2018: A Year of Almost Adventures (Part 1)

Another year has gone by and has given way to cold and gloomy January – a month generally characterized by painful readjustment to boring life at school or in the office, as well as some desperate attempts at damage control after shamelessly overeating at grandma’s seventeen times in a row. Instead of giving in to despair, we have decided to battle post-holiday depression with happy memories of simpler times. 

In all fairness, 2018 was an awesome year for the Kolevi sisters: we started our blog, got to travel to all these fascinating new places and meet lovely new people, landed cool internships, jobs and freelance gigs in various media…quite frankly, 2018 kicked ass. Here is our recap of our best and most memorable almost adventures of last year. 

In this first part, Nancy takes you on a metaphorical Orient express (not rich enough for the real one, sry) through her most exciting travels and memories of 2018.

1. The Russia Experience

At first, I wanted to do a separate entry for each of the places I visited during my study abroad year in Russia – after all, they were all so different! In the end, I realized it was actually the cumulated experience of each and every one of them, from the giant megapolises to the tiny (for Russian standards) coastal or industrial periphery towns, that made up the ultimate almost adventure, the one that inspired me to write about traveling in the first place. 

Whether it was swimming in the Black Sea in early October while our friends were freezing back in Moscow, enjoying our first snow fight and the best crepes I’ve ever had in the sleepy town of Vladimir, walking on frozen sea water in Saint Petersburg or lip syncing to Central Asian pop folk bangers in a cab ride somewhere in Crimea, Russia was a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Or more accurately, an old Soviet night train ride, but I can assure you the adrenaline levels are just the same. 

However, when I look back now, it’s not the faraway destinations or the crazy nights of drinking vodka with strangers that I will remember my exchange year by. My fondest memories of Russia are actually the ordinary, boring by most standards, nights in Moscow: walking down the hip Myasnitskaya street after school, cheap good wine and delicious hachapuriin the eponymous Georgian restaurant (I cry every time I look at price lists in Paris) or simply chilling at the dorm kitchen with my floormates, despite the angry looks of the babushkas. While for the most part, Russia felt like a really long school trip abroad, it was moments like this that ultimately made me feel like I had found a temporary home. 

 

2. Istanbul 

While Russia was by far my most exciting and memorable experience of 2019, by the time I had to pack my stuff and return to Sofia, it had left me physically and emotionally drained and longing for a change of scenery. By contrast, my trip to Istanbul was a weekend-long summer fling that only gave me a small taste of one of the most beautiful cities in the world and left me longing for so much more. 

In the frustratingly short three days I spent there, I nevertheless got to explore both the dazzling European side with all its historical monuments and the more modern upbeat Asian side where the hip and stylish locals were the real sight to be seen. But most of all, I fell in love with the unique body of water separating these two equally astonishing places, or rather, bringing them together: the ever-mesmerizing Bosphorus. 

 

3. Mainland Greece

If traveling to Istanbul was a longtime dream of mine, my road trip to mainland Greece was a last-minute spontaneous addition to an already promising Balkan summer. With the international premiere of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again having just hit the screens and the mainstream craze for everything Greek or 70s, I was looking forward to rocking all those fabulous retro jumpsuits I had bought for a song in Istanbul.

Our main destination, however, was quite different from the fictional Kalokairi island in Southern Greece where young Donna found love (and an accidental pregnancy) with three different men. For better or for worse, neither me nor my friends found anything of the sort in Litochoro, a tiny village at the heart of Macedonia (the region in Greece, not our problematic ex-Yugoslavian neighbor). 

What we did find, however, was a mysterious place laying at the foot of the legendary Mount Olympus, but just a minute away from kilometers and kilometers of long beautiful sand beaches. We also found extremely warm and hospitable people and delicious tavernas where we shamelessly overate every night. By the end of the week, I couldn’t even fit into my 70s jumpsuits anymore, but it was totally worth it.  

 

4. P(love)div

Now that I think about it, summer 2018 in the Balkans really was poppin’. After Istanbul and Greek Macedonia, I had one final weekend trip to the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Known throughout most of its history under its ancient Greek name Philippopolis, in recent years it had acquired an alternative tourist spot status and local hipsters had nicknamed it “P(love)div”. While it certainly looked good on crafty souvenirs and T-shirts, the name struck me as particularly appropriate for my own trip, as it was a romantic weekend getaway with a summer fling.

Flash forward five months and the summer fling is long gone, but my love for the charming city of Plovdiv has remained the same, so much that I’ve decided to spend New Year’s Eve there. A girls-only weekend this time (ain’t those the best?), I was excited to return to the hip Kapana district, with its cobblestone streets and local craft shops, above them the traditional triangle garlands I remembered from the summer replaced with shiny Christmas decorations. 

While Plovdiv is most known for its Greek heritage, I was equally fascinated with the Turkish cultural influence of the city, which has a 20% of ethnic Turkish population. With its artsy Kapana neighborhood which reminded me of the Asian side’s Kadikoy, mesmerizing views of the “Tepe” hills (tepe means “hill” in Turkish) and the pretty Djumaia mosque, as well as the Turkish tea house next to it with the best baklava I’ve ever had outside of Turkey, Plovdiv actually gave off a certain Istanbul vibe. Don’t @ me on this though, the average Bulgarian is not ready to embrace this part of our cultural heritage just yet (their loss on the baklava tbh).

 

5. Paris

 

After a long Russian winter and a short but eventful Balkan summer, I finally settled in my final (at least for now) destination: my new home in Paris, where I’m set to spend at least the next two years until I graduate. While my free time and purchasing power have significantly diminished, and along with it my traveling opportunities, after a mere four months I am happy to have finally found a place I can imagine myself settling down in. I don’t have time to even begin to get into how amazing it is, but I can promise you this: in 2019, there will be no lack of Parisian almost adventures. 

Check out part 2 of our recap, where Krisi takes you on a journey of discovery (#DiscoverEU) with her most memorable travels and experiences of 2018. 

Contemporary Art and Late-Night Kebabs: A Solo Trip to Rainy Holland

First of all, this is a throwback. I went to visit a friend of mine – Dany, who is a first year student in the University College of Utrecht, during my February vacation. Not only did I get to see a close friend and do some catching up, but also got the chance to explore Utrecht – a small, but charming and lively Dutch town, as well as Amsterdam – the dream of both tourists and hipsters. So, here’s how my “almost adventure” went.

An almost poetic start

Upon my arrival at Utrecht, I felt like I was sort of pathetic, but in a cute way. I was slightly unprepared for the weather in the Netherlands – with my uncovered ankles, thin summer coat and lack of umbrella, I had to carry my miniature luggage (to be expected from the low-cost flight) and my dictionary-huge book that didn’t fit anywhere, all through the rain. What the hell was I thinking?! Oh wait, I know – in Bulgarian it would be “от студ умри, гъзар бъди”, which roughly translates to “freeze to death, but always be stylish”, and I find this beautiful. I was already being showered in Dutch culture – quite literally. Thank God, there is always a Starbucks to save you in such situations… Here I was, just a lone basic bitch drinking an over-priced cappuccino. Wouldn’t Carrie Bradshaw call that poetic?

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Partying alone. Who said it wasn’t cool?

The day of my arrival happened to be a Thursday, which was lucky for me, because like I was told then, “Thursday is the new Friday”, and y’all know what that means. Of course, there was a huge party on campus and notwithstanding my brief encounter with Dany’s awesome roommates (a special shout out), I didn’t know anyone else. Even my host didn’t quite count, as he was busy taking a shift at the campus bar and thus getting blackout drunk to the point of unavailability for the whole night. That got me wandering around all night between the most random people and by random, I mean that at some point they weren’t even in Dany’s social circle – they were just there.

Here’s to the friends life forces you to have! P.S. Another shout out to this guy who at some point was my new BFF and at another forgot who I was…

A weekend in Amsterdam

On the next day, taking advantage of my friend’s guilt for leaving me with complete strangers and without a key to his room the first night, I forced him to take me to Amsterdam. Poor boy, right? Anyhow, in the Dutch capital I also got to see Deni – one of my sister’s best friends, and Nia – Dany’s friend, who accepted the role of my personal tour guide and the closest to an Amsterdam Mom that one could get. In other words, two of the coolest locals you could meet.

First, we started by just walking around aimlessly in Amsterdam without the realistic idea of visiting any museums whatsoever, which was awesome and yet somehow against my nature as a true tourist. What I came to realize, though, was that the city itself is so enchanting and fascinating to observe, that it could just as well have been an art exhibit by itself. As I have lived all my life in Sofia – a city which architecture mingles the Vienna Secession and the Communist-era as sources of “inspiration”- it is always outlandish to explore places where all of the buildings are actually… in harmony? Complementing each other? But seriously, even if I hadn’t been from Sofia, I believe that objectively there is something special and nonetheless peaceful about buildings that are inextricably linked, united in terms of style (or at least in terms of the vibes they give) and yet all of them having so much spellbinding details of their own.

We started the night in a bar called Waterkant and ended like only true slavs know how…in a kebab shop. While drinking beers in the hip-looking club and dancing to some commercial music mixed with reggaeton, surrounded by funky young people, I remember thinking “Okay. That’s what I came here for”, and while eating the kebab later – “Oh, no. This is what I came here for”.

Stedelijk is my new bae

Stedelijk Museum

If I have to be honest, probably the most memorable of all the activities in Amsterdam and in Utrecht was my visit to the Stedelijk, where Nia took me on the next day. In case you don’t know, it is a contemporary art museum and hands down, the coolest place I’ve ever been to. Honestly, before I got in, I thought “oh well, most of the artefacts would probably be objectively ugly, but with a deep hidden meaning that I wouldn’t be able to grasp”, and although this was perhaps true for some of the pieces (the part where I don’t get the actual connotation), for the vast majority it wasn’t the case at all. The paintings, photographs and all other forms of art which I encountered were like nothing I had ever seen before and despite my original bias, I found them wonderful. Another thing I liked was that the idea behind them was roughly explained in a few paragraphs, so my primary fear of “not getting it” turned out to be unjustified.

To sum up, during my stay in Utrecht I got to experience the Dutch culture at its finest – a.k.a. I rode a bike and didn’t know how to stop and it rained a lot. Amsterdam, on the other hand, made me admire Holland in every way possible. It was there I realized that I actually do like contemporary art (and it’s not just something a 5-year-old could do) and that I could never get enough of just walking around, staring at the buildings and the canals. Neither would I get tired of being a tourist and absorbing the eclectic culture through the Dutch capital’s countless museums. And the best part? Since I am under 18, I could enter everywhere for free! This, kids, is the moral of the story: if you don’t want to pay 17 euros for a museum ticket, you’ve got to travel to the Netherlands while you’re young!

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Shoutout to our good friend Deni Yoncheva for the amazing photos! Follow her on Instagram at @deniyoncheva

A Weekend in Pamporovo, Bulgaria: Confessions of an Amateur Off-Piste Skier

Although our blog is called “Almost Adventures”, my weekend of skiing in the Pamporovo forests might as well classify as a real one. I mean, ski slopes are cool, but woods, teeming with knee-deep snow are on a whole new level. Having been taught to ski by my father when I was 4 years old, I have always been rather confident that I won’t, like, die or something. Yet, since I went from slopes to powder, I have had my doubts on that statement.

A Weekend in Pamporovo Bulgaria Confessions of an Amateur Off-Piste Skier

Safety? What safety?

First of all, a little something about off-piste skiing in Bulgaria: it’s not like many Western countries, where you could hire a qualified teacher, just like for the slopes, in order to guide you through the rudiments of skiing in unmarked terrain and teach you how to keep yourself safe. Here, when you go off the beaten track (quite literally), you just do it at your own risk. There are no freeride ski schools, nor instructors you could hire – it is basically “illegal”. As much as something could be truly illegal in Bulgaria, of course. In other words, no one follows this rule, and no one expects it to be followed.

However, Bulgarians do have a strong off-piste skiing culture (one which builds up about 50% of my national pride) and precisely because of its lack of commercialization, it is just what it’s supposed to be – you get to put your signature on the snow with your tracks and experience the purest form of skiing, without the restrictions and preparation of the groomed slopes.

Another thing that marks our off-piste culture is the tendency to deny any other form of skiing once you have tried the forests. Well, frustrating though it could be, there is certain amount of tension between racers and freeriders. Are you even a real off-piste skier if you don’t make fun of those losers on the slopes every time you’re hovering above them on the ski lift? Personally, developing kind of allergy to ski slopes is a bit too extra for me. And yet, once I went off the tracks, I found this new path to be undeniably cooler and more exciting.

Without further ado, here is how things went down for me last week in the Bulgarian ski resort Pamporovo.

 

Falling in love with skiing…but for the most part, just falling

“No, no – I’m fine. You don’t need to wait for me!” is what I’m yelling to my friends, while trying to dig myself out of the powder in the middle of f*cking nowhere with one of my skis staring at me unabashedly from three meters away. Clearly, I was not fine. However, by that time I still hadn’t come to one crucial realization – there is no shame in falling.

As I said before, I’ve been skiing since early childhood and at that point, I thought the days of falling and losing my skis were long over, but na-a-h. In the forests everybody falls and the quicker you learn this and leave your ego behind, the better.

So here I am, after my I-don’t-want-to-say-the-number-th fall for the first two hours, shamelessly continuing to ride, fall, get up, lose equipment, find it and so on. My friends and I were constantly losing each other or waiting for one another (not so fun, but worth it). I learned not to care so much and that, hey, there is a certain amount of charm in falling on your derriere, being stuck in an offbeat terrain or in just hanging around, waiting to make sure your squad survived.

 

Getting a bit too close to nature

A thing I love about skiing freeride is that the forest may have 10 000 trees, but once you have hit one in particular – it becomes special. It becomes your tree. The places where you fell, the ones that have bruised not only your body and skis, but also your self-esteem – these ones you remember. At the end of the day you find yourself knowing the woods to perfection and your “landmarks” have become sort of insider memes that would frequently come up in conversations. Take for instance – “Where are you?! I just passed Kali’s pine.” or “Be careful, Svilen’s cliff is on your left!”

For the time being, a significant amount of my craziest memories are not only of me being drunk, but also of me skiing off-piste, so despite the fact that my back still hurts like hell and I got a cold, it was so freaking cool. We were a bunch of awesome people, blessed with a miraculous powder combined with a flawless blue sky, just having fun and forgetting about everything else. So now, with one of my friends’ skis irretrievably lost, another one’s severely scratched, but everybody none the less hyped, we are all telling stories and waiting for the next time we get the chance to ski off-piste… Our trees and bumps will be waiting for us, too.

From Saint Petersburg with Apathy and Indifference

“From Petersburg with apathy and indifference” („Из Петербурга с апатией и безразличием“) is what many hip-looking postcards in the famous House of Books (Дом Книги) read. Yet, while I was seeking temporary shelter from the freezingly humid February wind inside the antique bookstore, getting lost amidst rows of shelves with books old and new, foreign and Russian, surrounded by the mingling crowds of tourists and locals, I felt neither apathy, nor indifference.

It feels a bit like treason to start off my blog with a love letter to Saint Petersburg, when my home for the past six months has been Moscow, and you don’t need to live in Russia to know that the rivalry between these two cities goes back centuries. And yet, when I think of “travel blog”, the first thing that comes to mind is not my journey of getting to know and learning to love this cold, strange, magnificent city that is the Russian capital – rather, it’s my latest opportunity to get away from it.

 

Off to a rough start

My four-day trip to the Venice of the North was hardly love at first sight. To be precise, it was love at second sight, my first visit to the city having been only four months ago. Our first encounter had been a sloppy one-night stand, too quick, too brisk, too much alcohol involved for it to be truly enjoyable. In the three days I spent in Saint Petersburg back in October, along with a huge group of Erasmus students, most of it consisted in rushing from one guided tour to another, complaining about the non-stop rain and hopping from shitty touristy bar to shitty touristy bar all the way to an aborted attempt at a boat party (hint: there was no party; it was just a boat).

There were, of course, a few positive highlights, such as the Hermitage, which is always stunning and luckily big enough to escape from your tour group, as well as a few artsy cafés, revealed to us by our friends who live there. But overall, my first trip to Saint Petersburg had been a disappointment, not with the city itself, but with the way I spent my time there, and I was looking forward to correcting that.

 

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…or is it?

Come my second trip, I had learned from my mistakes. This time, I was to travel with only a small group of trusted people – my best friend Rachel and three other girls from our university, all of us internationals. In other words, a solid girl squad hopping on the night train and heading towards a long weekend full of crazy adventures. You can already imagine how it all began – sipping vodka, sharing embarrassing stories, Britney Spears blasting in the platzkart…AS IF. Nope folks, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, the night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is basically a nine-hour sleeping contest with obstacles such as fitting in a sleeping cot half your size, ignoring the snores of the fat Russian dude above you, as well as the smell of the toilets next to you, cause you just had to save those 800 rubles, didn’t you?

And so we arrive at Moskovskiy Vokzal (they named the train stations in Russia after their main destination, isn’t that cool?), tired and in intense need of a shower, but happy to have gotten here in one piece. But what to do now, where to go, the opportunities are endless! So how did we spend the rest of the day? You’re damn right, we stayed in and chilled at Boris’s house, who was hosting three of us in his nice urban apartment, far away from the center.

Now, I see how it might seem regrettable to spend the whole first day in a new city closed inside a boring apartment, but you have to take into account our living situation back in Moscow. Rachel and I share a 12-square-meters double room in a typical ugly Soviet dorm, our window facing another typical ugly Soviet dorm. Therefore, being able to sit and sip tea with our friend in a real kitchen, looking at the snow fall down on an equally Soviet-looking, but somehow noticeably livelier and cozier street below, was a much-needed sense of home that we couldn’t get in our own living space.

 

Food, fashion and biopolitical art

Another thing that was harder to find in Moscow and that we were eager to try out here was good restaurants. Russians aren’t exactly famous for their amazing food culture (which can be essentially summarized with the words “mayo and whipped cream on everything yay!”) and Saint Petersburg is no particular exception, but due to its geographical and cultural proximity to continental Europe, it had become more cosmopolitan and was now competing with some European capitals in number and diversity of restaurants specializing in international cuisine.

Our choice for the night was “Meat Bar”, a minimalist stylish place serving an overpriced, but nevertheless exquisite variety of finely cooked meat and equally fine French wine. Even more than the food, I fell in love with the interior and overall aesthetic, which I’m already planning to steal for my Paris studio next year.

Wining and dining at Meat Bar

Above all, Saint Petersburg is a stylish city. You can see it in the people walking down Nevsky Prospekt, from the teen fashionistas with their faux fur and bathrobe coats, to the techno hipsters, sporting statement fanny packs (yes, you read that right) with black Adidas sportswear from head to toe. We too tried to be fancy. We risked hypothermia while doing a coatless photo shoot on top of the Saint Isaac Cathedral. We strolled down a small street rounding up a dozen designer stores, fell tragically in love with a Gucci bag and finally found our way back to Nevsky, where we came upon a four-story 17th-century shopping center with floor-to-rooftop display windows called “Дом Мартенса” (the House of Martens).

It was not the first time we spotted a very French-looking and French-sounding place in Saint Petersburg (I guess we have to thank Peter the Great and the entire two centuries after him for that). This is probably the only city I’ve seen so far that has actually beautiful malls. And that one was just a small shopping center, wait till you see the Galeria Mall! Built in 2010 in classical Greek style, a true contemporary pantheon of consumerism, it would have been incredibly tacky, if it wasn’t stunningly beautiful.

Not everything in the city was beautiful, of course, but even the occasional ugliness seemed to serve its specific purpose. Once, while crossing a bridge above the fully frozen Neva river, we stumbled upon a curious piece of urban art. Just next to the bridge, in the few inches of snow that had fallen on the frozen river, there was the name of the Russian president, spelled in capital letters, each one roughly the size of a car. Just below it, a large male reproductive organ. It was unlikely that the drawing had been the creation of an innocent, perhaps bored, group of teenagers on a casual day after school. Rather, we decided, it must have been that Petersburg-based oppositionist street art group that we talked about in one of our classes just a week ago. Anyway, this version seemed way more exciting and we were happy to have been at the right place in the right time to see the controversial political statement before it was covered by the snow.

Biopolitical Street Art in Saint Petersburg

Street art with a politically dangerous message

 

Peterhof is where the world ends

Having mentioned the frozen river, we now get to the part of the trip that left the biggest mark in my memory. It involves another frozen natural water source, but before that, a castle. More precisely, the famous Peterhof Palace, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Now, I’ve never been to Versailles, but from the front entrance, Peterhof looked very much like the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, only with more snow. It was behind the palace, in the royal gardens, that the real fun began.

First of all, I don’t think I had ever seen that many golden statues in one place. The contrast with the shining white of the snow cover made the non-functioning fountains look kind of surreal, like something out of an Andy Warhol painting. Most of all, it gave me the creeps, because it made me think of the weeping angels from Doctor Who.

Peterhof Palace Garden Statues

The Weeping Angels: Royal Edition

However, we were still about to experience the most surreal part of it all. As we were walking around the palace gardens, we suddenly reached the end of the world. And no, I did not do drugs the previous night. Not knowing that the Peterhof was built right at the shore, we had reached the Baltic Sea without even realizing that it was there. The best part? It too, it was frozen! Covered by a thick layer of snow, the surface of the sea had blended in with the white sky and I swear, for a few mesmerizing seconds, it really felt like we had reached the end of the universe. It wasn’t until we walked a couple hundred meters in on the frozen salt water, that we became fully aware of where we were and what we were doing.

It was in that moment, while we were walking on the sea into the white nothingness, that I thought to myself, during this whole trip I had felt everything else but apathy and indifference.

Where the universe comes to an end

Walking on frozen water