Thursday, April 17, 2014

Last Stop, Romania

Yes, the suitcases are all packed and ready to go. Romania is the last stop and tomorrow we fly back to Massachusetts. Still, we're not convinced that all good things must come to an end.

On the ride into Bucharest we passed a Gypsy house and grabbed a quick snapshot through the bus window, thereby violating our commitment to you to step through the window and not offer you narratives gained by sitting on our duffs. Sorry about that, but this was just too unique to keep to ourselves. The Gypsies are a significant percentage of the population in most of the countries we've been through and people speak of the "Gypsy problem." What they mean is that the Gypsies are still not well integrated into their communities. Of course, this is all beyond the scope of our modest blog. We were told that, at least in Romania, the Gypsies prefer the term "Gypsy" to the term "Roma," even though the origins of "Gypsy" are apparently derogatory. They identify with it, much as many Native Americans prefer to be called Indians.

One place we visited in Bucharest was the Village Museum. It's said to be the largest open air museum in Europe and was founded in 1936 by bringing buildings from all over Romania. We enjoyed it quite a bit. Pictured is a peasant house that was half buried in the ground and then thatched so that it would blend into the wheat fields and escape the notice of Ottoman troops as they swept yet again through the area.

You may remember that Romania was the last country in the region to have a successful revolt against Communist rule in 1989 (and it wasn't peaceful). Nicolae Ceausescu was a totalitarian dictator in all the worst ways. One of the ways he drove his country to despair in the 1980s was by building the People's Palace, now known as the Parliament Palace (as Parliament now meets there). He didn't live to see it completed, meeting with summary justice back in '89. 20,000 workers and 700 architects worked 24/7 to build the palace and it is impressive in its own way. Being the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in surface area and clocking in at 1,100 rooms, walking through the main public rooms is like entering a series of overdone, impossibly large spaces. It's like a series of enormous train station central halls, like something Donald Trump would do if he had the resources of Bill Gates. Rather than serve as the government headquarters of Romania, it would be well suited as the headquarters of the Federation of Planets. But, that's just our opinion. During our tour, we stood on the very large balcony from which Michael Jackson famously greeted the people of Bucharest with a "Hello, Budapest!" Some years later, he did return and got it right. Some things can be forgiven.

So, farewell from the Danube and Eastern Europe. We look forward to our next adventure.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Arbanasi and Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria

Having docked in Rousse, Bulgaria, we traveled into the mountains to the neighboring towns of Arbanasi and Veliko Tărnovo.

Veliko Tărnovo, clinging to a steep hillside, was the capital of the Bulgarian Second Empire from the 12th through the 14th Centuries.

Overlooking the town on a hill with evidence of human habitation going back as far as the third millenium BC, is Tsarevets Fortress. It was the fortified castle for the ruling dynasty during the Second Empire. Back to our favorite medieval means of dealing with the unwanted, it features a rock from which traitors were thrown, high above the river, known as Execution Rock. The church at the top of the hill was reconstructed in the early 1980s and features rather odd secular/religious frescoes in the socialist realist style that prevailed across the communist bloc prior to 1989.

In Arbanassi there is a museum in Konstantsaliyata's House, an example of a well-to-do Ottoman family dwelling from the 18th century. Arbanassi remains a desirable place for privileged Bulgarians to have second homes.

The Church of the Nativity of Christ was built in the 15th to 17th Centuries in Arbanassi in compliance with the requirements of the Ottomans. As you can see, an early way of dealing with height restrictions for buildings was to build them half buried in the ground. The frescos inside are original, albeit cleaned up and restored. The bottom photo features a fresco teaching the lesson of Palm Sunday, the day of our visit.
Amanda works off some of her lunch.
Martenitsa are made of red and white yarn and are given by Bulgarians to friends and loved ones. They are worn on your clothes or wrist until you see a stork or a budding tree. Then they are hung on a fruit tree to bring good luck for the emerging spring.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cruising to Bulgaria

Down the river from Belgrade, but still in Serbia, are the ruins of the 14th Century Golubac fortress. Looks like a good defensive position for those times, although it attracted a lot of battles and changed hands often. All of the powers in the region seem to have held it at some point. Doesn't look very comfortable these days.

On the Romanian bank of the river there is an enormous likeness of King Decebalus, carved in 2004. He was a Dacian king who reigned from 87-106 AD and was defeated by the Romans. The Romanians are proud of their history as a non-Slavic people who have been in the region for thousands of years.

Cruising further down the Danube and stopping at the port of Vidin, Bulgaria, we first went up into the mountains to Belgradchik ("little white city"). The fortress above the town is built into fantastic rock formations. The Romans were first to begin fortifications (the wall at the top of the first photo between the rocks) and the Ottomans built the walls further down. Notice the person in the arched passageway in the second photo? The scale of this was breath taking. A well is in the lower fortress and there are two cisterns up top. Again, not very cozy, but stunning views.
The medieval Baba Vida fortress in Vidin dates from the 10th Century. Legend has it that a Bulgarian King who ruled from Vidin had three daughters and divided his kingdom among them. The sisters of Vida married drunkards and their kingdoms did not succeed. However, Vida never married, but devoted herself to her subjects, including building strong fortifications here at the fortress. Her subjects named the fortress after her, i.e. as "Grandma Vida."
So far, northwestern Bulgaria has been very economically depressed, slow to recover from the transition from a communist economy to a free market. The country is losing population very quickly. The visible signs of poverty were hard to miss.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Belgrade, Serbia

As we go further down the Danube towards the Black Sea, we venture further into the territories formerly occupied by the Ottoman Empire: the further we go, the longer the areas were retained in the back and forth history of the region. At a strategic geographic choke point in the contest between two great world civilizations Belgrade ("beo" = white; "grad" = city) was besieged in 115 wars and razed 44 times in its long history. Our local guide quipped that even having been born in 1984 she had lived in four countries, without moving once.

Belgrade fortress is in the upper city, well protected by the steep terrain in the direction of the Sava and Danube rivers. Inside are collections of tanks from the world wars and tennis courts for the gifted players produced here like Novak Djokovic.
Despite the Serbs' great bitterness about Turkish occupation, they also admired and respected enlightened rulers. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha's tomb remains inside Belgrade fortress and was protected by being removed prior to bombardments and then returned by the Serbs. Among other things, he allowed them to reopen their churches. He was killed in battle against the Austrians in 1716.
The "Conqueror's Road" was the best route to take to besiege the fortress for 2000 years. No one seemed to be alarmed by our presence.
With Serbia's history of occupation, the Sava Cathedral is a 20th and 21st century project for the Serbs, helped along by generous donations from expatriate Serbs. It is being built over the ground where the sarcophagus and relics of Saint Sava had been burned and the ashes scattered by the Turks in 1595 and is the largest Orthodox Church in the world.

Serbia has something of a violent past when it comes to their monarchy. We walked by the former royal palace (now town hall) where winners of Olympic medals and the like stand on the balcony to be recognized. When we had passed by earlier in a bus with our guide, she also mentioned that a King and Queen had been thrown from the same balcony. Actually, that's not quite the full story and it reminded us of the defenestrations in Prague (although the happenings in Prague were rather tame in comparison). It seems that young King Alexander I had acceded to the throne when his father King Milan abdicated and fled the country. Alexander proceeded to do many unpopular things, such as marrying a widowed former lady-in-waiting and then considering naming her wildly unpopular brother as heir presumptive when Alexander and Queen Draga turned out to be unable to have children. To make a long and fascinating story shorter, there was an army conspiracy, headed by a key member of the same Black Hand society responsible for later goings-on in Sarajevo, to assasinate the King and Queen to make way for a new dynasty . They invaded the palace, found the couple hiding in a cupboard in her bedroom, shot them, mutilated them, disembowled them, and threw what remained off the balony onto a pile of animal manure. Nicely done, don't you think?


Our visit to the Tesla Museum was a fascinating detour into the life of Nicola Tesla, an extraordinary pioneer in electronics. He invented, among other things, the induction motor, radio (per the US Supreme Court in a ruling against Marconi), and remote control. Here, our guide (a local student in contention for an internship at SpaceX) demonstrates how transmission of electricity remotely can light of a fluorescent sign and Jim helped to demonstrate the same principle with a huge jolt of high frequency current (see the bolt of electricity under the black ball). Some of you may recall that Matsumoto uses low frequency current as a murder weapon in his detective novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates. It turns out that this isn't fanciful after all. High frequency is safe, or at least that's what we were told.

Belgrade is a city we were sorry to leave. We could easily have spent another day. One reason, of course, is that people in Belgrade apparently love dogs. It's our kind of place (and the coffees and cakes are good, too).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vukovar & Osijek, Croatia

A visit to Eastern Europe wouldn't be complete without sighting a stork. Besides, we thought it would be nice to start out this post with something gentle and upbeat.

The neighborhood cat (in Vukovar, eastern Croatia) is posing in front of some of the remaining war damage from the Serbo-Croatian war begun in 1991 when the Croatians decided to split from Yugoslavia. It's quite modest compared with other damage we noticed, with roofs and walls blown away. However, 90% of the town of Vukovar, where we docked, was destroyed as well as 30% of the larger town of Osijek, visited during the stopover. War damage is still much in evidence. The road we took between the towns was known as the graveyard of tanks, as 84 tanks were destroyed on it by Croatian resistance fighters during the war. Seeing even the last bits to be tidied up in these towns made us think of how much of Europe must have looked after the world wars.

The tour proceeded to visit a very funny entrepreneur and his family out in the country. He has brandy and wines and savory treats and cakes for the tourists to try at 10:00 in the morning, plus the all-important toilets. There are displays of fishing gear and crafts and lots of things for sale. Nino puts on a zany presentation in which he manages to actually convey serious information about his country to his unwitting audience. Here he is sporting a Buso mask, asking to be photographed, but which he used to launch into an explanation of the two Battles of Mohacs (in nearby Hungary). The 1st battle was won decisively by the Ottomans in 1526, beginning Ottoman occupation of the region. In the 2nd battle in 1687, the forces of the Holy Roman Empire crushed the Ottomans and the Ottoman army subsequently fell apart, paving the way for Hapsburg forces to gain control over substantial territory. Nino tied the Buso mask to a legend that people from Mohacs were hiding in the forest to avoid Ottoman troops occupying the town. They were told to don scary masks and sneak up on the troops making a lot of noise. The troops, obviously, ran away and the people regained the town. An older legend that's not as much fun maintains that they chased away Winter. Maybe that's slightly more plausible.

Looking back to another cheery episode of history (although one not involving armies on the march), we've learned that columns that look like this are trinity columns (as in Father, Son and Holy Ghost). They were erected in memory of victims of the Black Death.
A much more recent memorial in Osijek is a crucifix made after the most recent war from machine gun parts left behind.

It is hard to disagree with what seems to be a tour company talking point for guides: every country from time to time does good things and does bad things. Unfortunately, that may be true, but it doesn't offer much solace for the future. (Cue the music for an upbeat conclusion to this posting.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

We're Launched Down the Danube

Finally, we're off! We loved Prague and Budapest, but motoring down a waterway and seeing the smaller locales is what river cruising is all about. The first stop was a place called Kalocsa. It also has a history, with a bishopric created there by King Stephen right after the turn of the millenium (the first one). Right off the bus, we were herded into an interesting church (although we're certain you're beginning to tire of church interiors, so we'll spare you the picture) and were treated to an organ concert by this priest peering out from the organ loft. Bach and the usual suspects.

Now that the Bishop has his residence back after the close of the Soviet era, it's again an active Catholic town. Of course, there always seems to be a quirkiness about things. It seems that one of the prized possessions of this Bishopric is a Bible with comments by Martin Luther and signed by him. In a borderland of cultures and empires, it's good to keep an open-ish mind and soften the hard edges of culture and religion. Besides, we keep being reminded by guides that the history of Hungary seems to be mostly that of occupation and a continual shrinking of its territory (most significantly after WWI), one quipping that Hungary is the only country that is surrounded by itself.

We moved on to the Puszta horse farm for a horse show and a look in a barn. We must admit that descriptions of this excursion elicited groans from yours truly. Of course, we thoroughly enjoyed what we most dreaded. The horses were modest in size, a mixture of Mongolian and Arabian horses, and were exceptionally well trained.

Amanda got pulled out of the crowd for a demonstration of precise whip control (oh, great!).

This was also demonstrated by knocking pegs off posts, as there were no more human volunteers.

The grey cattle are prized for beef (purportedly on a par with Kobe beef), although they didn't seem to be too afraid of us.

These rather odd looking pigs (and piglets) aren't half sheep, but the result of breeding Serbian pigs with Hungarian pigs. However they do it, the bacon and ham we've been having in Hungary have been exceptional. The sort of selection of hams that you may remember from Jim's lunch the other day is also offered on board the ship.


Godolo & Neologue, All in a Day

Godolo (pretend there are umlauts over all those "o"s) Palace was a wedding gift to Emperor Franz Josef and Queen Elisabeth, they of the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary. Elisabeth loved to spend time there and was fluent in Hungarian. Having fallen on hard times, such as WWI, WWII and Soviet occupation, a restoration program has begun to make a real difference and the interior has significant sections open to the public. People of the village managed to hide a substantial number of the furnishings during WWII and brought them out after the Soviets left, meaning that there are original furnishings from the Hapsburgs in Godolo palace (a no photography zone). Violet, Elisabeth's favorite color, is much in evidence, although she only wore black after her son Rudolf died under suspicious circumstances and was herself assassinated by a publicity seeker in Switzerland. Franz Josef must have wondered about Elisabeth. Her favorite Hungarian poet was a revolutionary dedicated to ouster of the Hapsburg dynasty. During our visit, the Hungarians were commemorating a battle against the Austrians in the 19th century. They lost.

Once again, we find that we must backtrack a bit to correct the record. Returning to the Synagogue, we discovered from our guide Reuben (from, among other places, Queens) that the Synagogue is actually the world's second largest synagogue (#1 being in NYC). It seats 3500 without extra chairs brought in. It's a Neologue synagogue, which is the same as (or akin to) Conservative Judaism. The reason it looks so much like a church is that it was designed by a Catholic architect and the city at the time (the 19th century) restricted architectural styles. Reuben let loose his sense of humor to try to explain the difference between Neologue and Orthodox (as a non-observant Jew). [This rabbi walks into a butcher shop and points to the shank of ham behind the counter. I'll take that nice piece of smoked salmon. But rabbi, that's a piece of ham. You call it what you like, I'll take that beautiful gefilte fish.] On a more sober note, we found the memorial tree to Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust to be quite evocative. There are 5,000 names engraved on individual metal leaves on The Tree of Life, the willow tree traditionally representing mourning.