Monday, 15 September 2008

Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest & Krakow

Ok - so not written that much the last few weeks. I've been writing loads in my diary along the way but difficult to distill each one into something punchy. I'm also trying to keep up with my background reading for Uni which should be starting in just over a week.

Lost a bit of motivation over the last couple of days. Lots of train travel and in 2 days which takes it out of you + I went to the Torture Museum in Budapest, where first the Nazis and then the Russians/Communists committed horrific acts of barbary in the Party Headquarters for both over a period of over 30 years. I then took a night train from Budapest last night to Krakow, arriving just in time to make the coach to Auschwitz & Berkenau this morning. As any of you will know if you've visited these 2 concentration camps, it leaves you cold at the senseless killing on a mass scale that occurred here. Very glad that I went and I think we owe it to the dead to remember them and the atrocities committed. By far the best presentation and explanation of any museum I've visited on this trip.

On a more cheery note, I also went to the outdoor baths for a 4 hour luxurious soak when I arrived in Budapest yesterday and had a very comfy bed on the night train to Krakow.

So intended to write about Bucharest and Rumania. I stayed with new friends John and Raluca at their apartment in the middle of the city. Rumania is on the up but is a definite old European city compared to places like Prague for instance. Got some hilarious pictures of exposed electricity wires dangling from streetlamps and just on the pavement and its not a picture perfect place. But its all the more charming for it. Rumanian service in museums and some restaurants is brusque to say the least, but on the plus side, the beer is great, the parks are beautiful, the restaurants serve great food cheaply, and theres loads to see and do.

I went hiking in Transylvania one day at Siniaia at 2000 metres, having held my nerve on one of the more steep cable car rides you can take in Europe. The views at the top being more than worth it.

I made it to Mikosvar in rural Transylvania to stay at the guest houses ran by a returning real life Count in the village where he and his family were from before Communism forced them into exile and democracy returned their hunting lodge into their posession. Gentle rolling countryside, dotted with apple orchards, corn, pepper and pumpkin fields of subsistence farmers who still ride horse and cart to work the land featured on the lanes that I cycled along from village to village.

The guest houses are all old out buildings converted by the Counts family since their return into beautiful rural cottage style rooms. Wooden floors, fixtures, big beds with comfy duvets, bathrobes, the works all feature. It was a step up for an oik like me!

Best bit - Just before heading out on the bike, I ask the Manager where I can get some food in one of the villages. He says not to bother and leads me to a kitchen where local women are employed to cook the nights dinner and breakfasts for guests. Hearty traditional country food bubbles away on the stove, and he speaks to them in Hungarian (the local language there even though we're in central Rumania) and they knock up a brilliant sandwich for me to take on my travels, which I eat overlooking a river and a field of horses grazing in glorious sunshine.

I ride back and stop in the next village for a pint at the local pub. I park up my bike next to all the local farmworkers horse and carts (no kidding!) as its about 6 o'clock and therefore knocking off time. They all resemble the 2 country bumpkins from the 2 Ronnies replete with handlebar moustaches and lamb chop sideburns. My 2 week goatee is nothing on these boys! One group leave. The most pi**ed members of the group lolling about in the cart with big grins on their faces!

At 50p a pint, the local brew is also the cheapest beer I find on the trip so far and I cycle back for a lush dinner at the guest house. Got to go. Will write more if i get time before my return.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Croatia, Bosnia & Serbia

The picture to the left was from Nin, just North of Petrcane, where after the festival we went to use the local mud baths and mess around taking stupid photos. This was the Anthony Gormley moment. Headed down the coast and took in Brac, Hvar and Korcula which are all stunning islands in the Adriatic. Lovely weather, relaxing by the beach, snorkelling, it was a World away from where I went next. I took a long coach ride to Sarajevo via Mostar. Where what I'd seen in Croatia showed no marks of the war, in Bosnia, the opposite was true.

Bullet ridden and shelled out buildings still remain in both cities and I was told by a Serbian guy whose a friend of a friend here in Belgrade, that before the war, the Bosnians were regarded as the most fun loving, happy people in the Balkans. In Sarajevo I got driven round by a guide who pointed out all the damage and landmarks from the war, in particular from when the city was under siege by Serbian forces from 92 to 95. Its fair to say he and some of the other people I met didn't seem that jolly, even now, 13 years later and with the city on the up, very much rebuilt from how it appeared in the mid 90s.

The feelings from that time still linger, and key places where damage took place such as the National library, which is still closed in need of repair, the marketplace where 68 people died in a shelling and some of the buildings down sniper alley (the main road cutting through the city) bear the most obvious scars. The Serbian I was with last night said that in his view, the Serbs and the Croats are very alike. That really its the Bosnians who have suffered the most.
Sarajevo has real beauty, particularly in the old Turkish part of the city and the countryside on the ride up to Belgrade was stunning. As beautiful as anything I've seen in New Zealand in parts.
But in a city of 600,000 over 50,000 residents were injured over the 4 years of the siege. 11,000 died. No wonder some of the people aren't that jolly.

Belgrade is a big city. Some beautiful old buildings, a lot of 70s socialist buildings too. The party scene here is reknowned. Not surprising when you can buy a beer from practically anywhere and its not uncommon to see people in cafes supping a pint at 10 in the morning!

Off to do some site seeing shortly, then off to Bucharest on the overnight train this afternoon. By all accounts the train is old school. Luckily I'm being met at the station in the Rumanian capital at 6 tomorrow. Catch you later.