Self Guided Tours

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!

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 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

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

Stopping by Estonia!

Again, we apologize for the intermittent posting. Wi-fi is limited and absurdly expensive on the cruise ship, so we’re only able to post whilst at port.

Behold! Beauty!Salutations from Tallinn, Estonia! As our epic Baltic Capitals cruise continues to sail across Northern Europe, we docked in Tallinn and spent the better part of today in Estonia’s biggest city situated smack dab on the coast. Our oh-so luxurious and comfortable boat was only in port from about 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, so we endeavored to make the best use of our short time. Tallinn is yet another city that we knew virtually nothing about prior to visiting. Our trip has been extraordinary in helping us fill in these giant gaps of knowledge we have about a ton of places around the world like Estonia, Singapore, Vietnam, etc.

Tallinn is one of the smallest cities in one of the smallest countries that we’ve spent time in thus far. The entire nation has a population shy of two million. It doesn’t take long to discover that due to it’s small size and “favorable geographic location”, this is a country that has been invaded, occupied and controlled throughout its history by nearly every major European nation including Sweden, Denmark, Germany and, most recently and most notably, Russia. The more we see of Europe, the more it dawns on us how the history of these European nations is so intertwined. Estonian is the local language, but you won’t hear it much outside of the country. It’s unique to be in the midst of a language that only 1.5 million people speak among millions of Europeans.

Rocking it in the older part of townA large part of Estonia’s history involves being resilient while fighting seemingly endless oppression by much larger nations. In fact, in the last 800 years, Estonia has only had 40 total years of true independence! And twenty of those years have been since 1991. That’s crazy to wrap your head around. The country continues to grow on its own two legs and recently joined the E.U. and converted to the Euro just two years ago. Our lunch bill had the price in both the old Estonian currency and in Euros since locals are still adjusting to the conversions. In some ways, Brooke and I were exploring an entirely new nation comprised of a centuries old culture and people. We’re seeing parts of the world in a changing time with some counties experiencing independence and peace only in recent years. Estonia has a remarkable story and it is a remarkable time to for us to visit.

Also, please refer to me as the Baltic Fox moving forwardOnce again, the ever-present Hop-on Hop-off tour bus served us incredibly well. We’re on the cusp of writing personal endorsements for these buses.  When we only have a short time to dig in and see a city, these double-deckers are perfect. For just ten Euro a pop, we enjoyed a guided ride on two different lines covering a solid chunk of the city. Plus, the bus provided transportation to and from to the cruise port. We learned about the Estonian singing culture and their giant outdoor amphitheatre that can accommodate thousands of singers (Estonians apparently love to sing), Tallinn’s role in hosting water sports on the Baltic during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and we got a good look at a scary looking seaside prison turned museum.

Since our Norwegian Sun was one of four, count ’em four, giant cruise boats clamoring for space in the port, our first sight in Old Town was tourists and more tourists. At first impressions, you might think that Tallinn’s main population is nothing more than confused looking middle-aged tourists with cameras and fanny packs. We explored old town for a bit which was made up mainly of beautiful old preserved buildings and churches and surrounded by an ancient wall that has large parts still in tact. Old Town itself has an authentic Medieval look and is quiet, sterile and only used now for historically preserved buildings, government buildings and souvenir shops. Wandering away from the crowds and down the hill, we ambled around the corner and we discovered this great Army-Navy Antique Store. The place was a wonderful mix of antique store and history museum with Soviet and Nazi era flags, metals, propoganda posters, busts of Lenin, Matchbooks and more. Just around the corner, the Estonian History museum was one of the best we’ve seen on this trip so far. The small but mighty museum included an exhibit on a recently merchant’s chest dating from 1350 which was unearthed from the Baltic Sea just last year.  The museum also has a very entertaining, tongue-in-cheek video that gives a colorful, brief informative history of the country. On top of all that, the museum has a bathroom that talks to you. I’m pretty sure the toilet was trying to teach me Estonian one word at a time.  It was a little creepy at first.

Around 5:00 PM, Brooke and I marched proudly back onto the boat satisfied with the job we had done. We hit the city hard and fast. Our reward? A quick history and taste of Estonia. Today was a good day: spending half the day exploring a brand new country in Estonia and the other half keeping busy on our giant boat. Speaking of our time on this massive rig, cruise living continues to treat us very well! We’re meeting friendly (mostly American) new faces around every new corner, kicking tail and taking names at trivia (particularly Name that Tune Movie Trivia) and we even managed to catch a Sunday Night NFL game which was pumped in live via Satellite late night in the Sports Bar. The food has been sensational in the categories of taste, availability and quantity. And running on the treadmill is a much more inspiring activity when the view from your window is the moving, open sea. Tonight was a delicious dinner with an ocean view in the main dining room, enjoying a live version of Deal or No Deal, watching a group of shipboard singers and dancers plow their way through Broadway Show tunes, and enjoying some more good luck in the Casino. Hmmm…is it too early to look into a fifteen day cruise? Next stop: St. Petersburg!

-Phil

One last image of some of Old Town from high above. The big church in the background doubled as beacon for sailors and has burned down like five times.

Check it out! Spring Awakening is coming to Tallinn! (We think that’s what it says)

Watching some Sunday Afternoon Football (at 12:30 AM!) on the Norwegian Sun’s Sports Bar on Deck 12 with new friends. Never that far from home…

Categories: Budget, Casino, City Visits, Estonia, Reflections, Self Guided Tours, The Cruise, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Cruising Life

In order for us to quit our jobs and travel the world for almost four months we had to be very budget conscious. We write down everything we spend, we set limits to our spending and shoot for cheap accommodations whenever possible. We have now embarked on the most luxurious part of our trip: a cruise! That’s right, we are currently sailing the Baltic Sea. Three square meals a day, anytime of day. Workout facilities. More activities and entertainment than you can imagine. But most importantly, this cruise has allowed us to unpack our bags and turn our stateroom into our home for the next nine days. Nine nights in the same bed–a king sized bed. We are thrilled!

WarnemündeOur cruise left from Copenhagen heading to our first stop, Warnemünde, Germany. Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It is a small seaside town which is popular with locals during the summer and caters to cruise ships which frequently dock there. It is approximately a three hour ride in each direction from Berlin by train, so some people on the ship went to the German capital for the day. While this sounds great, traveling that much makes for a very long day. After seeing that Frommer’s Travel Guide has less than two pages worth of material on Warnemünde, we decided to spend a very small bit of time scoping it out, and then take the regional rail to nearby Rostock.

As with so many cities in Europe, Rostock has a very old feeling to it. We didn’t know much about the town and figured we would discover things as we went. As soon as we got off the train we spotted an old church in the center of town. It was definitely our find of the day. St. Mary’s Church was built in the 1200’s. It is beautiful and grand, and the best part is that it is still in use today. At the entrance to the church they make it clear that it is not museum, but a place of worship. They were fine with people walking around and taking pictures. There was an exhibit about the life of Jews in Germany from 1933-1945. It was all in German, but we got the gist We were even able to listen in on an orchestra practicing for an upcoming concert. The music filled the church and provided the perfect background for us.

Astronomical Clock!However, the biggest draw to St. Mary’s Church is its giant astronomical clock. This clock does more than just tell the time of day, it also gives the day, month, year, moon phase, and zodiac sign. What more could you possibly need? Over 400 years old, this clock is still wound by hand each day. At noon each day there is a procession of the Apostles on the clock (sadly, we missed that). The current dial only goes to 2017, however they will be able to replace that when the time comes. The only thing that wasn’t accounted for when the clock was originally built was daylight savings time. Twice a year they have to account for this time change.

We wandered around Rostock a bit more, watched kids play in the fountain and absorbed all the sights, sounds and smells of this small town. When it was time to head back to the boat, we opted against taking the short train ride back to Warnemünde and instead we chose to take a ferry up the river. We soon realized the ride was a cross between a sight-seeing tour (all in German) and a booze cruise. Since we couldn’t figure out if the drinks were part of the ticket or not, we abstained. All the Germans on board seemed to be having a marvelous time, shouting at other boats and toasting to their own happiness. The ferry helped demonstrate what a busy port both Rostock and Warnemünde really are. There were tons of ships–not cruise boats, but ferry’s, cargo boats and even some decommissioned military vessels. It was a great way to see these two cities from a new perspective.

Our time in both Warnemünde and Rostock was limited, but we don’t feel too bad about it since we will be back in Germany later on in our trip. Actually, we were eager to get back to the boat and our life of luxury. We ate delicious food, did terribly at some very difficult trivia and played some $5.00 Blackjack. Because it was my birthday, the casino bought a round of drinks fo the whole table and gave me a $25.00 chip to bet. Sadly I lost that hand, but we were ahead in winnings quite a bit by the time we walked out, so that always makes it more fun.

We could definitely get used to this cruising lifestyle. Our room gets made up 2 or 3 times a day. The casino is never far away. There is wonderful entertainment: last night we listened to one of the onboard entertainers do a set of Neil Diamond covers. He’s so good! He really does sound like Neil Diamond, gravelly voice and all. Besides the entertainment, we find that we are simply having a blast! On the days when we are at sea, it is like mandatory relaxation. There is no pressure to make the most of our time or to see as much as we can. It has been a nice change of pace.

Our next stop is Tallin, Estonia and then we head on to St. Petersburg, Russia. We are incredibly excited about both of these stops and can’t wait to share them with you.

–Brooke

Categories: Budget, Casino, City Visits, Europe, Hotels, Relaxing, Self Guided Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hanoi, Vietnam and 2 Million Motorcycles

Shrine to turtles in the middle of the lake in Old QuarterHello from Hanoi! After a quick and easy flight on Vietnam Airways departing from the modern, giant Hong Kong Airport, we quickly made it to Hanoi. Departing Hong Kong was easy- having the flexibility to fly on a Wednesday afternoon paid off in cost and ease. We’re becoming quite excellent at navigating airports. And we haven’t had to pay any of the infamous departure taxes when leaving a country. So far, our airports have included Dayton, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Auckland, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Hong Kong and now Hanoi. All in just under one month. Whew.

After landing and clearing immigration with ease (we really haven’t had a single question in any country yet), we leaped into a taxi which we had set up in advance and was waiting for us. This was a nice bonus because we have already repeatedly been warned of shady taxi services throughout Hanoi. While Vietnam is, by and large, a very safe country, there seems to be no shortage of scams and hustles by opportunistic taxi drivers, “tour guides” and others. We’ve seen drivers everywhere clamoring for business, but with a little wherewithal, a list of reputable companies and our preference for walking, it hasn’t been a problem. Brooke and I made a quick journey from the airport to the heart of Hanoi in the Old Quarter. Along the way into town, we saw what we think were buffalo just lazily hanging close to the side of the road.

Endless Motorcycles!One of our first impressions of Vietnam? Motorcycles. I know that may sound odd, but I’ve never seen so many mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles in my life. I’m talking by a factor of ten. These two-wheeled vehicles are the preferred method of transport around Hanoi. Cars, bicycles and public buses all come in a distant second. It is kind of insane. Drivers take a liberal interpretation of traditional road rules and stop lights are few and far between. The constant sound of tiny horns dot the environment. Some scooters carry up to a family of four wedged on to the bikes – with young children in precarious positions conspicuously lacking helmets. With all this endless motorcycle traffic, being a pedestrian is an art form. Brooke and I have had to re-learn how to simply cross the street while negotiating an endless sea of bikes. The trick is to walk slowly and with confidence. And to take a leap of  faith that the helmet-clad drivers (who mostly seem to be paying good attention) are not going to run smack into you. It’s kind of thrilling. Still, we’re not quite ready to navigate the major intersections just yet.

National Day is right around the cornerOur hotel is smack dab in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. A section of Vietnam’s capital that is packed with people, shops and more motorcycles on streets that zig and zag in each direction. So far, some of the best sight-seeing has just been walking these streets. Short, bright blue and plastic stools filled with residents dining on simple, makeshift meals prepared on the street. Tiny storefronts that open up to the sidewalk and range across all sorts of businesses from sewing machine repair to T-shirt sales. These small two-story store fronts sometimes also double as people’s homes. Initially, we also thought we saw store owners and residents burning paper garbage on the sidewalk in small homemade fires, but later learned that this is actually part of Yu Lan – a religious ritual offering that happens over the course of this month. Vietnam truly feels more different from any place we’ve been yet – light years from Hong Kong. Hanoi feels raw and rugged, but cheerful and busy. A developing nation that’s driven to keep developing. I’m pretty sure that this is one of the most exotic places I’ve visited. And it’s an exhilarating place that we already kind of love.

On top of all that, we’ve arrived just before National Day on September 2nd – Vietnam’s Independence Day. The town is dressed and decorated with banners, lights and more. It looks like it’s going to be a great holiday that we’re missing by one day.

Brooke, motorcycles and humidity!As you might imagine, it is friggin’ humid here. Our heat wave continues. A 20 minute walk earns you a healthy glow of sweat almost pouring from your body. Add the heat from the exhaust of a parade of motorcycles (Hanoi certainly isn’t going to win the award for cleanest award or most environmentally friendly city) and street fires, and everything just gets that much hotter. It feels like we could use another three showers a day. Fret not: we’ve built in lots of breaks at cafes and restaurants throughout the day. It’s amazing how much beer you find yourself drinking when you can’t drink any of the local water. Refreshing and inexpensive. Our preference has been for the local Beer Ha Noi. The other commonly found beer, Tiger from Singapore, tastes like a poor man’s Bud Light.

We continue to blow through Southeast Asia taking in as much as we can each day.  We’re not alone – tourists are larger in number here, but most of the Western faces we’ve seen tend towards the younger side. A million discoveries await us in Vietnam. Hanoi brings food, culture, beer, history, coffee, baguette and more. Ready to open our eyes, clear our mind, expand our horizons and see something new. I can’t wait to explore Hanoi tomorrow.

-Phil

First Meal in Hanoi

Our “Welcome to Hanoi” Dinner at the wonderful local New Day restaurant. Two big beers will help knock the heat off!

The Old Quarter At Night

The Old Quarter At Night- Check out all of the endless bikes in the background! Click enlarge and the photo looks even more vivid! 

Categories: City Visits, Reflections, Self Guided Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.