Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas Season Photos and Late Night Shooting

Well, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all...Hope it was nice.

This is now the 229th post here at Blogger.  I'm thinking of moving over to a new site, an upgrade of sorts, to try to focus more on my photography, and perhaps morph that into something more.

In any case, we had a nice Christmas here in Germany.  No snow...just some rain and cold (so far), and are enjoying a few days of down time before jumping back into the hectic work schedule.  Upcoming trips include back to Bulgaria, up to Latvia, and a trip home to see family (first time in over 2 years).

Christmas this year included trips to the local Christmas Markets, a big thing here in Europe. Lots of Christmasy knick-knacks, warm foods, Gluwein, and hundreds of carousel rides for Isabella. In our village, they even had a "bake your own dough wrapped around a stick over an open fire" booth where, for about a Euro, you could do the aforementioned activity. Which brought back fond memories of Boy Scout campouts and the unmistakable taste of half cooked (i.e., burned on the outside, raw on the inside) bread.  Bella loved it.

We also hit Wiesbaden and Mainz's markets which were fun.

Christmas Eve, Melody introduced Isabella to the time honored tradition of making Lumpia, Filipino spring rolls...it was great to see her learning how to fill and roll the delicious treats, and Melody looked like she was really enjoying passing on the knowledge.

Now a few photos from the week...

Charlie and Rusty opening their Christmas stocking

Charlie and his bone

Mainz Christmas Market

Christmas stars for sale

Mainz Dom behind the strings of lights

The statue of Gutenberg, focal point for Gutenbergplatz, Mainz
  We also visited with some friends who were in town from Bahrain.  Ian is the son of one of my Army buddies.  His Dad was our Chaplain in my first unit more than 22 years ago.  Now, he works with his family in Bahrain.  He visited back in May, but came to the area for the Christmas holidays with his wife and kids.  We had a great time visiting with them, and in addition to hanging out at the indoor play area Rambazamba, we took a day trip up to Point Alpha, a Cold War border checkpoint in the Fulda Gap.  Anyone who served in the Military 20 + years ago remember this is the most likely route through which the long-expected invasion of Europe would come.  It was also the area that we learned tactics (on realistic terrain models) when I was in school.  Very interesting to finally lay eyes on such an (formerly) important piece of land.
Peace Table and sculpture at Point Alpha

View into "West" Germany from Point Alpha
 There is a preservation organization that keeps the area up, and runs a small museum including examples of the border obstacles (wire fences, minefields, barriers, dogs, etc.)  They also have an exhibit that focuses on the ill-treatment East Germans suffered.  It was difficult trying to explain Communism to the 4, 5, and 8 year-olds of the group.  The 2 year old didn't seem interested in Cold War political systems.
Stop sign on East side of the border

Barbed wire fence with DDR (East German) observation post behind

Border marker with 
 Sunday night, Melody gave me a kitchen pass to go see The Hobbit.  It let out after midnight, and I took a detour to do some night shooting around the bridge into Mainz from the Mainz-Kastel (Wiesbaden) side. I figured everyone would be asleep by the time I got home, and it was simply an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Party boat on the Mainz-Kastel side of the Rhine

Abandoned Smart Car 

Bridge into Mainz


Bus-stop and grafitti'd tunnel

Graffiti Tunnel with creepy Joker painting...
So, that gets us somewhat caught up.  Wishing all the regular readers who put up with the infrequency of posts a Happy 2014...hard to believe that this year has gone so fast.  They just get faster...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Taking the Free Sofia Tour, Sofia, Bulgaria

The first stop if you're sojourning in Sofia, should be at the Tourist Infomation center in the underground passageway at the Sofia University Metro station, directly across from the McDonalds and some talented buskers.  The second stop you should make is the Free Sofia Tour.  

During the weekend I was in Sofia, we had some time off, so a couple of my friends and I took the twice daily tour (just once), meandering for a couple of hours around the increasingly charming city. 

Meeting Time: 11:00 and 18:00
Start point: Corner of the Palace of Justice
Duration: ~ 2 hours
Distance: ~ 4 km

The tour is free (obviously), and run by a group of volunteers.  Our guide, Filip, was in a post-grad who fell in love with Sofia, and loves showing it off.

As I've spent almost 3 weeks here over the past few months, I have to say, it's growing on me.  It's nice to spend enough time in a palce get to a point where you feel comfortable, and, while not a local per se, at least a little bit less like a tourist.

The tour starts at the Palace of Justice, identified by its prominent lions (one of whom has something wrong in its depiction...try to figure it out.)

After introductions to the city and the tour, the group of us began the wander, stopping first at St. Nedelya Cathedral. Originally constructed in the 10th Century AD, it's a fixture in the center of town.

Following this, we wandered to the statue of St. Sofia.  Originally, a statue of Lenin stood in the place where the golden woman now stands.  Ironically, Sofia the city was not named after St. Sofia.  For millennia, it was called Serdica, and only recently was "unofficially called Sofia because of a prominent nearby church. The statue of St. Sofia was actually met with some criticism, because she has 3 pagan symbols (the owl, wreath, and crown), as well as the revealing outfit she wears. Still, we saw the Lenin statue on a tour of the Museum of Totalitarian Art, and frankly, she's much easier on the eyes than old Vlad (who we saw at the Museum of Totalitarian Art).

We then began walking to the "Square of Tolerance" where, within 200 meters of one another, are a Mosque, Synagogue, Catholic Church, and Eastern Orthodox cathedral

Following this, we walked past some Roman ruins that were being excavated to Hamam (bathhouse) that was under renovation, and to the hot springs area where people come to take advantage of the mineral rich water spouting forth.  I tasted it, and found it not terribly palatable...

Underneath the imposing Communist architecture were the original gates of Serdica, and some of the older ruins under excavation and renovation.  Pretty amazing to see the centuries literally layered upon each other.  

Leaving this, we went to the St. George Church, considered to be one of the oldest buildings in the city. 

Next, the National Theater...

And Alexander Nevsky Cathedral...

And the St. Sophia Church and Tomb of the Unknown Warriors...

And finally, a trip to some delicious lunching at the Manastinska Magernitza (Monastery Kitchen) with recipes from the 161 Monasteries surrounding Sofia with some of the new friends we met on the walk.  One of them, Prashant, and I hit it off, and traveled to the Rila Monastery the next day...he too is an avid amateur photographer, and we had a lot of fun comparing notes and talking shop.

I'll be back again in February, and must say that I'm kind of looking forward to it.  Definitely want to hit that restaurant again...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sofia Protests

While I've been in Sofia, and for the past several months, there have been protests against the government that was installed back in May.  A few weeks ago, they got somewhat violent (moreso than they have been), and a group of students locked themselves in the University a block or so away.

The protests happened daily when we were here in September, and have been nearly daily this trip.  The weather is quite cold, and I think that's taken some of the fight out of them.

Still, there have been a few manifestations.  A few nights ago, something got set on fire, but it was brief and rapidly went out or was extinguished.

Today, they were back out there. The main beef is government corruption, and the sitting government's refusal to call new elections.  It isn't as big as what's going on nearby in Kiev, but has been interesting to observe as an outsider.

I've been trying to get some photos, but am not getting too close.  I'm no photojournalist, and we've been instructed to stay away lest we get caught on camera or rolled up by the police for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While I was out early Saturday AM, there was no one around and I had a chance to look at the different props that they have out there.  A few tanks made of cardboard, some stars, posters, banners, and a lot of flags, mainly.  There must be some folks that stay, though, as there are several tents that haven't moved since September or before.

It's interesting to see this going on, especially as a foreigner...great, in a way, as 25 years ago, none of this would have been possible.  We've had nearly front-row seats to it, as our hotel is nearby.  Hopefully, grievances will be properly, and non-violently fixed; 

Museum of Totalitarian Art

The first real "Touristy" thing we did was visit the Museum of Totalitarian Art.  Truly, this was a fascinating place.  Most of the statues were taken after the fall and erected here in a garden.  One still sees that style statue around, but I think they rounded up the main ones and stashed them here.

Not much grace...nothing slim and smooth and flowing, everything was angles and rough hewn figures.  Some triumphantly striding, holding aloft weapons, or saying goodbye to go face the evil Nazis/Capitalists/insert foe here.

The only statues that seemed to have an air of humanity to them were those of the first post-WWII Communist leader, Giorgi Dimitrov, who was rather non-cooperative with his Soviet overlords and had a "heart attack" when he visited Moscow.  Kind of like when Carmine the Bowler fell down an elevator shaft...onto some bullets (see the movie Mystery Men).  Dimitrov appears to have been well regarded, as he brought Bulgaria from the ashes of WWII and to success; they like him enough still to name a Metro station for him.

Inside were propaganda posters from around the Communist world, including North Korea, China, Africa and the Eastern Bloc countries.

And who can resist a statue of Stalin that just seems to say, "Pull my finger! Or I'll kill you."

Our last stop was at the theater where we watched some short propaganda films that were truncated abruptly with scenes from post-Iron Curtain reactions (generally, the destruction of prominent Communist memorials).

A fascinating museum, it should be on the list if you visit.

Museum of Totalitarian Art (sometimes called Socialist Art)
Address:  7, "Lachezar Stanchev" str, Sofia
How to get there:  Take the Metro from Sofia University Station 3 stops to GM Dimitrov station.  Walk up the street (back the way you came) one block and take a right; museum is about 250 meters on the right (back a bit from the street...look for the Red Star and the statues).
Opening hours: 10:00-17:30, closed Mondays
Entry fee: 6 Leva (about 3 Euro/$4.50)