Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Back in Action

After a long and unintended hiatus from my brief blogging career, I'm back. There's much to tell since the last report, but I'm going to have spread it out a bit; school days are in full swing now that we're nearing the end of the first quarter. Time has flown!

I suppose the most exciting--and certainly most-requested-by-blog-readers--story of the recent months was the victory of  Phil's Ultimate Frisbee Team, Shopski Otryad, over both the Romanian AND American University of Bulgaria teams! This was a major coup, for several reasons, but mainly because most of the team had never played frisbee before this summer. In fact, many of them had never even seen it played. Needless to say, Phil quickly became a clutch member of the squad (otryad).

The Romanian team was the clear favorite in the weekend's games, considering their players were mainly Americans and Brits who, presumably, had played before. Shopski delivered a stunning defeat in game 1, and later beat AUBG as well. You can bet that Saturday night was a festive one for the team, filled with emotion. As one player put it, "I feel so passionate!!"

Phil and his teammates savoring their victory. Check out those professional uniforms.

Phil about to flick past Romania
There's another game this weekend, so stay tuned for updates about Shopski, BG's rising frisbee star! Phil's doing a double-shift at the Halloween dance this Friday night, but his fans are hoping that he'll save a little something for the frisbee fields on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Zdravete, friends!

This week, we continued our orientation to Bulgaria and our new place of employment. We find ourselves with yet another 4-day weekend to enjoy, so we're off to explore Sofia a bit further today. But first, let's look back on our exploits with our cohort of new teachers...

The school does a nice job getting new teachers acclimated to each other and to Bulgaria by taking us on a little excursion, which happened last weekend. We visited three very important sites: Rila Monastery, a still-working monastery and place of sacred importance in the Eastern Orthodox history; Koprivshtitsa, a tiny village that was turned into a "museum village" under Soviet rule; and Plovdiv, the "Paris of the Balkans" and Bulgaria's second largest city.

Rila Monastery has the geographical advantage of being nestled in the Rila Mountains, and so the views from throughout the monastery's courtyards and balconies are impressive. Keep in mind we've had almost exclusively sunny, cloudless days, so the contrast of lush mountain greenery and deep blue sky make it easy to understand why St. Ioan Rilski chose this site and, later, why the builders and artists of various local schools were inspired to adorn it as they did. Unfortunately, a major fire destroyed almost all evidence of the original buildings from the 10th C., so the pictures you see here are of 19th C. buildings.

Rila Monastery's principal church

The rooms along these upper balconies around the courtyard are the monks' quarters

A fresco of St. Georgi on the outer wall of the main church

You can barely make out one of our colleagues crawling out of this dark and narrow cave. It's the cave in which St. Ioan, Rila's founding father and patron saint, lived in seclusion. Many of us crawled through it.

After Rila, we visited Koprivshtitsa, which earned its fame during the April Uprising, April 1876; this insurrection against the Ottoman "yoke" was not technically successful--it was brutally suppressed by the Ottomans, a story retold passionately by Bulgarians--but is said to have laid the groundwork for Bulgaria's establishment as a sovereign nation a couple of years later. There's a bridge in this little village from which the first shot of the Uprising was fired. Many of the town's homes are now historical sites that depict life in 19th C. Bulgaria; Americans might recall colonial Jamestown when visiting the village. The folk-art style of the facade paintings; the choice of color; and the reliance on wood for almost all major construction lend a doll's house feel to much of the village. We stayed overnight here and were treated to a quartet of Hungarian teenagers performing Balkan folk dances in the evening, followed by a lively and long dinner. Our companions in the restaurant were a group of Bulgarian and Hungarian people, two of whom, we found out later, were the hotel's owners, visiting with friends for vacation. They were an extraordinarily friendly and welcoming group, and they taught many of us Bulgarian folk dance and insisted that we dance with them. The restaurant quickly turned into a Bulgarian folk dance party, which later devolved into a regular dance party fueled by American country and rock hits that you'd never have imagined to make it across the pond.

The tower of Koprivshtitsa's "old" church (built about 15 years before what is still referred to as the "new" church, from the mid-19th C.)

The facade of one of the village's historical homes; the paintings depict scenes from Venice and other trading points for the home's wealthy owner.

One of Bulgaria's most revered poets was killed in the First World War; here, a statue of his mother gazes out towards the gate of their home, depicting her waiting for his return.

Phil never would have made it in these houses

Typical view of homes in Koprivshtitsa

Koprivshtitsa streets

The view out the window of our hotel; some of our colleagues were awoken in the morning by the sheep living next door.

The next day, we moved on to Plovdiv, which is the hometown of one of our tour guides, Natalya, who works at the school. We toured the Roman amphitheater, which is in remarkably good condition, considering that--or maybe because--it remained buried until about 1973, when renovations on the school that perched atop it uncovered this hidden treasure. We also spent some time roaming the lovely cobblestoned streets of "Old Plovdiv," and then went to a hilltop (Plovdiv has 7 hills) for a better vantage on the city.

It seems that ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and, certainly, Ottoman periods of the country's history lie all around one's feet. One teacher from a small village south of Sofia said that, as a child, he and his brother were always turning up relics and using them as toys. Natalya tells us that many a construction project has ground to a screeching halt, stalled indefinitely, due to the discovery of an archaeological treasure that stands in the way.

Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater

Phil on the old steps of the amphitheater; some of the upper balcony seats have been replaced, but much of the theater's original marble is intact.

The glare off the marble was so strong I could barely keep my eyes open for this photo.

Incredibly, these tall columns flanking the stage still stand.

The streets of "old Plovdiv"

Plovdiv graffiti

The facade of a building in Old Plovdiv

Fountain in a main square off a pedestrian street in Plovdiv.

Back in Sofia, we started orientation in our departments and then, yesterday, had the first all-school faculty meeting. Those days are always pretty overwhelming, between all of the meeting and greeting and information-overload; fortunately, the vibe among the staff is notably cheerful (at least for now!), and our colleagues have been incredibly helpful in getting us up to speed. Unfortunately, we won't maintain that speed for long, as the national holiday called Unification Day falls this weekend, meaning we have off until Wednesday! Rather than escaping to the beach, the mountains, or even another country, as many people do, we've opted to stick around Sofia. We'll do some more neighborhood walks, bike rides, and perhaps another excursion to Mt. Vitosha tomorrow...

Until next time, obeecham (love) from Sofia!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bella (e calda!!) Italia!

Buongiorno, bambini!

We've just returned from a week in the Veneto, Italy, and as wonderful as the trip was, it's nice to be back in the relative cool of Sofia! Italy was at its hottest this summer, according to our sources, but that didn't stop us. Here are a few tales and photos from our adventures in the region...

Our trusty steed, the Panda
First stop, Bassano del Grappa, a small town just south of the Dolomites. From Venice Marco Polo airport, we rented this sporty little Fiat Panda and drove west towards the mountains. The Dolomiti are incredibly striking, even on hot and hazy days, for their sheer and jagged peaks in some areas. When we weren't exploring local hamlets, we were winding our way along mountain paths, trying to keep our eyes on the road while still enjoying the incredible scenery--this is a difficult exercise, as you know if you've experienced the Italian "tornantes", or switchbacks in the road, that seem to come by the dozen. From Bassano, we drove through the mountains to Asiago, a small mountain town famous for their cheese...

Action shot of Phil at the Panda

Ponte Vecchio, Bassano del Grappa

First beer of the voyage, in a piazza in Bassano

The Brenta river in Bassano seems to be a favorite fishing hole for locals

First glass of delicious vino at Antico bar, Bassano

This is the view of the hills around Bassano, from the center of town

Bearing down on a hay truck long the road towards Asiago

Overtaking the hay truck

Phil "Panda-handler" Altman after the successful hay truck maneuver

Asiago, which is up in the hills, has an Alpine appearance to it

While the town seemed to be taking their siesta, we had a little picnic in the park in Asiago

One of the many breathtaking views on the drive

Me at the wheel of the Panda

More great views...

A little town along the drive to Asiago from Bassano

From Asiago and surroundings, we headed back to the lowlands and finished in Asolo, an enchanted little village close to Bassano that's famous for one of the most beautiful villas of Andrea Palladio, the Venetian architect who characterized the look of Vicenza and many other cities in the area. The town feels a little too perfect--almost like a historical village set up just to charm visitors. And it does...

One of many perfectly manicured gardens in Asolo

Charming archway in Asolo

Classical garden on the outskirts of the centro, Asolo

Central piazza, Asolo, just across from the main Church

View of Asolo from a surrounding hillside

A classical garden in Asolo

Another view back towards Asolo from the hills
From Bassano, a trip to Vicenza was in order, as it's very close by, and we knew relatively nothing about Palladio's work. Venturing to the city was a daunting prospect given the heat of the days, but we didn't knock ourselves out to see every site; rather, we moved like lazy sharks through the streets and admired the architecture and, to our surprise, the silence--nearly all of urban Italia seemed to have vacated for the beaches and mountains! This meant that we didn't get to the see the city at its liveliest, but we also zipped through unfettered and never waited for a table--at the open restaurants, that is! Our plans to try a supposedly-great restaurant were thwarted more than once when we arrived to find a hand-written note from the proprietor announcing that they were "chiuso per feria" until the day after we left. Nonetheless, Vicenza was well worth the visit. After touring the centro and having a delicious lunch at Antica Casa della Malvasia, in a little alleyway off the Piazza dei Signori, we headed to the outskirts of town to see Palladio's famous Villa Valmarana, and then back to town for a look at Teatro Olimpico, another of his major projects in Vicenza central.

Monument in Piazza dei Signori, which also features the Basilica Palladiana, by Palladio

Impressive and imposing guard atop the monument

We played a game on this giant chess board and attracted some fans

One of the best ESL moments of the trip was featured on this t-shirt: "I sleep ONLY with the best."

Gorgeous facade of a building in Vicenza

And its equally gorgeous door

Villa Valmarana, also known as "ai Nani" for the little garden gnomes that top the walls of the gardens

One of the "Nani" at Villa Valmarana

View from the balcony of Villa Valmarana

Grape vines in the Valmarana gardens

At Valmarana, ceiling fresco by Tiepolo depicting Blind Cupid driving the chariot

Another Tiepolo fresco at Valmarana, this one depicting Vulcan at his forge

Entryway to Teatro Olimpico, designed by Palladio and finished by his protege Scamozzi

Entryway gardens to Teatro Olimpico

Gardens of Teatro Olimpico

The coming season at the Teatro

The stage is meant to depict the seven streets of Thebes; the perspective makes it look like they sprawl out into the distance from any angle where you may sit

A contemplative visitor to Teatro Olimpico

The back and sides of the theater are almost as elaborate as the stage
Relief from stage right

Back in Bassano del Grappa, on the banks of the Brenta

After three days in the mountains, we left for San Bonifacio, which is just between Vicenza and Verona. The route we chose brought us back through the mountains, as if on our way back to Asiago, and then around Lake Garda, a favorite vacation destination for Italians at this time of year. The Lake itself is dramatic and the drive there well worth the visit. However, the raison d'etre of this portion of the trip was to visit Sirmione, a small peninsula at the southern end of the lake, where Catullus had a villa. He composed a poem about it, which is why Phil knew of the place and wanted to see it. Well, poor Catullus would be rolling over in his grave if he could see the place now. While his villa--the remains of it--is a wonderful visit, the heaps of tourists and over-development that usually precedes their arrival were enough to send us running as soon as we had enjoyed the views from the peninsula. 

Views from the drive through the mountains towards Riva del Garda, at the north end of Lake Garda

Phil taking a plunge in Lake Garda

Olives ripening on the branch

View of the Lake from Catullus's villa

Exploring the ruins of the villa

The end of the peninsula, which Catullus's villa dominates; he had good taste

Another view from the end of the peninsula

This might be the little room from which Catullus composed his poem about Sirmione

The view from our room at Villa Bongiovani, Locara, near San Bonifacio
Since the stop in San Bonifcaio was to serve the purpose of seeing Sirmione, we stayed only one night. That evening, we visited a local trattoria, recommended by the proprietor of our hotel. Indeed, the place was lovely, and the owners even more so. They literally had to turn the lights on for us in the dining room, as we were the only guests. We had a pretty comical dining experience, where the waiter--to his credit--treated us as if we spoke fluent Italian; we understood him well, but perhaps couldn't make OURselves as clear as we would have liked. For my part, I asked if a certain dish could be done without coniglio (rabbit); if not, NO problem, I'd just have the other one that was clearly vegetarian. The waiter thought it would be no problem, but he would ask. When our dishes arrived, mine was the first dish I had asked about modifying, and with his incredible sing-song and bob of the head from side to side, the waiter graciously explained that the kitchen made the dish with "POCO, POCO, POCO coniglio!" I suppose it was difficult to imagine that someone really didn't want ANY rabbit in such a dish, or any dish, and so they threw in just enough for flavor. So, I had my first taste of bunny in the hills outside of Soave...

We shoved on the next day, stopping in Verona en route.  Now the weather was REALLY hot. Surprisingly, though, Verona was substantially more crowded with tourists--though still relatively quiet--than Vicenza. We spent a few hours there, seeing il Duomo and several other prominent sites, had some lunch, and moved on. This little city is worth a return trip, perhaps to see an opera in the Roman amphiteater when it's not upwards of 95 degrees; as it was, people must have been cooking like little pizzas on the stone seats they were stuck in for hours in the late afternoon. This was a moment where our lack of planning had served us very well, as some fellow travelers who had the foresight to book ahead soon regretted their decision when they contemplated the alternative: sitting in the gardens or by the lovely little pool at our last stop, Agrituirsmo Tenuta la Pila.

Facade of Palazzo Maffei and Torre del Gardello, Piazza dell'Erbe, Verona

Another imposing figure guarding the piazza

This whale bone is fabled to fall on the first virtuous person who walks under it, and the local joke is that Popes, politicians, and the like have all paraded under it for centuries...

View of the "other" side of the Adige River, as seen from the centro

Facade of il Duomo

Local love birds put these locks on wires over the river and throw away the keys

View of the city over the Adige River
Our last real excursion was to Ferrara, which is a much smaller, medieval city, less than an hour from where we stayed in Villa Bartolomea. It's known as the Citta delle Bicicletta, which we saw in evidence despite the extreme quiet of the city at this time of year. It also was sponsoring a festival called "Night of the Buskers," a series of concerts for street musicians. Stages were set up around the town piazzas, and restaurants and hotels were offering discounts for the buskers. We saw no evidence of them at first, but when we walked atop the 14th C. wall that rings the city center, just outside of it, in the city gardens, loads of buskers were camping out on the grass in tents, warbling for each other, napping, etc. It was like a tiny little corner of the parking lot at a Phish concert. 

Piazza della Catedrale, Ferrara
Facade of the medieval Catedrale, featuring many more scenes of anguish and despair than the Renaissance period churches we saw in Vicenza and Verona

This guy stands guard outside the Catedrale

A few of the Buskers, resting up for their jam sessions

Part of the 14th C wall that rings the centro

Phil exploring the wall above the city

Much of the architecture of Ferrara is more "semplice" than other cities we saw; very beautiful even in its decay

Spots of color are everywhere to brighten up the dusty, crumbly brick of much of the old part of the town

A typical scene on a quiet day in August: a biker on his cell phone, on an otherwise sleepy street

Does everyone come back from Italy with a series of photos called "Doors"? They certainly do have beautiful doors everywhere we went...

Campari spritz time back at Tenuta la Pila

This was the main building of the farmhouse

These orchards were mostly kiwi trees, and some other fruits, which ring the pool and sitting area of the farmhouse
All in all, a pretty fabulous trip! We start "work" tomorrow, which consists of orientation through next week. Our first activities will include one day trip and then an overnight trip to a couple of important Bulgarian sights, so there will be some tales to tell after that experience with group bonding, no doubt. 

Until then, arrivederci!