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Travel can be an eye-opening experience, as we encounter things both unfamiliar and similar to our lives. This was certainly true as I traveled from the Black Sea up the Danube. My trip took me through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. As my ethnic background is Lithuanian and Polish, this part of the world felt strangely familiar, from the language, to the food, to the people. Meals often included potatoes and cabbages, and homemade brandies made from plums or other fruits. In a home hosted meal in Croatia, we were served a delicious tomato soup, and fried patties made of beef and pork. Two types of cabbage side dishes rounded out the meal. Conversation ranged from information about the family (children grown but no grandchildren) to their pigs and chickens, and life after communism. Our host proudly showed off his equipment for distilling his brandy, which packed quite a powerful punch. He also provided us with homemade wine, which he claimed we could drink all night, since he diluted it with coca-cola!
The Danube Plain in the Balkan Peninsula is a very fertile area, and much of the land in these parts is devoted to agriculture. As in other regions during the Communist regime, many people were granted small plots of land that they intensely farmed for their personal use, all other land holdings being owned by the State. One can still see these small farms, with fruit trees, vines, haystacks, bee hives and vegetables. Since it was November when I visited, the only plantings still visible were the ubiquitous cabbage, and lots of tall mums. Since the fall of Communism, many of the state-held lands have been given back to the original landowners, though not necessarily on the same scale. Farms now range in size from 5 acres to a maximum of 300 acres. Cooperatives have been formed by many in this area, which allows for sharing of equipment and resources. Sunflowers, rapeseed and wheat are predominant crops. There has been a shift of people living in rural areas – some villages are all but abandoned as people move to the cities where they feel there is more opportunity. Population growth is negative in many parts, except among the Roma (or Gypsies).
Religion is a constant presence in life here, with Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia having a large Eastern Orthodox population. There are also a small percentage of Muslims, and the Greek and Turkish influence is seen in much of the architecture. In visiting the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest, I noticed that the icons (religious paintings) were shown “dressed” in fabric and adorned with sprigs of basil. I was unable to get a definite answer as to why basil was used. One guide suggested that it could be because basil grows in cemeteries and she thought it kept away evil spirits. A quick perusal on Google uncovered the following information on Basil. In India, it is considered a sacred herb, and if one is buried with a sprig of it, one is ensured entrance to Heaven. In England, it is used to ward off evil spirits, though in Italy it is associated with love. It is said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion, and in some countries it symbolizes protection and luck. In Greece, people bring it to Church on St. Basil’s Day (Jan. 1) to have it blessed. So it is possible that these interpretations could be the source for this custom.
In Bulgaria, all things “rose” are for sale. The Valley of Roses, which lies between the Stredna Gora and the Balkan Mountains, is one of the top rose producing areas in the world. In all the shops, one can find many products containing rose oil from Bulgaria – some say it is the finest oil in the world. If you like, you can purchase rosewater, rose perfume, rose liqueur, rose lotions and other cosmetics, rose jam and pure rose oil. Unfortunately, this particular tour did not provide access to the Valley of Roses, so I had to content myself with a small (.5 gram) bottle of the oil. Apparently, most of the oil is exported to France for making perfumes, and I could not locate any in a larger size.
This particular section of the world is starting to become tourist friendly, though large tour buses are somewhat of an anomaly in the rural areas. Romania and Bulgaria have just joined the European Union this year, and Croatia is in discussion. Serbia is still having issues with Montenegro, and until that is resolved, they cannot petition the EU to begin talks. Many vestiges of Communism are still evident, from blocks of ugly housing to bombed out or shelled buildings. People are hopeful, and elections take place, though it is a common joke that whenever five people get together they form a new party. They are still concerned that those in the Government are out for themselves, but in general they are rebuilding and planning for their future. It is clear that I will have to return, and spend more time learning about a part of the world in which so much has happened, and where I feel an affinity for the people and their culture.