Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Should Levelers Try an Expedition Cruise?

Lonely Planet declared 2018 the year of the expeditionary cruise.

As a Leveler, should you try one? If you have always wanted to, yes.  Otherwise, maybe.

Expedition cruises can be expensive; they go to extreme areas that require special equipment and attire, skill to navigate and reach with limited accessibility. Serious expedition ships are smaller, less luxurious, without the amenities of casinos or show rooms, but are hospitable and comfortable. All of which limits potential passengers, many of whom prefer effortless experiences that follow set itineraries.

In polar climes, the ships usually provide parkas and waterproof boots, but you will need very warm gloves, head-coverings and waterproof pants in addition to normal winter attire.

Expedition cruises have itineraries but wind, seas and weather determine where you will go and what you will see. 

Levelers may not be up to all of a daily excursion. Thanks to a sinus infection that affected my balance, I wasn't when I took Poseidon's cruise to Greenland last year, but thoroughly enjoyed what I could do.

Staff made entering and exiting zodiacs safe and easy. We even transferred from one zodiac to another at sea.

While others clambered up rocky, icy slopes I stayed at lower levels learning about the geology, ecology and plant life from expert staffers who were delighted to show off the environment they loved.

When we visited a village, while others continued to reach the highest points allowed, I had time to interact with residents,

examine the museums and collections of things they valued and watch artisans at work. 

Let me give you some of the details. It was Sea Spirit's first cruise of the season and winter had been unusually harsh and long. That meant there was thick ice where there shouldn't have been, limiting the ship's access to several prime spots in the itinerary. Disappointing yes, but we visited spots others didn't see.

TIP: Cruises later in the season will be more expensive but you are more likely to see what the itinerary promises and with less physical effort.

As the cruise came to an end, it was obvious we would not be able to get far enough inland for standard transport to the airport at Kangerlussuaq. Instead, with military planning and precision, our luggage was airlifted off via helicopter, we were loaded into zodiacs in groups, delivered to an abandoned fishing camp and shuttled via helicopter to the airport.

In short, an exciting for most - intimidating for a few - experience and a story to tell for years to come.

And isn't that what an expedition cruise is all about?

Leia Mais…
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 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 too 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…