Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Rocky Road Home or, Camaraderie in the Queue

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            There is a Japanese saying that if the going is easy, the coming home is usually scary. I should have paid more attention.

            Actually, the day began quite well. Though the airport was packed, our assigned guide found us our gate and waved us on our way. Security was a breeze—even the shoes stayed on.  The plane arrived as it was supposed to arrive, and we boarded without a care in the world.

            I believe that the malicious Fates rub their withered old hands when they see such foolish confidence in mortals. A confidence, sadly,  that began to ebb as the plane sat motionless on the tarmac for half and hour… three quarters of an hour…

 “We’re going to miss our connection,” I  hissed to Mike, who said that we still had lots of time and not to worry. Not worry with France’s Air Controller’s strike just over? “What good would it do?” Asked my logical spouse .

            Oh, yes, those Fates were having a fine old time. Our plane landed in Charles de Gaulle airport just as our connection to Atlanta was departing. And… where could we get another flight?

            No one knew. Everyone pointed. Eventually, however, we arrived  at a section called ‘Connecting Flights” where queues of anxious, bewildered passengers were milling about, pointing, gesticulating and muttering. Spotting a  sign that told us that first, business, and preferred economy were welcome, we got in line. But… “The computers are down,” the youngish man ahead of us explained, then shrugged. “I have been waiting for an hour, already.”

             He was a German businessman bound for Plainville, Indiana. “Nothing has moved during the time I’ve been here, and there is only one agent at the desk.”

            A family of four had come to stand behind us. “You think that is bad,”  huffed the Dad. “We left Switzerland this morning and have been in the air ten hours! First, the plane ran low on fuel, so it had to go to Orley to refuel. Then back to Charles de Gaulle… and then the plane went to the wrong gate! Of course we missed our flight…”

            They were on their way to Kona, Hawaii. The children with them looked tired and anxious.

            In front of the German businessman was a couple from Toronto. “We are on our honeymoon,” the woman confided in me.” We had such lovely reservations in Athens…” I consoled her that Paris wasn’t too bad a place to start a honeymoon. “Maybe so, something to talk about later,” she sighed.

            Someone in another queue was shouting and cursing. We all looked at each other and shrugged. What good did that do? We began share experiences and to take bets on when the first person in our queue would move on. I offered to go and get drinks for anyone, handed out hand wipes and Tylenol. Suddenly, a stream of enraged Arabic filled the air, and an elderly lady in a wheelchair crashed the line.

            Someone in our line sprinted forward to act as an interpreter. “Apparently,” he informed us when he returned, “she had a direct flight to  Djibouti… and missed it. There is only one direct flight to Djibouti a week, but she doesn’t understand.”

            We commiserated. Bad enough to be stuck in line, I said, but to be old, alone, wheelchair bound… and a family from Bulgaria, bound for home after a stay in Canada, agreed. “Quelle  dommage,” commented the family matriarch. “Such a shame.”

            Slowly, painfully, our line thinned. The honeymoon couple got their flight and a hotel to stay for the night, and we all applauded and sent them on their way with shouts of “Good luck!” and “Happy life!” The German businessman got a night flight but would have to stay in the airport in Toronto.  Finally, it was our turn! When we got to the desk, I told the young woman there that she must be having an awful day. She rolled her eyes and smiled.

            After some time we had  a flight set for the next morning and were on a bus to the Magic Circus hotel which was brightly decorated with life sized  Disney characters. I began to giggle. “Okay,” Mike yawned, “plain flying from now on.”

            And the Fates chuckled most unpleasantly.

            Next morning, back at Charles de Gaulle, our plane was once again late taking off. But, I reasoned, we will be in the US, and Atlanta isn’t far from North Carolina. Still, the old nervous system was cranking on high when we landed with forty minutes to go through  immigration, get our baggage, clear customs, and race through security. Amazingly, it went quickly—and kind women ahead of us in the security line shouted, “These folks are trying to make their plane! Let them through!”

            We rushed through the line, arrived in time to board—and didn’t. There was something wrong with the plane! We were  falling asleep on our feet by the time we finally were allowed to board.

 Home free! I thought. Fifty Five minutes to home!      And the Fates—but you have heard all that before.

            The plane sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half while a thunderstorm cleared. When we were at last airborne,  I settled down with a book and continued to read until I realized that we had been circling RDU for quite a while. What now?  “Well, folks, there’s a tornado warning down there,” announced the pilot’s incongruously cheerful voice. “We’re going to see if we can make it down, but right now it looks pretty rough, so sit tight.”

            Would we have to land somewhere else? How long could we circle? I looked at my spouse who was sleeping peacefully and then out the widow. All I could see was swirling mist and clouds gray as smoke. Thunderheads rode the horizon.

            Round and round, dip and sway went the plane. It seemed as if it were dancing with the air. A glance at my watch said it was nearly four hours since we had left Atlanta. Then… “There is a small window on the northern side of RDU,” announced our pilot. “I’m going to try for it.”

            We descended.  Mist and gray clouds rose about us obscuring everything. It seemed as if we were falling into a cauldron of gray smoke. Mike woke up and looked out of the window with me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The pilot knows what he’s doing.”

            What, me worry? I was just holding my breath for fun. But there—was that a break in the clouds? Yes! Mist fell away, and below us I saw land!

            The last thing I  remember remarking as our plane set down on the tarmac was that  a rainbow was arcing up into the sky.

No matter how far

Or to what beauty we go

Coming home is key.

           

 Ah, the magic of Paris!

            

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Koszonom (thank you) Budapest!

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Day 1 Checkpoints and Ferris wheels

 

We are saying goodbye to the ship this morning.  The Danube has risen even more during the night, and our bus begins its long  journey  across Serbia to Budapest. This, of course, necessitates crossing the Serbian Border and also the border of Hungary. Being now experienced in the way of border crossings, I take my book and vow to be calm through the ordeal. The usual passport gathering goes on in Serbia, and the bus glides into the neutral zone between these two countries.

But when the Hungarian authorities demand that we get off the bus and personally present ourselves and our passports, something happens. For a moment I feel as if a dark cloud has descended, and I see the scene not as a too well fed tourist grumbling about a long bus drive but as an elderly woman trying and to somehow escape from a war-devastated country into relative safety. Will these suspicious border guards accept my papers and allow me to pass, or will they pull me aside and send me back? If they do, I’m lost…

The chilling feeling passes quickly, but as the smiling official stamps my passport, I am still a little off balance. A writer’s imagination? Of course. But that eerie sense of desperation and fear lingers. Perhaps it comes from the fact that this has been an odd sort of holiday—more of a learning experience than a vacation. To linger for even a few days in countries which have been subjected to centuries of violence makes me realize how much I take for granted in my comfortable, insulated world.

But—“Welcome to Hungary,” calls our cheerful guide, and we roll forward past beautifully kept fields edged by banks of poppies and wildflowers. A modern highway leads us to Budapest, a city made up of two cities, Buda on the right bank, and Pest sprawling eastward, home to 2,000,000 people.

We enter the city late in the afternoon, check into the Meridian Hotel and unpack a few things in our spacious room, then go in search of adventure. We find it at once in the park across from the hotel… a huge ferries wheel called “Your Point Of View.” In a cage that holds six, we rise high in the air and look down on Budapest… and while going up and down, chat with some young Hungarians who speak excellent English. One of the topics—the hundred year record of the Danube’s rise!

From then to dinner. We have had been fed a paprika hot goulash for lunch—a prelude to a horse show on a large farm full of horses—and so opt for an upscale restaurant  which serves elegant fare on the terrace. The ambiance is so different from what we have experienced in the Slavic countries that it seems as if we have crossed a great divide.  And, going back to the hotel, we see that the towering buildings bordering the park are blazing with light.

 

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Day 2  A day packed with memories

 

Jo reggelt! Good morning.

We have one day to do everything we possibly can do in Budapest, so we start early with a walking tour.

Our guide tells us that Hungary, too, has had a turbulent past. A crossroads between east and west Europe, its fertile plains invited conquest. Along with the Romans, Magyars, Austrians, Germans and Soviet troops, it was also invaded by Attila and his Huns in the 4th century. “At that time,” our guide informs us, “Budapest wasn’t the capitol city. King Bella IV decided that in order to hold off invaders, he needed a city he could fortify—so Budapest was chosen.” Now free of its difficult past, modern Hungary has an elected president, a prime minister, and a National Assembly.

We cross over the IronBridge, and I notice how far the Danube had risen in past days. Streets were awash with water only a few days ago and the ground is still damp, but now the waters have receded. “The IronBridge was built to link Buda and Pest,” our guide says. “It’s said that a prince wanted to see his ailing father on the other side of the river and built the bridge.”

The day is full of sunshine and the walk is easy as we climb Castle Hill to take in a view of MatthiasChurch. High up on the elaborately tiled roof of the church I spy a raven with a ring in its mouth. “King Steven was once imprisoned by his enemies,” our guide explains. “His mother, wanting to know whether he was dead or alive, sent a raven with a note in its beak. The prince took off his ring and sent it by the raven—so his mother knew that her son lived.”

So many legends…

Which is true and which folktale?

It doesn’t matter.

As we climb Fisherman’s Bastion for a view over the city, we hear more legends about the city. There are many. One is about a maiden whose lover died a sudden death. She goes to the devil and begs him to return the man to life, and the devil strikes a bargain—he’ll do so if the maiden finds him eighteen roses by morning. She can’t find any roses (I assume that it was winter) so she embroiders eighteen roses on a cloth and hands it to the astonished fiend, who has no choice but to honor his side of the bargain.

Budapest has streets lined with upscale shops as well as spots where we can buy souvenirs, and we explore these for a while before cramming ourselves into a small city bus that rattles us back to the hotel. Time for a quick lunch, then, for in the afternoon we are going to the GodolloMuseum, once a royal palace built in 1760. After the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867, it became a summer retreat for Emperor Franz Joseph and Queen Elizabeth, widely believed to be the most beautiful woman in Europe.

A life-size figure of Queen Elizabeth greets us as we enter the building, and she really is lovely! Scarlett O’Hara would have envied that tiny waist, I think, but our guide, Agnes, says that Her Majesty was probably anorectic. This didn’t prevent her for being a crackerjack equestrienne, and there are many photographs of her on horseback.

I feel a great sympathy for Elizabeth.  She dearly loved her children and wished to take care of them herself but was prevented by her Gorgon of a mother in law, who said that servants had this duty. Later, she lost two of her children… one to death and one to suicide. “Her son wanted to marry a lady he loved but was forced into a match he hated,” Agnes explains. “He and his love shot themselves in a hunting lodge—and Elizabeth was broken hearted.”

Rain has begun to fall as we walk through the palace. Many of its original riches were looted by the communists, who made a nursing home out of the palace, but through donations and discoveries many period artifacts have been returned. There is porcelain stove in the corner, but… why is there no opening in the front for wood and coal? “Ah,” says Agnes, “there was a narrow passageway that lead to the opening in the back of the stove. Small boys would have to crawl through the passageway and feed the fire from the back.”

Surfeit with information, I fall asleep on the bus ride home but awaken renewed and ready for the last event of a busy day—a river cruise. We eat at an outdoor café in the park near our hotel and watch folk dancers perform to a happy crowd. Then we stop at Szamos, most famous for its pastries. The Hungarian pastries, I note, are more dense than the ones we are used to. But good? Oh, yes.

Finally, we make our way through the crowded park to the river bank.  Our cruise starts at 9:30, and the swell of the great Danube is dark and somehow primeval. We lean out of the boat’s window and watch the buildings along the river bank… brightly lit buildings which are pointed out to us as we pass. The sight is breathtaking.

It seems incredible, as we drift along in the boat that tomorrow we will leave this lively old city and fly back to our ordinary lives. All things need to come to an end, I think, but I will remember this day for a long, long time.

And besides, there is the lengthy trip back home. Our voyage is not over yet.

the raven and the ring

Foiled By the Danube!

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Foiled by the Danube!

Day One: Belgrade

Our visit to Belgrade has been… interesting. We have been scheduled to tour the town in the morning and then have free time… instead, there is an announcement at 7:30 AM that the river has risen even higher. In order for the ship to pass under one of the bridges that stands between us and Croatia, it would need to sail at once! Therefore, we are to go on our scheduled trip, have lunch in Belgrade, then be bussed to our ship in the afternoon.

Well and good, for Belgrade is an interesting place rich with history. Setting out under overcast skies, we find out that once, back in 5,000 BCE, Serbia was peopled by the Vinca who probably were the first to farm and begin metal techniques. Now, Serbia is home to 7.3 million people. Though smaller than the state of Kentucky, it has four different geographic zones.

Numerous wars have scarred this county’s history. The crusaders invaded and devasted the region.  Serbians rebounded, but the Ottoman Turks took over in the 16th century. The Austrians arrived and destroyed everything Serbian, then Nazi Germany captured it, the Russian Red Army liberated the country, andTito took over for life. Incidents of mass murder and ethnic genocide scar their history.

We first visit a fortress that is boarded by a green park full of  linden trees and multicolored roses. In front of the fortress are tanks (some are a two-man mini tank which our guide jokes is a ‘private tank’) and cannons. From its parapet we can look down onto the water and see where the Danube and the Sava River meet. There is even a color difference between the two rivers!

From then we are driven through streets where we see trolley cars (donated by the Japanese government), a column dedicated to the martyrs murdered in  a Nazi concentration camp, beds of flowers and buildings that were bombed during the second world war and which stand in silent desolation. A reminder of what war can be like, we wonder.

Next stop is an enormous Greek Orthodox Church. It is unfinished inside and, like Gaudi’s church, may take years o be completed. It is a magnificent structure which  only survived because  it was used as a parking garage by the Nazis and as housing for soldiers and armaments by the communists. We have to marvel at how much destruction Serbia has seen. One small reminder is our guide’s casual remark that rather than having their furniture confiscated by the communists, people donated their prized items to a museum.
From the church we head for lunch, passing a church designed by a 27 year old woman architect—a rarity back in those times– and the MacDonalds which is supposed to have the record of selling the most hamburgers in a day. While we are laughing, our guide tells us an interesting factoid– James Bond, the original 007,was a Serbian. “Ian Fleming knew the guy,” she says, “and used him as a model for 007.”

Then, the Bohemian Square bright with flowers that bloom in profusion—tumbling from the walls of restaurants. While we lunch, our Cruise Director appears and informs us that our ship has managed to slide under the bridge with a space of just half a meter! We are that much closer to Budapest.

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Day Two: Croatia, Ilok

Because the Danube is now in high flood, our ship has decided that it must remain in Navi Sad, Serbia,  for two days. The itinerary has changed again, and our new excursion of the day is to go to Ilok, which is the easternmost town in Croatia. Rolling past a landscape dotted with green frields, small vineyards, banks of poppies, used car lots and junk yards, we finally catch a glimpse of Ilok. Perched on a hill that overlooks the Danube river, it is strategically situated to withstand attacks from the river and from nearby Serbia.

To reach Ilok which is in Croatia, we must first pass through the Serbian and then the Croatian checkpoints. Passports are produced, taken to be stamped, then taken again by an agent of Serbia, a grimly lady who barely smilesas she bears away our passports. We wait on the bus for a lengthy time, retrieve the passports which are then taken again away on the Croatian side. Truly an exercise in patience!

When we are finally liberated and allowed to drive into Ilok, we find that there is a festival honoring St. Anthony going on. Children and their parents stroll the streets, and ladies clutching bouquets of lilies passd us by. The day is fine and warm, and roses bloom everywhere as we are guided to Ilok Castle, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the people of the region. A long history, since Ilok was peopled back in Neolithic times and during the Bronze Age.  Romans settled here, so did the Slavs, the Croats. Then came the Bulgarians and finally Ilok became a part of medieval Hungary.

Among the many artifacts, I am most taken by a image of Nicholas of Ilok, who is credited with bravery and patriotism. A tall, lean, commanding figure, Nicholas looks down on tourists with the stern gaze of a warrior. On the other wall I see the effigy of his son… short, portly, and definitely squeezed into his armor. He might have been a heroic historical figure, too… but, alas, he doesn’t look it.

Of course the Ottomans showed up   to conquer and destroy. In 1526, they conquered the town. Their reign was relatively short, however, for the Habsburgs took Ilok from them in 1697, and Ilok became a part of Slovainia. In more modern history, Ilok was peacefully reintegrated into Croatia in 1998.

The museum winds through many rooms showing furniture which was, our guide told us, mostly donated by families of the area. “This is their museum,” she tells us. “Coming here, the people see a part of their own history.”

Lunch follows—a lengthy affair laced with several varieties of fine local wine followed by an excellent goulash and cakes. The bread is home made and warm, marvelous after the long waits of the day! Afterward, we stroll the streets, visit the Church of St. Francis. Children smile and wave at us as we pass, and I sense that here in Ilok is a much lighter spirit than was found in other parts of the Baltic. “We were a rich community,” our guide tells us as we say goodbye, “Now we are poor—and we need young people. You must come back and see us and bring your children, too. We know we are not on the top list of places to visit, but we are eager to welcome you, and you will find that we are kind people. Come back soon!”

Day 2:  Relaxing in Novi Sad

There is a different atmosphere in Novi Sad, a warmth and happiness that we have not felt or seen since arriving in the Balkans. True, the sunshine and warmth may have something to do with this, but there seems to be more—a genuine enjoyment of life.

“Here in Novi Sad nobody hurries or gets tense,” says our cheerful guide as she settles us on the bus that will take us to the Krusedol Monastery half an hour away, “If you see anybody in a hurry, he’s not from this town.”

Novi Sad is home to 250,000 people, and seven official languages show the mix of several cultures. The countryside is flat (“The highest thing here is a pumpkin,” jokes our guide), and green fields stretch along the roadside. There is also a stork’s nest—appropriately, since the stork is the symbol of this area. Apparently the male stork comes first, builds the nest and offers it to the female for inspection. “Then she redecorates,” says our guide. This part of Serbia is home to many wild animals, including the deer. There is a $20,000 penalty for killing a deer without permission!

The first thing we see at the Krusedol Monastery are beautifully carved wooden doors, Within, eight monks grow their own food and watch over the lovely church of the Virgin Mary which is decorated with both 17th and 15th century frescoes. On the floor of the church is a great tile inscribed with a six pointed star—to remind us all, says the kindly elderly priest, that Mary was a descendent  of the house of David.

We wander about the beautiful grounds of the monastery, picking (and eating) cherries and taking photographs. Then, back we go to the bus for a visit to a great fort which overlooks the legendary bridges over the Danube. The fort has seen much action through the wars that have troubled this area, but from it we can now look over a scene of peaceful homes and the long, winding ribbon of the river.

Walking down to the bus from the fort is not easy—cobblestones are uneven, the slope is steep and the day warm—so we greet our bus with relief. But soon we are on foot again, taking a guided tour through the city. Taking us to the city square, our guide introduces us to the statue of a man  throwing books. He was, apparently, a revolutionary who believed in educating women. “Here is a gentleman throwing books at the women, urging them to read,” our guide explains. “He approved of women learning.” A man after my own heart.

I am also impressed that three houses of worship operate  harmoniously in Novi Sad—the tall-spired Catholic Church, the domed Greek Orthodox church, and a Jewish Synagogue. Later in the afternoon, Mike and I take a walk through Novi Sad and  stop to pay a visit to the synagogue. Here a young man greets us in English and tells us the history of the place. “Before World War II there were 2,500 Jews in Novi Sad,” he says. “Most of them, including my great-grandparents, were murdered by the Nazis. So were many other people—Serbs and Czechs and, even Germans, who tried to save their friends and neighbors and were killed for their efforts. Now, we are a community of 650, a small community in comparison, but we are here. We are alive.”

I ask if he feels anti-Semitism in Serbia, and he shakes his head. “We all fought and died together in World War II. We are brothers. But in other places…” he lets the sentence end in a sigh.

We think of how much turmoil there is in the world as we walk through the cheerful streets, and then into a lush green park full of young mothers and older folk who are walking or sitting or gossiping away the sunlit afternoon. And we wish that there could always be the peace and cooperation that we have found in this small Serbian city.

Let there be always

sunshine and prosperity

here in navi sad…

Novi Sad

A Brush With Bulgaria

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Dravai (hello)!

Having left Bucharest behind in the night, we have traversed the increasingly swollen Danube in the night and reached Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria was under the Turkish yoke for 500 years,” our guide Polina tells us as we set out on our bus expedition of the day. “That disasterous period is still in the minds of the people. It was the darkest days of our existence.”

I sense a heaviness, a tinge of melancholy in Bulgaria— not surprising considering their long and difficult history.  Founded by the Celts, it has been conquered over and over; besieged by the Romans, ground under the heel of the Ottoman Empire, liberated from the Turks, occupied and later liberated from the Nazis, and finally brought to heel by the communists. But…“Democratic changes in Bulgaria started here in the city of Russe,” Polina says, proudly.“ You see, there was a chlorine plant nearby and the fumes made it hard to breathe. I had two babies, and I was worried for them. In 1988, journalists from democratic countries urged us mothers to take our babies into the square and demonstrate against the chlorine fumes, so we did… so many mothers and babies.” Soon demonstrations were held all over the country, and in 1989 the Green Party was established in the government. The communist rule was over.

She tells us this story as we leave the city of Veliko Tarnovo, a medieval city which once full of craftsmen’s workshops, churches and monasteries. Stone houses line the terraced sides of a steep hillside, and the old town’s cobbled streets are flanked by restored timbered buildings. The scent of flowering elms—their honey is sold locally—pervades the air as well as that of the rose oil for which Bulgaria is famous.

History is everywhere in Bulgaria. It’s there when we are visiting a Eastern Orthodox church built in 1597. The church’s walls are covered with intricate biblical scenes, and there is a partition between the area where men worshipped, and where the women prayed. The church is low to the ground because the Turkish conquerors forbade a Christian church to be taller than a spear-wielding warrior on horseback!

This fear of the Ottomans is obvious when we visit the historic home of a wealthy merchant. The windows are barred, the house equipped with a secret ‘safe room’ in case the house was invaded by marauding Turks. “No one was safe,” Polina says. “One of the worst things the Turks did was to take away 4 or 5 year old boys and raise them to be savage fighters. When they were grown, the boys would be sent back to their homes to convert their families to Islam. If the families resisted, the boys killed their own families.”

All this violence recalls what we have recently learned about Dracula of vampire fame. And a scion of this area. According to facts, Vlad II or Bulgaria, better known as Dracula, was one ruler who resisted the Ottoman Empire. Known for his incredible cruelty (he once impaled 25,000 Turks in one fell swoop), Vlad II was inducted into the Order of the Dragon—Dracule …  thus the name Dracula. No wonder that this charming individual was named ‘Vlad the Impaler’!

Another and nicer historical character was a Trachian, a descendent of the earliest known people known to have occupied present day Bulgaria. This is Spartacus, who was captured and sold into slavery then became a gladiator and defied the might of Rome (remember Kirk Douglas?). As our bus now begins to ascend the Balkans, I think of people who lived long ago and wove their lives into the tapestry of this country. I think of King Boris III of Bulgaria who refused to turn over Bulgarian Jews to Hitler and who instead sent them to safety—for which decent act he was probably poisoned by the Nazis.

Now, the bus is climbing higher, and we  see donkey and horse-pulled carts … and look! There’s a stork’s nest  and the mother stork is busy feeding her fledglings! Here also are fields edged with wildflowers… poppies, lavender, and tall spires of yellow blossoms which were unfamiliar. “As if Van Gogh himself painted them,” muses Polina.

 

So much beauty here…

Did the maidens long ago

Pick flowers and dream?

 

The road leads us to  the village of Arbanasi. Here many craftsmen’s shops line the cobbled streets, and we are released from history to do some modern shopping. Stopping at a coppersmith’s shop, we watch him using the same tools that are used centuries ago.

“Bulgaria is awakening after a long sleep,” a somber Polina tells me as we are walking toward the bus. “We have enough goods and modern inventions… now we need to want more opportunity, more imagination. We need the Global view.”

 

DAY 2: Rock climbing

 

Today the weather has decided to cooperate fully, and the sun is shining when we slide into Vidin.

Vidin has a long history of being a military, commercial and transport center. Occopied in turn by Hungarians and the Ottoman Empire, it still has managed to wrest back control of the country and defeated the Serbs in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885. Further inland there is Belogradchik (translated as ‘Little White City’) where stands a fortress built by the Ottomans on top of the remains of a Roman fortress.

This is our destination today. As our bus climbs up into the Balkans, the plant life grows more plentiful and the air fresh and clear of any kind of pollution. In the upper regions of this place eidelweiss grow, but we do not go to such heights. Our goal is to reach the Belogradchik Rocks, stone formations that dwarf the landscape.

2,000,000 years ago, this part of the world was under water, and some great cataclysmic shift in tectonic plates must have forced these great rocks upward. There they stand, monoliths formed in such peculiar shapes that they have names: Adam and Eve’s first kiss; the horseman; to nun; the sitting duck; the school girl. They have stories, too, one of them being that once a convent stood in this place. A member of the convent, a beautiful young nun, fell in love with a Roman soldier. When she became pregnant, legend goes, she was forced out into the wilderness. Distraught, she appealed to Heaven, and  both she and her horseman lover were turned into stone. Ah, but here is justice, too–apparently the entire convent was turned into stone for their heartless behavior!

To see the wonderful Belogradchik stone formations— they were a contender, we are told, for the new seven wonders of the world—we have to climb through three ancient stone gates and up  a whole bunch of stairs. Some stairs have hand rails, most have not. Some are not stairs at all but rocks impossibly placed in the mountain so that we have to rise crablike, clinging to roots and rocks . Still, with a lot of panting and puffing, we manage to scale these heights and look out at the incredible formations. Oh, they are marvelous, full of an ancient beauty that began eons ago!

What did they look like

When they lay under the sea,

These enormous stones?

To recover from all this activity, lunch is in order. There is a farmer’s market going on as well as a flea market, and  after we eat, we set out to see what a Bulgarian flea market is like. After our strenuous morning, it’s fun to enjoy the crowds and the wonderful array of fruits and vegetables—apricots, chilli peppers, bunches of herbs, and baskets of cherries offered by the wayside—and to savor small cones of ice cream as we walk along.

Our afternoon is cut short by an approaching thunderstorm and the knowledge that some children will be performing folk dancing on the ship. As we walk shipward, I remember what our guide for the day told us.

“We are a tough people,” she said. “We have withstood the Romans and the Turks and the Communists. That building was once a telephone factory under the communists. Now it is abandoned, but see? The building next to it is our NEW telephone factory!  We will grow strong and succeed. You will see.”
And I have a feeling that she is right.

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Day 3: Danube Waltz

 

It is true that we have waltzed on the Danube, though not to Strauss’ well known music. Truly, we dance every night on a very small dance floor or along the ship’s corridors or wherever we can find room! The musician is a tough old Bulgarian with a superior smile whenever we request a number, but he carries a good beat.

Today we are gliding on the river approaching the border between Romania and Serbia where the Danube’s borders narrow to become the Iron Gates, the four steep gorges that pass through the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains.. Before the two dams were completed, crosscurrents and sharp turns kept most captains from sailing through this part of the river, and many foolhardy boats were lost.

There two dams built in 1972 and 1984 as well as hydroelectric stations provide energy for the two countries. Not without cost, we understand, since 17,000 people were displaced. But the dams have done their work, and our ship passes through the locks to enter a scenic gorge lined with cliffs of stone 3,000,000 years old. Their striations are impressive, and so are the sights we see along the way… a cave where whole armies entrenched themselves and battled the Turks, a tablet set on the side of the mountain by Romans centuries ago.

There is also a 40-meter high statue carved into the very face of the rock, and we are introduced to the Dacian emperor Decebalus who fought three wars against two different Roman emperors. He has been a national hero for nearly two thousand years, and a team of no less than twelve sculptors have carved his face from  a stone outcropping near Orsova, Romania, completing their work in 2004.

Further down the river on the Serbian side stands the Golobana Fortress, a beautifully preserved medieval fortress carved into the living rock. I somehow sense a cruelty about this place, and the story that is attached to the place proves me right. The tale is of a beautiful maiden who was desired by the cruel Pasha who ruled the fortress. When she refused his advances, he had her tied to a rock in the river there to die watching the fortress which now bears her name.

Passing the gorge, we sail through banks of green farmlands and rolling hills topped by windmills. We are on the way to Serbia.

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Two Days In Bucharest

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“The  North part of Bucharest is very beautiful,” our young driver tells us proudly, and it surely is. Spacious parks and rows of roses in full bloom line the streets. The architecture slides seamlessly from the very modern to buildings which were built in Byzantine times. The architecture is varied and fascinating.  And… surely, that isn’t the Arc de Triomphe?

“Yes,” our driver assures us. “Bucharest is the Paris of Eastern Europe. The French were here a hundred years ago, and their influence is still felt.”

This is the first of two days in Bucharest, Romania, and we are bound for a river cruise which—if flooding rivers do not prevent – a  will take us to Budapest by way of the Danube. Although there are rumors that rivers have flooded,, Bucharest seems untroubled by such things.

For a miracle, all our flights have been on time even though we hopped from plane to planes from RDU to Atlanta to Charles DeGaule and then to Bucharest. More incredible, our luggage has followed us! Still, we were sleepless and somewhat dazed when we stumble out onto the concourse and see.. the sun. Yes! Despite dire predictions, rain is not pouring down on us and the weather is balmy.

Taken to our room by our hotel porter, we are given instructions and advice. “Every country has its own currency, but you can exchange euro or dollars easily. See… look out of the window and you will see the sign for exchange. And there, on the street corner is a market where you can buy anything. Romanian wine is cheap and good!” We ask for dinner recommendations, and he gives us a name. “But,” he warns, “Romanian food is heavy, so be careful. You will not be able to move after a meal!”

As we start our walk, thunder booms. Luckily, Romanian showers spend themselves in an hour, and we spent a delightful hour walking, admiring Revolution Square and the architecture and eating authentic Romanian fare. We had hoped for Transylvania goulash—Bucharest was apparently the summer of the dreaded Dracula — but the goulash has sold out, and we have to be content with seeing the bats swoop low over the city as we stroll back to the hotel.

 

Day 2

This morning we are taken to Revolution Square, where we walked yesterday, and then on a tour of the city which includes the Village Museum, an open air museum made up of houses that were taken down from villages around Romania and then reassembled here. There is a church that is made entirely out of wood, one of the oldest of its kind. There are houses built low to the ground—most of it being underground—and thatched with straw because the Turkish soldiers were wont to destroy villages in the farming areas of the country and often did not spot these low-build houses.

Named for a long ago shepherd called Burkul, Bucharest has been conquered many times—first by the Romans, then the Ottomans who held sway for centuries—and by the communist party before this conqueror, too, was ousted in the revolution of 1989. In 2007 Romania became a member of the EU. The Romanian language reflects the various ethnic mix and has within it French, Portuguese, Latin and Slavic languages

Eventually, after seeing many more sites and eating lunch, we are conducted to our ship. Rain has started again and wind battles us for umbrellas as we hurry on board. This is our first glimpse of the Danube which, contrary to Mr. Strauss’ waltz is NOT blue but more like green and often  ochre perhaps because of all the flooding that has been going on. While other long ship cruises have been cancelled because of this flood, ours—named for a  Scandinavian sea god– is yet outward bound.

Anchors away!

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And then, there’s cheesecake…

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While puzzling out a new plot, I decided to celebrate the launch of my e-book, The Lake Is on Fire with a cup of tea and a substantial piece of cheesecake. I was about to take my first bite when Mike said, “Cheesecake is nearly three thousand years old.”

I eyed the wedge of cake in front of me. It looked fresh and full of calories.

“I read,” Mike went on, “that cheesecake was served to the athletes at the first Olympic games. That’s in 776 BCE. What’s more,” he added, warming to the theme, “excavated cheese molds were found that probably dated back to 2000 BCE.”

Eating the (very new and fresh) cheesecake in front of me, I began wondering whether there really was anything new under the sun. Silks and pasta, I knew, had come by way of Marco Polo’s trek to China, and tomatoes were offerings from the new world. But what about other things we take for granted?

So I did a little research and, not surprisingly, fabric was first on my list. What did surprise me was that fibers were spun into yarn and then knitted or woven or netted into fabric in the Middle East during the late stone age! Apparently there were fashionistas back then, too. What about the surely modern camera, then? Apparently the camera is an adaptation of the camera oscura  which was developed in ancient China! And, speaking of China, I found that rhubarb had its roots—no pun intended— in ancient history and was cultivated also in China as a purgative and was  reported to have been given to help the emperor Wu  who reigned back in 557. Another interesting thing about rhubarb was that one of the great pharmacologists of ancient Greek, Discorides,  spoke of a root called ‘rha’ which grew on the banks of the Volga and which had purgative properties. So Rhubarb did get around some.

I then turned to scissors—something we take so much for granted and something which is necessary to daily living. Apparently this useful tool was invented in ancient Egypt back around 1500 BCE while another simpler version of the scissors turned up in Mesopotamia 3,000 to 4,000 years ago! So much for the scissors– but surely, the computer only arrived with the 20th century? But, no. I learned that the Antikythera mechanism supposedly the earliest mechanical analog computer, goes back to 100 BCE!

As for books, there is the Epic of Gilgamesh—the oldest known literary work—which 3,000 years ago was written in Babylonia and was later buried in the jumbled ruins of a Mesopotamian palace until 1840, when it was unearthed near Mosul by an archeologist.

That says a lot for the power and endurance of the written word. But here is a footnote: it has been said that there is really but one plot in the entire world, and that is the struggle of good against evil. So perhaps the plots that we labor over and write and rewrite with pain and pleasure have been thought of and written in a time much older than we can even imagine.

So much for my plot. Ah, well. There is another slice of cheesecake in the fridge.

All that is written…

Was it thought of long ago

Before we were born?

 

"I'd Rather Be There"

“I’d Rather Be There”