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It’s worth a buck…

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Times Square, New York

It’s worth a buck to avoid disaster, not that the alternative would be enticing but is less dangerous. We live a time when the GOP morphed in a bunch of frustrated apparatchiks resembling the old Communist parties of Eastern Europe: if you step outside the line of what the party said you are ostracized, at least for the movement. Next step they may land you in jail. Today was Cruz who finally kissed The Donald on the lips, the last in a long line of conservative, (conservatives in what?) republicans who kowtow to a candidate who forced his way through bar brawl mentality, injuries and personal insults towards his colleagues. The tone was given by the “anti-hero” McCain, who was such a loser that he got caught in Vietnam but in spite of this statement he kissed the hand that slapped him. McCain is conscious that he voted for the devil and appeased everybody that Trump would not be able to do anything he wants in our country of laws: “Do you think that this is Romania?”. So he voted for Trump and is ready to impeach him from the get go….. Long gone are the times when the GOP had principles and they were fighting for them. Now they fight for jobs, like any other Joe that runs the rat race. Not saying that the other side of the isle would be different but for the moment: “Houston, we have a problem”.
Luckily we still have the press that still can take a position, like Cincinnati Inquirer that would vote against “the menace” after one hundred years (yes, 100!) voting constantly republican:
“Trump brands himself as an outsider untainted by special interests, but we see a man utterly corrupted by self-interest. His narcissistic bid for the presidency is more about making himself great than America,” the board said. “Trump tears our country and many of its people down with his words so that he can build himself up. What else are we left to believe about a man who tells the American public that he alone can fix what ails us?”

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Blog, USA

 

…on the Bucegi plateau

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The huge line of parked cars at the end of the road to Piatra Arsa

The gondola brought us on top of the majestic plateau. The landscape is spectacular, right from the get go you being able to see each surrounding peak. All peaks look so close and you really wonder what you will do all day when any destination is just there.
I read on Wikipedia that: “The Bucegi is believed to be the Dacian holy mountain Kogainon, on which the God Zalmoxis resided in a cave.” For sure the Dacians knew something because more recently lots of legends and stories abound about the underground tunnels and caves that may exist under the plateau, tunnels that may connect the mountain to the holy Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, to a holy place in Iraq and the third going somewhere under the Gobi Plateau. In the under the mountain caves the “Internet legends” talk about a holographic library of the universe displayed on extremely tall and large tables built for giants.
Obviously very cool but we planned only an over the ground hike leaving the underground exploration for a future trip. So we descended Furnica Peak towards Piatra Arsa, where the old chalet burnt down being replaced by a large hotel. More recently the dirt mountain road that existed here for long time was paved in an exercise of bad tourism so zillions of cars were parked on the road with absolutely no facilities, water, toilets, etc. and hundreds of people were climbing the mountain to Babele, a short 40 minutes walk from the road. This explained a little why there were no cars on the road to “1400”; all were coming straight to the mountain top. “I am coming from Pestera”, a village on the other side of the mountain, told me a German, “You have to see that part. Hotels after hotels and nothing in between. They have no idea how to develop a site. Look at those cars and people and imagine the garbage that surrounds them. And absolutely no toilets…At least I was able to stay overnight here in Piatra Arsa and the sky was the best I ever saw in my life”.

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Babele, Bucegi Plateau, Romania

The Babele chalet’ surroundings were packed with hundreds of day trippers who almost each had selfie stick. The Babele rock formation resembling two old hags chatting face to face is fortunately surrounded by an iron fence to keep the climbers away. Not so lucky is the famous Sphinx that looks desperate toward horizon being climbed by people trying to get a picture on its top in the most ridiculous poses in spite of the numerous signs that invite for restrain. Between them path of rocks shaped as a snake eating its tail try to bring a more meditative mood to the surrounding zoo.

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The Sfinx, Bucegi Plateu, Romania

From the Sfinx is another hour to the Caraiman Cross, an impressive monument dedicated to the rail workers who died in the First World War. It was built between 1926-1928 at the initiative of Queen Mary of Romania being the highest altitude cross in the world at 2291 meters. The cross is 28 meter high with two arms of 7 meters, arms that the Communists wanted to cut and put on top their darling red star. Luckily it did not happen….At the end of the 1930s a generator was installed and the cross was lit in several religious holiday nights each year.

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The Caraiman Cross, the highest elevation cross in the world

The descent from the cross is through Brana Caraiman, a spectacular road that skirts the mountain top winding on its rock side and going to Cabana Caraiman from where it may continue straight down on Jepi to Busteni. We backtracked to Piatra Arsa that we reached after about an hour and a half from the cross. The day was glorious and we lingered admiring the spellbinding views but we had no idea how long would take to descend to “1400” and all questions to various day trippers remained unanswered. We took the route to Furnica Peak at which base we got to a sign that pointed down to “1400” and following the path we merged at one point with the Summer Road, one of the ski slopes that I used to run. Unfortunately right at the crossing I could see the location of the old Varful cu Dor chalet burnt down, only a metal skeleton remaining. Last time when I stayed there I took refuge in a brutally powerful and unexpected blizzard that plunged the mountain in a dense fog and made me lose my way while skiing.  Walking down the Summer Road we got to “1400” after about 8 hours and a half with some breaks in between. A gorgeous day and it looks like that walking is not so hazardous for health after all even in Romania…

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Brana Caraiman, the descending path from the cross towards Caraiman Chalet down in the valley

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2016 in Blog, Romania

 

Longing for a hike…

We never make reservation in advance. It’s ruining the spontaneity of any exploration and ties you up to a specific location. But sometimes it’s hard to find a place to stay, like in a Saturday afternoon trying to find a room for four people in Sinaia. This is another hurdle in Romania and all over Europe; used to the American hotels where everything is big and you can sleep easily two people in a bed even if is not listed as queen size, when you try to find accommodation in Europe everything is so tiny that you feel that you’d fall off during the night. On Booking.com there were few locations available and when we finally found an overpriced pension named “Floarea de Colt” in Sinaia, that did not have kitchen and implicitly no breakfast and was also way out of the road, we decided to call and try to book it, a safer bet in Romania where everybody advertise on the booking sites but they hate paying the fees so they give you a way lower price if you book directly. “OK, we’ll take it” we told the host,  “but we will be there around 11:30PM or even 12AM”, our typical way of traveling where the hotel is just a set of beds used for the minimum possible amount of time spent during the night. “I cannot wait and it’s not worthy to wait so late” told us the host. “If you come till 9:00 PM I can wait but no latter than that. It’s not worth it for one hundred euro…”, in an economy that pays a minimum monthly salary of about 200 Euro/month….Digging deeper we found a better option in Roberto’s Hotel in Sinaia where the lady receptionist was way more accommodating and for a lower fare we got a charming room with four beds and a delicious breakfast served on a terrace overlooking the mountain that reminded somehow of the last lovely breakfast I had in Santiago de Cuba in Anna’s house.

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The Carp Valley towards “2000 meters” in Sinaia, Romania

The reason we came there was to hike a full day on the Bucegi Mountains plateau that raises at over 2000 meters on top of Sinaia. So we started to investigate how good is the road to the “1400” a place located at that specific elevation that used to have a famous hotel: “It’s hard to tell because is getting ruined in winter and they don’t fix it” or maybe how long is the hike to Babele, a charming place on the plateau: “We have no idea how long would take” and they did not know how long is to the “Caraiman” or “Omu”. Sinaia used to be a place where most of the people were mountain people and a question like this would have easily thrown you in the category of “tourist from the valley”. People came by car or train to Sinaia and hiked all the way up the mountain, or free rock climbed like I used to do on the Bucegi valleys, Cerbului or Galbinele, vertical hikes on rocks on all four that bring you all the way to the plateau. On these hikes we regularly encountered herds of black goats that were running scared up the mountain throwing dangerously toward us large boulders and prickly stones that on the open mountain we tried to deflect only with our backpacks. But while hiking in Romania I tried to stay away of the Bucegi plateau that became a boulevard after the installation of the cable car making the mountain easily accessible. I don’t remember ever hiking there since I was twelve, preferring mainly Piatra Craiului, an astoundingly beautiful mountain close to Brasov whose rock climbing trails were spectacular.
The drive to “1400” was completely empty, nor cars or people could be seen on the road. “It’s way too early” told me a guy pointing to his watch that showed something close to 10 AM. We walked up to the newly built gondola trying to get information about the hikes from the girl that was selling tickets, an always good source in the old days:”I skied this mountain several times a day but I have no clue how long it takes to walk down. Does it happen for you to know?” I asked her. The answer left me speechless: “I don’t know because I don’t walk.” I looked at the levitating creature in front of me and I was wondering how long it takes her to levitate till she gets in her Porsche in the parking place bought by selling tickets…But it was not the first time in Romania when I got this type of response associating walking with a health hazard.

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On the Bucegi Plateau you get a panoramic view from Babele to Costila and Caraiman Peaks, Romania

We did not plan to hike up from 1400 meters to 2000 meters and we boarded the gondola for which our levitating girl sold us tickets and we almost levitated ourselves to the top at Varful cu Dor, a place where I skied several entire weeks each winter while living in Romania to the chagrin of my American friends who said that this type of life is lived in the USA only by aristocrats. The surprising perks of a Communist system… As a German friend recently returned from Havana was saying: “I work for 11 month like a German to live one month like a Cuban. And they live the rest of the year like this with no effort whatsoever…”.

To be continued…..

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2016 in Blog, Romania

 

Fortified refuge

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Saschiz Fortified Church, Romania

Medieval times were intense. Invaders and attacks were common and the wall surrounded towns were able to accommodate a limited number of people in case of attacks. All the others had to take covers in their villages and where else than in the large churches built in each and every village of Transylvania. Surrounded by walls with defensive towers the fortified churches of the Saxons were actual citadels that may have deterred the invaders to move away. Many of them are nowadays well preserved in spite of a high level of neglect during the Communist times. Out of more than 300 churches that were built in Transylvania today remain about half of them, seven being included on the UNESCO World heritage list.
The Fortified church in Saschiz is right on the road to Brasov-Kronstadt in a village that in its entirety was listed in the UNESCO World heritage list. It was built at the end of the 15th century with a number of fortified buildings out of which only the main tower surrounded by the church nave and several other buildings.

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Viscri Village, Romania

Several kilometers further towards Brasov, a small road veers left and winds through bucolic hills and valleys peppered with farms and sheep. The road is/was paved but is full of potholes that require delft maneuvers not to ruin your car but after about 7 km you end up in the large main street of Viscri village, a lovely location that can be admired better if you climb on top of the church dating from the 1100s. The church is itself fortified and is surrounded also by a fortified wall with defensive towers looking spectacular. Inside is a museum that displays old village items and local history. The village is famous in Romania being known by the fact that Prince Charles came here and falling in love with the location bought a number of traditional houses, renovated them and at least one was converted in a B&B. We tried to visit it but unfortunately the gate was closed. The cobble stone street of Viscri has a sleepy atmosphere with occasional stalls selling all sorts of knitted clothing for the incidental tourists. The road leaving the village towards Brasov, different of the one we took when we entered the village, is a dirt road never paved before and, of course, is a a way better alternative to visit the village. Not necessarily modernity is a better option….

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Viscri Fortified Church, Romania

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Blog, Romania

 

Where Dracula was born…

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The Clock Tower is the main entry gate into the Sighisoara citadel, Romania

For many who are immersed in the Dracula story, Sighisoara should be a must in following the steps of the Wallachian king because in this medieval town in 1431 the “Impaler” was born in a house right in the middle of the citadel. His father Vlad the Devil, Vlad Draco, was the king of Wallachia and used to mint coins with his name in town that at times was full tradesmen and artisans. One of the oldest Saxon settlements in Transylvania, Sighisoara or Schassburg, one of the seven towns of Siebenburgen, was first mentioned in documents at the end of the 12th century. It’s a remarkable medieval town, with a lower town that was populated for centuries by merchants and artisans who settled here from all over medieval Europe. From there, climbing steps or roads you reach the citadel, or the upper town, completely surrounded by 14 fortified walls with defense tower, each one raised by a guild. At its peak the town hosted 15 guilds and 20 artisan branches.The towers are named by the guild’s trade: the Carpenters’ Tower, goldsmith, butchers, weavers, shoemakers, locksmith, barrel makers, barbers, iron-smith, etc. Sighisoara is one of the very few European medieval towns whose citadel is inhabited. People go to and fro to their regular business, not necessarily tourist related, and they may walk down in town to work or travel to other nearby towns and return in the night under the fortified walls of the less menacing citadel that can be seen from far away.
On top of the citadel, on a hill in its middle, you climb a covered staircase built in the 18th century to reach the Evangelical church from the hill where frescos were uncovered in a recent restoration. Most of the Saxons evangelical churches in the region had the original paintings covered except the one in Malancrav where the Gothic murals survived. The church is surrounded by the cemetery surrounded also by other walls that overlook the valley. The highlight of the citadel is the Clock Tower where puppets are supposed to dance and move every hours, a thing that does not happen anymore except for few of them. Right down in the Clock Tower square everybody congregates around Dracula birth place who represents for the country a symbol slandered in medieval times by what we would call nowadays “a biased press”. Vlad was impaling in the public square the noblemen and officials that were cheating and stealing the administration and the population, a thing that many Romanians would love to see enacted in real life for most of the indicted MPs that are still occupying the Parliament benches in spite of the injunction, protected like a Mafia by their own parties.

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A street in Sighisoara lower town coming from the Goldsmith Square, Romania

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Blog, Romania

 

Siebenburgen

It’s an old German legend from the 16th century that tells about a flute player who pretended that his playing would be able to eradicate the town of Hamelin of the invading rats that were spreading disease. The city dwellers accepted his offer and the man started to play his flute and all the rats aligned behind him and together they left the town. However when the musician returned to get his pay the city refused to give him any money so he started to play again and aligned behind him all children that left the town with him and were never seen again. A legend is a legend but many associate it with the time when the Germans left their towns and moved towards Eastern Europe to found their new towns here and never went back to the German towns again.

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Santa Margarita fortified church, Medias (Mediash), Romania

Siebenburgen means “seven towns” that were founded starting with the 12th century when a Hungarian king made an offer with large swaths of land to people speaking several dialects living in what is now Germany to move in the southern part of Transylvania in order to defend the border of the kingdom. The Saxons, as they were latter to be known, established here seven main towns that in a way surround Transylvania, extending from the original region around Sibiu-Hermanstadt towards the north: Bistrita (Bistritz), Brasov (Kronstadt), Cluj (Klausenburg), Medias (Mediasch), Orastie (Broos), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) si Sighisoara (Schasburg). Many Germans today when they refer to Transylvania call it by the old Saxon name, Siebenburgen. Besides these seven towns or citadels, surrounded by defensive walls and towers, at the middle of the 15th century a document mentioned Sieben Stühle, that were the seven Saxon “chairs” that administered the entire province, with a main “chair: in Sibiu-Hermanstadt: Orăștie (Broos), Sebeș (Mühlbach), Miercurea Sibiului (Ruzmargt), Sighișoara (Schäßburg), Nocrich (Leuskyrch), Cincu (Schenk) și Rupea (Reps), some of them preserving amazing fortified hill citadels overlooking the valleys. The German population dwindled in time and during Communist times it was literally sold by Ceausescu in his drive for foreign currency.

Medias is one of these original “burgen” that has in its middle a church preserving its original tower. The wall completely surrounds the church and on sides there are several other defense towers. Mediash was added in time to the territory administration becoming itself a Stühle , a Saxon chair.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2016 in Blog, Romania

 

Sibiu-Hermanstadt

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Sibiu’s main square with the Catholic Cathedral, Romania

15 years ago I descended from a cold train in a crisp morning in Sibiu, known also by its Saxon name as Hermanstadt, and I was welcomed by a town that was barely awaken from the Communist amnesia. A dusty square with beautiful but peeling buildings surrounded by stores that sold brooms and knitted pullovers, trinkets, chemicals and pails with most of the stores closed. I went to have breakfast in a place that looked unchanged for the last 50 years with rickety and unconformable chairs, the same ones you could find in any place in the country. The main difference to its unfortunate past was that it sold real coffee and some warm pastries. On top of the stores’ doors were hanging the same signs that were prevalent at the time making the place indistinct. But in spite of its unkept look when I strolled through the old town, through its squares and streets aligned with the Saxon style houses, the city emanated an air of hominess of a close knit society, through an architecture that at every corner was telling you that the city may be beautiful but you just cannot see it for the moment.
Fast forward 15 years, I walked in the evening in the main square of a town that I was just barely able to recognize. It took me a while to remember and locate the buildings and make sense of what I was seeing. Lit like a theater stage, the today Sibiu looks and feel like any city in Europe but in addition it preserved this sense of hominess that I could feel a while ago. The pedestrian area is aligned with restaurants with menus of traditional Romanian dishes, elegant wine bars, beer places with no loud or tacky music and coffee places where youth are hanging out all in an atmosphere of impeccable taste that you rarely find in many other cities in Romania. The stores look all new selling meaningful things for the people strolling the city center: fashion, phones, music, wine, food, travel, etc. In the main square there are at least 3 stalls selling ice cream, beside lots of other stores that were organized for a medieval fair. The Sibiu theater festival was advertising its shows rolling through the square a butaforic horse under sounds of Wagner. The buildings are impeccably renovated, like it was done sometime last week, extolling their architectural features and the main squares are alive till midnight with tourists and local enjoying a night out. It’s so nice that you feel guilty to go to the hotel and you rather walk the cobble stones streets all lit like in the middle of the day.

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The small square, Sibiu, Romania

The current president of Romania, a Saxon, Klaus Johannis, was elected three times mayor of Sibiu. He put a lot of effort and brought the town from its sleepy state to become the cultural capital of Europe in 2007. His success in revamping the city was a token of appreciation that promoted him to the top of the candidates for presidency of Romania in the hope that he would be able to do for the country what he did for his city. Two years in his mandate everybody still hopes…

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2016 in Blog, Romania