Bulgaria: Monasteries, Roses and Grannies

Although traveling through the Balkans solo had been easy, after 6 weeks I was ready to surrender myself to the ease of a tour group, where everything would be organized and all I would have to do is show up at the appointed place at the appointed time and hop on the bus.

Thus, on Saturday I attended at the lobby of the Budapest Hotel, in Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia, at 6:00PM to meet my group.

The Tour:

The organizer was Explore, a UK based travel company specializing in small group tours, which I have used before in Central America and the Baltics. This 8 day tour is called Best of Bulgaria, led by Toma, a Bulgarian national with over 25 years experience as a tour guide. Joining me were 2 Australians (Nick and Sybil) and 6 Brits (Mary, Tony, Dolcy, David, Allison and Judith), comprising 3 lawyers, 2 patent officers, 2 chemical engineers and a TV and film producer, but Nick turned out to have the most stories to tell. Born and raised in Bulgaria, he escaped in 1969 by walking (unauthorized) into Italy, staying in a detention camp there before being accepted as an immigrant to Australia. His Bulgarian was still pretty good and proved invaluable in interpreting Bulgarian menus and dealing with waitresses.

Our route was designed to showcase the best of Bulgaria (hence its title),  historical gems, exquisite beaches, monasteries, and, to my delight, the Rose Valley. We started in Sofia, then drove to the Rila Monastery and, from there, to Bansko. Next was the European city of culture for 2019, Plovdiv, before heading to see the Neolithic ruins, Thracian tombs and the heart of the Rose Valley in Kazablak. We went to the Black Sea coast before returning inland to the capital of the 2nd Bulgarian kingdom in Nesebar. The route made no sense from an historical chronology, but covered most of the major periods in Bulgarian history.

Geography:

Bulgaria’s history, culture and economy is tied up in its geography. Split into Northern and Southern Bulgaria by the Balkan Mountains, it is blessed by the Black Sea on its Eastern Coast. To the south lies Greece and Turkey; in the North is Romania. Serbia and North Macedonia are to its west. The country is small; twice the size of Ireland. Its capital, Sofia, is home to about 1.25 million of the country’s 7.25 million people.

History:

Bulgaria is old. Evidence of Neolithic settlements dating to 6000 BC have been found, excavated and preserved in a museum in the town of Stara Zagora.

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Remains of a neolithic house; difficult to photograph

Highly sophisticated towns and colonies of the Thracian plain from the 2nd millennium are referenced in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Thracian tribes battled with and against Alexander the Great, ancient Greece and eventually became a Roman colony. Bulgaria’s most famous burial site, a Thracian tomb at Kazanlak, has been closed to the public but, like the Lascaux caves in France, a perfect reproduction open to visitors is nearby:

Rome colonized the area and Roman ruins are frequent, including the amphitheatre in Plovdiv, the mosaics from a wealthy house in Stara Zagora and one end of a stadium, discovered digging  a metro in Sofia and currently under glass beside the subway station.

Constantine brought Christianity to the region; it was further enhanced when the Slavs from the Russian steppes arrived in the 7th century. Also arriving were the Bulgar tribes from Eastern Europe or Asia. In 681AD, they displaced the ruling Byzantines and established the first Bulgarian empire, which lasted until 1018. During this period, the Bulgars, Slavs and Thracians assimilated, emerging with a common language, religion and alphabet which forms the basis for the Bulgarian heritage. Nesebar, a major city during this period, still retains over 40 churches, displaying Byzantine, Bulgar and Ottoman styles, none of which I entered, but I did photograph a few:

The Byzantines reconquered and ruled modern Bulgaria until 1185, when a local uprising overthrew the Byzantines and established the second Bulgarian empire. This empire lasted until the Ottomans arrived in 1396 and stayed for 500 years. Tarnovo,  the capital of the second Bulgar empire, contains more churches and a fortress high atop the city, a difficult climb in the heat wave sweeping the country:

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Fortress at Tarnovo

Revolts against the Ottomans started as early as the 17th century, but gathered steam in the 19th century, culminating in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1888. The effects of the extended Ottoman rule meant that Bulgaria was quite backwards. It had no railroads, little industry, no universities, widespread poverty and illiteracy. Cultural pursuits were also limited during this period. No great Bulgarian literature, art (other than religious iconography), composers or architecture emerged; a combination of Ottoman oppression, poverty and non-existent educational opportunities. Only folkloric items: dancing, singing, embroidery which could be passed down orally through the generations, kept alive the Bulgarian spirit.

The late 19th century saw the beginning of the 3rd Bulgarian Kingdom and  the start of the Bulgarian revival period. Fashions from France were imported, universities established, dancing balls were held. Houses built in Plovdiv revel in the new architectural style, with elaborate paintwork the defining mark:

Western ideas and goods soon arrived, electricity, ballrooms, public transit. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, long submissive to the whims of the Muslim Ottomans, thrived with a flurry of new church buildings. War was not unknown; Bulgaria fought in the Balkan Wars in 1912, seeking to obtain lands in Macedonia from Serbia and Thessaloniki from Greece. During WW1, it declared war on Serbia, resulting in France, Britain and Italy declaring war on it.

Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazi’s during WW2, but in a rare example of church opposition to Nazi policies, managed to avoid the wholesale slaughter of its Jewish population. Although it enacted anti-Semitic laws restricting the movement and employment of Jews, when the Nazis ordered the Tsar to transport 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps, protests erupted, led by the Orthodox Christian bishop of Plovdiv. The Tsar backed down and refused to deport Bulgarian Jews., saving most of them. However, few Jews remain in Bulgaria today, most emigrating to Israel after the war. The Central Synagogue, completed in 1909, is Moorish revival in style and the third largest in Europe. I was only in Sofia on Saturday, when it is closed to visitors.

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Central Synagogue, Sofia

Bulgaria was “liberated” by the Russians in 1944. Following the end of the war, it became part of the Warsaw Pact and was closely allied with its communist brethren, suffering Soviet style economic planning, collective farms, 100% employment of people doing nothing etc. Most high rise apartments and government offices bear the trademark Soviet Realism architectural style, unattractive rectangular blocks with grey, rotting stucco facades. Central Sofia suffers from a glut of these buildings, like its current Parliament, but it is moving soon:

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Economy:  

Bulgaria is one of Europe’s poorest countries. Its lack of industrialization during the Ottoman period left it playing catch-up, but then it immediately endured what Toma referred to as “the messy period”, the time between independence, the Balkan Wars, WW1 and WW2, followed by 45 years of communism. Today, abandoned Soviet style factories litter cities and countryside, socialist style apartments are decaying, sidewalks, where they exist, are little more than rickety pieces of concrete between trees, lampposts and garbage.

Small farms, light manufacturing, forestry and tourism are the biggest industries. Education and medical care is free, but the latter is funded through a tax system paid only by those who are employed. Tax is a flat 10% and there is a 20% VAT, leaving the government woefully underfunded, limited infrastructure improvements and inadequate social programs.

One of the biggest problems facing the economy is widespread corruption amongst government figures. A recent article in The Economist exposed a story where high ranking government officials were being sold luxury apartments at ridiculously low prices then reselling them very quickly at their fair market value. The article also noted the recently appointed anti-corruption minister is being investigated for corruption.

But the largest issue, according to Toma, is Bulgaria’s complete dependence on Russian oil & gas for its energy needs. In January, 2009, Russia stopped imports to Bulgaria during the Russia/Ukraine conflict. For 2 weeks, Bulgaria was without power to heat or light its schools, hospitals and factories and completely powerless (sorry for the pun) to do anything about it. Despite some advances in obtaining resources from elsewhere, Bulgaria still relies on Russia for 75% of its energy needs.

The Monasteries:

During the Ottoman period, severe limitations were placed on churches if they hadn’t been converted to mosques or destroyed . When construction was permitted, they had to be lower than the lowest minaret, so no towering steeples or soaring cupolas topped with onion shaped domes. In order not to attract the attention of Muslims, the exteriors had to be plain, which explains both the lack of outdoor decoration and the plethora of colourful icon paintings inside. No photos are allowed inside Bulgarian churches, but the refractory at the Rila Monastery didn’t count as a church and photos were allowed, as were photos of the outside paintings:

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Outside paintings at Rila

Rila Monastery is the country’s most famous and deservedly so. Its courtyard contains an ornately decorated (inside) church and is surrounded by former monks’ dormitories but  today primarily house pilgrims as the monk population is rapidly dwindling.

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Rila Monastery

Flowers:

Bulgaria is awash in flowers, a pleasant surprise to me, although if I had read the tour’s trip notes beforehand, I would have learned that Bulgaria’s Rose Valley, is responsible for 70% of the world’s rose oil. As is becoming an annoying habit, we were a week late for the best blooms (just like the tulips in Holland) which occur in mid-June, but a few fields still had roses on the vines. Stores selling rose oil related products – lotions, soap, liqueurs – proliferate as do demonstrations on how to extract the oil (pour petals in a vat with steaming water, press, take the resulting liquid and separate the water from the oil). There’s a Rose Museum in Kazanlak and a weird ethnological village nearby with roses and a grotesque Statue of Liberty (the owner’s take on capitalism):

Bulgaria was not only about the roses. Throughout the country, fields of sunflowers stretched towards the sun. And just in case I arrive a week too late for the lavenders in Provence (even with a 6 week window), Bulgaria has those as well, in full bloom.

The Grannies:

In Plovdiv and again in Kazanlak, we attended folk shows at dinner. Excellent as both were, the highlight of the trip was our “brunch with the grannies,” some ladies of grandparent age who invite tourists into their restaurant/museum/gift shop and entertain them first, with the Bulgarian drink, rakija. Made from grapes (in other countries rakija can be made from plums), it is between 40 and 50% proof, sipped slowly from a shot glass with food and a bit hard to take at 10:00AM. But not for the grannies, who managed 3-4 shots each over the 2 hours we spent there.

We began with the grannies showing us how to roll the dough for the traditional bread, Tutmanik (it has other names), to which eggs and cheese are added, baked and comes out delicious. As it was baking, the grannies dressed some of our tour group in traditional Bulgarian costumes (I declined), serenaded us, acapella, with folk songs, then invited us  to dance their dances with them (I declined again). They were gracious hosts, despite not speaking a word of English, the food delicious and it was a welcome reprieve from all the ruins and churches. I suspect the rakija contributed to my enjoyment.

Etcetera

We did and saw a lot more: the Black Sea resorts of Varna and Burgas with their overdeveloped coastlines and all-inclusive guests, mostly Brits, Germans and Scandinavians, seeking cheap holidays, rode on a narrow gauge railway, visited the Russian Orthodox Church and memorial at Shipka, saw what is considered to be the most exquisitely painted church at Arbanasi and ate lots of good Bulgarian food.

Final Thoughts:

I thoroughly enjoyed our tour; Toma was a good guide, our group “jelled” and Bulgaria proved interesting, but maybe a few too many churches and monasteries for my liking. There were pleasant surprises: the flowers, the fresh vegetables, the good, cheap local wine, but these virtues could not mask the poverty in the country. While everywhere I went had roads, air conditioning, reliable electricity and wifi, it was hard to ignore the potholes, the beggars, the Roma problem (10% of the population) and the lack of historical art and literature.  Nowhere have I been has brought home so forcefully the negative effects of 500 years of Ottoman and then communist rule. Bulgaria is doing its best to overcome its history, but it has a long way to go.

 

 

 

 

Biking and Barging in Belgium and Holland

My endeavors to cycle independently through France had met with mixed success; I had made it to St. Malo and Roscoff on my bike, however my overarching success had been to figure out how to use the French train system toting a bicycle. It turned out to be fairly easy – just find a train and a train car with a bicycle symbol and wheel one aboard, pushing aside all those baby carriages and wheelchairs who deigned to park their apparatuses in the exclusive bicycle section.

Unwilling to concede defeat to the bicycle and buoyed by the beautiful photos posted on Facebook by two of my colleagues who were cycling independently through The Netherlands and Belgium, I signed up for a week long Bike and Barge tour offered by tripsite.com, going from Bruges to Amsterdam during the tulip season. We would cycle the flat bike paths in Belgium and The Netherlands during the day and meet up with our barge/floating hotel each evening. It sounded like a very civilized way to tour a country and get some exercise.

My first hint that things might not go smoothly was upon receiving the joining instructions – the group was to meet at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to be transported to the barge moored in Ghent. I had wrongly presumed a trip titled “from Bruges to Amsterdam” would start in Bruges and had booked a hotel there for the preceding 3 days, thus requiring me to take a train to meet the boat in Ghent.

The barge, named the Clair de Lune could not be described as luxurious; perhaps functional is a better label. The top part contains the bridge, with the steering wheel, a large interior dining area/lounge and a sun deck with a box containing life vests should they be needed. Below deck were 9 single and double cabins. My cabin was bigger than the couchette I had on the Australian Ghan train, but that’s not saying much. A single bed, a tiny sink, a toilet that used river water and a shower that was smaller than a breadboard. As I said, functional not luxurious.

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The Clair de Lune

Age (pronounced aghher) , a 65 year old former IBM project manager and our tour guide, met me at the boat and helped me aboard. I was introduced to Michael, the skipper, and Chris, the cook and second (and only) mate. In the next few hours, I met my fellow 16 travelers, 4 Australians, 2 South Africans, 2 Germans, 8 Brazilians and me. Between us, there were 2 doctors, a dentist, a pathologist, a leukemia researcher, 2 lawyers, a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, a pharmaceutical consultant, some housewives and 2 businessmen. The youngest was 44; the oldest 72. It was a congenial group although the Brazilians were not the best at being punctual, which drove the Australians crazy. Best of all, not a single smoker.

After Chris served us the first of many hearty meals, Age fitted us on our bikes and we rode 5 kilometers to the center of Ghent, where we had a brief guided tour. As was becoming the custom in the Belgian cities visited, there was a marvelous belfry near the town square, a Cathedral, too many churches to count and 2 old castles, all nestled between ancient canals and cobblestone roads.

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Ghent by night

Most of the group took the train to Bruges the first day, but since I had just spent 4 days there, I chose instead to walk around Ghent. I visited Grovensteen castle, where the audio guide seemed focused on its builder’s (Phillip of Alsace) inability to procreate and the various means of torture and execution preferred in medieval times. An entire room was devoted to medieval torture instruments, making current interrogation techniques seem kind and gentle.

As Ghent is a canal town, a canal boat tour seemed in order. Five minutes after embarking, the skies opened up and the rain cascaded upon us. The boat operator/tour guide spent most of the time racing under one bridge to the next, but did provide a good history of Ghent’s golden age. Like Bruges before it and Antwerp later on, its fame in the Middle Ages came from its strategic location on a river that led inland from the North Atlantic, becoming a trading centre as its multitude of still existing warehouses attest, and wealthy from the tolls collected from the use of the canals.

The next day was our first real cycling day – 50 kilometres to the city of Dendermonde – alongside lazy canals with lovely, secluded bike paths running on each side and the occasional pasture where sheep or cows grazed. Age led the way, wearing a yellow vest, with one of us appointed the sweeper each day whose job was to also don a yellow vest but always be last. If Age could see the sweeper, we were good. If not, we stopped until the last joined up. The Brazilians were intent on documenting every second of their trip, so they made frequent photo stops, took pictures while cycling, raced ahead to film the cyclists coming forward and after a while, even the ever patient Age asked them to reduce their photo stops. Once that was sorted out, the group cycled at a reasonable pace, only about 10 kilometers an hour with a 45 minute coffee break, lunch and small pit stops near interesting things where Age would share some aspect of Belgian history or lifestyle with us. No one tried to race and everyone kept up the pace.

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Me, the bike and lots of sheep

Dendermonde was a pretty, medieval town like the other Belgian ones we toured without the name recognition of Bruges or Ghent. The next morning, we set out for Antwerp, arriving there after 5 hours on our bike at 3:00PM, much earlier than our barge which had been held up at a lock which refused to fill with water, then by rush hour traffic in Antwerp during which the harbour master wouldn’t open the drawbridge to let the boats through. It was a good opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine and watch all the Hasidim walk by – the only clue to Antwerp’s position as a diamond industry giant.

On day 5, we cycled across the border into Holland, with only a small concrete post marking the boundary and began our trek in search of windmills. Soon enough, we arrived at Kinderdijk, the place of 18 windmills and a bustling tourist attraction, with busloads of Asians doing their European highlights tour and river cruise excursions bringing scores of Americans to the Visitor Center, both likely part of a concerted effort to get tourists out of the overly crowded Amsterdam. The mills themselves were beautiful against a backdrop of cloudy skies and the video, which explained the purpose of the windmills (water level management) and their mechanics, informative.

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The Windmills at Kinderdijk

From Kinderdijk, we cycled to Gouda, home to Gouda cheese. The barge was moored close to the main square, which again was charming, with a town hall and medieval hall which weighed the cheese and other goods for tax purposes. I located a cheese store and sampled all their different varieties of Gouda- green pesto, black lemon, almonds – before settling on a medium, an aged and a spicy red pepper one and posing for the obligatory picture holding a (plastic and hollow) round of cheese.

Day 5 had been all about windmills and Gouda cheese; day 6 was devoted to tulips. Our trip had been advertised as a tulip tour; unfortunately Mother Nature had the final say. Thanks to a prior week of glorious sunshine and hot weather, most of the tulips had blossomed early and the farmers had cropped their fields already. We were able to locate a few still carpeted with flowers, where everyone sang Tiptoeing through the Tulips and took pictures, but the best display was at the Keukenhof, botanical gardens outside of Amsterdam ablaze with tulips of all colours and varieties. The tulips there are planted sequentially, ensuring a longer bloom. The gardens are massive; I spent 3 hours there and wished I had more time.

We cycled to Amsterdam and met the barge for one last city stroll, dinner and an evening of drinking and exchanging email addresses. We had cycled about 250 kilometers, endured 2 flat tires, 1 bike falling into the canal (but fished out again) and 2 falls where the worst damage was some scraped knees. The bike and barge had been a nice way to see Belgium and The Netherlands. People were uniformly friendly along the route, the pace relaxed and I felt that I was able to see some of the “real” country.

I was reluctant to do much touring in Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and the crowds are unreal, but I couldn’t resist a canal boat ride, some pancakes, some brownies and stopping in at the Rijksmuseum to see the All Rembrandt show, featuring all of Rembrandt’s paintings and most of his sketches. I enjoyed it so much I abandoned my pledge not to visit any more art galleries and went across the road to the Van Gogh museum. It exhibits his early paintings in Amsterdam followed by his Impressionist period in Paris through to his madness and ultimate suicide in the south of France. The gallery does an excellent job of explaining Van Gogh’s paintings through his interests – whether about religion, nature or the peasant lifestyle – and his influence on his art friends and later painters.

After 5 weeks in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, where it seemed to rain for all but a few days, I am off in search of sunshine in Croatia.

Beautiful Bali

Bali Hai, the song made famous in the musical South Pacific, doesn’t really have anything to do with Bali. The novel by James Michener, upon which the musical was based, was inspired by the Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu, some 7,000 miles away, where Michener was stationed during WWII. Similarly, the movie was shot on the Hawaii island of Kauai, about 6,300 miles east. But because of its association with Bali Hai, Bali is forever regarded as the epitome of the Pacific island paradise, with white sand beaches, pure blue water, palm trees swaying in the breeze and beautiful women in grass skirts and bikini tops made of coconuts swaying to ukulele music.

In fact, Bali’s topography does match its reputation, although there are no native women in grass skirts. As one of between 17,500 and 18,300 islands (no one can quite agree on the figure) making up the archipelago of Indonesia, its shoreline is fringed by spectacular beaches with both white and black sand, clear turquoise waters replete with crashing waves beloved by surfers and a green interior, home to palm trees, coffee plantations, orchids and rice paddies. At 5,800 square kilometres, the island supports a population of about 5 million and has over 5000 hotels with close to 60,000 beds. An attempt to add land to Bali via reclamation was defeated, but threats to resurrect the scheme abound.

Indonesia’s population is primarily Muslim, but Bali is the exception. Its inhabitants adopted Hinduism between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD after coming into contact with Indian traders. Java, the larger island  to the east and home to the capital, Jakarta,  was eventually conquered by Muslim invaders, after which the Hindus and Buddhists decamped to Bali and have stayed since, resisting all attempts to be converted by Muslims and Christians.

Thus, Bali adopted Hindu gods, traditions and architecture, but not the caste system. Walking around today, offerings are placed at every entrance way each morning, made of betel leaves holding betel nuts, lime, tobacco and gambier overlaid by flowers. Hindu temples, with their interior sanctums housing shrines with images of deities, multi-level roof towers and ornate carvings, are ubiquitous; estimates indicate there are over 20,000 temples in Bali and seemingly on every corner.

I had arrived just before the Balinese New Year’s celebration, Nyepi, or day of silence. During the week preceding it, Balinese roads are filled with processions of Bhuta (demons), accompanied by white clad gentlemen and bands banging on pots and pans and bamboo tubes. I was lucky enough to run into one and took pictures while traffic stood still; the driver was less enamoured of the 30 minute delay.

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The night before Nyepi, Ogoh Ogohs – bamboo statues of demons or negative spirits – are paraded through the streets before being burned in cemeteries. I attended at one parade, but so many people were straining for views and making it difficult for me to see much.

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During Nyepi, four rituals are performed: no light or electricity, no work, no travelling and no revelry. It is a day of reflection, forgiveness and looking forward to the new year., reminding me of a Balinese Yom Kippur. In practical terms, it means the airport shuts down, TV stations go blank, mobile networks are off-line, special police patrol the streets ensuring no one is about and meals, if one is not fasting, must be consumed by sundown. Fortunately for me, tourists and pregnant women (not applicable) are excepted from the prohibition on lights and revelry, but not the travel ban. My hotel had power and food before 6PM, but we were not allowed out and had to draw our drapes after dark. The internet did work and I noticed a large number of Indonesian guests who came for the day and left the next, after Nyepi and travel was once again permitted.

I engaged the services of a guide/driver to do some sightseeing. First up was the famous Lempuyang temple, whose gates frame the volcano Gunung Agung. Much beloved by Instagramers, the temple imposes strict rules on visitors, including the compulsory donning of a sarong, a ban on menstrating women (how they check I do not know), no kissing and forbidding yoga poses at the gates. If one looks at Instagram, the reason for the last rule is apparent. Hundreds of tourists decided that yoga postures (mostly disrespecting the Buddhist/Hindu restriction of having feet pointing to the gods) would best show themselves off. The first one or two photos may have been beguiling but after a few, they just become cliches.

After climbing a steep roadway to the temple’s entrance, I passed through a gate and into the courtyard, where a line of tourists waited patiently for their turn to have a picture with the volcano behind. “It wasn’t too busy”, a guide told me, “the wait will only be 20 minutes. Sometimes, it is hours”. A gentleman, probably a combination photographer and rule enforcer, chastised a lady when she started raising her leg in a prelude to a tree pose. When my turn came, I gave him my I-phone and a tip and he snapped a few photos while directing me how to stand – both feet firmly on the ground.

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We went to Tirtagangga, a water palace built by the king of Bali. Yes, Bali was a kingdom (or 9 of them, depending on the century) from 914 to 1908, when the Dutch overlords finally had enough. The royal family still exists, and while administration has been ceded to the central government in Jakarta, the family still regards itself as the guardian of the Hindu faith on the island.

The grounds today are preserved primarily as a tourist site and wedding destination venue. The pools are the highlights, with stepping stones allowing visitors to get up close and personal with the richly carved statues:

Another water palace is Taman Soekasada Ujung, a pretty place featuring ponds, bridges, gardens and pictures of the king:

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Lastly, we stopped at the Tibumana Waterfall. Bali is blessed with many lovely waterfalls, surrounded by the verdant rainforest with cooling watering holes fed by the clean water. Unfortunately, as I entered the water, two idiot Italian girls followed me in with cigarettes dangling from their lips, blowing smoke in my direction and totally oblivious to the hypocrisy of enjoying nature while smoking.

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This is my second time in Bali and so far, it is as enjoyable as the first. It is far more built up than in 1996, but the Balinese are kind and welcoming hosts. Tourists proliferate, mostly Australians; think suntanned blonds with tattoos and surfboards riding on scooters. Bali has decent infrastructure, first world amenities and enough cultural attractions and differences to enchant a visitor like me. It’s the perfect place to relax, de-stress and wait out winter.

Broome: Swept away?

When I first visited Australia in 1994, mention of Broome conjured up visions of a secluded tropical paradise, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, nestled between the Indian Ocean and desert outback that dominates much of central and northern Australia. Flights were irregular and expensive and tourist infrastructure was just beginning. But progress it did, and its best known attraction, Cable Beach, began to regularly appear on top 10 beach lists. I didn’t make it there in 1994, but never gave up the idea of visiting it.

Thus, fast forward to my current Australian sojourn, where I am trying to see Australia’s west coast. Daily flights to Broome from Perth were reasonably priced, wide open and just two and a half hours away. I looked at hotel prices and they seemed inexpensive for beach resorts, then looked at potential tours on Trip Advisor and things began to make sense. None of the tours were available in January. As it was the wet season, it was also the low season. Fearful of battering storms, tropical cyclones and other weather undesirables, most tourists give Broome a wide berth in January.

But not me. If I can survive a Winnipeg winter, a bit of rain and some hot weather would be a walk in the park. As I later discovered, Broome has no actual parks (but there is a golf course). I booked a flight and 7 nights at the Mantra Frangipani hotel, located just a 15 minute walk to Cable Beach.

Arriving at 2:00PM, I stepped outside onto the airplane stairs and was smacked with “the wet”. Not rain, but extreme heat combined with high humidity making me feel like I had just walked into a furnace. By the time I had walked the 30 feet to the terminal building, I was drenched in sweat and welcomed the air conditioned area by the baggage carousel. It was the start of my new mission in Broome – finding air conditioned spaces.

First, some history. Broome’s roots are found in the pearling industry, when in 1879 the then governor proposed creating a port close to the pearl grounds. Pearls formed the economic basis for the town, but led to sordid historic episodes involving slavery, imported labour and indentured servants. The pearl divers were all of the above and exempt from Australia’s white only immigration policy that was finally abandoned in 1973. Malays, Chinese and Japanese were all imported, but prized above all for their diving prowess were pregnant Aboriginal women. The overseers and exploiters were white, leading to various degrees of apartheid well into the 1970’s.

Today, pearls are still important, but farmed rather than wild oysters more prevalent. The main streets (there are 3) are lined with pearl stores and pearl museums. The oil and gas industry also contributes to the economy. Although the rigs are off-shore, Broome serves as the equipment and transport hub, with large helicopters ferrying workers back and forth to the rigs. Tourism is also big business. Cable Beach is renowned for its pristine sand and turquoise waters. It received its name when it became the Australian end point for a telegraph cable from Java in 1889. Aside from the beaches, Broome advertises itself as the gateway to the Kimberley, Australia’s outback.

The internet promotes numerous day tours around Broome in the Kimberley – to Horizon Falls, Cape Levesque, the Bungle Bungle Range, Windjana Gorge but only a few scenic and expensive (in excess of $1500) flights were operating. It was the wet, and the lack of tourists combined with the real possibility of flash floods wiping out the roads, meant most tour providers were enjoying the off season far away from Broome.

It wasn’t, however, particularly wet. The temperature regularly rose past 40 degrees by 9:00AM and cooled down only to the mid-30’s in the nights. But rain showed itself only twice during my week, once in a midnight storm and another time in an evening sprinkle, neither of which reduced the heat or cut through the humidity.

So I made the best of it. Cable Beach is beautiful, the Indian Ocean waters warm, the sand white but packed enough that walking along parts of its 22 kilometres in the mornings before the heat was pleasant. I avoided the nude part for plenty of good reasons, not the least of which involved the perceived extreme effort and contortionist maneuvers to get sunscreen all over my body. Staying clothed in calf length capri pants with a wide brim hat and giant sunglasses clearly reduced the area sunscreen was required.

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Cable Beach

Broome, with a population of about 16,000, isn’t big enough to have a public bus but a private service stopped outside the hotel once an hour between 9 and 6 (11 and 5 on Saturdays and Sundays) to take me 5 kilometres into town. I went to the grocery store (Broome has 2) and to its central business district or misnamed Chinatown. There’s only 1 Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, but a host of other ethnic restaurants. Unfortunately, most were closed for the season. The Saturday Market, run in the courthouse square, had barely a dozen stalls and all were selling either local arts and crafts or food. Sun Pictures Theatre, the oldest and longest running outdoor cinema in the world, would show films in the evening, but as they started after the bus service ended, I passed.

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Sun Pictures cinema (with road construction)

Feeling obliged to do something touristy, I signed up for the only thing I could find that was running: Broome Trike Tours. Its owner, my driver and tour guide was Roger, a transplanted New Zealander who had first tried his hand at ostrich farming near the Perth area. When the ostrich market tanked, he drove up north to Broome, constructed a trike costing about $50,000, and started offering tours. I was lucky, I would get an exclusive since no one else had signed up.

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Roger greeted me, gave me a helmet and instructed me to straddle the back of the bike and off we went. It was my first time on a trike, but sitting on the raised seat at the back, I had a glorious view of the surrounds. I also got the wind full on in my face, making my lips quiver as Roger sped to 100 kilometres an hour. We started at the golf course, where a few wallabies were bouncing around chasing golf balls but were very unco-operative photo subjects. Next we drove to the sights of Broome, , through the downtown, stopping at Roeback Beach in the center of Broome, and finally to Gantheaume Pointe, to see dinosaur imprints and the sunset over Cable Beach.

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I made one more trip into Broome proper, trying to see more than just the grocery store and the outdoor market. However, with the temperature above 45 and high humidity, it was not easy to walk around. Most of the streets were deserted,  most restaurants and shops closed for the season. After an hour, I had gone through my liter of water, needed a clean t-shirt and gave up. The heat had beaten me. I took the bus back to the hotel, changed into a bathing suit and jumped into the pool.

It was a relaxing, lazy week. With so little to do, and the heat so oppressive, leaving the coolness of the hotel’s pool was a task not undertaken lightly. As for Cable Beach, was it a top 10 beach in the world? I don’t know as I haven’t visited most of the others. It is gorgeous and I loved my walks along the beach, but the high temperatures bordered on oppressive in January. I am embarrassed to admit I missed having umbrella vendors and tiki bars and people walking up and down the beach selling ice cream and massages and sand buckets. I understand that part of Cable Beach’s charm is its isolation, but for me, that is also one of its downfalls. I suspect at my next beach, I will be decrying the lack of privacy and the endless hawkers, but that is a few weeks away.

Notes: I travelled to Broome from Perth on Qantas, then onward to Darwin, also on Qantas. Both were daily, regularly scheduled flights. Daily rate for a 1 bedroom apartment hotel at the Mantra Frangipini in the low season is $100 per night. The Trike tour (broometriketours.com.au) cost $150 for a single rider, reduced to $135 for 2 or more.

Estonian Escapades

My 3 country Baltic tour began in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I was touring with a British based tour company called Explore, which focuses on small group travel for the over 30’s crowd. My tour mates included an American, 2 other Canadians and 12 Brits, along with our Estonian tour leader, Tounal. Aside from Tounal, our average age was about 65, contained 2 smokers, a rocket engineer, 2 Toronto lawyers, a bunch of teachers, a former banker and a lot of IT people, none of whom were able to explain how to use the Fongo phone app. which theoretically allows you to keep your local phone number.

We started our tour in the wonderfully preserved medieval city of Tallinn, with its imposing walls and watch towers which both provided protection from foreign invaders and divided the city into the High Town and the Low Town. Some history is needed to appreciate the significance of High vs. Low in Tallinn, so let me give an abbreviated version:

After the Ice Age (circa 10,000 BC), the ice receded, leaving the Baltics fertile and inhabitable by early hunters/farmers. These people enjoyed a happy, pagan life until 1227 when  German crusaders invaded, forced Christianity on the locals, grabbed the best land and made themselves nobles. These Germans occupied the high land in Tallinn; the locals had the low land. Hence the need for walls. The Germans and the Estonians, who were reduced to serfdom, lived more or less together until Estonia declared Independence in 1917 (from Russia) and took back the land held by the German nobles. In 1939, the last of the Germans were expelled.

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Tallinn City Wall and Tower

Of course, plenty of others invaded Estonia. It occupies a strategically important place in the Baltics, bridging east and west, its lands are fertile (rye, flax and wheat) and forested and its seas swarming with fish. It was, at various times, overrun by Swedes, Danes, Poles, more Germans and Russians. Russia seized control of Estonia from Sweden during the Great Northern War between 1700 and 1721 and retained it until the events of the Russian Revolution allowed Estonia to declare independence in August, 1917, whereupon it was promptly invaded by Germany. Following WWI, it was granted independence until the Nazis invaded. The Russians “liberated” it from the Nazis, annexed it into the Soviet Union and didn’t leave until 1991.

The attitude of Estonians to their former Russian occupiers (as they are always referred to) is extremely negative. Notwithstanding the dislike of the Russians, of the 1.3 million people in Estonia, nearly 1/3 are “the Russian minority.” When Russia departed, it left Estonia without social services, insurance, pensions or a currency. It banned all fish from Estonia, since the fish had, overnight, gone bad. Estonians need visas to go to Russia, even though a river dissects the city of eastern Estonian city of Narva from Russia.

Against this backdrop, in Tallinn, we saw the medieval walls of the city (built by Germans), Lutheran churches, Orthodox churches ( for the Russian minority) and a Guild Hall, the 14th century equivalent of an old boys club/community center where important matters were decided and significant events performed, all under the watchful eyes of the married, male nobility. It is perfectly preserved and currently a museum of Estonian history.

Adorning the old market square are buildings of various centuries, numerous restaurants and souvenir shops. When I asked what the famous Estonian dishes are, the response was “rustic.” Most restaurants featured schnitzel, burgers, salmon and dark rye bread. Creamy mushroom sauces and butter grilled fish were ubiquitous, but nothing particularly Estonian. My two significant finds were September raspberries in the fruit market and a decent selection of not too expensive wines in the supermarkets from Europe, Australia and Chile. None from the USA and the 3 vineyards in Estonia did not produce wine in commercial quantities.

Estonia is famous for other things, notably folk singing festivals in every town, every season and marking every event (declare independence? let’s sing about it…). There is also a plethora of kooky statues, honouring everything from poets, scientists, the pig and fisher people:

From the main city of Tallinn, our tour proceeded to the Baltic island of Saaremaa, where we explored the well preserved/reconstructed Bishop’s Palace. It was built as early as 1380 by the German crusaders seeking to consolidate power, but Danes, Swedes and Russians occupied it over the centuries. As medieval castles go, it is fine, but the more offbeat exhibit is one of Soviet life in Estonia during the most recent occupation. The kitchen is miniscule, food is rare, the single bedroom has multiple beds, the bathroom has a toilet and a bucket to heat the water. On the stairs, were different jokes about the Soviets (Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, Gorbachov? We will get to know when he dies….). The exhibit was not a tongue in cheek look back at the Soviet occupation; it was a stark reminder of how difficult those times were.

We visited a fishing village on the island, learned the timetable of the airport (two flights weekly from Tallinn and charter flights from Finland) and other fascinating facts about the area. It was basically a former fishing area which could no longer sustain itself from fishing, so it promoted itself as a tourist destination –the lake country of Estonia. It boasted that hallmark of capitalism, the first golf course in Estonia, naturally constructed after the Russians departed. As a bit of trivia, the first golf course in Russia was not constructed until 1993.

After two days in Saaramaa we returned to the mainland. We looked at the remains of another medieval castle at Viljander and some churches (Lutheran and Orthodox). Our last stop was in the second largest city in Estonia, Turtu, which has the remains of a medieval cathedral, some Lutheran churches and a pub in the old gun armory of the medieval castle, which hosts a weekly beerpong tournament. Naturally, there was a pretty market square, food markets and its symbol, the Fountain of the Kissing Students, reflecting its large student population.

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After a week in Estonia, I had my fill of medieval Castles, Orthodox churches, the former Russian occupation and schnitzel. It is a wonderful country- very clean (it is famous for its garbage clean-up campaigns) and lots of historical buildings, and a gentleness or naivete, depending on your point of view, from having true independence for less than 30 years. Time to move on.

Warring with GPS: The Pacific Coast Highway

This post was supposed to be about the drive from Crescent City to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway, with gorgeous photos of white, ocean waves smashing into the vertigo inducing cliffs hugging the coast. But it is not. “Why?” you ask. Let me tell you.

First, while everyone warns one should get to the USA National Parks early to beat the crowds, I have never read anywhere that one should start the journey on the Pacific Coast late to beat the fog. So I left Crescent City about 8:00 AM and encountered 5 straight hours of fog.

The one redeeming feature was another opportunity to drive through a redwood forest at yet another State or National Park with redwood in its name. Fortunately, it lived up to the hype.

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Second, despite one of my talents being the ability to read maps and generally navigate by the sun, I had been convinced that maps and compasses are passé and I needed a GPS to get me through the USA. I had reluctantly bought a Garmin GPS and my son had installed it for our trip to Florida in February. He set it to the proper British accent (we christened it James) and it got us to Florida and back, although how difficult can it be to go due south and return straight north, especially since my car has a compass embedded in the rear view mirror. Nonetheless, I resolved to test James on my extended USA road trip.

James worked okay generally, but there were some flaws. While James directed me to Henderson, Nevada after a long drive from Sedona, he inexplicably quit about 10 miles from the destination on the middle of a newly named interstate. I was driving in the dark, doing about 80 miles an hour (the legal speed limit) when James advised he could not configure and turned himself off. Period. No reconfiguring, no telling me the Interstate had just recently changed from a different highway. Nothing. Just a black screen. So I took the nearest exit, turned on Google Maps on my phone and Siri (the voice on my I-phone) guided me to the hotel.

I ceased relying on James, but would check him out occasionally. He was useless in Edmonton;  its street and avenue numbers instead of names being impossible for James to locate, but he was okay in Banff and Vancouver.

However, the Pacific Coast Highway was a complete bust for James. He kept trying to send me along Highway 101 – the quickest route- but I wanted to drive Highway#1 along the ocean. I ignored him and did not get lost once. Admittedly, this was not a difficult achievement since all I had to do was keep the Pacific Ocean on my right.

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But James continued to disappoint. I gave him one last try- get me to my hotel in San Francisco -which was actually near the Oakland airport. James led me off the Highway  to Richmond, then Berkley and next, in his perfect butler voice, directed me to veer right. This was the most useless command imaginable, since I was on a 6 lane highway, each of which veered right and led to 3 separate ramps-one to Alameda, one to the Oakland Airport and another to San Francisco. Since I was staying near the Oakland airport, I thought I would veer right, then take the middle exit, but James insisted that I veer right and stay in the right lane. I stupidly trusted technology, stayed in the right lane and found myself on the Oakland/San Francisco toll bridge to San Francisco. $6.00 (US) later and 4 miles down the highway, James directed me to “when possible, make a U-turn.” The nearest exit was at Treasure Island, which has only dead ends and construction zones and no possible way of getting back on the San Francisco toll bridge heading west. I gave up on James, shut the damn thing off and pulled out my I-phone and Google Maps.

Siri directed me back onto the bridge for two miles, then make a left turn at the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco, guiding  me back on to the bridge the way I needed to go and, eventually, over an hour later than necessary, to my hotel in Oakland. ,

I spent 2 days touring  San Francisco. I had been there previously in 1978, seeing most of the main tourist sites then. This time, my first stop was at the Tourist Information Center, where I picked up a paper map. Using it, San Francisco was remarkably easy to navigate. I took a free walking tour (I tipped $20) of Chinatown and the financial district, where two other participants asked where I got the paper map. After the tour, I walked to the most crooked street in the world, Lombard Street, followed by North Beach, , Ghiradelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Everything looked pretty much as I remembered it, but with many more tourists.

 

I left San Francisco with James relegated to the glove compartment. I would rely on Google Maps for the next part of my trip. I continued down the Pacific Coast Highway for about 300 kilometers. As I had arrived at the Pacific Coast Highway much later in the day, the fog was mostly gone and the scenery spectacular.

Six hours later, guided by Siri and Google Maps, I turned east towards Bakersfield . Eventually, the signs and Siri directed me off the Interstate 15. I took the exit and came to a T-road. The sign pointed Bakersfield right. Siri said “go left.” Left was west; east was right but I foolishly gave technology one more try and turned left. A mile later with no guidance from Siri, I made a u-turn. I turned off the phone, and followed the signs. Bakersfield arrived, on the right, shortly afterwards. Relying on more street signs, my car compass and the setting sun and totally ignoring Siri and James, I arrived in RidgeCrest without incident an hour later.

Into the (Red) Woods: Crescent City

I continued down the Pacific Coast Highway/US101 from Seaside, Oregon to California, basking in the fantastic scenery:

My destination was Crescent City, an oceanside town just south of Oregon in California. The beach is not the attraction here, rather it is the redwood trees unique to the northern coastal areas of California. The Del Norte Redwoods State Park, the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Redwoods National Park, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and a bunch of other parks with redwoods are located nearby.

I drove down Howland Hill Road, where a sign warns of a rough, winding road ahead for 6 miles-no RV’s allowed. It quickly turned to gravel, then packed dirt. The redwoods were soon visible, standing like gigantic soldiers guarding the forest. As the road snaked around the trees directing cars between massive trunks, my car sensors kept beeping I was too close to a tree. The redwoods dwarfed the cars and everything else around.

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Statistically, the Redwoods (genus sequoia) are the largest trees in the world, growing to heights of 380 feet or the equivalent of a 38 story building. Their trunks’ diameters have been measured in excess of 27 feet and they can live as long as 2000 years.

 

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I found a well marked hiking trails and walked a few miles amongst the trees, feeling like I had landed in the movie set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

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Hundreds of activities in the vicinity relate to the trees: Jurassic Park where dinosaurs roam, Mystery Trees where a cable car takes you high into the canopy and the famous “Drive your Car through the Tree” attraction. There are actually 3 of the drive your car through sites, but each charge $10 to do so and I wasn’t inclined to set off the car sensors again.  I kept walking through the trees until my neck started hurting from the strain of constantly looking up. So it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. I have a long drive to Oakland tomorrow.