Monthly Archives: December 2014

Twenty best experiences of 2014

What does it mean to travel for a year around the world? At the end of 2013 I wrote a selection of 20 best experiences of the first part of the trip. As the year 2014 was rolling in, I was seriously asking myself: could I possibly surpass 2013?

Today my answer is: absolutely yes! This was a tremendous year full of events and impressions and new people and places. Indeed so intense was the year, that as I re-read some of my early posts of 2014, I feel like they might have happened in another life eons ago.

Here are the twenty most powerful experiences of 2014:

20. Helicoptering to the top of a glacier
It was my lifelong fantasy to fly in a helicopter, and what a spectacular way to do it! In New Zealand’s Franz Josef, a helicopter took us up all the way to the top of a glacier, inaccessible otherwise. An otherworldly walk in the land of ice and light inside a deep glacier valley followed.

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A meditation in Enghien

My trip started from Brussels as far back as 5 July 2013. After almost exactly 500 days of travelling I found myself in Brussels again. I took a train from Cluj to Budapest and then a couple of days later flew Wizzair to Brussels-Charleroi. My first impression from being back in this city where I had spent six years of my life was a striking feeling hat nothing at all had changed. My favourite cafés were just as cozy – and full; the construction works in Arts-Loi and Schuman stations seemed just as hopeless – and seemingly without any progress during the intervening 1.5 years. My friends’ habits had not suffered a tiniest adjustment.

Of course after a while you start noticing changes. Quite a few interesting new places have popped up in the city centre. Free wifi which used to be a rarity in Brussels is now available in most unexpected places. The church of St Catherine mutated from horrifying black to pristine white. New faces – the new Commission – are looking at you from a huge poster on the side of the Berlaymont. And of course there have been important changes in my friends’ lives.

This time around I spent almost a month in Brussels, thanks to the kindness of my friend. It was a time of rest and reflection. The main question that I was asking myself was what comes next? What is next in my life? What is next on my trip? Is it over or will it continue?

The answer to this latter question is two-fold. Yes, the grand Round-The-World trip which started in Brussels in July 2013 by definition ended in Brussels in November 2014. I have come full circle.

But on the other hand I am not truly back to Brussels. I am not returning to my old life. Not yet, anyway. From here on it’s a new journey and I will continue to be somewhere in the world for a while. There is still a number of things I would like to do and experience before I settle down.

Extremely organised as I am, I possess a list of places in Brussels/Belgium that I would like to visit. This list was a permanent work-in-progess while I lived in Brussels: something was always added, something crossed off as I went. One place figuring prominently on the list was Enghien (à la française), or Edingen (in Flemish). I became infatuated with it after reading the Estonian author Tõnu Õnnepalu’s book Flandria päevik (i.e. A Flemish Diary), which was written around there (he was on an artistic scholarship). Enghien is famous for its superb park which used to belong to one of the most illustrious Belgian aristocratic families – the dukes, later princes, of Arenberg.

It is surprisingly easy to get there from Brussels. You board a train at Bruxelles-Central and in 25 minutes you descend in a small Walloon town. Enghien is located precisely on the linguistic border, i.e. the border between Wallonia and Flanders. It is one of the so-called communes à facilité,  a complex, typically Belgian notion. A commune à facilité is a commune which belongs to one linguistic community, but which provides specific rights for members of another community. In the case of Enghien, the town belongs to the French-speaking community, but the speakers of Flemish have special rights there. These rights include things like the right to address and be addressed by the administration in their native language and such. I kept thinking wouldn’t it be lovely if we introduced such communes à facilité in Estonia? Ironically, the law on national minorities foresees them, but not one commune of this sort has gained the approval of the government despite repeated applications.

Back to Enghien though, it is also a member of the Slow City movement, founded by a group of small towns in Italy inspired by the idea of Slow Food. Indeed Enghien with its sleepy, cozy and classy atmosphere seems to fit this notion rather perfectly.

The entrance of the park:

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Transnistria: guests of Suvorov

It is not only Moscow that is well connected to Comrat by minibuses. There is a minibus going to Tiraspol every hour, indeed Comrat is better linked to Tiraspol than to Chișinău. That shows an emotional connection between Transnistria and Gagauzia, united by their pro-Russian geopolitical stance. So it was easy for us to find a minibus to Transnistria and off we went on the cold sunny day though the Moldavian hillocks.

I’d heard a lot of horror stories from fellow travellers about the corrupt chaos that used to rule the border of Moldova and Transnistria. The Transnistrian border guards would demand completely unjustified bribes from Western tourists and delay them forever. The new president who recently took over in Transnistria apparently put an end to it. Anyway that was our experience – the border guard simply looked at our passports with obvious curiosity, gave as an entry coupon to be stamped in Tiraspol if we were to stay over 24 hours, repeatedly explained the rules and wished as a nice trip. Wow! Did it help that I speak Russian? Soon we were walking on the streets of Tiraspol.

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Comrat, the capital of Gagauzia

Few people have ever heard of Gagauzia. And yet in the early 90s this little republic almost became a second Transnistria. The Gagauz are a unique Turkic ethnic group which happen to be Orthodox. Nowadays most of the Gagauz live in the South of Moldova. The Gagauz have been historically pro-Russian, in contrast to the Romanian-speaking Moldovans. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1990s and there was talk of a nationalist Moldova, Gagauzia experienced popular demonstrations and even clashes with police. There was a genuine risk of a conflict along the Transnistrian lines, indeed fighters from Tiraspol were already present in Gagauzia. Eventually the Gagauz leaders found a compromise solution with the Moldovan authorities in Chisinau. Gagauzia obtained an autonomous status within Moldova with some key competences devolved to the local authority level.

It was my dream to see this curious geopolitical entity for myself. In Chisinau though the question “How to get to Comrat?” was met with stares of incomprehension. (Comrat is the capital of Gagauzia.) “Why would you go there?” they asked us. Finally we determined that minibuses to Comrat left from the South Station (Gara de Sud). Like in any town in Romania, there are at least three different bus stations in Chisinau. Gara de Sud happens to be about five km out of the city. We took a taxi to get there, although later we discovered that a minibus from the centre takes you there even quicker. At the bus station we came across a minibus heading to Comrat in some 30 minutes, and there we were sitting in the chillingly cold minibus waiting for departure.It was fascinating to look at the landscapes of this poor yet beautiful country from out of the minibus window. 2,5 hours later we were in Comrat.

The Comrat bus station, despite being very small, manages to look distinctly chaotic. Rows of minibuses heading in uncertain directions: there are even daily minibuses all the way to Moscow! Some of the minibuses are taken by siege – the free market isn’t too efficient here.

Obviously the election campaign was being waged here too, and you can see which parties expect to get the most votes. First thing we see as we exit the bus station:

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An unsuspecting English speaker would read Chișinău using the sounds as in “child” and “sin”. That’s pretty wrong. The correct Romanian pronunciation is more like “Kishinau” – indeed it sounds similar to the city’s name in Russian, which is Kishinev.

We arrived in Chișinău late on a Sunday night. Everything was closed and even to exchange money was a challenge, unless you were ready to pay 20% commission. Finally we stumbled across an abandoned-looking exchange bureau and I got some Moldovan lei. These are very strange looking notes, they seem like currency from a board game, as they’re very small and the quality of the print is low. It was pleasant to use them though as Chișinău is very cheap.

We stayed in the Adresa aparthotel, again booked on the day before arrival. It has a reception like a hotel but the actual units are flats in a typical Soviet apartment block. We immediately felt that we were no longer in Romania when the lady at the reception met us with an icy stare and complete lack of smile. The flat however was comfortable and cosy.

First thing we went to a supermarket and bought all kinds of products alien to Western Europe, or even some of the East. Among the discoveries for my friend were for example сушки, a kind of a small and dry Russian bagel (in a blue package below), as well as a waffle cake from the famous Latvian Laima factory – he couldn’t stop devouring it! As for me, I could not resist an impulsive acquisition of a can of cacao condensed milk (not on the pic but a strong catalyser of my childhood memories). Wonderful Moldovan wine and of course mushrooms.

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To Moldova via Iasi

On my second visit to Romania I promised myself to visit Moldavia. I use the word Moldavia on purpose – as I mean as much the country of Moldova as the historical region of Moldavia. The latter is significantly larger than the current independent country.

It seems that if a geography of an area is defined by a strict natural border, say a shoreline, then the definition of historical regions, their names and borders have a significantly more persistent nature in historical perspective. By contrast on endless plateaus without clear dividing lines, the borders of regions keep swimming back and forth in a chaotic dance. Eastern Europe is one such area where the borders of empires would clash like waves of transparent oceans and then disappear without trace. As a consequence the structure and relationship between various historical areas here is particularly nuanced and complex.

Honestly, it was beyond fascinating to delve deep into the intricate web of destinies all mixed up in the region. The historical Principality of Moldavia for example included such regions as Western Moldavia, Bessarabia, Budjak, Bukovina and Pokuttya. To some extent the borders of these regions overlap. Today’s Romanian province of Moldavia roughly corresponds to Western Moldavia. The country of Moldova corresponds to Bessarabia (however without its constituent part Budjak – which mostly belongs to Ukraine). Transnistria was not a part of historical Bessarabia. Romanian Moldavia is larger than Moldova in terms of both area and population.

How did it come to be that Moldova ended up as an independent country? The Romanian-Moldovan border is the limit of historical expansion of the Russian Empire at the expense of the waning Ottoman Empire. The Russian expansion was stopped by geopolitical factors, of which the main one was the counter action by other Great Powers. As a result, the border cut the Romanian-speaking lands in two.

We decided to start our lighting tour of historical Moldavia from its capital – the proud Romanian city of Iași. A couple of times it has even risen to the status of the capital of all of Romania, but was eclipsed by Bucharest each time. To truly appreciate the feeling of the journey and to look at the fields and forests and mountains, we decided to travel from Cluj to Iași by train. The trip takes 9 hours – all day – and it was a genuine post-Soviet train, with peasant grannies eating their simple fare and offering some to us, without a single word of English.

Finally the train arrived in Iași. An unpleasant surprise was in store for us there. Even though it was October, in Iași it was terribly cold. Some Siberian anticyclone covered all of Moldavia. I was visibly shaking from the cold as we were walking in my wind jacket in the dark to our hotel. The next day the weather was again sunny and bright and terribly cold, and so it remained for the next days. As a result the temptation to escape to some café or restaurant was quite irresistible 🙂

Here are some photos of Iași nonetheless. The main sight in the city is the Cathedral of the Three Ierarchs. It has been recently restored in following the historical original exactly. Indeed inside the church the work is still ongoing. This place was magical! A special atmosphere of secrecy and participation reigns there.

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The Transylvanian triangle

The fairytale-like German Siebenbürgen in Transylvania was comprised of seven towns:

  • Klausenburg = Cluj
  • Kronstadt = Brașov
  • Hermannstadt = Sibiu
  • Bistritz = Bistrița
  • Schässburg = Sighișoara
  • Mühlbach = Sebeș
  • Mediasch = Mediaș

From our base in Cluj we rather spontaneously set out to visit some of them, without determining a precise route. With our daily backpacks we simply arrived to a Cluj bus station and bought the most convenient ticket – to Sibiu. As we had boarded the bus, I opened my iPhone and booked via a room in Sibiu for the same evening – the wonders of having a local sim card!

At that time Romania was in the throes of a presidential campaign. I was there right before the first round of the election, and most of the public spaces were filled with the ads of one candidate – Victor Ponta, the current Prime Minister. In Sibiu however the second candidate dominated – Klaus Iohannis. It was no coincidence that his name sounded German – he was a representative of the local German minority. Moreover, he was the Mayor of Sibiu, which explained why he was so omnipresent there. All polls predicted a victory for Ponta, which did materialise in the first round. We know now that it was Iohannis that prevailed in the second and final round, against all odds. The key factor was the vote of the diaspora Romanians who all went for Iohannis, anointing him as a symbol of fight against corruption, whereas Ponta was perceived as closely associated with “business as usual”.

I remember the evening after the first round. We were sitting in a pizzeria in Cluj and all the Romanian TV channels were beaming the same images of widespread protests by Romanians in various European cities – London, Paris, Munich. So agitated were the protests that clashes with the police happened in many places. The reason was the fact that the Foreign Ministry (probably by design) had installed far too few voting booths in embassies, which prevented many diaspora Romanians from voting. Endless queues of angry voters were shown in a loop. I was surprised then that this was such a scandal, and only after the results of the second round where everyone could vote did I realise its significance.

One of the reasons why Iohannis had such a positive image was the transformation that he managed in Sibiu. No small help was the status of European Capital of Culture that Sibiu won. Indeed when you are there you can hardly believe you are in Romania – it seems like a magic carpet has instantaneously moved you somewhere in Austria or Bavaria. German speech can be heard on the streets due to many German tourists. There are direct flights to a number of cities in Germany. The only thing betraying we’re in Romania are the prices. Even in the restaurants on the main squares they are much lower than in comparable places in Western Europe. If you take the trouble of walking to a side street, super tasty Romanian food can be had for a euro or two – that’s where the locals go.

Sibiu’s main square:

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Cluj, the capital of Transylvania

From the feast of life called Seville, I departed for the Canary Islands. My photos from the Islands are still trapped on the flash memory card which was in the deceased photo camera. Thus I postpone the report on the Canaries until the time when I can liberate them. And so on to the next stage of my trip – Romania.

I first visited Romania only this summer – see my post about Bucharest here. This time around I was based in the second largest city in Romania, which is called Cluj-Napoca. It is the informal capital of the region of Transylvania.

If you look at the map of Romania, at first sight it looks like a coherent geographical unit. The political map though hides an important geographical reality – the Carpathian mountains, which act like a knife that cuts off from this single unit it’s North-Western slice. This slice is Transylvania.

The three major regions of Romania are Walachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. Unsurprisingly given the geography, historically they have never actually formed a political whole. They only ended up inside a single country after WWI, as the winners of the war imposed a harsh justice on the losers. This meant among many other things the break up of Austro-Hungary, which gave Transylvania to Romania. If the Romanianness of Walachia and Moldavia was never in doubt and these two principalities had periodically formed a political union, the destiny of Transylvania was always pointing towards Hungary. To this day this region has a large Hungarian minority and is strikingly different from the rest of Romania. As you would expect, the result is a rather heated argument between the Hungarians and the Romanians as to who was here first. The Hungarians would claim that when their ancestors arrived here in 10th century, the land was empty and the Romanians started settling here only later. The Romanian version is (naturally) the exact opposite.

Be it as it may, in the Middle Ages the Hungarian king decided that Transylvania was not sufficiently populated and issued an invitation to the inhabitants of his other possessions, mainly Germans, to settle here, accompanied with significant incentives. Consequently large numbers of Germans came to live here and a German culture flourished, leading to the creation of a fairytale-like land of Sievenbürgen – the Seven Towns of Transylvania, famous for their beauty and prosperity.

Cluj-Napoca plays an important role in all of these narratives. It is an ancient settlement founded by the Romans themselves – which is the reason it is held up by Romanians as the proof of their deep connection. Hungarians call the city Kolozsvár. Indeed even today it is easier from here to go to Budapest than to Bucharest. Finally the Germans call it Klausenberg – a jewel in the crown of Siebenbürgen.

The very name Cluj-Napoca is a paradox. Cluj comes from a Latin term meaning a closed castle. The old Roman castle was called Napoca. Thus in the 1970s Ceaușescu added the word Napoca to the familiar city name, in order to further establish its Romanian character. The resulting tautological hybrid in my mind sounds rather silly. It is an eternal reminder of the contested character of the place.

After WWII Hungarians formed 80% of Cluj’s population; today the proportion has reversed – 80% are Romanian. This was achieved by a massive infusion of Romanian population – Cluj grew four times during this time.

Cluj is paradoxical also in that it is almost like two cities in one. The whole topography of the place is divided into two. There are two Cathedrals: a Catholic one in the West (for Hungarians) and an Orthodox one in the East (for Romanians). The buildings and historical memorials grouped around each of the Cathedrals are correspondingly Hungarian and Romanian. The two clusters are in eternal opposition – even the wide boulevards connecting the two centres highlight this opposition. On one of such boulevards the Capitoline Shewolf is obviously meant to insist on the Roman(ian)ness of Cluj. A view from East to West:

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Seville’s Cathedral and the Alcázar

According to the legend, the builders of the Cathedral declared: “Let us create such a building that future generations will take us for lunatics.” The enormity of the Cathedral certainly does border on madness. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and one of the world’s largest churches. It took more than 100 years to build it. Much of the gold looted in Latin America went into this very edifice. The Cathedral occupies the spot of an earlier pre-Reconsquista Grand Mosque – only the Giralda and the orange gardens remain from that time.

The entrance:

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Gorgeous Sevilla

What are the top tourist attractions in Spain? The conventional answers to this question would be Barcelona, Madrid, perhaps the Canary Islands. After this trip to Spain I changed my mind completely. The most incredible, fascinating, impressive tourist city in Spain must surely be Sevilla. If anyone should ask me for a travel advice in Spain, Sevilla will be my first suggestion from now on. Like a huge birthday cake full of exquisite and varied flavours, it simply explodes with head turning attractions and authentic experiences. Sevilla surpasses all expectation.

So much so that I even have trouble choosing where to start. Let it be the fairytale-like Plaza Espana. This ensemble was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American exhibition and like the Eiffel tower never left – turning instead to a symbol of the city.

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