Saturday, 25 September 2010

Days 27-31: Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you

So from Chisinau it was a short hop to Bucharest and then a 6 hour wait for the train through to Bulgaria. Veliko Tarnovo to be precise. A beautiful town in which to break up my train journey to İstanbul. The Tsavarets Fortress is spectacular. Spent 3 nights there in the end. Lots to do.

We were lucky enough to be in Veliko Tarnovo on Bulgarian Independence Day. Turns out that (as the former capital, or one of them) VT was the focus of the action. The president and PM (and lots of soldiers) were in town and there was a big show on the night and a bit of a party atmosphere in town.

Oh, and I got a pic of a hummimgbird (below).

Here are a bunch of photos from the highlight: some sort of Communist era monument and conference centre that is near VT. Buzludzha it's called. Very bond-esque. Or a level from Doom. A very eerie and bizarre place. No-one else there apart from me, Nick and Scott. Judging by the amount of horse crap everywhere, normally there are probably a lot of horses too. It's completely abandoned and while you're probably not supposed to go in, it's not hard. It's just bizarre that no-one's done anything with it. One of my high points of E Europe to be sure.

OK, I would have added more but the internet connection is v slow in İstanbul. Plus the keyboard layout is confusing so taking a while to type anything. Will be here for a couple of days then off to Cappadocia. Goreme first and then on to Konya, famous for its association with whirling dervishes, the poet Rumi and Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Days 21-26: Bender?

Chisinau, Moldova

I've been here 2 full days and have pretty much exhausted what's to do here in Chisinau (Kishinev if you're a Ruskie). First up was a supposed trip back to a bygone era before the fall of communism, when no-one had even heard The Scorpions' Wind of Change, in the breakaway enclave of Transdniestr. The other to Orehiul Vechi monastery.

It turns out that getting into Transdniestr isn't the Orwellian nightmare that had been portrayed. I picked up the minibus/maxi-taxi from the central bus station in Chisinau for about GBP1.5 . Amusingly the town en-route to Tiraspol is called Bender. So I was asked numerous times "Tiraspol, Bender?". To which I obviously replied "yes I'm going to Tiraspol, and please don't call me a bender, we're not at school now".

After about an hour we got to the border. Some people got off, some didn't. Not clear why, but I guessed it was depending on whether you were Moldovan or Transdniestran. So I guessed, and was sort of told by a fellow passenger, that I should get off. Handed my passport to a Russian soldier who disappeared with it and several other peoples'. About 10 mins later the bus driver came back with mine and directed me to a booth where most the other passengers had already headed. Filled in a form. At the counter it took about 5 mins for the guy to type my details into a PC. More due to slow typing than any rigorous vetting of my application. I was told I had to be out within 10 hours and was handed my passport back with half the form. No charge either apparently, even though there was a tariff clearly marked on the window. Certainly no demands for bribes or anything like that. Then I had to run round the corner and jump back on the bus as I was the last one through the whole process. Not really my fault as I was the last to get my passport back but I still looked like the idiot foreigner.

I have to say that it wasn't at all the last outpost of communism in Europe that I'd been promised. In fact it didn't look a lot different from Moldova except for a couple of hammer & sickles and the odd statue of Lenin.

In reality it's not much of a communist state at all. It's an oligopoly run by a couple of gangsters who indulge in all sorts of stuff including arms dealing and are supported by the Russian army, who were very obvious, particularly at the border. As a result, on the street it was no more or less friendly than anywhere else in E Europe. It didn't feel oppressive. I never felt likely to be arrested and I had no compunctions about taking photos. Comparisons to Pyongyang? None at all, except that there are busy trolley buses in both, but then there are busy trolley buses everywhere east of Vienna.

Today a couple of us took a trip to Orheiul Vechi, Moldova's number 1 tourist attraction. In the case of today it was the top attraction for hot 19-year-old Moldovan girls. No idea why. Anyway, I digress. It's a monastery, part of which is carved into the hillside. Very beautiful indeed, with so much that we'd have liked to explore. And the same goes for the monastery (ba-boom tish).

And, since it's such a pain in the arse adding photos on blogger, feel free to connect with me on facebook to see all the other photos, including some of Chapita, the Moldova Hostel's cute dog.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Days 16-20: Vampires, the 2nd biggest building in the world and "fried crap"


First stop in Romania was Brasov which was very nice. Cute city nestled in the Transylvanian Alps with very German-style architecture. Hardly surprising really as it used to be the German city of Kronstadt. There's a phenomenal Hollywood-style sign above the town to remind you where you are, in case you forget. Friendly bunch in the hostel, which is always nice, but hardly anyone here.

Took the cable car up to the top of the mountain on the first day and roamed around in the woods, finally coming out at a bizarre spot where people were BBQing in some sort of flood basin with cows all around them.

I took the bus out to Bran and Krasnov on my second full day in Brasov. Bran is billed as Dracula's castle, although Vlad Tepes actually only stayed there for one night, apparently. It does look the part though.

I then called in at Krasnov on the way back and tried to find the castle there but ended up taking a wrong turn and hiking through the forest for quite a way. Bizarrely there was some sort of biker-fest going on at the bottom of the hill, so much of my walking was to a thrash metal soundtrack, including what sounded like a cover of Annie Lennox's There Must Be An Angel.

I eventually found the castle having finally realised I was on the wrong hill.

After today's double-header I'm officially castled out.

On my last night I went out to the Casa Romanesca restaurant. Excellent place complete with traditional dancing and a menu that included "Fried Crap".

Bucharest has been a bit of a shock to the system after the rural idyll that was Brasov and the relative civilisation of Budapest. This is the first place where I've even been mildly concerned about getting pickpocketed and the like. Touch wood nothing like that has happened though. I budgeted 3 nights here but having seen all the main sights in one day I'll be leaving tomorrow. Took in the majesty of the Palace of Parliament, the world's second biggest building (there's a spot prize for whoever comments with what the biggest is...). Styled on what Ceaucescu saw in Pyongyang apparently and there is a certain similarity. Ironically he never lived to see it finished. Actually technically no-one has lived to see it finished as it's only 95% there, and the tour guide doubted that they'd ever actually get it all done.

I also roamed around the city centre although most of the old town was cleared by Mr C to make way for housing blocks, as shown by the piccie below, taken from atop the Palace of Parliament.

Below is the communist party HQ from whence Ceaucescu made his helicopter-borne escape in 1989. Although he didn't stay escaped for long.

Because it's a latin language I'm getting to grips a bit better with Romanian than Hungarian, although I do keep saying "Köszönöm" (the only Hungarian word I learnt) to people here, which causes some confusion.

Next stop is Chisinau in Moldova. Planning to head into the Transdniestr enclave to get another fix of one of the world's last bastions of communism. At least that's the official line from the breakaway government.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Days 9-15: Heirs to the Galloping Major


Spent a couple of days in Bratislava, which was nice enough. Then headed down to Budapest which has been much more fun. Headed off to Memento Park, which has all the old Communist statues. They had promised lots of gigantic statues. There were quite a lot of statues and a few of them were gigantic. This one being the best...

...and this one which we agreed looked like someone fielding at the boundary.

Food has been the usual selection of fried stuff. Mmmm, fried cheese.

We also picked up tickets for Hungary v Moldova (Hungary won 2-1). Football was pretty crap but the atmosphere was excellent.
The foreign contingent, all wearing red to try to blend in with the locals.

Tomorrow I head for Transylvania...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Days 6-8: No birds, no birds, the sky is swollen black


Just got back from Auschwitz and Birkenau. A very sobering experience as I'm sure you can imagine. Auschwitz is the much more organised one of the two with exhibitions etc and it's also much smaller. It's scale doesn't really reflect what went on. Obviously the place is not the thing but nevertheless the fact that Birkenau is immense seems more appropriate. It's also virtually untouched. They've rebuilt a few of the buildings and stuck up a couple of signs but that's about it. Plus there are far fewer people there. Most just go to Auschwitz. As a result it has a lot more impact. I far prefer to see the actual thing itself rather than see the thing changed into an exhibition about that thing. If you know what I mean. Really glad I decided to go on this day trip alone. Not one where a lot of chatting is appropriate and you need to do it in your own time.

Yesterday was rather more light-hearted. We went to the salt-mines. Wow they have it easy here in Eastern Europe. It was actually very interesting. A UNESCO world heritage site and all that jazz.

Tonight is dumpling and vodka night at the hostel or something like that.

If you're interested, the following are a small selection of what has been particularly rockin' the Hatton MP3 player this week:
- Gin in the Gin-Soaked Boy by The Divine Comedy
- It's Not OK by The Enemy
- Mausoleum by MSPs (obviously, although not strictly speaking the right concentration camps)
- Stay Too Long by Plan B
- I Ain't Gonna Cry by Little Angels (yeah, weird eh?)