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Dracula’s Castle That Wasn’t

Posted by SiteAdmin , 23 November 2007 · 2251 views

Travel Photography: Istanbul, the Black Sea and downtown Sofia
Dracula's Castle That Wasn't
and other jottings from Istanbul, the Black Sea and downtown Sofia

I'm now a member of the Bulgarian Army General Staff. At least, that's what it says on the badge the Chief Military Protocol Colonel gave me, and who am I to argue? But that's for later. Meanwhile, here are some notes from our recent trip to the Black Sea region you may find handy if you're shooting in the area, hopefully on a more relaxed schedule than we were.

Istanbul has improved no end as far as getting around is concerned. If you're staying in the Taksim Square area there's a spanking new Swiss underground funicular that ferries you down to the waterfront, where it's an easy connect to the efficient modern light rail/tram system that will take you along to the new Galata Bridge (the old floating one was moved further up the Golden Horn) and straight on up to Sultan Ahmet, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. Buy tokens from the ticket office before you get on.

The Lale Pudding Shop lives!

Yep, the Lale Pudding Shop is still going strong just across from Aya Sofia – this year is its 50th anniversary but its days of glory (or infamy) are long gone. While you're there, don't miss Justinian's Cistern, the huge underground reservoir that once provided Constantinople's water supply. The entrance is in a nondescript building 40 metres away around a corner. Look for the signs. No tripods allowed, so bump up the ISO.

From the Cistern exit it's an easy stroll through a smart pedestrian precinct to the Grand Bazaar – funky new cafes to refresh yourself in there now. Then take a walk down the hill through the chaotic old town (lots to shoot) to the Egyptian (Spice) Market on the waterfront where you can buy your caviar or kebab for lunch. Check out the two level Galata Bridge opposite, rows of fishermen on the top level catching dozens of tiny fish, and newly done-up bars and informal restaurants on the lower level nearer the water. Warning: when you're leaning out to photograph the anglers from below, keep an eye out for flying hooks and weights that can get a little close at times…

A Black Sea Torremolinos and Romanian castles

"Sunny Beach" is the Black Sea's answer to Torremolinos, and it's going to get worse with the new GBP100 fares from the UK. The attraction near here was the World Heritage island village of Nessebar, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway. Frankly, it's enough to make you cry. The beautiful wooden houses that formed the basis of its listing are virtually hidden by tacky souvenir stalls, and even one of the famous old stone churches has been turned into an art gallery. A beautiful place, maybe it's better at night when you can't see so much dross.

High up in the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania's Bran Castle has been christened "Dracula's Castle" in the tourist books, but although suitably picturesque actually has nothing to do with him or his inspiration, Vlad the Impaler. It was Queen Mary of Romania's favourite summer retreat though. The secret passage hacked out of the rock between floors is not for the claustrophobic, the views from the top are exceptional, and the museum of genuine reconstructed village houses, mill etc. at its base at least gives your imagination a work-out. Anyway, the road into the alpine country from Bucharest is well worth experiencing.

Too rushed in Bucharest, although what I did see didn't overly impress me. The ridiculously extravagant, 3,000 room Palace (now the Parliament) that Ceausescu built for himself is a must-see, but we were there at the wrong time of day (morning) and the façade was in shadow. Great. Ran round like an idiot trying to get a decent shot, frankly with little success, but the tyranny of a relentless schedule finally beat me and we left for Bulgaria.

Meeting the President in Sofia

So here we are in Sofia and it's St Sophia's Day. Crowds of people around, police have stretched CSI tape between the trees on the avenue to keep the hordes back, and opposite the St Sophia Church a colourful group of Eastern Orthodox priests, including the Deputy-Patriarch, are congregating around a portable altar with icons. The diplomatic corps and other dignitaries stand to one side, small contingents from the army, navy and air force are at attention, and then a couple of big black cars draw up and the President of Bulgaria gets out. No security at all, really, bit different from George Bush.

Earlier, I tried out the official bleachers set up for the media directly opposite the altar, but the angle was very boring, so I wandered down 50 metres to the right and set myself up next to a tree. This proved to be a good call as the President walked right by me. Moral: don't assume event planners choose the best viewpoint for the media (it's usually just the most convenient for them).

After the ceremony the President wandered off into the church and the crowd ripped down the tape and streamed over to the entrance. All quite good-natured though, and no-one seemed bothered, least of all the police. Then the President came out and to my astonishment started chatting to the people outside the church, no obvious heavy security, just a couple of guys visible. My wife Helen (unknown to me) noticed him writing in a boy's book, so went over to him, shook his hand, and got his autograph. No, I did NOT get the shot and yes, I was NOT popular.

A Military Encounter

As I was shooting near the President, an Army Colonel approached me and asked where I was from. Oops, I thought this was too good to last. But actually he proved very friendly, and took Helen and myself off for coffee in a swish restaurant. He was the Chief of Military Protocol and had been supervising the parade. To my astonishment he removed the Bulgarian Army General Staff insignia from his shirt pocket and gave it to me. All we had was my card and an "Aboriginal" pen we kept handy for giving to children! The conversation proved extremely interesting, though … he was a fan of Steve Irwin …

We covered the famed Rila Monastery last year (don't miss it if you're in Bulgaria, the murals are amazing and very colourful.) so slotted in more time in Sofia. This is well worth it, check out the Jewish Synagogue (it's NOT closed, ring the bell) and the church where the bomb assassination attempt on King Boris took place. The Changing of the Presidential Guard is highly photogenic, and looks pretty exhausting with those high kicks. Cool anachronistic uniforms.

All in all, an eventful trip. We covered a lot more than I mention here (finishing up in Athens this time), so anyone interested in more details just contact me.

Tony Page

Tony Page is a professional photographer, writer and web designer now living in Sydney, Australia. His commercial clients are currently distracting him from his latest venture, the "Travel Signposts" website (http://www.travelsignposts.com) which contains information, resource links and over 12,000 photos of European and Mediterranean tourist destinations to help plan a European tour or river cruise. And the shots of the Christmas trip.

From my article in Better Photography magazine, 2007.

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