Archive for May, 2012

Like Melbourne, before Whelan the Wrecker became infamous.

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Bucharest is full of magnificent Nineteenth and Twentieth century buildings, wide open streets and green leafy parks.

Everywhere you look there is another Neo Gothic, Neo Classical, Art Deco or Bauhaus inspired apartment block, palace or public building.

Bucharest is certainly not entirely an architectural nirvana, as they had their own version of Whelan, a dictator by the name of Nicolae Ceauşescu.

During his fanatical reign (1965-1989) he manages to have much of the old quarter demolished to make way for his obsession in Socialist Realist developments. The biggest of these is the Palace of the Parliament, a monolithic construction of 1,100 rooms and 12 stories high. Next to the Pentagon, it’s the world’s second largest public building.

There is more than just grand old buildings in Bucharest. You can also visit the ‘Dimitrie Gusti’ National Village Museum in Herăstrău Park. This is a large open-air ethnographic museum with houses, churches, mills and farm buildings from all over Romania.

Everything is made of timber and therefore in constant need of renovation. However the craftsmanship and detail in many of these old and somewhat primitive structures is amazing.

I still don’t understand why there is a red peddle car on display.

 

Have you ever been intimidated by your dinner?

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

We didn’t get a bad meal in Sofia and were interested to see if the standard remained high as we travelled east, in our hire car, to Veliko Tarnova, north to Russe, on the Danube and then south to the wonderfully named Plovdiv.

Plovdiv is a town endowed with a rich history starting with the Tracian settlement, on Nebet Tepe, through the Roman ruins to the Bulgarian Revival churches and houses. The day we chose to tour the city was a public holiday, celebrating the Bulgarian liberation from the Ottoman Empire, so it was family day in Plovdiv.

Our first night on the road from Sofia was in Veliko Tarnova, a city located on the bends of the Yantra River and famous for being the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and the medieval stronghold of Tsarevets.

We stumbled across a restaurant that specialised in Bulgarian cuisine and not knowing what this was, we ordered a dish each.

What followed was embarrassing.

When the food arrived we were so dumbfounded by the size and the apparent richness of what was before us, we just sat there, looked at the meal, then looked at each other and then looked back at the meal again.

Both the dishes had been baked in the oven and were full of different cheeses, meats and vegetables.

It was all delicious but just one of them would have been enough for both of us. In fact one of them would have been enough for an entire tour bus.

Bulgaria has not become a major tourist attraction yet and as a result their cuisine hasn’t gone through the food processor of tourist tastes.

The Bulgarians love to eat so it’s not hard to find a good restaurant with authentic food.

Then there’s the Bulgarian beers.

Every village seems to have their own brew and the big companies like Tuborg, Heineken and Amstel also have a local offering.

Unlike the food the weather has been inconsistent, hot and humid one moment and then pelting down the next.

My snaps probably reflect this.

One in a million, not one of millions.

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

After visiting the tourist hotspots of Turkey and Greece we arrived to cooler weather and a decided lack of visitors.

Sofia and Bulgaria doesn’t seem to be high on the tourist agenda.

Tour buses are rare and groups of snap happy visitors, doing the conga line, following their flag wielding leaders, are nowhere to be seen.

If fact we feel more out of place here than we have in months.

It has it’s advantages but the lack or tourist also means that there is no tourist infrastructure.

In Turkey we organised 3 weeks of touring, with hotels, transfers and transport, in about 3 hours, here in Sofia, we were told we needed at least a week.

So we decided to DIY.

After walking around Sofie, a European city with an obvious Communist past, we booked a trip on a shuttle bus that took us to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church.

Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century and is regarded as one of the most important monuments for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

You can’t take snaps of the frescos inside the church but the ones outside are enough to take your breath away.

We then visited Boyana Church, and like Rial Monestary is also UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was originally constructed in the 10th century and then had a few additions after that, in the 13th and 19th centuries.

The outside is rather ordinary but the inside has frescos, painted in 1259 and so lifelike, are said to be the predecessors of European Renaissance art.

Unfortunately no snaps were permitted inside.

 

The Athens I never saw and will never see again.

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The first time I visited Athens you could climb all over the Acropolis, even the Parthenon, and there wasn’t a crane in sight.

Today it’s a work in progress, with scaffolding, cranes and even a small railroad to move large chunks of marble around the construction sight.

Everywhere you look there is new marble. Columns have been straightened, new pieces put in place and new pediments added. There’s even wheelchair access, via a lift, that runs up the cliff on the north side.

This restoration project has been going on since 1975 and is due for completion soon.

Restoration works aren’t just happening on the big rock, they are all over Athens. Every time they dig a hole, they seem to discover another ancient artifact.

That’s no more evident than with the new Acropolis Museum.

This amazing addition to the world of archaeology is a living display, being built over an archeological dig that’s happening right under your feet. Much of the ground floor and courtyard is made of glass, so you can see the work as it happens.

There is even space in the new museum for the frieze that Lord Elgin purloined all those years ago.

The top floor is dedicated to the Parthenon and built to the same size and proportions, with sweeping views up to the Acropolis. As they find more of the original monument they slot them into place in the display.

Restoration work has been going on in Athens for millennia and in fact the city has always been changing and redefining itself.

Apart from the current work on the Acropolis, the Stoa of Attalos, in the Ancient Agora, was completely rebuilt in the 1950s’.

Even the meat market on Athinus Street has undergone change since I was last here. Now instead of sides of lamb sitting out in the Athenian heat, they are all refrigerated and some are even wrapped in plastic.

Most of the Plaka and Monastiraki are entirely made up of walking streets and the little cafes with bain maries full of moussaka and Greek potatoes are all gone.

Athens is different to what I remember and I am sure that if ever I return, it will be different again.

 

Blue and white.

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I don’t think that any flag epitomises a country like the Greek flag.

Especially if you have been to Santorini.

The Greek flag isn’t a political statement but rather a reflection of the environment.

Now I don’t know if the blue domes and cubical whitewashed walls, of the Greek Orthodox churches, came before the flag, or whether the flag was inspired by the white foam of waves breaking against the blueness of the Aegean Sea.

The fact is that blue and white is everywhere.

The hotel staff wear blue and white, the table clothes in the restaurants are blue and white. I even think that the seagulls look whiter against the azure blue sky.

And the daily flotilla of cruise ships, disgorging day trippers, are conveniently painted white.

About the only thing that isn’t white are the beaches, they are a dark, grey and stoney and that’s due to the fact that Santorini is built on the remnants of a volcanic caldera.

The most popular villages of Fira, Imerovigli and Oia cling to the side of this ancient volcanic cone. Everywhere you are forced to look down into the blue water -filled void,

Ancient Thera or Fira also sits high above the Aegean, on Mount Messavouno.

It has been inhabited since the 9th century BC, however nothing remains of the original Bronze Age inhabitants. They were all destroyed by the volcano that makes Santorini the geological marvel it is today.

What remains now is from the Hellenistic period and even these ancient white marble columns still contrast with the deep blue sky, and say Greece.

Most people remember Santorini for the sunsets over the caldera, I’ll remember it for blue and white.

Crete, Kriti or Κρήτη, it’s bigger than you think.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

The fact that it took 30 minute to drive from the airport, in Heraklion (Heraclion or Iraklion) to our hotel in Piskopiano, should have been an indication.

Crete is a large island, in fact the largest of the Greek islands measuring 8,336 square kilometers.

Although tourism plays an important part in the economy of Crete, it isn’t reliant on it and there’s evidence of industry and agriculture is everywhere.

There is also a very prominent mountain range, with the last of the Winter snow still clinging to the peaks.

It’s size was further confirmed when we hired a car and spent two days driving east and then southwest and didn’t seem to get anywhere.

We drove about 400km and barely went beyond the olive groves. As Crete is one of the largest producers of extra virgin olive oil, there may not be be much more to see in rural Crete.

We decided that getting a GPS would be a good investment in efficiency and our relationship, as we did get a little lost in both Jordan and Turkey.

Wrong.

To make it easy for the illiterate tourist, most road signs in Crete are written in the Greek and Roman alphabets.

The trouble comes when you have to type the destination into your GPS.

What spelling do you use?

Most towns seem to have at least two or more ways of spelling their name and that’s separate from the original Greek.

You often see one spelling going into a village and a different one on the way out.

Despite being such a large island, and the centre of the Minoans, one of the first high culture civilizations in Europe, I didn’t take a lot of snaps.

We were here to have rest from history, culture and photography.

 

Tache.

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

I have had a moustache for 40 years, it’s my brand.

Even if people forget my name, and they often do, they recognise the mo.

In Turkey a lot of men of my vintage and younger, sport a tache. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Here are a few examples.

 

The metamorphosis of Hagia Sophia and Istanbul.

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Before leaving Istanbul and Turkey, there were a couple of boxes that needed ticking.

The first was Hagia Sophia.

The current basilica of Hagia Sophia, built by Roman Emperor Justinian 1, was inaugurated in 537 and apart from a few changes, especially to the dome, is largely intact.

The emperor had building material brought from all over the empire, including Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

Now I know where they went.

It held the title for being the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years and was a marvel of architecture and engineering.

Hagia Sophia was firstly a church, then a mosque and in 1935 was secularised, by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and is now a museum.

The signs of its transformation are everywhere.

The biggest problem with the ongoing restoration, is what part of history do they remove in order to reveal another?

In many ways Hagia Sophia symbolises Turkey and especially Istanbul, with a foot planted firmly in both the east and west.

Our final trip was up the Bosphorus, the famous stretch of water that divides Europe and Asia and is the lifeline to the Black Sea.

It’s the May Day long weekend and our boat was packed with tourists, all clutching maps, city guides and their well worn Turkish editions of Lonely Planet.

On the Bosphorus a long line of cargo ships headed north to the Black Sea in the morning and in the afternoon they swapped direction and sail south to Istanbul.

I don’t know if it was coincidence but that is the same trip we made.