not much left of ancient capital

Capital cities around the world usually offer visitors the most in terms of important attractions, good amenities, and easy travel connections. If your time is tight and you can’t venture outside the capital, you’re only seeing one aspect of the country you’re visiting. Sometimes that’s all we have time for too. But if we can, we strive to see some countryside and at least one other city or region before we move on.

That often means taking a chance on local transport and struggling with directions (and menus!) because fewer locals speak English. However, exploring beyond the capital also offers a less-constructed glimpse of community life with fewer shiny surfaces and as a bonus, fewer mindless tourists running around taking selfies and learning nothing about where they are.

We started our last trip in Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. We described our encounter here with the Roman Empire in our last blog post. Sadly, unknown to us, Sofia is also the most polluted capital city in the European Union – it is hard to breathe in public spaces, the result of coal-fired power, uncontrolled vehicle emissions, and chain-smoking on a massive scale. So our plan to escape the city was perfect.

You hear and read about classic railway journeys. The train from Sofia to the interior of Bulgaria is not one of them. On the platform you are mostly on your own figuring out if this is the right train or not, and where you’re supposed to sit. And no restaurant car, not even a coffee cart or bar service. Good thing we brought snacks! The toilet at one end of the car looked like something you would find in a prison cell. But we had a red-velvet six-seat compartment to ourselves for the entire length of the four-hour ride. We pretended it was a luxury suite!

We took in the landscape – vast fields of harvested corn and other crops, decaying railway stations, abandoned manufacturing plants, quaint-looking hillside villages, and smoke-spewing coal-fired power plants.

We knew the train didn’t stop at our destination, so the first challenge was finding the bus from the village of Gorna Oriahovitsa to the city of Veliko Tarnova. No one spoke English, but one van driver seemed to be indicating that the bus we needed was due shortly. That worked out, although we did end up missing our stop in V.T. because we couldn’t figure out where we were along the way. Fortunately we pack lightly, it was a long walk back to the place we were staying!

Veliko Tarnova is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, and was once the capital although there is little left to show for it. A hilltop fortification, Tsarevets, suffered numerous attacks over the centuries, finally sacked and destroyed by invading Turks in 1393. It has been only partially reconstructed. On the day we were on site, it was a free-entry day but strangely deserted. We enjoyed walking along the walls and through the foundations.

Similarly deserted was the archeological museum, oddly tucked into the basement of a grim-looking library, entry by knocking on the door and waiting for someone to let you into several dusty rooms of Roman, Medieval, and Bulgarian artifacts in old glass cabinets. Then we had to search and call for the attendant to let us out.

We particularly enjoyed our interactions with young shopkeepers and servers – there weren’t many tourists around and they were happy to see us and tell us about their lives – and practice their English. Not surprisingly the wages are very low and prospects for better work quite limited. In the meantime, they are making it through the day with cheap black-market cigarettes from Moldova. But they are hoping for a better future, and we hope that for them too.

Finding our seats

 

Lots of rundown railway stations and abandoned factories along the way.

And miles and miles of recently harvested crops.

Markets once lined this ancient Veliko Tarnova street.

View of Veliko Tarnova from Tsarevets Fortress.

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress — Patriarch’s Complex (church) on the highest ground behind us.

hanging with dracula in transylvania

We’re in, we replied. My oldest son and his partner had invited us to join them for a Halloween dinner and party at “Dracula’s Castle”.

Indeed, there is a castle in Transylvania that is widely promoted as the “home” of Bram Stroker’s fictional Count Dracula. Legend suggests that Vlad the Impaler, a possible model for Dracula himself, once stayed here, although most likely as a prisoner and not an honoured guest.

Bran Castle, completed in 1388, is perched on a rocky hillside with a commanding view of the narrow valley below, and the rural landscape all around. It served various political and military roles over the centuries, but much of the time it was a toll booth of sorts, collecting a tax on goods and livestock being moved along the valley.

The castle fell into disrepair in the early 1900s, and when Transylvania joined Romania at the end of the First World War, Bran city council gave it to Princess Maria of Romania — here, you fix it up! Which she did through the 1920s, turning it into a splendid summer residence. In 1938 it was inherited by Princess Ileana, but ten years later when the communists took Romania, the royal family was forced to flee.

Eventually the abandoned castle was repaired and run as a museum. And then, following the fall of the dictatorship, a long legal battle resulted in the royal family finally regaining ownership. Along the way, someone realized promoting the admittedly tenuous connections between Bran castle, Vlad, and Dracula would draw tourists to this otherwise sleepy little valley.

In fact, the whole town of Bran gets in on the act over the Halloween weekend — centred around an eclectic outdoor market with all manner of Halloween and especially Dracula-themed crafts and mass produced trinkets. The stores, restaurants, and bars in Bran are decked out with bats and pumpkins, and we accidentally wandered into (and immediately out of) a huge Chucky Cheese-style family-funhouse Halloween party.

And then there is the castle overlooking Bran, complete with steep narrow stairwells, dimly-lit rooms, and for the Halloween party, stocked with creepy decorations and creepy actors playing all sorts of creepy characters.

The gourmet dinner we signed up for featured a lot of dark red vegetables, sauces, and desserts, and a very bloody steak. Okay, we get it!

The after party was lively and loud with every simple and elaborate costume imaginable, with an emphasis on creepy!

The next day we were having lunch a few kilometres down the road and we mentioned we had attended the Halloween party at Dracula’s Castle. Our server blamed “the west” for all this Dracula nonsense that was corrupting their children and displacing traditional Romanian values. Oh, right, like the family values held by the powerful and murderous Vlad the Impaler. Or the fact that the story of Dracula draws heavily from local beliefs about ghosts and evil spirits that were still held close here in the first half of the 20th century!

Bran Castle

Inside Bran Castle

Deadly knives on display

Ready for Halloween dinner!

First course included blood sausage and red currant sauce

After party!

More after party!

remains of the roman empire

Back in high school we briefly studied the Roman Empire. Having to draw and describe some of the battle gear is all I recall, otherwise the idea of empire and what that might mean was utterly remote and abstract.

At it’s height some 1500-1900 years ago, the Roman Empire controlled a huge expanse of territory including a big chunk of Europe and part of what is now the Middle East and North Africa.

Ancient empires have come and gone, most without much to show for their occupation of foreign lands. Not so with the Romans, it seems everywhere they went, they brought technology with them. Just think aqueducts, public baths, temples, amphitheatres, roads, tile mosaics, statues, and memorials. Oh, and Roman numerals!

We have watched a play seated in a Roman amphitheatre in Malaga, Spain, walked along Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, and around the Roman baths that gave Bath its name in the south of England. We explored Diocletian’s walled palace and military outpost in Split, Croatia. And we walked through numerous ancient Roman ruins in Rome itself, and made our way to the well preserved Roman holiday-getaway, Pompeii.

To now find evidence of Roman occupation and technology during our visit to Sophia is an unexpected treat. Numerous Roman villas were discovered and documented during the Communist era. However, perhaps the most astounding find was just a few years ago when the city was digging up a square to extend the Metro subway line. It was a uniquely preserved section of the Roman highway known as “via militaris”. The stone road was built to connect Roman territories in the Middle East and North Africa with central Europe, and passed right through the then-named Serdica.

They also found the foundations for stores that faced this road, another road in behind, more building foundations, and the city gate itself. At another site nearby they found an amphitheatre and more building remains.

Visiting ancient sites brings history alive, and sure beats sitting at a desk copying pictures out of an encyclopedia!

a challenging region to enjoy

Note to self: next time we’re travel planning, in addition to checking TripAdvisor forums and the Canadian government travel advice and advisory website, look up the Air Quality Index (AQI).

It was shocking to land in Hanoi and discover the smog level is so continuously thick that we would rarely see the buildings downtown, just across the river. On the Sunday we were there, the AQI peaked at 365, categorized as “hazardous to everyone” with a caution to avoid physical exertion outdoors. To put that in perspective, the AQI was 26 on that day in Vancouver. It turns out Hanoi is one of the most heavily air-polluted cities in the world, with only a handful of “good” recorded days in 2017. Cough cough!

We have mixed feelings about our experience in Vietnam and Laos. Both are Communist countries with no freedom of expression and many other oppressive laws and practices. A few days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (which locals we talked to still call Saigon), more than 100 people were arrested for protesting government plans to offer foreign investors 99-year leases in special economic zones. However, both economies are already heavily shaped by massive direct investment from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although the protesters were particularly concerned about growing Chinese involvement in their economy. The state-run media in Vietnam report that private enterprises now employ more people than the state, and both Vietnam and Laos are in the processing of privatizing public institutions and services.

The Vietnam War looms large over both countries. You can’t visit any museums or historic sites in Vietnam without facing intense propaganda about US aggression and destruction, American soldiers described as “devils who kill women and children”, and graphic descriptions of the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. In Laos, unexploded bombs, including small cluster bombs that look like toys, continue to main and kill civilians. We visited the Mines Advisory Group information centre in Vientiane to learn more about work to clear mines and bombs from fields and communities.

The taxi drivers of Vietnam are the worst we’ve met in the world in terms of rudeness, deceptive practices, even refusing to take us across the Red River in Hanoi. We were staying just across the river from the old quarter; for some reason taxi drivers were reluctant to cross the river and pedestrians are not allowed on the two nearby bridges. We found Vietnam to be the least safe place to walk anyway, drivers pay no attention to pedestrians or traffic signals, and motorcyclists use the sidewalks to pass or go against traffic. No one slows down or stops, they just blare their horns and roar by.

There is trash everywhere. Storekeepers and street venders simply dump their trash in the street, empty lots are used as garbage dumps, streams and rivers are basically open sewers. We saw more rats running around and more men urinating in the streets in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve ever visited.

Okay, so that’s a lot of bad news for countries that claim to offer visitors “Endless Charm” (Vietnam), or a “Simply Beautiful” experience (Laos). It wasn’t all bad! The beaches in Vietnam are wide and sandy, the ancient history is fascinating, and there is an emerging craft beer industry that attracted our keen attention, especially in Saigon. The Heart of Darkness tap room was just 300m from our hotel in Saigon — superb craft beer so dangerously close we dropped by three times over four nights — the Aussie manager confirmed that made us regulars!

The Reunification Palace in Saigon aka Independence Palace.

Inside the palace as it was during the 1960s.

Gruesome photos at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Once hidden entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels, just north of Saigon.

Our favourite craft beer taproom in Vietnam: Heart of Darkness.

Nha Trang — major beach resort town.

Royal Tomb for the last king of Vietnam.

Statues of mandarins at the Royal Tomb.

Part of the ancient Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Arch within the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

The smog in Hanoi.

Massive Patuxai arch in Vientiane, Laos.

Deborah was interviewed by students asking about her experience of Laos — they seemed thrilled she was from Canada.

Quirky Belgium bar in Vientiane celebrates the life of Tintin.

Quirky park outside Vientiane features random statues of Buddha and various Hindu deities.

island hopping and walled cities

As we travel, we usually have some sense of what we expect to see and do in the next city or region we’re heading for. But with Crete and then Rhodes, we were just hoping to soak up some Greek island sun and maybe walk some trails. Little did we know that we would end up hiking down a 16 km gorge, wandering through ancient Minoan ruins and buildings built by an order of Knights, and spending time in not one, but two walled cities.

The Samaria Gorge is promoted as the longest gorge hike in Europe. It begins 1230m above sea level, and after 5-1/2 hours of negotiating steep rocky steps and loose gravel trails, hiking along dry creek beds and hopping on stones to cross streams, we made it down to sea level. We’ve done a few 8 to 10 km walks and hikes over the years, so this is a “personal best” when it comes to completing a very challenging hike. We also spotted several wild Kri Kri, a goat-like animal, although the photo above is a tame one that hangs out at one of the rest stations. Confession: we did need the next 24 hours to recover!

Crete has changed hands many times, but there is an enduring mystery around what happened to the once formidable Minoan empire, based on Crete and for centuries very much in control of trade throughout the region. Sometime after 1300 BC, the Minoans simply disappeared. Some historians suggest the collapse of the Minoan empire was the result of a major volcanic eruption and/or tsunami that destroyed their fleet and therefore means of maintaining their rule — others suggest infighting left them vulnerable to attack.

We visited the sites of two massive Minoan palace complexes. Phaistos is a set of hilltop ruins overlooking the Libyan Sea that were excavated and left as they were found, while Knossos was partially “restored” in the 1930’s by an archeologist who had a vivid imagination — signs describe where his ideas (and construction methods) conflict with current understandings of how the buildings were used and by whom.

We also spent a few days just outside the original part of Hereklion, fortified by the Venetians when they took control of the city in 1204. Most of the wall is intact, along with a small fort that protected the harbour. But other than some very old buildings, the oldest part of the city is not unlike the newer parts with trendy restaurants, flashy chain stores and overstocked souvenir shops.

Time to hop islands! Our ferry to Rhodes left at 6 pm and arrived at 2 am — fortunately our host was willing to pick us up at the terminal and make sure we were safely checked in, just inside the walls. In this case, it was an order of knights who built the walls and many of the surviving buildings inside. Rhodes is a remarkably well-preserved (and restored) medieval city. Indeed, there is an area of restaurants and souvenir shops that fills with tourists when there is a cruise ship in port for the day. But not many venture into the massive hospital built by the knights, walk by the inns they stayed in, or tour the very impressive Palace of the Grand Master.

Recalling our time in the Split and Dubrovnik and their “roles” in Game of Thrones, the new Star Wars, and other films, we asked an attendant if any television series or films were ever shot here, but her answer was no. That’s almost too bad. If you ignore the modern lighting and signage, you can easily drift back 600 years and imagine encountering some Knights of St. John, or the Grand Master himself.

montreal about to turn 375

It’s just a two-hour train ride, but Montreal is a world away from Ottawa. The buildings here are older, the streets and traffic more rumbustious, and it feels like people are simply having more fun here.

The VIA rail line takes you right into the centre of town, but the whole station is underground. No worries, there are more than 30 kms of tunnels connecting you to office buildings, numerous subway stations, and endless shops and restaurants. You can get most of the way across the downtown core without getting wet or cold if the weather is not so good. It’s called RESO, although everyone knows it as the Underground City.

I was staying at the Hostelling International hostel downtown, so checked in and was pleased to find that a walking tour of the old parts of the city was about to get underway. That’s one of the benefits of staying in HI hostels, there are often free tours or other activities to join.

We travelled through parts of the Underground City, but surfaced quite regularly to see major historic buildings — massive churches and banks using architecture to illustrate the power they represented. Our tour guide also talked about the historic conflict between the English and the French in this province, although she felt young people are much less concerned with the politics of separation than their parents.

I was surprised to find a section of the Berlin Wall on display in the atrium of the World Trade Centre — it was a gift to Montreal on the occasion of it’s 350th anniversary. That reminded me that next year the city marks 375 years since a small settlement was established on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The tour ended with a stroll around the very oldest part of the city, now home to countless restaurants, souvenir shops, art galleries, and offices.

I returned to the original old port area the next day to spend some time at the city museum. The main floor features the story of Montreal as it grew from a mission and trading post into a major industrial port and thriving metropolis. The upstairs temporary exhibition area, however, has a different story to tell. Aptly named “Scandal!” this floor introduces viewers to the seedy underbelly of the city, especially “vice, crime and morality” in the city between 1940 and 1960. Critical of criminal activity and exploitation? Sure. But celebratory in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” sort of way. Scandal! is only around until the end of December, so go see it now if you’re in the area!

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This is Windsor Station, the original eastern terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

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A piece of the Berlin Wall gifted to Montreal in 1992.

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Old office and warehouse buildings in the oldest part of Montreal.

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An old building is dwarfed by new condos under construction near the hostel.

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An irreverent peek at the seedy side of Montreal.

New Denver offers history lesson

Imagine being told to grab what you can carry in a suitcase or two and being forced to leave everything else to an unknown fate. The media describes this scenario with alarming regularly in reference to the many war-ravaged parts of the world, but it also happened here along the peaceful coast of British Colombia. However at the time, not everyone had to leave their lives and livelihoods behind, just Canadians of Japanese origin or descent.

The year was 1942, and just weeks following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour the Canadian government, more interested in scoring racist political points than showing humanity, stripped all Japanese-Canadians of their civil rights and possessions, including cars, homes, fishing boats, businesses and investments.

With only 24 hours notice, Japanese Canadians from coastal towns and the Gulf Islands were herded into animal barns at Hastings Park (site of the Pacific National Exhibition) before being dispersed: men to road construction camps, and women, children, and the elderly to a number of internment camps, mostly virtual ghost towns in and around the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. Very little evidence remains of these camps, which at one time housed almost 20,000 Japanese Canadians, but a few of the shacks survived in New Denver and have been brought together with an original meeting hall to remind all visitors of this sad chapter in Canadian history.

The New Denver internment camp was located just outside town and was home to over 1500 people crammed into 200 little wooden shacks erected in rows in an old orchard. There were two families to a shack sharing a cramped kitchen. One outdoor latrine served as many as 12 families.

One of the surviving shacks serves as the office and information centre, the second shows the interior as it would have been at the beginning of the internment – one bedroom with rough beds and blankets, the other showing personal touches added as internees made the best of life in the remote camps. The third shack recalls how some families continued to live in these shacks past the end of the internment in order to stay close to family members living in the nearby TB sanatorium (now gone). The final public building on site is the 1943 Kyowakai community hall, which houses interpretive displays and artifacts from the time. Exhibition photos and text tell the full story, from the first winter spent in canvas tents despite the heavy snowfall and intense cold, through to the long-overdue political redress settlement in 1988.

The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which just celebrated is twentieth anniversary, is located in New Denver, about 100 KMs north of Castlegar off Highway 6. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially on a one or two day circle tour from Castlegar or Nelson.

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

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Internees were moved from canvas tents to shacks with rough beds and blankets

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Shared kitchen

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View of latrine from one of the shacks

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Personal possessions on display in the hall