two years of concrete and kitsch

It’s hard to believe I’ve been at this blogging gig for two years now.  Having just re-upped concrete and kitsch’s Bluehost account for another year of blogging indentured servitude, I was filtering through old emails from my blog infancy.  Turns out, that June 25 was my two year blog-iversary!  It’s a fun coincidence that I have just published my hundredth post – making my post frequency about one per week (that is an average, of course, as the last few months I’ve been pretty good at posting once per month…).  I thought it apropos to do a little roundup of our travels since I started blogging (especially taking into account that I never got around to a recap of our 2016 travels).  

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Let’s start with some stats, shall we? Read more

My Favorite Ugly Building: The National Library of Kosovo

I’ll be honest, we ended up in Kosovo on a technicality.  When I spontaneously switched jobs last fall and decided to take an impromptu trip through the south Balkans, we were thinking primarily of Buzludzha.  We tacked on Macedonia to Bulgaria for Skopje’s space age Brutalist masterpieces and the relatively undiscovered Lake Ohrid.  We only ended up in Kosovo because it was cheaper to fly into Pristina than it was to fly into Skopje.pristina-29

But boy were we glad we did.  We spent three days there, between Pristina, Pec, and Prizren, and while we loved the latter two towns, Pristina (bad weather and all) was the Kosovar city to really win us over. Read more

Solitude for Now in Ohrid, Macedonia

In the flurry of spontaneous excitement that comprised planning our first Bitchin’ Balkans adventure in October of last year, we added a night in Ohrid, thinking that three nights in Skopje might be a little excessive.  We’re fans of nature, and thought that a night on one of Europe’s oldest lakes would be a good counterbalance to the concrete architecture peeping we’d be doing in Pristina, Kosovo, Skopje, Macedonia and Sofia, Bulgaria.jpegs-160_22455562212_o

It was one of those rare moments in our travels when we arrived in a place with very few expectations.  David had spent much of our previous bus rides on the trip crippled by motion sickness, and I had yet to get completely acclimated to Balkan time.  The few images of Ohrid that I had seen had been very captivating, but I hadn’t developed a solid feel about what to expect from the place.  For those of us able to look outside on the bus ride, the main line between the two cities afforded some impressive views, and a rest stop about halfway between the cities provided some much needed cheese filled burek – a Balkan staple. Read more

Obsessed with Buzludzha, the Remains of Bulgaria’s Communist Past

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but have put it off because I’m not quite sure how to unpack my feelings about Buzludzha.  Have you ever seen pictures of a place, and become so captivated by it that you are compelled to see it in person?  Even if, when you are first exposed to that single image, you have no idea where that place is?  And, when you follow clues and finally discover where it is, its remoteness doesn’t deter you, or even compels you further into obsession?  The first time I can remember this happening to me was with Erdene Zuu Khiid in Kharkhorin, Mongolia when I was maybe 13 years old – when I visited at 28 it was somewhat of a watershed travel moment.  It’s happened a limited number of times since – Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan, the Rossiya Cinema Complex in Yerevan, Armenia, and Three Brothers in Riga, Latvia come to mind.

Rossiya Cinema Complex, Yerevan, Armenia
Rossiya Cinema Complex, Yerevan, Armenia
The Three Brothers, Riga, Latvia
The Three Brothers, Riga, Latvia
Erdene Zuu Khiid, Kharkhorin, Mongolia
Erdene Zuu Khiid, Kharkhorin, Mongolia

And then I became so obsessively captivated by Buzludzha – several years ago, while I was taking a relative travel hiatus. And it was more severe than I had ever experienced before. Read more

Training while Traveling: Running in Sofia, Bulgaria

I don’t talk about it much here, but in the list of hobbies that form the foundation of my adult identity, fitness ranks pretty highly.  In fact, after puppies and travel, I’d say fitness, and running in particular, is a close third.

David and I run several distance events every year, ranging from half marathon to ultramarathon distance, so staying fit when we travel is important to us.  That isn’t to say that we actually do train when we travel, but rather we usually think aloud about how we aren’t doing it, then proceed to stuff additional cheesey carbs into our face holes.  After all, the base of the traveler’s food pyramid is cheesey breads, am I right?

Wait, is this post about running? Cheesy carbs? The latter, please.
Wait, is this post about running? Cheesy carbs? The latter, please.

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Road Trip! Bulgarian Roadside Commie Kitsch

The title to this post makes me grin from ear to ear.  It is a microcosm of everything travel-related that I’m living for these days – road trips, Balkan destinations, and the stuff for which this site is named.  I think if a single post were to encapsulate the way I love to travel, it would be this one.  So with that, let’s dive headfirst into the wacky world of Bulgarian monuments.

The major draw to Bulgaria (and the whole Balkan region, to be honest) was the ability to visit Buzludzha (more to come on Buzludzha!), the showcase, now-abandoned, former meeting hall of the Bulgarian Communist Party.  As it is inaccessible without private transportation, we rented a car for the Bulgaria portion of our trip.  A rather unexpected side benefit to this was being able to pull over whenever and wherever (within reason, of course) that we wanted.

As it turns out, there are roadside relics of the Communist era all over Bulgaria.  Quelle fortune!

It seemed as though everywhere we went there was a random, totally wacky structure, monument, or sculpture – and our job was to spot them as we went on the most fun game of “Where’s Waldo” ever played.  jpegs-288_21846306344_o Read more

Closed for Business in Kosovo

Let me preface this by saying that we loved Kosovo.  It was about as disorienting and wacky of a place that I’ve ever visited – I’d put it up toward the top of the list with Mongolia on the disorientation scale.  But we had a perennial problem in the country.  Everything was closed!

And closed for no good reason, I believe.  Granted, we were there in the off season, so maybe we should have expected it? There is no well beaten tourist path through the country yet (we didn’t see a single other tourist in the whole of the country, literally), and people tend to be on Balkan time, so I’m not sure why I expected things to run on schedule like a Japanese train.  

jpegs-4_22442803476_o jpegs-3_22281992499_oOur first encounter with unavailable services came when we attempted to visit Pristina’s Tourist Information Center.  I am a big fan of tourist information centers and kiosks, and drag David to them in every country we visit.  The little blue-circled lower case “i” on city maps brings me joy, just knowing that increased knowledge can be found just a short walk away! Read more

Visiting the Dancing Bears Sanctuary in Belitsa, Bulgaria

Of all of the things that define me as a person, not even just a traveler, but a person in general, animal lover is right near the top.  In fact, in my day to day life, animal lover would probably outrank travel luster on most days.  I am a dog dad to two loveable jerk-ass senior rescue Dachshunds, and a step dog dad to the world’s sweetest Golden Retriever.  For our wedding, instead of having a registry, David and I directed people to donate money to Old Dog Haven, our favorite local nonprofit dedicated to rehoming senior shelter dogs, instead of bringing us gifts.  So, without too much hand wringing, it’s safe to say that we’re certifiable animal whack-jobs.Dog Halloween 2014-53

So, how is this relevant to our time in Bulgaria, you may ask?  I’m getting there – on the day we left Sofia on leg one of our self-drive road trip we had originally planned to drive south to visit Rila Monastery, then through Plovdiv to Kalofer, where we would spend the night before hitting up Buzludzha the next morning.  This was a great plan, and we were both content with it.  But, knowing my past with and David’s PTSD surrounding monastery visits, we were less than enthused about visiting Rila Monastery, despite its status as Bulgaria’s number one tourist attraction.Jpegs-265 Jpegs-266 Read more

Desperately Seeking Trinkets at Sofia’s Bitaka Flea Market

I am a shopper.  When David and I go on vacation, one of our best practices is to arrive in our destination with only carry on luggage, and then check luggage (full of trinkets, naturally) on the way home.  I have some hoarder-type tendencies (it ranges from tchotchke to canines) that are very real, and perhaps they most strongly manifest in my accumulation of things when I travel.IMG_20151017_090328510 IMG_20151017_094034835

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Road Tripping Kosovo: From Pristina to Pec to Prizren

As I’ve said before, the spontaneity of our Balkan adventure this October made me get out of my comfort zone while planning.  So, when I knew we’d have two nights in Kosovo – one in Pristina, and the next in Prizren – before heading to Macedonia, I wanted to make the day in between really count.  I had lofty goals of seeing the Patriarchy of Pec on that day, which would require either bussing between all three cities, or hiring a car.

My typical MO when planning trips to places with less developed tourist infrastructures is almost always to hop on Tripadvisor forums first to see what is possible.  This was especially useful this trip as my other main source of information, other travel blogs, are a bit scanty on information about Kosovo outside of Pristina and Prizren.  So off to the forums it was, and even then, information wasn’t readily available.  No problem, I just started my own thread, and waited for replies to arrive. Read more