Another photo for the Balkan sunset collection

I’ve seen so many sunsets in the Balkans that I feel I can make a photo collection out of them. Well, I took another one for the collection today. Unfortunately, I took it from inside a bus and the windows were dirty and stained, which contributed to a blurry image, one certainly not worth posting. But the sunset was so vivid and stunning that it’s certainly worth the effort to at least attempt to describe what my eyes witnessed.

It happened shortly after crossing the Bulgarian-Macedonian border on narrow, winding, bumpy roads through empty hills with low-lying mountains in the distance. The horizon was every shade between purple and yellow, and the sun made a striking appearance under the few clouds accentuating the sky, clouds shaped like free-formed swirls echoing the whims of the people in the Balkans. It was the same sun I’ve seen thousands of times before, but today particularly remarkable and spectacular, a perfectly circular, pulsating orange sphere slowly descending into the mountains. A flock of birds, black shadows flying in unison in the sky, rendered the image even more arresting. A lone shepherd tending to his flock of grazing sheep in the rolling fields might, too, have noticed.

The sun’s disappearance signalled the end of another day of travel, a day when I left Bulgaria after spending two wonderful weeks there, a day when I came back to Macedonia and reminisced my time here last year. It’s the end of another day in the Balkans, another day of intense vibrancy in which I recognize how alive I always feel in this corner of the world. The Balkans is my favourite place in the world – there’s something about this region that does something for me – piques my senses, gives me energy and makes me feel more alive, makes me strive for something better yet makes me appreciate all that I already have…

How many sunsets I have admired over the past four years in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and hopefully soon in Albania and possibly in Greece…

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Another “rescued by locals” story

I took a train from Bucharest, Romania to Gorna Orjahovica in Bulgaria where I befriended a Japanese man named Ari while waiting for our connecting bus to Veliko Tarnovo, which dropped us at the railway station outside of the medieval town. We decided to walk to our hostel, first across the highway, then through weird passageways, then up a hill to the edge of the town centre.

About an hour in, we stopped to look at Ari’s map and make sure we were going in the right direction. A couple of Bulgarians, Miro and Alex, saw us foreigners with our big backpacks and asked us if we needed help. After looking at our map, they decided that the distance was too far to walk and offered to drive us to the hostel. Tired and sweaty, we gratefully accepted at this point and it was a fortunate turn of events because after the ride, we figured we’d be walking at least another 40 minutes to get to the hostel. We also got a brief history lesson and a mini-tour of the city on the way there.

If this was any indication of the interactions I’ll have in Bulgaria, I’m sure I’ll love it here. The hospitality in the Balkans never fails to surprise or inspire…

La revedere, Romania

This post comes belatedly; as I post this, I am actually in Frankfurt and the majority of this post was written in the hostel lobby in Kotor, Montenegro. Naturally, I say that posts about Serbia, Montenegro, and Hungary are also upcoming, however sporadic they may be.

The list of places I want to visit is a long one, and the list keeps getting longer with each trip after hearing stories of adventure and intrigue from other travellers I meet. While my time in Romania was part of a longer Balkan/southeast Europe trip, I’m extremely glad that I ended up staying almost two weeks in the country. To be sure, two weeks is still a small fraction of time to spend in a country like Romania. I visited Bucharest, Brasov, Bran, Rasnov, Sighisoara, Sibiu, Cisnadie, Cisnadioara, Cluj, Suceava, Gura Humorului, the monasteries of Humor and Voronet, and Timisoara, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country.

Highlights

Bucharest

Palace of Parliament - Bucharest

Palace of Parliament – Bucharest


The capital city of Romania is an intriguing mix of brutalist Communist-era architecture, exemplified most strikingly by the gigantic Palace of Parliament, grandiose buildings built in the second half of the 19th century, and wide tree-lined boulevards which have once garnered the city the name “Paris of the East.” It’s a vibrant city where contrasts are the norm, definitely worth exploring despite what the guide books might say.

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The real Romania?

Yesterday (24 September 2012) was undoubtedly the most fulfilling day I’ve had in this beautiful country. I checked out of the hostel in Suceava in the morning, backpack and all, moved my way along to the neighbouring bus station, and took a bus southwest to the small town of Gura Humorului. From there I walked to the train station that looked as abandoned as some of the communist-era factories that one sees; fortunately there was a clerk and after combining my elementary Romanian with her elementary English, I was able to buy a ticket with a couchette reservation to Timișoara on the other side of the country to the west (a 661km overnight journey lasting 12 and a half hours). My fortune continued when she let me store my backpack in the station, freeing me of 15 kilos off my back.

Gura Humorului is a good base for exploring a couple of the famed monasteries in the region, namely Voroneț and Humor, each about 5 km away. While it’s possible to take a maxitaxi (essentially a shared cab the size of a large van) to these sites, me being me, I opted to walk and in retrospect, it’s a decision for which I’ll always be grateful. The road to Voroneț is a single winding lane and I feel like walking through it transports you back in time…

On road to Voronet Monastery

I could see up close and personal, without any filter, rural life in this country in which just over half the population lives in urban areas. And from what I experienced, it’s a country where horse-drawn carriages share the same road with cars and trucks; where the clean country air is cut by the powerful odour of manure; where cows, chickens, sheep, and goats roam and graze freely and outnumber the human population. It’s a Romania of endless cornfields, at this time already harvested (and hence, one can understand why mămăligă is so often found on the dinner table) and countryside of varying shades of green.

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The food post

So, what is Romanian food anyway? I’ve been in Romania for about a week, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on this country’s cuisine, I definitely do have some impressions. The food here is rich in meat, cheese and dairy, and starches like polenta, potatoes, and bread; as such, it is quite hearty and filling. I’ve found that a good meal at lunch is more than enough to last me for the rest of the day, leaving me craving only a small snack to nibble on during the evening hours. Like in other Balkan countries, fresh fruit are found in abundance, even in small grocery stores, though the quality of which at times may leave something to be desired. While perusing a menu, there are two things that strike out: one is the use of all the parts of an animal – meat, liver, tripe, brains, tongue, testicles (yes, you read that right); the second is the presence of dishes normally associated with German and Hungarian cuisine, owing to the presence of these cultures in Transylvania – you’re just as likely to find goulash and schnitzel on the menu as you are sarmale, which is perhaps the country’s signature plate, consisting of minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves and most likely served with the ubiquitous mămăligă (polenta).

sarmale – minced meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves, served with polenta

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Moments like these

It’s this – coming back to the hostel after a long, tiring, but somehow energizing and an unmistakably satisfying day of exploring a foreign land with friends who were just strangers to me a day ago. It’s the accomplishment of climbing up a mountain for the second consecutive day and understanding the meaning of the word “breathtaking”. It’s that strange questioning of how a handful of people’s lives managed to converge at a common intersection in time and place to create such a memorable day. It’s knowing that moments like these, though no longer novel to someone who is no longer a novice traveller, are still exciting, still continue to feed the fire residing in the depths of my soul, still manage to make me say “wow” or conversely leave me speechless. Moments like these are my most cherished souvenirs; they’re moments I treasure and give more value to than money or gold…