Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 21, 2015

Odessa: the City on the Black Sea

Heading out of Transnistria, I took the old Moldovan-operated train that passes through the territory by special agreement for the 3 hour ride to Odessa, Ukraine.

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Inside the train, where I got a lengthy shakedown from border officials (probably the silliest border crossing I’ve seen outside of Africa). Transnistria, interestingly, doesn’t have any border authority on the train itself; by agreement, its border guards can only harass passengers at the station–once they’re on the train, they’re in the hands of the Moldovans. So at least that takes care of the Transnistrian immigration!

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Odessa’s train station, which is ornate enough to wow train station aficionados and regular folk alike.

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The main dome in the station.

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Odessa, a city of about a million, has architectural gems beyond a city of its population. Catherine the Great established the city to be the Saint Petersburg of the Black Sea.

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The city’s opera house is its most celebrated building.

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Right now you might be thinking…Ukraine? Isn’t there a war there right now?

Well, technically no–there’s a ceasefire. But, decent point nonetheless. As of June 2015, however, any conflict is hundreds of kilometers from Odessa, and the city is completely safe to visit.

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It’s also gotta be among the cheapest places in the world right now. Ukraine’s currency, the Hryvnia, used to be at 8 to the dollar; now it’s 22! Price adjust to these changes gradually, especially for labor-intensive services tourists tend to use. (Prices for traded goods and branded products change fast, however; I peeped into Hugo Boss to see what their jeans ran, and it was still north of $300 US!)

One might be inclined to think you should avoid Ukraine right now; on the contrary, this is the time to go! Ukraine’s economy has been on the brink for a while, and tourist dollars are one of the surest ways to help.

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Odessa’s monstrous Privoz Market, one of the largest in the former USSR.

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Similar to Latin American markets, its borders are fuzzy, and its tentacles extend into the city in all directions.

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Outside of the more refined center, Odessa definitely has its rough edges. It at no point felt dangerous; just a tad seedy at times.

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Since Odessa’s role in the tourist world is mainly being a beach town for Ukrainians, Russians, and Belorussians, and it was cloudy and quite chilly the whole time I was there, I was left wandering the pleasant streets and leafy promenades.

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The main pedestrian street.

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Language was a little tricky–Ukrainian is a similar but distinct language from Russian, and given the conflict I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. But Odessa is largely Russian-speaking anyways, and I failed to discern a single word that wasn’t Russian. Eventually I just gave in and put my embarrassingly limited Russian vocabulary to use.

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Odessa’s signature attraction (except for the beach, of course!) is the Potemkin Steps.

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One morning I ran down and back up for exercise. Pretty tough!

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At the bottom you’re treated to a view the of old port…

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…and the rail yard! Perfect for someone like me.

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And some wonderful Soviet architecture!

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Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 21, 2015

Kitskany Monastery

While my first post about Transnistria may give off the impression that it’s devoid of any “traditional” tourist attractions, there’s a major exception: the monastery at Kitskany (technically the Noul Neamţ Monastery, but locally called Kitskany after the nearby village).

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Located a mere 4 miles outside of central Tiraspol (simply cross the bridge and take the only bus on the other side until the first stop–Kitskany), it makes an easy side-trip from town, and is totally worth it.

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The monastery rising out of the brambly ex-Soviet landscape of Kitskany Village.

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The huge bell tower that serves as the entrance. Unlike most notable monasteries I’ve been to, Kitskany has no entrance fee; you just stroll right in the gate and you’re among the priests.

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The gorgeous church interior.

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In addition to the aesthetics, one fascinating thing about Kitskany is how open and authentic it is. You can stroll through their groves and fields at will. The place is self-sustaining.

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Cherries ripe for the picking.

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A longtime tradition of harvesting honey.

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Stockpiled firewood that would be good for years!

The monastery also raises orphans and provides education for local children–a noble institution.

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If you go with Tim from Tiraspol Hostel, he’ll get the gate to the massive bell tower opened. This stairway probably wouldn’t cut it in the US!

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High up in the tower, where this unfathomably large bell was somehow hoisted way back when. It was made in Saint Petersburg.

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A bird’s eye view of the monastery. Gorgeous!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 20, 2015

The Last Vestige of the USSR

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Welcome to Tiraspol, Transnistria, a place that has strikes the fancy of many-a geopolitics junky. Given my well-documented affinity for places of questionable statehood, I couldn’t help but stop by.

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Unlike essentially every other part of the former Soviet Union, Transnistria never acknowledged collapse of the USSR or the communist state.

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City Hall. “Domsovetov”–House of the Soviet. Note the Lenin statue–Soviet icons remain in full effect in Transnistria.

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To gain this status, Transnistria, backed by Russia, fought a liberation war against Moldova in the early 1990s and, to some extent, won. Nowadays, it has pretty much everything you’d expect a government with full autonomy to have: its own border patrol, currency, military, police force, license plates, and flag. Not bad for an unrecognized state with a population of half a million, huh?

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Not great either, though. Police spend most of their time soliciting petty bribes from motorists. (Actual crime is virtually nonexistent in this small city.)

I stayed at the Tiraspol Hostel, and was the only guest (the war between Russia and Ukraine has not been kind to Transnistria’s already-beleaguered tourism industry). The proprietor, an American named Tim, was my guide during my stay in Tiraspol, so I got the inside scoop on how the place works…

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…and I also got to stay in an original Khrushchev housing block!

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The Transnistrian parliament.

Transnistria is quite a misunderstood place and, especially given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, fodder for much sensationalism in the Western media.

Transnistria’s main source of differentiation from Moldova is a common one: language and ethnicity. While Moldova is primarily Romanian-speaking, Transnistria was the recipient of many Russian migrants under Soviet Russification. During the collapse of the USSR, Moldova wanted to be indpendent, Transnistria didn’t, and war broke out. We’ve heard this story before.

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This is where media reports sometimes get carried away. Transnistria may still cling to the Soviet political system and icons, but contrary to some assertions, it certainly is not communist in any meaningful way. Sheriff, a local for-profit conglomerate, controls just about everything of any meaningful economic value: gas stations, the football club, retail, etc, under the same exclusive licensing regulations prevalent across third world kleptocracies–nothing particularly novel about that.

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The ever-empty casino is probably a better representation of the economic system than the hammer and sickle: the perfect venue for money laundering.

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Another Transnistria myth is that the state functions as a Soviet police state, with a populace riled up with pro-Soviet hysteria, lest they be sent off to the gulags. True, the KGB still has a presence here (a fact dwelled upon by more than a few foreign journalists and bloggers), but it’s hardly the secretive, machiavellian organization tasked with eliminating enemies of the Soviet state. Seldom is discontent expressed among the population–not because of fear, but because of apathy. The idea that Transnistrians are especially political or brainwashed by the state is lunacy; English remains a popular major at the state university, and as soon as Moldovans were granted the ability to travel visa-free to the EU for 90 days, Transnistrians lined up for Moldovan passports.

Travelers often think of Transnistria as a particularly risky or adventurous destination, given the uncertain politics and policing, and the general tensions in the region. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t the case. Transnistria is perfectly safe to visit these days. The main problem with visiting used to be border guards soliciting big bribes; those days appear to be completely gone.

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From a global perspective, what’s happening within Transnistria is a lot less interesting than what’s happening outside. Vladimir Putin’s main aim in invading first Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine was ostensibly to protect Russians from persecution. Transnistria could be argued to be in a similar situation: a majority-Russian region claimed (and arguably oppressed) by a western-influenced state.

Still, any direct Russian play on integrating Transnistria into its borders remains a longshot. The war seems to have simmered down substantially and Transnistria is hundreds of miles from the nearest Russian-controlled territory. It has but a fraction of the population and economic clout of a Crimea, and major cities lie between Crimea and Transnistria. You have to wonder whether Transnistria would be “worth it”, by whatever calculus Putin is using to rationalize his latest round of military adventures. Transnistrians are all now eligible for Russian passports, as of the last couple weeks, but how much relevance this has in the grand scheme of things is anyone’s guess.

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So, no, Transnistria is not some hotbed of rabid communist militancy, nor is it likely to be the next geopolitical flashpoint. Instead, I look as Transnistria as a living museum of the USSR. Transnistria has a bit of the “lost in time” feel that Cuba has. The city is largely unchanged from the old Soviet days, and has avoided the redevelopment and investment experienced elsewhere. This alone makes it a worthy destination.

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The country’s economy is on display in the main market. An amazing assortment of local, organic vegetables farmed by hand.

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Transnistria’s Central Bank, tasked with maintaining the country’s currency. The Transnistrian Ruble is more or less fixed to the dollar (staying around 10- or 11-to-1), while the Russian Ruble, and, particularly, the Ukranian Hryvnia have lost massive chunks of their value. As war brewed within Ukraine, the Transnistrian Ruble gained value against regional currencies, and suddenly residents began leaving in droves for shopping sprees in Ukraine.

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One of Tiraspol’s two main city beaches. There’s a pretty neat beach culture on the banks of the Dniester, the river that generally separates Transnistria from Moldova.

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The modern version of old Soviet candy bar. Not very much sugar, and probably a lot healthier than Western ones!

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Strolling the backstreets of Tiraspol is probably the best way to get a feel for modern Transnistrian culture.

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Sleepy paths through the rumbling old housing blocks, still packed with residents to this day.

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Soviets had a pragmatic habit of planting fruit-bearing trees throughout their cities. Cherries are in abundance–just pick them right off the tree!

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Cats are everywhere, fed by the babushkas. Small-scale installations add color into the mix.

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A car parts store, putting the abundance of old disused cars to good use!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 20, 2015

Transiting Moldova

For the conclusion of my “Four Corners of the Balkans” tour, five years in the making, it was time once again to depart this wonderful, varied region of Europe–this time out through the northeast corner. Through that seldom-visited land of European mystery (a metric in which it is clearly outdone only by Belarus, and only arguably by Albania) wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Through Moldova.

Moldova is, sadly, quite poor, according to the income lists. With barely half the per-capita income of tiny Kosovo, Moldova is by far the poorest country in Europe these days; it barely outranks Nicaragua in per capita income, which is near the bottom of the barrel of Latin American countries.

This meant that my assumption of nightly train service between Bucharest and Chișinău, Moldova’s capital, proved to be mistaken. (Not such an unreasonable assumption, given the two countries previously shared a country, and still mostly share a language, right? The train only runs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.)

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Instead, I set off for a Romanian city on the Moldovan frontier: Iași. (If you’re wondering how such a place is pronounced, don’t worry: I never managed to figure it out myself. In Romanian, ș is a “sh” sound; my help ends there.)

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But, pronunciation difficulties aside (when has that ever stopped me?) I was off to Romania’s far northeast.

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As the train ride went along, the railcar emptied (eventually giving me my own little cabin in which to bounce around mirthfully) and the countryside emptied too.

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After the livening half-mile walk through the darkness to central Iași (the city’s train station area fails to buck the trend of overall seediness we’ve covered elsewhere), I wound up at a truly wonderful establishment: the Hotel Unirea. The Unirea is an old building from the socialist times that has been gradually upgraded into a western-style business hotel. The employees’ and management’s pride in the establishment is refreshing, and they offer a great service at a great price (dashing any chance I’d spring for the far pricier Traian, on the left side of this picture, even though its name is an anagram of one of my favorite cities!). It might not be the Hotel Florita, but the Unirea sure was nice!

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Iași by morning.

Seeing that potentially a four hour bus ride to Chișinău lay ahead of me (!), and noticing from my window that the city’s grand Palace of Culture was shrouded in scaffolding, I opted to move on from Iași rather than explore town. I made for the bus station.

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All I really saw of town was the route to and from the bus/train station.

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Starting to feel a bit more Latin American already!

I had carefully timed everything to coincide with a specific bus, and as I went through the unusually painful process of figuring out which bus was the correct one and when it was departing, which had naturally attracted the attention of a small group of people, one guy eventually came up to me and said “pirate taxi!”, nodding happily. I questioned this. Someone else typed the Romanian words “pirate taxi” into the translation app and held it up eagerly for me to see the translation.

The words were shown to be cognates.

I eventually surmised that they were trying to get me into an unofficial taxi to cross the border, something I’ve had luck with before.

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I figured what the heck, and within minutes I and a few new friends were off towards the frontier in a Volkswagen minivan. (For future travelers, the best way to get from Iași to Chișinău is to head to the Billa store about 400m northwest of the train station.)

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Flash forward a mere two hours and I was plopped on the outskirts of downtown Chișinău.

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My first step was obvious: find a nice restaurant, and bribe a server to keep my backpack while I milled around town a bit.

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Yummy Georgian food!

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Chișinău actually seemed quite nice from the glimpse I got of it: a far cry from Nicaragua’s rather rough capital. A ton of commerce being conducted everywhere.

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Linguistically, Moldova is an oddity. Its people speak a dialect of Romanian, and the two languages are mutually intelligible. But during the Soviet days, the Russian language was imposed on Moldova, so the country retains a lot of use of the Cyrillic alphabet, and a significant Russian-speaking minority.

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Central Chișinău has some historic buildings breaking up the ex-Soviet landscape.

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Communist insignia still shows on some buildings; westward from here, it has been all but entirely erased.

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The main square.

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Moldova’s government house. You see almost as many EU flags around as you do Moldovan flags; indeed, more EU flags than you see in the actual EU! Moldova has clearly thrown its anchor westward (well, at least the mainstream part of Moldova that includes the capital), and the EU is all too happy to support the country, looking to avoid a similar standoff with Russia that happened over Ukraine 18 months ago.

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Parliament.

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The ticky-tacky presidential palace, that looks something like a star-crossed foray into Eastern Europe by Donald Trump.

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This government building features waterside cabana to make the Venetian jealous!

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(Not to mention grass as green as anything Vegas can muster.)

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It’s always fun exploring a capital–even if this one has a lot less going on than buzzy Bucharest–but rain was setting in and it was time to be departing for the country’s oddball east: the breakaway region of Transnistria, still clinging to the USSR.

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And off I set in the rain to Tiraspol. (Actually тираспол, as the scraggily border of Cyrillic country has at this point firmly been breached!)

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 19, 2015

A Day in Bucharest

Next up in Transylvania, I was planning on an ambitious hike on Piatra Craiului, a stunning national park near Brașov. But this started to feel a little too ambitious to set off on alone when I saw how fickle and chilly the weather was (in June!), and learned about Romania’s massive bear population.

Well, this blog is no stranger to wonton exploration of random capital cities; why not take in another in the form of Romania’s capital, Bucharest?

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Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s train station. Love the fact that Romanian is a Romance language, and thus relatively comprehensible to me!

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The urban form of Bucharest took an…interesting turn in the 1980s.

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In the post about Brașov, I noted that ex-dictator Ceaușescu for whatever reason really liked for main boulevards to be lined with a wall of highrises.

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Well, Bucharest is his masterpiece! It goes on and on like this.

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Every so often, a minor obstruction such as a historic church is granted a little break.

In other words, in terms of urban aesthetics, Bucharest was dealt a pretty crappy hand.

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But go through an unsuspecting tunnel under one of the high rises and something interesting happens.

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Suddenly you’re in Old Town, a bar and club district to rival the best of them. Ceaușescu’s manic superimposition of a grand socialist metropolis onto the existing city often only went as deep as the back wall of the new high rises, with the neighborhoods behind them ignored.

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The unexpected transitions between the bleak, masterplanned, aesthetic dystopia and random historic neighborhoods mark a unique part of exploring Bucharest. The only parallel I can draw is with Maputo, Mozambique, where Stalinist housing blocks rise awkwardly out of crumbling Portuguese colonial blight and modern shantytowns.

In this event, it’s certainly cool to see a city making lemons out of lemonade, with a decidedly chic ambiance that’s worth taking in if you’re passing through (perhaps on the way to glorious Transylvania!).

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This isn’t to say that Bucharest’s backstreets are all like the gingerbread, bass-thumping lanes of Old Town. Rough edges and bizarre juxtapositions are in full effect as you stumble through the ad-hoc districts of the city.

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Plus lots, and lots, of parked cars everywhere!

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You never know whether you’ll stumble upon a grand square full of statues…

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…or a church harkening the finer bits of Macedonia.

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Haphazard wiring.

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Shops of various types crowd all manner of structures. This building, which primarily seems to be a medical clinic, also hosts a bar, massage parlor, and beauty salon. (My theory is that, under communism, there was a whole lot less need for shops peddling good and services, leading to such space being at a premium in the modern era.)

Unfortunately, Bucharest’s rough edges cross over into the realm of being hassled on the street. I was asked pretty aggressively for money several times, and the city certainly has a reputation for pickpockets. Budapest isn’t perfect, but it’s far more easygoing in this department.

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One positive aspect of having monstrous boulevards slammed onto the city–there are some pretty generous recreational paths, and pleasant strolls to be had!

 

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A manmade canal flowing through town.

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Bucharest’s gorgeous main park, which, if this map is to be believed, features a permanent array of Easter Island statues! (It doesn’t.)

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Wild strawberries on the cheap. Yum!

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And Bucharest’s crowing feature: the it hosts the largest capitol building in the world! And supposedly the second largest building in the world period, after the Pentagon. It was originally named the People’s Palace, and was the masterpiece of Ceaușescu’s masterplanning adventures.

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Nowadays, in addition to being the capitol building, is serves as a screen for massive for projected lightshows, and a backdrop for other events. A pretty neat adaptation for the place, and perhaps a decent metaphor for Bucharest itself.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 18, 2015

The Fortified Churches of Saxon Country

Last post, we left off with me and a rental car in Sighișoara, Transylvania. And we didn’t even get to the actual reason I wanted a rental car: to explore Saxon Country!

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The area is famous for its countless fortified churches, each rising out of a tiny village with a lost-in-time feel.

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I, along with my buddy from the hostel (who rightly or wrongly trusted that I had some idea of what I was doing as we turned off the main highway and into the random backroads), decided to seek out Biertan, the most famous fortified church of all.

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It’s not hard to see why: Biertan is incredible!

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The town lies at the bottom of a gorgeous valley, and feels very little changed over the years.

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Despite the regular flow of tourists Biertan gets, the town is quiet and peaceful.

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Since Biertan actually gets tourists, the church is open to see!

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They let you explore all of the back rooms, including this ultra-securely-lockable room. I’ve never seen a lock like that!

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Moving on through the glorious, and often empty, Transylvanian countryside.

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Just about every town you stumble upon has a picture-perfect walled church.

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The roads wind through farmlands and forests. All very beautiful.

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A stork nest!

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Although there’s not a huge amount to say about it, winding through these little backcountry towns towns was a complete joy and definitely a highlight of the trip!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 18, 2015

Into the Countryside

In order to see all of the places in the last post, I joined a semi-organized group tour. Although these have their upsides (and can occasionally be totally awesome!), I was ready to spend the next day exploring my own way.

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This meant renting a car! Always an endeavor with some degree of risk in another country.

Repeat readers might remember a certain nightmarish set of problems that befell Caroline and myself last time a rented car entered the picture, culminating in a police bribe and getting the car stuck in the sand on a beach notorious for robbery.

But that was the Domincan Republic–completely different continent. What could go wrong in Romania?

My hostel actually advised against renting a car. “There’s a bus and a train going to Sighişoara”, they said, referring to my stated destination. But my sporadic Google Earth explorations over the years, which have in the past uncovered some pretty fascinating places, inclined me to push ahead and rent a car. Better yet, I managed to rope someone else from the hostel into my hair-brained adventure!

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About 45 minutes outside of Brașov, the first fruits of renting a car came into view: Rupea Castle.

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Rupea resembles strongly Rașnov Castle–a startlingly similar circular citadel on top of a lonely mountain.

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Rupea has a bit more of a Lord of the Rings feel about it, with rolling plains off in every direction…

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…and the town unfolding below.

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Rupea has undergone an almost identical rehabilitation project to Raşnov, and the restored houses are ready-made for tourist stalls. However, the tourists haven’t materialized at Rupea, and thus neither have the tourist stalls. Yet another example of the ultimate traveler’s contradiction: you want to go places with tourist infrastructure, but without the tourists!

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The next roadside attraction we bumped into on our journey to Sighişoara: the UNSECO-listed town of Sachiz! The fortified church here has a pretty incredible tower–something straight out of Castlevania.

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There’s a citadel up on the hill that’s completely unrestored, and has nothing but a footpath up to it.

Upon entering the church, an interesting thing happened: upon asking if the person at the entrance spoke English, she said no: just Romanian and German.

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It started to become clearer this wasn’t happenstance. Although the German population in Brașov is largely gone, the descendants of the Saxons in the Transylvanian countryside retain a lot of their German identity.

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A German map of Transylvania (obviously I fixate on any map put in front of me).

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The altar.

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Inside the church.

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This church very much has the feeling of being part of the community foremost; its role as a tourist attraction is secondary.

 

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UNESCO means rules, apparently!

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Finally, after taking far longer than expected on the journey, we reached Sighișoara.

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The town truly looks like it’s out of a fairy tale, with an almost Suess-like clock tower rising out of the main square.

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But you know better than to think those four spires at the corners are just a touch of whimsy, right?

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A large covered staircase leads up to a big cathedral.

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The crypt.

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The graveyard, with clear German influence.

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Sighișoara definitely scores big in the panoramic views department!

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Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 17, 2015

Transylvania’s Postcard Attractions

Of course, most people don’t venture to Romania just to check out Brașov, as lovely as it is.

Most people come wanting to see a spooky old castle perched menacingly on top of a rocky crag.

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Fortunately for Transylvania’s tourism boosters, it just so happens to have the world’s premier spooky old castle perched menacingly on top of a rocky crag: Bran Castle. (Although Haiti might have a thing or two to say about that.)

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The spookiness of the castle largely ends at the front door, unfortunately. But that hasn’t caused the castle, for little factual reason, to be known as “Dracula’s Castle”, even though it’s not thought that Bram Stoker had this castle in mind when he wrote the book, nor did Vlad the Impaler actually live here (Vlad didn’t even rule Transylvania; he ruled Walachia, where modern-day Bucharest sits, but lowlying plains make for less of a spooky setting than mountainous Transylvania).

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Nonetheless, it’s a fun castle to wander around. Every bit of it is handmade and designed to accommodate the strange topography.

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The castle is a labyrinth of small corridors and stairways. If you were to wander around aimlessly, you would get completely lost.

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Notably, the castle was the residence of the Romanian royal family between the two World Wars (communism was to put an end to that shortly thereafter).

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A replica “scale of justice”, where the accused was weighed against a rock, and would be deemed innocent only if she or he was the heavier of the two.

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Outside, the Dracula kitsch is in full force.

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Yum!

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This scene reminded me strangely of the gingerbread architecture for which Haiti is known.

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Next was a side-trip to the most heartbreaking of diversions: LiBEARty Bear Sanctuary.

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Romania has a massive brown bear population (due to the former dictator banning hunting), and many bears were quickly trapped and used for commercial novelty purposes after communism ended. Now mostly banished, the practice has left many bears unable to fend for themselves in the wild, so this sanctuary cares for them.

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This bear was blinded by his owner to make him more docile. So sad!

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LiBEARty’s logo, which I’m kicking myself for not taking a close-up picture of (this is from the website), is of a bear dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

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Next up on the postcard-tour of Transylvania, Peleș Castle.

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The obscenely opulent home of King Carol I of Romania at the turn of the 20th Century, the castle is richly decorated at every corner.

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The King’s incredible weapons collection, with thousands of items. It has to be among the best in the world.

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The courtyard.

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Moving on, many tourists visit Rașnov Castle, atop a mountain not far from Brașov.

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To me, the castle’s mountaintop setting is the most attractive feature.

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A row of unrestored houses.

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Incredible views!

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Unfortunately, the ambiance is damaged by the fact that most of the restored houses are tourist shops, and mobs of schoolchildren pulse through the place every day!

To have a little less-intense medieval castle experience, you need to venture off the beaten trail a little more, out of the postcard circuit. So, the next day, that’s exactly what I decided to do!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 17, 2015

Brașov: the Medieval Heart of Transylvania

Transylvania evokes for most people spooky castles, rocky hillsides, and forlorn towns.

And, to be honest, all of this it has in spades.

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But what I learned after some cursory research is that there’s a rather spectacular city tying it all together: Brașov.

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The city was right along the prime trade route between Istanbul and Vienna, and was one of the largest safe havens for merchants as they plied the dangerous route.

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In order to defend Brașov, the city was built in a deep valley, with an intensive network of walls and fortifications.

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The result is an extremely compact and wealthy medieval town, ripe for exploration.

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Brașov was actually founded by Germans, with a special tax exempt status to entice Germans to move there. The Black Church is a Gothic masterpiece: the largest Lutheran cathedral between Vienna and Istanbul, meant to make an impression on the Islamic merchants who came through town.

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Brașov’s main gate. The four spires standing around the corners of the tower signified “jus gladii” in Brașov; the town has the right to impose capital punishment on those found of wrongdoing within its walls.

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The main square, the location of many-a-horror, including, supposedly, the last witch trials in Europe.

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The city’s coat of arms–the roots of a tree coming out of a crown.

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Brașov boasts one of the narrowest streets in Europe!

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With Brașov proper established as a city for Germans only (although the German population was reduced to almost nil in the following centuries), Brașov’s original suburb, south of town and deeper in the valley, was built for Romanians. Piatra Unurii (Union Square) anchors the sedate Romanian part of town.

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Of course, the obligatory creepy Transylvania graveyard picture. Note the four spires at the corners of the church tower–in this case, signifying that the Priest is able to administer capital punishments as he sees fit.

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Brașov’s main pedestrian street, catering mostly to local Romanians. Tourism is substantial in Brașov, but it maintains a large enough pull in Romania to keep a very local feel. The cultural and historical appeal in an under the radar city reminded me of Guanajuato, Mexico.

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Also, given the city’s natural setting, gorgeous views abound–you just need to hike a little ways uphill in pretty much any direction!

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Brașov is adorned with a Hollywood-style sign on the hillside. You can’t really blame them: back in Soviet times, this was the city Romania decided to name for Stalin–the name was imposed onto this very hillside.

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Climbing the mountain east of town brings you to the top of a cablecar, and a fantastic view!

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At the top there’s a cafe serving mici–little delicious seasoned pork logs. The perfect snack after tromping straight uphill for 45 minutes!

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The cable car, an old Soviet affair–and well worth the $2 to take you back down!

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Most of the traditional Hungarian restaurants I came across in Budapest felt made for tourists. Not so in Brașov! Meat-vegetable-sauce combinations to make the mouth water.

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Brașov isn’t a completely idyllic, medieval place. Ceaușescu, the country’s longtime communist leader, had a strong affinity for main streets lined with glorious high rises, and built them across Romanian cities.

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At least the Old Town was spared of this aesthetic.

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Old and new.

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At this point you might be wondering: where’s Dracula? Well, despite Brașov’s links to the character being pretty tenuous, I did manage to find a Vlad Tepeș Street in the communist district, named for Vlad the Impaler, the figure upon whom Dracula is loosely based.

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And this little graffiti tag!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 15, 2015

Churches, Castles, and Communist Statues

After about a day in Budapest, I realized that, with a river splitting two rather impressive and distinctive cities, and a whole ton of touristy stuff to boot, Budapest would be joining a rather small list of cities that have three posts devoted to them (currently limited to Mexico City, Cape Town, Islanbul, and Havana, to my knowledge).

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True to form, any major European city needs to have a magical cathedral. Budapest boasts it in the form of St Stephen’s Basilica, over in Pest.

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My favorite part (as usual) was climbing the massive stairway up to the dome!

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I made it up to the top just as a major rainstorm was setting in (time for coffee!).

One thing I really wanted to see was the Transport Museum, which apparently has tons of history about all forms of transport in Eastern Europe. It’s located on the other end of City Park, a massive green oasis in Pest that is a worthy attraction in itself.

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The extensive statues of the Millennium Monument at the entrance of City Park.

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To show off Hungarian architecture and culture back in the turn of the 20th Century, Hungary built this castle as a museum. It never served a defensive purpose, but is just to look pretty!

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Nice little superfluous building to have laying around, huh?

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This little miniature road network of bike lanes, designed so children will understand the rules of the road, is beyond precious.

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And, after walking several miles through Budapest’s affable environs, I arrived at the Transport Museum only to find…it was closed! For renovation! Until 2018! Emojis don’t begin to describe my sadness.

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Fortunately, a little railcar that was turned into a cafe was on hand to cheer me up!

But my favorite attraction in Budapest, unsurprisingly given the trajectory of this overall trip, was a visit to Memento Park.

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Memento Park, it turns out, is a sizable schlep outside of town, on the Buda side of the river.

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A journey consisting of a tram ride, transferring onto a bus route that winds its way into the suburbs, is enough to dissuade many a visitor. But not this guy!

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Memento Park is a collection of Soviet statues from around Budapest. Instead of being outright destroyed, they were taken to a park way out in the suburbs to be gawked at for eternity.

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I mostly found the moments interesting for their size and themes, rather than the outright messages they send (which were typically patriotic and specific to the point of having very little modern meaning).

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The notable exception: Stalin’s Boots. (Or a replica thereof.)

These were all that remained of a statue of Stalin that was torn down in the 1956 Revolution, as previously discussed, and once stood in the location of the current, modern monument. They remain a symbol of national pride and struggle against the Soviet Union.

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Time to head to Pest’s train station, serving all points east, for my next stop: the heart of Transylvania!

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