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.
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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)

Budget Vacation Guide 2012: Kiev, Ukraine

This summer, soccer fans from around the world will flock to Ukraine when the country co-hosts UEFA Euro2012 with Poland for the very first time. There’s no better time to visit the capital city of Kiev, which has spent the past few years beefing up its tourist infrastructure and recently unveiled a completely redesigned Olympic Stadium in preparation for the final match of the quadrennial European soccer tournament.

If you’re not a soccer fan, or don’t want to shell out the big bucks to ticket scalpers, Kiev offers plenty of cheap diversions. In the warmer months, the city comes alive with flora and fauna, not to mention a packed agenda of free outdoor activities. Lie on the beaches (yes, beaches) of Hidropark in the Dnieper River, or take a cultural stroll through Andriyivskyy Descent, advertised as the “Montmartre of Kiev”. You can even try scaling the Moskovskyi Bridge (but please don’t).

While Kiev has experienced inflation in recent years, it’s still a bargain compared to other European capitals. To keep things cheap during the games, try a short-term apartment rental instead of a hotel; check Airbnb or 9flats for listings. Food-wise, traditional Ukrainian cafeterias are a cultural experience as well as money-saver. Specialties like potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, and dumplings will provide more than enough fuel for the games.

[flickr image via Matvey Andreyev]

Ukranian teens capture illegal bridge climbing on video

I’ve seen some crazy urban climbing videos in my time, but this one takes the cake. It was captured on a helmet cam and follows four teenagers as they scramble up the Moskovskyi (Moscow) Bridge in Kiev, while traffic rushes by below. After a brief conversation in Russian at the beginning of the video, the teens simply begin scaling the steel cables that hold the bridge in place, without the use of any kind of climbing gear or safety equipment. Eventually they reach the top, and even climb inside the main tower, which stands some 377-feet in height.

Judging from the final shots of the video, I don’t know what would be scarier. Climbing the bridge, or making your way back down.


Knocked up abroad: second trimester travel

second trimester travel

Not far along enough for second trimester travel? Read more about pregnancy in a foreign country, Turkish prenatal care, travel in the first trimester,Turkish superstitions, and foreign baby names on Knocked up abroad.

A few years ago, before the word staycation foisted itself into the travel lexicon, babymoons were all the rage. A babymoon typically referred to the last getaway for expecting parents, often a deluxe resort vacation replete with couples’ massages, room service, and lots of pampering. I’ve spent my my pre-baby travel slightly differently, exploring post-Soviet museums before needing a stroller, eating at restaurants that have never heard of kids’ menus, and learning what non-alcoholic drinks are on offer in local dive bars. Living abroad in Istanbul has also changed my short-haul destinations considerably. In the first trimester, my husband and I traveled to Kiev and Warsaw, Russia in the dead of winter, and to Frankfurt for the Christmas markets, and I don’t regret having gone without the his-and-hers massages. For second trimester travel, I found Singapore to be nearly ideal: the food and shopping are epic, the street food is safe, and the people polite and helpful. Though the hotel prices and high temperatures can be hard to deal with, the Southeast Asian city-state is a nice balance of relaxation and city exploration.

Ask any new parent or doctor and they will tell you that the second trimester is the best time to travel, after the early days of morning sickness have passed and before you get so uncomfortable that a walk around the block feels like a marathon. Given the relative comfort level, the second trimester is also the best time for longer trips further from home. I flew 10 hours home to New York (my first trip back to the US in 10 months) in late February at 20 weeks, and just returned from a week in Malaysia and Singapore at 27 weeks. Today I hit the 28-week mark of pregnancy, a big milestone as it means the end of unrestricted air travel. For many international airlines, including Turkish Airlines, British Airways, and Qantas, you are required to bring a doctor’s note certifying you are fit to fly overseas. We all want to avoid childbirth on a plane, even if it could mean free flights for life.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from travel in the second trimester:

  • Travel when you are showing: Part of what makes first trimester travel tough is that no one knows you are pregnant other than you and your travel companions. Exhausted and need a seat? Tough luck, lady, we’re all tired. Need to make sure that foreign drink is non-alcoholic? Better stick to (bottled) water. While my friends cooed over my five-month baby bump, not a single person gave me a seat on the NYC subway in a week of rides, even when I unzipped my winter coat and looked longingly at strangers. Two months later in Singapore, I barely stepped onto a train before several people offered me a seat and every car has a few reserved seat for passengers in need.
  • Don’t skip the creature comforts: Even if you skip the traditional resort babymoon, you should still give yourself a break when traveling. When booking air travel, if you can find a way to upgrade yourself to business class, you’ll be glad to stretch out even if you can’t sip that free champagne. Coming from rainy and chilly Istanbul, a week in tropical Southeast Asia seemed heavenly, but walking around in humid 90-degree weather felt more like hell. I must agree with my food blogger friend Kate over at Savour Fare who said that “swimming pools are God’s gift to pregnant women.” Staying at a hotel with a pool gave me much-needed relief in between wandering the historic (but seriously hot) streets of Penang, Malaysia.
  • Bring documentation: As noted before, many airlines require a doctor’s note for women to fly between 28 and 35 weeks. But how do you prove how far along you are in the earlier weeks? At my last doctor’s appointment before flying to Asia, I asked for a note allowing me to travel just in case, having heard that Malaysia sometimes restricts entry to pregnant women in later months for fear that they will give birth in the country. Good thing I did as nearly every Turkish Airlines personnel asked me for my medical report: when checking in, at the gate, and on the plane. If you’re traveling internationally after 20 weeks, play it safe and bring a note.
  • Do half as much: For first trimester travel, I noted that you should realize your limits have changed. Though energy levels may increase in the second trimester, jet lag and extreme weather still take a major toll. I had a long to-do list in Singapore but could barely manage half the things. I scoffed at paying for the tram at the zoo, but in hindsight, it would have been much easier and more comfortable to get around Singapore’s massive animal park. Even if you normally avoid overpriced museum cafes, they might provide the break you need to stay a little longer. Taxis are another friend of pregnant women, especially when they are air-conditioned.
  • Buy local snacks: Pregnancy is a double-edged sword when it comes to eating: your hunger is greatly increased but you have to watch what you put into your body, whether you’re in a foreign country or not. Often flights arrive late at night or you mistime your lunch break when all the restaurants are closed, leaving you without many food options. Penang is known as Malaysia’s food capital but I had to make different choices for safety’s sake and avoid some of the famed street food, though Singapore’s hawker centers are quite hygienic even when you are eating for two. A visit to a supermarket can provide an expecting traveler with a range of unusual but safe food. Each night in Asia I tried different bottled drinks, from the tasty calamansi juice to the vile lemon-barley drink. Having a stash of local snacks made me feel better about staying safe with street food while still enjoying products only found in Malaysia. America needs to get with the Kit Kat drumstick ice cream cone, though I’m not so sure about the blueberry-and-hazelnut Pringles.
  • Dress for comfort: Nearly all pregnant women experience swelling in the hands and feet, particularly in the last few months. Air travel, salty foods, and humidity exacerbate this, so halfway through my vacation, I worried I’d burst out of my shoes like the Incredible Hulk. If you’re traveling to a hot place, pack shoes that give you a bit of room and remove your rings before flying (good opportunity to find a nice necklace to wear them on). Also be sure to dress in cool clothing that still provides coverage to avoid (or protect) sunburn.

With three months to go, there’s still more Knocked up abroad to come, stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel.

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.