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Trip Report Black Sea Blast: Romania, Crimea & Istanbul

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As always, I want to thank the forum for all the helpful information I find here every time we travel. I plan to provide a fair amount of detail in this report -- especially for Romania and the Crimea since not a whole lot of info is out there. This was a very special trip for us because each country was so different and so fascinating. We both love history and this trip gave us a lot of insight into a part of the world with which we were not that familiar.

I planned the trip myself, and we traveled independently except for some private tours arranged with different travel agencies. For guidebooks, I used Lonely Planet's Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine (all good), but also Rough Guide Romania, Bradt Ukraine (excellent for history) and Rick Steves Istanbul (had become disillusioned with Rick, but this guidebook has excellent self-guided tours for all the major sights).

For accommodations, I used Booking.com for most of the hotels and was very pleased with their service. My only suggestion when using this service (or any of the big hotel booking outfits) is to always contact the hotel directly to both confirm your booking and to clarify any special requests.

Here is a recap of our 1-month trip:

Munich, Germany (1 night) -- broke up our flight to Romania, stayed at Hotel Am Market
www.hotel-am-markt.eu

Cluj, Romania (2 nights) -- stayed at Hotel Alexis www.hotelalexiscluj.ro

Maramures and Bucovina, Romania (6 nights) -- private tour with Pan Travels, stayed in rural guesthouses www.pantravel.ro

Sighisoara, Romania (2 nights) -- stayed at Pension am Schneiderturm
http://www.booking.com/hotel/ro/pension-am-schneiderturm.en.html

Train to Brasov, Romania

Brasov, (3 nights) -- stayed at Pension Casa Albert http://brasov.three-star-hotels.com/hotel/pension-casa-albert.html

Private driver (Active Travel) from Brasov to Bucharest www.activetravel.ro

Bucharest (2 nights) -- stayed at Hotel Christina www.hotelchristina.ro

Flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines

Istanbul (7 nights) -- stayed at Sultans Royal Hotel www.sultansroyalhotel.com

Flew to Simferopol, Ukraine on Turkish Airlines

Yalta (3 nights) -- stayed in an apartment rented thru BlackSea-Crimea
www.blacksea-crimea.com

Taxi to Bakhchysarav

Bakhchysarav (3 nights) -- stayed at Villa Meraba
http://meraba-villas.ru/?post_type=portfolio&p=407&lang=en

Flew back to istanbul on Turkish Airlines

Istanbul (3 nights) -- stayed at Galata La Bella www.galatalabellahotel.com

More to come...

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    Thanks for the encouragement!

    sundriedpachino -- As far as language goes:

    Romania -- No problem, Romanian is a romance language with many surprising similarities to French, Spanish, and Italian making it somewhat easy to read (at least basic signs etc.) Many people (at least in the travel industry) speak some English. The exception is out in the countryside (where we had an English-speaking guide). We speak some French and since many Romanians do also, this was a big help.

    Istanbul -- No problem, everyone in the travel industry seems to speak English. The Turkish language intrigued us, and if we have a chance to return, we'd like to learn more.

    Crimea -- This is where it got a bit challenging. Even though Ukranian is the official language of the Ukraine, most people in the Crimea speak Russian. Sometimes signage and even the people's speech mixes Russian and Ukranian.

    My husband speaks Russian which was a HUGE help. And it wasn't just that he could speak to people, the biggest benefit was that he could read Cyrillic. I think it would be difficult to come here if you could not read Cyrillic. You would definitely want to look for an English-speaking guide and for hotels where the staff spoke English. I really felt like I was in the dark a lot and had to keep asking him, "What does this mean?"

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    Ok, on with the trip report

    A Night in Munich

    We had decided to break up our flight to Romania with a night in one of our favorite places, Munich. We enjoyed a pleasant nonstop Lufthansa flight from Newark to Munich on our spacious Airbus 340. This plane had a most unusual feature: the bathrooms were on a lower level, down a short flight of stairs much like a split level house. Probably seemed like a good idea during the design phase, but there was no space to wait, and the flight attendants were kept busy telling people to stay off the stairs.

    By noon the next day, we were walking through the Marienplatz, the main square in Munich. The city is as appealing as ever with such a happy vibe. Maybe it’s because everyone is busy drinking the incredible Bavarian beers!

    Hotel am Markt has a wonderful location right around the corner from the Marienplatz, but our room was small and the bathroom Lilliputian -- good for one night, but I'm not sure I'd want to stay here long.

    After a much needed recuperative nap, our first stop was the Oktoberfest Museum. Officially, Oktoberfest has ended here, but that does not mean that party time is over in Deutschland! The highlight of the museum was an excellent film about the history of beer which goes back 5,000 years. The first beer originated in the Middle East and was made from fermented bread. This “bread beer” continued until the Middle Ages when Europeans started experimenting with beer made from plants that even included the deadly nightshade as one ingredient! When the Germans discovered hops, beer-making really got hopping (so to speak).

    The museum itself comprised three floors of tiny rooms exhibiting mostly old photos but also collections of Munich Oktoberfest posters and the signature beer steins created to honor each year’s festival. We never realized what a huge crowd comes to this beer festival – 5 million people attend each year (and only a small percentage of them are foreigners). We are thinking we have an Oktoberfest in our future!

    By now, the museum had inspired a terrible beer thirst, so we headed straight to the nearby Hofbrauhaus, Munich’s most famous beer hall and mu husband’s favorite spot to tip back a few liters of real Bavarian beer. The cavernous hall is always packed with beer lovers, and the oompah band never quits playing.

    It’s touristy, yes, but the wonderful thing is that Germans love it too, and the clientele always includes plenty of old Deutsch partiers in lederhosen rocking to the polkas and drinking songs. We sat at one of the large wooden tables and were soon joined by three Germans (sans lederhosen) -- Martin, Gerhart and Gerhart’s son Chris -- all from the region of Schwabia.

    Our fun-loving friend from back home (Steve) is a Schwabian from way back on his family tree, so we figured these guys would be up for a good time, and we were right! We all bonded immediately and had a raucous night of constant toasting with our giant beer steins. The later it got, the crazier the toasts became.

    During the course of the evening, the Schwabians heard my husband call me “honey.” They got such a kick out of this expression that they offered up many toasts “to Honey!” What a night, and what a great way to start our trip!

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    Welcome to Cluj!

    We bid a sad farewell to Munich, my husband's favorite city in the world, with a vow to return again soon. The next leg of our trip was a short (1 ½ hr.) early morning flight from Munich to the city of Cluj in Romania.

    We flew on Lufthansa once again (although the plane was much smaller). The friendly crew offered us a breakfast pastry and the usual juice, coffee and tea. But then they asked if we wanted champagne. Was there ever any question? Lufthansa may have just become our favorite airline!

    The tiny Cluj airport was easy to negotiate, and Passport Control was a breeze with no visa required. We hit an ATM and got our first look at Romanian currency (known as lei or RON). Weird bills! The currency looks typically European, but it’s made of plastic – it’s like the stuff has been polished with furniture wax; it’s slippery to handle. The plastic construct lasts longer and is supposed to be harder to counterfeit -- plus you can actually run it thru the washing machine with no negative effects.

    Outside the airport, we looked for a taxi to take us into the city and had our first encounter with “unscrupulous Romania.” A cab driver approached us, and we showed him a piece of paper with our hotel address carefully printed. He said he could take us but when pressed, finally gave us a price of 45 euros! That’s the equivalent of $58 American dollars. What a rip!! The hotel had advised us that a typical price was 5-7 euros.

    I snatched the piece of paper out of the cabbie’s hand and said, “No, thanks.” He was clearly disgruntled and mumbled some (undoubtedly) unkind stuff in Romanian as he walked away. But now what? We stood there uncertainly until a nice-looking older man came over and asked us (in good English) if he could be of help – and offered to drive us for a fraction of what the other guy wanted.

    It turned out that “Pop” (pronounced: “pope”) was a friendly guy who taught us our first Romanian word multemesc (mool – tse – mesk) which means “thank you” and even gave my husband a beer recommendation (more about that later). Pop drove us straight to our hotel and true to his word, only charged us 20 lei (about 5 euros). My husband gave him a generous tip, along with accolades for his honesty, and we were all happy.

    Hotel Alexis, where we are staying, is a new hotel in Cluj, and our room is amazingly spacious – more than twice the size of our Munich hotel (and half the cost). Welcome to cheap Europe! We also got the “Romantic Weekend Package” which meant a basket of fresh fruit, a bar of Romanian chocolate, and a bottle of Romanian champagne. This is becoming quite the bubbly trip.

    A five-minute walk from Hotel Alexis brought us to the center of town where we found a restaurant called “4 Amici’s” (four friends), and they even had a nonsmoking section, just for us. Unfortunately, smoking is rampant here, and we will have to work at protecting our lungs from the second-hand smoke issues.

    We ate pizza, ciorba (soup) and salad, but the big hit of the meal was the Ursus beer. Ursus means “bear,” and Pop, our cabbie, who had recommended this Cluj hometown brew, told us that Romania has lots of brown bears from the Carpathian Mountains. These bears are protected so the Romanians can’t hunt them; and according to Pop, this is a big problem because these bears eat sheep and other farm animals. Ursus beer is the best beer in Romania (at least according to the Clujians) – it definitely tasted good to us.

    The following morning we met Andrei from Pan Travel, who will be our guide for the next week. Today he gave us a walking tour of his hometown Cluj. Cluj actually has many elegant buildings, and it is obvious that much has been recently restored. (Unfortunately, Cluj also has many ugly concrete constructions built during the Communist days under the Ceausescu). We visited several churches and viewed a portion of the old fortified city wall – Cluj is fortunate to have an intact old city.

    We were lucky enough to witness a Greek Orthodox baptism while in Cluj. The ceremony began with the mother taking confession right in the middle of the church aisle (with the priest’s robe draped over her head). There are no confessional booths, so this is the way confession works with everyone. The big finale came when the tiny infant, totally naked, got a triple dunk into a basin of holy water! Our little guy handled it remarkably well, and you could see how proud the family was.

    Cluj has been occupied repeatedly throughout its history, and churches have changed hands too, sometimes from Jesuit to Protestant Reformed. Being close to the Hungarian border, Cluj has a large Hungarian population. Their protestant churches tend to be quite plain except for the ornate organs and the elaborate pulpits. (In fact in many cases, they plastered over the old Catholic frescoes.)

    Unfortunately, we had one more experience with “unscrupulous Romania.” We don’t want to dwell too much on this because overall the people of Romania are kind and friendly, but you need to be a savvy traveler here. We returned to a small neighborhood grocery store near our hotel to buy more bottled water. When my husband got his change, he realized the young woman had shorted him 5 lei. She said, “Oh sorry,” and immediately gave him the 5. However, later when he checked over the purchases, he realized that she had also overcharged him for one of the items! Note that bar codes are nonexistent here, so prices are entered by hand. It wasn’t much money, and we know these people are poor, but nobody likes to be cheated.

    One very Transylvanian aspect of Cluj were the hordes of large black crows that flew into the city center parks each evening at dusk (and back out at dawn to dine in the outer garbage dumps). These big birds looked like ravens and added to the mystique of the Transylvania legend. Hundreds and hundreds of black “crows” came swooping down the main street each night, cackling at max decibel level right past our hotel window. It was like a creepy Hollywood Dracula movie, adding to the mystery and allure of this part of Romania.

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    Lots of very useful info and tips. Thanks very much for your report.

    Romania is on our destination list for a quick getaway. What paraphernalia do you recommend against a possible vampire (or crow attack in case of Cluj)?

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    Looking forward to the rest of the report! I went to Istanbul several years ago, Ukraine (not Crimea) the summer before last & might be going to Moldova next year, so I love reading about the region.

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    I can help you with Russian and Ukrainian language. You write me on English and I translate.
    If you short in money you can take a bus from Yalta to Bahchisaray. It will be much more expensive.
    Good luck!

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    Maramures, our “Brigadoon”

    Some of you may remember the wonderful Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon” about a Scottish village that remained unchanged and untouched by the modern world because it only appeared for one day every 100 years. Well, Maramures is our “Brigadoon,” a land of horse-drawn wooden carts where hand-pitched haystacks dot the landscape and the spires of simplistic wooden churches pierce the sky. This area is also home to some of the kindest, most genuine down-to-earth people we have ever encountered.

    We were fortunate to have Andrei Mahalnischi from Pan Travel as our driver/guide through this amazing time warp. Andrei has a remarkable talent for relating to the local people, and he gave us an unforgettable glimpse into a way of life that has disappeared from the rest of Europe.

    We spent three nights in Maramures in the home of Maria and Ioan, the nicest couple you could ever meet who welcomed us into their home and into their hardworking lives. Ioan is a true peasant, a proud farmer who works the land and cares for his farm animals from dawn to dusk. He is also a gentle soul who touched my heart when he handed me a perfect white rose on our last day.

    Maria is a retired elementary school teacher who fills her days making gorgeous handicrafts and creating the most delicious dishes – every meal was a culinary adventure from incomparably creamy polenta called “mamalinga” (made with sour cream) to an assortment of delicious soups, all made with the freshest ingredients. Dinner each night consisted of a starter, a soup, a main entrée, and a dessert. Everything made from scratch with local ingredients – baskets of just baked bread, extra spicy pickles fermented with horseradish, featherweight crepes served with homemade jam.

    In Maramures, people never want to appear ungenerous, so the amount of food delivered to our table each night was always overwhelming. We were constantly torn between not wanting to offend Maria and wanting to be able to fit into our clothes!

    Maria and Ioan spoke no English, but they did speak French so that worked out pretty well since both of us have a few years of French under our belts. My husband and Maria were also able to communicate in Russian as a backup, since altho reluctant to do so, Maria understood/spoke some Russian.

    Staying with them was so much fun. Andrei celebrated his 61st birthday while we were here, so one night Maria and Ioan presented him with a huge homemade cake and sang a Romanian birthday song. Not to be outdone, my husband played his harmonica and I sang “Happy Birthday to You.”

    Of course, rural life is full of surprises. One morning the entire town was without water. Unfortunately, I was just heading for the shower, but no worries, Ioan arrived on the scene with a big pot of warm water (from the nearby creek, we assumed) along with a smaller saucepan to use as a ladle. What can you do? When in Romania, you do like the Romanians! When the water goes down, you sit in the bathtub and scoop warm creek water over your body as you scrub to get clean.

    The pride of Maramures are the fabled wooden churches – impressive small buildings with towering Gothic spires completely made of wood. The government at one point in time disallowed any new churches from being made of stone, so not to be deterred, the peasants made them of wood instead.
    Inside, the church walls are decorated with unsophisticated paintings by local talent. The overall effect is a simple devotion that perfectly matches the people who live here.

    On one day, we visited the Animal Market, a traveling band of vendors who move from town to town selling animals and just about anything you would need to buy: horses, cows, pigs, shoes, clothes, furniture, leather goods, cabbage, beets, other food staples, and trinkets galore. What a zoo! And the best part was watching all the people of the town doing their shopping.

    Everyone was so friendly, and they all seemed amused when we took picture after picture of what to them is just a routine event. I still can’t get over seeing a woman purchasing a live piglet – the piglet was hoisted up and dropped into a burlap sack by the vendor, and the happy buyer went on her merry way, carrying her squiggling, squealing shopping bag over her shoulder!

    Another highlight was the Merry Cemetery. This was the most colorful cemetery we have ever seen with hand-painted bright blue crosses. Each cross has a painting of the deceased and a personal epitaph (that Andrei translated for us). The bright colors are intended to remind us that death is not a sorrowful thing but a new beginning, and each epitaph begins with the reassuring words of the dead person, “I am relaxing here…”

    The Memorial of Anticommunist Victims was a much more sobering site because it addressed a period of nasty history on the Romanian calendar. This museum was dedicated to all the Romanians who suffered imprisonment and often death at the hands of the Russians and the infamous dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu. It is impossible for us as Americans to imagine living under these regimes, and the tyranny they rained on their citizens. One small example: you needed a permit to own a typewriter and permits were given only to those who needed a typewriter for their jobs. But it didn’t end there -- every year you had to submit a designated text typed on your typewriter which was kept on file so that it could be used to identify the source of any subversive pamphlets or documents.

    We also visited a local Maramures artisan who seemed to have a regular “industrial complex” in his front yard. Since his place was located next to a small creek, an active water wheel was able to provide power and water to wash major sized blankets and rugs in a large conical wooden barrel while at the same time, it could also operate a mill stone that ground grains like corn and wheat into flour.

    But the most interesting operation was the brandy distillery, a rough looking set-up fueled by a wood stove to accelerate grain breakdown and fermentation, and where alcohol was cooled at the final stages by the waters of the creek. We got the full tour including a taste of the home-brewed palinka (plum, apple, or other fruit brandy). We were never sure if homemade palinka is exactly legal. But in this country of Romania, everybody drinks it, everybody makes it, and everybody swears it is medicinal.

    One morning, Maria gave us a demonstration of carpet-making on her loom. She is an incredible talent, and weaving on a loom, as we discovered, is just one more of this woman’s long list of capabilities -- and she has been weaving since she was five years old! For some fun, Maria decked us both out in a selection of her best Romanian garments. We made quite a pair, and Andrei took lots of pix to capture the moment.

    A favorite activity in Maramures was just driving around and stopping whenever something caught our eye. One day, we stopped to talk with two farmers who had just finished loading their hay wagon, and before we knew what was happening, Andrei had arranged for my husband to ride on the wagon and drive the horses. What a thrill!

    We hope this report gives you a taste of what we experienced in our “Brigadoon.” For us, Maramures was the highlight of Romania. According to the legend of Brigadoon, no resident can ever leave the town or Brigadoon will disappear forever. Even in this regard, Maramures is somewhat similar. Recently after an especially difficult winter, Maria suggested to Ioan that they sell the farm and move to the city. Ioan replied, “I can’t leave; this land is my life.”

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    Mag

    ..great start to a detailed, nicely written report. Pix? I will be happy to share some of mine from the challenging 80's, 90's and the most recent from 2005...where Maramures(h) and Bukovina star...as well as Buchares(h)t, Sinaia, Bras(h)ov, Sighis(h) oara, Cluj, Popa's unusual museum in Tarpes(h)t, Bicaz Gorge, Iasi(Yash), Birlad (the Eastern Romanian source of one of my historical novels), Constant(s)a, and Bulgaria. I promise.

    (OC, when you're ready for the excitement of Romania, I'll share the same pix with you whether you like it or not, old boy)! Be sure to take Mrs. along so you won't bore anyone.

    Mag: Thanks for memories of an illuminating, fun evening at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, with some whacked-out students of the local university, way back in the 70's.

    stu tower (p.s Mag...it's "mamaliga"...)

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    stu -- Really appreciate the correction on mamaliga -- it is the best tasting stuff! We are putting together a blog with pixs, and I'll post the link here when it's done. You had given me the link to your pix back when I was planning the trip -- now I want to go back and take a second look to relive what I saw.

    BTW, thanks to you we did get to the Popa Museum in Tarpesti. I'll talk about it more in the Trip Report, but it was a real find (Even our guide was impressed as he had never heard of it.) We really enjoyed it and hope that more people will seek it out. It's such a little gem, and they really need visitors to stay afloat. Loved the masks!!

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    Bucovina: Painted Monasteries, Egg Decorating, and Cabbage

    It was hard to say goodbye to our hosts and new friends Maria and Ioan, but we needed to move on to visit more of rural life in the adjacent region of Bucovina to the east. One of the top sights here are the Painted Monasteries, the pride of Romania -- treasured churches that are covered with frescoes both inside and out.

    The intensely colored frescoes from the 15th century are remarkably well-preserved and describe many popular Bible stories as well as “frighteningly” detailed pictures of the last judgment. A typical last judgment scene shows sinners (political enemies such as the Turks are at the front of the line) ready to be thrown into the red river of fire.

    At one of the monasteries, we were able to observe art restorers at work. It appeared to be a painstaking effort to replace these unique colors that have faded with age, and restoring personnel stood on wobbly ladder set-ups, or crouched on hard tile floors on bended knee for the duration of the day. Whisker-thin paint brushes and other unusual tools were the main means of the restoration. We found it interesting that they do not fill the colors in completely. This is done purposefully so the restored sections are always obvious -- ensures that nobody ever tries to pass off restoration work as the real thing.

    We made a stop in the small village of Marginea which is famous for its black pottery. Luckily, we were able to see a potter at work – he made it look so easy, transforming a lump of black clay into a perfectly proportioned vase in just seconds. This pottery is quite an unusual color: more silver than black, and the price was a steal. Prices are so cheap here in Romania, it is hard not to scoop up all these amazing bargains; problem is that you need so much extra baggage to get all these “bargains” home.

    Speaking of bargains, Andrei showed us a house for sale for 60,000 euros (about $78,000). This was an unbelievably nice, big house on about 6 acres of land. Too bad it sat on a busy highway. My husband kept telling everyone that depending how the election turned out, we were going to move to Romania and buy this house!

    Andrei, our guide, had promised us an egg decorating demonstration, but we had no idea that we would get to decorate eggs ourselves. This was so much fun – I was ready to embark on a new career as a Romanian egg decorator! We got our lesson from a priest and his wife (sounds weird, I know, but Greek Orthodox priests are allowed to marry) and a young girl from their church who demonstrated the process for us.

    Egg decorating is not at all easy. You begin with a white goose egg and cover any areas with wax that you want to remain white, using a special “pencil” with a narrow metallic spike (that you dip into the hot wax). After completing the 1st wax application, you dip the egg in yellow dye and then cover any areas that you want to remain yellow with the next application of wax. You repeat the process with red dye (covering any areas that you want to remain red with the wax), and finish with a dip in black dye. It’s an odd method that forces you to think in reverse. The best moment comes at the end when you remove the wax layers and all the colors appear!

    Our eggs were pretty pathetic, but the experience was terrific. And of course, the priest and his wife gave us palinka (plum brandy) to drink and sweet rolls to munch upon. The hospitality in the Romanian countryside is simply heartwarming.

    We have saved the best story for last. My husband’s favorite experience in Bucovina was visiting “cabbage town” – a village famed for their plethora of cabbages. We have never seen so many cabbages in one place at one time. Andrei promised us “mountains of cabbages,” and that is exactly what we got. Cabbage is a big staple in Romania and a constant stream of customers were buying these cabbages by the sack full.

    Since my husband makes his own sauerkraut back home, we found it interesting to see how they make sauerkraut here in Romania. Basically, they fill big old wooden barrels that are sitting open out in the fields with as many cabbages as they can jam in there, add lots of salt, place some large river rocks and old tires on the top (to press down on the cabbage), and let fermentation do its thing. These vats are about 8 feet in diameter and 6 feet tall, and the strong cabbage juices permeate the air as you approach them. Our FDA would go nuts, but apparently, this is the way they have always done it. Have to admit that it smelled really good! (But don’t expect to see a big barrel of kraut in our backyard anytime soon!)

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    Mag..I noticed that for your May 2012 thread I included some early pics on Popa Museum. They are no longer available. These are the newer select bunch, updated for anyone wishing to see them (inlcluding a little of Bulgaria).

    https://picasaweb.google.com/stuarttower/PopaMuseumBicazGorgesIasiYashBirladAndBulgaria#

    So happy you did get to visit. Quite a few Fodorites have told me their guides didn't know about it. Hopefully, Neculae Popa is still kicking. He was 92 back in 2005, as shown in the pic.

    Happy travels...where to next?

    Mag: Your report is exceptionally comprehensive and a pleasure to read. My overseas travel days are seemngly over so the vicarious kick I get out of reports like yours are most welcome, especially pics.
    Stu

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    https://picasaweb.google.com/stuarttower/BucharestBrashovSinaiaSighishoaraMaramureshBukovina#

    Thse have also been updated by adding several pics of my earlier 1980's visits, especially to Ieud (yay-ood) which is the epitome' of rural Romania. You can scroll down to Maramuersh and will come across the old scanned pics I mention. My late wife Judy is seen in those particular 1980's pics. Roz is seen in the 2005, etc. pics. Just to clarify.

    stu (on with the report, please, Mag.)

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    The government at one point in time disallowed any new churches from being made of stone, so not to be deterred, the peasants made them of wood instead.

    Post W.W.II but many of the churches are much older than that, built out of traditional materials and similar to other churches in the northern Carpathians.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/4203975655/in/set-72157623046345988

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/7625147722/in/set-72157630700966746

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    stu -- I loved seeing your pictures of the Popa Museum - especially the one of Neculae Popa. I am sad to tell you that Neculae passed away, not sure when, maybe in the last year or two (not a very long time ago). His son gave us the tour when we were there. I had the feeling that they were really struggling to keep the place going.

    As far as what's next -- We usually travel spring and fall and tend to do one traditional trip and one more exotic. This spring we are headed for Paris (for the Independent Wine-makers Salon) and then to Turin and the Piedmont. Pretty much a wine-drinking trip!

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    On the Road to Sighisoara

    After Bucovina, our driving tour took us southwest through the forests of the Carpathian Mountains to the medieval town of Sighisoara. We always hate to leave home when the leaves are changing, but this year we got a full dose of fall foliage splendor in Romania.

    Based on Stu Tower's recommendation on this forum, we made a visit to the Popa Museum. Even our guide Andrei had never heard of the place, so it was a bit of a crapshoot, but we were all impressed by this gem of a collection dedicated to the peasant way of life. Neculai Popa was a sculptor and a collector of all kinds of local artifacts and especially anything related to the old Romanian peasant traditions. For those of you familiar with the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Neculai was like the Henry Mercer of Romania.

    The museum consists of several traditional Romanian farm buildings, and the courtyard displays Neculai’s whimsical sculptures inspired by Romanian folktales. Neculai spent 19 years in prison (one of many people arrested for political reasons) and his passion for collecting helped him to recuperate from that horrible experience.

    One of his favorite collections is a strange and unusual group of masks. In a traditional Romanian village, no one talked about or criticized their neighbors or the whole village would turn against them. However according to Neculai’s son (who gave us a heartfelt tour of his father’s work), on one day of the year “the gates of heaven opened,” and people were allowed to tell each other what they really thought. To encourage people to really open up, the “advice” was given from behind the anonymity of a mask. So once a year, the entire village donned masks and told each other the truth. The intention was that people would learn and improve, but we have to wonder how many hurt feelings (and personal grudges) may have resulted.

    The rest of the museum consisted of a series of small rooms displaying farm implements, household items including an extensive collection of old irons, pistols, and family Bibles. Sadly, the museum has no funding and is struggling to survive – if you ever go to Romania, we highly recommend a visit here.

    Our scenic drive took us past the idyllic Red Lake and through the craggy Bicaz Gorge. This was a peaceful drive that gave us the opportunity to ponder everything we have learned here in the countryside. As much as we might want to romanticize it, these people have hard lives struggling to survive. And yet, we can’t help envying their simple existence and their strong attachment to the land.

    We made another stop at the Praid Salt Mine. Lonely Planet (who seldom lets us down) described the ride into the underground salt mines as practically apocalyptic, but for us, the site was a disappointment. The salt mines have been turned into a playground for children, a great place if you are under the age of 12. It was interesting to see the giant cavern carved out of salt, and the kids having a ball on a salty “rock” climbing wall, equipped with rope harnesses, helmets, and carabineers. We also got a kick out of the incongruous sight of fathers working on their laptops as their kids played in this immense gymnasium !

    We said la revedere (goodbye) to our fabulous guide Andrei in Sighisoara and struck out on our own. The small town atmosphere of Sighisoara offered a perfect spot to relax and wander on our own. In addition to its medieval charms, Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula.

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    Brasov and Bucharest – Magnificent Castles and the Megalomania of Ceausescu

    BTW, I highly recommend our hotel in Sighisoara, Pension am Schneiderturm. The hotel has been lovingly restored -- it's a beautiful property with small, but comfortable rooms, a very helpful owner, and a wonderful breakfast with smoked meats, local cheeses, elderberry juice -- very special.

    While Sighisoara doesn't have a lot of sights, we really enjoyed the old town, roaming around the old German cemetery, and climbing the Clock Tower with its interesting history museum. We especially enjoyed lunch at the Rustic Restaurant -- loved the goulash with polenta & a fried egg on top.

    I am a “trainaholic” and thought it would be fun to ride a Romanian train from Sighisoara to Brasov. After a 70-minute delay I wasn’t so sure. The train ride was fine (once it arrived!); Romania acquires and refurbishes old trains from Western Europe and our train was the old style with individual compartments holding 6 passengers in each one (like you may have seen in the old movies).

    Brasov is an attractive town with an historic Old Town. We were very happy our room at Casa Albert which is perfectly located right on the pedestrian main drag. We had the gold room, and it was really lovely, spacious and gracious, with a gold mural of Brasov's famous Black Church on one of the walls!

    Our favorite restaurant in Brasov was Sergiamo, a fun place in a vaulted basement with friendly waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional clothes. Excellent Romaninan dishes and an incredible dessert -- cheese bread sith sour cream and cherry confiture (I know it doesn't sound exceptional, but it was divine!)

    Our main goal was to see the famous castles nearby. Rasnov Castle is a ruined fortress with an imposing location high on a mountain. During times of siege, the entire town would huddle in the castle – including all their farm animals that would be hustled into a large courtyard.

    Our favorite castle was Bran Castle even though it turned out to be much different than we expected. Bran is also known as Dracula’s Castle even though Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who became the inspiration for Dracula, never even resided here. This romantic castle seemed perfectly suited to Bram Stoker’s legendary tale, especially when a secret passageway was discovered (that would have allowed the blood-sucking Dracula to come and go as he pleased). And the local people saw an opportunity to open up souvenir stands selling Dracula memorabilia.

    Speaking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, here are some interesting facts, or so we were told. Bram Stoker, author of the infamous Dracula tale wrote it in the mid 1800’s and never even visited the area for any research. Also, this popular fictional book is the second most printed book, exceeded only by the Bible.

    Beyond the fake Dracula legend (which is now downplayed here), the castle was the home of Queen Mary, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a favorite of the Romanian people (they gave her this castle as an expression of their appreciation). I became enthralled with this enlightened queen who our tour guide told us “became more Romanian than the Romanians.” During communism, it was a crime to say anything good about the royal family; but now the people are rediscovering the contributions of these benevolent rulers.

    The castle actually feels like a cozy family home and reflects Queen Mary’s feminine touch. Interestingly, what my husband enjoyed the most was the “Torture Museum” with its gruesome collection of authentic (i.e. actually used!) instruments of the most hideous tortures.

    When we left Brasov for the capitol, Bucharest, we had a driver guide who took us to two stops along the way. Rhein Cellars was a low-key winery with a small but dedicated staff. This winery was originally established by the Rhein family of Germany who were encouraged to come here as part of an effort by the Austro-Hungarian empire to establish industries in the Romanian backwater. Their specialty is German-style sparkling wine (champagne!!) which was a favorite of the Romanian royal family.

    After the arrival of communism, The Rhein family returned to Germany. The communist government actually allowed Germany to “buy back” their citizens (as a moneymaking scheme – of course, no true Romanians were permitted to leave the country). The communists expanded the winery (and no doubt lowered the quality of the wine) – they also exported all of it to Russia! Today the winery is owned by a British company who is re-establishing the original methods of the Rhein family.

    We had a great tour with the hardworking winemaker who, like most Romanians, appears to do almost everything himself. Our guide had to translate for us, but no language differences could hide the winemaker’s passion for his craft. For example, he does all the riddling by hand (champagne bottles have to be turned a 1/8 turn every so many hours during the process called “riddling”). He showed us how he turned them (man this guy was fast, working 2 rows at one time) and told us he could turn 4,000 bottles in an hour! Of course, we got to taste the goods at the end of the tour – a marvelous bubbly!

    Our second stop was supposed to be Peles Castle, one of Romania’s most elaborate castles, but it was closed for restoration, so we had to settle for Pelisor, the “Little Peles.” I was pretty disappointed until I learned that the Pelisor was the home of none other than Queen Mary! This relatively small castle had Queen Mary’s distinctive homey touch and an impressive array of different architectural and furniture styles. Art Nouveau was a favorite and many elegant Mucha paintings graced the walls. Queen Mary’s favorite room is called the “Gold Room” with walls and ceiling covered with a thin layer of gold leaf.

    Bucharest was our last stop in Romania, and although it lacks the charm of other smaller places, it is rich in history. Our Christina Hotel was bright and cheerful. Very colorful -- we especially enjoyed the light show in the shower (changing LED lights in the showerhead!)

    The staff were very helpful particularly when the city tour I had arranged with Jolly Tours stood us up. I had booked this tour months ahead of time, and reconfirmed one month prior, but they asked that I reconfirm again 3 days before -- which I did, but we were having some computer problems and apparently the email never got thru.

    When I called Jolly Tours, the woman I talked to was not the least bit sympathetic. Her attitude was, you didn't email us so you don't get a tour -- very brusque. She did offer a tour later in the day, but she was so rude, I didn't want to do business with her. So at least for us, Jolly Tours were anything but jolly.

    Luckily, the staff at Christina Hotel came through for us and arranged a city tour (same itinerary) with their guide/driver. This was a private tour and the price was less! Definitely the better way to go.

    Our day tour gave us a sense of this city and the revolutionary events that took place here. We saw buildings still scarred by the bullets that flew when the Romanian people finally had enough of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was arrested and executed along with his wife, Elena. Surprisingly, the Ceausescu duo were not at all well-educated. Our guide told us that Ceausescu could read the speeches others wrote for him, but Elena could not even read or write. How do people like this get such power?

    Nicolae and Elena owned numerous villas across Romania, and since they liked art, they stole whatever caught their fancy. (Today their art collection is displayed in the National Art Museum). But the best example of their ridiculous extravagance is the Parliamentary Palace, the second largest administrative building in the world (right after the Pentagon). While their people were starving all over Romania, Nicolae and Elena decided to build what they called a “People’s Palace” at a cost of over 3 billion euros. The inside of the palace is all chandeliers and tons of marble used for both massive columns and graceful staircases. Knowing the history, in hindsight, it feels really creepy to walk thru the opulence garnered by the greed of the Ceausescu’s. The only poetic justice is that all of the many palace meeting rooms are now named for revolutionaries, who had a hand in overthrowing this uncaring despot!

    Nicolae’s dream was to address 100,000 people from the Palace’s balcony, but it never happened. He was deposed before even spending one night here. Our guide told us the first person to ever address the multitudes from the balcony ended up being Michael Jackson who made a famous flub saying, “Welcome Budapest!”

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    Oddities of Romania

    Now that our time in Romania has come to an end, we wanted to share a few more insights. Here are some strange and unusual facts about this fascinating land:

    Although Romania is second to the last in GDP of all the European Union countries, Romania has more millionaires than any other EU country! (Corruption is a huge problem, unfortunately!)

    80% of Romanians smoke. Plus the rare “No Smoking” sign that you see occasionally in a restaurant is generally and totally ignored. (No wonder we couldn’t escape the fumes!)

    Bucharest was once known as the “Paris of the East.” It has an Arc similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and a boulevard that was supposed to mimic Champs Elysees (although Ceausescu made his a bit wider and a bit longer!).

    Most of the newer Romanian houses are painted in such bright colors that they look radioactive! One of our guides told us that during communism, all the buildings were painted grey since that was the only paint color available. And all clothing was drab too, greys or black, since that was the only material for sale. So now, some of the people want to “break out” and express their freedom from the old ways; one way to do this is by painting their houses in the brightest colors they can find, announcing a new (and hopefully) bright future.

    Even the paper products are bright colors: hot pink toilet paper, orange napkins, and green paper towels!

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    Mag..so sorry to hear that Popa passed on..he had an amazingly colorful (and difficult) life. I met the son when I was there. Did he "march" his little troopers around in costume as I recorded in my pix? I thought that was the highlight.

    You have given the Forum a most detailed and complete TR on Romania. For that, anyone thinking of undertaking the adventure will be most grateful.

    stu tower

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    Magister, my interest in Romania was first piqued at Expo1986, when the World's Fair was held in Vancouver. Romania had an exhibit, and we spent some time talking to the people manning it.

    So, I've been waiting a long time to go there, but I may have to wait a little longer, until Romania catches up in the area of non-smoking hotels and restaurants. Thanks for adding that detail.

    Got a kick out of the neon tp.
    Thanks for all the great details, you've put a lot of work into this report.

    Stu thanks for posting those pics.

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    Thank you so much for this trip report. It caught my eye originally because we're planning to visit Turkey / Istanbul in the next year or two, but based on your trip report, Romania may be in the picture too.

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    sundried and mag:


    Back in the early 80's, what I wouldn't have given for any kind of tp, neon or otherwise! Same for simple food and petrol..hard to come by..and RRB's (Romanian Road Blocks) were ubiquitous. Nothing like having a kalashnikov stuck in your face. My 2005 trip was like a day in dreamland by comparison.

    Sundried:
    Sure hope Romania tightens up it's no smoking "laws" for your sake..wouldn't want you to have to miss this fascinating country. But rest assured there will always be "law" breakers puffing away.

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    Lexma90 -- I would definitely include Romania in your trip to this part of the world id you can. I adds quite a nice contrast. My favorites spots on our trip were Instanbul (now one of my top 10 cities in the world) and the countryside of Romania, particularly the Maramures.

    sundried -- Never heard of magister before either, but I like it. Thanks!

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    Yalta and Sevastopol: Shades of the Cold War Era

    Note that I have switched the order of this trip report so that I can keep all of the Istanbul info together. We actually flew from Bucharest to Istanbul than to the Crimea and back to Istanbul for a few days. But for the purposes of this report, I will cover the Crimea now and then come back to cover Istanbul in its entirety.

    Turkish Airlines flew us from Istanbul to Simferopol, home of the Crimea’s only international airport. After breezing through Passport Control in this tiny airport, we were surprised to find that our luggage had to be x-rayed a second time before we could enter the country. Even more intimidating was the sign overhead the exit: “Attention: Once you cross the white line, you are rensible for all the lows of the Ukraine.” To make sure we were “rensible,” the airport was crawling with stocky, officious, military types strutting around wearing what looked like old Russian Army uniforms. No way would we even think about breaking any “lows” in this country!

    Inside the terminal, the Simferopol International Airport was more like a crappy third world bus station. And don’t even get us started on the bathrooms – the worst, smelly squatty potties we have seen since we left the primitive outskirts of China!

    Yalta

    Our latest driver (Lenor) was waiting for us and drove us over the mountains to Yalta, a 100 mile trip give or take. We were relieved to see that Yalta was a pretty resort town sitting on the Black Sea – a welcome change from Simferopol. We had rented an apartment with BlackSea-Crimea overlooking the sea for our 3-night stay. It was good to have some room to spread out and so peaceful to fall asleep lulled by the waves breaking on the beach below us.

    The main action in Yalta is centered on the promenade that runs along the Black Sea. It was lined with an odd mix of designer boutiques (for the wealthy Russians who vacation here), amusement rides for the kids (tacky stuff like you would see at a low budget carnival), and souvenir stands filled with the lamest trinkets you can imagine (probably all made in China). What everybody enjoyed the most was watching the waves crash against the sea wall and sometimes throw a massive spray on unsuspecting tourists. Kids screamed and everybody with a camera, including my husband, tried to capture the powerful blasts of seawater.

    I had arranged a one-day tour for us to see the sights outside of Yalta with Sergey Sorokin (http://www.mt.crimea.com/crimea-private-guide.html). Sergey drove us to several palaces where Russian royals like Nicolas II, the last czar, enjoyed the seaside atmosphere. We had hoped to see the inside of Livadia Palace where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin met for the Yalta Conference, but the building was closed for renovations. We did learn that Livadia Palace was the favorite home of Nicolas II and Alexandria along with their five children. In fact when he was deposed, Nicolas II asked if they might retire there; however, fate had something else in store, and as you know, the whole family was executed by the Bolsheviks.

    Have you ever heard of “Potemkin Village?” When Catherine the Great first acquired the Crimea, she wanted to show it off to all her royal buddies (even though the area was rural and completely undeveloped). She gave her underling Potemkin just four years to turn the forests into a colony fit for a queen. The clever Potemkin built facades with happy peasants waving from these fake villages as the Queen and her entourage passed by. The phrase “Potemkin Village” is now used to describe an impressive façade designed to hide the true (undesirable) facts.

    Sevastopol

    A taxi driver took us from Yalta along the stunning coastal route to our next destination, Bakhchisaray, with several stops along the way. In the town of Sevastopol, we viewed the famous “Panorama,’ a 360 degree painting in a special circular building depicting the siege at Sevastopol during the Crimean War. It was quite remarkable the way that the artists incorporated actual items (like wooden huts) positioned in the foreground with the painting behind. It added a 3-dimensional ambiance to the painting.

    Near Sevastopol, we visited a surprising sight called Khersones -- Greek ruins dating from 420 B.C. beautifully situated along the Black Sea. Amazingly, nothing is protected or roped off here. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and roamed all around the atmospheric ruins. The town was sacked by the Khans in the late 1300’s becoming a ghost town that slowly sank beneath the sands of the beach for the next 500 years. The first excavations only began in 1827, and continue today with a lot of work yet to be done.

    Balaklava

    The Soviet Naval Museum in Balaklava was a real highlight for us. This cavernous museum was a cleverly hidden “submarine factory”, situated at the sea’s edge inside an innocuous-looking mountain. It was once a top secret Soviet submarine base where subs were built, updated, overhauled, restocked with more torpedoes, and fitted with the latest hardware. In the 1950’s during the Cold War, the Soviets built this base beneath the mountain to hide it from sight.

    Once again, we were some of only a few visitors and were able to wander about on our own. Perhaps we were being watched(?), but it was not detectable to us. This is one eerie place with lots of “tough-guy” stuff on display, like torpedoes from the era, handguns and machine guns, equipment used by dolphins to plant mines, other curious ordnance, and submarine support equipment (like electrical control panels) in long vaulted corridors. Deep inside the complex, we walked alongside the manmade canal that allowed submarines to move from the open Balaklava Harbor into the hidden facility, out of sight from prying eyes.

    The museum was a warren of endless concrete corridors with posters describing all the different classes of submarines and a history of Soviet international relations (including lots of pictures of U.S. presidents with their Soviet counterparts). Some corridors were blocked off from access; we were told there are still secret documents down here that will not be reopened for another 50 years. An amazing photo showed two smiling California models in an ad from the 50’s showing off a “Family Bomb Shelter.”

    We emerged from this dark and dank exposé of military times past with new enlightenment about those cold war days; even tho we lived thru them back in the 50’s and 60’s, this museum really helped us to understand those times better.

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    In the town of Sevastopol, we viewed the famous “Panorama,’ a 360 degree painting in a special circular building depicting the siege at Sevastopol during the Crimean War. It was quite remarkable the way that the artists incorporated actual items (like wooden huts) positioned in the foreground with the painting behind.

    If ever you go to Poland, you might want to visit a similar painting in Wroclaw and compare.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/7645997012/in/set-72157630751237938

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    You know, I said earler that my favorite places on this trip were Istanbul and the Maramures, but I would also inlcude Bakhchisaray in the Ukraine. It's a really special place with a lot to offer (as you can read below):

    Bakhchisaray – A Story of Exile and Return

    A Sad History

    Bakhchisaray was once a proud Tartar town filled with mosques and tall minarets with a long history dating back to the Khans (descendants of Genghis Khan). Actually, the Tartars are a broad mix of Moslem peoples including Central Asians, Turks, and Europeans (Greeks, Poles, even Scandinavians). On May 13, 1944, every Tartar in Bakhchisaray was deported on Stalin’s orders. The people were sent to places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking with them only what they could carry.

    Since the 1990’s when communism began to decline, the Tartars have been returning to Bakhchisaray, starting up new businesses, rebuilding destroyed mosques, and trying to preserve their local heritage. However, considerable tension exists between the returning Tartars and the Russians (mostly poor and uneducated) who moved into the Tartar homes at the time of the deportation. What a sad story, and unfortunately, one that occurred throughout much of Europe where forced migrations were common. The dislocation that results and the ongoing issues it creates are impossible for us, as Americans, to comprehend.

    Wandering the Old City

    We roamed the rugged back streets of Bakhchisaray’s old city looking for remnants of the Tartar’s former existence – a once elegant fountain, the ruins of a mosque. Then, we headed north to climb the limestone cliffs that form a dramatic backdrop to the town. Along the way, we discovered an old Russian cemetery where soldiers who died during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) are buried. The place is all but forgotten, totally overgrown and derelict – perfectly creepy, and of course, we loved it. Further on, we hiked up to the top of the cliff (no easy feat for us 60-something-year-olds) for incredible views of the town and jaw-dropping close-ups of weird limestone formations.

    Chufut-Kale

    On another day, we made an outing to Chufut-Kale, a cave city settled beginning in the 6th c. The hike up here was also far from trivial; the path was steep and littered with rubble making it slow going as we stepped gingerly among the jumbled chunks of loose stone trying to avoid wrenching an ankle. The limestone cliff is dotted with cave dwellings, and we were able to scramble all around, climbing inside the old caves where “shelves” were carved out of the interior walls and holes were dug into the floor for cooking, storing food, or collecting water. This mountain is called the “Jewish Fortress” because it was once inhabited by a group called the “Karaites” (a Jewish sect). Under the Muslim Khan rule, the Karaites could do business in the city during the day but had to return to their mountain hovels at night. What a wearing commute that must have been!

    Khan Palace

    When Catherine the Great arrived here in the Crimea, she destroyed all evidence of the Khans who had ruled before her – except for the Khan Palace that she found hopelessly romantic. The story goes that a hardhearted Khan king fell madly in love with a new concubine. She did not return his feelings, and in fact, she hated harem life so much that she died within a year. The Khan was so devastated that all he did was cry. Concerned that the crying Khan was failing to rule, the people built “The Fountain of Tears,” designed to “cry” continually so that Khan, their ruler, could get back to the business of running the region. The Russian writer Pushkin even wrote a famous poem about the story.

    The palace is quite lovely, incorporating all the necessities of sultan life: fountains, a mosque, a graveyard, and a harem. With artifacts and recreated rooms, the museum gave us an idea of what life was like back in the time of the Khans.

    The Soviet Communist Mentality

    We were fortunate to stay at Villa Meraba where the staff spoke English and the owner, Paul, went our of his way to help us with our sightseeing and also spent an evening with us explaining the history of Bakhchisaray and painting a vivid picture of the bureaucracy and bizarre non-work ethic of Soviet Communism.

    He explained that people make a big deal about “going to work,” but what they do there is of no importance. For example, Paul and his wife needed a specific document when they returned to live in Bakhchisaray. They visited the town administration to obtain the form and were told to go to a certain room. In that room, two women were filing their fingernails. The women told them they were in the wrong place, that they knew nothing about this form, and that they needed to go to another room. But Paul’s wife refused to leave and eventually one of the women turned to the other and said, “Remember that CD we got? I wonder if the form they want is on it.” After much rummaging around the women found the CD and guess what? The required form was on the CD! Everyone was ecstatic – at least until one of the women said, “Come back in a month and we will have the form ready for you.” Can you even imagine????

    Other Quirks of Life in the Crimea

    In Yalta, our guide Sergei had a small camera attached to the front windshield of his car. He explained that he was videoing his driving – in case the police tried to charge him with something he didn’t do! Police corruption in the Crimea is so common that, according to Sergei, about 20% of people video their driving everywhere they go.

    Buying groceries can be an odd experience too. In one of the larger grocery stores in Yalta, nothing was self-service, and we had to get into different queues within the same store to request different types of items. For example, we waited in one line for cheese, told the clerk what we wanted, and paid her for it. Then, we waited in another queue for bread and butter, told that clerk what we wanted, and paid her for that purchase. So inefficient! We figured it must be a throwback to the communist days when people had to stand in lines for each type of product.

    Traveling on your own in this country with no Russian skills at all (or no ability to read Cyrillic characters) would be very difficult. Even though my husband spoke Russian, he ran into a subtle difficulty in that the people of the Crimea speak both Russian and Ukrainian – using both (or either) at the same time. While similar, the Russian and the Ukrainian languages have word and nuance differences that are not shared, making the Crimea a difficult place to hear pure Russian or pure Ukrainian.

    Here is one unusual food highlight that we need to note. In the Crimea, we were introduced to a delightful Tartar dish called “Lagman” soup. While the name does not connote an exciting experience, Lagman soup was some of the heartiest, most thrilling soup we’ve had -- we ate it every day we were here! It is not an eloquently presented dish, but more like one of those “depression” dishes from the 1930’s days in America, where everything but the kitchen sink is included. The soup consists of a dense portion of meat, potatoes, carrots, and other veggies, plus fabulous handmade noodles in a delectable broth.

    Sergei told us that most Crimean men die by the age of 58, usually as a result of alcoholism. A favorite sport is “Literball” (drinking liters of vodka). People also say (cynically) that this situation is good for the pension system because most men die before age 63 when they can collect!

    Overall, the atmosphere is somewhat depressing -- so many people look defeated. When we say we are from America, many of them get this sad, wistful look. Paul believes the biggest problem is that people here don’t want a better life. He said, “The people have forgotten how to dream.”

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    Istanbul – Spirit of Sultanahmet

    When you travel as much as we do, you can size up a new place pretty quickly, and sometimes, you fall in love immediately. On our first evening in Istanbul, we walked over to the Hippodrome in the center of Sultanahmet (the Old City) to get our bearings. The Hippodrome is a large plaza-like square with a few well-positioned historic monuments and artifacts in-and-about the open spaces.

    The square was originally used for chariot races in the 4th c. when the city was known as Constantinople -- today it offers a perfect viewing spot for some of Istanbul’s top wonders. Flanking the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque looked like a fairytale castle, fully illuminated with the delicate spires of its six minarets piercing the darkness above us. Flocks of seagulls soared around the minarets, dazzling-white against the night sky. And, as we stood there, the warbling and haunting Call to Prayer resounded throughout the square. It seemed as if the muezzin (singer) at the Blue Mosque had a call and response thing going with a mosque on the other side of the Hippodrome – the two voices answered each other back and forth, filling our ears with their eerie wailing. It was pure magic.

    To back up for a moment, we flew 1-½ hrs. on Turkish Airways from Bucharest to Istanbul. This had been our first experience on Turkish Airways (voted the best European airline). Since our flight was an hour late, we can’t say we were overly-wowed by Turkish Air (although we later came to like this airline very much), but we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a light lunch enroute -- the crew really had to hustle to feed the whole plane on such a short flight. The arrival process once on the ground was lengthy – first we had to buy a Turkish sticker visa for $20 (literally a sticker placed in the passport), then wait in a long line at Passport Control, and finally hunt down our bags at baggage claim.

    We stayed at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel, and it was a gem. Our room was spacious and spotlessly clean with a big bathroom and a comfy bed. But the best thing about this hotel was the friendly staff. They couldn’t do enough for us, always asking, “What can we do for you today?” Ersin, our favorite front desk guy, always asked us where we were headed on any particular day. Based on our response, he would then teach us a few appropriate Turkish words/phrases, ensuring we were prepared for the day. Everyone at the hotel seemed genuinely interested in making sure we were having a good time. This was one of those rare hotel experiences where you feel as if you are staying with friends.

    Topkapi Palace

    Our hotel was ideally located just a short walk from all the top sights. We had both been intrigued by the 1964 movie “Topkapi,” a caper about the theft of the famous jeweled dagger held in the Topkapi Museum, so, it seemed like a good starting point.

    We started by touring the Harem where, to our surprise, we discovered that the Sultan’s Mother was the one in charge of “the girls.” This powerful woman ran the harem with an iron fist. The harem girls were not sex toys of the Sultan but slaves to the higher ranking women (the Sultan’s Mother and the Sultan’s four wives). Only a few of the harem girls who were designated as “favorites” were permitted to sleep with the Sultan -- and these were chosen by his mother and his wives!

    Interestingly, this society had no rule of primogeniture (where the firstborn son succeeds his father and inherits everything), so the Sultan could pick any one of his sons as his successor. This meant that the harem was a hot spot of intrigue. Every wife wanted her son to become Sultan, thus ensuring her position as powerful head of the harem. The Sultan's mom also owned lots of property and her own personal treasury making her, in some cases, more powerful than the Sultan himself!!

    It was common practice for a new Sultan to murder all of his brothers to eliminate succession battles. Later on, the brothers were put under house arrest, called “the cage.” This system was actually worse because if the Sultan died without an heir, his know-nothing, “spent-my-whole-life-in-a-cage” brother became the next Sultan. Historians credit this practice as the primary reason for the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

    The true highlight of Topkapi was the Treasury building where I went crazy at the sight and size of the emeralds (my favorite gemstone). Emeralds, emeralds, everywhere – encrusted in the handle of the famous Topkapi Dagger and also just piled in bowls behind glass cases. The opulent lifestyle of these Sultans was over the top.

    A bit of necessary history before we go any further. In 324 AD, Constantine conquered the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and immodestly renamed it Constantinople, transforming the city into the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city and claimed it for the Ottomans. He built Topkapi as a fitting palace for (as he described himself) “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.”

    The Blue Mosque

    The Blue Mosque is only open at certain hours for non-Muslim visitors like us, but we eventually got in. The interior is impressive with lots of blue and white tile, stunning stained glass, and a light airiness resulting from 260 windows. It was also fascinating to watch the male worshippers in kneeling position, touching their foreheads to the floor.

    Aya Sofia

    Aya Sofia was our favorite of the top three sites. This site goes under several differently spelled names, depending on which tour guide you have in front of you (Hagia Sophia, Hogia Sofia, Agia Sophia, etc). We waited in a long line to enter, but once inside, the crowds seemed to disappear. The sheer size of this worship space and the giant dome overhead are simply overwhelming.

    When you see it, you understand why Aya Sofia is considered one of the greatest buildings in the world. Aya Sofia is also special because she was once one of the most important churches in the Christian World, and even though the church was converted to a mosque, both Christian and Muslim elements remain. Christian seraphim (angels) overlook wall-hangings covered with Arabic writings. And the lacy platform where the Sultans once worshipped sits below mosaics of Jesus and Mary. The whole effect was very peaceful and ecumenical.

    Grand Bazaar and the Chora Church

    The city of Istanbul has so much to offer, and we only scratched the surface. Other places of note include the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling maze of 400 shops. To be honest, we were disappointed in this shopping extravaganza. Too many aggressive sales people and everything was so overpriced; you really have to haggle (and you still probably get ripped off). We much preferred the shops near the Blue Mosque where the fixed prices were actually lower (and no haggling required).

    Although you have to admire some of the sales spiels these guys some up with. One vendor invited my husband into his jewelry shop saying, “Come in and buy something for your angel!” (as he pointed to me). Another guy wanted to sell me a rug, but I said, “No thank you, no rug for me.” To which the vendor quickly responded (pointing at my husband), “Why not? He’s the one paying for it!” We had to laugh at their tenacity and humor.

    We also did a half-day tour with Backpackers Travels (www.backpackerstravel.net) to see the old city walls and the Chora Church. First we visited a well-preserved portion of the city wall dating back to the time of Constantinople. In the courtyard, actual cannonballs from the siege of Constantinople marked the Roman road that once extended from Aya Sofia all the way to Rome!

    The Chora Church was another relic of Constantinople, but it was turned into a mosque and its magnificent mosaics were plastered over. (A mosque may not display pictures of any living things.) However, the Ottomans must have recognized their value because they later removed the plaster, cleaned up the mosaics, and plastered them again. As a result, the mosaics are in excellent condition.

    The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, so most of the mosaics tell the story of her life – in fact, the church is often referred to as “the container of the uncontainable,” referring to Mary. The most remarkable mosaic showed Mary’s parents hugging one another in a rare scene of physical contact. The portrayal is natural and loving – and very human.

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    I've read most of your report and love it! Love the details you provide. Knowing the historical background is so important! I especially love your description of making the romanian eggs & the cabbages. My grandparents were from Poland and the Ukraine, so we grew up eating lots of saurkraut & cabbage, & hearing about the Ukranian painted eggs.

    Will try to finish your report soon. You are a great writer!

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    Kwoo -- I'm so glad you liked the descriptions of the painted eggs and the cabbages. That is the kind of stuff we love to do when we travel. Thanks so much for your comments!

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    Istanbul – the Energetic New District

    We returned to Istanbul after our time in the Crimea, flying from the city of Simferopol to Istanbul on Turkish Airways. After flying with them several times now, we like Turkish Airways a lot – comfortable seating, friendly service, and decent food even on the shortest flights. And on this flight, my husband realized that they also give you free Turkish wine!

    For our return visit to this city, we are staying north of the Golden Horn (one of the waterways that make up Istanbul) in what is known as the “New District.” One of the advantages of staying over here is the amazing views of the Horn and the Old City across the water. Our hotel is called Galata la Bella, and it is bella indeed. The bed is super comfortable and the shower is probably the best we have ever found in a European hotel; it had a 10-inch diameter overhead waterfall-style showerhead and a powerful oversized handheld with adjustable spray formats. Everyone treats us nicely here too, although nothing can compare with our experience at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel. But, in general, we must note that the Turks are masters when it comes to customer service. Hospitality seems to be their mantra!!

    Galata Tower

    A short walk up a steep hill took us to the Galata Tower. Built originally in 1348 (although rebuilt many times), this stone tower with a conical top is one of Istanbul’s most distinctive landmarks. We rode the elevator up to the top (about 170 ft.) for incredible views in all directions. For the first time, we could truly appreciate Istanbul’s exceptional strategic position, practically surrounded by water with the Marmara Sea to the south, the Bosporus on the east providing a connection between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and the Golden Horn cutting a narrow swath through the middle of the city. It is easy to see why this remarkable piece of land was so attractive to every invader who ever laid eyes on it.

    The biggest shopping street in Istanbul is the famous pedestrian walkway known as “Istiklal Street.” This place is a people magnet for shopping, people-watching, eating, or just snacking on Turkish Delight; it is a zoo at all hours of the day and night, and elbow bumping with strangers is continuous. You need to be aware of the silent red trolley that runs up and down the center of the street - be prepared to dodge it when it unexpectedly sneaks up behind you. But these issues aside, we had a great time soaking in the vibrant bustling atmosphere and doing some shopping of our own.

    No trip to Istanbul is complete without a cruise on the Bosporus. Some of these cruises last all day, but we opted for the short 1-½ hr. version with Turyol, and it was perfect for us. The Bosporus is the main highway of Istanbul, and it was interesting to be a part of that, cruising along with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. We passed former Sultan’s palaces and plenty of millionaire’s digs. Homes along the Bosporus are prized real estate and some of the areas looked like they could have been estates along the Riviera in France. How cool would it be to live in what looks like a resort area with all the delights of Istanbul just a ferry ride away?

    Day Trip to Gallipoli

    A highlight of our time in Istanbul was the day we spent in the remote village of Gallipoli. We first learned about the WWI battle of Gallipoli when we happened to be in Sydney, Australia on ANZAC day (back in 2005), a day similar to our Veteran’s Day honoring those who served at Gallipoli as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

    This was a long day with a 6:30 a.m. pick-up at our hotel. The driver did not speak English, and it was a bit disconcerting to be whisked away like that in the dark of the morning -- especially when our driver didn’t pick up anyone else. I had booked this trip with a recommended company called “Backpackers Travels”, and my understanding was that the driver would take us to a central bus station where we would hop on a public bus. As the city of Istanbul receded into the distance, it became clear that we were somehow getting a private 4-hour ride to Gallipoli. I had a fleeting thought that we were being kidnapped and would be sold into white slavery, but then I figured, “Who would want two old people like us?”

    Anyway, it all worked out (I will give Backpackers Travels some feedback), and our day on the battlefields was educational and very moving. The battle of Gallipoli is credited with creating three modern nations: Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand. Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made a name for himself here, and the battle was a defining moment leading both Australia and New Zealand to develop as independent nations, eventually leaving the British Empire. The battle, which raged from April to December of 1915, was a failed attempt by the British and the French to take the peninsula and open up a supply route to the Mediterranean Sea for Russia. The fighting resulted in horrific losses: 250,000 Turkish soldiers and another 250,000 from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and France.

    Our Turkish guide Onur shared lots of stories from actual soldier’s diaries like the fact that the Turks and the ANZACs traded food and cigarettes and even played soccer together during the ceasefires. And that while the ANZACs were dying at ANZAC cove, the Brits were a short distance away at Sulva Bay swimming in the ocean! Even Onur, who of course is a Turk, said that he felt most sorry for the ANZACs, saying they had no idea what they were getting into.

    We saw several small cemeteries with statues and memorials and graves of so many young Aussies and Kiwis. The most poignant statue was one of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded ANZAC in his arms. This was not Turkish propaganda – the statue was commissioned by an Australian Prime Minister to commemorate an actual event. The whole Gallipoli Memorial, which consists of 31 cemeteries, is beautifully maintained by the Turkish government – you can actually feel the respect that the Turks have for their former enemies. A large monument displays the words Ataturk wrote to the mothers of the dead ANZACs: “you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

    Special Memories of Istanbul

    Istanbul is truly a world class city and a new favorite on our list of top cities in the world. This is a city where it just feels good being here. To be honest, we were somewhat uncertain about visiting a Muslim country these days, especially in this part of the world; but we never felt the tiniest bit uneasy here. And the Turkish people could not have been friendlier. Ataturk is still revered, and his strong belief in separation of church and state is obvious in this secular society where most women dress in western clothes (some with pretty scarves over their heads). We only saw one burka during our whole visit, but we did see lots of women wearing dark trench coats and head scarves – apparently this is an acceptable look for a pious Muslim woman in Turkey. More than anything, the Turks seem to be happy people who looking forward to a bright future – and why not with the second-fastest growing economy in the world (right behind China)?

    Our best memories are of the people we met. The only aggravating ones were the touts constantly trying to get us into their brother’s or cousin’s shops to buy a carpet. Of course, their approach is a charming one, asking where we are from, drawing us into conversation to lure us into their family’s shop. One day, my husband had enough. When the umpteenth salesman approached him asking, “Where are you from?” My husband answered in frustration, “I don’t care if your brother, your sister, or even your grandmother has a carpet shop, I don’t want a carpet!” The guy was taken aback momentarily, but answered, “But I have my own carpet shop!” All three of us cracked up! The guy was still laughing as he walked away saying, “Have a good day, my friend.”

    Some of our favorite conversations were with Ersin, the day manager at Sultan’s Royal. Ersin really opened up to us telling us all about his life. He even started calling my husbband his “American Dad.” Poor Ersin is at a crossroads in his young life with his girlfriend pressuring him to get married while he also has to decide whether to do his mandatory military service now or finish at the university (which will shorten his time in the military). By the way, Ersin has good reason to be worried about this military service – the concern is not Syria as we might think, but a bloody civil uprising in the east with the Kurds that has been going on for 10 years. But speaking of Ersin’s girlfriend, her parents only allow her to see him during daylight hours – he has to have her home by 7:00 p.m. and he can’t even visit in her home after that. We asked Ersin how he felt about this, and he said she was a good girl like his sisters (who had the same restrictions). Ersin said, “But once we are married, she will be mine!”

    One night, we ate dinner at the Karina Fish Restaurant on our hotel’s street where we met the restaurant owner whose name is Efes. Coincidentally, my husband's beer of choice in Istanbul (and now one of his all-time favorites) is called “Efes.” Plus my husband's initials are “F.S.” (All of these are pronounced the same.) Well, he and this restaurant owner got into quite a discussion about all this, and from that point on, every time we walked by the restaurant (day or night), the owner would call out, “F.S.!” To which Frank would respond, “Efes!” And we would stop for a chat. It was great – we really felt as if this was “our street.”

    We could go on and on with these stories. The day we visited the Blue Mosque, we saw two boys about 6-years-old all decked out in white outfits decorated with white feathers, looking like Sultan princes. We were admiring their astounding outfits, taking photos, etc. when a man came up and said to us, “They go to hospital tonight.” Now this was disturbing news – apparently, they were decked out for their circumcision day. Ouch! We thanked the man for telling us – but then he asked us to come see his carpet shop (!)

    We haven’t talked at all about the food in Turkey, but it is fabulous. Much like in France, the Turks take their food seriously. Some of our favorites are: apple tea, Turkish tea (very dark and flavorful), Turkish Delight (chewy candy that is surprisingly tasty), and anything made with pomegranates (so cheap, fresh & plentiful here) – the freshly squeezed juice is unbelievable! Of course, the kebaps (kebabs), the meatballs called “kofte” (not like our meatballs, but more like sausage), and fresh vegetables (like eggplant) are great, and the breads and pastries are excellent. We will have to come back just to explore more of the goodies!

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    This brings me to the end of my Trip Report. I have really enjoyed sharing this trip with you and thank you all for your interest and your comments.

    Just want to add a list of books about this area for anyone who might be interested. I always like to read novels and memoirs about places we are going to visit. Here are some books that I enjoyed:

    "Birds Without Wings" by Louis De Bernieres -- my favorite, beautifully written, truly lyrical story about a small Turkish village

    "The Sultan's Seal" by Jenny White
    "The Abyssinian Proof" by Jenny White -- I love mysteries and this series set in Istanbul is a lot of fun and educational too

    "Never Mind the Balkans, Here's Romania" by Mike Ormsby -- very interesting view of life in Romania

    "One for Sorrow" by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer -- another Turkish mystery series set during the time of the Sultans

    "The Silence of Trees" by Valya Dudycz Lupescu -- touching (if somewhat predictable) novel about the Ukraine

    "The Pig's Slaughter" by Florin Grancea -- insightful story about the revolution in Romania

    "Sliding on the Snow Stone" by Andy Szpuk -- true story of surviving Stalin and the Nazis in the Ukraine

    "Tales from the Expat Harem" by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen -- collection of stories from expat women who lived (or continue to live) in Turkey

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    Thanks so much, Magster.
    I enjoyed this immensely, and you have really whetted my appetite to visit these countries.
    I will look for some of those books, probably won't manage them all though.

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    We just finished updating our blog. The text is pretty much the same as what I have posted here, but the blog also includes pictures. Note if you want to see the pictures enlarged, click on a picture (you will need to do this in each blog update).

    Here is the link:

    http://supsictravelsblacksea.blogspot.com

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    Just finished reading your report about the Ukraine, which is fascinating. You are an excellent writer! Do you think Crimea is the only region where it would be necessary for a tourist/traveler to speak Russian or Ukrainian? I wonder if there is some English spoken in Kiev? I would love to visit Ukraine, but we don't speak Russian or Ukrainian. My mother speaks Ukrainian but she is almost 83 & doesn't like to travel.

    What made you decide to visit Ukraine and Romania? Those countries are certainly off the beaten path.
    Thanks for your history lessons!

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    Hi Kwoo -- It would not be impossible to travel to the Crimea without speaking Russian or Ukranian, but I would be sure to stay in hotel where they spoke English and arrange for an English-speaking guide. I don't know about English in Kiev although I believe they speak Ukranian, not Russian. (The Crimea is unique in that they were part of Russia at one time and many of the people would prefer to be Russian.)

    Good question about how we chose Romania and the Crimea. I was actually leaning towards an all Turkey trip, but my husband was very interested in going somewhere he could speak Russian which led us to the Ukraine. We had also been looking at a Black Sea cruise, and the cruise ships stop in both countries. Plus, we are so into history and really enjoyed other formerly Communist countries that we visited. Finally, we were looking at either Bulgaria or Romania for something different, and the Maramures area really appealed to us to see the last vestiges of peasant culture in Europe.

    Since we were traveling at the tail end of the tourist season, we saw very few tourists, especially western tourists. I remember an Israeli couple and a Swiss couple in Romania, but that's about it. However, we did meet two Americans (not travelling together) in the Crimea which was quite surprising. The young woman we met was there as part of a Christian ministry.

    I really hope you give this part of the world a try; I don't think you will be disappointed.

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    I'm just finding this wonderful report. Thanks so much for all the detail on this relatively unknown area which I have long wanted to travel to. I hope I can convince my husband.

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    Just finished reading your report. Thanks for all of the information. You have eased our concerns of traveling to Turkey in May. We are two couples in our early 60's and we also enjoy independent travel. We only have nine nights for our trip, so we have to plan carefully. We will use this report to help us with our planning. Thanks!

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    Magster, truly this is one of the best trip reports I have ever read on Fodors and I've read a lot over the years!! I, too have been to Romania and Turkey and enjoyed going down memory lane with you. The poverty in Romania is still with me along with the beauty of the Carpathians. Your frustration with the carpet touts in Istanbul made me grin. Shortly after our arrival I turned to my friend and said, "Okay, we are from Canada and we already bought a rug." That stopped them cold as the touts had no stories of visits or relatives/friends in Canada.

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    Just found this great TR. Really enjoyed reading about Romania and Ukraine, which I visited back in 2006 (http://wilhelmswords.com/eur2006/index.html ) You got to some places I didn't, and reminded me I need to go back.

    I don't speak either Russian or Ukrainian, and I managed in Crimea without a guide. However, I can transliterate from the Cyrillic alphabet - I am very bad at languages but I found the alphabet easy to learn. Besides the Crimea I would highly recommend Lviv, which I loved.

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    thursdaysd -- Thanks so much for the link -- what a fascinating trip! Bulgaria looks better than ever to me now --especially Veliko Tarnovo and the opportunity to drink Bulgarian wine. Lake Ohrid looks lovely and Subotica also caught my eye, a place I had never heard of before -- just one more place to add to my long travel wish list.

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    Magster - glad you enjoyed the blog. If you have any interest at all in Art Nouveau I urge you not just to visit Subotica, but to cross the nearby border to southern Hungary for Pecs and Szeged and maybe Kecskemet.

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    "Overall, the atmosphere is somewhat depressing -- so many people look defeated. When we say we are from America, many of them get this sad, wistful look. Paul believes the biggest problem is that people here don’t want a better life. He said, “The people have forgotten how to dream.” They wistfully dream about getting into 16 trillions of debt to China. And then they are sad that they can't find the way.

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