Brasov in a Day

Any of my friends will tell you about how I rave about Romania. All too often the reaction I get when I tell people I taught at a summer camp there is, ‘urgh wasn’t it horrible’. If Mr Farage and the Daily Mail are the only things that have alerted you to the countries existence and your opinion has been informed by this well, then we probably shouldn’t even be talking anyway. But seriously, I am always going on about Romania as if it were a hidden gem nestled in the Eastern reaches of Europe. Too many people have never even given it a thought as somewhere they ought to visit. I want to change that.

Brasov is a perfect place to start with its Hollywood hills style sign nestled amongst a tree strewn mountain side (inhabited by bears that like to show themselves at night scavenging through rubbish bins) and its cobbled streets filled with enough bars and restaurants to please many a palate/taste. Brasov is distinctly European with its large Mediterranean esque squares whilst also being distinctly Transylvanian with the dramatic forested mountain backdrop setting the scene for ones Romanian adventure. No Dracula in sight.

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As always with me and travelling the one day spent in this beautiful city was not spent ticking off the boxes of all the must see sights and things to do. The day was spent wandering, getting a little lost in a quaint neighbourhood, eating good food and enjoying the always excellent Romanian wine. The nights festivities spent drinking it up in a Reggae bar (always my go-to bar of choice in any country) and moving on to a place frequented by locals with whom we danced until the early hours of the morning.

In the end I guess my pictures do not do Brasov the justice that it deserves, I like to take pictures of weird things like alleyways and abodes like the one above, but hopefully you get the picture.

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Quaint neighbourhood wandering

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The Strays of Istanbul

The most inspiring city in the world. Apparently.

When you live somewhere so artificially ugly it is easy to appreciate the beauty in things that would otherwise have gone unappreciated and so, in a strange twist, the world instantly becomes more beautiful. The smallest things, once previously taken for granted take on a shine that I call seeing the world through grey tinted glasses. How intense the pink of the spring bloom looks against the dank, grey wall it is fighting with for space.

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The startling purple of this plant above (excuse my lack of plant knowledge) against the back drop of the unkempt bit of greenery the locality has not bothered to keep up with, because, as with much of the space in this city, it is set to be gutted and turned into another hastily built sans-regulation block of flats.

It is not just those odd bits of flora that cause delight in ones eyes. For me, a defining feature of this city and something that one can constantly find wonder in is the strays. Anyone who has lived (or perhaps even visited Istanbul) would have had these often bedraggled creatures feature as part of their everyday. And as menacing and unappealing as they may look to the untrained eye, upon closer inspection one will find they are not the wild creatures that their look betrays in them, rather, that they are tamed to the urban environment. In fact many do not even register human beings on our daily grind, they are much too focused on the pack, rummaging for food, or lounging listlessly in the sun.

In restaurants, at the front of Sities (apartment blocks), in high end multi-million dollar neighbourhoods, lying amongst ancient ruins that now act as tourist attractions. It does not matter what section of town you happen to land in. These strays are everywhere.

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I often found myself surprised at the respect that these vagrant animals seemed to have with the locals. We looked on aghast as a stray dog followed us into the road and then walked on ahead right in front of an imminently incoming tram. I had never seen anything die like that before and I cowered behind my hands waiting for the unfortunate event to be over. As I opened one eye, in that innate way we humans are attracted to such macabre events (do not want to see it, yet cannot look away) I looked on bewildered as the tram driver slowed to a quick stop, coming within centimetres of knocking this dog over. Bewilderment soon turned to bemusement as I watched the dog amble seamlessly on, without a break in his stride, batting not an eyelid as he sauntered across to get this view of the Bosphorus. The sheer arrogance of the creature. It was as if he knew all along that there was no way in hell anyone or anything here would mow him down.

We called him Darwin.

Darwin

Darwin

In general one will find that Turkey is a rather stray friendly country. The tags one may or may not notice on the ears of the strays are not so that they could be collected and taken to kennels in the winter, as we were told by a well meaning yet misinformed acquaintance. The trap, vaccinate, neuter and tag program is Turkey’s solution to the stray problem; a way to control the population and ensure the strays are relatively healthy. Much nicer than the euthanasia of healthy animals as perpetrated in countries such as the US.

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No memories of this city are complete without thoughts of the strays. Memories of the first time walking down the dark alley home terrified as we were surrounded by a pack of stray dogs only to find that they were barking at each other and not us.  Of my family taking a diversion to their hostel on the way home down to the same misconceptions, of me looking on in wonderment as a tourist family allowed their child to pet and poke at a baby kitten when they could see the mother looking on furiously and how I felt for the child when the mother lashed out in order to save her baby from that incessant annoyance. The stray kitten taken in by a friend and then let go reluctantly upon leaving the city (I do not condone this but it is a memory nevertheless).  I cannot even begin to recount each moment shared with these creatures that will be ingrained in my memories forever. But here are a few pictures that I hope can possibly do them justice.

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One of many strays.

 

 

Bran and Bran Castle

Some of my fondest memories of Romania were on the bus to the various excursions we made with the children,  across the weeks. Even though we had to repeat each excursion four times for each new group that came in, the scenery spied on those retro bus rides never ceased to amaze. As the bus rolled out of Moiceu de Jos, I held my breath as not not have it taken away by the dramatic backdrop of forested hills foregrounded by the characteristic pointy spires that seem very much a part of Romanian architecture.

This was the sign that we were pulling into Bran.

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A few minutes on and we were to drive past that which (I at least once thought) was what had pulled me/inspired me to visit Romania, Bran Castle- or for the sake of tourism, Dracula’s castle.

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No four weeks in Transylvania (or more accurately in the village down the road from Bran), would have been complete without a visit to Bran Castle- being one of the primary tourist pulls to Romania. And surely enough the town of Bran is a tourist trap, tiny as it is, most days it is frequented by those fellow annoying visitors, endowed with camera and eager to see where Bram Stoker got his ideas from.

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As mentioned in a previous post, the tiniest bit of research will show you that Mr Stoker did not in fact base Dracula’s castle on this particular place/part of Transylvania, not only that he had also never even visited the country. Duh. Lord knows why this particular castle out of the many in Transylvania has this title- perhaps due to its dramatic, imposing nature. Built upon an impressive chunk of hard rocks, nestled amongst those eerie tree laden hills Dracula would have been sure to have flitted about in his bat shaped form.

In fact as far as Stoker  and the legend of Dracula is concerned, Mr Vlad III (one of many influences to the legend of Dracula) only had extraneous connections to this castle. This was by no means his abode or regular haunt. Oh well, this loose association serves well for tourism purposes!

Inside the castle if you are expecting all doom and gloom a la Dracula/Mr Vlad, (man who liked to kill people through a massive spike through the anus) think again. Think period furniture, lots of mahogany and stunning views of the surrounds (probably the thing I liked the most in the whole place).

As far as castles go its rather good and worth a visit, just because.

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That view though

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A Transylvanian Summer

After a brief introduction to Romania through the city of contrasts that is Bucharest, we were whisked off to our new home for four weeks, the BnB Podul Turcului located in Moeciu de Jos.  Situated at the bottom of a valley not too far away from the super touristy Bran, this place was the perfect escape from the rest of the world. Here we had a unique insight into rural Romanian life, but with a road running through it and buses to Bran and as far as Brasov, I instantly fell in love with the place.

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With a busy 6 day a week schedule, teaching and activity leading, we did not have much time to explore as we wanted to. But just being there amongst the green was enough, a reminder to myself as to how lucky I am to have such opportunities, to visit places that I may otherwise have overlooked. Being an ESL teacher has its perks.

One of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I would return within a heartbeat.

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Room with a view

I highly recommend a visit to Moeciu de Jos and a stay at Podul Turcului, located away from it all but without being totally in the middle of nowhere, here you can enjoy the peace and quiet, but hop on the bus for a night out in Bran. The food served at Podul Turcului is high quality, traditional Romanian style, the wine is amazing and the staff are friendly.

 

More on my Transylvanian adventure to come. No Dracula in sight.

 

In the Beginning there was…. Bucharest

Parliamentary Palace

Parliamentary Palace

As I was chauffeured through the city from the airport, I glanced out of the window pondering my first taste of post Istanbul life. The sight of much lamented greenery lining otherwise unnoteworthy pavements was the first thing that struck me. Living in a concrete jungle for much of the year meant that any little bit of greenery inspired a desire to frolic amongst that which I had previously taken for granted. As the car rolled on, in and out of traffic in this busyish (nothing can compare to the crazy that is Istanbul) city, I laid eyes upon streets filled with an abundance of shoddily put up telephone wires and crumbling, tired looking facades; a brash reminder of Romania’s communist past.

I was dare I say it, slightly underwhelmed.  The romanticised version of Romania I had conjured it was not. All rides through Transylvania in a horse drawn carriage admiring the eerie quality of traditional, wooden Romanian homes that have become an inherent part of the misty tree laden hills whilst observing the otherworldiness of the locals who have a rather unnerving tendency to cross themselves when you ride by a la Bram Stoker. OK, so not only was Stoker describing Eastern Transylvania, he had also never visited Romania, therefore any expectations inspired by his classic novel are greatly misinformed!

Disembarking from the vehicle, we arrived at what looked like an office building, but is actually a rather decent hotel, in a bloody good location. Again my first impression of the place was more like what the hell, being located on a run down looking side street frequented by gypsy families, their discarded sunflower seed shells and with a rather disturbing looking Ronald Macdonald staring straight at me.

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A short walk around the locality had me admiring some interesting looking buildings and statues and trying to figure out the exchange rate in my head- Lei to Lira to Sterling… HELP!

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The next couple of days were a whirlwind- planning lessons for the four week summer camp by day, exploring what the city had to offer by night. My initial feelings towards the city soon evaporated being replaced by a feeling of endearment that has me longing to be transported back there. Yes the telephone wires zigzagging above your head any which way serve as a reminder to work that may still need to be done here, yes you should beware of being dripped on when walking down the road by an unknown fluid that I was informed was coming from air conditioners (lets hope so), yes the country’s communist past stares one brashly in the face in the dismal grey of the many washed out apartment block buildings. For me these things add to the character of this intriguing city. Even if that isn’t your thing Bucharest has a lot of redeeming qualities; a vibrant nightlife scene catering to all music tastes, the mixture of architectural styles an including but not limited to French Baroque Style and Gothic revival, the world’s largest administration building in the form of the parliamentary palace, the old churches scattered throughout the city and Lipscani the bustling old town filled with bars, restaurants and a gelataria within which I experienced the best ice cream I have ever tasted.  Mint, lime and basil, where have you been all my life?!

All in all Bucharest has to be one of the most interesting cities I have ever visited. Here it is commonplace to find a 300 year old church, alongside a spanking new office tower and some 1970’s apartment blocks.

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As with most of my visits to anywhere I didn’t do much except walk around, people watch and enjoy the views- oh and shop in one of the many second hand/vintage/discount clothes shops the city has to offer. Nights were spent in the historical Lipscani side of town in one of the many bars and restaurants found here or in the rock and punk bar/hostel Underworld within which we made friends with the friendly staff and were served free shots alongside  my first Morgans Spiced and coke for about a year.

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The contrasts that one is constantly confronted with in this city is enough to keep one entertained, paired with the cheap prices, the excellent party scene and the abundance of shwarma kebab (alongside other equally impressive food options) is enough to make me look back at my time in this city with a yearning in my heart to one day return. Even if just for the basil, mint and lime ice cream and the best spring rolls I have ever tasted at Toan’s Vietnamese.

On to the next adventure… From Istanbul to Romania….

Living in the roller coaster ride of a city that is Istanbul was pretty intense and something I look back on everyday with fondness. But, onwards and upwards as they say to the next destination…. Drum-roll……Romania! I managed to get a summer camp job with a rather prestigious (in the EFL world) language school based in Bucharest. This involved a brief stint in Bucharest (centrally located hotel paid for by the school)  and four weeks of hard work and toil in the most beautiful of and underrated of places, Transylvania.

ESL summer camps are never easy, usually involving working from morning until night teaching and entertaining students ensuring that the rich families decide to send their children back to the same camp again next year. The camp in Romania was certainly not as laborious as others I have been (un)fortunate enough to work at, but it was still bloody tiring. But then,waking up to this view made it entirely worth it.

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Then there’s the fact that I got a unique insight into a country that would not otherwise be possible through spending a week or two as a tourist. Everyday we ate (delicious) Romanian cuisine (an eclectic compilation of various influences, Ottoman, Hungarian, Serb, German and of course traditional Romanian), worked alongside native Romanian teachers and had the pleasure of teaching the most respectful, eager to learn students I have ever come across.

Not bad....

Not bad….

Staying in a village a fifteen minute drive away from the infamous Bran (made so through it’s castle marketed as Dracula’s own) and a forty five minute drive from the wonderful Brasov, stolen evenings and the much needed free time awarded on Sundays were utilised exploring these wonderful places.

Driving into Bran

Driving into Bran

Post-camp I had enough time to revisit Bucharest and to spend some down-time in picturesque Sibiu, labelled by Matador as one of the last storybook towns in Europe and by Forbes as Europe’s “eighth most idyllic place to live”, before jetting off for a last minute position at a summer camp in exciting Portsmouth..

Sibiu

Sibiu

More to come on the time spent in one of the most intriguingly charming countries I have ever visited….

My year in Istanbul in Photos

My school year long adventure in the city that is never still, never boring and never calm is officially over. My last days in Istanbul, contrary to preconceived notions of how it would be, were not spent seeing all of the touristy sites that I missed out on. Logistical failures, bad planning on my half and being so damn exhausted from the Turkish school year which only has three weeks of holidays (the last being those at the beginning of February) and the hour and a half slog to anything interesting all got in the way. In the end I failed to see the inside of Topkapi Palace AND the Hagia Sofia. I promised myself I would go throughout the year, putting it off thinking I had all the time in the world. As usually goes with these things, all the time in the world goes by quicker the time it takes to check into the Turkish airlines flight out of there. All the more reason to go back!

The thing about living there was that when you are in the middle of it, living and breathing the polluted air, I seemed to do all I could to think of the quickest way out of there.  Looking back I wish I savoured each moment more. But then, when looking back everything takes on the rose tinted hue that comes with nostalgia and not knowing what you have till its gone. There is a place in my heart reserved for this city, a city although ugly on the outside has the sort of interesting beauty of a California Condor. Outwardly ugly yes but when one takes the time to observe this graceful creature you will see a gentle beauty in its movements.

Well maybe not that ugly

Well maybe not that ugly

 

I cannot say what I will miss the most, the solidarity shared through the hour and a half long metrobus ride with those unfortunates who also happen to live in the nether regions of the city? Being taught how to swing dance at a party? The death defying dolmus rides with the ridiculous uphill road climbing feat at the end getting us to Taksim in style? Mary’s Chicken in Bakirkoy with their wedges, cheese and gravy? The blissful quiet enjoyed on the car free Princes Islands? Leaving a friends house to be greeted with throat clogging, eye burning tear gas fumes? The 5 lira beer and tequila’s of Voodoo shared with friends from all over the world, becoming youtube DJ’s for the night? The back alley 7 lira kofte durum open to the 6 o’clock in the morning riff raff looking for their post party fix? Those fleeting moments on lucky ferry rides over the Bosphorus when you spy dolphins chasing the boat, only to disappear as if something imagined in a hungover haze when you finally manage to get your camera out? I really cannot pin-point or sum up my favourite moments of this year it was all damn bloody good, even those shite moments when all you want to do is get away from the all encompassing grey and breathe fresher, greener air.

Here are some of my photo highlights…

 

The madness of Istikal Street

The madness of Istikal Street

 

Srineveler melons.

Srineveler melons.

Outside the New Mosque

Outside the New Mosque

Never dull

Sultanahmet, never dull..

Avcilar seaside skatepark. Living deep west has its perks.

Avcilar seaside skatepark. Living deep west has its perks.

An abandoned restaurant, Yildiz Park.

An abandoned restaurant, Yildiz Park.

Election time beef.

Election time beef.

One of many strays.

One of many strays.

Taksim!!

Taksim!!

Abandoned train at the abandoned train station.

Abandoned train at the abandoned train station.

Dining on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

Dining on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

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Haydarpasa, the abandoned train station.

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I miss waking to the sound of construction in the morning.

A lucky bit of greenery by our place.

A lucky bit of greenery by our place… Now ya see it…..

 

...Now ya don't... The same place a couple of weeks later... that is SOOO Istanbul

…Now ya don’t… The same place a couple of weeks later… that is SOOO Istanbul

Smogset.

Smogset.

In Kadikoy

In Kadikoy

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Byukada Wildlife

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At Buyukada, The largest of the Princes Islands.

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Remembering those who died in Soma

Remembering those who died in Soma

Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi

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#letmetakeaselfie

#letmetakeaselfie

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Obligatory Grand Bazar shot

Obligatory Grand Bazar shot

One of many pasajs

One of many pasajs

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Kadikoy

Kadikoy

Princes Islands

Princes Islands

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Obligatory Blue Mosque Shot

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Sultanhamet

Obligatory Hagia Sofia shot.

Harbour

Harbour

Basillica Cistern

Basillica Cistern

Eminonu and I.

Eminonu and I.

Kadikoy Coast

Kadikoy Coast

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Istanbul Tulip Festival

Istanbul Tulip Festival

more strays

more strays

Cumhuriyet Mahallesi. The place we called home for 9 months.

Cumhuriyet Mahallesi. The place we called home for 9 months.

My last view of the Bosphorus

My last view of the Bosphorus