Archive for December, 2009


Week 40: Brasov

   Posted by: Rhona    in Romania

We’ve been in Brasov for a week and it’s been fantastic. Just after I posted my last update we celebrated Christmas, or rather we celebrated Christmas Eve and spent Christmas day popping aspirin and avoiding getting out of bed. Before all that happened, on Christmas Eve day, we headed out to Bran. Home to the castle more popularly known as Dracula Castle, Bran looked like it would be hectic in the high season. Thankfully winter is the low season and we almost had the castle to ourselves as we explored its many nooks and crannies. Steep staircases led to higher floors where balconies overlooked the interior courtyard. If I were a vampire the balcony looking out over the valley would be my helipad of choice. Speaking of, the local character that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is based on spent minimal time in this castle. An exhibition in one of the rooms talked about Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, and tried to paint him in a good light. He was just misunderstood. Look up impalement… We had a beautiful day for the castle and after wandering around we headed up a nearby hill for some views across to and down on the castle. A perfect Christmas present.

Christmas Eve was spent at a cosy little restaurant in downtown Brasov where the white wine flowed freely, then back home where we added a bottle of chilli vodka to the hostel party that had started in our absence. As I mentioned, Christmas day was a bit of a non event so I’ll skip straight to Boxing Day (the 26th).

We spent the day exploring Brasov’s well preserved old town. First of all we visted the St. Nicholas Church, whose stone building dates from 1495 and replaced an earlier church from 1292. Next to it was a beautiful graveyard where we saw a headstone carved with a person’s name, date of birth and the first two digits of their date of death. Unfortunately, it seemed nobody expected them to live into the 21st century because the first two digits were “19”. In the streets of Brasov were some beautiful old houses with decorative flourishes and we wandered around for hours before heading up to the White Tower for a view over the city as the sun set. At 3:45pm.

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Week 39: Merry Christmas!

   Posted by: Rhona    in Moldova, Romania

It didn’t stop snowing for about a week – every time we looked out it was white white white. By the time it finally stopped there was about 40cm of snow and cars were spinning their wheels all over the place. It seemed that only minimal work was done while it was still snowing which meant the roads were covered. Weather in Chisinau was cold (around -10oC), mostly grey and windy. On the upside we met a fantastic gal, Kaatya, through couchsurfing and the drabness of the days was balanced by the great nights of conversation and mulled wine that we enjoyed at her place.

We did do some wandering around the city but to be honest there isn’t a lot to be seen. In the centre we visited the Orthodox cathedral, Holy Gates and a lovely park with snow covered benches that looked like they’d be very inviting in summer. It was guarded by a statue of Stefan the Great, a prince of Moldova between 1457 and 1504 who defended his country against the Ottoman Empire. In doing so he stopped the Ottomans from entirely taking over Europe and in 1992 he was made a saint by the Romanian Orthodox Church who sees him as a defender of the faith.

On the 21st we spent a non travelling anniversary enjoying a delicious dinner and some swanky wine at a place Kaatya recommended. After a 32 hour train journey on our 3 month, and a 55 hour minibus from hell on our 6 month, I banned transport on our 9 month anniversary of marriage. We left for Romania the next day and arrived in Brasov 10 hours later (on time). At the border leaving Moldova we were a little nervous as we’d never been stamped in to the country. With all the shenanigans between Transnistria and Moldova we hadn’t passed through an official Moldovan border post but all went well and we were on our way.

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Week 38: Snow!

   Posted by: Rhona    in Moldova, Ukraine

I guess it makes sense that a lazy week is followed by a busy one so here we go… The opera we saw at the Odessa Opera and Ballet theatre was Puccini’s La Boheme, a nice induction to the world of opera. The inside of the building was spectacularly stunningly amazingly beautiful and we went back the next night to watch a ballet (and take photos of the building). It was full of red velvet, gold paint, cherubs and renaissance paintings surrounding a massive chandelier in the main theatre room. We felt like real royalty sitting up in our own box (for the bargain price of $10 each).

On our last full day in Odessa we headed to the catacombs. In the 19th century a maze of tunnels were dug to supply limestone for a building boom in the city. There was no centralised plan and no map exists of the whole system, but it’s estimated that there are about 2,000-3,000km of tunnels ranging from 10m to 60m in depth. Apart from their initial use they have served other purposes through history. From 1819 to 1858 Odessa was a duty free port, a policy which made Odessa the third biggest city in Russia at the time. During this era smugglers would use the catacombs to smuggle goods bought at duty free prices out of the city. Later, during the Second World War resistance fighters hid in the catacombs after Odessa was occupied by the Romanian and Germany army following an impressive 73 day siege. After the war most of the entrances were sealed up to help stop crime.

From Odessa we headed to Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria. Though it declared independence from Moldova in 1990 it’s thus far unrecognised internationally except by Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which in turn are only recognised by each other and Transnistria). The reason for the split is a historical division in the country; Transnistria was part of the Russian Empire for much longer than the rest of Moldova and has much less Romanian influence. As the USSR started to crumble, nationalist Romanian oriented sentiment in Moldova soared and in 1989 Moldovan (a dialect of Romanian) was declared the only national language. For the mostly Russian speaking Transnistrians this and the prospect of Moldova reuniting with Romania caused skirmishes that led to an all out war in 1992. Since then a ceasefire and a large Russian presence has restricted the conflict to economic blockades and rhetoric. Transnistria has its own government, military, police, currency, postal system, constitution, flag, national anthem, passports and coat of arms. However, the currency can’t be exchanged anywhere outside Transnistria, the stamps are for domestic use only and citizens who travel abroad use a Moldovan passport.

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Week 37: Lazing About

   Posted by: Rhona    in Bulgaria, Ukraine

This week has been uncharacteristically lazy. We’ve spent quite a few days lazing about in hotel rooms, sleeping late and not achieving much at all. It’s been really nice! Sometimes you need those days and we haven’t taken many yet this trip, the weather has been so fantastic and there’s been so much to see that we haven’t slowed down. When we got to Nesebar the weather had changed to winter and to be honest there wasn’t much to see once we’d done the short wander around the small old town. The isthmus that the old town is on was almost deserted in the winter season, pretty much all the churches, shops, restaurants and even Tourist Information were closed. All that remained of the summer tan-seeking throng was a few chilly postcard sellers, construction workers preparing for next year’s rush and a taxi driver who was so desperate for business that he promised to take us anywhere we wanted to go for bus fare prices. We ended up paying him a bit more than bus fare price for the trip to Varna (1.5 hours) and he was the most excited and happy taxi driver I think I’ve ever met. Our measly 30 leva (USD25) fare won’t go far toward the 1,000 leva he pays monthly to rent the car but it’ll help.

Varna is also on the coast but being a big city (3rd largest in Bulgaria) most sun seekers head to one of the smaller resorts nearby (when they come in summer). We got in on a Saturday and the next bus up to Odessa, Ukraine, wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon. Once we’d wandered the beachfront, been to the cathedral, seen the Roman baths and wandered the streets a bit we spent the rest of the time hanging out and doing mundane life stuff like laundry, catching up on emails and watching lots of interesting shows on the History Channel. Did you know that in WW2 homing pigeons were actually a really important means of communication for both the Allies and the Axis? So important that both sides trained peregrine falcons to take out enemy pigeons. The British actually trained their falcons to retrieve the Nazi pigeons instead of just killing them, with messages and markings intact, thereby enabling them to plant double agent pigeons behind Nazi lines. When the Nazis released these devious birds they returned to their roosts in the UK carrying important enemy intelligence. The things you learn when you can’t be bothered to leave the hotel room…

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Week 36: Unexpected Adventures

   Posted by: Rhona    in Bulgaria

From Smolyan we headed north, passing back through Plovdiv and on to Ivan Vazovo village. There Brett had his first Couchsurfing experience as we stayed with a couple and their two children. Atanas is a retired jet pilot who tries to balance holistic living and new age philosophies with an obvious fascination with all things gadget-like and the management of his company, Extreme Bulgaria. We spent an interesting few days being shown around the area, walking, cycling and exploring some of the historical sites. Nearby Hisar has been famous since Roman times for its 22 mineral springs; a 5m high, 3m thick wall was built around the town to protect it from invaders. We also went to Starossel, an ancient Thracian shrine from the late 5th to early 4th century BC. You know something happened a long time ago when they count dates backwards. A keyhole entry led to a rectangular corridor then another doorway to a perfectly circular 5.3m diameter domed chamber (the largest ever discovered). The carving on the doorways was as crisp as if it was carved yesterday and traces of the 7,000 year old paint were still visible.

On our second day with Atanas he took us water tasting. We tried water from a few different springs and compared the taste. They were quite different. People in Bulgaria take bottles to the many springs in each town and fill up their supply of drinking water for the house. We filled six 10L bottles and took them back to the house. In a field nearby was a hot spring where we went to wash one night. It was a small concrete room with what looked like a fire hydrant in the middle. Apparently there used to be some kind of piping but Atanas said it’d been stolen by the gypsies. He didn’t have many good things to say about the gypsies, one of the reasons they’d moved to that particular village was that there weren’t any gypsies (well there was one old lady but she was OK). We squatted next to the gushing pipe and washed then headed outside to get dressed by the light of the moon.

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