Category Archives: Europe

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

Impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria is the last of the formerly communist countries that we plan to visit this trip.  We continue to head south to warmer and hopefully drier weather.  We enjoyed our relatively short visit to Bulgaria.  Here are some things about Bulgaria that I think are interesting:

  • Bulgaria is a former communist country in Central/Eastern Europe.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has successfully transitioned to capitalism and it joined the European Union in 2007.
Ruined castle on hilltop surrounded by green trees.  Single flagpole with raised Bulgarian flag.

Bulgarian Flag atop Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Turnovo

  • Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro yet.  Its currency is the Leva (worth about 66 cents Canadian), each of which is broken down into 100 stotinky (sometimes called ‘stinkies’ by travellers).
  • Bulgaria is very green at this time of year.  May is its rainiest month and the countryside is beautiful.
Diane beside a walking path with lush green grass and trees and a cliff in the distance

Diane walking in the Bulgarian countryside near Ivanovo

  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was developed in the 9th Century in the land that later became Bulgaria.  The Cyrillic alphabet makes reading menus and most signs here almost impossible.  It has extra letters (30 in total) and several false friends (letters that look the same as our Latin letters, but are pronounced differently) (e.g. ‘p’ is pronounced as ‘r’ in restaurant).
Two black and white signs pointing to Bulgaria's capital city Sohpia, the top one in Cryrillic and the bottom one in Latin charactes

Both signs point the way to Bulgaria’s capital city Sophia. Both are pronouced the same way, but the top one uses the Cyrillic alphabaet.

  • Thankfully, almost all young people in Bulgaria speak some English.  If we need assistance, we ask a teenager.
  • Hoping to annex Macedonia, Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War II, but refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis, saving at least 50,000 people from the genocide
  • Bulgaria adopted communism more wholeheartedly than other Warsaw Pact countries after World War II.  They were very subservient to ‘Mother Russia’ and in 1973 even proposed that they join the Soviet Union.
  • Under communism, Bulgaria was well known for its wrestlers and weight lifters who were national sports heroes.  Afterwards they often became bodyguards for the countries leaders.
  • With the fall of communism, many of the communist leaders and their bodyguards successfully transitioned to capitalism, and now lead many of the major companies here.  This was almost certainly done with some mafia-style strong arming.  Bulgarians say, “The music changes, but the musicians stay the same”.
  • The vast majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christian (almost 90%), a quick turnaround from Communist days when religion was not allowed.
  • Corruption is more widespread in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe.  Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it is monitored and often rebuked by the EU for problems with fraud.
  • Because it is cheaper than most other European countries, Bulgaria is becoming popular as a tourist destination for Europeans but it is rarely visited by North Americans.  Most of the Europeans who come here come for cheap skiing or for beach destinations on the Black Sea coast.
  • There are a growing number of British ex-pats here who can buy homes and live less expensively and with better weather than in the UK.
  • Traditional Bulgarian food is grilled meat and vegetables, stews, roasted peppers, feta cheese, and yoghurt.
  • Bulgaria is the cheapest of the European countries we’ve traveled to.  Last night we had a huge meal, 2 appetizers, 2 large and fancy meat entrees, and 4 beers for about $21.
Hot circular metal pan covered with grilled pork, onions, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

Grilled meat with onions, tomatoes, and peppers

This is the House that Nick Built

Nicolae Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he and his wife were executed by firing squad immediately after a two hour televised show trial on Christmas Day.  The grand House of the Republic (Casa Republicii) he was building wasn’t finished at the time, and despite the fact it was a symbol of his repressive and increasingly brutal regime, it was completed after his death.  Today it is called the Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului) and houses the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, Legislative Council, Competition Council, and the Senate (pretty much the entire national leadership).

Black and white image of Nicolae Ceauşescu in suit and tie

Nicolae Ceauşescu

Nicolae was born to poor parents, began work in a factory in Bucharest when he was 11 years old, and became a communist agitator in his youth.  He was arrested and jailed several times for anti-fascist activities, and at one time shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a man who became his mentor and who later become the leader of the country.  After World War II, Romania fell under Soviet influence, and the communists came into power in 1947.  Ceauşescu quickly rose through the communist party ranks and held major leadership positions in the Romanian Government.  When Gheorghiu-Dej died, Ceauşescu became the leader of the country.

Ceauşescu was initially a popular with the Romanian people and viewed positively be Western leaders.  Despite his being a communist country, it had an open foreign policy, collaborated with Western Europe, and was occasionally openly critical of the Soviet Union.  Richard Nixon visited Romania during this time, and Ceauşescu was received by many foreign leaders.  He was viewed as a potentially reforming communist, and was courted by the West.

Ceauşescu in black suit seated on couch beside Geral Ford and Richard Nixon (both wearing blue suits), coffee table in front

Ceauşescu visiting Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon (1973), Source: Wikipedia

Ceauşescu received the Danish Order of the Elephant (what a title!) and honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath from Queen Elizabeth.

Ceauşescu with wife and Queen Elizabeth with Prince Phillip standing in a line for formal black and white photo

Ceauşescu with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace (1978), Source: Wikipedia

One of the early indictors of trouble was in the mid-1960’s when the Government of Romania made abortion illegal, divorce more difficult, and introduced other policies to increase the country’s low birth rate (women with 10 or more children were called heroine mothers).  This led to increased birth rates but also increased child abandonment.  In the 1970’s Ceauşescu began to pursue a national transformation program, similar to China’s cultural revolution.  He admired North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and China’s Mao Zedong, and began to actively develop his own cult of personality.  He continued to set his own foreign policy independent of Moscow, and was one of only 3 communist countries to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, Romania borrowed large amounts of money from Western countries to finance economic development.  By the 1980’s, this debt was becoming an oppressive burden, so Ceauşescu ordered that the debt be repaid as quickly as possible.  Most of the country’s food and industrial production was exported to get foreign currency for this purpose, and although the people understood why it was happening, they suffered greatly.  Food, heat, and electrical rationing were implemented.  Getting sufficient food was very difficult as the shops were empty.  Ceauşescu lived in denial of this and state television broadcast propaganda showing full stores and reported record agricultural production.

It was in this climate of restraint and suffering that in 1983, Ceauşescu began construction of a white elephant.  He ordered that a hill in the city of Bucharest be cleared to make way for a grand palace, resulting in the destruction of 28 churches and synagogues and 30,000 residences.  Ceauşescu intended that he would live in the palace and that the entire national government would operate from there (the presidency, government, parliament, and high court).

Large grey building veiwed from the plaza in front

Palace of the Parliament

Extending in front of the palace, he built the grand Bolevardul Unirii (Union Boulevard) similar to the Le Champs Élysées in Paris.

Looking over garden, flags, plazza, and long boulevard stretching into the distance

View from the front balcony

Originally named Victoria Socialismului (Victory of Socialism Boulevard), it extends for 3.5 km (just over 2 miles) and is lined with fountains.

Long boulevard with fountains and lined with trees, stretching into the distance

Bolevardul Unirii (Unity Boulevard)

The Palace is rectangular in shape, 270 meters (900 ft.) x 240 meters (700 ft.), has 12 stores, and a total of 3.7 million square feet.  It was constructed almost entirely using Romanian labour and materials.  It is the world’s 2nd largest building by surface area (after the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.), but has the largest square footage and was the most expensive to build.  This lavishness was one of many of reasons why the starving Romania people were so upset.

In December 1989, demonstrations began in the city of Timişoara, and the harsh government crackdown provoked an angry response from the people.  The uprising quickly spread to the capital of Bucharest and on December 21st Ceauşescu attempted to give a public speech but was shouted down by protesters.  People watching on television saw that he was unaware of how serious things had become.  He appeared shocked and confused by the people’s response.  By the next day protests had spread across the country and the mysterious death of the defence minister led to the army siding with the people.  Nicolae tried to address the people again, but he and his wife Elana barely escaped by helicopter when they began throwing rocks and stormed the building.  They were soon captured and became the last people executed in Romania before capital punishment was abolished 13 days later.

It is interesting to note that Ceauşescu was stripped of his Danish Order of the Elephant by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark on December 23, 2 days before his death, and of his Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth on December 24, the day before his death.  Elizabeth also returned the Romanian Order that Ceauşescu had given her.  I find it remarkable that these things weren’t done earlier in his regime, which was widely regarded as being dictatorial, but only after he was overthrown.  The whole business seems pretty transparent, responding to the tide of public opinion rather than individual merit.

For a while the people of Romania considered demolishing the Palace of the Parliament.  It reminded them too much of Ceauşescu. The building was complete but the interiors unfinished.  It sat this way for 5 years before they decided to finish the main areas and later began using it as the seat of their government.

Huge white hall with giant skylight lined with columns and chandeliers

One of the many massive interior halls, Source: Wikipedia

Today it is one of the grandest palaces in Europe, constructed in a neoclassical style, but with the advantage of modern construction techniques.

Long white marble hallway with columns and a red carpet, Source: Wikipedia

Pretty nice for hallway! (Source: Wikipedia)

Its main rooms are much larger and almost as grand as those of many other European palaces (e.g. Schönbrunn in Vienna, Versailles outside Paris, Sansoucci Park palaces in Potsdam).

Some of its carpets are so big they had to be manufactured in place (they actually moved in the carpet weaving machines), and it takes 80 people to move one of them!

A huge hall with skylight, white floor, and people milling about

Another massive interior Hall, Source: Wikipedia

If you’re interested, the palace is available to rent, but not for private parties.  The only private event ever held there was the wedding reception of Romanian gymnast, defector, and national hero Nadia Comăneci and American gymnast Bart Conner in 1996.

The Real Dracula

Who was the real Dracula?  Is it this guy trying to bite Diane?

Guy in cheesy Count Dracula costume with fake teeth and blood pretending to bite Diane's neck

Is this the Real Dracula?

The man known as Dracula was born in 1431 in Sighisoara (pronounced ‘siggy-schwa-ra’), a town that we visited in Transylvania.  Dracula (Vlad III) was named after his father Vlad II, a commander of the mountain passes between Transylvania and Wallachia. His mother was Princess Ceneajna of Moldavia.  His father lived at Str Muzeului 6 near the clock tower, which is probably where Dracula was born.

Three story corner house on main square painted golden yellow

Dracula’s Birthplace

Dracula’s birthplace is now a tourist restaurant and coffee shop.

Diane seated at a table with small lamp, orange wall, with coffee in white cup

Diane enjoying coffee in Vlad Dracul’s House

In the year of Vlad III’s birth (the son), Vlad II (the father) traveled to Nuremburg and was vested into the Order of the Dragon, a society with the goal of protecting Christianity in Europe and defending it against the Ottoman Turks. The Order of the Dragon was founded by Sigismund of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor and king of what later became Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. Afterwards Vlad II was known by the nickname Vlad Dracul (meaning ‘dragon’).  Like his Dad, Vlad III was also initiated into this Order at age 5.  Young Vlad became known as Dracula (‘son of the Dragon’) after his father.

In 1436, Vlad II Dracul became Voivode (King) of Wallachia, making Vlad III (Dracula) a Prince. His rule didn’t last long and he was overthrown in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, but regained his thrown with support from the Ottomans (Turkish Muslims) in return for agreeing to pay the Jizya (a tax on non-Muslims).  In addition, he was required to send his two sons Vlad III (Dracula) and Radu to the Ottoman court to serve as hostages to ensure his loyalty, a common practice in those days to ensure that people lived up to their commitments.  There Vlad Dracula probably observed the Turks using torture and other techniques of terror, which he would later use against them.

Vlad Dracula grew and became a three-time Voivode of Wallachia, ruling mainly from 1456 to 1462.  This was a period of growing attacks on the Balkans by the Ottomans.  As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad III spent much of his life battling against the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of Islam.  In order to discourage them, he began the practice of impaling his enemies and allowing them to die slowly.  He developed a reputation for excessive cruelty which was renowned across Europe.  The total number of his victims is estimated in the tens of thousands.   As a result of his practice of skewering his enemies, Vlad was later dubbed Vlad Țepeș  (Vlad the Impaler).

Black and white image of man with long hair and mustache, hat with raised insignia in front

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad was the inspiration for Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula.  There is no evidence that the real Dracula drank blood, could change into animal forms, or was undead.  Stoker knew just enough Romanian history to make the connection with Vlad Dracula and Transylvania undoubtedly seemed like such an exotic place for the home of his main character.

We also visited Bran Castle, which claims to have a connection to Dracula, one which is tenuous one at best.  Still, it was an interesting castle to visit given its position, history, and design (many small rooms linked by twisting staircases and passageways).  The Castle has displays about its own history, that of Vlad Dracula, plus information about vampires and strigoi (Romanian poltergeists, evil souls of the dead born again with the ability to change into animals, become invisible, and to drain the vitality of victims via blood loss – sound familiar?).

Castle above trees.  1 tower.  Grey with reddish roof.

Dracula’s Castle?

Vlad III Dracula was murdered at the age of 45 in the year 1476.  His head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy, and his body was buried unceremoniously, but his memory and his descendants live on.  Vlad Dracula is an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth.  Mary of Teck, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, joined the British Royal Family in 1893 upon her marriage to His Royal Highness Prince George, Duke of York, who later became King George V in 1910. In October 2011, Prince Charles publicly claimed that genealogy proves that he is a distant relative of the real Dracula.

Impressions of Romania

• Romania appears less developed than the other countries we’ve been to in the European Union, including other former Communist countries Poland and Slovakia.

• It is common to see people driving horse drawn wagons in the countryside and smaller towns.  For many, this appears to be their primary form of transport.

• The roads in Romania are generally poor.  A lot of rural roads aren’t paved.  Even those that are can be bone jarring, resulting in average speeds of 40-60 km/hr.  Despite careful driving (don’t worry Sue and Martin), we had unwrapped eggs break while bouncing in the camper refrigerator door.

• Romania is the home of Transylvania and ‘Count Dracula’.  This should not be confused with Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and home of the Tasmanian Devil.

• Transylvania was settled by Saxons from Germany in the 12th Century, who accepted the invitation of King Geysa II of Hungary to come to Transylvania.  They established many of the major towns in the region.  There were over 700,000 Germans in Romania in 1930, but today there are less than 45,000 native German speakers.

• Romania tried to remain neutral in both of the world wars, but was coerced to side with the Allies in World War I and with the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

• Nadia Comăneci was born in Romania, and won 3 Olympic gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  She was the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event.

• Nicolai Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was overthrown during the collapse of Communism.   He was tried in 2 hours and executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989.

• Praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania.  This includes the Ceauşescu regime.

• Romanian houses are often painted in pastel colours of cream, yellow, peach, green, or blue.

Looking down a street with green, blue, and peach pastel houses.

Romanian houses painted in pastel colours

• Hitchhiking seems to be common here.  People on the roadside wave a straight arm up and down a couple of times then bend it to the thumb up position that we typically associate with hitching.  At first I thought they were indicating that we should slow down, but we don’t drive that fast.

• It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania.  This is hard to avoid when many roads aren’t paved.

• It is a legal requirement to wear a reflective safety vest when walking beside the road at night or in poor visibility.  This is not just for people whose cars have broken down (which is common elsewhere in Europe), but for everyone.

• There are a lot of stray or feral dogs in Romania, mostly street-smart mongrels about 8-14 inches (0.3 meters) high at the shoulder.  They are large enough to deliver a bite, but not big enough to really intimidate.

Sad mutt with grey and brown tones walking down the sidewalk

Feral Dog

• Romania has the largest wolf and bear population in Europe, but we didn’t see any.

• There seem to be a lot of short women here.  Many of the young woman are petite, but the older women dressed in traditional clothing look squat.

• The Romanian language is a romance language that is related to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  As a result, it is easier for me to recognize some of the words than in Poland or Slovakia.

• It is common to see people selling things beside the road.  Cheap plastic children’s toys seem to be popular, as are craft and food items like leatherwork, preserves, and honey.  We saw several people selling stills by the road, large copper kettles with corkscrew condensing tubes attached.  Yes, the kind used to make hooch.

Romania — We’re not in Kansas any more…

We approached the Romanian frontier at a small crossing in the east of Hungary.  Ours was the only car visible as we approached the remote border post in the dusk of late afternoon.  A man in a green uniform was smoking and put his cigarette down on the curb as we approached.  The country of registration of most European vehicles is indicated on the license plate, so it was obvious that we weren’t from around here.  Two other men in green appeared.  They flipped through our passports and our vehicle registration.  One asked, in surprisingly good English, “Do you have any special baggages?”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant or how to answer so I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Nothing special”.  They were handing us back our passports and the English speaker said, “Enjoy your stay in Romania”, when he noticed that we were from Canada.  Up to this point they had assumed that we, like our camper van, were from England.  This was apparently an issue.

All three men disappeared for a very long time.  We sat there with the engine off, waiting.  Ours was the only vehicle there.  We could hear the crickets chirping, but after what seemed like an eternity, they re-appeared with our passports and let us pass.  The English speaker said, “Welcome to Romania”.  Romania recently joined the European Union, but it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, the zone of 26 European countries that share a common customs and immigration boundary.  So we needed to receive passport stamps to leave the Schengen and to enter Romania.  I don’t think that many Canadians pass through this lonely border crossing.  I am thankful yet again for the fact that Canadians are welcomed into so many countries.  We bear one of the best passports for international travel.

As soon as we arrived in the first Romanian village we noticed a big difference from Hungary.  Things were visibly poorer and less developed.  The roads were paved, but full of holes or patched and bumpy.  The few cars we saw were small, old, and in poor condition.  There were as many horse-drawn wagons on the road as cars.  We passed a man using a pitchfork to load his wagon with fresh grass cut from the roadside using a scythe.  It felt like we had gone back about a hundred years.

Horse drawn wagon on road with wheels, rubber tires, white horse

Horse-drawn wagon on roadway (Photo Credit: Diane)

The houses were simple and some had outbuildings made of wattle-and-daub.  There were open ditches in town and no sidewalks or landscaping.  The ground in front of the small homes was just mud.  The children were playing in the street.  A popular toy for the boys appeared to be a whip.  Definitely not child safe.

Three children running toward the car wearing pants and jackets

Romanian children playing in the street

The few adults we saw had dark, weathered complexions.  Some women sat in front of their homes wearing kerchiefs and house smocks.

Romanian woman walking beside road wearing skirt and aprom

Rural Romanian woman walking beside road (Photo credit: Diane)

Several times we had to slow to pass small herds of cattle in the streets as they were being brought in from the fields.  Each group was being prodded by a man with a whip, usually accompanied by a boy.

Cows walking on the street. Picture taken through windshield of the RV.

Cows in the street!  (Photo credit: Diane)

As we passed, everyone stared at us.  It felt like we had been teleported back to a village in (rural Africa, India, or Nepal).  Suddenly we were curiosities again, instantly recognizable as being outsiders.  I had expected to encounter this somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe, thinking perhaps it might have occurred earlier in Poland or Hungary, but they were both more developed and more frequented by tourists.  In rural Romania our large vehicle and our light skin colour make us stand out.

Patrick driving RV with cows visible outside the windows

Dodging Cows!  (Photo credit: Diane)

There were not many shops and none were open.  Eventually we arrived at a gas station, hoping to buy a vignette.  There were no cars there, but there was a person filling plastic containers with fuel.  They didn’t sell vignettes.  Surprisingly, we did find a bank machine and were able to get some Romanian lei (pronounced ‘lay’).  I had to walk through the mud to get to it.

We headed for the only campground in this part of the country.  It is operated by a non-profit foundation led by a Dutch couple that takes in battered women and their families.  They are glad to see us and asked about our journey, seeming almost surprised that we had made it.  There is only 1 other camper here.

Drinking Bull’s Blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

This is not a joke.  We really did drink it.  Read on…

On the outskirts of the baroque town of Eger in North-Eastern Hungary lies The Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy in Hungarian).  Skirting both sides of this valley are the cellars of many small Hungarian wine producers.  The cellars are built into the hillside, mostly underground, with the name of each winery displayed out front.  Inside each there is a bar for tasting and there are tables inside and out for drinking.

Looking over the valley from the hillside, small houses and trees visible

The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Hungary is better known for its wines than its beer.  The Eger wine region produces many types of wine but is primarily known for its Bikaver wine, which translates as ‘Bull’s Blood’.  It is a robust blended wine which varies considerably from cellar to cellar.  Officially it must contain at least 3 of the 11 traditional grapes varieties from the region.  Eger was the first Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus (DHC) in Hungary, an appellation control concept similar to France’s Appellation d’Originelée (AOC).

According to legend the name Bull’s Blood originates from the siege of Eger castle around 1552.  The small group of soldier’s manning the castle were given red wine to boost their spirits.  Among the Turks who laid siege to the castle it was rumoured that bull’s blood was mixed in to their wine, because the strength and resistance of the garrison and townspeople could not be explained.  Believing they could not win, the Turks gave up.

There is a large cellar and cave system beneath the town of Eger, where many of the wines are produced.  The Valley of the Beautiful Women appears to be more of a marketing spot for tasting and drinking and not so much a place for wine production or storage.

Cellar fronts with tables and people drinking

Some cellars of The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Even still, the Valley of the Beautiful Women is a phenomenon.  People come from far and wide to taste the wines, or to sit inside or outside the cellars and drink.  We were there in the early afternoon on a Monday, so things were pretty quiet.  We were cautiously enjoying our first tasting (not that good) when we met a Czech businessman and his Hungarian wife.  They were very friendly and recommended two cellars for us to visit.  It turned out that they had been there ‘tasting’ since 10 AM and had purchased several cases of Bikaver to take with them.  He admitted developing a strong taste for it during previous trips to the region.  We visited the two cellars they suggested, tasted, and bought a nice bottle of Bikaver at each.

One of the best things about the Valley of the Beautiful Women is that, in addition to the better wines, they provide an option to purchase basic wine very cheaply.  If you bring your own bottles, they will fill them for less than $2.  The minimum purchase is 2 Litres, so people literally bring their used pop (‘soda’ for any Americans reading) bottles and fill ‘em up.  To be part of the fun, we bought a 2 litre green glass bottle for about $2 and had it filled with red wine for less than the cost of the bottle!

Diane standing with 2 Litre green jug of wine in front of Wanda's wine cellar

Diane with her purchase in front of Wanda’s Wine Cellar

We couldn’t resist going to this cellar because it shared the same name as our friend Wanda!  We asked and ‘Wanda’ was the name of the owner.

I tried but couldn’t figure out why it is called ‘The Valley of the Beautiful Women’.  Is it because the women hired to serve the wine and conduct tastings in the cellars are all beautiful?  Perhaps.  Or is it because, after an extended visit to the valley, every woman looks beautiful?

Flying à la carte with Wizz Air

We flew from Budapest to Barcelona return on Hungary’s discount airline Wizz Air.  I think the name was meant to conjure images of speed but I can’t help thinking of urination when I hear it.  With the bankruptcy of Malev Hungarian Airlines in February 2012 (after 66 years of continuous operation), Wizz Air is now the leading airline and flag carrier of Hungary.  Officially, it’s a 2 star airline (that’s 1 star less than Air Canada whose service Canadians love to complain about) and it hasn’t made a profit since it began operations in 2004.

Hot pink, purple, and white plane flying through purple clouds

Wizz Air Plane

Wizz Air follows the ‘everything is extra’ business model, similar to Ryanair in Europe or Southwest Airlines in the United States.  This means that, in return for your hard-earned money, you are entitled to board an airplane to your destination with 1 carry-on bag.  And that’s it.  Everything else is extra.  And I mean everything.

Booking Fee — Want to use a credit card to pay for your flight? It’s $12 per flight per passenger or $48 for two people on a return trip.  Debit card is only slightly cheaper, so these fees are unavoidable.  How, when I pay for my booking once (for all flights and passengers), can they justify levying the fee per flight and per passenger?

Call Centre Fee – Want to book your flight over the phone rather than using their web site?  $15 per flight per passenger.  That’s $60 for two people on a return trip.

Airport Check-in Fee – If you want to check-in at the airport rather than online (or if you’re forced to because you don’t have access to a printer), it’ll cost you.  $10 per flight per passenger ($40 for a couple return).

Flex Fee – Think you might want to change your flight, but not sure?  You can avoid the Flight Change Fee later if you pay an extra $15 at the time of your original booking.  Basically you’re paying a fee to buy insurance to avoid potentially having to pay another fee.  It’s brilliant!

Name Change Fee  — If you make a mistake on the spelling of your name (which for security reasons can prevent you from getting on the flight), it’s $60 per flight per passenger to change it ($120 return).  But you’d better do it on their website.  It’s $90 per flight per passenger ($180 for a return ticket) if you do it at the airport.  Ouch!

Xpress Priority Boarding Fee – Wizz Air does not normally assign seats, so how early you board can mean the difference between sitting with your traveling companions or not.  People start lining up at the boarding gate immediately after they clear security.  Want to board early?  $6 per flight per passenger ($24 for a couple on a return flight).  $12 per flight per passenger if you change your mind and decide to skip the line at the airport.

XXLong Extra Legroom Fee – If you’re over 5’10”, the small and close seats on Wizz Air won’t do for you.  If you want to sit in an exit row for the extra leg room it’s $12 per person per flight ($48 for a couple return).  You still don’t get an assigned seat though, just a seat somewhere in the exit rows.

Food and Drink – Nothing is included, but a fine selection can be purchased on the plane for a fee.  I wonder if they charge for water?

Cancellation Fee – You can cancel your flight for a fee of $90, but none of their many extra fees are refundable, so you’re not likely to get any money back.

These fees are in addition to more common fees like Baggage Fees and Flight Change Fees.  Wizz Air has these too.  In fact, the fees mentioned above are just a sample of the 62 different fees that Wizz Air has listed on their web site!

If you have a question about any of these fees or the service you’ve received, you can of course telephone Wizz Air’s customer service center.  Calls to customer service cost $1.50 per minute for you to talk to someone in India.  They probably earn $1.50 per hour.  All calls are charged, and complaints must be made by email.

Do I sound bitter?  I’m not.  More fascinated by the business model.  Wizz Air competes in an ultracompetitive marketplace where consumers are attracted by low base ticket prices.  I know that I’ve been excited in the past by advertisements for flights or cruises with what appear to be low prices, only to learn that when all taxes and fees are included the total price is double or even triple.  When people search for flights online, the lowest airfares are typically displayed first.  Consumers very often choose the flights with the lowest base price.  It’s only after they’re invested in the reservation process that they learn of the extra fees.  Admittedly some of these fees are optional for some people, but some are impossible to avoid (i.e. booking fees) effectively resulting in a higher price than advertised.

With base ticket prices so low, Wizz Air has to make most of its money in fees.  They’re like contractors who underbid with the expectation of making their profit through change orders once they’ve got the work, or like steak houses that charge extra for the baked potato and for the vegetables.  And they’re not alone.  We took a flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria on Berlin Air last September.  The base ticket price for this one-way, 1 hour flight was only $11 (can you believe it?), but with taxes and fees it grew to over $100.

We made the choice to fly Wizz Air despite all the extra charges.  Even though we paid the Booking Fee, the Xpress Priority Boarding Fee, and the XXLong Extra Legroom Fee, our total price was still half that of the next cheapest competitor.  With such low prices, we were worried that they would cut corners somewhere else (e.g. poor service, old planes, etc.) but the experience wasn’t any different than we’ve had with other small airlines.  Just fine for a short flight, and all flights in Europe are short flights.

Will this excessive level of extra charging be coming to North American soon?  Many discount carriers already charge fees for services that are free (or were once free) on other airlines.  I hope that it doesn’t get to this extreme, but the same basic business model applies, so I don’t see any reason why it can’t or won’t.  Hopefully consumers will stay focused on the total price and service and won’t be overly mesmerized by a low base price.

Note — I used an exchange rate of $1.50 per Euro to keep the price conversions simple.

Climbing in Montserrat

We took a short break from our travels to meet up with our friend Lee who was in Barcelona, Spain on business.  We left the S&M Motel safe and secure in a campground in Budapest, Hungary and arranged for a taxi to pick us up there at 3 AM in order to make our 6 AM flight.  Diane and I had arranged to meet Lee at the Barcelona Airport at 9 AM where we were picking up a rental car.  Unfortunately, Lee was waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 1 while we were waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 2, but this misstep was quickly resolved with a phone call and a shuttle bus ride.

We spent our first day and night in Barcelona.  After some wine in our hotel room and a mohito at the hotel’s 360 degree rooftop bar, we headed to the tapas bar Quimet y Quimet highly rated by locals and traveling ‘foodies’.  It is small and crowded, standing room only, which is OK because there are no chairs.  The walls are stacked high with wine and other delicacies.  They specialize in tantalizing seafood, many of which have been preserved in tins.  Exceptional food.  Some of the best we’ve had in Europe.  Particularly memorable were the olives wrapped in anchovies.  A taste explosion.  My mouth is watering as I write this.

Crowded taps bar with bottle lining the walls

Quimet y Quimet

Completed food orders are passed through the crowd from the small bar area where the food is prepared. Like most tapas bars in Spain, the many small paper napkins used are discarded and accumulate crumpled on the floor throughout the evening.  We drank the house dark beer and then switched to some terrific red wine.  Afterwards we found our way to a nearby bar recommended by the woman serving us at Quimet, where we ate spicy olives and continued drinking.

Two tapas on white plate with sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp, and caviar

Amazing Tapas

Patrick and Diane standing in tapas bar with Patrick preparing to drop a white napkin on the floor

Enjoying ourselves at Quimet y Quimet

The next morning, nursing our hangovers, Lee and I ate at the hotel breakfast buffet.  Diane wasn’t ready to face a buffet, and stayed in bed until we returned.  We got packed, loaded the car, and drove about an hour to the village of Monistrol.  It is located at the base of Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain formation that is well known as the home of Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine Abbey.  The sanctuary there is home to the Virgin of Montserrat, a statue of Madonna and child, one of the many Black Madonnas of Europe.  Diane and I had visited on a dark day last November, and were glad to see it again in better weather.

Black madonna in with gold clothing, seated with child on her lap

The Virgin of Montserrat

After a stop at the local climbing store where virtually no English was spoken, and at some local shops to get food for lunch, we drove up the winding road to the parking area, then caught the Funicular de Sant Joan (a funicular railway) up to the top of the mountain.  From here it was only a short walk to the base of the Gorros, a series of small peaks made of the pink conglomerate rock found throughout Montserrat.  We started to climb the 5-star route Bandalona on Gorro Frigi, but soon lost the line and ended up finishing on Opera Prima.

Lee wearing shorts, t-shirt, and white helmet balancing on side of Gorro Frigi

Lee climbing on Gorro Frigi (photo credit: Diane)

The climbing in Montserrat is predominantly face climbing, where purchase is gained on the many small rocks that appear to be stuck into the rough surface of the peaks.  The other climbers nearby were a group of young people from, of all places, Newfoundland.  They complained bitterly about the runouts between protective bolts, despite the fact that the routes on the Gorros are considered to be the most well-protected of Montserrat’s notoriously run-out climbs.

Small climber in the middle of a large grey wall

Patrick Climbing on Gorro Frigi  (Photo credit: Diane)

After 5 pitches we reached the top then climbed down the back side to join Diane who was waiting for us near the base.  After a celebratory beer, we walked down to the Monastery the long way, via the climber’s refuge at Saint Benet (another climbing area here).  There we met the refuge guardian Angel (not the kind with wings, but a real man named ‘Angel’ whose job is ‘guardian’ of this climber’s hut), who tried to be very helpful despite his limited English.  He told us that there are over 6000 climbing routes on the peaks of Montserrat, with only about 5000 published in one guide book or another.  A lifetime of climbing within a few square kilometers.

The next day we decided to climb El Cavall Bernat, a huge free-standing needle that is the symbol of the area.  This monolith, standing over 700 feet tall, is a test piece, a right of passage for local climbers.  All those who climb it are considered members of Grup Cavall Bernat, an honorific climbers club founded in 1978 whose sole requirement for membership is having climbed the peak.  We chose to climb the most stunning profile of the mountain known as Punsola Reniu.

Large grey tower with orange line showing our route

El Cavall Bernat with Punsola Reniu route marked.

We got a late start since breakfast at our Hostel Guillemes, per the Spanish schedule, was not available until 9 AM and afterwards we needed to buy some food for lunch.  By the time we drove up the mountain to the parking area, racked our gear, and completed the steep hike to the base (about 45 minutes), it was late and it was hot.  We were baking in the sun as we started to climb around 1 PM.  I backed off the first pitch, not confident in my psych having not climbed outdoors in almost 2 years.

Climber part way up tower with rope running, up as viewed from base of tower

Patrick on the first pitch. Notice how steep the upper pitches are!

Lee was a rock star.  He led and we made short work of the first 3 pitches, gaining on the party of 2 who were high up on the face above us, the only other people visible.

Climber in sunshine approaching the top as viewed from the summit

Patrick on the last pitch of Punsola Reniu

By pitch 3 we made it into the shade, a welcome relief from the heat of the afternoon.  The difficulty of the climbing and the steepness of the route both increase steadily.  The final pitch leaves the belay station, turns a corner, and requires mandatory free climbing to the summit which is adorned with a statue of the Madonna and Child.

Metal status of Madonna with child on concrete base on the summit

Madonna and Child on the summit

Patrick on left in blue jacket with orange helmet. Lee on right with red jacket and white helmet.

Patrick and Lee on the summit!

Diane spent her day wandering the small town and enjoying lunch out.  After rappelling off the summit and completed the long down climb and hike out, we showered and then joined her for dinner at the same bar in the town square that we’d eaten at the night before.  Spanish beer with calamari, cockles, meatballs, potatoes, and bread.

On the morning of Day 3 we changed to a different hotel as our room was no longer available.  The next hotel wasn’t nearly as nice, but it was cheaper.  Lee and I rode the funicular up and climbed Magdalena Superior, another one of the Gorros peaks.  Another spectacular line of increasing difficultly and a great top out.  We rappelled the route and were back to the hotel before Diane, who we learned afterwards was getting her hair done at a local salon by a young woman who spoke almost no English.  Diane said she used a lot of hand gestures and pointing to communicate, which seemed to work well because her hair looked great.

That night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant.  Diane chose it after hearing from several local sources that it was good.  We shared a fine dining verison of patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce that translates as ‘wild potatoes’) and a succulent appetizer platter followed by an amazing pan of lobster paella.

On our last day of climbing, Lee and I still had the energy to climb a via ferrata (translates from Italian as ‘the iron way’), a style of climbing where the route is augmented with cables or rungs to make the climbing faster and safer.  The first such routes were established to allow troops to move through the Alps more quickly and safely.  Teresina ascends Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of Montserrat.  It was great to climb so quickly and freely and to finish by pulling over the railing of the viewing platform that hikers can only walk to.

The next morning we caught an early flight back to Budapest.  A very enjoyable 5 days.  It was great to be climbing again, especially in such a spectacularly beautiful location.  The warmer weather was fabulous; we haven’t had much so far this trip.  It was terrific to climbing with my friend Lee and to complete some outstanding routes, each of which topped out on a different peak.  A wonderful getaway during our extended travels.

Impressions of Hungary

  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda