Friday, July 22, 2011

The Turkey is Done

I have been back in the US for a full week now, and I have gone through the expected jet lag (although not as bad as it was in Romania). While I'm not back to my normal routines I am back to the reality of living in America. Traveling does many things for a person, and I am no exception. I think every trip and every location holds something special. Each of the three countries I visited this time also held some special connections. Romania, what I thought would be a land of vampires, turned out to be a country rich in a complex and sometimes upsetting history.  Our buddy Vlad is actually considered to be a national hero and bears no resemblance to the mysterious vampire that is Dracula. While disappointed at first, the folk history and the stories of the Ottoman Empire turned out to be much more interesting.

Bulgaria was a bit of a different story for me though. I found it very difficult to make much of a connection with the city of Sofia and my visit to the nearby Rila Monastery. There was no shortage of history, but there seemed to be gaps which can be filled no doubt with stories like that of Romania but no one was willing to talk about it. My connection with Sofia lies with the BCES conference and the lovely people I met. I was even invited to come back again next year. If only it was in a more desirable location.

Finally, Istanbul, a city on two continents was a completely different world from the difficult to navigate countries of Romania and Bulgaria. It was a beautifully overwhelming combination of old and new. I don't know if it was the fact that I was alone or not, but the people were some of the most hospitable I have ever met. Everyone was eager to help and share a bit of history and culture too.

While I will probably not find myself in Romania or Bulgaria again, I'm so happy to have experienced something new and off the beaten path. From my short visit to Istanbul and the fortune in my cup of Turkish coffee, I'm almost positive that I will return. There are so many new things to see and so many new adventures yet to be had. While the next trip is uncertain, I do know that I am going to spend the next couple of weeks with family before I jump back into the world of international education.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Under the Weather and Powering Through

Turkish Flag
Yesterday, July 13th I was sick in bed for most of the day. I had the best intentions to go out and explore the city, but I woke up feeling terrible. I tried to go to breakfast, but I only lasted a few minutes and it was back to bed. I probably had too much fun on my cruise the day before. I rested up for the day knowing that I had one day left.

Today I woke up feeling a little bit better, but not 100% I still had a list of things to do though so I was out pretty early to Hagia Sofia. I spent part of the morning walking barefoot through mausoleums all by myself. I also walked the perimeter of the complex down the stone steps. It was so peaceful in this section where the tour groups don't go. I soon found the main entrance, paid my entrance fee and wandered around the church turned mosque.

After that, it was time for my red bus tour of the city. Since Dolmobache Palace was closed, I decided to just stay on the bus and listen to the tour. I wasn't really feeling up to stopping at all the places. The views from the top of the bus were great, and it was nice to just be able to sit and enjoy the scenery.

When the bus tour was over I wandered back to Hagia Sofia to the entrance of Topkapi Palace. I got to the gates, but I just couldn't bring myself to go in because there were just so many people and huge tour groups. Instead I wandered back behind Sofia again to try to find a place that had been recommended. I found it, Caferaga Medresesi which was down some steps and completely out of the way. It is a series of handicraft shops with a small courtyard cafe in the middle. I stopped there to try to eat something for lunch (cold cucumber and yogurt soup). It was so great to be away from the tours and the noise.

Feeling like I had a bit more energy, I decided to brave the Grand Bazaar. I had to go even if I was really tired and didn't really know where it was. Again, maps don't help me, but I did see a sign near my hotel, so I decided to follow that. That sign led up a hill and to another sign, and another, and down a long street. When I walked in, I knew I couldn't stay long, but I was glad I got to see it. It was a cross between a covered market and a mall. There were all sorts of shops, jewelry, leather goods, souvenirs. I was told that you have to bargain for everything, but I had already scoped out what I was going to buy the other day. I was just there to see what all the fuss was about.
Grand Bazaar 

I finished off the day and my trip with a dinner at the rooftop restaurant at my hotel. The panoramic views were fantastic, and I sat and watched the boats go up and down the Bosphorus. It was a very nice end to to a fabulous trip.

Erin Takes on the Bosphorus

Lovely day for a boat ride!
I am a little bit behind on my posts as usual, so here is my attempt to catch up. A couple days ago I signed up for a tour of the Bosphorus. Now for those who are not as geographically savvy, it is the channel that connects the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea. It also runs between the Europe and Asia sides of Istanbul. Did you know that Istanbul is the only city separated by two continents?

I was picked up at my hotel again, but this time it was a van and not a huge bus. The family that belonged to the South African dad who I met at the travel agency was there too. We made one more stop and drove to the port where our lovely boat was waiting for us. It was awesome, three levels with comfy seats, and I had the second level all to myself (at least for a little while). The cruise started and we went to sites both on the Asia side and Europe side.

Cat keeping away the evil eye.
I'm in Asia!
The first one was called Ortakoy which was a cute little shopping area right under the first bridge. I wandered a bit and watched the cats wander a bit, then it was back on the boat and headed to Asia to the Beylerbeyi Palace. Apparently it was a summer residence for one of the sultans and known for its chandeliers. Soon it was on to the Rumeli Fortress in Europe. We pretty much bounced from side to side alternating Europe and Asia. While this was happening, I met a lovely family from Malaysia who would take my picture for my after I took their picture. We had a very nice agreement. They, like others found it fascinating that I was traveling alone. It was nice to meet families along the way, I was sort of adopted everywhere I went.

New Friends!
By this time, I was starving. Luckily, it was time to go back on to the boat for lunch and a continuation to the Black Sea. Unfortunately, there were new people on the boat now who had joined the 2nd half of the tour, so I lost my spot. I decided to go up to the top floor. That's where I met Mary from Milano Italy and German man (let's call him Claus). They were both traveling alone too and we chatted throughout lunch. Also while eating our Turkish meze and grilled chicken we partook in a German tradition as well. Hooray for Claus!
Meze plate

After lunch, a gorgeous ride, and some lovely Turkish music (although at one point the Godfather theme song came on which made me laugh) we stopped at the mouth of the Black Sea near a beach. Then it was off to the fishing village of Poyrazkoy where we only had 15 minutes to spend there. It was the most productive 15 minutes ever though. I bought a ring and a bracelet and I was able to eat a whole ice cream cone. I was pretty impressed with myself. After a long day on the boat, we were headed back to port of Kabatas and back to the hotel. I only got a touch of sunburn, but it was an absolutely beautiful day. This trip is a must do (thanks Walkabout Travel)!

More sophisticated meze plate
Headless Sea Bass
It had been such a wonderful day I decided to continue that feeling and treat myself to a three course dinner at Cafe Sultania. First it was a meze plate with all sorts of lovely items including dolmas (grape leaves wrapped around filling usually rice or meat) which I don't usually like, but they were sooo good. The next course was a headless sea bass. I had the option to keep the head on. Finally, I ended with a fruit plate. This was entirely too much food for me, but it was all so good I had to just keep eating. No meal is complete here though without the complimentary beverage. I indulged in some Turkish coffee and a little dish of Turkish delight. Absolutely delightful! As I sat there, I could still feel the boat moving. My waiter even came over to me at one point in the night and in a very worried tone asked me if I was ok. I said yes, that I was enjoying everything, and he replied that he was concerned because I was being so quiet. Haha I'm alone, who am I going to talk to? Now that I had sufficiently burned my fingers, lips, and mouth (this lovely cup was metal) it was time to go to bed.

Turkish Coffee

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Quick Note

I did not keep the last post short like I wanted to of course, so I will wait until tomorrow to do my next post because I think I have more to say about what I did today (Cruise down the Bosphorus) than I did yesterday. For now, it's time for me to go to sleep. I have a red double decker bus to ride all around the city tomorrow.

A Day Trip from Istanbul: Princes' Island

Don't be alarmed, I'm still here. I have just been so busy and so tired at the end of the day that I haven't had a chance to write. As I sit here I am struggling a bit to both remember all the events of the past two days and keep my eyes open. I cannot say enough about how much I love this city! It's a wonderful combination of old and new, history and progression. I have met such wonderful people from all over the world too! Traveling alone, while daunting and lonely at times is really nice, though it isn't something I would want to do all the time.

View from the boat
Typical Transportation System
I'm going to keep this post relatively short, although I have said that before and end up writing a novel. Yesterday, Monday, July 11th I was picked up at my hotel bright and early by a bus. Turns out I ended up on the mainly Arabic speaking tour. As were were driving to the port, the guide explained a little bit about the history of the city of Istanbul formerly known as Constantinople. The walls were built by the Romans a long time ago and are considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today I was going to Princes' Island which is actually more than one island but we were going to the biggest one. The boat ride was about an hour and a half long, but the scenery was beautiful and the weather was perfect, so it was a nice ride. Once I go to the island all of us had to get into a really long line for the horse and carriage ride. I was paired with a very nice Russian speaking family from Azerbaijan for my ride. Their daughter spoke a little bit of English and she was very happy to be able to practice with me. The ride took us all around the island to see all of the old houses and lovely views. There are no cars allowed on this island at all, so if you want to get anywhere you have to walk, ride a bike, or take a horse and cart. It was kind of like taking a trip back in time.
Look Carefully!

Lunch Time! 3 Courses Hooray!
After the ride it was time for lunch. This time I was paired with a family from Saudia Arabia. Before they got to the table, the tour guide came up to me and asked me why I was on this tour. I laughed and said, "why not." It was full of families, but that's ok they tend to take on extra people pretty easily. He also said that they were the quietest family. They were really interesting to talk to, and I enjoyed lunch by the Marmara Sea very much.

After some free time, it was time to meet back up with the group to head back to the mainland. I kept dozing in and out on the boat, but there were a couple things that caught my attention on the ride. The first was a man who did an impromptu infomercial about a mini plastic juicer. What a deal, 6 for 5 Turkish Lira! People were going crazy over these things. A little while later, I saw some dolphins swimming next to the boat.

I was so tired by the end of the trip! It took everything I had to get myself to a restaurant for dinner. I went to the first place I saw called Ozler Restaurant. This place was decorated with lots of big pillows and carpets on the walls but it was all open. I sat next to a fountain in the middle of the place which had some goldfish and turtles swimming around. The food was decent, but not the best I had had so far. I wanted to get the bill so badly, but I couldn't leave without having a scalding hot drink. This time it was apple tea which was very good. It is served in a small glass which sits in a small dish. It's so hot, but the Turkish people drink it right away with a combination of blowing on it and sipping at the same time. I always just end up burning my mouth.

Just for Fun

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wow, what a day continued...

Observing Muslim culture inside
Blue Mosque
In an effort not to bore anyone to death, I split the posts because there is just so much to write! So where was I? Oh yes, I was about to start wandering a strange city by myself with a map that I don't understand. Excellent. I stepped out of the hotel, and as luck may have it there were crowds of people heading in one direction, so I decided to follow them. Again, luck was on my side because I stumbled upon a very large mosque. It was an overwhelming sight both the building and all of the people from cruises milling around with tour guides. I probably looked pretty confused because a nice young man walked up to me and offered to show me the entrance and wait outside for me when I was done visiting the mosque. That was very nice of him to walk me through the process of taking off my shoes and making sure that I was wearing shoulder to ankle scarves. As soon as I walked in, I realized that I was in the Blue Mosque. The ceilings are beautifully painted mainly in blue, and the whole building is just awe inspiring.

Outside of Blue Mosque
So I left the mosque and my new friend was waiting to show me his family's shop. I figured that it was the least I could do. This very friendly gentleman took me to a carpet shop and up the the third floor where I go to see all sorts of very expensive Turkish carpets laid out in front of me. I told them that I didn't want to buy anything, but I took their information just to be nice. While I was there though I got to hear all sorts of interesting history about the different tribes that make the carpets and how they are all different. I was very eager to get out of there though, so I thanked them and went on my way. Back through the mosque I met two more very nice gentlemen who wanted to take me to their families' carpet shops. I learned my lesson :)

Blue Mosque through the fountain
Agia Sofia
 (once a church now a mosque)
 I decided I needed to rest a little and enjoy my surroundings, so I found a bench in between Agia Sofia and the Blue Mosque just as a prayer started. The songs filtered through the speakers, and it was very calming to sit in front of the fountain and jot down some notes so I wouldn't forget everything that had happened so far. There is such a good energy here; the people seem happy, and everyone has been so friendly. I'm surrounded by people selling watermelon and grilled corn on the cob, and it is just fun to watch families enjoying the beautiful weather.  I roamed around for a while longer taking in the sights.

I also found the red bus that will take me on a tour of the whole city for a very reasonable price and a travel agency that turned out took up a large portion of the day. I hadn't heard back from the tour agency that I had contacted while I was in Sofia, so I decided to get some information about a couple day trips. This is where I met Murat, my travel consultant. Here I booked a tour for tomorrow to Princes' Island and Tuesday for a tour of the Bhosphorus. I was feeling very proud of myself for getting so much accomplished in just a couple hours. I had to go back to the hotel to get some money to pay for the tours, and then I was out again to find a restaurant and pay for my tours. I went back to the travel agency to quickly pay my balance, but it turned into a cultural lesson. I had my first Turkish coffee, and learned how to tell a fortune by flipping the cup upside down and stacking coins on top (for a fortune related to money, but you can also stack rings for marriage, or keys for a home) and waiting for the sludge on the bottom to slide into a pattern. I said some Turkish saying and flipped over the cup to find, according to Murat, the skyline of Istanbul. That could mean a couple things I suppose. I hope it means that I will return to Istanbul some day. Then we sat for a while looking at a book with beautiful photos of Istanbul. I got a mini history lesson, and I met a dad from South Africa who will be on my tour on Tuesday. It was great to just hang out and chat for a while.

Dinner, Yum!
Gift from Ihsan
Now on to dinner...In the spirit of the day I found a very touristy restaurant on the way back from the travel agency. My first Turkish food experience was a good one though. I got some sort of beef kabob by the recommendation of my waiter Ihsan who has become my new best friend. The restaurant is in a great spot outside for people watching, and Ihsan periodically comes over to chat with me.  Soon, I was brought some flower petals for my table and a gift of cappuccino. I may not sleep tonight because of all of this caffeine in my system, but it sure is funny. The music is great too, and it reminds me of being on the Greek Islands. There is also a man with two white rabbits sitting on top of a cage. According to Ihsan, they tell can tell your futures too just like a cup of coffe and some kinds of birds. He has also informed me that this is all fake, but fun. I am learning so much, and I have only been here a few short hours. I sat at the restaurant until everyone had left and I was alone with the waiters and the owner. I couldn't be happier! This is probably the best birthday present I could give to myself.  I can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring!

Wow, what a day!

There is so much to say about today, I barely know where to start! I suppose I will skip my uneventful morning in Sofia and skip to my new favorite airline, Turkish Airlines. They are wonderful. Not only did I get a seat with lots of leg room, some headphones, and a bit of American TV, but I got a full meal for a one hour flight. Believe it or not it was a turkey sandwich. Unfortunately being by myself I had to enjoy that piece of irony all on my own. I sat next to a very nice business man who thought I was Bulgarian (a sign I had been there too long) who pointed out all of the landmarks from the window of the plane and gave me some suggestions for where to go. He also told me that the Marmara Sea means marble because there is so much of it there. I then proceded to get my visa and go through customs where I met a very nice lady on her way to run a university in Lahore, Pakistan. Talk about brave!

As I entered the arrivals area at the airport, I didn't see my ride, so that prompted many trips up and down the length of the airport to do things like exchange money and try to find someone willing to call my hotel to find out if someone was coming to get me. Eventually I found someone who led me to a van that I had all to myself. It was a pretty long ride, but I got a great view of the city. I got all checked in and I was given a map. For those of you who know me pretty well, maps are pretty useless for me. I tried though. I went up to my room and laid all of my materials out on the bed to try to figure out how to get to the main attractions. After an unsuccessful go of it, I decided that I would just venture out keeping careful track of what roads I was taking and try to find everything on my own.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Final Shopska

Well, the conference is officially over, and mom is on her way over the pond to go home. Meanwhile, I am sitting in my hotel room watching animal planet and getting ready for my flight to Istanbul tomorrow morning. 

Covered Market
First things first. Yesterday, we were feeling a bit guilty about not attending more of the conference. It was what brought me here in the first place, so we went to the first session of the morning which turned out to be so great. An Australian couple presented about theories of curriculum and how they can make or break a program. Soon it was tea time, so we stealthily snuck back to the room until lunch time. After lunch, we went into the city of Sofia for the last time to wander around the streets and check out the covered market. The covered market is exactly what it sounds like. There were little shops selling all sorts of food, but there were also random things like leather belts and umbrellas. 

Revolutionary Statue in Downtown Sofia
A little later it was time for the closing of the conference, group picture, and dinner. Mom and I had a lovely time eating our four course meal. Nickolay, the conference coordinator and his wife came by for a chat to make sure we were having a good time. He was joined by his staff for a cheers too. I then became known as Erin Brockovitch. Everyone had a good laugh. Everyone was so nice and accommodating, and we all got invited back for next year. They are not sure where the conference will be held but they have narrowed it down to either a mineral spa in the middle of nowhere or a small village in the middle of no where. I may need to look for a new conference for next year :)

National History Museum
This morning, mom and I had breakfast together then we were off on our separate ways: mom to the airport to head home, and me to the National History Museum. This was a very exciting place where I got to see the both the oldest gold and the oldest glass in the world dating back several thousand years b.c. The museum was full of all sorts of interesting history about Sofia, one of the oldest cities in the world. The building that the museum was housed in was formerly a government building with beautiful wood carved ceilings and chandeliers. The English speaking guide, we’ll call her Agnes, was a wealth of information speaking in one long stream of words and barely taking a breath. She rushed us through the entire 3 floors of museum in the span of about an hour. Amazing! 

I then came back to the hotel, had some lunch outside at the restaurant and had a Bulgarian massage. I can’t say that it was the most relaxing experience of my life, but that is a story for another time and place. If I’m feeling brave perhaps I will tackle the Turkish baths next. I’m such a risk taker. Finally, to end the day I ordered some room service including my final Shopska salad.  

On to Istanbul tomorrow for the last leg of my trip!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Just another day in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery
Now that I am slightly more rested and sitting in the conference this morning I think a little better to be able to write this. Being in Bulgaria is much different than being in Romania, and one of the biggest reasons for this is the language. Bulgarian uses the cyrillic alphabet and is very close to Russian. Romanian uses the Roman alphabet and many of the words you can figure out. This makes finding any building a challenge. While many people speak English, the signs are usually only in Bulgarian. 

That being said, yesterday was a relief because after sleeping in and having a nice lunch, we hopped in our air conditioned van with another driver and headed to Rila Monastery. According to everything we had read, it was a “must see.” I think it took about 2 hours to get there, but the drive was really pretty, full of mountains and villages along the way. 
Fountain of youth perhaps?

painted murals outside of the main church
It was worth the drive; the monastery was very beautiful situated in a valley of some nearby mountains. This UNESCO world heritage site was founded sometime in the 10th century by the students of a hermit named Ivan of Rila.  In a nutshell, this monastery was a hub for education and Eastern Orthodox practice. It is still an active monastery and you can even spend a night there, although it was kind of creepy so I wouldn't suggest it. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. 

Veal and mushrooms

St. George Lamb
After the drive back and somewhat of a nap, mom and I decided to go to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. We decided on lamb, veal, and a homemade cake that really wasn’t a cake but more of layers of pudding with fruit dispersed that we affectionately called rabbit. Overall, it was a day full of food and learning.
Homemade Cake

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Baffling Bulgaria

My paper is published in this book!

I have arrived in Bulgaria, Sofia to be specific, but all I can think about is the presentation that I have to give the next day. I still had some work do, so mom and I stayed in for the night and ordered room service.

Presenting :)
The next morning bright and early I got myself ready (as much as I could be) and headed to hall 1 to sit through a presentation before it was my turn. The room was full, but I got through it successfully and everyone seemed interested. That was a big relief, now I could enjoy the city. After listening to a couple other presentations and some lunch, mom and I decided that we deserved a break. Before I could do anything though I needed a nap, so that is exactly what I did.

St. George Church and ruins of a former bath house

Changing of the guard
After the nap it was time for the walking tour or Sofia. This was another free tour like the one we did in Bucharest. Unfortunately, the two hours turned into three and it was beginning to feel a bit like Gilligan's Island. I would love to be able to tell you about all of the lovely Bulgarian history, however, I don't really remember any of what our nice tour guide spoke about, but there were some really nice churches. I do remember that they have had all sorts of different types of government since their beginnings a very very long time ago. I guess the stress of the day got to me.

A very important Bulgarian church.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4th and 5th of July

I'm giving you and myself a bit of a blog break at least until tomorrow after the dreaded presentation is over.

Yesterday was pretty low key including a tour of the parliament building. I think the best way to describe that building is architectural gluttony. I'll just say that we only toured about 7% of the building and it took about an hour. They also take your passport upon entry so that was a bit unnerving. One other interesting fact though is that if you would like to rent a room for a special event it will cost about 2,000 euros. What a deal!
This balcony that I am standing on has an interesting story behind it. The dictator Mr. C intended to make a grand speech from where I stand upon completion of the parliament building. It is still only 90% completed, and he was executed before he had a chance to make the speech. Oddly enough, Michael Jackson was the first one to use the balcony for a public appearance. Unfortunately instead of addressing the people of Bucharest (where he was) he addressed the people of Budapest. This was a big problem because of the international relations between the two countries at the time. Yikes! There is a lesson to be learned here, always know where you are in place and time. ;)
The rest of the day breezed by, and mom and I had a late snack at the out of the way restaurant with the big courtyard that was the first inn in Bucharest along the trade route. It was closed for many years, but lucky for us it opened again just 2 weeks ago.

It’s the next morning and time to go on to the next destination, Sofia, Bulgaria. We had to get up bright and early to get to the airport to take Tarom Airlines and try to spend the last of my leu. We got to the airport in plenty of time by good old driver Tony, but unfortunately the airport would only accept euros so I have some leu that I’ll be taking home. I think I have finally finished my presentation which is a good thing because I am presenting first thing in the morning. Now I just have to go over it a few times and make sure it fits into my allotted time of 30 minutes. 

Wish me luck!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Full of History!

Monument in honor of those who died in revolution
Sorry about the length of this post. Believe me, I edited a lot out already but I just had to include what I did because it is just a perfect example of what a strange and interesting place I am right now. Enjoy your history on this 4th of July weekend!

It’s 4th of July weekend in the post communist country of Romania, and to celebrate my independence I spent the past couple of days learning about what life was like during the control of Communist Dictator Ceausescu (pronounced chow ches koo according to me). In the true Communist spirit I’ve taken to wearing only brown, black, and navy. There is no color here, and it feels strange to wear any sort of color so you don’t project a sense of happiness. The plan for Sunday was to sleep in, have brunch at the Van Gogh Cafe, and take a cultural walk down the main street of the city called Victory Blvd. This was renamed when Romanians earned their independence from the Turks from the victory of battle. This happened between 1877 and 1878.  After a nice leisurely brunch (all meals are this way because the service is not good here), mom and I walked north on Calea Victoriei to our first stop of the Romanian National Art Museum. The first floor was a collection of Romanian Medieval art. In all of the museums and public buildings you have to pay a fee to take pictures.  It is always at least 3 times more than the entrance fee, so that’s why I don’t have pictures in any of the palaces and museums. The exhibit was pretty uneventful. The best description would be to say that it was a good representation of Byzantine art, icons, and furniture from the 1400’s (during Vlad’s time). After walking through many rooms and reading lots of information, it all started to look the same. The handwritten cyrillic bibles with gilded covers were pretty impressive though. The next floor was the modern art collection. I use this term very loosely though because all of the paintings were from the late 1800’s. There was nothing even remotely modern in this collection. A majority of the paintings were portraits of the boyars or aristocracy and it only took up two small rooms. 
After the museum, we wandered to Revolution Square where a huge part of Romanian history took place just a few short years ago. A little background for all of you history the early 1980’s a man named Ceausescu took control as dictator. He had visited many other places in the world and decided that he wanted to destroy any remnants of Romania’s royal history so he demolished most of the city and turned some of the key buildings into museums or libraries. It was his dream to create a communist city tailored to his liking including the building that is now the parliament administration building (more on that later). Inspired by Paris, he designed an extremely wide street with fountains as far as the eye can see. To this day the city is an active or in some cases not so active construction zone. Nothing got in the way of making Ceausescu’s vision. This caused houses to be destroyed and many dogs to lose their homes because their humans couldn’t take care of them anymore. 

Now, the city has a big problem with stray dogs wandering around. People nicknamed this time Ceaus-shima as a combination of the dictator and the hiroshima bomb because everything happened so fast as if a bomb went off. Back to Revolution Square. This was the spot where in December of 1989 Ceausescu came to the balcony of the building of the Communist headquarters (the palace was still being built) to make a standard speech but he was met with a revolt. On the first day 50,000 met in the plaza, but the next day the number doubled. Riots broke out and many people died. The dictator and his family ran to the roof to escape by helicopter, and the politicians waiting in the wings sprung into action. Shortly after leaving the city, however, the pilot decided that he didn’t want to help anymore and left the family off in the middle of a field which caused them to have to hitchhike. Shortly after, they were recognized and arrested. Both Ceausescu and his wife were charged with many crimes, found guilty, and were executed by firing squad on Christmas day 1989. While that was the official end of of Communist Romania, it is still alive and well on the streets of Bucharest. We learned much of this story while standing in the middle of the square talking to a man passing by. He was excited to talk to Americans and share his knowledge of American authors Emerson and Poe. He explained that those are the things that kept him free during that time in his history. He spoke of billions of dollars stolen from the people and corruption that abounds to this day. He maintained a smile while he spoke though and shared that even though he lives in a horrible place with no freedom (his opinion not mine) his mind remained free because “you can never chain the mind.” This occurred while standing in front of the monument to commemorate the people who died during that December 1989. 

5 Star Bathroom
After all that information it was time for a break, so we headed to the 5 star hotel formerly the Hotel Bucharest for a coffee. Sadly, they don’t even have any information about what to do in this city, so we are still on our own with our shabby map. 

It was getting close to 6:00 p.m. which was the time that our walking tour was due to start, so we headed to the opposite side of the city to meet in front of a clock and the giant fountain. There were about twelve people on the tour from all parts of the world. Our tour guide was surprisingly informative considering our prior experiences, and we walked all over the city to some sites we had already seen and others that were new. We ended the tour in front of the Romanian Atheneum which is arguably one of the most beautiful sites in the city where all of the classical music concerts are performed. To end, we each got a rock with a Romanian stamp glued to it because in Romanian tradition you should take a rock from each place you visit.  Overall a very busy and information filled day. 
Romanian Atheneum

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Brasov Bound

Black Church
So after Bran Castle it was back in the car and off to the town of Brasov (pronounced Brashov). We were now officially in Transylvania. One of the interesting things about Brasov is that it was originally built as a citadel or walled city. Our first stop in this adorably quaint town was the Black Church formerly the church of St. Maria. The reason for the name change was the simple fact that there was a big fire and much of the outside of the church remains charred black.  Famous for establishing this church and creating a map of Transylvania, Johannes Honterus is considered to be the Luther of the region.  Though it is strictly considered a church it presents itself as a cathedral complete with organ playing ominous music as we walked slowly down the isles. The walls were also lined with tapestries or Anatolian knotted carpets that we later found out were imported from Turkey years ago. Another notable fact is that this church houses the largest tower bell in Romania and is also considered to be the largest church in all of south east Europe.

Strada Sforii
Walking through the town, Tony our guide, led us to the the most narrow street in Europe called Strada Sforii. I'm not sure if any of these stats are correct, but they make for good writing so I'll continue to believe Tony's stories. The most narrow street of course cannot accomodate cars, but it was fun to walk down.

We continued the tour of the town by walking down the cafe lined streets. It was set up a bit like Las Ramblas in Barcelona in that the tables were outside along the middle of the street and you could walk down both sides. Each building we passed had its own colors and character but they all seemed to fit together to form a nice little city of 400,000. On the walk, there was what seemed like an impromptu parade of nations. Groups from surrounding countries in traditional dress paraded down the street playing instruments and singing. I'm not sure what exactly was going on, but it was fun to see.

Impromptu parade

After the parade we took a short hike up a hill to a tower to get a better view of the city. In the spirit of Hollywood, there was a large sign in the nearby mountain stating that we were in Brasov.
The view speaks for itself!