Saturday, April 5, 2014

Day Trips from Lublin, Poland - The Top 5 Destinations

Lublin is a rare thing in Poland these days, an attractive historical city which has yet to be fully discovered by foreign tourists. The hilly cobbled streets of the old town are full of colourful building facades and outdoor cafes, while medieval gate towers and an unusual castle complex add to the picturesque skyline. On the outskirts of the city are two more tourist draws, the Majdanek WW2 concentration camp to the south and the outdoor folk architecture museum to the west. Both can be easily reached using local city buses. Beyond the city limits lie a number of worthwhile day trip destinations, and with many enjoyable restaurants and pubs Lublin makes a nice place to settle into as a base for several days. These are five of the best options for exploring outside Lublin, featuring a star rating out of five stars. The photos shown here feature, from top to bottom, Lublin, Zamość and Kazimierz Dolny.

**** Zamość - This UNESCO heritage-listed town is a perfect renaissance planned settlement, with walls and fortifications surrounding narrow streets and the showpiece old town square. Buses and minibuses depart from Lublin's main bus station and take 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes. Only a few trains per day go to and from Zamość so it isn't a very convenient way to get there, and they also take longer, 2 hours 10 minutes on average.

**** Kazimierz Dolny - This is one of the prettiest small towns in all of Poland, with a postcard-perfect central square of stone and wood buildings. Castles and churches are placed very picturesquely on the surrounding hilltops, and there are plenty of places to get a proper Polish meal after a lengthy stroll. If you decide to stay overnight here (many people do) don't miss crossing the river to see the castle in the neighbouring village of Janowiec, it makes a nice cycling trip. Bicycles are available for rent from several different businesses in the town. Buses and minibuses run regularly from Lublin's main bus station, taking 1 hour 10 minutes.

*** Kozłówka Palace and Socialist-Realist Art Gallery - The baroque palace is impressive enough, but the real reason to visit is for the gallery of socialist-realist art in the former horse stables. Buses and minibuses depart from Lublin's main bus station and take between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Some buses are direct, others will require a change of buses in the small town of Lubartów.

** Chełm - This town near the Ukrainian border has a hilltop basilica and a few other historical buildings of note, but the real attraction is the city's underground chalk tunnels from the middle ages. Guides will lead you through the shafts and chambers by candlelight, and you can expect some chills when the resident ghost makes an appearance. Buses and minibuses depart regularly from Lublin's main bus station and take 1 hour and 15 minutes. Trains depart Lublin main station several times daily and take 1 hour 25 minutes.

** Pułavy Palace - This baroque palace complex to the north-west of Lublin features rooms packed with grand furniture and fittings, and outside there are impressive landscaped gardens. Buses and minibuses from Lublin main bus station take between 50 minutes and 1 hour, and several trains go directly to Puławy daily taking 35 minutes.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 32 - Uzhok, Ukraine

This small church, found in a remote corner of the Carpathian highlands of Ukraine, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2013 together with fifteen other tserkvas in Ukraine and Poland. The village of Uzhok lies in the Uzhok pass, the highest pass in this part of the Carpathians and one of the most scenic locations in Transcarpathian Ukraine. The church is one of the most famous in the region and often features in tourism and other promotional materials as a symbol of Transcarpathian Ukraine.
The church was built in the Boyko style in 1745 and dedicated to Saint Michael. Supposedly the church was originally placed higher up the slope of the hill, but it was moved down nearer to the road because it was difficult for elderly villagers to walk up the incline. The architectural proportions of this church make it one of the most perfect examples of the Boyko style of architecture. The large triple-layered roof above the nave stands above the smaller single-layered roof of the narthex and the double-layered sanctuary roof. The shape of the tower above the narthex is similar to that of churches in the Lemko style found a little further to the west in the Carpathians.
The brightly coloured interior has had several modern additions to its fittings and decorations, but still has a pleasing appearance overall. The 18th-century iconostasis has luckily been only slightly altered from its original appearance. The elegant windows with white framing are not an original feature and were added during a later renovation. The church exterior is covered in a dark coating of oil stain to protect the wood, and this has led to the church being referred to locally as 'the little black ship'.
Standing next to the church is a wooden bell tower, though its roof and upper walls are now covered in metal rather than wooden shingles. During World War One the government of Austro-Hungary (the state to which Uzhok belonged at that time) had the bells from the bell tower removed and melted down for military use. On the slope above the church is the village cemetery, with many older graves overgrown by grasses and trees.
The village of Uzhok is most easily reached by train, since there are several regional trains daily from Uzhhorod which run directly there. A few trains daily also continue onwards to Lviv to the north. There are a couple of buses and marshrutkas which run to the village daily from Uzhhorod, but the timing of the trains is more convenient to make a comfortable day trip. Just before arriving at the platform for Uzhok the train crosses a spectacular rail bridge across the valley, offering excellent views in all directions.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 31 - Ruský Potok, Slovakia

This small Orthodox church stands on a raised patch of ground in the centre of the village of Ruský Potok in the far northeast corner of Slovakia. The forested hills of the Poloniny National Park surround the village on three sides, and sections of the UNESCO-listed Beech Forests of the Carpathians site are also nearby.
The church was built in 1740 and dedicated to Michael the Archangel as a Greek Catholic church. Since the year 2000 it has been used by the local Orthodox church community, though services are only held on religious holidays and special occasions.
The church contains a three-section floor plan (narthex, nave and sanctuary) on an east-west axis which is typical of Greek Catholic churches found in this region. The church was built on a low stone foundation to enhance its durability.
Next to the church is a small bell tower which contains three bells. The bell tower is not part of the original church plan and was built only in 1956. The three bells it contains were originally housed in the belfry in the tower above the narthex of the church. The tower features a series of small windows, which is a unique feature among the churches found in this region.
The iconostasis in the church likely dates from the eighteenth century. Due to the narrow space available in the small nave, the icons on the far left and right are placed on the side walls at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the iconostasis. This is another very unusual feature which does not appear in any of the other churches in this region.
The church was originally surrounded by a stone wall with two entrance gates, though at present there is a wooden fence with one entrance gate leading down towards the village square. A modern church has been built within the same grounds as the original wooden church.
Ruský Potok is very difficult to reach by public transport, since no buses run to the village and just a few buses per day pass along the Snina - Ulič road four kilometres to the south. The road into the village from the Snina - Ulič main road is paved and fine for access by car or bicycle. There is a blue-marked hiking trail over the hills connecting the villages of Topoľa, Ruský Potok and Uličské Krivé, and since all three villages contain wooden churches this route makes a nice one day trek.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Top 15 Travel Destinations in Latvia

Latvia has seen a steadily increasing flow of western tourists since it joined the European Union in 2004, but almost ninety percent of visitors still never get beyond Riga, the flamboyant capital and largest city. This means the rest of the country is still largely unexplored and just waiting to be discovered by those prepared to venture a little further afield. Distances are relatively small, and there are many worthwhile destinations within day trip distance of Riga by public transport. For those intent on exploring the countryside the tranquil town of Sigulda and the Gauja valley national park is an obvious starting point with crumbling castle ruins to clamber on and sporty outdoor activities galore, while windy Cape Kolka is the best place to find your own stretch of Baltic beachfront to go for a stroll. For those eager to get a taste of Latvia's Soviet past there are several top sites, particularly the Irbene radio telescope and the 'hotel' located in a former KGB prison in Liepaja.
1. Riga - As the biggest city in the Baltic states Riga draws plenty of tourists with its photogenic good looks. The assortment of medieval and art nouveau architecture will have you straining your neck skywards trying to take it all in with a camera lens. Heaps of cultural attractions and museums could keep you busy here for weeks, while the gastronomic scene is constantly evolving with flashy new restaurants opening at a hectic pace. Give Riga at least a few days to rub off on you, but then hop on a bus and go and see the rest of the country, you won't regret it!

2. Sigulda - A lovely historic town with castles overlooking the Gauja valley and walking trails to caves along the valley floor. Thrill seekers can try out the Olympic-standard bobsleigh track in a real bobsleigh for a cool rush in the winter, or in a wheeled model in the summer months.

3. Jurmala - The main beach resort in Latvia with long sandy beaches which draw sun seekers from nearby Riga. The many art-nouveau wooden houses that line the main boulevards are another prime attraction to take a peek at after getting sand between your toes.

4. Cesis - Often called 'The Most Latvian Town', Cesis has a picturesque collection of old wooden houses surrounding a 13th-century castle in its historic quarter. Close proximity to attractions in the Guaja Valley National Park make Cesis a good base for exploring the area.

5. Rundale Palace - A baroque palace designed by Rastrelli in the 1730's, which today is one of the grandest palace complexes in the Baltic states. Its location near the southern border makes it a convenient stopover for those heading south from Riga into Lithuania.

6. Cape Kolka and the northern Kurzeme coast - A beautiful and desolate stretch of wind-battered coastline which fills with swimmers and sunbathers during the summer months. The small villages of the Kurzeme coast are full of rustic wooden cottages, fishing nets, and the smell of smoked fish. Learn about the Livs and the endangered Livonian language, a small ethnic group found in this region.

7. Kuldiga - This is one of the most attractive small towns in Latvia, boasting narrow streets and 17th and 18th century wooden buildings. The town's other claim to fame is for having the widest waterfall in Europe, though don't be expecting a mighty torrent cascading down a mountainside.

8. Ventspils - This busy port has done well for itself economically in the past two decades and as a result its historic centre has been spruced up considerably. The city draws summer visitors to nearby beaches and water parks, and the waterfront also features an outdoor maritime museum. The city's castle of the Livonian order also contains a fascinating museum on the history of the region.

9. Irbene Soviet radio telescope - For those interested in cold war history, this should be an essential stop. Once upon a time this was a Soviet radar station used to spy on western communications transmissions, and today it is used by Latvian astronomers to study the universe. Guided tours of the facility can be arranged, including the chance to climb up near the giant dish.

10. Liepaja - This coastal city is the third largest urban centre in Latvia and its central streets feature an array of art nouveau buildings. Latvians think of Liepaja as a great place to let their hair down and have a good time, and its series of summer events and music festivals are a popular draw with visitors from across the country. Stay for a night in the former KGB prison in the suburb of Karosta for an uncomfortable taste of reality tourism.

11. Ligatne Soviet nuclear bunker - This cold war site is found halfway between Sigulda and Cesis, and can be easily combined into a day trip to these towns from Riga. The bunker was intended to house the leaders of the Latvian communist party in the event of a nuclear attack, and today it has been preserved in its original appearance for visitors to see.

12. Salaspils - This World War Two concentration camp just outside Riga is a sombre reminder of the thousands of Jews who died here during the Nazi occupation.

13. Talsi - This tiny town is worth a brief stop on the way north towards Cape Kolka. The hills surrounding the town are a rarity in this part of the Baltics and add a backdrop to the set of cobbled streets and handful of historic houses.

14. Kemeri National Park - This park just west of Jurmala features small fishing villages with bog land and forests in the interior. It is best known for mud baths and mineral water treatments at the park's spa resort.

15. Tukums - A few kilometres from this small town in Kurzeme region is one of the country's most-visited attractions (at least by Latvians), a theme park historic town called "Cinevilla" which was constructed for a movie made in 2004.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 30 - Hărnicești, Romania

This Orthodox church stands on a small forest-covered hill in the village of Hărnicești in the Maramures region of northwestern Romania. It was built in 1770 on the site of an older monastery, and was dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin Mary. It is close to several other wooden churches in the Mara valley such as the one in the neighbouring village of Desești.
The church has a very irregular design when compared to other nearby churches in the region, and this is the result of a series of restorations and additions which have occurred through the centuries. In the original design the tower of the church was considerably taller than it is today and the length of the nave was several metres shorter. The first major changes were made in 1893 when a newly enlarged narthex (entrance room) was added on to the end of the nave, and when the old interior wall between the nave and the original narthex was removed the nave was also enlarged in size.
In 1911 a porch was added on the southern side of the nave with an extension made to the roof line with wooden pillars added to support the weight. The original decorated entrance portal on the western side was moved to the southern side to form part of the new entrance area. In 1942 the original iconostasis was replaced with a larger modern one, and in 1972 the tower was moved from its position above the end of the nave to a new position above the extended narthex.
The interior contains several valuable icons, the finest of which are 'Ascension to Heaven', 'The Annunciation' and 'Entry into Jerusalem'. These icons have been displayed internationally as part of touring exhibitions of Romanian folk art. The rest of the interior is not particularly memorable, so the local villagers have compensated for this by decorating the church both inside and out with white scarves and colourful flower arrangements attached to the eaves.
The addition of the bright scarves and wildflowers adds much to the overall impression given by the church, since these decorations are not seen in such abundance on other churches in the region. Around the exterior walls of the church below the eaves are the framed pictures of the Stations of the Cross which are used by worshippers during religious services. On the southern exterior wall of the nave there is a 'clapper', a wooden board which is struck to create a high-pitched sound which traditionally would have called the villagers to masses. A decorative wooden cross with a shingled roof covering it can be seen beside the pathway on the way up to the church from the entrance gate by the road.
The village of Hărnicești is directly on the main road between Sighetu Marmației and Baia Mare, so a number of buses pass through daily. Sighet is a good place to use as a base for exploring the region of Maramures and it has good onward transport connections by train and bus to other parts of the country. There is also a border crossing to Ukraine just north of the city if you would like to see some of the wooden churches in the neighbouring Zakarpattya region.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 29 - Hunkovce, Slovakia

This photogenic Greek-Catholic church stands on a small hill next to the road in the village of Hunkovce in north-east Slovakia. There are Rusyn wooden churches in nearly every village between the town of Svidník and the Polish border, but Hunkovce's church is the only one which can be easily seen from the main road while driving past. The church was built at the very end of the 18th century, probably in 1799, and was dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
The church has a perfect Lemko design plan, with the tallest of three towers above the narthex (entrance area), the middle one above the nave and the lowest above the sanctuary. Each of the towers features intricately detailed onion domes with large ornamented metal crosses in Baroque style placed above. The wooden structure of the building sits on a low stone foundation layer to protect it from water seepage from the ground.
There is a small Greek-Catholic cemetery on the hill surrounding the church, with several cast-iron cross markers that date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The small shingle-roofed entrance gate beside the road is all that remains of the traditional wooden fence which once surrounded both the church and cemetery.
The village of Hunkovce saw heavy fighting in the battle for the nearby Dukla Pass in 1944; most of the houses in the settlement were destroyed, and the church suffered extensive damage to the roof and walls. It was later repaired and named a National Heritage Landmark building in 1968. At the southern end of the village there is a large World War Two German military cemetery with the graves of more than 2000 German soldiers who fought in the battle.
In 2010 the exterior of the church was fully reconstructed with new wooden siding and roof shingles (these photos were taken a few months before the restoration). The church is empty and has no interior fittings because the iconostasis and icons were removed and placed in museums in Bardejov and Svidník. No religious services are held here, since there is a modern Greek-Catholic church across the road which serves this purpose for the local villagers. If you'd still like to see the inside of the wooden church, try to find the local priest who is often in the modern church across the road.
Hunkovce is one of the easiest churches to visit in Svidník region because it is directly on the main road to the Polish border and many buses travel along this route daily. The bus from Svidník takes about 20 minutes to reach the village, and it is another 25 minutes from there to the border. After crossing the border on foot, Polish buses run from the border to the towns of Dukla and Krosno. Svidník isn't very aesthetically pleasing, but it is the most convenient place to use as a base when visiting the wooden churches in this region, and the town also has a superb outdoor folk museum and the Ukrainian-Rusyn Cultural Museum.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 28 - Sat Șugatag, Romania

This beautiful church stands in the centre of the village of Sat Șugatag, located in the Mara river valley in Romania's north-eastern Maramures region. Nearly every village in this part of Maramures has a historic church, but the one in Sat Șugatag is among the most impressive structures to have been built by the skilled Maramures craftsmen. The date of the construction of the church is thought to be 1642, and it is dedicated to Saint Parasceva.
The interior contains fragments of the original mural paintings from 1753, but most of the painted decorations are more recent. The narthex (entrance area) has a higher ceiling than is typically seen in Maramures churches, and on its western side there is an impressive image of the Last Judgement. The well-proportioned nave is shaped like a barrel vault and is decorated with 19th century paintings. The sanctuary also has biblical scenes which are painted directly onto the wooden walls.
The frame for the front door is lavishly decorated with braided rope designs and a series of interlocking triangles, which is a common folk design in the Maramures region. Braided ropes start on both sides of the door and continue right around the full length of the church, about one and a half metres above the ground (see the fifth picture from the top).
The double set of eaves and the huge mass of wooden shingles on the roof surface draw the viewer's eye to the end of the roof lines, where there are two small metal crosses affixed. The height of the tower and the steeple is considerably less than that of some other churches in the region, but the overall proportions of the building create a pleasantly balanced effect. Around the exterior walls under the lower set of eaves there are a series of framed pictures attached which are used as the Stations of the Cross during religious services (see the picture below).
A cemetery surrounds the church on three sides, with grave markers from many different eras and in a variety of styles. Most are made of carved wood (see below) and some are shaped like crosses while others are closer in appearance to those in the famous Merry Cemetery in Sapanta with a painted picture of the person going about their daily activities and a short poem describing them.
A typical wooden Maramures entrance gate stands in front of the church, with two side doorways for visitors. The designs carved into the beams of the gate include crosses and other traditional Romanian folk patterns. Such monumental gates are also built in front of people's homes in the region, and the larger and more impressive the gate the greater the status of the family who lives there.
Visiting Sat Șugatag and other Maramures villages with wooden churches can be difficult without your own transport, so hiring a car in Cluj-Napoca or Sighetu Marmetiei is advisable if you want to visit several of them quickly. Sat Șugatag is on the main road between Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmetiei, so there are a few buses per day which pass through in each direction. Sighetu Marmatiei is connected by train with Cluj-Napoca and the rest of the country and also makes a good base for exploring the region of Maramures. It is also a border crossing point into Ukraine, where many more wooden churches can be seen in the villages of the Zakarpattya region.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 27 - Tročany, Slovakia

This newly restored church stands in the centre of the small village of Tročany, located south of Bardejov in eastern Slovakia. Research conducted during the past few years has confirmed that the church is much older than had been previously thought; samples taken from its wooden beams were tested and the date of its construction was found to be the end of the 15th century or the first years of the 16th century. This puts it into the same age bracket as the Roman Catholic church in Hervartov, previously believed to be the oldest surviving wooden church in Slovakia. It is among the oldest Greek-Catholic wooden churches in the entire Carpathian mountain region.
Dedicated to Luke the Holy Apostle and Evangelist, the church has a standard Greek-Catholic floor plan with a sanctuary, nave and narthex (entrance area). Above the entrance porch there is a bell tower topped with a very unusually shaped cap which looks like a candle extinguisher. A similarly shaped cap sits above the central nave, while the sanctuary has no cap or steeple attached. The bell tower contains two bells which are still in regular use during religious services. At the top of the cap of the bell tower is a simple double-barred cross, while the cap above the nave has a more decorative single-barred cross.
The interior contains a restored iconostasis from the 17th century, though it is missing some of its original features. Instead of the typical Last Supper scene placed above the middle Czar door there is the Mandilion, a picture of the face of Christ on a cloth without a crown of thorns. In the sanctuary the altar is decorated with an 18th century icon depicting the Descent from the Cross, while the preparatory table in the corner has an icon of Saint Michael the Archangel. There are small windows on the right-hand side of both the nave and the sanctuary which allow some natural light to enter.
Today the church is used by both Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, so the interior contains some modern Roman Catholic fittings which thankfully do not detract from the beauty of the older Greek Catholic artifacts. The church has undergone several renovations throughout its history, with major work carried out in 1897, 1933 and 1968. In 2010 and 2011 the church was completely restored both inside and out with funding provided by the European Regional Development Fund as part of a cross-border project to promote economic growth and cooperation between south-eastern Poland and north-eastern Slovakia.
The key for the church is kept by a family which lives at the opposite end of the village; if you are standing at the church go left along the road, pass the turning point for the road out to the main highway, continue up the slight incline of the hill and the house is on the right, the second house past the village office. You need to open their front gate and walk up and knock on the door on the right side of the house. The family are used to opening the church every day for visitors and are very friendly (they even speak a word or two of English) and they have pamphlets and books for sale about the Greek-Catholic churches in the region.
Tročany is not serviced by regular bus transport, but it is a two kilometre walk from the village out to the main road running between Bardejov and Prešov, and there is a bus stop at the turnoff to the village where buses pass by every hour or two. Prešov is a major transport hub with train and bus connections throughout the country, while Bardejov is the best place to base yourself for a tour of the wooden churches found in its vicinity.