- Hyggelig does exist and it has the force to startle you the minute you step foot on that old Viking land. Or maybe it’s due to my expectation to feel that way. I don’t know. But this feeling definitely didn’t come from the Norwegian people themselves, but their way of living a simple yet meaningful live. They seem to know life is in the little things and do not disappoint themselves always waiting for something big to happen.
- British strangers tend to say “Sorry!” even if your gaze meets on the street or if you get within one meter of each other in a shop, at least from my experience. Not the Norwegians! If by any chance you happen to be in someone’s way they don’t say anything, but they slowly creep behind you until you feel ashamed or until they just walk by at a very close distance.
- Just because it rains (a lot) in some countries it doesn’t mean homes are necessarily moldy. Britain should learn this from Norway. In the UK, so many houses that are out for rent have this problem and even at very high prices the quality of the flats doesn’t even compare to that of other countries. Seriously, the UK has the worst taste in interior design I have ever seen in my life! Most of the times £700 per month (bills and council tax not included) for a flat in southern England doesn’t even get you a place with cheap IKEA furniture. On the other hand, in Norway most buildings seems to be well insulated against moisture and decorated with very simple, yet modern furniture.
The quantity of local produce in Bergen (Norway) was amazing. Instead of seeing the same chain supermarkets with food imported from all the corners of the planet, the Norwegians pride themselves with national stores that promote local products. Indeed, the variety to choose from is very reduced as compared to the UK, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not for the Norwegian economy anyway.
And finally, Norway hasn’t wrapped everything in plastic unlike its insular neighbor across the North Sea. You can still get lots of vegetables and fruits in bulk. They even hang on a hook unwrapped smoked reindeer meat in supermarkets, which is more of an Eastern European practice (not reindeer meat though!).
The journey around the vast Transylvanian plateau sheltered by the wild Carpathians started in Cluj-Napoca, followed by Sibiu, a former European Capital of Culture. During the summer afternoons, temperatures easily reached 35 degrees Celsius in the shade but I hoped they would drop once we were in the mountains.
Having been to Sibiu once before, in the winter of 2013, I realized I loved this city during the colder months. Fewer people and the crisp mornings or evenings give it a surreal quality, hard to find anywhere else in Romania but in the Transylvanian towns and villages.
The next day we drove further south towards the Southern Carpathians, where the highest point is Moldoveanu Peak at 2,544 metres high in the Fagaras Mountains. The main points of attraction were the famous Transgafarasan Highway, Lake Balea and Lake Vidraru.
When we left the mountains behind us, we encountered the cruel heatwave in the old Wallachian territory of Arges county. After a short stay in Curtea de Arges, a former capital of Wallachia, we drove further East and later that day we were welcomed to Brasov county by a wonderful scenery, soaked in golden sunlight.
We spent the night at Bran, a very small town with a very big point of attraction: Bran castle. This was my second visit but it never ceases to delight me. We reached the town in the late afternoon and took a walk in the central area near the castle, wondering where all the tourists were. The next morning, when we queued for tickets at the castle’s entrance, waves of people kept showing up and by the time we left, the queue seemed endless.
Following the visit to the castle we drove North and after only a short journey we reached the beautiful old city of Brasov, where temperatures were unexpectedly high. On our way to Brasov we glimpsed the enormous ruins of Rasnov citadel, built in the early 13th century as part of a defense system for the Transylvanian settlements exposed to outside invasions.
After Brasov we drove towards the beautiful town of Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. I have been there four times but I can never get tired of walking the citadel’s cobbled alleys.
One very special place in Sighisoara is the old cemetery on the hill. A hauntingly serene forest shelters the silent graves, named or unnamed, making it seem an entire world by itself. It is one of the most amazing places of rest I have ever seen in Romania.
After we left Sighisoara, we drove back to Timis county, leaving behind the citadels and the mountains, the histories and an enchanted castle, but we kept with us the sweet memories of moments that only came to pass.
The photos are un-edited and were taken using real light at sunset in Dubrovnik, on the beautiful Adriatic shore.
Montaña Mágica Lodge (translated as “Magic Mountain”… what a suitable name!) is a unique hotel situated in Chile’s Patagonian rainforest in the centre of a large private nature reserve. The building resembles a volcano, but instead of lava it spews water down the slope, through the moss and the vines that give it a more natural look. The 13-room lodge is accessible only by foot and visitors must venture on a swinging rope bridge to enter into the heart of the “mountain”.
On one hand, I believe it is wonderful that the architects and the designers of this hotel kept its appearance as natural as possible, using local building materials. On the other hand, I believe the rainforest belongs to wildlife and humans shouldn’t disturb the delicate ecosystem and as long as this business will not develop into a “mountain” range, it will remain an unparalleled project, attracting people who understand and respect the natural world around them.
Resembling a restless snake that bends and coils in the cold embrace of the mountain, the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania offers a unique experience in Europe. At 2,034 metres altitude it is the second highest mountain pass in the country after Transalpina, where the elevation is 2,145 metres above sea level.
Built in 1974, the Transfagarasan is a 90 km (60 mi) long route that dissects in half the Southern Carpathians, offering amazing views and access to the nearby Bâlea Lake and Bâlea Waterfall from June/July until October/November, depending on the weather conditions.
While I may love Romania for its beautiful forests and pristine meadows or for its unchanged cultural practices, there are some aspects of living in this country that frustrate me to no end. Some people tell me I only look at the negative side so I often try to see the good around me, but the illusion doesn’t last long because… Romania happens – an extremely intoxicating whiff of car emissions hits me right in my face, or a very rude clerk treats people with an uttermost disrespect.
Here are some of the things that have gotten on my nerves:
- An endless superiority complex
There is a big problem with peoples’ mentality in Romania and it doesn’t seem to go away. For as long as I can remember, I have been told both at school and at home that Romanians are the smartest, the friendliest, and the funniest in all of Europe but as I grew up and traveled to other countries, I was proven over and over again that we aren’t any of that and in the process I have learnt not only what Romania truly is, but also what it could be. The overstated belief in a national grandeur, even if non-existent, is one of the legacies of communism and it might take decades until it disappears. Also, a strong superiority complex still damages social cohesion in Romania and will continue to do so for as long as we, as a nation, don’t accept that there are better countries than ours and that we have so much to learn from them.
- Kindness? What kindness?
I know many people who feel so sorry for animals or human beings in pain, but the general trend is one of ignorance and some sort of joy for the misery of others. A few years ago, while getting off a train – which in Romania it can be 1.5 meters (4.11 feet) taller than the platform is – I noticed a woman falling with a child in her arms due to the structural impediment. Despite many men observing the event, no one jumped in to help, but I couldn’t walk away without giving a hand. Poverty and the general dissatisfaction with life seem to make people so insensitive to the pain of others.
- The lack of green spaces in the cities
While 30% of Stockholm is covered by green spaces (accounting for roughly 1000 parks), most Romanian cities don’t even come close, except maybe Timișoara in western Romania, which is a greener place I had lived in for 3 years before moving to Cluj-Napoca. There are people in this country who consider trees a blessing in summer, but a nuissance in autumn when they have brush off some fallen leaves. Personally, I would feel so much happier to see more trees around me. Moreover, a busy city desperately needs them in order to combat the rush hour pollution, which often hurts my and everyone else’s airways and lungs. While there’s a national debate on the topic of religion being taught in schools, there’s very little concern about our forests being illegaly sold to foreign companies.
- The lack of infrastructure
This is one aspect that cannot be controlled by the citizens, yet I believe a part of the blame can be placed on those people who, for 25 years since the Revolution, have stood and watched the politicians strip this country bare. Don’t they see how much recent protests have changed in Romania? We stopped Gabriel Resources Gold Corporation from stealing the gold from the ancient mines in Roșia Montană. We managed to get some officials to resign from their positions. We ultimately inclined the balance in the favor of a more progressive newly elected president. Infrastructure in Romania is simply horrific, except some highways here and there (built with more than ten times the price paid per kilometer anywhere else in the world thanks to Victor Ponta’s useless government). Railways in this country are a national shame, a stigma of corruption and an incompetent government, where trains can go at best at a speed of 50 km/h.
- Highly inflated prices for almost naught!
The most famous case in this regard is the Romanian Black Sea shore, where many resort towns struggle to attract tourists who are considering more and more traveling to Bulgaria, Greece or Croatia for better services and smaller prices. Romanian sea resorts not only look unattractive and old-fashioned (except the VIP town of Mamaia), but also the services local businesses offer are dissatisfying when taking into consideration the high amount of money they charge for them. Almost all over Romania there’s a general disease called ‘avarice’. When a tourist is spotted, the very first thought of a business owner isn’t “How can I be of use so that I am worthy of my pay?” but “How can I rip off this tourist right here, right now?”. Isn’t anyone thinking that this isn’t doing any good for long-term business? Of course, not everyone in the country is like this, therefore it’s a matter of luck if you are willing to play Russian roulette… or should I say Romanian roulette?
6. Too many churches
There are over 18,000 churches in Romania, while there are less than 800 hospitals for a population of nearly 21 million. They are everywhere and more are built with each passing day, despite so many schools and kindergartens being in deplorable conditions or primary students not having books to study from. Also, there is a gigantic cathedral being built in Bucharest, across the Parliament, showing that the Romanian church wants itself a maker of decisions in this country. The cathedral cost at least 400 million euros, in the situation when so many Romanians struggle from one day to another. Recently, all 2,5 million underage students had to decide whether they will continue to study religion in school or not, and an astounding 88% said yes. What a shame! (For more about religion in Romania click here: https://theceltiberian.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/on-religious-scientists-and-other-things/)
People in the West are all too familiar with the traditional burials of our loved ones, whose bodies are enclosed into a wooden coffin and left to rest six feet under the surface of the ground. Most people find comfort in thinking that the dead are resting peacefully, but very few think of the actual decaying process that starts right after the descent in the bowels of the earth. But this isn’t the case all over the world and some cultures know exactly what happens to bodies after death.
In the Far East, people have other ways of dealing with their dead and such is the case with the archaic practice of sky burials or jhator in Tibet, first mentioned in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol, a 12th-century Buddhist treatise that explains what rituals have to be performed when death is closing in or has taken place. A sky burial consists of a ritual dissection usually performed at dawn by a priest or rogyapa, who segments the dead body into relatively small pieces that are left as offerings on the top of a mountain for birds of prey or other animals. Vultures are summoned by burning juniper incense and they are thought to be dakinis, the Tibetan angels that guide the soul into heaven where it awaits rebirth, which is one of the main teachings of Buddhism.
Due to high altitudes there is no lumber for coffins and with a thin layer of soil that covers the permafrost and solid rock, burying the dead into the ground is basically impossible for the Tibetans. One of the most significant sky burial sites is Drigung Monastery, originally founded in 1179, about 75 miles north-east of Lhasa.
Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to witness sky burials without fear in order to come at peace with the harsh reality of physical death. Jhator reinforces the importance of Buddhist virtues and it is considered an act of generosity and compassion. The dead body is an empty vessel and it is no longer needed while waiting for reincarnation.
A jhator was filmed, with permission from the family, for Frederique Darragon’s documentary Secret Towers of the Himalayas in 2008. The camera work was deliberately careful to never show the body itself, while documenting the procedure, birds, and tools.
I have always been fascinated with body art and how it can permanently affect someone’s appearance. I have heard about facial scarification in a village in Burkina Faso, about the Kayan Lahwi in Burma and their women with elongated necks, or foot binding in China, but today was the first time I have ever read about the traditions of the Mursi people on the lower Omo River in Ethiopia. More specifically, I have discovered that women from this group wear lip plates made of clay or wood as a symbol of their strength and self-esteem, according to Shauna LaTosky, a social anthropologist from the Max Planck Institute.
The gradual, painful enlargement process starts about one year before a girl is married, but nowadays young girls around the age of 15 to 18 can choose whether they will wear a lip plate or not. Women who do chose to wear them, they do it with pride and they joyfully decorate the plates with some personalized ornamentation. There is enough room to be creative because the final diameter of the lip plate can range from 8 cm to more than 20 cm.
This Ethiopian group isn’t the only one that takes pride in this traditional practice, but also isolated Amazonian tribes in South America and indigenous groups that live on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America have invented lip plates for various purposes, such as symbolizing leadership and the eligibility to become a wife respectively.
Unfortunately, tourists associate these customs with primitiveness and they objectify the Mursi people and others like them, which in turn makes the tribes very aggressive with those whose sole purpose is to photograph them like animals in the Zoo, but gladly welcome those who are willing to learn about their vanishing culture.
For further information, I recommend you visit the following pages:
Back in the winter of 2011 my boyfriend and I had the honor to spend two awesome weeks in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, where I have learned for the very first time that traveling means nothing without knowing the history of the place beforehand. Thankfully, two weeks were enough to read about the places that we visited within the capital and about its glorious past, which is strongly connected to Romania’s rich history. Due to freezing temperatures, the streets were quite empty, especially in the evening when people gathered inside warm restaurants and pubs. This was an ideal situation because it felt like we almost had the city to ourselves and we wandered for hours without using a map, but we didn’t feel lost at any time; instead it felt like a home I have always known.
Budapest is a wonderful modern citadel that despite its size and nearly two million inhabitants, exhibits nothing of the fast-paced lifestyle of other European cities. Life flows slowly and peacefully much alike the Danube river that sunders the old capital with eternal grace. The glorious history of Budapest is represented by massive buildings, monuments, and a multitude of architectural elements that abound everywhere you look, invoking in Hungarians a certain pride that is both respectable and profoundly inspiring.
The journey towards Budapest can begin by road, railroad, by water or flight. Either way the destination is the same splendid Central European jewel that shines like an emerald in summertime, resembles a cozy modern fortress in winter, playful in spring and nostalgic when autumn falls.
Budapest consists of three former historical settlements that were united in 1873: Buda, Pest and Óbuda respectively.
One masterpiece area in Buda would be Géllert Hill (Géllert-hegy) which is a 235 m tall butte, named after Saint Gerard, who was thrown to death from the hill. He remains one of the patron saints of Hungary, immortalized with a monument on the northeast slope of Géllert Hill, a bronze statue that commemorates the man who brought a new religion to Budapest.
At the top of the hill is the Citadella, a fortress built in 1851 that occupies almost the entire 235 m high plateau, offering a unique view over Budapest and its eight bridges. The way up to the Citadella is by a stone path or a road built in the southern side of the Citadel, allowing an easier and faster access to all the areas around the fortress, but walking is a better experience and it can make you feel as if you pay a small tribute to those who fought for freedom.
If you choose to walk by foot, you will find yourself facing the wonderful Liberty Statue (Szabadság Szobor), first erected in 1947. The 14 m tall statue stands on a 26 m pedestal and it gracefully holds a palm leaf. On the memorial are engraved the following words, translated from Hungarian language: “Erected by the grateful Hungarian Nation in memory of the liberating Russian heroes.” After the transition from the Communist rule to a democratic government the text was modified: “To the memory of all of those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and success of Hungary.”
Apart from Géllert Hill, Buda on the west bank shelters the Royal Palace, which has several names: Budavári Palota, Királyi-palota or Királyi Vár. It was built in 1265 and it is connected to Clark Ádám Square and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge by the Castle Hill Funicular. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Palace’s inner courtyard reveals several monuments such as Matthias Fountain, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Statue of the horseherd, the mythological Turul bird, Fishing Children by Károly Senyey and many more.
On the east bank of the mighty river, Pest is adorned with wonderful buildings and the architecture is extremely varied, including Roman, Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman, Baroque, Romantic, and Art Nouveau influences, yet one of the most outstanding buildings in Pest is the Hungarian Parliament, on the immediate bank of the Danube river.