Sunday, 22. March 2009

My last post ...

This might come as a surprise to you, but this is my last post to this blog, which had for one year now. Because ... I have a new one! With a very nice URL:

I copied all the articles from here to the new blog, but unfortunately without your comments.

So, time to say good bye. Thank you! ... and see you on!

Friday, 13. March 2009


Last weekend I finally managed to go to Kosovo, although it was rather spontaneous, because my partner for the planned hiking tour got ill. Unfortunately CouchSurfing in Kosovo didn't work out, so I had to stay at a guest house in Prishtina and didn't really get in contact with people there.

You are wondering, whether Kosovo is a safe place to go? According to the channels that I checked (Wikitravel, Homepage of Austrian foreign ministry, ...) the main danger in Kosovo right now are unexploded land mines, and you won't encounter them as long as you stay "on the beaten path".

I never felt afraid when I was visiting places, in fact people were always friendly and helpful ... which seems to be natural in islamic cultures. The main population in Kosovo are Albanian origin, which was also the reason for the wish of their independence. The Albanian flag is also the second most seen flag around.

If you have already seen some places in Eastern Europe, it doesn't look so much different. A lot of block buildings from communist times, in between smaller, older buildings. You see a lot of foreign organisations, especially the military organisations United Nations and KFOR (NATO), but also European Union and OSCE.

Striking to me was the presence of so many unfinished buildings, especially on the country side, where I passed them in the buses. I was surprised about the dense network of buses, there are buses to the other major cities every 15 to 30 minutes. For sure it's not a big country, but still it takes up to three hours.

Prishtina is the capital of Kosovo and has the same problem that many capitals face: They grew too fast.

If you arrive in Prishtina by bus, it doesn't look very welcoming. You first have to pass a highway crossing (there are some safe ways, but still it's not very nice) and then you walk along Boulevard Bill Klinton to the city centre, passing some communist living blocks. The city centre consists mainly of big buildings, where the architects might have thought, they should be good looking. Many of them are used for the huminitary and military organisations. Around the city centre it's getting more welcoming, a Turkish bazaar and smaller houses dominate these regions. You should definitely go to the ethnological museum (you can see traditional clothing and customs there, in a beautiful house from the 19th century), they guy there was very friendly and explained me everything in great detail. And he was for Erasmus in Vienna ;)

On the second day I went to see Prizren, a smaller city in the south-west of the country. First I was a little bit disappointed, but after some searching I found the city centre, with a small river flowing through it. Next to this you have a hill with a huge fortress (which is now used by KFOR) and some damaged houses from war. When I came there I saw, that some race will take place later on, but first the KFOR had to remove their tents from the main square. Later a womens car race where held, who had to find their way through a parcours.

Peja is an even smaller town to the west of Kosovo. It has two centres: A turkish bazaar and a pedestrian zone with cafes and restaurants. I was surprised to see some many people on the street enjoying the day ... although it was Monday. I also enjoyed some grilled meat with some salad. And I enjoyed the view on the snow covered mountains. When I left Peja I had a talk with the guy from the toilet. He lived in Germany for 23 years and got deported 4 years ago. He wants badly to go back, because he's missing his wife and his two children, but unfortunately he was not married.

So, my conclusion about Kosovo: People can live a normal life. For sure there are still many problems, but there's a lot of development going on. Mainly with foreign money, we will see how they will develop, when they have to live from their own income (talking about money: the official currency is the Euro).

Tuesday, 17. February 2009

Teaser for my OpenStreetMap-Project

As I got stuck in Bulgaria, looking for flat-mates, I continued my work on my OpenStreetMap-Project, I was mentioning earlier on my blog (in fact I was not talking about this project since beginning of November).

As I already said, the OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of geographical data. The data is collected by volunteers or imported from free data sources (e.g. gouvernmental data if available or free satellite images). In Austria a company - - donated their data, as mapping is not their main business anymore. This improved the Austrian part of the OpenStreetMap greatly, especially on the countryside (although the import is not finished yet).

My project consists mainly of two parts. The first - and main part - is an interface to browse the available information in the OpenStreetMap. E.g. if you are looking for a pub or the nearest fuel station. But this is not the part I want to talk about this time.

The second part is an improved rendering of the OpenStreetMap. I'm not very satisfied with the default rendering, it looks very pale. I decided to make it more flashy. Additional various overlays can be displayed, e.g. the routes of public transportation (which none of the default renderers of OpenStreetMap do yet).

Attention, technical details: I'm using Mapnik as render engine, the same as the default view of the OpenStreetMap uses. To make developing of the new style easier, I'm using Cascadenik, a kind of CSS for Mapnik.

As I don't want to announce my project here (it's still quite buggy and slow), but I want to talk about it, I will show you some example renderings:

In the first example you can see a part of Bulgaria. As you can see the country borders are clearer, and the names of the Cities are displayed in the country language and in the English translation (as available).
In the second example you can see the surroundings of Schottentor in Vienna. Buildings have different colours, depending on their function and a little border.
The last example shows the inner city of Graz with an overlay of the routes of public transportation.

I'm busy developing on my application, I hope to be able to show you more of it soon.

Sunday, 8. February 2009

Revolutionary Timişoara and travel back to Sofia

Finally I arrived in my (nearly) last stop of my travel - Timişoara. It's the second largest city of Romania and - at least Geographically seen - the most western city of Romania. It has a large city centre with several pedestrian zones and squares, orbited by parks and on some parts by the river Bega. Around the city centre you have the typical suburban settlements of Communist era.

Again I spoke most of the time German, my CouchSurfer there is working as translator for German to Romanian language. And we even visited a performance in the German National Theater Timişoara (Deutsches Staatstheater Temeswar): "Alles zu seiner Zeit" by David Ives.

The most interesting and touching thing I've seen in Timişoara was the Archive about the Revolution in 1989. Timişoara was the first city to protest against their leader Ceausescu and it was also the first city were the first people died. The director - who was veterinary before the revolution and got badly wounded - loves to talk and show you around. During a movie about the revolution and in the gallery showing the works of children after the revolution, I nearly started crying. Don't miss it, if you ever come to Timişoara. I couldn't find a homepage, but if you want to learn more about the revolution, I can recommend you this page.

After Timişoara I had to find a way back to Sofia. It was not so easy, there's only one bridge between Romania and Bulgaria, in the East of the country, options would have been to go over Belgrade (with a break of 12 hours) or with a ferry between Calafat and Vidin. I finally decided to go over Bucharest, which took me 18 hours and additionally 5 hours in Bucharest which I used to visit the Museum of Peasants, which was really nice (although more English or German descriptions would be nice). The even have some old wooden houses and an old wooden church on display.

Romania was an interesting place to visit. There are still many places to visit - the Danube Delta or the northern parts of the country, which should more rural. I will for sure come back. Here you can see a route of my travel (Data by OpenStreetMap):

(I also made a map like this for our travel through Macedonia)

Being back in Sofia, I got a message from my friend who should visit me on Monday (which was my reason to come back to Sofia), that he has to cancel his visit. So I have to go traveling again! Next stops will be Kosovo and Albania. First I thought about leaving Monday morning, but my new flat-mates told me they can't afford the rent and will move out at the end of February. As my other flat-mate is not in Sofia for most of the month, I have to search for flat-mates now. But the new Erasmus students are arriving, so it will be easy to find people.

Friday, 6. February 2009

On the way to Timişoara: Alba Iulia und Roşia Montană

My last stop in Romania shall be Timişoara, but before I was recommended to go to Roşia Montană.

My CouchSurfer gave me a ride to Alba Iulia (she had to go there from her work), which is a not very nice city. It looks as urban development just happens there, without noticeably structure. The interesting thing: There's a huge fortress from the 18th century, shaped like a star. Most of it is unused, and when I was walking through this place I started dreaming about a festival. It would be a great place with all these backyards and big places. Imagine stages, rows of tents and stands selling various goods.

Roşia Montană is a mountain village with gold and copper mines, which were exploited in antique times for the first time. During industrial revolution it became a wealthy place, many workers came there and populated the area. Unfortunately it all went down in the 1970s under communist regime. At the moment it's a sad place with deserted houses, unemployed workers and aggressive stray dogs. But underneath you can still feel the beauty of this place, every church has it's own place of worship, the workers' buildings are ornamented and it's situated in a mountainous area with interesting rock formations.

In the last years Roşia Montană got some publicity, as there is one Canadian company, which is trying to built a new mining project (since 11 years). Especially the young ones fear, that the project would ruin the place. On the other hand the company (using fancy buzzwords like 'Sustainable', 'Ecologic', 'Community Process', ...) promises to clean the place (some of the streams are already heavily polluted), bring new jobs and develop tourism. Tourism is also the option for the people opposing the project, but I don't know where the money should come from - you need some huge investments to renovate the place and make it better accessible. I was talking to "Pro Roşia Montană", a non-governmental organization, supporting this project. They say, they would support any project, because as it is now, the people can't survive there. But they are also thankful for the opposition, at least the company had to bring strong arguments and to think about alternatives.

In Roşia Montană there's even a small hostel, managed by a young couple. They are nice, and it's a good place, so if you ever happen to come to Roşia Montană, I can recommend to stay at there place (It's situated 800m back the main road from the main square and called "La Gruber"). I was the only guest (in fact, they were really surprised, that somebody is coming), but they said, that in summer it's usually full. They also oppose the project, in fear, that the company will ruin this place. I'm sure the hostel would make it, it's a small place, and there will always be some people going to strange places.

I was happy to leave this place after a night, but I will follow news about it, I got interested in it. I hope it interested you too :)

Fortified Sibiu and churches

I already told you, that my next stop is Sibiu (german: Hermannstadt), former Cultural Capital of Europe in 2007. If you expect all this modern things that happened and (partly) stayed, like in Graz, you might be disappointed, you can't feel it. But the money in Sibiu was invested wisely, the centre has been well renovated and a huge pedestrian area has been developed. And it's definitely worth. A short abstract of the history of Sibiu: Sibiu was founded in the 12th century by German settlers, but was destroyed by Mongols a hundred years later. Only about 100 inhabitants survived, who started to rebuild the town, but this time with heavy fortification. Soon Sibiu was wealthy again. As this region was threatened by many enemies, many castles and citadels were being built - like Braşov and Sighişoara, I visited before. Also many churches has been fortified, so called "Kirchenburgen" were being built. And there are many, at least 300, maybe up to 700. About 140 still exist, but many need renovation.
In Sibiu I was couchsurfing again. This time it was pretty interesting, because my host was working for the protestant church, her current work was a EU proposal for the renovation of 18 of these fortified churches. I could even help a little bit. Unfortunately I didn't meet one of her working colleagues (an urban planner from Berlin), who was responsible for the renovation of Sibiu for the year as Cultural Capital. I would have liked to hear some experiences from him.
So, back to my travel, I'm sure you want to see some pictures. Historic Sibiu has two parts, the Upper Town (for the merchants and rich) and the Lower town (for the workers). The Upper Town is arranged around three huge squares and has heavier fortification. The Lower Town has smaller buildings and narrow roads, crossroads are often enlarged to little squares. Everywhere in the historical centre, you have historical buildings (15th-18th century) and several churches.

On the last day in Sibiu I went to see some villages around Sibiu and two fortified churches. I wanted to take the tramway (there's only one route left from the Southern end of Sibiu to one of the villages outside, Răşinari), but unfortunately I would have need to wait two hours. But there are some people who have some kind of informal collective taxi service, I could take one of these (for 2,5 Lei = 0,60€). From Răşinari (german Städterdorf) I followed a hiking route to the next village, Cisnădioara (german Michelsberg). I couldn't find all parts of the way, but finally I managed. I had some really impressive views on the way. In Cisnădioara there's one old Romanesque fortified church on top of a hill, with a simple wall around. Then I walked to the next village, Cisnădie (german Heltau), which is actually a little town, with another, bigger fortified church.

I hope I didn't bore you with my tale about churches, but I found them rather fascinating. Maybe you want to see them yourself? Take somebody with you who speaks German or Romanian, there aren't many people who speak English in that region (and texts are often only in Romanian and German, maybe a short description in French in English - even on the signs, which were erected for 2007).

Monday, 2. February 2009

Mighty Sighişoara and Mediaş

I decided to spend one night and one day in Sighişoara (German: Schässburg), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (I think I should start to compile a list of World Heritage Sites that I've already seen). It's a little town with 30.000 inhabitants, topped with a citadel (a kind of inhabited castle). The citadel was built in the 12th centry by German settlers, and still looks like a medieval place.

On the way to Sibiu I had to change trains in Mediaş (German: Mediasch). I didn't know what I can expect of this city, as it was not covered by my guide book, but I decided to make a little break. My worst fear was, that it's a city, built during communist times, only with grey block buildings. I was wrong, it's another old city, built by German settlers, with a fortified church in the centre (more about fortified churches in my tale about Sibiu).

Sorry for my short description, next - about Sibiu - will be longer. Promise. Enjoy your time!

Thursday, 29. January 2009

Medieval Braşov and Bran Castle

I think it was a good idea to leave Bucharest after two days, first I thought about staying three days. As I already wrote, my next destination was Braşov. It's a city with about 280.000 inhabitants, in the central part of Romania, called Transylvania. Transylvania was settled by German colonists (the Transylvanian Saxons) in medieval times, Braşov was one of their settlements. Transylvania is called "Siebenbürgen" in German, Braşov "Kronstadt". The German population was very strong until the Second World War, you still can see many inscriptions in German language.
When I arrived in Braşov it was still raining and cold, therefore I just had a short walk around the city centre and searched for a coffee-shop where I can get dry and do stuff on the internet (Free Wireless Lan rules). I had to wait several hours until I could go to my CouchSurfers. The next morning it was very foggy, but in the afternoon the sun came out.
Braşov has a beautiful city centre, consisting of old houses. It reminds me on my hometown, Graz. It's still surrounded by the original fortification walls on several places and some defense towers. On three sides the city centre is separated by hills from the outlying districts - which are not worth to see anyway as they were built in communist times and consist of block buildings.
One of the most impressive sights was the Black Church (built in 14th-15th century), the biggest Gothic church in Romania. It's a protestant church, therefore everything is written in German language, even the new works of the children.

Before leaving to Sighişoara I went to see the Bran Castle - said to be one of the most famous castles in Romania. In my guide book it says that it's "a bit of an anti-climax inside, elbowing your way through tourist groups". I think it was a good idea to go there in January, it was really calm and I just met a bunch of other people (and a lot of cleaning personnel). It's definitely worth the 1,50 EUR entrance fee for students (it wouldn't be worth 10 EUR), it's totally rambled, you can dream about hidden rooms and staircases. Outside there's a village museum, displaying old farm houses of the surrounding area. Sadly you can't see them from inside.

As I said, next is Sighişoara, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then Sibiu (Hermannstadt) one of the two Cultural Capitals of Europe in 2007. I hope you liked my text and my pictures.

Monday, 26. January 2009

Gigantomanism in Bucharest

After good sleep in the night-bus to Bucharest (the only notable thing was the bridge over the Danube - which is the border between Bulgaria and Rumania - near Russe. A narrow bridge with steep inclines on both sides - it looked rather frightening in the night), I spent two full days in this city. I had always thought, that Bulgaria and Romania are pretty similar - but apparently I was totally wrong. The language (Romanian is - surprise - a roman language) is not the only difference. The faces look different, as do the buildings.
Bucharest is a city full of contrasts. Nicolae Ceauşescu, the infamous leader of Romania between 1965 and 1989, tried to turn it into the "Paris of the East". Huge boulevards cross the city, lined by monotonous block buildings. Boulevard Unirii (Unirii = Union) starts at the Palace of Parliament, which is said to be the second-largest building of the world after the Pentagon, and goes 3,2 km to the east - 6m longer than it's prototype, the Champs-Elysee in Paris. If you go just one street behind these blocks, you can see the old structures - little churches, neat two or three story buildings - in various states, some of are empty and torn-down, some newly renovated.

Bus stops are hard to find - often there's just a small sign with the name of the station and the list of line-numbers. If there's a shelter at the stop (which is pretty common) you usually can find a map of the routes in Bucharest. No schedules, no information about coming buses. In contrast the information system in the buses belongs to the best I've ever seen. LED-displays inform about the next station and possible interchanges. Many buses also host an additional screen, which shows the exact position of the bus on a map and cycle through surrounding streets by highlighting them. In Bucharest there are also trams, trolleys and some metro lines.

Most of Saturday we (I was couchsurfing, which was a good experience again) spent with a group of photographers, who meet regularily to explore parts of the city together. The best was to see the reactions of the people living there, as the group of over 50 photographers invaded their neighbourhoods and took pictures of everything. The weather was just right for taking pictures, sunny and pretty warm.

On Monday, on the way to Braşov, I went to Sinaia, a small town famous for host two interesting castels. The nice thing: I met some U.S. peace corps volunteers, currently staying in Marocco and had a nice time with them. The bad thing(s): It was cold and rainy and the castles were closed, so we didn't even bother to go there. And the town looks like a typical hotel ressort ... Not very pleasing. So I took an earlier train to Braşov ... but this is another story ...

You will find more pictures on my photo pages, but please check again later ;)

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