Istanbul Book by Book 

He took a dolmus taxi to Bebek this time, making conversation with the other passengers so that he’d be remembered, a foreigner who spoke some Turkish. Anna had already been fed and changed for bed, a soft nightgown she seemed not to notice. “I’ll just sit with her until she falls asleep,” he told the nurse, holding up the magazine he’d brought to read. An open-ended visit, no need to check back. Fifteen minutes later he was through the garden entrance, on the road where Mihai was waiting.

Istanbul Passage by J.Kanon

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

I am following Leon Bauer, an American tobacco trader to Bebek, way off the beaten tourist path. Istanbul is a place to be if you are a spy as the WWII winds down to its victory lap. Turkey, a neutral country pressed between Allies and Axis for most of the war is a happening place. 

Leon and his German Jewish wife Anna settled here when he pulled her out of Nazi Germany after atrocities of Kristal Nacht. Finally safe in Stamboul, she threw herself, and Leon marginally as well, into saving Romanian Jewish families by paying a ransom of $300 per head and then shipping them from Black Sea port of Constance (that we visited just three months ago!) through Istanbul to Palestine. During one of those heroic missions the hardly seaworthy ship full of Romanian children sinks while passing Dardanelles in the dark night. As Anna witnesses in horror the helpless Jewish children drowning in the waters of Marmara Sea she loses her mind and Leon has to place her into a mental sanatorium in Bebek, freeing him to do some spy and love work on the side. In 1945 Bebek was a small village on European side of Bosporus well outside the Stamboul city limits. Nowadays with Bebek becoming the playground of Istanbul rich, it is hard to imagine how this place looked then. As I read the book I envision a pier (iskelesi) 

and a simple café with a few shacks around it. Today there are numerous cafes and fancy restaurants including arguably the “Starbucks with the best view in the world”. On its walls you can admire lots of old references, including its location proudly shown on an old French Bosporus chart with Starbucks green logo slapped over it.

Since today’s ferries rarely stop at Bebek Iskelesi you can ride the ferry just to Arnavutköy enjoying the view of many yalis – spectacular old palaces on the water, some converted into luxurious hotels.

Modernity of steel, glass and concrete mingles with 

graceful marble mosques and old elite schools lining the shore of Bosporus. After you disembark at Arnavutköy (meaning Albanian Village in Turkish) Iskelesi, you can take a pleasant stroll to Bebek. But first you might want to stop for some good coffee and in pleasant weather you can continue enjoying your book in the sunny garden. 

As you walk the bank you will notice you are between two gracious bridges spanning the Bosporus. It took almost thirty years after the WWII ended before the first modern Europe to Asia Bridge was built, but by now there are two more completed and in service over this seaway, chock full of maritime traffic of all sorts.   

Here at the Bebek Pier the drama of Leon, Anna, and the other characters in this novel starts unwinding with many surprising turns and a lot of suspension. Before I reach the last page of the book I learn a lot about this town and the different districts of Beyoğlu, Pera, Karaköy, Tophane, Taxim, and Galata, where we are staying in the shadow of

the old, round Galata Tower, looking across to the Old Town of Istanbul.

After this year’s intense travel  I was very much relieved when we opted for our trip’s last installment to have a long stay in a place we both love very much. We have  been coming here regularly since 1983 but so far we have not paid our dues and never stayed longer than a few days. But this time we completely reversed our modus operandi of one night stays and for a month played a role of an older settled down couple. Not well heeled, though, just look at our selfies… This decision has changed our travel style a lot. What a new experience waking up in the morning (is noon still considered a morning?) in our bright three window corner bedroom with a view, to make an important decision of our lives, eg. what to do with upcoming breakfast! At home? Or on our way somewhere? Either way, while consulting our dear Istanbul DK Guide or blindly volleying different ideas to one another, we have to decide before our cleaning lady shows up at our door! When we finally kick ourselves out and walk towards our intended destination, then quite often, on the whim, we change our plans. Sometime intentionally as we are sidetracked by some interesting event unfolding in the streets, or unintentionally, after boarding the wrong ferry which unexpectedly takes us instead of to the distant terminal on the Golden Horn to an iskelesi somewhere on the Asian side of Bosporus! 

Number 15 was the second shop down from Hamami near the Kiliç Pasha Mosque in Tophane. The street was flat, behind the shipping terminals, and the shop was scarcely wide enough to fit a door and display window. The dusty framed photographs covered the usual ritual of family life: soldiers stiff in new uniforms, secular weddings, solemn young circumcision boys in round hats and white satin cloaks. In some of the older pictures the men still wore fezzes, steamed and pressed for the camera, already artifacts. According to a small sign, Enver Manyas offered a choice of backdrops-a garden pavilion, Seraglio Point, Bosporus views-but most of his customers seemed to have opted for less expensive plain canvas. 

A bell tinkled when Leon opened the door, bringing out a short, round-shouldered man with wire-rimmed glasses. At first a look of surprise, then a guarded dip of his head .

“Efendi.”                                         ”Merhaba. Manyas Bey?”     The man nodded, still wary. “I have some work for you. From Mr. King,” Leon said in Turkish.                                         Manyas stared at him, keeping his face composed, noncommittal.                             ”We are alone?” Leon said. Antoher nod, waiting. Leon reached into his pocket, pulling out Alexei’s passport.   “Mr. King is dead,” Manyas said.

Istanbul Passage                       By Joseph Kanon Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

Anyone who ever visited Istanbul knows the touristy areas of Sultan Ahmet (with Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) and Seraglio (with Topkapi Palace). But Tophane is not as well known and hence much less frequented, except for the ladies who come to the historical Ali Kiliç Pasha hamam On a rare rainy day my wife decides to join them for a sweat, scrub and soap bubble massage, while I walk around, between the boutiques and arts cafes, hiding under an umbrella. Until my socks get sopping wet and I need to duck inside a pillow rich Han for a cup of hot tea and a few hours of quiet reading. This marble clad, luxurious, and spotlessly clean hamami had been here in Tophane for more than three and half centuries waiting for Mr. Bauer to use it. Of course he did not have the time for it. From his conversation with Enver Manyas you noticed he was more interested in ordering  a fake passport! But my wife sure enjoyed her time spent inside!

Eyoub, December 4th, 1876

She is here! For the last two days I have been living in a fever of expectation. This very evening a caïque is to bring her to the landing-stage at Eyoub, opposite my house.

My informant is Kadija, the old negress who, those nights in the boat in Salonica, used to bear Aziyadé company and risk her life for her mistress.

From three o’clock onwards, I was waiting for her on the jetty. The day had been sunny and bright and there had been an unusual amount of traffic on the Golden Horn. Towards evening, thousands of caïques came alongside the Eyoub landing-stage, bringing Turks from their business in the crowded centers of Constantinople, Galata, and the Great Bazaar, back to their homes in the quiet suburb. I was beginning to be known at Eyoub and some of the men hailed me.

Aziyadé by Pierre Loti

Translated by Marjorie Laurie

Published by Amphora Egitim Yaynçilik, 

First published 2006

Eyüp, as the district is known today, lies on the Golden Horn ‘s west end. On a sunny afternoon we easily reached the hill top with a funicular for a tulip glass of tea and a magnificent view of the Golden Horn all the way towards the Bosporus seaway and the hills on its Asian side.

Sitting contentedly at Pierre Loti Café I started wondering who was the guy behind the name? Without a word my wife handed me a book. 

A book? Yes, a slim paperback titled Aziyadé. To start reading immediately, which I did!

This is what I really like when visiting a place. Read a book connected to the place. Submerge (look, stare and listen; my wife does the talking, people connection is so easy for her) into the local life, its pace and customs.

Well, the book is a historical novel depicting a love affair between a naval officer of certain Western Power named, you would not believe it, Pierre Loti, on assignment here in Istanbul, with a married Turkish woman named Aziyadé, one of four wives living in the harem of a local businessman. As a pre-requisite for this story Aziyadé’s husband’s extensive business interests frequently take him on travels out of town, thus fatefully neglecting his four wives in general and Aziyadé in particular. Leaving the playground to his young and attractive competitor in white naval uniform with gold epaulets was not very smart. In fact it made it way to easy for Pierre to find himself in close, actually more than close, emotional relationship with the young beautiful wife as those two lovebirds took their chance. Before anybody could notice they started happily spending night after night in the house the mariner rented in Eyüp with the help of Azayidé’s servant Achmet  and old Samuel from Balat, a Jewish village next to Eyüp.

Can you see the local connection now? Very, very interesting. As I read the book I have to make a few critical points. You have to excuse me, as I am not a writer and certainly not a literary critic, but I could not help noticing some disconcerting illogical elements in this literature of the Mexican telenovela quality, which were rather bothersome to my engineering mind, as the story played out in the milieu of Istanbul in 1876. For more romantic souls those issues may not be important as the steam of their love story easily envelops the mind of the excited reader. But for me it was not quite clear how the officer could handle the logistic of his affair; actually it was a mystery. Firstly, he had to fulfill the duty of the commanding officer on the frigate “Deerhound” during the day and secondly, by dark his call of duty continued in the couple’s Eyüp love nest. This intense activity performed nightly must have certainly been physically demanding and affecting his daytime service to his Country and the Queen. But then every evening to get from Bosporus to Eyüp (just look at the photo view from the Pierre Loti Café and see for yourself how distant the Bosporus is) while Aziyadé was already impatiently expecting him, was a major task (no underground metro or cars then) thus requiring a few nautical miles of rowing! Today, in our modern era, our government reps, diplomats and spies are moving effortlessly around in black Mercedes limousines or Masserattis. For them, it is a piece of cake. But our Loti must have been exhausted on arrival to Eyüp falling into the lap of his darling Aziyadé! 

And then with the first signs of night dying he better be on his way rowing back to “Deerhound” to share his  breakfast with his fellow officers. If he managed to board his ship on time at all! When did this poor chap sleep during that one year long affair? Understandably love is powerful and can clearly provide lovers with wings at the time of need. But still? This man was simply amazing and could have had served as a hero prototype to Ian Fleming when he created Agent 007!

Eyüp was the first Turkish district established after the conquest of Constantiopole in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II. He built a mosque and turbeh (a mausoleum) to the Eyyub al Ensari, a standard bearer of prophet Mohammed, who is believed to have died here. Because many Ottoman wishes to be buried here close to the saint there are many many cemeteries stretching all the way up Pierre Loti Hill. 

Remember old Samuel from the book? He hails from the next community over – Jewish Balat. This is where the Sephardic Jews settled after Catholic rulers of Spain Ferdinand and Isabella declared “Either you convert to Christianity or get out of here! And P.S. Even if you do, we won’t believe you and torture you in many gruesome ways.”

It was Ottoman sultan Beyazıt II who issued an open invite to the Jews and more than one hundred thousand of Sephardic and other Jews were welcomed to settle in Istanbul. Honestly, what an act of kindness from Muslim community!

Balat today does not have many Jews left, and the big Archida synagogue is locked up and only accessible if you get a special permit from the high ups, we were told at the Jewish museum. We didn’t try, instead we wandered around this up an coming colorful neighborhood where on the weekends young crowds come out for coffee, long drawn out Turkish breakfast and maybe a peek at the colorful Turkish wedding. We came across an unusual wedding celebration sight with two men dressed in long skirts, with bells on their fingers danced in the streets accompanied by a traditional band. People were a bit embarrassed when we asked them about it; apparently this custom harkens back to the days of sultans when women dancers were only appropriate for the harems and non. Turkish beautiful young boys were trained to dance for the honorable guests. They also performed additional services after the dance, hence the embarrassment. 

The mosque of Sultan Mehmed-Fateh (Mehmed the Great) beheld Achmet and myself basking in the sun outside its great portico of greystone, – two of us lying there without a care in the world, lost in some vague dream not to be expressed in human speech. The square of Mehmed-Fateh, which lies high above old Stamboul, consists of wide open spaces, which are frequented by men in cashmere caftans and great white turbans. In the centre stands one of the  largest and most deeply revered mosques in all Constantinople. The immense square is girt by mysterious walls, which are topped by a line of stone domes, like a row of beehives. These are softas’ dwellings, which no infidel may enter.

This quarter is a center of purely Eastern activity. Camels traverse it with leisurely gait, their bell tinkling monotonously. Dervishes sit there, deep in pious meditation, and yes no tinge of Western Europe entered it.

Aziyadé by Pierre Loti

Translated by Marjorie Laurie

Published by Amphora Egitim Yaynçilik, 

First published 2006

This Istanbul quarter and the mosque are named after the guy who conquered Constantinople for islam in the year 1453AD, effectively finishing the Byzantine Empire as we know it. To celebrate his accomplishment he decided to build a mosque in place of an old Byzantine church, then already in ruins. And because Mehmed II was the Conqueror of Constantinople, and in Arabic the conqueror is Fatih, he, his mosque and the part of town around it was named Fatih.  When the 1766 earthquake struck Constantinople it leveled the poor mosque to the ground leaving only three parts of it standing.
The ablutions fountain and three porticos – where Loti and Achmet spent their lazy sunny afternoons – of the courtyard plus the gate to the mosque Prayer Hall.  Immediately after catastrophic earthquake  Sultan Mustafa III called his Chief Imperial Architect and on the third attempt the Architect got it right. Light and spacious Prayer Hall is absolutely stunning! Unbearable lightness of engineering at its best.  And IT has already survived a quarter of millenia!!!

When I said before: “Seeing one mosque/temple/pagoda/church is like seeing them ALL!” I did not mean one per day, but with thousands (3,113 to be exact) of mosques  packed in the city of fifteen million, I am bound to see one mosque every day or at least every other day and to my big surprise I find them beautiful in infinite variations of the basic architectural principles.

Following Loti and his companion Achmet to the Fatih mosque I search not only for the place where they rested, but also the life they observed. While the tinkling of camel bells might be gone, the enormous market spilling over all the streets surrounding the mosque is the reflection of everyday life of Istanbul, probably not that different from the long days past. There are lovely rudy ripe tomatoes spilling over, orange oranges, green (!) mandarins, glistening pomegranates, huge bunches of grapes, mountains of nuts and sackfuls of chestnuts. Women bargain, children whine, men belt out prices. I would have welcomed an occasional snake charmer or a meditating dervish. Never mind, we find them at the Mevlevihanesi Muzesi (of the Sufi order of whirling dervishes), practically on our home’s doorstep. 

Giving him self over to the hands of God, the first dervish started to whirl, the hems of his skirts gently swishing with a separate life of their own. We all joined in and whirled until there remained around us nothing but Oneness. Whatever we received from the skies, we passed on to the earth, from God to people. Each and every one of us became a link connecting the Lover to the Beloved. When the music ceased, we jointly bowed to the essential forces of the universe: fire, wind, earth, and water, and the fifth element, the void. 

The Forty Rules of Love

By Elif Shafak

Published by Penguin Books 2012

On a Sunday afternoon in the dark museum hall we watch them whirl solemnly, somehow suspended between Heaven and Earth. There is only a few places in the world where one can witness this ancient ceremony and as much as I am uneasy that it is “performed” for the benefit of paying public, I do have to appreciate that it probably helps keep it alive and brings an introduction of a different, loving kind of Islam to a wide audience.

Mevlana or Rumi, a 13th century poet is one of the most read poets in the world, but not everyone that admires his poetry is aware that his love poems were not penned for his wife, but his Sufi companion dervish Shams el Tabriz, upon his death. Shams’ powerful friendship influenced and transformed Rumi from an Islamic scholar and  theologian to a Sufi mystic and poet. The novel by the most famous Turkish female author is an unusual double story of love: between Rumi and Shams and a Boston housewife Ella and Aziz, the author of a book about Rumi and Shams. 

While not always available in bookstores (the conservative government has a bone to pick with her feminist views and her historical take on the killings of Armenians), she is obviously popular with the local readers. We even find Shafak’s books in coffee shops.

Silence reigned until the Sultan spoke again. ‘Architect, you were ordered by my venerable father Sultan Selim to build a tomb for him. Weren’t you?’

´Indeed, your Highness. He wanted to be buried by the Hagia Sophia.’

´Build it, then. Start the work without delay. You have my permission to do what is necessary.’

‘Understood, my Lord.’

‘It is my wish to bury my brothers next to my father. Make the turbeh so grand that even the centuries on people can come and pray for their innocent souls.’

He paused and added in an afterthought, 

‘But do not make it too spectacular. It should be just right size.’

And this is how, in the month of December, an early day in Ramadan, in the year 1574, Sinan in his capacity as Chief Royal Architect, and his apprentice Jahan, who had no place at this meeting and yet was present, were given the task of constructing inside the gardens of Hagia Sophia a monument that was large and impressive enough to befit five princes, the brothers of Sultan Murad, but neither so large nor so impressive as to remind anyone of how they have been strangled, on his orders, on the night he ascended to the throne.

The Architect’s Apprentice 

By Elif Shafak

Published by Vikings 2014
This was a moment typical for a newly installed Sultan. Ordering his deaf-mute servants to strangle his own brothers with a silk rope, so no royal blood is spilled and to avoid future fights among relatives for the Sultan throne. The record was 19 brothers and half brothers. Often it was the scheming mother of the new sultan who arranged it. It must have been a strange childhood, being a prince.

The most famous Ottoman architect of all, Koca Mimar Sinan Aga was Imperial Architect of a few Sultans in a row thanks to his long life, passing away at the age of 98. Interestingly, he was born Armenian Christian, but was brought to Sultan’s Court by the Ottoman immigration program called Janissary  recruitment, where young capable Christian boys were yearly taken from their villages to be converted to Islam and become part of elite Janissary troops. Apart from building 81 mosques Sinan left behind even more tombs, hamams and bridges, about 300 architectural monuments in all. 

It is hard to keep up with all his exceptional works as well as the succession of sultans he served, so the novel about Sinan’s apprentice and elephant tamer Jahan, who comes from India to Istanbul as a boy, is a wonderful way to find our way through Turkish history and architecture. Sinan’s most famous work of art is Süleymaniye Mosque, but it is the smaller works that delight as well. It is said that he was hopelessly in love with Suleyman’s daughter Mihrimah and built her two mosques on opposite ends of Istanbul where you could see the sun set and moon rise on the very day of her birthday.

In Architect’s Apprentice the writer puts the apprentice in the role of unrequited lover, who in old age after many heartbreaks and loses finally leaves Istanbul to go back to India where he helps build the Taj Mahal. 

On my night stand in our place under the Galata Tower three books are still waiting to be digested.  Our one month Istanbul stay suddenly has only one week left. 

As we leave our anniversary dinner one evening I ask my wife,

“Are you ready to go home?”

“Yes”, she replies.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “But where, do you mean California or Prague?”

“No, no, home to our place bellow the Galata Tower!”

An Istanbul Birthday

If you could celebrate your birthday anywhere in the world, where would you choose? And if you could stay your whole birthday month, what city would it be in?

Perhaps romantic Paris comes to mind first, or cosmopolitan London? In October, my birth month, the fall foliage of Kyoto would be fabulous. The city that never sleeps – New York would be perfect for party animals.

Last year we celebrated Mirek’s birthday in Jerusalem and today I am celebrating mine in Istanbul. Even when we weren’t on permanent vacation as now, we had a tradition to plan a trip around a birthday. My 50th was spent with the gorillas in Uganda, but even more fun were the short surprise birthday trips that were planned by my husband, where I would only discover the destination when he handed me my boarding pass at the airport. After the first week of exploring this ancient city, I can say it was the perfect choice. Istanbul is most vibrant, fascinating, friendly, history rich, traditional and ultra modern. And making you feel right at home. It is surrounded by beautiful blue bodies of water and is one of a few big cities I don’t get hopelessly lost in. What is more, it is easy to get to and easily affordable. The crazy traffic can simply and effectively be circumvented by extensive, efficient, modern, clean, safe, and ridiculously cheap public transportation under and above ground. Not to talk about the network of ferries that go everywhere literally for cents per ride.

Of course the first thing you need if you will go somewhere for a month is a place to stay. Choosing the perfect place for your taste, shouldn’t be hard at all, there are so many hotels and apartments. Initially we thought we would get a place for a few days and then explore long term possibilities but when we came across this apartment on Airbn

and saw the long term stay discount offered, we jumped on it. On top of it being even nicer and more spacious than on the pictures, there are bonus features: the building is a beautiful restored historic building with lots of marble, yet chic new decor, we have a spacious terrace on the top overlooking the skyline of the Golden horn, we have a great receptionist that can answer any question and gives invaluable local advice, a cleaning lady, who does a quick clean everyday, including making our bed and a big clean every week. There’s air con, washer and dryer and the whole place is Green certified. And we have real closets where we can put our clothes, instead of living out of the suitcase. Can you believe our luck?

Just around the corner there are restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques galore, yet there are regular people walking down the streets all the time. I could just sit for hours at our breakfast nook table and watch the life bellow. There is a Church right next door, a small mosque and a few synagogues right around the corner. That means we get all sorts of sounds that you are protected from in double paned 20th story hotel windows. We hear the muezzins calling and the church bell tolling. In the morning the children laugh going to school and sing in their classes. At night lovers giggle and drunks yell and street cleaners roll their garbage cans. It is all part and parcel of living with the locals. Our new home is in the famous district of Galata, with tons of people coming to take a selfie or have their photo taken in front of Galata tower. I feel so cool and special walking past them in the evening with my groceries in the bag and a house key in my hand.

Not that we are cooking up a storm. We only make breakfast in the morning and even that not ever day. If we sleep in late, we simply go out for Turkish breakfast, because it is actually a lunch meal with dozens of small dishes of savory and sweet variations. I guess Turks like their breakfast too, because there is a whole street in Besiktas district called Breakfast Street. You can get a really cheap lunch or dinner meal (I could probably just live on burek and pudding) and you can get a great meal for cheap. You can of course easily find many, many high end 5 star restaurants, wine bars, cocktail roof tops etc.

Which makes me think, eating out every day, visiting mosques and exhibitions, going on ferry excursions – this is not really how locals live. We say I want to go somewhere and live like the locals. But it is not really true, right? Because the locals go to work every day and rush to grocery store and pick up their children from school, hep their parents or their daughter with the new baby. When I was home and living at the edge of San Francisco, I might have gone out to dinner once a week and maybe to an art exhibition or performance once every few months, I didn’t drive to Napa for wine tasting on a spur of a moment and I have never ever in all the years been to Alcatraz Island.

So while it is true that staying in Istanbul for a month we don’t really live the life of the locals, we can also afford to not be typical tourists rushing from one top 10 sight to another. Besides we have been to Istanbul before and have seen Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and Topkapi, a few times even.

As a matter of fact my husband instituted a rule of Maximum one Mosque a Day. Occasionally I manage to slip in a church or a synagogue on top and he doesn’t complain too much. We can go look for the lesser known, uncrowned and sometimes entirely deserted sights. Some of the most memorable ones from the first week are:

-Theodosius cistern, a newly discovered 1600 years old water cistern, now a gallery and concert hall. -Mihrimah’s mosque, the light infused mosque of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s favorite daughter. -SALT or former Ottoman Bank building, now the most elegant marble library, exhibit space and restaurant. We never go on guided tours and we only use public transportation. The later is really easy, you simply buy Istanbul card, load it with some Turkish Liras and you can hop on any metro, tram, bus or ferry. Not only can you avoid famous Istanbul traffic jams, the card gives you extra transport discounts so your ride is mostly somewhere between 35-80 cents. Yes, American cents. Or Euro cents, the exchange is pretty close.

On my birthday we went for a day trip taking a ferry to Prince’s Islands an hour and a half each way and paid $1.80 round trip per person. There was even music playing on the way back.Living like a local means finding your favorite coffee shop, where the barista knows you. In the city mostly drinking strong sweet tea or equally strong and sweet Turkish coffee finding a really good cappuccino is not that easy. Buying freshly baked bread in the morning, and local produce at the open air market. I am gorging on black figs and black olives and eating soft heavenly kaymak cheese with honey for breakfast.

Surprisingly we even found plenty of pork salami options at the Kadiköy market on the Asian side of Bosporus. No problem buying all sorts of beer from local Efes to imported brands, too. Guess who’s in heaven?

We are starting to feel like locals because we don’t need to look at maps as much anymore. We know which station comes after the previous one and which street is a shortcut home. We are starting to recognize the resident cats that have adopted certain steps or stores. They are being abundantly fed and spoiled by the locals.

Staying awhile means being able to stay and chat with friendly people. I have always found Turks very pleasant and hospitable people. Merhaba (Hello) and Teshekur ederim (Thank you very much) goes a very long way and brings a big smile to their face. These days I would only avoid the tourist bazaars and mosques at prayer times, not to spoil this impression. But everywhere else Turks are genuinely sweet and helpful. Some speak excellent English and many none at all, but all are happy to engage in a conversation. One should not get annoyed at repeated shouts of “Where are you from?” for this I think is a simple phrase of introduction for them. We were riding a bus during rush hour in a local neighborhood far from the tourist track and a young man was desperate to talk to us. He ended up using Google translate just so he could exchange a few words with us. At the end he showed us the picture of his with his two little kids and ended up with:Welcome to Istanbul from Sinan.

He was delighted when we told him he had a famous name of a famous architect Sinan. I have just finished reading a book called the Architect’s Aprentice by Elif Shafak, so I knew about the architect that built hundreds of spectacular mosques, tombs, and other monuments all over İstanbul in 16th century.

Having time on our hands we have also stocked up on novels that are set in Istanbul and are happily reading through factionalized history, art, politics and spying. As I mentioned my birthday was celebrated with an excursion to Prince’s Islands. In the summer they are a huge magnet for the Istanbulites, and I presume they get a fair share of foreign tourists as well, but on this day we were the only foreigners. Still, the crowds were surprisingly thick on the ferry because the island of Büyükada was part of Istanbul Bienale and lots of ladies who lunch came over from the city to enjoy the arts. We were glad to pop our head in as well, especially since some of the hundreds of lovely Victorian houses were exhibition spaces and we could go and see these gorgeous buildings from the inside. It was surprisingly warm for October 2nd and we did bring our swimming suits with us. At the end we didn’t swim, just sat at the edge of the sea, enjoying the views and a quiet delicious birthday lunch.I plan to continue celebrating my birthday and life every single day in Istanbul. I don’t need presents or parties, just a chance to uncover many new things and secret corners. May I be abundantly protected from evil eye and other misfortunes on this noble mission!

Trotting Through Tusheti

Deep down on my Bucket List of Places&Experiences from since I remember had been a horseback riding adventure. But not just a ride on the beach fantasy. No, a bigger, longer adventure, like cattle herding in Argentina, or Mongolia’ steppe on horseback, or an African horse safari.

When young I have done a lot of horseback riding, even dressage and parkour, so I am pretty sure in the saddle. I also made sure our girls as kids had horseback riding lessons and whenever there were opportunities to introduce them to the joy of riding out in nature, I did so. My best memory of riding together was in South Africa when we went to a private reserve near Stellenbosch and galloped amongst zebras and giraffes. Being on a horse you have a better, off the ground perspective, but what is even more wonderful is that the animals don’t see you as a threatening human, but just a strange animal, so you can get really close to them.

Different horse breeds also give you a different experience. At this point I don’t really want to get on a spoiled, finicky, oversensitive Western horse any more, because I had such fabulous experiences with other breeds. Galloping on the beach on a Berber horse in Morocco is absolutely thrilling, and so in a different way climbing up a steep mountain path on a small, incredibly surefooted Tusheti horse.

Last year I had such a horse for an afternoon in the Caucasus when my husband and I travelled around Republic of Georgia. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me and when we returned from the Tusheti mountains to the winery where we stayed, I mentioned my horse dream to the owners. “I wish I could spend a week crossing the Tusheti mountains on a horse.”

“And why not?”, said the winemaker. “I have a number of horses up in the mountains and I can have one of my cousins take you. I only wish I could go with you, for we, Tushetians, are crazy about horses. Horses are in our blood. We keep herds of horses, just because we love them.”

That close relationship showed in the way the horses were treated in Tusheti. All of them, without exception, looked healthy, well fed and not afraid of humans. On the opposite, a horse would happily approach you on its own to be touched, instead of flinching in fear if you extended your hand. There were horses everywhere in Tusheti: in the villages, pastures, or just roaming freely around the mountains. Some were used as transport animals to bring supplies to far away villages where no cars could reach. Even if the equipment was simple, much care was taken that the horses were comfortable and their hides protected by layers of homemade woolen padding. I very much appreciate that as there are many places in the world where horses, but especially their relatives – donkeys are terribly maltreated. Some horses were used for the local cowboys to herd the sheep up the mountain in springtime and down the mountain at the beginning of fall. Even the littlest children were fearless around horses and clamoring to be close and kids as young as 7 or 8 could be seen trotting around bareback and alone.

On our first trip to Georgia, by a strange and wonderful coincidence we met a well travelled and adventurous Czech couple in Georgian Svaneti mountains. When I mentioned to them my amazing horse experience and my dream of going back for longer, they said, “We really want to see the Tusheti mountains and we have horses at home and we would be thrilled to go riding with you in the mountains.”

Well, people say one thing, but then when it comes to it…

No, this time everything fell in place easily and perfectly. I even got to borrow riding breeches and a riding helmet from my new friend Miša. We decided that we were too old to ride all day and camp at night, so we came up with an alternative itinerary where we would stay in two different guest houses and make shorter day trips to various villages in different valleys. And so it happened that a year later the three of us (my husband not being a horse guy and having had back surgery) flew to Tbilisi, jumped in a waiting car and presented ourselves at the winery again. The owner checked our itinerary, tweaked it somewhat and called his cousin to choose the best horses for us when we show up in the mountains.

We hired the same reliable driver with a 4 wheel drive van that Mirek and I had the year before and my friends Miša and Jirka experienced the thrill of driving one of the craziest (and supposedly the most dangerous) unpaved roads in the world over the 2826 m high, Abano pass, this time mysteriously wrapped in fog. We brought along a few bottles of excellent Georgian cognac as Miša is very afraid of heights. As is the custom on that road we toasted the many people who fell to their death, the last victims just a month before with a lousy truck full of families driven by an inexperienced young driver.

The drive was easier than our autumnal ascend the year before, if hotter. With the summer still lingering, we only encountered one flock of sheep coming down the mountain, bringing the car to a standstill with the torrent of thick white wool flowing by. On the other side of the pass we went straight to Upper Omalo and the place we stayed at the year before -Gordilla Guest House, where we were welcomed like family. It might not seem much, but within limited competition it has a number of advantages. It is in the middle of the little community with the view of the impressive defensive towers. It is only a year old with bright, if simple rooms, with new beds, private bathrooms with hot showers run on solar panels and it has the best food served on a terrace that overlooks the little square where local life happens. It even has USB phone chargers and a decent WiFi. Impressive for such a remote location!

Our horse guide came to introduce himself and we were a bit concerned as he looked awfully young, but he had a smattering of English (in the manner of: road – no good – horse) and the horses and equipment looked decent. My friends used to the fancy saddles were a bit taken aback, but soon they were glad to have the extra padding after hours spent in the saddle. My reins weren’t even leather, but a simple road, but the horses were so well behaved and cooperative that it really didn’t matter. Only once I had to really use the reins to hold back my horse at a steady galloping pace while our valiant leader let his horse loose and went flying like an invading horde of Gingis Khan!

So yes, horse back riding dream…did it come true? Pretty much. We spent enough time in the saddle that we felt soreness in all sorts of body parts. At times we felt as pioneering explorers coming to the villages that time and people forgot. Some were at the border of Dagestan and some at the border of Chechnya, but all in spectacular settings. The only notion of the border being a hand made sign…We had the freedom to gallop to our hearts’ content. The most memorable was galloping above and along a merrily flowing river Pirikiti Alazan, surrounded by tall mountains, flocks of sheep and herds of curious horses. We let our horses munch on fresh green grass and drink from clear mountain streams, cold rivers, and tall waterfalls that were flowing everywhere. We sat high up in the saddle gobsmacked with 360 degrees views while golden eagles flew in the blue skies. If the year before I reveled in the yellows and reds of the fall, this year the summer meadows rich with many familiar Alpine flowers of Caucasus variations in full bloom were a colorful sight. We certainly reveled in the admiring looks of some other travelers that we passed on our way. We did wish that we did not have to share the unpaved roads with others, some cars and a few very loud and annoying motorcycles. But the mountainsides on the most were far too steep to take shortcuts through the woods. The few times we did we marveled at the stamina and sure-footedness of our steeds climbing up the rocks. Only once I felt we were taking a dangerous risk when we rode to the village of Kvavlo on a path so narrow and steep that I seriously thought of just closing my eyes and holding on for dear life while the horse found his way down to the river on his own. Of course, once he did and we crossed the stream and were in the sacred village where a sheep had been sacrificed that day, it was all seen as a thrilling adventure. Still, I was glad we took a different even steeper, but wider path back, even if I had to dismount and walk leading the horse behind me. For me an ideal trip should have nature, culture and people. We could not have wished for a more majestic and untouched nature and the people were so welcoming and generous. It is not unusual to be invited to partake of a juicy watermelon or a glass of thick red Georgian wine. I was also very pleased to meet dr. Irakli, living in the village of Bochorna, the highest settlement in Europe at 2345m, who has been ministrating to villagers all his life. We rode to the village of Bochorna and tied our horses by the one inhabited house.

“Dr. Irakli, I presume!” I greeted the man with white hair.

“Niet doktor, starec Irakli,” he responded in Russian. (Not doctor, old man Irakli).

“Niet starec, slavni Irakli,” I retorted. (Not old, famous Irakli). A happy smile spread on his face. I just wish we had a better supply of words so I could hear more fascinating stories. I did get the gist of the one where he went to administer to a patient on his home made skies in the winter and got buried in an avalanche. He lead me to the holy place- kheti, the shrine with white stone above the village. These white stones of all shapes and sizes are a strong presence everywhere and a reminder of the old religion that predates Christianity and coexists with it to this day. they are also used in construction of tall towers, to protect from bad spirits and from cracks in construction. Legend says if you remove the white stones, the whole tower will collapse.

With the help of the locals I found some wonderful stones with pictographs on house. This one is connected to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who came to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. As always, the myths reveal a lot about the real history and life of people in olden times. While the hero story of a band of brave men overcoming impossible challenges, slaying dragons etc. is interesting in its own right (we all love a good fantasy), I like to dig deeper. These myths tell of common method of fratricide to get the throne and of powerful women priestesses/sorceresses without whose help the brawny hero could not succeed. In this case it is Medea who helps Jason after she falls in love with him through the meddling of Goddess Hera. She even kills her own brother to be able to escape with Jason to his homeland, bearing him many children only to be discarded for a younger princess. Her revenge is swift, sending a poisoned wedding dress to her rival. I just wonder why the heck didn’t she send a poisoned tuxedo to Jason?

As for the Golden Fleece – the historical fact lies in the gold collecting method of people in Georgian mountains by putting a sheepskin (fleece) into the rivers and trapping gold particles in the wool. Could it have happened right here? The Dartlo village tower you see was our home for the night. Not as fancy as our Omalo accommodations,but a good jumping point to the most impressive mountain views of the whole trip in the last village of Girevi.

On the ride in we met fierce looking children.

They were celebrating in great fun the Color Day, the day summer colors change into Autumn colors. The children go into the woods to pick wild blueberries and paint their faces with the juices. I wonder what pagan ritual that is based on? The influence of orthodox Christianity is not that strong in the mountains and the churches are very few and far between.

And they of course heavily borrow from the mythology of yore.

Saint George slaying the dragon or is it Jason? On a beautiful horse no less.

Our own horse adventure of mythical proportions coming to an end, all I can say is that truly, madly:

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 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. 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,” 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 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.