Sibiu, Transylvania

The city of Sibiu, European capital of culture 2007 no less, was our first real taste of Romania.

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We came to Sibiu by train from the lively city of Cluj Napoca which was a fairly straight-forward journey. There was one change to make, in a place named Copşa Mică, which sounded like a nice, quaint little place to kill 45 minutes while we waited for the next train…

…Or not as we discovered on the approach. A dirty, grey, industrial smear on the landscape is what it was, billowing plumes of toxic matter from myriad chimneys. Several vacant-looking people of all ages, who looked as grey as their ashen surroundings,  got on the train to Sibiu when it turned up, presumably to escape this poisonous hell hole.

Imagine everyone’s relief when we arrived in beautiful Sibiu. We had a room booked at the Happy Day Pension and it certainly was a happy day when we finally made it, particularly if I gloss over the bit where the taxi driver almost killed us en-route.

A ten minute walk from Happy Day Pension took us to the beating heart of Sibiu; it’s beautifully preserved old town.

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Most of the colourful buildings that border the three main squares and surrounding alleys are 0ld and crumbling, yet characterful and charming in the way that faded glamour always is.

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As we enjoyed food and drink and a good bit of people watching from one of the many outdoor cafés, it became apparent that we were also under surveillance… Look up anywhere in the old town and the curious rooftop peepers look back at you.

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These weird and wonderful windows keep watch over the chilled out street life as they have done for the last 500 years. How things must have changed in that time.

Speaking of how things were in this part of Romania, if this is something that interests you then definitely find time to visit the ASTRA Open Air Museum, 3km south of Sibiu. There are countless buildings built in the traditional style and showcasing Transylvanian country life as it was, surrounded by acres of tranquil and cool forest.

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Back to the strongholds and turrets of Sibiu’s old town, really get on top of the place by climbing the rickety old wooden steps of the Council Tower. This really is the best view of Sibiu, especially when it’s in the throes of one of many spectacular thunder and lightning storms that sweep over Transylvania on a regular basis.

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Sibiu is a jewel in the middle of  Romania that should not be missed and when you get there, you’ll most probably want to stay for a very long time.

 

Bathing in Budapest

An experience that feels quite unique to a busy European city is a visit to one or two of the many grand baths in Budapest. It is for the most part, a very relaxing experience and supposedly healing. Budapest is built on a plethora of thermal springs which are well utilised in it’s beautiful bathing houses, giving it the well earned title of the ‘City of Baths’.

The most iconic bathing house is the Szechenyi Spa. With its bright yellow, cheery exterior, gigantic pools and surrounding sun loungers, there is the pleasant feeling of being at the seaside. 40259_457314570551_4891738_n There are so many pools to choose from. Indoors, there are about 15, all of varying temperature, the hottest being 38 degrees Celsius. The coldest is allegedly 16 degrees although it felt like an arctic ice hole. No thankyou!

Outside ,the three main pools varied between hot fiery hell, tepid and ambient. The ambient pool had all the fun of wave machines and jet massagers but the swirling soup of over-excited children soon wore thin. A more tranquil bathing experience was required.40259_457314580551_7864393_n

The Gellert baths over in Pest were just as pleasant, yet felt more grown-up and most importantly; calm. This could have been to do with the majesty of the Art Nouveau building, built in 1918. The experience has been likened by many to bathing in a cathedral. As with the Szechenyi baths, there are indoor and outdoor pools but indoors really is the place to be. This is the ultimate in aqueous relaxation.

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

After grappling with Czech phrases in our guide book, my sister and I managed to get ourselves a pair of train tickets to Sedlec, thanks to a very patient lady at the hlavni nadrazi train station in Prague. There were two changes, the last being a rather pointless two minute ride that dropped us off outside the tobacco factory, formerly a Cistercian monastery.

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We left the platform and headed up the deserted street. It was eerily quiet. Was this the place? We walked for a short while until, with relief, we saw a sign for the Kostnice. We were on the right track. There was the church up ahead, smaller than we had imagined and surrounded by a bleak but beautiful graveyard. The stillness of the graveyard set the tone for what was to come.

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Upon entering the chapel and walking slowly down the staircase, through the archway and into the crypt, a mesmerizing scene awaited us.

A startling chandelier, dripping with bones is the main focal point. It is grotesque yet aesthetically pleasing in its precise arrangement. Streaming away from it across the vaulted ceiling is more osseous matter. Decorations of the deathly remains cascade down the walls and up the stairs. Innocent cherub faces and empty skulls loom over us as we wander through the chapel. Death is everywhere.

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The bone arrangements as they are today is the dark accomplishment of František Rint, who was given the job (in 1870) of creating something spectacular out of the remains of 40,000 + people, many of whom were plague victims from the 16th Century. It was considered a desirable place to be buried for devout Roman Catholics, hence the number of bodies.

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The macabre essence of the Sedlec ossuary is captured perfectly by Jan Švankmajer in his disconcerting short film of the Ossuary, from 1970. The grim rattling of the bike as its unseen rider peddles towards the chapel foreshadows the skeletal adornments that lie below ground in the chapel.

The Dark Delights of Prague

Brimming with dark secrets and beautifully disturbing sights, the atmospheric qualities of this city steeped in antiquity, are captivating from the moment you arrive.

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So where does one start in a city that offers so much fascination? The main square is an obvious choice to get up close and personal with Prague’s wealth of Gothic architecture, turrets and towers, the gargoyles and sorrowful faces of saints carved into stone.

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Tyn Church

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St. Nicholas Church

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Powder Gate

A trip up the hill to the castle is a must. There are many different architectural styles within the castle complex but by far the most stunning example is the St. Vitus Cathedral.

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On the way back down, we stopped off for some deliciously warming coffee on the hillside and enjoyed the views of the city below in the freezing cold.
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Who knew that the best restaurant in Prague was actually Afghan? Tucked away down a backstreet close to the Laterna Magika, the Kabul restaurant provides the hungry traveller with something completely different from the schnitzels, meaty stews and soups (as nice as they are) that are on offer in many of the centrally located eateries. Our first taste of Afghan cuisine will never be forgotten.

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Juxtaposed with the famous gothic constructions are modern architectural delights including Frank Gehry’s ‘Dancing house’ and the tv tower that has sculptures of babies crawling up its facade. Some what disturbing but exciting at the same time.

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The Dancing House

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The Žižkov Television Tower

Metro stations are works of art in themselves. Clean and pristine, the tunnels are a fascinating mix of dalek-like blobs and space-age cubes. The reliable metro also offers a sweeter-smelling alternative to the trams, as efficient as they are.

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The Charles Bridge across the river Vltava, takes the visitor back to the brooding, atmospheric charm that Prague is so famous for. The stone bridge is punctuated by thirty Baroque-style statues that mournfully look down on passers by. The mood of the bridge is lifted by various talented buskers that come and go to entertain the crowds.

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The Charles Bridge

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Over the bridge and into the Lesser Quarter area, the ever-changing John Lennon wall can be found; a homage to peace and love.

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The John Lennon Wall

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The city is full of surprising oddities and we soon realised that one long weekend would not be enough to explore the myriad attractions on offer.

25116_415893230551_5756138_nFranz Kafka memorial; one of the most stressful places to take a photo

We found that Prague could be infuriating just as much as it could be exhilarating. Large tour groups swarm through the city, making it difficult to enjoy the sights at a leisurely pace. However, at the end of the trip  we had to admit that ‘the city of a thousand spires’ had well and truly got under our skin. A return to Prague would be inevitable.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Let There Be Light!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Let There Be Light!

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul.

The Elusive Tiger

Periyar tiger reserve is situated deep within the highlands of Kerala and is a safe haven for all kinds of flora and fauna, or so they told us when we booked up for a day’s hiking around the reserve. Excitement was in the air. To see a tiger would be nice although we knew this would be unlikely. I’d certainly settle for some wild elephants.

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Before setting off we were given some unsightly long socks to wear over our trouser legs to protect us from leeches. I didn’t see any on the way but when we stopped for a break, everybody had some on their special socks. I was surprised because they were so tiny. The majority of the group were quite panicked by these newly acquired passengers but I wasn’t at all bothered at the thought of them sucking my blood. Isn’t it supposed to be medicinal?

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After a modest breakfast of tea, jam sandwiches, cashew biscuits and bananas, we set sail on a bamboo raft. It was very low in the water and shoes, socks and leech guards had to be removed. It was very nice to trail our feet in the cool, clear waters as the raft bobbed along. Suddenly the group erupted with excitement when two wild dogs were spotted on the bank, cautiously eyeing up the floating rabble.

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Our guide said that it was very rare to see dogs such as these, roaming around.

“As rare as a tiger?” Somebody asked.

“Not that rare. Haven’t seen any tigers for nine years!” The Periyar Tiger reserve guide responded.

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Great. We carried on further up the lake and then stopped for a rather bland lunch of rice with a couple of pieces of veg (if you were lucky). Thoughts and flavours of Sree Krishna restaurant and it’s amazing thalis back in Thekkady were a distant and, not to mention lingering, memory now. The lunch kept us going for the rest of the day as we walked back to the reserve entrance (about an hour and a half away).

Whilst walking we saw some wild boar on the other side of the lake, and then later a herd of bison, all but specks in the distance. Perhaps I should have been grateful for getting to see these beasts, but where were the elephants?! That’s what I really wanted, well that and a tiger but I’d come to the conclusion that this was in fact never going to happen, for anyone, ever.

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Not far from the entrance, we did stumble upon a hollowed out tree that was teaming with spindly spiders. It was grotesque yet compelling to stare at until we were told to hurry up and move along.

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We left feeling a little deflated. The closest we came to an elephant was a pile of dung, not particularly fresh, and the bones of a long deceased bull. As we left the reserve, advertising banners plastered with fresh-faced tigers mocked us. ‘This is as close as you’re ever going to get’, they seemed to say, but then, that’s probably just as well.