago when the area was the bottom of a vast shallow inland sea. Geologists agree that the formations occurred naturally but cannot agree on how they were formed. This geological wonder is recognized as a Natural Site of National Significance. Enjoy a short walking tour through this quiet forest and see the bizarre forms that resemble frozen human figures, monsters, truncated cones, fountains and lions. Then continue to the Golden Sands Nature Park, another site of national protection, for a visit to the Aladja Monastery, which is now a memorial of Bulgarian cultural and Christian heritage. Located in a picturesque 14-kilometer wooded area north of Varna, these ruins are one of the few preserved and accessible rock monasteries in Bulgaria. Although Thracians lived in these caves during ancient times, the first Christian hermit settled in the area during the 6th century; these monks resided there until the 18th century. The monks' cells and a small church were hewn out of the soft white-limestone cliff providing a retreat and refuge from the outer world. The 13th–14th-century frescoes are now faded, though they must have been striking and colorful to earn the monastery its name (Aladja means “multi-colored” in Turkish). After exploring the area, continue along the picturesque Bulgarian Riviera coastline before returning to the ship.

VAR07 WELCOME RECEPTION WITH BULGARIAN STUDENTS AND PROFESSORS [FDP: LEE] (1930-2230 Friday, 24 July) This will provide an excellent opportunity to meet and interact with Bulgarian students and professors from the Medical University in Varna. Students from other nearby universities will also be invited. After brief introductions, the reception will continue with conversation and dancing. Snacks and soft drinks will be provided.

VAR15 KARIN DOM HOME FOR DISABLED CHILDREN (1230-1630 Saturday, 25 July) Minimum 30/Maximum 100 Visit Karin Dom, a day home for disabled children. Situated in an old 19th-century house at the far end of Varna’s Sea Gardens, Karin Dom hosts many children with health and mental problems. British and French teachers work with the children; a lot of young Bulgarian and English students intern there and assist these special-needs children. Upon arrival, enjoy a performance from the Karin Dom children in the home’s garden. Afterwards, have an opportunity to meet and interact with the children. The end of July is the start of the summer holiday for the children but they have made special provisions for the Semester at Sea visit. At the end of our visit, speak with teachers and leaders of the community about the problems and future perspectives of Karin Dom and similar institutions in Bulgaria.

Karin Dom was founded by Bulgarian-American Johny Stancioff, whose grandparents were close to the royal family; his grandfather and father were Bulgarian diplomats. After the fall of the Communist Regime, his family immigrated to the United States; the family diplomats became gardeners producing vegetables for the Washington markets. Johny Stancioff was the first democratic Ambassador of Bulgaria to Great Britain in 1990 and some years later, he was the Bulgarian Foreign Minister. In July 2009, Mr. Stancioff will be celebrating his 80th birthday. He donated his grandparents’ house to the needs of disabled children in Varna and established a foundation to support the work. The Stancioff house is next to Karin Dom. During the Communist Era, the military unit took over the houses, and built bunkers between the houses which are still there today.

VAR18 VISIT TO BULGARIAN VILLAGE (0900-1700 Sunday 26 July) Approximately one hour from Varna is the heart of the Doubroudzha Plain, often called the bread basket of Bulgaria because of the many grain varieties produced in the region. On this trip, witnesses the rural life of Bulgaria. Visit the mayor’s office and get acquainted with main issues of present day village life. Another key spot in the Bulgarian village is the kindergarten, which is becoming a rare site in the small towns and villages due to migration of young families to the bigger cities. The locals will show their everyday life, full of struggle to survive. We will not miss the local cultural institution, called chitalishte – this is probably the most important place in the village. People gather there to read books and papers, to sing and dance traditional folklore, even to celebrate joyful events from their life. The local people will share their food with us, prepared in their own kitchens. Meanwhile we will have the opportunity to listen to some of the most charming voices of the small local choir.

VAR23 BULGARIAN CUISINE: MASTER COOKING CLASS (1200-1800 Monday, 27 July) Minimum 30/Maximum 70 Learn how to prepare and make some traditional Bulgarian meals such as tarator (a chilled yogurt-and-cucumber soup), a variety of stuffed peppers and banitsas (traditional pastry) under the guidance of a master chef. After the completion of the course, enjoy what you have prepared. Travel to one of the big restaurants in Varna (Golden Sands or similar) for this master cooking class.

So the first day I had my wonders of Bulgaria trip.  First we went to the Stone (Petrified) Forest made of limestone forms.  It was really cool to walk through this area that was just sand and these stone shapes.  I was glad I was wearing sneakers because the sand got in everyone’s shoes, but with sneakers it wasn’t too bad.  Next we went to the Aladja Monastery which is a rock Monastery.  This means it the walkways and everything are carved out of the white – limestone mountain.  There were caves and paths and places to sit.  It was so pretty and the limestone dust was so soft.  Then we went to the Golden Sands beach and walked around and by the shops for about half an hour.  Then we went back to the ship.  I had about 30 minutes before my next trip, but we couldn’t get on the ship because we had been tendering earlier (when we are not docked at the port and are farther out in the ocean so we have to take a lifeboat for about 20-30 minutes to get from the ship to the pier and back) and was moving to the pier.  So we sat there while probably over 100 people crowded in the port building to try to get back on the ship when it arrived.  Then we went to the Welcome Reception at the Medical University in Varna.  They were so nice and made it feel like a big deal that we were there.  There were decorations, a band, snacks and drinks (soda, water, wine).  We took a tour of the college and then went outside and talked with the students.  They don’t have an undergraduate program there.  Instead they go from high school to this college to study medicine.  We did some Bulgarian dancing (I did that same dance a bunch of other times on the other trips, too) and met some students.  We met one guy and his cousin and her boyfriend who met up with Nhesthy the next morning and met up will a few of us the next night.  Then we took the bus back to the ship.  The carpets on these buses weren’t always held down so when I was walking down the steps the carpet slipped out and I fell down the steps haha.  At least there were only a few.  I got a nice scrape on my elbow and hurt my finger though but I thought it was kind of funny. 

The next day I went to Karin Dom, the home for children with disabilities.  It was amazing.  There are kids there with both mental and physical disabilities.  When we got there the children sang some songs for us (one about fingers and one about a clock).  Then there were some other kids coming to play some instruments but they were late so a bunch of us sang some songs to the kids.  We sang twinkle little stars, and itsy bitsy spider.  Then the other children came and played bagpipes and these flute things and then we had snacks, talked with the staff, and played with the kids who were really sweet.  They come here between the ages of newborns to 14-15 years old, but it is an early intervention program so they tend to be younger.  They were really hospitable here too.  Aubrey just wanted pizza, but one lady took her plate and put more stuff on it for her.  Then we took a tour of the facilities.  It is a great place.  I loved it there and would recommend it to anyone.  The facility is beautiful and they have so much equipment available for the children.  There are chairs for children with physical disabilities, a ton school supplies, 2 great sensory rooms, and a really nice outdoor area with a play set, pony, fountains, gardens, swings, small stadium, and more.  Then they told us about how they work with the kids and I was really impressed.  They use Montessori teaching (I thought that was fabulous!), and they have all of these systems to help the children communicate and be independent.  They have charts and schedules and pictures all over and everything is bright and cheerful.  I was really impressed.  That night we went out with 3 of the Bulgarian students we met at the Welcome Reception.  They took us to this club that we never would have thought to go to on our own (most of SAS went to the Golden Sands) but it was really cool.  There was no roof so it was outside and there was this runway kind of thing in the middle.  I liked that it was mostly Bulgarian music with just a few American songs.  We had heard so much American music everywhere it was nice to listen to their music.  Everyone would be singing and dancing and after a while we would be able to pick up the chorus of a song and sing along even if we didn’t know what we were saying haha.

The next day I went on the trip to the Bulgarian Village in rural Bulgaria.  It was definitely one of my favorite trips.  We got such a good feel of the culture and everyone was so nice and hospitable.  When you think about going on this voyage and interacting with locals and such this is exactly what that was.  It was way cool.  We met up with the Mayor (a woman) and went to her office and learned about the village.  We also visited the church there and lit some candles.  We also went to the library area and saw the books.  Then we went to the Mayor’s house and ate at these tables outside on this patio kind of thing.  There were originally supposed to be more people there, but there was a funeral that day so about 6 woman stayed to host us.  When we walked in we took a piece of bread and dipped it in some seasoning (same as when we walked in the University), then we got a drink of something, and then they put a popcorn string headpiece on us.  They had so much food prepared for us and it was all delicious.  There was soup and bread and chicken and eggplant and more.  They also gave us cherry juice, wine, and brandy.  This stuff was all handmade from their garden.  They gave us a tour of the place and they have a stone oven they cook everything in and a huge garden.  They just walked through and picked stuff up to give to us like apples, carrots, peppers, wine grapes, cucumbers, watermelon, etc.  They sang and showed us how to make wool and fabrics and stuff.  Then we all danced together and they dressed up a guy and a girl in classic wedding outfits and we danced some more.  We were all pretty sad to leave.  They danced with us all the way out to the bus. 

That night we went to Captain Cook’s restaurant for dinner.  It is this seafood place above the passenger terminal next to the boat (really like you get off the ship and walk 10 steps and through this building.  The top of the building is this restaurant.  I know that sounds kind of sketchy which is what I originally thought.  But we went up there for free internet the night before (and got some fresh squeezed orange juice so we weren't just using their wifi) and they said we had to sit at the bar because all the tables were reserved.  That was fine at the time because we weren't getting food anyways.  So we see people come in really dressed up fancy and ordering yummy looking food.  So we made 9pm reservations for the next night.  We sat outside so it looked right into the ship.  Like this guy in his room was waving at us.  I got a coconut shrimp salad (it said shrimp on lettuce so I thought it was going to be more shrimp less salad but it ended up being the other way around) and shrimp and vegetable tempura.  They were both really really good.  Then I we got cheesecake because we heard it was delicious and it was.  It was such a good dinner and we had a lot of fun.

The next day I had the Bulgarian Cuisine Master Cooking Class trip.  It was really cool.  We went to this restaurant my Golden Sands beach and there were 4 tables with chiefs and assistants (2 buses worth of SASers).  Originally we were in groups and were going to rotate but it ended up being a free for all.  So we wandered around between these tables and helped to make the food.  We made a yogurt cucumber soup and cucumber tomato salad, peppers stuffed with this meat stuff and roasted peppers stuffed with this cheese stuff and coated and fried, both meat and vegetarian musaka, and bread and an apple pastry dessert.  Then we got to sit down and eat.  The food was so good.  The stuffed fried peppers were my favorite but it was all delicious.  And we got a lot of fresh Bulgarian cheese (kind of like feta) to eat.  They also gave all of us free spices, aprons, and hats. We also got the recipes for all the foods we made.  I also got a Bulgarian cookbook.

So all in all Bulgaria was amazing.  I think these were some of the best planned trips this summer.  The tour agency was so nice.  There was one lady who was in charge and she went on a lot of the trips.  She said they were so nervous they wouldn’t be able to accommodate us (they usually have much much smaller groups and this isn’t even her full time job – it’s just an extra thing she does), but they did an amazing job.  She was sad and waved as she got on the bus to drive away after the last trip came back. 

We just left Morocco and are on our way home to the USA.  I am looking forward to coming home, but honestly I’m not really ready for this to be over.  It’s weird to think we just boarded the MV Explorer for the last time on the summer of 2009 voyage.  Anyways, I’m going to dinner and will update more later.  I know I need to catch up haha – next post is about Egypt.

From the Atlantic Ocean after Morocco heading back to Norfolk, Virginia, USA, Sharon

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