Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Balkans Good

Serbia is well off the worn tourist trail even by Eastern European standards. This nation has a big PR problem from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the seige of Sarajevo. I sometimes wonder if these mitgating factors led the locals in that country to be so welcoming. I always felt a sense of ease and comfort while travelling around Serbia and would not hesitate to return. Perhaps it was the just Vojvodina province that is like this and the south is different since the two parts have a much different history to them.

I was warned in guidebooks and by expats of all the swindles and thievery that goes on in Romania to the point of pre-trip apprehension. People everywhere we went were totally honest in every transaction. As a grand finale on our last day, I left a $100 Canadian along with $5 US dollars and a pair of Oakley sunglasses under the rental's seat. The third party car cleaner/finder relayed the cash and glasses through 3 sets of hands back to me

The natural scenery and national parks of these countries is comparable to anywhere else in the world and makes it difficult to believe you are in crowded Europe. The timber, mineral and tourist potential is enormous. Serbia's Vojvodina province is perfect, flat black soiled farmland and an important food grower.

I would like to return to the Balkans, starting with something like the an electronic music fest that was started to protest the Serbian nationalist Milosevic in 2000. It has evolved into an acclaimed, electronic music and arts fest and just so happens to play much of what is on my iPod to. It takes place in the fortress overlooking Novi Sad and that setting seems ideal with its acreage of tiered lawns and spectacular views.

From here a trip through the southern reaches of Serbia and into Montenegro then travel the Black Sea coast up to Moldovia and north Transylvania all via motorcycle.

 These nations offer a low cost adventure holiday into the remnants of communism, an area rich in history and culture as all of Europe is but at a 50% discount. The people are genuinely interested in where you come from and how you live back in your own homeland. Of course this interest is proportionate to how far off the beaten tourist tracks you are. In the heavily tourist-ed zones you get the same jaded zombie service employees you'd find in places like Prince Edward Island or Orlando.

My aunt likely summed it up best when she said you'd better hurry up and do your motorcycle tour, you're not getting any younger. While I am on the subject, my aunt and mother did very well on this trip for a couple of 70ish ladies. Most their age would not have attempted this.

People here seem to have a real optimistic spark for their future in spite of some of the tough challenges they face. I see good things for this part of the world as ex-pats return to live and bring their foreign capital and skills back. Much of the population is highly educated as many communist countries placed a high priority on education and training and this bodes well for economic development. Make no mistake about how tough it is though. Things are cheaper, yes but when you are making 200-300 Euros per month, day to day living stress is shall we say increased. In spite of limited budgets for many everywhere you travel in the cities of the Balkans people make the effort to dress fashionably and just look good. These folks have figured out how to stretch every last Dinar or Lei.

Alas the world is a big place and there is much to see.  I don't know when I will get back to the Balkans, if ever, but this trip was important to me to see my roots and reconnect with my aunt and mother.

This blog was started on a spur-of-the-moment idea to allow friends and family to follow our trip.
The results have exceeded all expectations with over 2000 unique web hits from 14 different countries and I thank all who were interested enough to follow my amateurish attempts at documenting our journey.

I do intend to keep the blog alive for a bit longer as I have some personal wine reviews to publish for the Christmas season so stay tuned..

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Pointy headed Romanian rock king or King Carol I
Back to reality as I hit the ground running back in Canada trying to re-enter civilian life.

Our Air France flight was largely uneventful except for the 2 screaming babies nearby and the 2 illegals hauled off the plane by border guards as soon as the fuselage doors opened in Montreal.
I drove home with my ride and my aunt and Mom flew on to Toronto and drove back to Peterborough arriving just after midnight eastern standard time.

 So how did you like the Balkans?

This is the question I have already been asked by locals and friends and family upon my return to Canada.

Firstly Serbia and much of Romania is not a destination for the all inclusive resort, cruise ship lounging set. You will not get North American style service and food without looking really hard. There are some high end places that can cater to this set but they tend to run at very high prices.

What typically passes for a three or four star hotel in these countries is not what you would expect from the same rating in Western Europe or N. America. to complicate matters sometimes a hotel exceeds their rating but generally, you can knock a star off to represent true conditions. Service is varied with some surly or incompetent hotel/dining staff and then get first rate service when you least expect it at another establishment.
What happens when you get to zero stars?

The infrastructure is at its limits with power outages, potholed roads and random internet outages. These infrastructure limits have translated into economic growth limits now as foreign investors start to pull back due to poor returns. Ecologically the air quality is poor as coal fired power plants, mass burning of crop stubble on fields, wood source heating and being downwind of 400 million Europeans. Littering is still rampant at road sides and scenic mountain passes and water course quality is poor in many locations. Government and police corruption is still a concern and the EU is taking steps to deal with these Infrastructure, ecologic and corruption problems.

 Women's issues are also a concern in Romania as is witnessed by the many older women in poverty struggling to supplement their living at road side stands and a thriving business in the exportation of sex trade workers.

The Roma or gypsy population face their own discrimination and lower living standards than the general population reminding me of Canada's struggle with it's aboriginal citizens. Of course in Serbia there is still the specter of more war as the Kosovo situation drags on with no real solution in sight.

I hope you are still reading this because there is a big but attached to all the bad news above and it doesn't belong to either of my traveling companions.

Tomorrow I will tell you what the good stuff is.
In the mean time here are pictures of a streetcar to amuse you:

No nefarious intent driver, just a pretty streetcar

Monday, October 10, 2011


Enough of Draculaville.

Our journey is coming to an end and we are nearing Bucharest for our departure. One last detour was in order before our weekend in the big city. Our destination was Curtea De Arges and the Arges Valley and to get here from Bran we had to take a 1200 metre mountain pass with switch backs and spectacular views.

Curtea is a a small town of 30,000 but has an important monastery that was built of white marble in the early 1500's and beautifully restored in the late 1800's. In it resides the tombs of four kings and queens, the latest being Queen Marie(1938). Gold leaf embellishes almost every interior surface and the grounds are stately gardens. Also here in the centre of town lies a 14th century church built over the ruins of a 13th century palace. The grounds of the church are the foundations of the palace. Also found here is an excellent communist county museum with displays of antiquities from the year 400 right up to 1970's propaganda on the mighty industrial machine of modern Romania.

North from Curtea is the Arges valley and the start of the Transfagarsan Road, another one of the Genius' mega projects. Built in the 70's, this road provides a central path over the mountains for strategic purposes in case the Russians attacked. It comes out near Sibiu, one of our first Transylvania stops, and reaches 2000 metres at its highest point.

About twenty minutes north lies Poienari and this is the location of Vlad III or Dracula's real castle. The point is marked with a small government tourist sign beside a power generation station. Getting to the castle involves walking 1500 steep crudely cast concrete steps through a beech tree forest. An earthquake in the late 1800's wiped out a good portion of Vlad's pad but you still get an idea. as they say in real estate location, location, location. He built here to control the Arges valley passage and tax it but also high enough that raiders could not easily kill him. Once you complete the thirty minute climb, a vendor sells you admission tickets for 1$(now he tells me!) Admission to museums and attractions is ridiculously cheap with most public institutions charging $1-$3.

After the climb we head up the highway to visit the spectacular hydro dam and accompanying Lake Vidraru. The road passes switch backs and tunnels and then snakes around the lake which is absolute wilderness and full of marked hiking along with free overnight cabanas. With a little imagination, I could easily be somewhere in Canada. This country has the largest population of large mammals in Europe including bears and it is not hard to see why. We come across a brand new four star hotel  on a rock crop overlooking the lake. We had lunch here and the manager gave me a tour, very posh with steam rooms, indoor pool, bowling alley(why is Bowling so important here??) all overlooking the lake. 65 Euros for a double an excellent value and fully booked up. The power was down and an emergency generator was running things while we were there. The site housed one of Ceausescu's summer homes before.

Back in Bucharest staying near the main airport, it is an easy $7 cab ride down town and I explore the city on foot. The nation's capital is eerily quiet on Sunday with the main boulevard closed for a marathon and a NATO summit has the palace on lock down with troops positioned strategically around in armored personnel carriers. The summit means I cannot access the palace National Gallery Art Museum as it is closed for security.

This is definitely a walking city with all its crazy streets. The subway system is also quite extensive and cheap to ride on for about $1 - $2

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Never Run With A Wooden Stake

We have been travelling through the Transylvania region of Romania now for three days. Our border crossing from Serbia was at Vrsac and we stayed the first night in the city of Timisoara, Romania's 4th largest city at 300,000 and notable for its large ethnic Hungarian population. There are surrounding towns that speak nothing but Hungarian and it was here in Timisoara's town square that the 1989 revolution began at the urging of a social activist Hungarian priest. Virtually every city in the country has a Decembrie 20 1989 thoroughfare.
Timisoara Metropolitan Eastern Orthodox

The next day we made out for Sibiu, the former capital of the old Saxon district of Transylvania. This 300 km. 6.5 hour drive involved navigating a twisty narrow 2 lane main highway that was heavily trafficked with large transports. The lack of passing lanes, shoulders and heavy police presence made it exhausting to the point where we just laid up in Sibiu for a 2-1/2 days to recover. The town was the seat of the Hapsburg rule of Transylvania in the 1400's and is just oozing with history. The Romanian government recently set about making this place a tourist zone and it shows with its spruced up cobblestone, buildings and infrastructure. We took an excellent Pension style lodging conveniently located beside the market and town square appropriately called the Happy Day Hotel.
Sibiu Town Square
 For about a 120 km. circle around Sibiu are a treasure trove of fortified churches. These are also called castles by some but are really walled churches with some residences within the fort. Many of these towns are only accessible by personal vehicle or bike on gravel one lane roads and have none of the conveniences like restaurants or anybody speaking English for that matter. It is like entering a time machine going to some of these villages but the locals are quite happy to see outsiders.

Totally abandoned, notice the clock missing

The Romanian government together with a German heritage fund is working at restoring some of these fortresses and has installed some excellent museums in a few choice locations. Others have totally fallen to ruin since the last of the Germans left under the communist rule. These are all Lutheran churches and that is one reason they are not in use -- Eastern orthodox and Catholic are the predominate religion here.

The Coles notes version of how these churches became fortified has to do with Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire during the 1200's. At this time Transylvania was under the rule of the Magyars (who became the Hungarians). The Mongols had taken control of vast areas, most of Asia from the China Sea to almost Transylvania and were the most feared army on Earth. They had advanced military tactics that used surprise attacks and fake retreats. Transylvania is a main route from Asia to western Europe and they slaughtered 10,000 Magyar troops in one battle with only 100 survivors and very few Mongol troop losses.

This was the point where fortification started. The first of the Saxon craftsmen were brought in to construct churches and walls. The mongols continued their horse mounted pillaging and rampages until Transylvania became depopulated due to the slaughter and the plague. Replacement inhabitants migrated in from Germany and Romania during the 1400's and the system of fortification was improved to protect against various raiders, mostly the Turks who also used the territory as a pathway into Europe.
church ceiling
 The defense system consisted of a village with courtyards facing inwards and windowless brick walls facing the fields behind. These fields were surrounded by a perimeter of dense shrubbery and thorns to slow raiders down. The fortified church acted as a last shelter in case of all out assault. The gates were heavily hinged and equipped with locks, a technical marvel in the 1400's. The walls were fitted with slots for crossbow firing and pouring of boiled animal fat and tar to stop any repelling of the walls.

Many of these fortifications were completed in the early 1500's and the clock at that time was a symbol of economic power. Almost every one of the fortifications has one. The power of the clock was to be able to accurately control the worker's output. Clocks were treated as currency during this time just like gold. The Hapsburg leaders gave clocks to the Turkish leaders during the 1500's to try to maintain peace.

Our next stop was the town of Sighisoara an easy drive of about 100 kms. plus a few more church fortress diversions along the way. Here is the place where Prince Vlad III was born.
Hotel Room View Sighisoara
  Bram Stoker, the Irish author of the 1890's novel Dracula, created a whole myth and subculture around Vlad even though Bram never set foot in Transylvania.
Vlad the Adult Film Star?
Vlad's father know as Vlad II Dracul ruled Wallachia in the south until the Magyars ousted him to exile in Sighisoura in the mid 1400's. Dracul Senior then cut a deal with the Ottoman Sultan for his return to power but a security deposit of his two sons into the Turk's custody was required to ensure that all tax revenue was submitted back to Istanbul.
The brother took well to his custody and converted to Islam. Our prince was an 11 year old rebel and had some nasty deeds done to him by his captives, warping him for life and giving him an obsessive hatred of Turks. He was installed mostly around 1456-1462 as leader by the Hungarians after his father's death mainly due to his strong anti Ottoman sentiment. Most of the rulers from that era were cruel (there was no Amnesty International) but his extraordinary means of dealing with captured Turks, criminals or anybody else he didn't like was to impale them on a stick through the anus and out through the shoulders. This ensured a 2-3 day slow death and he would dine while watching his victims writhe in pain. It is estimated he decapitated or impaled 80,000 before he was killed by the Turks and his head carried back to Istanbul. Vlad II Dracul's body is buried on an island in a Bucharest park. He became an instant legend in certain parts of the world from the time of his death.
Bram Stocker chose a picture of a castle in Bran, Transylvania for a description of Dracula's castle. The book Dracula has never gone out of print.
Bran Castle Terrace View
Bran just happens to be the place where I write this post from. This is the closest thing that Romania has to Niagara Falls with all its tacky glory.
Being a Falls fan, I kind of like this place too. For $33/night double we are staying in a resort style lodge with 3 pools, waterfalls, pony rides (stupid pony-my feet drag riding it), statues of Vlad and all the other kings, 6 foot high giant chess sets, fellini-esque mascots, rock climbing, zip lining, a bonfire, petting zoo with deer, restaurants with hand tenderized deer entries, a disco, tennis, bowling, nature paths-- you get the idea.
Bran Village Resort

Oh, the title of this post is what all vampires tell their children.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Waste of Energy

We are up at 500 meters up in the Fagaras mountains of Transylvania in the town of Sibiu in the Saxon region of Transylvania. After staying in the capital cities of Ljubljana and Belgrade, our route took us back into Romania a couple of days ago. The Romanian border guards are conducting more thorough searches of Serb vehicles than when we left Romania almost two weeks ago. We pass through with our Canadian passports and Romanian rental car without fanfare, but the Serbs are getting pulled over and inspected one after the other. I am guessing that it has something to do with the recent tensions in Kosovo.

The weather in this area is very much like that of southern Ontario's but it has been unusually warm this entire trip. We have not seen a drop of rain and temperatures are 25˚- 30˚ daily with colder nights here in the mountains.

Belgrade is a city of 3 million people that has always been considered the New York of the Balkans and With its neon lights and lively night life it certainly has that vibe.  I didn't get to see it with my own eyes but the Chinese embassy where the US unleashed its "Laser Guided Democracy™" in 1999 is still partially damaged as well as other sites around the city. Hey it happens -- I have punched the wrong address into my GPS too.
Flying in freedom with the Coca Cola Air Force
 On Sunday, we seek out the Nikola Tesla Museum hidden near embassy row on a small side street.
Tesla is a Serbian born inventor and arguably one of the greatest scientific minds of all time.
His main claim to fame is the alternating current electrical generating system and induction motor. This motor is still by far the most common machine used worldwide today. He also discovered radio waves, x-rays, vacuum pumps, remote control and much more. His unfinished project was the world wireless transmission of documents, photographs, music and electricity. He proved his invention but JP Morgan withdrew funding because there was no profit in it. Today we call it the internet. If interested you can read more about him here.
Tesla coil
 Our guide at the Tesla museum was an electrical engineering student from nearby Belgrade university and afterward I discussed power generation and conservation in Serbia. One of the things I notice in Europe is their careful use of electricity. The cost per kilowatt hour here is only about 3 cents compared to Ontario's 10 cents per Kw/hour. On a ratio to their wages the 3 cent rate is very costly to the average Balkan citizen.

Many of our hotel rooms have an access card key which is also your lighting controller where you cannot leave the room without killing all the electrical and A/C systems. Stairwells everywhere are lit by motion sensors and LED lighting is used widely. Public outdoor spaces are also lit very sparingly with stairways being almost dangerously dark. What I found out is that their metering is tiered so that once a third tier of consumption is reached the rate increases dramatically, hence the above mentioned conservation methods.
Live better with coal fired electricity!
 Coal is still king in this area of the world for power generation, supplying 50% of their generation but clean hydroelectric also represents a large 30% portion (Canada's is 40%). Romania is self sufficient on coal and Serbia has extensive coal reserves in the disputed Kosovo region.
Romania at 17% nuclear has big nuke expansion plans and the Serbs have signed on as a nuke free zone.

Russian natural gas is used mostly for home heating and is amazingly wide spread being available in nearly every remote village and town. Reliance on Russian supplies has its pitfalls as was discovered during the dispute in 2009 when the flow was stopped for 22 days in January. The Serbs lost all of their gas supply, Romania had to rely on domestic supplies for backup, and Slovenia declared a state of emergency.

Wood heating is still a prime heat source over expensive gas with houses receiving delivery of firewood throughout every area we visited, including major cities. Chainsaw advertisements are widespread on billboards, TV and radio.
I wonder what's causing all that haze?
Our rental car is a 2008 Ford Mondeo which is large sized sedan that seats 5 passengers with a six speed manual. This car is not  available in the  North American market but would compare to a higher end sport sedan such as the BMW 5 series. It provides an easy 50 miles per gallon or 5.3 litres per 100 kms. according to the trip computer and has power to spare carrying the 3 of us and our luggage throughout mountainous terrain. There is only one car available back home that even comes close to giving 1000 kilometers per tank full -- the Volkswagen diesel.
Want this Canada? Sorry, you can't have it.
 Diesels have never been main stream in our home market and although one can don their Tin Foil Hats and postulate on the conspiracy theories of oil companies wanting us to burn more black gold, I believe it is more complex than that.

Diesels got a bad rap when the domestic manufacturers attempted to sell us some really craptastic models in the 80's turning consumers off. Environmental concerns for the stricter N. American standards have only recently been addressed and we have a serious shortage of qualified diesel mechanics to repair these cars. The biggest deterrent is the return on investment being too long,  just like hybrids. Incidentally, hybrid cars, solar and wind power generation are non existent in this part of the world. Horses are still extensively used in the Balkans, mostly in the rural areas.  When you think about it, this is still a green energy initiative without the high cost of diesel, tires and permits.
The horse owners I have interacted with are all very proud of their steeds just as many car owners are proud of their piece of tin.
"Do you want me to stop and pose?"

Owner cutting alfalfa for "Barracuda"

 My observations here confirm my belief that if energy is priced according to its true environmental and social costs, the consumer will adjust their consumption patterns. This is always a politically unpalatable solution but there truly is a "sweet spot" that can be obtained through gradual incremental price increases without damaging the economy.

Of course, Canada being one of the world's leading suppliers of fossil fuels and having an oil patch prime minister, we all know this is not going to happen soon. Pass the tin foil please.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Slice of Slovenia

Hrastovlje 15th century church

Skocjan Caves

Skocjan Caves

Tree Tunneled road out of Piran
Ljubljana building (pronounced LUBE-el-YAWN-ah)

Piran Garbage truck. Not shown behind are 2 local couples at cafe tables tucking their legs in.

Hrastovlje church March of Death Frescoe

Ljubljana Dragon

Piran square

Ljubljana canal


Ljubljana vendor