Sunday, November 24, 2013


A farmhouse I discovered in Macedonia.
 We left Sofia, Bulgaria on a bus to Skopje, Macedonia. Mom was starting to get the hang of traveling. We boarded the bus and handed our passports to the driver. He collected them and we knew we would not get it back until we got through passport control. We settled in to our seats and got comfortable. The heat was on and I knew I was going to be dying. My seat was next to the heater. The heat was on full blast and 45 minutes into the ride, my hiking shoes were hot! My legs felt like they were on fire!  The sun was beating in through the window and sweat was rolling down my face. Mom was snuggled up next to me. I could not bear another minute. I looked around and the bus was only a quarter full. I asked her if she wanted to move to the seats across the aisle. I needed to get away from the heat! She moved across the aisle and I moved away from the heat vent! Ahhhh! Air. I may survive the trip to Skopje. I was more ecstatic when we stopped for a break before border control and we could get off the bus! I walked around and stretched out my legs. I saw a small church up the hillside and went for a short walk.

When the bus driver looked at us and motioned to the bus, I climbed back to my seat. This time he turned the air conditioner on full blast. I guess nothing in moderation on this bus! I moved over to the sunny window and put on my coat. Brrr! 

We arrived in the capital in the late afternoon. We walked from the bus station to the Iguana Hostel. After I walked into some woman's house, the hostel owner came and got us in the correct entrance. Oops! Our room was great! It was new and clean so we were happy with our $17/night room. We left the hostel and started walking along the bike paths next to the Vader River. We we stopped for dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river. I opened the menu and saw wine bottles for $4! It was wine time. Mom decided she would like wine so we ordered a bottle. We ordered dinner and mom looked at me and said she was done with wine and the rest of the bottle was mine! It was good and I obliged her and finished it off. The only problem was that I was full and happy so we called it an early evening and back to the hotel. I curled up in bed and was asleep in no time. 

I awoke with the sunrise and decided to walk and see the city while mom slept. It was a beautiful morning for a walk and I enjoy watching the city come to life. 

As I walked, I realized Skopje was an interesting city. I loved the bicycle and walking areas next to the river. I love cities that are walkable or have great bicycle paths. It rates right up there with good public transportation. As I walked along the park I noticed the number of book stands. Obviously a country that enjoys reading. As I got closer to the city center, I notice there are numerous buildings that are grand. But they look new, not original. 

I see two bridges with statues of famous artists, musicians and writers and the second with political figures. I can tell these are also new. 
I walk on to the center square and there are statues everywhere. I see the 16th century stone bridge and more statues on the other side.
It is excessive. All of the statues,fountains and new buildings make me feel like I am in Las Vegas. I was going to ask the locals about all of the construction. 
It was only 6:30AM and I planned to meet mom at 8 AM for breakfast. I decide that I have time to walk to the city fortress. I knew she would not want to walk the hills and I wanted to get some exercise. I walked up the hill and see this sign. 
I look at it and giggle to myself as I enter the fortress grounds. I keep telling mom to keep her English simple. Don't use all those extra words and say "excuse me ma'am. Would you happen to have a coca-cola light?" I have learned it is easier to say "Coca-cola light?" Just keep it simple and you get what you need. Mom is concerned I can't speak English anymore. I have promised I will when needed. I may need some practice when I return. 

A couple stray dogs joined me for my exploration. The fortress walls provided a good view of the city and surroundings. 
Afterwards, I walked back to the hostel for breakfast. Then mom and I went to explore the city. We enjoyed the city square and numerous fountains.
Then on to the other sights. This looks like the Arc de Triomphe, right?
 For a moment I thought I was in Paris...or Las Vegas! See why it confuses me? Then on to the Mother Teresa Memorial home. She lived here as a child and had her first communion at a church at this location. The Macedonian's love her and are proud she lived in their country.
I loved her feet on the realistic! 

But our favorite tourist activity was the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia. We walked into the museum and 20 other tourists entered. It looked like we had walked in on a tour. Everyone had press type of badges. We stood back and listened as a gentleman welcomed everyone and informed us about the memorial center. I did not know 98% of Macedonian Jews were killed during WWII. I was shocked. We were escorted into a room where a movie explained the history of the Macedonian Jews. As we stood back and waited for the rest of the tour to move on, the director of the museum approached us and told us about the railroad car that was used to transport the Jewish people to concentration camps.
As we talked, he told me his grandfather was one of the 2% that survived the Holocaust. I asked him several questions and learned that his grandfather had survived because he was considered a political prisoner and was separated from the other Jewish people. I was moved as he talked about his grandfather and how he met his grandmother and his families legacy in Macedonia. I will never understand what they went through or the strength and determination but I have empathy and a desire to see these atrocities stop. I have been saddened by the stories from one country to another of the wars and war crimes against the civilians. It takes me back to the young boy I met in Cambodia that reminded me "we must learn about these things or they will be repeated over and over again." Such powerful words from a 10 year old. His words have lingered in my mind as I have traveled.

In the morning, we packed for out trip to Ohrid, Macedonia. I left mom at the hostel and I walked to the bus station to buy tickets. We were leaving after breakfast. Over breakfast we chatted with the woman at the hostel about life in Macedonia. I was interested in all of the new buildings in Skopje. She told me the government is "spending like we are rich Americans! We don't have the money for this. I love my country but this is crazy!" As we talked to her, she talked about life in Macedonia and how the country did not go to war to separate from Yugoslavia. But life was still difficult for many people. It is hard to get ahead. She told how her husband and children wanted to take a 1 month vacation to the USA but it was difficult for them to get a tourist visa. They had the available money in a savings account and an itinerary but got turned down twice. One of her husbands coworkers from the USA made a call to a friend and they got their visa in 3 days. As I listened to her story, I realized how difficult it is for tourists from other countries to travel to the USA. I have heard stories of people getting turned down numerous times and finally giving up. They usually say they can spend their money elsewhere. It makes me realize how fortunate I have been in visiting other countries. I show up with my passport and money for a visa on arrival and no problems. I have only had a few countries where I had to apply before I arrived and they have been relatively simple. 

We said goodbye and walked to the bus station. Today, the journey is on a small minibus to the southwest area of Macedonia near the Albanian boarder. 
The ride was beautiful. We had a gorgeous fall day and we enjoyed the autumn colors. As we came around a bend, I saw a herd of sheep grazing by the road.
One of the things I have enjoyed is watching the daily life. Farmers still watch over their herds of sheep, goats and cattle. They roam free and graze on the land. 

We arrived at Ohrid and after walking down a hundred decrepit steps we arrived at Villa Durdunka apartment. The view of the lake was amazing. Momma (the owner as we affectionately called her) showed us to our apartment and spoke to me in Macedonian like I understood everything. I love playing charades with the people as they show me the basics of the apartment. I am amazed how much communication is through body language. Momma took my passport and studied my birth date. Then she pointed at her ring finger and seemed to be asking if I was married. I said no and smiled. She started telling me her son is not married. Uh oh! Here comes a matchmaker. Then she got her niece to ask me more information in English. She was trying to set me up with her son that was traveling in Bulgaria. This conversation was repeated each day. She was sweet and I was invited back to stay anytime.

As we settled into our apartment, the view of the lake was tranquil and relaxing. Mom was ready to stay for a week! 
My first task was to go to the market and buy food so I could cook. I wandered through the central square looking for the market. Suddenly, I felt something on my hips. Two paws!  A dog was trying to hump me as I walked through the main square! I turned to push him away. He kept coming back. Stop! No! Go away! I turned to walk away and he came back and attacked me again! What the ....... ? Now I was embarrassed.  The people at the cafe were watching him try to hump me! Thankfully, my knight in shining armor came to rescue me. He grabbed the dog and pulled him away. I gave Humper the evil eye as I walked away. I hoped he would be gone when I returned! 

I found the fruit and vegetable market and bought fresh local produce. It was all delicious and I wanted to try everything! I splurged and got a jar of fresh honey, pears and some walnuts for a yummy dessert! And of course there was a bottle of Macedonian wine! As I returned through the town square I kept my eye out for evil Humper. Luckily he had moved on and I was safe. 

When I returned, I laughed as I walked in and found mom watching tv! What?!?! We have am amazing town and view and you are filling your mind with trash (reality) tv? I guess I have become accustomed to the quiet and lack of tv. It was odd having the background noise. I made dinner and then we watched tv before bed. The English Channel had all the "best" American shows My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and My Teenager Is Pregnant and So Am I. These shows are trash. I don't know why I watched them. 

I spent my days in Ohrid relaxing, reading and walking to the sights and beautiful sunsets.
One evening, I was approached by Bobi. He owned a small boat and wanted to take me for a romantic cruise around the bay and over to a park to see the beauty of his city. Yeah, I know what he meant by a romantic boat ride! I thanked him for the offer but told him my mother was waiting for me. He told me he would take me tonight and  tomorrow night he would take my mother and I for free. Ha ha! I smiled and said no thank you. I laughed, at least he went for what he wanted. I respect that. 
Another day, I walked to the fortress. Mom passed on the hike due to the hills and steps. It was a nice uphill walk. As I passed a group of school children the boys started racing me up the hill. I smiled and waved to them as they passed me. Then their teacher called to them. They were not happy. I beat them to the top...only because their teacher intervened.

The fortress had beautiful views of the lake and a small forest.
I took a walk through the forest to the most famous photography sight in Macedonia. Down a small hill and at the end of the forest path was Sveti Jovan of Kaneo.


The 13th century church overlooks Lake Ohrid. I sat down to enjoy the view and the peacefulness. I understood why medieval monks spent time here looking for inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard yelling. A fisherman was mad and yelling about something. He yelled at every person that came into the courtyard. I sat watching when a man sat next to me and started chatting. He pulled out a bottle of wine, cheese and grapes. He offered me to join him. I declined but I realized he was going to continue to insist I join him. He explained that the yelling man was drunk and mad because nobody wanted to go on his boat. After 30 Minutes, he finally went down to his boat and yelled at everyone from the sea. 
He got laughter when he dropped one of his oars in the sea. I didn't understand Macedonian but I learned a few new curse words! 

My new friend walked me back to town as we talked about travel destinations and life in Macedonian. He wanted me to go for a coffee but I declined, mom was waiting dinner on me. When I returned, Momma (owner of the apartments) greeted me with a bowl of fresh figs! Yeah, dessert for tonight! 

After a few days relaxing and hiking along the lake, it was time for us to move on to Albania. I asked around town about a bus to Tirana and was told we would have to take a taxi to another town (Struga) and then get a bus to Tirana. We were ready to move on but left a piece of our hearts in the beautiful Lake Ohrid. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sofia, Bulgaria

A horse and cart as on main street in Blageovgrad.

I walked to the Blageovgrad train station to buy tickets for the evening train to Sofia. When the woman told me it was 7.50 Lev ($5.26), I asked again Sofia? I took out a map and pointed to the capital of Bulgaria. I was shocked it was so cheap for a 2-3 hour train ride. Wow! Mom had told me the guidebooks warned of poor trains in the Baltic countries in the evenings so I had low expectations of the evening train. I was surprised! We had a new comfortable train ride and arrived in 2 hours. 

We arrived in Sofia and decided to splurge and take a taxi to the hotel since it was late at night and we were exhausted. The taxi cost more than the train ride! Oh well, at $7 I was not complaining. It was better than wandering the streets for a half hour. I always try to arrive in a new city in the daylight. If I arrive in the dark, I would rather be safe and take a taxi. He took us to our hotel and while I was getting us checked in, I heard mom say "Halelluiah! An elevator!"  She was excited! Especially when we were told we were on the 4th floor!  I think I am killing her with the walking and stairs but she is a trooper. 

In the morning I went to explore while mom stayed in the hotel nursing a cold. I walked to the Sofia statue that was erected after the fall of communism in 1990. 

A Lenin statue originally stood in this location and was removed and replaced with Sofia. I found several of the Communist sights had been demolished or removed from Sofia.

As I walked along, I came upon the Svetea Nedelya Church. This was in the guidebook as a must see sight. I walked in and noticed a baptism was taking place. 

I watched the children playing with their candles and listened to the liturgy. It was beautiful. As I was sitting and watching, I heard a chicken clucking. It was in the church. Huh? I looked around and saw a man handing a box with holes to an older woman.
The clucking came from the box.  My first thought was please don't sacrifice the chicken. Then I realized I wasn't in Asia and the chicken was probably someones dinner. This is the first time I have been to a baptism and heard a live chicken in a church! I didn't know what to expect next! 

My next stop was the park near the mineral springs and bath house. The bath house is closed and there is disagreement over the future of the building. It was a beautiful building and I hope they restore it and open it someday.
The Bulgarians were enjoying the sunny fall day. Men were playing chess and children were playing in the park. Around the corner were the mineral springs of Sofia. The city has 42 springs with different water temperatures. Water flows freely in the square.
I noticed steam in the chilly morning. I saw many people washing their hands and faces or filling up reusable water jugs with the warm water.
The water is pure, clean and pollution free. The city provides the water free for people to take home and use. I was shocked when I read this. After traveling to many places in the world where fresh water is not available to residents, it was refreshing to see the Bulgarian people had free access to the water! I was more amazed when I learned that Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European continent and the water was free! Wow!

I walked on towards the old communist party headquarters, the theater and another park. 
As I walked, I passed several stands selling books and healthy snacks. One of my favorites was the nut and dried fruit stands. I stopped and bought a cup of mixed fruit and walnuts for $1. Yummy! Why don't we have these at home?
Then, I continued on to the Russian Church where an old lady grabbed my hand and took me to the basement.
She pulled out a chair and put a pen and paper in front of me. She told me to write a wish. I did as I was told. She waited and then grabbed my arm and took me to a room with a sarcophagus and pointed for me to leave the wish. I did as I was told. When I turned around she had two men and was  handing them paper and pens. I waved goodbye and she smiled and waved to me.

A woman selling flower bouquets outside the Russian church.
I continued exploring Sofia and walked through a flea market with furry hats, Nazi and Soviet memorabilia. I had no idea what was real and which were fakes but it was interesting. 
Next, I went to the red brick church of St. Sofia Church. I walked in and started walking around when I heard singing. I sat quietly and listened. Then, I realized I had walked into a funeral! There were 6 people  in the front of the church with a priest and an urn at the front of the church. Then I noticed the huge bouquets of flowers. Oh no! I crashed a funeral! I got up to leave and a man started talking loudly to me. I shook my head no and pointed to the door. He started saying something loudly and pointing to my pockets. I left the church. I am such an idiot!

Down the street, I saw a gold dome shining and surrounded by 6 tour buses. I knew from the description this was Alexander Nevsky Church. The church was a beautiful memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers that died fighting for Bulgaria's independence in the Russo-Turkish War. I sat quietly in a corner watching Bulgarians praying and lighting candles. I find myself wondering what type of comfort or for whom they are lighting a candle. 
It was mid-afternoon and I thought I should head back to the hotel to check on mom. When I returned she was sleeping. I decided to walk to the bus station to buy tickets for Skopje, Macedonia. I found the bus company and booked us on the early morning bus.  

The next morning mom felt better and was ready to travel. We walked to the bus station and boarded the bus to Skopje. Time to explore another country. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rila Monastery

Autumn in Bulgaria
We woke up to take the 7 AM bus from Blageovgrad to Rila Village where we had to catch a 7:40AM bus to the monastery. We got our tickets and then had to figure out which bus. In my travels, I have found the least amount of English here in Bulgaria. I have learned to travel with using few words and sign language. I showed my ticket to a man and made the where sign. He pointed to the next bus. We went to get in line, mom handed her ticket, they guy looked at it, tore it and she got on the bus. I handed him my ticket and asked "Rila? " He responded "Oh no, tsk tsk tsk." He pointed to the next bus. I waved for mom to get off the bus. Whew! I almost sent her to another town. We walked to the next bus and I asked "Rila?" The driver waved me aboard and tore my ticket. Mom was happy he accepted her ticket even though it was already torn. We were in the bus and headed towards the village. When we arrived at Rila, the bus to the monastery was ready to leave. Everyone from our bus piled onto the monastery bus. Mom and I were the last ones on and there were no seats left. We stood in the aisle as the bus rambled down the road and up the mountain towards the monastery. The bus stopped, a few people got off, we got seats and more people squished into the aisles. At least there were people to break our fall if the bus crashed.

We arrived at the monastery and were the only tourists. Rila Monastery was beautifully nestled into a valley in the early morning light.
The mountains surrounding were vibrant with fall colors. As we wandered through the church and museum, we learned that the next bus was at 3:00 PM (6.5 hours later)! Huh?!? The only thing here is a monastery, 2 hotels and 3 restaurants.
The monastery was founded in the first century and is considered the most holy sight in Bulgaria. In fact, it was nicknamed Bulgaria's Jerusalem. As we entered the church, we were greeted by monks exiting the church. I watched and realized they were tourist monks. A couple were taking photos.

We decided to have brunch after touring the monastery and then went for a walk along the river. It was a cold but beautiful fall morning. 
Since we had time, I decided to go for a walk up into the mountains. I told mom that I was going for a short hike and would be back in two hours. I started walking along the path, enjoying the fall colors and the crunch of leaves under my feet.

As I climbed up along the trail, I passed two men chopping down trees. I waited so I was certain they saw me and waved hello to them. They had a horse that pulled large logs down the hillside to a clearing where they chopped the log into firewood.
I smiled, waved goodbye and continued on my hike into the mountain. It was quiet. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. I loved the peaceful beauty of the woods. So many people live with music (headphones) and never stop to just listen to the beauty of nature. I have learned to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness of these moments. As the trail became wetter and sloppier, I started thinking about turning back. After an hour, the water was deeper and the trail was slippery so I decided to turn back. My journey into the forest was beautiful. I loved the light hitting the beautiful fall leaves, like gold shimmering overhead. 

I returned to the monastery and found mom waiting for me. We decided to go have a glass of wine before the 3:00 PM bus. Then we caught the bus back to Rila Village and the next bus back to Blageovgrad. We had planned to catch the 1:00 PM train but we missed it and had to take the 7:00 PM train onward to the capital, Sofia. We waited at a cafĂ© and enjoyed a nice drink and dinner before we left the city. 
Guess who had hot chocolate and who had the beer.
Yes, Cindy had a hot chocolate while I enjoyed a delicious lager. The food here in Bulgaria was fresh and delicious! I loved the shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives and a soft white cheese). So yummy and fresh! But huge portions! And I ate the whole platter of salad! We are in shock at the size of the salads and realized it is time to start sharing a salad. Not because it is expensive (less than $2) but just too much to eat most of the time.
After dinner, we loaded up our backpacks and walked to the train station. Next stop, Sofia- the capital of Bulgaria.

Onward to Bulgaria-Plovdiv

Mom enjoying the fall colors and street art in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Mom and I left Istanbul. It felt like my home after spending a week and a half there. I said my goodbyes to the city and friends I had met. I promised to look them up when I returned in December. Mom was walking better and was confident she was ready for some serious travel. And this was going to be the first test. We booked an overnight bus leaving Istanbul at 11:00 PM and arriving in Plovdiv, Bulgaria at 6:30 AM. As we waited at the bus station, I decided to take that one last bathroom break and encouraged mom to do so also. Her first question was the same as every other trip to the bathroom. "Is it a squat toilet?"  Yes, it was! This was her first opportunity to experience the joy of these porcelain wonders. Not something westerners like but we tolerate them when we have to. So, mom resolved to experience the squat toilet. I waited to hear her story and was disappointed to hear there was nothing unusual or funny to share. She was an expert and was ready for the next one!
I snuggled into my seat like the seasoned traveler I am. I took an herbal sleeping pill, put my Bucky pillow under my head and adjusted my eye mask. I was asleep as the bus rambled out of Istanbul. Mom woke me up at the bathroom break. After a break and stretching our legs, we settled back into our seats. I knew it would be a short nap before they would wake me again at the Turkey-Bulgaria border. I slept soundly until the bus drivers yelled out what I assumed was "Passport control!" I felt the cold air rush into the bus. Time to get out and go through the customs activities. Brrrr! It was freezing! This is going to be a long wait. Mom and I had no problems getting through but the Syrian guy on the bus was separated and questioned. We thought he was taken away but he showed up on the bus at the last minute. After an hour waiting around in the dark and cold night, we were finally on our way to Plovdiv. I fell asleep again and was woke by my mother. She said "Michelle, we are stopping again. Is this our stop?" I looked at my watch. It was 5:30AM, an hour early. The conductor came down the aisle and said "Plovdiv." I asked "Now?" He said yes. We gathered our bags and started on our walk to the hotel. I asked a taxi driver if we were headed in the right direction. He pointed to the corner and said something that I assumed was turn left. I told mom to follow and we were off. It was still dark and the street was poorly lit. Mom was nervous. The buildings had graffiti, the sidewalks were uneven and it was dark. We were the only people walking down the street. I could tell mom was nervous. When she stopped and said "I don't think this is a good neighborhood!" I smiled and got a photo. 

I guess the local sex shop was a sign that this was not Old Town Plovdiv! I laughed more when I showed her the photo and she asked how I photo shopped the sign into the picture. What?!? No, it was there. Mom never saw the sign! I guess she was nervous. I had explained my theory that it is better to walk in the early morning when the bad guys were sleeping. She didn't buy it. Luckily, it was a short walk to the hotel and we were able to check in at 6 AM. We decided to take a short nap and then explore the city. 
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria with a beautiful Old Town and an amphitheater. We walked the quaint cobblestone streets up to the top of a hill. Mom stopped to rest when she met her new friend Giovanni that had a special odor you could smell 10 feet away.  He chatted to mom as I walked off to take some photos. I knew he wanted something and figured she cod have a nice chat while she rested. He eventually took out a note explaining all of his hard times after he fell off a ladder, was hospitalized for several weeks and needed money to keep his home. I waited to see if she was going to be kind and give to him or not. This was taking a while so I went on to the church. I sat down and enjoyed the beautiful stained glass windows while I waited for mom.
Mom came in and said "thanks for leaving me!" I smiled and asked how much it cost her. Nothing, she told him no and walked away. Then she sat in the church wandering if she should have given him something. We wandered the quaint old town until mom was ready to go back to the hotel. 

In town, I found the town gossip, Milyu.  I went over and whispered a few juicy details in his ear. 

We took an evening walk before dinner and were enthralled with all of the beautiful fountains and the number of casinos. (Yes dad, you could gamble here!) I am not a fan of me it is like throwing money on the ground and walking away. I have so many better things to spend my money on! As we walked the main road, this was my favorite fountain, it was fantastically lit in the evening. 
As we sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, mom kicks me under the table. "Look, that is Giovanni sitting at the next table! He is a scam artist! Glad I didn't give him any money!" I looked and started laughing. No, that is not the same guy. You are crazy. It brought back memories of when I had taken my mom and Aunt Sue to Iceland in 2000. Back then, Mom insisted a woman at the airport money change had stolen $40 from her. We all laughed two days later on the bus back to the airport when the woman was showing everyone her new pair of shoes. Aunt Sue and I looked at mom and she was convinced she paid for the woman's new shoes. As we ate our dinner, we laughed at the memory of past travels we had taken together and talked about how much we both missed Aunt Sue. She would have loved this trip!

The next morning, mom's back and hip were bothering her and I wanted to walk up to the fortress and around Old Town. Mom decided to stay and rest while I went to explore. Old Town Plovdiv has picturesque cobblestone streets and old homes. I walked up the hill to the fortress. I noticed a woman examining the opposite side and taking photos. I assumed I was missing a great view. I walked over and looked around....oh my! I figured out quickly that she was watching some young adults in an amorous moment. She was taking photos! I looked at her and she started rattling off something in Bulgarian. I decided to leave the young loves in their private moment and go back to town. As I turned to walk down the hill, I almost bumped into 25 Japanese businessmen on their way to interrupting the young couple. I guess it is show time! The red panties made it hard to miss the amorous romp. I giggled as I walked down the hill thinking of the surprise that was awaiting several people in a few seconds! 
I walked through the hilly neighborhoods past kashta (traditional homes) to one that is now a museum. I was drawn to the beauty of a window on the wall into the courtyard. 

It was magical, almost like a fairy tale. I went inside the museum. It was small and an interesting overview of life and history of the area. I appreciated the beautiful cylindrical ceiling of carved wood. The main room was beautiful but I was surprised as I found carved ceilings in every room. Homes are not made like this anymore. It was a lost artwork.  
As I got lost on the cobblestone lanes of the old town, I came upon mom's friend Giovanni asking for money. I giggled and knew it was not the same man from the restaurant. He had taken up a step outside the school.  He handed me his paper and started to tell his story. I gave it back to him and said "God Bless you" as I walked away.
I continued walking and happened upon a fresh fruit and vegetable market.
Yum! I bought 4 bananas and 2 apples for 55 cents! The farmer asked "You, what country?" I told him USA and he proceeded to tell me that Bulgaria is GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) free and has the strictest laws in all of the EU. I was shocked. He started asking me about the USA policies on GMO which led to an interesting conversation. He and his friend were dumbfounded that the USA government subsidizes junk food but not fresh fruits and vegetables. I explained that most things in the USA are profit based rather than health based. This led to more questions over a nice cup of tea. Some people would get angry or worked up over these types of questions. Not me. This trip is a learning experience. I am growing and open to different ideologies and beliefs.  If I was closed to these types of interactions, I would not have the experiences that have enriched my trip. Sometimes I think people take things so personally and don't realize questions are just an inquisitive nature. It is about learning. After a while, I looked at my watch and realized it was getting close to the time I had promised to meet mom for lunch. I said goodbye and thanked them for the tea. I went to meet mom at the city center near the mosque. 
It was a beautiful fall day. I enjoyed the warm sunlight, cool breeze and the crunch of the fall leaves as I walked back to town. We met up and had a great lunch and then walked through the city park. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun as we strolled the park. We decided to have a gelato as we watched the men playing chess and cards (gambling).
We took one last photo to remember our beautiful day in the park and then walked back to the hotel.
We decided it was time to move on to another town. Our next stop was Blageovgrad, a small town to the west with public transportation connections (bus) to Rila Monastery. The bus ride was a couple hours but we were told we had missed the last bus to the monastery and would need to sleep in Blageovgrad. We decided to get a hotel and go to Rila in the morning.