Wednesday, July 7, 2010


After three days in Istanbul, we "set sail," traveling northwest in the Black Sea. When we woke up, we were coming into port in Nessebar, Bulgaria. The bulk of the city is on the mainland, but we spent our time in a quaint (read "touristy") village on a small island connected to the mainland by a road on a man-made isthmus.

We wandered around for a while, noting that there were many old churches that were either locked up or in ruin:We were searching for one that was in use, as it was Sunday and we were interested in attending an Orthodox Christian service. During our wanderings, we kept noticing flyers taped to the doors of homes and shops, nailed on posts, or collected on billboards as seen here:
We found out that they were death notices/mourning documents posted by family members of the deceased.

Anyway, after several attempts at asking shopkeepers for help and being directed through a warren of narrow streets that seemed to turn back on themselves, we spotted a woman in a nice dress walking purposefully down a street. I said, "She looks like a Relief Society President. Let's follow her!" We trailed her at a discrete distance, hoping she was headed for church. She was!

There is only one church on the island that is actually functioning as a church, and we had found it. The service was well underway, but we slipped into the back of the small room, between the stand selling candles and the gilt icons where worshipers stopped to not only cross themselves but to actually KISS the images.

An Orthodox service is sung from beginning to end by the priest with help from a back-up choir. We had happened on the Pavarotti of priests, a rich baritone whose incredible voice reverberated from the stone walls. Not only that, but he looked like John the Baptist--young, handsome, and with a dark beard. (Note: A beard is required. I guess if you are Mr. Peach Fuzz, as Bob was in high school, you can't be a priest.) I was ready to convert. Luckily, the choir was, um, substandard. Also, we noticed that there were only a few chairs for the elderly; everybody else was standing. We learned later that in an Orthodox mass, everyone stands for the whole service, which can last up to four or five hours, to show their devotion to God. Yikes. How would we snooze during the boring parts? While he was singing, the priest got to walk around. Sometimes he was standing at the front, sometimes he was in a little room behind the pulpit walking around, and sometimes he walked around the congregation following an old man wearing street clothes who was swinging the incense ball and a younger man, also in his street clothes, carrying a brass staff.

After about a half hour or more of standing and watching, we felt we had done our duty and joined the constant in-and-out flow (made up of worshipers, not just tourists). Besides, we were hungry. We went back to a seaside restaurant we had scouted out earlier as a likely place for some good fish. Our waiter was Kevin Kline. Seriously, he was. (Although he spoke only broken English, I think it was an act. I wish I'd taken his picture.) We had a magnificent lunch:
Fresh mussels,

"summer soup" (cold cucumber, dill, and yogurt soup),

and what Bob has proclaimed on several occasions since to be "The Best Fish I Have Ever Tasted," a nice fat bluefish caught just offshore.

I had what must have been the bluefish's babies, equally tasty but not as efficient in the ratio of bone to meat.

We were very glad we hadn't chosen THIS option just down the street:
One last stop was the one church that had been turned into a museum, St. Stephan's Church, built in the 11th century and reconstructed in the 16th century. It was beautiful and charming with an intimate interior and peasant-style construction rather than the looming edifices were are used to seeing:

Note the unique exterior decoration:

Click on the picture below to read a helpful explanation for English-speaking tourists. There are some pretty funny "Bulgarenglish" translations:My favorite murals from the church included this one of a saint being devoured by lions:
and another of a saint wearing the most awesome armor ever:
All in all, Nessebar was nice, but we felt that we only experienced a tiny part of the "true" Bulgaria.

Our next port was Constanta, Romania. In order to get a broader experience than we had had in Bulgaria, we opted to take a tour that would take us away from the touristy coast and 135 miles inland to Bucharest, the country's capital city. We were lucky to get a young, passionate tour guide named Andrei who had just graduated from college with an international business degree. He was very open about his feelings about his country's politics, both past and present. Twenty-five years ago, under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, he could have been imprisoned or even killed for his openness--but more about that later.

Our bus journey was three hours long and passed through many picturesque villages . . .

. . . and fields, including this one of sunflowers just beginning to bloom:
Our first stop was the Village Museum, a collection of Romanian homes and churches from different periods of the country's history and from different regions:We had a traditional meal at a very nice hotel where Andrei told us the President of the country frequently dines. We didn't get to eat with him, but we did share our meal with a cute little sparrow: During the meal we had a wonderful performance by a folk dance group. Don't you love their clothes?
After lunch, we visited the Patriarchal Church of Bucharest, built in the 1650s and significant partly because the Bible was first translated into Romanian within its walls.
Andrei added a little more to our understanding of the Orthodox church. He pointed out that the only light in an Orthodox church is on the altar and the rest of the church is dark to symbolize that light emanates from God. He told us that 86% of Romania is Orthodox, 4% is Catholic, 4% is Muslim, and only 1% is Jewish (compared to 3-5% before World War II--20,000 Jews now compared to 160,000 then). He also noted that in the Orthodox church, a man MUST be married to be a priest, and if he gets divorced, he can no longer preach, even if he remarries.
The beautiful interior, which somehow escaped Ceausescu's pillaging.

We drove past the Triumphal Arch, built in 1935 and modeled after Paris's Arc de Triomphe. It's a pretty good copy, don't you think?

Then we headed into the modern city, a stark contrast to what we had already seen. Ceausescu destroyed much of the historical part of the city (including nineteen Orthodox churches, six Jewish synagogues, eight Protestant churches, and 30,000 homes) to make way for a megalomaniac building spree that included a corridor formed by these beautiful communist-style apartments:
They flank both sides of a wide avenue that culminates in the Palace of the Parliament, which is the world's largest civilian administrative building and most expensive administrative building.
The Palace was intended to house all the government offices as well as be Ceausescu's private residence, and although it was mostly completed, Ceausescu was overthrown and executed before he was able to move in.
Andrei, with obvious relish, told us the story of how in December 1989, Ceausescu organized a large outdoor "support" meeting where he was to address his countrymen. Students in the audience, however, began to boo him, and he quickly lost control of the crowd. He and his wife were evacuated by helicopter from the roof, and revolution spread like wildfire through the country. A few days later he and his wife were captured, convicted in a two-hour trial that was televised to the nation, and led outside and shot. It was Christmas Day. Many of my generation remember that shocking event.

Romania, now a member of the European Union (although not yet on the euro), has come a long way since those days. However, according to Andrei, the government is still very corrupt. He claims the president of the country spends six to nine months of the year at his villa in Rio de Janiero and cares little for the welfare of his countrymen. As testament to that, he pointed out this beautiful gold clock, one of ten recently installed in the city, at a cost of $75,000 each:
He noted that three-quarters of a million dollars could certainly have been put to better use to improve the lives of the country's citizens.

Andrew, on his backpacking tour of Europe three years ago, passed through Bucharest. He told us it was an ugly communist-style city and not to waste our time going there. However, I think it was the ugliness that made this city intriguing for us. Surrounded by beautiful countryside and with a rich cultural tradition, Bucharest must have once been a star in the crown of Europe. Its destruction due not so much to communism as to the totalitarian reign of Ceausescu was therefore even more interesting.

(Note: Okay, so I failed on the promise to "make it shorter next time." I'll keep trying.)


  1. No apology necessary for the length of these posts, Judy -- THANK YOU for taking the time to invite us along on your splendid journey. It looks like it truly was the trip of a lifetime!

  2. I hope Russell and I are as adventurous as you when we are empty-nesters. I think it's fantastic that you took this trip!

  3. I LOVE hearing about your trip! So many neat places to hear about.
    When I was in Finland, much of the outer buildings in Helsinki were like what you saw in Bucharest along the avenue. Communism was ugly throughout all aspects of life.

    Can't wait to hear more!

  4. DON'T keep them short. I want to know more! I especially liked reading about the "Holly Virgin" (I'm going to think about that during Christmas) as well as noting the fact that "real motives" were used in their creating. I love it when English is mangled, with humorous results.

    The ugly buildings are interesting to look at too, I think because we remember Communism, air raid drills, and the Cold War. Not something of Andrew's generation.