castles

The Sun Shines on Edinburgh

After a rainy arrival in Edinburgh yesterday, we were happy to see the sun shining bright this morning.  Sure, there were clouds looming in the distance–this is Scotland in October, after all.  Now that we are seeing it by the light of day, it is clear how different Edinburgh is from Glasgow.  It immediately feels older, more preserved and more traditional.  It also has beautiful views at every turn.  One minute we find ourselves peering over a bridge down to a beautiful park, the next we are staring up to hills lined with Gothic style buildings.  Wanting to take full advantage of this sunny-ish day, we made a list full of possible things to do and decided to start where any visit to this city should:  Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle is impossible to miss.  It sits upon the highest point in the city, rising high for all to see.  Although we were told this is a “can’t miss” attraction, we were a bit turned off by the steep admission price of £14.50 per person.  That price makes it one of the most expensive attraction in town, and we questioned if this was the best use of our time and money.  After a little more research, we decided it was worth it and climbed the steep hill toward the entrance gate.  Visually striking, this castle is a labyrinth of twisting, turning cobblestone streets.  Upon entrance, we learned a short guided tour is included in the price of admission.  Already feeling the ticket was paying for itself, we stuck around to meet Gavin, an awesome and charismatic tour guide who gave us the basics of the castle grounds.  First covering the age of the castle, and the many different iterations it has gone through over the years, Gavin regaled us with stories of Scottish history as though he were performing a well-rehearsed play.  He took jabs at the British in all the appropriate places and spent a good five minutes railing Mel Gibson for his portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart.  Actually, he landbasted almost every fact about this film including the title character.  Braveheart is actually the name given to Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace.  His passionate stance against the film is more a symptom of his love for Scottish history than his hatred of Mel Gibson (thought it’s a close call).  As we toured the castle grounds with Gavin, he explained that the castle is still used as a military base today.  Besides the few buildings still in use by the military, most of the remainder of the grounds have been turned into museum exhibits.  We visited the National War Museum, the Prisons of War exhibit, and the Honours of Scotland.  In this last exhibit, we viewed the history of the Scottish crown jewels–the sword, the scepter and the crown.  These are the oldest crown jewels in Europe and they sit beside the Stone of Destiny.  This stone has been used for centuries as the seat of the incoming king or queen at the moment of coronation.  It was stolen from Scotland over 700 years ago by the British and not returned until 1996.  Gavin is still a wee bit upset about this!

One of the highlights of the Edinburgh Castle was watching the One O’Clock Gun.  A tradition reaching back hundreds of years, the one o’clock time signal used to be done with a flag being hoisted in the air and then dropping exactly at one in the afternoon.  This helped railroad workers and ship’s captains to keep their times accurate before clocks were what they are today.  However, the weather in Edinburgh is not known for always being crystal clear and it wasn’t always possible for people to see the flag.  They incorporated the firing of a gun so the signal would be clear, even when the weather was bad.  Though no longer needed, the tradition continues every day at 1pm. Perched at the castle wall, a soldier comes out, loads the gun and fires off into the distance.  Surprisingly, there are a number of places around the world who still continue this tradition, including Ft. Henry in the United States.  One of the best parts of watching the gun fire is the gorgeous view from the spot where the gun sits.  We could see across the entire city, to the Firth of Forth and over to the island of Fife.  We were grateful it was a clear day.  Before we left the castle grounds, we made sure to head to St. Margaret’s Chapel, not only the oldest building on the grounds, but also the oldest in Edinburgh.  It was probably built around 1130 and it takes approximately 30 seconds to soak in the entire space.  Still, it was worth stopping in.  All in all, Edinburgh Castle was expensive, but worth the price of admission.  The guided tour was really wonderful, and we both feel like we have learned so much more about Scottish National History in this one visit than we did during our entire time in Glasgow.

It was a lot of this. Highland soldiers and royalty. Over and over again.

Continuing our bit of Scottish History, we visited the National Portrait Gallery.  This free museum is filled with portraits and sculptures of all the famous folks of Scotland, from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Sean Connery.  Unfortunately, the galleries holding portraits of modern members of Scottish culture were closed to prepare for an upcoming exhibit.  So, we walked around viewing portrait after portrait of James the VI, James the VII, James Edward Stuart–there were lots of James’.  We both enjoy portraits, but after a while they all started running together and we were just about done with visiting museums.

With a sprinkle beginning to fall, we decided it was time to head to the grocery store.  It was finally time to take advantage of our wonderful Air BnB home and cook dinner for ourselves.  I can’t express the comfort we both felt in cruising the aisles of the grocery store for ingredients.  Our hostess is away for the duration of our stay, so we have her apartment to ourselves.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it almost felt like being at home tonight.  A fire burning in the fireplace and rain falling outside, we warmed up by cooking a familiar dish, drinking a bottle of wine and watching my favorite Masterpiece Mystery series, Inspector Lewis. Neither of us has been homesick much on our trip, but this evening made us both long for the comforts of home.  We’ve already decided to cook tomorrow night, too, before heading out on a Literary Pub Tour.  We are really looking forward to it.  Cross your fingers that the rain stays at bay again tomorrow!

–Brooke

Yep, we’re in Scotland!

A view of Edinburgh and out to the Firth of Forth.

Phil meets a bagpiper.

Gorgeous views from the castle walls.

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Categories: Budget, castles, City Visits, Destinations, Europe, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Relaxing, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Missed the bus by two minutes

Today we missed the bus from Bucharest to Sofia by about two minutes.

I’m not exaggerating. The long-haul luxury bus left two minutes before we arrived at the station. And, yup, this 4:00 PM bus was the only bus making the seven hour run to Bulgaria’s capital today.

Old train station turned bus station- legendary spot where missed our bus

I kinda knew that something like this would happen eventually on the trip. It is the nature of travel. However, I take pride in being that guy who never misses a flight, is never late for a train, and is never frantically chasing down a bus. I would like to blame the lackadaisical, cell-phone-chatting driver of our “Maxi Taxi” transport from Brasov to Bucharest earlier today. The minibus/oversized van certainly was in no hurry and the driver taking a self-declared five minute break at a roadside stand to buy a soda and a new fishing lure (!) didn’t help matters. But, honestly, it can’t be blamed on a single thing. It’s a life lesson I keep learning: you can do everything right and still come up short. Two minutes! I would have preferred to miss the coach by three hours instead of our heartbreaking sprint and frantic taxi ride just to see the tail lights fade into the distance.

Bucharest Metro GrafittiSo, we shake it off and we suck it up. It is not a big deal because we do have other options to get to Sofia. Our new plans involve booking passage on the night train. It costs a bit more and takes a bit longer, but it should be a cool ride. Plus we’re still on this sensational Round The World trip, so we’ve got that going for us.  Soon after our minor bus debacle, we found ourselves back in Bucharest’s Old Town feasting on some solid Greek Food, sipping a couple of Staropramon and sampling some gelato all of which helped to put everything right back on track. Plus, with some time on our hands, we were able to venture onto yet another city’s subway system. The Bucharest Metro was simple enough to navigate and a mere $1.25 allowed both us to ride. We weren’t exactly shocked to see that some subway cars were just caked in graffiti from bow to stern, inside and out, while some newer cars were clean and untouched. That dichotomy of grime and shine is just about par for the Romanian course. The subway fulfilled its purpose but was largely forgettable; I think I’m still drooling a bit over those incredible stations in the St. Petersburg system.

As seen in Romanian Grocery Store: 2.5 Liter of Beer for Sale in large plastic bottle just like soda. Price? About $2.50

As we waited at Gara De Nord for our 11:00 PM train, Brooke and I rounded up some final impressions from our time in Romania. We’ve concluded that Romanian food borrows much of its menu from nearby nations and, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, the majority of our meals qualify as nothing special. Slow meals are the order of things so if you’re in any sort of a hurry, restaurant dining is not your best bet. Menus almost exclusively feature lots of chicken, lots of pork and a lot of bread. Man, we’re talking baked bread, pastries, pretzels and more. And while the cuisine may not be unique, those fresh-baked, giant, inexpensive pastries are a sensational way to start the day. Although they are not helpful when you’re trying to avoid ending a RTW voyage as large as a double wide. Also on the plus column, we’ve found that the local tomatoes, heavily used in most dishes, are pretty incredible. We think it must be the right time of year.  As for adult beverages, we prefer Ursus of all the local beers and marveled that we haven’t spied a single American beer- bottle or draughts since we landed in Eastern Europe.

Slightly more questionable than the quality of the Romanian food was the quality of the Romanian taste in popular music. Namely the endless amount of Europop we keep hearing. That repetitive, decidedly poor club music is everywhere. And a confoundingly high percentage of it features an accordion. I have no answers, my friends. Only observations. On the upside, the sights certainly outweighed the food and the music. Visiting Bran Castle yesterday, sometime summer home of the Romanian Royal, made me want to go looking for ceremonial scepter in my family! THAT was a cool castle. In fact, our visit generated a genius money-making idea for kitchen ware: Vlad The Impalers Skewers! For all your shish-ka-bob needs. It’s a Macabre Kebab! In stores by Halloween!

Our faux submission for a photo project. We call it “Old Romanian Guy Waiting on Bus.” Artsy!

However, the most important reflection from this trip is that every day- from little things to big things- I’ve managed to see something new, interesting and novel. Every day. As Brooke and I we’re writing some post cards home earlier tonight, I was greeted with the images on the front of all the places we’ve visited and seen first hand. And just over the last three weeks. Seeing those memories collected and laid out like that really hit me. It felt like an accomplishment. Of course, having an exceptional travel partner goes a long way.

Gara De Nord – Bucharest Train Station – at Night

As we boarded the train just a bit earlier this evening, we found a Romanian conductor who spoke broken English. We then managed to talk our way (along with 50 Euros…totally worth it) into a berth on one of the sleeper cars on the Russian section of the train.  Apparently, since this is a long haul train originating out of Russia, there is a separate Russian run section of the train. We’re pretty sure that the Romanian Conductor and Russian Conductor split and pocketed the money we gave ’em for the room, but who are we to judge. Is this the nicest train I’ve ever been on? Not even close. But it is all kinds of awesome. The room itself feels very 1960’s. Instantly our ten hour journey in coach evolved into a nice, and roomy private cabin where we can spread out. A little privacy goes a long way.

Missed bus be damned, we end the day with a hell yeah and two comfy sleeping berths to speed us on our way to Sofia.

-Phil

 

 

 

Categories: Beer, castles, City Visits, Differences, Eating, Europe, Rail, Reflections, Romania, Transportation, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beautiful Brasov and Bran!

When we arrived in Romania, many people assumed we would be heading to Transylvania, a region north of Bucharest steeped in history and well known to Westerners for its role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  We had no solid plans upon arrival, so we figured we might as well grab the train and head to Brasov, a city in the central region of Transylvania in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

There is much to do in the Transylvania region, but to really see it all we’d have to be here for at least a week and take our time going from castle to castle.  Instead, we have only a few days, so we decided to base our exploration in the town of Brasov.  Having human settlements which date back as far as the Neolithic age, it has a rich history.  We decided to start a little closer to modern times with the town’s best known landmark, the Black Church.  Built in the 15th century, this remarkable church got its current name after being badly burned in a fire which consumed most of the town in 1689.  It has been cleaned up to the point visitors might not even realize there was ever a fire except for the four blackened statues which have been preserved in their post-flame glory.  This church marks the end of Gothic architecture in the region and claims to be the largest Gothic cathedral between Eastern and Western Europe.  Originally a Catholic cathedral, it is now Lutheran and serves the small German community here in Brasov by holding all its services in German.  The 4,000-pipe organ is still played weekly for public concerts.  Most notably, this church hold the largest collection of Turkish rugs outside of Turkey.  These were gifts over couple hundred years and are now proudly cleaned, repaired, and on display for public viewing.

We found a few things about the church particularly interesting.  One is the painted pews which designated seats for different guilds.  There were seats for the weavers, tailors, hunters, etc. all shown through symbolic paintings on the pews (we were, once again, unable to take photos inside so we cannot show you).  However, there were only 3-4 seats for each, so only the “higher-ups” in these communities garnered a seat.  The low wage workers were sent to the galleries up above.  We were also very interested in the “Black Madonna” painting.  It is a portrait of Mary being given gifts for Jesus and being attended to by angels.  Her dress was originally blue, but after the fire it turned black, therefore it has been given the name “Black Madonna”.  We had a wonderful young guide who gave a strong tour with insights we would not have otherwise had.

While there is more to see in Brasov (some of which we plan to do tomorrow) we decided to take this opportunity and head slightly south to Bran’s Castle.  Many people assume this castle was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Let me make something perfectly clear from the beginning–there is essentially NO CONNECTION!  There is the tiniest, most remote, slimmest chance that Dracula is based on Vlad the Impaler who has some miniscule connection to Bran’s castle, but the correlation is mostly created by people trying to drum up tourism.  Don’t get me wrong, the castle is awesome.  And Vlad the Impaler was awful.  But those two things aren’t really related.  Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…let me start from the beginning.

Bran is a fairly easy bus ride just 45 minutes south of Brasov.  As we pulled into town we could see Bran Castle sitting up in the hillside.  It looks rather small from the outside, but once inside it is actually quite cavernous and impressive.  Housing impressively creaky floors and drafty hallways, Bran Castle has a long history dating back to the 15th century.  It has had royal residents as recently as the late 1940’s and is one of the only castles we’ve been in that we could imagine living in.  Many of the original rooms have been refurbished to suit more modern living.  It has beautiful views and a fireplace in each room to help keep us warm–it was a chilly 48 degrees today so we kind of wish those fireplaces actually had wood burning in them!


There were two rooms dedicated to explaining the connection between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Bran Castle.  Let me break it down for you–Vlad Dracul was a prince in Transylvania.  He had a son, Vlad the Impaler, who killed people by running a stake from – brace yourself – through their anus to their throat without hitting any vital organs thus producing a slow and painful death. He was also rumored to be ruthless and enjoy drinking blood–hence the connection to Dracula.  That’s about it. Dracula is a completely made up character by Bram Stoker.  We still aren’t sure what the actual connection is to this castle; Stoker never came close to visiting Romania.  It doesn’t really matter, though, because the castle is pretty cool all on its own.  The Dracula connection does make for some fun and kitschy souvenirs and a couple of haunted houses in the town center.

After our visit to Bran, we had planned to head to Rasnov to visit this cool fortress, but it was so cold and so rainy, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to get off the bus.  Instead, we warmed ourselves over some delicious Guinness at Deane’s Pub listening to a big band play some jazz and swing.  There’s something surreal about singing along to Sinatra’s New York, New York while sitting in a pub in Brasov, Romania.  On our way home we stopped off for a nightcap at For Sale, a cozy little bar whose walls are covered with the patrons’ business cards.  We had a drink, posted our business cards on the wall just for good measure, and now are attempting to warm up back in our room.  We think this weather must be unseasonably cold as the heat has not yet been turned on in our hotel.  (Oh well…it feels like we are back in our apartment in New York.)  Now, we plan our next steps.  We aren’t sure exactly what lies ahead, but after a little more exploration of Brasnov tomorrow, it looks like we are headed to Sofia, Bulgaria.  Wish us luck!

–Brooke

Creepy hidden staircase inside Bran Castle. I wouldn’t want to be in here for long!

Phil isn’t really meant for the castle lifestyle–he is way too tall!

We thought this room actually looked like a room people would live in unlike so many of the cold, sterile rooms of the castle.

The inner courtyard at Bran Castle.

Categories: castles, Clothes, Destinations, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Romania, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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