Laughing Squid’s Rusty Blazenhoff did us all a favor when she took a photo of a mural she recently passed in New York City. At East 7th Street in the East Village, Blazenhoff came across a new mural of the late Adam “MCA” Yauch from the Beastie Boys (Adam Yauch died on Friday, May 4). Created by a team called Cram Concepts, this mural has likely found a welcoming home in the East Village. Go see it for yourself if you’re in the area.
They say all art is subjective, and no artform is more contentious than graffiti. Some might say even a detailed mural is defacing public property, while others might consider a bawdy limerick on a bathroom wall to be social commentary. In recent years, artists like Banksy have elevated graffiti to public art. This Lego fellow cleverly rendered in 3-D shows his love for the city of Tel Aviv, taken by Flickr user mjlacey, as a great example of fun and positive street art.
Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.
The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.
- One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
- Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.
- Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
- While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.
Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.
Make it a week
There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.
Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.
Tourists looking for a thrill in Los Angeles can now take a bus tour of the city’s most dangerous ganglands. For $65, LA Gang Tours takes visitors around the city, pointing out gang graffiti and stopping at sights like the Los Angeles Riverbed, Florence Avenue, and the Pico Union Graffiti Lab.
It seems tourists are always drawn to places with a dangerous auras and violent pasts, places that are the complete opposite of our comfortable lives at home. The question is, do we go to these places, places like the slums of Mumbai, the townships of Johannesburg or the streets of South Central LA, because we want to understand what life is like for the people there, or do we go to gawk or just so we can say “I’ve been there”? And do these tours actually help the communities that are put on display, or do they make them a spectacle?
LA Gang Tours was created by Alfred Lomas, a former gang member, who says the tour will create 10 part-time jobs for ex-gang members who will lead tours and share their own stories. He says his goal is to help residents of South Central,”to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.”I’d actually be curious to take the tour, which is scheduled to run once per month. It sounds like, in this case, the tour may be run in a way that takes a more anthropological, rather than exploitative, look at the community. The tour bus is unmarked, and out of respect for area residents, riders on the tour are not permitted to take photos or video.
While in Cape Town, I had the opportunity to tour Robben Island, the prison where political “criminals” were held during apartheid. When the tour guide, himself a former prisoner, was asked why he would do this – lead tours and relive the pain of his imprisonment every day – for a living, he responded with two reasons. One, he said, was because he wanted people to know what happened. The second was that every boatload of tourists that came to the island meant one more person who would have a job.
Perhaps it’s naive to think that welcoming a bus-full of tourists once a month could help solve the many problems of the area. But if offering the tours keeps one more ex-gang member employed running tours and out of gang life, well, at least it’s a start.
[via Chicago Tribune]
Looking at the amazing street graffiti in Barcelona last week, I was struck by the complexity and quality of many of the compositions. No, I’m not an art critic, but some of the pieces were fantastically done and could have held their ground in a modern art museum anywhere across the world.
Where Barcelona has rich, sprawling artistic graffiti, London and New York now have Banksy.
If you’re not familiar with the moniker, you may recognize his hijinks; his trademark work is all over the London landscape and has effectively been bleeding into the US. Recently, Banksy made headlines by sneaking his pieces into the Tate Britain, MOMA and American Museum of Natural History. To the embarrassment of curators and critics alike, many of the pieces have gone unnoticed in their respective places for days.
Luckily, the art world is starting to take notice of the artist’s talents. This week, the famous British graffiti artist opened a temporary exhibition in Chelsea (New York) at the Vanina Holasek Gallery. You can stop by and visit the exhibit through the end of this month.