Eating

Great times and full days in Serbia

Hello again from Belgrade! The Serbian capital continues to be a surprising gem of our trip. Particularly considering that we didn’t expect to even be in Belgrade as recently as two weeks ago. We keep harping on it, but the weather in Eastern Europe has been as close to perfect as you could ever want. In New Zealand and again in the Baltic states, we were a bit chilly and bundled up. Visiting Asia in August left us predictably sweaty and hot. But in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia? Perfection.

One of favorite hobbies in Belgrade has been spending time in the inexpensive outdoor cafes between visits to museums and self-guided walking tours. There are endless amounts of cute cafes with abundant outdoor seating where curt, hurried waiters bring you an ashtray long before they bring you a napkin. And you know that long, slow meals are the order of things when the hostess warns you before you sit down that “the restaurant is closing in about two hours” and questions whether or not that will be enough time.  Thanks, but we’re not expecting another dozen people to join us. We should be able to wrap up dinner in under 120 minutes. And no matter where we go, we are always only handed a single menu for both of us. Perhaps the union of menu printers is on a long-term strike. We’ve enjoyed coffee drinks, lemonades and ice cold Staropramens (not all at the same time) all over the city. Yesterday, Brooke finally was able to enjoy the hot fudge brownie she’s been seeking since Estonia. Although we’re a bit befuddled that clerks, waiters and cashiers repeatedly do not have any change on purchases. And this is when we’re paying with the equivalent of a $10 bill. We get exasperated looks and shrugs when they can’t cough up some small Dinar. Quite strange.

On thing we’ve really enjoyed is the fact that the city has an elaborate network of sensational parks including Kalemegdan and Aja Ciganlika which have something for everyone. Kalemegdan has provied us overlooks of the scenic confluence of Danube and Sava Rivers and more uses of the world confluences than I’ve encountered in my life. One park had Cable Water Skiing. That was a first for us. Cable Water Skiing! Ah, I see something new, novel and interesting every single day on this adventure.

We started our day with a trip to the Belgrade Military Museum inside Kalemegdan park. The museum has a stellar and massive collection of swords, knives, guns and uniforms spanning hundreds of years, but not much history…nor many exhibits in English. After getting burned a couple of times, we’ve learned a good rule of thumb is to always ask at the ticket booth how much of the museum is in English before forking over your cash. However, the museum improved with several rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII with good chunks in English. One highlight and notably eerie exhibit was the blood stained outfit that the Serbian King Alexander was wearing in 1934 when he was assassinated in France. Yowza. We also learned that Serbia is the first country we’ve visited in Eastern Europe who did not align themselves with Germany during WWII and, while quickly succumbing to occupation, can boast an active war time underground resistance. The unfortunate result was a brutal bombing by the Germans in 1941 and then the Allies a few years later. The massive museum provided some interesting highlight, but I would argue that it was a bit too large.

The highlight of our day was a four hour bike ride through a company called “I Bike Belgrade.” A two-wheel tour that took us over a flat, scenic easy course with a pair of exceptional guides. It was nice to be on bikes and the ride was almost exclusively on bike lanes,  away from traffic.  Judging by the looks our group received, I think biking is a somewhat rare affair in Belgrade. The ride took us along the river, over to New Belgrade and back through the parks and waterfront. New Belgrade, built during the 1960’s, reminded us that no communist construction of the 20th century is ever going to win any awards for beauty. This was our kind of tour! An interesting way to see parts of the city that we never would have stumbled across otherwise. Combine that with knowledgable, easy going guides who give pertinent, interesting information at every turn. We learned that bombings from the 1999 Nato campaign were announced and targeted in advance. We learned that several bombed out buildings from ten years ago were left that way as a tourist attraction. We learned that communist leader Tito wanted to build a whole new Belgrade, so he filled in swamp land in the 1960’s. Brooke and I are innately curious about our new surroundings (to learn as much as we can has been one of the primary points of this whole trip), so it is wonderful when we find local people who love to talk about their own home city and answer all of our questions. Brooke loved chatting up our guide and getting the history of Belgrade and his opinions on regional politics.

The perfect shot from our night tourThe same company who organized our bike tour also has a “Nightlife Academy” which comes highly recommended.  Unfortunately, we were exhausted and thought a 4 hour pub crawl just might kill us.  Instead, we took a leisurely walk home, stopping for drinks and then separately for dinner.  Without realizing it, I essentially ordered a plate full of meat, and it seems almost impossible to order a meal here which isn’t 90% meat, 9% onion and 1% other.  Don’t get me wrong – the five different samples of pork, steak, chicken, lamb and sausage was delicious. I think tomorrow we will prepare a home-cooked vegetarian meal at the apartment where we are staying.  That will be a refreshing change!

-Phil

Home of the Military Museum

From our bike tour: this office building/apartment in New Belgrade was a coveted building in the 1980’s, now it’s a bit of an unoccupied eye sore.

As mentioned above, the blood stained clothes of a slain King from the Military Museum

Our reward for a long bike ride- the complimentary beer that comes with our tour! Bonus: this is the 200th photo of us with beer on our RTW Trip!

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Categories: Bars, Beer, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Museums, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Last Day in Sofia

 

Greetings one last time from the Bulgarian capital! Today is our last day in Sofia before moving on. It’s been a short but memorable time in Bulgaria and we’ve managed to make the most of it.

One of the real highlights has been the food. More specifically, three knockout dinners in a row at three different restaurants in Sofia- all a short walk from our hostel. Last night, we ended up at a bistro named Lubimoto which had recently received, of all things, a write-up in the New York Times. Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! A clear, potent, traditional aperitif  that tastes like some devilish mix of paint thinner, jet fuel and bad whiskey. Okay, it’s a bit more palatable than that, but it is certainly an eye-opening way to start any meal. From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad.

Brooke gives Rakia a taste

someone call a service to just roll us back to our hostel, please.After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. Brooke is calling it one of the best meals on the trip and I’m inclined to agree. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident! We also had tasty meals at Divaka and Izbata where we dined among locals, had some Bulgarian dishes and walked away with our Leva (Bulgarian currency) in tact. In summary, great eating in Sofia!

I mentioned it before, but Sofia has been a incredibly easy city to get around (crumbling sidewalks aside). There is the occasional post in the middle of the walkways which I’ve done a poor job of dodging. But if walking is not your thing, there are street cars everywhere. These trams run over a thorough network that seems to cover most of the city, arrive frequently, and are a cheap way to get around. They can run a bit slow, but we’re usually not in a hurry. And some of the older models have steep, giant steps into the cars that are best tackled by those who are part billy goat. But the most unique part is that, in general, no one checks your ticket. The driver’s main responsibility is just to drive. That was until three of the notorious ticket checkers quickly and quietly boarded the street car today. It was the first time in any country that we’ve seen anyone actually come in and check tickets on these types of self-check bus and trams. The ticket checkers meant business and you got the feeling they weren’t interested in friendly banter. We’ve been warned of problems and scams in these cases, but Brooke and I didn’t face any issues. However, there was drama and a shouting match with two other passengers. Not sure what was happening  (language barrier and all), but man was it entertaining! I know that we keep comparing our time in Bulgaria to an Indiana Jones adventure, but it really did go down a little something like the video clip below:

Today we took some time to do what Brooke and I do best: Take our own self guided tour of the city. We managed to catch the very cool changing of the guards outside the presidential palace. Impressive pomp and circumstance that happens every hour on the hour. We stumbled into the former Royal Palace turned Art Museum and while we were in the city center, we found ourselves next to a loud (but organized) protest march. Again, we had no idea what they were marching against, until one of the participants came running up to us pointing and shouting at our plastic bag that contained today’s souvenirs. We later learned that it was a march for the government to take more action on environmental concerns and, you guessed it, ban all plastic bags.

Not far from the museum, there was an outdoor market selling communist era medals, clocks, clothing and more. You get the impression that when the socialist era ended, a lot of these “collectibles” were left behind. We visited two of the more noteworthy and historic churches in Sofia including a massive Russian Orthodox Church and the church for which Sofia gets its name. So far, no shortage of churches (and statues! So many statues!) in Europe, but each one has grandeur, individual detail and a stunning, peaceful quality that makes it worth the visit. I’ve learned that I prefer the Lutheran cathedral – so many of the Russian Orthodox churches are magnificent and stunning, especially from the outside, but are dark, uninviting and cavernous sterile places of worship on the inside. Just my opinion though.

So, as we wrap up our few days in Sofia, we’re ready to say goodbye to the sensational weather, street side cafes,  friendly faces and move on. Tomorrow morning, we take two buses a combined six hours to Belgrade, Serbia. The rest of our time in Europe includes stops in Budapest, Dubrovnik, Munich and then a 10 day stay in Scotland and England. Can’t wait for what’s next!

-Phil

Bulgarian Environmental Protest

Brooke with Morning Coffee and the changing of the guards. This might be my new favorite photo!

For reasons we never quite understood, some of the Sofia police cars were Audis and BMWs. Nice.

Categories: Budget, Bulgaria, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Beautiful Vitosha…or Not

Upon arrival in Sofia, our friendly hostel workers gave us a map with suggestions of things to do.  Top on the list:  enjoy Vitosha Natural Park.  Similarly, when we went on our walking tour of Sofia, one of the first things the guide said to us is that Vitosha is not to be missed–having a mountain peak that reaches 2290 meters just 30 minutes outside of the city makes Sofia unique to other Eastern European capitals.  So we figured, this is a must do.  A can’t miss.  Today was the day we would hike Vitosha.

In our research, we discovered that Vitosha is a very popular weekend destination for both visitors and locals.  There is actually a chair lift that takes guests part of the way to the top.  There, ambitious visitors can hike to the top, or less adventurous types can connect to another chairlift which takes them to the peak.  There is also a gondola that leaves from a separate town at the base and takes people all the way to the peak without any switching.  We were so excited for all of these options–this way we could ride up and hike down (I know, we’re taking the easy way).  Sadly, we learned that the chairlifts and gondola only run Friday to Sunday.  Our stay in Sofia is Monday-Wednesday, so chairlifts are not an option for us.  Damn.

Okay, we are young.  We are healthy.  We climbed Mt. Fuji, for god’s sake!  We can hike up to the top, right?  Of course.  We set out on Tram #5 to the end of the line where “it’s very clear” how to hike up the mountain.  When we arrived at our stop, we exited the train and were surrounded by a run-down park with stray dogs (of course), some locals hanging around, and a rickety set of steps which led further into the woods.  After stopping for directions in a hotel whose stairs tried to permanently injure Phil, we trekked up the steps to begin our journey.  These led to a set of paths up the mountain.  Awesome.  We were there.  Except, there were at least 4 different paths.  Time for a map.  What?  No maps in English, only Cyrillic, an alphabet we can’t read.  Okay, that wasn’t going to stop us.  Nobody really speaks English, but everyone we spoke to pointed up, smiled and said, “Vitosha”.  So, we looked at each path and decided to follow the one that actually had another person on it.

So, here’s the thing:  it was quiet.  I mean, we didn’t see a single other hiker anywhere.  And, we didn’t have a map.  Though the trails were clearly laid out paths, they weren’t marked so we couldn’t be sure we were headed in the right direction, and more importantly, getting back down the same way might be tricky.  And then there are the bears.  In my reading before arrival in Bulgaria, I read that one of the wonderful things about this country is that its forests are still filled with natural elements like bears, lynxes and rare birds which other European countries are losing.  Rare birds–awesome.  Lynxes–uh, okay.  Bears–no way!  I’ve heard enough horror stories and been warned enough times about these dangerous creatures that I am really scared of bears.  What are the odds we would run into one on this hike?  I don’t honestly know–we weren’t exactly going into this exactly “well-researched”.

Phil’s delicious breakfast to prepare him for our unexpected day. Affordable, too, at only $1.20!

If there had been lots of other hikers around, I would have been fine.  If we would have had a map, I would have been okay.  If there were park rangers hanging about, I’d have felt confident.  But we had none of these things, and pretty soon the random noises in the forest started to freak me out.  So, I bailed.  I told Phil that I really wasn’t comfortable doing this.  For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I said I thought we should turn around and try something different.  I felt kind of bad, but being the wonderful partner he is, Phil agreed instantly and understood my concerns.  Great.  Now, for plan B.

Coming up with a plan B required we find a little help either from friendly locals or from the internet.  We spotted a hostel and figured they would be able and willing to help us on our journey.  We climbed the stairs, found the receptionist and asked our usual first question, “Do you speak English?”  She replied, “Deutsch.”  Hmmm, we don’t speak German.  We don’t really know any German at all (except for “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and we already had an answer for that).  We were really wishing we had our German-speaking friend Drew to help us out at this moment.  Luckily, she was nice enough to give us their WiFi password and let us sit on their steps and do a little research.  After quite a bit of looking, we discovered there is a bus that takes people to the top of Vitosha!  Awesome.  All we had to do was go back into Sofia, catch the bus and the rest was a breeze.

Of course, things are never easy.  We finally worked our way to the spot where the bus terminal was supposed to be only to find it wasn’t a bus terminal at all.  It looked like it maybe used to be a bus terminal, but at this point it was just some bus stops and a turnaround that didn’t look to be in use any longer.  When we asked the proprietor of a nearby pizza stand, he was able to point us in the right direction.  After a little hunting (and asking for a little more help), we were able to find bus #64 heading to Vitosha.  Awesome.  This is the bus 3 different people (plus our online research) told us would take us to the top.  We were on our way now.  Nothing could stop us.  But, just to be sure, when we got on the bus we asked the driver, “Vitosha?”  He looked puzzled and shook his head.  I tried again, but this time I also traced the shape of a mountain in the air with my finger and he said, “Da.”  Great, two tickets please.

At this point, all we had to do was get off once we got to the top.  We started picking up passengers and slowly climbing through the neighborhoods at the base of the forest.  We didn’t really look like we were headed into the forest, more just an outer neighborhood of Sofia, but we figured as long as we were heading uphill, we were good to go.  We passed some movie studios and a monastery.  Soon thereafter, we definitely felt a shift in momentum as the bus started heading downhill.  He was picking up speed by the second and it seemed forever until the next stop.  At that point, we knew.  Almost immediately we knew we weren’t going to make it.  We would not see the top of Vitosha.  Defeated and weary, we rode the bus back down to the last stop, got out in a neighborhood we did not recognize, and ate the lunch we had packed for our hike.  It was over.  It’s important to know when to call it quits.  This was it for us.  It was only 4pm, the day was not completely lost, but we were not going to spend any more time trying to reach the top of the elusive Vitosha.

The rest of the afternoon shaped up nicely with a few drinks to help ease our frustration, lots of productive planning and a lovely dinner of traditional Bulgarian food at Divaka.  We felt a little better when we overheard a girl who is staying at our hostel tell someone on the phone that she, too, tried to get to the top of Vitosha today but after hours of walking, gave up.  That’s something, I guess. As you can see, sometimes the attempt at a destination makes for a pretty good story alone. Besides, we win more than we lose, so days like these don’t really bother us when we have a comfortable bed, a delicious meal and an exciting tomorrow planned.

-Brooke

Categories: Bulgaria, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Hiking, Reflections, Safety, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Welcome to Sofia!

Greetings from Sofia! The overnight train from Bucharest pulled into the Bulgarian Capital City bright and early around 9:00 AM. Our private, if not incredibly old, train car granted us some sleep in between two separate hour-long border checks (groan – at one point, our conductor fell asleep after taking our passports. Hey, guy, we’re going to need those) and station stops where the train grinds to a sudden stop.  On the bright side, we woke up to some stunning views of Bulgarian mountains.

After arriving, we made our way, half on instinct and half on dumb luck, to the funky Hostel Mostel where we’ll be staying for the next few days. We’re back to staying at Hostels and in Sofia where we have a private room as part of a five bedroom apartment annex right in the center town. The street cars out our window generate a lot of noise and the bathroom sinks are a bit too small, but for $34 a night giving us a comfy, clean, big room, we really can’t complain. Once we settled in, the city was ours to explore. Brooke and I turn our excitement level up a little bit higher each time we step foot in a new country. A whole new place to explore! We tend to start in the bigger cities because we’ve found that they make perfect jumping off places. And when you may not have a lot of overall time in a specific country, these big metropolises are a great place to start.

After getting settled with a much needed shower and afternoon nap, we joined the 6pm Free Sofia Tour walking tour. We had an exceptional guide who spent two hours giving us a basic overview of the city and it’s rich and detailed past. It was an amazing, informative tour where we learned everything from where Sofia earned it’s name to the history of the palace guards to the supposed communist era tunnels that run underneath the city and are still shrouded in secrecy. What a fabulous way to get some perspective and kick off our visit. The icing on the cake was the dinner that followed at a local Bulgarian restaurant where we dined with a friendly fellow American we met while on the tour.  He is working here for a month, and was able to give us some useful insights into the culture and people,

The most important thing to know about getting by in Bulgaria is that the dreaded cyrillic alphabet is used here. The same cryptic set of symbols is found in Russia and used by millions elsewhere. B becomes V, Ps are Greek PIs, etc. Not speaking the language already makes things a little tricky but not being able to read any signs, menus, maps and more makes things that much more difficult. The second most important thing to know is that the weather here has been absolutely gorgeous. Talk about coming at the right time. Perfect weather immediately gives us a favorable impression.  On top of that, this past Saturday was Bulgarian Independence Day (celebrating their independence from the Ottoman Empire so many years ago) creating a Sofia that is alive and bursting with people and activities everywhere. Sofia strikes us as a young city trying, much like Bucharest, to break out of the shadow of decades of iron curtain rule. The Soviet era statues and buildings are gradually being replaced or just allowed to crumble altogether, while a new city is slowly starting to spring up carefully around historic structures. For the record, we’re pretty certain now that every single Eastern Block city had a giant statue of Lenin somewhere along the way. Sofia just removed their own 25′ version a few years ago.

Sofia scores impressively high on the walkability scale. It’s been easy to make short treks from bars to monuments to post offices. And where we can’t walk, a thorough network of trams and buses has been able to give us a cheap, speedy ride. But what has been most remarkable is the amount of history we’ve found here in such a short time! Churches, synagogues and mosques that are hundreds and hundreds of years old house active congregations and international visitors rather than sit idle as museums. Just recently, while expanding the city’s Metro, local workers unearthed ruins that date back to the fourth century. The fourth century! I’m pretty sure when they expand the subway in Los Angeles they just find more rocks. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this: in both Copenhagen and Bucharest, expanding metro construction has revealed ancient archeology finds that are re-writing some of the nation’s history. Simply amazing. But that all pales in comparison to our most important discovery about Sofia: There is gelato everywhere. The national pastime here must be to own a gelato stand because we can’t go five feet without tripping into the deliciousness.  I think we’ll have to sample several different vendors so we can provide you with a fair assessment.  That only seems right.

Our one complaint about Sofia? The sidewalks are absurdly uneven and broken apart. i know that sounds like a petty complaint, but see below for a video clip of Brooke walking down the street. It was a lot like this…(skip to :37 if needed)

-Phil

Our delicious dinner with our new Sofia friend Woody on our first night in town

Our delicious dinner with our new Sofia friend Woody on our first night in town. The shopska salad is an instant favorite

Our view from our train ride

Brooke touching buried walls of an ancient fort discovered only in the 1970’s when the subway was built. So cool to be able to walk around the ruins!

The Bulgarian Guard at the office of the President

Categories: Bulgaria, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Tours, Trains, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

More from Romania!

Hello again from Romania! We continue to explore Bucharest through a series of self guided tours, bus rides, museum visits, dinners and more. Unlike other places we visited, there aren’t many tourists who swing through Bucharest. The larger hotels like the Hilton, Ramada and Novotel are largely stuffed with business travelers. Romania is only on a few people’s Top 10 list which, for us, makes it a very cool place to visit.

The George Enescu house and museum!

We took a ride on Bucharest’s newly-launched $8 Hop On Hop Off tour. Another double decker city tour bus, but this one with a somewhat sparse audio-tour component and even sparser crowd. The bus cruised around two of the main avenues of town. These rides, in any city, always deliver a quality up close look at sights worth seeing. Or at least worth driving by. In this case, we got a great look at musician’s George Enescu’s home, The National Museum of Art, Embassy Row and more. We also rode past Bucharest’s own Arc De Triomphe, statue of Charles De Gaulle and Parisian fountains. See a theme? Tons of french words and a bit of French culture have wiggled their way into Romanian culture.

Later, Brooke and I were oh so excited to visit the National Museum of Romanian history located right next to Old Town in the beautiful old Post Office building. This was our chance tor really sink our teeth into the complicated, sometimes tragic history of this country.  We have found some of our favorite and most educational stops have been at museums such as this one.  We walked in the beautiful old building, and there was some sort of presentation regarding the Apollo 12 mission to the moon. We were hoping the very obviously American ambassador’s wife would speak so we might understand, but that didn’t happen.  As we ventured further into the museum, we realized the exhibits were all in Romanian and French.  That is understandable, but what surprised us is that there were no English brochures, audio guides, tour guides, nothing.  So far, we weren’t feeling much of this had to do with Romanian history.  Then we found the jackpot–a huge column which had been pieced together and put on display.  The carvings featured Romans fighting and we were sure this must be significant to Romanian history.  Since this exhibit filled the entire basement we figured this must be some amazing find.  We managed to ask our English Speaking front door guy about the column.  Did it stand on this very spot?  Was it destroyed with everything else during the 1980’s?  His answer was a clear NO.  This column is a REPLICA of one from Italy.  It never stood on Romanian soil, was not built by a  Romanian sculptor.  This put us over the edge.  Why was a replica  taking up so much space?  What did this have to do with Romania’s history?  We walked out of there learning a whole lot of NOTHING about Romanian history and instead feeling like we made a charitable contribution to the museum.  Argh.

Brooke with the replica column at the National History Museum

The potato on a stick

The highlight of our day was rendevouzing with Dorothrea whom we had met through RedditR. Dorothea is a native Bucharest resident currently studying in Berlin who took a turn at playing gracious tour guide. Brooke and I spent a good chunk of the day walking the streets receiving a sensational, informative guided tour of the city all delivered from a local perspective. It was a phenomenal way to see Bucharest and we we’re so thankful that Dorothea took some of her own time just to show us around! We met her near a centrally located piece of art that locals (with affection? With disdain?) call the “Potato on a Stick”. (It’s reassuring to know that the art that we sometimes think looks kinda stupid, locals think looks stupid also.) Since central Bucharest is an area that’s relatively densely packed, we were able to cover a lot of ground in just a few hours. We walked through nice neighborhoods just off the central avenue, stopping to get some history and back story on the buildings and way of life. Our journey took a detour into a great bookstore and we even sampled a fresh baked pretzel which doubles as the most popular Romanian street fare. Between showing us a pair of sensational old Roman Orthodox Churches (there aren’t a lot of old doings left in Bucharest), Dorothea snuck us into a bank in Old City whose lobby rivaled some of the rooms that we saw in the Palace of Parliment yesterday. Amazing! We walked past a beautiful local hospital that had just recently been renovated from top to bottom.  We never would have suspected that two years ago, it was on the verge of falling down. Dorothea helped us to see that there IS an effort out there to preserve and restore Bucharest, it is just a very slow process. She showed us several nice neighborhoods that we likely wouldn’t have discovered on our own.

Indian Food and new Romanian friends Dorothea and Ionuca

Later in the day, the three of us met up with two of Dorothea’s local friends, and enjoyed a long Indian lunch in Old Town (the food is half off before 5:00 PM!) while trading stories over beers and Masala. We talked out Romania, got to know about their lives here, we talked about our RTW trip and they asked questions about the United States. (Yes, our gas is considerably cheaper then most gas in Europe. Yes, there are a lot of overweight Americans.) Dorothea and Ionuca gave us some fantastic. wonderful insights into Romanian daily life. They even put up with all of our questions – from Gypsys to Politics to the state of Education some of which must have seemed insufferably stupid. Such a quality experience to talk to people who live in the city about their city. These three have a fondness for Bucharest, but a also a realistic view. (Corruption in many forms, Dorothea told us, was common.) It was so incredibly generous of these guys to spend a large chunk of the day with us. The lesson we walked away with here was if you love your town, show it off!

Our voyage continues! We are just trying not to accidentally refer to Bucharest as Budapest as Michael Jackson allegorically once did. Understandably, it’s a point of exhaustion and frustration for the locals. Soon, off to Brasov. Who knows what we’ll see there? But for now, we’ll try to soak up everything we learned today like a sponge and hope it sticks around the noodle for at least a little while.

-Phil

In front of the sculpture of famous characters from a Romanian playwrite outside the National theater. Also a popular protest location.Roman

As seen in Old Town, what a great name for a bar

Categories: City Visits, Eating, Europe, Museums, Romania, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Last Day in Copenhagen

 

Brooke enjoying some wine in ole 4026Our wonderfully relaxing and easy-living nine day Baltic Sea cruise has come to an end. The time has come to leave the boat. We started the day with one final delicious breakfast buffet at our favorite spot on Deck 11 of ye olde Norwegian Sun. And, for the last time, walked away from the table without worrying about  settling a check or removing a single dish. After docking in Copenhagen, Brooke and I attempted to remain onboard as long as we could but around 9:00 AM the crew pulled us off kicking and screaming. It was quite a scene that disturbed some of the older passengers. In all seriousness, we’ve enjoyed the cruise but we’re ready for what’s next.

Copenhagen's most famous art musemSo, we find ourselves back in Copenhagen for one last day before we close the book on our Northern European leg. Now off the boat and away from the all-English all-accomodating lifestyle, we’re back to the little things being a touch more difficult and occasionally frustrating. Today’s particular challenge was our attempt to spend some time in the local library. We figured a Copenhagen “bibliotek” would be a good place to cool our heels for a few hours, flip through some travel books and hop online. We were able to pinpoint the location, determine walking directions, and check the hours. But what the Danish language website did not make clear is that this funky library is open on Sunday only to library card holders who must swipe their way in via key card. See? Frustrating. Also, please don’t alert the Copenhagen Transit Authorities, but due to issues with the ticket machine, we managed to take a pair of rides on the local trains without forking over a single dime.

Philospohical Phil!We did manage to make a visit to the renowned Glyptotek museum in central Copenhagen. The museum offers free admissions on Sundays and boasts an impressive art collection started in 1882 by beer baron Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame (see our post mentioning Carlsberg here). Jacobsen also donated, among others, the sea-side dwelling Little Mermaid statue that is forever associated with Copenhagen. We strolled through a handful of the galleries, enjoyed some of the architectural features of the museum building as much as the art and took in some great paintings and sculptures. There was art by Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Rodin, Gaughin and two dozen other European artists and painters I should probably know but have already forgotten. The sculpture gallery was loaded with marble and bronze creations and was positively great, although I wouldn’t want to be there at night. My personal favorite was a sculpture of Perseus severing Medusa’s head in action. We were kind of thrilled when we saw that the museum was the home of Rodin’s iconic “The Thinker” as part of a comprehensive Rodin gallery. But that was until we learned that there are like twenty other “original” casts of the statue throughout the world. Maybe not as special, but the Glypoteck is still a great museum.

Amazing lunchOf course, for lunch, we couldn’t resist one last hot dog. This time we asked around for the best hot dog in the city. We went gourmet with arguably the best deluxe wiener in town from Nimb. These dogs were a bit more expensive, but they delivered the goods. Gourmet taste-bud satisfaction from one end of the bun to the other.

Final impressions of Copenhagen? It’s kind of a great city. Locals give off a vibe of general contentment – they seem especially merry whilst mounted on bicycles. The town is sophisticated, forward thinking and awash in eye-brow raising design. Highbrow, but accessible. Expensive, but doable. The town even managed to surge my own bit of creativity. Growing up, my friends and I used to watch a lot of professional wrestling. We were always coming up with ideas for new gimmicks for the wrestlers to use in the rings. I now have a fantastic concept: The Angry Dane. He’s big, he’s blonde and he rides a bicycle to the ring which he locks to the ringpost once he arrives. During his match, The Angry Dane illegally uses the Bicycle as a weapon against his opponent. The announcers will call that move the “Twelve Speed.” Pure gold. Someone get me Vince McMahon on the phone.

The Denmark Airport Bids Adieu

Now, we’re off to Romania and Bulgaria as we open the door on our Eastern European segment. We start by visiting yet two more nations that we know virtually nothing about. (As always, we’re open to suggestions!) A pair of flights from Copenhagen to Vienna and then Vienna to Bucharest and yet another quick time change where we jump ahead two hours. We selected a landing spot in Bucharest in part because of it’s Eastern European location in relation to points Westward and in part because, well, it sounded like an interesting place to visit. It’s so cool that this trip has allowed us to point to a strange, new location on a map and just go. By tomorrow, we should have some new insight into yet another town that seems to be begging to be discovered. We’ve already begun reading up on Romania to prep a bit for our visit by taking a sneak peek at the culture, food and airport taxi scams.

For the next month, our schedule gives us much more flexibility on where to go and when. Our next scheduled flight isn’t until Mid-October. Little by little, I’m discovering that the world is such a big place, but it is also a finite place as well. Who knows what we’ll see, but the odds are that it will be worth sharing.

-Phil

Brooke studying a painting in the Glyptotek’s French Impressionist wing.

 

Our final dinner in the Norwegian Sun! Ah, we’ll miss meals like this.

Another look at the outstanding sculpture gallery in the Denmark museum.

Our exceptional bartender Maxwell from the Windjammer of the Norwegian Sun. He took good care of us many nights.

Categories: City Visits, Copenhagen, Destinations, Differences, Eating, Europe, Flights, Museums, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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