Archaeologists excavating at the historic site of Perperikon uncovered the grave of a man weighed down with a ploughshare over his chest. This was a common folk practice to keep a body from rising from its grave as a vampire. The individual was a man aged about 35-40 and he was carrying coins dated to the 13th and 14th century.
The discovery is part of ongoing excavations at Perperikon, an important city in eastern Bulgaria that was occupied from at least 5000 BC through the Middle Ages.
Last year archaeologists found several vampire graves in another part of the country. And these aren’t the first to have been discovered. Usually they have iron stakes or nails through their hearts. Only one other has been found with the ploughshare treatment.
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet this artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn’t get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.
This is the first photo I took in Ljubljana and it sums up my impression of the place: family-friendly, lots of culture and a few surprises. Like why there are all those shoes hanging up everywhere.
To get oriented I took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour, which lasted a bit more than two hours and was hugely informative. A local university student named Neja led us all over her city’s historic center and gave us a great introduction to Ljubljana and Slovenia. She even explained the shoes. University students throw them up there at the end of term. The “shoe wire” I photographed is right next to Cobblers Bridge but apparently that’s just a coincidence. There are several wires adorned with footwear all over town.
The historic center is a delight for anyone who likes colorful architecture. Vienna Secession, a central European take on Art Nouveau, was big here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and colorful examples flank the river that runs through the center of town. There’s plenty of Baroque buildings too along with an unfortunate scattering of concrete Communist monstrosities. Apparently living and working in an attractive building was thought to be symbolic of capitalist decadence or something. Fortunately most of the worst examples of Communist ugliness are outside the historic center.Architecture isn’t the only culture you’ll find. Ljubljana is a great place for drinking and dining. Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that I’ll cover later in this series. The city’s restaurants offer a wide sampling of other cuisines too, especially Italian. The bar scene isn’t as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. One odd little place is Pr’Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you’ll end up as part of the decoration.
Like the nightlife, shopping is not too extensive but still worth checking out. Antique and bookshops abound, and the farmers market next to the Triple Bridge by the river is worth going to for local delicacies such as wine, honey, mead, fruit and produce.
Most visitors head on up the hill overlooking town to see Ljubljana’s castle, the nation’s most popular attraction. Slovenia is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and has lots of great castles. I’ll be talking about them in my next post.
The city has several good museums. The best is the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum with its large collection of folk art and interactive displays about life in traditional and modern Slovenia. Numerous video panels feature interviews with Slovenians young and old about everything from contemporary views on religion to being a World War II partisan. It’s a really good way to learn more about the people you’re visiting.
An even better way is to hook up with the local Couchsurfing community, which runs weekly meetings open to all. I went to one and had a great evening learning about the country, sampling various unusual liquors and ending up with more invitations to go out that week than I had time to accept. As I’ve mentioned before, Couchsurfing is more than a free place to stay, it’s also a ready-made community welcoming you with open arms.
One thing that struck me again and again while meeting Slovenians was their repeated assertion that they are distinct from the rest of former Yugoslavia. There’s a common saying here: “Yugoslavians are brothers in blood, cousins in language, and foreigners in culture.” One said his nation was different than the rest of the former Yugoslav republics because it had spent many years as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
The civil war in Yugoslavia is still fresh in people’s memory, even though Slovenia managed to avoid the worst of it. One university student, too young to have many clear memories of the war itself, almost broke down in tears as she talked about it. The war hasn’t left scars; it has left open wounds. I haven’t been to any other parts of former Yugoslavia but I imagine the emotional damage of the people there must be far worse.
Despite a harsh past and a troubled economic present, Slovenians seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Parks and cafes are full and people take long strolls along the river. Through most of their long history, Slovenians have been ruled by other nations. Independence has given everyone new hope.
One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it’s cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won’t spend anything on transportation costs.
So if you’re looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia, and check out the rest of this series for more information.
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.
And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.
Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.
He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.
Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.
Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.
After so many years living in Spain, it was nice to visit Estonia and experience a real winter again. That numbness on the tip of your nose while the rest of your body is bundled up and warm, the way sounds get muffled by the snow, the intricate designs the icy branches etch into the sky – winter is a good season when you don’t have to experience it for too long.
The best way to experience winter is to get out into the countryside. Day trips from the capital Tallinn can be tricky, however, as the bus system isn’t the greatest. One quick way to experience country life and get a bit of history is to spend a few euros on a taxi and go to the Estonian Open Air Museum just outside of town.
This remarkable place is the Colonial Williamsburg of the Baltics. Historic buildings have been collected here from all regions of Estonia to recreate several traditional villages. Costumed employees practice traditional crafts as visitors wander around the forested paths between the villages.
I went on Shrove Tuesday, which is a special event in Estonian culture. The village tavern was serving up pig trotters with the warning not to wipe the grease off your chin if you wanted to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year. After a messy lunch that’s going to make me rich and fortunate in 2013, I headed out into the country lanes. Being the middle of a weekday, it was quiet. Visitors were spread out over the museum’s several acres and for the most part all was silent except for the crunch of my boots in the snow. Every now and then I’d hear the jingle of sleigh bells and see a happy family scoot by, driven by one of the museum employees.
%Gallery-179095%It’s a big day for kids, who go sledding on this date. For some reason sledding ensures that flax will grow tall in the new year. The child who sleds the farthest guarantees that his or her household will have the best flax crop. A gaggle of squealing Estonian kids hurtling down the slope next to one of the windmills were having too much fun to care whether the flax grew tall or not. Nearby was a merry-go-round set atop a frozen pond, spinning extra quickly on the ice.
Estonian kids have turned the making of snowmen into a fine art. Kadriorg Park, back in town, had an entire population of snowmen, snow women, snow dragons, and a snow bear climbing a tree to get a snow squirrel. Scattered around the 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the Open Air Museum I saw snowmen hanging out enjoying the holiday. It made me wonder how old the tradition of making snowmen is and why it started.
The homes, barns and churches collected here are now rarities. During Soviet times the emphasis was on collectivization and most old rural buildings were allowed to decay. So it’s a rare treat to see their distinct, homey style and watch kids play at the same games their ancestors did when these old buildings were new.
Could a reservoir in Arkansas be the favorite watering hole of a southern Bigfoot? Maybe it once was, but it doesn’t seem to be anymore.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved tramping through the woods, and so of course I loved hearing about monsters lurking in the woods. I vaguely remember a rash of sightings of a big, hairy monster in the woods of Arkansas. It had several names, the most popular being the Fouke Monster, which was sighted by numerous individuals and was the subject of some atrocious films that freaked out 10-year-old me.
There were also sightings at Lake Conway just north of Little Rock. It’s 6,700 acres in size, making it the largest man-made game and fish commission lake in the country, and a popular fishing spot. Most of the sightings come from fishermen in remote parts of the lake.
According to one anonymous testimony (the sort of thing that constitutes evidence for cryptozoologists hunting these critters) it was about 7 feet tall and completely covered with dark hair. It stood at the edge of the lake watching a fishing boat for several minutes and showed no fear or comprehension when a gun was pointed at it.
Sightings of the Conway Lake monster date back to the 1940s, according to this article in the Saline Courier, which cites no sources. They continued until the 1970s before trailing off to nothing.
Several witnesses noted that it had a terrible odor. This led some cryptozoologists to suggest it’s a skunk ape, a mysterious beast shown here in a photo courtesy David Barkasy and Loren Coleman. This shot was allegedly taken in Florida. Skunk apes are found throughout the South although, of course, none have ever been caught. Sadly, no photos of the Lake Conway monster have ever been reported.
So what was the Lake Conway monster? Skunk ape? Bigfoot? A hairy refugee from a nudist chili festival? Did it go extinct like some people said Nessie has? Perhaps it moved away as Little Rock has expanded and more and more fishermen use Lake Conway. It seems a shame, though. The folks around Lake Champlain have kept their monster alive and kicking. So come on, Arkansans, go find the Lake Conway monster, or at least take a blurry nighttime photo of an orangutan!