Bucharest – and our tour ends!

The final part of our journey, the wonderful ‘Tour of the Balkans’, and we arrive in Bucharest, the capital and largest city of Romania. We spend some time wandering around the places of interest within walking distance of the Hotel, followed by a trip by bus to the extremely large Government buildings! My job was to do the videoing on this day and Robin was the photographer. Judy took lots of photos as well. As the next morning was our last day in Romania, actually the last day in Europe, we had other things on our mind other than to load up all the days photos onto my computer. I was leaving early to start my new adventure in London, and the others were catching the plane in the afternoon to start their journey back to New Zealand! So today is the first day that I only have a very few photos.

Following our local Tour guide around the streets of Bucharest
Following our local Tour guide around the streets of Bucharest
Me posing in front of a horse statue :-)
Me posing in front of a horse statue πŸ™‚
This is a new modern building built inside the shell of an old building
This is a new modern building built inside the shell of an old building. It is actually the headquarters of the Union of Romanian Architects.
Great building! A concert Hall built in 1865.
Great building! A concert Hall built in 1865.
Passing by on the bus...
Passing by on the bus…
Another photo from the bus!
Another photo from the bus!
Statue of Bucharest
Statue of Bucharest

I don’t think anyone can go to Bucharest and not visit the Palace of Parliament. Going into this place was like going through customs at the airport only even more official. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but it was okay while we were outside on the Balcony.

Robin and I on the Balcony
Robin and I on the Balcony
Us three girls :-)
Us three girls πŸ™‚
The road to the city in the background
The road to the city in the background
A better photo of the view from the Balcony
A better photo of the view from the Balcony

You have no idea how huge this parliament building is! It was massive! The details…

Palace of Parliament is 270m by 240 m, 86 m high, 92 m underground, 1,100 rooms, 12 stories tall, with four additional underground levels currently available and in use. The floor area is 340,000 m2. The Architect was 28 year old Anca Petrescu (a woman) who also led a group of 700 other architects. It took 25,000 people, 3 shifts, 24 hours day to construct it. Building started in 1984, it cost €3-billion and was completed in 1997.

The Palace of Parliament. Photo from 'Wikipedia'
The Palace of Parliament. Photo from ‘Wikipedia’

According to the World Records Academy, the Palace is the world’s largest civilian building with an administrative function,Β  and it is the heaviest building! We were shown through a very small portion, but were still amazed by the number of enormous rooms inside. Most were available to be rented for Weddings or other occasions where Ballrooms were needed. Hugely extravagant and so very expensive to have built and no doubt to maintain!

So all the other photos of Bucharest are at home in New Zealand, but I guess you have seen and heard enough about this tour of the Balkans already. I know I have found it hard to stay enthusiastic to get this STORY completed, so can imagine it has been a bit of a trial for you, the reader, to see it through as well. Life has moved on and I have so many new events happening that I want to ‘tell’ you about…Β  Hehe…Β  aren’t you lucky πŸ™‚ But I have loved the Balkans and will treasure the memories forever!

We finished the tour with a celebration dinner together. It didn’t feel like a celebration as we knew the next day we would be saying our goodbyes to our travel buddies. I am pleased that I can stay connected to the ones that have facebook accounts, and I can see what is going on in their lives even today (well a little portion anyway). They see a lot of me! I still have contact with friends from our last tour through facebook and it is really nice. You never know we may just meet again one day πŸ™‚

Bran Castle – Romania

Officially called Bran Castle, and definitely not Draculas Castle.

Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania. This character is often confused with Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince with a castle, now in ruins, located in the Principality of Wallachia. Because Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that actually fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle. In fact Bram Stoker never visited Romania. He depicted the imaginary Dracula’s castle based upon a description of Bran Castle that was available to him in turn-of-the-century Britain.

Have a look at their website! They have a wonderful movie of the castle to show you where it is situated and how big it is. And the above information is from that website!

Bran Castle

If you read the info from the first photo you will get the history of the castle. It was built in the 13th century!

The history of the Castle
The history of the Castle
Looking up at the Castle
Looking up at the Castle
Our tour group and some extras going up the stairs into the Castle
Our tour group and some extras going up the stairs into the Castle
Judy going up the steps! It is actually quite high!
Judy going up the steps! It is actually quite high!
Inside the Castle in one of the many rooms
Inside the Castle in one of the many rooms
The amazing furniture
The amazing furniture
One of the bedrooms
One of the bedrooms
Another room with the dark wood floors
Another room with the dark wood floors
The heating system!
The heating system!
The dining room
The dining room
The roof from the balcony with me posing :-)
The roof from the balcony with me posing πŸ™‚
Look how far away the road is! Shows how high the Castle is :-)
Look how far away the road is! Shows how high the Castle is πŸ™‚
The windows on the balcony
The windows on the balcony
Looking over the roof to the distance
Looking over the roof to the distance
Walking along the balconies in the inner courtyard area
Walking along the balconies in the inner courtyard area
Looking up at the inner walls
Looking up at the inner walls
Robin in the Armour room
Robin in the Armour room
Some of the tour group down in the inner courtyard
Some of the tour group down in the inner courtyard
Looking back up at the balconies
Looking back up at the balconies
Len going up the secret staircase
Len going up the secret staircase
Spiral stairs out of the house
Spiral stairs out of the house
Showing how high the outside wall is!
Showing how high the outside wall is!

It was surprising just how many people were actually visiting the Castle. I think there was probably about four tour groups, plus individuals visiting. We all meandered through the little passages inside the Castle, and had a look inside each room. Then it was out onto the balcony and walking around to the stairs to the inner courtyard and then out again. The pressure was on to get through as fast as possible! I was kind of disappointed. I guess I had imagined the Castle would be a lot more spooky and maybe with cobwebs and bats everywhere. I also thought I would see people dressed up as Dracula running around the place. It was actually quite normal! Nothing like the movies giving me a false impression huh! There were some markets in the area at the bottom of the castle and they did have Dracula paraphernalia for sale, amongst some other touristy stuff.

This man was walking around the market
This man was walking around the market with a couple of animals used for entertainment!

So for those of you who are planning a trip to Romania, especially to visit Draculas Castle, and have thoughts that it’s going to be a real Dracula experience, it won’t be! But it is a very interesting Castle and well worth a look through πŸ™‚

Brasov – Romania

And we arrive in Brasov to a Hotel full of young people. The foyer even though huge, was full of them. We immediately knew that there must have been some big event happening in this Romanian city 103 miles North of Bucharest. (Yes we have passed our final city of our tour, but heading back after two nights stay). After getting our Hotel room numbers and passing heaps of young adults in the corridors as we locate our room, I decided to ask at the front desk why so many people were staying at the Hotel. Not only one but two big events! The Romanian Music Awards for 2014 were being held in the old town square this very night (our first night) and up the road a little further was a huge tent set up for Octoberfest. The town was buzzing and so were all the young people that had come here to attend either or both of the festivals. We were left wondering just how much sleep we were going to get? The town square was just behind the hotel!

The sign for Oktoberfest
The sign for Oktoberfest
The huge tent for Octoberfest
The huge tent for Oktoberfest
The tent was set up in an outdoor arena
The tent was set up in an outdoor arena
Romanian Music Awards Banner
Romanian Music Awards Banner
The water fountain in the town square with the Stage behind it
The water fountain in the town square with the Stage behind it
Look at those speakers! Facing in the direction of our Hotel :-)
Look at those speakers! Facing in the direction of our Hotel πŸ™‚

And we did hear the music but it was actually okay. Apparently the top bands of all of Romania were at our hotel, and we saw them wander through the foyer when their turn to sing was getting closer. The girls were dressed up like it was not only the music awards but the fashion awards as well. We even had fans sitting in the foyer trying to get as many signatures as they possibly could. Later on in the evening as we were going up to bed we met one band member wandering from his room to another room in his boxers. I did get a little worried that the entertainment in the rooms late at night might be louder than the actual singing, but by 1.30am all seemed very quiet and we had a great sleep.

The next morning it was an early start to discover Brasov with our local guide. The whole town was sleeping except for the street cleaners. It was quite eerie, but we got some good photos of the old town without all the usual tourists.

Usually it would be so hard to get such an empty street
Usually it would be so hard to get such an empty street
Another empty street with fabulous buildings each side
Another empty street with fabulous buildings each side
Our tour group wandering through the old town square after the local guide
Our tour group wandering through the old town square after the local guide
I love taking photos of these fabulous  buildings
I love taking photos of these fabulous buildings
A side of the town square
A side of the town square
Look at the little windows on the roof
Look at the little windows on the roof
I really liked this pink building
I really liked this pink building
This is a great building as well
This is a great building as well
Can you find Robin?
Can you find Robin?
The Church beside the Town Square
The Church beside the Town Square
The lovely clock on the church
The lovely clock on the church
The Jewish church between the buildings
The Jewish church between the buildings
I think Brasov has seen too many Hollywood movies. They have their own sign way up on the hillside
I think Brasov has seen too many Hollywood movies. They have their own sign way up on the hillside

After our wander through the town, we all boarded the bus and went out to visit Bran Castle. I will do a separate post for the Castle as there are so many photos to share πŸ™‚

The optional tour for the afternoon was to a place called Sighisoara. We had heard that the trip was worth it as the place was known as an enchanting medieval gem of a town. We looked up photos on the internet and although it did look a lovely place to see, we were bused out, and it was a three hour round trip. Our afternoon was spent by having a lovely leisurely lunch first…

Enjoyiny the lovely sunny day while we wait for our lunch
Enjoying the lovely sunny day while we wait for our lunch

And then we decided to walk to the Gondola and go to the top of the hill. We wanted to get to the Brasov sign!

Looking back to the Old town
Looking back to the Old town
Yes... We walked up that steep hill... and more!
Yes… We walked up that steep hill… and more!
Looking down on the city from the Gondola
Looking down on the city from the Gondola
The view from the top of the hill
The view from the top of the hill
Another direction! Fabulous view huh!
Another direction! Fabulous view huh!
And there is the sign!!!
And there is the sign!!!
The walkway behind the sign!
The walkway behind the sign!
And we are at the viewing platform
And we are at the viewing platform
And Judy too :-)
And Judy too πŸ™‚

It was worth the walk both up to the Gondola and then from the Gondola station around to the sign.

That evening we all went to visit a traditional Transylvanian restaurant for an evening of delicious Romanian delicacies with music, dancing and wine. Our second to last evening together as a tour group.

The venue for our dinner
The venue for our dinner
The wonderful view of Brasov city
The wonderful view of Brasov city
Waiting to be welcomed into the Castle
Waiting to be welcomed into the Castle
Inside now and gathering in the courtyard :-)
Inside now and gathering in the courtyard πŸ™‚
Seated and enjoying our entertainment, meal and time together relaxing
Seated and enjoying our entertainment, meal and time together relaxing
A fun photo of Judy and me :-)
A fun photo of Judy and me πŸ™‚

Altogether another lovely day filled with wonderful memories! I love holidays πŸ™‚

And we cross the Border to Romania!

The border is actually at the Danube River. One side is Bulgaria and the other Romania. At each border, either our Tour director gathers all our 40 passports and takes them to the border control, or a border control officer comes onto the bus and gathers passports each one of us. The officers that came onto the bus take their job very seriously! I was always worried that there was going to be some sort of problem and that they would actually find something to stop us crossing the border! I can’t remember which country it was that we went into, but they held onto the South Africans passports for ages! David (our tour director) wasn’t sure if they would be allowed in at all. That had happened on a previous tour! But luckily we eventually were all accepted into each new country.

Bulgaria one side and Romania the other
Bulgaria one side and Romania the other
The Bulgarian toll charges for crossing the Danube River
The Bulgarian toll charges for crossing the Danube River
With our passports, waiting for collection :-)
With our passports, waiting for collection πŸ™‚

Our final destination for the day was to get to Brasov, but part of our tour was to visit the town of Sinai and also the Peles Castle. This castle cost approx US$120 million to build finishing in 1883. Although major improvements were made until 1914. The Castle was built for Monarchy, and owned by the crown. Now it is a heritage site and opened to the public, with an entry fee! To be able to take photos inside there is another cost and a label must be worn to prove that you have paid the fee. We all decided that I would buy a ticket and use my camera as it always takes fabulous indoor photos without need of a flash, and as you weren’t allowed to use the flash, it was perfect. Now I always take photos on fully automatic and people are always commenting on my great photos. So now you know my secret! It’s not because of my skill at all that I take good photos. It’s the fabulous camera that I have. A Canon EOS M. Have a look at the specs! It really is an excellent camera to use. Just copy and paste the link below in your internet browser πŸ™‚

http://www.canon.co.uk/For_Home/Product_Finder/Cameras/Digital_SLR/EOS_M/

This isn't actually the castle but the souvenier shop and facilities. Still looks pretty good though
This isn’t actually the castle but the souvenier shop and facilities. Still looks pretty good though
Walking along the path to the Castle
Walking along the path to the Castle
The Peles Castle!
The Peles Castle!
The fabulous Castle from another angle
The fabulous Castle from another angle
Closer up to the Castle and you can see the different shaped windows and outside materials
Closer up to the Castle and you can see the different shaped windows and outside materials
Another view of the outside
Another view of the outside
I loved this view of the roof and little turrets
I loved this view of the roof and little turrets
The inner courtyard and the amazing Frescos
The inner courtyard and the amazing Frescos
Another wall in the inner courtyard
Another wall in the inner courtyard
One of the Frescos in the inner courtyard
One of the Frescos in the inner courtyard
I love these iron decorations or scrolls. I have so many photos of them.
I love these iron decorations or scrolls. I have so many photos of them.

So after having a good look at the outside of the Castle and admiring all the Frescos in the courtyard, David finally got our tickets to enter the Castle. I was so happy to have a pass to take as many photos as I wanted!

The stairs we walked up into the first room that we looked at
The stairs we walked up into the first room that we looked at
The room had so much woodwork it was hard to take it all in!
The room had so much woodwork it was hard to take it all in!
Every wall was decorated
Every wall was decorated
And even upstairs balconies
And even upstairs balconies
Even the furniture was elegantly designed
Even the furniture was elegantly designed
The ceiling was high and the wood carved all the way up
The ceiling was high and the wood carved all the way up
And look at this amazing spiral staircase. Judy saw a photo of this on Facebook and asked if we saw it on our travels. This is it Judy :-)
And look at this amazing spiral staircase. Judy saw a photo of this on Facebook and asked if we saw it on our travels. This is it Judy πŸ™‚
Another wall :-)
Another wall πŸ™‚
A similar photo to a previous one, but it all is so very amazing!
A similar photo to a previous one, but it all is so very amazing!
And this is the next room
And this is the next room
Even the ceiling is a work of art
Even the ceiling is a work of art
It was full of spears and armour and weapons
It was full of spears and armour and weapons
Look at this carved wood!
Look at this carved wood!
a small part of the weapons on the wall
a small part of the weapons on the wall
Looking up we saw this
Looking up we saw this
And there was even a full sized Horse with rider, both with armour on!
And there was even a full sized Horse with rider, both with armour on!
Going through to another room
Going through to another room
Our guide told us about every room, but there were actually so many and they were all very elaborate
Our guide told us about every room, but there were actually so many and they were all very elaborate
More carved walls!
More carved walls!
A very large dining room!
A very large dining room!
I loved these windows/doors
I loved these windows/doors
They even had a theatre!
They even had a theatre!

Now I have put up a lot of photos, but believe me I could have put up heaps more! Sadly I have to confess that for the first time I touched something on my camera and changed the settings from automatic to manual. Now if I had time I would have fiddled around and managed to change the setting back but the tour guide kept moving on from room to room, and I was already at the end of the group, and panicking about keeping up, and trying to see everything and also trying to get the best photos I could get with minimal light and no idea how to focus the camera in these conditions! It was awful! I was angry with myself and sad that I wasn’t getting the best photos that I could get. And I nearly got lost! The group had moved out from the last room and I had no idea which way they went! The Castle was so big and had rooms going off in all directions. Luckily there were a couple of others from our tour still with me and taking photos, and we managed to get advise from another group leader! Phew!

So we wandered on back to the bus with me still being mad at myself for messing up the camera. One day I AM going to learn all about how to really use a camera on manual settings! One day I will!

Wandering through the street stalls on our way back to the bus :-)
Wandering through the street stalls on our way back to the bus πŸ™‚

Peles Castle was certainly a wonder to see. It was great to get the extra photos inside and well worth the seven Euros fifty for that pleasure! But we still had more to do and that was to travel on to Brasov. So once again we load onto the bus and think about what we will see next. Our minds are already full of wonderful memories of this Balkans Tour. Just as well we are nearing the end as I am thinking that I am getting quite overwhelmed with all the information I have heard and the wonderful sights that I have seen.

We do live in a wonderful world and I am feeling very thankful. What an amazing experience πŸ™‚

Veliko Tarnovo – Bulgaria

The windy roads continue as we travel to the former medieval capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. A trip of approximately three hours from Sofia. We left Sofia after breakfast and arrived at Veliko Tarnovo with plenty of time to do some sightseeing. Our local guide Yama directed our Tour bus driver through the town and pointed out many historical monuments, and then directed him seven kilometers out of town to a place called Arbanasi.

Arbanasi has a population of around 300 people. It was very old, dating back to the 17th -18th century, and is known for it’s rich history and some very old buildings. We wandered the narrow streets stopping firstly at 17th century merchants house.

Just off the bus and venturing the streets of Arbanasi to see the different houses
Just off the bus and venturing the streets of Arbanasi to see the different houses
There was a lot of overgrown grass and plants, and narrow streets with stone walls
There was a lot of overgrown grass and plants, and narrow streets with stone walls
Outside the Merchants house
Outside the Merchants house
One of the rooms, possibly for entertaining
One of the rooms, possibly for the whole family to sleep
Mostly Turkish style in furnishing
Mostly Turkish style in furnishing
The mothers room and bed for the new baby.
The mothers birthing room and bed for the new baby.
The kitchen and stove
The kitchen and stove
This believe it or not is the toilet!
This believe it or not is the toilet!
These stairs are the exit at the back of the house
These stairs are the exit at the back of the house

We then wandered on to the Church of the Holy Nativity, dated 1632. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the church, but it was highly decorated on every wall with biblical scenes. It is also well known for it’s enchanting acoustics.

We are all waiting to go into the church. It is quite small but has about four separate rooms. Another tour was already inside and we needed to wait until they had left before we could go in.
We are all waiting to go into the church. It is quite small but has about four separate rooms. Another tour was already inside and we needed to wait until they had left before we could go in.

And even though Arbanasi was only a small village type of town, there were about four restaurants on the main street and we all dispersed to have lunch before heading back to Veliko Tarnovo.

Waiting for our lunch to arrive :-)
Waiting for our lunch to arrive πŸ™‚

Veliko Tarnovo was known to be one of the strongest Bulgarian fortification between the 12th and 14th centuries. The whole place is surrounded by walls as you will see in the photos.

The view of the walls from our hotel
The view of the walls from our hotel

The most popular landmark is the historic hill Tsarevets which Robin and Len went and visited and took several photos for us.

Walking over to the fortress
Walking over to the fortress
Some of our tour party following the guide to the fortress
Some of our tour party following the guide to the fortress
Walking in with a view of the wall to the left side
Walking in with a view of the wall to the left side
The wall to the right side
The wall to the right side
The guide is explaining the area from the map
The guide is explaining the area from the map
The map
The map
The ruins of the old fortress
The ruins of the old fortress
Robin wandering the fortress with some others from our tour
Robin wandering the fortress with some others from our tour
Len at the fortress ruins
Len at the fortress ruins
Time to go! Back to the Hotel :-)
Time to go! Back to the Hotel πŸ™‚
Wandering back to Veliko Tarnovo
Wandering back to Veliko Tarnovo
The view of the Yarna River below
The view of the Yarna River below
Zoomed in to the river and bridge. Look at the houses!
Zoomed in to the river and bridge. Look at the houses!

Judy, Teresa and I went and had a look at the shops. It was very hot and we were actually feeling a little weary from the bus ride again. It was nice to just have some free time and wander around. We ended up sitting at a local cafe and just enjoyed doing nothing in particular.

Judy at the shopping street near our Hotel
Judy at the shopping street near our Hotel
Yes.... it's a selfie!
Yes…. it’s a selfie!

Our Hotel was really quite nice and after a very hot day I went down the three floors to the swimming pool and had a half hour swim before tea.

We had a lovely meal at the Hotel with the rest of our tour group and ended up having a sing along and dance. A super ending to another lovely day of ‘Touring the Balkans’ πŸ™‚

The Amazing Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

So we are now in Bulgaria, staying at the capital city of Sofia. The first morning we did a walking tour of Sophia and in the afternoon we chose to take the extra tour to The Rila Monastery. None of us had even heard of The Monastery or even seen any photos of it, so we were in for a surprise. The Monastery was only a nearly two hour drive, but the day before we had traveled from Ohrid to Sofia, and it ended up an all day trip. The roads were kind of windy (curvy) and some of us felt like we had a little motion sickness going on in our heads. Not the kind that makes you feel sick but the kind that gives you a woozy head, even on land. Now the trip to The Monastery, as I said, is nearly two hours, but we have to come back to Sofia and that totals another big day of traveling… on a bus… and including windy roads! We were thinking that this Rila Monastery better be worth the trip!

Tour of the Balkans - Sofia to The Rila Monastery
Tour of the Balkans – Sofia to The Rila Monastery
On the bus again but we have the back row to ourselves!
On the bus again but we have the back row to ourselves!

The drive to the Monastery was broken up with a stop at Kocherinovo to see the nesting Storks.

These Storks obviously aren't real but they have become a bit of an icon for the town, so advertising them is very useful for the tourist trade :-)
These Storks obviously aren’t real but they have become a bit of an icon for the town, so advertising them is very useful for the tourist trade πŸ™‚
See the Stork nest on top of the building?
See the Stork nest on top of the building?
And another one
And another one

We also stopped for lunch. A lovely meal of fried trout, tomatoes, shredded cabbage and potatoes… yum! And the view was so relaxing.

The restaurant was by a mountain stream with a path leading down to it
The restaurant was by a mountain stream with a path leading down to it
Happy at lunch with an amazing view behind us
Happy at lunch with an amazing view behind us
Two very happy men as well
Two very happy men as well

So that good break in the traveling was such an great idea! Next stop was the Monastery. Reader prepare to be amazed when you look at the photos! It’s a wonderful place to see!

Going in to the Monastery
Going into the Monastery
As we enter, we were all just speechless! The view was outstanding!
As we enter, we were all just speechless! The view was outstanding!
The amazing stone courtyard
The amazing stone courtyard
Residential area
Residential area
Residential part of the Monastery
Residential part of the Monastery
The mountains behind
The mountains behind
These porches look amazing... all three stories
These porches look amazing… all three stories
Can you see us?
Can you see us?
Looking out to the hills beyond
Looking out to the hills beyond
And here we have Judy in front of one of the monks!
And here we have Judy in front of one of the monks!
Judy posing at a door that is a side entrance to the church
Judy posing at a door that is a side entrance to the church
Robin sitting under the porch at the church
Robin sitting under the porch at the church
And sitting on the monks chairs with beautiful mosaics behind
And sitting on the monks chairs with beautiful mosaics behind
the mosaics were on all walls of the porch in front of the church
the mosaics were on all walls of the porch in front of the church
Mamluk influence with the striped painting and the domes
Mamluk influence with the striped painting and the domes
Fabulous Mosaics. We couldn't believe our eyes!
Fabulous Mosaics. We couldn’t believe our eyes!
A Mosaic in a ceiling dome!
A Mosaic in a ceiling dome!
Just look at that Mosaic
Just look at that Mosaic
Mosiacs in the church porch
Mosiacs and a fountain in the church porch
A fountain in the porchway
A fountain in the porchway – looking out
the outside arch window
the outside arch window
Looking through the arch window
Looking through the arch window
Outside the monastery
Outside the monastery
Outside the monastery but still part of the grounds
Outside the monastery but still part of the grounds
Part of the exterior buildings
Part of the exterior buildings
Above one of the entrances
Above one of the entrances
Going in from the lower entrance
Going in from the lower entrance

Now for all the details about the monastery. I’m going to let Wikipedia tell you all about it….

The Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria and occupies an area of 8,800 mΒ². It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km south of the capital Sofia in the deep valley of the Rilska River at an elevation of 1,147 m above sea level. The rectangular monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD). It is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe. In 2008 alone, it attracted 900,000 visitors. It was destroyed by fire in 1833 and then reconstructed between 1834 and 1862 with the help of wealthy Bulgarians from the whole country.

The main church of the monastery has five domes, three altars and two side chapels, while one of the most precious items inside is the gold-plated wall of icons and religious paintings. The church is also home to many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century. Porches in the courtyard have Mamluk influence with the striped painting and the domes, which became more popular in the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of Egypt. It is truly a remarkable sight to see.

The four-storey (not counting the basement) residential part of the complex consists of 300 chambers, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a kitchen (noted for its uncommonly large vessels), a library housing 250 manuscripts and 9,000 old printed matters, and a donor’s room. The exterior of the complex, with its high walls of stone and little windows, resembles a fortress more than a monastery.

Yes we traveled nearly an extra four hours, two hours there and back. Was it worth it? definitely. I am very happy to say that we have been there. That I have seen that wonderful place with my own eyes. Ahhhhhh! What a pleasure it was! Looking at the photos do you agree? Let me know by adding your comments πŸ™‚

Sofia – Bulgaria

After our three and a half hour drive we arrive at Sofia, and we cross another border as well. We are now in Bulgaria!

Our Hotel is fabulous and right in the middle of the city!

Grand hotel Sofia
Grand hotel Sofia

One of our other tour party (Claudia) wrote about our Hotel…

Our hotel Sofia Grand Hotel, sits on one of the most beautiful squares. The hotel is luxurious, glowingly paneled in fine woods in hallways, and dripping with green marble bathroom surfaces, huge and comfortable.

The day ahead was full, so it was an early start. We began with a two hour walking tour, starting and ending from the hotel. Naturally we took plenty of photos to share.

An early morning start
An early morning start
The Largo, an example of Stalinist Architecture
The Largo, an example of Stalinist Architecture
Me posing with Bulgarian guards
Me posing with Bulgarian guards
The Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The Ivan Vazov National Theatre
The St George Rotunda
The St George Rotunda
A church
An interesting building
Another Church
Another Church
This church has lovely gardens. They are doing repair work on the church roof
This church has lovely gardens. They are doing repair work on the church roof
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
From another angle
From another angle
And a side view of the whole Cathedral
And a side view of the whole Cathedral
Looking in from the door of the cathedral. We weren't allowed to photograph inside
Looking in from the door of the cathedral. We weren’t allowed to photograph inside
The roof in the entrance way
The roof in the entrance way
Another view
Another view
Some old grave stones at one of the churches
Some old stones at one of the churches. They look Greek! Sofia means ‘Wisdom’ in ancient Greek!
The Statue of Sveta Sofia
The Statue of Sveta Sofia

The afternoon was filled with an add on tour to the Rila Monestry but I will do a separate post for that visit. I took soooooo many photos!

For our dinner we chose another add on tour and it was a great experience!

SOFO2 BULGARIAN FOLKLORE SHOW WITH DINNER
Take your seats for a fun-filled evening of wine, traditional
entertainment and hearty Bulgarian cuisine. Expect
delicious dishes prepared according to age-old recipes, an
authentic atmosphere and colourful folklore show featuring
traditional dancers, musicians and songs.

We were divided into two groups and sat at a table each. There's Robin at the end of the table
We were divided into two groups and sat at a table each. There’s Robin at the end of the table
That's our table from the other end. Look at the delicious food!
That’s our table from the other end. Look at the delicious food!
And this is the other half of our tour group. Well those who chose to go to the dinner :-)
And this is the other half of our tour group. Well those who chose to go to the dinner πŸ™‚
Our folklore show featuring traditional dancers and musicians
Our folklore show featuring traditional dancers and musicians
And our tour director David and some of our tour group up dancing
And our tour director David and some of our tour group up dancing
Finishing off with fire dancing!
Finishing off with fire dancing!

The restaurant was up Vitocha hill so we had a little trip back to our hotel on the bus after dinner. Everyone was in good spirits so we continued the great evening by singingΒ  ‘Abba” songs all the way back. Such a fun time πŸ™‚

Skopje – Macedonia

We drove into Skopje, passing the Skopje Fortress which was originally built by the Byzantines in the 6th century. After the 1963 Skopje earthquake, that destroyed 80% of the city, the fortress’s circular, rectangular and square towers were conserved and restored. It is today one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. We just had a quick look as we drove past. The option was to use your lunch time in racing over to the fortress and ‘Old Town’ to have a quick look, or stay in the town centre and casually eat at one of the many restaurants. We chose the latter.

Our view of the fortress from the bus window
Our view of the fortress from the bus window

In 2010, the Macedonian government launched the “Skopje 2014” project which aims to give a more monumental appearance to the capital. It made plans to erect a large number of statues, fountains, bridges, and museums at a cost of about €500 million. As we walked towards the town centre we saw many of these statues. Honestly, I thought the town had overdone it a bit. There were statues everywhere and often right next to each other!

I'm in front of the bridge filled with statues
I’m in front of the bridge filled with statues
Statues and lights on the bridge
Statues and lights on the bridge. I wonder if they are copying Rome?
Another view of the buildings, bridge and statues
Another view of the buildings, bridge and statues
This building has statues across the top
This building has statues across the top
Our tour party listening to our guide talking about the statues
Our tour party listening to our guide talking about the statues
Yes that's me on the bridge
Yes that’s me on the bridge
This is the old stone bridge built between 1461-1469. The statue of the women diving is at the base of the bridge
This is the old stone bridge built between 1461-1469. The statue of the women diving is at the base of the bridge
Statue of diving into the river?
Statue of diving into the river?
This statue looks like men of all sorts of trade?
This statue looks like men of all sorts of trade?
The statue and the old stone bridge... and me!
The statue and the old stone bridge… and me!
A shopping statue?
A shopping statue?
Warrior on a horse statue
Warrior on a horse statue

There are several landmarks of Mother Teresa in Skopje, the city of her birth and childhood, including a marker of her birthplace, a statue, and a memorial house. As of January 2013, Macedonian authorities laid the ground work for a new 30-metre-high statue dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning nun.

The Mother Thereza memorial plaque
The Mother Thereza memorial plaque

And after our walk through the many statues we have lunch.

Waiting for our lunch
Waiting for our lunch

So Skopje was really only our lunch spot. There were many more sights we could have seen. There was on Old Town to discover and also a very old Aqueduct and of course the Fortress, but time was against us, as we had Sofia yet to explore.

So onwards we go!!!

Ohrid – Macedonia

Before we head on to Lake Ohrid, we stay in Albania for the night at a place called Tirana. Tirana really was just a stopover and not a place where we did a lot of sight seeing. We arrived late and then we were up early to travel on. We all went for a short self guided walking tour, and decided that Tirana really didn’t have a lot to offer tourists, apart from a place to lay our heads.

And we are all off to discover a little of Tirana
And we are all off to discover a little of Tirana
A quick photo stop!
A quick photo stop!
We really only walked a block or two when it started to drizzle
We really only walked a block or two when it started to drizzle
A lot of places were in need of repair
A lot of places were in need of repair

And then it was back on the bus and time to move on to Macedonia. We went through a tunnel that saved us 45 minutes of driving via Elbasan. Its infrastructure was constructed by Chinese.

Tirana to Ohrid
Tirana to Ohrid

We also stopped to look at some of the bunkers that had been built along the roadside. I can’t imagine how they would keep people safe and how long people were expected to stay in them?

The hill behind Robin was scattered with bunkers. You can see a few of them.
The hill behind Robin was scattered with bunkers. You can see a few of them.

From Wikipedia

During the nearly forty-year leadership of Communist ruler Enver Hoxha of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, over 700,000 bunkers were built in the country – one for every four inhabitants. The bunkers are still a ubiquitous sight in Albania, with an average of 24 bunkers for every square kilometre of the country.

Hoxha’s programme of “bunkerisation” resulted in the construction of bunkers in every corner of Albania, from mountain passes to city streets. They had little military value and were never used for their intended purpose during the years of Communist rule (1945–1990). The cost of constructing them was a drain on Albania’s resources, diverting them away from more pressing needs, such as dealing with the country’s housing shortage and poor roads.

The bunkers were abandoned following the collapse of communism in 1990. Most are now derelict, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafΓ©s, storehouses and shelters for animals or the homeless. A few briefly saw use in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Another ridiculous decision and a total waste of money!

Our nights stay was at Ohrid at one of our not so flash hotels, but it was still a very pleasant place to stay.

We wandered through narrow paths between old but picturesque buildings
We wandered through narrow paths between old but picturesque buildings
Robin looking at the narrow streets ahead
Robin looking at the narrow streets ahead
We stopped at a handmade paper shop
We stopped at a handmade paper shop
And we watched the paper making process
And we watched the paper making process
We looked over the fence at a very old church
We looked over the fence at a very old church
The brick wall outside the church
The brick wall outside the church
And we wandered to the next church. Here is a model of it
And we wandered to the next church. Here is a model of it
And a photo of Robin at the church
And a photo of Robin at the church
It was a fabulous old building with a roof that needed to be photographed ;-)
It was a fabulous old building with a roof that needed to be photographed πŸ˜‰
Very old stonework!
Very old stonework!
We were sitting and listening to the guide talk about the church
We were sitting and listening to the guide talk about the church

After a walking tour with a local guide, we found our own way back to the Hotel and it was a lovely walk along the lakeside. Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of the lake??? I really don’t know how that happened. It was quite lovely! Oh… I found one! Don’t laugh!

The lake view!
The lake view!

And another three. I told you it was quite nice… and I remembered why we didn’t take too many photos as when we arrived it was raining!

Looking towards the old town and restaurants with Lake Ohrid behind
Looking towards the old town and restaurants with Lake Ohrid behind
The other direction
The other direction
Our Hotel was around the bay a little walk away
Our Hotel was around the bay a little walk away

That evening we had a special tea with drink provided to thank those people among our tour that have travelled with ‘Insight Vacations’ many times. It was a pleasant evening with lots of laughter and shared stories. We were starting to get to know each other much better and were getting more relaxed. It was nice πŸ™‚

 

Kotor – Montenegro

Today is day 9 of our tour and we are traveling from Dubrovnik to Tirana in Albania. If we traveled continuously it would be a 5 hour drive.

Approximately a 5 hour drive by car :-)
Approximately a 5 hour drive by car πŸ™‚

Now to place these countries, and the cities we have visited or are going to visit, I have copied another couple of photos to help you.

The places we have stayed, and are staying at :-)
The places we have stayed, and are staying at πŸ™‚
The Balkans with the surrounding European countries
The Balkans with the surrounding European countries

But today we were lucky enough to break our trip after an hour and 40 minutes, with a stop at the very picturesque town of Kotor, Montenegro.

Dubrovnik to Kotor
Dubrovnik to Kotor

Okay… Now look at the map and see the bay that we had to travel around to get to Kotor. What a fabulous drive! There was a quicker route that we could have taken and that was by ferry, but then we would have missed out on some lovely winding roads, and some of the most beautiful scenery. We stopped and took a few photos on the way.

Kotor Bay behind me with the sea area we had already driven past
Kotor Bay behind me with the sea area we had already driven past
Robin and I with the beautiful bay behind us
Robin and I with the beautiful bay behind us
Our Tour Bus
Our Tour Bus
This photo is actually taken from the bus window. The water looked amazing.
This photo is actually taken from the bus window. The water looked amazing.

And then we arrived at Kotor! Wow…just wow!

A little help again from Wikipedia…

Kotor is a coastal town in Montenegro. It is located in a secluded part of the Gulf of Kotor and has a population of 13,510. Kotor has one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the Adriatic and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is home to numerous sights, such as the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in the old town (built in 1166), and the ancient walls which stretch for 4.5 km (3 mi) directly above the city.

The old Mediterranean port of Kotor is surrounded by fortifications built during the Venetian period. It is located on the Bay of Kotor, one of the most indented parts of the Adriatic Sea. Some have called it the southern-most fjord in Europe, but it is a ria, a submerged river canyon. Together with the nearly overhanging limestone cliffs of Orjen and Lovćen, Kotor and its surrounding area form an impressive and picturesque Mediterranean landscape.

This is the first thing we saw

The Hills in the distance and the city wall beside us
The Hills in the distance and the city wall beside us
A better view without me!
A better view without me!

And way up in the hills behind us is The church of our lady of health.

You can see the church directly above the building with the three windows in the roof
You can see the church directly above the building with the three windows in the roof
And more walls even higher
And more walls even higher

But walking in the old town within the walls was fabulous. It reminded me of Dubrovnik but seemed even older, and with the hill behind us with a track that you can walk up, I wished we could have stayed and explored all day.

Part of the city wall by the entrance gate
Part of the city wall by the entrance gate
Looking at the walls and beyond
Looking at the walls and beyond
Our tour group outside the entrance
Our tour group outside the entrance
Walking through the entrance you see this and also some writing. The writing says "What belongs to others we don't want, what is ours we will never surrender.
Walking through the entrance you see this and also some writing. The writing says “What belongs to others we don’t want, what is ours we will never surrender.
As we enter this is what we saw :-)
As we enter this is what we saw πŸ™‚
Just amazing!
Just amazing!
What a fabulous backdrop for a photo
What a fabulous backdrop for a photo
We explore the Old Town
We explore the Old Town

And we discover some sights you just don’t see everyday!

Just look at this!
Just look at this!
No cars in here so this bike is used to transport goods
No cars in here so this bike is used to transport goods
I love these old towns
I love these old towns
Imagine living here!
Imagine living here!

Teresa and I decided to start to climp the track up the hill. We only had a very short time but we knew we would get the best view of the Old Town from higher up.

The start of the track up the hill
The start of the track up the hill
Looking back at Teresa
Looking back at Teresa
Looking down over the wall
Looking down over the wall
Another view looking down... Amazing huh!
Another view looking down… Amazing huh!
And now looking out across the town
And now looking out across the town
And we climbed even higher
And we climbed even higher
And we got even better views
And we got even better views
Now it was worth the climb just to see this!
Now it was worth the climb just to see this!

 

Now isn't that a beautiful sight!
Now isn’t that a beautiful sight!

In recent years, Kotor has seen a steady increase in tourists, many of them coming by cruise ship. Visitors are attracted both by the natural beauty of the Gulf of Kotor and by the old town of Kotor. In the photo above you can see the old with the new!

Kotor was definitely worth the break in our trip.