Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lessons from Romanian Taxi Drivers

"In this spot you'll see many crosses." 

Our taxi driver from the Bucharest Airport had spent the last twenty minutes pointing out various plazas, buildings, and neighborhoods he thought might interest us.

"They're here as a memorial. Many people died here 27 years ago. I was there." He went on to tell us that the tiny patch of grass we were parked next to at a stoplight was the location of a violent protest that lead to many casualties. He described hundreds of citizens crowding in, creating barricades between themselves and the communist soldiers with anything they could find, including outdoor furniture and  cars.

"The next day," he continued, "it wasn't on the news. Nothing was ever reported. I know that people knew, they must have heard all of the gunshots. The only way people really knew what was going on was from listening to the Americans report it."

Though a sobering start to our quick trip to Bucharest, it was eye-opening to realize that their political struggle is still so recent. 

The mood quickly lightened when we arrived at our Airbnb, only to realize that our windows were directly behind a billboard for Pirates of the Caribbean (right behind the eyes), and it looked like a scary giant was watching our every move.

The next day was raining, so we lightened the gloom with a trip to Starbucks and the spa. The driver who brought us to the spa was eager for business, and told us that for $100, he'd take us wherever we wanted the next day. Though taking the train may have been less expensive, it eliminated a lot of extra travel time, as well as made our Sunday much more convenient! We wanted to maximize our time Sunday as much as possible, and $100 seemed like a reasonable price for a personal tour guide, so we took him up on his offer. 

The ride was lovely, winding through lush green forests and past homes made from rustic wood with little lace curtains in the windows. 

Some looked like gingerbread houses, with carefully molded window frames and interestingly shaped roofs. As we drove, he asked us what we knew of Romanian culture, and I was ashamed to admit that I knew very little. Before hopping in on Carrie's "40th Country by 40" trip, my knowledge of Romania didn't extend much past the vampire legends of Transylvania. Luckily for me, she jumped in with her background knowledge, having grown up watching Romanian gymnasts dominate in the Olympics. 

The rest of the ride was an incredible history lesson, full of the enthusiasm only a local could deliver. 

He brought up videos on his phone of Nadia Comaneci's unbelievable routines, and played Gheorghe Zamfir's traditional pan flute folk music. One of the songs, Dor de Romania, was particularly beautiful. He told us that in Romanian, 'dor' is a word for the pain/sadness/need you feel when someone you love is away from you. It can also refer to the longing for a place, or the need to fill a hole in your heart. From what I can understand, it's both beautiful and immensely sad and something I can absolutely relate to. 

Like our first taxi driver, he shared some of Romania's more turbulent history. 

Of course, all information has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it was fascinating to hear his perspective of his country's history nonetheless. During World War II, Romania allied itself with Hitler in hopes that the strength of Germany's army would help them win back Moldova from Russia's control. They joined the Allied forces eventually, but was still considered a losing country along with Italy, Japan, and Hungary. He pointed out Ploiesti, his hometown, which was heavily bombed by the USA. Though discussion of war between our countries was uncomfortable, the facts were delivered without the slightest animosity towards anyone but Russia, who still control most of Moldova (apparently a very sensitive subject). He told us that in addition to defeating Russian armies, Romanian people also defended Europe from the Turkish and Austrian Empires. To be honest, so much was shared that it's all a little fuzzy at this point. I remember him saying something about hiding women, children, as well as national treasure in the caves below during the fighting. Since then, the treasure was stolen by Russia, who bartered (in his words, blackmailed) for partial control of Moldova with this treasure. 

Whew! Lots of history during the 80km drive from Bucharest to Peles Castle!

Just a little more: Senaia, the location of Peles Castle, was named after Mount Sinai, where Moses was given the 10 Commandments. The palace is only about 100 years old, though the city is 200 years old, and some homes are as old as 500. Other fun fact: Yesterday I watched "The Christmas Prince" on Netflix (so bad, yet so good), and was so excited to see that his castle was Peles Castle! The short walk to the castle, as well as the grounds, were incredibly beautiful.

The drive back to Bucharest was less fact-filled, though we did learn a little about the Romanian language. 

There are many similarities to Italian because the Ancient Romans conquered the area. Romanian is a combination of Italian and the local language from thousands of years ago. Side note: I'm presenting a lot of ideas as fact, so I really hope that our taxi driver knew what he was talking about. We stopped for lunch with him and his wife, who had quietly spent the day in the front seat. He did all of the ordering for us, and we ended up trying a number of local dishes. I had Ciorba de Perisoare which is a very tasty sour meatball soup. He ordered Mititei la Gratar, which are traditional grilled minced meat rolls. In case you needed another fact, "Noroc" is Romanian for cheers! After lunch, we made our way back to enjoy a few hours exploring Bucharest before a late flight back to Milan.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Exploring Lokrum

Arriving in Dubrovnik with my short-term travel companions made the journey much more fun and relaxing (for me) than expected.

By the time I had trudged up a million stairs with my oversized suitcase to my Airbnb, I was ready to meet up with my family and do some exploring. My Aunt Nancy, cousins Emma and Wendy, and their friend were on a tour of Dubrovnik from Split, and I was thrilled to break up my solo-adventure with a little bit of company and family time. Its also comforting when traveling alone to know that someone is expecting to see you on a certain date.

Though I'd already walked Dubrovnik's city walls during my last trip in 2015, the views remain jaw-dropping. Surprisingly, it wasn't overly crowded, and wasn't nearly as scorchingly hot as I had heard it could be. We were only able to spend about two hours together though, and after my high of excitement in Bosnia mixed with a quick family visit, I was pretty sad when they left. It was Dubrovnik's summer festival, and as I took myself out for a delicious dinner right on the water and looked around, I didn't see anyone else on their own. Families, couples, and as evening turned to night, drunken groups of college-aged partiers, surrounded me. I started thinking that while it was a wonderful city to explore alone during the low season, my alone-ness wasn't quite as fun when surrounded by so many people with all of their friends.

Anyways, the next day my mood continued a little bit.

The crowds and heat were overwhelming on the main streets, and I had to get away from it. In my last post about Dubrovnik, I wrote about seeing Lokrum from the wall and learning about some of the folklore. Because of the season (and my time limit), I didn't make it to the island before, and on this day in particular it felt like the perfect getaway. It was. From crowded, sweaty streets to a tranquil, lush island, I couldn't have been happier. Any negative feelings I felt about being alone disappeared as I walked down paths with peacocks as my companions, explored the monastery and botanical gardens, and hiked up to the fortress.

I felt unbelievable healthy during this entire trip. Most days including some sort of hike or long walk, and I felt much more tuned into my body than usual. To contrast, at school, lunch is at 11:30. On days when 4th grade has the last lunch line up time and when I have recess duty, some days I don't sit down until 11:45 and then am sprinting out the door at 11:55 to get myself ready for recess. Because of that I've been very well trained to gobble down my lunch as fast as I can without any regard to whether or not I'm actually hungry. During my trip, I ate whenever (and whatever) I wanted. Some nights all I wanted for dinner was ice cream, other times (like this evening) I had dinner twice. After getting back to Dubrovnik, I stopped for a very delicious carrot salad (sounds weird but it was tasty), went back to nap for an hour or so and get ready for my night out, and then went out for another dinner of spaghetti with clams (which was so good that I had the same exact meal another night). By the end of the trip, though like I said, I ate literally whatever I wanted, I had lost about 5 pounds- my kind of vacation!

On this particular day, my hike was to Lokrum's Fort Royal, which provided a great view of Dubrovnik's Old Town.

I love how in Europe, these ruined old fortresses aren't roped off and forbidden; you can climb around and explore to your heart's content as long as you're smart! To give a little bit of background, Lokrum is first mentioned in writing in 1023, when the Benedictine Monastery was founded. King Richard the Lionhearted was shown hospitality on Lokrum when nearly shipwrecked during the crusades, leading to him donating money to build a cathedral in Dubrovnik. So clearly, it's been around for a while. While the fortress appears incredibly old, it was build almost 800 years after the monastery! Crazy!

The Benedictine Monastery is one of the main reasons I wanted to see Lokrum, as I found the old stories about it creepy and amazing. Well, at the Visitor's Center, I was surprised and thrilled to find... THE IRON THRONE!!!! Again, I'm going to say go back to that other post for more about Game of Thrones filming in Dubrovnik, but it's pretty amazing. Every time they show Kings Landing now on the show, I think "I know that spot!!!" Along the walls are Lokrum's old stories and pieces of its history, along with a map of the GoT filming locations and videos from behind the scenes. It was very unexpected, but very welcome. After the monastery, I stopped for a piña colada at a shady outdoor bar.

From the bar I could see a rocky beach, which looked like the perfect place to get some sun and maybe swim in the Adriatic.

When I say rocky beach, I don't mean covered in little pebbles rather than sand, and calling it a beach is really a stretch. The "beach" is really an area of spiky, craggy boulders and cliffs at the edge of the island where people come to lay out and swim. I found myself as flat of a spot as I could, out of the way enough that I could (hopefully) leave my bag safely if I decided to jump in. As I settled in, a group of preteens kept racing in and out of the water, passing me as they went. They were taking turns climbing up to the highest point they could find and leaping into the water, seemly without a trace of fear. As I watched, a group closer to my age joined them, along with what appeared to be the preteens' parents. They were all having a blast, but to me it looked so scary! I watched for probably a half hour before asking on of the dads how the jump was. "Scary," he replied, but still went back for a second and third jump.

Nobody seemed to be drowning or hitting rocks on the way down, and I had yet to see anyone fall off the cliff, so I worked up my courage and decided to make the jump myself. I talked to the group closer to my age, and they all agreed- though very scary, jumping was well worth it. In a maybe-overly-trusting move, I gave one of them my phone and asked him to take a picture. Rather than running away with it, he took some great pictures for me, and he and his friends let me come out with them that night! A day of adventure and a night out with new friends cured me of any traveling-alone blues for sure. I ended up making the jump twice- and am definitely, completely terrified of heights, but maybe a little bit of an adrenaline junkie.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tour Day in Herzegovina

While there are countless benefits that I could go on and on about to traveling alone (and probably will soon), I briefly encountered one negative aspect during the first leg of my trip. 

I'd researched all different tours that I was hoping to book, but when I finally went to book them I couldn't- they required you to sign up with at least two people! I was really bummed at first, but it ended up being a blessing, as what I did find was a million times better.

In a previous post I commented on the exceptional hospitality at my hotel; when I asked about tours outside of the city at the front desk early my first morning, I thought I was out of luck. I'd waited too long and hadn't planned ahead. But I was told that calls would be made, and they'd find me a tour- and they did! One of the manager's also ran Airbnb's with his girlfriend, and she was taking a couple out the next day!

I woke up that morning ready for action, repeatedly telling myself that spending the day with strangers was definitely something I could handle. As we made our way to the first stop, our guide (I'm going to call her A) filled us in on some of the major points of Bosnian history, especially focusing on the most recent war for independence. Hearing it from someone who had been born in the midst of it was heartbreaking. I won't get into too much for the sake of her privacy, but her perspective was honest, thoughtful, and open-minded. 

She shared that her high school had been divided between Bosnian and Croatian students. 

On student council, she and her friends had tried to encourage the school to mix the students for at least one class, but they remained separated. We learned about her grandma's old stories from the days of Tito, as well as how the war still impacts her life every single day. Though her outlook was positive, it was fascinating (and sad) to hear so directly about life during and after such a terrible time in their history.

Blagaj Tekke

Our first stop was at Blagaj Tekke, a Dervish monastery built between 1446 and 1520 along the Buna River. Because it is situated directly next to the cave holding the source of the river, the water is pure enough to drink! Immediately upon stepping out of the car in Blagaj, a sense of peace unfolded around me. The monastery is built at the base of the high cliffs surrounding the river. Though nearly 100 degrees elsewhere, the temperature seems to drop the closer you get, making it cool and comfortable.

Though a major tourist attraction for the area, the Tekke is still a holy place. Before entering we were required to remove our shoes and cover ourselves. There were long wraps to cover our legs (for both men and women), and scarves to cover our hair (women only). Walking through the serene building feels like you're in on a secret; the prayer rooms aren't always in use, but they were during our visit. I felt like we were tip-toeing around something very private, though as I mentioned, it is a tourist destination. The rooms are decorated with the typical Ottoman rugs, and hold volumes of religious texts.


Our second stop was at Pocitelj. During the middle ages, Pocitelj was the center of administration and governance for its county, and was supposedly built by Bosnia's King Stjepan Tvtko in 1383. What makes Pocitelj especially special is its architecture mixture of medieval and Ottoman. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the city was ruled by the Hungarian empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire. The architecture of an old rule is often destroyed to make room for the new, but in Pocitelj, you can see elements of all clearly, as it was well preserved. Because of this, Pocitelj is on UNESCO's Tentative List for classification as a World Heritage Site.

Perhaps because it was so hot, we were some of the very few visitors to the small city, and at certain points the only at the citadel. While the hike up the uneven, slippery stairs was a struggle, the view was lovely, and you probably know how I feel about ruins by this point (hint: I love them). A told us about the history of the town, as well as the 1992 bombing that nearly destroyed the city, and landed it on World Monuments Watch's 100 Most Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites list in 1996 and 1998. After our hike up to the top, we treated ourselves to ice-cold pomegranate juice and little cones full of fruit on the way out of town.

Kravice Falls

The final stop was the one I was most excited for: Kravice Falls. The falls consist of a lake surrounded by about 20 waterfalls, some over 80ft tall. Most importantly, YOU CAN SWIM THERE!!! After a steamy day of climbing fortresses, nothing felt better than jumping into the water and scaling up the rocks to get right under those falls. It was a great bonding experience for me and the other tour-ees (though they were a couple, and there's a chance that I was a huge imposition...), and A later told us that she was terrified watching us climb around like little mountain goats the whole time.

As a longtime waterfall-calendar enthusiast, I was basically in heaven the entire visit. The falls themselves are hugely impressive; nature is truly incredible. I may have bought a waterproof phone case specifically for this visit; though I have never been a selfie person, I probably took 800 on this vacation... oops :) In addition to swimming, climbing, and taking pictures there were some brave souls who we also watched jumping off the falls into the water below. How they managed to miss the rocks and shallow parts, I'll never know, but I was only courageous enough to watch.

While swimming, we met two Americans who shared that they were traveling and playing at different venues around Europe. I intended to go and watch that evening, but without internet access, I didn't think I'd have a great chance of finding it. Well, on my way out for one last exploration of the city that night, I heard some great music coming from near the Crooked Bridge (another cute Mostar bridge). As I got closer, I recognized the name of the bar not only from one of my favorite songs, but also from my earlier conversation: Black Dog Pub. Drawn by the music, I headed in and saw one of the guys I'd met playing along with what turned out to be a Serbian wedding band! Unfortunately, my new friends had been double booked, but lucky for me I got to hear not one but TWO awesome bands play. There was some additional craziness of the night, including finding the worlds cutest kitten, being aggressively invited to breakfast by a homeless man, and finding a ride for the next day to Croatia. Overall, that day exploring Herzegovina was one of the most interesting days I've ever had!