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Bucharest

Bucharest


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Bucharest was incredibly hot and humid, almost at Guayaquil levels, but very interesting.

First of all I had fun exploring the old town, passing through University Square on the way.

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There was no free breakfast at the hostel, so I visited a bakery instead and ate the result (a small savoury pastry sprinkled with poppy seeds and filled with bacon and melted cheese) next to a small statue of Romulus and Remus being fed by the wolf.

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Then I came across the Old Princely Court, some remains of a palace used and extended by Vlad the Impaler, who as it happens was born in Sighisoara, my next destination after Bucharest.

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First of all I went underground into the brick cellars - it was interesting, with the bonus of being deliciously cool - and then I looked round the rest.

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This included the accompanying church - originally built in 1559, but much-restored since then. The Romanian Orthodox Church seems to differ from the Bulgarian in that the candle-stands are actually boxes and are outside in a separate area. I bought and lit a candle for Dad, and after I'd done so a woman came up to me, pressed two small packets of biscuits and two boiled sweets into my hands, said something in Romanian and walked away! She did the same with another woman, who hadn't lit any candles yet.

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The old town also contained the old and beautiful Stavropoleos Church. It was covered in frescoes on the inside and I had fun finding out the names of the saints in them via transliteration. It seems that Romanian used to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

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I also loved its pretty, peaceful little courtyard, where I stopped to sit down and have a cold drink.

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The old town was definitely well worth looking round.

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Last of all I visited the National History Museum, which was great. Special mention to the anthropomorphic pottery, the stuffed wild boar, the exquisite metalwork from 5th - 3rd century BC (helmets, cow head-shaped drinking horn, diadem of gold leaves and fish-shaped silver harness appliques) and the 14th - 16th century weapons.

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After a rest back at the hostel, during which I had two more savoury pastries for a late lunch, followed the Ashes cricket live updates for a while and caught Kate online for a bit, I headed back out. My destination was the cemetery where Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu are buried, but on the way I stopped for a bit outside the infamous Palace of the Parliament. It was built on the orders of Ceaușescu and is the second largest building in the world (the Pentagon is the largest). A large part of the original city centre was wiped out to accommodate it.

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I found the cemetery OK, but it took much longer than I expected to walk there, so by the time I arrived at was nearly 19.30; it was supposed to close at 20.00. After spending about twenty minutes unsuccessfully looking for their graves, I had to give up and walk all the way back again. Although I knew which row and number their graves were, the numbers of the rows didn't seem to follow any particular order, and lots of the rows didn't have any number at all. It was quite maze-like and to be honest looking for the right graves was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack! I'm still glad I went though, because it was interesting to see what a Romanian cemetery is like. Nearly all of the gravestones were shaped like crosses and were made of very white stone; there were some small mausoleums as well. I noticed lots of inlaid circular photos or pictures of the dead, like on the stones in the courtyards of the monasteries I've seen in Bulgaria. Outside the cemetery entrance there were lots of flower and coffin sellers with their wares on display at the side of the pavement.

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Instead of going straight back to the hostel, I made a diversion to an area of town I hadn't been to before, in order to have dinner at a restaurant I'd been recommended. I regretted it before I even got there, because I was so knackered (it was quite a long diversion) and as soon as I got there and saw a different restaurant there, I regretted it even more. It looked a bit posh and I was in not the cleanest of clothes and was literally dripping with sweat. Normally I would have just gone in anyway, but I was practically on my last legs by now and decided on the spur of the moment just to go in the nearest supermarket instead. I bought a pasta salad and a custard-like chocolate pudding, plus drinks, and tottered home. I knew that if I sat down for dinner at the restaurant, I wouldn't be able to get up again!

Posted by 3Traveller 08:57 Archived in Romania Tagged art palace cemetery museum hostel romania dad bucharest orthodox_church romanian_cuisine extreme_weather Comments (0)

Wandering around Varusha (Old Town)

Veliko Tarnovo


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This morning I went on a lovely walk around part of the Old Town that I hadn't been to before - up the hill directly above the craftsmen's street. Like most days at this time of year, it was beautifully sunny. The views were fantastic; trees, terracotta tiled roofs, the hills in the distance.

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After wandering some of the streets I went inside the church of Sveti Nikoli and lit a candle - the interior was dark and gloomy, but the iconostasis was still beautiful. Looking at it, I thought back to all the other places I've seen iconostases like this; Arbanasi, Sofia, Rila Monastery, Plovdiv, Bachkovo Monastery, Tryavna, Dryanovo Monastery, Sozopol, Nessebar, Preobrazhenski Monastery... now this one was to be the last I'd see in Bulgaria. It seemed fitting that it was in my home from home, Veliko Tarnovo.

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Another 'last time' then followed; I had lunch at an old favourite, Stratilat café. Then I bought myself a copper jug from the coppersmith and a cowbell from another place on the craftsmen's street.

In the evening I started to sort stuff out for packing.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:46 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria veliko_tarnovo orthodox_church Comments (0)

Thracian treasure, wonderful pizza

Sofia


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After resting a while in our room after our Mount Vitosha excursion, we headed out to the Archaeological Museum, because Dave hadn't been before at all and I hadn't been since October so I wanted to see if a) the wonderful Thracian treasure troves were still there and b) if the temporary exhibition had changed. We went there via the amazing pizza place and also the Rotonda Church of St George.
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It was very interesting for me to get another look at everything, and Dave was impressed by the Thracian treasure in particular. At first we thought the Thracian treasure room was closed off, but then we realised that although the door was closed, people were actually still allowed in. I couldn't get over how amazing a lot of the craftsmanship was. The burial masks, helmets, jewellery, drinking horns, wreaths of almost paper-thin gold leaves... just absolutely stunning.

The temporary exhibition room now had an interesting exhibition of the finds from a Roman Thracian villa. It included two of the finest pieces of Roman glassware ever found (according to the blurb - they did indeed look very fine), plus an assortment of other things; an extraordinarily well preserved and engraved helmet, a stone with a carving of a Thracian Horseman, some coins, metal tools and other household objects.

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We headed back to the main part of the hostel then, though we looked into the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral on the way. The scaffolding that had been along the whole of one wall ever since I first saw it (last October) has been taken down now, so the results of the fresco cleaning that had been going on there could clearly be seen.

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Back at the hostel we played some games of pool and had our free dinner before returning to our room.

We've got an early start tomorrow - our bus to Veliko Tarnovo leaves at 09.00 - so I'd better be off now for a relatively early night.

Posted by 3Traveller 08:23 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged museum cathedral hostel dave sofia bulgaria orthodox_church roman_remains Comments (0)

Highlights of Skopje

Skopje


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The maze-like big bazaar

Stall after stall of fruit, vegetables, other foods, clothes, household goods and electronics... I passed stalls piled high with hen and duck eggs, cabinets filled with loose frozen chicken legs and fish, stalls with huge mounds of loose rice and beans; the scent of spices filled my nose. I kept walking and walking and at every turn there was something interesting to see! No tourist trinket type stalls at all - it was clearly a place for locals rather than tourists. I would have loved to have taken loads of photos, but although not unfriendly, the stallholders looked at me quite strangely whenever I stopped walking for more than a second or two, so I only took one or two and didn't have time to stop and see if they came out OK. I didn't buy anything as I will be in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul with Dave soon, where I'm sure I'll be able to get anything I could have got here.

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Wandering the old town

The streets were filled with goldsmiths, silversmiths and wedding dress shops, with the occasional kebab counter, antiques shop or other shop thrown in.

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For example, there was one shop that only sold honey, and a tiny one which only sold syrupy batter sweets made in-store by the owner. I bought myself something a lot like the Bulgarian tolumbi, but longer and in a different shape.

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At one point I was just passing a mosque when the muezzins' calls started booming out over loudspeaker from mosques all over the city. One or two minutes after it began, men started streaming past me from all directions. None of them were in traditional Islamic dress, but they all took their shoes off and gathered to one side. I sat down in the shade on a handily placed bench at a discreet distance and watched as the calls continued and the men knelt down and prayed.

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The church of Sveti Spas was in the old town, too. It has the most magnificent iconostasis; the sheer amount of detail the carvings had was simply spectacular, with each section carved from a single piece of wood. I was given a free tour of it; I was shown the figures from the Bible who the artist carved in 19th century Macedonian traditional wedding outfits, and the executioner of St John the Baptist who was portrayed as an Ottoman Turk.

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The shiny new Archaeology Museum of Macedonia, which contains exhibits which were formerly held within the Museum of Macedonia. World class!

Macedonian denari

Banknotes come in 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 10 denari denominations and coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 50. The MKD has become among my favourite currencies to date, because the banknotes are very colourful and instead of having portraits of famous people, they have pictures of icons and artifacts, birds and flowers. The coins also have pictures of native animals, plus a stylised sun (like on the Macedonian flag).

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Kale Fortress

This provided some panoramic views over Skopje and was nice to walk around, though part of it was fenced off.

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I also visited Macedonia Square, which was very impressive...

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...plus the Museum of Macedonia, which was less so. For a national museum the lighting wasn't very good, plus the exhibition of 20th century history wasn't very imaginatively displayed and the signage was poor. In the ethnographical section the lighting was also very poor in places, but had some interesting traditional musical instruments, painted Easter eggs, facsimiles of old photos of traditional buildings (my favourite was the one that looked like it was all made of wicker) and traditional fishing equipment.

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I also had time to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was small but held a lot of sobering information about the fate of the Balkan Jews in WWII, plus more general information about their history until then and their traditional lifstyles. I was particularly interested to read about Ladino, or Judean-Spanish, a language which developed from the Sephardic origins in Spain and has not completely died out yet.

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Something I think Skopje could improve on is the state of their river - the water itself looks OK enough, cleaner than the Thames at any rate, but they haven't really done anything to the banks. The concrete is filled with weeds growing through the cracks. It looks quite incongruous actually, because there are so many obviously shiny new statues and monuments everywhere, plus new walkways further back from the banks.

Pictures from my walk back to the hostel at dusk;

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Miscellaneous pictures of Skopje;

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Posted by 3Traveller 08:19 Archived in Macedonia Tagged bridges mosque market museum skopje macedonia fortifications orthodox_church traditional_customs Comments (0)

Hiking through the hills; Preobrazhenski Monastery

Preobrazhenski Monastery and Veliko Tarnovo


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Today was another beautiful, sunny day, so I decided to take full advantage of it with a visit to Preobrazhenski Monastery. It lies a few kilometres away, on one of the hills near to Veliko Tarnovo. 'R' and her friend 'T' planned to walk both there and back, but my back has been bad recently so I decided to go there by taxi and then join them for the hike back.

They had only been there for a few minutes when I rolled up in the taxi. What a beautiful monastery, and in such a wonderful setting! The views of the surrounding hills are dramatic. Inside the monastery grounds there was the church itself, with recently-restored frescoes on the inner and outer walls; a beautiful new stone bell tower that replaced one that had been destroyed by falling rocks; brick and stucco accommodation quarters with wooden stairs and balconies; and a courtyard with trees, one or two benches and a little stone building with a wooden deck and tables.

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I could also see one or two large boulders which had fallen from the cliff behind - these were the prime cause of the damage to the former bell tower. T told us a story about how the monastery church was saved once many years ago, when a large boulder, which was heading straight for it, miraculously split in two just before it got there.

The interior of the church was typically very atmospheric. I paid 3 leva to go in, but it was 100% worth it. The fresco restoration had clearly not quite finished yet, because when I looked up at the ceiling I could see the sharp contrast between where the clean, bright colours ended and the dirty ones began. I wonder how many years of candle smoke had caused this amount of dirt to build up. I know the frescoes were finished in 1851; maybe they had never been cleaned until now?

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I lit a candle for Dad, before leaving the church and climbing the bell tower. I admired it once again as I did so; they had rebuilt it very sensitively, so it fitted in beautifully with the surroundings. No ugly concrete! I was wowed by the views from the top.

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Once we had all looked round, T led me and R round the corner and down a pathway to a tiny little church and overgrown cemetery.

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This is where lots of monks and the benefactors of the building of the monastery were/ are buried. The church is no longer in use, but the door to the crypt was open, so we went in. T said that when she came here a few months ago, it was filled with bones from where skeletons in the cemetery had been dug up! Unfortunately I can't remember why she said this had happened. Maybe, because it is so small, the graveyard is getting too overcrowded. We saw wooden boxes piled up on the floor and on one wall a shelf of human skulls with black writing on them. On closer inspection, we saw dates and years - 1889, 1893... we assumed these were details taken from the gravestones.

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From there we retraced our steps to the monastery and struck out down the road. I was interested to see what appeared to be lots of white and sky-blue boxes in a small field; there seemed to be lots of bees around, and then suddenly it clicked - they were beehives! I have no doubt that these are owned by the monastery.

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After a few minutes we left the tarmac road and climbed a woodland path up the slope of the hill directly on our right. The walk through the wood was pleasant; as we got higher and higher and could see through the trees, we started getting an even better view if the scenery than we'd had at the monastery. Eventually we came out onto a track right near the top of the hill. We walked parallel to the length of the valley for a while; I felt like I was on top of the world! It was such a fantastic experience.

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It was hot work, and we stopped on several occasions for a drink of water. Eventually we reached an exceptionally lush meadow with a gradient of at least 45 degrees; by the time we got to the top I was knackered. We had been hiking for at least an hour, if not nearly an hour and a half.

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At the top of the meadow we reached the base of the top of the hill - the barrier between us and the top of Veliko Tarnovo - but we didn't need to climb it because a short path led round the base. At the foot of the hill we came across a large pipe gushing ice-cold, crystal clear water into a stream; 'T' said it was safe to drink, so I filled my water bottle and took a long swig. How welcome that was!

Round the corner from there and we joined a tarmac road. This turned out to be the upper edge of the town. I bought an ice cream and some Diet Coke from a small supermarket to keep myself going on our walk down the hill to the town centre. As we came down the hill, through the historic Varusha quarter, the view was amazing; Veliko Tarnovo spread before us, and I could see the hills and enscarpments beyond. I felt so lucky to be there.

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Posted by 3Traveller 10:16 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged art monastery dad bulgaria veliko_tarnovo orthodox_church preobrazhenski_monastery Comments (0)

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