Great Places – Eastern Europe (Southern Group)

      Here are the remainder of the Eastern European countries which, again, have emerged from behind the wall of Communism and have entered the tourist scene of Europe. The southern group includes Slovenia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Bulgaria (Croatia & Montenegro have been covered separately). Check out the photo album which will follow shortly.
     1. Transylvania Region, Romania
            Transylvania, a region in the central part of Romania, offers charming Eastern European villages without the hordes of travelers to compete with, as well as excellent mountains to hike or ski. The Bucegi Mountains provide the hiking and skiing. Some of the best villages include Sinaia, which has Peles Castle, one of Romania’s finest, Brasov, with its beautiful central square (Piata Sfatului), lined with baroque buildings and restaurants, Bran, with its world-famous Bran Castle, reputed (although unlikely) home of Dracula, Vlad Tepes, a ruling Prince of Wallachia in the 15th century who gained the nickname, “the Impaler” because of his method of execution, Rasnov, with its own castle in impressive ruin, Prejmer, Harman, a walled Medieval gem, Sighisoara, with its many towers, and Sibiu, with its well-preserved Old Town.   
      2. Ljubjana, Slovenia
             Ljubjana, Slovenia, which has been described as a “little Prague” has much of the beauty and charm of the latter but without the hordes of tourists. Even though it is a fairly large city, Ljubjana has a small town feel, and, because of its University, seems forever young-at-heart. Some of the memorable sights within the Old Town include the Cathedral of St Nicholas, with its twin towers and beautiful frescoes, the Robba Fountain, modeled after one in Rome, the Town Hall, the Triple Bridge, over the Ljubljanica River, which also offers a beautiful riverside Colonnade, and the obligatory Ljubjana Castle, at the top of the hill.
     3. Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
           Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, because of its location at the crossroads between East and West, is notable as a somewhat “oriental” city. It was the home of Turkish Governors for four centuries and preserves many reminders of this period. The Turkish Quarter, Bascarsija, with its cobble-stoned streets is the heart of the Old Town.
           Sarajevo is also infamous in more recent history. It was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated World War I in 1914, and was also the scene of much fighting during the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990’s. Remnants of these events can also be seen within the city.
           A marvelous day trip lies about 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the southwest in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mostar, now, unfortunately, a divided city with Croats on the west side of the river and Muslims to the east. Walk the cobbled streets and browse the shops which sell primarily Turkish goods. The Old Bridge (Stari Most) has been rebuilt, and it is safe for tourists to travel on both sides.
          While in the area, another 30 kilometers (20 miles) into the hills brings the visitor to Medugorje, an important Catholic pilgrimage site since 1981 when six teenagers claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
      4. Sofia, Bulgaria
           Sofia is an excellent place to get a taste of Bulgaria. Realize that it was heavily bombed during World War II, so many of the structures are restorations. There are numerous churches, such as, the Church of St George, which has Roman roots (it incorporates a rotunda built in the 4th century), St Nicholas Russian Church, which is an important pilgrimage site, the Church of St Sophia, which dates to the 6th century and is the derivation of the city’s name, and Sveta Petka Samardjiiska, in a sunken section of the city, which was constructed in the 14th century.
           Check out the Alexander Nevski Church, built in honor of the thousands of Russians who perished in the fight for Bulgarian independence. Just outside the city to the south is the hilly suburb of Boyana where the UNESCO-recognized Boyana Church displays its 13th century frescoes. There are also numerous museums in the city.
           For Wizard of Oz fans, Sofia has an avenue paved with yellow bricks.


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