A Travellerspoint blog

Sunflower Voyage

Sofia to Kiev

Sofia. Summer. Another call of duty answered. Time to explore the Balkans and beyond along the roads less-travelled. P1180422.jpg
Done; 8:30 in the morning – Sofia central bus station greets the Razgrad bus. There are just enough customers to make the trip viable and avoid been cancelled in favour of heavily used bus lines to the seaside. After some preliminary meanderings within the city limits the bus takes off on the divided highway, Todor Zhivkov’s pride, via the Balkan range to Pravetz – Todor Zhivskov’s birth place. Despite the significant development, the place is too close to Sofia to warrant a stop and too insignificant to ignore this fact. There is no lack of pit stops (or pee stops, depending on the need). Five and a half hours later, after the bus has negotiated mountains, foothills, or simply sunflower hills it wearily arrives at the Razgrad bus station – its second-last stop. There are few taxis available and indispensible for the short ride to hotel “Les” appropriately named after the central park it is located in. How it ended up there is a subject of lengthy discussion and probably argument as well, considering the legality of the construction. What there is no argument about is the fact that it is convenient, well-furnished abode in the center of Peace. And Peace it is not only in its union with nature but in its relationship with the past, cohabitating with the still-standing vestiges of communism left unscathed by the general zeal for “de-communization” demonstrated by the sons of the communists. Convoluted, eh?P1170971.jpg
Next day is filled with revelations about Razgrad. It is has been around for quite a while – a couple millennia or so, at least. As a result, it boasts Roman ruins restored albeit not very truthfully, solely for the common joy of local folks and visitors. The act of restoration is being celebrated as a triumph of European-heritage keeping and it was mostly the European money that did the facelift. If not convinced by the authenticity of the ramparts there are a number of grave stones ready to satisfy the discerned visitors. The complex includes a small museum as well, consisting of some local and “imported” items from a “Thracian” tomb forty kilometers away. The distance is insignificant but the effect huge for people who had it in their mind than Thracians belonged to Thracia, meaning south of the Balkan range. There must be some sort of plausible explanation tucked away in a certain archeologist’s dissertation about the movement of the ancient people. P1170955.jpg
While the Roman mark is a bit off the center of town the Ottoman heritage is right downtown. It looks as if it has become the new raison d’être of the place. Grand mosque stays proud physically albeit a bit muffled spiritually since it has been under lengthy restoration for the last fifty years, at least. This does not mean that the process has been finished. On the contrary, while one end is shored up another end starts to decay. At time of visit there were little trees growing on its roof over what seems to be restored walls. Minor detail is the fact that there is a plaque commemorating the Bulgarian builders of the structure but there is no mention of the contractor who is doing the restoration work – he has been put to shame by his predecessors. Anyway, while there is no progress in restoring a religious building to its official capacity there isn’t any lack of Turkish folks (who should care most about the structure) going about their daily lives in its shadows. Tuning in their conversation might not reveal the meaning but some Bulgarian words here and there show that they like to pepper their speech with Bulgarian sounds while the Bulgarians themselves love to utilise English words. At least the first group lives in the environment provoking the influence while the latter likes it because it is fashionable statement.P1170944.jpg
Once figured that the Turkish minority is doing just fine in this corner of Bulgaria, one might as well continue on through the sunflower expanses to Ruse – the faded mermaid of the Danube. It is much bigger than Razgrad but not so uniform in its appearance. Many if the buildings constructed during its heyday at the turn of the twentieth century are in poor condition. The ones lucky enough to have the attention and funds attached to it are mostly along the central pivot – main (pedestrian) street connecting two elegant squares. The city has totally missed out on its proximity to the Danube- a little Vienna in more than one aspect. The shore line is reserved for a railway line, river terminal and what might be considered a park area but not much more of interest. Up on the high shore is where all the action takes place. This statement is very relevant to a building called the Pantheon. There are many Pantheons in Europe very much in the tradition of old Rome. What makes this property unique is the fact that it was build on the spot of a church purposefully demolished so the new “temple” would take its place. Moreover, the adjacent cemetery was annihilated and the bones of anybody who did not have the stature (in death that is) was removed further out of the city and the precious few, related to the “independence struggle”, were left to rest in grandeur. Times change has not been kind to the poor Pantheon. As a communist endeavour it has been left on its own devices “waiting for European money”. Well, anti-Turkish liberation movement is not favourite topic nowadays and monuments celebrating it are to be put on the back burner till more favourable winds start to blow again (for example).P1170993.jpg
Leaving Ruse is quick via the “Friendship Bridge”, the only bridge spanning the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania for many decades. It was not probably going to come into existence at all if it was not for the cohesion of the Soviet Union’s unofficial provinces in Eastern Europe. Pretty much the same story is being repeated nowadays with the new bridge between Vidin and Calafat at the western end of Bulgaria, this time unifying the official provinces of the European Union.
A versatile minibus service connects Ruse with Bucuresti and its airport in Otopeni, thus making the latter the unofficial international airport of premier city of Bulgaria on the Danube. Otopeni happens to be on the north side of the Romanian capital turning it into a perfect spot to use another minibus service, this time to Transylvania. This region of modern Romania has a chequered history with many roundabouts. Along the misery of not-so-peaceful coexistence of many different folks including Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Gypsies and probably many others it boasts multifaceted cultural heritage that might puzzle and enlighten even the most hardened travelers. Brasov is certainly a place that fits the Transylvanian story perfectly. A German outpost organised by the ruling Hungarians keeps the Romanians out of the city walls while it suffers some serious beating by the invading Turks until they get incorporated and start to import rugs to hang them in their masterpiece of a church making company to a masterpiece of an organ. In addition, to people who are familiar with Poland it might look very Polish in name and appearance which gives lots of food for thought about the Polish cities and Poland itself but this is another, very long story...
Contemporary Brasov is fairly big city but what is of interest is the compact old town, which has been very carefully and truthfully restored as far as the defensive ramparts are concerned. Many of the town building have been given a new lease of life in the shape of hotels, guest houses and restaurants which transfers the place onto the touristy side of things. Nevertheless, in general it retains convincing appearance pared with good infrastructure – just what a visitor is in need of. P1180075.jpg
Except for cruising along the medieval streets of town or climbing up and down its strategically located defensive structures, favourite pastime is visiting the best lookout point in the area just above town. The cable car makes the journey effortless and exciting. Once on top there is only one little spot right beside the BRASOV sign (visible from anywhere in the city) where one can enjoy open treeless space with magnificent vista of Brasov, the Carpathian Mountains and the plains beyond. Among the tourist activities there is one that seems to be a local tradition perfectly fitting into the tourism scheme – organ concerts in the “Black” church three times a week as it has been done apparently for many, many years. The organ is supposedly an attraction on its own considering that it is one of a brand (Buchholz) that is on its path to extinction and this particular instrument is probably the only one left playable (according to tourist sources). Moreover, by visiting the church when the concert is going on the entrance fee is waived so one kills two birds with one stone (two-for-one in modern-day pizza terms).P1180027.jpg
Three full days are enough to absorb the niceties of Brasov and proceed further to less “civilized” realms or in other words – go east through the sunflower lands! Yet another minibus trip, this time rougher along the edges with air-conditioning directly related to speed accompanied by Russian music vernacular. Along the road in Transylvania there is a string of Hungarian villages that have magnanimously been marked in two languages. Mostly rural activities abound leading naturally to peculiar business on the highway that conveniently dissects the populated areas. As early as ten o’clock local folks start preparing the barbeques for what appears to be a prolific trade in skewered meat, presumably fresh from the farms around, if one is to judge by their sheer number. Clouds of smoke are enticing the traveling public but the stern minibus driver would have none of it – he is on a seven hour plus mission to Kishinev and is in no mood to jeopardize it. Another expression of his decisiveness in regards to the success of trouble-free delivery of his human cargo to point B of this journey was the scolding of a Japanese passenger eager to immortalize the sluggishness of the border control on a still camera. The driver was not mincing words (even in Russian) and the Japanese fellow overcame the language barrier quite quickly (considering the tone of voice even a dog would not have had a problem getting the message). After a short physical check-up akin to a ritual rather than function the happy travellers and even happier driver moved on to the boundless countryside of rolling hills called Moldova. First activity on this land was filling up with gas (obviously cheaper than in neighboring Romania) providing the inquisitive public staring in the right spot in the right time with valuable insight of local business dealings. Advancing with the greeting “bro” the chauffeur passed a plastic bottle to the pump attendant and slipped a banknote in his pocket while the official transaction was taking place. With thrust quenched people and machine happily rolled up and down the sunflower hills to reach their promised goal – Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. P1180109.jpg
Arrival at one of the bus stations, changing money at the worst rate and finding a taxi ride to your hotel are the first steps in Kishinev as in any foreign city. Despite traffic jam and convoluted self-imposed detours the taxi arrives at the brand new hotel with the inviting name WINE hotel. What can be more fitting the wine country of Moldova than a wine hotel? And wine is not just a name. It is present in the mini bar, it is served gratuitously as an incentive and it is available for purchase at very attractive prices. With all the amenities brand new, the layout and interior design oozing with elegance and care one just has to concentrate on the wine, really, and the view, of course. First and foremost activity on the following day is related to... wine drinking. Kishinev’s suburb hides one of the largest (tourist talk here) caves ever stuffed to the gills with wine, more wine and even more wine. Red, white, rose, champagne and whatever is available under the Sun it must be here. On top of the local fare there is a “museum” dedicated to wine with some really old specimens costing lots of dough but apparently undrinkable; very nice bottles though. For those who would like to keep the balance between appearances and contents there are tours inclusive of tasting different wines. The cheapest going tour is deprived almost totally of this luxury except for a plastic glass of champagne during a documentary about the vineyard at Cricova to make sure propaganda goes down nice and smooth. If any doubts creep into the visitor’s mind about the worth touring this underground labyrinth, there are the testimonies and pictures of famous, rich and powerful people testifying to the immense satisfaction they had visiting this place. So why not you; just swallow your reluctance and pay the steep entrance fee because these winemakers know their value. P1180119.jpg
With wine ticked off (the official part only of course) next adventure is exploring the city itself. Taxis are expensive and hard to come by; best option is calling “a car” from the hotel. Another option is jumping onto the trolleybuses for the ultimate in local experience. Most of the vehicles are of certain very respectable age which brings to mind the thought that not everything made in the Soviet Union is of inferior quality. This said one has to admit that the air-conditioning is highly dependent on the speed of the vehicle which in city conditions is very slow. All trolleybuses are supplied with a driver and ticket seller!?! This must be some sort of employment creation program; except it probably does not pay much. First clue is the fact that the ride costs the equivalent of 10EURO cents. Second one is even more exotic: after selling the ticket the official whispers into your ear: “Please, give me back your ticket before you get off!?” Naturally, the guess is that this fellow hardly can make ends meet but tell this to some of the haughty foreign officials with economic degrees who come over to teach the locals how to live their lives without ever deserting their pre-booked limousines and boarding one of these decrepit public transportation vehicles.
Downtown Kishinev/Chisinau has its fare share of Soviet grand architecture. For some keen reformers this fact must present an insurmountable problem towards complete and utterly irreversible de-communization; they have to demolish the whole downtown area. So, the eyesore is left there for the time being to be put up with by the locals and photographed by the visitors. The very bellybutton of Kishinev actually combines several architectural styles presumably with their respective messages. The city’s Cathedral in Greco-Roman style with severed belfry is separated from the godless communist monstrosity of a building containing government offices by a very Roman-looking (pagan) triumphal arch. The intensity of this architectural battle is laid out plain and simple for the discerned attendees to relish; turns out that boredom is the only element missing. Intellectual and bodily overheating is prevented by ample supply of parks populated by people of all ages with children taking full advantage of the numerous fountains, very literally, on a hot summer day. P1180236.jpg
There is a day left and there is no time to waste – reaching Transdnistria becomes an imperative. Scouting a taxi driver with good driving manners produced Vadim and his propane-propelled machine. He happens to be born across the river Dniester (Transdnistria) and presumably knows what he is doing – always an asset. Arriving at the “non border” leads to disembarking and lining up in a small kiosk-like structure. There is commotion about the lines but eventually everything is straightened up and the desired permission is printed on a piece of paper, not stamped in the passport. This procedure seems to be the non-border etiquette of all these partially (non-) recognised countries. Transdnistria is unique in this respect being recognised by only two countries, which are not, recognised themselves by the vast majority of recognised countries of the world. Recognition seems to be the key at least at some level. On ground level it does not matter much in Transdnistria’s case. Own money (some of it pentagonal shaped), everything written in Cyrillic (even the stuff in Moldovan/Romanian language), monuments to Lenin (pink-granite made no less) and so on. Tiraspol is the main town of the non-country with administrative buildings on large scale and broad central avenue. It also provides for the majority of the photo opportunities along the many monuments to public personas that the locals find most representative of what the non-country is all about. Top of the list are the famous/infamous Lenin adorning major square space and Suvorov staring at you from all banknote denominations. The travel writing heavy guns of the colossus Lonely Planet characterise the place as a “Lenin-loving theme park” with connotation of amusement being provided to the foreign onlooker. Strangers do come through the non-border and even ask for three-day permission despite the fact that they are using their fingers to communicate with the non-border guard simply because their Russian is non-existent. They obviously have high expectations for loads of amusement, three days worth, or they just come to Tiraspol so they can brag about having been in such a unique place in Europe in front of their peers or they even might come to pay tribute, God knows. What is more important than some outsider’s agenda is the fact that the locals are dead serious about the funny stuff and this is what matters right there in Transdnistria. P1180154.jpg
Second Transdnisrian must-see “attraction” is the military fort on the outskirts of Bendery (free entrance). This town has had military importance for centuries and the fortress is the proof (probably that is why it is controlled by Transdnisria despite the fact that it is located on non-Transdnistria land). Major outpost of the Turkish Empire established on previous stronghold structures stood on guard for considerable time until it fell for good in the hands of the Russians. The contemporary structure is being renovated, most parts do not look that authentic anymore but the views from ramparts are to die for. There is a sweeping 360 degree panorama of Tiraspol, the river and Bendery. Plus, there is good view of the fort’s inner courtyard garnished with fake siege weapons and neighing “Mongolian” pony in addition to a sneak preview of the neighboring military barracks compete with guards and related action. P1180179.jpg
Once the Transdnistrian loop has been accomplished and the wine has been sampled Moldova pretty much runs out of interesting options, (except for the monasteries). Additional spur to look for the next destination is the unrelenting heat of these sunflower-covered rolling hills of Bessarabia. Black sea coast is close but Moldova has not been fortunate enough to make it that far. So let’s board another minibus and check out Odessa.
After a seven-hour trip including the border crossing the weary and hot passengers are disposed of at one of the city’s bus stations. Odessa’s bus terminals are two and they are facing each other divided by a park only. Currency exchange place is to be found very easily but finding a taxi takes more of an effort. First impression is that this city has very few of them – at least the official ones. Second impression includes the usual story of sharks lurking at the station waiting to fleece some suckers, so one has to walk a bit out of the immediate environs in order to be treated fairly; in this case it meant the equivalent of four Euros. Finding a hotel in the historic part of Odessa is best option for visitors interested in the city’s history, architecture, shopping, gourmet dining and cultural activities. The beach goers better avoid it since the sands are quite a distance away. A golden opportunity to peek at the beaches is a popular boat trip from the passenger port. The tour lasts about an hour which allows for a loop parallel to the coast and in the process one can see the beaches and the number of people crowded on them. By European standards they might not be considered unusually stuffed but folks with experience on ocean islands would be bitterly disappointed. On the contrary, the urban area (developed mostly around the turn of the XX century) offers insights of how and why the place was constructed and the stranger can figure out that as a whole, architecturally speaking, Odessa is a mini St. Petersburg, so people in the know will be delighted sticking around; and most probably rookies will be impressed too. P1180315.jpg
The majority of the people-watching opportunities are made available along the Primorski Boulevard – pedestrian thoroughfare where locals and guests stroll enjoying the shaded pavement and the view of the sea. Musicians take advantage of the melee and perform on different instruments or just sing making petty cash in the process. Some of them are more talented than others but in general they create a special ambiance that gives the place a charming feel. Halfway the boulevard opens up to a semicircular square (oxymoron, I know) endowed with a statue of the “DUKE” who magnanimously looks down the “Potemkin” stairs all the way the sea. The Duke is a French émigré, Richelieu, in service of the Russian czar who gave him the governorship of Odessa. There are obvious parallels with the fate of the contemporary Georgian émigré Saakashvili and only time is going to tell who was more successful. Potemkin, another New Russia pioneer, is famous for making things look good (or appear to be not what they are) and as one of Catherine the Great’s favorites he was definitely in the looking-good business. The “Potemkinness” of the stairs must be boiled down to the fact that they do not seem to be what they are – steep and long. Due to a trick achieved by grouping several steps followed by platform, they seem (from both sides) to be easier to climb up and down. For the folks that are not impressed by this optical illusion there is a funicular on the side that makes the trip easy and adds another angle to the “grand staircase”. P1180286.jpg
One not-very -obvious gem is the park of statues on the property of the literary museum. It has sculptural compositions made on particular topics close to the Odessites’ hearts. Many of them involve local and not-so-local artists. Alongside this relative modernity stand stone statues hewn from lifeless rocks thousands of years ago. They have been discovered in the littoral area of what now mostly falls into the borders of Ukraine. Stunning images of prehistoric personas with timeless face expressions akin to Easter Island moais reveal the deep cultural roots of the area where Odessa came into being thousands of years later - unique. P1180335.jpg
Letting events unfold spontaneously and rely on improvisation as far as airline tickets are concerned might add an extra notch of excitement, especially in the summer months. On this particular occasion the non-Ukrainian airlines offered expensive and inconvenient options through Poland, Turkey and Czehia. The local airline showed availability on the internet till the moment of truth came – the purchase was denied. Visiting a travel agent is still very popular activity in Eastern Europe in general and Ukraine in particular. The airline “partner” had extra -long work hours and the expertise to make things happen albeit in a much unexpected way. Looking at the map, a trip to Kiev in order to catch a plane to Sofia seems an absurd proposition. When presented with the alternatives though, it looked as if it was the best of many uneasy options including a bus trip all the way to the capital of Bulgaria. So, excursion consisting of a bus transfer through the mostly thinly-populated, sunflower-covered southern Ukraine combined with sleep-over at the international-airport-of-Kiev hotel and a two-hour flight was twice cheaper than the other flight options and faster than the overland journey. Revelation!

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