By , November 3, 2012 1:03 am

Ah, the night lights. It seems pretty rare that we share our night time pics with you, and I say it’s high time we did. We spent a total of 4 nights in Sofia en-route from Belgrade, Serbia to our HelpX gig in the village of Vishovgrad (Central Bulgaria). Compared to Belgrade, Sofia seemed like a jewel. Plenty of green spaces, nice architecture, and a very welcoming culture, if the free beer and food from our hostel staff were any indication.

If you are not the biggest fan of these nighttime photos, please do keep in mind that it was dark, and we couldn’t really see what we were doing.

By , October 30, 2012 1:03 pm

We are back from the dead!  After an unprecedented 28 days of internet silence, we’ve gained the strength to bring you this update…

Our return to the tech-laden “real” world has come with the surprise announcement that Mike’s sister was happily married while we were hiding from the sun.  While big events at home always bring on a bout of homesickness, we can take solace in the fact that she eloped to “the happiest place on earth” and we, in fact, missed nothing but the inevitable drunken celebration upon their return.  (Congrats sis!  Can’t wait to party it up next time we see you guys… we’re sending big hugs your way!)  The other thing that helped ward off the evil spirits – oops, I mean the homesickness – is the fact that we are no longer homeless.  Yep, you heard that right… we are the proud owners of a Bulgarian house, smack dab in the middle of the Balkan vampire zone.  My how things change when the blog goes dark!

[If you’ve been following us on our Facebook page, this isn’t really news, is it?  You’ve already seen the photos.  If you aren’t following our Facebook page, what the heck are you waiting for???]

Now, I suppose you want details… Of course you do.  I know you do because so did our moms, dads, friends, former colleagues, former high school teachers, new neighbours, our sheep herder (more on this in a bit), nearly every ex-pat we have come across, a fellow traveller we met in Sofia, and our recent victims.  Umm… maybe scratch that last one.

We arrived in rural Bulgaria for a HelpX gig at the start of August.  It took us a mere week or two of village life, along with an enlightening conversation about Balkan vampirism and just how cheap Bulgarian real estate can be (not that we’re implying the two are related) to decide that we should look at some properties.  After all, just looking can’t hurt, right?

After an, umm, “interesting” day with a real estate agent that involved getting lost for over an hour in a village, nearly breaking into the wrong house, and watching the realtor kick in the gate and the front door of a house we were looking at, we still weren’t sure.  Nothing spoke to us.  Perhaps it had something to do with all the garlic hanging on the doors.

Then, through our HelpX hosts and one of their friends, the perfect property presented itself.  We showed up, looked around, and knew within the first two minutes that we wanted it (despite the creepy, creepy doll in the bedroom).

Let me tell you… this baby didn’t last long… it was out before we moved in.

After twenty minutes, we had a kiss from the baba (aka the granny) that was selling it.  We had ourselves a lair!  I mean, a house!

It’s probably worth noting our mindsets here… Mike was 100% gung-ho about the purchase, and I was still a little on the fence.  Bulgaria is a long, long way from our friends and family at home.  I couldn’t picture exactly how it would fit into our long-term plan (whatever that may be).  Yet, in the moment,  I just knew the purchase was right.  When it’s right, it’s right, you know?  Mike helped to relieve any final misgivings I had with his well-timed statement upon our return: “Maybe I shouldn’t have had that beer right before we went to look at it… I was just walking around the yard thinking I really wish I wasn’t buzzed right now.”  Helpful, huh?  Anyways, I digress…

While we all considered the baba’s kiss to be binding, Bulgarians do like their bureaucracy so we started the ball rolling to actually buy the thing.  Everyone told us we’d be moved in within a week, but – alas! –  it was not to be.  And thus began the longest MONTH of waiting of our lives and the most difficult time of our trip for us.

First, we waited for our company papers to come through (non-EU citizens are not allowed to own property in Bulgaria, but they can form a company that owns the property).  Then, we waited for our company stamp.  Then, we waited for the bank transfer to go through.  Then, for the money to actually show up (this took a full week AFTER we got the confirmation of it).  Finally, we had to wait for the notary to make time for our appointment.

But finally, on October 1, the deal went through.  Everything was signed in quintuplet.  We went to the bank and paid our taxes and then paid the bank to obtain proof (in quintuplet) that we paid our taxes.  We took out our company stamp that cost a small fortune to make and asked for a stamp pad, but were waved off.  Apparently, you simply need to possess the stamp, instead of actually stamping with it.  Ah… the strange quirks of the system!

Coolest (and heaviest) set of house keys I’ve ever set my eyes on

“Wait…”, you’re thinking.  “This is all very nice,” (you’re probably actually thinking boring, but I’ve chosen to hear your interjection as “nice”), “but when you said details, I thought you meant what we all want to know…  HOW MUCH does a house in Bulgaria COST?”

Here’s the numbers and a little bit more of the bureaucratic process (in case you too want to get up close and personal with the vampires by buying a house)…

The house itself cost 12000 BGN leva (or $7650 CAD/6000 Euro at the time of purchase).  As I mentioned, this required the formation of a company which cost 450 leva, plus 17 leva to notarize the papers (EVERYTHING has to be notarized in Bulgaria!), and another 50 leva to get our stamp.  Getting lost?  Don’t worry.  There’s a grand total at the end.  Lawyer fees for the house deal were 750 leva.  While a lawyer wasn’t essential, we didn’t want to mess around here (and she caught a discrepancy in the lot size that was fixed up in our deed).  Taxes and notary fees for the house purchase totalled 764 leva.  We could have saved on the taxes by declaring a lower purchase price than the true amount (a common, and as it turns out expected practice), but we went by the book here too.  Every trip to the notary requires a translator (trust me, if you don’t speak Bulgarian, they won’t speak to you… even if you show them your fangs as proof of Balkan citizenship).  This, of course, adds to the costs – 30 leva.

So the grand total, including all the taxes and fees we never even considered was… drum roll please… 14,061 leva/$8,964.04 CAD/7,030 Euro.  (Which, as an amusing side note, would – if included in our overall trip budget along with our Bulgarian car purchase, car repair bill, and house renovation bill – put our daily cost at $68 CAD/day since we left home… still not too shabby, huh?)

And what did that money get us?  In Bulgaria, a 3 bedroom house with an outdoor kitchen, outdoor loo, and barn.  Half an acre of land with peach trees, apple trees, plum trees, and grapevines.  An amazing view of the stunning hills surrounding us.  No indoor kitchen or bathroom (but there’s plenty of space for them and there will be one day…) and no shower.  The house is in livable condition, with water hooked up and basic (as in basically old, crumby, and downright dangerous) electricity.  In Canada, the same amount would get us little more than a used car. 

The house, as we found it

Our future dining/living room… so much potential!

One of the bedrooms

Our yard

Outdoor kitchen, complete with clay oven

The outdoor loo.  Ever heard the expression “built like a brick shithouse”? Now you’ve seen one!

This picture was taken from our yard

The house also came with a sheep keeper – an elderly man that cuts the grass, keeping the yard from being reclaimed by the jungle.  I must admit, at first I was a little uneasy when he let himself into the back gate and started hanging out in our yard.  But, through a little translation help from a friend, we discovered that he cut the lucerne (aka alfalfa) in the yard for the old owner and he was willing to keep doing so until we were ready to move in.  And what does he want in payment?  Get this… the grass!  That’s right, where else in the world can you hire someone to cut your grass (through a combination of a scythe and two sheep) for the price of the grass itself?  It’s a beautifully simple system!

So, anyways, back to the present.  Mike and I battled our way out of Bulgaria (I’m sure you can sense there’s a story here.. but I’ll save that for a later post) after spending a blissful four weeks in our very own home.  We ditched our lofty goals of putting in a new bathroom, redoing the upstairs wiring,  and just got the windows and doors done.

Taking a break from renos to be carried over the threshold

Scraping, sanding, and puttying the window frame before painting

The windows BEFORE

The windows AFTER

The house, as we left it

And so, under the cover of darkness, we journeyed to Istanbul, Turkey.  We snuck into our hostel just as the sun was about to rise, and we’re spending the daylight hours hidden away… catching you, our reader, up on the adventures.  I’m sure we’ll venture out after sundown – there is, after all, fresh blood to be had!  Oops… I mean a new culture to experience!

FYI… We are not settling down in Bulgaria just yet.  In fact, we still don’t know when our Bulgarian house will become our Bulgarian home for good.  But for now, it’s one hell of a summer project, no?

AHHHHH!!!!! It’s back!

Want to see more of our house? Check out our photos in our photo gallery or stop by the ol’ Facebook page to see some more.

By , October 1, 2012 11:46 am

I’ve been racking my mind trying to think of something exceptional to share with you about Belgrade, Serbia, and I haven’t had much luck. The truth is, we were not really enamoured with this city, but we didn’t dislike it either. It just kind of was.

It was the place I celebrated my 30th birthday. That’s probably part of the problem. For some reason, I felt the need to feed my craving for baked goods, and gorged on far too many pastries. As much fun as it was at the time, I can’t help but feel a bit sick in my stomach when I think back on Belgrade.

I ate a lot of these little guys.

It was the first place where we experienced temperatures in excess of 40° Celsius. This was compounded by a lengthy walk from the bus station to our hostel at midday, with an even lengthier wait while we purchased a city map (first time we’ve had to do that) and figured out where the heck the bus had dropped us off. It felt hot, but not as hot as I expected having never before been in temperatures so high.

The Olympics had just started, attracting a steady crowd of spectators in front of the hostel television. We spent pretty much the extent of our time in Belgrade visiting with that very same crowd, drinking beer, and soaking up the air conditioning.

We did go out a few times.

We walked through the Belgrade Fortress. Meandered into some Christian orthodox churches where we learned that there are no chairs. Seriously, a service can take up to two hours, and everyone just has to stand there. And on my birthday, we went swimming at Ada Ciganlija, a man made sheltered swimming hole alongside the Danube River.

Lots of cool tanks and such at the fortress

The insides of an orthodox church

One of my favourite things about Belgrade was this building that was blown up by NATO in 1999. We were told that it’s the last example of the bombing left in the city – whether that’s true or not ,I have no idea. Even though Canada was responsible for about 10% of the bombs that were dropped during  that time, none of the locals held it against us personally. The people we met in Belgrade were some of the friendliest we’ve met anywhere, and the bakeries were kind enough to give me a few bonus pastries on my birthday.

Bomb damaged building

So that was Belgrade. Just a reminder, there’s plenty more photos where these came from in our Photo Album.

By , September 26, 2012 7:28 am

Have you ever wondered what to do with the ax you used to smash up the furniture your ex left behind?  Or the stuffed beagle he gave you when your dog died? What about the air sickness bags you collected from the flights you took to visit your former long distance lover?  Or the rear view mirror you ripped off his car when it was parked in front of the “wrong” house?  Or the fake rubber breasts your ex-husband so thoughtfully gave you to wear?

So what do you do with these mementos of failed relationships?  In Zagreb, Croatia the answer is put them on display!

Not your typical museum, the Museum of Broken Relationships is definitely worth a visit.  On the surface, it appears to be a collection of random and mundane objects (like wedding dresses, axes, and teddy bears) but, unlike most museums, it is not the artifacts that people come for… it is the stories.

Housed in a small building with attached cafe/wine bar, the museum is a collection of objects representing love lost.  Each object has been donated by someone with a story to tell, and is exhibited with a label telling the date, location, and tale of woe (in English and Croatian, though there are QR codes and free wifi so travellers can read the stories in their own languages).  As the information at the entrance tells you, the museum offers contributors a chance to “overcome an emotional collapse through creation” rather than destruction.  The stories range from humourous (like the garterbelts that are labeled “I never put them on.  The relationship might have lasted longer if I did”) to spiteful (the garden gnome that was thrown at a partner’s windshield) to, quite fittingly, heartbreaking (losses from war and murder, to name a few).

Admission is 25 Croatian kuna (about $4.25 CAD).  Even for shoestring budget travellers like ourselves, the hour or two of laughter, tears, and connection with a universal human experience are well worth the price.

A love letter on shattered glass

By , September 18, 2012 4:23 am

Check out our Q&A session on HelpX with Talon from 1dad1kid by following this link. HelpX is a online service that we use to find opportunities to work in exchange for food and lodging while we travel.

By , September 15, 2012 2:44 am

It turns out that I’m something of a tombstone tourist.  I find the blend of history, art, and landscape architecture at cemeteries irresistible.  My imagination runs wild as I read the inscriptions on the graves and think about the lives the people buried there once led.  It’s a reminder that nothing in life is forever, and underscored the importance of living in the moment.  Different cultures treat the burial of their dead in different ways and I find it fascinating to compare the differences in graveyard and grave marker design.

You already know that I loved the city of Zagreb, Croatia.  What I didn’t mention, though, was the beautiful cemetery we visited there.  The journey  was a little arduous (our map was kind of lousy, we kept running into dead-end streets, we were on our way back from climbing Mount Medvednica, it was hot, and we had run out of water), but after walking down a street full of gravestone carvers, we found what we were looking for…


The gates of Mirogoj

As much a park as it is a cemetery, Mirogoj is the Zagreb’s main cemetery.  It was built in the late 19th century by Hermann Bolle, the same architect and town planner responsible for restoring St. Mark’s Church, reconstructing Zagreb’s cathedral after the great earthquake of 1880, and building the Museum of Arts and Crafts.

The cemetery accommodates people of all religions, so Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish symbols can be seen on many of the gravestones.


It’s enough to give you chills down your spine – when I snapped this picture, my camera auto-detected a face… despite the fact that there are no people or statues in the shot

View from outside the gates

Love this tree!



By , September 8, 2012 12:05 pm

I wasn’t expecting much from Zagreb.  From my experience, capital cities are usually busy, dirty, and smell like pee.  And as far as I knew, the places to see in Croatia are coastal areas, not inland cities.  Had it not been on the way between our apartment in Loosdorf, and our HelpX destination in Bulgaria, we wouldn’t have gone out of our way to visit Zagreb.

It took me less than a hour to realize I was wrong to underestimate this city (though it still has the classic eau de urine scent in more than a few places).  We picked up a great booklet  called “Zagreb Step by Step,” published by the Zagreb Tourist Board, at our hostel.  Broken down into the Upper and Lower Towns, then divided up into 19 smaller areas, this booklet served as our guide for a self guided walking tour of the city.  It even included several attractions outside of the City Centre that were worth seeing.

As we wandered the streets (and nearby mountain), the vibrant atmosphere and beautiful city sights impressed us.  Here’s a few of our favourite shots.

Post Office

Cathedral clock that stopped during the 1880 earthquake

The cathedral’s defensive walls, built between 1512 and 1521 when the threat from the Ottoman Turks was at its height

St Mark’s Church

Statue of Ban Josip Jelacic

Croatian State Archives building

Statue of St. George killing the dragon

Blackberries for sale at Dolac market

Dolac market

Maksimir park

Zagreb rooftops

Climbing Mount Medvednica (Zagreb is lucky enough to have this beauty right at it’s doorstep)

Our first Croatian wine and beer

About to enjoy our traditional post-mountain-climbing pizza