A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Europe’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Women And Other Reasons To Love Bulgaria

hot bulgarian womenI had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.

But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.

A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)

sexy bulgarian womanBut are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.

After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.

Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.

bansko bulgarian gypsy bandBut the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.

Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)

Retreating Italian Glacier Reveals Dead From World War I

World War OneTwo soldiers’ bodies from World War I have been discovered on an Italian mountain, the Telegraph reports.

Workers on the Presena glacier in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of the Dolomites in Italy found the bodies at an altitude of 9,850 feet. The glacier has been receding because of an unusually hot summer and the workers were covering it with a giant tarpaulin to keep it from thawing further.

The soldiers are believed to have been from an artillery unit of the Austro-Hungarian army and were killed in 1918. The skeletons were identified by remnants of uniform and insignia. No word yet on whether they can be named.

During World War I, Italy fought against Austro-Hungarian and German forces in the bitter cold of the mountaintops. One favorite tactic was to fire artillery shells above enemy positions to cause avalanches to bury them. In other cases soldiers died from wounds or exposure and were lost. Many of these bodies have been found in later years.

From more on the Italian Front, there is an excellent website and photo collection here.

The Presena glacier isn’t the only one melting. The entire Alps is seeing less ice cover, reducing the number of ski slopes and increasing the risk of avalanches for trekkers.

[Photo courtesy German Federal Archive]

Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

travel with a baby
Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Rooms By the Hour In Belgrade And An Insane Taxi Driver from Novi Sad

Have you ever met a taxi driver who was more interested in showing you staged photos of him with his cars than getting you to the airport to catch a flight? No? Well, you’ve probably never met Novica Jurisic, a Serbian taxi driver from Novi Sad, whose most prized possessions are kept in the trunk of his Mercedes Benz taxi.

When I worked at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia in the early aughts, my wife and I took advantage of every long weekend to travel around the region. But Skopje isn’t much of a flight hub, so it’s tricky to see much in a three-day weekend, and flight schedules are inconvenient at best.

Very early one Saturday morning we caught a 6 A.M. flight to Belgrade, on JAT, the old Yugoslav National Airline that, at least at that time, still inexplicably allowed passengers to put large suitcases in empty seats around the cabin. On the way to Belgrade we decided on a whim to spend just one day in the city and then take an overnight train to Budapest.

After a delightful day of exploring Belgrade, we were exhausted, after having gotten up at 4 A.M. for our flight, but we had six hours to kill until our train left at midnight. We came across the Hotel Beograd a place near enough to the station to be convenient, and shabby looking enough to have hourly rates.I had checked out a room at the Beograd before, after arriving in the city late at night, alone, on my 30th birthday. But I could not bring myself to celebrate the auspicious occasion in a room with sloping beds, dirty, velvety bedspreads with miscellaneous stains and rotary telephones, so I cut bait and went elsewhere.

There is never a graceful way to enquire about hourly rates at a hotel, particularly when you arrive with a member of the opposite sex and are encircled by numerous loitering and inquisitive men. The desk clerk, a middle aged man with thick glasses who wore an unfriendly scowl, wanted about $12, but would only let us stay in the room until 20.00. In my rudimentary Serbian/Macedonian I told him that I might need a bit longer, say, until 22.00 or 23.00. He scoffed at the request and the loitering men began to laugh and chatter about us.

Why does he need so much time with her, is what they were probably saying.

We haggled a bit and he eventually agreed to let us stay in our room until 21.00, enough time for us to take a nap, in theory. The clerk asked for our passports and it suddenly dawned on me that I had left my regular tourist passport in Skopje and had only a black diplomatic passport. After our public negotiation over the day rate at this shabby hotel, I was certain that pulling out this passport would cause a stir and sure enough it did, as the men began to howl.

Can you believe the American! He’s a diplomat and he comes here with a woman, doesn’t want to pay for the room for a whole night and then tries to haggle!

Even though our objectives were pure, I felt dirty in our sweaty, cramped and noisy room at the Beograd. My wife was certain that she saw some bloodstains on her twin bed, but mine had nothing worse than a few hairs and some holes in the sheets. The room was so hot, we had to keep the window open, and the traffic outside kept me awake. The lock on the door didn’t work so we barricaded a chair up against the door and I paced around the suffocating, dismal room until check out time, feeling oddly like Robert De Niro in his threadbare apartment in the movie Taxi Driver.

After a day and a half enjoying all of the cultural delights of Budapest, including foot-long meatball subs at Subway, and other treats unavailable in Skopje, it was time to figure out how to get back to Belgrade in time for our 21.00 flight. I assumed we’d have no problem, but both the bus and the train left at 14.00, with the bus arriving in Belgrade after our flight and the train arriving just an hour before departure. We looked into renting a car, but no Hungarian rental car company would allow us to drop off in Serbia.

We decided to take the train and then race into a taxi to the airport and hope for the best. But as we approached Novi Sad, a fellow passenger advised us that we should get out in Novi Sad, and then take a taxi directly to the Belgrade airport to catch our flight. He called a taxi company, we agreed to pay 50€ and a man bearing a sign with our names was there at the train station waiting to pick us up. Perfect! Right?

Our new friend on the train told us that Novi Sad and Belgrade were connected by a four lane highway and advised us that a taxi could get us to the airport in an hour, while the train took 90 minutes just to get to downtown Belgrade. The main introduced himself as Novica, and handed us his business card, which showed him all dressed up in a royal blue suit befitting a rap star attending a baptism posing in front of two Mercedes Benzes. (see photo)

As we approached his car, he pointed to a white Benz that was perhaps 8-10 years old but very nicely polished.

“Mercedez Benz,” he said proudly pointing to the car. “You know it?”

We slowly made our way in and then out of Novi Sad as Novica narrated his Serbian and very rudimentary English. From what I understood, Novi Sad was a great city and we were making a huge mistake by not stopping and spending time in the town. I assured him that we would be back another time, while reminding him that we were in a hurry and had a flight to catch.

About twenty minutes into the ride, my wife and I began to mutter concerns to each other. “Ask him why we aren’t getting on the highway,” Jen instructed me. I tried asking him, but he just kept telling us not to worry and that he knew what he was doing.

We were on a busy, two-lane country road that began to ascend up a mountain. Eventually we saw a sign indicating that we had entered some kind of national park. As our concerns grew, Novica began to banter about the park, and what a great tourist destination it is. I started to look up some words in a Serbian phrasebook and managed to say: “SEGA, NE TOURIST! AVION AERODROM, SEGA!” Which means, “Now, no tourist, flight, airplane, now!”

Novica seemed stung by my scolding. He had taken us on a massive detour in the mistaken belief that we had wanted to take a scenic route to the Belgrade airport.

After another half hour on a sickeningly twisty country road, we eventually came to the entrance to the highway, which pleased us immensely. Right after going through the toll area and getting our ticket, though, Novica inexplicably pulled over and began rummaging around for something in his trunk. I looked at the gas gauge and noticed that he was almost out of gas.

A minute later Novica emerged, smiling and brandishing a few photo albums. The first album was filled with pictures of him in various poses in front of his two taxis. In each photo he was pimped out with his dark glasses along with his royal blue, three-piece suit or a white vest along with white dress shirt and white dress pants. We had to laugh.

The second photo album contained photos from various weddings he had been the driver for. And the final one contained photos of him at various radical Serb political demonstrations. He appeared waving placards denouncing sending Serb war criminals to The Hague. In the photos you could see bunches of scary looking Chetniks with mean faces and long straggly beards. So this is why he is taking us on a scenic route, I thought. It was less then three years after NATO forces bombed Belgrade and this was his revenge.

I asked Novica what all the political photos were about and he seemed a bit embarrassed, saying that these days all he cared about was business, not politics.

Most of the cars on the highway seemed to be zooming past us; the speed limit was 70, but Novica was only going 50. We had no idea how far we were from the Belgrade airport and it was just about an hour before flight time. After a detour to get gas, Jen finally lost her patience and loudly chided him to go faster, while tapping her watch insistently. Probably only a minute later, the airport actually came into sight.

We could hardly believe it, and Novica made a point of telling us that he had told us so all along. Of course the post script to this tale writes itself: we were there 40 minutes before our scheduled departure, but the flight took off two hours late anyways, so we could have stayed on the train and saved ourselves the 50€. But then we wouldn’t have met Novica from Novi Sad.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Busójárás: Hungary’s version of Whacking Day

The blow nearly knocked me off my feet. I was crouching down to take a photo and WHACK! I felt and heard some blunt instrument smack me right on the top of my head. I was momentarily dazed by the force of the blow and by the time I gathered myself, my assailant, a boy of about 12 dressed up in a wooly suit and wooden mask, was already halfway down the block.

“What the hell just happened?” I asked an amused group of bystanders.

“It’s Busójárás, so the young little devils like to run around and whack people,” said a young man who spoke English.

Welcome to Busójárás, Hungary’s version of Whacking Day. I’d heard about the colorful pre-Lenten carnival held in Mohacs each year but no one had warned me about the devlish little busós who run around whacking people.

Busójárás (pronounced Boo-show-yar-us) is a six-day festival that runs from February 16-21 this year. On the final day, always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, locals burn a coffin in the town square to symbolize the death of winter. The festival’s highlight, however, occurs on Sunday when the carnival march of the busós starts. Busós are the scary, wooly-cloaked men with wooden masks you see in the accompanying photos, who arrive in a convoy of rowboats on the Danube River.

The busós march all around the town in their home-made vehicles, while they attempt to frighten onlookers with cow-bells, clappers, and sticks, all the while courting women with symbolic erotic play and offering the audience wine, pálinka (a spirit) and doughnuts.

The festival was first celebrated about 300 years ago by the local Croatian Sokác minority. Depending on which version of history you subscribe to, the busós were originally supposed to scare off either the Turks or winter itself. These days, the occasion is celebrated by a broad spectrum of the local population, not just ethnic Croats. According to UNESCO, which recognized the carnival as a part of the region’s cultural heritage which was in “urgent need of safeguarding” in 2009, some 500-600 busós from about 20 different organized groups participate each year.Some of the most well-known Busójárás groups include the Devil’s Wheel, Winter Scarers, Turk Beaters, and Wine and Colo. The kids who run around terrorizing people like me are called kisbusós (little busós). Female “fair” busós wear folk costumes and don veils to cover their faces. There is also some gender role playing as well- men who dress up like fair busós and vice versa.

In addition to the busó march, the festival also features folk dancing, live music and a variety of other events. Vendors sell food, drinks, local handicrafts and also a variety of junk made in China. If you plan to experience Busójárás, consider using Pécs, a lively city near the borders with Serbia and Croatia, as a base. But whatever you do, keep your eyes peeled and try not to get whacked.