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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Day 17: Oldie But a Goodie

Today we woke up to another grey and blustery day in Sozopol.  We packed our things and headed down for our last breakfast on the Black Sea.  Our wonderful innkeeper (we never did find out his name) gave us a bottle of Bulgarian red wine to take home before handing us over to the capable driving hands of Ivan, the sweet gentleman who had driven us from Veliko Tarnovo to Sozopol (we hired him again because we like him so much).  By 0945hrs we hit the road, the soundtrack from Evita on the car stereo, heading west, towards the city of Plovdiv.  Pa has been really excited to see Plovdiv because it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, and has evidence of habitation from the 6th millennium BC, and has changed hands between the Romans, Thracians, Ottomans and others plenty of times.  Pa is mostly interested in the ancient Roman ruins.

By 1400hrs and after a boring drive (what do I know, I slept through most of it) we entered the city limits of Plovdiv and found our hotel.  We’re staying in a boutique hotel here, and it looks like the hotel owns most of the street – two hotel buildings, a bakery, and a special relationship with a really good restaurant across the street, Hemingway.  Also across the street from us, is this:

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Ruins of a Roman Odeon from the 2nd century AD, also known as the Odeon of Philippopolis (the city was once called Philippopolis as it had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon).  The ruins were uncovered in 1988 and restoration has been somewhat continuous.  The Odeon still houses performances and shows!

There is a lot of old, ancient Roman and Thracian ruins and buildings around the city, including the crown jewel of the ruins, the Roman Amphitheatre, but we wanted to pace ourselves.  We went to Hemingway for a late lunch (more shopska salad for me) as well as bruschetta, spinach salad, beers and cheesecake, probably the best cheesecake Ma and I have ever had.  After lunch we decided to stroll along the main pedestrian street and see what kind of old stuff we would come across.

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Plovdiv was selected to be the European Cultural Capital in 2019, so they have all sorts of signage and improvement projects around the city.

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A short amble up the pedestrian street from our hotel we came across uncovered parts of the Plovdiv Roman Stadium, also known as the Stadium of Trimontium.  Again from the 2nd century AD, the stadium (only a part of which can currently be seen) seated 30,000 and housed all sorts of Olympic-type games and spectacles.  Pa was nerding out big time.

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What I like about the ruins is you can walk freely through them, touch them, sit on them.  They are still an interactive yet respected part of the city.

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Through the tunnel underpass of the Stadium was a wall built by Hadrian (not Hadrian’s Wall) and the remains of an aqueduct.

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Climbing out of the ruins we came across Dzhumaya Mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1363.  The Mosque marks the start of an artsy and funky district known as Kapana, or in English “The Trap”.  We decided to save Kapana for a later day on our trip.

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Attached to the Mosque is a Turkish coffee house, and Pa and I can’t say no to that potent, thick sludge.

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We wandered back down the pedestrian street, looking in the shop windows and admiring all the fashion and “fashion”.  There are a lot of menswear shops, some with beautiful suits and jackets (those who know me know how much I loooooove a beautiful coat on a handsome man) and some hawking the worn-and-torn-yet-bejewelled jeans I have seen far too much of on this trip.

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It was dinner time by the time we got back to our hotel, and we weren’t particularly hungry, so we settled for some pastries and coffees and snuggled down for the night.

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Day 16: Today I Don’t Feel Like Doing Anything

There comes a time in every trip that we start to get pretty spent and need to take a day to recharge.  Today was that day.  We woke up after a bit of a sleep in to find that it was absolutely pouring rain.  And not just Vancouver rain.  The walk from the door of the hotel, literally around the corner to the hotel’s restaurant resulted in Pa’s rain jacket getting soaked through.  Not even a 2 minute walk.  Add to that a ton of wind.  We decided that rather than walk into town in the rain, get soaked, be wet and miserable and have to hope that our clothes dry out before we have to pack up tomorrow to head to the next town was unappealing and hung out in our hotel room, watched TV, read, talked about books.

We did head down to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch as the innkeeper had made the Bulgarian version of moussaka and I was eager to try it, and Pa was too, and it was everything I hoped it would be – meat and potatoes, baked into a comforting casserole.  Our sweet innkeeper, with whom we communicate through his broken English, my broken Russian and Ma’s broken German gave us a handful of shells from the beach as a souvenir from the Black Sea and advised that he was closing up shop for the season on Saturday and heading back to Vienna for the winter.

We paid our bill and Pa went and got some provisions for the rest of the afternoon/evening, hoping to get some sleep before the journey to our penultimate city for this trip, Plovdiv.

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Day 15: This Ship Has Sailed

We were up early today, eager to eat breakfast and head over to the ferry that we had reservations for the would take us across the bay to the town of Nessebar.  We left our hotel to high wind and grey sky with Gravol in tow and headed back towards the old town, over to the Fish Port on the far side.  We found the kiosk – closed.  In true us fashion, we were there pretty early, so we decided to wait and walk around the marina, looking at the moored vessels.  Pa then asked a guy wearing a high visibility vest (Sozopol Port Authority?) if we were at the right spot, and he advised us as best as he could that “everything closed”.  When our time of departure rolled around, sure enough there was no ferry and no one at the kiosk, so we gave up on our Nessebar dreams and decided to have a lazy day around Sozopol.

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We decided to spend the morning walking the length of the peninsula and getting lost in the lanes and small streets of the old town.

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We discovered even more old wooden houses and small little churches.  We also discovered that in Sozopol residents do this thing where they post what looks like a flyer of a deceased relative on the front door of their houses.  What they say, I have no idea and I’m not sure if it’s a Bulgarian, Sozopol or Eastern Orthodox  custom.  We have also discovered that locals (in Romania and Hungary as well) think we’re English, and the English we meet assume we’re Americans, until we tell them and they immediately apologize.

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Despite the grey start to the day, the sun started to come out and humidity was at a high, although the wind was still strong.  We walked up and down small cobbled streets, said hello to passersby and workers boarding up businesses after the season.

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We made it to the tip of the peninsula and watched the water break on the rocks, acknowledging that at this point, this is the farthest east the 3 of us had been (so far in Europe) and that directly across the Black Sea from us was Georgia.

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We wandered back to the centre of the old town and relaxed under a patio umbrella with some coffee and soft drinks.  Then, almost out of the blue, the rain came.  It was still warm and humid and we were cozy under the umbrella, so we just enjoyed it.

After a few minute the rain let up and we walked out of the old town, past our hotel and south towards Sozopol’s other beach, Harmanite Beach

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Harmanite Beach is larger and quieter than Central Beach with apparently a lot of beach-side bistros and restaurants, but like most things, they were all shut and boarded up for the season.  The wind was getting stronger and whipping up some pretty big waves, although no surfers were to be seen taking advantage of it.

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We found a cute little cafe and had a long, leisurely late lunch of beer, fries, kebab and schnitzel.  By 1600hrs, we were tired and wind battered, so Ma and Pa went off to find a a grocery store to get some snack food while I stood on a bluff by a little church and watched the waves.  Again, the sun started to come and I thought that maybe we’d have a beautiful sunset, but as quickly as it had come out, the sun was again behind the clouds and a nearby flash and boom indicated that it was time for me to back away from the water and head back to the hotel, where I met with Ma and Pa and we had a hotel room beer picnic for dinner and an early night.

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