Tuesday, June 30, 2015

THE GRASS IS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE...ROAD TRIP THROUGH THE COUNTRY I CALL HOME

Eight days might be a short trip in time but a deep one in the heart. I never traveled in such a way in Romania since I was 20 and went to the Transylvanian city of Sibiu crossing the mountains on the spectacular Transfagarasan and to the Bucovina monasteries. I did those as a guide, accompanying a French gentleman who was to become one of my best friends in the whole world.

I traveled also for work in 1998 to different areas of the country, for just a couple of days, meeting the local press. Occasionally I took touristy trips to specific cities like Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara, as far as Cluj in the heart of Transylvania, or the amazing Horezu town known for its hand painted ceramic pottery.

And many years after, last winter, I suddenly got the idea to spend a summer vacation traveling through a country I actually don't know much. I launched an invitation to a few friends and the only one to embark on this adventure is a very close French-Moroccan girlfriend. She drives, I don't.


The plan was to get to Transylvania, the geographical "heart" of Romania embraced by mountains almost from all sides, and go towards North-West as far as possible. And here we were, making our way from heat hit dusty Bucharest with its marvelous garden cafés and restaurants all the way to Turda, ancient Roman castrum of Potaissa, and back. Through historical cities and villages, citadels, mountains and forests, rolling green hills and peaceful pastures, thermal resorts and what not, even a salt mine and a bear shelter!





Getting fueled by great sights and yummy food, although sometimes we survived solely on bread, cheese, tomatoes and peppers, cheese pies and goat yogurt. We met some amazingly kind people on our sometimes twisted ways, the most memorable being the grocery store lady in Ighiu who allowed me behind the counter so I can look for accommodation. When we weren't hosted by my aunt, my dad's cousin or the parents of a friend we found cute B&B's for maximum 25 Euros the room. We got free strawberries at the Bassen Pension in Bazna and the sweetest receptionist ever at the Alba Iulia's Voichita motel, my dad's cousin gave us 5 litters of homemade rosé wine that we carried in the trunk the whole way. In Sibiel we saw the milk we drank being milked from the cow while we caressed the calf. I photographed the hens whose eggs we had for breakfast too. We had a lot of good, simple, naturally produced food. We brought with us red wine, some acacia honey and a few types of sheep cheese, the most interesting one being preserved in fir tree bark.




Transylvania was colonized with Saxons craftsmen as early as the XII century, when the Teutonic knights were around, fighting to protect the Southern border of the Hungarian kingdom. The region is a mixture of cultures: Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian. Some villages have their names marked in the three languages at the entrance, some are "just" bilingual. The city of Brasov for instance is also called Kronstadt and Brassó.

Most of the urban architecture looks more Germanic/Central European than Romanian. One of the most distinctive features are the fortified medieval churches, or peasant fortifications, spread all over the region. Some, like Prejmer, even had food storage and cells to host families.





There are stunning towers, with amazing roof structures and fairy tale like atmosphere, climbing old wood stairs in dim light. There are reddish rooftops villages with colourful pastel houses raising between dark forests and lush green hills. There are the citadels of Rasnov and Fagaras, the historical cities of Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara, Alba-Iulia, Cluj, Medias, Sebes, all hosts to medieval cathedrals, pretty squares, a lot of them still showing walls and towers from the ancient fortified structure. Alba Iulia exhibits one of the most beautiful star shaped (Vauban) fortresses I have ever seen: Alba Carolina (and the most amazing public restrooms by the way). In Biertan inside the fortified church we saw the most beautiful door lock ever, God knows from what century, if XVI, younger or older.














Sometimes it felt like we walked through some tale of the brothers Grimm.














In Rasnov we also visited a cave several millions of years old, at a point the guide turned off the light and we just listened to the dripping water, the life of the cave, in continuous becoming. Darkness, silence, coolness, forever there, stalactites and stalagmites growing towards each other building a strange palace, forever there, before and after us, into the depth of time and earth.

Between Rasnov and Zarnesti there's Libearty, a shelter for bears abused by humans, who lived in cages for years being exploited for the benefit of insensitive tourists. We saw many cute fluffy golden brown bears having a peaceful breakfast. There were fences between us and them, but they seemed to have a happy free life. The other side of the coin is that bears happen to attack occasionally the outskirts of certain cities close to the forest.













But bears are not roaming freely just everywhere so we went on a few hikes. We started on the very first day, going up the easy gondola lift way up to 2000 meters in Sinaia and walking back to 1400m, through patches of snow and green mountain slopes, stopping to check on the fragile alpine flowers that pointed the greens with pink, purple, yellow, white and indigo blue. A couple of days after we went to Piatra Craiului mountain range, up to 1400m, to Curmatura châlet, crossing the Zarnesti Gorges, sporting steep majestic calcareous rocks, then up through a fir tree forest embalmed by the smell of resin and bucolic green alpine pastures graced by flowers and flocks of sheep. We didn't spot any Rupicapra rupicapra wild goats although our necks were hurting from looking up at the rocks.




The other gorgeous Gorges were Cheile Turzii, following a lively stream and crossing some dancing bridges, sometimes on a path so narrow that we had to hang on to the cables attached to the steep rock walls. We seemed to be followed by yellow and pale blue butterflies, seemingly some forest fairies. The gorges opened to a peaceful green valley guarded by rolling hills. Just on the last morning, before heading back to Bucharest we saw a sign on the road crossing Cozia mountains, pointing towards Lotrisor Waterfall. It was a large forest path following a stream that at a point formed some beautiful transparent green pool, with forest and mountains left and right. First I heard the clamour of the flow splurging over the stones and boulders, then as we approached I saw the white stream of running water over the dark rock. The feeling of the last moment of freshness before starting to leave the mountains behind, doubled by the pure sensuality of the water serpentine coming down in a flowing caress over the stone.




The former salt mine Turda was the real highlight of the trip, a truly magical place, quite spectacular and unbelievable, with marble like walls made of layers of ground and salt, mixing white and black curves in a neverending dance and game of shapes, palace like corridors and halls. It was considered the most beautiful underground site worldwide in some top and it's as old as history remembers, from the antiquity. The main hall is enormous, over 100m high, naturally decorated with salt efflorescences, stalactites and an underground lake with an island. Manmade scifi looking wooden structures complete the hallucinating views. You can even rent a boat and row around the lake, buy salt bars for skin treatment and deodorants. In the Crivac room there was a XIX century wooden structure that used horses to bring blocks of salt to the surface. After two weeks of going suddenly from darkness to bright light the horses would go blind and after six months they would turn useless.








As we also needed to restore our forces from time to time we explored some thermal resorts. Ocna Sibiului sports several salty lakes among a green landscape where there used to be salt exploitations. The degree of salinity differs from one lake to another, we spread some stinky black mud all over our bodies and went floating in about four of the lakes. In Bazna there were outside and inside pools of warm dark green water packed with minerals, same in Caciulata between the mountains where the pools also offered hydromassage. All at maximum five Euros dumping prices.

I am realizing now the power of water, that takes so many shapes and we experienced in so many ways during the trip. Away from the sea there were rivers, streams, creeks, springs, pools, lakes and waterfalls, underground waters making their ways through the rocks and creating caves or gorges. In Sibiel we could hear the stream that flows along the unpaved road, the same in Caciulata where we slept basically on the street leading to the forest. Sometimes the water would mirror a monastery or a village, other times it would rush over stones through its green banks where a horse may graze.


 Not to forget the rain and the beautiful rainbow gracing the green fields just before sunset.



I was filled with love, wonder, awe, feeling energized, refreshed and above all grateful for being able to experience such beauty. One of my best vacations, really. I had to be away for a long time to realize I come from a very special place. To be repeated.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

SALAMANCA, SCHOLAR ELEGANCE AND CHURCHES AS SIGNS OF POWER

If Segovia is dominated by the cathedral and the Alcazar telling a lot about the power of the church and the nobility throughout history, Salamanca is even more religiously overwhelming. There are not one, but three great churches/convents, the cathedral counting actually for two, Romanesque and Gothic built side by side. Playing host to the third oldest university in the world (after Bologna and Oxford), it's all about schools and churches, but also a magnificent Plaza Mayor, a surprising Art Nouveau museum, nice cafés and great food.





























I've seen so many interesting, surprising and unique architectural details, tasted delicious cheap tapas, enjoyed the spring sun at a calmer pace and promised myself I will definitely be back. For this I also have to thank the Mexican friend who graciously offered me shelter and his precious time and knowledge.

Yummy tapas: stuffed eggplant; pimiento del piquillo with cod; mushroom with goat cheese and jamón; zucchini with salmon, cream cheese and dry tomato + beer = 5 Euritos

The famous judiones beans with clams
The University or the Cathedral facade are obvious impressive examples of plateresco, this Spanish style the borders between late Gothic and Renaissance, but what I found most striking were the details and corners of so many buildings: the stairs, the vaults, the cloisters, the chapels. Great XVI century architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontañon (also author of the Segovia cathedral and the University of Alcalá) left behind two palaces: Salina and Monterrey, besides the new Cathedral and the monumental church of San Estebán, also a Dominican convent, that offered shelter and help to Christopher Columbus for quite a few years.

 Calle de la Compañia - one of the most beautiful streets ever

Catedral Nueva

Catedral Vieja amazing tower, looks like a Lord of the Rings fantasy castle

Some of the most stunning stairs I've ever seen, in San Estebán, by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón

The old walls with the student vibe make an absolutely charming combination, and then there's the river, and the gardens, some impossible to describe chemistry that makes it such a pleasant and relaxing city.

That relaxing:)














A city where I felt comfortable just hanging out and doing nothing but looking around and smiling at the world in awe and gratefulness for my wonderful life, being granted so much freedom and joy. That feeling of looking at life through this kind of windows. Of the Art Nouveau museum eventually.


 Some of those gorgeous architectural details:


 Me in awe in the San Estebán cloister:

 Capitals:


The Sky of Salamanca that decorated once the ceiling of the University library is now hidden in a cloister just across, a few steps away from the hoards of tourists, in a quiet dark room. My sign, Virgo, stands proudly right in the middle.
Plaza de la Libertad is not a tourist highlight, just a picture pretty rectangular quiet square, lined with palm trees, geometrically cut cypresses and terraces, so welcoming and cozy. This charming gentleman was having his coffee (terrible like any coffee in Spain) with a cigar and glass of brandy...classy.


A place of perfect peace: Convento de las Dueñas, there was just another couple of visitors and I felt I could stay there for hours just enjoying the silence of the garden. At the exit there's a small shop where a nun sells traditional cookies homemade in the convent.

 The last image of perfection, Palacio Salina

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

SEGOVIA - YELLOW STONE TOWN AND SNOW CAPPED MOUNTAINS IN SPRING GREEN

There's something similar between Segovia and Salamanca, the light of their stones in the spring sun.

Although in Segovia there's more of Piedra del Parral and Salamanca Arenisca de Villamayor, I felt a certain warmth of the stone colour in both towns. They're sandstone types and in addition in Segovia the roof of the castle, Alcazar, is made of black pizarra/slate from the same area. For the first time I paid attention to how we built cities by using the nature around.

Many times the stones would come from nearby, as it would have been too difficult to carry them long distance. In Barcelona for instance the beautiful gothic church Santa Maria del Mar was made of blocks of stone brought from the close by hill of Montjuic by the port stevedores, on their backs. These two Castilla cities instead had around the type of rocks mentioned above.


There I felt peace and quiet, taking life at a slower pace myself. After all the running around in Madrid I took my time, for one day in Segovia, two days in Salamanca, to sit down, think and contemplate more. Seeing whatever I found on my way, without putting too much pressure and ticking lists.

It was quite fascinating to find out that queen Isabel la Catolica was actually crowned in Segovia and that Cristobal Colón - known as Columbus in English - met their Catholic majesties in Salamanca. There's so much history around, I felt like stepping on their tracks.

I landed in Segovia, name being of Celto-Iberic origin, before the Roman conquest, by mid-morning, after an interesting ride crossing the scenery of the Civil War, Sierra de Guadarrama and Valle de los Caídos. The setting is amazing,  I guess even more in spring, with the city raising in its warm light surrounded by snow capped mountains and the fresh shades of green brought by the season. Apparently Celts, Romans, Arabs, Jewish and finally Spanish found it all very appealing. As Segovia is not big and built on a rock about 1000 meters high, you get lovely different views as you make your way through the narrow streets.  Romanic churches, Plaza Mayor, the Jewish Quarter, are all dominated by three great landmarks: the Roman Aqueduct, built without mortar, the blocks of stone hold by themselves; the enormous late Gothic Cathedral and the elegant and solid Alcazar, the fortified castle that looks like a fairy tale one, especially if seen from the Eresma river bank, topping the abrupt rocks. Apparently the Sleeping Beauty Disney castle was inspired by it. Too bad they probably ignore the splendid mudejár decorations. Climbing to the terrace is rewarding the curious traveler with breathtaking panoramic views.



Wandering in the streets I found the less customary Gastronomic Museum, in some old house where every room tells a story about beans, chick-peas, wine, growing sheep and pigs and the by-products. Segovia is actually quite famous for its roast suckling pig and lamb and the huge white beans called judiones, not a bad idea for a consumable souvenir. The Gastronomic Museum also offers a small tasting of bread, cheese, jamón, sausage and wine, all very good, especially the jamón that happened to be made of a hairy sheep looking pig from Hungary, called mangalica. BThis and a delicious soup and a blue fish salad tapa at the Alcazar café made for lunch. Then eventually ventured out of the city walls to check on two Romanic churches, one now a convent.

It's also worthy for the sight of the high city and above all of the castle from below, plus you can take an enchanting walk by the river and re-enter through another gate. This way I found an incredibly beautiful and rather unusual Gothic façade of a convent, Santa Cruz la Real, that's now hosting an university. The famous and sinister first general inquisitor Torquemada was once a prior here.

All in all, small as it is, I still missed a few churches I wanted to visit and the Cathedral tower, so I have a good excuse for another visit.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

SPAIN AGAIN, FOR A CHANGE - MUSING ON TRAVELLING, MADRID CULTURAL MARATHON AND MORE

MOVE - It's one of my strongest peremptory needs, if I sit still for too long I get anxious, and confined spaces drive me nuts. This need became evident when I read "Anatomy of Restlessness" by Bruce Chatwin, back in 2000. I understood then that travelling is like an inner call that natural born nomads have to follow in order to keep being themselves. Johnny Walker, keep walking! Even at work I need space, big windows, light, to see the sky and when possible trees to feel comfortable. I started taking lunch walks back in 2006 in Canada, half an hour is for eating, the other half is for moving, walking dramatically improves my well being.

On the other hand I also need a change of landscape, air, language, from time to time, it's like breaking up habits keeps my brain alive, and gives me a sense of freedom. At the same time big metropolitan centers also make me feel uncomfortable, caught between stone or concrete surfaces. I am less and less attracted by the idea of travelling to a city, may that be as fascinating as Berlin or Paris. Besides, they started being so similar, packed with hordes of tourists, crossed by metro lines, filled with Irish pubs, French bakeries and Italian fake restaurants next to horrible fast food or so called gourmet coffee chains. All big cities have a cathedral, national museums and world famous landmarks. I long for wide horizons, green meadows, thick forests and majestic snow capped mountains, surrounding small historical towns or picturesque villages. All with a bit of quiet and solitude, although it's already been said you can't feel lonelier than in the middle of crowds.

So having to take a week off by the beginning of spring I left aside the hypothesis of Amsterdam, Brussels, Lyon or Florence and decided to go to the closest cheapest flight destination: Madrid. Not only it's a big city, but I'm not even fond of it like I am of New York, Paris, Rome or more recently London. I am fond of its liveliness and mix of cultures though and only during this fifth or sixth visit I started to internalize its structure and subtleties, finding my favourite corners. Some of its best features are being reasonably close to Lisboa and playing host to great temporary exhibitions plus a good cultural alternative scene. Last but not least, quite a few friends call it a home and it's nice to see them after wandering all day by myself. Although being by myself didn't mean that I didn't talk to unknown people in the hostel or on the street. It's nice to enjoy all that time and temptations without having to please anyone else and be able to talk to someone around if you feel like, madrileños are quite social and easy going.




I wonder if during any of my former trips I was ever so conscious about how madly I can run all day covering kilometers, with very few and short stops, even to eat or sit down a bit. Why on Earth do I have so much physical energy to spend? Each evening would find me exhausted with my head busting with impressions and memories of the day. I didn't even count the number of exhibitions I visited and I was even scared of my hunger to see and learn more. On every trip I keep learning also about myself and my way of being in the world. At the same time I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was also a form of escapism, of running away from my life. So putting this now on paper helps me saving something, giving it a sense.

Since the first day a friend took me to La Tabacalera former cigarette factory, now a cultural centre, and inspired me to take more abstract photos. I started looking around in a different way for the whole week. The way that objects are placed in an exhibition and how people deal with it. Putting out of the context certain parts and play with them. Then there were the social photographs at Caixa Forum, quite an amazing contemporary building . Photographs taken around the less charming nowadays Spain, portraits of guerrilleras from San Salvador or Afghan refugees in Greece next to heartbreaking images of refugees all over the world, especially from Africa and Middle East (Syria and Iraq) with their most prized possession since they left home with very little, could be a buzuk (music instrument), bracelets, a cane, a donkey, whatever gave them comfort on the way.

Later I got enchanted by the amazingly bright rainbow like paintings of Raoul Dufy who wanted to render light through colour, followed by the disquiet harmony and subtle anxiety of Paul Delvaux, both provoking the eyes and the mind in diferent ways.













In between exhibitions I managed to fall in love with the Malasaña and Lavapiés colourful and kind of irreverent neighbourhoods, with the alternative shops and eateries of the first and the multicultural flavour of the second, especially the Mercado de San Fernando and the UNED library that used to be a church.

And when my mind was really crying for some green and some peace I walked along the Manzanares river green path and went to discover also Casa de Campo and Campo del Moro parks.






I couldn't resist paying another visit to Bosch, Goya, Ribera, my Museo del Prado favourites and I also discovered the history of Madrid in the city museum, quite interesting as it explored both its architecture and the social fabric of its inhabitants, customs and habits. Walking into yet another free cultural centre: Casa Encendida, I got acquainted to Colombian Suarez Londoño and his masterful sketch books drawings.

Just before taking the plane, and while looking desperately for a mailbox for my postcards, I managed to find time for the insightful Giacometti exhibition dedicated to the look: El hombre que mira, completed by very inspiring quotes on eye perception of the human body. I was very touched by an apparently simple drawing: an eye looking at a tree, that for me became suddenly the symbol of the wonder of spring.

And to top all this, I went twice to the theatre, as I managed to get a ticket, unbelievably, for Robert Lepage's "Needles and Opium", he's one of my favourite directors hailing from my former home Québec. Then it was an alternative play loosely based on "Fuenteovejuna" by Lope de Vega, that was actually quite weak, although the actors were making quite an effort.


When did I see my friends then? Well, some for lunch and a walk, some for dinner, for a tea, night drinks or an exhibition, or even host me for a couple of nights. It felt great and refreshing to see them and I guess I'll return to Madrid sooner than two years this time.

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