Day 9: Nothing Compares 2 U

Today was our last full day in Ghent and our last day in Belgium for a little over a week, as tomorrow we’ll be heading into the Normandy area of France. I’m really excited to see Normandy but I’m very sad to be leaving Ghent, it has left quite the impression on me.

We were all feeling lazy this morning, so we slowly got ready, and Ma and Pa headed to the post office to mail back some gifts we have accumulated. I headed to this great little cafe called Wasbar for a bizarro breakfast – speculoos latte, orange juice, pain au chocolate, one egg, cheese, 3 pieces of toast, butter, jam and chocolate spread. It was a weird combo, but also delicious.

One of Pa’s travel traditions is that he likes to collect Harley Davidson t-shirts from where ever we visit, so while he grabbed a cab and headed to the shop, Ma and I wandered and chatted about travel to come. We met Pa an hour later, now getting close to lunch time and headed to our new favourite haunt, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a last hurrah there (this included a few beers). After the beers we headed back into one of the many great squares, and Pa and I had some frites from Peter’s and Ma had a waffle with caramel.

Ma had decided that she wanted to head back to St Bavo’s Cathedral to get some photos of the dramatic alter piece (Catholics, am I right?) so we all went, the cool Cathedral a welcome respite from the increasingly aggressive afternoon sun.

We decided for old time’s sake to get a few chocolates from the gourmet chocolatery (I got whipped coffee cream and creme brûlée), grabbed a bench in St Bavo’s square and watched the bubble man delight the children.

I decided that this guy has a great job. He doesn’t really have to talk to anyone, I’ll be let no one calls him an asshole, he doesn’t have coworkers who conspire against him. He just grabs his bucket of suds, his homemade bubble wand, sets out his hat and stands in the square, entertaining eager children. Benefits are probably shit, though.

Ma wanted some introvert recharge time, so while she went back to the hotel, Pa and I went to this other bar we had been eyeing, the outdoor portion wedged between 2 buildings and quite literally right on the canal. Had a taken one step to the left, I would have been wet.

While Pa and I were imbibing away the afternoon, a husband and wife in a kayak paddled up to the bar, right at our feet. The husband got out of the kayak (with Pa’s help), went in to the bar and came out with 2 bottles of kriek beer, 2 glasses and a role of duct tape. With his wife still in the kayak, he took out the duct tape, wrapped it around his wife’s sleeve and then to the brick ground. He literally taped his wife to the ground. He then poured their beers, they enjoyed them, and he was back in the kayak, un-taping his wife, then paddling on their merry way. It was one of the weirdest and most hilarious things I’ve seen in a while. I’d tried to stealthily grab some snaps on my phone:

After finishing off a second round, it was time to meet Ma at the Castle of the Counts for some more photos, followed by a traditional Flemish dinner of frites, waterzooi stew and meatballs.

We wandered back to our hotel, drinking in this wonderful city for the last time.

Day 8: I Know I’m Awake But I feel like I’m in a Dream

This morning we got up at a decent time and hit up an adorable little bakery around the corner for breakfast. At Julie’s we had iced lattes, cuberdon steamed milk, cinnamon buns and scones with jam and cream. Feeling satisfied we hopped a train northbound to the fairytale town of Bruges (or Brugge). Bruges was a sleepier town until the 2008 hit movie “In Bruges” (highly recommend, unless you’re offended by the word “fuck”) came out and tourism has skyrocketed. Apparently Ghent and Bruges are bitter rivals.

We walked the kilometre from the train station to the main market square – along with gobs of other tourists and travelers, some stopping right in front of you and blocking the entire narrow sidewalk to get the perfect shot.

We got to the busy market square and things were hoppin’ – tourists, waiters, horse drawn buggies and food carts crammed every corner. We were feeling a little overwhelmed and a little disoriented, so we stopped for a beer.

After some beers in some pretty ridiculous bar ware, we started our Rick Steves walking tour, starting at the belfry (as seen in In Bruges).

They’ve boarded up some of the viewing points on the upper part of the Belfry, thanks to a particular scene from the movie. Bruges is capital of West Flanders and is encircled and connected by waterways, where swans and tour boats are king.

Ma didn’t get a waffle the last time she and Pa were in Bruges, so we stopped by Fred’s and each had a delicious Liege-style waffle.

After our sweet treats, we wandered around the old squares, ancient houses, former markets, breweries and abbeys.

Everywhere we turned there were people. And not just people, but tourists (like us). We decided that we wanted to do my favourite thing – boat tour!

Our boat captain/tour guide was hilarious, with a dry sense of humour and cracking wise in 3 different languages (I’m assuming he was funny in Dutch, I can only vouch for English and French).

After 30 minutes of putting around the moat, Pa and I decided we were thirsty and had noticed a neat looking brewery on our boat trip – Bourgogne de Flanders – so we tracked it down, each got a flight of 6 beers and grabbed a table at the hip brewery (some hits, some weird misses).

We were almost Bruges’d out, but Pa had something to show me – the Bottle Shop.

This shop is like Mecca for good beer fans – ceiling to floor, wall to wall of brews, including a whole section of krieks. Truly breath taking!

We headed back to the square and grabbed a cab back to the train station and trained back to Ghent, where we had some delicious pizza and pasta for dinner and headed back to the hotel.

There are quite a few articles on the internet about Bruges vs Ghent and here is my opinion – Bruges is beautiful and cute and it is a fairytale town for a lot to see and a fun boat tour, but I got the sense that the town itself is disingenuous – like it existed solely as a tourist town. I don’t know how many Belgians actually live there. Ghent is also beautiful and interesting, but it just seems like it’s more of an authentic Belgian experience, because so many of the people there are native Gentenaars and the town doesn’t feel like it exists for tourism, which is how I felt about Bruges. Bruges is not a fucking shit hole, but if it came down to the 2 towns, I’m on team Ghent.

Day 6: She’s Leavin’

This morning we leisurely got ready and ate our breakfast, as we were leaving not only Delft but also the Netherlands for the next leg of our trip. I wrote a whole mess of postcards and we checked out, sad to say goodbye to our 400 year old hotel room, delicious breakfasts and quaint surroundings. Today was definitely our most complicated travel day, with 3 trains (and one dicey connection time) taking us from the heart of the Netherlands to East Flanders. Ghent (or Gand in French and Gent in Dutch) is our first stop in Belgium on this trip, and I was VERY excited, half expecting to see groups of short little curvy people who look vaguely like me and Pa guzzling brews and cramming waffles and frites into their faces.

Our first train trip took us out of Delft and eventually into a Dutch city called Breda, and because we were on a Dutch train and not a German one, the train was late and we missed our connection. We waited around Breda for an hour and hopped the next train, this time into Antwerp (also late). We huffed it from track 23 to track 1 (the Antwerp train station is a beautiful Art Deco behemoth) and made our final train from Antwerp to Ghent.

Right away you could tell the difference in the Dutch architecture from the Belgian – Belgian buildings in Ghent are taller and broader, less big windowed facades, but still ornate and beautiful.

We grabbed a cab at the Gent-Sint-Pietrs train station and headed into the old town, winding down streets lined by cafes, bars, restaurants, and galleries. We’re staying in the historic Patershol neighbourhood, which was in years past a working and warehouse quarter (Vancouverites, think Yaletown) and is now very trendy.

Our hotel is right on the canal and is actually 2 rooms let out by an enthusiastic Argentinian artist who has a gallery and her own housing on the main floor and the rooms to let above.

We dropped our luggage and hit the town, thirsty for our first taste of real Belgian beer. I had seen in photos a place called Her Waterhuis aan de Bierkant which is right on the canal and right over the bridge from our hotel, so we headed there. We found a table on the canal, Pa ordered a blonde on tap called Augustijn and I ordered the kriek on tap and we were in Belgian heaven.

At the table next to us sat 4 Americans who all work for Pepsi and are on their 7th annual Belgian beer sojourn. They get together, tour around and drink and take photos of all the beers, which sounds like the dream.

We polished off our second beers and ambled off in search of actual sustenance and happened upon a cuberdon stand that I had read about in my trip research.

Cuberdons are a Ghent candy, also known as “Ghent noses” because of their conical shape. The original flavour is raspberry, and they’re chewy on the outside and liquid in the middle. There are 2 cuberdons hawkers in the main square and apparently they are bitter rivals – apparently one gives you a better deal than the other. We decided to get a 3€ bag (he just grabs a handful and puts it in a bag) and move on…right next door to a waffle place. The last time Ma and Pa were in Belgium they didn’t get to have real Belgian waffles, so we made sure we took care of that on the first day here – so we each ordered one, crispy and covered in caramel.

A small waffle wasn’t quite enough food (seeing as we had all missed out on lunch) so we walked around in search of more substantial food, which isn’t hard to find in Ghent as there are restaurants and cafes tucked around every corner.

We settled on a restaurant, sat outside in the sunshine and had some more beer (quelle surprise) frites and mayonnaise. Thoroughly stuffed, we waddled back to the hotel to relax for the night.

Day 22: The Final Countdown

Well folks, this is it – the last day our the DeCaigny Abroad Trip 2017.  Today we only had a few last things to wrap up in Sofia, including the inside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and Pa wanted to get a Harley-Davidson Sofia t-shirt.  We slept in, did a bit of housekeeping for our travel tomorrow, had a leisurely breakfast and headed out towards the Cathedral.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, built in the Neo-Byzantine style.  It’s also known as the main tourist attraction in Sofia.  Alexander Nevsky was not Bulgarian, but a Russian Prince of Novgorod who in the 13th century led a Russian army to defeat the Teutonic army (you can see the dramatization of this in Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky”, with the score written by Sergei Prokofiev).  It was named after a Russian prince as opposed to a Bulgarian one, because it was built in memory of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War (liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans).  Anyhow, the name of the Cathedral was changed between 1912 – 1916 to St Cyril and Methodius as Russia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides in WWI.

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There is no entry fee to the Cathedral, but you do have to pay 10 LEV ($7.50 CAD) to take photos.  I paid and the lady at the desk gave me a piece of paper with some Cyrillic written on it, and a little man in black robes approached me as I entered, gave my paper a little tear, and said “safe photo”.  There is little to no talking in the Cathedral, so the silence was deafening.  I definitely could have done with some orthodox chant.  We quietly walked about, watching the faithful light candles, pray to the saints, and line up and pray to the alter.

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Like many of the Orthodox churches and cathedrals we’ve been to, there is a giant chandelier right above the alter and in front of the iconostasis.  Alexander Nevsky is a really beautiful building, but I would say I have definitely seen more breathtaking Orthodox churches.

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After we felt like we had spent a sufficient amount of time in the Cathedral, we stepped out into the sun and headed to a nearby restaurant called Cattedral for some lunch – pizza, risotto and Irish breakfast for Pa.  We finished up and ordered a taxi for Pa using this app called Taxi Me.  It’s essentially like Uber, but finds you good and reliable drivers who won’t gouge you.  The driver pulls up and Pa hops in, on his way to Harley Davidson Sofia, so Ma and I walked around the nearby university grounds and sat on a sunny bench and talked about next year’s trip.

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After about 25 minutes or so, Pa returned, purchase in hand.  We had discovered by accident that Sofia actually has a pretty popular pedestrian only boulevard just steps from our shitty apartment called Vitosha Boulevard, lined with shops, bars and cafes.  We decided to do a bit of a cafe crawl, so we started at a place where we got sparkling water and ice cream.

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Moving on, we came across a few street musicians, a cellist and a guitarist/vocalist who were playing some original works as well as some covers.  We grabbed a bench and watched for a while.

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After watching the musicians, we wandered some more and eventually got to the end of the street.  By that time, we decided to find a place for dinner, and had read about a restaurant on the strip called Boom Burger, so we decided to try it.  We had some beers, burgers and onion rings and it reminded us of Cannibal Cafe in Vancouver.  We settled up and headed back down the boulevard, looking for a good place for Ma to get some dessert and Pa and I to get some rakia.  Rakia is a liqueur in the region, usually made from grape or plum, and is a lot like brandy (or the Palinka we had in Romania), and Pa and I figured we had to have some before we left.  We found a busy patio and Ma ordered a slice of cheesecake, and Pa and I each ordered a shot of their finest rakia – only burns a little bit going down!  We paid our delightful waiter and waddled back to our apartment, ready to pack for our flight tomorrow and ready to come home.  Until next year, Europe.

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Day 21: Head For the Hills

This morning we were up bright and early for our final tour on this trip – Boyana Church and Rila Monastery.  We were to meet our Viator tour group at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at 0900hrs, but they ask that you show up at least 10 minutes early, so naturally we were there by 0820hrs.  We were fine with that though, because we had awesome light to capture the outside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (which we will be checking out tomorrow).

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Once everyone had arrived (not everyone on time, ahem), we all hopped on the mini bus and were on our way to an affluent community just 20 minutes outside of Sofia called Boyana.  In Boyana there is an old and very small church, built in the 11th and 13th centuries and featuring some very early painted icons in the orthodox tradition.

We pulled into the parking lot and enjoyed the beautiful yard, peaceful and quiet but for the chirping birds.  The leaves are starting to turn colour and the air was crisp, definitely autumn.

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As previously mentioned, the church is a very small UNESCO world heritage site, and there could be only 10 of us in the church at a time, so we took turns.  No photos were allowed, but inside are icons describing the saints, the king and queen, and the nobles who donated the money to build the church and earn their fast-track ticket straight to heaven.

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Once all 3 groups of 10 had made our way through and gotten the mini tour, we all piled back on the bus and we hit the road for the 2 hour drive south of Sofia, into the Rila Mountains for Rila Monastery.  Our tour guide Marina told us stories of Bulgaria, the different ethnic groups, the story of how God created Bulgaria:

“When God was dividing up the lands for the different nations, Bulgaria was last because we’re always late.  We it finally came to us, all the lands had been assigned and there was nothing for the Bulgarians.  We said ‘who are we supposed to live with?  The Greeks?  The Serbians?’  God felt bad so he told Bulgarians ‘don’t tell the other nations, but I will give you part of paradise – mountains and sea.'”

The drive up to and through the mountains was really lovely – like a more mountainous Okanagan.  Lots of wineries, lots of vineyards, lots of houses with with beautiful grape vine trellis shading their yards, which were full of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers.

We pulled into the lot and entered what looks from the outside like a walled compound:

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We entered to find the gobsmacking striped and arched brilliance that is Rila Monastery.

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Rila Monastery is the largest monastery in the country and is named after Ivan of Rila, a reclusive hermit of a man who loved to live in nature (apparently once lived in the trunk of a tree) and whose relics allegedly have healing properties.  The monastery itself was founded in the 10th century, but due to years of religious turmoil in the country (Ottoman Turks would knock down any church they could), the buildings we see today are from the mid 19th century.

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We as tourists and pilgrims are only allowed on the ground floor of the structure as it is still a working monastery, able to house up to 400 monks.

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We then moved on to the Cathedral, again Orthodox (the main religion in Bulgaria) and again, no photos in the sanctuary, but the outer domes housed some icons, showing the Garden of Good and Evil, Judgement Day, and why we should always confess (spoiler: you go to hell if you don’t).

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The iconostasis is quite the thing to behold – it took 5 years to carve out the incredible detail and is covered in 17 kilos of gold.  The sanctuary also houses the bones (relics) of Ivan of Rila, kept in a box under a cloth in front of the iconostasis.  Our tour guide told us that there are often many people who make the pilgrimage to Rila for Ivan’s healing powers, and we even witnessed several orthodox monks line up, crouch down and kiss the box.

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After the tour we had almost 2 hours to ourselves, so we grabbed lunch at a restaurant just outside the monastery walls, recommended by our tour guide, so we stuffed our hungry faces with chicken kebab, shopska salad, homemade bread and beer.

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We finished up and headed back in to the monastery to get more photos and just enjoy how beautiful the buildings are and how peaceful the setting is.  Pa decided to climb the tower, so Ma and I bought a book on the monastery and a few fridge magnets (as always).

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By the time Pa got back down from the tower, it was time to meet up with the rest of our group and get back on the bus.  We grabbed a few last glances and boarded, dozing on the 2 hour drive back to Sofia.  We were dropped back off at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, so we grabbed a cab to our little neighbourhood, had some treats and lemonade at a cafe and turned in for the night, ready for our last day of vacation tomorrow before our sojourn back home on Wednesday.

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Day 19: It’s A Trap!

Today is our last day in Plovdiv before we head to our last city on this trip, Sofia.  There were only 2 sights left that we wanted to see in Plovdiv – Tsar Simeon Garden and the Kapana.  We (Pa) woke up bright and early and we headed down to another outstanding hotel breakfast, then headed out to the post office, sent some more postcards, and headed into the Garden.

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The Garden is apparently recently “renovated” and boasts fountains, ponds, art and “art”.  One of the recently refurbished fountains is Demeter’s Fountain, dedicated to the Greek goddess of the same name.

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The Garden had all sorts of sculptures and statues, some beautiful, some thought provoking…

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Finally we arrived at the “Singing” Lake, a large man-made fountain/pond that when approached it, was BYOS (Bring Your Own Singing).  There was a lovely covered cafe beside it, so we sat down and enjoyed some espresso con panna while some of the waterworks in the lake started, but no singing.  Apparently on Friday and Saturday nights, there is music and a light show.

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At the end of the Garden is tall monument dedicated to Philip II, who named the city Philippopolis, is seen here with both eyes (according to Pa he lost one at some point) and died under mysterious circumstances (was it his wife?  His ambitious son, Alexander the Great?  We’ll never know…).

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After our stroll through the garden, we headed back to the ruins of the Roman Forum, this time from the other side to get a better view.  It’s amazing to think that under so much of the city are Roman ruins, which were built on top of Greek ruins, which were built on top of Thracian ruins.

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Heading back to the main pedestrian street, we walked through an arts festival, and some big steampunk grill with chicken cooking.  It smelled amazing.  Definitely one of the meals I’ve fallen in love with in Bulgaria is chicken kebab and Shopska salad.

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A few minutes on foot and we were at the Kapana, also known as the Trap.  The Kapana is a section of Plovdiv that houses restaurants, shops and galleries.  There was an awful  lot of food windows hawking shawarma and falafel, and it smelled outstanding.  Had we not just had ice cream, I would have eagerly snapped up a chicken and baba ghanouj shawarma.  The length of the main street of the Kapana was mostly purse, shoe and questionable men’s fashion shops, but one store caught my eye – Inglot.  I went in and picked up some nail polish and shimmer dust (necessities) and by that point, the rain had really started to pick up, so Pa bought me an umbrella and we headed back to our hotel to warm up before a delicious steak dinner at Hemingway and cake and coffee at the hotel’s cafe before turning in to pack for the 2nd to last time (one of the worst parts of travel for me).

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Day 18: Wobble

Today we were up and ready to go after a great night’s sleep now that temperatures have cooled off.  Our hotel provides an outstanding breakfast, so we helped ourselves and were on our way, ready to tackle the Plovdiv’s old town.

Our first stop was at an exhibition called TrakArt.  It’s ancient Roman mosaics and glass works from the 2nd century AD, uncovered 20 years ago when city workers were digging an underpass.  They have left the mosaics as they are and built a boardwalk overtop of them.

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After marvelling at them, we headed north towards the old town, searching for Plovdiv’s crown jewel of Roman relics – the Amphitheatre.  Plovdiv is known for having 7 hills, and the Amphitheatre is built between two of them, Dzhambaz and Taksim.  The hike up the hills is lined with beautiful orthodox cathedrals and churches.

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After desperately trying to not roll our ankles on the “cobblestones” (more on those later) we were upon it – the Roman Theatre of Plovdiv, built in the 1st century AD and still in use to this day.

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We were allowed to walk freely around the theatre, except for the stage as workers were setting up for a Bulgarian folk performance later tonight.  We sat in the theatre and just took in the setting, the Rhodope Mountains in the background.  The theatre was built under Emperor Domitian, damaged in the 5th century AD by Attila the Hun, then covered by a landslide and forgotten until the 1970s, when it was discovered and spurred a massive restoration.

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Just as we were ready to leave the Amphitheatre, the sun started to come out, so we headed into the old town to see the Old Plovdiv Houses in beautiful, warm weather.

A note about the cobblestones – they are not really cobblestones.  They are randomly shaped and sized rocks placed about to form some sort of road.  We had to watch where we were walking for a few minutes, stop, then look around.  Walking and looking about at the same time would have spelled compound fracture for one of us.

The old town of Plovdiv takes you from ancient Rome to 18th and 19th century Ottoman Empire, and there were many beautiful, symmetrical homes built in the Ottoman style and many of which have been beautiful restored.

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Walking around the hills of the old town, especially on a day like today, was like walking around Byzantine Montmartre – it was green and leafy, lots of little shops and cafes tucked away, as well as artists and studios.

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One of the “must-see” old houses is now the Ethnographic Museum.  It’s surrounded by a beautiful garden of fragrant roses and rosemary.

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We made it to the top of another one of the hills and decided it was time for a drink, so we found a recommended beer garden with a sunny patio that overlooked the city, so we grabbed a seat and a couple of pints and enjoyed the view and each other’s company.

When we finished our beers (Ma had a Bitter Lemon) and decided to check out the Craft Street.  As it turns out, there wasn’t much going on, so we decided to hike back up the wobbly hill and head back to the main pedestrian street by our hotel to grab some lunch, as it was already approaching 1400hrs.

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We found an Italian restaurant that came recommended, had some late lunch (we wouldn’t recommend this place) and decided to go to a fountain-side cafe for some coffee and ice cream.  The ice cream was absolutely delightful and nursing our sore joints, we wobbled back to the hotel for some down time of reading and postcard writing before grabbing a small dinner in the cafe downstairs and turning in for the night, hopefully getting enough sleep for our last day in Plovdiv.

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