With Halloween right around the corner, and fall afternoons providing some great lighting, Gadling Flickr Pool member Matt Shalvatis captured this image of the House Of Chimeras, in Kiev. Between the ornate architecture and dark clouds, the photo provides a slightly haunting effect.
Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.
Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.
Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.
For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.
All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.
So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.
In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.
For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.
I had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.
But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.
A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)
But are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.
After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.
Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.
But the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.
Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.
(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)
This summer, soccer fans from around the world will flock to Ukraine when the country co-hosts UEFA Euro2012 with Poland for the very first time. There’s no better time to visit the capital city of Kiev, which has spent the past few years beefing up its tourist infrastructure and recently unveiled a completely redesigned Olympic Stadium in preparation for the final match of the quadrennial European soccer tournament.
If you’re not a soccer fan, or don’t want to shell out the big bucks to ticket scalpers, Kiev offers plenty of cheap diversions. In the warmer months, the city comes alive with flora and fauna, not to mention a packed agenda of free outdoor activities. Lie on the beaches (yes, beaches) of Hidropark in the Dnieper River, or take a cultural stroll through Andriyivskyy Descent, advertised as the “Montmartre of Kiev”. You can even try scaling the Moskovskyi Bridge (but please don’t).
While Kiev has experienced inflation in recent years, it’s still a bargain compared to other European capitals. To keep things cheap during the games, try a short-term apartment rental instead of a hotel; check Airbnb or 9flats for listings. Food-wise, traditional Ukrainian cafeterias are a cultural experience as well as money-saver. Specialties like potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, and dumplings will provide more than enough fuel for the games.
[flickr image via Matvey Andreyev]
Some cities die. The people leave, the streets go quiet, and the isolation takes on the macabre shape of a forlorn ghost-town – crumbling with haunting neglect and urban decay. From Taiwan to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, these abandoned cities lurk in the shadows of civilization. Their histories are carried in hushed whispers and futures stillborn from the day of their collapse. Some have fallen victim to catastrophe while others simply outlive their function. I think we can all agree on one thing – they are all very creepy.
Location: Pripyat, Ukraine – 100km from Kiev
Story: On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl reactor began its tragic meltdown. The incident was a huge blow to the viability of the nuclear energy platform, and still today, the town of Pripyat is an abandoned shell of a city frozen in a 1980’s Soviet time-warp. While the failed reactor has been entombed in a an appropriate sounding casing called a “sarcophagus,” the area remains unsafe for human life. The town has thrived in one aspect though. Wildlife has returned to the area in droves. Wolves silently hunt among the towering apartment buildings, and boars forage for food in the abandoned amusement park – which strangely opened the day after the reactor explosion in the midst of evacuation.
Abandoned since: 1986
Location: Sanzhi district, New Taipei, Taiwan
Story: This area called Sanzhi was originally a vacation resort catering to U.S. servicemen north of Taipei. The architecture could be called UFO futuro chic, and the abandoned resort community had difficulties from the beginning. During construction, many workers perished in car accidents, and other freak accidents were common. The urban legend online search trail places the death count close to twenty. The deaths were attributed to supernatural causes. Some speculated that the resort was built on a Dutch burial ground while others attributed the misfortunes to a dragon statue destroyed during construction. Either way, the ruins never took their first guest, and the stillborn project was abandoned.
Abandoned since: 1980
Location: Craco, Basilicata, Italy
Story: Built on a summit, Craco’s utility was initially derived from its ability to repel invaders. The town’s placement on a cliff precipice also threatened its integrity. After being rocked by a number of earthquakes and subsequent landslides, Craco was abandoned for lower ground. Today, the empty village is great for exploration and houses a number of interesting old world churches such as Santa Maria della Stella.
Abandoned since: 1963
Location: Kolmanskop, Namibia
Story: Once a successful diamond mining community, Kolmanskop is now a desert ghost town where the houses welcome only sand. The desert city was originally built when Germans discovered great mineral wealth in the area. They built the town in an architecturally German style with a ballroom, a theater, and the first tram system in Africa. The desert reclaimed the town when the miners moved on. The sands have filled houses, covered the streets, and slowly erased most signs of civilization aside from the towering homes and public buildings. The sight of a decaying German town in the shifting sands of the Namib desert is anachronistically delightful.
Abandoned since: 1954
Location: Hashima Island, Nagasaki, Japan
Story: During the industrial revolution in Japan, the Mitsubishi company built this remote island civilization around large coal deposits in the Nagasaki islands. The island is home to some of Japan‘s first high rise concrete buildings, and for almost a century, mining thrived on the island. At its peak, the 15 acre island housed over five thousand residents – coal workers and their families. Today, a post-apocalyptic vibe haunts the abandoned island and the dilapidated towers and empty streets exist in a creepy industrial silence. In 2009, the island opened to tourists, so now you can take a trip to explore the Ghost Island’s abandoned movie theaters, apartment towers, and shops.
Abandoned since: 1974
Location: Oradour-sur-Glane, Limousin, France
Story: During World War II, the Nazi troops came upon Oradour-sur-Glane and completely destroyed the village, murdering 642 individuals. The burned cars and buildings remain frozen in time as they did in 1944, a reflection of the monstrosity of war and a memorial to the villagers who lost their lives. The massacre was one of mankind’s most vicious moments. All visitors to the “martyr village” are asked to remain silent while wandering the melancholy streets of tragedy.
Abandoned since: 1944
Location: Centralia, Pennsylvania, United States
Story: The entire city of Centralia was condemned by the state of Pennsylvania and its zip code was revoked. The road that once led to Centralia is blocked off. It is as if the city does not exist at all, but it does, and it has been on fire for almost fifty years. In 1962, a fire broke out in a landfill near the Odd Fellows cemetery. The fire quickly spread through a hole to the coal mine beneath the city, and the fires have been burning ever since. Smoke billows out from cracks in the road and large pits in the ground randomly open up releasing thousand degree heat and dangerous vapors into the air. The city has been slowly evacuated over the years, though some residents have chosen to stay, believing that the evacuation is a conspiracy plot by the state to obtain their mineral rights to the anthracite coal reserves below their homes. Smells like lawyers to me.
Abandoned since: still marginally occupied by 10 or so brave souls
Location: Northern Atacama desert, Chile
Story: Declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2005, Humberstone was once a bustling saltpeter refinery in the desert of northern Chile. Life on the moonscape of the Chilean pampas is extremely sparse, and outposts like Humberstone served as work and home for many Pampino miners. The hostile environment proved a menacing part of everyday life for Humberstone residents. Their efforts to extract nitrates from the largest saltpeter deposit in the world transformed farming in Europe and the Americas in the form of fertilizer sodium nitrate.
Abandoned since: 1960
Location: Bodie, California, United States
Story: The poster boy for a ghost town, Bodie is absolutely stunning in its dereliction. The boom-town over 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevadas was a gold rush outpost, and, at its height in the 1880’s, allegedly one of the largest cities in California. 65 saloons lined the dusty mile long main street, meaning the saloon to resident ratio was definitely high enough to keep the sheriff busy. Beyond the swilling of brews though, Bodie developed into a city filled with big town characteristics like churches, hospitals, four fire departments, and even a Chinatown district. Today, visitors are free to to walk the deserted streets of this town built on gold and hope.
Abandoned since: 1942, though the last issue of the local newspaper, The Bodie Miner, was printed in 1912.
Location: Kayaköy, Muğla, Turkey
Story: Thousands of Greek speaking Christians lived in this town just south of Fethiye in southwestern Turkey for hundreds of years. The rather large village has been a virtual ghost town since the end of the Greco-Turkish War. Over 500 houses and several Greek Orthodox churches populate this garden of decaying structures. Some hope exists for a resurgence of this old city, as organic farmers and craftsmen have began to trickle in to this fringe community.
Abandoned since: 1923