Thursday, August 24, 2017

The trouble with travels

We've had a few problems with our technology.
The computer wouldn't connect to the web here at Steph and Felix's new house.
The camera disk won't download the photos.

Guess the 'equipment' is saying "enough already - give us a break!"
So, I did.

But tonight the laptop has connected first try when I plugged it in to a power outlet that actually has power connected to it (there are some issues with a couple of outlets and lights here at the new house - they should be sorted this weekend). Blasted SD card still won't download directly - but where there is a will, there is a way - and I am nothing if not determined - put it back in the camera and downloaded through the camera!

It was great getting back here to Schwäbish Gmünd. Steph and Felix had moved in the first week we were gone, and they are now almost settled in to their new home. They have actually had the house since April 2016, engaged an architect and set about making it their own. The former owner had lived here almost all her adult life and had raised her family here.  Now, she has passed on and her children with teenage children of their own, have sold the house to a new family. They replaced the roof and pretty well gutted the interior, opening to a more open plan, put in new kitchen and bathrooms and are now putting the finishing touches.

We arrived home to have Steph cooking the selection of fish that Felix had bought for dinner in her new steam oven - very nice. Would love one if it was a little earlier in our lives!  Very quick and combined with her induction hotplates, it is as good as gas!  And veges - so nice to have veges.

Since arriving back, we have been trying to help around here a little - Michael spent two days cutting out hedges and hedges of diseased buxus. Four trips to the green waste bin to get rid of it all - and one to go! Tomorrow we will go back to their former house and spakfill the holes where paintings were hung, and sweep up and wipe down after the kitchen was removed - yes, they sold the kitchen that they had put in in the rental - it is not considered a fixture here!!

But it has not been all work and no play.
We spent Tuesday afternoon exploring part of the Schwäbish Gmünd Munster and marketplace.
It was nice to become re-acquainted with the Munster - we did visit it during our 2009 trip, but we spent more time delving into its history and secrets this time. There are some amazing stained glass windows and Michael happily discovered a number of Green Men in the carvings above doorways.

There is so much history in the churches. Makes you look on their role in a whole new way.
Now, the icon for Schwäbish Gmünd is the Unicorn and we see unicorns in lots of places around town. But there are other quirky little things - like the bright orange plastic armchairs that are chained in place to provide seating for those weary from their expeditions in to town.

And there are stunning examples of engineering, of architecture and of a community that has learned well, the art of bringing the old into new times, of mixing today's life with yesterday's heritage.

The fountain that was under its winter cover on our last visit, is happily providing drinking water to all who need the refreshment - and doesn't discriminate between beast or man - it as happily lets the pigeons drink as it does the local man filling his child's water bottle.  The surrounds of the fountain tell the stories of the various coats of arms associated with the city and a multi-sided statue has the complete holy family watching over the users and the town square in general.
The main Marketplace is living history with a range of architectural styles showing how the city has changed over time. The buildings in the centre of the photo below (brown and white ones) are some of the earlier and date to when tax was paid on the footprint of the building - so the ground floor was smaller and each additional floor added width to the building!  The Rathaus (Council chambers) is the pink building on the left.  These always have beautiful displays of flowers and usually have a chiming clock - the one in Schwäbish Gmünd is particularly nice with some chimes that play a number of classical pieces.

Finally it is nice to see that the old buildings find longevity in new uses and that these communities of old have happily found ways to allow the old and the new to sit comfortably side by side in a new millenium.

After a few hours wandering and wondering, we come home to Steph and the kids, to pretzels and fresh seed rolls, to ham and salami and joy of joys to amazing cheeses that are SO cheap at the local supermarkets here!

Nite one and all - I'll tell you all about our trip to Ulm today, tomorrow.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The monasteries have a competitor - the Merry Cemetery!

Oh, and the Festival was definitely yesterday.  The music, or was it from the restaurant below us, pumped bass well into the night last night. I went to bed at 11 with the beat still drumming in my ears, but it didn't stop me from sleeping. Sleep was good. Sleep was a full 8 hours - yay.

We are down to breakfast as the pull down of the festival is in full swing and before we head over to the Merry Cemetery and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance in Romania. They don't open until 10, so we have a bit of time.

We repacked the suitcase last night, so once we hit the road, we can just go straight to the airport and check in without drama.
Well, we left the hotel without any drama and as we head off in the car I plug in Sapanta where the Merry Cemetery is to the tablet. But then as we get back in to Sighetu Marmatiei proper, I spy the sign to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance in Romania and it is only 500 m away, so a quick change of plans even though the GPS is very insistently telling us to turn right, in 50 m turn right, in 120 m turn right, we keep going straight. Thankfully, this memorial opens at 9:30 am, so we are right on time.  And as we are early, parking is a breeze - right at the end of the block where the Memorial is located.

The Memorial is located in the former Sighetu Prison and tells the story of the rise and impact of communism in Romania from 1945 to 1977. Like many of the ghettoes, gulags and prisons in other parts of Europe, it tells in detail of the atrocities that man can visit on his brother in the name of power.
  • 1945 - the repatriation of former prisoners and deported persons from the Soviet Union happened through Sighetu
  • 1948 - imprisonment of students, pupils and peasants from the Maramures
  • May 1950 - 100+ government ministers, academics, economists, military officers, historians, journalists, politicians were transferred to Sighetu
  • Oct 1950 - 50 bishops and Greek-Catholic and Roman-Catholic priests interred
  • Prisoners could not look out the windows as they were all shuttered, with only a small patch of sky visible
  • 1955 - Geneva Convention and Romania's admission to the UN - some pardons were granted and some prisoners freed, other sent to other places and the balance placed under house arrest. The prison returned to being a law prison.
  • 1977 - the prison was put out of use and fell into disrepair.
  • 1994 - Approval was given for the creation of a Memorial on the site.

 The names engraved in the memorial wall, and the photos that line the main corridors of the detainees are very sobering.
It began our day with a very different feel as we realised that the communists and their followers have so much to answer for.  In order to really do the Memorial justice, you would need to spend at least half a day here, alas, we give it 2 hours only, but enough to give another small insight into the nature of man.

So we are now off to Sapanta.  This is the home of Cimitirul Vesel - the Merry Cemetery. Relatively new, it came into being in its current form only in the 1930s when local artist Ion Stan Patras begins to celebrate the life of villagers by carving and painting headstones that depict something of their time on earth. Today, his work is continued by Dumitru Pop.
The artist alone decides on the picture and the epitaph - although he consults with the family to get information on the deceased. There are hundreds of these crosses in the cemetery and the following is a verse on just one:
Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother in-law
Three more days should she have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).

You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticise me more.
But I will surely behave
So she'll not return from grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!

There was one tragic one where a three year old little girl had been killed after being struck by a car.
All in all - a unique and quirky way at looking at life and I can't help but think that this is the way I would like to be remembered.  Heaven knows what would be written about me though!  😄

The Church of the Annunciation which sits beside the cemetery is still under construction. As we have said before, religion is big business and most of the tiling that is happening here is in rich colours and gold mosaics.  The church certainly does have a very colourful and impressive spire - I'll put some pics on Facebook.

Just a km further on is the Mănăstirea Săpânța-Peri which has the honour of having the tallest spire of a wooden in Europe.  No mean feat considering that this newly built church (1997) is constructed using traditional methods.

Set aside from the village amidst a forest, this place exudes a calm that was very welcome after the sombre and then light-hearted start to our day.

After this, it was time to turn for the south and a return to the International Airport at Cluj-Napoca to depart Romania.  A little over 200 kms, it will take us 3.5 hours.  We have grown to trust the predictions of the tablet and Google Maps and not to base our expectations on driving times from home.  So we know that we will get to Cluj around 3:40 pm.  In good time to return our hire car and make our departure at 4:55 pm.

The trip itself is relatively uneventful and very Romanian.  In any other country in the world, it is a well known fact that red cars go faster.  Here, they are the slow cars!  And after seeing an advertisement on TV last night for Prevomit, a medication for travel sickness, I can't help but think that the pharmaceutical companies are in carhoots with the road designers.  Apart from the two major motorways, there would not be more that 1-2 kms of straight road anywhere - even on the flat they meander along.

We pull in at the car parking lot at the Airport right on cue.
Double check the car and gather all our 'stuff' (there is that word again, Gen) and head in to return the keys.  The Dacia has been an interesting car. A workhorse for sure.  Michael and I lay bets on how far we have driven - we cannot find the odometer on the dash display and have to ask the rental clerk to tell us.  Michael suggest 4,000 kms while I say no, I think more like 3,000 kms. The clerk gets back to the office, our camera in his hand (it was left int he door pocket) and confirms me as winner - we have only driven 2,913 kms, even though it feels much more.  The clerk is quite impressed and tells us that we have just driven 6 times the length of the country.  Now, when you put it like that . . .

As we take off, we can't help but feel that the taxi-way at the airport really reflects the infrastructure of much of the country - patchy, bumpy and definitely in need of a bit of TLC. Thankfully, the runway proper is in better nick! We are again flying with Air Dolomiti - and for the grand sum of 20 euro extra per ticket have snagged business class.  This just means that we get two seats each - across the aisle from each other and extra special attention such as a served meal on china with real cutlery rather than the sandwiches in a box. And I get a glass of Prosecco to wash it down with.

Drum Bun Romania - it sure was nice getting know you a bit and our final view before we head into the clouds is of the outskirts of Cluj, like most of the rest of the country strung out in a line along the roadway.

Our trip is uneventful, although for most of it we are above the clouds and the smog with nothing to see.  There is a storm outside Munich, but as we come in toward our landing, there is a parting of the clouds and a late ray of sunshine to bring out a beautiful view of Germany.
We have decided to stay at the Hilton at the Airport again tonight before heading back to Steph and Felix in the morning.  Sort out the car that was originally booked for today, have some dinner - at the Route 66 Buffet (at 48 euro a head!), compile tonight's story and that is it - your lot for the day!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Religion is alive and well in the Eastern states

Last night was probably the mildest we have had since we arrived in Romania. We slept with the balcony door open - made a really nice change from air-conditioning.

We needed another fairly early start today as we are off to see two more of the painted monasteries before we head across to Sapanta - at least four hours drive up and over the Maramures mountains - and going very close to some of the areas we visited at the start of our Romanian adventure.  The day is promising to be another warm one with the mountains in the distance clouded in haze.  The warm sun certainly does have its benefits though as the fruits of farm labours are transported to market.

Transport in Romania takes three main forms (if you don't include walking) - cars crawling, slower horse and cart for transporting goods and/or people, and local 'buses' - transporter vans that seem to operate to their own set of traffic rules - they pull up anywhere, often without warning and demand right of way at all times. This sign summed it up for me!!

We started with Sucevita Monastery, an hour from Surceava - arriving before the hordes and just as the sellers are setting up their wares.
It actually looks like a fortress from the outside, not a monastery. As we reach the entry gates, there is an animated conversation taking place between two of the nuns and a priest who is leaving the complex, driving like a mad-man.

This monastery was constructed in 1581 and the frescoes were completed in 1596 and painted by brothers Ion and Sofronie. Like many of the other monasteries, the northern exposed external walls are badly faded, but the others are still rich and vibrant. Of particular interest is the Stairway to Heaven, complete with sinners falling of the staircase and being clutched by the minions of Hell.

This, together with the Whore of Babylon (Michael's favourite!) are very prominent.

The interior of the monastery is covered with frescoes, six levels from the floor to the base of the start of the cupolas that lead to the main dome. There is also a collections of saintly 'relics' on display here - teeth, locks of hair, fingernails - even back when, religion must have been a big business with parts of the 'saints' shared out to keep the faithful focussed.

The nuns keep very busy with the 'business' of the monastery.  But quietly in the background, I also see a nun tending to the amazing displays of pelagoniums and miniature geraniums that adorn the balconies of the convent. She is so focussed on her work and moves diligently about her tasks.

Two large groups, complete with guides and microphones arrive as we are nearing the end of our visit. One final small act to light a candle for our niece, Rebecca, tragically killed in a car crash a week before we left. Shine brightly little one as you reach the top of that stairway.

From here, it is only another half hour to get to the last of the Painted Monasteries that we have time to visit - Moldovita. In order to get to it, we need to head up and over the 'lower' reaches of the mountains where, just like home, the timber jinkers rule the road - everyone got out of his way, us included - who cared if he wanted more than his share of the road?

We reach Moldovita and for once can park without payment!  A local policeman is on hand - probably to deter enterprising locals from trying to 'fleece' the Monastery visitors.  We do pay to use the toilets though 1 Lei to a wizened lady bent over in age. The toilets are spotless, but without paper - when I ask for some, I get the bright pink version!

Moldovita Monastery, also fortified, is less imposing than Sucevita.  The doors within doors, or gates, are a common feature, although most of the monasteries have the full gates open by the time the visitors arrive.  You really need to watch where you put your feet to make sure you don't trip on uneven and worn rocks and stones that have been embedded in the path.

This monastery has an interesting story.
Built in 1532, this replaced an earlier 13th century monastery that collapsed. At the time of this later construction, the fortifications surrounding the monastery was also constructed and the convent was also started.

The nuns here seem more modest. They all seem to have a knack with flower gardening. All the monasteries are undergoing active restoration and I guess that this is an ongoing task, for which the nuns tolerate the imposition of literally hordes of visitors in order to fund the ongoing works.

And don't ever think that graffiti is a modern trend - on the marvelous painted walls is clear evidence that others from time past also want to leave their mark - or maybe, instead of writing (and paying for) a prayer request, this was the 1800's way to entreat the gods.

All too soon, we need to be on our way.
We are travelling back into the Maramures Mountains and the high alpine environments. The vistas are perfect and if it weren't for the power lines that modern life has brung, you would find it hard to date the views of daily life.

The barns, the fences and that view!

Now, there are two really good roads in Romania. And a million bad ones. And the one we are travelling on over these mountains is perhaps the worst we have found.  I imagine that it probably started as a logging trail. It is now two lanes, accommodating traffic over the mountains rather than a very protracted route around.  I can imagine that without this road, there would have not been any trade between the two sides of the mountain - it is just too far to travel.

To their credit, the Romanians are busy working on this road. They need to be. The nervous Romanian drivers are giving me the willies - no joke, they almost come to a complete stop at every piece of road that had been dug out and replaced with lose gravel (like every 250 m).  Good god man, just go over it! We do much of the trip at 20 kph or less. VERY frustrating. I can tell you from all the times that we have driven on corrugated forest roads out to the Puller's place, that you are better with a bit of speed, skimming the top of the corrugations!!

And at one point, I follow an Italian car as we are directed to a newly sealed piece of road at a green light, only to encounter impatient drivers who have come down the mountain road obviously on the red. There is a difference of about 45 cms to the unsealed right hand side of the road where we normally be driving. With no one giving ground, I eventually reverse 
back a couple of hundred metres - not usually a challenge, but there is a 10% slope on sealed road that is barely wider than the car, and meandering. Find a bit where there is a bit of loose gravel piled and ease the car down. Fun.  No wonder I am exhausted tonight and looking for alcohol!

Still, the improved road is amazing.  We pass at least two camps for the workers with 'cabins' the size of an outback dunny.  Lots of workers no doubt happy for the paychecks.

And in the midst of this calamity, there is still the beauty in the geometry of perfect hillsides of pine trees - and the smell of the pine on the air.

So from Moldovita Monastery to Sapanta is a distance of of 227 kms and it took us 5 hrs 40 minutes!  Just shy of arriving in Sapanta, we make a comfort stop and come across another Monastery - this one very modern.  As we leave, the nuns arrive in a black van to collect the 'rent' from the vendors down below the monastery. Yes, as I said, religion is big business here in Eastern Europe.

We come into Sapanta and are being directed down the side streets to the Hotel Gradina Morii, when we come upon blocked streets and a lot of gendarmes.  No English, but one speaks Spanish, but we make ourselves understood as to our accommodation booking.  They let us through, only to be stopped by the next lot of gendarmes - even more of them!  Again, they take pity on the poor english speaking ones and direct us through. The hotel is situated in a park and there is lots of activity.  For a moment, after the terrible events in Barcelona and Turku, I wondered whether something bad has happened.  But as we check in, the hotel clerk tells us a big festival starts tomorrow.

Down for an earlier dinner, we have an absolute feast. We began by sharing bruschetta and a cheese plate, then Michael had  'Gradina Morii' pork fillet with mushrooms and spinach mashed potatoes, while I enjoyed Snitel Solovan - pork fillet covered in hash brown potatoes with a salad of cucumbers, onions and mayonnaise.  The bread we shared was as light as cake.

Dessert followed - chocolate souffle and house made choc-chip ice cream for Michael and flambe ananas (pineapple) for me.
Topped it all with an espresso and I am ready for bed.  First we need to re-pack the suitcase so we are ready to fly back to Munich tomorrow late.  But not before we explore the Merry Cemetery and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance in Romania.

Hope we don't have any trouble leaving here in the morning!