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An American encounter in Belgrade

Belgrade


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I arrived safely at my hostel in Belgrade after a seamless three-hour bus journey from Užice. After settling my stuff in and saying hello to the friendly owner and his wonderful massive Italian mastiff (cane corso), I headed out into the sunshine, keen to explore.

My first wanderings took me down some lovely leafy streets, some pedestrianised and some not, and through the even leafier Student Park, which lies next to buildings belonging to the University of Belgrade.

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Then I looked round the Ethnographic Museum next door. They had a wide range of traditional costumes on display - there was some incredible workmanship on show, especially in the embroidery and silver jewellery.

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There were some traditional musical instruments which I found especially interesting; special mention to the bagpipes and what looked like a kind of mandolin with a carved neck.

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The museum seemed smallish at first, but once I'd been round the first big room I went upstairs and found that there were several other rooms leading off it. There were displays about wedding customs, the feast of St George, rural occupations such as rakija (fruit brandy) distilling, tobacco-growing, cattle-herding and river fishing, and urban and rural house interior dioramas set up to look how they would have done in the 19th century.

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Special mention also to a display about slava, which is a family ritual and feast celebrating the day of the patron saint of the family. So important was, and is, slava that in 2014 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One of the house interior dioramas was set up to look like a rural home of the early 20th century set up for their celebration of the slava.

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From the Ethnographic Museum it was a short walk to Republic Square, where I hoped to visit the National Museum. A lot of building work was going on, so much of the square was blocked off, but the museum was still open. It was great all round, with a particularly fine Prehistoric and Celtic collection. Highlights for me were some sculptures found at Lepenski Vir, a major archaeological site of the Mesolithic Iron Gates culture of this part of the Balkans. They are carved from large red sandstone cobbles and are a combination of the realistic and the figurative, very expressionistic in style, representing humans with fishlike features.

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Other highlights in this section were the Celtic Horseman (3rd-4th c. BC; one of the few Celtic statues ever found), the votive Dupljaja Chariot (a Bronze Age masterpiece sculpted from amber), and some other amber objects, this time found at the site of a prehistoric princely tomb in Novi Pazar. The latter included some unique triangular plates, engraved with mythological scenes, which were worn as elaborate head or chest ornaments.

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The sun was still shining as I left the National Museum, rested a little and discovered a group of people gathering for a free walking tour. I don't normally go on walking tours, because I prefer looking round places independently, but on this occasion I though "Why not..." and joined them. How glad I am that I did! I would never have met Barbara otherwise...

Barbara was a lovely American lady from South Carolina who got talking with me as we waited for the guide to arrive. "Are you from New Zealand, or just been there?" was her first question, as she spotted my 'Sweet As' t-shirt... Only been there, I answered. Back in 2009. The t-shirt was a gift though! We hit it off straight away, talking about our various travels around the world (amongst other things). Our conversation continued as the tour began and we walked around Stari Grad (the Old Town), including Belgrade Fortress and the park surrounding it.

The tour was a good one. Unfortunately I've forgotten the name of our guide now, but she was very nice, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and had a couple of surprises up her sleeve for us! Within the Old Town we stopped at the statue of Đura Jakšić, a Serbian poet, dramatist and painter, for a shot of rakija, and a few streets away from there she gave us a micro-introduction to the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.

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Within the lush green park surrounding the fortress she handed round some colour print-outs of some Yugoslavian 5 billion dinar notes for us to keep if we wanted to.

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Belgrade Fortress was very impressive, as were the views from it! We didn't have as long to look round as if we'd gone independently, of course, and we didn't actually go inside any of the buildings, but the grounds were still very pleasant to walk round.

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We walked a loop round the fortress boundary, so we had some wonderful views of the city, the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, and some terraces below where we stood.

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The colourful spire of Holy Archangel Michael Orthodox Church stood out as we made our way round.

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The tour finished once we had finished our loop. Barbara and I were both pretty knackered by then, plus it was late afternoon by now, so we agreed to make our way back to the centre and have dinner together, stopping at Barbara's hotel first so she could get something. We passed by a statue of Gavrilo Princip on our way.

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At dinner I noticed again the similarity of Serbian cuisine to Bulgarian (the Ottoman influence across the Balkans). I had some cheesy stuffed peppers, kebabs (long grilled mince fingers on sticks) and chips, with sour cream as a side and some rakija to go with it - the glass of the latter arrived on ice.

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Barbara and I parted ways after dinner. I'm absolutely kicking myself for not getting her details! Barbara, if you happen to see this and remember our afternoon/evening, and would like to get back in touch, send me a message! I had a fantastic time in your company and it would be great to meet up again at some point!

Back at my hostel, I tried and failed to check in to my flight online using Dave's iPhone - frustrating, as I knew that if I had to check in and get my boarding pass at the airport instead, I'd have to pay a fee. Unfortunately, this is what I was forced to do in the end, as there weren't any computers or printer at the hostel, and it was too late in the day for any internet café to be open. My flight was at 10:15 the following morning, so I was going to be up too early in the morning for that too.

The flight itself was fine, though I didn't get a window seat!

Posted by 3Traveller 18:36 Archived in Serbia Tagged museum hostel serbia belgrade explorations fortifications orthodox_church river_danube traditional_customs serbian_cuisine Comments (3)

A very special day in Užice

Užice


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There were one or two more normal classes first thing and then the next couple of hours were taken up with final rehearsals and getting ready for the Show. The Show went really well - both classes put on a great performance. My class did a tweaked version of Modern Cinderella and the other class did a reverse-gender version of Romeo and Juliet.

The school day finished early so that people (including us) could go to view a special event in one of the town squares - the school leavers' dance performance! I hadn't heard of it before, but it turns out that this traditional event is synchronised in several countries across the Balkans; the school leavers from every secondary school in every town come together to dance the same dance at the same time in one massive group in a public square. There was a commentator and introducer speaking over the loudspeaker and I think it was being televised too. We went along with some students and teachers from 'our' school to watch. It started in decorous and well co-ordinated fashion, with white umbrellas and basic ballroom steps; as time went on it became gradually less and less decorous and co-ordinated... The umbrellas were dispensed with, the music changed, the group broke up into smaller ones and the celebrations became more raucous, though not in a negative manner. It was a very joyful event and I felt very lucky and privileged to have been at the school on just the right day to have had the chance to see it.

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Eventually M and I moved on in order to get started on the rest of our programme for the afternoon... We bought some lunch from a mini-market first, and then split up, each of us with a group of eager now-ex-students keen to show us around. M wanted to get his hair cut, so his group took him to a barber; mine took me to a tiny but interesting house museum first. It was built by a rich merchant in the second half of the 19th century and reminded me quite a lot of the National Revival house museums in Bulgaria. The Ottoman influence was clear.

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Next up for me was the Church of St George, a small and pretty Orthodox church with an incredibly beautiful interior. My guides said that they had never been inside before, which I found interesting.

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My last stop before both groups met up again was at a cultural centre, where we had Turkish coffee and one of my guides told my fortune from the coffee grounds, reminding herself of the meanings from her phone.

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Once we had met up again, some of each group had to go home but others remained. They took us to the Old Town, which is the name of the archaeological remains of a 14th century fortress dramatically set on a steep, rocky hill a little outside of the city centre. We walked alongside the River Đetinja to get there. It was interesting to wander round the ruins, and from the top there were absolutely fantastic views of the winding valley and river, the town and the hills beyond. The sun had properly come out now so it was a very hot day.

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More people had to go after that, so only a couple remained. We were taken further along the river and through at least one tunnel to a bridge where we could see a waterfall. We had passed through outskirts of the city and it felt properly in the countryside; very green and lovely. The river ran clear and I was tempted to paddle and/or swim.

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That was our last stop of the day, so after walking back into town and saying our goodbyes we took a taxi to our hotel. I was knackered and in need of a rest - my fitbit said that I had taken 26,000 steps so far today, so I'm not surprised!

Tomorrow we both take the bus to Belgrade. M will go straight to the airport, but I've arranged a night in Belgrade so I can have a good look round some of the city before I fly back on Sunday.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:06 Archived in Serbia Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains bridges serbia traditions explorations english_teaching fortifications orthodox_church house_museum užice serbian_cuisine Comments (4)

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)

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