Thursday, November 2, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Romania

Morning in Gurgiu
Unless you opt for an extension, Romania gets short shrift on the Budapest to Bucharest Danube cruises. Passengers disembark at Gurgiu in the morning and bus to Bucharest for the night before flying home. The cruise includes lunch, a tour and dinner at the hotel. However, with most flights leaving early in the morning (my friend and I had a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call) no one hit the night spots.

Too bad because this city, one of the largest in Europe, not to mention the Romanian economy, deserves more.

The drive in was quite interesting as our guide, Sorin, told us about Romania with a welcome dose of humor. It was all forest when the Romans arrived, but soon became the agricultural center it still is. Wine culture has a 2,000-year history here and prior to World War II wheat was a major export. Smokers of Marlboros and Kents are enjoying Romanian tobacco.

Tip: The country is filled with smokers but laws eliminating smoking in restaurants were finally passed in 2016.

When a cow leisurely crossed the highway we learned Romania is an open range country.

Vlad Tepes, the Impaler
King or Count, Drakula reigns.
 Dracula, be he the original King Vlad III, "The Impaler," of history or author Bram Stoker's version, is a national hero, especially in Bucharest.

Under Vlad III, "Bucharest was a free trade place," said Sorin. "No taxes, duty free, free parking. Vlad was very good for the country. People respected Vlad."

Whereas his grandfather bribed the Turks to stay out, Vlad fought them, killing 20,000 and impaling them on stakes "like shish kebab," Sorin described, adding that Turkish assassins killed the king, cut off his head and took it to the sultan in Constantinople.
Bram Stoker is on a Romanian postage stamp, tpp.

When Irishman Bram Stoker modeled and usurped the name of his character after the King, public interest was inflamed. The Castle of the Carpathians underwent a name change after lovers of the book decided it was where Count Dracula was buried. The Count has been very good for the Romanian economy and there is even a statue of Bram Stoker in Romania for having made the area so famous. The Irish bar is one of the city's most popular.
Romanian born Bela Lugosi portrayed the classic Dracula.

According to Sorin, "in 1973 they found the grave of Vlad 30 minutes outside Bucharest," although Romanians prefer to keep quiet about it, lest it affect tourism.

Glimpses of Bucharest 
 Upon arriving in Bucharest we go directly to our restaurant situated on a scenic lake.

This banquet-specializing spot is capable of handling five buses or three weddings at a time, complete with musicians and folk dancers.

The restaurant is known for its fish but our meal is classic Romanian fare, salad, beef soup, cabbage rolls and "mamalika," polenta.

The ride back into city center offers a hint of how beautiful Bucharest can be, unlike the Communist era depressing multi-story apartment blocks we saw on our approach.

Our walking tour started at Calea Victoriei in front of the statue of King Karol I, their favorite German King who brought electricity, rail and tramways, votes for women (thanks to his wife, one of Queen Victoria's many daughters), built Symphonic Hall, the library and increased prosperity. He and his steed stand facing the National Art Museum, formerly the Royal Palace.

From there we head into what Sorin called the German Quarter, others Old Town, a warren of streets and impressive buildings, the handsomest of which seemed to have become banks.

Cafes bustled with activity and I Ionged to linger in one but had spied the tiny Stavropoleos Monastery Church up ahead. Our pace was a hasty one and I knew it deserved  more time than was allotted so I hurried ahead.

Built in 1724 as part of a larger inn, its style is wildly eclectic and to me, completely satisfying. Byzantine, Ottoman, Moroccan or Romanesque, it has it.

I've later learned its style is called Brancovenesc, described as eclectic and developed during the reign of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu, 1688-1714.

Rich frescoes inside and out, even richer icons and relic receptacles demand attention, but my favorite spot was the side garden, a sanctuary of peace and reflection.

Tip: The pace of this tour is steady, but it is over flat, paved surfaces without any elevation changes. 

The Harrod's of Bucharest.
There were so many buildings and stores I wanted to see the insides of but couldn't (not to mention the museum, theaters and palaces),  it made the tour as frustrating as it was interesting. 

 Tip: Bucharest is a human-sized city. "We don't like skyscrapers, towers," Sorin said. "Better two, three, four stories." As such it's good destination for Levelers. Flat, too.

The day was hot, though, so the air- conditioned bus was a welcome sight.

Our next stop, "the People's House," brought home what Romania had suffered through since World War II.

Sorin had told us some of the story, how after the Soviet takeover in 1948, " the Russians tried to make us like Russia." Private property was taken over by the state. Productive individual farms were turned into unproductive state-run communes. Farmers were sent to work in factories, businessmen on farms. Nothing worked; hunger and starvation ensued, far worse than in the other Baltic states. One half miillion people were imprisoned, another quarter million were disappeared.

When Nicolae Ceausescu took over the country in 1965 then became president in 1974, he exchanged Socialism for Communism.

"We lost 1,500 during the anti-communist revolution," said Sorin. "He tried to make us like North Korea."

Eventually 100,000 political prisoners were released and individuals reclaimed their property.

The People's House.
As if the economy weren't bad enough, Ceausescu began on the People's House, an oversized testament to his ego. It is the second-largest administrative building in the world (the U. S. Pentagon is the largest). Looking at it from a block away it is as ugly as it is big, totally out of proportion and lacking in grace.

It also lacks air conditioning; Ceausescu didn't like air conditioning. It also lacks more than 100 steps of the finest marble that Ceausescu had torn out. He was short and they were too big for his stride.

He never made a speech from the grand balcony he had built for that purpose. He was deposed, he and his wife tried and executed before it was so christened. Michael Jackson was the first to speak from it.

From there we were delivered to our hotel, the JW Marriott Bucharest Grand another souvenir from the Ceausescu era for it is where foreign dignitaries stayed. I can assure you they were very comfortable.
Tip: If you need anything here, ask the staff. They are extremely accommodating, especially concierge George Soreata who was invaluable in helping me check in for my flight home.

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest:: Bulgaria

We can walk from the ship to town center and our downriver speed has given us extra time to do so. Fortunately, our guide is ready and it is Leveler flat, although initially the surface is uneven in places.

Rose Freedom Square. Photos © by Judy Wells.
We come to the pretty Freedom Square, its park filled with flowers and monuments to soldiers surrounded by attractive buildings.

Opera House. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Opera House, a confection in pink and white anchors one end. Children play and adults watch, shaded by large trees. Idyllic.

Trinity Church. Photos © by Judy Wells.
To the right of the Opera House is the barely visible Trinity Church, the oldest in Ruse (Roo-say) and a gem inside. The original in 1632 was wooden. Deceptively small above ground, the current 1764 version was built during the Turkish occupation when churches couldn't be higher than neighboring houses or a mounted Turkish horseman, so it was expanded below ground.
Interior, Trinity Church. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: There are approximately 20 steps to the lower level. (Sorry, but my hip was hurting to much to do them for an exact count.)

Warning: The priest followed our group out like an angry storm cloud, insisting to our guide that anyone who visited his church should have paid. Our guide glowered back, informing him that no one in his country pays to enter a church. Don't be browbeaten by this or any other priest. Donate, light a candle but only if you want.

We realized that Romania and Bulgaria are the two poorest of the Balkan countries but the incident put a bad taste in our mouths and a damper on the day.

Back aboard, we listened to and watched icon painter Tiva as she made us feel better about the Eastern Orthodox in Bulgaria.
Icon by Tiva. Photos © by Judy Wells.

Tip from Tiva: If you are buying an icon, it should be blessed by an Eastern Orthodox priest and hung on an eastern wall.

Veliko Tarnova
The next day we head toward the Balkan Mountains, an extension of the Carpathians, passing the inevitable fields of sunflowers and corn until the terrain began to get more mountainous.

Veliko Tarnova was the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, 1186 to 1393, until the Turks destroyed it. Today, a town of 70,000, it is famous for the production of rose oil, a necessary ingredient in the better perfumes and an export of Bulgaria for 350 years.

Our guide explained that to produce the best oil, the petals must be picked between 4 a.m. and dawn. A gallon of the oil sells for $1,700 and a billion tons are exported annually.
Medieval center or .... Photos © by Judy Wells.
... Veliko  Tarnova.

We are given a choice, visit the fortified hill fort and the remains of the medieval town or go on and have more time to explore the modern town.

Tip: There are more than 360 steps up to the old town and its cobblestones. The views are lovely but I chose to take pictures at the road level then go to town, the better decision according to those who went to the fort.

Veliko Tarnova is a visual delight, a blend of old, new and quirky.There are slopes and hills but they are manageable as are the few sets of stairs- uneven but no more than six or seven steps at a time - you encounter.

The winding street of craftsmen, the town's main street in the 19th century, is filled with the workshops/stores of jewelers, wood carvers, coppersmiths and artists.

It covers several blocks, each winding higher. Sundries stores sell creams, ointments, powders, perfumes featuring rose oil and small vials of the oil itself. Power boxes and some storefronts are painted with light-hearted images instead of graffiti.

Narrow alleys and lanes elbow off temptingly.

We regroup for lunch at a hotel with Bulgarian college students who are studying languages. The local sauvignon blanc wine is quite good. A little more time to explore the town ends much too quickly. I could have used hours more but wouldn't have missed our next stop for anything.

This village has been named an architectural and museum preserve, an open air look at what this successful trading center was like in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Our first stop was at a former monastery, site of the Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel. We approach up a lane lined with daisies to a tree-shaded plateau with expansive views across the hills and valleys.

Plain ochre stone on the outside, inside the church glows with the rich colors of original frescoes.

 Intimate and welcoming, female saints are depicted in a starry sky, and we are charmed and awed.

As if that weren't enough, we are treated to a brief concert of a cappella Slavic chants by the Orthodox-VT quartet.

We exit exalted.

We visit one of the houses, one built by a prosperous trader. It is interesting, but the experience at the church stays with us. Truly a satisfying, memorable day.

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Serbia and the Iron Gates

The Danube and Valva Rivers meet in Belgrade. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Situating a settlement at the confluence of two rivers can be an advantage economically and strategically. The problem is, as we learned entering Kalemegdam Fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, everyone else wants it, too.

We didn't see an "attack here" sign, but in the past 2,016 years the city has been destroyed 77 times and changed hands 66 times with 6 million residents killed in the process.
Entering Kalemegdan Fortress. Photo © by Judy Wells.

The Romans built the fort on the bluff overlooking the Danube and Valva  Rivers, the most important stronghold on the "stumble road," the military route between Constantinople and the West. The gates are massive, pocked with holes and dents from former assailants.
Doors of Kalemegdan Fortress. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: Yes, you climb a slope but the path is either clay, paved or grassy and the elevation change is very gradual.

When the tribes came south in the 7th century A.D., the Serbs were the largest and strongest of them all, replacing the Romans and commanding three times the land they have now. The Turks arrived and took over in 1389.

It is easy to see why they all wanted to control Belgrade. The views from the fort's ramparts are as beautiful as they are strategic.

Today the fort is a park, lushly green and leafy, dotted with monuments inside with slay tennis and basketball courts, a children's play area and displays of old military weaponry outside and in the grassed over moat.
A dinosaur show in the children's play area. Photo © by
judy Wells.

Downtown Belgrade looks equally engaging but after a comfort and snack stop in Republic Square, rain storms curtailed our exploration. Word is that the city has a booming nightlife.    

Revolution Square area in Belgrade.

Donji Milanovac

Young dancers came first. Photo © by judy Wells.
Ship's tour leader Alina warned us the next stop, Donji Milanovac, was a small town with nothing much to see but that the locals were going to show it to us anyway. First, after passengers had assembled on the dock, the young people entertained with lively folk dancing.

The small museum was interesting, especially the section on sturgeon fishing which used to be the village's main economy. A family was allowed to take one sturgeon a year; the sale of caviar from a 600-pound sturgeon supported them nicely. The town was moved three times to accommodate shifts in the Danube and the resulting dams killed of the sturgeon.

Greek Orthodox Church. Photo © by judy Wells.
We saw the Greek Orthodox Church and the school but there was little else to see until we returned to the dock. Despite high winds, artisans and seamstresses had set up booths, hanging embroidered shirts, skirts and table cloths outside.

Tip: Walking is easy with few changes of elevation and not far to go.

After days of switching currencies every day and being stuck with leftover bills and coins that were useless in the next country, this came as both a shock and a treat. Vendors not only took any currency you happened to have, they returned change in any currency you wanted.

I think Donji Milanovac has found a new industry: tourists.

Iron Gates 

Cruising the Danube as River Splendor transits the Iron Gates, 83 miles of gorges separating Serbia and Romania was a treat. The good news was that we loved relaxing with a beverage and watching the beautiful scenery pass by, waving at fishermen and pleasure boaters. The bad news: there was no stopping and a few places looked worth one. 
Dacian King Decebalus carved into a cliff. Photo © by judy Wells.

Particularly intriguing was the "Romanian Rushmore," a giant head of Dacian King Decebalus caved from a stone-faced cliff.  It was an eerie vision, like a scene from a Tolkien novel, and strangely disappointing to discover it was completed in 2004 and not centuries ago. 
Trajan's bridge brought the defeat of the Dacians. Photo © by judy Wells.
Sad, too, as the King's visage stared at the point where Roman Emperor Trajan's forces built a bridge to cross the river and defeat his kingdom. 

It was bittersweet going through the locks that killed off the sturgeon but also fun getting to see the "tags" of ships' that have used them.

We share a lock with Avalon Passion.
Also a testimony of the growing popularity of river cruising.

Leia Mais…