It’s been a long (and not always easy) year, but upon looking back: all the though moments were worth it. And thankfully: there have been a lot of positive experiences together with friends and family to fill the year with some great vibes. Here are the best things about my Year in Travel:
The Inception of Redhead Explorer
I’ve been sharing photos and travel stories in other places for quite a while but this year I realized that the pleasure I get from travelling and the milleage across Bulgaria and abroad are big enough to have their own place under the (online) sun. There is still a looot of work left, but the blog has been my chief creative outlet and source of positive emotions this year.
All over Bulgaria
It will be hard to list all places we’ve seen, so I will just drop here my list of the Top 5 Bulgarian destinations for 2016: from the lakes of Dospat and Belmaken to the amazing Belogradchik Rocks.
First time in Italy together
Stef and I have travelled all over the place together, but we still had not visited Italy until this year, which is a shame because it is a country way too dear to my heart. We managed to visit Bologna, Florence, Rimini, Imola, Scarperia/Mugello, had one of the most memorable walks & talks ever in the Boboli gardens and had the best street food near one of my favourite museums the Uffizi. Stef visited the monument of one of his all time heroes Ayrton Senna and we saw Valentino Rossi on his trademark circuit Mugello.And we captured (a cliched) but truly beautiful full moon over Ponte Vechhio which felt like living in a painting or a postcard
Paragliding over Sopot
My mom was so thrilled to learn I was about to jump from a cliff with a paragliding instuctor…. After I forgot to call her for an hour after landing she was even more thrilled :)) (Read more)
Visiting Valencia again + best friends
Renting bikes for a trip to the beach, eating paella, trying the best Argentinian steaks and enjoying a Spanish version of La Dolce Vita together + 3 best friends= great experience
Wedding in the remote mountains
No words can describe this event, so I won’t even try :))
Visiting the Rila Monastery during the Summer School in Cognitive Science
It is so great to spend time with people who are not only fun and friendly but also incredibly smart and have all these obscure, geeky interests. I’ve seen the Monastery a zillion times but the company on this trip was a whole new story. I also discovered that somehow magically I can translate from Portuguese into English just by finding the similiraties between Portugues and Italian words!
Wonderful food, crystal clear water : Greece is always a summer delight. This year it also provided some extra thrills for us as a huge storm welcomed us on the highway on the way back and almost turned over the bike! I’ve never been through anything like this and I hope I will never experience it again. Chills and thrills all over
Meeting Isabella Shopova in person
I am a big fan of Isabella Shopova: a Bulgarian travel-blogger-turned-book-author who has spent years living in New Zealand and Australia. I have all her books and I just love her writing style: light, funny and in the same time: informing you in depth about the history and nature of the places she visits. In person she is exactly what she is like in her books: witty, intelligent, full of humor, self-irony and remarkable bravery. Lovely and inspiring woman, who presented her new book dedicated to a trip to the Bulgarian Antarctic Base!
When I grow up I would like to be like her 🙂 ❤
Did I mention her ultimate destination is Mars? Definitely my type of woman!
We are only a few weeks into the semester but it is starting to feel like I’ve been here for months. You know this feeling of time-wrapping when so many new things are happening that time seems to stretch like a happy lazy cat? Because it is dense with events, not because you are bored and the days are dragging…
So here we are with the other Erasmus students: taking our first Italian lessons and enjoying the beauty of the language and the unfortunate equivalents of its words in other languages. Like curva (curve, turn), which makes the entire Polish-Bulgarian section of the room go out of control when giving directions…
Anyway. We are like restless children, trapped in a room, while the playground is waiting for us outside…
Somebody passes an idea around: let’s go to Rome! Not tomorrow, not next week, not sometime…Now! Right after classes: run to catch the train, travel for a few hours (between 4 and 6 depending on the price of the ticket), arrive at the eternal city and explore it all night long! Crazy idea. Of course we are doing it.
The very very Blond Explorer times
Dance outside with Justynka…
Dance inside with Kaan… Just dance
The distance of 250km (between Macerata and Rome) should take about 3 hours by car and slightly more with the fastest trains, but even with the student discount it is more affordable to opt for a slower train. Anyway, we have tons of things to talk, joke and laugh about. And there is also some white wine and a special dance program with Michael Jackson impersonations by our very own Mr. Cengiz Kaan (yup, that’s his name! :)).
We arrive in Rome in the evening and it is true: you never visit the same city twice. The people with you, the mood their bring in, the improvisation born out of the interaction of a several teens and a few twenty-somethings show me the city in a completely new light compared to the last time I was here.
I remember it as a vast, endless place of curiosities, amazing architecture and sculptures and it doesn’t fail to make me fall in love with it again. Only this time it feels like it is much smaller: we literally walk around it all night and effortlessly manage to see many of its trademark places like:
If you have been throwing quick glances at that Erasmus exchange announcement at the university and been wondering: “Should I do that? Is it worth it? Should I leave the comfort of my life for a few months in a completely foreign environment and people? Would these classes even be recognized when I come back? Would I feel OK in a completely new and unknown environment?”…
I know exactly how you feel. In fact before leaving (I had my Erasmus a few years ago) I hesitated for quite a bit: I was in the middle of my Master’s degree, I already had a job , etc. You know, all these comfort zone strings which one usually gets attached to. Or attached by.
The truth is: the answer to all of the above questions about leaving is “Yes! You should give it a try!”. Yes, at some point you will be waaaay out of your comfort zone (and it is easy to go out of line, too, if you don’t have a steady head on your shoulders) but this is one of the best ways to:gain international experience among other interesting young people…learn a new language…meet wonderful new people (some of which might turn into really long-term friends)…get a refreshing crash course on culture shock…discover new sides of yourself...see a different educational system…pick up new habits and hobbies, explore new fields…and of course: have a lot of fun.
And if you are planning to study or live abroad in the future: Erasmus is an excellent Bootcamp to see how well you cope on your own, how quickly you adapt to a foreign culture and how well you can do on a more or less tight (scholarship) budget.
Some people will tell you Erasmus is all about drinking, partying and no studying at all. The truth is: Erasmus is what You make it. If you want to party, there are unlimited options for that, but your experience is limited to what you choose for yourself. In the end: your own interests, habits and character will ultimately determine the balance between fun, work, exploration, studying, rest, etc. And by all means: you will meet other people who share the same interests.
Reasons to choose Macerata:
If I can go back and choose another country for my Erasmus exchange I would pick…Italy. Again. As any country, sometimes it can also offer some infuriating things but overall Italy is the perfect place to spend your Erasmus exchange. I don’t need to advertise the amazing history, culture, food and language: they are trademark dreamy features of Italy which will be explored in detail in the Bella Italia series. When it comes to Erasmus, however, I can only share my impressions from the lovely Medieval town of Macerata in the Marche province:
1. A great travel starting point right next to Tuscany
Macerata is part of the beautiful Marche region, situated to the East of Tuscany and South of Emilia Romagna. It is like a well kept Italian secret: not overly famous outside of Italy but with an incredible charm, rich history and breathtaking sceneries.
Macerata is only a few hours away from low cost hubs of Ryanair like Ancona, Pescara, Perugia, etc. which offer easy and affordable opportunities for trips to other countries for a long weekend or for the winter holiday.
2. One of the oldest universities in the world!
Universita degli studi di Macerata was founded in 1290: preceded only by academic landmarks like the Universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. As one of the oldest universities in Italy and in the world, it has century old traditions with a strong emphasis on the humanities.
3. A great spot to practice “Trainjogging”
Our favourite sport with the Erasmus crew was running like crazy to catch our train to neighbouring cities on Saturday morning (known in Erasmus lingo as “trainjogging”). There is nothing more refreshing in the morning than running late and taking your phone out to call your friends…just to turn around the corner and see that they are also late and running like crazy to the train station in front…
Unless you are an extremely punctual person: after you spent some time in Italy with the locals (and with Spanish people) you will see how your punctuality starts to wane off, as your chillout-ness and dolce vita hunger for exploration skyrockets.
The Italian railway system is a great thing to have around when you are on student exchange: it is a fast and relatively cheap way to see both small and obscure little cities and big tourist landmarks across Italy (Read more in: A night trip to Rome).
4. Old city for young people
This area has been a Roman settlement since III century BC and there is a distinct charm to the small size and the old, medieval fortress layout of the city. Despite this, the streets, cafes and venues are full with young people: locals and residents of cities who came for their studies. And Erasmus students, of course.
Of course, everything in life depends on your own taste and preferences and if you are used to the buzz of big cities with millions of people, Macerata and its population of 43K might be too small and tedious. For me it wasn’t. I’ve had my fair share of noisy cities with 1M+ inhabitants so I was more than happy to spend time in a cosy, quiet Italian town.
Also despite its small size: there were several dance clubs, 1 rock bar, 1-2 venues for undeground music, several big parks for hanging out in the sun, nice bars offering aperitivo and for the nerds like me: many bookstores, several lovely large libraries, theatre/opera house, many art exhibitions, poetry reading events, etc. This is a much more vibrant cultural life than a city of similar size in Bulgaria can offer and frankly it was very refreshing to enjoy La dolce vita in such a relaxed, cosy and charming place.
5. The Erasmus family
I’ve talked to people who spent their Erasmus in bigger cities like Milan for example and their experience was completely different. Getting scattered across the big city dilutes the group, so to say.
Macerata, on the other hand, is quite small so you form something like a big Erasmus (extended) family and meet most of the other international students on a regular basis: in your classes, for parties and get-togethers, during casual walks on the street…literally all the time!
6. Meet all the Polish people!
If you haven’t been in touch with a lot of Polish people, please correct this mistake as soon as possible. Poles are some of the warmest, friendliest and most welcoming people around and apparently a lot of Polish universities have contracts with University of Macerata, because in terms of numbers they were perhaps the largest group after the Spaniards.
Poles always come with jokes, great (home made) food, a lot of positive energy and (if you are a fan of this drink) vodka in more flavours that you have ever imagined.
7. The local atmosphere and attitude to life
We all know the stereotypical Italian things: like the wild gestures during talking, the interest in beautiful women, the taste in everything beautiful, the emotionality, the fantastic food…But once you get to know the culture there is so much more. I was surprised to see how many unexpectedly common things we have with Italians and also how different are other aspects of life.
It’s a place of paradoxes: Very chill and nonchalant and in the same time very passionate and determined. Very hip and modern, but also in a sense very conservative and traditional. Very focused on superficial looks but also with deep interest in culture and intellectual endeavours. Very open to party lifestyle and also very homely, very devoted to family life and values. Very noisy and wild and then: very proper and well mannered…
Perhaps the perfect example to describe it were our downstairs neighbours who would be having loud screaming fights in the morning and then send each other with a kiss to work Ciao, Amore! 🙂
8. Enjoy la Dolce vita – the way you understand it
Italians know how to live a good life, enjoy their free time and have fun, but if you want to study or work hard: you have all the perfect conditions for it as well.
A typical day of mine in Macerata would start early at the lecture hall or at the library (my second semester was focused on individual research), then a light lunch/picknick outside with a friend, some more work and chores in the afternoon, aperitivo with a glass of wine and nice snacks, going to the theater/concert/movie club night/theme party until late in the evening (early in the morning) and then a few hours later: again at the library.
If you want it to be all party and fun- it can be. If you want it to be fun and work- it can be that as well. The place offers the perfect conditions to go either way: depending on your own preferences and needs.
9. Save money for travelling thanks to the affordable rent
Since it is a smaller city, rents can be quite affordable: especially if you team up with other Erasmus students or find locals to share an apartment with. I lived in a huge 5 bedroom apartment with 4 other people, 2 bathrooms, kitchen and several balconies in a nice new building and the rent for my room was equivalent to what I was paying for my old room in Sofia!
You also save money on visits to the gym! Macerata has one of those medieval layouts: with the center situated high up on a hill with hundreds of steps and many steep streets which can boost your cardio (and your desperation) to new cosmic levels.
There are good online listings for Macerata rentals, so book a room in advance or shortlist several places and take a look at them in person when you arrive | Tip: not all rooms are listed online so you can browse the city and look around for Affitasi signs (“for rent”).
My honest advice: sometimes landlords would change their mind in the last minute, so always have a plan B! Even if you have agreed upon renting a place, keep an eye on hostels and hotels (avoid Hotel Ricci, I heard people had issues with bed bugs there) and try to find a reliable person for contact there in case you need to find an alternative place to stay.
Even though my prospective landlord decided not to lend his apartment in the last minute and I had a rough start on arrival with the really unhelpful person who welcomed me as a replacement of another Erasmus buddy (I guess some people just volunteer because they want the credits, not because they are really organized and good at helping others), I found the best apartment just a day after that so I guess the best Erasmus advice is: Stay calm. Rely on yourself. Plan ahead and let nothing and no one discourage you 🙂
10. Learn Italian!
You know that expression about turning setbacks into comebacks? Well this is the best way to describe the language situation in Italy. I come from a place where more or less every second young person speaks decent to good English and it was a shock for me to realize that learning Italian isn’t just a cool option: it is an absolute must.
Without exaggeration: the only people I talked to in English were the other Erasmus students and the professors at the university. I even had to take an entire class of Ethics and economics only in Italian: it was offered as a course in English, but the other students said they prefer to have it in their native language. More than half of my roommates were Italian as well, so even at home I had to walk around with a dictionary and handle awkward conversations until I get my vocabulary straight.
Nevertheless, from a linguistic point of view it is perfect to be in such an environment and have a 24/7 exposure! One of the reasons why my German never got truly fluent is that German people are so good in English that whenever you forget a word you just switch to the language you know and it’s done.
In Italy you have to fight: you have to work your way through mastering some level of the language in order to have a meaningful conversation. It is hard and a bit frustrating in the beginning but the reward is worth it: speaking and understanding one of the most beautiful languages on Earth.
Macerata on the map
✓ Master programs usually offer the last semester free of lectures and focused on research, so doing your Erasmus in the third semester is a great option because if you enjoy it: you might as well stay for an additional term (on your own expenses)
✓ If you haven’t studied Italian before: don’t worry. There is a special language crash course for Erasmus students which is quite nice. However, be careful when choosing lectures: not everything listed as a course in English on the University of Macerata website ends up taught in English. On the other hand: professors are really nice and helpful and even if your classmates want to have the auditory course only in Italian: you can negotiate for homework assignments, exams and other things to be in English. If you have doubts: just sent an email to the professors of the courses you are interested in.
✓Prepare your own backup budget: your Erasmus scholarship will come almost as an reimbursement, not a real-time monthly payment. Sometimes it takes just a month, other times: you get it towards the very end of the semester. Depends on your home country and school but plan for that in advance.
✓Budgets are allocated annually and there might be great differences from year to year depending on how many people are going on exchange and your monthly money may vary greatly (there are lucky ones who get over 600EUR per month: a nice sum for a small town like Macerata)
✓Apartment rents in Italy usually start with 1 to 2 advance payments (most people on Erasmus had to leave them with the landlord, who claimed to be “covering extra costs”, so don’t get your hopes up for getting all the advance payment at the end of your stay). Also: most rents don’t include bollette (consumption of electricity, water, etc.), building cleaning fees, etc. Some rents include hot water and central heating but check with the landlord for details.
✓ Travel as much as you can to as many places as you can. Don’t make the mistake of forsaking travel plans because of getting homesick: your friends and family love you and will be there for you. Invite them to come visit you: they will be happy to see where you live, how you are coping, etc. Don’t underestimate the time you spend on Erasmus: everything is so intense that you feel like you have been there for much longer than a few months. So it is a great reality check to have a close friend or family member come and help you bridge your old life and your new current state.
✓Think hard and be very very honest with yourself if you are planning on doing long-distance. I saw countless relationships fall apart during Erasmus (and very few which remained strong) on both sides: those who were on exchange and those who were “waiting” for them. I am not going to sugarcoat it: only exceptionally devoted, stable, mature couples who truly know what they want survive this test. If you have any doubts about yours: be brutally honest and move on. You only have a few months with these wonderful new people that you are going to meet: it is better to dedicate all your (positive) energy to them instead of beating yourself up for not being somewhere else. Trust me on that.
If you have any questions about being on Erasmus, what it feels like to live in Macerata and study at its university: feel free to leave me a comment here or ask on Facebook.
You are special: today and during the rest of your all-year-round kaleidoscope of urban memories and concrete life stories.
You are a perpetual scene for the surprises of life: from love stories and newly shaped friendships, to the daily carousel of work life, the excitement of success, as well as the black hole of unsolved social and cultural issues. But somehow you still make me love you.
You know how many people love something only because it is beautiful/popular/expensive Or because others desire it. Or because it makes them feel good. Well that isn’t my kind of love.
Shot on Huawei P9
Shot on Huawei P9
I love you the way you are: with all your imperfections and charming little quirks.
My fascination with portraits, landscapes and imagery in general was initially fueled by my unrelenting love for fine art (and growing up with a grandfather who used to paint and adorn the house with all kinds of beautiful images whenever he had the chance).
But it wasn’t until I started to travel actively that I discovered the passion I had for photography.
The travel mind(re)set
My lovely mother took me on my first trips during my teenage years and without exaggeration: I haven’t been the same since then. Seeing new things, exploring new cultures, meeting completely different people opens your mind and breaks the boxes inside of it.
You become more open and more curious about people who have nothing in common with you. And let’s face it: people create stereotypes quite easily when they stay inside the comfort zone of communicating with others who are as similar to them as possible. Travelling challenges this and helps you discover unknown sides in your own self and become more self-reflexive, more aware, more flexible and less willing to see things in a clear-cut, simplified way.
What does this have to do with photography?
I have witnessed (and participated) in many discussions about what “real” photography is. Some people claim that nothing shot on a digital device is real photography: you have to go analogue, develop your shots in the dark room and that’s when you can call it a “photograph”. Others go to the other extreme and say: any image you take, no matter how technically imperfect, has the seed of creativity in it and deserves to be considered a form of art.
I stand in the middle and more importantly: I firmly stand on the content side of the debate. Digital or analogue, amateur or professional gear: these are just the technical means, the carriers of information. The real photograph for me is the content: the moment you are trying to capture, the story behind it, the sincerity, atmosphere, essence of what is being shot. After all the word “photography” itself means to “draw with light”. So if you have the right lighting conditions and the right “drawing” in your mind that should be enough to capture a great moment.
Of course: if you have an intriguing subject AND the technical means to accentuate it in the best possible way: the photo will be even more compelling, even more visually captivating. But the opposite is true as well: even if you have photographic gear for thousands and thousands of euro, if you shoot cliched and highly staged images: they can be less impressive than a photo taken by a mobile device camera.
And what does it have to do with travel photography?
Well: everything. Travelling around the world inevitably presents you with amazing opportunities to take compelling images. From the portrait of a particularly interesting local person to a landscape shot of an amazing natural phenomenon: travel is a fascinating visual experience.
However, it can also be quite limiting: some trips just don’t allow you to carry a lot of heavy luggage with you so you have to replace your DSLR gear with light version mirrorless cameras. And sometimes your camera battery dies, or you have to be so quick (and discreet) so taking out a huge lens simply isn’t an option. In such cases you have to use your mobile phone: out of convenience or necessity.
The black and white photos above are taken with the first camera I bought with my own money. It is a mirrorless Panasonic Lumix which is far from professional gear but it is a perfect camera to take with you on the road: relatively light, with quality Leica optics and zooming capabilities (when it is impossible to get close enough): my Ancient Lakes hike was shot on it as well as a later trip to Oslo which was became the travel story of the month on the Bulgarian Nat Geo website.
I’ve been so happy with the brand that I later had another Lumix camera (the old one was bought in 2007 and it had served its time) with monster zoom options: the FZ45. It has the flat image issue of mirrorless zooming but nevertheless: when shooting in good light conditions it has produced some delightful results as the photos in The longest hike and this craaazy closeup of the moon (see below) which would never be possible without the 45x zoom. Of course the image is grainy and doesn’t have top resolution but hey: how often can you see the moon in such details without a telescope?
I am quite tired by the whole Canon/Nikon debate. This is simply a marketing war in which many photographers fall victim to brand loyalty and not to cold technical objectivity. Any thorough technical comparison shows both brands are a close tie on many features and in general: to become such rivals, both are extremely good and you just have to pick the one which suits your own needs (without being obnoxious about it).
I have shot with both but I personally prefer Nikon and I love my D5300: I got it for a fantastic price for a camera with this range, it is light, I can get great lenses for it, I am absolutely delighted with the quality and it also has perks like WiFi connection over which I can send and backup my photos on a tablet or computer when I am on the road. It offers remote trigger via an app on my phone which gives me a lot of freedom for shots where I would like to be in.
Sometimes you have to work with what you are given. I love street photography but it requires you to react extremely quickly to what happens around you. Sometimes until you reach out for your bag, take the DSLR out and shoot – the moment is long gone. So some of my travel photos are taken on my phone and frankly: it is getting harder and harder to make a difference between mirrorless cameras and mobile shots: if they are done properly and in good lighting conditions.
I have been a long term fan of Leica for years (all Lumix cameras I’ve used (my father had 2 and I have 2) had Leica optics so I trust the brand a lot. That’s why I was very intrigued by the new Huawei P9. To be more precise, it turned out that the optics are not made by Leica: they are manufactured by Sunny Optical Technology (CN) and the module was certified by Leica but the phone’s dual lens technology peaked my interest nevertheless.
I will be testing the phone camera for the next two weeks in an experiment how good can your travel photos be if you rely only on your smartphone gear. Stick around to see the results and share your thoughts on the quality of the images. I’d be happy to hear your feedback.
What you see in photo above might look cool but as far as actual riding goes: on scale from 0 to That-makes-no-sense, this really tops the chart (Photo via Favim)
Imagine your locks beautifully flowing in the wind while you ride at the back of a motorbike. As if you are in a L’Oreal shampoo commercial or a movie version of a Nicolas Sparks novel….
Now stop, because that makes no damn sense! Photo shoots and movies constantly show us good looking people without helmets who speed through gorgeous sunsets, easy as a summer breeze. But everyone who has ever been on a bike knows that’s an almost hilarious, highly stylized and completely inaccurate version of reality.
It is really an incredible experience to travel on two wheels, but there are quite a few practical details that you might want to know before actually hopping on the motorbike.
After several years and dozens of shorter and longer trips on the back seat you learn what makes your life easier on the road and what doesn’t. So if you are planning to join a friend or partner on the road, but you aren’t sure about the practical things you should know: here is an inconclusive list which might help you have an easier and more comfortable trip.
So let’s start with some basic preparation: What should I wear? is a very classical question for us girls, and when it comes to comfort and functionality it is actually a quite important one. Apart from the absolute MUSTs (helmet, (leather)jacket and gloves), here are some useful tips:
You’ve probably seen all those photos with the tagline “Don’t be a tourist, be a traveler” or the endless variations of the formula:”A traveler [insert inspiring action] and a tourist [insert lame comparison]“…
Initially, my adventurous side which enjoys bungee jumping, riding at the back of a motorbike and spending summer holidays in a tent on the beach was all in favor of the almost mythical concept of The Traveler. It just seemed so blatantly easy to put a hard line between travelers and tourists and take a side in the debate.