Trains

And The Winner is….(Part 2)

Continuing on our post from yesterday, we’re reflecting back on our four month trip around the world and picking out some of our favorite stops and visits. Through a series of intense discussion, secret balloting and contemplative reflection, we’ve determined our top choices in a variety of categories. So, once again below are our Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was a real challenge to hand out top honors, but here we go again with our remaining choices:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!

Best Public Transportation– Tokyo and throughout Japan–  This one was a no brainer. The rail system in Tokoyo and throughout Japan is efficient, clean reliable, modern and incredible expansive although not terribly inexpensive. With a system that includes the Tokyo Subway, Regional Rail and Long Distance Trains, there are hundreds and hundreds of stations and stops. A single train map usually does not do the job. One thing we love is that many of the train cars have unique options–there is a quiet car and an all female car on some trains for rush hour.  Announcements and signs are often given in three languages including English. If the trains weren’t enough to win us over, the passengers would be. As a rule, riders are incredibly polite. They even line up in an orderly way to board the most crowded train and rude behavior is rarely seen.  There really is no equal.

Best City-to-City Transportation  Once you place air travel in another category, we have a two way tie. The train ride from Zagreb to Munich finally fulfilled  expectations of what we had hoped for in a European train ride. Up to this point, our train rides in Eastern Europe had been on outdated trains, lackluster, and disappointing. Our overnight ride in a private sleeper to Germany was comfortable, state of the art and packed with amenities. We even had an attentive porter who brought us water and handled customs at the border. Phil spent a good chunk of the night excitedly peering out of the window watching the night landscape roll by rather than sleeping. And pulling into the massive Munich train station at dawn was a fun way to end the trip. The other winner is the bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. At first, memories of rides on Greyhound made us dread a 14-hour cross country bus ride. It turns out, it was probably more comfortable than sitting in our living room! Over sized seats that rival first class airplane seats mingled nicely with the service that included two meals, complimentary cheap wine, movies and even bingo, It all made for a great ride. If this kind of bus travel was more common in the United States, I think people might rethink their attitudes toward long haul bus rides! 

Best Local Beer– Munich  Shocking, I know. Since every country has their own national or local brew, we tried beer in every city we visited. But virtually all the beer we tried in Munich was simply better than the rest.  We particularly enjoyed the Hofbrau and Lowenbrau labels in all varieties, but they sure know how to do a Dunkel.  Strong and smooth.  Absolutely perfect with a pretzel and currywurst.  Yum!  We enjoyed beers all around the globe from the Quilmes in Argentina, to Carlsberg in Copenhagen and Asashi Ichiban in Japan, but few of them were particularly memorable.  We will give an honorable mention to some of the smaller breweries we tried in New Zealand and Bulgaria, but overall they paled in comparison to all beer in Munich.

There is no doubt – they make some really great beer in Munch

Most Beautiful Nature Setting- We have a split decision here. Actually, we have a no decision. This is likely the thing we get asked about the most. Brooke immediately said the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, with the thick forest and rushing stream.  Phil was convinced it was the panoramic view from the top of Mt. Fuji.  But then, what about sunset in Dubrovnik or the view of the Adriatic?  The rock formations in HaLong Bay or the Waitomo Caves?  For that matter, what about all of New Zealand where they really earn the nickname of the “God Zone”? Honestly, we can’t even choose.

Bridal Veils in New Zealand

Most Beautiful City Setting- Budapest is tough to beat.  The architecture is absolutely beautiful. It has an old style, but in a classic sense, not like ruins which we saw in so many other Eastern European cities.  In addition, Budapest’s wide sidewalks lined with grand mansions and historic homes give the city a Parisian air.  Just around every corner was another stunning building. Toss in Buda Castle, Parliament and the Danube River as landmarks and it only gets better. What certainly stands out is that not a single building or monument is covered by spray paint.  How refreshing!  It is important to mention that we considered Edinburgh as the winner of this award, and it is a close second, but it has a grittiness (probably from all the rain and the fact that it is hundreds of years older) that Budapest is missing.

Budapest at night

Best Surprise–  Dubrovnik. We really didn’t know anything about Dubrovnik before arriving.  We learned that Croatia was part of the Serbian conflict, and we may have expected it to look more like Belgrade and Sofia.  Instead we found streets paved with marble and beautiful seaside views.  Wow and then some. The relaxed atmosphere, beautiful walk along the city walls and the historic nature of the entire city makes Dubrovnik the best surprise of the trip. Walking the city wall provided some of the best views and moments of the trip, hands down.

We could gush and ramble for hours about some of our favorite parts of our trip, but those are some of the  real highlights. As you might imagine, there are tons of categories we could have listed. Anything ranging from Best coffee, Best Weather, Best WiFi Availability, Best encounter with a local and more. But, we have to draw the line  somewhere. We also have our share of low lights (I’m looking at you, Belgrade restaurant who served us massively undercooked chicken kebabs), but we’ll save those for another day. So, if you have any questions about our “Best of” awards or if you have any additional categories you would want to see, just drop us a line and we’ll wax nostalgically about those as well!

–Brooke and Phil

Advertisements
Categories: Beer, Best Of, City Visits, Exploring, Post Trip Reflections, Random Thoughts, Round The World Trip, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Discovering Family History in Scotland

Hello once again from Scotland! Today we enjoyed one final day in Glamorous Glasgow before forging onward to Edinburgh, the highlands and other points north. Our ten day visit to Scotland is going to end up being the longest we’ve spent in one country since our time in Japan way back in August. It’s shaping up to be an awesome country visit…provided that it doesn’t continue to rain every single day that we’re here. I’m starting to think Scotland might be a lousy country if you’re an avid biker or dedicated long distance runner. On the plus side, we’ve already accomplished the impossible and found a pub that serves food past 7:30 PM. The highlight of the day, however, was digging into a bit of genealogy in the nearby town of Blantyre.

With the maternal family name Donaldson, I’ve always known of family roots in Scotland. I have a hunch that I’m a natural prodigy at both the caber toss and hammer throw. However, it wasn’t until my mom recently pointed out that distant family was from the Glasgow area that I ever really give it much thought. But since the small, former mill-town of Blantyre is only about a twenty-five minute train ride from Glasgow (and I do love a good train ride), Brooke and I decided it was worth the visit. Here is where it gets interesting: my great-great grandfather was born in the same tenement block as legendary Scottish missionary/explorer David Livingstone. All of the other housing and remains of the mill are long gone, but in 1929, “Shuttle Row” was saved and turned into a museum. Er, a museum honoring Livingstone, not my family. What are the odds?

A ten minute walk from the train station brought us to the David Livingstone Center – a small complex of green spaces, visitor centers, gardens and the museum itself. The white, simple, 225-year building is incredibly well preserved. And, for a building that served as living space for twenty-four families, incredibly small! Before long, we were touring and exploring Shuttle Row. If we’re in the right place, my great-great grandfather was born right here in 1810 with Livingstone born in a neighboring room three years later in 1813. Both spent their childhood working hard hours at the mill for 12+ hours a day and attended school at night. Not surprisingly, both were long gone by the time they were in their 20’s. Livingstone ended up navigating and surveying Africa for the next 30 years only to return to England twice and my great-great-grandfather ended up in the considerably less exciting Patterson, NJ. One of the rooms of the museum had a room set up exactly like Livingstone (and presumably my distant family) lived. It was really hard to wrap my head around how small these quarters were! One medium sized room housed a family of nine!

Overall, it was a very cool moment. It’s not every day that you get to to visit the very building where your great-great grandfather was born. Especially as an American where most family roots beyond a few generations are overseas. And it’s an amazing set of circumstances that I was able to do it! Mark it down as another first for this sensational trip.

The David Livingstone center itself is a comprehensive, impressive museum about a rather impressive, dedicated and intense man. Given Livingstone’s rough beginnings, it makes his story even more impressive. The building has been turned into a series of exhibits detailing his beginnings, education, journey to Africa, famous meeting with Stanley and more. It was complete with sizeable collections of his own belongings and correspondence. He had an intensity that led him to explore the unknown continent of Africa until he died, but it also came with some pitfalls such as exposing half of his party and wife to a deadly malaria outbreak. Fun Fact #1: Livingstone was the first European to come across the waterfalls that he named Victoria Falls, but that was one of only two discoveries that he rechristened with an English name. Need more? Fun Fact #2: Within his first three years in Africa, Livingstone was mauled by a Lion in an attack that almost killed him and cost him full use of his arm. There is an intense, giant statue out front documenting this particular crazy event.

After our trip to Blantyre, we grabbed a seat on the inexpensive MegaBus and took the 90 minute ride from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Brooke and I have become champs when it comes to navigating transportation. At this point, we really feel that there is no hurdle we can’t tackle and no riddle we can’t crack. It helps when everything is English, but it can still get tricky when you show up at the ticket window and they say all tickets need to be bought online. Hey, team work makes the dream work! After snagging some WiFi in a nearby cafe, we bought tickets and were on our way to Edinburgh. Even though it was raining, we could instantly see that Edinburgh is going to be a very different town from Glasglow. Gargantuan Edinburgh Castle on the hill is quite the welcoming beacon and only one of several sights that make your jaw drop slightly and get the pulse racing for a chance to explore it all!

Today was a great day. After all, what’s the point of an amazing Round The World trip if you can’t take the time to take a small side trip to explore some family history. That and sleeping in. We might sleep in a bit tomorrow because we’re on a big trip and we can. Ahhhhh….

-Phil

Categories: Exploring, Family, Museums, Rail, Reflections, Scotland, Trains | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

In Munich, we Bought a BMW…

We wish!…tour. A BMW tour.  You thought we bought a car?  Not even close, but more about that later!  For now, here we are in Munich, Germany and in some ways it is exactly what we expected–stores filled with lederhosen, BMWs cruising the streets, beer and sausages everywhere you turn.  We even met some really cool guys from a German TV show.  Weird, but cool.  Really, what more could a girl ask for?  Sure, we are in Munich one week after the end of its famous Oktoberfest, but it doesn’t matter.  This is still a great city with lots for first time visitors like us to see and do.

These asked us questionsWe got here before dawn yesterday, tired but ready to explore this new city.  After storing our luggage (thank goodness for these services at every train station we’ve been to), we decided to walk toward the Deutches Museum.  We’ve met several people who highly recommended this science and technology museum, so it seemed like a great way to spend our time while we waited to check into our room.  This giant museum spans five floors and covers everything from microelectronics to aeronautics and the history of sailing in Germany.  We especially loved seeing the cross section of an airplane which shows us just how little space is taken up by passengers and how much room there is for cargo.  We also found the ethical questions regarding genetic testing really interesting–this was partly due to the creepy yet intriguing faces speaking to us from the wall.  After pressing a button, they told of their dilemmas regarding genetic testing and then we voted if we agreed or disagreed with the choice.  It was interesting to see how our opinion compared to others who had taken the survey before.  While there were many exhibits that were interactive and innovative, the longer we were there, the sleepier I got.  I found my eyelids getting very heavy as I read the information below each exhibit.  While Phil wandered around in fascination, I kept looking for benches where I could rest my very weary body.  At this point I realized I didn’t get quite as much sleep on the train as I imagined, and I needed to rest.  At my request, we left the museum earlier than planned and checked into our room.

We didn’t order this monstrosity! It belonged to the man next to us and he actually ate the entire thing (plus a salad beforehand).

After a lovely, and very much needed nap, we ventured out for a late dinner.  Excited that we are in Germany and it is finally acceptable to have a hamburger again, we chose Burger House based on the extremely positive reviews on TripAdvisor. This was our first foray onto the Munich public transportation system and after our ticket debacle in Budapest, we weren’t taking any chances.  Like good citizens, we bought out tickets and validated them.  We would not be burned again.  It is a good thing we did all this because as soon as we got on the train a group of ticket control agents boarded and started checking tickets.  Exhilaration rushed through us.  We were pretty sure we did all that we needed to do, but it was our first time and we couldn’t be positive.  When they checked our tickets, I wanted to shout, “Yeah, just try to say something to me!”  They nodded and moved on.  Never again will we be caught without the right ticket!

Our good mood continued when we finally found Burger House.  As soon as we walked in we were surrounded by the sights and sounds of an awesome restaurant.  Not too big, maybe 12 tables in all, people drank beer and ate their food looking truly happy to be there.  We were barely able to snag a seat at the bar, just eeking in before their 10pm closing time which seems early to us.  I’m so glad we made it because this was easily the best burger we’ve had since we left New York.  It is amazing what can happen when simple, fresh ingredients are prepared well.  The man next to us ordered the Triple Classic Burger and actually finished it.  Quite a feat.  The burger, coupled with our first taste of delicious German beer, made for the perfect first dinner in Munich.

Customers wait on the stairs to go down to their brand new BMW. What a thrill!

This morning we woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the city head on.  We tried to get tickets for a tour of the BMW plant, but they require 3 weeks notice.  We didn’t even know we would be in Munich as of 3 weeks ago, so we figured we would just check out the museum and the BMW Welt.  Phil has great nostalgia for BMW and today’s visit has only made it worse.  Now I’m worried he’s going to go back to the U.S. and buy and old 3-Series.  The BMW Welt is basically a giant showroom with current BMW and Rolls Royce (also part of BMW Motor Group) models.  Admittedly, it was fun walking around and dreaming about which car we would buy.  Even though they weren’t on display (and aren’t what most people think of when they think BMW), I think I’d go with a Mini-Cooper.  They are so cute.  I know I would look awesome cruising around in a red one.  Before heading to the museum, we checked to see if there were any last minute openings on the tour and lucky for us, there were!  We took a guided tour of the museum, the plant and the welt.  This tour is incredibly comprehensive and is something we would definitely recommend to anyone visiting Munich.  The museum is modern and shows the long history of BMW, from its days of making aircraft engines to making high performance cars and motorbikes.  It would have been a great visit all on its own, but in addition we visited the plant.  Here in Munich, they only make the 3-series and we got to see many steps of the process.  From welding the body parts together, placing the body on the drive shaft and the process of painting the body, we saw so much more than we did when we visited the Mazda plant in Japan.  In some ways, this was almost too much information and we were begging for a break or at least a stop at the restroom.  When we didn’t get that, we figured we’d hang in through the last part, which was the welt.  We weren’t expecting much, since we had already looked around earlier.  What we didn’t see before was the floor upstairs where customers come to pick up their brand new BMW.  Each day people come here and are greeted with the car they have been waiting for.  They come down a giant staircase and their car is spinning platform waiting for them.  After having their photo snapped by a professional, they jump inside and learn the ins and outs of their new vehicle.  It was really neat to watch.  One car was even waiting with a big red bow.  It took me a while to believe that this present wasn’t destined for me.  What a great surprise that would have been.

Upon leaving the BMW tour, the cold October rain began to settle in.  We decided to take a break from being tourists and head back to the apartment where we are staying.  We did manage to head back out for an awesome dinner at a local brewery, but we will tell you all about that tomorrow.  Until then, go out and have a delicious German beer and some knockwurst and think of us here in Munich.

–Brooke

A store selling primarily stylish lederhosen. Is this in fashion? We aren’t sure.

Excuse me, could we please have a bigger bottle of mayonnaise? This won’t be enough.

On the subway, the rider has to open the door using the handle or else it won’t open at all. Very old fashioned!

A clay model at the BMW museum. Designers still use this technique to create new cars.

Phil’s new best friend? A water spout statue at Marienplatz

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Driving, Europe, Trains, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Sour Goodbyes and Gorgeous Hellos

St. Stehpen's at nightAt the crack of 4:30am, we woke up to get ready for our 6am train from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia.  From there, we took a very short flight on Croatian Airlines to the coastal town, Dubrovnik.  Because today was primarily a travel day, we don’t have a lot to tell you.  However, I would like to share one good story and one lovely moment.

Whenever we leave a city, we try to have as little leftover cash as possible.  We have found it sometimes difficult to exchange certain currencies and so much is lost in the exchange that we’d rather spend it.  We’ve had mixed success in this endeavor, but in Budapest we did quite well–only 500 Hungarian forint in coins left.  That’s only about $2.25 so we felt it was a success.  However, we realized that is about 140 forint shy of the amount required for the metro ride we would be taking from the Hotel to the train station.  Phil was willing to risk it and go without a ticket, and even though I felt a little uneasy, I agreed.  (I should tell you that earlier in the week, Gina and Phil made fun of me relentlessly for being a “rule follower” and buying a metro ticket when they didn’t.  Phil said he was willing to risk it because he thought it was only about an $8.00 fine if we got caught.)  In this case, Phil figured since it was 5:30am on a Saturday and we were only going three stops we would be fine.  Although I didn’t love the idea of cheating the system, I agreed Phil was probably right and we boarded the arriving train sans ticket.

Stunning hilltop in budapestWe arrived at our stop without incident and thought we were in the clear.  Not so fast!  As we joined the line to board the ascending escalator, we noticed a large group of people checking tickets.  I blame the early hour and our surprise for our inability to think quickly and jump back on the train or avoid the inspectors in some other way.  So, when they asked for our ticket, I showed them a 24 hour pass we purchased 2 days before.  Knowing it wouldn’t work, I tried to blame it on a language misunderstanding between me and the original woman who sold us the ticket.  She wasn’t buying it.  She vehemently pointed to the 24-hour description of the ticket and the date so clearly written on top.  Knowing it was hopeless, I relented and asked how much we owed for the fine. She immediately responded, “8000 forint, per person.”  Sixteen-thousand forint total!  That was almost 80 bucks! What happened to the $8.00 ticket Phil expected?  Irritated and immediately regretting my decision to join with my rule-breaking husband, I asked if they would accept a credit card.  Of course, they did not.  She would have accepted euros, but we didn’t have that either.  So while Phil stayed trying to beg and fruitlessly plead with the ticket control agent, I sped up the two escalators and several steps to find the nearest ATM.  We paid, got a receipt and apologized (all the while Phil was still trying to convince her not to give us the ticket).  Walking away defeated, Phil felt terrible and completely responsible.  I’d like to blame him completely, but I’m a grown-up and I could have bought my own ticket if I really wanted to.  I just chose to go along with him this time. Next time I’ll think twice.  (On a side note, the only other people who did not have tickets were other tourists heading to the train.  Coincidence?  I think not!)

Dubrovnik by airAfter loving Budapest so much, the ticket incident left us with a sour departure, but it was our own fault and a hard lesson learned.  Luckily, we were able to shake it off and enjoy a lovely moment later in the day which I’d also like to share.  The Croatia Airlines plane ride from Zagreb to Dubrovnik is a short 40 minutes from take-off to touchdown.  All in all, it is less than an hour on the airplane.  Exhausted, we both fell asleep almost immediately.  Phil sleeps like a baby on planes, but it is more difficult for me and I wake up much more often.  As we were nearing Dubrovnik, I awoke to see beautiful mountains outside our window.  Feeling that we were descending, I woke Phil so he could enjoy the view before we landed.  It was spectacular.  All around we saw huge mountains and rolling hills.  The plane tipped its wings to make a turn and we saw the coast of the Adriatic Sea.  At seeing this beautiful sight, there was an audible gasp from the passengers on the plane.  The mountains and ocean seemed to extend all around us.  It was amazing, but we started to question where we would land.  Except for the water, there was no extended flat space in sight.  Luckily our pilot skillfully found the runway and landed us safely among the mountains.  Since Dubrovnik’s airport is quite small, we were not surprised when we exited the plane down the steps and onto the tarmac.  Once there, we were thrilled to be hit with the most gorgeous view from any airport we’ve been to.  Passengers immediately started snapping photos, trying to capture this picturesque landscape.  This lovely welcome ensured us that our time here would be wonderful.

Croatian Tarmac

Part of the awesome view from our terrace in Dubrovnik!

Now we enjoy discovering this beautiful seaside town and await the arrival of our friend, Jack.  We aren’t sure what we’ll do tomorrow because we don’t want to discover too much before Jack gets here.  I’m sure we’ll find something awesome to occupy our time.  Actually, I’d be perfectly  happy sitting on our terrace and staring out at the Adriatic Sea with a glass of wine all day long!

–Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Customs, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Flights, Friends, Hungary, Landmarks, Rail, Surprises, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the Hotels.com and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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

Helsinki, Finland!

The third port of call on our Baltic Capitals cruise was Helsinki, Finland.  Talk about a place we don’t know anything about!  If someone were to ask us what Helsinki is known for, we would have a hard time coming up with an answer.  After spending the day there, we still can’t give a great answer to that question, but we can at least speak to it with a bit more confidence.

In order to make the most of our day, we got up bright and early, disembarked from the ship and made the lovely 30 minute walk from the cruise port into the city center.  One of the first things we noticed in Helsinki was the number of public art projects scattered throughout the city.  We came upon a park which had “knitted graffiti” covering many of the trees.  Essentially, people have knitted all kinds of patterns–stars, sunshines, flowers, etc.–and covered the park’s trees with them.  It is an interesting and surprising twist on the idea of graffiti.  We also noticed these red tags on many of the major landmarks.  A project called “Helsinki Tagged” has 80 different red tags spread around different landmarks throughout the city.  Each one has a quote which shares someone’s memory of that spot. These are designed to give insight into Helsinki as well as create a fun image for passersby who read them.  We were definitely amused by them, and it was fun trying to spot them as we roamed the city.

As we wound our way into the city center, admiring the public art, we soon found ourselves at the train station.  I should have known this was where Phil was leading us.  He loves trains and is very curious to see all these European train stations he has heard so much about.  Helsinki’s station is not quite as classic looking as Copenhagen’s, but it is still very impressive.  It was clearly designed for functionality, with large open spaces where people can easily find the train schedule or wait for arriving passengers.  Luckily for us, they had a small exhibit featuring the history of trains in Finland, including a discussion of how to build a system which works all year even through copious amounts of snow and ice.  As it turns out, it is more effective and efficient to have people maintain the signals so they stay free of ice and other obstructions.  They tried to do it automatically, but it didn’t work.  Not sure that’s a job I’d like to have, but hey, someone has to do it!

After the train station, we stumbled into the Helsinki Cathedral, a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral which was built in 1852.  This beautiful, old cathedral is still in use today and the majority of the Finns in Helsinki belong to this parish.  As with most cathedrals, this one is filled with artwork and sculpture.  We were particularly taken with the sculptures of the 12 apostles which dot the roof.  When we endeavored to name all 12 of them, we came up short by about four.  At least we knew some! We ventured inside and discovered we had arrived just in time to wander around for a few minutes before it was closed to visitors due to accommodate a midday service.  From the steps of the cathedral we could see much of the city.  We looked on the horizon and spotted another cathedral, so we decided to head towards it and find out about it.  This red brick building turned out to be the Upenski Cathedral, the main cathedral for the Finnish Orthodox Church which also claims to be the largest Orthodox cathedral in all of Western Europe.  That is a bit surprising to me since it didn’t seem all that large.  And just like the Orthodox cathedral in St. Petersburg, there are no pews or chairs since everyone is expected to stand.  Why?  Don’t they want people to come to services?  Give ’em a chair and I bet attendance would soar!

By this point we had definitely had enough of cathedrals on our improvised self guided tour, so we headed toward the waterfront and the open air market.  As we were walking there, we heard a band playing, saw men in uniform marching and a processional of some important looking people walking into a large, gated building.  A crowd gathered around watching, so we figured something important must be happening.  We stood for a bit, watching the band and soldiers march by playing music which can only be described as patriotic.  (For all I know it could have been the Finnish National Anthem, it isn’t like I would have recognized it!)  Once the band had marched away, we headed across the street to inquire as to what we had just seen.  Apparently, this was the formal welcome for the new ambassador from Norway and this building we watched them go into was the Presidential Palace.  It was pretty awesome that we just happened to be at the right place and right time to see this event.  What a welcome!

We wandered through the market for a while, seeing that the main handicraft in Helsinki is knitting.  Sweaters, hats, gloves and socks abound in this market and I’m sure if you live in such a cold climate, these become life’s essentials.  The sky began to look ominous, so we decided to grab a late lunch and then head back to the ship.  We weren’t wrong about the Ca–it started pouring as soon as we began the 30 minute walk back.  We were wet and cold.  Luckily, Norwegian had set up hot chocolate and cookies to welcome everyone back on board.  The weather continued to get even worse and the wind really kicked up.  It wasn’t an hour after we got on board that a rumor began to spread throughout the ship–our next port of call, Stockholm, Sweden, may have to be skipped.  Much speculation and distress occurred and finally after a few hours, the captain came on and told us that due to the weather we would not be going to Stockholm.  Apparently they weren’t concerned about getting into the port, but they were concerned we might not be able to get out and get back to Copenhagen.  Of course, we were very disappointed, but after seeing the 6 meter swells in the water, it started to make sense.  Thank goodness I was wearing that motion sickness patch–there were a lot of green faces on the boat!

And so, great day in Helsinki but sadly no Stockholm for us.  That means we have 2 days at sea on the Norwegian Sun.  Free food, music, open casino and activities all day.  Sleeping, reading, hanging out in the hot tub.  I suppose there are worse things!

–Brooke

Upenski Cathedral, a Finnish Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki.

Sittiing on the steps in front of Helsinki Cathedral.

Helsinki Tagged, public art example.

This is the inside of the Helsinki train station. Simple, functional and beautiful.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Rail, Trains, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.