CHAPTER 14:  IN WHICH OUR EYES ARE OPENED

Balkans & Beyond, Days 26-28:  Odessa, Ukraine to Sofia, Bulgaria.  With different rules and practices from one country, or even one airport, to the next, it's difficult to know what to expect, especially in the security screening process.  In excruciatingly thorough Amsterdam, I was called out for not removing my curling iron from my bag, among many other items.  At the beginning of the line in Odessa, we were told we didn't even need to remove liquids, so it looked as if this would be an easy one.  Then one of the agents ferreted into my day bag in search of a dangerous weapon, and that was when I lost my cuticle nippers, an item not even noticed on our previous five screenings on this trip.

When we boarded a Bulgaria Air Embrarer 190 for Sofia, we were pleasantly surprised at the plane's layout.  Our coach class seats were wide and offered significantly more leg room than is typical on so many of today's aircraft.  The flight crew provided outstanding service, and when we landed in Sofia, we realized the positive flight experience was a harbinger of things to come.
View from our hotel window near the city center
Sofia (pronounced SOH-fee-ə, with emphasis on the first syllable, not the second) is Bulgaria's capital and largest city, with a population of 1.3 million.  Sitting in a bowl surrounded on three sides by mountains, Sofia and its predecessor cities date back 7,000 years.  The first Bulgarian Empire was established in the year 681, and Sofia became its capital some 300 years later.
St. George Rotunda
Sofia's oldest building is the St. George Rotunda, an early Christian church dating back to the 4th century.  Almost hidden by the Sheraton hotel and several government ministry buildings, the ancient rotunda was built by the Romans and sits amid the ruins of the ancient town of Serdica.
Saint Sofia Church (Sveta Sofia)
Only slightly newer is the Saint Sofia Church, originally built in the fourth century and rebuilt several times after invasion and destruction by Goths and Huns.  The current church was built between 527 and 565 with several subsequent modifications and additions.  In the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Despite its long and illustrious history, the Saint Sofia Church is overshadowed (both literally and figuratively) by the massive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral across the street.  Designed in the Neo-Byzantine style, the cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world with a capacity of 10,000 people.  Named for a medieval Ruthenian prince who was canonized in the Orthodox church, the 34,000 sq. ft. structure is sited on a large plaza in the city center.
Old medals and currency for sale
When we walked to the cathedral on Saturday afternoon, a nearby park had been transformed into an antiques and collectibles market.  Several dozen kiosks displayed items from cameras to military medals to obsolete coins and banknotes.  Old jewelry and silverware, trading pins, street signs, and even Russian nesting dolls were on offer in this eclectic outdoor bazaar.
Saint Nedelya Church
Since 85% of the country's population follows the Bulgarian Orthodox religion, all the churches we visited—which are among Sofia's most famous and revered landmarks—are Orthodox institutions.  The St. Nedelya Church is another medieval cathedral.  The original structure was built around the 10th century but was demolished in the mid 1800s and replaced by the current church.
Iconostasis of St. Nedelya Church 
Unlike most Orthodox churches, which prohibit photography inside, St. Nedelya permitted it, offering a view of the iconostasis, or templon, an ornately decorated wall at the front of the nave, where worshippers stand during services (there are no pews).  The templon is covered with icons of saints and always adorned with gold leaf.
Frescoes in St. Nedelya Church
Walls and ceilings in Orthodox churches are almost always completely covered with paintings that depict saints and their lives as well as other Biblical stories.
Monument to the Soviet Army
Of course, we could not leave a former Eastern Bloc nation without seeing what the Russian overlords always leave behind—a gargantuan monument to the Soviet Red Army for "liberating" the country from Germany in 1944.  Of course, in the process the Soviets always sank their Communist claws into each country they "saved."  Sofia's memorial, like others we've seen, is set on an enormous plaza.
Monument to the Soviet Army
No longer forced to revere the spot, locals have made good use of it as a skateboard park and, at times, a focus for political statements.  Below a massive Russian soldier with a raised rifle on the tall central obelisk, the sides of the monument nearer ground level are adorned with relief sculptures of charging army forces.  In 2011, the military on one sculpture were painted to look like icons of American pop culture from Superman to the Joker.
The original 2011 painting  (photo from Reddit.com)
Though perhaps more prank than political statement, this original decoration inspired followers.  The Bulgarian government promptly cleans the sculpture, and the Russian government apparently grows more annoyed with each instance, but the trend continues.  The figures were covered in pink to commemorate the anniversary of Prague Spring and in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to protest the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Vitosha Street
As should be evident from the photos here, Sofia is a city that values its trees, and green spaces abound, many with meticulously maintained flower gardens.  Even Vitosha Boulevard, the city's main commercial thoroughfare (pedestrian only!) is lined with trees and flower boxes as well as restaurants and shops.  Our visit to the city was on a weekend (NOT Easter, for the first time in a month!), and the outdoors were teeming with thousands of locals enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
National Palace of Culture
On Sunday we hired a driver to take us to Rila Monastery, Bulgaria's first and largest monastery.  Situated at 3,763 feet elevation, the monastery adorns a river valley in the Rila Mountains.  Founded in the 10th century, the monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1800s.  During periods when Bulgaria was under the rule of outside forces, like the 500-year Ottoman occupation, Rila Monastery served as a lighthouse to Bulgarian people, a symbol of their faith and their history.
Nativity of the Virgin Church at Rila Monastery
Today the monastery is housed within fortress-like walls.  In its central courtyard sits the Nativity of the Virgin Church, with a colorful exterior influenced by Ottoman architecture.  Below the porticos, the exterior, like the interior, is covered with brightly colored frescoes by master Bulgarian painters, portraying scenes from heaven and hell.

Residential buildings overlook the courtyard.
Along the outer walls of the monastery are more than 300 chambers for resident monks and for pilgrims and other visitors who go for a small glimpse into the monastic life.  Rila Monastery has become a national symbol of Bulgaria and is even depicted on its currency.  Despite its remote location—at the end of a narrow, winding mountain road two hours south of Sofia—the monastery attracts upward of a million visitors each year, including one from Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Though our time in Bulgaria was limited and we did not see much of the country, we saw enough to make us want to return.  When we commented to our driver on Sunday how impressed we were with the city's cleanliness and attractiveness, he explained that much has changed in Bulgaria in the last ten years, dating back to its admission to the European Union in 2007.  Roads have been vastly improved, he stated, and an explosion of construction has given the city a modern look.

Tomorrow we'll take our leave of Bulgaria, for now, and fly to Belgrade for a few days in the Serbian capital city.

FRIDAY, 20 APRIL — SUNDAY, 22 APRIL, 2018
3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Odessa, Ukraine
    •  Ended in:  Sofia, Bulgaria
    •  Miles flown:  440
    •  Miles driven (as passenger):  175
    •  Miles walked:  20.19
    •  Weather:  45° to 78°, sunny
    •  Visitors at Rila Monastery:  9,025
    •  Wedding parties in Sofia:  21
    •  Restaurants on Vitosha Boulevard:  46
    •  Tulips in Sofia parks:  237,901

Loved:  Sofia has been on our 'want to go' list for at least seven or eight years.  It was great to finally get here and to find it to be so much better than we ever expected.

Lacking:  Our original plans called for visiting several other Bulgarian cities, including the Black Sea coast, but plans to meet family in Italy were shifted from early June to late May and we decided to limit our visit to Sofia.  More time to see other parts of the country would be great.

Learned:  Although we knew that joining the European Union had a positive political influence on its eastern members, we had no idea that the economic impact was so significant.  At least it seems to have been in Bulgaria.

More Photos from Today
A wedding inside St. George Rotunda, one of many we encountered on a spring weekend in Sofia
Another wedding party, this one at Saint Sofia Church 
The main entrance of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Guarding Saint Sofia, this majestic lion endures thousands of photo ops daily with people climbing on his back.
Sveta Sofia statue erected in 2000 to replace an oversized Lenin statue removed ten years before.  
The absurd bathroom gender debate settled:  All together with floor to ceiling stall doors.
Pretty display on a Sofia street
One of many McDonald's locations in Sofia, very popular with locals
In the distance, signs for McDonald's, Subway and Coca-Cola.  We see them almost everywhere in Europe.  
Another view of Rila church
Back side of the church at Rila Monastery

CHAPTER 13:  IN WHICH WE DISCOVER A HIDDEN GEM

Balkans & Beyond, Days 23-25:  Chisinau, Moldova to Odessa, Ukraine.  Arranged by our hotel in Chisinau, our driver Alex picked us up promptly at 10 Tuesday morning for our transfer to Odessa in a spotlessly clean, late model Volkswagen sedan. Our first question to the part-time driver/full-time firefighter was what route he would be taking. As he would explain, our concerns about going through Transnistra, a disputed territory of Moldova which declared its independence from Moldova with a military conflict in 1992 and is now occupied by friendly Russian troops, were unfounded.  The mini-state's independence has been acknowledged by only three similar non-recognized states.

Regardless of what we have read from other travelers about uncomfortable experiences going through this militarized zone, Alex assured us that he regularly drives tourists to Tirasapol, the center of Transnistran government, with no problems. At any rate, he had decided on a different route to Odessa, bypassing Transnistra, because he believed the roads were better. And as we were to be reminded, ‘better’ is like beauty—in the eyes of the beholder (or the seat of the driver).
The 112-mile journey took four hours because the washboard road prevented Alex from driving any faster without bouncing us around the car like pinballs. And this was the good road. Beginning in Sarajevo next week-end, this journey will turn into a road trip for about four weeks, and we expect we’ll learn more about “good” roads—and border crossings.  Even at a friendly border, where Moldovan and Ukranian governments have combined their resources into one passport control checkpoint and where we were escorted by a driver who spoke both languages, the process took what for us seemed an uncomfortably long time. Had we been on our own, we would have probably been concerned by the 20 minutes we sat there in the car after turning our passports over to the border agents. Following Alex’s lead, however, we learned that some matters just take time. This will serve us well in upcoming weeks.

Upon our arrival in Odessa, we were ready to stretch our legs after dropping our bags off at the hotel we had booked. After walking a mile to the city center and finding a restaurant for lunch, we decided we'd rather stay in that area and called for an Uber driver to take us to our original hotel to pick up our bags and return us to the new place we had just booked. When he arrived, it was quickly clear that he did not understand English. Using the Google Translate app, we displayed on a phone screen our request in Ukranian. He again indicated he didn’t understand. After Google translated the request to Russian for us, he caught on and we were on our way. When we arrived and I pulled out my phone to book the return with Uber, we learned at least one English word that he knew: “Cash!”
Cathedral Park
In the remainder of that afternoon and over the next two days, we fell for Odessa. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes it so likable. We didn’t find the people extrovertedly friendly—though they certainly weren’t inhospitable—but we felt a tone and spirit to the city that appealed to us, even with a communication barrier. Though Ukranian is the official language of the country, people in Odessa speak Russian, a holdover from the Soviet days. Most people we encountered, outside our hotel and restaurants, spoke almost no English, only a few functional words for their jobs. Yet we felt quite comfortable, welcome, and safe, in the city.
Odessa port
Ukraine’s third most populous city, Odessa is a major Black Sea port and a popular tourist destination for Ukranians and others in the region. Though various settlements had existed at the city’s location going back to ancient Greece, Odessa was founded in 1794 by a decree of Catherine the Great, whose Russian Empire had wrested the area from the Turks two years before.
Monument to Catherine and other city founders
Just two years after her pronouncement, Catherine died and her son and successor, Czar Paul I, was not so enthusiastic about the new city his mother had established on the Black Sea.  For Odessa to thrive, the development of its port facilities was essential, but Paul had other ideas for how to spend the money allocated for that purpose.  In an effort to persuade the new ruler of the advantages of having a seaport at his disposal, Odessa officials reportedly sent oranges and other tropical fruit to him at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.
Monument to Orange
The juicy goodness of the fruits moved the czar, and Odessa's funding was restored, ensuring its future and prompting city officials to build a monument to the orange.

An exiled French nobleman, the Duke of Richelieu, had joined the Russian Army and received the favor of Catherine, but like Odessa, fell out of favor when her son rose to the throne.  After Paul's assassination, however, his successor, Alexander I, appointed Richelieu governor of Odessa.  Under his 11-year tenure, the city grew in size and significance as he invested his talent and resources in its development.  A statue of the Duke in a prominent place in the city attests to his importance in its early years.
Duke of Richelieu returned to his native France after revolutionaries were ousted.
Odessa became a cultural and intellectual center of the Russian Empire, as its population expanded to  become Russia's third largest city.  During a 19th century construction boom, the city added numerous buildings with Mediterranean influence—baroque, Renaissance, Classicist and later Art Nouveau.  Today some have been restored while others are awaiting their preservation.


The city's two most recognized and praised buildings are the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Passage Hotel.  Though we were not able to book a tour to see the spectacular interior  of the opera house, we looked at its baroque exterior from our hotel window.
Opera House  (photo from Wikipedia - Tour buses blocked the view while we were here.)
The Odessa Passage was built as a hotel near the end of the 19th century and in its day was the country's most opulent.  Shops, restaurants and offices on the lower floors now share space with a small budget hotel on upper floors, but its architecture is still admired.  When we visited, art students were sitting in the courtyard sketching the famous structure.
Odessa Passage
Perhaps the best known symbol of Odessa, however, is an enormous stairway leading from the port to the city.  Originally known as the Giant Staircase, or the Richelieu Steps (because his statue is at the top), the structure is now called the Potemkin Steps, renamed for a famous battle during Soviet days.
Potemkin Steps
The 192-step staircase is divided by nine broad landings, but its designers incorporated an optical illusion.  Looking down from the top, one sees only the landings.  Standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up, only the steps are visible.  For those who don't want to make the climb back up or want a faster way down, a funicular runs alongside the steps.
Deribasovskaya Street
One of Odessa's features that really won us over is its walkability.  Not only is this city of 1.2 million quite compact, it encourages pedestrianism.  A favorite spot of both visitors and locals is Deribasovskaya Street, a six-block pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of the city.  Lined with restaurants and shops, the street is also home to City Garden, Odessa's first park, established in the early 1800s.
City Garden
An empty chair is one of the park's most popular features.  The sculpture references a novel, 12 Chairs, by a local author.  Not only is it a perfect photo spot, legend has it that wishes made while sitting in the chair will come true.
The Chair
At the top of the Potemkin Steps, the tree-lined Primorsky Boulevard offers another appealing place for pedestrians to wander.  In the evenings, colorful lights decorate the trees and enchant those who take their evening stroll along the cliff-top promenade.
Primorsky Boulevard
North and south of the city, Odessa offers sandy beaches for vacationers to enjoy the sun.  In mid-April, it was a bit cool for too much lounging, but summertime draws large crowds here.
Lanzheron Beach
We can't finish our say on Odessa without a word about its cats.  The city is home to thousands of stray cats.  Actually a better term might be neighborhood cats.  In many places on the street, in front of businesses, and in parks, evidence abounds that the people of Odessa are taking great care of these cats.  Truly stray cats never looked so healthy.  They're all over the city, wandering at will, hanging out with people working on construction projects, nosing after children playing in the park.  Even if Odessa had nothing else to recommend it, a city that loves its cats is definitely on our good list.
Tomorrow we'll reluctantly leave this lovely city on the sea and fly to Bulgaria's capital of Sofia for a few days.  Odessa will be a hard act to follow.  Just so you know, Sofia.

TUESDAY, 17 APRIL — THURSDAY, 19 APRIL, 2018
  3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Chisinau, Moldova
    •  Ended in:  Odessa, Ukraine
    •  Miles driven:  120
    •  Miles walked:  19.07
    •  Weather:  52° to 76°, sunny
    •  Strollers on Primorsky Boulevard:  3,612
    •  Odessa Street Cats:  4,835
    •  Unhealthy Odessa Street Cats:  0
    •  Letterboxes in Odessa:  1 (planted by us)
    •  Restoration Projects Underway:  419
    •  Other U.S. Tourists we Met:  1 (from Lake Odessa, Michigan)

Loved:  Before leaving home, our plans called for us to fly to Kiev from Chisinau.  When we learned there was a train to Odessa, we changed our course.  Even though the train wasn't running, we can't imagine enjoying Kiev any more than we liked Odessa.

Lacking:  American tourists.  As in Chisinau, we encountered far fewer Americans than in Western Europe and even in the cities we visited earlier on this trip.  Odessa is really a hidden gem; we wonder how long it will be before American tourists discover it.

Learned:  Even though there was significantly more of a language barrier in Odessa than we've experienced in any other European country (except maybe Moldova), we were still able to enjoy the city.

More Photos from Odessa
Transfiguration (Orthodox) Cathedral in central Odessa 
Transfiguration Cathedral 
Cathedral's High Altar
Cathedral exterior
A lush green space surrounding the cathedral is well-used. 
Odessa City Hall at the end of Primorsky Boulevard.
Opera House (R) in the evening
Imagine all this extra weight kept off nearby bridges from the love locks on the sculpture.
Wonder whether Willie Nelson knows he graces the cover of this restaurant menu? 
Another small but active synagogue, this one in Odessa.
Monument to the Unknown Sailor, honoring Soviet sailors who died "liberating" Odessa in World War II 
A sample of water from the Black Sea for our collection
Popular photo spot and performing spot near the opera house 
Potemkin Steps in the evening
From the top, only the landings are seen. 
Signpost near City Hall enumerates distances from Odessa to world cities.