Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.
Who: Joyce Kelly (the author) and her husband, Paul Healey, of Silver Spring, Md.
Where, when, why: We wanted to experience and learn about “Old Europe,” where ancestral traditions guide daily life, especially in rural areas. We traveled by bus, train and minivan across Romania and Bulgaria for two weeks in September with Intrepid Travel, an Australian tour operator.
Highlights and high points: Learning about the political and geographic history of countries we knew almost nothing about. Going back 2,000 years, the area that became Romania served as the Eastern border of the Roman Empire, hence the name Romania. Two days in the tiny isolated village of Viscri showed us how different people’s daily lives can be from our own. This was a purpose and highlight of our trip.
Viscri, in the Transylvanian district of Romania, has an ancient fortified church as its main tourist attraction. The church served as a sanctuary during sieges by Tartars, Prussians and Turks for over a thousand years. The village consists of several hundred houses and about 350 residents. Viscri’s small stucco houses with steep tile roofs line a single unpaved road. There are few cars, and most residents walk and rely on horses and wagons to carry material and supplies. Turkeys, hens, roosters, dogs and cats roam freely throughout the village.
Intrepid Travel arranged for the group to stay in four simple cottages that have been modernized with electricity and running water. Our host in Viscri was the most unusual person we met on our trip. He speaks five languages: the dialect from the area of Old Saxony, from which his ancestors migrated in the 1100s; modern German; Romanian; the local dialect of Romanian; and excellent English. With different attire, he could pass for a businessman in Western Europe, but he has never been more than 60 miles from this tiny village. By hosting tourists for lunch, dinner and overnights, he said, his family can make a good living. Then there’s the 900-plus years his family has lived in Viscri.
Cultural connection or disconnect: Romania and Bulgaria are strikingly different, and geographically isolated from mainstream Western Europe by Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia. Romania and Bulgaria were allied with Germany during World War II (Romania joined the Allies before the end of the war) then under the control of the Soviet Union until each country achieved independence in the late 1980s. Expecting anyone to speak English is hopeless, because there are few English-speaking visitors. But we managed with hand gestures. Romania and Bulgaria even smell different than the West. Urban areas carry a whiff of thin, weak cigarettes smoked constantly by what seems like half the population between 20 and 60. Small villages have a light barnyard smell, where cows, sheep and horses find their way home each evening after roaming nearby fields with the village shepherd.
Intrepid arranged walking tours with local guides in the larger towns we visited. Together, these guides taught us the political and geographic history of both countries. The fortresses, fortified cathedrals, city walls and related protections make no sense unless a traveler understands when and why they were built, and by whom.
Biggest laugh or cry: We visited Sighet Prison in northern Romania, now the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and the Resistance. This place was so destructive to independent-minded Romanians that our Romanian tour guide with Intrepid did not join our group because the stories he’d heard about the prison were too painful. The prison walls are covered with photos of prisoners who were deemed dangerous to the communist government. Romanians imprisoned at Sighet included pre-communist politicians, academics, professionals and even successful peasants, with an emphasis on Jews. Our guide told us that this prison alone set Romania back by many generations because so many educated, prosperous citizens were killed or severely harmed before being released.
How unexpected: Because we knew so little about these countries before taking this trip, just about everything was unexpected. We learned that both countries, with current boundaries established after World War II, were formed from ancient lands. For example, we stayed in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, a 7,000-year-old city that predates Rome, Athens and Constantinople. The city has one of the best-preserved Roman theaters in Europe, which was uncovered in a freak landslide in 1972. We also were amazed at the interesting, beautiful countryside. Southern Bulgaria’s fir-covered mountains shrouded in dense fog looked just like the Santa Cruz mountains near Monterey Bay in Northern California; the taller mountains reminded us of Yosemite. We visited massive monasteries deep in the mountains and nearly perfectly preserved medieval villages. And we stayed in picture-perfect villages with few cars, many horses, wagons, sheep, chickens, turkeys and cows.
Fondest memento or memory: We spent two days at a family-run pension in the charming small city of Bansko, in the Pirin Mountains of southwestern Bulgaria, a major ski capital of Eastern Europe. Our hosts were an industrious family who had lived in Bansko for centuries. Seven relatives representing three generations live in the pension — the grandparents, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. They are booked solid during ski season, providing full room and board for 20 guests. All but the grandchildren work in the business in an idyllic multigeneration setup. Both sons are ski instructors, spending the spring and summer repairing equipment and mountain guiding. Women help run the pension and care for kids and guests. This way of life, vanishing in our own country, is what we hoped to experience while traveling in this part of the world.
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