Eastern Europe -The Balkan Countries

Romania

We flew into Bucharest, Romania  Sept. 18, 2016. Travel was easy getting there but the adventure of getting through the long lines in the airport was a little trying.  Needless to say we missed our shuttle bus but did meet some fellow travelers from North Carolina and we did find our tour guide David.  David gave us 30 Romanian lei to pay the taxi cab fare from the airport to the hotel so off we went.  He had checked the fare out the previous day and told us that it was 26 lei.  Well, upon arrival at our hotel, the cab driver wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted 50 lei.  After a long discussion of shrugging and head shaking, we paid our fare in Euros.  The North Carolina couple experienced the same thing but they just took their suitcases, gave the cab driver the 30 lei and walked away.  Sometimes not knowing the language, is not all bad!  That was our introduction to Bucharest!!

Our hotel in the drizzling rain.

It drizzled rain that first evening and all the next day.  In fact, the drizzle turned into a real downpour of rain for most of that next day.  Our bus tour of Bucharest turned into a real bus tour as we simply could not get off and explore the many places on the agenda.  There was heavy congestion of cars wherever we went and the grafitti covered any and all walls. Evidence of the communist regime remains with its prevalence of concrete grey apartment buildings.  Some have been brightened up and refurbished but many still remain as the solemn somber grey dwellings.

Parliament Palace in Bucharest, Romania.

We did get into the Parliament Palace which is the second largest building in the world.  Every Romanian citizen had a hand in the construction of this massive white structure, volunteering two hours a week over a five year period.  We toured some of the rooms in this building seeing only 3 or 4 of the hundreds of rooms.  The interesting facts about this structure aside from the citizen participation in its’ construction, is the fact that the materials used in it are all Romanian aside from a few mahogany doors.  All the steel, wood, marble, silk, etc. were products of the country.  Evidence of many cracks in the marble and tiles reflects the amateur tradesmen and workers in the construction of the Parliament Palace.  the building is used by the government (The senate was meeting in one of the huge conference rooms while we were there.), for rentals and receptions.  Wedding receptions of those who can afford the rentals costs, are often held there, as was Nadia Comaneechies.  It took us a long while to get out of the city of Bucharest but eventually we did move on towards Brasov.   The land around Bucharest is very flat but once out of the city and traveling towards Brasov the landscape was much more interesting.  We drove through the Carpathian mountains – rugged terrain with many ski and resort areas.

Our hotel in Brasov, where we spent two nights had a great view of interesting buildings nestled in among the trees across the valley.

We started out early one very cool, brisk morning on a walking tour of Brasov which has a population of approximately 250 000. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Church is a good land mark for the city and from where one could easily find their way.  We were unable to enter the Black Church as it was locked up tight.  We would have liked to have seen the pipe organ as it is the 2nd largest pipe organ between Rome and Venice.  The black Church is riddled with holes that occurred when the communist government was over thrown.

Following our walking tour we went by bus to see Bran castle (Draculas’s castle).

That was very interesting and the walk through was confusing – up and down, narrow halls, small rooms, secret passages, etc.                        It is no wonder that so many jokes were made about not finding one’s way out of the castle.  By the way, our guide today looked like Dracula himself.

On our travels through the country, we noticed several fields of sheep being herded by dogs and a shepherd.  There were no fences to contain the sheep or separate properties.  Also, we noticed very interesting little haystacks – not much bigger than a stook and definitely built up by hand.

The weather continues to be very rainy and cool. We stopped for photos but low cloud prevented what was normally a picturesque scene of Brasov.

Leaving our camera behind at the hotel left us without pictures of a wonderful evening which included a stop at an interesting unique church where 3 monks lived.  Our guide could provide no information on it – I wonder what kind of orthodox religion it is?  Our evening meal began with wine tasting, cheeses and fruit, from where we moved into a dining hall with long tables, orchestra and Romanian folk dancers.  It reminded me of the set up in Munich during Oktoberfest.  The folk dancers were very good with beautiful costuming.

On the outkirts of Brasov we toured the Royal Palace which had been started by the first monarch of Romania, Carl the first, in approxiately 1867. The palace had very dark mahogony elaborately carved doors and panels, unique glass works of chandeliers, mirrors, hundreds of stained glass windows and black ebony carved panels.

Back in Bucharest, we had lunch, changed our left over lei into euros, and so ended our 3 day stay in Romania.

 

Bulgaria

Crossing the border from Romania into Bulgaria took about an hour.

We traveled to Veliko Tarnova which was the first capital city of Bulgaria.  Our hotel, according to our guide, was ‘the best available’.  The money here is the ‘lev’.

We enjoyed dinner in the hotel and watched some folk dancing and then an outside light show, with fireworks.  It was a national holiday, Independence Day,  so there were many people around and everywhere it was very busy.  The light show was spectacular!! It was apparently the first light show ever to be held here.   We noticed a great deal of security around and in the hallways of our hotel.  Someone important was definitely staying the night in our hotel.

The next day we learned that the President, the Prime Minister and the first lady were the important people staying in our hotel.  In the morning we were required to walk through the area where 7 black mercedes were parked with armed security guards all around.  I guess it was either a very safe place to be – or a very dangerous one!!!

We visited the tower (fortress) by walking up to the look out.  In years past, it was used as protection against invading Turks, Romans, etc. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stopped in a small village called Arthanassi to visit a church and a merchant’s house.  The church was filled with frescoes and low ceiling hallways. 

The merchant’s house was very obviously the home of a muslim.  Our guide told us that this merchant was very well-to-do. 

 

 

 

 

We moved onto Sofia which is the capital city of Bulgaria and into the Grand Hotel.  The hotel truly lived up to its name as it was indeed the grandest hotel we have stayed in on this trip. 

A walking tour of downtown Sofia was lead by a very intelligent knowledgeable guide who focused on the uses of the buildings in the downtown area over the years.

The streets in this downtown area are all golden in color. 

One highlight included the inside of St. Sofia church located just across the square from the golden domed church, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its five golden domes. 

From downtown Sofia we went on a 2 hour drive to the Rila Monastery which was built in 927 but restored in 1469.  It was a stronghold of Bulgarian culture and language during Ottoman rule.  The Monastery really  surprised me as I was expecting a somber, black, unadorned church, but that was not the case.  The Monastery was ornate, highly decorated with gold leaf.  It used to be a very active, busy monastery but now only 13 monks are living there.

 

 

 

 

 

The evening ended with a wonderful dinner in a very relaxing manner – great dining, ethnic folk dancing with beautiful costuming and a fire dance.

 

It is Sept. 25 and today we traveled from Sofia, Bulgaria into Macedonia.  The countryside was very dry with little houses dotting the landscape each having it’s own garden with a huge patch of corn.

Macedonia

We passed by a gypsy settlement where the dwellings were in extremely poor condition.  Our guide told us that gypsies do not travel around very much anymore.  Gypsies originally came out of India and were members of the lowest caste of people who were dissatisfied with their way of life.  Even after 500 years not too much has changed for them;  however, some have managed to pull themselves out of that nomadic, beggar-like way of life, get a good job and move on.  Not many but a few.

We saw many herds of sheep, as we did in Romania and Bulgaria, always herded by a shepherd and a few dogs.

 

Our first stop in Macedonia was in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital.

Macedonia became independent in 1991 but was and still is an extremely poor country.  Their economy collapsed and it was not until 1995 that things started to improve and move ahead.

In Skopje there are numerous bronze statues in the squares, fountains, and a bridge over the Vardar river with bronzed statues gracing the bridge with famous Macedonian athletes on one side and famous Macedonian artists, poets, writers, musicians, etc. on the other side.  How can such a poor country as this afford such extravagance??

There is a strong Turkish influence in this city as was evident by the rugs hanging in the streets.

Our evening was spent in the lakeside resort town of Ohrid, Macedonia. 

We toured the old town of Ohrid with its extremely narrow streets and lovely old buildings.  Our guide would call out “beep, beep” if a car was coming down the street and we would literally have to ‘plaster’ ourselves against the buildings while the car passed by.  Any new construction in this old city area now must conform to certain architectural standards.  It is also the most expensive place in Ohrid to live.

 

 

 

Albania

The road we traveled was paved, in good condition but narrow and very winding.  This area is very mountainous with road elevations of up to 10 percent in many sections.

The average salary in Albania is 250 Euros per month.  Social assistance of 70 Euros a month is available for the unemployed.  We saw olive trees, pomegranete trees, beech nut trees, Kiwi trees and apple trees.

We saw small concrete domed  bunkers on the hillsides in groups of 3 or 4.  They were built between 1950 and 1985 to repel an invasion and resist full scale assault on the country.  The communist leader at that time was Enver Hoxha who had ordered the building of the bunkers.  Today some are creatively painted – one houses a tatoo artist, some are makeshift hostels.   Tens of thousands had been built.  This country, as well as Macedonia really suffered from the communist regime.  They have so much to do and a very long way to go to get into the European union.

Small farms are dotted along the roadside.  Farm work is done by hand.  Many of the houses have extended family living together in order to survive.  They would own one car for the entire house which could house many people.

Water is not a problem in Albania.  However, pollution has been a major concern.  Approximately 10 years ago the beaches were covered with plastics.  Very quickly the Albanians learned that you cannot throw plastics away and things are improving quickly.

A modern day carwash in Albania.

We stopped in Tirana, Albania where we did a short walking tour of the downtown area.  There was a great deal of construction going on.

 

It is Sept. 27 and we spent a lot of time on the bus moving along.  We drove through a corner of Montenegro.  The Montenegro people are the tallest people in all of Europe and perceived by many to be tall, big and strong but lazy.  The total population of Montenegro is 680,000.   Montenegro is quite a wild country with lots of interesting rock formations with many hidden caves in those rocks.  Fertile soil is scarce.

The beautiful azure blue Adriatic sea was on our left and we were seated on the left side of the bus so the view was absolutely spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

Croatia

We arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia in the evening and this is where we spent two relaxing days. 

Our hotel room was on the bottom floor of the Rixos hotel which was built into the side of a cliff.  It was a very different and interesting place.  We were able to hang laundry outdoors and the pool decks were right there.

 

 

 

 

 

A tour of the old town took us into narrow streets, old churches, and interesting nooks and crannies. 

We had visited the old town of Dubrovnik 10 years ago with Dave and Wilma so during our free time, we did not walk along the upper wall of Dubrovnik as we had done that then.  Instead, we walked the streets near our hotel and took advantage of admiring the lush foliage of our surroundings.  Dubrovnik has a Mediterranean climate which was so different from the Eastern European climates of Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania.

 

We enjoyed eating dinner in the old town and watching the street entertainment. 

 

We journeyed northward along the Adriatic coast up to Ston, Croatia where we stopped at a winery and had a lunch of ethnic cuisine. 

This is where I ate my very first raw oyster. 

While at Ston we enjoyed wine tasting including several samples of ‘grappa’.

 

 

Our last stop was at a sea salt drying location which was very interesting as the process used was identical to the process used in Mexico. 

 

Bosnia & Hercegovina

From Dubrovnik, Croatia we traveled north along the Adriatic Sea and before turning inland we saw huge delta like areas which were flat, cultivated areas growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. 

The drive inland to Mostar, was a beautiful scenic trip, very mountainous with many streams, rivers and valleys. 

 

 

 

Mostar, Bosnia was an unforgettable place with a unique cobblestone bridge that was so bowed that it was difficult to walk over.  It would be extremely slippery when wet.    The setting of old town Mostar is in a very rugged location above a river which was probably chosen for defense purposes. 

The streets of Mostar were narrow, crowded and lined with merchants selling their goods – once again a heavy Turkish influence. 

From Mostar we traveled northeast to Sarajevo.  The trip was beautiful – mountainous,  rivers, hayfields,  small villages and small farms. 

 

 

 

 

We drove by the bridge that Tito had blown up. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Sarajevo, we stayed at the Bristol hotel

where we enjoyed a Bosnian coffee, Bosnian style.

 

 

 

 

 

Our tour of Sarajevo, took us to the war tunnel.  This tunnel was a ‘life-line’ during the Bosnian war (1992-1996).  The city was almost surrounded by Serbian armed forces and the tunnel went under the runway.  Our guide talked about the fires and the Serbian snipers.  About 10 000 citizens of the city were killed. 

Our guide told us his personal story of his parent’s and grandparent’s homes which were badly damaged during the war.  There was no heat or electricity.  They burned everything around them, including their furniture, to keep warm. After the war, his father managed to get a job and slowly they started to restore their residences, window by window.  Because of his father’s job they were able to secure a short-term loan of 5 years to replace windows.  Then 5 years later they secured another 5 year loan to replace the roof on his grandmothers house.

The striped buildings in Sarajevo are government buildings – easily identifiable. 

Many buildings still show the evidence of war – bullet holes in the grey concrete- however, many have been restored. 

Ferdinand I of Austria

Our tour of Sarajevo took us down many interesting streets and into many sites – 1984 Winter Olympics awards ceremonies location,  arenas where the Olympic hockey and ice events were held, the old town, the street corner where Ferdinand the first of Austria was assassinated which sparked World War I.  The conflicts in the Balkan countries in the 1990 is referred to as an ethnic cleansing among the Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Croats (Catholics).  Interestingly, many had intermarried and were friends and yet for nearly four years a brutal and extraordinarily complex civil war raged with atrocities committed by all sides.  NATO involvement in 1995 brought a fragile peace but the complex political structure resulted from the war has led to bureaucratic tangles and economic stagnation.

Serbia

During our travels from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovena,  into Serbia we heard much about the serbs from our guide who definitely was not of serbian ethnicity.  He described Serbia as a patriarchal masculine society where serbs never apologize, do not trust anyone or anything, have inflated egos where there is no appreciation of others and only appreciation of self.  As in the other Balkan countries the average monthly income of the working population is very low.  Often children live with their parents as they don’t have money to buy or rent their own and often 2 or 3 generations live together.

Serbia has a very checkered economic past from a ‘doing-well’ to a heavily embargoed country and a country where crime flourished and which attracted drug lords and criminals.  Serbia has slowly normalized and the Prime Minister is now very pro-European.

It will be interesting to hear from the serbian guide in the next few days as we have heard so much anti-serbian talk from the other Balkan country guides.

Our Serbia experiences began with the countryside.  Traveling to Belgade which is the capital city of Serbia, took us through some very flat areas with lots of corn fields, cabbage, etc.  – no wheat.  The little haystacks are now a familiar sight to us.  We saw the Sava River many times along the way.  It is the river which separates the Balkans from Central Europe. 

We saw many ‘long’ houses with extensions on the back where married sons or daughters lived with their spouses being unable to afford a place of their own. 

 

 

 

 

It was at one of these extended homes where a restaurant existed and where we had a nice lunch. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop during our Belgrade city tour took us to Saint Sava’s Cathedral.  It is modeled on the Haj Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. There is an example mosaic in the building but there are many unfinished areas.  It is a matter of getting the right Russian designer (a 13 year commitment is required).  They do not want Italian, Hungarian, German, etc. craftsmen.  Nor do they want Serbian apprentices so it may stand unfinished for a long time. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We walked up to a view point of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.  It was actually an old defense fort where we saw an old artillery weapon left over from WWII.

An 80 km trip southeast of Belgrade took us to a 5000 population town called Topola.  The church that we spent some time in was a monarchist church belonging to the Habsburg family at one time.  There was a palace nearby and also a museum all located on the same large property. 

The church was amazing – filled with beautiful mosaics.  The crypt beneath the church is also done in intricate mosaics and here is where the members of the royal family will be buried – no monarchy – but the family does have a strong connection with Queen Elizabeth II and it was the patriarch (prince) of that family who attended Will and Kate’s wedding sitting in the second row at that royal wedding.  The prince now does mainly charity work for Serbia.

We toured the main floor of the palace which was very small.  There were many valuable pieces of art  just sitting out there in the open with no security whatsoever.

The museum held many valuable antiques as well.

a Guslic – musical instrument

What amazed me most was the lack of security around all of these invaluable pieces of art both in the palace and the museum.

 

 

 

 

Hungary

We had a fairly long wait at the border between Serbia and Hungary so we did have an opportunity to look around.  Located at the border was a Syrian refugee camp – the Hungarians do not want them to come into their country so there the refugees sit living in tents and temporary make-shift shelters.  The weather is getting cooler – what they will do when winter comes is really a good question as they certainly get lots of cold here during the winter months.

During our travels from Belgrade, Serbia to Budapest, Hungary we went through much flat, fertile, agricultural land where the fields were much larger in size than we had seen in some of the other Balkan countries.

We had been in Budapest for a few days about 6 years ago then we cruised the Danube River so several of the places we visited on the city tour were recognizable. Budapest  is flanked by the Buda Hills on the west bank of the Danube River and the beginnings of the Great Plains to the east.

One stop was at Heroes Square which is a huge public space holding a sprawling monument constructed in 1896 to honour the nation’s greatest historical figures.   On the northern end of Heroes Square, is a gallery which houses the nation’s outstanding collection of foreign artworks in a building dating to 1906.  The Old Masters collection includes seven paintings by El Greco.

On the east side of the square is a memorial to the Hungarian soldiers killed in both World War I and World War II. 

We traveled up to the  Castle Hill area where Fistermen’s Bastion,  Matthias Church and the Royal Palace are located.  The most impressive views of the Parliament buildings located across the river and on the Pest side were seen from the viewing platform at Fishermen’s Bastion. 

We visited St. Mattias Church (formerly known as the Church of our Lady) but renamed after King Mattias.

The walk around Castle Hill took us into fairytale turrets and ramparts built in the 19th century in honor of the fishermen who defended Buda from the Turks in the middle ages.

Back down on the flats, we visited an indoor market – the likes of which I had never seen.  There were 3 floors of the most beautifully arranged sausages, meats and vegetables. 

 

 

The couple from North Carolina which we met upon arrival in the Bucharest airport in Romania and who were at our table during the farewell dinner.

Our celebration dinner and our goodbyes to our travel companions.

 

 

 

 

…….. and our guide David.