Sunday, 5 March 2017

Blissful Slopes of Bansko - Day 8

Pirin Mountains

Bansko                                                                           Bulgaria

Saturday 16th January 2016

I woke up quite early at the horrible thought that I was leaving this fine place and adventure I experienced this past week. I got up and changed heading straight down for breakfast only to ensure I was well prepared for my departure from the hotel. My flight wasn’t until 21:25pm tonight but I was leaving early to join an excursion to the city of Sofia beforehand. I stuffed my face once more in the quiet dining room realising Sean was no where to be seen. I decided to take a couple of boiled eggs with me just incase I got hungry on the coach trip as I made my way back to my room. I spent the time triple checking every nook and cranny making sure I hadn’t left anything behind and I ended up finding 1p and a cigarette in the process. I kept the 1p but left the cigarette on the desk for one of the cleaners as I assumed it was one of theirs anyway. Eventually it was time to take my leave as I had one last look in my room before I closed the door behind me one more time as I made my way to the lobby.

I forgot how heavy my rucksack was but I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about carrying it around long enough. I made it to the lobby handing my key card in and reassuring the receptionist I hadn’t took anything from the fridge in my room. I soon sat down in the lobby waiting for the coach to arrive. I waited for a very short time until I could see the coach passing the hotel and turning around. I thought I would wait until someone came in for me because I didn’t want to carry my rucksack no more than I needed to and then someone did come in. It was the guide for the trip so after giving him my voucher and name, he asked me to make my way to the coach. As I left I realised it was snowing quite a bit and then as I looked on at the coach, there was nobody on it but the driver. He came out wrapped up with a cigarette in his mouth as he grabbed my rucksack and placed it in the hold as I climbed in and took my seat near the front of the coach. I waited for another 5 minutes before a couple more people came from my hotel and climbed aboard sitting near the back.

Pirin Hotel

The guide and driver soon got back on the coach and began to drive away to pick up more passengers. I had one last look at the hotel as we turned the corner with it disappearing in the distance. I stuck my headphones in straight away as we were driving along listening to my music and then we came to a stop again to pick up a few more people. Slowly but surely we made another 4 stop offs around Bansko with the coach slowly filling up with people. The last hotel was the Strazhite and I watched on at who was coming out of the hotel. I was surprised when I had seen Maz, Tracey and their family approaching the coach which I was happy about. They climbed aboard and they had seen me as we said hello to each other. They couldn’t sit near me as the front end was full already so they headed to the back. As I looked out of the window again I could see Flora and her friends approaching the coach too. They had also seen me when they climbed aboard and said hello as they made their way to the back as well.

The coach was full now and we were ready to leave the old smoky town of Bansko for a 3 hour journey to the city of Sofia. The guide eventually spoke to us all over the tannoy stating his name and informing that we would be taking a short break along the way due to the length of the journey. Suddenly, this fat middle aged bloke thought he was king of the castle when he wasn’t happy about the fact we were taking a break halfway there stating that he already had his breakfast and just wanted to get straight there. I immediately took a dislike to him thinking that there are more than you on this trip pal. We left the beautiful town of Bansko heading North towards Sofia noticing the journey was a lot smoother and better as far as views were concerned considering the fact that it was pitch black last time and I was crammed in a van.

Journey to Sofia

Everywhere was covered in snow looking like a frosty wonderland outside where as we were warm in cosy in the coach. It was raining at first and then suddenly it turned into a snow blizzard as we were eating up the miles. The wipers were rapidly clearing the windscreen realising how bad it was out there. I was enjoying the views listening to my music zoning out and then the next thing I knew we were approaching the half way point where we pulled over for the short break. I then realised that we had stopped at the same place as we did last week. I left the coach as did everyone else making our way into the shop as I grabbed pretty much the same snacks I had at the canteen at Bunderishka Polyana station and sat down at the tables inside.

I was about to sit at my own table when I had seen one of Flora’s friends sitting at a table so I joined her as we began chatting. Apparently she had the same idea as me to bring boiled eggs along with us for later which was funny. Maz then sat next to me and we began talking stating that I didn’t know they were coming along to Sofia. He then went back to his family when Flora and her other friends sat with me. We all began talking about what we did last night and I was telling them about the fat bloke at the front of the coach who thought he was king of the castle. They didn’t know he was going on like that due to the fact they were at the back of the coach.

Our short break had finished and we all had to return to the coach for the second leg of the journey which was showing more great views along the way. We were passing small villages set in the surrounding snowy hills as smoke was coming out of there chimneys in the frosty looking setting. There was quite a big river flowing along side us at moments too until we joined onto the motorway. There were some good views in the distance but the snow and low clouds were obscuring the majority of the views. The snow was getting worse and along the way I must have counted about 5 snow ploughs clearing the snow off the road and gritting behind them. Then as I was looking out of the window I could see a truck pulled over with a police car behind it. The police officer looked like he was going around the truck with a mirror looking underneath the truck making me wonder what the driver was hiding.

Still Driving

Not much happened along the way from then on so I sat back and relaxed trying to soak in the views. A very long time passed until the guide spoke over the tannoy stating we were at the outskirts of Sofia. We were driving alongside tall buildings which looked like a lot of run down apartment blocks until we got to the central area. The buildings had changed into beautiful architectural marvels with something I had never seen before. As we were slowly driving through the centre, the guide was trying to give us some information, history of the area and the locations we were going to visit. The fat bloke however was interrupting him now and again which made me want to punch him in the face. Anyway, we finally pulled up outside a most beautiful church where we all eventually got out the lovely warm coach into the cold snowy weather.

Whilst everyone was getting off the coach, I was constantly staring up at the marvellous church which had a unique design to it. The church was called ‘Aleksandŭr Nevski memorial church’. This stupendous orthodox cathedral was crowned with a cluster of gilt domes which were shining bright despite the cloud cover. It looked as though the design was half European and half Middle Eastern which is why I thought it definitely looked unique. Everyone was off the coach at this point so we all followed the guide in the slushy snow to the huge church making our way up the stone steps and through the main entrance. I was amongst the last to enter into the vast and empty shell of the church and as like everyone else I joined them in looking upwards and remaining silent while walking around.

Aleksandur Nevski

The first thing that had caught my eye was the soft glow of hundreds of flickering candles. The solemn interior was bathed in amber light too from the glass windows bringing the light inside. I continued walking over to the other side of the church towards the alter area. The paintings above on the ceilings were quite dull as the light was concentrated on the lower areas. The next thing I had seen was glass covered holes on the church floor showing ancient ruins lit up by lights which were intriguing. I had a good walk around until I decided to head back outside as I wanted to look at the unique design of the church again. I was the first one to step outside and I walked over to the right side of the church admiring the golden domes and the light green domes below them which were originally bronze but had weathered away over time.

Solemn Candles

At this point everyone was making their way out of the church as I headed over to them making our way to the next location. I was talking to Maz along the way admiring the huge snowflakes falling down around the city. We shortly arrived at our next location which was the church of ‘Sveta Sofia’. This was Sofia’s oldest church which was not as marvellous as the church we came from but the meaning behind it was no less important for the people of Bulgaria. We entered the church with quite a squeeze as we all had to slide through sideways and once we entered inside it was completely different. Everything looked modern which was confusing but later realised that there was an earthquake a very long time ago and they only decided to refurbish the place recently. I didn’t spend a long time in this church so I stood outside once again admiring the snow falling and the statue of a huge bronze lion in front of the church.

Sveta Sofia

Everyone eventually squeezed out of the door as we made our way west towards our next location. Along the way there were people throwing snowballs at each other which made me laugh as we were hear to see the history of the place but instead throwing snowballs at each other. Anyway we began walking through a small park area which was covered in snow and scattered around the park were peculiar statues. There was one weird statue where it was a cartoon car with a man’s head popping through the top which I assumed had a meaning but couldn’t think of one at the time. I was mostly enjoying the feel of the snow falling on me and around me which was a great experience due to the fact that I had never seen snow like this back home for a very long time. I just loved the fact that the whole area was filling up with white thanks to the glorious winter snow. 

Bizarre Statue

We then crossed one of the main roads which the yellow crossing area looked like something from the wizard of Oz. we were approaching another park but this one was a lot larger. To be honest it felt as though we were walking through central park in New York and then we came upon a large open area with a feminine statue in a ballet pose with small tubes flowing around and away from her. I was assuming it was a pond she was on but the snow blanketed the area. Beyond the park area was the national theatre in front of us which looked picturesque especially with the statue in front of its vision. It made me wonder what the area looked like during the summer time. We continued on to our next location which wasn’t far from where we were.
Feminine Statue and National Theatre

We were walking through into a courtyard which hidden inside was our next church. It was called the ‘Rotunda of Sveti Georgi’ and it was quite pretty set tightly in the courtyard with ancient ruins in front of it covered in snow. We slowly made our way to the front entrance on the other side. We slowly crammed into the small church which was far more colourful compared to the exterior. I made Flora laugh when I was shaking my head like a dog making my way inside. The inside was decorated in medieval frescoes with quite a glow to it. Everyone was dripping wet as well so all I could hear was squeaky shoes in the quiet room. I soon made my way out as did the rest of us as we moved on to the next sight. The guide was leading us to an area where there were more ancient roman ruins being excavated above a subway (not the sandwich shop).

Rotunda of Sveti Georgi

It was quite a long walk to get to this area heading through the subway entrance and then back up to the surface again into a huge building. As soon as we entered we were amazed with the sight of small sections of floor tiles recently excavated and broken pillars scattered around the area. We went along a metal walkway overlooking each section of ruins which were carefully preserved for everyone to see. There were still a few workers inside finishing off their days work who were preparing the area for tourists. The guide informed us that we were getting an exclusive look as we were the first ones to see this. Whether or not it was true I didn’t care as I was admiring the architecture of the area. Then as we were leaving we could hear a subway train passing underneath which was quite freaky.

New Discovery

We headed outside and we were making our way to an indoor market further down the route. Along the way, Flora came up to me and asked if she could take a picture of me as she was starting a portfolio of travel and wanted a picture of a lone traveller. I agreed so long as she wasn’t going to put it on crime watch. She laughed and asked what crime watch was. It took me a couple of minutes to explain a simple thing which proved difficult. She was laughing still when we finally approached the market. We were all completely soaking when we entered the large indoor market shaking ourselves. As soon as I took a better look at the market the first place that came into my mind was the Grainger market back in Newcastle. It looked a bit like a train station as well with green metal columns holding up the marvelous glass ceiling with an exquisite water feature at the centre. There were two levels of shops inside and then the guide told us we had 40 minutes to explore the area and meet back at the water feature.

Indoor Market

So we all went our separate ways exploring the shops which some shops had something unique about them but to be honest, nothing stood out for me to buy. Accept a baker stall in which I bought a strudel type roll and a stringy sweet pastry with a cherry on top. It didn’t take me long to eat them and as soon as I put my tray in the bin nearby, a homeless guy was straight in the bin rummaging to see what I had put in and then he immediately left. I was going to offer him my boiled eggs from the hotel but he vanished. Anyway I spent the rest of the limited time on the higher level overlooking the whole marketplace trying to pick out the other group. A while later, I could see everyone was meeting at the water feature so I made my way there very quickly and then we all set off outside into the heavy snow again.

Indoor Market Water Feature

The tour was pretty much over due to the fact at how heavy the snow was so we all followed the guide back to the coach. A while passed until we arrived and just before I got in, Flora asked for my picture. I didn’t know if she wanted me to strike a pose looking bewildered and alone in a different world but then she told me to look at the camera and smile. So I did and then shortly climbed into the warm coach shaking my head once more. The guide eventually spoke over the tannoy and stated that some of us had the option to go to the shopping centre. A lot of the people couldn’t go to the shopping centre as their flight was earlier than others and didn’t have time to go there. The fat bloke I didn’t like was getting irate because he realised he couldn’t go to the shopping centre because of his early flight which to be honest I found funny.

Flora's Picture

About 10 minutes later we had arrived in front of the shopping centre and I was in two minds whether to go or not. I had seen Flora and her friends leaving the coach and I thought I might as well have a look too. As I was leaving the coach, I could see Maz and Tracey weren’t leaving so I rushed to the back of the coach to say goodbye to them one more time. Suddenly the coach slightly moved with me thinking the driver was making his way to the airport but was just nudging forward. I rushed off the coach though and seen the guide making his way back to the coach. He informed me that I had to meet back here at 6:30pm so with that advice taken on, I entered the shopping centre.

I thought at first it was going to be huge but as I walked in and around it wasn’t that bad. As I walked in looking like an outcast, I had seen some of the shops had big named brands that I recognised but there were some that I had no clue about. There were 3-4 floors of shops that I could explore so there was a lot of walking around involved. As I was walking around admiring the centre, there were expensive Jaguar cars scattered around the shopping centre which were a thing of beauty as everyone was admiring them too.

One big shop caught my which was a tech shop so I entered immediately admiring the huge TV screens, GoPro cameras and laptops. To my surprise there were a lot of Bear Grylls items too from little para cord bracelets to huge machetes which got me thinking how I would get that through customs without causing alarm. Once I had my fill of admiring technology, I was making my way out when I got stopped at the entrance by an elderly staff member. She spoke Bulgarian to me and I said I couldn’t understand her and then she said “open bag”. Gobsmacked with what she asked me and instead of causing a scene I opened my bag for her. She didn’t even have a proper look and walked away; she obviously didn’t see the 50 inch HDTV I had at the bottom of my bag as I walked off not thinking of returning to that area.

I decided to head to the bottom level where I came across a pet shop. I walked up to it and couldn’t believe what was in the shop window. There were 2 little Labrador puppies and quite honestly put a literal meaning to the song ‘how much is that doggy in the window’. Everyone in the area was admiring them too as I took my leave exploring the shopping centre. Yet again nothing really stood out for me to go crazy for so I spent quite a bit of time sitting on the benches watching on at the hundreds of people weaving in and out of each other entering and leaving shops. I couldn’t get over how much of an outcast I was as everyone here was dressed quite smart where as I was dressed like a traveller. It was almost time to return to the meeting point for the coach and as I was making my way to the exit, I had seen Flora and her friends sitting in the café next to the exit. So I made my way to them and they were happy to see me as I sat with them.

They were busy playing a game so I was kind of forced to join the game. The game involved guessing how many letters were in the words they had on a card they held away from us and if we challenged that person, we had to provide items related to the word with the amount we said. It was really funny when I had to figure out 16 different words to describe underwear; I did quite well which surprised everyone else. Anyway, it was time to head outside into the freezing weather and heavy snow still to head for the meeting point. As we got outside, the coach was already there in waiting so we rushed over climbing straight on as I sat with the women at the back of the bus. There were only us 5 and a few others on the coach as we made our way straight for the airport.

Me with Flora and friends

Along the way I was offered a piece of fruit which looked like a gigantic orange from one of Floras friends Sarah. The segment I pulled off was the size of my passport and was quite tough to chew. It didn’t take us long to arrive at the snowy looking airport as we grabbed our luggage and thanked the driver and guide making our way inside the small airport. Once we entered, I looked straight at the departures board and Newcastle’s check-in numbers were already up. I went into my small rucksack and looking underneath the big HDTV for my e-ticket and once I got them out, I immediately realised how soaking they were because of all the snow today. Luckily the ink on the sheet wasn’t smudged as I made my way to the desk. I forgot the fact that Sarah was on the same flight as me too so she followed me.

There was a free desk opening so I rushed straight to it and dropped my rucksack on the conveyor belt. The desk staff only wanted my passport so I was panicking about my e-ticket for no reason. She asked if I wanted a window seat and immediately said yes as she printed out my ticket and sent my rucksack into conveyor belts behind the flaps. I made my way back to the group of women realising I was sitting on the right hand side of the plane which I wanted as I would get to see my hometown coming in to land. Anyway I stood next to the other women who were still waiting for their check in numbers. I then decided to part ways with the group as I wanted to get into the departures lounge so I made my way to the customs area.

It was really small and the queue was very slow as I watched everyone getting checked. A moment later, I eventually reached the conveyor belt and removed the essentials. Just before I was about to walk through the scanner I got asked questions about if I had any liquids or alcohol in my bag by the friendliest customs officer I’ve ever met. I made my way through the scanner without it going off but I still got stopped. I was told to place my hands out palms up first as they scanned my hands on both sides, scanned my body and then scanned my jacket. They were using a long black stick to scan me which I assumed was a device to detect drugs or something. With the all clear I grabbed all my things and made my way to the small departure lounge. As I walked in I decided to enter the duty free shop and I had seen a few recognisable faces I didn’t think I’d see again. It was Michael and his family and they were startled to see me so we had a quick chat about what we did today. I was joking on with his son too at the fact I ate some of his pork ribs whilst he was sleeping and the fact he was kicking me accidently in the restaurant last night. We parted ways wishing each other safe travels as I turned and seen another familiar couple.

It was Maz and Tracey which I was happy to see and they were happy to see me again. They were just leaving duty free so I followed them to their family. I was telling them about the shopping centre and the incident I had at the tech shop and they couldn’t believe it. We were having a great conversation until the call came out for them to make their way to the gate for boarding. I followed them and as they were leaving to join the queue, I shook Maz’s hand for the third and final time as he hugged me as did Tracey. I watched them line up and then another familiar couple were in the same line as them; it was Baz and Leanne. I shouted on him and he turned around. I wished them both safe travels as he shook my hand returning the same gesture. They were making their way into the buses outside as I stayed in the departure lounge looking on at how bad the snow was out there.

Maz, Tracey and Me

As I turned around, Sarah was close by sitting on the floor as she was charging her phone waiting for her other friends. We had a quick chat and then I headed back into duty free to have a better look around at the large quantity items which were supposed to be cheap but to be honest it was still expensive. As I walked around the shop I noticed all the young men and women had there hands full with 3 to 4 x 200 cigarettes balancing their way to the tills. However, I only left with 2 big bags of skittles and cheap Pringles no expense spared of course. As I made my way back towards the gate area, another familiar face was recognised. It was Sean that I hadn’t seen since the snowmobile ride so we had a good catch up about what we did today. We then parted ways as I headed back to Sarah now with her friends.

They were all sitting on the floor for a moment until we all headed for the nearby eating area grabbing an empty table. We were all having conversations with each other until one of the friends took out another board game for us to pass the time. It was called ‘Articulate’ and basically I had to grab a few cards with different words on them and I had to try and explain the word without saying it. We were a team of two and had to get more words correct to move further up the board to win. I was completely useless at explaining things but managed to get through each turn somehow. We were laughing when some words were hard to explain as the time was shortening. Everyone found it funny when I had to explain the word ‘stalking’ and when I said this is what I would do to Emma Watson. It definitely passed the time as the snow became heavier outside. I was also looking on at the departure board and I noticed Newcastle’s flight time had changed.

We continued talking and then Adam and his friend came and sat with us. We were all chatting together until it was time for the majority of the group to take their leave for the London flight. Flora and her friend gave me a hug saying safe travels as they left leaving Sarah and I behind. I also shook Sean’s hand too as he took his leave. Sarah and I were talking away as well as looking on at the departure board again realising the time changed once more. We were getting tired at this point and just wanted to get on the plane and go home. An hour later the call eventually came out to line up and make our way to the buses outside. After my passport got checked I stepped outside for the first time in a long while and couldn’t believe how much snow was lying on the ground. I eventually made my way onto the bus as did everyone else trying to keep warm.

Sofia Airport

We drove off for a short ride to the snow covered plane. There was a hell of a lot of snow on the plane which was a first for me as I began climbing the steps onto the plane. As I looked behind me people were throwing snowballs at each other which was quite funny. I was happy when I finally entered the plane finding my seat and then realising Sarah was sitting next to me. Slowly but surely everyone was aboard the plane ready to go. However, the pilots weren’t ready due to the fact they were still waiting on some paperwork before we could fly. I looked out of my snow covered window at the snow covered wing watching on at the several snow ploughs clearing the area from deep snow. It hit me then that this would be the first time I would have experienced taking off in snow. It must have been another 30 minutes waiting until they finally closed the doors. 

Snow Covered Plane

Finally we were going to get under way but then there was another problem. Because of the deep snow the plane couldn’t get off the line even when the pilot was putting the throttle right up. The plane was slightly shaking trying to get moving but it just wouldn’t move. I assumed there were people with shovels around the wheels clearing the way for us. Then one last high throttle got the plane nudging forward as we slowly made our way to the runway. Along the way I was watching the snow trying to slide off the wings thinking it would shoot off when we would shoot down the runway. Another 10 minutes went by until we came to a stop again just next to the runway. We were told by the pilot that the plane was about to get de-iced and momentarily on both sides of the plane approached 2 trucks. The men on the trucks were blasting the snow off the whole plane and then spraying it down with de-icer. This took another 30 minutes until the plane finally turned onto the runway.

View From Window

I was filled with relief and nerves at the fact that we were getting underway still understanding this would be my first take off in snow. I thought we were going to speed off straight away but we came to another stop again. The pilot turned the throttle up really high again but remained stationary causing the whole plane to shake. I could see some people were gasping but it was nothing to be honest. Finally we were pushed backwards into our seats as the plane sped forward about to leave the ground. I could see and feel the front of the plane lift up and then we were off. Because of the heavy snow we were shaking quite a bit but nothing really drastic as we made our way above the clouds. The next 20 minutes or so was quite shaky but then finally we were above the cloud line and away from the heavy snow making our way North West back home.

We were cruising along eating the miles nice and smoothly then like everybody else on the plane I drifted off to sleep for the next 1½ hours. When I woke up I was facing the window and the first thing I had seen was the huge patches of lights on the ground. It was a beautiful sight to wake up too and as I looked inside the cabin, pretty much everyone else was still asleep. Sarah was flat out next to me lounged on the two seats so I continued looking out of the window. Eventually the patches of light disappeared behind us as we were flying across the North Sea. I was excited when the pilot came onto the tannoy stating that they were making their descent into Newcastle. The seat belt sign came up which woke quite a few people up but then went back to sleep as did Sarah.

A while passed as we were about 2000 feet in the air and I could still see nothing but the dark and gloomy sea until we banked left. My face was pressed against the window when I clapped my eyes on my hometown. It was glorious seeing my hometown below me as we slowly passed by it onto Cramlington next. When we passed Cramlington, I could see the place covered in snow but not to the extreme I witnessed in Bulgaria. Next town was Seaton burn, Then Dinnington and then the familiar thud on the ground brought us back to Newcastle airport. The thud startled Sarah but she fell asleep again which I found quite funny. We slowly came to a stop happy that we made it back safely especially with all the bother we had at Sofia airport. To make things worse the plane didn’t stop at a gate so I knew we had to get the bus again. We sat on the plane for a while until the doors opened with everyone slowly making their way out onto the buses.

Newcastle Airport

I could see everyone was trying to stay upright with the fact they were tired. We quickly made it to the gates and then rushed over to passport control. As Sarah and I were near the front of the line, we got seen too quite quickly making our way to baggage reclaim. At this point I was just thinking how late it was thinking how my grandparents felt about the late flight. It was a while before the belt began to move and luggage making its way around. After a long while my rucksack eventually appeared which I was happy about when I picked it up. I immediately walked over to Sarah who was still waiting for hers and I hugged her saying “hope you have a safe trip home”.

I left in haste for the arrivals hall thinking my grandparents would be waiting but was welcomed by a few strangers. Like always it was a weird feeling being back in Newcastle airport making my way out. I rang my grandfather straight away and he informed me he was waiting where I got dropped off. I walked over blindly suddenly hearing my name getting shouted. My grandfather was waiting at the car with the boot open whilst grandmother stayed in the car. It was nice to see them but we just wanted to get moving straight away.

On the way home we talked about my holiday and what stupid things I did which to be honest was just one. A long time passed until we arrived back home with the beacon of the front door light shining bright in the night at the early time of 2:30am. I left the car with my things as I thanked my grandparents for the trouble. The greatest reception back home was of course my dog which wouldn’t stop showing love. I was trying to talk to my parents but the dog wouldn’t let me. I also tried to talk to them about my adventurous week but I was really tired with the delayed flight. I finally headed upstairs and slumped onto my own lovely bed thinking about the winter wonderland I just came from.
Pirin Mountains

I lay back admiring the stars outside thinking of how many fantastic people I met with so many stories to tell. Of how happy I was at the fact I only fell down twice. Of the peace I felt in my heart whizzing down the slopes feeling free as an eagle soaring high. My heart beating faster at the prospect of going that bit quicker down the steep slopes. The pride I had in myself for accomplishing the things I did as well as everyone else in my ski group from where we started to what we achieved in the end. Bansko was such a beautiful quaint smoky town and Sofia was a marvelous historical city with many secrets hidden below the surface. As I closed my eyes I had a final thought thinking what a fantastic start to the New Year it was
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