Entranced by Transylvania

We left you with the love story of a princess and a violin player that met at the Royal Court in Sinaia, held in a magical castle in Transylvania, the epitomy of Romance itself, beautiful Peles castle.

They were introduced by a very romantic woman, the poet queen Carmen Sylva, the wife of King Carol I. Since her husband was rather cold and they became even more estranged after the death of their only daughter, 3 year old princess Marie, she turned her romantic dreams towards others. She encouraged a love affair between the King’s adopted nephew and heir apparent Ferdinand and one of her favorite ladies in waiting. For that both women were exiled for years from the court and young Ferdinand was sent to Europe to look for a suitable bride. The queen’s romantic name Carmen Sylva was her nom de plum, her real name being Pauline Elisabeth Ottilie Luise of Wied. Not very Romanian sounding, eh?

That’s the thing with the Royal House of Romania. The Kingdom of Romania was pretty short lived and ruled by a royal family that was a branch of the German Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty. The kingdom existed from 1881, when a German prince Karl was proclaimed king Carol I of Romania, until 1947, when the last king, Michael I of Romania was forced to abdicate. Still in the short 66 years there was plenty of romances, intrigues and, scandals. And sadly, not many happy marriages.

I was never interested in royals and couldn’t really understand people’s obsession with tabloid news of royal families, but now that I have spent hours and hours digging through the life of the Romanian Royal family I can feel a certain satisfaction of a commoner seeing how despite privilege and money they are all pretty screwed up and not particularly happy. So, when Ferdinand had to give up his Romanian love, he dutifully found a suitable bride in 17 year old granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Marie. The start of their married life was not easy under the stern control of King Carol I, but Marie dutifully produced children: prince Carol first, and then five more. Still, their relationship matured only to one based on a cordial friendship and respect which ended up giving Marie a lot of positive influence on her husband, when he finally became King Ferdinand I and he had to decide on which side Romania will fight in WWI. It is said she took many lovers and that some of her children were not fathered by her husband, though he helpfully claimed paternity. The next king, their first son Carol II really made a lot of women unhappy. Passionately and in opposition to the rules and his duties he fell in and out of love. Already as a mere teenager he produced two out of wedlock children and then in secret married a general’s daughter with whom he had a son. When that marriage was annulled against his will, he married an exiled Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark and had another son – Michael, but then took up a series of mistresses. Left the country with one and renounced his royal succession rights, putting his son Michael I on the throne at the tender age of 6. Only to change his mind three years later, return and take the throne for himself and proceed to make his ex wife’s life most miserable. Only to be deposed 10 years later with now adult Michael becoming king in the worst of times during WWII.

When Michael was forced to abdicate after the war, he had just been engaged to princess Anne etc. etc. of Bourbon-Parma. In exile and without means and despite opposition from the Catholic pope (who wouldn’t give dispensation to a catholic to marry an Eastern Orthodox) they married in Athens and seem to have been one of the Royal exceptions. They lead a relatively simple life and were married more than 60 years raising 5 daughters. Maybe that is the secret- stay away from court and titles and royal intrigue.

When it comes to intrigue no one was embroiled in it more deeply than famous 15th century Wallachian Voivode (=Count) Dracula. Notice I did not say Romanian, as at his time there was no Romania as of yet. Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad II Dracul. His father had won the moniker “Dracul” for his membership in the Order of the Dragon, a militant fraternity, established to fight the Ottoman Turks. Younger Vlad was born in the Transylavian Saxon town of Sighisoara (then in the Kingdom of Hungary). You can easily imagine him stalking around those cobblestone streets at night in his black cape. But it would have to be a very small cape as he only stayed there with his family for a few years. I can also imagine his grandma and her sisters looking just about like this in their traditional dress. As a teenager he and his younger brother were held as political hostages by the Ottoman Turks sultan Murad II for four years. It wasn’t a bad existence at all, they were schooled and entertained. While his brother became friends with sultan’s son and converted, Vlad didn’t take lightly to his imprisonment.

When his father was killed by the Hungarians, Vlad made it back home and exacted revenge, embarking on a life of constantly fighting internal and external enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks, who promoted his younger brother Radu the Beautiful. His legendary imaging cruelty is either exaggerated by his enemies or excused by his supporters as a necessary measure of a ruthless Tyrian bringing security and order to his homeland.

Irish writer Bram Stoker borrowed his name and snippets of fact and fairytales to create his famous supernatural blood sucking vampire Count Dracula.

Bran Castle, a great fortresslocated in a mysterious place in the midst of the Carpathian Mountains was chosen as the nocturnal residence of Count Dracula, an ideal and romantic framework for Bram Stoker’s novel. Nobody should be surprised that in real life neither Count Vlad nor Mr. Stoker ever set foot in this castle. Nevertheless thousands of tourists do every day, proving that the power of imagination is real and knows no limits. The more incredible, the more likely the crowds will buy in and pay up! I never read the novel nor seen any of the 200 movies made on the theme of Dracula. It is enough to watch the daily news! Lately it scares the shit out of me. I really don’t enjoy horror movies and find it hard to understand why people seek them out. I don’t like to be scared or have bad dreams. But I don’t mind a good vampire spoof movie and one of the best musicals I ever saw was indeed about Dracula.

Because of Mr. Stoker the western world commonly associates Transylvania with vampires. How unfair, for Transylvania is so much more. This cauldron surrounded by Carpathian mountains boiled for centuries with competing tribes and nations leaving behind a rich history of art, architecture, technical innovation, music and food. Magyars (Hungarians) and Saxons (Germans), Székelys, Ottomans, Poles, Moldovans, Romanians, Gypsies (Romas) and Jews contributed to and competed for the heart of Transylvania.

The name itself Transylvania (“beyond woods” in Latin) speaks of the bucolic beauty. The alternate name, the German Siebenbürgen,   meaning “seven castles” is also used by many neighboring nations.

But wait how do you get seven German castles in Romania? It is not like Romania is even close to Germany! Well, if you are a Hungarian King in the 12th century trying to defend the southeastern border of your kingdom from the foreign invaders trotting in from Central Asia, you look for help far and wide and to the best. And the best at building sturdy fortifications were German Saxons. Incidentally they were also good at mining, and that didn’t hurt, either. Deep in Turda salt mines we realized one does not have to be an engineer to admire the beauty left behind after all the salt has been extracted over hundreds of years of mining. Give the Saxons special rights (whoever ever said no to paying less taxes?) and new opportunities and they will come. “Go East, my Saxon son!” must have been the cry. And through the centuries they mined and they built walls and villages and fortified churches and towns. Seven of them, amongst those the most beautiful Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sighisoara (Schässburg). Most of the Germans left Romania after WWII and those who didn’t got stuck under the communist rule and when that finally collapsed, they also took of for Germany and Austria.

At the entrance to the Sibiu’s main Lutheran church tower we met a German lady who volunteered as a local guide. In retirement she came back to live modestly in her beloved home town. She kindly let us conquer few hundred stairs to reveal a beautiful view of Sibiu against Fagaras Mountains shared only with resident pigeons. Looking down we could see all the houses looking back at us with their window-eyes. In a friendly, not creepy way at all. In the town of Sighisoara we strolled trough an expansive and melancholy old graveyard with hundreds of graves of Saxons living in this town for centuries. The Hungarians have left their architectural mark in Transylvania with the Castle of Corvinus (or Hunyeadora) There are a number of legends associated with the castle, the most prominent among them being that Vlad the Impaler spent some seven years in the dungeons of Corvin Castle. In fact it was 12 years at Corvin’s large renaissance castle in Visegrád.There were a numbers of prison towers and the dungeons were connected to a bear pit in which prisoners were disposed in afterwards.

Nice Hungarian contribution, indeed, but what about Romanians? Well, it seems that Romanians were sprinkled throughout the territories, but largely sheep herding peasants with little power, except if you consider Wallachia and Moldavia as having alongside Romanian population the nobility represented by such men as Dracula and Stephan the Great respectively.

In the town of Alba Iulia we were startled to come accross an excavated Roman (no, not a typo missing –ian) town. Here the Roman Empire successfully fought fierce Dacian tribes and under Emperor Trajan established the seat of the XIII Gemini Legion. While Romanian is based on old Roman (Latin) language, it has also been influenced by Slavic and Germanic languages and the exact origin of Romanian is still disputed in academia. For me the richness of the Romanian people lies not in castles and palaces but in their colorful, intricate, handmade and very well preserved and cherished everyday folk art.

And there is no better place but the ASTRA Museum and endless skansen on the outskirts of Sibiu. We lucked out that we visited at a time of a festival, so the huge outdoor area with rescued and restored traditional dwellingsfrom all over Romania was particularly lively and full of happy people in beautiful traditional clothes. Some were singing, dancing, and playing instruments and some cooking and npassing out free traditional foods. A great send off from our favorite Balkan country.

Reminiscing In Romania

Leaving the dismal disappointments of Moldova for shimmering hope of Romania, with pain in our hearts, knowing full well we will never ever return, we were very much aware that reality rarely matches your expectations. Fully recovered from food poisoning and freshly stuffed with juicy apricots and peaches bought from a sweet roadside vendor in pouring rain, we were ready to recalibrate our expectations on the other side of the border and crossed the river Prut back to Romania. 

And when you least expect it, good things happen. We were entering a different Romania, not at all like what we saw in Romania Part 1 – the Black Sea Coast and the Danube Delta. No wonder as historically it was indeed a different world all together, for centuries part of “good old” Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One feels sorry for Romanian school kids having to learn their country’s history. The patchwork of tribes, languages, invasions, intrusions, meddling and local feuds is overwhelming! We entered the region of Bukovina in northern Romania along the border with Ukraine and we expected to find yet another backwater area. Well, surprise, surprise! The late afternoon sun was shining, roads were unexpectedly good, our navigational system started working again, and the hotel booked just a few minutes before our arrival was way above our expectations, recalibrated or not, and so was its restaurant with impeccable service. The array of beers and the name –  Sonnenhof Hotel should have been a good indication of what was to come.

It has to be stressed again how much the atmosphere in the car and overall mood on this expedition is, unfortunately, dependent on how well the old bastard like me is fed and watered, the frequency and quality of espresso drinks served, the proper welcomes in the hotel lobby by good looking young ladies speaking good English, how he is ushered to his room with orthopaedic quality bed, serving his back very well and finally how thick is the foam in  his bath tub full of hot water. Did I mention that the latest available edition of New York Times properly ironed for his comfortable spa reading is awaiting him as well? Or at least fast speed WiFi so he can read it on his phone.  

With all of this delivered daily we discovered an area full of stunning beauty and, as a rich froth on my cappuccino, absolutely spectacular churches and monasteries, I never heard of, until my companion dragged me to them!

They are sprinkled in the vicinity of Suceava and as they are quite well known UNESCO recognized tourist attractions, we chose to start with a small one, where we only had to contend with two or three other visitors. Biserica (=church) Luca Arbore was named after its patron Luca Arbore, who had it built over the summer of the year 1503 A.D. (yup, we could only dream nowadays about such short delivery times of builders) after he had defended Suceava from Polish troops for his king Stephan the Great. As he was often partaking of such skirmishes he intended the church to be his burial place and dedicated it to the beheading of John the Baptist.

How strange that he and his sons were soon thereafter falsely accused of treason and beheaded as well. 

As you may know, in the olden times the word of God by the order of Roman-Catholic Church could have been spread by the priests in Latin only until Protestants, with Martin Luther as the main culprit, came up with a novel idea of spreading it in the language the local people could actually understand. That meant preaching and translating the Bible into different languages. And if the locals could read neither Latin nor any other alphabet, why not make the bible and the most interesting and educational stories (like this one) in the format we call now comics. Violence was popular in the media even then!

The paintings were executed in “al fresco” technique – if you think of your favorite pasta dish, you are absolutely wrong! Stop laughing and listen!

Hence everybody, even those who skipped school and reading classes, knew what was written in the scripture and lived in fear of God! Having all the churches painted inside and out, these comics were very inclusive, so someone like me – the sinners – would usually be left standing outside of the church door, could still get the most important lesson of what punishments awaited me as the outside was richly and in great detail decorated with scenes from hell with a river of fire and poor naked buggers being tortured by devils.

In the meantime the better members of the parish could make it inside and see the fancier parts and the ladies could check the latest fashion of the rich and famous.
What a huge step in democratization of the religious access in the history of human mankind before Gutenberg’s invention of the press!

It was interesting to note that visitors in the centuries past were just as bad at wanting to leave their names behind stretched on the walls expect that this sort of vandalism wasn’t done in secret but with a lot of precision. Here a certain CK dated his visit in 1845 by the painting of the Fall of Constantinople. Many of the richly decorated churches and monasteries were built by king Stephen and his illegitimate son Petru Rareș like Voronets and Moldovita. Those were more popular with the crowds, triggering a flood of Chinese and other guided tours in buses. Encountering those selfie yielding maniacs I felt like running away and screaming “After you saw one (meaning monasteries, not tourists!), you’ve seen them all!”Fortunately, the cultural and artistic director of our trip was well aware of my mind’s fragility and cultural immersion limitations. She diversified our itinerary to allow drives through the green countryside into the Romanian mountains to rehash my sweet memories of trekking there in early 1970s. We undertook a few short hikes into my old haunts enjoying beautiful Carpathian Range now without huge backpacks, just chasing the best shots of local wildlife (they say there are 3000 bears in Romania) and
less wild animals and also the local tribe’s way of life and produce with merciful supportof newly built ski lifts. Which leads me to the next question:

What happened to me that I was suddenly requiring so much comfort in our travel arrangements? I was not always demanding like this. Looking at old photos from my mountaineering years my meals were not served on a silver plate. I was my own chef warming simple packages of dry soup, or rice and baconon a gas cooker fixed between three rocks. My bed was made of thin foam separating my then not so spoiled derrière from the freezing ground! And what about my hot tub? A mountain lake full of near freezing crystal clear water was enough to take care of the aforementioned body part.

I guess, the wear and tear of my body and psyche after the many years of physical and mental abuse and more available travel funds made me lazy and demanding and definitely not a better human being. While I was turning the wheel of our car and pressing the pedal to the metal (being reminded frequently there is something called a speed limit), my wife was exerting a gentle (OK, sometime not so gentle) gentrifying guidance so I could (not always) do better and see there is more to life than reaching a mountain top with the last bottle of beer still unopened in my backpack.

Our zigzag travel from the northeastern to southwestern corners of this large and interesting land open my eyes to countless places I missed on my Romanian conquests before. In Maramures I was introduced to stunning soaring wooden churches and monasteries covered by shingles. The complex of Bârsana monastery in the hidden Ima Valley was a total surprise and a revelation in wood. If ever there was a location Games of Thrones should have used for filming, this was it. Every angle revealed a new beautiful view of fantasy land. We agreed that our favorite was the structure we dubbed the Twirling Church with a double skirt to boot. The complex is newly established and ruled by a stern looking abbess Filofteia. In a nearby Dragomiresti we came across a new construction. A small group of skillful village master builders working with a part time architect with the help of just one crane was building a new wooden church. We were lucky to get a personal guided tour. It is a remarkable undertaking to do this by hand, do not forget the church spires can easily top one hundred feet (30m) of height! While master builder explained the building process, the priest explained the iconography behind the parts, which looked like a novel information to the builder, too.
The supporting column is the symbol of Christ on the cross himself. As per the Book of Revelations: I am Alpha and Omega. Alpha are his feet, Omega his head and on the sides are the nails.

To diversify further my Romanian cultural enrichment my wife introduced me to a home of the most famous Romanian genius – violinist, pianist and composer George Enescu. After overcoming serious navigational difficulties we finally arrived at a small villa, now converted to a museum.
Enescu found a forested lot close to the railways station (because he loved trains and their whistle), designed his villa and paid for it making big bucks as an international violin prodigy. He was also the teacher of famed American violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He said of his teacher that Enescu was “the Absolute by which I judge all others… the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”

He spent in his villa a few good years with his muse Maria Tescanu Rosetti, known in the Romanian Royal Court as Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, a good friend of Queen Marie of Romania. He met her at the royal court in Sinaia and fell madly in love with her, despite her being very married and very difficult. He had lived with her for many years, married her finally in 1939, moving between France and Romania. Unfortunately for this poor chap, the end of WWII came to Romania with Red Army tanks in 1944.  Enescu was chased out of his homeland by the communist government into an illness and financial difficulties fraught exile in Paris (better than Siberia, I have to say). 
And lo and behold not far from his old home, we had a 

chance to listen live to his compositions during the annual musical festival in Brasov. How fun!

But Brasov is in Transylvania and famous Dracula’s Transylvania most certainly deserves its own post.

Mucking Up Moldova

It pains me to admit it, but we went to Moldova for all the wrong reasons. With one important exception – drinking excellent Moldovan wine in situ.

Ever since Republic of Moldova became an independent country I wanted to go. It sounded really cool to go to a country that nobody I knew has been to and nobody really knew anything about. It only took us 28 years to make it there. No rush, though! To this day Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, is also the least visited country in Europe with only 11,000 annually recorded visitors from abroad. A while ago the ex Soviet Republic gained notoriety as the unhappiest country in the world according to World Values Survey. Why would one want to go to the most unhappy country? I just refuse to believe that statement! As always I question authority and the hyped up news titles. There is no way it could be more unhappy than say war torn Syria or Yemen.

OK, it truly, really isn’t. But we certainly were the most miserable travel couple the day we arrived. It was not so much the wait at the border crossing, where in total chaos we kept being yelled at in Romanian and Russian by other miserable car drivers, it wasn’t so much getting lost and more lost on badly signed and even worse maintained roads, nor was it the lack of any reliable information from anyone we asked, it came down to a terrible case of food poisoning that kept us on our knees half the night in our otherwise very lovely boutique hotel. There are small graces you might appreciate, if you get a moment between bathroom runs: having your own en suite bathroom is one, and having a nice clean bathroom with cold tile where you can lie down before you muster the strength to climb back into bed, another. The receptionist was very kind and happily moved us to another unbooked room for an extra night so we could recuperate.

Once we did somewhat, we stumbled around hot as hell capital of Chisinau (Chișinău/Kishinev) in search of an air conditioned coffee shop. In better shape we could have seen most of the main sights in just about half an hour. They are all centered around a small park with a Nativity Cathedral, a tiny Arc de Triomphe,and a statue of Stephen the Great, a Moldovan prince who resisted Ottoman rule. There are a few other spruced up neoclassical buildings around, surprisingly bedecked with European Union flags. While some are trying to get out of EU, some are desperate to get in.

Of course my husband can’t help but notice all the other architecture, the reminders of his Soviet overshadowed childhood. And there is plenty to notice: blocks of Soviet-style buildings and run down apartment complexes running each and every direction.

How about getting out of the capital and into some historical places? Supposedly a short drive from Chisinau there is an old monastery of Orheuil Vechi. A short drive becomes a long drive, because:

– A our hotel receptionist has never been there and he doesn’t have a car so he doesn’t know which road goes there

– B our Google maps doesn’t work here and Maps.me takes us the wrong way, which is the short way that brings us dangerously close to the border of the renegade Transdniester Republic. Oops, there are some guys in strange uniforms at the crossroads. In our rudimentary Russian we ask, “Moldova da?” and they nod. Then we say: “Orheuil Vechi kuda?” and they point to the road. As we drive away we spy a lone (abandoned) Moldovan tank in the bushes. These were definitely not Moldovan soldiers. Wondering if there is an invasion in the works we continue through a village and after consulting with a farmer turn back and take an unpaved road that brings us to another village. We ask some people parking a car, but they are Ukrainian tourists that just arrived. We find the garden of a Homestay restaurant with some young Polish guys. They have no clue where the monastery is, but they are happy to share their booze if we would like? Don’t bother asking the cook, they say, she doesn’t speak anything but Moldovan. Luckily there is a Moldovan family eating lunch inside that lives in Denmark and they tell us in perfect English that the monastery is just around the corner, but we will have to park the car and walk up the hill. So past the old cemetery we walk up the hill until we find some stairs leading into a tunnel of sorts and into the dark cave lit by some sputtering candles. Monks have dug this underground sanctuary in the 13th century and the old monk mumbling prayers in the corner looks like he might as well be from that time. He is barefoot with long gray hair and beard and an old black torn habit. He scares the bejeezus out of me. I walk out to the ledge above the river and I scare myself looking into the wooden window frame It all has a rather pagan feel and when I look at the stone cross I notice the carving of the sun, a pagan symbol of death and rebirth in nature, that often appears on wooden buildings and traditional embroidery. The new main church is more festive and the nuns less scary. Still, we are ready for some earthly fun! WINE!

One thing Moldova is known for is wine and even more so wineries. The two big ones are Milestii Mici and Cricova. The former brags with a Guinness Guinness World Record for storing the biggest wine collection with a whopping 2 million bottles in total and the longest wine tunnels in the country, with a total length of 200 km. The later, established by Stalin, is the producer of Moldovan sparkling wine of choice for all and any celebrations. Russian President Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here. Perhaps he was not quite satisfied with his fête as in 2014 Russia imposed embargo on Moldovan wine. Well, it was really in retaliation for Moldova making moves towards joining the European Union. I wonder if Putin still keeps his collection of wines there? His wine is in good company as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ex-US vice-president Joe Biden, Belarus President Alexandr Lukashenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Romanian royal house all have their own private collections at Cricova. Keeping politics and organized tours aside, we decide to visit the oldest winery, a small establishment Chateau Purcari. It is supposedly the best Moldovan wine and after drinking it, you can just stumble upstairs to your boutique accommodations. It is said that Queen Elizabeth II still regularly orders the 1990 vintage of their famous ruby red.

As per usual in Moldova information is lacking and while online reviews all mention a tortuous long road to get there, no one mentions which way to get there. Maps.me gets us in trouble again! We head southeast from the capital and past the airport the road deteriorated pretty fast. We decide we will go the longer way seeing that that road on the map app is bigger. It will bring us through Bender, the last city on the Moldovan bank of Dniester River. The river should be the de facto border with Transnistria or officially Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, recognized only by three other mostly non-recognised states of Abkhazia, Artsakh (known also as Nagorno-Karabakh) and South Ossetia.

Oops, there are some guys in strange uniforms and this time they have a ramp closing down the road. This time our rudimentary Russian and pointing to the map and mimicking drinking wine gets us nowhere. We are told in no uncertain terms that we need to turn back. Scary to think these militiamen control swaths of Moldovan territory. What stops them from rolling on towards the capital?

We ask the question of the team restoring a small church in a nearby village. “Uh, we are Romanians on a short term project here. It’s a bit scary and all in all the conditions are really tough here. But come see the restoration in progress. Just no photos inside.” It is the American $$ at work, and painstaking work it is restoring the damaged frescoes.

“Why is the church dug into the earth?”

“The legend says the church was built during the rule of the Ottoman Turks and they would only give permission if it was no taller than a man on a horse. So they had to dig down.”

There is another interesting legend that says the Turks stabled their horses in the church, only to find them all dead in the morning. They believed the saints on the walls have stricken them dead, so they gauged out their eyes on the frescoes.” A very nice story but certainly not universally applicable to thousands of damaged frescoes all over the Balkans. When we finally arrive at the winery, we are relieved, but the welcome is far from warm. As much as the winery seems to look to the West in design and technology, the staff still lives in the Soviet East with their language skills and attitudes.

Luckily our sommelier and winery guide is a friendly and funny chap. It is only his first week on the job and what he lacks in experience, he makes up in enthusiasm.After a short tour of the cellar, originally built by monks in the shape of a cross

the tasting fun begins. I am, as usual, particularly interested in the local varietals of wine like Feteasca Alba and Negra. I am surprised to find an old friend from Caucasian Georgia here – the Saperavi.

It is the most unusual tasting I have ever done in my drinking history all over the world. Here the sommelier not only pours you a taste, but drinks with you. Yes, I say drinks, because we are not only taking a sip, and nobody spits, but you drink the quarter glass or so. As the time goes by the amount of bottles mounts. The mood becomes more exuberant. A bottle is rejected because the cork doesn’t smell quite right, the server is yelled at because she has not uncorked the reds on time to let them breath sufficiently. It all culminates in a grand sweep of the sommelier’s arm that knocks over a glass. The one sober participant, my non drinking husband, valiantly jumps in and starts spreading the salt over the spill to save the tablecloth. We end up with quite an artistic rendering on the white canvas. I learn that after the tasting the customers are supposed to take home the bottles with the remaining wine. I just grab the bottle of the sparkling white, it will do great for a mimosa for the next day’s breakfast. After breakfast we say goodbye to the vineyard turning north. It is a small country with largely untouched countryside.

There are vast fields of sunflowers and stretches of freshly plowed blackest soil we have ever seen. There is barely any traffic so even on bad roads we can cross Moldova in a day and get to the northern border with Romania by the evening. Just beyond those traffic signs is the border crossing.

At least now we know what we can expect. Information is king. Nowhere more so than in independent travel.

Romanian Rhapsody in Blue

Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay, we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.

Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.

The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.

“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.

I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.

But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Delta is where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has the third largest biodiversity in the world (over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals. Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species – and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.  It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…

Breezing Through Bulgaria

In the chain of lesser known Balkan countries of the Other Europe, as we like to call it, our knowledge of Bulgaria was rather spotty at best. What do you know about it? If you are a tennis fan, like me, you may know Grigor Dimitrov, quite gifted, but not very accomplished Bulgarian tennis player. He was better known in the media for being a short term boyfriendof the very accomplished Maria Sharapova. Which clearly is not enough to ensure huge crowds of tourists pouring into his country even at the top of the summer season. But the latter is exactly the right reason for us to visit. We love the road and the country less travelled. My personal history with Bulgaria goes far back into my youth with a few memorable trips to Bulgaria’s mountain ranges I “conquered” with my college drinking buddies. 
But while I longingly (and perhaps too frequently) rehashed those memories (ah, to be young again with a big backpack on your back) this trip is not about mountains. With the help of my art historian spouse acting also as a wine connoisseur I was looking forward to upgrading my image of Bulgaria, through cultural historical experiences.
Just as we crossed the Bulgarian border we had to make an unscheduled stop as the brown tourist sign for historical fortress flashed by on the side of the road. We crossed from (Northern) Macedonia, which is considered by many in Bulgaria a rightful part of Bulgaria (as it is the case in Greece). Alas in general, it is a common feature of national identities of many Europeans to feel that some part of their country was at some point stollen by their neighbors, and this transgression could never be forgiven, (while the parts we stole are rightfully ours)!!!.

So right across the border we found an ancient grove of gnarled trees and across a small Strumica river a very moving Memorial to the Bulgarian King Samuil still holding on to his regalia at a place of 1014AD Battle of Kleidion where the Byzantine army finished off the First Bulgarian Empire. If you look closer you can see the blindfolds on the two flanking solders. They are not blindfolds but bandages, because when Vasilius II defeated the Bulgarian army, he captured 14,000 soldiers and had them blinded with only every 100th soldier left with one eye to lead them home. Instead of killing your prisoners you use them to put burden on the state’s (=Veteran’s administration) coffers and families since they will now have to be taken care for the rest of their lives. It is said that at the sight of his returning soldiers Samuel had a heart attack and died. Lest you may feel overly sympathetic to the poor king, let me inform you that he had his brother and his whole family butchered for alleged treason. Well, not all, his son asked him to spare his favorite cousin, which Samuel did. Big mistake! After Samuel’s death a year into his son‘s reign as the new king, the very same cousin murdered him on a hunt. Nice people!

You may remember from our previous blog that this is the same king who built his summer palace on one island of Lake Prespa (now Northern Macedonia), and has his grave on another island of the same lake (now Greece) and was most probably of Armenian parents and certainly had an Armenian wife and an Armenian son in law. (Who by the way was Samuil’s Byzantine prisoner until his daughter fell in love with him. He let her marry him. Big mistake! At first opportunity they ran off to the other side in the process giving access of Samuil’s biggest sea port to the enemy.) Ah, history is full of such back stabbing, deceit and treachery, nowhere more so than on the Balkans.

The Balkans and with extension the Middle East is unfortunately far from a gently simmering melting pot of nationalities, but instead was and is a powder keg, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. No wonder there is a mess when everybody wants to claim that whatever was “accomplished” in his neighborhood in the last few thousand years was done in the name of God (preferably my God) and as such is only a byproduct to support ideology of whatever (preferably our) government. The others with their God and ideology have done them wrong.

So it comes even more as a surprise how often the battles lost are remembered, marked, and celebrated over those we
won (way too few, maybe?). I find that we, Slavs, in particular have such lamenting tendencies. We compose many popular crying folk songs wailed loudly after a certain alcohol level in our veins is reached. There are national heroes and national myths created, only remotely reminding of historical reality. They spread over years and centuries from one to the next generation until they become FACTS. This game never stops as long as it serves the political purpose and expediency and can easily be misused as a call for revenge. This lost battle was one of many followed by others on: Kosovo 1389AD (Serbs against Turks), Mohács 1526AD (Hungarians against Turks), and White Mountain 1620AD (Czechs against Austrian Habsburgs). We Czechs have been crying and whining over this defeat now for almost 400 years and those grievances, for at least some, have not been settled yet and may still deserve blood to be sprinkled over patriotic soil. Let us hope against hope we learn our lessons and we start celebrating our histories and composing more upbeat songs, keeping blood on all sides cool enough as we move forward.

The first true Bulgarian I met who expressed clearly more than lukewarm feelings towards me was this stray buddy abandoned by his rightful local owner. I offered him some food and made a selfie on his behalf. One good deed a day always feels good. Let us be positive from now on.

Easy to accomplish with the prospect of entering the town
of Melnik, home of famous Melnik wine. You might have never heard of it, but Mr. Winston Churchill did, and I understand was in the habit of ordering a large amount every year throughout his life.

I visited this town some 45 years ago while finishing a grueling 7 day North to South Pirin Mountain trek. My archive photo from autumn 1974 can give you a good feel for this snow and miserable weather filled experience.

I vividly remember exhaustedly stumbling into town, looking for nothing more than some decent non canned food, and some famous Melnik wine. After a week of exclusive male companionship (7 wet and stinky guys) I was not necessarily adverse to female participation in social activities such as drinking and singing, to be clear. This time waltzing in on four wheels we were fresh and eager to discover art, architecture, history and culture. We found it invariably intertwined with wine. There was a big Wine Museum in an underground stone wine cellar, a rich merchant’s beautifully restored traditional house with an active wine cellar and Rozhen monastery with old grape trellises. We wondered if the angels imbibed some as they naughtily snatched crowns away from royalty. An attractive and pretty town on its own, Melnik has a decent development of the tourist facilities. Unfortunately the roads are not among them yet, even the one leading to the Zornitza Family estate (of the Relais & Chateau fame), surrounded by a large vineyard. We were personally welcomed and guided by the Director of Marketing, and I can assure you, our and his time was not wasted as we descended into the vineyard cellars, went through a quick review of operation’s history, plans for the future, and were even introduced to the Bulgarian information industry tycoon, who invested some of his fortune into this luxury venture.

The best part, as always, was my wife tasting and discussing a wide array of wines and me taking photos. The knife in my spouse’s hand may look like she is ready to slice a piece of local cheese, but it also adds heavily to the strength of her arguments. Exhausted by the alcohol and culinary intake we more than happily withdrew to recuperate by the pool of another (much more affordable) winery Boutique hotel Sintica in the town of Sandanski. We could enjoy the company of young Bacchus and just around the corner from the hotel we discovered a large if lonely also half naked statue of Spartacus. Huh? In Bulgaria? I always thought Spartacus was Greek, didn’t you? Turns out he was actually Thracian, a Roman mercenary who defected and was then caught and sold at a place called Sklave (meaning Slave) which was a big slave market in Roman times, now a tiny village just around the corner. Some say he was born there too, and his wife, who was a Thracian prophetess, was enslaved with him. It makes sense to me that he would have run back to his birthplace and family.

We came across Thracians when we stumbled upon a cool ancient tomb and cult building. Thracians were a collection of many ferocious Indo-European tribes, sometimes described as red haired barbarians, living in the territory of modern Bulgaria and beyond. Their women were heavily tattooed and were formidable queens. They had some interesting habits: some had their husbands killed and some killed themselves when their husband died.

Of course, it would not be me if I would not have tried to rehash my past glory of mountaineering. Hence I forced this expedition’s Culture Director to go as far as the paved road allowed, then walked as far as I could until the parking lot could not be seen on the photo. After she took my snap shot I was running back to the car as the heavy rain started providing us with a great excuse to back off, avoiding following example of some idiotic tourists walking in the mountains in inappropriate shoes, especially sandals!!! For the good deed of the day we gave a lift to two young German girls, caught in the storm.

So we traded sports for culture and drove to the famous Rila Monastery to admire the striking architecture and richly painted walls. In the rain the capital Sophia was even less attractive, so after the obligatory one night we pushed on towards Plovdiv in the middle of Thracian Plains.

There is a superbly and sensitively restored old Roman Amphitheater worthy of visit even if you are hurrying in the middle of unbearable heat towards what you expect would be soothing cold waters of the Black Sea Coast. Plovdiv turned out to be our favorite Bulgarian city, full of beautifully restored historical 
buildings converted into boutique hotels, cozy restaurants and bars. How refreshing, when left behind by my hyperactive young companion, was to have the option of staying in a cool shaded place, dreaming of a cold drink coming immediately after hitting comfortable sitting arrangement, but well before my treasurer would show up with a wave of magic wand called valet in her hand, asking me to hit the next cultural highlight.

When we reached the Black Sea coast at Sozopol (ancient Apollonia) I realized yet again how unreliable youthful memories are. The beaches and the sea were much less attractive than I remembered and the coast was now, like in Albania, overdeveloped by ugly hotels and apartment buildings, frequented by dense crowds of families with children, happily buying overpriced blue ice cream and kitschy refrigerator magnets for sale on every corner. Thankfully the incoming storm cleared the crowd and provided for a refreshing evening walk and a nice photo opportunity. We passed through bigger cities of Burgas and Varna quickly and hoped for a nicer experience in the small Nessebar with remnants of charming old churches. A decent cappuccino always improves the cultural experience .At the end, upon a recommendation of a Romanian friend we found a small stretch of attractive coast still not totally overrun. Then we left the country for Romania, what we thought was for good. Well, never say never. As we reached, after a few weeks of travel, the Romanian capital of Bucharest, we suddenly realized we were not too far from River Danube again and a place on Bulgarian side we missed on the first go. So feeling a bit guilty over our lack of enthusiasm for Bulgaria, we decided to give it another chance. We crossed the border and the river for the second time and drove to
Veliko Tarnovo, once known as the City of the Tzars. It was the former capital of the Second (much longer) Bulgarian Kingdom between the 12-14th century. Just like the First it crumbled under pressure from its bigger, stronger neighbor, this time the Ottoman Turks. Located in a beautiful canyon cut mercilessly by the river Yantra it is an architectural jewel. What a spectacular and secure setting. No wonder art and culture flourished. In the ruins of Tsarevetz we found a reconstructed Patriarchal cathedral with fascinating contemporary frescoes from the key moments of Bulgarian history, that were a wonderful surprise and a highlight of the trip. I am happy we dedicated a day to it even if it meant extra hours of driving. Another joy of traveling independently! You can change your plans and sidetrack or even double back and maybe right some preferential wrongs.

Blue Lakes of (Northern) Macedonia

As a young penniless student of art history nearly 40 years ago, I came to see firsthand the beautiful medieval frescoes in the Lake Ohrid monasteries. I dragged along a boyfriend and as he was just as penniless as me, we often hunkered down for the night in our sleeping bags by “cultural monuments”, hoping to get sanctuary and protection. If we were lucky and the monasteries were inhabited, despite the communist crack down on religion, the kindly nuns in age old tradition, utterly surprised and delighted by young visitors, would offer a bed and some home made bread and cheese.

This time not as young, alas, but also not as penniless, with husband in tow, I had more comfort in a wonderful apartment overlooking the vast blue Ohrid lake from our balcony. In fact there were some spectacular sunsets to revel in. The two new tourist apartment buildings in a village close by old Ohrid town were built and ran by two kick ass Macedonian women. They became fast friends and offered suggestions and advice as well as the services of their hairdresser and on top of it, did our couple weeks worth of laundry. We rarely stayed in one place for more than a day or two on our Balkans trip, and thus we mostly stayed in hotels, that were of very high standard and incredibly affordable. But not having a very precise plan we were doing our reservations on the fly. Be it on Booking.com or Airbnb, after awhile it can be a bit tiresome and stressful to have to keep looking for accomodations night after night. Sometimes we would make a reservation 20 minutes before arrival to a hotel on the iPhone app and the hotel receptionist would be mighty surprised when we showed up. You do get better at using filters on the booking systems and reading the descriptions and reviews that give you a more accurate picture of a place.

Yet not having an advance reservation gives you additional traveling freedom to change plans or stop for the night earlier, or later, than planned. Thinking back to our young travel days we are feeling grateful that the days of youth hostels and worse are behind us and we can now choose nice, solid 3* – 4 * accomodations(in this neck of the woods, anyhow).

Traveling by car gives you the freedom of staying away from bigger cities in cheaper and quieter accomodations, but when you are in the cities it is a pain in the neck to deal with traffic and even worse – to find parking. So far we only know of one parking ticket we earned on our trip! Generally we did avoid cities, but I insisted we had to spend one night in each capital. And there definitely isn’t a more psychedelically memorable capital than Skopje. Especially at night. Being squeezed between three bigger nations, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, who at times all held chunks of Macedonian territory as part of their own kingdoms, claiming Macedonian Slavs are really just Serbs/Bulgarians/Greeks is not an easy position to be in. Macedonians only got their defined nationhood and home after World War II and only as one of the Yugoslav SFRs (Socialist Federal Republics). After the disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia they have for the first time achieved statehood under the name of Macedonia, and as recently as 2018, under pressure from Greece, changed it to Republic of Northern Macedonia. (The other Macedonia being south of Northern Macedonia in the North of Greece. Confused much?). Having constantly to prove your existence, your nationhood and statehood must make you want to go big with flags, statues and fountains. And big they go. Giant new classical columned buildings of parliaments and History Museums abound. Generating enough electricity to keep them lit the whole night must set the government back a pretty penny. (Hence not much money is left for sidewalks and public transport, practically non existent.)Hero sculptures loom everyone. Sometimes they even borrow their neighbors heroes as their own. Conspicuously missing (read removed) Alexander Macedonski aka Alexander the Great, after Greeks threw a hissy fit. But here is Bulgarian Tsar Samuil, the emperor of the 1st Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 10th century. He himself was actually of Armenian parents, so here you have it.Well, at least we know Sam was a fan. So much so that he moved his capital to Ohrid and built his summer palace on an island in Prespa Lake nearby.

We tried to get to the overgrown remnants of his palace, but by the time we found our way on the badly posted and badly maintained road, the wind had picked up and the fishermen pulled their boats to shore. But chatting with the guys, watching the gathering of the clouds over the blue lake, seeing cormorants and pelicans and water snakes without another tourist in sight was worth it. To this day one can find the sturdy walls of Samuil’s Fort on the hill at the top of Ohrid town. As we climbed through old Ohrid cobblestones streets, we enjoyed peeking into the courtyards of distinct black and white houses.and admiring the views of the blue green water of the lake replete with white swans. But of course I had to check on the old frescoes in the early Christian churches. Ohrid once had 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and has been referred to as “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Some of the 365 churches are still standing in quite the original shape and form. The frescoes are still there, and nicely cleaned and restored, too. As usual I was on the lookout for the angels and found a full procession of them bowing to Virgin Mary. They do so in the beautiful Church of Sv. Sophia. You all will probably know a much more famous church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I always imagine a young woman under the name of Saint Sophia. A wise one, of course, as Sophia in Greek means Wisdom. Wisdom is always associated with the Greek goddess Athena. But we are in Christian mythology waters here and there is a story of an early Christian mother named Sophia who dies of a broken heart after her three daughters: Faith, Hope, and Charity are killed for their Christian beliefs. Rings a bell?

But as much as we all like stories, the Saint Sophia churches around the world are really dedicated simply to Holy Wisdom.

When it comes to illuminating wisdom I was particularly taken by a wise choice of public lighting in Ohrid, where the lamps are in the shape of traditional black and white Ohrid houses and have LED bulbs. Quite befitting for a town that originally was known under the Greek name Lychnidos, meaning “the city of light“.

There was another source of illuminating light and wisdom centered in Ohrid. It was the first Slavic University or Literary School established in the 9th century by St. Clement and St. Naum, the prominent disciples of Cyril and Methodius, who did much to spread Christianity amongst the Slavs. St. Clement is associated with creation of Cyrillic alphabet.

Today 250 million people in Eurasia use it as the official alphabet, most notably Russians. I wonder how many are aware their alphabet was created by a Bulgarian, born in Greece and buried in Macedonia.

With kingdoms coming and going, conquests and defeats, borders were fluid on the Balkans to say the least and many different tribes happily lived together or killed each other with vengeance. They inevitably influenced each other in language, dress and of course, food. Even so far north as Slovenia, the country of my youth, we have a strong mixture of Central European dumpling and potato dishes with Balkan meat feast of čevapčiči and Shish kebab. Green salads are interspersed with tomato and cucumber salad, sometimes with onions and crumbly cheese on top. You will find this delicious salty summer salad everywhere in slight variations under different names: Greek Salad, Bulgarian Salad, Shopski salad or in Turkey . . . no, not Turkish, but simply – Shepherd’s salad. I do find it in part comical and in part infuriating when people start arguing over what a certain dish should be called or who invented it. Probably some poor shepherd’s wife trying to stretch her food budget.

I am a big fan of burek/börek in any shape and form. This cheap and filling flaky pastry and salty cheese dish had spread with Ottoman Turks throughout the Balkans and when devoured fresh out of the oven is particularly satisfying. This one was one of the better ones I had on our trip. I devoured it at the House of the Miyak’s which is part of ancient Macedonian Sv. Jovan Bigorski monastery on the way to another blue Macedonian lake-Lake Mavrovo. Though the monastery had a number of high profile relics (they kinda gross me out), I was more interested in the cultural lore of the mountain tribe of Miyaks. Their biggest village Galichnik never fell to the Turks and to this day they are proudly keeping alive their traditions. I am sad to see that we have come too early to witness the yearly traditional wedding with a day of dancing and feasting. I have to make do with a beautiful collection of traditional costumes. I could spend hours and days admiring the intricate hand made items but we need to head towards the border. But first we will have our last Macedonian feast at the tiny Lebedevo lake. We can easily imagine it is a wedding feast.

Mysterious Albania Unveiled

When my travel partner put on the table the next big trip idea – the Big Balkan Loop, to her big surprise, my feelings were rather lukewarm. But when I heard our itinerary would include Albania, the one country in Europe I have always wanted to visit, my decision was easy. Albania, or Shqipëria, as the Albanians call it has been on my bucket list since my first trip to the region in 1968. I barely brushed the border of Albania then, as I passed through Kosovo, and under Enver Hoxa Albania was hermetically closed to the outside world for many years to come. When they finally opened their doors we were tempted to go, but we put it off because of its Wild West reputation.

The reputation persists even 30 years in. As we were asking people close to the border in Montenegro, what were the conditions in Albania they all warned us not to go.

“You shouldn’t drive alone in Albania. The roads are bad and it is too dangerous.”

“How do you know?” was our retort. “Have you been there?”


And so it went in some other areas, too. When we asked on the Romanian – Moldovan border about the price of gas and the road conditions on the Moldovan side, no one could tell us. But they had plenty of bad stuff to share about their neighbor.

“Have you been there?” was our retort.

“No, but we hear from the relatives on the other side.”

Those who don’t have relatives on the other side, get their information from the TV. And as we know the one principle of the news agencies is: If it bleeds, it leads. So the sensationalistic news of the day about murders and crime gets repeated until everyone is convinced their neighbors are just waiting to pounce on them, if they ever dare cross the border.

As we crossed the border into the last European “hermit kingdom”, our expectations were running very high. Not that we didn’t read plenty of enthusiastic blogs of people traveling through the country, still, there were questions swimming around in our head:

Is the country ready to accept individual travelers; is the basic infrastructure in the places of our interest ready?(Um, yes, the hotels were quite lovely and up to snuff.) With the recent history of unrest and wars in religiously diverse Balkan places like Bosnia and Kosovo, I was especially curious how this country passed through transition from communist dictatorship to some sort of civil society.

How will we communicate? We have done very well so far with Ksenija’s old school Serbo-Croatian to the extent that often the parking and boat touts would yell to their brethren, “They’re our people! Let them be!”

But Albanian language is unrelated to any other and we will have to rely on people knowing some English. Answer: The young people spoke English and were open and eager to talk.

After the morning boat tour on the Montenegro side of Lake Skoder we crossed to the Albanian side of Lake Shkodër and well, we are happy to report that the water in the lake is still the same on both sides of the invisible border. Not only that; the fish in the water, plentiful birds and fowl and blooming water lilies are the same as well. Nature finds its own sensible ways!

On the solid ground of the border our first impressions were pretty good! The road was certainly better than in Montenegro! The post communist new government’s first act was to allow Albanians to own cars. And the fight for hearts and souls had begun in earnest the same day! And the winner is…….. Mercedes-Benz! Albanians love their cars, but not just any car. It must be a Mercedes Benz! And the newer (latest models apply only, please) and bigger, the better! Even if I do not know what was their starting point in 1989 when the regimes of Eastern Europe crumbled, the most significant item needed for a satisfying way of life of any Albanian was ultimately the right to own THE CAR. And everybody had to own the car the very next day. As our guide in Tirana told us: “I had no idea that my grandpa could even drive a car, but the morning after government issued a decree that people could own cars, I saw him happyily driving without the driver license through my hometown in the car of unknown origin!”

Of course Mercedeses, especially new ones, would be too expensive for most Albanians. But they creatively introduced an innovative business model as we were told by a 4-wheel car driver we hired for a ride into the mountains. The vast majority of cars you see in Albania were actually stollen in Western Europe and openly smuggled across the border. If you have had a car for a year and have one thousand euros you can get it legally registered.

No matter how we felt about the state of law in Albania, this information had quite a positive impact on our state of mind as we were, before arriving to Albania, quite concerned that our borrowed old, small BMW (model 100) would be stollen the first night after we crossed the Albanian border. Thankfully, we were assured by people in the travel industry that there is only a limited interest in BMWs, and especially not small and old. Nevertheless we deliberately kept our car very dirty to further lessen the appeal. Of course, if you have a car you have to ride on the roads and, it was a pleasant surprise, the roads were not only empty (of car traffic), but were much better than expected.  I would dare to say they are in much better shape than in the country of our car’s registration, (Czechia), where the roads are under permanent state of repair, and definitely better than in the town of our own permanent residency, (Orinda, California) where the roads are left in a state of permanent disrepair.

The only road we could not drive was the famed road to Theth in the Albanian Accursed Mountains, also known as Albanian Alps. Indeed there was a certain amount of cursing going on driving on that dangerous road and certainly more by the British chaps we came across, who punctured their tire. But in true fashion of travelers helping travelers they had help changing the tire and our driver right off the bat offered to take it back with him and send it to them on the first bus next morning. Proving what people have noticed in their blogs that Albanians are helpful and generous people. Of course if they are not part of the Albanian mafia, which is successfully taking over the world’s underworld.

It is worth mentioning here that during the WWII Albanians were a bright shining exception to one rule. While their Balkan neighbors happily handed over their Jewish population or exterminated it themselves, Albanians not only protected their 200 Jewish neighbors, but also accepted Jewish refugees from Europe, hid them in their homes and helped them leave for safety. Albania was the only country where after the war the Jewish population was bigger than before the war.

Mountain villages were a good place to hide the refuges. And what mountains these are! The mountains remained surprisingly Catholic for centuries of Ottoman rule as they were too remote and the people too fierce for occupying Turks and they left them largely in peace. With intrepid travelers just discovering Albanian mountains and shores, there is a sense of camaraderie that we so fondly remember from our early days of travel. Looking into your smart phone for information is simply not enough and travelers do talk to each other, comparing notes, asking questions and sharing tips.

Let’s just pray the Albanian mountain beauty will stay protected from plastic and architectural garbage that we could see in our short visit to other places.

As we didn’t want to undertake the hike across the mountains we took Lake Koman ferry to reach the other side. At the other end an additional hour drive on a new road brought us to Valbonë, the beginning (or end) of the hiking trail. The mountains on this side were majestic as well and the rivers ran clear. But with a good road, the development was quicker and some larger, uglier hotels started creeping up. So were the first mosques. Nevertheless there seemed no issues about the coexistence of different religions in the mountains or in Albania overall. As a matter of fact Albanians we talked to emphasized this fact and they were clearly proud of it. Just as the American ambassador in 1934 exclaimed that there were no religious problems in Albania, the same has been assessed today. I only wish their neighbors and others further around the world who can’t help but claim their religion is the only right one and can not help but keep killing each other, could learn from Albanians. 

Just a short walking tour through Tirana downtown with a great young Albanian guide gave us the sense of how all major religious groups live peacefully next to each other. Here is a newly built mosque funded by Turkish President Erdogan not far from the Catholic Church of Mother Teresa’s fame (she was Albanian born in North Macedonian capital Skopje) serving as a counterpoint to a beautiful Orthodox Church on the other side of Tirana’s Main square.

The population of Albania is made of a little less than 60% Muslims, 20% Christians (half Catholics, the other half orthodox) and 20% atheist. All of them clearly live in a very peaceful coexistence. Of those Muslims mentioned before more than half are Sunni and the smaller half is Bektashi (a Sufi dervish order) whose members can drink alcohol and eat pork. We were told that because every religion needs some restrictions this sect forbids consumption of rabits.

Research could not verify the latter statement, but in solidarity with the rest of the country we decided to order in the cozy restaurant in the beautiful town of Berat an exquisite roasted rabbit to fight increased population of this animal in Albania. We were happy to help. As always!

Berat by all means looks very Muslim, with the typical stone houses of Turkish Ottoman design and slim minarets. But at the Berat Castle there are churches galore and a Museum of Ikons.

Beer and wine is flowing freely and people are friendly. Here just leaving our Residenca Desaret hotel for a cobblestone stroll, I was stopped by a local chap and invited home for a morning shot of raki. I apologized for the hour was too early for drinking, but I did ask him how he enjoyed last night’s women World Cup soccer game in France.

As we drove through the countryside we marveled at the huge new houses in every village. No doubt they were built by the remittances from the 3 millions of Albanians working in the West. We found those left behind also hard working and eager to serve with a smile. We now regret not having stayed longer in Albania and not continuing down south to the Albanian riviera.

Undoubtedly the southern beaches have more appeal, but we got a bit put off by the overdevelopment in the first sea destination in Dürres. It was still a pre season calm, but thousands upon thousands of lounge chairs told a story, we did not want to be part of.

A Photo Essay of Kotor Bay

Known simply as Boka (The Bay) Boka Kotorska is simply stunning in all its reiterations. No surprise it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surprises abound around every curve of the very narrow road above the Bay. And there are many tight hairpin curves, a delight for a seasoned driver and a thrill for the motorcycle riders. For some passengers – not so much. An experienced friend said to us, “The only way to really see Kotor Bay is from the water!” And he was right. It is especially thrilling on a speed boat. In a few hours you can explore the whole bay and see things you might not even notice from the shore. Like secret tunnels used to hide partisan boats and submarines. Talk about history coming alive when you enter one of those. For a special treat you can swim in a Blue Cave. In the Bay there are islands with churches and cemeteries. When you return to the port, you need to go past the impressive old fortifications to explore the old streets of Kotor town. Early in the day and early in the season is best as they can easily get clogged by eager tour groups. It must have been laundry day when we visited. Have you ever wondered how the fancy clothes were laundered in the old ages when there was no dry cleaners? I asked this guy but he didn’t have a clue. In more comfortable attire he enthusiastically explored the Kotor cathedral From top to bottom no details escaped the avid photographer

and no sacrifice was too big when he worshiped at the altar of his art.

If you will go a bit beyond the edges of boka, any transport will do, you will discover more hidden treasures, like prehistoric rock art, mini chapels, newly thriving nunneries and more great views, like the Sveti Stefan bellow.

We old farts on the road advise you to find your way to Montenegro. You will surely be welcomed in with open arms!

Back to the Balkans

There is travel baggage and then there is travel baggage. We both bring our own very old Balkans travel baggage, mine going back 40 and my husband’s 50 years, when we were both here for the first time.

We both explored parts of the Balkans before we met. Seeing that I am originally from Slovenia, the Balkans were practically on my doorstep. Depending how you define the Balkans, they were my doorstep! I have spent many childhood summers on Croatian coast, have been to Bosnia when it didn’t have the notoriety of a war torn country and as a teen backpacked through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

For Mirek, seeing that he had grown up behind the iron curtain of Czechoslovakia, the Balkans were the few allowed places visit outside the fence called Iron Curtain. As a young man he had done a lot of hiking (and drinking with his buddies) in the Balkan mountains. But it was a trip through Yugoslavia that brings the heaviest travel baggage. It was in a way a defining moment of his life. If he had stayed just a day or two longer on the Balkans, his life might have turned out very differently.

You see it was year 1968 and Prague Spring was in full bloom with liberalization of the communist regime. As an engineering student 19 years of age he went on a summer adventure. Hitchhiking through Romania and Bulgaria on his return trip, he arrived to Yugoslavia. First to Macedonia and Kosovo and then along the beautiful Adriatic Coast. Hitchhiking was then a great way to meet and talk to many people and as the tough regime at home started to melt down many warned him that the big Russian brother will not look kindly on the weakening of the communist grip. As he reached the north he had to make a decision: go left and move to the West or to turn right and stay home. Having the last dinner with a professor from the University in Zagreb he declined his kind offer to stay and took a train to Prague.

Two days later the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, and shortly after the Iron Curtain shut down again!

Balkans has a lot of heavy historical baggage with much warring from the beginning of time as tribes and kingdoms and empires and political systems clashed on its territory. But to make your summer blog reading lighter we will concentrate instead on showing you the beauty and hospitality of this still somewhat undiscovered and exotic area.

So what can you expect to find on the Balkans?

A lot of old stone fortresses like this one in Belgrade, the Capital of Serbia. Defended by all kinds of heavy canons. You will also find a lot of new, not necessarily always charming or tasteful. The capitals of newly minted countries want to show off with palatial new buildings, lighted up brightly all night. Macedonian capital Skopje is particularly insane in this aspect. Did you know that it just recently changed its name to North Macedonia? It was the Greeks who insisted on the name change. They also forced the renaming of the Skopje airport. It is not called Alexander the Great anymore. Alexander III of Macedon certainly wasn’t Slavic from Northern Macedonia (the Slavs came in much later) but he also wasn’t Greek Greek. He was of a Macedon tribe with its own language. He studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle in classic Greek. Oops, I said no history lessons!

Everywhere, be it in a big capital or a small town you will find a lot of al fresco restaurants and coffee shops on cobble stone streets, where friends, lovers, families, and tourists sit after the temps drop somewhat in the evenings.

Certainly you won’t go hungry, but it won’t be that easy if you are a vegetarian as meat of all sorts is the main ingredient do most Balkan meals.Besides your typical pork, beef and lamb, you will also find on the menus specialties like tripe, calve’s liver, rabbits, and sheep’s brain. Expect your plate to be overflowing and the your wallet only slightly diminished. Food and alcohol is extremely affordable and generally of great quality. We especially appreciated the ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and the early summer fruits of cherries, apricots and peaches. Much appreciated by all guests!

After food and any other time coffee is taken seriously on the Balkans. But coffee is more than coffee, it is a ritual and an offering of hospitality and friendship. In some places it is also a way of life, especially for older men, who meet in coffee houses killing time until lunch or dinner, prepared at home by their wives, who certainly had invited a neighbor or two for a cup of their own. Interestingly, for the longest time Turkish coffee (thick, mud on the bottom concoction with lots of sugar) was the poison of choice. Nowadays the cappuccinos and the like have become very trendy, especially amongst the younger crowd. In some former Yugoslavian republics you might be surprised to find a certain amount of Yugonostalgia. Compared to Stalin and most other Communist leaders, Tito was seen much more as a benevolent dictator and many people still remember him fondly and come to visit his quite modest marble grave in Belgrade’s House of Flowers . So let’s stay with the former Yugoslavian republics. We skipped a few like Bosnia and Kosovo. (Our car insurance wasn’t valid there, besides there were clashes with Serbs reported yet again). At the beginning of our 6 week trip around the Balkans we drove on the freeways from Ljubljana via Zagreb straight to Belgrade and in quick six hours we were there. That’s were in my mind the Western (Austro Hungarian) and Eastern (Serbian Orthodox and Turkish) worlds come together.

Enormous, new, but still unfinished Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Sava.

We have heard enthusiastic reports about Belgrade from friends, but we found it gray, dilapidated and under construction. It is considered the Party Capital of Europe, but being old farts that go to bed early, we did not check out the famous river venues. After a brief and very hot day in Belgrade we hightailed it straight down towards the sea.

We only stopped in a small side valley at the Mileševa Monastery to say a quick hello to a famous White AngelThis beautiful angel fresco has been recognized as a universal symbol of peace. It has been sent as a first ever satellite message from Europe to North America. It has also travelled into space a few times, hoping to convey the peace message to any possible interceptors.

We crossed into Montenegro (=Crna gora=Black mountain) and everything became green! There was an extraordinary wet May and Nature exploded in a riot of leaves, grasses, and flowers. It was particularly spectacular from the high point of the bridge on Tara River.

The bridge saw heavy fighting during WWII, when partisans blew up the middle span to halt the Italian occupying forces. As a kid I remember watching a movie about it and crying over the execution of the bridge engineer who helped the partisans.

Finally we stood at the view point overlooking the Kotor Bay. I remember arriving at the very same spot on the old narrow road for the first time on a local bus with a crazy driver who cut the curves and screeched down the hills with half the bus hanging over the unprotected edges. I was sure I was gonna die.

Today in the comfort of my own car with my most excellent driver, my thought was only that the view was really to die for. No wonder James Bond’s Casino Royal was placed in Montenegro (though, sorry, not a single scene was shot there).

We crossed with the ferry as the sun came down and pulled into the little town of Donje Lastovo, where our home away from home was waiting for us.

We quickly and easily slipped from the Balkan into the Mediterranean mode.

Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

A big part of why I love to travel is meeting diverse people (and robots!) I would never ever had a chance to meet otherwise. Sometimes they are interesting travelers, sharing tips and excitement of the road, but mostly they are locals sharing insights into their culture and way of life.

“Isn’t it impossible to travel on your own to Japan?” asked some friends, who travel often and far. “We heard Japanese speak no English.”

No English is a gross exaggeration, but yes, communication in Japan is a bit of a challenge, to say it mildly. Japanese all learn English in school, but in a very old fashioned way, without a chance to practice and speak English. So, surprisingly, even young people with college education often are not able to put a sentence together, though they probably do understand quite a lot of what you are saying.

Still, since our first visit 35 years ago, when there was no English anywhere, the tourist infrastructure is vastly improved with excellent English signs everywhere. Occasionally the translations are too literal and afford great opportunities for some laughter. The tourist information centers are well stocked with English brochures and timetables even if sometimes you have to and people manning them have a very limited spoken English capability.

Luckily for us we had a chance to communicate with a few excellent English speakers so we could have quite in depth conversations and ask some pressing questions. Important, because Japanese culture is not always easy to understand for an outsider.

For example: What is it with grown women walking around dressed like live dolls? I still do not have a full answer. It has something to do with Japanese obsession with cuteness called Kawaii, that can refer to things, people or toy characters that are charming, shy and childlike. Think Hello Kitty!

What is it with Japanese obsessed with plush animals, that continues far into adulthood? A friend told me she once spent a night at a Japanese family’s house where she was offered their grown daughter’s bedroom . She said it was literally hard to find the bed for the whole room was full of large and small stuffed animals. Here’s a couple taking their wedding portraits sporting their favorite plush animals. Huh? It would only make sense if they then ceremoniously flushed them down the toilet as a symbol of leaving all childish things behind. Didn’t happen.

My husband, who always pays (too?!) close attention to ladies, was the first to notice that most Japanese women wear shoes at least one size too big. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but a variety of responses from people like: shoes are a relatively new idea for us Japanese….we take off shoes more often than the westerners, so they need to be bigger…the fancy western shoes are sold here in Japan in small, medium and large sizes only, so everyone goes for the bigger size. Didn’t have a chance to confirm this. Looking for shoe shops was not very high on my priority list.

Just as you can’t help but notice the inordinate amount of passionate kissing and hugging in (romantic) European cities, you also can’t help noticing the total lack of any public affection in Japan. The closest you will come is seeing a young couple holding hands while on a walk in the park. It is simply not acceptable to show any more and very impolite to “burden” others with having to watch you. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem seems to be that this dispassionate approach to love does not diminish at the doorsteps of Japanese bedrooms. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the whole world.

On the other hand most visitors to Japan will tell you how extremely helpful and warm the Japanese people are towards Western visitors. People will go out of their way to help you and are very concerned if you are a woman alone. If I happened to stray from my husband, someone would invariably ask if I was traveling alone. With crime rates the lowest in the world I figured it would be a perfect country for a woman to travel alone. I asked a young black woman from England traveling solo on the same ferry, if she felt safe in Japan. I expected her to nod enthusiastically, but she looked at me gravely and said thoughtfully, “Yes, the Japanese are helpful, but let me just say they have not seen a lot of black people.”

Ah, another good thing about traveling – it teaches you to not make assumptions one way or another.

You certainly can count on the Japanese to help you if you ask to the extent that they would rather send you in the wrong direction than not helping you. Or is this the case of Asian “Not loosing face”, by admitting you don’t know.

One early morning after having spent a night at a youth hostel in Kanazawa, the only accommodation we could find, we were desperate to get some breakfast. The only person up and about was a lady struggling to put up a flag in front of the Samurai museum. So I lent her a hand and she in turn mobilized the staff of the museum to brainstorm on our breakfast options.

The Japanese are in general quite shy and will not be the ones to initiate a conversation. We found that we could always exchange at least a few words if we stopped and offered some lavish praise to the owners of pampered pets. My understanding is that isolation is a really big challenge in Japanese society, especially for young men. I wager that overuse of technology does have a role to play. Riding local trains we could frequently observe school kids on their way to school. While the girls would be engaged in some conversations and giggling together, the boys invariably just played (violent) video games on their smart phones. Indeed, it seems that in general girls are doing much better in Japanese society these days than boys. As they grow up they tend to be more confident, educated, enjoying their life, shopping and traveling. They are in no rush to get married. Because of the very traditional gender values and expectations, the pressure on men, especially first sons is exacerbated. Men are supposed to be responsible breadwinners, working extremely long hours, while women should stay home alone minding the house and kids. Very clearly depicted in this beer ad:Rejecting those norms has initiated a worrisome phenomenon called Hikikomori whereas adolescent boys and even middle aged men shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out for years. On the low end the estimate is that about 1 million Japanese are modern day hermits.

quite in the contrary our three Japanese Servas hosts very very outgoing. They were the ones answering lots of questions and giving us a real insight into the real Japanese life. First we visited a family of four in Sapporo. The dad was an elementary school teacher who had studied music in the States, so he could speak English. His wife was also a musician, but was now a stay home mom with two boys. We spent the day with them driving to the site of the Winter Olympic museum and ski jump.

They taught us how to eat Hokkaido noodles with just the right amount of appreciative slurping and arranged for free tickets to a grand concert of community wind orchestras. Who knew classical music was so popular in Japan? With the high level of professionalism and prevalence of young musicians classical music has a secure future there.

We even got to visit the wife’s mother and father for a demo of green tea ceremony and a real home made Japanese dinner feast with lots of kanpai (=cheers!) toasts. It is surprising how easily family secrets and complaints surface after a few drinks! Our second host was a divorced woman living with her elderly parents in a house they built after their 130 year old traditional home was totally destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, burying the parents underneath for many hours. What are the chances that the first morning of our stay a strong earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale magnitude shook and swayed the ground. If I wouldn’t have believed in PTSD before, I would have been convinced, as our new friend jumped into my arms crying hysterically. Luckily there was no damage but frayed nerves.

To get into a different frame of mind we drove to another friend’s house in a traditional village nearby where they prepared a wonderful lunch and showed us their old treasures. Upon departure they pressed upon us a few old lacquer bowls even though we protested we had no room in our luggage. The best part though was a peek into their thick green bamboo forest. The size of the trunks and especially of the fresh bamboo shoots was really impressive. As the friend was going through a divorce as well we had a chance to discuss this still rather taboo topic. Divorce continues to be very much frowned upon in Japanese society.

If in agreement, a couple can get easily divorced by mutual consent, simply filing a form with the local government office. But there are much less simple solutions for their children after a divorce. Or rather there is only one simple solution. As there is no joint custody of children, if the parents can’t agree, the court decides whom the children shall live with and it can be the mother, the father or even the relatives. The divorced father or mother then pretty much looses any right to see his or her children. And the children who are not seen as individuals with legal rights, but as belonging to a family, have no right to access their non custodial parent. This might be one of the major factors why the divorce rate in Japan is quite low.

Our third host was Tomoko, a 75 year old retired High school English teacher, who returned with her husband to her small home town of Sasebo, Kyushu, where they built a beautiful house made of fancy wood and filled it with books. She picked us up from the train station and immediately took us sightseeing. Her English was wonderful, so our conversations were the easiest and most enjoyable. You bet we had discussions about challenges of having retired husbands! If anywhere in the world it is in Japan that husbands literally live for their job and they are lost without it. She said that Japanese retired men simply refuse to learn anything new, like using a smart phone. But, she noted, at least her husband, contrary to many of her friend’s husbands, even though he does not want to travel, does not object to her going off on her own. So much so that we will reunite with Tomoko in September in Europe.

Her women network was a real boon. Whatever my wish, she could pick up her (smart) phone and within minutes she arranged for some really special Japanese experiences. I was tickled pink to have a private kimono lesson with her friend, a Japanese traditional dance teacher. Did I mention how much I adore any and all Japanese kimonos? I also love Ikebana – the art of Japanese flower arrangement. I have taken many classes and found much creative enjoyment with my limited artistic skills in Sogetsu Ikebana school. Turns out Tomoko’s cousin is an Ikebana Instructor, from a different, Ikenobo school. So of course we had to pay a visit and she gave me an introductory lesson! Her house and garden, too, were full of flowers – what a treat! While these were all well planned visits through Servas organisation, it is a chance encounter with a special 80 years young lady that we cherish even more. We came across the big traditional house of Ishikawa International Exchange Center on our stroll around Kanazawa. The Japanese garden was beautiful and the special exhibit of a rich collection of Japanese fabrics even more so, but the crowning glory was the woman runing the show. Seeing our interest, she took us to the off limits upstairs to show us some secret features of the old house. She was a big U.S. enthusiast, having sent both her daughters to the U.S. for high school and university studies. Her love for America was triggered when she was 5 years old and the American soldiers came to war torn Japan. “We couldn’t believe how nice the soldiers were; big, strapping guys, with pockets full of candy and chocolate. truth be told Japanese husbands don’t have a great track record, so I am really glad both my daughters have American husbands!”

On the way out the door she gave us a hand made Temari ball, which is a traditional gesture of friendship with the symbolic design of the crane, the bird of happiness.

We said goodbye to Japan, knowing that there are still many unexplored places beckoning, but also new friends that will welcome us back.