My research findings resulted in an article, which was published by the University of Oslo: https://www.hf.uio.no/ikos/english/studies/voices-middle-east-asia/voices-from-east-asia/treasury-of-chinese-culture-and-heritage-in-americ.html
Downtown street in Loulé, Portugal. People are attracted by the music from the speakers nearby and the pink light being sent to the skies. Sellers of LP-plates neatly put in numerous lines stand by the booths and talk to their potential customers. Just around the corner, a concert stage is getting ready. Soon a rock band comes out and starts playing last century hits. Children come out and begin to dance, since the grown-ups turned out to be too shy to show themselves. The kids run around, and the older ones throw themselves in the air and perform saltos. Row is made in front of the bar serving gin-tonic and all other kinds of cocktails. The concert lasts almost until the midnight.
Night walk on suddenly peaceful cobblestone streets. Sheets in blue, red and yellow are spread between the roofs, covering narrow passages. Some music again. It comes from a little cafe where a musician with acoustic guitar performs something melancholic and beautiful. The concrete under feet has cooled down, but just until the morning. It is August, after all.
The next day, long highway leads towards the west and the amazing and merciless Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St Vincent). Located at western Algarve‘s Costa Vicentina, the cape is also Europe’s most southwestern point. Along the lines of parked cars there is a dusty road that leads to the beautiful, fresh and harsh view. The rocky formations resist violent Atlantic hits and as the foam rolls down they reappear again, shiny and coarse against the distant horizon. The wind joins this play and runs toward the high, steep coast and the hoard of people with their cameras and covered heads, as if promising to blow them all away. One of the most beautiful beaches with golden sand is absolutely intact by human feet as it is far, far below the edge of the cape, protected and constantly sprayed by strong ways reappearing from clear blue-green ocean. The Cape‘s famous red and white lighthouse, one of the strongest and most visible ones in the world, governs both the square of what it used to be convent, dedicated to São Vicente and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world today.
This part of the Algarve region is said to be perfect for the nature lovers and those aiming to avoid the partying crowd and noise. Bathing in the wild waves can be a challenge from time to time, so it is possible to experience warm water and sunny beach a bit more inland, on the river edges.
On the beach Praia do Beliche there is a sign warning about rockfall hazard; the red line marks the high cliffs suggesting keeping away. Yet, some of the visitors have spread their towels, tents and beg exactly at the foot of the cliff – its different edges sometimes stick out, making a cave-like shelter from the strong sun rays and too much publicity. The beach, although constantly washed by the strong ocean waves is said to be one of the nicest in this area and a paradise for surfers.
In Sines there is a tree ornamented with hand-made crochet items in red, blue, green and white with a sport shoe hanged over one of them – the community here seems to have developed special at skills in order to make the town warm and pleasant to live in. In the centre of the place there is a small park with water canal and a small stone bridge and the whole area reminds of Japanese-style gardens that can be seen in different European cities. On the balconies on the living blocks nearby colourful beach towels are drying from the morning‘s bathing in the ocean. Further along the road billboards are announcing Medieval festival that will bring knights, horses and the spirit of old times to Sines soon. The old building that housed Sines‘ railway station waits at the end of the road: it is a real piece of art, ornamented in characteristic white and blue pattern, typical for Portugal, depicts the old harbour and sailing boats approaching or leaving it.
The station building walls are covered by Portuguese traditional azulejos (blue tiles) that, in combination with white and yellow colours, depict previous times in Sines harbour and boats coming in and out of it.
Nearby, a group of teenagers is playing football. Benches put along a small passage that is set up over the old railway tracks wait for some tired pedestrians to make a break and have an afternoon chat.
Sines is famous for being birth place of the famous man of sea, Vasco da Gama, whose statues keeps watch of the city‘s public beach and its surroundings, standing on the hill in front of the Mariz church, close to the network of narrow streets full of blue and white-washed houses.
On this particular evening in the area there is a sound of drum in the distance. People gather, realizing that this is not just one drum – a whole procession of local “bombeiros”(firemen) and their children soon fills the street, promoting safety of Portuguese cities and awareness about fires that struck many areas in Mediterranean Europe this unusually warm summer.
On a fresh sunny morning there is a magnificent view from the walls of Castle of Sines: fortress walls and house roofs in the morning sunlight and very few people that have gotten up before eleven, some with their dog heading for the first cup of coffee, some with their child enjoying precious bigger space on the beach sand. The museum inside the castle walls tells stories about local fishing and sailing communities.
Sines is one of towns that are strategically placed between several sand beaches that are only a short ride away. They line up northwards like pearl beads: Praia de Melides (where an aerobic team works out in challenging warm sand), Praia da Comporta and finally Praia de Tróia, beach that is less than 50 years old. The strong wind and water currents have gradually accumulated the find sand and created a beach in a natural way. The beach that continues to grow and stretches further towards the sea. At low tide, swimmers are tempted to walk long in the water, trying to reach the sandbank Cambalhão. They are soon stopped and sent back by the devoted and professional beach guards (whistle sound being an unavoidable ingredient of beach atmosphere along the Portuguese coast).
Portugal has oldest country borders in Europe and its capital, Lisbon, is older than Rome. After the ferryboat from Tróia crosses the bay, the road follows the way indicated by the open arms of the monumental Christ the King, which hovers over the 25 de Abril Bridge. Notorious for its traffic congestion, the bridge stretches over the wide Tagus River and ends up in a beautiful and exciting Lisboa, a mix of trendy modern life, long history and cultural treasures.
“In Lisbon you will have to climb a lot”, a smiling friendly local warns people visiting the city for the first time. And so it is: cobblestone narrow streets go steeply up and down and, as if that were not enough, they twist and bend around the corners, meet each other at points where Lisbon‘s numerous flatiron-like buildings. It is a worthwhile challenge to follow the route of the famous Tram 28, rather than to stand forever in a line of tired fellow-tourists. At times, messy and chaotic, Libon is constantly full of life and offers fun and experiences for anyone‘s taste: whether it be a baroque architecture, creative graffiti, facades additions such as a hanging pig (what‘s that under the balcony? A bag? Yeah..er, no! Omg, look, it‘s upside-down) or a car driving through the wall (yep, just above the newsstand), narrow passages between the tall buildings that, naturally, run steeply upwards, a walk along the river bank where a sculptor is showing his stone and sand figures in progress, or a fado night…. In the evenings, tavernas suddenly seem too small to take in all the people that want to hear fantastic fado music, a sound of guitars accompanied by passionate male and female voices.
Not far from the river bank, on the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) two sitting Chinese ladies synchronically move their upper body as they perform music beats created by drums in their hands. The red ribbons attached to their clothes and instruments fly in the air as the audience gets hypnotized both by the movement and the sound. Rooster of Barcelos, symbol of Portugal, famous cupcakes pastel de nata, canned sardines and bottles of port wine in XXL size fill the shop windows that surround the square.
Portugal is a real treat destination for book lovers. There is a Harry Potter library, Livraria Lello for the Harry‘s fans that do not mind waiting forever in a never-ending line, and then there is Bertrand Chiado, the oldest bookstore in the world. It sells not only reading items in various sizes and ages (smallest one can be easily hidden in a palm of a hand!), but also old postcards from all over the world. It is a nice place to hide away from the heat and too much rush in the streets, take a stroll among shelves with so many different stories to tell and even have a cup of coffee in the store‘s cosy garden.
After a break and recharged batteries, it is time to explore further. And which place is better to do that than the explorers‘ haven itself: Belém. An acoustic guitar player is performing in front of the white giant monument of Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries). Bent up front and facing the water and the bridge, the faces of soldiers and explorers carved in white marble, express the curious and warrior spirit that Portuguese and other sailing nations are known for.
Leaving Lisbon is definitely not easy – this cross-country trip differs from others, where capital cities often remain in the shadow of many secret treasures that not-so-known inland places have to offer. This time, the capital leaves a reminder -to come back and continue exploring, as two-three days are far from enough.
Further north, in old and charming Mafra Palace Library the good bats are sleeping forever in a glass box. Good bats? People get surprised when they learn that these flying mammals, that often give people chills, actually protect the old books against the hungry insects. That is why they deserve a special place in this protected former palace and monastery. Numerous high ceiling rooms, old kitchen, basilica with beautifully ornamented dome and courtyard full of summer green are excellent places to check and spend afternoon in for a couple of hours.
Another extreme point of Portugal: Cabo da Roca, westernmost point of mainland Europe. The lighthouse’s silhouette is bathing in hazy sunlight. It is afternoon, so the sun is on its way to the horizon behind the tower. People climb the small rocky hill and some of them simply ignore the signs warning about the “unstable cliffs”… They take photos at the rocky edges of the cape while, the fresh wind plays with their hair or takes their caps. On the continental, “safe” side of the cap, there is a green meadow with a small hilly settlement and blue mountains in the distance.
A bit further inland, lavish and UNESCO protected-town and mountain of Sintra welcomes cars and busses fully packed with tourists that follow the famous track to Sintra`s castles. A line of visitors, going all the way down to the foot of the hill (!), is daily formed in front of the Pena Palace, a XIX century monastery-turned-palace. Little space and freedom are given to tired tourists that, after finally stepping into the hall of this colourful giant, have to remain in the tight queue all the way until tour outside the glass-shielded palace rooms is finished. The beauty of the place is there, however, but the visit is not as pleasant and crowd-free as the one to a gothic estate Quinta da Regaleira and its big gardens, full of symbolic and mystic details. Here it is possible to organize one‘s own savouring of the site, whether it be admiration of creativity on the richly decorated ceilings and walls of the castle‘s rooms or climbing down the alchemy-inspired Initiation Wells and checking the dark pathways within the garden‘s caves, where the music of water drops create a perfect soundtrack to the circles they make on the surface of a small green pond.
And green remains along the highway on the way to the historic university town of Coimbra. There are so many reasons to come here: history, architecture, fado music, student parties, food, the famous university and its so magnificent, so mysterious – Joanine Library (good bats – those featuring Umberto Eco‘s “This is not the end of the book”- included). Thank you, Gotham Writers ,for the recommendation to read article on bats‘ contribution to old Portuguese libraries.
Walking up and down the cobblestone hills and staircases in the evening to get to lively baixa (downtown) will make one‘s feet pulse, but it‘s worth it. Summer night sky covers the town, but the lights are lit and people do not seem to go back home any time soon. It is simply too pleasant to be outside and enjoy the pleasant fresh air in a good company. Still, streets are not too crowded and there is not too much noise. Only some buzz around, just enough to enrich the atmosphere.
The next morning, on the way to the local bakery and breakfast, there is a fog over the small square. It is cloudy and feels like rain. However, but the time the pastry is gone off the plates, the sky clears, and the university buildings open their doors for numerous guests. A student girl, dressed in a famous black gown sells pens ornamented with graduation caps. As soon the customers pass by, she lifts up her sleeve and looks at the screen of her smartphone, hidden and protected in the shade from the sun. The line of visitors moves across the university square from church to the tower with a great view and then to rich collections of the several university science museums. Once a limited number of people find themselves within the Joanine library, phones and cameras must be stored away while the hungry bookworm eyes try to check every corner of this magnificent “House of Books”, even though that would take much longer than the time allowed. Those ladders on the second and third level of the wooden bookshelves seem to guard off some secret door, while 60,000 books keep secret knowledge from three centuries ago.
After departing down from the top floor where the library finds itself behind the locked door, there are rich science and travellers‘ collections to spend the rest of the day on. Astronomical instruments, official historical letters and gifts, animal and plant samples and exhibits from exotic countries – the university impresses all sorts of curious minds.
After academic world, a time has come to head north for the Douro Valley and try some vinho do Porto. And to experience the beautiful city, of course. “Trust me, you dance”, says “Vodka” on one of the city windows, calling for the evening party drinking and socializing. Hunger for the combination of city history and fast food can be met at the fancy Mc Donald’s Imperial, richly ornamented “golden Mc”, while those still into adventures that involves books (and “Harry Potter” movies) stand in long line already early in the morning to climb the “moving stairs” of Livraria Lello bookstore.
While strolling up and down the streets of the old town, suddenly an orchestra music starts playing loudly from the speakers that are “hidden” somewhere between the tall living blocks. That does not seem to bother neither people in the street nor those enjoying some fresh air from their windows or balconies. It seems like this is a common happening and some knowledge of Portuguese language would probably reveal the mystery of it all.
The historical square Praca da Ribeira offers a place to enjoy a cup of coffee with friends or have a stroll along the Douro River. Two cities, Porto and Gaia are separated by the river, but connected by Luís I Bridge. Many tourists cross it daily to visit the famous wine cellars, a chain of cool vinho do Porto storages, to both taste, learn about wines and spend a couple of hours in these shelters, protected from the heat outside.
When driving out of the city, in the shade of tall trees, a group of bicycle riders are doing their tour or practicing for the future races. The Douro accompanies them, flowing peacefully between green plains.
The next stop is Fátima, a town visited annually by thousands of Catholic pilgrims. Today it is shining in all its whiteness, as both believers and tourists visit its churches and chapels. The local restaurant is serving simple but delicious meat dishes at late lunch time and numerous souvenir shops make sure to underline the religious atmosphere of the place.
A different type of serenity awaits in the old citadel settlement of Óbidos, This is a place with some kind of magic atmosphere that one finds in – you guessed right – books and tales. Guarded by the old fortress walls of a special texture to the touch, this village is situated just next to the farming fields. During cloudy summer mornings, fog that gently floats above the area, only adds to the mystical ambiance of the village. Its old white and blue houses are decorated with pink and green flora, so rich and blooming during the warm season. Arriving to Óbidos and not checking out The Literary Man Hotel is a real pity; thousands of books on the shelves on different floors, in different halls of the house are simply free to take and read over the meal in a restaurant (full of full book shelves as well!), in the kitchen during cooking one‘s meal (same as previously mentioned), out in the yard or inside one‘s room. This is incredible and unforgettable experience for all book lovers. Reading in combination with a stroll through the cobblestone village streets, a shot of sour cherry liquer ginjinha or ginja (pronounce it something like “zhin-jinya” or “zhin-ja”) and a delicious meal in one of the local tavernas, will make one wish to stay at least some weeks/months/years/forever longer in this fairy-tale landscape and simply enjoy life.
The southern coast of Algarve is something completely different, which only confirms the variety of Portugal‘s territory. Coastal town Albufeira is one of the places made for party, beach and beach-party goers. Its city beach definitely does not lack visitors and the place wakes up during later evening hours for a whole night partying.
And even nicer lively coastal town, full of music, art and beautiful architecture is Faro. The town‘s cobblestone pedestrian zone stretches for visitors and locals in search for something fashionable, interesting or tasty from numerous and various vendors in the area and during the night this at places becomes a dance floor for a spontaneous party-lovers or a corner for gin & tonic drinkers.
During the low tide, sand islands show themselves in full in the surrounding shallow waters, calling for a visit to their long beaches. By noon time, rows are made on piers for ferryboat rides to one of these sandy pearls. On the Deserted Island (Ilha Deserta) there is a long boardwalk trail from one side of the island to the other, where the Cape Saint Mary (Cabo de Santa Maria) is marked with handmade artistic sculpture on the beach, where trailers rest and cool off in the fresh Atlantic waves.
Vacation and cooling off…Portugal can definitely contribute to this. And what better way to toast to this adventure than raising a glass of cold “Sagres” beer after a rich pot with paelha or cataplana and a homemade cake at a great restaurant “Solar da Planicie” ?
Text: Dragana Paulsen
Photos: Kjartan Ivar Paulsen
“Acqua alta” (high water) is a phenomenon which generally takes place in Venice in winter time, when a combination of astronomical tide, strong south wind (scirocco) and seiche (see glossary below) can cause a larger inflow of water into the Venetian Lagoon. (source)
The Carnival weekend is approaching. In the evening public water taxis go up and down Canal Grando in Acqua alta and passengers under masks in decorative and extravagant costumes. They couldn`t wait for the weekend to go undercover. Laughing and taking pictures of each other, this group is impatient to get off at San Marco stop and enter one of those party buildings, some of which are hotels “masked” into mysterious castles that allow only VIP guests. Lights along the canal look like fire torches at night. Lorenzo Quinn`s “Hands holding building” rise from the canal. The sculpture`s white grasp warns about climate change. The Rialto Bridge shines out its whiteness for those passing under it and moving further on board a ferry.
The next morning, while laundry is hanging and drying in hidden courtyards, somebody might take back exit of the patio by boat – that is the only way to exit as canal water is all one can step into if moving on this path.
Close to the Arsenale ferry stop, the sun is shining with all its force and they are serving breakfast at a local cafe – fresh pastry, toast sandwiches, cappuccino and – prosecco. Every morning local guests gather around the bartender and sip their yellow and red spirits, looking through the big window out at the pier, checking out people that are passing by.
Soon the professional actors/models will appear close to the canal, dressed up in rich ball costumes and faces hidden under cat eye masks. Some will have a sign nearby saying that it is allowed to take photos of them free of charge – they just want to introduce Venice during its February tradition. Not so far away, numerous booths are selling all kinds of masks of varying quality – another way of promoting the carnival and taking advantage of mass tourism. A syndrome that spreads in many world cities today (and causes locals to raise their voices against it).
In any case, this early spring morning that is slowly moving on in such a unique place as Venice makes many people enter another world: a world of dance, performance, art, fantasy, poetry, romance.
As the afternoon approaches, those that can afford ridiculously expensive few hours in gondolas, together with standing rowers in sailor striped t-shirts, end up on photos of the majority that stands on the bridges above the canals.
The crowd seems to buzz constantly in this floating fairytale (how else to call it, with all these unreal fashion, hidden faces and dreamlike architecture wherever one turns?!). As people move on, from one turn to the other in this cobblestone labyrinth of Venetian passages, some very creative moments can be spotted: bakery -making “flat bread – faces” and hand-made masks, right there, on the spot. The artists use their creative fingers and brushes and present their skills.
No worries if you get lost-these tall buildings and narrow passages often show signs such as Per S.Marco – yup, that`s where you`re heading.
Amazing architecture. It is enough at any time to follow with your eyes any long wall upwards, and there is always this amazing shot you can take: arches, ornaments, old window sills, Venetian blinds,or simply the combination of the building top and sky (whatever they look like!) Those families, Ferrari and Bravo, who have their names on one of the intercoms in the area, must have a good life.
A catwalk is organized at Piazza San Marco and Middle Age knight and royal ladies, scarry plague doctors and ghosts, Super Mario and Luigi, even dogs with masks on their faces and dressed in long yellow dresses can exhibit their creativity and weeks of preparation. One superman and chirurg just left their canoes next to the canal and are taking a break in the city. A whitch with a ugly long nose is sitting on the square and writing something (apparently very important) in her old book. Sunglasses shop sells its products on plague doctor masks. Magnificent Basilica di San Marco decorates the background and keeps an eye on the crowded square. The biggest crowd, however, seem to be on the Rialto Bridge, where people look for a available place to put their foot on while walking. (It does take luck to find one here and there.)
On the other side of the canal, in the area or sixth (sestiere) of Dorsoduro, students and youth makes a line in front of a popular local bar. here is discounted drink served with cheap tapas and the only thing missing are couple of more tables to accommodate all the hungry guests. Otherwise, the stairs by the canal will do the job – as long as it is not too slippery to bend and rest the tired legs while sitting on them.
Across the water, there come youth performers in their costumes and masks and entertain everybody around with their dance and tricks. The afternoon sun moves slowly over the sky and as the dusk approaches, it is time to cross the bridges again and, via colourful spice and food market, find some cozy pizzeria to have evening meal.
As it darknes, there is a “show in a show”- a play at Goldoni Theatre: raging Arlecchino (“Arlecchino furioso”) is trying to win back his long-lost love in several languages (so that everyone in audience is included) in this comical performance. After the show, tired but kind actors come down and meet the audience. Everyone smiles – they did a great job.
This night, a pop band performs a concert at Piazza San Marco and people stand in line to get some of their favourite drinks in plastic cups and jump to the music.
The next day it is impossible to take usual route along the riviera: the police has closed down the main road and is asking everyone to stand in two lines and open their bags! And they all comply, just to get by 10.30 to San Marco Square and see the Flight of the Eagle. A brave citizen takes his “flight”, hanging on the rope over the square, from the church clock down to the stage. There he will press LOVE (or WORLD PEACE) button, together with big head masks of famous world politicians and send thousands of red hearts into the air that will soon after that cover the thrilled crowd and the square ground. All of that in the rhythm of the song – “All You Need is Love”, of course.
So positively inspired, the city guests move on through the streets in Castello, the biggest sestier, in search of the famous spiral staircase Scala Contarini del Bovolo – the city`s tallest. From its heights they get a nice panorama of Venice`s rooftops in early spring sunshine, but also a bird-view of a lovely courtyard beneath their feet.
In the meantime, the square Campo de la Celestia is empty this afternoon. Suddenly, two nuns appear and quickly pass by. They cross one of the bridges that has a locked chain at the beginning of the stairs and soon disappear behind the cloister walls. It is pleasant to walk in the shade of tall buildings and rest eyes from the strong sunshine for a change. When reaching the southern bank of the Canal, one can admire the view of the basilica Santa Maria Della Salute across the water. The northern one shows an island in the distance: Isola di San Michele, one of the 118 islands in Venetian Lagoon, is a resting place for the soldiers that died in World War I. From the distance, the long island wall reflects golden colour and mirrors itself in the water. Sense of peace, history, (im)mortality and some unsaid wisdom is present.
Some blocks away, a model dressed up as a geisha is posing for he photographer. Two ladies accompany her in making different postures on the Venetian stone square and bridge.
The afternoon moves on and there is a stage being prepared on San Marco Square; tonight tango dancers show their skill to round up the festivities. Posters are put up and there is one more gathering of joyous crowd before packing the masks for the next time.
Later at night, Venice streets seem unusually quiet. Most of the people took the masks off and show their real faces (or so it seems). Some shops do not give up: they give 30% discount on masks, hoping to start fresh with new products next year.
And as the water ferry takes passengers over the canal so that they could catch their airport bus in time, some choose one of those beautiful wooden taxi boats, which Venice is famous for. Only two are not used at the moment – docked in front of Santa Maria della Salute, they wait their passengers and warm season that is about to start.
Florida, “The Sunshine State”. “Barefoot vacation” stop. Lines of palms greeting all along the way from the airport. What is your reason to visit Florida, they seem to ask tired faces looking through the windows. It`s been a long flight, over an ocean or maybe a whole continent. All the tourists that come to Florida are here for one main reason: the parks. Either entertaining or nature ones. So, which one gets vote this time?
Oh, pleease, nature parks of course, say the state park supporters. But in any case, who wouldn’t like to get a hug from Mickey? Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a fairytale escape for small princes and princesses and their tired/patients care-takers. The fun alreadty begins in the early morning at the station where mini buses will come and pick up the crowd to take them to the parks…after they see pretty much of all the rest of the suburb, as they need to stop in front of every single hotel to pick up the mass. One might begin to wonder whether it was worth it to have that 5 o`clock alarm on.By some magic probably, many do find themselves at the destination before noon and manage to take their pre-booked rides. Riding in the old train through and around the whole Magic Kingdom, bathed in January sun, is in contrast to high-tech indoor activities of all sorts and in all colours. The day goes fast at this site of never-ending excitement and finishes with the world-famous fireworks above the Cinderella’s castle! Yes, exactly like the one from the Disney movies` intro. And that is not the only one – already the evening before, pink and yellow dust from firework star explosion could be seen from the areas of the city further away from Disneyland.
When in surroundins of Orlando, it does not take a long time to reach exciting Space Coast and Kennedy Space Center, NASA`s space launch site and unique museum for all the lovers of space exploration.
Big and small (specially those with serious aspiration of becoming astronauts) come here to see the (real!) Atlantis space shuttle and hear its story on numerous space missions it had experienced, and to see the “scars” (or the proof) left on its “skin” from entering and exiting the atmosphere . Oh there is so much to try at the “KSC”: simulation of a shuttle flight, touching a stone collected on the Moon, breaking sound barrier by pressing the mysterious button, buying a meteorite for 10 000 dollars, enjoying awesome 3D movie box with a short film on space shuttle explorations, but also meeting one of the astronauts and having dinner with them.
Like so many roads in Florida, the area around the center is guarded by fence – to fence off wild life (read: alligators). It is a wildlife refuge, and tourists are allowed only to look around by sitting safely in a tourist buses. It is a very unique, interesting place: next to the long and huge path along which the rockets to be launched and transported to the launching sites (slowly, for days) are these places where an alligator or two might simply pop up and ask for a sandwich! And not only that: there is an optical illusion for those sitting tightly in the bus. Buildings of the complex are so huge, that even in far away distance they look like normal size buildings, until the driver explains that only the door of the building, “137 meters tall – the biggest door in the world, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls”, could be measured by the very buses they sit in.
It really does not get too long to get used to fences, wet ground and a warning or two here and there. It feels quite exotic for someone coming from, say, northern Europe. But that is yet nothing; soon on a scenic route between Melbourne Village and Delray Beach, a beautiful stretch known as A1A Coastal Highway, the sun is breaking through the clouds, its rays make it look like an enormous ball in the sky, and – what is rest, is pure (en)joy(ment).
It shines and shines, in the middle of winter, and people walk in shorts and T-shirts, eating icecream, or sunbathing at the beach, or “adopting a highway”, and it is recommended to “get lost”, get off the highway, because what you can find riding on the neighbouring small roads is a sunshine state paradise. (Not a single word of exaggeration here.) Green frontyards, cozy family houses, dolphine-shaped mailboxes and everything bathing in the tons of sunlights…it feels like being in a movie or reading one of those summer-inspired Camus` novels. Amazing. Oh, and yes, to remind everywhere that it is actually Christmas and New Year season, in front of some of those sun-bathing houses, on them green frontyards, there is even a Santa, sitting in his carriage, on some pile of artificial snow and a blow-up Snowman- if you focus on it, really focus, you might even feel cold a bit.
And in the evening in the center of Delray Beach there is this HUGE 100- foot Christmas tree, that replaced the regular one thought to be unsafe. This one, made of meal and steel, turns out to have a door and leads you in to see some arts and crafts and enjoy the Christmas spirit inside the tree. Quite creative. Christmas inside the tree.
Evening skies is landling slowly over downtown Delray Beach. While some people are pushing sun chairs, towels, sandals, balls, dog and kids back in the car and driving back home after spending the day at the beach (have to write it again: winter/Christmas/New Year holiday + beach/sunbathing/bare feet/surfing), some are lined up in the very, very popular icecream shop and it takes some time to finally decide which scoops to choose. Eating icecream while strolling down the long street full of Christmas palms(!) and then having a drink at some of the local bars is a nice way to end the day.
It is smart to have a good, Florida-style, laid back rest before heading for the big city – the scenic route leads the travellers in its style through alleys in sunshine and then some along the coast and after a while first signs of Miami are showing themselves: skyline shaped by building giants a almost a sudden situation of cars everywhere and somewhat crazy driving. There are many crossroads with 20 stoplights all hanging in the air, facing different directions. (This is actually typical for most of the bigger motorway crossroads in Florida and probably in all other states as well). Welcome to Miami! People everywhere, scarcely dressed but often with style; different music coming from both cars and shops, big hotel towers welcoming busses of new tourist batches and crossing white bridges and looking at all the white in Miami harbour just feels like…forever summer.
In the neighbouring Miami Beach, it feels like all the limelight is taken by beach, exotic tiki bars and giant cocktails, that need to be held with both hands and are as big as a bowl of soup. Beach is long, spacious and crowded. People look fancy and this is a bit of different face of Florida. Miami Beach is a nice place for party-goers. While sunbathing or swimming people can see a small plane circling above their head with a commercial on a tonight`s DJ show or concert printed on a flying stripe.
Those that find themselves here on New Year`s Eve, can enjoy long fireworks at the beach while digging their feet in the sand, holiday lights on the trees alongside the beach promenade and after-midnight dancing in the middle of the walking street.
Miami, today Florida second biggest city (after Jacksonville), was a wild swamp area until late 19th century. Today this city is hard to compare to the old photos, being an art metropola and much more. People worked hard and fought for the area and finally the city`s “mother” Julia Tuttle initiated building of the railroad and, eventually, the city on Miami river. Nowadays, Miami has an automated train The Metromover that circles around the downtown on a high lane level and all the people, thirsty for different kinds of art, can use it as a transportation to numerous museums this engaging place has to offer.
While walking in a broad, green city park people often end up with coconuts in front of their feet – there are many that have fallen off the park`s palm trees. (Did you know that palms are in the grass family and not related to trees? Amazing what people can learn every day!) The walk can go on along the city water canal, all the way to the pier and harbour full of boats of different sizes. Here, thrill seekers are lined up on the pier waiting to experience one of the popular speed boat tours, with their entertaining drivers and guides with big megaphones, shouting phrases such us “awesome!”, “come on!”, “let me hear you say!”, “I didn`t hear that!” and so on…In the neighbouring museum there is an open air exhibition on the importance and value of H2O, as well as the latest updates on climate change. People can really learn a lot in Miami. In Miami education is behind every corner, it seems.
Back on the scenic route, Overseas Highway, carrying U.S. Route 1 is heading towards south, all the way to tropical, exotic Florida Keys, where “no jacket is required”. People from around here remind visitors (with good reason!) about “Changes of Latitudes, Changes of Attitudes” to prepare them for the Key people`s relaxed way of living. The islands, like pearl beads, are connected by 42 bridges and form a gentle south-west curve, dividing the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. On the road, on the way to «The Keys», the more south drivers move, the narrower the land gets and the ocean blue rules the area.
There are bridges here, many bridges connecting over 100 islands. When crossing over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, there is a view of the old bridge from the beginning of 20th century – once in full traffic, it had a swing span, moving to allow ships to pass. Since a couple of years ago, it has a hole in the middle where the span once was and is visited by fishermen and cyclists. Back on the “new” bridge, the road soon takes travelers to the exotic and artist beloved Key West. This island city was once Florida`s largest and richest, thanks to its production and trade of cigars and sponges. It even enjoyed historically short independence as The Conch Republic and yes, if you happen not to know what exactly CONCH is (like, know in details and per definition, sizes,colours and everything) -no worries! Key West jewellery, art and craft, souvenir shops are all inspired by conch shells. Again, education on conch is behind every corner of Key West! Most of the art galleries and activities are focused around the special Duval Street, quite short one considering it goes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (talking about getting from point A to point B!)Key West still keeps the atmosphere of the previous times: vintage parking meters in the streets, and the old «conch train» city tours take visitors to another time dimension and let them explore the spirit of the old Florida; it is nice for many that can get there today and before could not, to feel how it used to feel, back in Hemingway time, to stroll down the cosy alleys, have a beer at the local pub with live music or write some five words mini-story at the wooden table in a local restaurant, maybe one of those serving the Keys “Pink Gold” (shrimps) and (“world-famous”) Key Lime Pie (“the taste of the Keys”). And further south (yes, there is more south one can go!), lines of tourists are formed along the road, all of them wanting to see the colourful Southermost Point Buoy, where the US continent stops and where old fishermen used to low conch shells and greet visitors to Key West. This place is actually closer to Cuba than to Miami. According to brochures, there is a belief that when facing west on a clear night, city lights of Havana can be seen in the sky! “One Human Family”, says one artwork painted on the cobblestones in the area, like it wants to remind everyone that “no man is an island”.
And when mentioning famous quotes, “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact . Then when luck comes, you are ready.” If you too are a big Hemingway fun, visit The Home . Believe the author of these lines, you will not regret it. The museum tells a lot about Ernest`s life, work and travel, and there is that room in the trees where he wrote novels and stories…real treat for those with iching (writing) fingers! And yes, there are them cats..like, hundreds of them. Unreal. (Every July there is a Hemingway Look-Alike contest in he famouse Sloppy Joe`s Bar. Grow a beard, get gray and sign up.) If staying longer in KW, there are many more museums to visit and learn more on art, history, ecology, maritime and boat industry and there are also special local sites, such as Key West Lighthouse Museum and The Harry S Truman Little White House.
Leaving beautiful, relaxed, dreamlike Key West…not easy. Sunrays falling down on emerald green water surface. Scorching sun hits the car windows and in case of roof down, here comes the wind, so it is necessary protect both eyes, ears and hair(style), of course. The radio hosts reports on winter in Chicago and “single digit temperatures (over there)” and the only problem at the moment seems to be the possibility of meeting endagered key deer or Florida black bear on the road. Yes, although Florida for many is a party destination, this is obviously a wild state!
Its flatlands and forests, lakes and oceans, wild and not so wild animals, have inspired names of roads and areas, so, driving further northwards, there are signs with names, such as: Riverbreeze, Crocodile Crossing, Lighthouse Cove, St. Cloud, Clearwater Beach, Citrus Roa, Breeze Point Road, Frostproof (“the friendly city”), Lake and Sun Road, Coconut Road and so on.
Southern and south-western Florida is occupied by the green Everglades: home to the native Indian tribes, Seminole and Miccosukee. When driving, the GPS screen turns completely green and green plains and fields replace the ocean and bridges. Yet, soon a river will join parallel with road. It is mostly quiet here and the surface of the river, reflecting dark-blue colous is untouched, covered with floating lotuses and other fauna on its edges, Sometimes, however, it is possible to see a fishing boat in the middle of river and the people onboard, patiently waiting for the fish to bite.
“Stop! You`re here”, says one of the signs, promoting airboat rides on the “River of Grass”: Indian tribes take visitors on these trips, telling the story of the Everglades` nature and wildlife: pelicans and other seabirds, alligators, crocodiles and even black bears that sometimes get down here from forests. The boat is moving fast, passing mangrove trees and bushes of thick grass. As an experienced guide imitates bird sounds, alligators (said to attack victims with both their mouth and strong tails) get “tricked” and show themselves for a photo-shoot by tourists. These tours last for around 45 minutes, and although it is pleasant being in Florida`s open air, it can get chilly when windy and earplugs are very much welcomed and needed, unless one does not mind ear buzz in the coming days…
In that case, there is a long, white beach in neighbouring Naples and walking along it might retrieve normal sound environment for the “adventurous” earlobes. Not far away from this beach, the road stretches straight and swings gently to the left and takes drivers to crescent-shaped Sanibel Island and its famous Lighthouse Beach Park. This is one of those places where the wooden stairs take feet through a dense hammock forest and finally open themselves to a long beach, where both tourists and locals are carrying plastic bags and collecting seashells of all possible sizes and colours.
Not too far from Sanibel, the motorway turns into white fenced bridge, surrounded by the sea blue with no end, only to turn into a road again, arriving to charming Ft Meyers Beach. This place is perfect to rent a bike in! Wherever in Fr. Meyers, cycling is a pure pleasure! As the sun slowly starts setting down and the dusk takes over, the wheels spin and spin on the nice path next to the road, and many people that came to camp here greet each other, making the atmosphere of a real hippie community. And this is just a start.
There is a bridge where cyclers need to push their bikes on pedestrian tracks on both sides of the road, unless they want to ride up and down long bridge. It s not that it takes to be fit and complete this (although it does), but traffic can be somewhat hectic. Better to push and stay safe! The view from the bridge thou, is so beautiful that one would be sorry for not stopping and enjoying it a bit; houses and boats turning inside lightning on, while the dusk still keeping that what is left of daylight and sending it all over the town and water.
Once arriving to the beach-it is just to go on cycling! “Paint-me-yellow” sunset, flat and very low water surface, sand crumbs laying flat under bicycle wheels, people from a tiki bar cheering those choosing cycling over beer – at least until they also get thirsty this warm summer evening.
Back on the road again and heading for Tampa – time for some unique cinema exeriences – both indoors and oudoors! Tampa Theatre is for everyone who wants to experience fairytale by simply sitting in a theater/cinema seat. How else to describe thick carpets on the floor, dimmed lights, cupola ceiling with stars above? Movie palace, as they call it, feels like a planetarium at the same time. Really, really amazing. And then there is drive-in cinema experience (that is, a movie-watching “like in movies”). After purchasing tickets online, the only other preparation remains to be fast-food takeaway, snacks and drinks and car radio tuning in the screening channel – then let the show begin! As long as the window shields are clean and the radio sound is clear, the huge outside screen will soon make you forget that you and your fellows around actually sit outside, in a car! Fun to do (maybe not too often, in case fast food and snacks are included by default – healthy diet reminder). Tampa is a enormous city and is sure a good destination to visit for a few days, for people hat enjoy big city vacations. It is fun to sightsee and visit huge supermarkets with automatic shopping cart escalators (yes, you take your drive and your groceries as well, but in their own separate lane!).
Many visitors to Florida specially look forward to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a magnificent white “giant” that slowly opens its two bows, as the vehicles drive by. It is easy to be tricked by its size while looking at it from a distance – there is a reason why it is visible from so far away.
When having a few days in Tampa, there might be enough time to visit (Florida`s) St. Petersburg and its beautiful, huge Madeira Beach. Sunny coastal town, namesake of the famous Russian city, hosts international Sand Sculpture Contest and many come from all over the world to express their creativity.
Across the state, passing evergreen forests and Florida`s chillier areas, the road ends up on the east coast again, in popular, cozy, historical St. Augustine. Home to local whiskey and beer breweries, but foremost famous for the old town district, going back to 16th century when it was founded by Spaniards. Old village inn, old wooden school house, cobblestones under feet take everyone back in time, when life was much more relaxing, slower… In walking distance there is The Castillo de San Marcos– the oldest fortress in the continental United States! So here would head all those wanting to visit “some castles as well”. And they will not regret it! The fortress provides a 360-degree view over the town and ocean and its rooms tell a story of 23- year-building process. The walls are made of made coquina stone (Spanish for “small shells”), has 4 bastions and NPS Ranger will tell visitors interesting anecdotes about people (including himself!) finding gold and silver along the local shore, that remained hidden in the sand after numerous shipwrecks.
Many households in St. Augustine (as well as in Florida in general) have pets and often there are cats and dogs living in peace and democracy, savouring long sunny days and in this way expressing the laid-back attitude of their Floridian owners.
This nice town is also home to the local homemade bourbon whiskey, rum and gin. In St. Augustine Destillery there are great guides that will take visitors through the brewing processes and then serve them refreshing specials, like Florida Mule and Rum Tiki Cocktail. The destillery museum features story of the “Ice King” Frederic Tudor and the visitors can see old giant ice machine that used to produce the cubes, so necessary in cocktail glasses. People working there are very proud that everything in destillery is of local origin, including the sitting benches in the waiting room, that were donated by St. Augustine`s church long time ago.
And for beer lovers, there is an awesome Bog Brewery . Ginger beer, spicy beer, light and dark, all wait to be tried and enjoyed at the bar, while chatting to friendly staff and locals on different topics.
West of St. Augustine, in the town Palatka, it is possible to hide in peace and smells of tropical Ravine Gardens. The state park is full of wild green jungle growth and deep ravines whose sides are connected by hanging bridges. When the rain stops, the vegetation starts spreading strong scent and eyes can have a real, healthy nourishment of the Green. Excellent for mind and body. There is even an amphitheater and the only thing missing is a performance of some ancient Greek piece. If hungry after the walk in Ravines, there is also Florida`s Oldest Diner, in the neighbourhood, called Angel`s. Customers can order food from their cars and get it delivered to the car window, or sit inside the dining car and enjoy their burgers, beers and even hot chocolate in the 30ties-inspired interior.
Further south, down the coast, lies famous Daytona Beach, where for decades motorsport fans have been arriving to drive or watch the NASCAR races on Daytona International Speedway. It is worthy to take a walk down to the beach and watch might waves roll towards the shore before the rain storm takes over.
The wet road goes south again and by the time the rain gives in and the sun starts drying off (very fast and effectively!) everything beneath, there comes the next stop: Cocoa Beach, place for surfers and cruisers. Back in 70-ties, people used to stand here and watch NASA firing rockets in the sky from the neighbouring Capa Canaveral. So do not connect NASA space programmes only with deserts – Florida proves that beach, sand and ocean are also closely connected to space exploration! In Cocoa Beach there is a famous Ron Jon surf shop, where people can equip themselves from top of the head and hair to the little toe. It is enough just to drop by and go through one of the floors – feels like a visit to a surf museum.
Close to Coco, on a Merritt Island there are cosy houses and yards, tucked in vegetation and there is lots of space for all typr of commuters – bicycles, roller blades, cars, motorbikes, baby vagons – you name it! The area is actually peninsula now, after a pathway for NASA`s vehicles was built and connected the island to the rest of land. And on the neighbouring beach, the waves are huge and strong and someone left a note: “If you can surf here, you can surf anywhere!” Very popular with surfers – it is not easy to swim here. Harsh and – beautiful.
At some point a reminder will arrive not to forget the details of the flight back home. Yes, the feeling of sadness for leaving the new friendly territory is creeping under skin once more – but there is no alternative. In order to experience new adventures, people have to round up those that are still in action.
However, there is a day or two left, just enough for something completely different. Sebring, in the middle of agricultural lands, owned by the Seminole Indian tribes, is a place for a good rest, when travellers have had enough of partying, sufring and crowds. But again – and here comes the contrast! – those that had enough of surrounding peace and quiet, can come and get thrill from car racing nearby or even checking the slot machines and tables at Seminole Brighton Casino, that the natives opened back in 90-ties! Right there, in the middle of the field (well, huge field), once you pass that country road and bridge, and the village cottages and cows/horses eating grass… Some of the Seminole`s households sell handmade artifacts inspired by Indian culture and it is not unusual to even spot a totem or two in front of their houses.
Lake Placid, “Town of Murals”, is also not far – once one enters this settlement, numerous houses by the road will start telling stories through their 40 famous colourful, detailed murals. There are religious, historical and everyday life motifs, showing cows and farmers in the field, nature and wildlife scenes, old Lake Placid when telephone and train arrived to town and portraits of famous citizens.
After a short stop in the rural area, it is time to head to the metropola again – Ft. Lauderdale, a beautiful coastal city, something like a “small Miami”, offers its long beach promenade, fresh water for swimming and long, warm evenings with live music and those unavoidable giant cocktails.
Times goes fast, but memories remain (hopefully forever!) and it is time to say good bye to the dear, (for a short time your own) cabriolet that took you to Kissimmee, Disney, KSC, Melbourne Village, Delray Beach, Miami Beach, Miami, Key West, Everglades, Naples, Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island, Tampa (Heights), Sunshine Skyway Bridge Madeira Beach St. Petersburg, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach – Merritt Island, Sebring+Lake Placid and now Ft. Lauderdale. See you next time, Florida!
Together with NCCC Team
Lights are lit in Mouresi village. Hills of Pelion shine in the serene darkness of summer. Here and there people`s laughter and dog bark join the quiet cicada song, just to remind everyone present that this is a place full of life. Maybe currently peaceful, maybe dark, but at the same time full of warm Greek blood that will pulsate again loudly as soon as the morning comes!Yet, the morning can wait. Fresh air. Curves of the village road, going upwards and passing the old houseyards. Lights in the windows shine out all the beauty of families gathered together under the same roof, enjoying one more good summer night and collecting all the good that can be used in the days to come.
Some are sitting at the balcony, sipping probably one of those tasty homemade drinks and vividly commenting something. If they see someone rare walking on the road under a street lamp, all eyes are checking who this might be. No matter of the finding whether it is someone known or a stranger, unavoidable, friendly “Kalispera!” is exchanged between the road and the balcony. Night swimming in the local swimming pool. Cicada song, fresh air, peacefulness…enough to wish that this night lasts for at least a couple of long summer months!
After a few hours, however, the sun is unmistakably out again, sending its best warm greetings. Air conditioning is on as the car rolls down the mounting road, passing stone houses, neat and colourful courtyards, people, animals (!goats on the road), trees and fruit yards, parked cars with tires covered by cardboard and windshields with aluminium cover on top of them.
The dusty road is bathing in the warm sunshine, while continuing further along the coast, in curves. Sometimes it ends up in a forest, according to a confused GPS. Or goes around the hill, turning into a walking (hiking?) path, it goes up and down and down again, and it gets so steep that those driving lighter car need to catch some breath. What is waiting down there? End of the road? Some steep stairs? In that case, how to go back?? And it is so narrow, that just a small move to the side might leave a scratch on the car. You really do not want to have a scratch on a rented car.
Phew, managed to get out of the narrow road jungle! The car can be parked safely close to the beautiful Mylopotamos Beach. The local bar promises best beach cocktails and light summer lunch. The crowd on the beach is growing constantly, until all the best and next best towel places are taken. The swimmers are swimming, the divers are diving, the snorkelers are snorkeling and the brave ones are jumping off the tall rock nearby.
The water, warm, clean and beautiful, is carrying away all the fatigue and stress leftovers from the past working season and everything feels balanced and in place again. Some salty water is dripping from the shoulders down to the pages of this summer`s “vacation book”, while the people on the neighboring towels are probably discussing about the best word to fit into a puzzle. People do deserve this kind of “life problems” a couple of days in a year. Whoever decides about it: let them have that.
Speaking of the Higher Power, as the road turns westwards and more inland, the air gets cooler and somehow mystical. The highway stretches ahead, passing modern solar panel farms and soon magnificent rock formations can be seen in the horizon. There are some that have only heard before of the Meteora rocks governing the central Greece. Now they can be seen in the distance and people are right; they do look like part of some Sci-Fi landscape!
Entering a small town, it is just enough to look through the window and up (if not driving!) and lose breath – surrounding stone masses and colourful shades that spread all over their surface, feel like they are constantly watching everyone around. Numerous holes, all-seeing eyes, seem to keep the area safe and there is a sense of both leisureness and serenity at the foot of Meteora.
In six out of 24 monasteries that are still active, monks and nuns live their peaceful lives. In a female monastery, nuns sell herbs and honey, that are said to heal or at least help with different types of pain. In one of the inner courtyards, two workers are cutting a big piece of glass, working on the maintenance of the building. They are standing in the middle of a very tidy flower garden. Thousands of visitors climb daily thousands of steps, breathing heavily in fresh mountain air and marveling the surroundings.
Back in the village, after getting more insight from visiting the rocky giants, the monasteries awake feelings of respect on a much deeper level. The people that live there and devote their lives to keeping the place alive in the modern times today deserve that respect.
The next day starts with a good breakfast in one of the local bakeries that sell fantastic pastries, joined with a cup of black Greek coffee. Some guides suggest visiting the Theopetra cave outside the Meteora village. The area witnesses prehistoric settlements between 5000 and up to 50 000 years ago! It is good if this is one of those days when the cave is open to the public, since it takes a longer countryside road to get there.
Some people in search for fun head for the small town of Paralia at the east coast. People, music, beach equipment and discounted winter jackets – all of that gathered in the walking street that is bathing in the afternoon sunshine. Two kilometers away, the popular Olympic Beach, is echoing the sound of badminton rackets and volleyball players` cheering. Small queue is made before the “foot shower” to wash off the sand before stepping on the smooth concrete promenade.
Music and swimming during the day and cocktails on beach sofas at night, as the beat of modern music travels over the sand and further towards the horizon. High temperature until late afternoon leads to late dinner in one of so many local tavernas. Friendly laugh is hovering over plates with giros and pancakes, accompanied with beer, wine, ouzo or metaxa.
Not too far from Paralia, the road towards the hand-shaped Halkidiki penninsula goes through landscape, that changes from somewhat flat and dry coastline to green hills with fantastic view of the Aegean Sea. The hand`s first “finger” Kassandra, is popular with youth in quest of party vibes and best places to shoot summer “selfies”. Famous beach Kalithea is on the top of the list, which explains long queues of parked cars before even entering the beach area.
Sithonia, the second “finger”, on the other hand, is for nature-lovers and family members. Here wilderness rules, the deeper one wants to explore, and it is not rare to experience mountain goats stopping the whole traffic, as they take their time to savor that bush next to the road.
In the cosy and ancient town of Toroni on the western coast, fishermen boats are gently swaying as the afternoon is slowly passing and sunrays are lightning the old fortress remains. This beautiful small town is full of colours, from paintings on the tree timbers to variations of the sea color, as it turns greener close to the coast and rocks.
The beach stretches as far as the eye can see: from the fortress, via long lanes of hay parasols above the sunbeds, all the way to the restaurants corner a few kilometers further. Pedestrians over there often bump into waiters and waitresses, that are impatiently waiting to cross the street and serve hungry guests, since the kitchens are across the road of the serving tents. Nice smell of seafood, fish and grill is filling the night air.
In the meantime, in Sarti on the opposite coast, warm colours of the town architecture invite for a cocktail at the beach or a cup of coffee at this cool bar/cafe. It is fun both to sit at the chairs in blue, red, yellow and see what it is like inside with all its exotic souvenirs from all over the world! And when the time for dinner arrives, it can be a little challenge to choose between different food style and many nice locations, since several restaurants have their dinner tables set up at the beach. Here, food queues can be seen both in the evenings (to get those sweet pancakes filled “with everything”) and at breakfast time, in front of the popular bakery.
The weather is generally perfect – sunny, stable and warm. If it happens to rain, it does not last long and even summer rain storms are simply a refreshment, a break, before taking a leap into another sunshine-filled experience.
Orange Beach on the Sithonia`s eastern coast can be a challenge if not arriving early enough, but lucky are those with smaller cars that can be put in the shade of cypress tree. One of the coolest places to be at this amazing place, is the forest above the beach through which several paths cross on the way to the sand and water. Numerous man-made tents and huts offer a nice resting and refreshing stop or even lodging for those that wish to stay longer.
Athos, the third finger, differs greatly from Kassandra and Sithonia; spiritual peace and tranquility govern the whole area. This part of Halkidiki is only partly accessible to female visitors, due to the strict religious rules. At the port of Ouranoupolis the big boat takes everyone onboard on a journey along the coast, where at 500 m distance, some of 20 orthodox monasteries can be seen. Above them all, rises its highness, “Holy Mountain”: Mount Athos. Back in the village, an evening walk up the local hill, passing vineyards and guarding dogs, will end up on a high plateau with a beautiful sunset at the horizon and the big mountain confirming its awesomeness, sometimes with clouds surrounding its peak.
The monastery area is restricted to visitors unless having obtained special visiting or trading permit by the authorities. Some of the traders will export red wine, localy produced by the monks themselves. Perfect to be enjoyed at fresh night on a balkony in Ouranoupolis village, when people slowly stroll down the street, greeting neighbours and friends they meet, and cicada give their best, performing one of their summer night symphonies…
On the west coast of Greece, stone walls in red, blue, yellow and pink, one above the other, conceal narrow passages and roads in the unique and cosy Parga. Spending 20 minutes in evening walk to the dinner place is a routine that people get used to after being in Parga for only 24 hours. Thousands of feet have passed the cobblestone paths and bridges that connect the hills and extremely busy downtown. When the evening lights are on and the nights sky starts showing brightest stars, local ferryboat takes people over the water, shortening the trip to shops, booths, restaurants and bars in the center.
People of all ages remain awake and stroll at riviera until after midnight. Several restaurants, next door to each other, play traditional Greek music and some of the owners raise their hands and demonstrate sirtaki dance to their guests. Further away, in the shopping area, extremely narrow, steep and winding stone paths lead the crowd up and down the busy alleys, full of clothes, jewellery, souvenirs, roasted corn and cotton candy. Parga is very much alive throughout the night and when the day breaks the peace will rule over the city.
Sometime before noon, most of people will step out on streets for late brunch and one of the great places is Fresh Juice Bar ! In the cosy little coartyard, open to public upwinding stone paths , little boy-the owner’s son- will serve food and coffee to the guests. A restaurant close by invites everyone to “stop and check what Parga`s fishermen have caught every day” as there is a fresh fish at the docks every morning.
Further out, there are Valtos Beach and the old Venetian Castle, popular with tourists that like exploring the area before the heat spreads its wings over the town. Clear sea water is full of small fish and floating fishermen boats can be seen from the castle walls, tucked in a green hug of the surrounding forest. Fresh juice and breakfast, early bath at the beach and a walk to the castle – what a nice way to start the day!
The day that maybe takes an adventurous spirit further south, to The Peloponnese. The penninsula is connected to the mainland by a beautiful white Rio–Antirrio Bridge. Crossing it feels more like passing under a huge fish skeleton, and after ten minutes of drive on land, the harsh sea waves will show themselves, splashing at the stones of the Fortress of Rion, built at the very end of 15th century. The waves rise high up, and anyone passing next to the fortress gate can actually get a nice splash in the face and their feet washed. That is the power of merciless and beautiful nature in its raw appearance!
The Fortress has been through a lot, and has served both Ottomans and Venetians, whose cultures have left their marks on the building structure. Some areas can be so exposed to wind, that the trees bend and remain of changed shape. The view from one of the wall holes, that used to be windows back then, is absolutely stunning: the blue and white colours at their finest and strongest create something that might be described as “painted reality”. Because, whatever it is in front of the spectator`s eyes, it is moving, it is living, yet its beauty can only be compared to the state of the art of painting masters` brushes.
And in the meantime, in the charming city of Patras not too far away, a wedding is getting prepared. In the Saint Andrew Church, chairs and candles are being put up, and people are rushing in and out of the door to make sure everything is ready before the happy couple arrives. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of the city and the church is one of the sites not to be missed.
Further walk, up and down the urban streets, leads to Georgiou I Square and a historical Apollon Theatre, said to resemble smaller version of the La Scala in Milan.
No wonder Patras attracts so many young people and students to come and enjoy its atmosphere: the city is a real cultural and historical center of the area, and when the night comes, there are “new kids” hanging by the Agiou Nikolaou Stairs, laughing and perhaps talking about all that bothers them and that they dream about. It simply feels like that, when stepping down between all of them, babbling out through the night.
When leaving Patras before noon on a warm summer day, the highway gets hotter and hotter with each passing mile; soon a sign warning of “HIGH RISK OF FIRE” appears. Forest fire is a “common danger”, which the Greeks should be aware of during summer months.
When entering smaller land roads there are lines and lines of lime and lemon trees on both sides, and from time to time a small booth where farmers sell their honey, cheese and fruit. And in the distance – blue sea and huge grey mountain meeting each other, leaving an unforgettable image in the mind of the spectator.
Nafplio on the east coast has a fully crowded beach by early afternoon. Yet, it is worth the effort; nature is lovely, from the stairs going through small pine tree park, where birds made their nests, and down towards the beach and water full of rich underwater life. And better be active in water, as small fish in Nafplio bite those legs that just stand or float in the water!!
Nafplio is considered to be one of the nicest Greek towns and was the first capital back in the 19th century. The narrow streets in old cobblestone city center might be heaven for walkers, but absolutely not for those behind the wheel; the process of finding a misteriously hidden parking place includes wrong turns in one-way streets and bus drivers helping confused drivers by hand gesticulations. Sometimes, again, one can get lucky and find a nice spot, just left by another car, in shade of the palms.
In the harbour, many domestic and foreign vessels are gently swaying and when the night falls, people are walking at the pier, taking photos of the poetic and romantic town and waiting for the boat show to start. Once the gondolas take tourists in, and the red flames are shoot up from the boats, the a capella choir will let the echo of powerful, beautiful voices fill up the air, flying over the water to the curious people crowd at the pier.
If it were not for way too hot mornings, climbing the 200 m hill to the 18th century Palamidi fortress would be pure enjoyment, crowned with spectatular view! Nevertheless, it still is for those who do not mind small sacrifices (heat, dehidration, sweat, fear of sunstroke?) – in the end, it often simply comes down to being fit to climb the hights in high temperatures.
The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus can also be very hot area to visit during the summer sunny days, but it is absolutely worth the visit at any time of the year, or day for that matter! Standing un the middle of the spectacular amphitheatre, trying to visualize how it felt for the ancient Greek performers, and even shout out some passionate phrases, is a unique experience. Or taking a walk down the spectator`s stone seats and clapping the hands to get the echo back at you. The excellent acoustics tells a lot about the skills of the ancient architecture masters.
The whole area used to be the sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. There are the remains of the Temple of Asclepius, with ancient ornamented columns, writings and prescriptions, as well as written stories about magical healing that supposedly happened over night in this area.
Not too far away from this ancient site, the highway leaves The Peloponnese and leads lines of cars into the modern Greece`s capital. The modern streets in downtown Athens with fashionable stores and cafes is full of people, enjoying the city summer. While they are sitting in the shade during the hottest early afternoon hours, numerous street dogs are taking their nap, until the pleasant coolness lands down on the city.
Athens, although fashionable and in constant change like many other European capitals, still keeps its treasures from the ancient times; goddess Athena probably still keeps its city, the sanctuary of Acropolis and the Parthenon temple, that people dedicated to her in 5th century BC.
The hill is also rich with smaller sanctuaty sites in form of caves and monuments along the side slopes and not far away from it, small part left of Olympieion, columns dedicated to the god Zeus, remind of a huge site that used to be built here.
The Pnyx, meeting place of Athenian democrats and orators, Ancient Agora or cozy and vivid neibourhood Plaka have also a story to tell about Greece in the ancient time.
From one of the neighboring hills, people are standing in lines for hours to catch the best sunset moment with their cameras, and Athens is so huge and spread that each time one looks around, some new details might be discovered! Lights around Acropolis in the evening, make it shine like some gilded castle on the hill, and all the monuments dedicated to gods, goddesses and philosophers quietly wait for the loud crowd that will visit them the next day. On the way downhill, the sound of piano is sent from an open window in one of those a bit hidden, but surely cozy apartments, from the second or third floor of an old city building; probably a private lesson held by a retired music professor…
In the morning local fish market gets quickly crowded, as fishermen and sellers are elbowing through the crowd searching for some delicacy for lunch or dinner.
Outside, close to the street, there is an excellent choice of spices, vegetable and fruit.
New day can thus start with a nice walk and shopping of the fresh goods. And how it will continue…it is hard to say, as there are so many different ways to enjoy the summer in Athens. It might finish with a traditional folk dance, where both singers, players and of course dancers perform several styles of music and dance, from different part of this wonderful country. Yes, Greece, it is so easy to love you!
Najbolja pesma koja je
od nastanka sveta stvorena
i koja ce ostati najbolja
do prestanka sveta
Besmrtnosti da mi je
ne znam u prostore
Van zivljenja ima li smisla
drugi smisao traziti
K`o svecica na nebu kad sine
nad zvezdama kad budem
uzalud cu traziti takvo mesto
kao sto je zemlja
kad zamirise biljem
na izmaku… (Tihomir M. Zivkovic)
A beach in sight. The splashing white foam of Danish sea waters slowly gives in. The neighbouring coast of the Zealand (Sjælland ) island of streches its long beach arms for the new guests. Far behind, the boat has left green pastures and fields of Swedish Halland, with its occassional strong wind blows that send the waves over the pier wall and give a salt face wash to those curious spectators of the beautiful and tough scenery.
The lighthouse at the Hornbæk`s outside pier gives green light – it is time to put down the sails before entering the harbour. Already there and then, friendly locals wave and send their greetings, that promise some good days ahead. The harbour master shares the same spirit; he proudly presents his Hornbæk and the busy pier where tasty and affordable sea food is served with chilled wine and beer.
Hornbæk`s beach is long and sandy. While the wave foam splashes over excited bathers and swimmers, the sun competes with the wind in reaching out to those other ones, lying on their beach towels, eager to get tanned.
After some bathing and drying on the beach in the morning, it is time for a long bike ride to the famous Rudolph Tegner museum. Located in the countryside, this precious institution houses numerous sculptures of the renowned Danish artist. Both inside and outside of the building, figures in stone tell stories inspired by everyday life and old myths. And inside, in one of those rooms in the back of the museum, numerous Tegner`s paintings decorate the walls; paintings of different courners of the planet that the artist visited during his lifetime…
All that he experienced plays it self out in different forms in front of spectators’ eyes: from the cult Parisian Seine and the bridges over it, via Spanish landscapes and portraits to Moroccan green market. It feels like it would be a time travel experience if only one stayed some minutes longer. Very inspiring paintings, both for painters and world travellers. After the museum visit, a smiling and friendly cafe host in the museum`s backyard serves a good cup of coffee. Sitting there on a bench and being surrounded by idyllic countryside – an old water well, garden full of greens, cafe`s pet dog resting in the shade under the table and fresh flowers in a vase next to the coffee cup – gives tons of necessary energy for the cycling back.
The neigbouring harbour of Gilleleje, some sailing hours to the west, still keeps memory of the time when this used to be a small fishing village. Now restaurants and kiosks serving local delicacies have their outside tables full of hungry visitors. No wonder; good smell spreads throughout the whole area! Fishermen and sailors gather together on board one of the boats to have a skål with nubben glasses in bohemian spirit. Their laughter makes harbour more lively and more cosy, as the evening slowly approaches.
A walk in the town. Thatched roofs on old houses keep the spirit of old Gilleleje. House yards full of flowers, summer greens and working tools, with a bit of mess here and there, reveal similarities with southern European backyards. This could be a reminder that Denmark might be a mix of Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. Gilleleje is also called “the town on the hill” and the reason for it reveals itself during the search for the old lighthouse .
The path passes Gilleleje`s church and cemetery and gradually climbs up the hill, where people have build beautiful homes with even more beautiful view. Sitting on a wooden bench, set up just there at the top of the hill, and enjoying the view of the sea blue with white triangular sails on the horizon or even a boat regatta near the neighboring rock, who wouldn`t get a feeling of being a witness to somehing out of this world or at least something confirming that this world can be and is an awesome place (at least from time to time)?
Hundested is not big place, but could be called a center for artist shops and galleries, where visitors can enjoy or buy various artifacts, from postcards to furniture. Public messages of wisdom such as “Order removes imagination” and “Only the stupid cleans up, the genius masters chaos” that are posted on an artist workshop is a creative way of explaining (and justifying) the state of its interior. Speaking of notes, “Closed today, due to the rain” is a common one on rainy days as the wooden art, which dominates the square, does not tolerate water.
It would rather wait dry and sunny weather, when a huge sand castle in the heart of Hundested welcomes thousands of visitors, that probably try to make their own at the beach later.
Yet, there is always something to do, even in the wet weather. As one of the brochures says, you can never get bored in this part of Denmark. Or, at least, they claim so. One can, for example, try out rope tying skills. Both rope and instructions how to make knots hang on the wall of one of the gallery houses. Or simply get into rainy boots and jump and splash with all power the water from small street ponds. Meant for children from 2 to 92. 🙂
Ice cream lovers do not get discouraged by the rain and head for the local supermarket, but those with kids made all the popcycles disappear from the freezer. Only family packages left. Big supermarket. Not a single ice cream. Ok, big packages are still untouched. But still. Unreal.
It will be smooth sailing out of Hundested, think those on board with a touch of poetic innocence!. But NO! The area out of the harbour is called Terskelen (“The Threshold”) – it is a tough battle with waves and air when going against the wind.
But eventually the boat crosses the water and arrives to Grenå on the Jutland (Jylland) peninsula. Here is the place to enjoy a good bicycle ride on the way to bakery in the morning, for instance. When the wheels cross the dock and pass that narrow space next to the ramp, and then over the wooden bridge, the road eventually gets flatter and longer and it feels good to work out before famous Danish sweet tasty breakfast…calories.
Grenå is also a nice destination when searching some town fun, Western-style wooden bars, bowling or simply – hanging out with sharks! Yes, Grenå has also Kattegatcentret, aquarium full of sharks and all other beautiful sea creatures. One of the highlights is feeding of sharks and seaIs, conducted by very experienced staff and trainers.
In the meantime, in the harbour, boats seem to constantly come and go. And it is fun to look at them. For example, those three older sailors à la Popeye over there, on board the boat called “Oh dear”. Hope “Oh dear” finds a good place before the night falls.
The next day, as the sailing trip proceeds north towards the island Læsø between Denmark and Sweden, the wind stops. Or it blows maximum 2 m/s, sometimes 3. A German boat seems to be standing completely still and land is currently nowhere in sight. He greets the boat passing by and shrugs his shoulders: “Kein Wind”. Sympathy goes both ways. It will be better soon.
In Læsø`s Vesterø harbour people are gathering just before the sunset to “syng solen ned”, sing as the sun goes down. Some are singing and some are grilling and the summer evening simply feels perfect after a long sailing during the day.
After the sun sets down, there is a phenomenon in the sky; not a rainbow, but rainbow colors in clouds. And down on Earth, two teenagers are building sand towers, while listening to hip hop music from their mobile speakers. When meeting people on the beach, they stop the music and get shy. They continue digging. After a while, music sound can be heard from the beach again.
Læsø people are proud of the island`s salt. It is everywhere; bakers use it when making bread, local spa center uses it in treatments and lots of it can be found under the boats` sprayhoods!
Not far from Vesterø, there is a long beach. Long and shallow path in the water, with sand islands popping up on the way, when people least expect them. On Læsø people seem like to be walking on the water.
Meanwhile, an extremely friendly and talkative bus-driver takes us all to the Østerby harbour, harbour that belongs to fishermen and their industry. Although it also has apart with sailing and pleasure boats as well as a long sandy beach, it is fishing boats with all their characteristics (nets, fishing equipment, look like they should get cleaned) that rule the place.
One boat gets a visitor. Seagull not only got on board, it is actually checking all the rooms inside of it! Nothing beats this hungry birds. Specially not a small dead fish, left in the net on land. A bit of patience and the bird got its snack.
It is hard to leave Læsø and set the course north. Sweden is waiting, with its really nice islands and nature…but if only we could take some sand (and a small beach) with us. Tip / note for later: plan the trip to Danish islands so that you have enough days to enjoy this beach of a country!
A small lively figure alongside the highway in the middle of whoknowshere. It gets bigger and bigger and the front lights put that stray dog in the limelight. Another pleasant summer evening in Romania gives in to the night and dinner is yet to be found. Maybe at the drive in over there, where the restaurant lights shine until early morning hours? Maybe that is where our four-legged friend will make a new friend, and these kinds of friendships are the best- made over a good bite!
The countryside around is serene, quiet and here dusk really does feel like “a breach between two worlds” (dialogue between Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan). It is a good time to breathe out the stress accumulated during the day and breathe in the warm summer night. Life feels somehow lighter, at least until tomorrow starts to push one around again. The sound of cicadas is more pleasant than the potential mosquito bites, so it is smart to turn off the lights and get a good rest because tomorrow…
The smooth and young road stretches from village to village full of warm colors: colorful houses, decorated horse carriages, smiling and hard-working farmers hitchhiking (!) to the next village, good and neat hay poles and green pastures and mountains.
The sun heats up the front of the car and it is soon time to turn left and make a break. And there, in the sunny Curtea de Arges, a stone arch reveals a magnificent view: there, next to one more neat hay pole, a beautiful St. Nicolas church proudly rises its tower ornamented with taste: stone jewelry and bright colors pattern cover the outside wall and inside…a good, peaceful moment can be wisely spent and eyes fed with painted fresco’s of the devoted saints.
As the neck streches back, one’s face can meet painted face of God’s son and right at that moment, a ray of sun will make a diagonal, from the right top corner of the dome to the visitor’s foot, arm or maybe heart down below. Artists from Rome came here long time ago and painted the frescos in this amazing place..
Blessed and refreshed, the journey moves on towards the lower Carpathian Mountains, because this car simply must experience the famous and thrilling Transfăgărășan mountain road.
Transfăgărășan. Yes, this is the reason why the «Tope Gear» guys would love to stay in Romania forever. The road starts «innocently» in the lower Carphatians, but soon the car speed finds itself shifting from 90 to 30 km/hour and vice versa and the GPS shows another and another curve around the corner. Try to film it and your camera will spin around, so hold on to it and enjoy the crazy ride. In the unlike moments of stress, just turn to the window (in case you are not the driver!) and enjoy the Fagarasan green beauty, mountain rivers and high stone walls! The temperature of around 30 degrees keeps its constant «Highness», but someting will happen in the tunnel that leads to the Bâlea Lake (Bâlea Lac). The hot Balkans is left behind, that is what people feel when fresh Nordic-like 5 summer degrees welcome them at the entrance of a beautiful glacier lake scenery.
A glacier landscape implies snow in the mountains in the middle of summer and healthy fresh atmosphere. Real enthusiasts climb the peaks surrounding the lake and spend the night outside in their tents. Most of other visitors are happy to climb the hill that gives a dizzy and unforgetable view of the Transfăgărășan curvy road below . The hungry ones head for the booths selling dry meat and sausages, home-made bread rings and nougats with nuts or raisins.
Sibiu, the first city stop after a few days in the countryside. Noon heat is hard to bear and it is useful to know the precious word in a Romanian shop: “apă” («water»). With a H2O bottle or two in hands, the brain is refreshed and can focus on the new and exciting surroundings. People fill the streets and the pedestrian zone, full of shops, cafes and restaurants, is hard to avoid when searching for food. Soon plates full of traditional grilled meat and other dishes occupy the tables and good local beer and wine make people forget about the heat..As the evening with its coolness fills the air, the stream of people walking gets richer and suddenly some drum beats start echoing from the distance. What might that be? The only way to find out is to follow the sound.
A stage in the middle of the square and dancers on it. Their graceful movements tell the story about the genesis of human race and about human genius and his creation. A lazy day is stamped by the dusk full of philosophical questions about the good and the evil we people do when using the assets a genius created. And finally the genius’ thrill and despair when he sees what it all comes to…the topic is heavy, but also entertaining. The scene is, like so many times before, simply a mirror for the audience, those that will hopefully learn a lot tonight.
The next day sunny morning starts with eggs for breakfast and good strong coffee for the road-road to Biertan. A little cozy village in medieval style, designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with small barking dogs greeting the people from windows or the big ones suddenly jumping out from the dark corners of the backyards:). The local inn hosts its regular guests, but also some “scarry” tourists that do not speak the language – under the condition that they point that beer with finger and kindly pay the waitress. Soon, however, as the drink kills the thirst and cools off the nervous minds, a word of this or that language will be said, smiles and handshakes take place and next time this stranger will be a regular guest! Across the street, local vendors sell honey, hand-made wooden souvenirs and traditional clothes in front of the most famous point in this historical place: a fortified church that is reached by climbing the old staircase in a wooden tunnel.
When the kind host opens the heavy door with a huge old key, the quietness of this gothic sacred fortress takes visitors a few hundreds of years back in time.. Wooden benches, furniture and sculptures with a nave ceiling above have many stories to tell if one has ears ready for them. Outside, the view from the wall surrounding the fortress is really like painted on canvas: peaceful village in the medow, surrounded by the green hills, with hay piles and tractors witnessing the season work progress…if climbing on the hill nearby early in the morning, when the morning mist still hesitates to give in and let the sun rule the day, the fortified church in the distance stands there like a castle from a fairytale and keeps the village safe. The grass is tall on the hill, and legs might be cut by it here and there, but the eyes will be happy for experiencing this unforgettable view, an early morning reward. The days are long and when the evening comes and organism craves for food, the local restaurant just next to the church will serve good traditional dishes in a huge medieval hall (knight armor, axes and shields on the wall, long tables and tall chairs included).
To experience more from the historic Transylvania, many head for Sighișoara, the birth place of Vlad III the Impaler (aka Vlad Țepeș or Vlad Dracula). The central core of this town is a citadel established in 12th century and is famous for its annual medieval festival. The Church on the Hill (Biserica din Deal) dominates the place located on the 429m hilltop and is surrounded by a few-level cemetery which is quite pleasant to visit. Down below, in one of the citadel`s cobblestone streets, in a yellow house…on the second floor…there is a room in red, specially prepared for the tourists. ..A story unfolds among the curtains that easily can turn into cobweb if visitors use their imagination. So here it all started for him, the famous Draculaaa. The old furniture and red light are in strong contrast, just like this room is with the sun and life on the cobblestones outside.
So we can say that the “Dracula tour” starts here. Next stop, place where he spent imprisoned just a short period in later years: the Corvin castle (Castelul Corvinilor) in Hunedoara, a city called by the famous Hungarian Hunyadi family that ruled here in the past .
The castle is closed in the evenings but, as locals like to say, there is always some reason to celebrate in the city center in summer evenings. Tonight, the street is full of vendor booths selling food, drinks and delicacies, one of the very popular ones being Hungarian spit cake kürtőskalács, crispy sweet bread topped with powder walnuts or cinnamon… Further down the road a real “dinner square” unfolds where people mass sits at the wooden tables under the tents à la Oktoberfest and eats meat, goulash, soups, grill and drinks local beer, using up all the napkins, because it is all so hot (or at least piquant) -and extremely delicious! Afterwards it is time to stand in line for the soft ice-cream and the brave ones will risk with their full stomachs and take a ride on a roller coaster in the amusement park. What a nice and surprising evening for someone who gets disappointed because the castle cannot be visited until tomorrow!
And like all the things on this trip – it is worth waiting. Upon arrival, there are many that firstly take a photo of the grey castle fortress with orange roof from the distance, blown away by its beauty and magnificence. It looks almost unreal, just like in hero and princess tales: a wooden bridge goes over a surrounding deep moat. There is also a little stream that flows between the green fields and around the castle, until the water summons and turns in a little waterfall just under the bridge. The visitors walk over it in order to enter this historic site, after waiting patiently in the queue. Soon the fortress walls take the guests long into the past, as they roam from room to room and explore their treasures.
The good part of being on this trip is the drive distances between the places. As the thoughts digest all the impressions from Hunedoara, the eyes are fed with more of the calm countryside scenes left and right of the car windows…
The next stop is the corn field and parking lot next to it. Further in the distance a super-modern museum building just stands there, like a vehicle from a “Star Wars” movie that lost its way in the Middle Ages. Welcome to Salina Turda, the Salt Chamber House or simply – salt mine.
Those who step in this house learn that the word for salary comes from “sum of money for buying salt” and is reminded of the importance of this natural resource. The place commemorates the hard-working hands of the salt cutters back in the 18th century and as one descends level after level deep underground, the Celsius degrees become fewer and fewer until everybody miss that “terrible heat outside”.
Then again, it is completely unique to walk town the tunnel corridor with – salty walls. Don`t believe it – lick it!
The fun only gets bigger, while checking different salt rooms, taking a boat ride on the cave lake, going up and down all those stairs or taking all those elevators and admiring absolutely incredible nature-made patterns on those salty walls and stalactites…As that was not enough, it is also possible to check own singing abilities while your voice echoes back in the special “echo cave room”.
Cluj-Napoca or simply Cluj where one arrives afterwards to have some food and rest for the night, is a surprise if a visitor does not expect too much from it. Lively bars and cafes that work until late at night are already full of both tourists and locals, but first of all students, because this is where they govern. It might be even challenging to get something to eat after 9 pm, since most of the serving places have their hands full of beer, wine, spirit, juices, water, cocktails getting ready for their jolly guests.
Bună dimineaţa!, a fountain with monument in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral seem to greet everyone the next morning, as the sun shines in its full power, promising another beautiful day. The day perfect for the distant trip to the northern Maramureș area; another adventure while driving through villages and towns as corn fields and houses in all possible colors pass by the car window.
At the very entry of this region, the tallest wooden church in the world, the Greek-Catholic Church of the Holy Archangels in Șurdești village almost touches the sky with its 54 meter long tower! This building from 18th century is clothed in dark wood and its interior tells many Christian stories from the past, painted on the old wood in different colors by acknowledged art masters.
The Carpathian mountains as a big and long green wall run along the motorway and from time to time make the radio signal somewhat..choppy… and in case of one of those sudden and merciless rain storms, they can feel threatening; at least until travelers do not find shelter in a nice road restaurant, with carved wooden tables and chairs. The chilly mountain air always increases appetite and even the storm can be enjoyed after some traditional food treat.
On the road again- or better said -on the rain river, the car turns into a boat, the driver into a captain and it is pouring stronger and stronger…the grass fields’ color seems now extra green and the whole surrounding extra clean. It is good with an occasional good summer rain.
As the sky feelings eventually calm down and the evening approaches, a plan is made over -what else?- a good traditional meal.
Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel), a paradoxical name describing a place just as full of contrast: resting place in the village of Săpânța where life and death, sorrow and life enjoyment go hand in hand. This place is painted in blue (color of sadness?) and it is the most popular graveyard in this area, if not in the whole world…Wait. “Most popular”? “Graveyard”?? What does that even mean?
Most of the blue stone monuments are ornamented with pictures, not only of faces of the buried person, but also of some special episode from his or her life. All of this is decorated with colorful stars hearts and other details, a poem here, a message there and everything does feel somehow – merry. They say it helps for the families to deal with the grief and the loss of the dear person and death here is represented simply as a part of life. There is a queue of those who are to be buried here and behind the cemetery some freshly dug graves are waiting for their blue stone that will tell their story.
Maramureș is said to be a special and cosy corner of Romania, one of those places we search when in need to experience a genuine, traditional way of life of a new country, that feeling which is missing in bigger cities and man-changed rural areas. It is therefore not surprising when the locals call it “another world”, the world which keeps traditional values alive and people are in deep contact with nature. In Sighetu Marmației everyone can make a step in the past by entering the gates of the outdoor Sighet Village Museum and get into the old style village houses that keep the spirit a few centuries old. Those more interested in the recent society history can visit Sighet Memorial Museum . In addition, tranquil monastery yards bathed in summer sunshine, welcome everyone who wishes to rest eyes on the simple beauty of nature, whether it be green fields, flowers, hills or religious architecture.
When naming Maramureș`s village-pearls, Ieud should not be forgotten. It is said that the name Ieud was first mentioned in the 14th century in one of the oldest Romanian books “Codicele de la Ieud”. The manuscript was found in the local wooden church, the oldest one among the famous eight wooden churches of Maramureș. In early morning hours, a good wooden bench is waiting for someone to come and admire out-of-the-world peace and beauty, while the only sound comes from the hard-working woodpecker on the tree nearby. Casa traditiilor is one of the absolutely fantastic guest houses that will feed and tuck in a tired guest and even do his laundry that piled up during a long trip. This place is run by people that cherish Romanian tradition and as they say, “are friendly, hospitable and with the fear of God”. Good thing to note down is that the red liquid on all the dinner tables is not wine: so use smaller spirit glasses for this strong and tasty pálinka!
After a typical Balkan breakfast, consisting of five different egg dishes, five types of bread, five types of home-made jam, meat cheese, warm and cold milk and coffee, the mountain road further to the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina is waiting to be discovered and experienced. There are some parts during this trip that will be challenging, due to the old mountain road; isolated area and challenging climate conditions might have made it a non-priority for the Romanian road authorities. The nature, however, rough but beautiful as always, makes up for the discomfort. It is absolutely worth it. Numerous castle-like white churches with their gray towers and fresco’s on the outside walls, stand proudly on the side of the road, as the car takes the passenger further. Wood industry seems to be very popular in these areas, as a sort of working camp with whole families around can be seen in some of the villages. Lots of the action can be daily experienced on the road, like when cars have to wait for the workers to properly collect and pack the hay onto the tractor standing right in front of them. The next challenge is a wagon in summer-mode speed, pulled by horses ornamened with red ribbons – there it is, you can see it through the windshield and yes, better speed down to 10 km/h. It is summer, after all. No rush.
Several buses take the swings one after another on their pilgrimage to the painted monasteries. The painted frescoes on the outside walls have been visually teaching the people from the surrounding villages about stories from the Bible and Christian faith for a couple of centuries. All the lady visitors in short summer clothes will get a cloth to wrap around their waists and make a long skirt before they enter the serene courtyards of these UNESCO protected heritages. There are eight monasteries belonging to this sacred group of Romanian heritage and almost a whole day can be spent in only three of them: Moldovița, with its nice paths and flower garden, Sucevița with a good museum and Voroneț monastery, “the Sistine Chapel of the East”, that is reached by driving up the hill and down the alley in a sunny landscape. After spending the day in these sacred places and their surroundings, a good mountain rest is ensured in one of the local guest-houses and hotels (best to book in time!) in Suceava.
Next stop – Brașov , 7th biggest city of this interesting country! It is located in the very center of Romania and it is said at the similar distance to both painted monasteries in Bucovina, wooden churches in Maramureș and the Black Sea. A good historic guide will open the door of the First Romanian School, lead through its museum, old classrooms with benches and blackboard and show the visitors some of the oldest Romanian books and the first printing press.
And when the clock strikes ten, the city`s symbol Biserica Neagră (Black Church) welcomes the stream of visitors speaking different world languages and belonging to different world religions…People are many but peacefulness is mostly respected inside as the churches cultural and religious treasures are discovered by many new pairs of eyes.
Brașov might seem desolated in some areas; is the summer heat this afternoon really that challenging, that most of the citizens hide indoors? The answer is soon to be found in the city center and its promenade, where everyone seems to run to, having a walk, eating delicious ice-creams or simply enjoying in one of the many café gardens. Nearby there is a narrowest street ever, so called The Rope Street (Strada Sforii) with the walls almost touching each other and keeping the foot traces of so many that love to “hang” between the walls for the sake of a good photo memory. After a visit to historical monuments The Black and The White Tower, it is soon time for dinner and, since the evening is so pleasant that it is a pity to sit inside, plates full of various grill meat and local beer at the table outside will be an excellent fit.
The next day suitcases are packed in the morning and the car is on the road again, heading south to the famous Romanian castles: Bran and Peleș .
The whole trip might have started long time ago, as an idea to visit the mysterious Transylvania and “the Dracula`s castle” one day, “when we grow up”. But then again, it is really hard to get a clear idea of what to expect upon arrival to the castle in Bran, except souvenirs in all possible forms and shapes with a must-have: picture of Vlad the Impaler, blood and fangs. And queues, long queues in both time and space, and the question arises whether it is worth it to wait so long and maybe enter some 15 minutes before closure and miss the opportunity to see the Peleș castle and end up stuck in traffic with all these worldwide masses and their rental cars and…”but me wait”, as the hit goes.
And slowly the people stream flows towards the gate and as one enters in the yard, a good-looking old castle poses for the photo shooting. By now visitors interested in the history have probably heard that this is not “the real Dracula`s castle”, “he spent three days of his life here” and so on; however, entering the halls and rooms everyone can enjoy the exhibition of old style furniture, read stories from the history on the walls, find hidden passages and of course, marvel the fantastic view from the top floor. The inner courtyard hides a water well, which could provoke some thoughts in the mind of a visitor just having read about vampires and super natural beings in different countries in one of the castle rooms.
All in all, it was definitely worth waiting; the castle looks very nice with its dirty white walls and orange towers, built like a fortress on the hill of stones way back in the 14th century. The Bran Castle could be something different than expected, but probably much better than expected as well.
In the neighboring Sinaia, many people come to seek for skiing, mountaineering adventures, fresh air and spa treatment, but also to a stay overnight after or before visiting the magnificent Peleș Castle nearby.
The 19 century beautiful giant in its gold-plated walls and many tower peaks is surrounded with a big garden, so a visitor can probably spend even two days to enjoy both the interior and exterior.
One of the first things that the guide says, standing on the top of the royal steps, is that the only thing missing in the castle is an internet modem; this is allusion to the fact that Peleș was the first castle in the whole world fully powered by electricity!
And not only that! Besides various rooms that the royal family used for living, resting, painting, knitting, the castle also has a – home cinema! The tour goes from room to room, down the long fairy-tallish corridors. Many stories are told, like that one about people from all over the world coming to build the castle or the one about thousands of weapons from different countries ending up in one of the rooms…Or the one about the secret passage behind the movable book shelf/door. Those things are real.
Through richly ornamented windows one can vaguely spot the garden`s green color and it is not so difficult to picture the queen sitting and playing the harp or the king writing a letter at the desk, resting his eyes from time to time on the fantastic surroundings through the open window.
It feels like a time-travel experience, moving from 19th century Peleș to 21st century Bucharest…When the car finally finds its parking destination after the incredible cross-country journey and the summer city heat replaces cool Carpathian countryside, it is best to wait for evening hours to take the best out of several days in the Romania`s capital.
Almost 2 million people live and work in this developing city, that reminds of many East European capitals. Similar looks, similar recent history and society changes, similar scorching heat during long summer days. And yet again similar city buzz, people defying the heat with attractive short clothes, looks and youth and unbeatable night life! Because when the evening coolness rules, all that is a burden in life can wait until 10.00 AM the next day. Life is only one, after all.
Curious first-time visitors will have to be brave and grab that huge water bottle, because rows will be long and patience necessary during opening hours of all the city famous buildings and museums. It is possible to end up marveling at something that will turn out to be a part of controversial history, but that is how the world is today.
Visiting Romania turns out to be a very enriching lecture: the struggle East Europeans have experienced during the constant development has shaped the dualism of the peoples` mentality. They might be distrustful in the beginning, but it only takes some time until their warm heart and kindness embraces you and they show the best of their culture! It sometimes does takes patience thou, but that is a good exercise for all the people in the world. It is a part of the constant human development on the way to maturity, when prejudices and conflicts give way to something that is actually worth living for.
Text by Dragana Paulsen
Photos by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen
初级：“På vei”/ “Ny i Norge”
中级：“Stein på stein”
高级：“Her på berget”
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