Road Less Traveled: Top 5 Travel Destinations of Armenia

Crazy Foot bridge

Rickety Old Foot bridge

Armenia view Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark landed, according to Genesis 8:4. In addition, Armenia has the distinction of being the first country to adopt the Christian faith (301 A.D.) and being evangelized by two of Jesus’ apostles (Bartholomew and Thaddeus). The landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Armenia may not currently be a top of tourist destination due to the challenge of getting there, but my experience is there is a lot of hidden gems and may be one of the top emerging religious tourist destination yet to be discovered, it’s off the radar for most.  It’s definitely an ancient kingdom that has been passed from empire to empire until it gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Since that time it’s had a hard time with a couple of it’s neighbors.  There’s some disputed Territory that was a gift from Stalin to Azerbaijan and another to Turkey.  The Turkish relationship isn’t as strained it appears, but the Azerbaijani relationship is still strained with land disputes.

Khor Virap Monestary

(Above: Khor Virap Monestary)

There are some amazing destinations in Armenia.  The history of Armenia is fascinating.  I do think it’s worth visiting and not one to overlook in your visit to the former soviet union and in your visit to the Caucuses.  You really have to plan your routes through this region of the world.  For example simply flying into Armenia is a challenge.  We found getting from Georgia to Armenia was a great way of seeing the region and there were many more flight options into Tbilisi such as through Istanbul (one of my favorite cities for extended layovers).  Both Georgia and Armenia are Christian nations.

1. Where Noah landed the Ark – Mt Ararat viewing from Khor Virap Monastery – The Khor Virap Monastery is a 17th century Church provides a spectacular and majestic view of Mount Ararat and one of the most visited church and tourist spot of Armenia.  Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years and as the story goes came out and the miracle of surviving this pit resulted in a conversion of the King and further prostylting led to the country converting to Christianity in 301 AD.

Khor Virap - The pit

The Pit – Climbing down these steps is a freaky experience.  It feels like the latter isn’t straight up and down.  It feels like you’re leaning backward.

Khor Virap in the shadows of Mt Ararat

Khor Virap Monestary with the Bible famous Mt Ararat in the Background.  There were some farmers burning their fields that day, so the mountain isn’t as looming in this photo.

2. Garni Temple – The oldest and best preserved Pagan temple in the world.  This building plays a significant role in the establishment of Armenia as a country and hence has been preserved where a lot of pagan temples around the world were destroyed with the rise of Islam and Christianity.

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

The nearly 2000 year old temple has some older structures around it including some interesting mosaics and likely one of the most incredible views of river valley which remind me of the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and have similar looking basalt columns of the Giants causeway of Ireland.

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(View inside of the Garni temple)

While we were there, some pagans were holding a ritual for one of their members who was off to join the military.

3. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world.  While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ’s coming to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God intended him to build the main Armenian church there. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator with the Kings help when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.He renamed the city Etchmiadzin, which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten.”  This UNESCO herritage site is a 4th Century church with a rich history of the Christian nation of Armenia.

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Courtesy Wikipedia

There was construction going on on the turrets while I was there so my photo didn’t turn out this great.  The church is part of a greater complex of religious buildings including religious seminaries.

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Above: Seminary Students and Armenian Priests in the greater complex

4. Armenian Genocide Complex – Memorial Complex of Tsitsernakaberd

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Right near the national stadium is the Genocide memorial with an eternal flame and a pillar pointing toward heaven.  My friend Marvel told us stories of his families making the experience very personal.  The Government of the Ottoman Empire ordered the  destruction of Armenians in Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) in an organized expulsion and extermination of Armenians. Women, children and elderly were from February 1915 sent on death marches towards the Syrian desert.  Some 1 million to 1.5 million died.

Apparently there is controversy in the use of the term “genocide” as Turkey and Azerbaijan choose to say these events were part of the war.  It’s very sad.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial 1915-1922, the flowers pile up in a circle around the flame.  Online there’s a 3-D video of the Armenian Genocide complex including the ability to place flowers.

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5. Yerevan Republic Square – The Republic Square is the place where ceremonies and meetings are held. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern forehead of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down.  Now you’ll find dancing fountains in the summer.

The square is surrounded with seven major buildings:

  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building (north).
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration (north-east).
  • The Government House: holds the main offices of the Government of Armenia (north-east).
  • The Central post-office of the Republic of Armenia (south-east).
  • The “Mariott Armenia” hotel (south-west).
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (north-west).
  • The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (north-west).

Republic Square Yerevan

Republic Square Yerevan

Christmas in central republic square

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan Armenia

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan, this is a must see on the weekends.  Lots of fun things for travelers.  Lots of crafts involving Noah and the local landscapes.

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This is the Old Yerevan Restaurant Band.  There were tons of fun.  Lots of great food to eat.  The food was one of my favorite things about Armenia.  Lots of great food.

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Rock the Kasbah, Marrakesh Morocco


Let’s go back in time… to a more simple time, with rich flavor, and a close knit community.  Imagine the farmers near your home growing your food, you go to the market and find things that are both grown locally, but with no chemicals, and any meat you eat you can first look it in the eyes.  Go back in time with me to Morocco, I’m you’re guide Joel of Arabia.

I also wrote up about travel in Fez another look at time travel back 2000 years.

Ait Ben Haddou - Donkey Ride

We rode donkeys across the river and helped a Berber trader write a post card to his friend.  He’d been traveling across the Sahara for the last few weeks.

 

One of the most fascinating things about Morocco is the fact that at times you definitely feel like you’re in another world completely.  There are time warps you jump through as you see different parts of Morocco.

One place you must visit is the Atlas mountains.  The people of the mountains live like they do in Tibet.  They live off the land.  They eat their animals.  Life off the land despite the harsh conditions.  They walk up crazy steep slopes along goat and sheep trails.  This is the kind of place where if you visit a family, they may take a goat out and slaughter it for the meal in honor of your visit.  The culture is rich, the people are fascinating, and their lives reflect our heritage and history of 1000s of years ago.  What you expect to find in Jerusalem of the old way of doing things is in Morocco.  Part of that reason is literally hundreds of Christian films use this area for their life of Christ movies including, Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Kasbah

 

An incredible day trip you MUST do is to visit the UNESCO world heritage site of kasbah-town of Aït Benhaddou. The city looks like it’s 2000 years old, and many of these buildings feel that old, and are built like they were.  It was used as a backdrop for more than 20 films including Films such as The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and the recent Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011).

One of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where camel caravan traders brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.  You gotta get out of the city and you can really see amazing things on the trip over the mountain to Ouarzazate.  Pronounced War-za-zot. These include trips to Zagora, an oasis town surrounded by palm tree plantations and a departure point for camel trains to Timbuktu, a journey that would take about 52 days. (Not yet recommended)  Careful on multi country treks as the Algerian border is some times closed.  Most would consider the 1 day, 3 day and 7 day caravan trips.

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The Berber people are from the desert.  They are nomads.  They trade and barter.  Every Berber has things he wants to show you, and you are his guest.  He’ll invite you in for some amazing and sweet mint tea.  As his guest he will roll out his dozens of carpets, and show you his finest jewelry.  It’s customary for him to show you everything, and you pick out various things you like, and then the bartering begins.  It’s natural for it to start out high, and then as you negotiate, you can take things out and barter for the things you really really want.  It seems like with me, I always win and they always tell me I’m a shrewd trader.  After that, they make me feel at home and we exchange gifts.  It’s good to bring something small from home that you can give to his wife, like makeup or perfume, or something for his kids.  It’s a bit embarrassing when he gives you a gift and wonders if you have something for his wife.   Be more prepared than I was.  One strategy I’ve learned from berbers and taxi drivers around the world is they like to be right, but they want to make sure you’re happy.  Learn that you don’t have to have the last say, and you’ll make your host a lot happier and you’ll get much better service even if you are a very shrewd trader.  In Morocco it’s not unusual to get 70-80% off.  I got some incredible massive fossils for about $20 and less.  The prices often start in the 100-200 range.  Something in the states that would cost me closer to $100.  One thing you do learn is you don’t ask the price unless you really want the item.  That often means, don’t ask unless you want to spent the next 10 minutes bartering.  It’s not customary to just make one offer and walk away.  They like the sit down and relax… you are my guest kind of bartering, not I’ll make you an offer and then walk away.

 

You feel like you must be Lawrence of Arabia, or the Prince of Persia a couple more of the many films that was filmed here. Be sure to wanted around Ouarzazate an important trading city on the edge of the Sahara desert. Get lost in the old Kasbah.

222596_4954813782_1933_nI encourage you to get a variety.  Across everywhere you’ll visit there are few shops with set prices, and even more rare in the villages.  For food you don’t have to do  bartering.  If you’ve ever had Moroccan food in your life you’ve likely either eaten dates and finger food on large platters sitting on big cushions and relaxing to music.  When the main dish comes out it’s smothered in amazing stewed carrots, zucchini, or egg plant including lamb, beef or chicken with the tender meat cooked in large clay pots over coos coos.  This earthen method makes it all very tender.  Incredible food.  As we ate we watched to storks making a lot of noise in a massive nest.  The city is made of the soil as well baked mud bricks… the pottery is everywhere.  Pride in every bite.

You can eat at a fine restaurant and spend $50 for amazing Moroccan food or spend $2 and pick the meat in skewers and sit under a tent near the square.  As well, stop at a café for a an amazing meal.  The salads are fantastic with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, black and green olives and of course Oranges!  An incredible Mediterranean meal.  I hear you can even get camel meat.  Andrew Zimmern style meals are within reach, but even without stretching your pallete, you can have some of the freshest, best food you’ve ever tasted.  I seriously think we have a LOT to learn from the simple ways.  Our food has been messed up, and Marrakech and surrounding area and likely much of Morroco has got it right.  Western Europe and the US is missing out.  There are now restaurants who try to mimic this, that try to get back to eating local, but they may be missing elements.  The owners would do well to spend some time in Morocco to learn what it is that makes the difference.  There is something to be said of organic, locally grown, no chemicals, and that connection with the earth that’s in the oven, in the pots, and the open flame.  Turkey, Bulgaria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel… there are others that have this figured out as well.

 

Djemma El Fna – Currently my favorite market in the world! I LOVE the town square of Marrakech. Before there was TV, Radios, Phones, and iPads.  A thousand years ago, on the edge of civilization there was a mystical place.  A place with story tellers, snake charmers, acrobats, fresh fruit juices made by hand with fruit from the trees in the town you were in.  This place still exists!  Every day after my trips around the city, I would end my day in this place.  It was packed with locals.  The best nuts and juice in the world is available for the taking.  One amazing thing about Marrakech is the fresh smell of Orange.  The trees that line the streets are Orange trees.  I don’t know a city anywhere else where Orange trees are scattered throughout the city.  It’s like Johnny Appleseed had a counterpart in Marrakech and all he did his whole life was plant Orange trees in this one city.  While I’m sure it could make a mess in some cities here they gather them up and there is fresh orange juice anywhere you want.  We paid 35 cents (.35 USD) for our glass of orange Juice.  It continues to be the best glass of orange juice I’ve had in my life!

 

The square is filled with locals listening to these stories and watching what’s going on.  I wish I could be invisible and watch the goings on of that square.  Instead, I walk up to see the crazy acrobat, similar to those “artists” who do tricks or play music in most large cities around the world and collect money, but I barely get a chance to see what the tricks are, and they are up in my face asking me for some money.  Despite the fact that I’m happy to contribute a coin.  I just visited an ATM and I have no change.  No money no show, but wait I haven’t seen anything yet.  Tip: bring small change, and expect for them to seem a little insulted, but really that’s just the whole bartering pattern.  I’m sure if you gave them a dollar or more they’d be much happier, but maybe it doesn’t matter.  The first answer is always to ask for more in that culture.  Either way, I come back later with change, and I am fascinated by the diversity of what comes.

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It’s cool to see the cobras being charmed and then a harmless water snake strung around my neck without asking for it… Yes, I’ve seen a snake before, but I’m happy just watching you charm the Cobras.  Really it is an amazing place, but there are surprises.  You’ll see things here you won’t see anywhere else.  Just like mimes that want money from you if you take there picture, there’s these very colorful characters I call the Water guys, who want the equivalent of a dollar/euro/pound for a picture.  If you sneak a picture be really careful they don’t notice.  I didn’t pay.

One guy on the square is “the dentist.”  He has his crude tools to pull out your tooth.  Of course you go back a hundred years and a guy like this could come in handy.  He’ll really take care of that aching tooth.  He has a few hundred teeth to prove he really will do it.  If you look at his collection of teeth pulling equipment and hear his story, you should contribute to the cause.

Clips from our family trip…

Not far from the square is the souks and the medina.  The Old city.  I love telling people that if you went back in time, it would be no different than walking through these old streets.  The souks are walking only winding alleyways of a sort where you can go to amazing shops, and markets and see how the people lived 1000 years ago.  There are a lot of locals who are happy to be you’re guide for a small fee.  If someone wants to show you around, you can tell them, I don’t need a guide… but expect to be asked 5-10 more times.  I found I would get someone who spoke good enough english and negotiate some time.  It was worth it.  We visited a bakery, where the there is a community adobe oven where people who need a stove do their cooking old school.  There’s the chicken place where you can pick out your live chicken.  Simply tell them which one you want and how much preparation you want.  One word.  FRESH.  Just like the high end stores where you can pick out your fish.  Here you can get a chicken to take home with you…

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As well, we came by the baths and water place.  People come from all over to collect water to bring home.  It reminds me of the lady by the well, in Christ’s time.  People come water their animals, but also collect water for drinking.  The homes really are for sleeping.  The entertainment is in the streets, why do you need a kitchen when you can get it all fresh and local?  The people are simple, but it’s amazing to me the principles of life they live.  They eat better than we do, they eat local, they eat food that has been gathered or grown within less than 20 miles of the city.

As you wander the city don’t be afraid to slow down, and talk with the people.  They want to talk to you.  They are very interested in where you come from and how you are enjoying yourself.  Slow down and enjoy the mint tea.  There’s a fast pace of the city and there’s the slow pace of the desert.  Both of these cultures clash to make Marrakech as rich as the dyes in the colors of the carpets.  If you feel so inclined you can visit the place where they mix the dyes.  Again a place that will take you back thousands of years.

 

Marrakech MosqueLose yourself.  That’s the goal.  Go back in time.  There are so many adventures to be had here.  This is a place with a different pace, but also various modes of transportation.  Getting off the plane at the Marrakech airport, we were rushed off in a taxi that seemed put together with bailing twine.  You don’t just have to take taxis, in contrast to the western world where a carriage brings up memories of being a Prince and Princess.  Here a carriage is a good alternative transport.  There is no difference in price.  They both can be negotiated with.  When you slow your pace, you’ll definitely have to give it a shot.  It’s an oldie, but goodie.

The’s one story of Marrakech, that blows my mind, and my eyes.  The Saadian tombs were build in the 16th century, and lost to the world.  They were rediscovered in 1917 with a fly over.  Can you believe that?  A 15 minute walk from the town square and these tombs were simply walled off.  The colored tiles are beautiful and intricate designs.

Call to prayer echoing over the city, some westerners may be intimidated in this Arabian city.  Personally I think the singing brings an element that helps remind me I’m not at home anymore.  That’s a very good thing.  Jews live side by side with Muslims.  The locals tattoo themselves with their faith.  The door handles and markings on the hundreds of year old doors in the old city.  You can tell a lot about the people.  Marrakech is an old capital city and center of a major trade route a very old trade route that would bring in goods from Africa and goods from across the desert.  If you feel so inclined you can spend a week on a real desert excursion into the Sahara.  Live with the Berbers, live like the Bedouin people.image

Camels are majestic animal.  They meant the difference between death and survival in the desert.  An animal that was built for the conditions.

 

If you see a large group of camels.  The people with them will give you a small ride for a price.  There is actually very little difference in price for an hour ride and getting on for a picture.  They’ll get you loaded up and walking and tell you the price doesn’t matter.  It’s a good price for you.  Travel Tip: Always always negotiate before you get on the camel’s back.  It’s in their interest to have you think price doesn’t matter.  Negotiating Similar to the carriage ride.  They don’t know that you know that they are willing to take a local price.  Sometimes it even helps to say… I don’t want tourist prices, I want local prices.  The price will drop in half or more.  For camels you can end up paying easily $50 USD if they get their first price.  Instead be willing to walk away and you can get a good ride for $5.  They’ve been standing out in the heat, they want something fair, and depending on the time of day and how business has been really impacts their willingness to accept various prices.

Morocco, is one of the richest accessible and inaccessible place in the world.  It’s a world of extremes.  It’s the place of adventure.  Just the name sparks imagination of a country of Muslims poorly portrayed in Babel.  While I loved the scenes of Morocco in Babel, I fear the stereotypes create walls and prevent people from experiencing the richness that is so accessible.  Morocco is a bridge to our brothers in the Middle East.  If the western world is to ever understand the Arabic world, it begins by understanding, and the spice of Morocco is an incredibly colorful place to start.  As France struggles with it’s imperial past, and seeks to understand what it’s future is Christian, Jew, and Muslim have much to learn from the gateway to the Sahara.

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Pictured Above: My boys are getting a personal tour of the mosque from one of the boys of the souks.  They didn’t speak the same language, but they did communicate… volumes.

Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Island in Bled Slovenia

I had seen most of Western Europe when I visited the Balkans, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and raw elements of war I would see.  Mountain views, lakes and valleys that would rival the best of Switzerland, rivers that rival the beauty of Idaho’s and untouched wilderness, the bridge in Mostar rival the arches of the canals of Venice, but evoke an emotional response.  The worst of the war torn parts remind me of some parts of Beirut.  Even the West Bank has been more cleaned up than some of the pits out of the buildings in Sarajevo.  The stories of the rebuilding of the Synagogue in Sarajevo… How many times can a building be rebuilt?

Night in Zagreb, Croatia

In contrast, Roman emperors vacationed in Croatia. croatia_bosnia Dubrovnik and Split are incredibly scenic and would rival that of any ports in Italy or France, and a fresh seafood or fish dinner would cost you much less.  I guess what I’m saying is, I loved it.  Belgrade and Sarajevo are the hidden gems of Europe, the passion and life, and recent history to blow your mind.  The travelers looking for secrets in Europe.  Here’s a great place to start.  It’s the Balkans.  Some of my best friends in Europe.  There’s something that goes deeper here.  Relationships are stronger, and go deeper, you can feel it.

My trip started in Zagreb the capital of Croatia with a night tour. We met up for a great dinner and ended up walking around parliament, and old town Zagreb. Zagreb itself did avoid much of the conflict in the Balkan conficts/wars that happened back in 92-93.

Remnants of the war are still visible.  There are more reasons to come and visit than the incredible night life.  There are fresh memories that will teach the world a lesson… this lesson is war is not kind to anyone.  War should be avoided at all costs, and the horrors and nightmares of war are real.  Those who only vacation at Disneyland or Disneyworld and spend their vacations with the Grand Canyon as the ultimate bucketlist need to come for a visit.  This land has a lot of lessons to teach. 

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When we got close to the Republik of Srpska we came across these signs.  After spending time at the Cambodia land museum, I have been convinced that land mines do more danger to the citizens that have to live with these than any good they do for the military.  There are some crazy stats on how much the people are impacted by these.

 

Now before you think it’s all doom and gloom, that’s totally not the key take away.  It’s the opposite.  In fact my friend Michael, who I was traveling with, recently wrote about his experience on this same trip.  I highly encourage reading about his writeup on the former Hapsburg empire – Serbia, Romania, Bosnia & Herz, Montenegro, and Croatia. This trip started with a fellow colleague who lived in Croatia, Toni Frankola, a speaking team of Michael Noel, and Paul Swider.

This place is amazing, but as an American tourist, that gets a rise out of seeing something unlike anything I can find within the US or Western Europe.  I get excited. This was one of the best Europe vacations I’ve ever done.  I’ve seen Dubrovnik and Mostar on the front page of Bing on multiple occasions.  They really are spectacular.  The castle in Belgrade was an awesome place to walk around.  The cultural music and dancing we got at night was spectacular.  Very fun environment.  I think it was a good thing for Toni as well, as he recognized some of the tunes, and was surprised to see the similarities between Croatia and Serbia.  Good stuff.

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Continue reading “Rediscovered Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina”

Must See Cathedrals of Sofia Bulgaria


Black Sea to the East, Turkey and Greece to the south, Macedonia to the Southwest, and Romania to the North.  Sofia is a feast of richness in culture.

I had a 5 hour stopover in Sofia on my way to Istanbul, and I asked the Taxi to drop me off in the center of town.  As we got close I saw this amazing gold roof, and I asked him to drop me off at what I’d find out was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral an Eastern Orthodox church that can support 10,000 people.

Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky Sofia Bulgaria
Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia Bulgaria

What a fascinating area.  First you just start walking around and you find amazing vendors selling antiques.  Antiques including old money from Yugoslavia, Germany, Iran, Iraq, across the middle east and various EU countries prior to their adoption of the Euro.  Amazing masks, art work, and antique razors, knives, and swords.  What a beautiful area to wander around.

Next door sits St. Sofia a crazy old church even for Europe.  On the site of the church in the 2nd century was a Roman theatre, and over the next couple of centuries were built churches only to be destroyed by Goths and Huns, and in the 6th century was built the Hagia Sofia church, a contemporary of the Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul.  In the 16th century it became a mosque, and the mosaics destroyed.  Now one of the most valuable pieces of early architecture in Southeastern Europe.  The city took it’s name from this church.

Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky

The young population of the city breathes life in a big way.  My second visit to Bulgaria a week later after having traveled across Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia to then drive from Skopje to Sofia in 3 hours with an impressive taxi driver. One estimate we had in Sofia was an 8 hour drive.  My hat off to our Macedonian driver.  The same driver who took us to meet the Roma.

Center of Sofia
The workers of Sofia Bulgaria

I’ve seen skaters in large cities in Europe before.  In fact in Paris, I saw huge jumps setup in a park, but in Sofia it was different.  Here it was as if the youth were the center of the city.  There presence is more important and embraced.  Vibrant youth. Radical change.  Hope.

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I met one such youth.  Yordan. He is full of hope, he is full of energy.  He was playing his accordion for fun.  It added a cultural element to the air.  We had a quick chat and extremely quickly we became friends and built trust.

Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals
Having a great meal in Bulgaria with locals

Speaking of hope… I spent a few days with these guys at MS Days Bulgaria.  Two company owners and Microsoft Employee.  Radi, the Ninja Master, opened up his office and on my way home I had dinner with his team.  Again, passion, energy.  The old guard is getting old and retiring, there’s a lot of change a foot in Bulgaria.  A new generation is building businesses and generating successful employment.  Over 1000 attendees came to the event held in a very new Movie Theatre complex.

One of the coolest things about Sofia Bulgaria is the various fresh local markets. While the antique market may be catering somewhat to the tourist. The book market, the fruit and fresh market, and the vendors in the area.  Encouraging passion, intelligence, and getting people out into the streets engaging.  The culture is very open, very talkative.

Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria
Fresh Market in Sofia Bulgaria

Travel Tip: We had no problems with metered Taxis, but yes you might pay more than twice more if you don’t negotiate a local price.  Use the OK taxi, use the meeter and you’ll save a bundle.  Don’t believe them when they say fixed price from the airport, and don’t take a taxi that isn’t in line.  Those soliciting are going to charge you more than the yellow OK taxi.

The parks aren’t setup specifically for the tourist.  A book market… YES! Can you believe it!  Knowledge is power, and whether it’s the book market or the extremely passionate chess games with crowds as large as 20 people watching the intense game.  There’s something going on in Bulgaria.  It’s called life.

Sorry to say… I had a delay on my way home from Turkey which caused a domino effect.  It did put me in Sofia for another 5 hour layover, a third trip to Sofia in a 10 day period and rather than sit at the airport lounge, I reached out to my new friend Radi who invited a few friends.  Many thought it was an April fools joke.

One of the things I loved most of Sofia was how easy it was to find incredible food.  I didn’t have a single dish that wasn’t incredible.  The salads, the soups, the vegetables… I don’t think I’ll ever rave so much about various red and green peppers, cucumbers, egg plant, TOMATOs, and the cheese… yes the cheese.  I mean really, they were spectacular.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, there’s something in the soil, or something.  I have to imagine organic plus no chemicals, hormones, no accelerated growth, or weed killer.  Something I just can’t get in the US or in Western Europe.  When I saw goat head on the menu, I was getting a little excited.  The guys had some fun with that.  Unfortunately Goat head wasn’t available.  Parts and pieces depend on what’s available.

A crossroads of East and West, Bulgaria may hold an important piece of the future of Europe and hence the future of our world.  Often overlooked, but sleeping spark of economic growth.  While Greece, Spain, Portugal and others slow, there’s a sleeper that is emerging.  Let us welcome Bulgaria to the world stage.  I’d definitely welcome a Bulgarian restaurant in my home town.

Russian Orthodox Bulgarian
Russian Orthodox Bulgarian

Virgin Tourist Destinations: Albania and Kosovo


Albanian Art
Albanian Art

When I said I was flying into Albania and traveling across Kosovo to Macedonia some thought it was a very odd choice.  After having done it, I really enjoyed this trip and would recommend it for those looking for more of a raw European experience.  Some of the cheapest areas in Europe with the least number of tourists with some incredibly beautiful terrain.  At the end of this trip, from my UN country list I’m only missing Andorra from continental Europe, that may also explain our odd choice, but again, great adventure.  Did you know Mother Theresa is ethnic Albanian?  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Balkans are one of my favorite areas in Europe.  Dubrovnik, Split, Sarajevo, Mostar, Budapest and Belgrade continue to be some of my favorite cities in Europe.  The Balkans fail to get the best mention for beauty because of stains of war, but this history shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what hasn’t yet been claimed by tourists.  Seriously, you are missing out on the best if you ignore this region.

I met up with Paul Swider in Istanbul for his birthday, and Michael in Tirana.  You’ll hear a lot about these guys… my traveling companions for many adventures.  The night before our flight I was walking with Paul on the famous Taxim.  A walking street in Istanbul that’s known for it’s incredible night life, shopping, food, and it may have a million visitors in a day.  It’s pretty incredible area for getting the vibe of the city and just people watching.

Mega ATM Machine
Mega ATM Machine

Can you tell this city is interested in tourists?  This ATM machine spits out dollars, euros, pounds, and Turkish Lira!  Minutes later we’d be talked into going into this lounge.  They sell drinks for crazy high prices.  I had warned Paul, and thankfully we looked at the pricelist.  A couple years ago I was in a similar situation, but not with any knowledge of the scam that happens in that area with dancing Ukrainian girls sipping champaign, and within 20 minutes my buddy I had met that night had racked up a charge of over 500 Euros and was looking to split it.  Uhhh, no thanks.  Just a quick word of caution to not be talked into going into boring lounges with crazy expensive drinks.  Thirsty girls that just want to talk, is a bad sign.

As avid travelers Paul and I were so crazy impressed by the Turkish Airlines international lounge at the Istanbul Airport.  It wasn’t just the massage therapist who was walking around giving back massages, or the high speed wifi, the omelet bar, the huge free drink selection, breakfast buffet, but when you lockup your bags in a digital locker area with tons of space, a theatre room with rows of leather recliners, a news room area with 9 screens all showing different news programs all over the world and head sets where you could tune in at will.

Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul

I hadn’t really done much research, but after landing in Tirana, Albania and checking into our hotel, I quickly did some searches and found we were only about 40 minutes from the coast or better.  Tirana is named after a castle and is relatively a new city in European terms, but Durres, a roman port town was an easy drive.  So I convinced my traveling companions we needed to head for the coast.  After walking around down town, we saw some remnants of the communist era as well as a mosque that luckily survived 40 years of no religion in Albania and a touch of modernism.

 

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