Istanbul Overview

As I lay in bed listening to the early morning call to prayer, I say it out loud, the words I’ve been thinking all night.  ‘I’m not going home today’.

I’ve decided I just can’t leave this city after one day.  It wouldn’t be fair to miss out and I’m here now right?  I’ve never changed a travel itinerary like this before, making a snap minute decision like this is just not something I do.  But, as I’ve begun to see in many ways throughout this trip, I’m growing as a traveller.  I think I’m getting better at this.

So I do.  Easy as that, I rebook my flights, extend my accommodation and now don’t leave til the end of the week, though I’m still not sure that would be enough time to see this city properly.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history.  At its peak, it covered the Balkans, Hungary and the gates of Vienna until it was effectively finished off by World War I and the Balkan Wars.  Originally founded by Greek settlers over 2,000 years ago, it originally went by the name of Byzantium, then Constantinople when the Romans made it the capital of their eastern empire.  Today, it has a population of over 12 million people.

Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents – Europe and Asia.  It’s a vast metropolis home to a beguiling mix of cultures and traditions.  A magical mix of east and west.  And I don’t quite know where to start exploring it, so I jump on a tourist bus so I can get a good overview of the city first up.

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I felt like my mouth was hanging open for most of the trip, looking this way and that, not sure what to take in first.  The best way for me to explain it is to just show you…

It’s incredible that the place is so crowded but doesn’t feel over-crowded.  And the other thing that stands out is the number of Turkish flags flying everywhere – seems to be a very patriotic city!  From the massive cruise liners docked by the shoreline to the old Fez factory, from grand mosques to the Dombalace Palace on the Asian side, from streets stalls to fishermen and local tradesmen plying their trades on the street – it would take more than a few days to see it all.  But I have to say that a bus tour is a great way to start.

Leaving the bus once it reaches the same spot it departed from, I decide to try and locate the Grand Bazaar.  Luckily it is fairly well signposted and I have no problems.  The most I know about the Grand Bazaar is The Tea Party recorded their film clip for the video The Bazaar here (clip inserted for those interested – be kind, this was 2006), and in surrounding Istanbul.  It’s one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a day, though it seems much quieter than I was expecting today  – perhaps the heat is keeping people away.

Inside, the stall owners try to allure you with flattery, which seems to be the way in Istanbul.  Their wares are beautiful glass lanterns, tea sets, turkish delights and tea sets, each work a definite look at, but the catcalls put me off.  If only I could find my way out again, oh, hang on – daylight.

For the rest of the afternoon, I decide to try out the second of the sightseeing bus routes, this time alighting to catch the cable car to the top of Pier Loti for a different view of the city.  A lot of other people have the same idea but the queue eventually moves along and very quickly the journey to the top is over.

At the top is a few little cafes where you can stop and enjoy the view and the warm afternoon sun.  Turkish apple tea is on the menu and it’s yummy.

Driving back along the waterfront, you can see the place come alive.  Families are picnicingng on the lawns, there are balloon dart games and musicians playing on the rocks.  Looks like everyone’s come down to enjoy the cooler weather that the evening brings.  This will be a nice place to explore one night – I’m glad I decided to stay.

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OK, come on – you can do it.  Just one more bus trip.  One more city.

Please don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed this journey so much and been to places I knew nothing about and got an absolute kick out of them.  It’s just all the long days on buses to only spend a night in each place that is getting to me now.  As you would know, I am the kind of person who likes to make the most of out of each place.  I am always rushing to fit one last thing in my itinerary.  But I can feel I am running out of steam and I am kind of glad to know I only have one more night to go before I fly home.

We arrive by taxi to the bus station in Plovdiv for our trip into our last country – Turkey.  We are heading to Istanbul to end our tour.

All I know about Istanbul is that the Canadian band The Tea Party filmed the music video to their song “The Grand Bazaar” there (cue clip…)

I was meant to have two nights here, but a travel agent stuff up means that I’m flying out tomorrow afternoon.  But as I just said, I’m not sad.

It’s a non-eventful journey and we seem to get through customs with no problem (with the exception of there being no one in the booth to process us when we arrive – he nonchalantly wanders out of a building some distance away in no hurry at all and oblivious to the fact he’s keeping two bus loads of people waiting) but there’s still a significant ride until we arrive in Istanbul.

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There is a queue of trucks miles long waiting to get into Turkey – it’s quite an incredible site.  A little digging tells me that these queues are not a one off hing.  Back in March the queue approached 11km long and was blamed on the slow speed of processing entry because many workers were on holidays.  It seems this couldn’t have been the reason, because here we are in September with massive queues once more.  Others believe its because the new centre is too small to cope with the amount of trucks.

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Hours later as we start to arrive into the outskirts of Istanbul, I feel a buzz.  An array of dazzling lights on the horizon leads us to magnificent tower after tower of shopping centre and apartment buildings.  It’s not just that thought.  The closer we get to the centre of the city, the more electric I feel.  In fact I feel like a kid at Christmas – I just don’t know where to look first.  It has the feel of an exciting city for some reason.

We alight our bus at the station and trade the safety of the large bus for the horror of driving at street level in a taxi.  The city has obviously spiked my drink because despite the dangerous weaving in an out of traffic, I feel exhilerated by the ride.  Amanada and Susan are in my taxi along with Marco.  Amanda, who doesn’t trave long distances by road very well unless she’s ‘drugged up’ is losing it too.  We are laughng like maniacs.

The taxi keeps weaving along the roads.  It’s hard to tell whether there are three or four lanes of traffic because all of it is madly weaving in and out of each others way, in an eager race to get somewhere.  But we finally make it to a point close by to our hotel, all safely.  A brief walk through the train station and we have arrived.

Our hosts greet us with free lemon cordial which is a welcome relief after all those thirsty hours on a bus with no toilet.

It then dawns on us that this is our last night together.  We head through the alleyways not far to the restaurant for our final dinner.  The laneways and restaurants are decorated with colourful lights and lanterns and it has a festive feel to the area.  Restaurant workers call flatteringly to you in an attempt to get you to come to their restarant.

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Most of us have been together for almost three weeks now and have formed nice friendships.  The new travellers to our group have added a nice dimension to the group and we have all got along incredibly well.  Everyone has been so well travelled on this trip and its exciting to add so many must see destinations to my mental calendar afte chatting with them.  It’s the closeest I’ve felt to my fellow travellers than on any other Intrepid tour I’ve done and I’ve enjoyed every minute of the time I’ve been away.  To think I knew nothing of some of the countries I chose to visit and that Romania and Bulgaria were not even on my list of countries to travel to – let’s remember I only picked these two tours because I wanted to go back to Budapest and they just followed on from each other –  it’s just been magical.  And it’s reminded me that you really, truly can’t judge a book by its cover.

As dinner winds down, and we head slowly back to the hotel, the mood is quiet.  Most of the group is hanging around for a few days but Marco is off tomorrow to reunite with his family, as of course am I.  There are goodbyes in the foyer and everyone moves on.  But the world is getting smaller and who knows when we may bump into each other somewhere again.

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Like John Denver sang, we are on the road again.

This time we are travelling from Bansko to Plovdiv.

Situated on the Maritsa River, Plovdiv was once the meeting point of two ancient transportation routes.  The old town features lots of 18th and 19th century baroque houses, which sit alongside museums, mosques, galleries and Byzantine ruins.  It’s one of Bulgaria’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities.  It’s a student town loaded with great restaurants, galleries, bars and a thriving cultural scene.

No sooner do we arrive, than we meet our guide for the afternoon.  Like Sofia, Plovdiv is home to the most incredible Roman ruins.  Amongst them is the magnificent ancient Roman stadium, built during the 2nd century BC and the location for many a gladiator match.

There is a cool 3D movie about the arena, but there’s no time for that today – perhaps tomorrow morning.

The heat is unbearable this afternoon, which makes the guides job hard because I’m not sure how many of us are actually  thinking about sitting in the shade with a cool drink or icecream rather than listening to her tell us about Plovdiv.  Which is a shame, because she knows her stuff.

Trudging further up the street, we come to the next reminder of Roman civilisation – an amphitheatre.  Built some time in the second century AD, it was only rediscovered after a freak landslide.  The amphitheatre would have held around 6,000 people and it still plays host to special events today.  Overlooking the city, I couldn’t think of a more spectacular setting.

We follow a cobblestone street to the site of Nebet Tepe – a former hilltop fortress with excellent views of the city before heading down hill to the 15th century Dzhumaya Mosque which is still in use today.

Plovdiv is home to many workshops of the traditional masters of old Bulgarian arts and crafts.  Along Strumna Street, you’ll find coppersmiths, farriers and potters.

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And again in the same vein as Sofia, Plovdiv also has a long shopping street which runs down the centre of it.  Most interesting is its McDonalds restaurant — because despite the number of different countries I’ve visited I can’t remember seeing any other store with the McDonalds logo translated into the subject language.  I wonder how they swung that!

We then had the afternoon to ourselves and I’d love to tel you I made the most of my limited sightseeing time in Plovdiv, but it was just too damn hot and I was feeling a little tired from all the travel of the last couple of weeks.  And theres oony one thing you can do when you feel like that – a nice shower followed by a nanna nap.

I still have tomorrow morning.

Dancing Bears

Gorno Draglishte in the early morning is magical.  The light dawns on it just so that it gives everything a golden glow.  One more day here to explore and take in the charm of the village would be perfect, but we are moving on yet again, so we say goodbye to another wonderful host and hop back in the van.

We are heading to Bansko, but along the way we stop in Belitsa to visit the Dancing Bear Sanctuary.  The sanctuary houses 24 former dancing bears which were captured by volunteers from a life of captivity and cruelty.  Opened in the year 2000 with support from Four Paws and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, it covers 120,000m² of natural territory where the bears can roam in as close to a natural environment as they will ever be able to get.  These bears will never be able to be realised into the wild as they have never learnt to look out for themselves.

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Most of the bears were owned by the Roma people (or gypsies) who taught the bears to ‘dance’ by making them walk on hot coals whilst their owners played musical instruments.  We’ve all seen the photos (they were probably the image you even associated with Bulgaria when it was mentioned) and probably many a tourist snapped a photo of these clever dancing bears without giving it a second thought.  But life for these bears was anything but fun.  Having been separated from their mothers at a very early age, the bears were mistreated – pierced noses, declawing and leg chains have left everlasting scars on these bears.

The practice of keeping dancing bears was prohibited in 1998, but as with anything there are always people who continue to test the limits.  Volunteers worked hard and as of 2008 it is believed that there are no longer any dancing bears in Bulgaria.

More driving and we finally arrive in Bansko.  Bansko is set at the bottom of the majestic Pirin Mountains and is home to more than 150 cultural monuments.  Many of its stone houses have been transformed into gorgeous little ‘mehanes’ or taverns.  We are staying at another guesthouse – something I have come to look forward to – no longer anxiously wondering how I would cope, I now embrace these places as a chance to live more like a local.

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I have scored the ‘penthouse’ (the room that is under the eaves with the long wooden railing in the photo above) and my massive room has a big balcony, which despite looking out over a tyre yard, affords me a spectacular view of the mountains.

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Every inch of road in Bansko seems to be in the process of being dug up and if I don’t trip at some point I’ll be surprised.  The footpaths in Sofia were the same, so badly in disrepair that at times if you weren’t looking where you were going, you would end up down a drain in no time.

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We head into town for some lunch and a bit of a walk around.  Bansko is a ski-town in the winter but people still flock in other seasons cause it’s cute.  It’s also a great opportunity for hikers and mountain bikers.

Tonight the opera is in town.  They are playing The Czardas Queen which I’ve never heard of, but here’s a run down of Act 1 – Night at the music-hall, Ferribachi addresses the guests and tells them that Silva’s variety actress success s so big she received an invitation to Paris.  Silva wants to go but Edwin is in love with her and craves to marry her.  His mother Silica is against her son’s involvement with the variety acrtress.  She herself was a variety actress, but keeps it a deep secret.  To stop her son’s plans she arrives at the music hall with a general, who has to take Edwin to the barrack.  But this is not all – she organizes the engagement between Edwin and her neice – countess Stasi, as she even gives out invitations behind his back.  Edwin doesn’t want to let SIlva go to Paris and says that he is ready to marry her right away.  They contract the marriage.  Silva is happy, but no for log.  Soon she reliases that Edwin is engaging count Stasi and there are people invited.  Silva tears the marriage contract apart and decides to go to Paris with Boni.

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Six of us decide to take our chances on the show but I’m sad to say that none of us lasted past the first act.

Meeting Baba Lina

Leaving Sofia behind, we are on the road again.  We have a new driver, who doesn’t speak a word of English – except perhaps ‘Rock On’ cause he’s wearing an ACDC shirt and apparently loves Led Zeppelin.  He and Marco are best friends, Marco tells us, even though neither can speak the other’s language.

Rila Monastery was the most important orthodox monasteries in Bulgaria.  World Heritage listed, it’s the largest, holiest and most impressive of Bulgaria’s monasteries, housed in a narrow and forested valley.  It was founded in 927 by Ivan Rilski – known as Ivan the Hermit.  The monastery was responsible for keeping Bulgarian spiritual and social life alive during its centuries of Turkish rule.  It’s most treasured historic and artistic monuments include the 14th century Hrelyo Tower, the fire-domed Blessed Virgin Church and the original monastery kitchen from the 19th century.

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The monastery is very interesting and definitely worth a visit.

There was also a really cool museum showcasing implements from the Monastery Farm in the 19th century.

Walking across the monastery grounds, for some reason I look down and realise I have just walked across a grave.

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Leaving Rila, the landscape becomes decidedly more Mediterranean in appearance.  It’s still a fair drive through the hills – another couple of hours – before we reach Gorno Draglishte.

Gorno Draglishte is a small mountain village, home to a delightful community of warm and welcoming people, a rich cultural heritage and delicious home-cooked food.  We are staying at a local guesthouse – Guesthouse Deshka and you are made to feel welcome from the minute you walk in the door.  ‘Please – eat the fruit off the trees’ the host gestures.  Like Romania, fruit grows alongside the road and it’s a simple thrill being able to pick it fresh and eat it.

Marco takes us on a walk through the town, which due to its size, doesn’t take very long.  It’s washing day and household rugs are hung to dry after being beaten clean in the large outdoor tub.

But the size of the town certainly has no bearing on how many local pubs there are in town.  With several to choose from, we pick the quietest and fill up the seats, relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

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On the way back from the pub, a small old lady comes up beside me, loops her arm through mine and starts talking to me.  Again I am reminded how easy it is to communicate even though you don’t speak the same language and we work out between us our names – hers is Baba Lina – and that she lives here and I am staying at the guesthouse – all the things you find out about a person from a first conversation.  We bid each other goodbye outside the guesthouse, me smiling away at the unexpected little encounter.

Arriving in the main room of the guesthouse for dinner a little while later, we are re-introduced to our host and take our seats at a long, u-shaped table.  In the door come two old ladies – one of which is my new friend Baba Lina.

They are here to perform for us tonight, but first they serve up our delicious meal.  Neither can speak a word of English but that doesn’t mean there is no life in the room.  There is chatter and laughter filling the room.

Then the babas sit down to sing a few songs for us.  Their voices, though not what most would call beautiful singing voices, were nonetheless clear and loud.  Then it was time for dress-ups.  Amanda, Susan and I were first to be bundled into beautiful traditional costumes and led back into the main room to dance in a circle for the others.

No matter the clothing though – we were still bogans through and through….

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Another unexpectedly glorious day filled with the unexpected.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring but I’ve never looked forward to the next day more.

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Sofia Shows Us Her Stuff

Sofia is the cosmopolitan capital of Bulgaria.  It was founded by a Thracian – Indo-European tribe which inhabited a large area in South East Europe sometime around the 8th century BC.  Elaborate tombs are the most obvious reminders of the Thracian culture and they have been unearthed across southern and central Bulgaria.  But it was the Romans who settled the city that you can see today, after conquering the region in 29 AD.  It was also held by the Ottomans for about 500 years and it was during this period that it became a regional capital.

Sofia became the official capital of Bulgaria in 1879 after the city was liberated from Turkish Rule in 1878.

She picked the “wrong side” during WWII and as a result lost much of her heritage to bombing raids.  Liberated by the Russians in 1944, a people’s republic was created and socialist architects rebuilt the city.

As the day dawns, Marco leads us on a introductory walking tour of the town centre.  The first thing we notice this morning is pizza.  Everyone is eating big slices of pizza!  That certainly must go on the list of things to do today.  When you’re in Rome (or Sofia)….

In front of us is the Lion’s Bridge.  At each corner of the bridge are four massive bronze lions as if standing guard to the old city.

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The second thing we notice is the ruins.  Everywhere.

Beside the Lions Bridge…

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Even just walking through the metro station!  As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Romans built much of the city of Sofia and it seems that workmen these days can barely put a shovel in the ground without coming across Roman remains of some kind.

And just outside the metro station?…More ruins of course.

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Out the back of the imposing Presidency building is the St George Rotunda and the remains of the ancient city of Serdica.  The Rotunda now forms part of the St George Church and is part of a complex of architectural monuments consisting of the remains of a large basilica.  The floor of this basilica shows evidence of a heating system and the stone pavement of one of the main streets of Serdica complete with drainage.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see ruins like this just in the middle of the city.  A definite first for me and in a country I didn’t expect to see them in.

The day was very warm and the one of the guards in front of the Presidential building looked as though he was fit to keel over at any moment, profusely sweating.  The poor chaps had to stand there without any hint of shade.

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We stop at an outdoor café but we are brusquely notified by the waitress that there is no water, so that means no coffee or other hot drinks.  Her offhand manner offends most of us and instead of settling in for lunch, we order only Cokes before heading on our way, leaving the waitress to tend to her other non-existent customers.

Leaving behind the rude waitress, Marco stops in front of a tree and points out some little red and white strings and decorations on the branches of a tree.  They are Martenitsi and this is what they are about.  On the first of March each year, Bulgarian’s leave the house were little red and white strings tied around their wrists or necks or adorned on their clothes until the wearer sees a stork or swallow returning from migration – or a blossoming tree – and then removes the Martenitsa.  The Martenitsi are never bought for yourself, only as gifts for loved ones or friends. DSC05773 DSC05772

There are different rituals for removing the Martenitsa – some people tie them on the branch of a fruit tree (as we saw), others put it under a stone with the idea that the kind of creature closest to it the next day will determine the person’s heath for the remainder of the year.  If that creature is a worm you are in luck – the year ahead should be healthy and successful.  Ants are also good.  Spiders?  Not so much – these mean that you’re in trouble and may not be enjoying luck, health or personal success.

No points for guessing where I’d be putting mine!

Another interesting Bulgarian tradition is remembrance of the dearly departed – pieces of paper, photographs included, stuck to homes, doorways, trees in memory of those who have passed on.  These are called ‘Necrologs’ and if you would like to read more on this very interesting topic, please refer to this great article.

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Despite the work of the Soviet architects, there are a lot of gorgeous buildings lining the streets of Sofia and it’s a lovely place to walk around and explore.

Marco leaves us outside the Alexander Nevsky church, where we all scatter in different directions depending on what we want to see for the rest of our free day.

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Across the road from the church, there was a small antiques market which disappointingly sold a lot of Russian made goods and also a lot of icons.

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Moving along from the market, we headed to the King’s Garden, where stands the Monument to the Soviet Army.  Depicting a Soviet Soldier surrounded by a Bulgarian male worker and female peasant, it was built in 1954 as a symbol of gratitude for the Soviet Red Army for helping Bulgaria on their war efforts during the second World War.  The monument has been the centre of controversy since Bulgaria transitioned from communism to democracy as many aren’t too happy about the presence of this behemoth, which daunts the country’s national symbols.

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So it probably wasn’t much of a surprise when, in June 2011, an unknown street artist gave the old Soviet fighters a makeover, repainting them as modern day heroes – Superman, Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald.  This wasn’t to be the last time the monument’s stars were given a good ‘zhooshing’.  In August 2013, the monument was painted a vivid shade of pink on the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslavakia in 1968.  And in the same month, the monument was again re-dressed in support of the members of the Russian anti-Putin band Pussy Riot, each character now sporting a brightly coloured balaclava.  Russia has kindly asked that people stop vandalising the monument, but we’ll have to wait and see how long it is before that request gets ignored.

In the commercial heart of the city is the monument of St Sofia, who was the city’s patron and namesake.  Erected in 2001 she replaced Lenin’s monument.  Some of Sofia’s residents were not happy as she was considered too erotic and pagan to be referred to as St Sofia.

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Markets stalls selling fruits and vegetables are set up alongside the street and further down is a book market where you can find all sorts of books, some even in English, and records too.  It’s time to stop for a bight to eat and spying a pizza shop, that’s where I head.  The shop attendant hands over a nice big slice of pizza and shock horror – it’s cold!  Oh well, that’s not going to stop me from enjoying it!

Vitoshka Street is a fully pedestrianized shopping mall selling just about everything you can get anywhere else in the world.  Once upon a time it was the only place to shop in Sofia but shopping malls changed all that and in deed nearly ended things for Vitoshka but once the area was redeveloped, the people came back.  Cute cafes line both sides of the stretch and provide welcome relief from the heat when we stop for a drink and some icecream.

The last stop on our sightseeing trail today is the Ladies Market.  There are all the usual homewares for sale here as well as jars and jars of different kinds of honey.

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Bulgaria has a chain of dine in restaurants called Happy.  Marco mentioned this to us and made the point of saying they are a good dining option and that he regularly eats there.  Normally, I would steer clear of these types of restaurants (Hard Rock excepted of course – for the rock memorabilia and broccoli), but today I decide to give it a go.  Marg is up for the challenge and comes along with me.

Opened in 1994, there are now 22 Happy’s around Bulgaria, the largest and fastest growing restaurant chain in the country.

Staring at the menu, which all looks very appetising as Marco promised, we notice a strange ingredient mentioned frequently – boletus.  Trying to eliminate the ingredients by looking at the pictures, and at first think it must be mushrooms, until we notice there are dishes that have mushrooms and boletus.  Google comes to the rescue and find it is indeed a genus of mushroom-producing fungi.  I’ve never heard this word before in my life, but happily order the Chicken Alfredo with Boletus.

Half way through eating, a countdown begins.  Marg and I look at each other wondering what’s going on.  Some of the staff begin to meet in the middle of the restaurant and next minute Pharrell’s song “Happy” bursts forth from the speakers and the staff begin dancing to it.  The dancing ends with the smashing of plates on the floor and everything returns to normal.  I wasn’t expecting that but what a nice way to end the day!

I also notice the staff uniforms have the Unicef symbol on them and ask one of the waitresses what it means but perhaps she doesn’t know enough English to respond to me because she says she doesn’t know about it.  Once more Google comes to the rescue and I find out that there is indeed a relationship of some kind but that until I learn to read Bulgarian I would not be enlightened as to what it was!  Anyone who can translate the link would be much appreciated!

I couldn’t resist dessert, merely for the fact that I just had to try this taste combination when I saw it on the menu – miso-mascarpone homemade cake with blueberries.  And the result – it’s a very soft cake ball, surrounded and mixed in with the mascarpone and covered in blueberry compote.  It’s a very different taste, perhaps an acquired taste to some, but as a frequent traveller to Asia, it wasn’t unexpected and I quite enjoyed it.

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After such a full day, I am more than ready to hit the sack.  We are off again early tomorrow morning to travel to Gorno Draglishte (Where?  I’ve never heard of it either!) via Rila.  Seems another long day of travel is on the cards.

Off to Find Sofia

With a late start and a last glimpse of Bucharest, we are on the road yet again.  Today we head into new territory – Bulgaria.  If I had no idea what to expect of Romania, I have even less idea what to expect from Bulgaria.  But I have a day’s worth of travel before I find out.

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Marco is unsure how our border crossing into Bulgaria will go because they have been working on the bridge between for some time and traffic delays have been horrendous.  But apart from a false start where the road had temporarily been altered, luck was on our side.  We were straight over the bridge, albeit slowly.

The line of traffic waiting in the other direction was not quite so lucky….

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Before much longer, we are at the border and the formalities are taking place.  As we wave goodbye to the ‘assports’ office (the sign was missing a letter), our heads start swivelling ready to check out our new surroundings.

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But our day of travelling is far from over.  We now have another bus to board, a public one this time.  The ticket windows are odd and purchasers are forced to bend over to buy their tickets.

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We head off in different directions to find lunch and snacks for the journey ahead, absorbing enquiring stares from the locals.  I bought these biscuits to share, which were incredibly yummy, despite having what looked like birdseed on top!

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The first thing we notice about Bulgaria, is that no matter how hard we try – we will not be able to try and pronounce any signage, as it is Cyrillic.  This should be fun!

Cyrillic Alphabet

Finally our bus is ready to board and off we go.  Our driver is grumpy and despite the bus being advertised as airconditioned, it is really hot because the driver has his window open the whole journey to accommodate his chain smoking.  After what seems an eternity, we finally pull into the bus station at Sofia, where we lug our bags onto our shoulders and start walking to our hotel, arriving just in time to head out for dinner.

Marco leads us not far away to a cute little folk restaurant where we were are treated to some fantastic singing and amazing food and wine.  I get my first opportunity to have a good chat to the Japanese couple who joined the tour in Bucharest – Aki and Kazuo.  They are the cutest couple – Kaz speaks more English than his wife, and they have their trusty travel guide with them, flipping through the pages keen to try the local food which their guidebook recommends.  I know very little Japanese, but Kaz assures me I’m saying it right and he seems very impressed.  Who would have thought that a little language I picked up to get me through my trip to Japan several years ago would now serve me well in Bulgaria!

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I wonder what Sofia has in store for us tomorrow?

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Once described by In Your Pocket as “a dirty, smoky and polluted city of two million people and one and half million rabid dogs”, its safe to say Bucharest was not on my list of places to visit in any hurry.  And it’s true that before you arrive in Romania, you read about stray dogs.  A lot.  A 2013 census suggested there were some 65,000 of them roaming the streets, whilst recent reports have the number down to 4,000 – still a little high for my liking.  So where did all the dogs come from?

The 1980’s.

Seriously.  They were the result of Nicholae Ceausescu’s reign and his plan to industrialise Romania.  Scores of people uprooted from the countryside eager to find a place in the city and that meant a huge demand was placed on apartments.  Family upon family lived in an apartment, which meant sadly that there was no room for dogs.  The dogs were abandoned in the streets and, like the population of Romania, the population began to explode.  Many culling programs have taken place over the years though, and I’m here to say, that despite my concerns and the fact I have now been in Romania for a good week, I am yet to see any rabid dogs, and the dogs I have seen have been languishing in small towns, enjoying the streets as much as it’s citizens and tourists do.  Dogs napping, dogs rolling over for a tummy scratch, dogs enjoying the sun.  None of them seeming the least bit interested in me, let alone rabid.

But it does beg (haha) the question – who was this Nicholae Ceausescu?

Well, he was the leader of Romania from 1965 until 1989 when a coup removed him from power and sentenced him to death for crimes against the state, genocide and “undermining the national economy”.  He was a small man and inflicted with a stammer and he suffered from an inferiority complex as a result.  He was initially a popular political figure because of his independent foreign policy which challenged the supremacy of the Soviet Union in Romania, but that didn’t last long.  His policies resulted wide spread shortages of food and basic necessities, an uncontrollable population of rabid dogs and most tragically of all, created a generation of neglected orphans (that became known as Ceausescu’s Children) and subsequently street kids.

Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion and actively encouraged childbirth to grow Romania’s workforce.  There were tax breaks for families with children and fines for those without.  And if you couldn’t support your children?  No worries.  You could leave them in one of the state run orphanages until your financial situation improved.  But most times, the children were never collected and the state had no money to run these orphanages adequately, which resulted in hundreds of orphanages, each with hundreds and hundreds of children in the most terrible states imaginable.  And it was these images that shocked the world in the early 1990’s, if you were old enough to remember them.

Both the Interesting Times Bureau and Urban Adventures run the Outcast Bucharest tour in conjunction with the Parada Foundation.  The Parada Foundation is a non political, non profit, legally recognised NGO, set up with the goal of “supporting homeless children, young people and families through social, educative and social-professional integration services”.  Their services include a day centre, home support for those in difficulty, reintegration services and night street intervention.  And as Sergiu, my guide, will tell you, he is very grateful to them for where he is today.  He is a Parada’s ‘walking success story’.  Abandoned by his parents at an early age, this former drug addict and street child has cleaned up his act and is in the process of finishing high school.  Things are still touch for Sergiu at times, but he has come a long way and is on track to achieve his ambition of becoming a social worker.

It was Parada’s social enterprise that allowed Sergiu to undergo a training program which allows him to show you his side of Bucharest.  He is open and honest with his discussion, very generously sharing the details of his life and encouraging you to ask any questions.

We strolled from the Piata Universitatii (University Square) to Piata Unirii (Union Square) via Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) to visit some of Bucharest’s main sites.

This statue outside the National History Museum, is the most mocked statue in Romania.  It shows the Roman  Emperor Trajan, carrying a wolf.  It was meant to represent the emergence of the Romanian people from the Romans and the Dacians, however the nudity of the statue, combined with the strange posturing and….well you can see for yourself…it’s just weird.

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And of course it has its own Facebook page – Statuia Lui Traian – should you want to check out everyone’s funny photos.

Sergiu asks if I’ve heard of Bruce Lee.  I’m assuming he doesn’t mean Hong Kong’s iconic kung fu legend and he isn’t.  He is talking about Bruce Lee, self-proclaimed King of the Sewers.  You see, in Romania, right underneath your feet, there is a network of tunnels and sewers which are occupied by hundreds of men, women and children (in fact hundreds may not be the right word – the last estimate was 6,000).  Drug use and disease are rife. These sewers are where some of Romania’s neglected orphans ended up.  It’s something from a nightmare.

Just last month, police raided the sewers and arrested Bruce, along with some others after a surveillance operation uncovered organised criminal gangs and child prostitution.

It’s a life Sergiu knows too well – the struggle to survive on the streets.

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Our visit ended with a stop at Parada’s day centre, where Sergiu and I chatted about what it is exactly that they do.  Part of which is run a circus.  On a tour through Romania some years ago, French clown Miloud Oukili was confronted by the misery of Bucharest’s street children.  He noticed they kept returning to his performances, so he learnt their language, began to talk to them about taking drugs and taught them circus tricks.  Today, the Parada circus tours France and Italy with their performances, giving a life to these street children who don’t formally exist.  Parada has reintegrated over 300 street children through its work.

If you are interested in doing the Outcast Bucharest tour, you can book through http://www.urbanadventures.com/Bucharest-tour-outcast-bucharest or www.interestingtimes.ro.

The days heat and the heart-wrenching topic have me in a ponderous mood.  This is the thing that I love most about travel – it’s that it re-grounds you, redefines your beliefs and reinforces what’s important to you, makes you more tolerant and more thankful for your own circumstances and above all – it opens your eyes.  As the quote goes, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

After a brief stop to freshen up at the hotel, I decide I’m going to head straight to Cismigiu Park and enjoy the rest of the day.  I run into Marg at the hotel and she has the same idea.  Cismigiu is the most central of Bucharest’s public gardens.  It was first designed in 1845, but not completed until 1860 when more than 30,000 trees and plants were bought in from the Romanian mountains.  The centrepiece is a gorgeous lake where you can hire a row boat or a paddle boat and enjoy the afternoon sunshine, but there are many beautiful areas of the park, both hidden and obvious where you can enjoy your day.

At one end of the lake is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria and that’s where Marg and I decide to park ourselves for a bite of lunch and a bit of reflection on our mornings, before taking our time to check out the rest of what the park has to offer.

Strolling past the playground on our way to the paddle boats, we check out the freaky kids play equipment along the way.  I’m glad I hadn’t noticed these freaky swings last night as it would have scared the wits of our me – not that they are much less scary in the daylight.

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Our request for a ticket to ride the paddleboats is met with ‘you might get wet’.  Marg and I look at each other, shrug and say ‘yep, that’s fine’.   We are reluctantly given a ticket and told to head over to the boarding pad where someone else will get us our boat.  ‘You might get wet’, says the guy at the boarding pad.  ‘Yep, we still don’t care’.  It seems a strange amount of concern for the possibility of our getting wet and it has me wondering whether there’s another reason, but we step aboard out boat and off we peddle.

We don’t get wet.

Not one little bit.

Tonight we get to meet the newbies that are joining us for the next leg of the tour.  We are losing three of our companions for the last week (including my room mate Hedy) and gaining another five and we can’t wait to see who they will be.  We begin to appear haphazardly in the lobby at the agreed time, anxiously pondering – is that one of the new people, or just another hotel guest?  But finally we have all arrived and get to meet a wonderful Japanese couple, two bubbly girls from Sydney and another US guest.

Marco leads us through the park once more, but in a different direction, for our first group dinner, with the addition of a couple of those who have stayed around today from the last tour, Hedy and Steve.

I noted before travelling to Romania that Stuffed Cabbage Leaves and Polenta are what would be most identified as Romania’s national dish.  Traditionally served at weddings, Christmas dinners and big celebrations, it’s a staple on restaurant menus around the country.  The cabbage leaves are typically filled with spiced pork, sometimes lamb or veal, and served with a side servicing of polenta to soak up the juices, topped with a dollop of sour cream.  So in the realisation that I’ve come to my last night in Romania without trying it, it’s the only logical choice on the menu, which is littered with funny translations.  A good choice it was too – though I’d like to have seen how those beaten and tormented pork ribs tasted!

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Romania has been a wonderful country, surprisingly so.  Although I had no idea what to expect, I have to admit that the pictures in my head were a little grey and uncomplimentary given the news that had filtered through from the country over the last twenty years.  But what I found, was a place of fascinating culture with traditions still being held tight – something I feel we have let go of in Australia.  It’s reinforced to me that I need to make a bigger effort to return to my roots and take up the traditions my Polish grandmother provided for me growing up, so I can pass them on to my niece and the new baby our family is due to welcome shortly.

I’ve delighted in the simplicity of exploring local markets and indulging in bloodthirsty fairy tales.  The beauty of the scenic Carpathian Mountains is a must to be experienced and the joy of picking fruits from the trees as you walk down the street brings back childhood memories of annual holidays to a country town back home in Western Australia.

The people we have met have been incredibly welcoming and have taken kindly to showing and sharing with us their lives, especially Ramona who opened her wonderful home to us and Sergiu who was so open to sharing his story with a stranger in the hopes that it will make a difference.

Thank you Romania for the trip I never expected and will never forget.

Heading for the Capital

An early start awaits us for our trip to the last Romanian city on this tour – the capital, Bucharest.  Claudia is meeting us again, as she is travelling with us for part of our journey to show us a town called Sinaia, about 50km from Brasov.  A string of taxis deposit us and our luggage at the train station where we meet Claudia, and then the train takes us the rest of the way, before more taxis lug us up the hilly, winding streets of Sinaia.

Sinaia is a resort town – full of skiers in winter and hikers in summer and it’s pretty.  Really pretty.  The architecture is what you would truly call Transylvanian – lots of wood, peaked roofs and turrets.  Romania’s first King – Carol 1 – had his summer home here – and it’s that which we are off to see first.

Peles Castle was built between 1873 and 1883, though the present iteration was completed in 1914.  As I mentioned above, it was to be the summer home of King Carol I, however he died a few months after it was completed.  Its architecture showcases a number of styles and features wide terraces overlooking the stunning mountainside scenery.  It had its own electrical plant on the banks of the Peles Brook, which meant it was the first European castle entirely lit (all 160 rooms and 30 bathrooms!) by an electric current.  It was also the first European castle to have central heating and vacuuming.

The castle was open to the public after the forced abdication of Romania’s last king – Michael I – in 1947, only closing during the communist period when it was then used as a private retreat for leading communists and statesmen from around the world.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look inside, but the outside of the castle and its grounds are well worth the visit in any case.

The trail leading back down the hill from the castle towards the town is filled with wooden market stalls selling all manner of goods – leather belts, fur trimmed jackets, shoes and the obligatory tourist items such as magnets and postcards.  Again, we don’t have time to shop, which is a shame because these stalls hold some magnificent stuff, unlike a lot of the other stalls we have come across that have sold tacky plastic toys and other associated crap imported from China.

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After the Castle, our next stop is the Sinaia Monastery.  The Monastery is home to about twenty monks.  Inside the gate there is a large Orthodox Church, which was built around 1846.  Further inside you will find the old church, built in the late 1600’s, the outside of which is covered in religious paintings.  It’s interesting to note the depiction of the devil in the drawings, which is something you don’t often see in Western churches.  These drawings were important because they were used to pass the biblical stories on through generations of people who could not, in most circumstances, read.

We bid farewell to Claudia, who leaves us to travel back to Brasov and we now have a couple of hours to enjoy some lunch and a bit of a browse around the city centre of Sinaia.  A few of us find a great restaurant – in fact a suggestion of Marco’s – and we settle in.  The food is amazing, and my order particularly reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking – lots of dill.  It’s funny that no matter where I seem to be in Europe, there’s always a little something on the menu that is similar to her wonderful Polish cooking.

There’s just time for a quick stroll down the street and back before we all merge back at our meeting point and head off for the next party of our journey – another train ride.

The train ride from Sinaia to Bucharest seems to take forever.  The air-conditioning is broken in our carriage, and despite Marco’s repeated requests to the conductors, they refuse to pull out the keys to unlock the windows.  Many people in the carriage are complaining, frantically fanning themselves with whatever fan-like objects they can find.  I have my earphones in and some of my favourite music blaring in my ears, so I don’t care one bit.

Finally we arrive at the main station, but there’s some walking and a metro ride to go yet.  It’s also quite the hike from the subway to our hotel and just when I am doubting that I can go much further, my backpack feeling like extra weight every time I took a step, we make it.

Bucharest is like none of the other Romanian locales we’ve visited so far.  It’s definitely the concrete jungle I was expecting, though there are some quite remarkably beautiful buildings here too.  Tomorrow I will have the chance to see more of the city.

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Tonight is our last night on the tour and there’s a team dinner to celebrate.  Dinner is not far away, just on the other side of Cismigiu Park, in fact.  The last rays of daylight are blanketing the city in a golden glow.  It makes Bucharest look stunningly pretty.  People are relaxing in every part of the park.  There are playgrounds full of children, benches full of old men and couples peddling away on the river boats.  It’s a little overgrown, but there are stalls, restaurants and miscellaneous vendors all over the park selling beers and snacks and it’s nice to see a park being used so widely.

Everyone is a little tired after the long day, the heat and travel coupled with the realisation that we have reached the end hitting home, so conversation is slow.  Most of our group is continuing on to the next tour which starts tomorrow night, but some of those that aren’t, are still hanging around for another day, so it’s a weird feeling to say goodbye, when we will still see everyone tomorrow.

The park is still busy when we walk back through it after dinner – and I’m talking 9.30/10pm at night.  And the thing that astonishes me most, is that even the children’s playground is still packed – this is not something you see back home in Australia.  It’s not a good thing to even walk through a park at this time of the night, let alone stop off to have a play on the swings or a cuddle with your sweetheart.  Welcome to Bucharest.

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This is not a great photo because apart from being blurry, you can’t even see how many kids were here – but at least you get the picture about how late at night we are talking!

It seems unreal that it has only been ten days since we set off from Budapest on our journey through Romania.  We have seen and done (and learnt) so much, but the incredible Romanian countryside and the wonderful people we have met have made out time stretch out beautifully, rather than feeling rushed.  As I mentioned, I had no idea what to expect of Romania and it has surprised me at every turn.  The beautifully coloured rural houses, the traditional clothes and the retaining of traditional ways of life, the food, the animals and the myths and legends.  It has felt like stepping back in time, and that, at least for me, has been a good thing.

Prince Charles and Dracula

I wake up nice and early, hoping for a chance to go for a bit of a walk around town before we get started for the day.

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As you may well have gathered by now, Viscri is a special place.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Prince Charles loved it so much, he bought number 63.  Once belonging to the wealthiest family in the village, the home was in a very bad state of disrepair when it was purchased in 2002 through Charles’ foundation, the Mihai Eminescu Trust.  It’s now an authentic Saxon guest house (almost exactly like the one we are staying in) and you too can stay here (check out www.experiencetransylvania.ro for more info).  He apparently visits every summer and goes riding in the surrounding hills.

“Do not change anything, keep and love this place as it is”, he said.

Under the auspices of the Trust, he has started to renovate the Saxon buildings, as well as supporting the revival of traditional Romanian trades.  The role of the trust is to conserve and generate the villages and communes of Maramures and Transylvania.  There is another guest house in Malancrav not too far away.

It’s a lovely time to take a walk, so I’m not the only one that is up and about.  Being awake early means you get to see the village awakening for the day.

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As I approach our guest house, I note that it’s time for our sheep to go off to pasture.  They all file out of their pen and out the front gate of the house, bounding down the street like woolly puppy dogs, following their caretaker.  I love this place.

Marco is keen to take whoever is up for it, for a walk to see a local tiler.  Most of us immediately think decorative tiles, but rather, we will see how to make roof tiles.  We stroll through the quaint little streets and out the end of town, before heading up a rutted soil track and onto a valley.

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It’s a bit of a hike but its beautiful scenery.  Hops grows in the distance in one direction, some sheep and their shepherd abound in another and from the top of the valley we can see the town below us.

After a little while, we arrive at the tile maker’s property.  She doesn’t appear to be home, so Marco begins to explain a little to us.  It’s one of the projects supported by Prince Charles foundation as it turns out.  Not long into his conversation, the family arrives home from town.

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The lady of the house leads us down to her mud pit and explains step by step how she and her husband create the tiles.  It’s hard work and some people in the village are jealous of the opportunity they have been given to run this business.  Small towns obviously have their problems and prejudices, no matter where they are.

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We wave goodbye and head back to town in another direction.  If the journey here was a hike up the hill, the journey back is a balancing act down the hill.  I’d never thought much of old Charlie, but after the last twenty four hours I have developed a lot of respect for his work in this region.  I was a little curious as to why he was so enamoured of Romania, and I found my answer.  He is, apparently, a descendent of Vlad the Impaler!

As throughout Romania so far, fruit trees litter the scenery wherever you are – on the streets or our in the countryside and you are generally encouraged to just grab some along the way.  Today there is plum and apple trees lining the hillside, so Marco pulls little handfuls off to hand around to us as we trample through the mud.

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It’s time to leave this quaint little village now.  I wish we had one more night to spend here – it’s been such a lovely grounding experience – no internet, no TV, just rural life all around you.  But Brasov awaits us, so we board our minibus once more and get back on the road.

We drive for about an hour and a half before we reach the town of Brasov with its population of less than 300,000.  Again, it was a Saxon settled town and features a walled citadel.  It was the crossroads of many important trade routes that linked Europe with the Ottoman Empire and the Saxon’s grew quite wealthy off this.

It’s also famous for a few other things.

Remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin?  The town of Hamelin is overrun by rats so they call in a magical man with a flute to rid them of the plague.  The rats disappear but the town reneges on its agreement to pay the piper, to which he responds by also removing 130 of the town’s children through a cave, never to be seen again.  For a long time, the fairytale was believed to have been a reference to the death of the town’s children from the Bubonic Plague (caused by the rat infestations) and a thinly veiled cautionary tale of why you should never renege on a promise.  However, there are other versions of the story, and one of them sees the children settling in Transylvania.  And Brasov (in Transylvania) is reputedly where the children emerged from the cave.

The second would be the massive Hollywood style sign perched high atop Tampa Mountain.  But why?  Well back in the 1950’s, the town of Brasov actually changed its name to something else – Orasul Stalin or Stalin City.  The workers of Brasov thought they deserved this honour because they had exceeded their mandated production quotas.  The wish was granted and to commemorate the occasion, the name STALIN was spelt out across the mountain using darker coloured leaves.

At the end of the 50’s, the town was renamed Brasov and all the darker coloured trees were chopped down.  Details on when and why the new sign was erected in the Hollywood style are hard to find.  You can take a cable car up to the top to get a close and personal view, but our time here is very limited and there’s something else I want to see.

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Another is that it’s a good place from which to see Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  At 60m tall, it is spectacular, but it’s best seen from afar like most things of size.  Still, some of us are keen for a closer look.  But that will need to wait.

We take a quick walk around the town with Marco pointing out a number of important sites.  The main square, off which our hotel is located, is quaint and full of restaurants on one side, with an art market set up in the middle.

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The main attraction is the gothic Black Church.  The Black Church is a protestant church, completed in 1477 and it took its name from its fire-blackened walls after a fire took hold in 1689.  The original statues from the exterior are now inside, along with some 120 Turkish rugs which hang from its balconies.  Worshippers at the church drop coins through the wooden grates in the floor and hope for the best.  If you know where to look, there are scrape marks outside the church, which some locals swear are from soldiers’ sharpened swords from the past centuries.

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For those of us who can’t resist, Marco has arranged for a guide to take us to Bran Castle.  Claudia is very bubbly and eager to show us Bran.  Six of us jump in the back of a minivan with a new driver and off we go, Claudia chatting excitedly as we go.  We are a little quiet after our long walk this morning, our travel here and rushed tour of the city and I feel a little sorry for her because she now thinks she is chatting too much.

The queue outside Bran is long, but it’s not a bad queue says Claudia.  It’s usually a lot longer.  We don’t have to worry through because with Claudia by our sides we get jump the queue access.  Of course once we get inside the castle it is busy, but as we have a limited amount of time here, we are directed to particular rooms of the castle where Claudia explains about Vlad Tepes and something else that scared many Transylvanian’s – the strigoi.

Romanian legend has it that the strigoi are the evil souls of the dead that turn into ghosts and haunt the countryside.  They are not born, they are created by one strigoi turning a soul into another strigoi by sucking the blood out of them until they are dead.  Hence this is where the story of vampires and Dracula began.

So how did it become know as Dracula’s Castle?  Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania.  But Bram Stoker himself never visited Romania.  It’s just that his imaginary depiction of the castle from his first edition of the novel so resembled Bran Castle rather than any of the others in Romania.

Dracula’s character is often confused with that of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince.  Dracula as he is perceived today is a fictitious character whose name is derived from Vlad Tepes who was depicted by some historians of that time as a blood-thirsty ruthless ruler (it was said that he impaled so many people on a hill near Brasov that it resembled a forest, so who knows, they could be entitled to that opinion!).  Vlad did actually spend a few nights in Bran Castle on his flight from the Turks in 1462 so I guess that’s where it all got confused.  The moral of this story is Vlad Tepes – real.   Dracula – not real.

Or is he…..?

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PS.  If you want a great guide for your Transylvanian holiday, you can arrange for Claudia to guide you around – head to The Transylvanian for more information.