Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Truffle Hunting Lessons in Prague

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The not-so-humble truffle, in cross-section.

If you couldn’t already tell from the mushroom foraging adventure in Australia and the hundreds of mushroom photos on this blog, I love fungi. They’re an underappreciated group, which is unfair because some of them taste delicious. But you could spend all day trying to convince people to eat shaggy manes and wine caps from their backyards and get nowhere*.

Not so with the truffle, the beloved subterranean nugget prized for its rich, heavenly flavor that now appears in everything from fries to honey in our most upscale restaurants. We shave tiny flakes of it into pastas, buy real and imitation extracts, and ogle tiny chunks of the fresh stuff protected in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass cases in only the finest of gourmet grocers. If there is royalty in the mushroom culinary world, the truffle is king.

And now we’re getting a lesson in hunting them here in Prague! This is all thanks my amazing friend and mentor Zoë, who gifted Stoytcho and I a truffle-hunting lesson with the man who supplies 80% of Prague’s restaurants with the delicacy, Petr Synek.

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The park where we’ll have our lesson.

Petr meets us and another guest on a warm morning at the park, a large gray hunting dog tugging him along. “This is Nela,” Petr tells us as he kneels down to let her off the leash. Nela immediately bolts off and runs circles in the fields, “She has a lot of energy, which is good for hunting truffles,” Petr laughs as he calls her back in Czech. Nela bounds back to him, and he begins the lesson.

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Petr introduces Nela and covers Truffle Hunter Training 101.

First, Petr describes the three ways people hunt for truffles: alone, with pigs, and with dogs. “Some people are able to detect small clouds of flies right near the truffles and know where to dig, but you miss most of the best specimens if you rely on this, so most people have pigs or train dogs,” Petr says. Historically, pigs were used because they were naturally attracted to the truffle scent, but they also love to eat truffles and hunters risk losing the truffle (and a few fingers) in the battle to get it back. “You see many old truffle hunters with four, three fingers, or parts of fingers missing, because they have to put their hand in the mouth of the pig to try and get a truffle.”

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Nela gets a treat.

Nowadays, most truffle hunters train dogs to find the prize. Petr describes how the Italians traditionally rub truffle oil on the nipples of breastfeeding dogs to train them, though doing so means that the dog will later show the same risk of trying to eat the truffle.  And Nela? “She’s trained in the Czech way, because we have a history of training dogs here during the Communist era,” Peter winks. He says another command in Czech and Nela bounds up. She knows it is time for training and treat-getting to begin.

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Nela searches for the scent of hidden truffle oil-soaked towels.

Petr walks us through Nela’s training, from the simple conditioning of associating a click noise with treats to finding a location that a truffle-oil soaked towel is hidden. Along the way, he points out the main pitfalls in training truffle-hunting dogs. First is the dog’s gender – you want a female dog, because sometimes a male dog will chase the scent of a female dog instead of a truffle, and you won’t know it for miles. Second is always training the dog with the same tools or in the same location, because she learns to associate treats with a location and not necessarily the truffle scent. And third is using only one source of truffle scent – the oil is cheaper to use in training than real truffles, but it doesn’t exactly replicate the scent of a true truffle. While Petr explains this, he trains Nela, hiding the oil-soaked towel in different places and rewarding her with treats as she finds it.

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A moment where she stands still (finally).

After training practice, our group walks further into the park where the trees shade us and the ground foliage is denser. Petr pulls a napkin-lined box out of his bag and opens it to reveal the real deal. They look like a black bark-covered nugget, but the scent gives it away as a truffle. “This is a black truffle. I only hunt black, summer, and some winter truffles,” he explains, “because white truffles are the most expensive and people are very territorial of their hunting grounds and will shoot rivals’ dogs.” Petr passes a truffle out to each of us and instructs us to hide it. We dash off while he distracts Nela with games.

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We hide truffles for Nela to hunt.

The three of us choose different locations, all about 100 feet away from each other. One of us hides a truffle in the roots of a tree; another hides it among the rocky outcrops off the trail. One of us puts it in a small hole under a rock. We return to Petr, who says a magic word and Nela is off, hunting for the scent of truffles. It’s easy for her to smell them in the warm morning air, and she finds all three in only a few minutes.

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Nela’s on a mission to find the last missing truffle.

After the lesson, the four of us return to Prague for a visit to a restaurant that buys Petr’s truffles. He arranges lunch as a part of the lesson, and the three of us get heaping plates of fresh pasta, chicken, and shaved truffle. He also gives us each a parting gift – half of a truffle each to take home and use. “Put it into the food at the end of cooking so it retains the most flavor, and use it in eggs, with pasta, or in a sauce. Enjoy!”

Want to have your own truffle hunting lesson in Prague? You can book it here.

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Chicken and truffle pasta, mmm…

*okay, so this is only partly ick factor – U.S. culture also largely lacks the mushroom-identifying experience that many European cultures have built over thousands of years.

Things to do in Russia: Spot the Lenin

Nearly every city or town we visited in Russia had a statue of Lenin. You’d go to the main square, and there was a Lenin. You’d get off the train at a stop along the trans-Siberian, and you’d find a Lenin. You’d be walking around downtown and find a Lenin. Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.

To people from the U.S. or Western Europe, this might be baffling. “Isn’t the Soviet Union dead? Isn’t the Communist experiment over in Russia?” they might ask. But Lenin’s continued popularity doesn’t seem to have as much to do with Communism as with Russia’s image as a great country. Lenin is a great man to Russia not because he brought about Communism, but because he grew the Russian sphere of influence. He made Russia more productive, more powerful. As someone we met on our travels put it “Lenin was a great man, a thinker, an intellectual. He did great things for Russia.*” So in honor of that, here’s where we spotted Lenin in Russia:

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Tourists wait for passerbys to take a photo with the giant Lenin head in Ulan-Ude.
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Lenin hails you from under a tree, in Goryachinsk.
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Lenin stands outside a train station, somewhere in Siberia.
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Lenin standing in one of the central squares of Krasnoyarsk.
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Lenin, looking contemplative, in a statue near Hovel Hostel in Krasnoyarsk (which was actually quite a nice hostel).
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Another Lenin hails you from what I think is a government building, complete with Russian and Soviet Union flags.
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Tourists pose with Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, where you can see his embalmed body.

This glorification of Lenin is an interesting contrast to his treatment in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, where Lenin statues lie unloved in storage or have been moved to memorial parks, long since removed from their original posts. If you’re looking for more info, there’s a fascinating website on the Communist monuments of Eastern Europe and the Balkans here.

Oh, and the only place we didn’t see a Lenin was in St. Petersburg (although I’m sure he’s around if you search hard enough). Instead, we got this guy greeting us at the train station:

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Far different in expression from Lenin, Peter the Great stares down at you in disapproval.

*When we asked the same person about Stalin, their response was, “Stalin…was both good and bad. He did good things. But he was scary. So not many statues of Stalin.”

Sapphire fossicking in Oberon

ntro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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Fossicking finds next to an Aussie $2 coin

I love searching for things. I’ve been on fossil digs around California, used to trawl estate sales in college for rare books, and spent my spare time in grad school foraging for edible plants and fungi. This also worked out pretty well in my graduate research, where there was a lot of searching how to do things, trying the things, and then searching for new ways to do things when those things failed. Five and a half years of that gets you pretty good at searching.

Wonderfully, Australia is one of those places where you can search for precious stones and minerals and keep them, which they call fossicking. Several parcels of land throughout the country are open to fossickers to collect everything from gold to opals, sapphires, rubies, zircon, and diamonds. Rules for fossicking vary by state, but in New South Wales you can purchase a permit ($27.5 AUD a year) to go fossicking in State Forests. They even have State Forest areas where you’re allowed to fossick without a permit. Update: I can’t find information on the permit-free fossicking areas, so the rules might have changed.

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A bonus of fossicking: it gets you outside! Sunset on our way back from fossicking

Located 3 hours from Sydney (without traffic), Oberon is a little town on the other side of the Blue Mountains with several locations for fossicking without a permit. Though it’s accessible by public transit, the fossicking site aren’t: you can take a regional train out of Sydney to Bathurst and a bus from Bathurst to Oberon, but the fossicking sites are located 20 km or more south of the town. If you go by public transit, you’ll have to hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, I have awesome friends in Australia. Hugh drove all the way from Lake Cargelligo to come visit us in Sydney, and when we explained our fossicking plans he happily joined us. Transit solved!

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The Three Sisters, a worthwhile stop on the way to Oberon.

Then we had to come up with fossicking materials. The standard fossicking kit comprises a shovel/trowel for moving dirt, a set of differently-sized strainers for separating stones, and a wide shallow pan for panning. We weren’t keen on spending a lot of money on these materials, so we went to the local Vinnie’s (a thrift store) and picked out the following: a colander and a large ceramic bowl. To that we added our aluminum pot from our camp stove kit for panning and the trowel from our camping kit.

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Our fossicking kit, courtesy of Vinnie’s

We left Sydney late, so we camped one night at Millionth Acre and nearly destroyed Hugh’s car. It turns out that the main campsite is really only accessible by 4WD, but this is what you get when it’s late and you just look up the nearest campsite in Australia. After nearly getting stuck driving down a hill, we pushed the car out of its rut and found a flat-ish site to pitch the tent. In the morning, were greeted by kangaroos and jumping jacks, a type of venomous ant (Stoytcho says: Thanks, Australia). We decamped and drove on to Oberon.

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The night’s campfire
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The campsite in the morning
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Little unfriendlies: slightly venemous jumping jack ants.

Our first stop in Oberon was for coffee, and our second was at the tourism office for fossicking information. A woman there provided us with maps, plenty of advice on the different fossicking sites, and the recommendation that if we see an older gent in a white truck, we should say hello because he’s been fossicking down there forever. (Note: This guy is apparently well-known and famous). Armed with information, we decided to try Sapphire Bend for two main reasons: it was the closest, and it had a water supply in a nearby dam that we could use to wash our finds. We also had a pretty sweet hand-drawn map of the location:

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The map of Sapphire Bend, courtesy of the Oberon Tourism Office.

Sapphire Bend wasn’t hard to find—we drove south from Oberon on Abercrombie Road for 20 km, then turned left at the first campsite we saw (Black Springs), and then made the second left onto a dirt road (River View Road). Though there was a lot of dust, we could manage the road in Hugh’s non-4×4 car. We drove past endless stands of pine trees, the remnants of pine plantations from a logging company. A few km down on the left there was a huge sign displaying the words “Public Fossicking Area”. Surrounding it were dozens of shallow holes, remnants of fossickers come and gone.

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Hugh investiagates a wombat hole.

We started off by hiking, following the foot trails laced through the public fossicking area to figure out where would be best to search. Our first sapphire is a lucky find on the tailings of someone’s hole. It had a sheared face that glinted like a mirror in the sun, making it easy to spot. Holding it up to the sunlight, it looked like a piece of blue glass.

After pocketing the first sapphire, we loaded a few pails of dirt into our pot and bowl, then returned to the car and drove to a nearby pond to begin sifting through it. We’d put a small handful of dirt through the colander with a bowl underneath, then dump water on top of it to wash the smaller rocks through. After picking through the big rocks (which inevitably had nothing), we’d discard them and look through the smaller rocks and silt collected in the bowl below. We found a couple more sapphires and a lot of quartz crystals.

Stoytcho and I returned to Sydney but wanted to do more fossicking, so we booked a car for a couple of days the following week. I also did more research on fossicking forums to help us identify good places to search, which mostly came down to learning to identify the wash layer; it’s the layer with all the pebbles/rocks deposited by a stream bed, and the most likely place to find sapphires. To improve our gear, we visited a local hardware store for mesh and scrounged up a bucket to make a strainer with a finer mesh size than the colander:

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Our homemade sieve from door mesh, gaffer tape, and a pant bucket.
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Driving to Oberon in the rain.

On our second trip out to Sapphire Bend, we camped at Black Springs Campsite up the road. This worked out perfectly, because the site was quiet and had water and restrooms. Heavy rains from the last few days had filled many of the fossicking holes with water, meaning we didn’t have to drive out to the pond to get water. We looked through less filled holes for a wash layer, started fossicking, and managed one more sapphire. The old guy mentioned by the Oberon Tourism Office even stopped by for a chat and with a wink, he pointed out a few “good” holes. He knew his stuff.

By day’s end, we’d collected a dozen potential sapphires and zircons (including one huge chunk of sapphire), as well as a couple dozen small pieces of potential black spinel. Fossicking was hard work, much less standing and moving and much more sitting, patiently sifting through bits of rock in search of glassy glints in the sunlight. But there’s nothing like the excitement of searching for something and finding it.

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Our finds next to an Aussie 5 cent coin, including one pretty big sapphire chunk

Want to fossick yourself? You can rent a kit from Oberon’s tourism office.

Fossicking with a permit and want to know what’s around? You can find a great map (maintained by local NSW fossickers) here.