Castles, Churches, and Unrecognized States: Two Days in Cyprus

This last weekend, my travels continued as my group took a whirlwind field trip to Cyprus. While we spent less than 36 hours in the country, the small size of the island made it possible to reach almost all of the major sites of Northern Cyprus. Cyprus, of course, has been a divided island since a coup d’état in Greece sparked a Turkish invasion, and thanks to our study of Turkish, we spent almost the entirety of our trip in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which comprises around one-third of the island. We started our trip in Nicosia (the world’s last divided capital), where, after a debriefing on the current situation and historical background at the EU’s mission in Northern Cyprus, we were able to cross the Green Line, which divides Turkish Northern Cyprus and Greek Southern Cyprus. Despite the historical animosity between the communities, and military bases on either side of the checkpoint, it was no problem going between the two sides. While the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are genetically identical, and the Greek Cypriots were playing backgammon and smoking nargile, just like Turks, but there was nonetheless a noticeable difference between the two sides. Turkish Nicosia (Lefkosa) contained numerous markets selling alcohol and cigarettes at cheaper prices along disorganized, dirty streets, while Greek Nicosia contained high-end department stores and international chains banned from operating in Turkish Cyprus by international embargoes and legal complexities in what resembled a European city far more than the Turkish side did. We had only an hour on the Greek side of Cyprus, but it may have been the highlight of the trip, since Greek Nicosia offers pianos placed on street corners for public use, which gave me the ability to play again for the first time since arriving in Turkey, and I had definitely missed being musical.

 

Green Line, Nicosia

Green Line, Nicosia

Mosque, Turkish Nicosia

Mosque, Turkish Nicosia

From Nicosia we moved up to the city of Kyrenia (Girne) on the northern coast, where we explored the fascinating castle of St. Hilarion, perched on a towering peak south of town, where we were able to scramble around on the ruins and mountainside (a brief rainstorm notwithstanding). This castle, which was the inspiration for the castle in Snow White, had been damaged by age and the 1974 war, but still was an awe-inspiring fortification with great views over the Kyrenia area. We also visited the charming harbor of Kyrenia, where we watched a storm over Alanya across the Mediterranean, and the waterside castle, which was of a later construction and much different design.

 

Kyrenia Castle at night

Kyrenia Castle at night

St. Hilarion Castle

St. Hilarion Castle

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Landscape of Northern Cyprus

Landscape of Northern Cyprus

Uppermost tower, St. Hilarion Castle

Uppermost tower, St. Hilarion Castle

Top of St. Hilarion Castle

Top of St. Hilarion Castle

Kyrenia Castle Entrance Gate

Kyrenia Castle Entrance Gate

Kyrenia Shipwreck, inside Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia Shipwreck, inside Kyrenia Castle

Interior Courtyard, Kyrenia Castle

Interior Courtyard, Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia Castle ocean walls

Kyrenia Castle ocean walls

Lastly, we visited another ancient fortified town at Famagusta (Gazimagusa), Northern Cyprus’ biggest port and an ancient Venetian base, which has much thicker walls surrounding much of the old town, evidently built to protect against cannons instead of medieval weaponry. This city is perhaps the greatest example of Cyprus’ multicultural nature and turbulent history, with much of the coastal resort area still kept off limits as a Turkish military base, now that tourism has shifted to the south, which is part of the EU, and massive Gothic cathedrals that were converted to mosques in the interior, a fascinating juxtaposition of the ornate Christian architecture and austere Islamic styles.

 

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly St. Nicholas' Cathedral), Famagusta

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly St. Nicholas’ Cathedral), Famagusta

Interior of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Interior of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Next weekend’s travel will also feature a mountainous, multicultural, neighbor of Turkey with its own issues with unrecognized states-Georgia, so that will be the next post.

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Plains back to Mountains: Fall Break Part 2-Croatia and Montenegro

The second half of my trip commenced in Zagreb, Croatia, another city where delayed transportation gave me just a few hours to explore the city. In this case, however, I found that I needed no more time to experience most of Zagreb. Zagreb has a few nice museums (though with most signs in Croatian), a pleasant old town, and is not nearly as crowded as more famous sites. Still, its attractions are fairly close together, and it has few monumental pieces of architecture, unique historic sites, or specialized museums to distinguish it from the spectacular attractions of other European cities. Zagreb is comfortable and clean, but it is a good place to visit for a day, perhaps, not a destination city given all the more interesting sites in the region.

King Tomislav Statue, Zagreb

King Tomislav Statue, Zagreb

Mimara Museum, Zagreb

Mimara Museum, Zagreb

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb

St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb

Zagreb Cathedral

Zagreb Cathedral

Ban Josip Jelačić Statue, Zagreb

Ban Josip Jelačić Statue, Zagreb

 

Like from Budapest, I left early in the morning from Zagreb, this time to visit Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, a World Heritage Site globally famed for its fascinating landscape of caves, waterfalls, and pristine lakes. When I arrived and entered the park, which has an immediate view over the large waterfall and lower lakes, I felt like all the trials of the earlier few days of travelling were worth it for this. Plitvice’s waterfalls were absolutely spectacular, and I have never seen such clear water as in the lakes to the side of the boardwalk. The temperature was fantastic, though heavy rains before arrival had washed out some of the trails and forced me to walk through water in other parts (but made the falls even more impressive). Having nearly the whole day to wander at my own pace through the park was a pleasant change from the hectic last few days (though Google Maps’ mislabeling of my homestay for the night forced me to waste around an hour doubling back to a different park entrance), and the park operated a network of trams and ferries that easily connected the different areas of the park. Unfortunately, as the day went on, the park got more and more crowded, until trails were slowed to a complete standstill by the crush of tourists on them, and the entrance line for tickets contained several hundred people. It became impossible to even get on the ferry or get a good view of several falls because of these crowds, which I later realized came because it was Croatian Independence Day, which while not explicitly “Visit Plitvice Lakes Day” seemed to be taken that way by the thousands of Croatian families taking daytrips to the park. It likely would have been crowded in any case, as over a million visitors come each year for good reason, and the weather was great for a visit to the park, but I had hoped that the park would be much emptier on a fall Wednesday. Luckily, staying the night meant that I could remain in the park after all the others had left, and I finally managed to find a solitary trail at around 5:00 PM, from where I watched the sunset over the uppermost lake and listened to the sounds of nature (unfortunately but unsurprisingly, I was unable to catch a glimpse of any of the park’s wildlife). The atmosphere felt so much like being back in Wisconsin that I began feeling homesick. I also came back for an hour early the next morning, again before the crowds arrived, so that by the time I left, I had walked on nearly every trail in the park (there is very little backcountry access, unfortunately, which contributes to the crowding). The next day was spent entirely on a bus, a 12 hour ordeal that was mitigated to an extent by the fantastic views over the Adriatic as the bus veered around switchbacks on a road bounded by towering peaks on one side and small fishing/resort villages along the coast on the other, and I got brief stops in major destinations along the Dalmatian coast in Zadar and Split. Thanks to a curious border quirk, this bus ride traveled though Bosnia for a few miles as well, though waiting impatiently for the bus driver to get back from the bar for half an hour there was not a pleasant recollection of the country. Finally, I arrived in my destination, Dubrovnik.

Large waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

Large waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

Valley, Plitvice Lakes

Valley, Plitvice Lakes

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Looking over the park

Looking over the park

The lake from above

The lake from above

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Sick of waterfalls yet?

Sick of waterfalls yet?

Sunset at Plitvice Lakes

Sunset at Plitvice Lakes

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Sunset on the Dalmatian Coast

Sunset on the Dalmatian Coast

 

Dubrovnik is possibly the greatest combination of historical monuments, a preserved old city, and natural beauty in the Balkans, and it has justifiably become world-famous for those. Even late in the tourist season, it was packed with tourists and overpriced, but these did not outweigh the tremendous beauty of the city. I started my day walking along the city walls, an unforgettable experience, and I visited a few museums in the old town. I was lucky enough to get a cheap hostel in the old town, which made it easy to use it as a base between excursions, so I changed and went out for 3 hours kayaking around the city. I traveled to the nearby island of Lokrum (reachable by ferry, though that’s not nearly as fun), home to a ruined monastery and fort, botanical gardens, and several rock “beaches”, an enjoyable natural transition from the architectural charms of the town, and returning I got great views of the outside of the fortifications, an imposing sight little changed from when these walls welcomed Genoese traders and fought against Turkish pirates. To get a view from a different angle, I climbed up the mountain behind town, a series of switchbacks arranged as Stations of the Cross, to where another fort (not in nearly as good condition) provided an overlook on the city, as well as a museum on the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland War) in Dubrovnik. This museum, and another on war photography in town, were sobering reminders of how much Dubrovnik suffered in the Yugoslav Wars just 20 years ago, and while the city has been completely repaired, it is strange to consider that my Croatian hostel owner and Montenegrin taxi driver were likely fighting on opposite sides of the lines along the same route I travelled. Anyone over 30 was certainly transformed by the war, and judging from the propaganda in the war museum and more subtly in locations around town, they are unlikely to forget. For the first and only time this trip, I stayed two nights in the same place, allowing me to wander amid the tight streets of town and share travel stories with the other residents of my hostel, and stop in the grocery store to make my own meals. The next morning I headed out to the bus station (not conveniently located near the old town) to travel to my last destination, Kotor, in Montenegro.

Church, Dubrovnik

Church, Dubrovnik

Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence) Fortress, Dubrovnik

Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence) Fortress, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik West Harbor

Dubrovnik West Harbor

Lokrum Island

Lokrum Island

Northern Wall of Dubrovnik

Northern Wall of Dubrovnik

Rooftops of Dubrovnik

Rooftops of Dubrovnik

Pile Gate

Pile Gate

Fortifications viewed from Lovrijenac

Fortifications viewed from Lovrijenac

Castle and Island

Castle and Island

Old Monastery, Lokrum

Old Monastery, Lokrum

Path from Fort Royal, Lokrum

Path from Fort Royal, Lokrum

Seaward Fortifications

Seaward Fortifications

Stradun, Dubrovnik's main street

Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street

Dubrovnik from above

Dubrovnik from above

Dalmatian Islands

Dalmatian Islands

 

Montenegro is a tiny (and new) country with tremendous natural beauty, and Kotor is foremost among its many charming coastal towns. Located at the end of a long fjord, surrounded by mountains, and like Dubrovnik maintaining the thick walls and thin alleyways of an ancient port, Kotor was a key Venetian trading center before becoming a tourist destination. Kotor was extremely small, as it took only 5 or 10 minutes to get from one end to the other, and the great Maritime Museum and the few churches in town, while interesting, did not take long to explore. However, Kotor’s fortifications extended to the crest of the mountain behind town, which were open to the public. These fortifications provided the location for a fascinating ramble in the nooks and crannies of the crumbling walls that despite their significant length and apparent sophistication were unsuccessful in preventing conquest by the Ottomans and British, as well as great views over the fjord and the old town of Kotor, from where I practiced photography. While it only took me a few hours to experience everything Kotor had to offer, the amenities and excursions offered by the hostel I stayed at made me wish I could spend another day in Montenegro. Unfortunately, however, classes started back on Monday, so the next day it was time to head back to Alanya, first over another slow but beautiful road that snaked among the mountains through the towns of Budva (like Kotor, another coastal destination with an old town) and Cetinje (Montenegro’s old capital in the mountains, home to numerous palaces and museums) until reaching the capital of Podgorica, probably the ugliest location in Montenegro but the only one with flights to Turkey, despite having only a tiny airport. Flying out over the mountains and lakes of Albania made me very interested in returning to hike in the region, escaping the messy development along the coast and around Podgorica. Flying back was uneventful, and Sunday night I returned to Alanya, ten days after heading out. As much as I enjoyed traveling, I was extremely glad to be back, looking forward to filling meals, days without the stress of catching another bus and finding another hostel, conversation with friends, and less physical exertion.

Kotor Bay

Kotor Bay

Kotor Outer Walls

Kotor Outer Walls

St. Tryphon's Cathedral, Kotor

St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor

Main Gate, Kotor

Main Gate, Kotor

Kotor Bay, old church along the walls

Kotor Bay, old church along the walls

Kotor from the fortifications

Kotor from the fortifications

Kotor's walls

Kotor’s walls

Top of Kotor Fortress

Top of Kotor Fortress

Montenegrin Sunset

Montenegrin Sunset

Old church in the mountains behind Kotor

Old church in the mountains behind Kotor

Fortress, Montenegro

Fortress, Montenegro

Mountains of Montenegro

Mountains of Montenegro

Lake Skadar from the plane, Montenegro/Albania

Lake Skadar from the plane, Montenegro/Albania

 

This was my first long-distance solo travel, and the most difficult thing I’ve had to arrange in my life. Very few things went exactly according to plan, and I spent far more time in buses and train stations than I would have hoped, yet I am still completely convinced that I made the right choice of destinations. There are hundreds or thousands of destinations in Europe I still wish to visit, but this trip helped me realize how I would prefer to travel, some locations I have little interest in visiting (Split, Hungary outside of Budapest), and others I very much want to visit or return to (Lake Skadar, Sighisoara, Istria). Despite language barriers and time and financial constraints, I still got a good introduction, at least, to all of the places I visited, and a taste of numerous different cultures and histories (and yes, I wish the Northern European culture of efficiency and timeliness would take root in this region, but I can’t be too optimistic). While each trip is a different challenge, I have certainly increased my confidence that I’m able to plan and execute something this complex, despite unexpected problems, and I’ll be better prepared for the next trip. I’ve probably put down here only 10% of my experiences and my memories, but hopefully the pictures will be enough to give a more complete image of all the places I visited. And someday, I’ll return to the Balkans, searching out for what I missed this time, but for now, I’ll just relax in Alanya – until we travel again, this time to Cyprus in two weeks.

 

 

 

From Mountains to Plains: Fall Break Part 1-Romania and Hungary

6 trains, 4 flights, 4 bus rides, 4 taxis, 4 trams, 2 shuttle vans, 2 subway rides, 1 ferry, and a lot of my own feet. That’s what it took to get me around Southeastern Europe over the last week and a half. In 10 days, I visited Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro (all for the first time) before returning to Turkey, hiking up rugged but beautiful mountains, clambering over ancient fortifications, examining the works in museums of all types, and talking with locals and other travellers from around the world. Despite my months of preparation, I was usually hungry and poorly rested, I usually felt like a tourist with my inability to communicate and overreliance on the map, and I spent far too much of my time staring at one rundown rural town after another from the windows of some form of transportation. Still, almost all of the dozen cities, villages, and parks I visited lived up to or exceeded my expectations, and while busy, I definitely do not regret the itinerary I chose, because I discovered so many fascinating parts of Europe. Because of the enormous scale of my experiences over that time, this post will cover just the first half in Romania and Hungary, while Croatia and Montenegro will come later this week in a subsequent posting.

 

The choice of Bucharest as a starting point for a European travel is undoubtedly unorthodox (I still have never visited France, Germany, Spain, or Italy), but as someone who hates the crowds of “touristy” sites and loves nature and exotic places, Romania, home of some of the most unspoiled mountains and forests in Europe, cheap, culturally rich, and rarely visited by foreigners was a perfect choice (my abortive attempt to learn Romanian after 8th grade, while of only limited use while in the country, undoubtedly influenced my selection as well). A delayed flight cut into my already limited time in Bucharest, forcing me to limit my activities to a nighttime walking tour of the central city, meeting up with my friends Sam and Dylan, who came in slightly after me, and an early morning visit to the amazing Village Museum, a collection of transported and reconstructed homes, churches, and workshops from rural villages across the country, preserving a life that was terribly disrupted by communism and modernization. Despite the prevailing opinion of Bucharest as a collection of ugly Communist structures, downtown Bucharest at least is remarkably pleasant, offering large parks, wide boulevards, numerous museums, and well-preserved historical buildings, most of which I was unable to visit, since the next day it was off to my next destination.

Stavropolos Church, Bucharest

Stavropolos Church, Bucharest

Museum of Romanian History

Museum of Romanian History

Romanian Parliament Building (2nd largest office building in the world)

Romanian Parliament Building (2nd largest office building in the world)

Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Lake, Herastrau Park, and Danube Delta house, Village Museum

Lake, Herastrau Park, and Danube Delta house, Village Museum

Village Museum

Village Museum

Church, Village Museum

Church, Village Museum

Village Museum

Village Museum

 

Dylan and I headed north to Transylvania, flat fields transitioning into steep gorges and distant mountains as we headed up to the Piatra Craiului National Park for some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, travelling through the rural town of Zarneşti as we backpacked to the park boundary. Problems hit early on, as the visitor center, where we expected to find maps and water refills, was closed, and the first part of our journey had us travelling on the same path as a marathon that was also taking place. But once we turned off toward the mountain cabin we were intending to stay at that the going got really rough. Piatra Craiului is famous for its massive limestone ridge, the largest in Europe, and to get our destination we had to, in essence, climb over it through a gorge that had about a constant 60 degree slope along a trail made up of lose gravel and piled boulders for multiple miles. Having neither backpacked nor done such intense climbing, I was not at all in physical condition for such a hike, yet I managed to pull myself up the hill, with the solitude of the path, the great feeling of the fall weather, and the views across the region the reward for my exertion. Exhausted from the hike in, we spent the evening in the cabin playing cards with other Romanian hikers and eating the home-cooked meals offered there. I’ve missed camping, so odd as it sounds, I enjoyed having to use an outhouse and bundle up in my jacket for the night as I watched the sunset over more distant peaks. We took the same trail back down, which while not as physically demanding was even more treacherous, as I fell multiple times during the descent. Finally, we made it back into town and took the train back to the town of Raşnov, where Dylan and I split up, him back to Bucharest and Bulgaria, and me to explore the nearby castles of Raşnov and Bran.

Piatra Craiului Massif

Piatra Craiului Massif

Piatra Craiului Mountains

Piatra Craiului Mountains

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Cabana Curmatura, PIatra Craiului

Cabana Curmatura, PIatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

Evening, Piatra Craiului

View from the top of the trail, Piatra Craiului

View from the top of the trail, Piatra Craiului

Looking down the trail

Looking down the trail

 

Unfortunately, Raşnov Castle must have been closed for repairs, something I was uncertain of until reaching the crest of the hill it was built on. To compound the disappointment, the bus station, from which I intended to travel to Bran, was far from both the castle and train station, and after exhausting my limited Romanian trying to find it for over an hour, I found out buses did not run there on Sundays. Thus, I traveled back to Braşov, the main city of the region, assuming Bran Castle would be inaccessible this voyage. So you can imagine my surprise when the cabbie at the Braşov train station asked if I wanted to be driven to Bran. I responded honestly before thinking, and was soon off – in a cab that charged me a base fee of 20 euros and then 3.3 euros per kilometer. Luckily, it did not take me long to realize the scam, and managed to get the driver to turn off the meter and charge me a flat fee for the return, which I later managed to bargain down as well. I had to pay what amounts to about $80, but that beat the over $300 that I would have had to pay if I had not noticed, and I did get to see the castle (famous as Dracula’s castle, though he likely spent only a week there, it was small and overcrowded, hardly worth even a legitimate taxi fare), and get back to Braşov in time to explore the old city, which was interesting enough to almost make up for the tribulations of the preceding hours, an old Saxon fortified town with a massive Black Church, medieval storefronts, and a large central square nestled between the mountains. From Braşov I took an overnight train to Budapest, and since Eastern Europe does not have fast trains, and Hungary had decided to take this week to repair the line I would be travelling on, this was to be an 18-hour ordeal. Still, being able to sleep (or try to sleep) the majority of the ride made it more bearable, though being woken at 4:00 in the morning for passport checks at the border was unpleasant.

Rasnov Castle

Rasnov Castle

Courtyard, Bran Castle

Courtyard, Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Brasov Main Square

Brasov Main Square

Church, Brasov

Church, Brasov

View over Brasov from the White Tower (Black Church prominent)

View over Brasov from the White Tower (Black Church prominent)

 

Save for the train rides, my experience in Hungary was just of Budapest, which given what I saw of the rest of the country was perfectly fine with me. Like with Bucharest, I did not have enough time in Budapest even before the train rescheduling, so being limited to around 7 hours in town forced me to walk fast and waste no time visiting the key sites, the Parliament Building, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Castle Hill, and the monuments in the main city park. Because almost all museums were closed on Monday (one of several things I should have figured out beforehand), I did not have an excess of choices to pick between, luckily, and I managed to get everywhere I wanted (and have a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant where I was the only patron) before heading to bed so that I would be able to wake up at 4:45 AM for my train out to Zagreb. Budapest is a fascinating city, cosmopolitan and full of monuments historic and cultural significance despite the ravages of WWII, communism, and recession. Some of the monuments I was disappointed by (Fishermen’s Bastion), others were surprisingly interesting (Vajdahunyad Castle). Still, in my light-speed highlight tour, I certainly did not get a full picture of what Budapest has to offer. Hungarians had the best knowledge of English of anywhere I visited, luckily, since their language looks terrifying, and I don’t fault the Croats for rebelling against having to learn it. Traveling out of Hungary allowed me glimpses of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s resort area, but ended up in another delayed nightmare as we transitioned from the train to three buses, waited for an hour at the border post as a group of Indians had problems with their visas, yet like with my other delayed transportation I did make it to Zagreb on the day I had planned, if not the hour. But Zagreb and beyond (which, while not less busy, were still much more relaxing) merit another post, since this is long enough already.

Sunrise on the plains of Hungary

Sunrise on the plains of Hungary

Interior, Budapest Parliament

Interior, Budapest Parliament

Main Hall, Budapest Parliament

Main Hall, Budapest Parliament

Old House of Lords, Budapest Parliament

Old House of Lords, Budapest Parliament

Castle Hill, Budapest

Castle Hill, Budapest

Budapest Parliament

Budapest Parliament

St. Stephen's Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Inside, St. Stephen's

Inside, St. Stephen’s

Royal Palace, Budapest

Royal Palace, Budapest

Fishermen's Bastion, Budapest

Fishermen’s Bastion, Budapest

Parliament from Castle Hill

Parliament from Castle Hill

Matthias Church, Castle Hill

Matthias Church, Castle Hill

Chain Bridge and St. Stephen's

Chain Bridge and St. Stephen’s

Chain Bridge in the evening

Chain Bridge in the evening

Heroes' Square, Budapest

Heroes’ Square, Budapest

Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest City Park

Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest City Park

Gate to Vajdahunyad Castle

Gate to Vajdahunyad Castle

Interior, Vajdahunyad Castle

Interior, Vajdahunyad Castle