Graciously Graz

Posted by jswt | Posted in General | Posted on 26-02-2012

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After cold months through eastern bloc countries, we popped over to Austria for a week in Graz which was really great. The sun had come out, and the week we were there was essentially their Halloween and they partied in costume for the whole week including a giant parade one day. That night the city was packed with the local university students dancing in the streets as all the bars set up streetfront bars and stages and had music going in the squares – we walked into one area that must have had 3-4000 people all just dancing, and smiling and being seriously merry.

The city is gorgeous, having never been bombed out during the war, and there’s a huge mountain fortress right beside the city that’s great for hiking. This being one of the first sunny times of the year, the mountain was covered in Austrians just laying about drinking up the sun, and sipping coffees in the little restaurants at the top (the beer garden doesn’t open until summer – sigh). Right in the middle of the mountain, there’s old bunkers, and one’s been turned into a giant club that fills a whole cave. Big respect to the Austrians for knowing how to party really really well and enjoy life.

On Saturday we had a day off so we rented a car and drove out to a hot springs resort/town called Bad Blumau, about an hour from Graz. It was full for the day (tip: call ahead for reservations on weekends!), but somehow we talked them into letting us come back later, so we whittled away the afternoon driving around the hills of Austria having our own Sound of Music singalong, and picking our route by heading randomly towards the oddest sounding villages. We ended up at a castle along the way which doubled as the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict resolution – a noble academy indeed. Lunch of beer and schnitzel, some weird dirt roads through forests, and then back to the resort for a *fantastic* soak in their well developed hot springs – one of the best developed hot springs I’ve ever been to: big indoor and outdoor areas (with a volcano!), giant sauna space downstairs, bars, restaurants. The whole resort is done up like a bedouin Hobbit lair reimagined by Dr Seuss – seriously, the asthetic is odd, but really unique and kinda cool. After a good soak, we rolled back to Graz and sunk into a deep sleep.

Tip: Restaurant Der Steirer is good eats, a great wine list and very reasonably priced. Worth seeking out.

Anyways, our week in Graz was lovely – even if it’s just a small town, I’d go back in a heartbeat… the people are incredibly friendly and fun, the city’s surrounded by accessible nature, and it’s just an absolutely gorgeously cute place.

Bored in Bratislava

Posted by jswt | Posted in Slovakia - Bratislava | Posted on 20-02-2012

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A week in Bratislava, Slovakia in February during the coldest winter in years… Not recommended. Post-communist-bleak people and archtecture (except in the small old town, which has a lot of sadly vacant businesses), scammy cabs, quiet nightlife (though got a feeling things get wild in the summer). Found one cafe in the city centre (Schtoor) that had good eats, great design and was always full of interesting people who looked like they were planning art projects or revolutions (or both). Great internet at the hotel tho, so I worked a lot. Got pretty brutally sick near the end of the week. A forgettable place, though if you’re passing thru aim for the summer when the surrounding area is probably more accessible and at least the bobsled track‘ll be open 😛

Rockin in Romania

Posted by jswt | Posted in Romania - Bucharest | Posted on 16-02-2012

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If you’re considering a trip to Romania, my advice to you would be to schedule your trip at a time other than early February during the worst cold snap and snowstorms they’ve seen in 40 years. You may also have more luck getting around the city if you visit sometime other than the week after the government has collapsed and they’re more concerned with finding a new president than clearing sidewalks and roads. Due to both these circumstances, my exposure to Romania’s capital city of Bucharest was somewhat limited, although I’m sure there’s some worthwhile exploring to be had beneath that deep layer of snow and ice cover.

It’s an interesting city with an odd mixture of classic gothic architecture, alongside bleak communist boxes, scattered around bombed out shells of old buildings or collapsed ruins. The city’s also known for it’s roaming dogs (which organize into packs at night and tend to occasionally eat tourists), and out of control homeless population, especially for the thousands of children who live beneath the city (check out this documenary – Children Underground for more on that).

Our hotel was a little out of the city, and the massive amounts of snow kept us somewhat homebound, and our first time venturing out of the hotel was on Monday night when our group was invited to the residence of the Canadian Ambassador for a reception. We rolled up to a large, beautiful old house on a street of pillared mansions and embassies, and were greeted by the Ambassador who welcomed us to his home. We spent the evening eating, drinking and mingling with prominent locals and Canadians, many of whom were involved in some way with the embassy and consolate – a very, very interesting world of travellers who’ve all worked in some strange places and all have great stories. As things wound down, the group left, but Chris and I were invited to stay behind for a drink with the Ambassador and his wife, the second Ambassador, and another woman who was an art dealer with a fantastic grasp of history. We spent the next few hours sitting around drinking Moldovan wine and handmade Haitian rum, while our stammered french was used to discuss the world, the origins of genius and shifting cultural influences with some rather interesting and intelligent people…

The next evening, we’d been invited to attend a local Romanian circus in town, which ended up being quite fantastic – it wasn’t quite the caliber of circus we’ve come accustomed to, but it was a soulful traditional circus where you could tell the performers were family involved with all elements of the performance. They had some great numbers, and we were all kept rapt by the animals (lions and tigers and elephants and camels and horses! oh my!) and the seemingly huge cast. They’d organized a lovely reception afterwards where we sampled some local eats and mingled with the performers. It was very humbling to look out behind the building and see rows of caravans covered in snow, and realize that’s where many of the artists and circusfolk live.

The next couple days were the standard routine of sleeping, working and hitting the gym and doing everything possible not to go outside in the -25 degree weather.

On Friday afternoon, I was invited to sit in with one of the techs to watch the show and see how he operated the lightboard. We went out a little early, and D gave me a great primer and answered my (hopefully not too naive) questions, and was wonderfully intuitive to my threads and fed me a lot of great information about how the board is programmed, the data networking involved, and the differences between the technical lighting skills and artistic lighting direction. I got to sit in and watch the show while watching over his shoulder, and understand a lot more now about lighting cuepoints, scripted sequencing and programming, the effects possible with a real lighting rig, and organic vs programmed effects. Thanks D for the schoolin!

After the show, I met up with A and she and I went into town for our irregularly scheduled platonic date night. She’d had a few recommendations from the promoter that turned out quite well, and we started at a lovely french restaurant where our waiter was very helpful and guided us through a nice sampling of some Romanian wines. After dinner we went back into the old town and headed to a bar/club called Bordello. We arrived about 10, and met up with M & G in what ended up being a fantastically designed old room; the downstairs was a 20s style saloon and the upstairs was a bordello influenced red velvet walled warm lounge with delicious flair. We were wondering a bit about it, as it was quite quiet, but we settled into our table and enjoyed the reasonably priced cocktails (top shelf drinks = $8… hello grey goose!). The DJ was mixing videos on all the TVs in the place, and the soundsystem was fantastic and suddenly about 11:30 the place went from kinda good to seriously fantastic – the DJ cranked up the pace, the rooms were solidly packed with smiling hot people, the waitresses were saucy, and there were scantilly clad women dancing on the bars. Chris showed up around 1am, and played catchup while the music got to be increasingly fantastic (serious respect to the DJ’s impeccible taste and his video mixing) and we ended up having a really, really great night out. 4am kebab and a slippery cab ride home wrapped up the evening…

On Saturday night we were invited out for dinner with the Canadian Ambassador and his wife who suggested a lovely restaurant in a recently reno’ed old building. We met them about 8, and spent the next few hours working our way through the chef’s tasting menu, sipping Romanian wine and were joined along the way by the second Ambassador and his wife. The evening flowed by in a wonderful blur of good food, wine and laughter and the night flew by as thoroughly enjoyed their company, conversation and worldview, and we didn’t end up back at the hotel until almost 3am.

Sunday morning was packing and prepping for departure onwards to Slovakia, but it gave time to thinking about how I’d really like the chance to return to Bucharest at a later date. Yes, the cabs are all going to scam you, and you can’t use an ATM without having your card cloned, but the city’s got a unique vibe to it that comes from that dark blend of recent challenging strife with the hopeful, tempered acceleration towards something on the horizon. We’d been offered amazing hospitality by the Canadians in the city, we’d glimpsed a smiling soul of a city, and hope to return to explore further when it’s not buried and hidden under a solid layer of ice and snow.

Shivering in Sofia

Posted by jswt | Posted in Bulgaria - Sofia | Posted on 05-02-2012

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So, I’m not sure what I expected to find in Sofia, Bulgaria, but whatever it was ended up far exceeded by what was there. I didn’t go in expecting to have a bias, but since I knew nothing about Bulgaria except that it was close to Serbia (far from my favorite place), and that my good friend R was married to a time to a Bulgarian (who was an awful, awful person) — somewhere along the way, I’d projected a view of Bulgaria which I was happy to find out was completely wrong.

The architecture wasn’t as blocky and russian as I expected – it was beautiful old pillared buildings, and ancient churches, and falling down concrete apartment blocks with bleak character. The people weren’t as gruff and serbian as I expected – everyone we met was super friendly, spoke fantastic english, was helpful and social and interesting. The food was not bland like in russia – we went to many restaurants where the food was *amazing* and so cheap we felt guilty (Seriously – we were eating like kings for under 20 euros, and I could find a great lunch [fresh soup/sandwich/drink] for under 3 euros).

We were in a hotel that was showing it’s age (and didn’t really understand the concept of non-smoking rooms [“but we open window! Look, no smoke!”]), but the fantastic central location made it perfect for wandering and exploring.

Admittedly, my exploring was cut short when jetlag and an afternoon spent in a waiting room at Gatwick airport lumped upon me a nasty cold. With Chris having to go to London for meetings, I spent 3 days curled up under a blanket catching up on work in a cold syrupy, snot filled haze where I was much happier and warmer than wandering around out in the -25c cold snap (brr!).

Getting to meet and eat the little I did, I’ve got to say that I really want to go back to Bulgaria sometime and give it a bit more exploring. There’s a ski hill right on the edge of town in Sofia, and a proper resort a couple hours out that I would really consider for a ski trip sometime… I can only imagine the cafes and nightlife and hiking that would be available in the summer sun, along with their Black Sea resorts… Throw in the friendly people with the serious value with their currency, and I find myself quite fondly looking back on the city, and unexpectedly looking forward to returning to give it a deeper go sometime.