Saturday, June 28, 2008

24-29 June – Bulgaria

We crossed the Danube and came into Bulgaria at the town of Ruse. We are sweating now in 35+ degrees and blistering sun. Communist housing blocks greeted us and I remembered reading that in 1973, Bulgaria considered applying for membership in the Soviet Union.

Clearly, we have now entered into a different cultural and ethnographical region. Bulgaria has a very turbulent history and was (among other difficult things) under Ottoman rule for five centuries until its liberation (with Russian support) in 1878.

We started our exploration of Bulgarian history by walking around the impressive remains of Veliko Tarnovo. This was the capital of the second Bulgarian kingdom (1185-1393) until the fortified town was captured by the Turks.

We continued to Kazanlak to explore the tombs of the Thracian rulers. We saw some very impressive tombs, 2500 years old, with highly skilled masonry and well preserved paintings.

Next we jumped into the Roman era and enjoyed the old town of Plovdiv and its impressive Roman theatre. Once it could seat 3000 spectators. This evening, a few hundred were expected to come and listen to the Traviata opera.

We have now escaped the heat of central Bulgaria and instead ventured into the high Rodopi Mountains in the south of the country. We are camped among apple trees and high grass in a beautiful valley. There is a small stream where we are swimming and playing. We can see remains from an old Roman road next to the stream. A woman is growing potatoes nearby. It is idyllic.

15-23 June – Transylvania, Romania

Transylvania is simply fascinating. There are so many places to visit and things to see. The nature is beautiful and the people are very friendly. We have enjoyed the old Saxon towns and fortified churches; castles on hilltops with that special Dracula vibe; and many small villages where time moves very slowly.

We have participated in a harvest feast with German villagers in Carta/Kerz. We did not really expect to see lederhosen and listen to ompa-ompa music at a German cabbage harvest feast among the ruins of a 13th century monastery in Romania. Now we are glad we did! Many Germans (Saxons) moved to Transylvania in the 12th century, invited by the Hungarians to defend Hungary’s eastern border against the Turks. Still today, most places in Transylvania have names in Romanian, Hungarian and German.

We have also visited wonderful and mysterious ruins from the Dacian times. The highlight was when we reached the ruins of Sarmizegetusa, the former Dacian capital which was conquered by the Roman Empire in 106 AD. After driving through dense forest on a rough dirt road for 15 km, the last 5 km were very steep and rocky. But is was worth the effort. So much that we decided to spend the night among the ruins on the top of the 1300m high mountain.

We left Transylvania via the Tranfagarasan road which crosses the Transylvanian Alps. The road is only open during the summer and snowploughs were still clearing the road as we drove through. At the highest pass, 2034m, we had lunch at the glacier lake before continuing down the southern serpentine road among grazing sheep and horses.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

13-14 June – Moldavia and Szekely Land, Romania

We are now back in Romania after our exciting tour through parts of the former Soviet Union. Rural Moldavia in Romania is beautiful. And driving through the Bicaz Gorge (reaching almost 2000 metres) was exhilarating.

The Szekely Land, on the western side of the Bicaz Gorge, remains very Hungarian. It is part of Transylvania which was under Hungarian rule for over 1000 years and was transferred to Romanian rule as late as 1918. Some villages we passed are almost 100% Hungarian. There is still significant tension between Hungary and the surrounding countries regarding the old territory of Great Hungary.

10-12 June – Moldova

Moldova, one of the poorest and least known countries in Europe. The official statistics tell you that the country has four million inhabitants. But the people we spoke to estimate that up to two million people have emigrated to Western Europe. The people remaining are mainly poor and old. So they have voted for a communist to lead the country. Crazy and logical at the same time. We enjoyed the rural countryside which looks a lot like the province of Moldavia in Romania. More horses than cars. No tractors on the farms. Monasteries and vineyards. Rolling hills and unpaved roads. Beautiful bushcamping in the fields. We have not been to an organised camp ground in three weeks, but life in the wild is so beautiful.

9 June – The so-called “Republic of Transdniestr”

The self-proclaimed Pridnestrovskaya Moldovskaya Respublika, aka the “Republic of Transdniestr”, is an ugly pimple on the face of Europe. It is corrupt, racist and violent. It is a centre for trafficking, arms dealers and drug smugglers. It still believes that the Soviet Union exists. The republic has not been acknowledged by any country, and yet its borders are protected by 5000 Russian troops. So we just had to go there. But I must admit that it was very tough to get into the country, and even tougher to exit. The officials at the borders tried all the tricks in the book to extort money from us. But we managed to pass through the “republic” without paying a cent. And now we have all the Lenin statue photos to prove that we were there!

1-8 June – Crimea and Southern Ukraine

We passed the police control into the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. This peninsula has a long history and there have been numerous rulers here during the last two thousand years. The people here are more oriented towards Russia than towards Ukraine. There is also a substantial population of Crimea Tatars, a Turkish and muslim ethnic group. Stalin tried to kill all of them, but some survived the many years in Siberia and have now returned.

We camped on the beach on the south coast and went swimming in the Black Sea. But 17 degrees in the water is not warm even if you come from Scandinavia…

We washed our clothes (Nina used the French foot technique) and used our solar shower. Room service is not on the program.

The Rybalko family from Belarus camped next to us and we had a lovely time together. They told us about the continuing repression by President Lukashenko, the communist dictator of Belarus. It is unbelievable that such a fascist-communist state can still exist in the middle of Europe.

We passed Yalta (where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in February 1945 and decided about the future of Europe) and Sevastopol (which is a major Russian military port and controlled by Russia until 2019). The historical town of Bakhchysaray was impressive. We climbed up to the Uspensky cave monastery (picture) and also visited the Khan’s Palace from the 16th century.

We reached Odessa after a long drive across the plains of Ukraine. The soil is really black and fertile here. In Odessa, our first destination was the Potemkin steps which Ola remebers from his Russian studies. To be honest, the steps were not very well maintained and a bit of a disappointment. And the kids wondered why on earth we should drive all the way to Odessa to look at some broken stone steps. But we had a nice time at the beach, a nice lunch at a tradtitional restaurant, and were threatened by guards with Kalashnikovs when camping at an abandoned camp site. So Odessa, with its surprisingly nice and cosmopolitan city centre, was a positive experience!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

26-31 May – Western and Central Ukraine

Western Ukraine: Lovely countryside destroyed by communism. Friendly people ruined and abused by communism.
Central Ukraine: Dito, but more flat.
Ukraine is trying to rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union. In the big cities, the process is faster and more visible. In the countryside, in villages such as “Sovietskyi” where the Lenin statue is still standing, the progress is at best slow.

But we love every moment of our stay in Ukraine. We are camping on the fields of the old kolkhoz farms and we are talking to the people very openly about everything. The Ukrainians are no longer afraid to speak to foreigners, and since Ola speaks Russian, we can communicate with everybody.

Along the river Dnepr lies a small village which was settled by Swedish farmers in 1782. The poor peasants had to walk the 2000 km from Dagö in present day Estonia. Only half of the 1000 settlers survived the 8 month long journey. One year after their arrival, only 150 Swedes were still alive. The conditions were terrible. Actually, the conditions have continued to be harsh for these people. They suffered immensely during the communist era. Today, approximately 20 villagers still speak the old form of Swedish (“Gammalsvenska”). Upon our arrival to Gammalsvenskby, we were lucky to meet a woman, Maria Malmas, who still speaks Gammalsvenska. We were immediately invited to stay with her and her son Alexander and his daughter Kristina. Our days in their home were truly magical.

18-25 May - Romania

After resting in Tokaj, we felt ready for the challenges of Romania. We drove into the Maramures region in the northwestern part of the country. Here, time has practically been standing still for the last hundred years. Yes, there are some cars and satellite dishes, but most of the people live in a very simple way. We loved the friendliness of the people and the children got a good history lesson in Maramures. They learnt about small farming, about how to produce food, how to make clothes, how to plough with a horse, how to cut the grass, and so on.

The next region we visited in Romania, Southern Bucovina, is marginally more developed than Maramures. Here, the main attractions are the painted churches. For us, however, what we enjoyed most was our stay at the Putna monastery where the monks fed us and tried to convert us to the orthodox faith. We behaved very politely and listened more than we spoke. It is interesting how religion has become very popular in the countries which were under communism before.

11-17 May – Hungary

After enjoying the Lipizzaner horses and fine wines of the Eger region, we continued to the Puszta plains. The Hortobagy National Park was marvellous with its flora and fauna. We bushcamped on the plain, enjoyed small walks and went on a safari by horse carriage.

After the wildlife experience in Hortobagy we needed some more wine, so we went to Tokaj. There we camped on the shore of the majestic Tisza river and enjoyed a wine tour at the oldest wine estate.