Trip Home Ė July - August1999

I spent Friday and Saturday, July 23-24 wrapping up affairs in Tbilisi. Khaki bought my car and we spent several hours standing in lines and driving to different offices scattered around the city. One to cancel my registration, a completely different office to get his new registration. I got my pictures of Svanetti developed, made copies for friends, got a haircut, closed my bank account and bought a few souvenirs. I had a good-bye dinner with the ex-pat advisors I had been working with.

On Sunday at Noon the movers came and packed all my belongings except for the one carry-on suitcase I would take with me. Somehow I had accumulated a thousand pounds of stuff, so I was glad that they were the ones carrying it down from my fourth floor apartment. Late in the afternoon they were finished and I went to visit Valerie, a friend from Uzbekistan who had accompanied me on several week-end expeditions around Georgia. His wife prepared a fine Uzbek dinner for a dozen guests.

· To the Black Sea

I went home in time to get ready to meet my landlord, Khaki, who would take me to the train station. The train left at 7:30 and inched its way west toward the Black Sea. That was fine with me, because I had a sleeping compartment to myself and I was in no hurry. The only problem was that the train stopped every half hour and I would wake up for a few minutes. So I wasnít feeling very rested when I arrived in Poti at 8 AM. I tracked down the travel agent to purchase my ticket on the boat to Bulgaria. Then I found the terminal where my ferry would come and stashed my suitcase in a closet behind a friendly woman who was selling long distance telephone calls. They told me to come back at Noon to find out when the ship would sail.

Potiís main claim to fame is that it is one of Georgiaís two major ports. The other one, Batumi, is in the semi-autonomous republic of Adjaria so it is important. Poti has many outdoor cafes but few stores. I found a bazaar and bought a light hat for fifty cents Ė I had sent my cap home with the movers and I realized that I would be on a boat for the next few days. I returned to the ferry terminal and saw my boat with tractor trailer trucks driving off one at a time. A hydro-foil arrived. It comes from Ukraine, to Poti, then to Batumi and returns. I chatted with college students who had driven from Kutaisi to deliver their friend to the ferry. He was off to a holiday in Ukraine for a week or two. Then I went back to the terminal where nobody spoke any English, but they said that boarding the ferry would be at 7:00 PM.

Starting on myWay
Newly-wed Georgians going to Athens
Russian Port -- Novorossijsk

So I explored some more of Poti, walking around the town, but it was a hot day. I was happy to discover a beach that had real sand Ė most Black Sea beaches that I had seen were rocky (though I am told that the best beaches are in the break-away province of Abkhazia). It cost a quarter to rent a beach umbrella. I donít know how clean the water is, but I would have gone in except that my bathing suit was stashed away at the ferry terminal. Then I had a late lunch at an outdoor café and left my new fifty cent hat on the table.

Back at the ferry where nobody spoke any English, I tried to get on. It took an hour or so to find an official on the boat who expedited the paper work for leaving Georgia. (In all of the former Soviet republics they check visas just as carefully when you leave as when you arrive.) I got on the boat and watched a steady trickle of tractor-trailer trucks go through customs, drive on to the ferry, turn around and make room for the next. The process slowed after the bottom deck was full and each one had to come up to the second deck on the elevator. It was even slower when there wasnít room to turn around on the deck so they had to back onto the ship and the elevator. They had to be good at backing up because the elevator was only about two feet wider than the trucks. After a while dinner was served Ė beef stew and bread. Finally at 1 AM we set sail. My room was small and simple, but clean. One window let me look out, but there was limited ventilation and it was hot. But I was tired after my night on the train and I slept well.

They told me that breakfast was at 8 and lunch at Noon. I happily slept through breakfast. When I went to lunch nobody was there. Eventually I figured out that the ferry used Bulgarian time which is two hours behind Georgia. So I had a long wait for lunch! It was very warm, but there was usually a breeze. Most of the passengers were Bulgarian truck drivers. A few spoke some English. They were very friendly, offering cold beers which were good and cost about thirty cents. They explained to me that I should spend my whole vacation in Bulgaria where there was so much to see and that I shouldnít bother with Romania.

At 5:00 we arrived in the Russian port of Novorossijsk. As we approached the port I could see that the mountains had been cut away. One of the drivers explained that they made cement here. Then we sat and waited. This was the destination for many of the trucks. It was late at night before the last truck got off. In the morning trucks drove on, maybe one every ten minutes. It took until 1:00 PM to load all the trucks. But still we sat and waited. We didnít leave until 9:00 PM. I asked one of the Bulgarians why it took so long. He explained that Yugoslavia was the problem. Bulgaria had been very helpful to NATO and had even denied Russian planes permission to fly over. So the Russians retaliated by delaying the ferry! They wouldnít let anyone off the boat so I spent the day watching ships unload. The port was much more modern than Poti. Many of the shipments were in the same kind of containers we see in the US, ready for transfer to railroads or trucks. Grain was pumped in and out of ships. There were many oil tankers moored outside the harbor but I didnít see any sign of activity. Next to our ferry were many piles of steel plates. I watched two guys cut spacer boards to the proper length by hand, put them on top of the pile, then a crane would put one more steel plate on top. The guys would cut more spacer boards and repeat the process until 5:00 when they quit working and went for a swim. I was bored! I did meet a young Georgian couple who planned to take the train from Bulgaria to Athens. They had just gotten married and could not find work in Georgia. So they were off to Greece where his father had been living for a couple of years. They were confident of finding work there.

· Burgas, Bulgaria

On Friday morning, July 30, the ferry arrived in the Bulgarian port of Burgas. It took a while to get through customs, but after an hour or so I was walking into downtown Burgas. It is a tourist town with many shops lining a pedestrian street. There are dozens of small cafes. Many of the tourists are Bulgarians, here to visit beaches in neighboring towns. There also seem to be many Russians. The tourists look reasonably prosperous, at least by Georgian standards.

Wealthy Bulgarians Wanted European Goods
Sofia Ethnographic Museum
Sofia Church

I found the Roman ruins on a hill overlooking the town and the harbor. The ruins werenít very impressive, but it was a pleasant spot with a good view. A few other tourists wandered up here, but many of them seemed happy to stay on the promenade and to wait for busses to the beaches.

Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. At least the letters are recognizable! I just need to remember what sound they make. P makes the sound of R, a backwards N says ee and so on. So itís easier than Georgian, but very few signs are in English. I found the place to leave my suitcase while exploring the city and I was able to decipher the train schedule. There didnít seem to be a whole lot more to see here, unless I headed out of town to the beaches, but I have seen beaches before! So I got on the train to Plovdiv.

· Plovdiv

Most of the passengers were returning home after a visit to the beaches. In my compartment were a family from ?? and two women from small villages. They were all very friendly and two of them knew a bit of English. The women wanted me to visit their villages and gave me their phone numbers. I said probably not, but they wouldnít take no for an answer.

I arrived in Plovdiv about 7:00 PM and quickly found the hotel recommended by my guidebook. Plovdiv is Bulgariaís second largest city. It has a pedestrian promenade much bigger than in Burgas and there are many inexpensive cafes. Many people sit at the café and order only a Coke, but some food is also available there. The central part of the city was very pleasant, an easy place to relax.

I walked up narrow winding streets to Old Plovdiv. Many of the houses looked very European. The Ethnographic Museum (all the former communist countries seem to have ethnographic museums) was an old house that in the eighteenth century had been decorated with all the European fixtures and had European art. They also had old tools that Bulgarian peasants had used.

At the top of the hill was the ruins of a Citadel dating from Roman times. There wasnít much left, but as in Burgas, the view was fine. Not far down the hill was the Roman theater. It has been kept up and still has performances.

Walking by the river I found a mosque. It was plain on the outside. It was open, so I took my shoes off and went in. One man was praying, but there was nobody who seemed to be in charge. The inside was decorated a bit, but not nearly as fancy as many of the Istanbul mosques.

Plovdiv has many shops, but also a long pedestrian street lined with booths selling clothing, ice cream, Coke, and almost anything you need. Iím not sure how you find what you want, but there seemed to be a bit of everything.

· Sofia

Late in the afternoon I got on the train to Sofia, Bulgariaís capital. The Bulgarian trains are fast, clean and pretty much on schedule. They go almost everywhere in the country, but if you want to get there quickly you have to be sure to get on one of the fast trains. The slow ones stop every few miles and take a long time to cover a few kilometers. The train to Sofia was a good one.

Sofia felt much busier than Plovdiv and not nearly so pedestrian oriented. The shops all seemed to close early in the evening but there were cars zipping everywhere. Sofiaís ethnographic museum had costumes from all the regions of Bulgaria. They didnít look very different to me, but the Bulgarians seemed to emphasize the importance of their roots in these regions. The National History Museum showed coins and small relics dating from Roman times. The main emphasis, however, was on the times when Bulgaria was very big, including Romania, much of Greece and more. Not far from the center of town was the Alexander Nevski church, a huge new cathedral. By early afternoon I was ready to head on.

· Kazanlak

On the train to Kazanlak we passed by a lake that had water skiers being pulled around the lake by something that looked like a ski lift. The skiers held onto ropes hanging down from the cable and zipped along. Unfortunately the train didnít stop so I couldnít try it out.

Kazanlak is a much smaller town than Burgas, Plovdiv or Sofia. Much of the townís attention is centered on the main square. All day and well into the evening people walked up and down the square, stopping at the outside cafes for coffee or a Coke.

Kazanlakís claim to fame is a tomb from the third or fourth century BC. They wonít let you into the real tomb, but they have built a replica nearby. Kazanlak is also the center of the rose industry, which is very big in Bulgaria. They have a museum of the rose industry, but I preferred to wander around the small town.

I hired a taxi to take me to the village of Shipka and the Shipka pass. In the village they have a very Russian and colorful church. It was built in 1900 as a memorial to those who fought in the 1877 Russo-Turkish war. We continued up to the top of the pass, where the Russians and Bulgarians fought off the Turks in what was apparently the turning point of the war. In the 1890ís they built a big monument above the pass. We walked up the 900 steps to get to the monument then walked up to the top to admire the view. It was a cloudy day and it looked like rain so the view wasnít as spectacular as it might have been.

I continued in the taxi down to Gabrovo. They have a Sturbridge village-like attraction there. Gabrovo used to be a center of crafts and they have built a dozen or so small houses. There are supposed to be craftsmen working in each, but this was a Monday and the only people I saw working were cutting rocks for some outdoor steps. I had a fine late lunch at the restaurant in the village then took another taxi to the center of town.

Next I visited the humor museum. Gabrovo is famous for its cheap skates. They tell jokes that Gabrovo citizens invented short skirts and match boxes with a striker on only one side to save money. They also stop their clocks at night to reduce wear and tear. The museum had lots of posters that were amusing. Some were in Bulgarian, but others came from around the world and had translations.

I finished the day by taking a bus to Veliko Tarnovo.

· Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo is a good sized town with a huge fortress towering over the river which bows around it on three sides. There are high cliffs on all sides, hundreds of feet down to the river. One of them is famous as the spot where they executed evil-doers by throwing them off the top. There is a long causeway connecting the town with the fortress. There had been a town inside the fortress. Now there are ruins and a new church at the top of the hill. At night they have a sound and light show, lighting up different parts of the fortress with colored lights. The sound was in Bulgarian, so I passed on that and watched from the hotel dining room instead. Then I listened to a local band perform old American rock tunes, starting with "A Whiter Shade of Pale".

The town also has many 19th century houses built by rich Europeans, some from Bulgaria some from elsewhere. They filled the houses with the best French and German furniture and artwork.

Veliko Tarnovo was a good place to spend two nights, the first time on this trip I wasnít looking for a new hotel each day. I happily ate pizza at a pleasant café and enjoyed exploring the city.

· The train to Bucharest

The next morning I had a ticket on the 9:30 train to Bucharest. The train started in Istanbul and they warned me that it is often delayed. When I called the train station they told me that it was now expected at 12:30. So I had time to visit a small village just outside the town. It was a clean, tidy village with small houses. They werenít right next to each other as in Georgian villages, but each house had a yard in front and a garden in back. There was an old church that didnít look like a church at all Ė it looked more like a barn. But the inside was beautifully decorated.

The train finally arrived at 1:30. I soon learned why it was so late. There werenít very many scheduled stops, but it was only a single track and we stopped many times to wait for trains coming the other way. In the next compartment were a couple of gypsies heading home from Istanbul. At our last stop in Bulgaria they were looking longingly at the food concession just off the train, so I gave them $5 of my otherwise useless Bulgarian money. They happily bought Cokes and pocket sandwiches. They were very thankful, but the price I paid was that for the rest of the way to Bucharest they kept asking for more money, explaining that they didnít have tickets to get them all the way home.

It probably took two hours to cross the border, one hour on each side. So the train arrived very late in Bucharest. I chose the hotel closest to the train station even though the guidebook called it a "Stalinist pile" and even though they warned me when I checked it that there was no hot water. But their restaurant served a fine dinner and the cable TV carried CNN Ė the first time on this trip.

· Bucharest, Romania

The World's Third Largest Building
Skating Park
Village Park in Downtown Bucharest
Village Park
Pelesh Castle
Brashov Central Square
Brashov Central Square
Bratislava, Slovak Republic

I appreciated the Romanian's use of our alphabet. I could actually read many of the signs, though Romanian seems to be a cross between Russian and French. It was more difficult to find ATM machines here than in Bulgaria and the only place to buy international train tickets was far from the train station. I didn't like the city center much Ė it was busy but not very interesting. I was feeling harried enough that I even had lunch at MacDonalds. Their former dictator Ceucescu had built the world's third largest building. It was imposing but not beautiful Ė I guess the Pentagon isn't beautiful either.

My favorite part of the city was the "Village Park", not far from the center of the city. They have moved more than sixty houses from various villages around Romania and put them in a realistic setting in a huge park. I was impressed by the great variety in housing styles. Surrounding the village park was more park, with lakes and a small skateboard center. I donít think Georgia has a skateboard park! Many Romanians came to the park to see the village houses or just to relax. I was happy relaxing in the park. Then, late in the afternoon, I took the Metro (a good one, well marked and quick) back to my hotel and the train station for a short trip to get out of the city.

Bucharest is very excited by the coming eclipse. It will be total here and there are signs everywhere advertising it. I see lots of tourists who have come for the eclipse from the US and western Europe. Unfortunately, Iíll be in Bratislava, Slovak Republic on the appointed day and the eclipse wonít be total there.

· Sinaia

I was happy to be in the resort town of Sinaia. Skiing is big here in the winter. In the summer people take the cable car up into the mountains, hike on the ridge and stay in huge "cabins". I walked for a couple hours at the top of the cable car and saw many other hikers. I also visited the Pelesh Castle. In Georgia we have only one kind of castle, a fortress designed to protect the occupants from invaders. The castles I saw in Bulgaria were also like that. In Romania, many of the castles are more like chateaus, built to show off the wealth and good taste of the owner. This one was built from 1870 to 1910 and was always intended to be a museum. Each room was furnished in the style of a particular country or age. I like the location, on the edge of the mountains more than the tour of the ornate rooms, but they were impressive. Outside the castle, vendors were selling boomerangs that were just two pieces of wood put together in a cross. But they worked well.

Sinaia has a pleasant park adjoining the main street and the hotel. I relaxed there, bought a cup of blackberries from a street vendor and watched the world go by.

· Brashov

Brashov is Romaniaís second largest city, but it doesnít feel that big. It has a wonderful central square with several pedestrian only streets running into it. A small mountain overlooks the city and a cable car runs up there. A short walk from the cable car goes to a grand overlook. The Seventh Day Adventists on top (Romanians on vacation) were vigorously recruiting, but they were friendly and not overly intrusive.

I tried to rent a car here to make it easier to explore nearby villages, but one rental center was closed for the week-end and the other had no cars. I guess there are too many tourists here! The trains go almost everywhere, but on a sporadic schedule. If you want to spend the day in a particular village that is no problem. But if you want to go to one village for an hour, then a second for an hour and then to a third, that is seldom possible. So I took the local bus to Bran to see Draculaís castle. I donít know why they call it Draculaís castle. It is old, a fortress type castle, and a bit foreboding, but the Count certainly never owned it. He seems to have besieged it once and impaled many local citizens. But in any event, it is a major tourist attraction. And a pleasant castle.

My train to Budapest doesnít leave until 10:00 PM after spending two days here. Since I canít rent a car, I take the train to Sighishoara, an hour and a half up the line toward Budapest. This is a fine old town with a medieval old town on a hill overlooking the new town. They have Draculaís real birthplace (a very ordinary, if old, house) and a wonderful clock tower in the entry gate. It is a hot day and I see a swimming pool on the map, but unfortunately it is very closed with no water in it. My guidebook tells me there is a movie theater and I figure that could be interesting since the train doesnít arrive until 11:30 PM. I canít find it, but several people give me directions to it. Finally when I have gotten to the place where they claim the theater is, an old man says no, it is gone, kaput. He doesnít speak any English, but I get the message. So I have a leisurely dinner and do some reading while I wait for the train.

The train is quick and very clean, a step up from the Bulgarian trains. And crossing the border is easy. I only stay in Budapest long enough to run to the train to Bratislava. This train is even faster and more luxurious. I do make the mistake of traveling first class because when I buy the ticket from the conductor I donít understand that he is only selling me a ticket to the Slovak border, not all the way to Bratislava. So I have to buy another ticket from the new conductor to get to Bratislava.

· Bratislava

Bratislava is a much more western city than anywhere I have been so far on this trip. It looks very prosperous and prices are higher. The highlight for me is cruising on the Danube during the eclipse. Lots of people have viewers to share, so admiring it is no problem. It is probably 90% of total here, and it feels a little strange. The sun is still shining but it is noticeably darker and cooler.

There is a fine old castle on the hill overlooking the river and the city.

I wish I had more time to rent a car and go explore eastern Slovakia. But I only have a few days left until my flight home, so after one day I took a train to Brno in the Czech Republic.

· Czech Republic

Pernshtejn Castle

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic. It was feeling more and more like western Europe. Like so many cities I have been to they have several streets where cars are not permitted and there are many shops and cafes. There are lots of people out for the evening, though I canít tell whether they are local residents or tourists.

The main attraction of Brno is the Shpilberk Fortress. For much of its history it was a dungeon. Now it is a museum exhibiting both the old dungeons and many rooms of historic relics from Brno and the military campaigns that came and went. After exploring the fortress and wandering around the city a bit I was very pleased to be able to rent a car so that I could explore smaller villages and drive myself to Prague.

Czech roads are smoothly paved which was a real change from Georgia. They arenít very wide and they wind around a lot, but the countryside was beautiful and I was happy to take my time. My only complaint was the paucity of road signs especially when there was a detour.

My first stop was the Punkevni Jeskyne Caves. The park is quite large with many tourists. At the parking lot you buy a ticket to the caves that includes a guided tour and also a ride on a miniature train (pulled up the road by an electric tractor) to get from the parking lot to the caves a couple miles away. The caves were huge with dozens of different rooms connected by large passageways. At the end we got on a boat that drove us several hundred yards through even more caves until we emerged in a small lake at the entrance to the cave. Then I took a cable car up to the hill above the cave and admired the view.

The next stop was the Pernshtejn castle. This one looked more like a middle ages fortress than the many of the villas I saw in Romania. It was surrounded by high stone walls. We entered through a gate at one end then moved to a sort of court yard before arriving at the castle itself. I bought a ticket and endured a lengthy guided tour. The tour was in Czech but they gave me a folder with an English translation.

My guidebook told me that the medieval town of Telch was worth exploring and it said there was a pleasant little hotel right on the medieval square. It was beginning to get dark by the time I arrived in the town and I couldnít find any signs of a medieval square. I drove back and forth several times and didnít see anything promising at all. I didnít have any more energy to continue my search so I stopped at a hotel that was a bit run-down but priced accordingly. I had a fine dinner there and got directions to walk to the medieval tourist area in the morning.

The advantage of driving your own car instead of relying on public transportation is that you can cover much more territory and see more of the sites. The disadvantage is that the towns come faster and it is harder to remember which was which! I do remember visiting two old medieval towns, Jindrichuv Hradec and Trebon. Both had immaculate centers with restored houses that were all three or four hundred years old and painted bright colors. (In Georgia most buildings are concrete gray and a few are white Ė you almost never see real colors.) Trebon had a fine tower that gave a view of the old town. I toured at least one castle, I think it was in Trebon.

Late in the afternoon I arrived at Konopishte Castle less than an hour from Prague. The parking lot had room for hundreds of cars. This was obviously a tourist attraction on a different scale than anything in Bulgaria or Romania. I bought my ticket and walked up the hill through carefully manicured gardens to the castle. This was obviously the home of a very wealthy family. The castle was big enough that there were several tours that went to different parts of the building. One was enough for me. I liked the grounds with both fancy gardens and woods. There were hiking trails that went to nearby towns.

I stayed at a small hotel next to the castle. The dining room was huge, but I was the only one eating dinner there. I guess most of the tourists were staying in Prague and were back in the city by dinner time. The next morning I got up promptly and drove the last hour to Prague.

· Prague

Wenceslas Square
St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle

I returned my rental car at the Prague Hilton. Now I knew I was back in the West. I took the subway to an agency that made hotel reservations and they found me a small but modern hotel nearby. I had just over twenty-four hours left to explore Prague before I would fly back to New York.

I was struck by the mass of tourists. They were everywhere. The main attraction is the Prague Castle. It towers over the city and is impressive. I took the tour but by now I was getting tired of rooms with fine Victorian furniture. I was happier relaxing on the Vitava River, cruising up and down the river.

In the evening I went to an opera performed in the courtyard of a grand old house. It wasnít as grand as the operas I saw in Tbilisi. Georgian operas always seemed to have casts of thousands and much dancing Ė the difference between ballet and opera is that they donít sing at the ballet!

I spent the next morning wandering around Prague. I saw Wenceslas Square, the scene of many of the demonstrations that led to the fall of communism in 1989. I admired the huge and elegant St Vitus Cathedral. They started building it in 1344 but it wasnít finished until 1929! It must be one of the tallest cathedrals in the world. Mostly I was happy to walk around the city, admiring all the old buildings.

I left Prague in the middle of the afternoon and arrived at JFK in New York before it got dark. Though that was a bit of a shock, Prague was a fine transition between Tbilisi and New York. As soon as I got home I started thinking about where I wanted to go next. This was quite an experience for a guy whose only international travel in the previous twenty-five years was the day I took the ferry to Nova Scotia. But now I have the travel bug.