Sunday, July 14, 2013

Friday, July 12. Transylvania

This is the final day of our tour. The next two days are travelling days as we make our way home.

Friday we travelled to the city of Bran. This is another bus ride on mountain roads.

Upon arrival to Bran, our group transferred to two smaller vans for drive up a more primitive mountain road to a chalet. After the a nice snack at the chalet, we start hiking back down the mountain. This is where we had our snack before starting the hike in the Transylvanian Alps.

The landscape was beautiful, our best hike of the whole trip.

This guy is real. He was just sitting there keeping a eye on a flock of sheep.

After lunch we visited Bran Castle, also known as Dracula's castle. This, of course, is one of the "must see" destinations in Transylvania. It's a bit like Anne of Green Gables house. There is a bit of a tenuous link to Dracula, but everybody goes there.

We had a fun tour of the castle. The guide at the castle was hilarious. He should be doing stand up.

Cathy wanted to get a picture with a Downhome Magazine in an exotic location. Dracula's castle in Transylvania seemed to fit the bill.

As we all got back on the bus after the castle visit, we realized that our vacation was mostly over.

We have had a great trip. We saw a lot of interesting things and met some nice people. But, now I'm looking forward to getting home.

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Thursday, July 11. Brasov

On Thursday, we left Bucharest for two nights in Brasov. Our route took us through the Carpathian Mountains. These are good-sized mountains. We stopped at the Peles Castle, residence of the last Romanian monarch. This may be one of the most beautiful castles I've seen.

Here is a picture of the interior courtyard.

The interior is incredible. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take any pictures inside. The decoration, woodwork, paintings and furniture were remarkable. You will have to come and see for yourself.

We continued on to Brasov. This is a mid-sized Germanic city. Our guide lead us on a walking tour of Brasov. (The first two pictures were taken on Friday).

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Wednesday, July 10. Bucharest, Romania

We crossed the Danube into Romania on Tuesday at Vidin on a new bridge that just opened two weeks ago. We had to clear customs. The Romanian customs officer came on to the bus looking serious and collected all the passports. We waited. After a while the officer returned to the bus and there was a conversation with our Romanian guide. Then officer called out in a gruff voice "Elizabeth Nifort. Please come to the front of the bus." Elizabeth stood up and started haltingly to move to down the aisle. Then someone at the front shouted 'Happy Birthday' and started singing happy birthday to her. It seems that the officer had noticed on her passport that it was her birthday and decided to have some fun!

Romania seemed a little less poor than Bulgaria. It was a long drive to Bucharest. On the way we passed a number of fairly large cities. Sunflowers, grown for their oil, is a common crop.

On Wednesday morning, our Romanian guide lead us for a walking tour of Bucharest.

Across from our hotel is a square in front of a government building. The balcony of this building was often used by Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania's communist dictator, to give speeches.

It was here in that in 1989, people gathered and demanded that he leave. He went out on the balcony to tell the people to leave, but the people resisted. There was some shots exchanged. Eventually Ceaucescu escaped in a helicopter, but the pilot pretended that he had engine trouble and landed. Ceaucescu and his wife left the helicopter. The most powerful and hated man in Romania started to hitchhike. He offered the man who picked him up a fortune to drive him to an army base, but the man drove him to a police station where Ceaucescu was arrested. He and his wife were given a brief trial and they were taken to a courtyard and executed by firing squad. That was the end of communism in Romania.

We asked our guide if he had been there. Yes he had been in the square during the protests. He said he left when the shooting started. He had a daughter who was only a few months old.

Bucharest is a city with great wide tree lined boulevards. It has many beautiful old buildings. This is the opera house, on the next block to where the square where history was made.

On of Ceaucescu's great projects was to build a huge government building. It is the second largest government building in the world after the Pentagon. Many blocks of historic buildings were destroyed to make space fort the building. The building makes no sense for a country the size of Romania.

Like most of the cities we visited, Bucharest has a nice old town much of which is a pedestrian area full of outdoor cafes and bars.

Our tour had our dinner at an 1879 beer hall. It is a beautiful building and they served a delicious schnitzel the size of a frisbee.

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Tuesday, July 9. We Disembark the Ship

It seemed the further East we travelled, the poorer the countries appeared. We disembarked the ship in Lom, Bulgaria. From here we travelled to Bucharest, Romania by bus. My first impression of Bulgaria was that it looked like the communists had just left yesterday. We passed grey concrete apartment buildings with broken windows and crumbling facades. Yet it appeared that some apartments were occupied. We were told that there are few government services. It seemed that no maintenance had been done on any buildings in decades.

Probably there are similar areas in the other countries and probably there are some nice restored and more affluent areas in Bulgaria. However, for us the drive through Bulgaria was worst we had seen.

We did have a couple of tour destinations in Bulgaria. We visited the Belogradchik Rocks. This was located in a nice little resort town. We stopped at a modern resort hotel. It's gleaming granite tile floors seemed a world away from the poverty we had seen a few miles earlier.

The rocks formations are quite interesting. The Romans built a fort on these rocks. Later the Bulgarians built a fort on top of the Roman walls. The Ottomans conquered the fort and used it for a few centuries.

We had another stop in Bulgaria at the town of Vidin. Here we visited a 13th century castle on the Danube called the Baba Vida Fortress.

We had lunch in Vidin. It is incredibly cheap. A beer, 1 Euro. A glass of wine, 1 Euro. Bottled water, 1 Euro.

Here is a picture of the synagogue, in ruins since the Second World War.

Here is a picture of a typical apartment building

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Monday, July 8. The Iron Gates

There is a section of the Danube that passes through a deep gorge called the Iron Gates. This section had historically been extremely difficult to navigate due to powerful rapids. They used to use teams of horses and ropes to move barges through this section. In 1982 the Djerdap Hydroelectric and Navigation system was completed. A huge dam was built which flooded a large area. Two locks are required to complete the drop of almost 100 feet.

We woke up on Monday morning docked in the Serbian town of Donji Milanovac. Our tour included a visit to an interesting archaeological site called Lepenski Vir. The site dates back to 7000 B.C. and is thought to demonstrate the transition between the hunter/gatherer way of life to one of agriculture. The site was discovered in 1965. This unique site is considered to be one of Europe's most significant excavations of early civilization. A village of maybe twenty houses was discovered. Each house is a distinctive shape and included a rock hearth.

The actual site was submerged when the dam was built. The picture above was taken in a large modern interpretation centre built near the original site. The actual rocks from the village were moved and site was reproduced.

When we started our visit we were treated to a communist-era film about the discovery of the site. The film was was quite interesting, both for the subject and for the style and phrasing used. The artifacts displayed include some fairly sophisticated rock carvings.

About 120 skeletons were found. Interestingly almost all had a full set of teeth
and there were no signs of violence on the skeletons.

When returned to our ship, we started or voyage through the Iron Gates. Some sections looked a lot like Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne.

This carving is a fairly recent addition created by a successful businessman.

After a spectacular passage through the gorge, we travelled through the two locks at the dam.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013


After Nova Sad, we sailed to Belgrade. Again, first impressions were that this city is still trying to emerge from years of communist rule and conflict.

Again our guide lead us to a fortress. The fortress and many of the old buildings are in need of restoration. There are blocks of ugly communist era apartment buildings.

We visited a small old chapel before entering the fortress. The primary religion in Serbia is Serbian Orthodox. This mosaic is near the entrance.

At Belgrade, another river flows into the Danube. This picture taken from the fortress shows the confluence of the two rivers. The Danube is the brown one.

Belgrade was bombed by NATO. There were some buildings that were failing down. I don't know if they were a result of the bombing or of neglect.

While Hungary is mostly Catholic, in Serbia the main religion is Serbian Orthodox. This large church has been under construction since 1946. The interior is still unfinished.

Our tour included a trip to a village outside Belgrade complete with a peasant feast.

Storks nest on rooftops.

At the feast, lots and lots of great food. I have no idea what we ate.

And Serbian folk music.

And wine...

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wednesday, July 10

Today is Wednesday. Our cruise finished yesterday in Lom, Bulgaria. From there we made our way by bus to Bucharest in Romania. The tour schedule has kept me too busy to do much writing.

We had today in Bucharest. Tomorrow we will be bused north to Brasov in Transylvania for some more touring.

Let me recap the past couple of days. After visiting Pecs in Hungary, we sailed on to Serbia. In Serbia we visited two cities. Nova Sad first, and then on to Belgrade. Both cities were bombed by NATO during the conflict in the late 1990's.

Both Slovakia and Hungary were clearly not as developed as Austria. We were told that salaries in Slovakia are about one third of the salaries in Austria. Yet both Bratislava and Budapest were tourist-friendly and looked like they were on their way to a more prosperous future.

Our first impression of Nova Sad in Serbia was not so positive. Many building were in disrepair. There were a lot less BMWs and Audi's and a lot more Yugo's on the streets. This row of old buildings seemed to be crumbling.

As our guide lead us for a walk around the city, she told us that Nova Sad had a lot of historic old buildings like the ones in the picture above, that if restored could be quite special. But for now they remain in rough shape.

We visited a ruined fortress that will host the very large Exit music festival next week.

As our walk continued we reached quite a nice pedestrian area with cafes. Our guide was engaging and I think proud of her city and its potential for the future.

By the time we had finished our visit to Nova Sad, my impression of the city and its people was more positive. There is a lot of hardship here. We must remember how lucky and affluent we are in the west. But there was a lot of potential here and a lot of positives.

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Monday, July 8, 2013


We passed though a lock on our way to Budapest. That was interesting.

Budapest is quite a beautiful city. We were docked on the Pest side of the river.

There is a historic market located a few blocks from our boat. This huge old building looks like it was once perhaps a train station. However, we were told that it was designed to be a market in the late 1800's.

The Matthias Church on Castle Hill has a beautiful tiled roof. This picture was taken from a walk that we did along the river on our first day. We got a chance to walk around the square in front of the church on our second day. The structure in front of the church is called the fisherman's bastions. This is a great place for taking pictures of the city and river below.

Margaret's Island is an island in the middle of the river. We briefly visited it on our guided walking tour on Wednesday.

We walked to Margaret's Island again on Thursday and decided to rent one of these buggies for a little ride around the island.

This is Budapest's Plague Monument in the square in front of Matthias Church.

This is a picture of the Hungarian Parliament Buildings as seen from the Fisherman's Bastion. They are quite impressive. There is a massive construction project underway behind the them that I believe will create a park or a pedestrian square around the buildings.

One of the highlights of our trip was our evening departure from Budapest. The ship sailed up stream a way and then turned and sailed past the city as the sun was setting.

The Parliament Building at night as we sailed by.

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