Bucharest and the Conclusion of Leg 1

Hi Everyone!

We are now in Istanbul, Turkey. My the difference 24 hours can make! Here is the conclusion of our first leg of the trip.

We spent 3 days in Bucharest, Romania in order to catch our flight to Istanbul. Retrospectively, we would not have booked this flight as it was possible to continue on to Istanbul on a 17 hour overnight train from Veliko Tarnovo for $40 CAD, but hindsight is always 20/20. Our first moments of Bucharest were not pleasant ones; when we arrived to our hostel, “The Cozyness Downtown Hostel,” it was packed with absolutely no room to even move around really. The room was even worse, it was a 6 bed dorm in a room big enough for a double bed. The toilets were in old closets, with barely enough room to shut the door when you entered. “Cozyness” was more like an endearing term given to house that was converted to fit as many bodies in a too small place as possible to make it seem “hip.” When we asked for recommendations of places to see, and restaurants to eat, we were not given much. We went to eat the standard dish you eat when you are broke and in Eastern Europe, Kebab, then went to bed.

The next day it was raining, and freezing. We attempted to walk around but we were just not feeling it. The city is very hard looking and decrepit in places, the rain just made it worse. We had lunch and then headed back to the hostel to play cards for the rest of the day. Luckily, most of the hostel guest checked out, and there was a lot more room and it felt a lot more comfortable. I could definitely see the “cozyness” aspect of the hostel now. Our friend Noah, who we met in Veliko, came over that evening and we had a few drinks while getting caught up on his adventures the last few days.

The next day was gorgeously sunny and 15 degrees. We headed out on the walking tour and were highly entertained by the guide who was incredibly witty, especially considering english is not his mother tongue. We learned a lot about the tumultuous history of the city, and we began to see the beauty between the falling down buildings. Bucharest started to win us over. We had lunch with Noah, and then went to check out the Palace of the Parliment building. For those of you, like me, that have never heard of the building, you should google it. It is insane! It is the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon, at 3,700,000 sq ft. It was the brain child of Ceaușescu, and he had a large portion of the city demolished to see it brought to life. Below is a picture, but I encourage you to learn more about it!

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We headed to Istanbul at 2 am that night!

Recap of Leg 1: In total we spent 74 days in 11 countries. While we mostly stuck to our original itinerary, we did make several changes along the way;

1) Our biggest regret was having to skip Bosnia and Herzegovina due to time constraints. We originally planned to spend about a week in the country. Next trip will definitely include a stop here!

2) We planned to spend a few days in Slovakia which we also skipped due to cost

3) Added the side trip to Italy/Germany to see Monica

4) Added Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Of course there was also changes along the way day-to-day in terms of not going to every single town /village/attraction we planned too; but the abovementioned changes were the major changes.

I know the burning question most people have is, “What was it like in Eastern Europe in the winter?” We were incredibly lucky with the weather, I would say it was perfectly fine to travel in the winter. We experienced snow only once (Sorry Canada), and rain only 2-3 days. In some parts it certainly was cold, but in others it was delightfully warm. Overall, I would rate our time in Eastern Europe as “exceeded expectations” with regards to the weather.

Something more important to consider with traveling this area in the winter is the fact many places simply shut for the winter (especially in smaller towns). This means hostels, restaurants, attractions etc.

Prices are rockbottom at this time of year. In Croatia we were paying 8x less than we would have paid if we had gone in high season! The downside of this is the hostels are vacant (upside being you never have to wait for a bathroom) so there is very little atmosphere most of the time. Also, the types of travelers that choose off-season travel can be, shall we say, interesting (us included! lol!).

Top 5 Highlights for Kathleen;

1)Hvar Island, Croatia- This island is stunning and the owner of our hostel was a beauty who enabled us to see the whole island.

2) Prague, Czech Republic- I don’t think I need to explain this one- google search an image of the main square in old town and you will have all the explanation you need!

3) Kotor, Montenegro- Amazing hostel with amazing staff in a breathtaking location!

4)Krakow, Poland- I could say all of Poland as we had an incredible time in the country but Krakow was extra special. Great student vibe, incredibly cheap, and it is the gateway to visit one of the most historicallyimportant sites in the world.

5) Bled, Slovenia- The beauty of this place is indescribable.

Top 5 Highlights for Chris (I made my list first- he made his top 5 different than mine but if he hadn’t there definitely be some overlap!):

1. Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland: It would be a shame to attempt to describe the experience; Everyone must go as they owe it to all the lives that were lost. It triggers introspective thought, and critical thinking on the bigger picture of humanity.

2. Split, Croatia: “Don’t go in winter they said, It will be cold they said”. Nonsense! 17 degrees and sunny every day. A beautiful town set on the Adriatic Sea with clear blue waters, beautiful people, and lots of activities to let time pass you by.

3. Transylvania, Romania; home of “Dracula”, castles, forests, and preserved Mid evil towns. The slow pace of life provided us a much needed rest and rejuvenation, while allowing us to re connect for a week with our good friend Maxim and to make new friends as well.

4. Veliko Tarnova: This Bulgarian town set in a gorge between mountains and rivers is the perfect mix of history and untouched nature. We were able to tour an ancient fortress, then hike 12km through waterfalls and natural perfection to an ancient monestary with our Aussie friend Noah. Not to mention the cheap 5-star restaurant that we stumbled upon and subsequently ate at daily!

5. Hostel Animals: So many have provided us with a bit of what we are missing- hanging out with our two cats. From hostel cats in Montenegro, to a hostel dog in Bulgaria. We have been spoiled with four-legged companionship!

Look out for my final budget post for Eastern Europe! I promise to get it posted in the next few days.

Cheers!

Bulgaria

Hi Everyone!

We spent 4 nights in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria at Hostel Mostel. For $12.15 CAD each we had a dorm bed, a delicious breakfast, light supper, and 1 beer a day. It was awesome for the budget!

When we arrived to the train station in Veliko it was 7 pm and none of us ( Mickey came with us!) had any Bulgarian money and the station was so small there was no ATMs. Immediately a taxi driver started offering us accomodation, a ride, to use his cell phone etc. He was very insistent and seemingly unaware that we did not want anything to do with him! A young Bulgarian guy approached us and asked if we had a lighter, and we got talking to him and asked how we should get into town without any money. He then said his friend was coming to get him and he would ask if it would be okay to give us a lift. Remember what I said about locals? In this case all 3 of us intuitively knew that he was being genuinely friendly. His friend thankfully obliged, and even know they had no idea where our hostel was they kept stopping and asking people until they got us there. We made plans to meet up the following night for a drink to thank them for helping us out.

The next day we had a bit of a slow start but headed to a restaurant that is the number one restaurant in Bulgaria for lunch. We shared 3 different meals; spicy chicken risotto, veal meatballs stuffed with bacon, cheese and thyme accompanied by grilled vegetables, and a pork medallion dish that had an incredible gravy with roasted potatoes as a side. The guys each had Belgium dark beers, and I had a water. All three meals were fantastic, and we each paid only $10 CAD. I can’t even imagine what you would pay in Canada for the same quality meal! The restaurant also had an amazing view of the valley with the famous horse monument. We ate lunch there every single day!

We next headed down to the monument and then slowly walked back to the hostel along the medieval cobblestone streets. That evening we met up with George and Stan (the guys who drove us to the hostel from the train station) at a local pub where we exchanged stories about all our different countries. George and Stan were members of the first class of graduates majoring in tourism from the local university. We chatted at length about the different opportunities to develop tourism in Veliko, and we were able to provide insight for what travelers are looking for. There were many rounds of rakia had, and it was just as awful as I remembered from the other countries we had it. (Eh, Mickey?) We went to a local fastfood joint run by a British guy and smashed some delicious cheeseburgers before hailing a cab and serenading the driver with songs all the way back to the hostel.

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The next day Chris and I explored the fortress, and then sadly had to say goodbye to Mickey. We hope to meet up in Istanbul for a night, or in Indonesia at the end of the year. It was an early night for us as we were exhausted from the previous night.

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The next day we headed out for a 12 km hike to a monestary with another Aussie, Noah, we met at the hostel (noticing a theme here?) The hike was spectacular, we had amazing views of Veliko and the fortress from above. It was so quiet hiking through the forest, it reminded us a lot of South America. We came across 2 waterfalls both of which were beautiful. The only “small” thing was we periodically came across areas where you could tell people were staying (fire pits recently used, garbage, water bottles dangling from trees to collect water). Most likely, this would be Roma people. The only concern with this is that there are stories of people being attacked by them to steal money, belongings, etc. We hoped we wouldn’t encounter any, and thankfully we did not. The monestary itself wasn’t even open, so we simply hiked in and hiked out. It was a beautifully sunny day and it felt amazing to be out hiking again. We are looking forward to being able to hike a lot more in the coming months!

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That evening we sat around drinking tea and playing cards with a few other guests. It was a relaxing end to a fantastic day!

We headed to Bucharest today to catch our flight to Istanbul on Sunday. Look out for my recap post of our time in Eastern Europe in the next couple of days!

Romania: Part 2

Hi everyone!

Picking up where I left off from my last post (excluding the saga it was to catch a bus which Chris will cover) we arrived to Sighișoara at around 8 pm and were staying at a B&B as the hostels were quite poorly rated. The owner of Casa Lia, the B&B, was a beauty of a guy and had supper waiting for us when we arrived. It was a delicious goulash with homemade bread, and of course shots of rakia and wine to go with our meal. We happily ate our meal then headed to bed as we were exhausted.

The next day we woke up and headed out to explore the small medivial town. It is very beautiful, with brightly colored houses, cobblestone streets, and old fortress walls. It had a slow pace of life that was very delightful to soak in. The most famous thing in Sighisoara is the house that Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula was born. Of course, that means there were tons of stores with cheesy Dracula souvenirs to explore. After exploring the town all day we headed to a “fancy” restaurant for supper, where I tried traditional Romanian cabbage rolls (I love cabbage rolls- they weren’t as good as moms but they were still pretty tasty!), and Chris had chicken with a tarragon sauce. My meal was $4.50 and Chris’s was $6.50-not bad for the swankiest place in town!

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The next day we woke up very early to catch the train to Brasov. When we showed up at the station we were immediately accosted by several people, one of which was an older gentlemen who spoke Russian and Romanian, and we suspected was very drunk despite it being 7 am. About 2 hours into the journey the man showed up at the door of our carriage and asked if he could join us. He kept wishing me a happy women’s day, in broken russian/romanian, and telling me I was a princess. He even gave Chris a kiss on the cheek! He then produced a box of chocolates in a pretty bag, and said it was a gift. I am always very wary of accepting gifts from strangers when we travel as it is hard discern their intentions (especially if they are drunk). I adamantly denied accepting the gift, but he was very insistent and finally I obliged, but did not open them. I thought I would get away with that, but then he insisted on opening them and sharing them. All travelers have heard horror stories of people being offered food on a bus/train and then waking up hours later to find all their belongings stolen, so of course that is the first thing I thought of. However, the packaging was sealed in plastic so I figured it was safe. We all begrudgingly ate our chocolate, and then as quick as he appeared, he was gone. We all anticipated he would show up before arriving in Brasov requesting money for the gift, but we never saw him again. That is the hard part about meeting locals; 99% of the time the people you meet are genuinely wonderful people but you always have to have your guard up for those 1% of people who are looking for something from you. I felt guilty afterwards for being so cautious, but also for knowing the chocolates were probably for someone else and when he sobered up he would be mad for giving them away.

Upon arriving in Brasov I quickly realized Women’s Day is a highly celebrated day in Romania. Everywhere women were receiving flowers, some men were even walking around handing them out to strangers! Everyone was out for lunch or dinner with the women in their lives, and we saw lots of women receiving gifts. It was lovely!

We decided to try our hand at an escape room for the afternoon. The premise is you are sent into a room that you need to figure out how to get out of, with nothing to go on except what is in the room. This place actually had 2 rooms that you had to work your way through. The time limit was 1 hour. It was actually very challenging and fun, I would say that some of the tasks were a bit of a stretch, but it was very entertaining. You were able to request 5 hints throughout the time, and we did use the 5 hints. We made it out in just about 1 hour, we lost a bit of steam by the end of it. After that we headed to the main square to soak up the sun with a few patio beers.

The next day we joined the free walking tour and were very happy we did as the tour guide was so sweet and gave out lollies for answering questions correctly. After the walking tour we stopped to grab a bite to eat and noticed a lot of activity going on at a monument the restaurant looked out on. There was some sort of military service, and it had something to do with the communist era, but that was about all we could gather. We sat and watched it for an hour or so, it was interesting.

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The next day we headed to two castles that are close by to Brasov. The first castle is Bran Castle and is famous because “Dracula” was held prisoner there for a period of time. The castle had a lot of furniture and artifacts from throughout the 17th and 18th century, and several rooms dedicated to the myth of Dracula. Many believe the author of Dracula based the castle from the book off Bran Castle. The castle itself was okay, but we paid extra to see the medival torture instrument exhibit which in our opinion, was much more interesting. There were 52 items in the exhibit with a writeup with each. I won’t go into detail, but what I will say is I am happy I didn’t live in that era! If you make a trip fo Bran definitely pay the few extra dollars to checkout the exhibit.

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On the way back to Brasov we stopped at Rasnov Fortress. I liked Rasnov more for its location, you had a beautiful view from the top of the fortress. If didn’t have any exhibits you wandered through- you just walked around the fortress which is in varying degrees of degradation. You could pay money to try your hand at medival axe throwing, or shoot a compound bow. Maxi tried both- highly entertaining!

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The following day Maxi had to head back to Cluj to catch his flight back to the Netherlands. It was so amazing having him with us for the 8 days- we were sad to see him go. We spent the rest of the day watching movies and relaxing at the hostel.
We planned to leave the next day but when we woke up in the morning we didn’t feel like moving. We had met an Aussie guy the evening before and made plans to make dinner that evening. With dinner came wine, with wine came a very fun evening on the town. For $1.50 CAD you could get 1.5 L of draft beer at a local brewery! Needless to say, we did not end up leaving the next day either. Over the next few days we spent our time relaxing watching movies, and hanging out with Mickey (the Aussie guy who is a complete beauty) getting up to shenanigans. We went bowling one night, which was a blast.

In total we spent a week in Brasov. Anyone who has spent time there will think, “A week? What did they do for a week?” We had so much fun and needed to just stay put for a bit, so it was perfect to charge our batteries. That is the beauty of long-term travel, if you don’t want to leave somewhere you don’t have to!

We are now in Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria where we will spend a few days before heading to Bucharest to catch our flight to Turkey.

Cheers!