Saturday, 30 July 2016

Funny money

No, it's not Monopoly money, it's the currency of Moldova. The smallest coin, 5 bani, is less than half a New Zealand cent. The exchange rate is about 13 lei to the NZ$. 
But if you think that's funny money, check out these roubles from the breakaway state of Transdniestr (below). The higher value coins are made of coloured plastic...

A 120km-long wine cellar

You need wheels to get around Moldova's vast wine cellars

Back in the glory days of the Soviet Union every second bottle of wine drunk in the USSR was made in Moldova. The Moldovan wine industry was hard hit by the break-up of the Soviet Union but wine-making is still a big industry. I took a tour of the cellars at Cricova Winery, just outside the capital, Chisinau, which are so vast you need an electric buggy to get around. If you add all the tunnels together the wine cellar stretches 120km, though "only" 80km is in use. Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here; cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin got lost in the cellar for two days in 1966. 

Vita explains how Moldovan champagne is made

Amazingly Cricova is not Europe's biggest wine cellar. That honour goes to a winery called Milestii Mici, also in Moldova, which has 200km of tunnels.

The national wine collection at Cricova Winery has about two million bottles going back to 1902

Who stole Aotearoa?

During a tour of Moldova's most famous winery, Cricova, I was disturbed to discover that New Zealand had vanished from the face of the Earth. Please,  if you have seen New Zealand, could you please return it to Cricova Winery?

Welcome to Moldova

A few days ago I ticked off another item that's been on my bucket list for a long time: the Republic of Moldova. A country of four million sandwiched awkwardly between Romania and Ukraine, it gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s but only scrapped visa requirements for Kiwis earlier this year. That was all the encouragement I needed. Getting to the capital, Chisinau, was a four-hour minibus ride from the nearest city in Romania (Iasi); crossing the border was a breeze and the guards even smiled. Things have changed a lot since I last travelled in this part of the world. More to come soon about this little-known, poor but welcoming country...

The hat brothers

I'd been walking for a few days in northern Romania and was getting a bit tired and footsore - but before I could even stick my thumb out for a ride a couple of Polish brothers, Jacek and Marcin, pulled over and offered me a lift. They ended up driving me all the way to Suceava, over a mountain pass and almost to the other side of the country. As well as giving me some fine company they saved me a couple of days of gruelling bus travel. Here we are trying out the wares at a hat stall atop Prislop Pass - it turns out Jacek is a headwear collector who will be going home happy thanks to a Romanian shepherd's hat.

Mountain accommodation, Romanian style

The beauty of hiking in the mountains in Romania is that there's always somewhere dry and warm to sleep. With a hay barn every few hundred metres there's no need to carry a tent or even a mattress. This was my accommodation during a walk between villages in the Maramures region. Perfect!

Meet Irina, my 70-year-old tour guide

The other day I was in a pretty little village in northern Romania called Ieud, asking for directions to another pretty village called Botiza. To get there by road would have involved a long trek out to the main highway and back down the next valley, though I could see on my map the villages were only a few kilometres apart with just a range of hills between. The first person I asked wasn't sure how to find the footpath between the villages, but Irina, who I guess is about 70, overheard my request and insisted on showing me the way. She set a cracking pace and wouldn't leave me till we reached a point where there was no chance I'd get lost. For a while I was worried she'd insist on walking me all the way to Botiza. She spoke no English and I only know a few words of Romanian, but that didn't matter. Thanks for your kindness Irina!

The place where time stood still

To my list of favourite places in Europe I can now add Maramures, in the northwestern corner of Romania. I spent a few days wandering around in this very traditional, and very pretty, part of the country. Life still revolves around going to church and growing food; right now everyone's busy cutting hay (mostly by hand) in the he mountain meadows. Old ladies still wear traditional costumes and the tractor has yet to replace the horse and cart. But I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking...

A family on their way to cut hay in a mountain pasture

Hay drying in the hills

Competing churches in Botiza village

A monastery near Botiza village

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Lunch with the shepherds

Yesterday I rented a bike for a ride up the Iza Valley, which more or less follows the border between Romania and Ukraine. The ride was a bit of a let-down - the bike seat resembled a medieval torture instrument, and the standard of driving makes Northland look civilised - but I had a great experience on the way back when I hit a traffic jam on the highway into Sighetu Maramatiei. It turned out the traffic jam was caused by a flock of sheep. I followed the shepherds for a few kilometres, having strange scrambled conversations in a mish-mash of languages while they offered me swigs from a bottle of tuica (the local firewater made from plums). When they reached their pastures they shared their lunch with me and demonstrated their shepherds' bugle, which they seem to use to rouse the dogs. It certainly did that. A lovely bunch of fellows. They graze their sheep in the hills along the border, mostly for milk and cheese but also for wool.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A very merry cemetery

About 20km from the town I'm staying in (Sighetu Maramatiei) is a curious graveyard called Cimitirul Vesel or the Merry Cemetery. Every villager buried there is remembered with a wooden grave marker carved with a picture of the deceased and a poem, usually funny but sometimes sad or poignant. The carvings show people engaged in their favourite acivities, in their occupations, or in some cases how they died (like the poor fellow killed restoring the cemetery church). Public transport is thin on the ground so I got a lift from a glamorous off-duty police officer named Natalia (pictured here with her mum) who also insisted on paying my entrance ticket. That kind of hospitality is common in the Romanian countryside. 

The curse of Mount Gaina

There's one item I won't be able to cross off my bucket list this time, alas. I've long wanted to go to a folk festival which has been held in Romania's Apuseni Mountains every July for the past few hundred years. Called Targul de Fete de pe Muntele Gaina (or the Girls Fair for short) it was originally a way for shepherd boys, who were stuck up in the mountains all summer, to meet girls from the surrounding villages. These days it's a festival of folk music and dance held on top of 1800-metre-high Mt Gaina. Getting there was a mission. Alas, the first day of the festival was hit by torrential rain which turned the mountain into a quagmire and wrecked the stages and stalls. The performances went ahead but in a village in the valley which just wasn't the same. Normally about 5000 people attend but the weather kept numbers well down. I saw just one other tourist. 
The rain was more than any tent could stand so I found a dry barn to sleep in. If the farmer noticed he was kind enough to pretend not to see me. As I was hitching a ride out of the mountains the driver said: "The weather there is always shitty. That festival is cursed." 

* The photo shows a group of village women with Alpine horns, traditionally used to communicate across the mountains. 

Dusk in Budapest

After traipsing around Budapest for three hours looking for a place to sleep (that will teach me to book ahead in summer) I had just the evening left to explore. Luckily that was long enough to walk to my favourite spot in this big, buzzing city - a bastion near Buda Castle, overlooking the Pest district and Hungary's parliament buildings on the other side of the Danube. I watched night fall and the lights come on across the city before a hefty thunderstorm rolled in. 

I also listened to this guy, a fiddler on the ramparts. At 6am the next morning I was on a train to Cluj-Napoca in Romania.

On the road again

Phase three of the Favourite Aunties and Old Comrades Reunion Tour has begun. After a train ride to Brno in the east of the Czech Republic (pictured), a bus to Budapest and another train to Cluj-Napoca, I'm now somewhere in rural Romania. Finding internet access has been tricky so new blog posts may be far and few between...

Monday, 11 July 2016

The prettiest town in Central Europe

The little medieval town of Český Krumlov, nestled in a bend of the Vltava River about 30km south of České Budějovice, is still the prettiest place in all of Central Europe. In case you doubt my judgment I present here some photographic evidence. It is no longer the quiet, crumbling backwater I remember from the early 1990s and it's overrun by tourist hordes all summer ... but it's still beautiful. Český Krumlov, it was great to see you again. 

An epic road trip

A few days ago my friend and former student Martin Tůma had to deliver a crate of photos to South Moravia, which is pretty much the opposite corner of the country. Martin's wife Tereza and I decided to tag along and make a road trip out of it. Our first stop was Valtice, where the locals were celebrating the Feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius (yep, that's a national holiday) with wine and music...
Next we stopped at a chateau in Lednice, the town where Martin studied...
... and a coffee museum in a very unlikely place, a sleepy village in the South Moravian hills...
On the way home we watched a dramatic sunset thunderstorm over the South Bohemian countryside...
... and stopped by the ruins of Landštejn castle. We left home at 7am and got back at 11pm. Pretty good for a day's outing. 

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Up a hill, down a mountain

Okay, so it isn't exactly a mountain, but at just over 1000m it is the highest point near České Budějovice. A few days ago my former students Klára and Lenka took me for a trip to the top of Kleť, along with their kids and Lenka's hubbie. We cheated by taking the chairlift to the top and, because this is the Czech Republic, we celebrated our achievement with beer and garlic soup at a hilltop pub while taking in the views across the rolling South Bohemian countryside. Thanks Klára and Lenka for a great afternoon out. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

A photographic time warp

Another of my former students, Martin Tůma, is now the operations manager at a museum in Český Krumlov. The museum is dedicated to the photographer Josef Seidel, whose studio hasn't changed since the business was nationalised in the communist era. The studio, props, backdrops and 160,000 glass negatives remain as they were when Josef's son was forced to shut shop in the early 1950s. It's like being in a time warp. Adding to the effect is Martin's vintage moustache. Thanks for the tour Martin!

Journalism, Czech style #2

One of my former students, Ondřej Hellebrant, now works as a journalist for a daily newspaper in the ridiculously pretty town of Český Krumlov. I can report that journalists in the Czech Republic face exactly the same issues we do in New Zealand, especially around staffing levels and equipment. Ondřej has to put out a local version of a regional paper every day with just two other reporters. He's a busy lad. 

Perhaps the only real difference is that Ondřej's office is in the courtyard of a medieval castle...

Journalism, Czech style #1

Somehow I was talked into running a journalism workshop at my old school. Great students, hungry to learn and full of insightful questions. Here they are analysing different types of newspapers and the different ways they treat the same story. Most of these students also work on the school magazine, 4U, which I founded in the 1990s. I'm pleased to say 4U is even better these days. Earlier this year it won an award naming it the best student magazine in the republic. From left, Ondra, Daniel, Ema, Marketa and Pepa. 

The more things change...

... the more they stay the same. I was amazed to find the same ladies working in the school canteen, more than 15 years after I ate my last school lunch. A few even claimed to remember me. And they still cook some great meals. 

Venuše's last day before retiring. That's a plate of svičkova, one of my favourite Czech dishes. 

The Black Tower

The Black Tower (Černá věž, built in the 16th century) is the best-known landmark in České Budějovice. It also offers some pretty amazing views of the town. But what really surprised me is that the same guy who sold tickets to anyone keen to climb all 225 stairs when I first arrived in the Czech Republic, more than two decades ago, is still there today. For 26 years Jan Vančura has spent almost every day on top of the tower, 72m above the square. And he still looks exactly the same.

Přemysl Otakar II Square from the top of the Black Tower...

The yellow house in the middle of the photo with the bell-shaped gable is where I used to live... 

Here's a closer look...

I also used to live in the green panelák (prefabricated block of flats) in the middle of this photo. Except in those days it was a less cheery shade of grey... 

A bike ride to Austria

Last weekend my former principal Dana and her husband Laďa took me for a bike ride across the border to Austria. When they were students the border was closed, as was a 10km strip of land beside it. When Dana had to visit the border area for a geography project in the 1980s she had to apply for a permit and was accompanied by an armed guard. Things are very different now. There's a sign telling you you're about to enter Austria and the tarseal suddenly improves, but that's it. Not even a passport check. 

Here's Dana in Austria... 

...and me with a purple tongue from eating boruvky, berries which grow on the forest floor all over the Czech Republic every summer. Picking them is a national obsession, as is collecting mushrooms in autumn.