Archive for the ‘Eastern Europe’ Category

Medieval Braşov and Bran Castle

Donnerstag, Januar 29th, 2009

I think it was a good idea to leave Bucharest after two days, first I thought about staying three days. As I already wrote, my next destination was Braşov. It’s a city with about 280.000 inhabitants, in the central part of Romania, called Transylvania. Transylvania was settled by German colonists (the Transylvanian Saxons) in medieval times, Braşov was one of their settlements. Transylvania is called „Siebenbürgen“ in German, Braşov „Kronstadt“. The German population was very strong until the Second World War, you still can see many inscriptions in German language.
When I arrived in Braşov it was still raining and cold, therefore I just had a short walk around the city centre and searched for a coffee-shop where I can get dry and do stuff on the internet (Free Wireless Lan rules). I had to wait several hours until I could go to my CouchSurfers. The next morning it was very foggy, but in the afternoon the sun came out.
Braşov has a beautiful city centre, consisting of old houses. It reminds me on my hometown, Graz. It’s still surrounded by the original fortification walls on several places and some defense towers. On three sides the city centre is separated by hills from the outlying districts – which are not worth to see anyway as they were built in communist times and consist of block buildings.
One of the most impressive sights was the Black Church (built in 14th-15th century), the biggest Gothic church in Romania. It’s a protestant church, therefore everything is written in German language, even the new works of the children.

Before leaving to Sighişoara I went to see the Bran Castle – said to be one of the most famous castles in Romania. In my guide book it says that it’s „a bit of an anti-climax inside, elbowing your way through tourist groups“. I think it was a good idea to go there in January, it was really calm and I just met a bunch of other people (and a lot of cleaning personnel). It’s definitely worth the 1,50 EUR entrance fee for students (it wouldn’t be worth 10 EUR), it’s totally rambled, you can dream about hidden rooms and staircases. Outside there’s a village museum, displaying old farm houses of the surrounding area. Sadly you can’t see them from inside.

As I said, next is Sighişoara, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then Sibiu (Hermannstadt) one of the two Cultural Capitals of Europe in 2007. I hope you liked my text and my pictures.

Gigantomanism in Bucharest

Montag, Januar 26th, 2009

After good sleep in the night-bus to Bucharest (the only notable thing was the bridge over the Danube – which is the border between Bulgaria and Rumania – near Russe. A narrow bridge with steep inclines on both sides – it looked rather frightening in the night), I spent two full days in this city. I had always thought, that Bulgaria and Romania are pretty similar – but apparently I was totally wrong. The language (Romanian is – surprise – a roman language) is not the only difference. The faces look different, as do the buildings.
Bucharest is a city full of contrasts. Nicolae Ceauşescu, the infamous leader of Romania between 1965 and 1989, tried to turn it into the „Paris of the East“. Huge boulevards cross the city, lined by monotonous block buildings. Boulevard Unirii (Unirii = Union) starts at the Palace of Parliament, which is said to be the second-largest building of the world after the Pentagon, and goes 3,2 km to the east – 6m longer than it’s prototype, the Champs-Elysee in Paris. If you go just one street behind these blocks, you can see the old structures – little churches, neat two or three story buildings – in various states, some of are empty and torn-down, some newly renovated.

Bus stops are hard to find – often there’s just a small sign with the name of the station and the list of line-numbers. If there’s a shelter at the stop (which is pretty common) you usually can find a map of the routes in Bucharest. No schedules, no information about coming buses. In contrast the information system in the buses belongs to the best I’ve ever seen. LED-displays inform about the next station and possible interchanges. Many buses also host an additional screen, which shows the exact position of the bus on a map and cycle through surrounding streets by highlighting them. In Bucharest there are also trams, trolleys and some metro lines.

Most of Saturday we (I was couchsurfing, which was a good experience again) spent with a group of photographers, who meet regularily to explore parts of the city together. The best was to see the reactions of the people living there, as the group of over 50 photographers invaded their neighbourhoods and took pictures of everything. The weather was just right for taking pictures, sunny and pretty warm.

On Monday, on the way to Braşov, I went to Sinaia, a small town famous for host two interesting castels. The nice thing: I met some U.S. peace corps volunteers, currently staying in Marocco and had a nice time with them. The bad thing(s): It was cold and rainy and the castles were closed, so we didn’t even bother to go there. And the town looks like a typical hotel ressort … Not very pleasing. So I took an earlier train to Braşov … but this is another story …

You will find more pictures on my photo pages, but please check again later ;)

Trip to Lakatnik and busy studying

Freitag, Januar 23rd, 2009

This week I had two exams and one home-work … It all went pretty well. Now, I have a longer break, which I will use for traveling … My goal is the Northern neigbouring country, Rumania. I already have a reservation for a bus tonight and a CouchSurfing-host for the first days. I’m planning to come back to Sofia on the 6th of February, so I have nearly two weeks to explore this country. Then on the 9th of February a friend from Vienna will visit me … I’m already looking forward to this.

One of the classes that I had last semester was „Contemporary Europe“, where we learned about organization and – more interesting – about Policies of European Union (or better European Commission). If you don’t know about these, you should check out, it’s really interesting, and there’s a lot of information online.

So, to end this short blog entry, before I vanish to foreign countries (ok, I’m already in a foreign country, but at least it’s a different one), I want to show you some pictures of last weekend – we did a short trip to Lakatnik, about one hour by train North of Sofia.

You can find some more pictures on my photo pages again.

One more thing happened: Yesterday I lost the filling of one of my teeth … thanks to one flat-mate I could find a dentist and it’s already been fixed :)

Istanbul and short visits to Veliko Tarnovo and Svishtov

Mittwoch, Januar 21st, 2009

I used to end of my visa to Turkey for a second visit to Istanbul, together with two friends, Marie and Ewa. I was a little bit concerned before, if I really want to go again, at least it’s a long travel and I’ve already seen a lot. But it’s really a city worth to see (again). The streets are full of life, there are so many interesting views. What surprised me again and again, that people selling things on the street are artists. They all have their own way of advertising their things by shouting, but also arranging their things in a special way. And usually they don’t insist too much (But now I can’t hear „Excuse me, can I ask you a question?“, „Where are you from?“ any more). But they are all men …

This time we didn’t have so much stress to see all the sightseeing spots, we spent most of the time walking around and feeling the city … and shopping.

If you go to Istanbul, you should definitly go to the Galata Tower, the view from their is fascinating. And with an entrance fee of 10 Lira (5 Euros) it’s comparable cheap.

One morning, when my friends went to Aya Sofia which I’ve already seen before, I spent in the area around Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, the most European part of Istanbul (you can also see a lot of women there), taking pictures of city landscapes.

Our hostel (Chillout Cengo) was also located in the area. Very colorful and nice place, and very cheap. I can really recommend it. One evening we went to a pub after we heard good live music from the window – „The Beatles“ (the name of the pub, not of the band, although I would really have enjoyed to see the Beatles – but I think, I’m too young for this). The surprising thing: They didn’t serve alcohol there, everybody was drinking tea. And smoking.

The day before we went to Istanbul I spent in Veliko Tarnovo again. I already told some things about this place in early November. It’s a wonderful place situated in a meander of the river Yantra. And it’s surprisingly difficult to take pictures there, you need the full view and the impression of distances.

After Istanbul I joined Marie for a day to Svishtov, a small town in the North of Bulgaria, located at the Danube river (which we couldn’t see because of heavy fog). Our bus back from Istanbul went to Veliko Tarnovo, where we arrived around 5am. It was „fucking“ cold, and we walked to another bus station for the bus to Svishtov (we could have taken a taxi, but then we would have waited at the other bus station for an hour, which would have been even worse). What to say about Svishtov? It has a university and therefore a lot of students, which brings life to the city. It’s at the Danube and has a port and some industry. There’s a high school which is said to be a copy of the University of Vienna (at least not the main building, but for sure it looks ‚Austrian‘).

You can see more pictures of this journey on my photopages.

After these days I decided to stay some days in Sofia. There’s some work to do at university (exams and home work) and some social things (Erasmus party, concert of one flat-mate, …). Hope you liked my views from Istanbul and the Bulgarian towns.

Snow in Macedonia

Donnerstag, Januar 8th, 2009

Curious, what I did for new year? We didn’t manage to go to Macedonia, due to our little illnesses and the lack of buses on the last day of the year. So we spent new year in a very nice pub in Sofia.

Finally we managed to go to Macedonia on January 1st and stayed there until the evening of January 5th and then had a long uncomfortable night in a small bus. There’s so much I would tell about, but I try to be short (and pregnant – sorry – that’s a joke that only german-speaking people understand). Short, because I don’t have so much time, and I don’t want to bore you.

One word about politics. There’s a dispute going on about the name of the country (read more on Wikipedia). Due to the non-acceptance of their constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia), Macedonia has currently nearly no chances to join any national federations, people even need visas to travel to most – even their neighbouring – countries.

Before I traveled to Macedonia the dispute was more or less the only thing that I knew about this country. But it’s really worth to get to know it, it has a very interesting history. Most of our trip we spent in Ohrid, laying in the south-west of the country on a lake with the same name. It’s a little town with beautiful old city centre with small historic buildings. In medieval times it was an important ecclesiastic centre, thanks to Clement of Ohrid, which might have been inventor of the cyrillic alphabet, but at least was student of Cyrill and Methodius. Since 1980 the town and the lake is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On the day after we arrived it started snowing, and it only stopped for short times. I felt rather crazy to visit sight seeing spots in deep snow, but we had our fun with it (and fortunately good shoes).

We’ve also seen some more Macedonian cities: Skopje, Bitola and Prilep. Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is a modern city with a lively pedestrian zone (and currently pompous christmas lights, sponsored by T-Mobile). There’s also a Turkish bazaar with little shops in little houses. Although Skopje has a long history there are not many old buildings left, because most of them have been destroyed in an earthquake in 1963. Bitola is a small town, not far away from Ohrid. It has a long pedestrian road with colourful little houses and a populated bazaar. Of Prilep we haven’t seen a lot, we just spend some hours there before we went back to Skopje. But there’s a huge bazaar too.

Accomodation was one mayor issue on our trip. CouchSurfing is not very popular in Macedonia yet, so we couldn’t find a couch. But at least we met one girl in Ohrid (who we had asked for a place in Skopje) with her friends. In Skopje, where we stayed one night, we met the guy from the reception of the hostel we were searching for on the street. He just came back from buying some candles, because they had no electricity. We stayed there anyway, because it looked very nice there, illuminated by candles. There was a group of Croatians who came for new year and we had some nice talks with them. On the next day, with a different person on the reception and with electric lights, the place didn’t look so friendly.

In Ohrid finding a accomodation was not so easy. At the bus station several people waited who offered accomodation or taxi rides, but we said we want to stay at a hostel and we gonna walk there. Finally one old lady walked with us, because she had the same direction. All the way she tried to offer us her apartment, but we stayed firm. She was friendly, so we asked her for her phone number. Which was a really good idea, because the other places were either full or not opened due to winter. And one place (which somebody on the street offered) we didn’t like at all. Finally we got nervous to get accomodation, because it already got 10pm (we arrived there at 8pm) and decided to take her offer … but she didn’t take the phone any more. We finally found some place which was not that bad, but had no window to the outside and was more expensive (15 EUR instead of 10 EUR). On the next day we finally reached the lady and were happy to take her offer. It was an apartement in a brand new building for second homes … it looked quite good, but you could see that it was actually cheaply build.

So. The three days that I stayed in Sofia now very quite busy, on Tuesday morning when I read my emails I found out that I and my group from university have to give a presentation on Wednesday – after bad sleep in bus, I was really not in the mood to do this, but I managed anyway. On Thursday I wrote an exam for AutoCAD (I just wanted to ask my professor some questions, but he offered I can take the exam right away) and I think it went pretty well. And tomorrow I’m going to Veliko Tarnovo in the morning and in the evening to Istanbul. We will stay until Monday evening there and then I’m planning to visit a friend in Shivschtov. I want to be back in Sofia on Thursday, because one of my flat mates gives a concert that day.

I hope you like my pictures and my short story (maybe it’s not that short? There would still be much to tell about – delayed trains, friendly people, crazy dogs, slippery snow, old cars, turkish coffee, good tourist info, strange movie, …). I can at least offer you more pictures … Visit my photopages – maybe I should publish more pictures there anyway.

A small map showing our route (Data from OpenStreetMap)

Good time and misfortunes in Austria

Dienstag, Dezember 30th, 2008

Christmas vacation is over! As I already wrote in the last article, I spent Christmas „at home“. Most of the time I spent in Vienna, the days around Christmas in Graz. I really enjoyed to be at home again and meet all my loved ones. If I would have preferred to stay in Vienna longer? No. It was good as it was, I got some new energy and new motivation to experience something new. But it felt strange, one day before I left again, Sofia felt so far away, and now I’m back.
As the title of this article mentions, there were also some misfortunes. When I was in one of my favourite pubs in Graz – the Nachtexpress – somebody took my jacket (I assume accidentally). Unfortunately there were my calendar (where I have a lot of notes and memories) and my digital camera in the pockets. Now I’m a proud owner of a Canon IXUS 80. I’m quite happy with the quality by now, I hope I can present you better pictures of the rest of my stay.

Flight over Sofia. In the background you can see Vitosha mountain.

I have at least one picture I want to show you: During the approach of Sofia airport we were flying over Sofia. You can see the city through the clouds and in the background the Vitosha mountain. I took the picture very fast, during take-off and landing you are not allowed to use electronic devices … but it was sooo tempting.

So, have a happy new year! I’m planning to go to Macedonia (to be correct the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) with a friend, but we are not sure yet if we will leave tomorrow or on the 1st of January (we both are a little bit ill with aching throats and coughing). I will tell you later, what I did :)

Sofia and Plovdiv

Montag, Dezember 8th, 2008

I have to apologize again, quite some time has passed since last article on my blog. I think, in Winter I won’t manage a higher interval, we will see. I haven’t told you yet, but I’m going back to Vienna and Graz for Christmas, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s not, that I’m not enjoying the time here, but often I’m feeling a bit lonely here. Sure, I’m living in a nice flat with nice people and I found some new friends, but still I’m a little bit of an outsider here. Furthermore you often meet nice people and spend some time with them, but then they go away again, back to their countries, where they are coming from. When I moved into my flat we were five people, in middle of January we will be only two if we don’t find new flat-mates (which we should, because we can’t afford the flat for only two).

You wonder, why I haven’t told anything about Sofia yet? Hmm … I was asked from many friends before I came here: „Why Sofia?“. I think, I understand now. Sofia could be a nice city, if the municipality would want to. It sad to say, but it’s the least appealing city in Bulgaria I have seen. What I miss most in Sofia is a central pedestrian zone. I think the Vitosha Boulevard, which you can see on one of the pictures, should be a place like this. The road looks like the municipality decided ten years ago to block most of the car traffic and painted some cycling road. But that’s all they changed. There are shops and cafes, but none of them looked interesting to me when I was searching one there (which was during my first weeks in Sofia).

Sofia is strongly in the hand of car traffic. Every other means of transportation (tramway, trolley-buses, buses, cycling, walking) are unworthy (but this is actually not a surprise for me, it was an assumption that I had before I came to Sofia). On the second picture you can see a good example. It’s a cycling and walking way next to a small river south to the centre of Sofia, which has been renovated in the last weeks. Apparently the municipality didn’t know how to continue, because there’s a large crossing there, and the walking traffic has to use the underpass. The bad thing: You have to run over the road from there to come to the underpass, or you go back 100m and pass a bridge to the other side of the river.

The third really annoying thing is the fact, that the pavements are used for parking. That’s something that already annoyed me in Burgas. For me it’s not a problem, I’m healthy and can take care of myself even if I walk on the road (which often is the only option). But for older and disabled people and for parents with children this must be a big problem.

So, enough rant about Sofia, time to write some positive things. I think, these ‚Blocks‘ for social housing are better as their reputation. What I’ve seen the layout of the flats are quite good, they usually have two balconies, a living-room, kitchen, separate bath-room and toilet – and bedrooms for sure. And around the Blocks is a lot of green area with small shopping centres in between. They just don’t look very appealing from the outside. And the parks in Sofia are pretty good, and many of them have been renovated in the last years. I hope, I can show you some pictures later, maybe in Spring when it will be greener as now.

As I said, there are many better places in Bulgaria, for example Veliko Tarnovo, what I told you about some time ago. On the last weekends I have seen two more towns, Plovdiv and Blagoevgrad. And some days ago, I was on the Vitosha mountain again.


Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in Europe, it has been settled continuously since 6000 B.C. And you can feel the culture in the city, there’s a beautiful old town and next to it the modern city centre with a huge pedestrian zone. There are several hills that give a nice overview over the city (this is something, that I appreciate very much. I love this in cities like Graz and Budapest and miss it a lot in Vienna). Plovdiv was capital of Bulgaria for a short time after independence of the Ottoman Empira, but thanks to the Great Powers of that time (Austria-Hungary and Great Britain) Bulgaria was separated in two countries and the capital had to be moved to another city: Sofia. Read more on Wikipedia, it’s worth.

As this article is already getting really long, I will save my views of Blagoevgrad for the next time. At least I still have a lot of work to do until Christmas (say, next week, because I’m leaving on the 18th) for my studies. In January and February I have a lot of free time, I have to be at my university only for three exams which will hopefully be during one week. I’m not sure yet what I will do with the rest of the time, but I want to travel a lot – You have to use these opportunities, there are not so many of them. So, if somebody wants to visit me, I have a lot of time. One friend, Gerhard, already planned a visit for middle of February.

Oh … one thing I really look forward is going to a Christmas market in Vienna, we don’t have them here in Sofia. So, who wants to join me, when I’m there?

So, have a good time, I hope the next update will be sooner :)

Snow in Sofia

Samstag, November 22nd, 2008

I can’t believe it. When I went to bed pretty late everything was still normal … but when I woke up, it was snowing like crazy and now everything was covered in white. The mountain you can see on the pictures is the Vitosha-mountain as seen from one of our two balconies.

Enjoy :)

By the way, as we are talking about nature phenonemons, there was an earthquake of level 4 in Sofia last weekend, followed by some calmer ones. I was not in Sofia at that time, so I didn’t feel it, but the others were quite frightened of it, because everything was shaking in the room.

Велико Търново (Veliko Tarnovo) and the Dragon Dance

Samstag, November 15th, 2008

Last weekend we spent in Veliko Tarnovo, one of the former capitals of Bulgaria, before the occupation of Ottoman Empire (in 1393). It’s a very historical place. For sure of this old time not a lot has been remained, only the foundations of a fortress, called Царевец (Zarevets). During communist era the government tried to rebuild the castle, or at least part of it. Now you have the original ruins and ruins of construction.
Anyway, it’s a special place. On top of the hill where Zarevets resides you find the Patriarch’s church with very modern paintings (unfortunately taking pictures would have cost 5 Лв = 2,50 €). Every now and then there is an audio-visual show at this castle, it will be illuminated by different colors and you can hear music – the problem: you never know, when is the next time. So we didn’t see this.
It’s a huge area with lots of walls, ways and … an awesome view of the city. Veliko Tarnovo is lying in a meander of the river Yantra, which cut it’s bed deep into the earth. Most of the city consists of small houses which are build on the river slopes. So the city structure is something very special and from every viewpoint you are astonished again. In the old town centre you have a lot of houses with the typical architecture of Bulgarian Renaissance.
In total we haven’t seen a lot of Veliko Tarnovo, because we were a large group of eleven people (everybody from our Language Course in Burgas) and we met there to celebrate Adrian’s Birthday.

I can really recommend the hostel were we were staying, the Hostel Mostel. It’s in renovated old building, a very comfy place and they even left some holes in the painting of the walls, so you can see the structure of the wall. The staff was also very amiable and there were interesting, international guests (always a good sign for a place).

One of those guests was a Japanese guy, Oikado Ichiro, who is travelling (walking!) through Europe for quite some time now and he is an artist. He has a show, which he calls the ‚Dragon Dance‘. On the second day he already announced that he wants to do this dance for us and when we got home from Saturday evening Birthday party we found a note on the floor with his costume next to it, which announced his Dance for 11am or 12am. I was up a bit earlier, so I already could see him preparing. Finally when nearly everyone was awake he started his show (the rest awoke because of the noise). It was really impressive, what he showed us with just some simple costumes and some masks. The show lasted for about half an hour and afterwards we spent quite some time talking to him, he wrote us our names in Japanese and we exchanged e-mail-addresses.

So much for this trip, it was really a nice experience again.

This week the hard disk of my notebook died, so I had to buy a new one and reinstall everything. Fortunately I’m often doing backups, so I didn’t lose a lot of data, but some pictures of the last trips are damaged :( The good thing: I have now a hard disk with the double size from the old one (250 GB). I’m now using Xubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibix, I’m curious how it will work for me in the long run. For now I have to say, it feels really fast.

A lot of things …

Donnerstag, November 6th, 2008

I really have to excuse, now there was a really long time without an article on my Blog. It’s not that there’s nothing to talk about, for sure I’m not getting bored that easily.

As I already announced I’ve been to a CouchSurfing-Meeting in Borovets, a skiing-resort in the Rila-Mountains at the weekend of October 24th-26th.
The Meeting started on Saturday, but I wanted to go there on Friday and use the whole weekend, especially as I was told, that this place is very good for hiking. I finally found some fellows – two more Erasmus students from Germany and Latvia and a CouchSurfer from Bulgaria (who did Erasmus at Vienna University of Technology some years ago and was studying at the same university here in Sofia too). We started our trip with an evening hike. We met in Sofia shortly after 6pm and travelled to Боровец (Borovets) by bus and taxi and started hiking around 8:30pm. So it was already really dark and we had to use our head lamps. After about two hours we reached our place for the night … a mountain hut. We were welcomed with a burning oven and candle light. We had some dinner and spend the rest of the evening playing cards.
Most of the next day we spent hiking, we hiked to one of the next peaks, Шатар (Schatar), with about 2500m over sea level. Unfortunately the weather was not very nice, it was very foggy and it even had some rain.

In the days after I got a nasty diarrhea with stomach cramps and fever … not very funny, but after three or four days it finally got better. So I spent a lot of time at home, in my bed or in front of the TV.

On the weekend I joined my first Critical Mass in Sofia with a borrowed bicycle. You know, this is this an international movement of cyclists who meet and cycle through town to fight for more rights for cyclists and other alternative forms of transportation. Here in Sofia we are still a small group, we just were like a dozen people or so. Afterwards I was invited to the national radio for a concert – some psychedelic underground rock band was playing there, which was pretty got. I met the husband and a flat-mate of Rossi, the CouchSurfer where I spent my first two weeks. I had thought I might meet him there, because he is working at this radio.

On Sunday I went hiking again, this time on the Vitosha, the mountain close to Sofia, to it’s highest peak, the Черни Връх (Cherni Vrah). This time we took it easy and used a chair lift for a part of our tour. Unfortunately the weather was again not very good.

Most of the last days I spent with my computer, because I’m working on a new web application (I also should study, I will do it tomorrow, promise!). I told you about the OpenStreetMap (OSM) before, which is a free alternative to Google Maps (and similar applications) and consists mainly of user generated content. I’m not very satisfied with the default view, as the public transport routes are not being displayed (at least not if you enter them in the preferred way). I was thinking about generating an own map style for a long time, and now I decided to just do it. The project is progressing quite nicely, and I think the OSM community will be quite excited about it. But at the moment I can’t show you anything yet, I will write a special article on my blog when it’s ready to be announced.

I could actually need some help with this project. I’m not very good at drawing and I need little icons for train, tram, bus and some more things. So if you want to help the open source community, this is your chance. :)

So, thanks for patience. Have a nice weekend!