Friday, October 29, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 3: Romania

I woke up from my first night in Brasov, Romania feeling extremely weak and with a strange dizziness in my head. It was almost like I had a terrible hangover and just gotten back from the blood donors at the same time! At first I thought it might have been because I hadn’t fully recovered from the previous nights’ arduous train journey from Belgrade. However, I looked in the mirror that morning and noticed two strange mosquito-bite sized marks on my neck, my eyes were both very red, and most strangely of all - my two frontal canine teeth seemed to have expanded downwards by a millimeter. As the day wore on, other eerie symptoms began to arise. I found myself become increasingly lethargic from the sunlight - quite bizarre for someone who has lived most of his life in the Middle East! I also found myself shying away from visiting any of Romania’s many distinctive medieval cathedrals for some strange reason, preferring to linger around the cemeteries instead and another strange occurrence happened at the restaurant that night. Although I normally love my meat well done, I had this sudden craving for an ultra-rare steak that night, had red wine as opposed to my usual white and couldn’t go anywhere near the complimentary garlic bread – usually one of my favorite appetizers.

I went back to the hotel that night feeling increasingly restless. For some reason I wanted to go back to that restaurant and get another blood-filled rare steak. I couldn’t sleep that night and as the craving got stronger, I noticed my canine teeth had grown into two full sized wolf-like fangs dangling parallel to each other like a pair of icicle spikes. I immediately got up, turned the light on and went to the mirror and to my horror I saw….. no reflection! It was at this point that I decided to seek medical help. I raced out of my room and downstairs to the lobby where I saw the receptionist but just as I opened my mouth ask for directions to the hospital, she screamed… “Ahhhhh….. DRACULA!!!!!” And at that moment, she picked up a wooden stake she had stored under the reception desk and drove it painfully, straight into my heart!

The next thing I knew there was a flash of white light, I heard a train whistle and then heard a voice say, “excuse me sir… wake up…. this is Brasov”…. I opened my eyes and realized I was still on the train and we had just reached Brasov, Transylvania’s transportation hub and one of Romania’s most visited cities. It had all just been a bad dream on the night train over from Belgrade and had ironically come to its climax just as we’d choo-choo-ed to my preferred stop. With its’ plethora of sites, compact medieval heart, abundant baroque architecture, cobblestone alleyways and excellent lookout points from the surrounding Carpathian Mountains – Brasov is an excellent entry point for travellers in Romania. However, the city’s beauty is unfortunately overshadowed by the region’s main draw, the nearby Bran Castle. The well preserved fairytale-structured fortified chateau rose to touristic prominence as it bore an uncanny resemblance to the lair of the vampire guru in Brahm Strokes’ 1892 landmark novel Dracula.

Oddly enough, the historical connection between Bran Castle and vampires is a bit of a historical innacuracy. The real son of Count Dracul, Vlad Tepes (aka, “Draculea” due to the patriarchal-naming system that was in place at the time) – never actually permanently bore residence in Bran for any considerable period of time. In fact Tepes was the voivode of Transylvania’s then sovereign neighboring kingdom Wallachia. He may have spent some time in the castle, as is acknowledged inside the castle’s museum as he fended off the region from countless Ottoman attacks; however, the most noteworthy resident celebrated by the castle’s museum is in fact Queen Mary of Edinburgh. No need to mention that to the hordes of stall and shopkeepers outside the castle’s gates selling pretty much every kind of Dracula merchandise you can possibly imagine. I made due with a T-shirt and Dracula beer mug before heading off to nearby Râşnov and its equally impressive hilltop castle.

Notorious Vlad Țepeș ruled Wallachia in the 15th century and got his nickname “Vlad the Impaler” from his rather peculiar torture methods of captured soldiers during his kingdoms’ continuous strife with the Ottoman Empire in which his victims were pierced with metal-rod stakes intricately placed through vertically through their bodies leaving all vital organs unharmed. This meant victims suffered days of excruciating pain before eventually bleeding to death. Despite this cruelty, Tepes was not the only one who did this during his time and he is now celebrated as something of a hero throughout Romania due to the heroic resistance he put up against the Ottoman invaders. A visit to Tepes’ historic birthplace Sighişoara is an absolute must. The beautifully preserved medieval citadel center is certainly a picturesque place and one of Romania’s highlights.

The last stop on my Eastern European adventure was Romania’s capital city Bucharest. Although crowded, crazy and chaotic and not as quaint as its Hungarian counterpart Budapest – Bucharest still has its own unique charm. The city’s most monumental structure is the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the world’s most heaviest building and largest of its kind. Although locals don’t always speak favorably of it due to it being a leftover relic of Romania’s former communist repressor Nicolae Ceauşescu, it is most certainly an essential most tourists itineraries. Bucharest is also home to many of Romania’s finest museum – amongst these being the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which pays homage to Romania’s ample Gypsy culture. Like Belgrade, perhaps Bucharest’s finest quality however is its vibrant nightlife which I was able to sample in the central Lipscani district thanks to its proximity to the nearby university before heading back to Budapest to catch my flight back to Qatar.

To view the photos, check out:
Part 1:

Part 2:

Monday, October 25, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 2: Serbia

Have you ever taken what you thought would be a slight detour which turned out to be a lot longer than you thought it would be but pleasantly surprised you took it in the end? Well this was what happened to me when I rendezvoused for the night in Belgrade, Serbia on my way from Hungary onto my final destination, Romania. My initial plan was to take catch a Bucharest-bound train from Budapest and get off in Brasov, Romania. Looking at the map, I realized that Belgrade was a quick seven-hour train-ride away from Budapest and that technically I wouldn't be gaining that much more distance onto Brasov than going directly from Budapest. This logic turned out to be flawed however, as while Serbia is well connected to Hungary via public transport; Romania is an entirely different prospect. There were virtually no buses and the train schedule erratic. I wound up having to take a nightly train from Belgrade to Brasov, via connections at Timisoara and Arad - a grueling 15 hour overnight journey, with train stopovers included. However, regret this logistic miscalculation I most certainly did not as my two-day detour in Serbia's formerly war-torn capital turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

With only one night, there was not much time to spare and after having found a place to stay and taking a short rest, set off to see the city. One nice thing about Belgrade is that its center is very compact. The train station is just a short walk up-a-hill away from the city center and most of the sites are located between Kalemegdan Citadel and the Saint Sava Cathedral, a pleasant 1.5 kilometer walk. It was only natural to stay somewhere between the two, so I checked into the Hotel Kasina, overlooking a square opposite the more illustrious Hotel Moscow. Another thing I really liked about Belgrade was that, as opposed to Budapest, it was almost devoid of tourists, especially during this time of the year (September). Despite this, things are well marked in English and tourist information booths plentiful, yet with hardly any tourists it seems as though they have all been put in place especially for me. I also found myself having most of the tourist attractions to myself. A third thing I really enjoyed about the city was my encounters with the locals. While Serbians may get a bad rap, I found those I talked to be very friendly and approachable. Keeping in mind, I was selective about who I did talk to, not trying to stike up a conversation with any of the ultra-soccer fans at the Partizan vs Rad soccer match. I also found that, despite the US-led NATO bombings on the city a good decade before, Serbians were equally as interested in me as I was in them - wondering what an American was doing in their city.

The most natural place to start off in Belgrade was the Saint Sava Cathedral, which while still not entirely complete (mostly notable in the interior) is still an impressive structure and reminiscent of Hagia Sophia. It is in fact the largest Orthodox Church in the world by volume. Serbia is notorious for its soccer hooligans so I was sure to try and catch a game while I was there. I wasn't able to catch the historic Partizan v Red Star derby but I did manage to see FK Partizan hammer local rivals Rad 3-0 with the notorious Grobari Partizan-ultras in full voice. The next day I checked out both the Nikolai Tesla Museum (one of the most overlooked scientists of his time) and spent the rest of the day at the Kalemegdan Citadel complex, where most locals go to wander as well. Perhaps the thing about Belgrade that makes it special however is not so much its monuments or tourist attractions but its nightlife. Belgrade promotes itself as the new party capital of Europe and the locals certainly take to the streets when the sun goes down. The sports mad Serbs were not too happy that night when their basketball team lost to Turkey in the World Basketball Championship semi-finals though.

I guess the downfall to Belgrade would be the accommodation situation is not the greatest. While I had no trouble finding a room, what you get for what you pay is a firm reminder that you are now entering Eastern European standards. However, the complimentary breakfast at the Kasina was massive and the view from my room's top floor porch made it hard to complain. Food was probably another downer, while portions were never meager; the quality was usually of the fast food type. Despite these minor blemishes, I thoroughly enjoyed my deviation into the ex-Yugoslavian capital city and found myself leaving wanting more. I think a return trip to see the 'greater-Serbia' will definitely be in the cards in the near future.

To see the full photo-collection from the trip, check my main site here;

Thursday, October 21, 2010

East Europe Tour 2010 - Part 1: Hungary

These past couple of years, Eid vacation (the end of Ramadan) has fallen towards the beginning of the fall semester, making it the perfect time to visit Europe. The weather is still warm and the sun still up but both the summer crowds and inflated high season summer prices are starting to go down. I had made recent trips to Greece, Turkey, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in the past couple of years so with Eid 2010 falling in September; I decided to return to Eastern Europe. For this trip I selected Hungary and Romania as my choice with a rendezvous in Serbia’s capital city, Belgrade along the way.
The first stop was Hungary’s majestic capital city, Budapest. With no direct flights from Qatar to any of these places at the time of writing, the easiest and cheapest way to get there was via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Fortunately, thanks to the Istanbul Airport’s duty free shops’ generous portions of free Turkish delight samples and very affordable and relaxing water massage machine, the 5 hour both-ways transit was nowhere near as vexing as at first envisioned. There wasn’t any free internet or enough time to go into the city but if you like Turkish Delights as I do - then Istanbul Airport is not that bad a place to be stuck in for a couple of hours.Located on the Danube River, Budapest is without a doubt one of the world’s finest cities. The river literally splits the city into two districts in which the city derives its name from with ‘Buda’ located on the west bank and ‘Pest’ on the east. Historic monuments and buildings line up along both sides of the river. Perhaps the finest of these is the almost surreal neo-gothic parliament building which dominates the city’s skyline. Across the river lies the Var – a walled plateau which contains the Buda Palace, the Hungary National Gallery and a plethora of various other museums and monuments.One could spend days, if not weeks wandering around Budapest’s time-honored streets as I did but there are also many interesting side trips to be made. One part of Hungary’s epic history that is not prevalent in its capital city’s architecture is the 40 years that Hungary spent under communist rule. This is because most of the monuments forcefully erected during this period can all be found in one place, at the Statue Park. The park is filled with statues and monuments of communist propaganda and is well worth the trip to its rather remote suburban location. On my final day in Hungary, I took the train northwest to the riverside towns of Eszertgorm and Szentendre. The main attraction in Eszertgorm is the stunning Bascilla which dominates its skyline. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Danube, the Eszertgorm Basicilla, Hungary’s largest cathedral is certainly a stunning site. I even walked up to the cupola and the walk around its exterior and while it’s certainly not for agoraphobics, the views from the top are breathtaking!

The only downfall to Budapest, apart from the constant rain, is that the thriving nightlife that I’d later find in some of Hungary’s neighboring capital cities of Bucharest and Belgrade is a little harder to find. My hotel, the Kalvin House, was conveniently located right in the heart of the Pest side of the city, just a couple of blocks away from the Szabadsag Bridge and the Vaci Utca pedestrian street. While the latter was quite vibrant during the day, things seemed to close down pretty early at night. There’s still plenty to do after dark in Hungary, it’s just most of it seems to cater more for tourists. I still did however find my fair share of entertainment. I managed to get my football fix by attending the Hungary vs. Moldova European qualifier. It actually turned out to be quite an experience! I also attended a Hungarian music & dance show put on by the Danube Folk Ensemble at the Danube Patola Theatre.
To see more photos from the trip, check these links:
Set 1:
Set 2: