Romania & Bulgaria

Bucharest, like many cities in Eastern Europe, is a mix of old and new. Much of the cities were largely destroyed during decades of war in the 20th century. In some instances, war-torn buildings have been rebuilt, but oftentimes the ruins are left as haunting reminders of the past. The hotel we stayed at on our first night in Romania is the perfect example of this juxtaposition – the ruins of a bombed out theatre served as the entrance, with a modern-day skyscraper built to accommodate hundreds of guests.

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While we didn’t have a room with a view, the hotel was located in the heart of the city.

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As I learned during my 2 weeks in Eastern Europe, the region is home to the “world’s second largest” of many things. Here’s the People’s Palace, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings erected by Romania’s Communist dictatorship, which is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

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Romania is divided into 3 regions – Wallachia in the south, Moldavia in the east, and Transylvania in the north. After recovering from jet lag in Bucharest, we headed north to Transylvania. Along the way, we stopped to visit Peleş Castle, former summer residence of the Romanian royal family.

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Our next 2 nights were spent in Braşov, one of the largest cities in Transylvania.

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Here’s the view from our hotel room.

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The highlight of our visit to Transylvania was a visit to Bran Castle, commonly referred to as Dracula’s Castle.

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To be fair, dozens of rulers have lived in this castle since its 14th century construction. Vlad the Impaler and his father Vlad Dracul probably stayed there at some point during the 15th century, although neither of them played a significant role in the history of the castle.

Much of the castle is decorated in early 20th century décor, when Queen Marie lived there.

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She loved the castle so much, that for a time her heart was buried within its walls. While her heart now resides in a museum in Bucharest, its original coffin is still at Bran.

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Bran Castle, while still owned by the Romanian royal family, now largely serves as a museum – partly to dispel the vampire mythology associated with Vlad the Impaler. While historical accounts do suggest Vlad impaled many of his victims (causing them to bleed out to a slow, painful death), and even nailed helmets to the heads of those who crossed him, most Romanians I talked to consider him to be a national hero. His brutal deeds were largely targeted toward the encroaching occupation of the Ottoman Empire into region, not just senseless, random killings. The real vampire, according to the Romanians, is the 16th century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory.

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At Bran Castle, there’s also a small display of medieval torture instruments. This scale was used to determine if a woman was a witch. The accusers would guess the woman’s weight and add stones and a Bible to one side of the scale to equal their guess. The accused would sit on the opposite side, and if she was found to be lighter than the stones and Bible she was confirmed guilty.

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Following our time in Transylvania, we headed south to Giurgiu to board Der Kleine Prince for a 10-day cruise on the Danube River.

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Our first stop on the cruise was Vidin, Bulgaria, which we enjoyed exploring on foot.

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The visit to Bulgaria culminated in a visit to the 10th century medieval fortress Baba Vidin.

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AIDS 2014 Melbourne in Pictures




























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Ember Island Book Review

Since returning to school, I don’t have much free time to read fiction, so I was especially pleased to receive an advance review copy of the novel  Ember Island (Touchstone Paperback / Simon & Schuster; Released April 15, 2014). Written by Australian novelist Kimberley Freeman, this work of historical fiction interweaves the lives of four non-conformist women in the late nineteenth century and modern day.


Ember Island’s co-protagonists Tilly Kirkland and Nina Jones may be separated by 100 years, but their lives share many similarities. Nina is a modern day, best-selling mystery author with a strong case of writer’s block. Under a deadline from her publisher that she can’t fulfill she retreats to a large manor house on Ember Island — off the coast of the Australian mainland — a house she has recently acquired that was previously inhabited by her great-grandmother, Eleanor Holt. During her stay, she uncovers old diary entries written by her grandmother during her early adolescence and meticulously hidden within the walls of the house.

Meanwhile, in 1891 Tilly Kirkland flees a tragic life in England and begins a new life as governess to the Ember Island prison warden’s daughter, Eleanor. Trying to make amends for past decisions, Tilly befriends one of the island’s few female prisoners, Hettie, who unbeknownst to all, shares a dark secret with Tilly.

While alternating between past and present, the pages of Ember Island pack in much drama, action, and romance, as Tilly and Nina struggle with actions and secrets that society would likely find immoral and unethical. The reader is guided in understanding their decisions, and left to make her own judgments.

This well-paced novel is full of plot twists and a bit of mystery. While Nina’s story didn’t do too much for me, I found Tilly’s to be especially exciting, and fortunately her story comprises most of the book. While I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I would recommend this book to fans of women’s fiction and historical fiction, and say that the book ends with an important moral: sometimes the truth — no matter how horrid it may seem — isn’t so bad after all.

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Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival






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Portland Shamrock Run

Running the Portland Shamrock Run has been on my bucket list for quite some time. While not quite as cool as being in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day, Portland puts on a great showing.

Last year’s St. Patrick’s Day:


This year’s St. Patrick’s Day:

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Because I am always up for the biggest challenge, I signed up for the 15 km race. Also, it was the same price as the 8 km and 5 km races, so I received more miles per dollar (or something like that). Additionally, the 15k was the only race where finishers received a medal that doubled as a beer opener.

Shamrock Run 030The biggest challenge of the race for most is the 3-ish miles run over the “Terwilliger Curves.” The above picture was actually taken at the Mile 4 water stop, as many people slowed to a walk. I actually found the downhill portions to be more difficult, and I am sure my knees will thank me tomorrow.

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The route passed by OHSU, the Veterans’ Administration Hospital and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital — the charity beneficiary of the race. While we didn’t ascend quite as high as during our Council Crest Hike last spring, there were still some great views of the city to be had…

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…and musical entertainment to help the miles fly by.

With over 35,000 runners, the finishers’ area was a bit chaotic, but I did manage to get my complimentary taste of Stanford’s smoked salmon chowder and Widmer Upheaval IPA, to make for a tipsy MAX ride home.

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