Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I wrote down pretty much everything I ate during my trip. Some highlights.

Pancakes with mountain berry jam (Ljubljana, Slovenia).

A slice of authentic Bled cream cake - don't be fooled by imitations (Park Restaurant and Cafe in Lake Bled, Slovenia).

Small plates at Male Madlane, a restaurant located in an apartment overlooking the Adriatic Sea (Rovinj, Croatia).

Plum dumplings (Brasov, Romania)

Covrigi - pretzels sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds.  There are places selling these everywhere Romania, along with gogosi, doughnuts stuffed with various sweet and savory fillings.  Covrigi and gogosi stuffed with cheese were the mainstays of my diet in Romania (Gare du Nord, Bucharest, Romania). 

Cheese wrapped in tree bark (Farmers' market in Sibiu, Romania).

Cheese burek with yogurt.  I ate burek in every country and I ate it at least four times a week.  This was the best (Buregdzinica Bosna Restaurant in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Popcorn and corn in a cup are available everywhere in Serbia and Bulgaria (Varna, Bulgaria).

There are coffee machines on every block in the Balkans and the coffee is surprisingly good
(Varna, Bulgaria).

Shopska salad, the national dish of Bulgaria - feta-like cheese (and lots of it), tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions (Dayana Restaurant in Plovdiv, Bulgaria).

Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice (Goreme, Turkey)

Gozleme - pancakes filled with cheese (Nazar Borek and Cafe in Goreme, Turkey).

Katmer - griddled pastry filled with kaymak (similar to clotted cream) and sprinkled with pistachios (Serger Bakery in Istanbul, Turkey).

I first tried khachapuri, a pastry filled with white Georgian cheese, in Uzbekistan and I loved this version (Khachapuria Bakery in Jerusalem, Israel).

A wonderful meal of katayef - pancakes stuffed with white cheese or walnuts and cinnamon (Dewan al-Saraya Old City Abu Ashraf Restaurant in Nazareth, Israel)

Sabich - an absolutely fantastic sandwich invented in Israel. Lightly fried eggplant, chopped hardboiled eggs and all sorts of spreads and seasonings (near the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Israel).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Israel and Jordan

Israel was a last minute addition to my itinerary so I hadn't done any planning or research. I decided to base myself in Jerusalem and take advantage of the great tours offered by my otherwise horrible hostel.  I had six full days in Jerusalem and I spent a lot of time in the Old City -- shopping and eating in the Muslim Quarter (I was turned away from the Temple Mount*), touring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, and visiting the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. The Israel Museum was wonderful - a building devoted to archaeological history, a series of aluminum sculptures depicting events in human history, amazing art, a sculpture garden and the Dead Sea scrolls.  I also found time to visit the Holocaust Museum twice, walk around Machane Yehuda Market, and explore some of Jerusalem's neighborhoods.

Since Israel is so small, I was able to see a lot of the country on day trips.  One day I visited Masada at sunrise, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve, and then went for a swim in the Dead Sea. Another day I visited Nazareth and the impressive Church of the Annunciation and Caesarea, the ruins of a city built by Herod on the Mediterranean Sea. We ended the day with a visit to the Jordan River and what may have been the site of the baptism of Jesus (there are several places along the Jordan River in both Israel and Jordan that claim to be the site).

In the middle of all the sightseeing in Israel, I took a three day trip to Jordan.  The ancient city of Petra is the main attraction but my tour also included the ruins of Jerash, the Amman citadel, and a truck tour of Wadi Rum, the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.  Jordan was amazing and well worth a second visit - its hard not to feel rushed in Petra, especially on a tour, and it would have been awesome to spend the night in Wadi Rum. I would love to go back.

*  I had some safety concerns but I never felt unsafe.  There was very heavy, very visible security in Jerusalem and frequent checkpoints along the highways in Israel and Jordan.  Although Jordan has not had any recent terrorism incidents, we were accompanied by an armed policeman wherever we went.

Things I Learned
  • Cell phones in the Middle East do not have vibrate or mute functions.
  • Nigerians are the friendliest tourists in the whole world.
  • Israel and Jordan are very expensive.  My food costs quadrupled.

Israel Museum - aluminum sculptures by Zadok Ben-David from "Evolution and Theory"

 Hiking in Ein-Gedi

 Military band in Jerash, Jordan


 Citadel in Amman, Jordan 

Petra - the Treasury

Wadi Rum - The Martian was filmed here

When I was little I brought a dime to Sunday school each week so that I could plant a tree in Israel. This is the tree I planted! Although you can't see it, there is a plaque on the tree trunk with my name on it.

Petra in the movies

Monday, November 9, 2015


I was told I would love Turkey and I really, really did.  I'm already planning my next trip.

Istanbul was amazing. I saw the major attractions - Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Suleymaniye Mosque -  as well as two museums I probably would not have visited if I hadn't wanted to get the most out of my Istanbul museum card.*  The Great  Place Mosaic Museum and the Archeology Museum were wonderful and I am now obsessed with mosaics (and the wooden houses on Buyukada Island and other areas of Istanbul).

In addition to the tourist attractions,  Istanbul is a really fun city to explore. There are great neighborhoods full of shops and cafes and public transportation is easy and inexpensive.  My cousin Rachel gave me a tour of the Grand Bazaar and helped me buy a couple of things.**  I could have spent a week just walking around.

On top of all that there is the food.  My cousins took me to a meyhane (Turkish tavern) for a delicious dinner and I tried raki, similar to ouzo but much more refreshing, melon with white cheese, mezes, and perfectly grilled fish. The food is freshly prepared and inexpensive and I tried pretty much everything that didn't have red meat or pork. Stay tuned for a separate blog post devoted to food.

After a week in Istanbul,  I flew to Cappadocia and spent almost four days exploring. Cappadocia has beautiful landscapes, underground cities, rock-cut churches, and pigeon houses. I went on a balloon ride (without pharmaceutical assistance!), hiked, ate, shopped, enjoyed a traditional Turkish bath, and hung out at my fantastic cave hotel.


*Thriftiness pays!

** I am so bad at bargaining that my picture is posted all over India with the caption "Charge her as much as you want, she'll pay."

Things I Learned

• The number one attraction in Istanbul is my cousin Baby Esther. Thanks to Esther and her parents for hosting me and putting up with me.
• The correct way to drink raki - fill your raki glass half way with raki. Add cold water and an ice cube. Enjoy!
• Pigeon droppings make excellent fertilizer.
• In almost every country I've visited  kindergarten students are called zeros, i.e., "What grade do you teach? " "I teach the zeros."

                              Aya Sofya

Mosaic from the floor of the Great Palace


My room is the one on the bottom

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Just before I left, I decided to skip Albania and Macedonia and go to Israel instead.  That meant I didn't have to rush through Bulgaria to get to Turkey. My main objective in Bulgaria was to visit the Rila Monastery outside of Sofia and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Sofia was nice but in retrospect I should have done a hiking trip around the Monastery instead of spending three days in the city.

My next stop was Plovdiv and even though I had to drag my ridiculous suitcase up a steep hill on the most cobblestoned street in the world, the minute I walked into the hostel I decided to extend my stay.  Plovdiv is full of craft shops, art gallaries, beautifully restored homes, and Roman ruins. My hostel was located in a renovated house built in 1868 and it was one of my favorite hostels.

My last night in Plovdiv I heard about the "UFO", an abandoned communist structure built in 1981 as a monument/meeting facility.  My hostel in Veliko Tarnovo (also located in an 1860's  rennovated building) organized trips to the UFO so I signed up and hoped that enough other people would want to go. In the meantime I explored Veliko Tarnovo which was an ancient capitol of Bulgaria.  Another city built on hills with a wonderful fortress which was fun to explore even in the rain. The murals in the main church were fantastic.

The hostel was unable to organize the UFO trip so four of us got together and rented a car.  It was so foggy and rainy we almost drove right by the building. It is forbidden to enter the structure but there is a small opening in the fence that a person can climb through to gain access. The structure has not been maintained and the interior mosaics of the faces of various Communist leaders have deteriorated. Most of the marble has also been removed and there are holes in the roof. It was absolutely amazing and I am glad I got to see it before it totally falls apart.

My last stop in Bulgaria was Varna, a city located on the Black Sea with great bus access to Istanbul. The beach and parks were really beautiful and it was a great place to relax before going to Turkey.

Things I Learned

• Bulgaria doesn't use the Russian alphabet - Russia uses the Bulgarian alphabet.
• Pepto Bismol is not sold in Europe.
• It is much better to take the train in Bulgaria.

More information the UFO:

Rila Monastery

Frescos - Rila Monastery

Roman Amphitheatre - Plovdiv 

19th Century Baroque House - Plovdiv

Church Mural - Veliko Tarnovo

UFO (since it is forbidden to enter the building, I used my imagination to take these pictures)

Black Sea - Varna

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Belgrade and Sarajevo

Sarajevo was on my "must see" list but it is difficult to get there from Romania and complicated* to get from Sarajevo to Sofia, Bulgaria, my next stop. I decided it was easier to go Belgrade-Sarajevo-Belgrade and then catch the night train to Sofia.  Public transportation between Belgrade and Sarajevo is also complicated and most people take a shared minivan. It is more expensive but quicker (it is still a five-six hour drive) and you get picked up and dropped off at your hotel. The only bad part was the ride back from Sarajevo at night in the pouring rain.
Belgrade is known for being a big party city but I skipped the partying and visited the Kalemegdan Citadel and the Tesla Museum. The weather was awful but I managed to do a lot of walking and window shopping in the "hip and historic" neighborhoods.
Sarajevo was fantastic.  It is a city with a lot of history and understandably most museums and tours focus on the 1992-1996 siege and the Srebencia genocide. All my guides and most of the local people I met lived through the siege and their personal stories were very moving.
The National Museum had just reopened after being closed for three years due to lack of an agreement on funding and I was lucky to get a chance to see the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, even if it was through a locked glass door.**
* Complicated is defined as (i) one or more bus changes and/or (ii) leaving in the middle of the night. 
** The Sarajevo Haggadah has a fascinating history. Read more about it here www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/03/the-book-of-exodus

Things I Learned:
● There is no such thing as being too close to the car in front of you. 
● The warp and weft process in weaving is considered to be the first binary code and an argument can be made that the machine used to create Jacquard cloth was the first computer. 
● Always carry Euros in case you arrive in a country and VISA decides to cut off all your cards for no apparent reason. 
● When researching "night train from Belgrade to Sofia" remember that online reviews tend to be negative - people don't usually post about positive experiences.
● Don't research "night train from Belgrade to Sofia" 30 minutes before your train leaves.

Kalemegdan Citadel

"Golden orb" containing the ashes of Nikola Tesla

Skadarska, Belgrade's Montmartre

Sarajevo Haggadah (look closely)

Tunnel of Hope - used to transport people and supplies during the Sarajevo seige

Sarajevo  Rose - shell crater filled with red resin as a memorial 

Sunday, September 27, 2015


I spent two weeks volunteering at a school in Csikszentsimon, Romania. If anyone is interested in reading about my experience, I will post a link to my entry on the organization's blog as soon as I finish writing it.

My original plan was to visit northeastern Romania after I finished teaching. I wanted to visit the painted monestaries of Bucovina and then take a tour of the villages in Maramures.  When I realized it would take about 20 hours to get there and back, that I would have to hire a car and driver, and that it was in the opposite direction of where I needed to be in October,  I decided to visit Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu - the three major cities in Transylvania - instead.

I was in Brasov for two weekends.
I spent one day with a group from my hostel visiting Bran Castle, Rashnov Fortress, and Peles Castle.  Bran Castle markets itself as Dracula's Castle* and there are an overwhelming number of souvenir shops and restaurants.  There were so many people it was difficult to see anything inside and what I did see was not that impressive.  Peles Castle on the other hand was absolutely fantastic - one of the highlights of my trip.  Since I spent the Jewish holidays in the village, I went to services at Brasov's synagogue on a Saturday morning and managed to visit two craft fairs and do some hiking when it wasn't raining.

My next stop was Sighisoara - a beautiful town with the best preserved citadel in Europe. I stayed inside the citadel walls at a really nice bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, it was cold and raining but the clock tower and history museum were great and it was interesting to walk around and see the buildings and houses.

Sibiu was the European Capital of Culture in 2007 and there is a music or art festival almost every weekend. I was there for the Opera Festival and saw the Sound of Music as performed by a Romanian opera company. I'm not a huge fan of the Sound of Music but it was a wonderful production and as always, Gretl stole the show. Sibiu is a great city for walking and the weather was beautiful - I got to put away my down jacket and really enjoy the city.

The easiest way to get to Sarajevo is to go from Belgrade and the easiest way to get to Belgrade is to go through Timisoara, Romania. Timisoara is a beautiful city with lots of parks and a fantastic art museum. Timisoara has submitted a bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2021 and two of the three largest squares are in the process of being torn up, renovated, and re-cobblestoned. My hostel was located on the square that was not being renovated and I spent a lot of time people watching by the fountains. 

*Bran Castle supposedly looks most like the castle described in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker never visited Romania.

Things I Learned:

• One bathroom is not enough for a hostel with 12 beds.

• Romania has tons of bakeries that sell a wide variety of covrigi, thin pretzels with sesame, poppy seed, or pumpkin seeds, and gogosi, donuts filled with everything from chocolate to feta cheese.  The most expensive varieties cost 75 cents.

• I really dislike pigeons, especially when they are inside the same building as my hostel and I have to walk around them when I'm using the stairwell.

•It is possible for human beings to survive on a diet of covrigi and gogosi.

Black Church, Brasov

Bran Castle

Peles Castle

Clock Tower, Sighisoara 


Liars Bridge, Sibiu  (if you tell a lie the bridge will creak)

Main square, Sibiu

Piata Victoriei, Timisoara 

Branza in coaja de brad - cheese wrapped in tree bark

Fall 2019 Part II - Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria

I had a week before I needed to be in Romania for my volunteer assignment and after considering northern Romania and Serbia, I decided o...