Sunday, October 28, 2007

Saturday at the monastery...

On Saturday, I woke up and tried to shake off the rakia-induced cobwebs (with limited success). Stamen, a Bulgarian coworker who was kind enough to offer to take me up to the mountains, arrived in the hotel lobby just as the elevator doors were opening. Sofia looked gray and rainy so I was sure what kind of weather to expect up top.

Stamen had decided to take me to a very famous Bulgarian monastery called Rila. The fall foliage in the mountains was literally unbelievable. It's been a while since I've seen that kind of natural beauty. I used HDR to make the shots below but tried to balance them so they look like the images in my (hung over) memory. The colors really were this spectacular.
On the way up we stopped at a simple restaurant for a little more grub, Bulgarian style. We started with baked peppers and a soup made from cow stomach. If you load it with enough garlic and pepper, it's not too bad. My recommendation for those who may try it is to try not to look directly at it . I then had a plate of mixed meat that reminded me of a dish my wife and I ordered at a Greek restaurant in Bad Schönborn. Everything we ordered was excellent. Stamen and Dimiter, a coworker who joined us, ordered trout, which was served whole.
The monastery is a beautiful place way up in the mountains with a church in the center covered in gorgeous art. While the pictures turned out nicely, you have to see it "live" to get the full effect.Below is a cool shot of the cone-shaped roof of the old monastery kitchen. I can't imagine what kind of gruel that placed doled out, but I'm sure it inspired some of the images of hell on the church walls!I crashed for a while on the way back (snoring like an asthmatic donkey I'm sure) and slept on and off on the 2 and a half hour flight back (this time we made a brief stop in Viena). I'm looking forward to going back to Bulgaria, which I should have an opportunity to do a few times a year now.
A quick tour of Sofia...

I spent the last few days of this week on business (mostly) in Sofia, Bulgaria. After spending a day up in the mountains, we came down to the city on Friday and went to the office. After a few meetings, I headed out to do some site seeing with a coworker (thanks Radost!). Sofia is a big, vibrant city that is recovering very nicely from decades of communism.
Bulgarians speak Bulgarian, which sounds like Russian to my ear. It is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, which constantly reminds you that you're not in Kansas. The Bulgarian Orthodox church seems to be the most common religion.The Downtown Hotel where I stayed was modern and centrally located. After checking in, I got a nice tour of the major landmarks and a bit of a feel for the city. A teacher's strike was in effect and elections are today (Sunday, October 28) so there was a lot of political activity in the streets. One of the little differences that I thought was cool were the timers displayed on traffic signals so you know how much time you have before it changes.That evening I had dinner with coworkers at a nice restaurant that serves typical Bulgarian food and, of course, rakia. My favorite was the apricot, although the grape and plum varieties were also excellent. We then went to a jazz club where we could only take 30 minutes of the lame garage band that was wayyyyy too impressed with themselves. We left and the rest of the folks headed home. I went to a cool bar near the hotel, the Candle Club, and had a few more drinks. The DJ there was on fire. The place was small and absolutely packed when I left around 2:00.

On Saturday, we headed up to the mountains again. This time, we went to Rila monestery. More on that incredible experience in another post.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Long time, no blog…

Since I last blogged a couple of weeks ago, Emily broke her arm and B has returned from Brazil. First, the gory details on Emily’s (inevitable?) calamity. She fell from the monkey bars at the park last Thursday and broke her left arm in (of course) a really strange way. Given her lack of anything remotely resembling fear since birth, my only surprise is that it's taken her six years to do it. The doctors put it in a sling hoping her humorous (the big bone in the upper arm) would align on its own without the aid of surgery. All indications are that it has. She’ll get another X-ray on Monday.

B had a great time in Brazil. Her best friend Izabella’s wedding was beautiful and tons of fun for about 400 people. B had a blast helping prepare the festivities and the bride. Iza and her husband Renato came in to Heidelberg on Tuesday and are now off touring France. They’ll be back in a couple of weeks to spend a good stretch of time with us in Heidelberg. Iza is Sophia’s godmother so both are thrilled to be spending time together.

Speaking of Sophia, make that Sofia, I’m in Bulgaria. Yesterday we had an offsite meeting and today I’m in the Sofia office meeting the team here. I now have someone on my team from this fine city. I took her to the castle in Heidelberg last week and got off a few nice shots. This one is my favorite.
The offsite meeting was at a ski lodge in the mountains around Sofia. The view was truly world class. Most of the day we were between layers of clouds, the lower one obscuring most of the view of Sofia. The leaves are turning which made for an unbelievable view. The hotel was also really nice (and we got some work done too).

Although I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, the view reminded me a bit of the city in the clouds in the original movie. The view from the meeting room was quite distracting. I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to come here (the first of many, I'm sure). I’m staying here tonight (Friday, Oct. 26) so I can do some site seeing tonight and tomorrow. Not sure what we'll do tonight, but my sixth sense tells me it will involve a lot of rakia. Being someone who highly values cultural diversity, I did my best to get acquainted with the "fire water of the Balkans" last night. I seem to have survived it. I think the plan is to go back up into the mountains to a monastery tomorrow. Fret not: plenty of pictures will follow.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

It's all happening at the zoo in Stuttgart...

Since my last entry, B has gone to Brazil (by herself) for her best friend's wedding. I've been holding down the fort quite nicely (in my humble opinion) with tons of help from Sandra.
Today we decided to go to the
Wilhelma, the zoo and botanical garden in Stuttgart. Even with traffic and my entering the wrong street into Poposuda, we got there in less that an hour and a half. I somehow managed to get the DVD player to work without the help of my better half so the kids were quiet all the way there. We found parking essentially on the zoo grounds for a very reasonable rate (a Euro or so per hour).

Wilhelma is an very nice zoo in the middle of a botanical garden. There you'll find acres and acres of flowers, trees, topiaries and all the other accoutrement you'd expect from a garden accented with the unmistakable smell of a zoo. It cost us about 30 Euros to get the whole family through the door.
Once inside, there is plenty to do. We spent about 4 hours there and didn't mange to see all the animals etc. We took lunch with us so besides some ice cream for the kids, it was a pretty cheap outing.
One of the things I like most was the aquarium. While it isn't as big or exotic as most, it is well-organized and houses most of the kinds of critters you would expect.

I also like the playgrounds we found, which gave the kids a needed distraction every hour or so.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Fall festival...

Today there was a fall celebration in Sophia's school. Apparently, there were several events during the weekend. Today we took some cupcakes to a gathering where parents bought cake and coffee etc. to support the school. I'm sure folks thought the cupcakes were a bit bizarre but they bought them anyway!

Tonight, we left the kids with Sandra and headed to the old part of Heidelberg. It was a beautiful fall night with just a slight nip in the air. We had had beer/wine in a cozy little restaurant on the Hauptstrasse and were home by 21:00 -- a really great evening.

One of the nice little perks of living outside the US is smoking cuban cigars. I usually keep some cheap cigarillos in my camera bag to give me a burst of creativity as I need it. We went to Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago and I bought some there. It's funny: French is so beautful even a warning of the horrific death you face from smoking seems somehow appealing. I make an effort to smoke in open areas so as not to put at risk the health of my "entourage".

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Frankly beautiful...

Today we packed everyone into the our urban assault craft and hightailed it up to
Frankfurt, an hour or so North of Heidelberg.We've been here 9 months but have only made it up there for airport runs. As usual, we made absolutely no plans and did virtually no research. When we got in the van, we entered "Frankfurt - Altstatd" in Poposuda (our navigation system) and were off like flash, hoping for the best. The trip there seemed really quick and we had no trouble parking in the street near Frankfurt Cathedral. We had a quick cup of Joe/hot chocolate to warm the bones and then went walking around. The area around the Main river is absolutely gorgeous. Frankfurt is a large, modern city that still has some typical German charm. My understanding is that is was bombed into the Stone Age during WWII. It has recovered quite nicely. I prefer these cities on Saturdays as there's a lot of movement; Sundays are relatively dead.

Frankfurt Cathedral is packed with beautiful art and statuary. I could have stayed there all morning, but the river area looked inviting as well. The big hit with the kids on the river were the enormous swans. We bought a super sized pretzel that the kids fed to these huge fowl and their little duck cousins.
After walking around for a couple of hours, we had lunch at a Biergarten literally in the shadow of the cathedral. I then headed out on my own for a few minutes to take a few pictures (of course) and we headed back. We'll have some guests from Brazil later this month and will head back sans kids to check out some of the museums. My guess is you could explore Frankfurt for months.

After hanging around at the ranch for a few, B and I decided to go to one of our favorite restaurants in the area. We first went to Glashaus when we were in temporary housing in Bad Schönborn. The place is still really nice and, much to B's delight, mussels are back in season. Not sure what their secret is, but the mussels at this place are from another planet (and in a good way).

Tomorrow there's a fall party at Sophia's school. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fun in Freiburg and a taste of Trigger...

Last weekend got off to a great start with my birthday dinner. As my sister was in town, I was treated to a fine Tex-Mex meal from which I still haven't fully recovered (I ate demasiado).

On Saturday, we headed to the old part of Heidelberg where a fall festival was kicking into gear. The whole family (including Sandra and my sister) walked down the Hauptstrasse, or main drag, perusing the wares being sold left and right. Robert, Emily and I were not particularly impressed so we headed back to the ranch, leaving B, Sandra, my sister and Sophia to fight the ever-swelling crowd. By the time they left in the late afternoon, the place was absolutely packed, making forward progress tough going. My understanding is that by midnight over 300,000 people had crammed into the Altstadt. On Saturday night we took my sister to Sardegna, a great Italian restaurant in our neighborhood (faithful readers of this blog have read about it many times before). This time I finally ordered the horse steak that had piqued my curiosity on previous visits. While I'm sure the owner of this fine establishment wouldn't deceive me, the steak tasted so much like beef it made me wonder. It might be my imagination, but I found that horse steak has a slightly different texture than beef. Anyway, next time I'm thinking about ordering the dolphin cutlets. Just kidding.

On Sunday, we finally went to a city we hadn't been before: Freiburg. This city lies about an hour and half South of us in the Black Forest. My parents had been there during their tour a couple of weeks earlier. The old part of the city is quaint but I wasn't blown away. While it's probably not on my short list of "must visit" cities, many people have told me that Freiburg is a great place to live, with plenty to do inside and outside the city.