Greetings! Although I said that we would try to blog semi-regularly on this trip, I have been lazy and internet has been spotty. Sorry, Mom. Since my last post, we spent a few more days in Bucharest, Romania, then two days in Belgrade, Serbia, one day in Sofia, Bulgaria, and now we are in Istanbul, Turkey.
The last few days in Romania were mostly good. On Boxing Day we visited the mountain town of Braşov abour two hours outside of Bucharest, and although a few sights were closed it was a really nice day. Oddly enough, the town’s synagogue and Christian Orthodox church were both closed, even though 26 December is not a holiday for those religions. (Most of the region is Orthodox, in fact – I’m pretty sure it’s the major religion in Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria). The town of Braşov is at the base of a big hill/small mountain with a cable-car to the top where there are amazing views. Near the cable car is a huge Hollywood-style “BRAŞOV” sign (awesome).
Our last night in Bucharest was fairly strange and kind of frightening. KC and I planned to go to a relatively swanky restaurant in an unfamiliar part of town and decided to walk there from the hotel. The restaurant was down a fairly quiet street and about two blocks from our destination we were accosted by a group of three teenage hoodlums. They were walking in our direction and turned around to follow us immediately, yelling at us in Romanian and bits of English. First, one guy asked for a light, we said no, then the same guy asked for the time, so we told him, but all the while we were fast-walking to get away and they were surrounding us and matching our pace. The smallest kid reached into KC’s coat pocket very ineptly, and gave a sheepish smile when KC pushed his hand away. OK, so this was a group of amateur pickpockets. Trying to distract us with time and cigarettes so that they could steal the compass from KC’s pocket, I guess. The weirdest part was the culture shock when we ran into the restaurant – from being accosted by hoodlums to a very swanky and quiet restaurant. It was quite scary at the time, but if that is the worst to happen to us on the trip then we will have done quite well.
Belgrade was a good time. I don’t really know what to write about — we visited ruins of the city’s many battlements (awesome), KC found a haberdashery and bought a sweet hat, we ate lots of greasy ground meats, and we saw a bombed out building, presumably from NATO in ’99. It definitely didn’t feel like the site of a recent genocide, but I’m not sure what that is supposed to feel like, exactly. On the train to Istanbul I spoke to a young woman from Serbia who grew up during the war and she said that though her town was about 50km from where the genocide was happening, she and her sister didn’t really notice it as children apart from occasional lack of food. We weren’t in the country long enough to get any sort of real understanding of the war, so I will not try to say anything insightful about it. I’ll just say that I had a nice time in Belgrade and kind of learned to read Cyrillic.
Sofia was the biggest surprise of the trip — I admit I didn’t have high hopes for Bulgaria (in fact, we almost skipped it altogether), but it was really nice and I would have liked to spend more time there. The city is beautiful with lots of green space, and once we got our bearings we enjoyed it very much. We found a bric-a-brac wonderland at a flea market outside of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, where KC and I both purchased antique cameras (I bought a Zenit-C for Adam, KC bought a Praktika IV for himself). For lunch we ate water buffalo burgers with “melting cheese” and blackberry jam at an adorable café and generally had a lovely time wandering the city. The all-Cyrillic signage was a bit tough, but we have enough rudimentary knowledge between us to get by. Bulgaria most certainly defied my expectations in the best way (although I still did use a squat-toilet in the train station. Not going into any more detail about that).
We arrived in Istanbul yesterday morning and our first night in the city was also New Year’s Eve. After dinner, we somehow ended up in what I imagine was the busiest part of town by far, Taksim Aquare. Taksim is essentially Istanbul’s New Year’s equivalent to Times Square in NYC — packed with party people, police, and all manner of tomfoolery. It was fun to see, but since KC and I don’t drink we didn’t spend long there. We watched the midnight fireworks from our hotel window.
By the way, the hotel is absolutely wonderful. We are staying at the Berk Guest House, and they are the friendliest people of all time. Before heading out last night KC and I were sitting in the lobby skyping our families, and the owners of the guest house chatted with us and KC’s Grandma, brought us nuts and wine, and really welcomed us into their celebrations.
Today we went to the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, two of Istanbul’s most famous sights. This city is really incredible. I have looked at pictures of these places for such a long time, and to actually be right here is amazing. Istanbul is much more tourist-oriented than the others, which is a tad overwhelming at times, but still wonderful. I learned a few basic phrases in Turkish but have had very few chances to use them – at most places on the main drag you are greeted in English. It’s a bit disappointing, but alright. We still have five days left in the city and a whole list of things to do. Tomorrow we will visit the Topkapi Palace and a few markets.
I’ll try to blog again before the trip is over, but no promises. I’m generally quite tired in the evenings after long days of seeing awesome stuff, but I will do my best. ❤