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!

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!

Romania: Part 1

Hello everyone!

It has been a very busy 9 days in Romania, I have a lot to fill everyone in on so I am splitting the post into 2 parts to make it easier for me and for you!

We took a shuttle from Belgrade to Timișoara, which cost 20€, which was only 3€ more than taking public transport and a whole lot less complicated. The shuttle picked us up right from the hostel and dropped us off at our next hostel, which was a luxury! Timișoara is listed as one of the places not to miss in Eastern Europe due to its architecture and beautiful public squares. We arrived around 2 pm and only had the rest of the day to sightsee as the next day we had to catch a bus to Sibiu to meet up with Maxi. We began walking around and immediately were struck by how much construction was going on. It appears they are restoring the entire town! We came to square after square that was filled with massive heaps of gravel and stones, which definitely took away from the charm of the town. Chris was able to snap the following two pictures, which are identical, the only difference is where the lighting is focused. It gives you an idea of the current state of Timișoara.

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There is no denying how beautiful the buildings were, and when they finish with the reconstruction it will be absolutely incredible. The one square that was totally finished was stunning, the colorful rooftops are so beautiful.
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We managed to re-stock our toiletries, figure out our transport for the next day, get tram tickets, and withdraw money (no limit on how much you could take, which saves a lot on withdrawal fees) all within our few hour walk around town! We felt very efficent. We headed to a local brewery that was started in the 1700’s to sample the beer and get supper.
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We headed back to the Hostel for an early night as we had a late one the night before and needed to be up at 5am.

We caught the mini-bus to Sibiu at 6am the next day and were very impressed with how new the mini-bus was. We arrived to Sibiu around noon and checked into our hostel and re-charged our batteries before the arrival of the one and only Maxi! For those of you that don’t know, we met Maxi in South America last year and we traveled together (along with Sean, Justin and Tom) for around 2 months. It is incredible we were able to meet up again, and true to Maxi style he showed up wearing his “orange pants.”

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These pants were a source of constant entertainment in SA, we had many laughs at the expense of these pants. The entertainment continued as we had a few drinks and decided to head out for the night. As Sibiu is a small town and we are in off-season there wasn’t much open, so we headed to a bar called “Oldies.” Unfortunately, Oldies wasn’t a fan of Maxi’s “Orange” pants and we were not allowed in because of them! Of course this just took the cake for the saga that is these pants.

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A taxi driver took us to a different bar, where the waitress was falling asleep on a couch. When I asked why, he responded that they work 24 hour shifts and she was nearing the end of hers. Could always be worse, eh? We had a blast before heading home for some much needed sleep.

The next day we woke up and headed out to explore the town. We were told there was a pharmacy museum in the town, so of course we had to check it out. It ended up being one of the highlights of our time in Sibiu as they had a very impressive collection of artifacts beginning from the 17th century. They had beautiful Astro-Hungarian furniture where they kept the different types of medications in built-in drawers. Each drawer had a different medication, and the drawers they had labelled with black labels was to draw attention to their dangerous nature. For example, “Belladona” was in black. The early days of medication error management! They also had so many beautiful handmade scales where they would weigh the different ingredients. The next part of the exhibit had all the different devices and instruments they used to make creams, oils, ointments, tinctures, liquids etc. They did everything from scratch, starting from pressing the plants. No wonder the older generations refer to us as “chemists”! My favorite part was the old prescriptions and recipe books, not much has changed when it comes to compounding! Finally, there was an exhibit dedicated to homeopathy as there was a man who lived in Sibiu and was a forefather in the development of the practice. We had a really wonderful time at this museum and would recommend anyone visiting Sibiu to make sure to visit it!

Unfortunately, it cost 12x more than the entrance fee to take pictures, so I told the girl working the museum I was a pharmacist in Canada and luckily she took pity on me and said I could take a “few” pictures. I loosely interpreted what a “few” meant.
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After the museum we headed to the church to climb one of the towers to get a nice view of Sibiu. It was super sketchy, full of pigeon shit, and the view wasn’t that spectacular. I would not recommend doing it!

After walking the walls of the old town in a light snowfall we headed to a local restaurant for something to warm us up. I ordered a chicken noodle soup, and both Chris and Maxi ordered a meatball soup which is a very traditional romanian dish. Unfortunately, their meatballs left much to be desired. They were most definitely NOT cooked, meaning the meatballs were thrown into the soup raw and meant to cook within the soup, but were not nearly cooked enough. This also is rather disturbing as all the blood and juices cook in the soup as well? They did not eat any of the soup, and when the waiter inquired why not and they explained, we entered into a 25 minute exchange with the waiter and cooks about that the fact they were indeed cooked! The waiter even brought out a plate of raw meat at one point to prove they were cooked. It was an extremely uncomfortable encounter, as we kept trying to explain that it was okay, we would pay for the soups no problem, but we weren’t going to eat them (no matter how much they tried to convince us). We hurridly paid and left before they ended up bringing out a cow, and swore of meatball soup for the rest of our time in Romania.

After arriving back to the hostel I realized I had quite an unusual rash on my forehead. I had a mild panic attack as initially it looked a bit like shingles, but upon closer inspection I realized it looked more like bites. Examining my arms I realized I had more bites on them. I quickly realized I had encountered the unpleasantness of bed bugs for the first time. On the bright side, it is impressive we have gone this long without any run-ins with them. I will admit I never used to check my bed for them when I arrived to a hostel as we have been so lucky thus far, but after that experience I most definitely will. (Is your skin crawling yet?)

The next day we needed to catch a mini-bus from Sibiu to Sighișoara, which turned into an adventure in itself. I will leave it to Chris’s Corner to fill you in on that part of the trip, and stay tuned for part 2 where I will highlight our time in Sighișoara and Brasov!