Brașov changes, but still stays the same

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As travel writers and human beings too, we are caught sometimes between the drive of sharing subjective memories about places we know quite well and the duty to describe, present and explain places mostly unknown to the readers. The memories and secret knowledge of hidden streets are coldly selected for the sake of the information contained, and not for the pros and cons of, maybe, the biased childhood years and distorted memories. However, during my five-day stay in the city of Brasov this summer I could not resist the temptation to run fast on the streets near Cetățuia hills that I always used as a shortcut that I always used without the knowledge of the worrisome adults when coming back on my own from the park to our summer home. This time, from Andrei Mureșanu and Eminescu street on, I climbed up on the hill, for a short tour of the citadel after a short and easy hiking. Built in the first half of the 16th century, the semi-circular citadel was destroyed several times during various fights for supremacy between local princes. The last time when it witnessed serious conflicts was at the end of the 19th century, when it was taken over for a short time by the Tsar’s Army.

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Nowadays, no more blood is shed on the old cobblestone small streets of the citadel, despite the military archery exposed in every corner that makes you feel that some preparations are still under way, although the weaponry maybe needs a fast update. Regularly, tournament shows are organized following the old Middle Age arts, but only for the entertainment. Although the place misses an exhaustive documentary outline, you can still get some small insights about former military fights, the coats of arms of different guilds that eventually contributed with their own financial efforts to the war efforts and who played anyway an important role in the economic development of the city. There is also a small restaurant and a space that can be hired for big weddings and other happy celebrations – events that Romanians love to celebrate with lots of music and food – and a view over the city. As usual, I can only wonder about the many contrasts of this city, mixing old traditional streets, to whom were added layers of industrial constructions, factories and new constructions mostly sharing a strong social statement about the new wealth of their owners.

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The more I was walking the more or less familiar streets of the city, the more I discovered new colours and small doors, leading maybe to welcoming inner yards were people set the table enjoying the summer time with some wine, home-made food and fresh fruits and veggies from the garden. I was not invited anywhere this time, as what I am left from the city are the memories of people who are no more.

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When everyone expects a lot of efforts from the local authorities to preserve and rebuild the old constructions, some of them, I might say, in an advanced stage of decay, I secretly enjoyed the pleasure of still finding the old ads from the inter-war time in a corner of the building, or some old balconies that always made me think about lots of stories taking place behind the big closed windows. When some things stay the same it’s like time stopped, only for bringing peace between me and my past.

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I how could I forget the famous big name of the city set on a corner of the equally famous local mountain Tâmpa that can be seen from the most part of the areas around the center, a permanent reminder where you really are? At the beginning of the communist times, there used to be a statue of Stalin, as the city itself was renamed The city of Stalin, but after the dictator’s death, local communist come to their senses and returned the initial name to the city. As later I climbed to the top – with the help of the telepheric, I’m not that fit – I was disappointed to realize that you can’t practically get very closer to the letter and, who knows, maybe have a special selfie near the city’s name. Couple of time back in the local news was told that a guy followed by a bear – this is their country if you didn’t know yet – saved his life jumping on the top of one of the letter from where he was saved, many hours later by special intervention teams.

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As much as I enjoyed to revisit old places and to hear news from people that used to be my neighbours and my playground friends, I equally loved to be surprised by new constructions, new restaurants and bookstores, mostly situated in the central area, near Piața Sfatului. Due to the intensive industrialisation program launched by the communist in the 1970s, many heavy industry factories were built, producing, among others, tractors, but till today, I haven’t been more than once in those areas, with a predominant architecture-by-the numbers and a local diversity of people from all over the country brought and settled there for economic reasons.

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If I could not take a picture of my smiling near the huge Brasov sign, at least I was able to go on the Rope’s Street/Strada Sforii, a famous city landmark, a very tight path connecting many of the streets and avenues with houses from the old city.

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Mostly destroyed by wars and urbanism plans, the city’s old walls can still be seen in different parts around the old city, very often well integrated into new urban contexts.

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A short hiking visit to Tampa mountain was part of the must-have schedule. Not fit enough to do the climbing on my own, I used the services of the local cable, whose small little ticket counter seems to remain unchanged till the late 1980s. Our small group of tourists – local visitors from other Transylvanian cities speaking Hungarian, some Swiss tourists and us – made it to the top within minutes. As usual, the cable stopped for a short while, a moment when I felt the need to share my knowledge about how reliable this cable is with the little bit scared Swiss tourists. As by many of the unknown paths of my life we had for a while friends among people who built the cable system in Brasov and beyond, we were shared a lot of funny and serious stories about this construction that in just a couple of seconds were back alive.

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Hiking on Tampa mountain is very easy, especially if you have the proper shoes – it rains often up there and it can be a bit muddy from time to time. There are arrows and signs everywhere and unless you don’t want an adventure off the beaten path – not recommended – you arrive back in the city in less than one hour. From the top, I made short recordings of another faces of the city, available on YouTube here and here.

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In the late summer, the nature is in full bloom and with a bit of luck and observation you can find a lot of wild berries. It’s usually quiet as most tourists rather prefer to walk around the cable station, where it is also a restaurant – probably state-owned – whose waiters are still dressed and look like forgotten from the 1980s time.

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There are two ways you can chose to come back in the city, out of which I decided to take the one called ‘Gabanyi stairs’ which is a bit complicated, with a lot of stairs, and stone-made stairs requiring a lot of attention and physical concentration. We crossed paths with many serious joggers, well-equipped and trained, running fast to the top after changing a shy ‘hello’ – always loved this social interaction of the mountains, when you greet completely unknown foreigners and eventually share some thoughts about the next water supply or refuge before continuing your way.

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Near Tampa, there are again some old citadel walls, with small shops selling traditional handwork and some small exhibition spaces of local artists. The towers bear names of various guilds – Draper’s Bastion, Rope Maker’s Bastion, Weaver’s Bastion – another reminded of the strength the guilds used to have here, as in most big cities in Transylvania.

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Very close nearby is the former Universal shop turned into a shining capitalist store, with expensive products and other luxuries, close to a very good farmer’s market, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables mostly cultivated at small and medium-scale by the locals.

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On Alexandru I. Cuza street, at no. 6A, near the Teatrul Dramatic, a sign mention that here was born the famous journalist and photographer Brassai, the pseudonym of Gyula Halász. Born from a Hungarian father and Armenian mother, he grew up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, before moving to Budapest, Berlin and finally Paris the city how made him famous. In this part of the Europe, such biographies are rather the rule than the exception.

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Early in the Sunday mornings, the city streets are almost empty, and except the busy VIPs and tourists hosted at the local Aro Palace hotel, you can hardly see anyone on the street. In such moments, the city reveals its full colours and quiet beauty.

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The city does not have too many cultural attractions, and the small art galleries are still missing, although there are quite many local artists living here. In one of my last days, I am heading to the small local Ethnographic Museum, where one can see an exhibition of local folk costumes from the region, accompanied by some visual and photographic explanations. Although most of them are in Romanian, one can simply enjoy the beautiful colours and textures without too many words.

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Nearby, there is the Art Museum, that thanks to some local collectors and art lovers hosted many many years back impressive Salvador Dali and Miro exhibitions. This time, I visited an exhibition of the most famous local artists Friedrich Miess, together with Arthur Coulin. Both, mostly unknown to the rest of the country, played an important role in the development of the local art school. The paintings were mostly portraits, in various local contexts as well as women in traditional costumes. At the first floor, one can visit a permanent exhibition of Romanian painters, among which Theodor Aman, Ion Andreescu, Nicolae Grigorescu, Iosef Iser or Nicolae Tonitza.

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The streets in themselves are one my favourite exhibition spaces, with their different architecture and styles, colourful – maybe too colourful sometimes – walls and green venues.

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Close to Poarta Schei – created in the 19th century in order to better organise the traffic in the city – the houses kept mostly their traditional style and old patterns, with many old wooden gates that were mostly kept in their original shape.

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In Poarta Schei can be visited the first Romanian school, a very small old-time classroom where children learned the basic of language. The entire area is very beautiful, near the mountain, without too many shops and restaurants and less traffic.

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Back in the central area, near Piata Sfatului, with the old city hall and events taking place all round the weekend, the city is always alive. There is the action, the high-tourist traffic and the new life of the city, but also the historical houses and some newly design fashion and art shops. As I have to say ‘good bye’ without a clear return date but hope sooner than 12 or more years as it happened last, I am glad that I was back for such a long quiet time without anything else to do but roam around taking pictures and notes about new destinations. But I grew up enough for not being delusional: some places will always have their own special memories in our heart that are endangered by the everyday contact with the reality. That’s the risk of the travel writer that I fully assumed already.

For more insights from Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/brasov-romania/

 

Interview with Savannah Grace, author of Backpacks and Bra Straps

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At 14, Savannah started a long journey that 10 years after brought her to 100 countries visited, and two travel books – for now – about her experiences on the road. After the successful I grew my boobs in China, she just released the continuation of the family travel adventure, Backpacks and Bra Straps, focused on the travel experiences in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Nepal. In between the final editing and the last details of the launching campaigns, she had some time for an interview about her lessons learned and other interesting adventures. You can also find her on Twitter – @Sihpromatum – on Facebook and on Instagram – sihpromatum#. The photos were provided by the Savannah. 

journalsWhat are your lessons learned from your travel experiences as a kid?

I am an entirely different person as a result of this trip. I sometimes shudder to think what my life would have been without it. I learned so much about the world, people, cultures, history and most importantly myself and my family. I discovered my strengths, pushed myself to achieve goals I considered impossible and learned that dreams are worth following! This is a world full of possibilities.

I learned to appreciate and be grateful for the things I have, which is something I try not to lose. I realized that I don’t NEED all those things I thought I needed when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.

How much did it take to realize the benefits of travel at a young age?

A definite a-ha! moment was coming into Yangshuo on my first sleeper bus, only 5 days into the trip. Looking out the window at the sunrise revealing the bizarre scenery really opened my eyes to the beauty of being abroad. It revealed the excitement travel could bring. Being on the top of a hill in Mongolia at White Lake looking out over the world was another awe inspiring moment, that was about 2.5 months in. Although I certainly had many similar moments that made me stop and think about the unbelievable experience I was being given, I was still trapped within on a roller coaster of female, teenage emotions. The entire trip was a process of learning and discovery for me and I’m thankful now to have had that opportunity.

Gorgeous Yangshuo, China (1)

How did you decide to write the book? 

The idea of writing this book was put in the air early on in our adventure, as evidenced in my journal entries I’d written in Mongolia. Once our adventure started developing into something bigger than any of us had ever anticipated, we were constantly being told by fellow travellers that we needed to write a book. We felt that telling the story from my perspective as the reluctant, youngest member of the group was the most unique. I dreamed of writing the book for years before I actually started working on it. During the trip I was dedicated to keeping an extremely in-depth, daily journal. After the trip I had Mom type out my journals then I collected all the blogs and brain stormed with the family to get the base for the first book.  After that I just wrote! It took me two years, from age 20-22 to write it. After being rejected numerous  times by traditional publishers because of my inexperience and youth, I made the decision to self-publish. What a sihpromatum that was!!! I researched to no end, put all the pieces together; editor, cover design, formatting, printer  and the very first proofs came into my hands in September 2012! What a moment that was to finally come face to face with my dream of 7 years!

What are your recommendations for other travellers coping with the challenges of writing? How did you start yourself writing? Do you have some favourite travel writers that inspire you?

If you are feeling sluggish and don’t know where to start, just START. I know this sounds like really unhelpful advice, but that’s what I had to keep telling myself. Thinking and stressing about doing it is harder than just DOING it. Simply sit down and start writing, even if it’s about nothing and you’ll be amazed how stuff just pours out of you. There are times where you will have a complete writers block and feel like you were never meant to be a writer and you ask yourself WHY you’re doing it…. Just tell yourself to shut up and go outside and find something beautiful to look at, get fresh air, go for a bike ride. Get the heck out of the house and feel alive again. Don’t go halfway, you have to go all the way. It will be worth it. But nobody can make it happen except YOU! I tend to read more classics than travel books. My author idol, though not a travel writer, is Diana Gabaldon, I love her writing style and the way she can make you see and smell the scenery around you.

What are your travel recommendations for 2014? What are your plans?

This year I went skiing in the French Alps and visited Cape Verde which was my 100th country! It was a wonderful trip to celebrate my 24th birthday. The rest of the year is fully booked with the publication of my second book in the Sihpromatum series, “Backpacks and Bra Straps”. I’m going on a book tour from October-December to and around Vancouver, Canada. We are planning our next major travels in 2015. Hopefully we will be able to manage a 4-6 month South East Asia trip since I have never made it to that region of the world.

What could be the challenges of travel in less travelled destinations, as a teenager and as a woman?

In some countries the mentality towards women and their rights are very different. It can be a challenge to submerse yourself fully into such different cultures and mindsets without taking offence or possibly insulting locals. Being informed is very important, especially for women.

 

The mysterious stories of the houses in Cristian, Romania

??????????Less than 20 minutes away from the big city of Brasov in Romania – watch this space for two posts about this city coming up this week – there is a small locality, Cristian. If you like hiking and you are trained enough, you can find a way to go there through the hills around. Or stop there and explore the place hour by hour for more than one day. A small train is coming up once in a while, and the cars are coming and going very fast.  A bus or a taxi can bring you faster in this little quiet paradise. Travellers visiting the area cannot be indifferent to the quiet beauty of the place and they usually stop for a long photographic trip wandering on the small streets or the hills around.

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In the morning, the cows are slowly going to their pasture places, for coming back late in the evening. As within the small locality, you can easily find a lot of recluse corners, but also open areas with people grilling or enjoying the sunny weekends, close to disaffected communist constructions whose initial destination was long forgotten since.

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There are the houses, each with its own story not easy to be told. In most of them used to live members of the German minority in Romania. At the end of the 1980s, while the communist dictatorship was reaching higher levels of absurdity and oppression, they left, bought by the German state, one by one, and I remember how from a summer to another, we drove through empty cities, with deserted houses, with an deep sadness in the air of a place – and country – where you were unlucky enough to stay, for too complicated reasons to understand to a child’s mind.

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After the end of communism, some people returned and were able to buy back their former properties, some new owners took them and changed them according to their non-local tastes. Some unlucky houses were just destroyed to the ground and in their places, new post-communist villas were built on their place not necessarily following the good architectural taste but rather displaying the joy of unexpected money abundance.

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More or less repainted or rebuilt, most houses are still the same: parallelepiped elongated shapes on the fringes of the streets, with their half-circle entrances leading to large interior yards. Children are playing around or go walking with their grand parents, while their parents are working in the city or who knows, abroad in Spain or Italy.

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The German minority settled on the territories of nowadays Romania starting from the 12th century, for economic reasons. They used to live in compact communities in Transylvania till the end of the 20th century, when the same economic – plus political – reasons brought them back to the Germany of their forefathers. Called ‘Sachsen’ or ‘Schwaben’ depending of the region they were originally from, they speak an old German dialect that used to be for a long time for me the only German language that I knew. (No excuse for my clumsy German language skills, I bet).

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From a  political and architectural stage to the other, the houses can be read as an approximate history book. Some style mixture leads to completely unexpected results, when shapes of Greek columns, eventually coloured, are attached to old river stones and metal framed windows.

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In the area near the city hall though, most houses were rebuilt keeping in mind the original 19th century local German architecture. Early in the morning, the windows are open and the careful investigation of the street life can start. Some Transylvanian houses do also have benches in the front of the houses where the old ladies can sit comfortably keeping an eye to all the social interactions and news. However, the street observation from the high of those windows looks more dignified and discrete, don’t you think?

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Caught between small streets and rows of houses, the square near the city hall looks like a perfect observation point too for understanding the secret life of Cristian.

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In the middle of the day, the open windows look like embracing the visitor while keeping you in the front of the gates. When the evening comes, everything is slowly closing and the center of life moves indoors. The life of the streets, except the speedy trucks and cars outside , is getting quieter too after 8-9 o’clock in the evening. There are a couple of small shops open – most of it is done in Brasov anyway – and a pizzeria with a late night program, but without a hotel or proper accommodation, most tourists have left already. Renting rooms by locals is possible though, especially if you want to experience a perfect retreat experience, with good local food and healthy sleep after long walks in the middle of the nature.

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The longer you stay, the more intrigues one might be about the local stories of the houses. Asking the locals about can lead to an interesting conversation, but doesn’t mean that you will get too many revelations about the secret histories.

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One afternoon, I spend my free time just walking the streets trying to catch on the camera the different styles of the houses and especially their windows. With local funds, most of them were introduced part of an open air exhibition offered to the visitors, but without too many details about their full history.

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Near the city hall, there is also a small citadel, serving as a local protestant church, with some library resources.

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The choice of the new colours for repainting the houses or only some details of them is sometimes hilarious, and the explanation should be either mysterious – maybe some colour combination can bring luck to the new entrepreneurs that decided to buy a property here – or clearly economic – those neon paintings are probably the cheapest ones on the market.

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In most cases though the decent light pink shades were kept, with various decorations that are the trademark of the well kept houses in the Transylvanian villages. People living here are more careful to keep their face showing up well kept walls and entrances.

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My short visit to Cristian was my last leg of my two-week trip to Romania – the longest stay in more than 5 years (more posts coming up this week as well). As usual, a mixture of more or less happy memories accompanies my stay there, but my visit to Cristian, after more than 20 years, reminded me of my inner child who will always keep asking lots of questions, ready to explore new territories and discover the mysterious stories hidden behind the wooden doors. As the houses are still reluctant to share their secret, I told to myself that maybe one day will spend more time listening more stories. Maybe a next time.

For more pictures from Cristian, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/cristian-romania/

Timisoara, a next European Capital of Culture?

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The first time I’ve been to Timisoara more than 10 years ago, I had to cope with a massive headache and wasn’t able see too much from the city. The second time I arrived was on a long train-way from Budapest, trying to cope with just another massive headache. Plus a shocking dirty looking train station where I was helped though by a nice lady to get the best price for the next leg of the trip to Brasov. Once I had the ticket in my pocket and was out of the station, I calmed down in a cafeteria called La Noemi, serving a good cappuccino and some traditional tasty pretzel (covrigi). Around me, I had a lot of very ugly looking communist housing projects, trying to get a bit out of the grey crowd, like this pinky ground floor. What we gonna do next?

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On the way to the small hotel we stayed, were the friendliness of the people helped me to ignore some muddy streets and dirty alleys, we noticed a lot of deserted industrial spaces, another testimony of the communist past of the city. With a nuance of regret, our taxi driver, in his mid-50s complained how the local industry doesn’t exist any more, forgetting that probably he would have not been able to talk with foreigners if the communist dictator was still in power.

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Too many historical considerations for a poor head like mine, so I rather tried to focus on the colourful present of the city, with colourful graffiti joyously invading the deserted urban spaces. Things changed a little bit more than some might want to recognize, it seems.

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The contrasts are easy to notice in Romania, where poverty and luxury can co-exist easily only steps away. Close to the dirty industrial space, it is situated a huge multi-storey mall with a sophisticated multiplex home theater, a favourite meeting point of young people. Although they probably don’t have the money to buy all the expensive clothes or electronics displayed, they enjoy the ambiance, meeting at the food court for social networking. The food is not that expensive, and besides the popular Mc Donald’s and pizza and Asian foods there are also some local Balkan dishes one should definitely not miss, such as the pleskavica, made of various ground meats and potatoes.

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One good news about my headaches is that when it happens, I should definitely try to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Hoping the cold rain will make me feel better, I took on Cuza Street, passing near a nice park with even nicer graffiti. Lacking too many tourist signs, we rather follow streets intuitively, hoping that sooner or later we will arrive somehow near the central area.

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Slowly, we entered Eugeniu de Savoia Street and from there on, we were in the historical area. Compared to many other big Romanian cities, like Bucharest, for instance, Timisoara was not affected by megalomanic urbanist reshape that might have been destroyed the old constructions. However, for decades, the local budgets are suffering for underfunding and the result is the decayed facades of classical buildings.

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The closer we were from the center, the bigger the problems. As Timisoara wants to apply its candidacy for the status of European Cultural City in 2020, the new mayor started a massive refurbishing of the streets. On the long term, it can be a good thing, and only considered myself very unlucky to be here at the wrong time. On the other side of the muddy holes, cute shops and youngish coffee shops were winking at me.

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Among the rest of the country, Timisoara as the capital city of the Banat Region, assumed always a leading intellectual role, the city enjoying for a long time a multicultural reality of many languages spoken and an intermingling of cultures and identities. It was said that at the beginning of the century, Serbian, Hungarian, German, Yiddish as well as French were spoken currently on the elegant streets of the city. Streets that were the first in Europe to enjoy the benefits of electric light. Even during the communism, who mostly destroyed the multicultural past, Timisoara was always considered the door to Europe, and given its vicinity with the more liberal Hungary and Serbia, many products prohibited in the rest of the country – including soaps, and shampoos and chewing gum – were more available here on the black market.

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All these horror histories are hopefully gone for ever, and the city is trying to get back its charming days. Going back in the early time it’s almost impossible, because many of the minorities and their representative intellectuals are long gone. Instead, the search for a new identity can be more interesting for the future of the new generation of people still living here.

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Timisoara is an university city, with many young people from the rest of the country and all over the world living here which can change and dramatically challenge the grey narrative of the past. The graffiti in the central historical area are one of the best I’ve seen during my whole European trip and at a certain extent could be read as the message in a bottle of a new generation of Romanians.

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Timisoara was the first Romanian city that in December 1989 decided to end up the fear-hate relationship with the communist dictatorship. People went out of the street, prompting other cities to do the same. In just a couple of weeks, the country was finally out of the nightmare and although there are different interpretations and versions of what and why things happened there, it was about time that the darkness in which Romanian citizens were kept for too long to end up.

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The Opera Square was one of the symbolic reunion points of the anti-communist demonstrators. Now, it was only the rain, us and some local people hurrying up. Very close from there, the small Tourist Information where we received a lot of insights about where to go next.

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Interesting Art Nouveau buildings, relatively well preserved, showed a different face of the city and I wished I can find an extensive book about the history of the local architecture. Maybe the next time.

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The square in the front of the Cathedral is another place where people risked their life to fight for the freedom of children to play freely near the alleys, without the need to hurry up to spend their after school time waiting in the front of the shops for a little bit more sugar or maybe some bread. Despite the rain, the restaurants around were full of people and a carefree feeling was in the air.

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The architecture can be surprising if you dare to explore more and more. There are a couple of guided tours in English that dedicated to the culture and history including of the huge Roma palaces around the city. If you ask the locals about them, they will feel a bit annoyed about the topic, but it’s one in a lifetime experience that tells something about the a relatively unknown European minority.

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The bad weather, the ugly headache, the exhaustion of the last long hours of train ride plus the perspective of an equally long trip shortened our stay in Timisoara. After a little walk on the bridge over the river Bega, we decided to slowly head back home for a healthy sleep. It was a short trip, but maybe of the city will win the competition to be an European Cultural City, I will dare to come back for getting to know the city in its newly restored glory.

For more pictures from Timisoara, check the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/timisoara-romania/

Visegrad and Szentendre on a rainy day

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Every time I am visiting Budapest, I rarely have time to anything but spending time in the city, socializing or visiting a new exhibition. Thus, except a very short visit to Szeged once and a little tour of the country just passing around Balaton, I never seen properly anything else. This time, I am decided to make it at least till Szentendre, the favourite weekend destination of both locals and expats. As usual, I have ambitious plans that can lead me as far as as Visegrad, 60 km. away from the capital city, close to the border with Slovakia and with the help of a guided tour I am able to make them both, by car. Otherwise, buses and trains are regularly leaving the city direction Szentendre – the ride is around 44 minutes – from where a connection by bus to Visegrad is possible. The journey from Budapest is going fine, passing near Aquaincum, a large archaeological site exploring the first capital city of Pannonia during the Roman Empire, or Kalanpark, the adventure park built on the site of a former camping park. We are following the line of the Danube, a bit on the raise after the rain. We can follow it as far away as near the border with Slovakia, a junction point that we can see from the many panoramic view near the road.

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Visegrad means upper castle or fortification in Slavic. There is at least another city with the same name in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A small castle town, it hosts the summer palace of king Matthias and a medieval citadel, built during the reign of King Bela the IVth of Hungary. For the observers of the post-communist Central and Eastern European politics, Visegrad was known for giving the name of an alliance between Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia aimed to speed-up the European integration of those countries.

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Unfortunately, the rain doesn’t seem to stop and thus, a walking till the top of the hill is out of question. Back in the car, we drove back to Szentendre, passing near an impressive number of small houses on sale. As our guide explains, many of them are on the market for almost 5 years, the reason for not finding new owners being either the limited financial resources of the population or the problematic neighbourhood with the Danube whose waters are raising dangerously.

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Most pictures from Szentendre I’ve seen are of sunny alleys with colourful flowers and busy outdoors. There are tourists and a lot of colourful merchandises displayed but there is no sun. The vivid colours of the houses or of the pottery brings more warm and make me forget about my apparent failure to see what most travellers see. Instead, I am trying to enjoy the architecture, spending as much as possible time indoors.

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There are a lot of downsides of tourism, one being an excessive focus on souvenirs and low quality products. But in small little places, where the financial and natural resources are limited, it supplies an important income. Although excessive, the traditional shopping in Szentendre is sometimes too cute to criticise it: from the lavender stuffed toys to fine jewellery inspired by Hungarian traditional models of beautiful skirts hand sewed, sold at relatively accessible prices.

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Smaller or bigger wooden boxes, with secret openings remind me of childhood, and everyone is too nice to not stay over and over in the shop trying to catch up with the language while watching new tricks about how to open those boxes.

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Small streets are leading to the heart of the maze of street, a bit far near the small hill, where people are living and less tourists are curious to go. Traditionally, Szentendre was established as a town of painters which explains some colourful facades, or just the adventurous spirit that with a little bit of attention one can notice on the streets. There are a couple of art galleries, but not directly near the main tourist avenue.

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After the first half on hour of walking, we realize that we should pay attention to every detail, look at the windows or at the doors to spot some unexpected details that are part of the picturesque spirit of the place.

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In the main square, there is a little fountain, where our guide advices us to drink from if we want to meet our other special half. Sometimes, wishful thinking can be very helpful, but I rather stay away for more water for now. Wish I can find out more details about this urban legend created around the lovers’ fountain.

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Unexpectedly, we arrive at a small house, with a sign that I can clearly read: Marzipan House. It looks like Hansel und Graetel little cottage, and I am brave enough and very much in love with the marzipan to risk a visit. From Lady Diana to Michael Jackson or characters from the Hungarian history or from the fairy tales, everything is made with care and a lot of marzipan. It’s incredible how much work and how many details can be done. Mozart’s violin took 25 hours of work, we read, while  in some other cases, the amount can reach 336 hours or more. Here is a short video of some of the sweet beauties from the museum. Of course, I did not miss the opportunity for a tasting: it’s a bit less sweeter than the one I had in the German capital city of marzipan, Lübeck, nutty, with smell and good taste of vanilla. I buy some for the later sweet tooth from the local shop, and move forward for more walking in the rain.

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For those less keen to have some rainy walks, there are plenty of restaurants, mostly serving traditional Hungarian food and sweet pancakes or icecream.

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Beautiful pottery, adorned with local motives or national symbols are displayed everywhere. The visitors looking for something more elegant for their tables, can find maybe what they are looking for at the local Herend shop, selling traditional Hungarian hand painted porcelain.

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It’s hardly anything that you cannot find here: metal keys or bells, or antiquities, clothes or shoes, jewellery or some dried paprika. A little tour only will help you to have a serious overview of the Hungarian folk traditions.

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The same can be said for the architecture, with the small colourful houses in yellow and white, with some touches of blue for the most courageous builders.

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Back to Budapest, with the boat, I sum up that the day might have not been a success in terms of photo opportunities, but I finally made it there and I spend some enjoyable hours in a small colourful settlement. With some sweet marzipan bonus. Not bad at all for a short one-day trip.

My dedicated Pinterest boards can show you more pictures from Visegrad – http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/visegrad-hungary/ – and Szentendre – http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/szentendre-hungary/.

A tour of Jewish Budapest

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Budapest, and Hungary in general, used to have a very active intellectual Jewish life, and an equally interesting Jewish religious life. Most of the Jews were killed during Shoah, and the survivors who chose to stay in the country, had to fight, not always successfully, against the pressure of assimilation and frequent outbursts of anti-Semitism during the communism. Anti-Semitism is back now and life keeps being complicated. In and around the Jewish quarter, you keep seeing a lot of memorials and monuments in the memory of the innocent people murdered with cold blood and the memories of the past are always there.

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Every time I visited Budapest I went to the Jewish quarter, either for an exhibition or a visit to one of the many synagogues. But I never had a proper tour of the entire area and my memories were mostly based on stories told by friends and family. This time, I made everything more professional and booked a tour in English that explained very much the art, history and architecture of the area, with interesting insights about kosher restaurants and daily events in the life of Budapest Jewry. The walking tours, in English or Hebrew, can be booked at the kiosk near the Dohany utca synagogue and last around 2 hours. The guides are knowledgeable and familiar with the history, and equally able to explain to both the Jewish – less or more observant – and non-Jewish visitors about customs, religious detail or history.

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All the streets around Dohany utca synagogue has traces of Jewish history. Some of them are clear, like Hebrew writing and symbols some, like in the case of architecture, are only using discretely motives that can be spotted on the walls or on the old metal doors.

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The area has precious constructions from the 19th century, with 2-3 storeys, a symbol of the relative economic well-being of the Hungarian Jews at the time. The predominant style is Art Nouveau, with a choice of decorations inspired by nature and vegetation. Most of them look like carefully decorated with a lot of love and care, just to make sure that it does not contradict in any way with the environment.

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One of the most interesting discovery of this tour was the visit at the Orthodox Kazinczy Synagogue. It was built in one year, between 1912-1913, part of a larger effort to counter the Reformist movements within Judaism.  The facade, as well as the interior, seems to have some strong inspiration from the Iraqi Jewish architecture, although the construction was made by the brothers Löffler. The two brothers were very productive during 1908-1917, when they had their own architecture bureau, as they built almost most of the Art Nouveau houses in the Jewish quarter.

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The synagogue, colourfully painted, was part of a complex that also included a Jewish girl schools. Nowadays, it is predominantly used during the high-holidays, on some Shabbats and for various tourist tours. The joyous colours of the wall paintings are contrasting with the seriousness around the Torah Ark.

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The traditional Menorah that used to be in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is represented always with 6 branches, but because the Temple is no more the menorot on the walls of this synagogue do have 5, as a message of incompleteness of our times.

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The beautiful stained glass were painted by the famous Hungarian artist Miksa Róth, imperial and royal court glass painter who also made the painted glass at the Hungarian Parliament. Heavily destroyed during the war, and even used as a stable, it was rebuilt and repainted and part of the Jewish heritage of Budapest. Especially after 2012, the street were the synagogue is situated got a new life, cultural events organized around, as well as many kosher restaurants and small Judaica shops.

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A synagogue that needs a lot of restoration though is Rumbach – in Budapest, the synagogues are named according to the name of the streets where are located. The Moorish-style construction was built at the end of the 19th century by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner. It cannot be visited, but the style reminded me a bit of some similar synagogues in Timisoara and Bucharest (Romania).

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The memories of the past are everywhere in the Jewish quarter and it’s impossible to not start asking questions yourself about how and why happened. Before the war, Hungary used to have a very big Jewish community, of around 450,00 people, half of them being situated in the capital city. The prosperous economic situation and a relative tolerance encouraged Jews from all over Central Europe to move here. But the promises were short-term and illusory, and more than half of the population being murdered.

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The Dohany utca synagogue, second largest in the world, hosts also a Museum dedicated to the Hungarian Jewry, as well as periodical concerts and exhibitions – years ago I visited an impressive Chagal exhibition here. It belongs to the Neologue/Reformist movement and is hosted concerts of Franz Liszt or Camile Saint-Saens. Especially during the Jewish Summer Festival, a regular week of Jewish culture and history organized since 1998, here are organized concerts and many cultural events. Last but not least, on Dohany was born the famous Theodor Herzl, who reshaped the aims of the Jewish communities in Europe.

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Nowadays, there are around 20 synagogues of different orientations answering the spiritual and religious needs of the community as well as of the many visitors from all over the world visiting Hungary and Budapest. There is also a kindergarten, and school, as well as a Jewish center organizing various cultural events.

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What many of the Jewish travellers will always enjoy is the chance to find a little bit of homemade food prepared well according to the highest standards of kashrut. The Jewish Budapest offers a lot of healthy, good quality and kosher food to the hungry traveller. In addition, in many big food stores, as Corso Gourmet on the popular Vaci utca, there are a lot of kosher certified food, but mostly from the snacks type. After the interesting tour, we made a long stop at the Carmel kosher restaurant, near Kazinszky synagogue. It has a classical ambiance of Central European Jewish restaurant, with Judaica paintings and decorations on the walls, leather chairs or some comfy couches and many Cloisonée lamps. The menu offers a variety of Hungarian inspired dishes – veal goulash with Hungarian noodles, for instance – but I was rather hungry for a classical crunchy Schnitzel with hummus and French fries. Call it my usual comfort food when I miss my childhood.

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The fruit salad – apples, water melon and oranges – was a bit of disappointment, and the service was slow – the disadvantage of not being part of a big group of customers, but otherwise, it was good to have a stop in the air-conditioned space after so much walk.

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The food temptations brought us more often in the Jewish quarter of Pest during our stay. Another afternoon, we were back for a slice of cheese pizza at Carimama, a very small but welcoming dairy pizzeria. Is very cheap, tasty – although a bit too burned and too salty – popular among tourists on the run and with a very fast service.

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I could not have the heart to leave Budapest without at least one stop at the historical Fröhlich, the oldest kosher pastry shop in Budapest, who deliciously survived the communism to bring us today a lot of delicious sweets that I’m glad still exist. Their speciality is the flodni, a mixture of apple, walnut and poppy seeds cream stuck between dough layers and a coverage of caramel and there is also the famous Hungarian dobos, delivered kosher style. As for me, I was too nostalgic for a slice of ishler to answer the call of any other temptation: layers of nuts cream between creamy biscuits with a caramelized sweet chocolate cover. The sweetness of every bit is getting deeper and deeper. The ambiance is also pleasant, with a very friendly lady that makes you feel like you are just back in your lost home.

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Jewish Budapest quarter has a lot of stories to tell, many of them about the past. For the young generation or for those unable to learn a realistic story of their past memory benchmarks are needed. The stumbling stones – Stolpersteine – , a project started in Berlin arrived a couple of years ago to Budapest too, aiming to mention the memory of the Jewish inhabitants of the city, with a little golden-looking stone placed in the front of their former homes.

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In the sea of indifference and cruelty,  little sparkling stars of humanity happen. One of them was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomatic envoy to Budapest, who risked his own life to rescue Jews. I left Budapest, as usual, not only with the hope to return, but with the belief of hope that at least the new young generation, many of them leaving in big number the country in the last 7 years, will have more courage and determination to simply say ‘no’ to madness.

Island hopping in Budapest, can you believe it?

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Budapest has around 7 islands, the most popular by far being Margit/Margaret Island, famous as destination for various sports events and activities. The shell-shaped Margit bears the name of Margaret, the daughter of king Bela IV who lived on the Dominican convent on the island.

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The island can be reached either by boat or directly from the yellow Arpad bridge, via tram or bus. A former location for Knight of St. John in the 12th century and of various religious orders, but in the last century was used predominantly for cultural and sport activities. As we were walking on the other side of the bridge, we noticed rows of people going at the same direction, although it was the middle of the week. We assumed right that it should be a special tournament taking place: apparently it was a handball game taking place and many were hurrying up to support their favourite team.

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The sports seem to be the most frequent activity practised on the islands, and many stadium, playgrounds and swimming pool being open all round the year to the public. Bikes, including tandem ones, can be rented for one hour or more.
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However, most visitors prefer walking slowly the 2,6 km of the island or going there for the daily portion of jogging. In maximum 30 minutes, one can make the full tour of it and although the areas around the entrance can be crowded, there are still some quiet alleys left for a quiet meditative walking.

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On the island there are two UNESCO heritage sites: the water tower and the music fountain. It seems that the happiest visitors are the children, enjoying the big spaces and the many playgrounds as well as the temptations of street food and sweets that their parents and grand parents cannot resist to do not buy them something.

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Before the 14 th century, the island was called Rabbits Island, for the number of long eared inhabitants. As in the case of the Peacock’s Island near Berlin, I haven’t seen any proud representative of the animal world. Maybe all were taken to the small zoo on the island. Two hotels, one of them a thermal one, are inviting the guests to spend more quality time on the island, a bit far away from the busy day and night life in the capital city.

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One of my favourite corners are those with a quiet view over the Danube. Although the view might include some old blocks of houses, they are too far away though to bother with their daily problems and routine.

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Seeing so many people doing seriously their portion of running, I wished that at least from time to time – or maybe only when I’m on the road, which is a lot already – I am practising more sports than intensive walking and hiking.

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As we left, I praised my time spent on the island and I was glad that although nothing special was going during my short visit, at least I had some great uneventful time. From time to time, such experiences are part of the good life on the road.