Prague to Paris

Bridges spanning the Vltava River in Prague

The city of Prague is downright charming. Astonishingly, Prague emerged from WWII with its medieval old town almost entirely intact. Visiting the city is like stepping into a fairy tale. Visitors stroll elaborately decorated cobblestone street and sidewalks, sip coffee in hidden courtyards, and admire the whimsically painted buildings.

Fall colors in Prague

The Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River

To get to Old Town, we crossed the famous Charles Bridge. Construction of the bridge began in 1357 and finished over 150 years later. The bridge is over 2,000 feet long and is lined with thirty baroque-style statues of saints and patron saints.

Many visitors “pet” this dog on the bronze relief at the base of St. Jan Nepomucky on the Charles Bridge for luck

prague

We climbed the eastern tower of the Charles Bridge to get a birds eye view

What we loved most about Prague was the unique and individual styles and colors of each building

Art Nouveau facades

We spent most of our time in Prague walking around the city in awe. The architecture is unique and each street contains a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings all living in harmony and perfectly preserved.

Speaking of unique and individual architecture, look at all these different windows that Dan photographed over our three days in Prague!

The Old New Synagogue (left) is Europe’s oldest active synagogue, built in the 13th century. The Spanish Synogague on the right, built in 1868.

Near Old Town lies the Jewish Quarter which was formerly the Jewish ghetto. Starting in the 13th century, Jewish people were ordered to vacate their homes and relocate to this area. Over the centuries, Jews were banned from living anywhere else in Prague. This also meant that they had a restricted area to bury their dead. At the Old Jewish Cemetery, the tombs were layered on top of one another as the cemetery ran out of space. This resulted in the cemetery having up to 12 layers of graves with possibly over 100,000 burials.

Top: The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue are covered with the names of Prague citizens deported and killed in the Nazi concentration camps. Below: Chaotic headstones of the Old Jewish Cemetery

Prague is a very walkable city. We spent our days strolling through the cobblestone streets and over the many bridges that cross the river. In the center of the Vltava River sits Střelecký Island, a green oasis in the middle of the city. The entire island is a park surrounded by beautiful trees and gravel paths.

Faces

Strolling through the park on Střelecký Island

Scenes from one of our morning walks along the river

Public art around Prague

The John Lennon Wall. Toward the end of Communism in the 1980s, students started writing John Lennon lyrics on this wall as a way to air their grievances

Prague at a glance

The geometrically cobbled streets of Prague

Old and modern trams

Swans on the Vltava River. There were so many!

Bridges spanning the Vltava River

Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, also known as Fred and Ginger

The Charles Bridge at night

Horse drawn carts in Old Town Square

Old Town Square dates to the 12th century. The square is surrounded by beautiful historic buildings with colorful Renaissance and Baroque facades.  At over 80 meters, the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn towers above the square and surrounding buildings.

Looking down at Old Town Square from Old Town Hall Tower

View from Old Town Hall Tower

The Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn towers above the buildings that surround the Old Town Square in Prague. Built in the 14th century, the church’s towers are 80 meters high.

Every hour on the hour, visitors gather in front of the Astronomical Clock, the oldest one still in operation. On the hour, the 12 apostles emerge from the clock and march past the clock as death waves an hourglass.  The show is concluded with a crowing rooster. Built in 1410, the clock displays the time, the moon phase, time of sunset and sunrise, and the placement of Sun and Moon in Zodiac.

The Astronomical Clock

From Prague we left Lina and Joe and headed to Paris to visit our friend Johannes before flying to Iceland. Paris, like Prague is an extremely walkable city. In fact, it is possible to cross the entire city by foot in only a few hours. We spent two days walking up, down, and across the city stopping at cafes for the occasional coffee or beer.

The Eiffel Tower

Strolling the streets of Paris with Johannes

We had a great time catching up with Johannes and having tasty meals and good times with him and his friends. From Paris we jetted to Iceland to start our last adventure before a brief respite back home in the USA. Iceland here we come!

Straddling Continents and Cultures in Istanbul

Istanbul is quite the unique city. It strategically sits on the Bosphorus Strait, one of the world’s busiest trade routes, that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and ultimately the Mediterranean. The city also straddles two continents: Europe and Asia. It’s unparalleled location gives it a unique blending of Eastern and Western culture mixed in with over 2,500 years of history.

The Hagia Sofia

The Blue Mosque

Istanbul’s main historic and religious sights date back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. Two of the most famous religious buildings in the city lie directly across from one another at Sultanahmet Square: The Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sofia was originally built as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 537.  It served as a church until it was converted into a mosque when Constantinople was taken over by the Ottomans in 1453. Since 1929, however, the building no longer holds services and is considered a museum.

The Blue Mosque was built much later between 1609-1616.  Its official name is the Sultanahmet Mosque but is commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque due to the blue titles that adorn the interior.

The interior of the Hagia Sofia

Mosaics and stone tiles lining the walls of the Hagia Sofia

Based on timing, we chose to only visit the inside of the Hagia Sofia. The interior of the Hagia Sofia is beautifully decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, large stone titles, and marble pillars. The decorations within have changed and evolved over the many centuries since its initial construction.

The detail and color of the mosaics were incredible

A mosaic of a Hexapterygon or six-winged angel

Crosses that were painted over with Islamic art.

The interior of the dome

We noticed these fliers placed on the interior walls and instantly recognized them as lidar survey markers. Way cool!

Some of the painted(left one) and real(right two) stone tiles lining the walls inside.

Artwork adorning the Hagia Sophia – interestingly, the stone on the far left depicts dolphins and tridents – both relating to worship of the sea god Poseidon/Neptune, which pre-date Christianity.

Immense scaffolding being used to do restoration work on the interior

Egyptian Spice Bazaar

After the Hagia Sofia, we headed to the two famous bazaars in the city: the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar was an explosion of color and smells. Here vividly colored spices are displayed alongside Turkish delight, nuts, and every kind of dried fruit imaginable. Built in 1660, the bazaar was and still is the center for spice trade in Istanbul.

One of the many streets in the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is HUGE. It spans 61 covered streets and contains over 3,000 shops. The core of the Bazaar was constructed in 1455 and continued to expand until the 17th century. The Bazaar can be like a maze, trapping visitors for hours as they wind their way through shops selling leather, jewelry, metal work, spices, and carpets.

Views from the Bosphorus Straight

Near the Spice Market is Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans from 1465–1856. The Palace lies on the shores of the Bosphorus and at one point housed over 4,000 people. Thick, tall walls surround four large courtyards and numerous buildings.

One of the views of the Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace

Architectural details around Topkapi Palace

Dome interior at Topkapi Palace

Kaleidoscope of Islamic tiles from Topkapi Palace

From Istanbul we flew to Nevşehir and the Anatolian plains to visit Cappadocia, a region of unwordly beauty and fascinating geology. Bring on the adventure!

Devetashka Cave and Sofia, Bulgaria

Entering Devetashka Cave

A year ago when we were researching places to travel to we came across photos of a massive cave in the Bulgarian countryside named Devetashka Cave.  It just so happened that our route from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia would take us relatively close to this natural wonder, so we decided to take a short detour to check it out.

The massive windows in the ceiling of the main chamber.

The cave measures over two kilometers in length and is over 60 meters tall in some areas. After entering the cave, the space widens into a 2,400 square meter chamber. The roof of the cave contains several giant windows that illuminate the vast interior and provide sunlight, allowing lush, green plants to grow. A small river also flows through the cave.

Excavations in the cave have provided evidence that Devetashka has been inhabited almost continuously since the late Paleolithic era.  The oldest artifacts unearthed date to 70,000 BC during the Early Stone Age. It’s easy to see why the cave would have appealed to prehistoric humans as it would have provided shelter and fresh water. Today, this enormous karst shelter is no longer home to humans, but instead home to more than 30,000 bats.

Our “short detour” proved to be longer than expected, since the information we found on local bus schedules was outdated and incorrect. To get there, a kind bus driver dropped us off near the cave, a stop that was not on his main route. For our return, we just figured that we would flag down another bus. What we didn’t realize was that this was not a popular bus route.  With no buses in sight, we attempted to hitchhike, but after two hours and no offer of rides, we considered this plan to be a failure. Finally, a woman showed up and told us we happened to be standing at the “bus stop” (a pull off on the side of a country road) and that one should arrive soon. No plan was not the best plan, but it all worked out in the end 🙂

hitch

Hitchhiking on an empty Bulgarian country road isn’t successful.

Four bus rides after leaving Veliko Tarnovo, we found ourselves in Bulgaria’s capital and largest city, Sofia, where we would spend a couple days walking the city and checking out local monuments and museums.

The many moods of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The many moods of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The next day we took the metro to the city center to start our day at Sofia’s iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Nevsky Cathedral is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral built between 1882-1912. This massive building can hold 10,000 people inside and was constructed to honor Russian and Bulgarian soldiers that died liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish War. We did go inside the cathedral but photographs were forbidden, so there are only exterior photos below.

An intricate mosaic of Jesus above the entrance.

Ominous storm clouds amassing above the cathedral. We experienced a variety of weather while we were in Sofia, as you can see.

Stormy weather…

Icons for sale in the park next to the cathedral.

Like may ancient European cities, many of the modern day buildings in Sofia are built upon literal layers of history. One great example, located behind the government offices of Bulgaria’s President, is the Church of Saint George. Originally built by the Romans in the 4th century as a public building, it was converted shortly afterwards to a church, then during Ottoman rule to a mosque, and finally back to an Orthodox church in the past century. Roman ruins can still be seen, including a section of Roman street and drainage system.

The Church of Saint George and ancient Roman ruins. First built as a public building by the Romans in the 4th century, later converted to a church, then a mosque, and then back to a church.

Sofia is also centered on a major mineral springs.  Across from the former central bathhouse, locals can be seen filling jugs with fresh mineral water at public fountains that were constructed for this purpose.

People collecting mineral water at the springs in central Sofia.

Sofia’s Central Bathhouse building.

We spent our final day in Sofia checking out a few of the city’s unique museums. The first museum on our itinerary was the Museum of Socialist Art, located in the outskirts of the city, surrounded by modern office buildings.

The giant red star that formerly crowned the top of the Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters.

The Museum of Socialist Art showcases art from the Socialist period (1944-1989) of Bulgaria. This is where much of the communist-era state-sponsored art from around the country has ended up. Rather than pretend that this era did not occur by destroying these artworks, the Bulgarian National Art Gallery has amassed and preserved a sizable collection of socialist realist artwork for viewing at this museum. Here you will find all of the now unwanted statues of Lenin and the red star from atop Sofia’s Communist Party Headquarters. The bulky statues and realistic paintings impart an important insight into the country’s communist past. They also provide the truly weird experience of wandering through sculptures of communist heroes like Georgi Dimitrov, Vladimir Lenin, and Che Guevara, while being surrounded by modern-day capitalist office buildings.

A few of the Lenin sculptures in the collection. Old man Lenin on the right looks so lonely…

The sculpture garden at the Museum of Socialist Art.

Is that guy trying to figure out how to use his new iPhone camera? …Painting glorifying the working class inside the Museum of Socialist Art.

Socialist Realism sculptures surrounded by capitalist office buildings…

The next museum on the list was Sofia’s Icon Museum. The location of this museum is what makes it truly special – it is located in the crypt below Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The arches and walls in the crypt were painted a brilliant white and the catacomb-like atmosphere of the gallery was really cool. In addition to the great atmosphere of the place, the museum houses the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe, with over 200 icon paintings dating from the 13th through 19th centuries.

The Icon Museum inside the crypt of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The colors and detailed brush strokes of these religious paintings stood out brilliantly in the well-lit gallery space.

No disrespect to these amazing paintings, but i've always wondered why medieval painters chose to make baby Jesus look like a middle-aged man with a receding hairline...left to right: John McEnroe baby, John Belushi baby, and Billy Ray Cyrus baby...

No disrespect to these amazing paintings, but i’ve always wondered why medieval painters chose to make baby Jesus look like a middle-aged man with a receding hairline…left to right: John McEnroe baby, John Belushi baby, and Billy Ray Cyrus baby…

Saint George slaying the dragon, a ubiquitous image from the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy.

After seeing quite a bit of ancient Christian art we’ve realized how to recognize John the Baptist – he’s the one that always looks like the angry hippie (left).

These three paintings were different layers of one icon painting. The original is on the right and the other two were layers that were painted over the first, centuries apart. Using modern day technology, archivists were able to separate and restore the three layers and they are now on display in the museum – absolutely incredible.

Our final museum stop was the Earth and Man Museum. This museum holds one of the largest mineralogical collections in the world and was a fun stop for two avid rockhounds. The collection contained huge crystals of various types and a wide variety of minerals (40% of the world’s natural occurring minerals can be seen here) collected in Bulgaria and around the world.

Checking out the giant crystals and minerals at the Earth and Man Museum.

After enjoying our city time in Bulgaria, we were ready to get out into the countryside again. The following day we headed south towards the tiny village of Melnik, for some serious hiking and Bulgarian wine sampling…

Ancient Cities of Bulgaria: Plovdiv & Veliko Tarnovo

Roman Theater, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

A flight from Bangkok to Istanbul (via a layover in Kiev) and a seven hour bus ride brought us to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. After five months in SE Asia, Bulgaria was a bit of a culture shock, but we instantly loved it. For starters, Bulgaria has two things that we had missed dearly – good coffee and cheese. Coffee shops and espresso machines are on every block and we happily partook in several espressos per day. Cheese seems to be in every meal whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner and we eagerly devoured every bit.

Standing atop Nebet Hill and the ruins of Eumolpias gazing down at Old Town

Plovdiv, Bulgaria is one of Europe’s oldest cities with artifacts dating back to the Neolithic Period. Throughout its 8,000 year history, the city has been ruled by the Thracians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, and ByzantinesThe city has had ten different names with “Plovdiv” originating (and sticking) in the 15th century.

Nebet Hill provided awesome views of Old Town, Plovdiv

Plovdiv is often referred to as “The City of the Seven Hills,” but only six hills remain since Markovo Tepe was destroyed and used for contstruction material. We climbed Nebet Hill which contains ruins of a fortress from Eumolpias (one of Plovdiv’s former names), a Thracian settlement dated to 5,000 B.C.

One of the cobbled streets in Old Town

Kuyumdzhiev House, built in 1847, now home to the Ethnographic Museum

Dan was excited to be back in a Slavic country – the Bulgarian language shares many similarities with Russian including the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. Between Bulgarian, Russian, and English we were able to communicate pretty clearly with locals in most situations.

Murals in Plovdiv

In the middle of Old Town lies the Roman Theater, built during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD).  It was only discovered after a landslide unearthed it in the 1970s. Today, the 5,000 seat theater is still in use for performances during the summer.

Roman Theater, Plovdiv

Under the main shopping street in town lies the Stadium of Trimontium, built in the beginning of 2nd century AD by Emperor Hadrian. The stadium is largely still buried under today’s city center with no future excavations planned but portions of the 30,000 seat stadium can still be seen around Djumaya Square.

Part of Roman Stadium beneath the modern-day city

We took a day trip to visit Asen’s Fortress, a medieval fortress perched in the Rhodope Mountains just outside of Asenovgrad. After taking a local bus to Asenovgrad, we walked the three kilometers up from town into the mountains to reach the fortress. The fortress was built in the 5th century BC by the Thracians and later rebuilt during the 9th, 11th, and 13th centuries.

Asenovgrad, Bulgaria along the banks of the Asenitsa River

Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria

Asen’s Fortress and the Church of the Holy Mother of God, perched on a high, rocky ridge

Located within the fortress walls, the Church of the Holy Mother of God was built in the 12th century. The Eastern Orthodox church still displays fragments of colorfully painted frescoes.

The Church of the Holy Mother of God

Frescoes and decorations inside the church

The church with portions of the fortress walls

One of the old fortress walls with the church in the background

Our Airbnb residence was located on the cusp of Old Town and across the street from the entrance to the ancient city of Philippopolis. In 432 B.C. the town was conquered by Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) and he gave the city his own name, Philippopolis.

The ruins of the entrance to the ancient city of Philippopolis

Columns that once lined the entrance to the city

From Plovdiv, we headed to another ancient city – Veliko Tarnovo. Nestled in the hills above the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo was the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire which existed in the 12-14th centuries.

Tsarevets Fortress

Old Town, Veliko Tarnovo

View from the wall of Tsarevets Fortress

Asenevci Monument, also known as The Horsemen, was built in honor of Asen’s Kings who organized an uprising to free Bulgaria from Byzantine rule.

Street in Old Town

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress is a medieval stronghold built in the 12th century and protected on three sides by the Yantra River. The fortress contained over 400 dwellings, a royal palace, and several churches and monasteries.

View of the main gate of Tsarevets Fortress

Dan stands carefully on Execution Rock where traitors of the state were thrown into the river below

The fortress walls

Holy Forty Martyrs Church, constructed in 1230, sits at the base of the fortress

Door from the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God

Modernist paintings by Teofan Sokerov in the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, a church that sits at the top of the hill inside the fortress.

A hummingbird hawk-moth in action – an amazing example of natural mimicry seen just outside of the fortress.

View of Tsarevets Fortress from the Yantra RIver

Students from Veliko Tarnovo University were sitting up an art installation while we were there

Veliko Tarnovo at sunset

After a few days in Veliko Tarnovo we set out for our next destination – Sofia, the capital and largest city in Bulgaria.