Bulgaria, Poland, & Barcelona

The month of August, 2005 marked the second time since my arrival that I traveled to three countries in a single month.  Finally, I felt like the International Man of Mystery I always wanted to be.

Bulgaria (Exchange rate: 1 Euro was approximately equaled 2 Leva).  My interest in going to Varna, Bulgaria primarily stemmed from wanting to see a true, unmolested piece of Eastern Europe.  Well, that and an article in the U.K. lad's mag LOADED which described the country as a dangerous place with cheap beer.  Let the good times roll!  Upon entering the country, I was quickly informed that tourists should not drink the water.  I guess the locals there have stomachs of iron, sort of like how Mexicans can drink their country's water, a liquid that would typically incapacitate any North American.  Fortunately for tourists, you can get a multi-gallon (!) bottle of water for less than a Euro.  Then again, come to think of it, maybe the locals were just bottling up the tap water and reselling it for pure profit?  I arrived late in the evening, so I pretty much saw complete darkness as I rode in a bus from the airport to the hotel.  After checking in, I just called it a day and hit the sack in hopes of getting up early and getting to the beach.  I awoke around 0900 and promptly headed towards the sand.  Like a little kid longing for that next piece of chocolate, I was ecstatic about seeing my second-ever nude beach.  I mean, this is definitely the kind of stuff you could never see anywhere in America, at least for free.  On the first day, the beach was great: the water was a good temperature, it was clean, and there wasn't a hint of sharks or any other fearsome sea creatures for miles around.  The beach was not quite as packed as I expected, but there was still plenty of, ahem, "naturalness" to go around.  I have to admit, I've never spent a full day at the beach in my entire life.  Although I wanted to experience Bulgaria to the fullest, the lure of a couple lazy days on the beach held an overwhelming appeal.  Somehow, I just thought that I wouldn't be missing much by traveling throughout the city.  After all, I still had my trip to Poland coming up and I could use that time for seeing a real part of Eastern Europe.  So, I pretty much spent my entire time on the seaside. 

The second day on the beach gave me a chance to rent a skidoo for half an hour to venture around the shore side.  About halfway through my excursion, I quickly noticed that the water was crawling with jellyfish, which promptly ended my curiosity in seeing just how far I could push the craft.  Returning to the beach, I realized that the water close to shore was also filled with those useless creatures, so I quickly decided lunch time was in order and ended up dining at a place that claimed to have Mexican food but was entirely its own cuisine.  What was I thinking when I decided to get Mexican food in Bulgaria of all places for crying out loud?  After a few beers, which were nothing special to report but still better than even the "best" American beer, I went back to the sand and noticed crazy Bulgarians slinging these tiny jellyfish at each other.  For some odd reason, it turns out that the tiny jellyfish in the waters of Varna are harmless, it's only the big boys that you have to worry about.  Nevertheless, I was a wee bit apprehensive for a while after getting into the water until seeing groups of families joyful splashing away.  The clubs in Bulgaria were pretty typical for Europe, until I ended up in a karaoke bar on my last night that was full of European teens and adults getting blasted out of their minds while singing the top 40 hits of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  I swear, the things I see kids doing in clubs over here would ignite 100 parents' groups into mass-protesting in the States.  Then again, most of these kids seem to turn out ok, which makes me wonder why people cause such an uproar over such things in America.  On the way back to the airport during broad daylight, I finally got to see real Bulgaria.  A colleague of mine had previously described it as a scene straight out of the movie Eurotrip when the characters visit a generic Eastern European country.  Block after block of non-descript gray buildings filled my vision, looking probably the same as they did when they were built 50 years ago.  People were burning trash in their front yard, and a lone horse was tied to a post on a city street with no one around to attend to it.  I seriously wish I could have taken a picture of this sight. 

Poland (Exchange rate: 1 Euro was approximately 4 Zloty).  Just a mere handful of days after my trip to Bulgaria, I collected my senses and headed to Krakow, Poland.  Upfront and with no apologies: Poland was my favorite country to visit all month.  Here are the facts as I see them: everything is dirt cheap (they practically pay YOU to be there), the majority of women there belong on men's magazine covers, and many of the men look like they have a permanent case of Keystone-Light-bitter-beer-face, not to mention that you're likely to find well-dressed businessmen getting drunk on the street at 0900 in the morning.  I stayed at a great little place called the Globetrotter, or something similar to that effect, a nifty bed and breakfast minus the breakfast.  My first meal in Poland was at a place I came to like so much that I stopped to visit it again before I departed: Del Papŕ Ristorante.  They make some really tasty Italian food for almost no cost at all (compared to any other major city in Europe).  For anyone actually visiting Krakow, the restaurant is located at Kraków ul.Św. Tomasza 6.  Expect to get a full meal for two, including dessert and wine for around 20 € (or $24).  The one traditional Polish meal that I had was superb although I cannot for the life of me recall what kind of meat it was.  If you believe the local tourist literature, Krakow is home to more pubs and bars per square kilometer than any other place in the world.  Allegedly, a bar cannot just be a normal bar in Krakow, it has to have a catch or something special going for it (i.e.- live music every night, special decorations, etc.) or the locals will shun it.  I checked out several bars while I was there, and the Polish beer was pretty good, including a brand called Zywiec.  Apparently, Zywiec has been around for a long time, but suffered a taste and consistency issue during Communist times, when the workers let the quality go to shit as a form of protest to the government of the period. 

Speaking of Communist times, the #1 coolest thing to do in Krakow is to go on the Crazy Guides Tour of Nowa Hutta.  Before the Commies took over, Nowa Hutta was just farmland and farmers.  After the Commies took over, it became the "ideal" Communist city consisting of identical looking bloc-style buildings, and just a few major roads into the city center.  The few roads into the city center were designed this way so that it would be easy to defend against an Allied invasion force.  The inner-courtyard of each building housed everything that a Communist family needed: schools, clinics, playgrounds, etc.  This was done so that the workers could be perfectly content with where they lived and never have a yearning to leave their community building except for work.  To protect the inhabitants of each building from the filthy Westerners with their fancy-pancy Levi jeans and so-called "rock and/or roll" music, the outside stairwell of each building was built with defensive positions in mind.  This seemed like a great idea at the time, but to the dismay of the city's secret police, the residents eventually got clever and started using these positions to assault the police whenever they would try to chase a suspect into one of the buildings.  The amazing thing about this city is that it's still almost exactly the same as it was twenty years ago!  The guy that does the tour will drive you around the city in an East German Trabant and will practically give you the shirt off his back to make sure you have a good experience.  Hell, he gave me an old, but working, camera just because he felt like it!  He's even rented an apartment that has been preserved from those Red Star days of yesteryear and is chock full of Communist treasures like a vacuum cleaner that was sold as a brand new product to the Poles in 1980 but looked like something brand new from the 1950s.  While in the apartment, the tour guide gave me the opportunity to sample Communist coffee, which is basically boiling water poured into a drinking glass with the coffee grounds thrown directly into the steaming hot mixture, ready to be served.  Interestingly enough, I did the tour with a Russian couple that just wanted to reminiscence about the old days.  The tour guide said that it was the first time he's even had former Commies on his Communist tour.  What luck I have!  If you're interested in this tour, check out this website.

While in Krakow, I also stopped by the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  I don't know how an old salt mine can attract such crowds, but sure enough the place is packed with long lines of tourists every day.  Besides lots of figures made of salt and an entire church made of salt, 150 ft. below ground there is an actual orchestra playing around the clock - and no, they are not made of salt!  A Canadian colleague of mine had visited the mine just a few weeks before me, but she strangely never considered licking the wall while she was there.  How bizarre!  Having felt that I had to defend North America's try-anything reputation, I made a point to lick the wall while I was there and I have to admit that it was pretty darn salty.  So, if you need a little iodine in your diet to prevent "the scurvy", I recommend having a little lick of the Wieliczka Salt Mine yourself.    

As an old promise to a friend, I made a point to make it out to Auschwitz during my time in Poland.  The visit was not as depressing as I thought it would be, but it is powerful nonetheless.  While on the three hour tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau (another concentration camp nearby that I think is actually larger than Auschwitz), I saw the deadly work of Hitler firsthand: rooms filled to the brim with shoes, prosthetic body parts, eye glasses, pots and pans - all remnants of camp prisoners, most of whom perished under the inhuman conditions in which they were forced to live.  During the tour, the guide will tell you that if the guards were mad at the prisoners, they would make them stand outside in the cold and snow and douse them with cold water to watch them freeze to death.  The creepiest and most sobering part of the tour was seeing a room filled with human hair.  Apparently, the Nazis wanted to use the prisoner's hair for cloth and yarn.  Yesterday, I saw a video here of two pre-teen girls that have been brainwashed by their parents into singing songs for the Neo-Nazi movement.  When you see places like Auschwitz in person, it absolutely baffles the mind how anybody in modern society could aspire to be a Nazi or want to raise their children with Nazi beliefs.  Really, it is just incredibly disgusting!  About halfway through the tour of Auschwitz, you walk into the last standing gas chamber of the camp.  Unfortunately, because so many tour groups are being rushed in and out of this room, you're not really given much time to soak in the impact of what you're seeing in this area.  Then again, maybe that's a good thing.

Poland was a great experience, and I would probably go back to Krakow if given the chance.  The only strange thing I noticed about Poland was that they do not have paper napkins as we know them in the States.  You know those wax paper napkins that the employees at cookie stores grab your cookies with before placing them in a bag?  Well, those are the only type of disposable napkins you can find in Krakow.  Weird, huh?

Spain (Exchange rate: 1 half-empty cologne bottle for a two-minute subway ride).  I've been wanting to visit Spain since I first arrived in Europe, and I can finally say I've been there.  However, if the rest of Spain is like Barcelona, then count me as been-there, done-that.  After an hour long bus ride from the airport (Ryan Air's marketers make you think you're flying into Barcelona, when you're actually flying into an airport that's over an hour away in Girona), I hopped on a subway train to get to my hotel.  I was only on the nearly deserted train for a few minutes, but apparently that was enough time for someone to nick a half-empty bottle of cologne in the outer pouch of my backpack.  Towards the end of my trip, someone also made off with my Belgian confidential secretary's makeup bag.  I figure the upshot of this situation is that the thieves were left smelling good and looking pretty.  To sum up Barcelona in one word or name, I'd say, "Gaudi."  The works of Antonio Gaudi permeate the city like tracer rounds through Baghdad.  Of course, I made a point to see Park Guell and Sagrada Familia.  Ah, Sagrada Familia... ok, Spaniards, if you've been working on a church since 1882 and it's still not finished, you really need to hire a better contractor to do the job or find a better way to complete the funding, alright? 

Halfway through my visit, I took a tour of the Olympic village, and more specifically the Olympic museum, only to find a run-down excuse for tourist money.  Sadly, the Olympic museum looks like it hasn't seen an update or any regular maintenance since '92.  The Olympic venues that are still standing are impressive in size, but conversely serve as a reminder of the waste of space that the Olympics leaves in its path.  The courtyard that once housed flags from every participating nation now is just a collection of barren poles standing meaninglessly like an East German soldier on duty after the Wall came down. 

During my last night in Barcelona, on the spur of the moment I ended up going to a FC Barcelona versus Juventus football, er, soccer match.  To my enjoyment, this was actually one of the football games where they actually played into sudden death overtime.  I personally hate football matches that end in ties.  I mean, what kind of liberal crap is a tie, anyway?  I want a winner, I don't want a tie!  Anyway, to the great sadness of Spain, Juventus won the game that night.  While in Barcelona, I only made it out to the beach for about half an hour, the rest of the time was spent using the tour bus service that runs throughout the city.  I highly recommend using the tour bus to explore the city, as you can get on and off as many times as you want over a couple of days for a single, upfront price. 

Two final notes: the beer in Barcelona was ok, but was nothing particularly special, and the tapas were definitely worth trying out.  Also, the graffiti found across the city declaring that "Catalonia is not Spain!" reminds me of the hidden civil war between the Wallonia and Flanders areas of Belgium. 


It was nice to be able to check out three distinct countries like Bulgaria, Poland, and Spain all in a single month.  Now that my time is starting to run short here in Europe (barely a year officially left!), you should expect me to get in several more trips around the continent before I move on to dustier pastures.

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