Saturday, July 28, 2012

Helsinki, Finland

Today is our last day in Europe; this afternoon we fly to New York, and then L.A.  The last few days have been busy as we drove from Transylvania to Bucharest in our rented car; took an overnight sleeper train from Bucharest to Budapest; and flew to Helsinki from Budapest.

Helsinki is the first place we've visited on our monthlong trip where the temperatures have dipped into the 70s, which is a nice change.  We had one afternoon and evening to sightsee, and we used it to walk around the town center, take a ferry boat out to a ruined fortress on an island, and enjoy a delicious Indian meal.

Helsinki is busy, lively and colorful.  Street musicians play everything from New Orleans style jazz to the accordian, and people sit in the cafes, or enjoy picnics in the city's numerous parks.  The electric trams and buses are efficient, cheap and easy to use.

However, prices are much steeper than in Eastern Europe.  On my "beer-o-meter," Helsinki is at the top, with a draft brew costing $7-$8 - and often not even filled to the top of the glass - compared with $1-$3 in most of the places we've been.

As we walked around the town last night, we were caught in a brief downpour, which felt very refreshing after the summer heat we've endured. Then, it the middle of the night, it rained again, furiously, for more than a half-hour.  I enjoyed standing by the open window, feeling the mist on my face.

As we wrap up our trip, here are a few final photos from Romania, including a shot of the family who ran a guest house in Sighisoara, who fed us delicious local dishes, shared homemade wine and eggs from their chickens, and treated us like royalty. Also are shots from a hike we took in the Bucegi Mountains, an ancient fort, and the town square in Braso's old town.

Friday, July 20, 2012


We are now touring Transylania, where we plan to do some hiking and checking out castles and historic Saxon towns.  For the first time we are traveling by car.  The roads are good, but due to construction there are lots of traffic jams.

We spent a few days in Bucarest, the capital, which is a large, lively city with a vibrant art scene.  We caught a performance by a local jazz singer, accompanied by an excellent guitarist.

Here are a few photos, including the massive government building erected by Romania's former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fountains in one of Bucarest's main boulevards, and Peles Castle in Sinaia.

The Parliament building is one of the largest in the world, reportedly second only to the Pentagon in square footage.  And Ceausescu bulldozed an entire historic neighborhood to build it, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes.  No wonder he was so despised by his people that he and his wife were executed immediately after the fall of Communism in Romania.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rila Monastery near Sofia

This is a 360-degree view of the courtyard of the Rila Monastery near Sofia, Bulgaria.  The working monastery was established on the site in the 10th century.  Today it is also a tourist atraction, with an interesting museum on site.  This view shows the monks' quarters, along with the painted church in the center of the courtyard.  The monastery is in the foothills of a mountain range.

Sofia, Bulgaria

A series of three exhausting bus rides carried us from Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Sofia, Bulgaria, where we are now spending our final day.

Along the way, we stopped off in a picturesque, laid-back seaside town in Montenegro, called Herzeg Novi, and the rough-edged but friendly city of Nis, in Serbia.  The trip required numerous frustrating waits at border checkpoints, and a dizzying change of currencies, which affected everything from our ability to use pay toilets, to buying onward bus tickets.

Over the space of two days, we went from the Croatian kuna to the euro (Montenegro) to the dinar (Serbia) to the lev (Bulgaria.)  At one point, I had four different currencies in my pocket, and literally did not have the right change to pay for a bathroom visit. (Nearly all public toilets in the countries we have visited charge a small fee.)

Our first and only near-disaster occurred when we arrived in Montenegro, where we immediately went to an ATM to withdraw euros, and found out our bank had shut off our ATM cards.  No problem, I thought, I'll just cash in some U.S. dollars I had stashed in my money belt for just such an occurrence.  Unfortunately, that particular Friday was a bank holiday.  A friendly local smiled as we tried the door in vain.  "Monday," he said.  Herzeg Novi also had no money changing bureaus, so it looked like we were stuck.

We showed up at the local tourist office, sweating like longshoremen and a tiny bit desperate.  Ana, a kind woman who worked there, took pity on us and withdrew money from her own bank account to exchange for our left-over Croatian kuna, a real life-saver.  Luckily, we were able to get ahold of our bank via Skype and quickly resolve our ATM card problem.

We spent a hot, dusty day in Nis, Serbia, awaiting our afternoon bus to Sofia.  We checked out a local mall (mostly for the AC) and visited the "Tower of Skulls," the biggest local attraction.  The 200-year old stone tower was built by the Turks, who incorporated the skulls of killed Serbian soldiers to intimidate the local population.

Rolling into Sofia, we saw Gypsy slums of tin-roofed shacks, which didn't bode well.  But the center of Sofia is very nice, with its museums, monuments, and tree-shaded pedestrian promenades lined with upscale shops and cafes.  Our hotel is great, with AC, a restaurant built around a greenhouse, and very friendly staff.

Tonight, we board a sleeper train for Bucharest, Romania.  When we asked the ticket agent if the train had AC, she said "maybe," and shrugged.  "It's a Russian train," she said, as if that explained everything, even the lack of a dining car or locking compartment doors.  Her colleague said to tell the conductor where we wanted to get off; otherwise, she said, we might end up in Moscow, the train's final stop.

Here are photos of a street near our hotel, Sofia's Alexander Nevski cathedral and the Rila Monastery near Sofia.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Our travels across Croatia have taken us to Dubrovnik, considered by many to be the Jewel of the Adriatic.  The city is in high tourist season; cruise ships are bringing thousands of passengers daily, and everything from museums to cafes to local buses is jam-packed with visitors, including many Americans.

Also, temperatures continue to soar - yesterday, we walked Dubrovnik's iconic city walls, which offer gorgeous view of the sea and the old town's lovely historic buildings with their orange tile roofs.  The mercury hit early 100 degrees well  before 9 a.m.

In the afternoon, we huddled in our air-conditioned room and took a nap.  Then in the evening, when it was cooler, we ventured out to stroll through the old town once more, and have dinner in an excellent vegetarian restaurant.  We had planned to go to the beach today, our final day in Dubrovnik, but the heat may deter us.  Instead, maybe we'll find a cool cinema.

We lucked out by arriving for the first night of the annual summer Dubrovnik music and arts festival, and were treated to a fireworks show above the old city, and a concert by a Croatian pop singer in front of a beautiful church.  (We enjoyed the music, although we  couldn't understand the lyrics, until the band played Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here.") The entire town seemed to turn out for this event, with everyone dressed in their finest clothes.

Tomorrow we set out for the next leg of our trip, traveling by bus through Montenegro and Serbia to tour Bulgaria and Romania.  This will be interesting, since some of these countries use the cyrillic alphabet and we won't even be able to read the signs or restaurant menus!

Here are a few photos from Dubrovnik.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Korcula, Croatia

We are now in Korcula, Croatia, an island off the coast.  We took a speedy catamaran ferry here from Split.  Our apartment is right in the middle of the tiny, but breathtaking old town, easy walking to everything.  Yesterday, we took a water taxi to nearby Badija island to swim and hike.  The water is a deep, turqoise blue, and deep green forests cover many of the islands.  Beaches are rocky, but the water is clear and warm, perfect for swimming.

At night, we've been cooking dinner in our apartment and eating on the small table outside our room, which is situated in a narrow passage way, next to a local restaurant.  As we ate, a group of local kids watched Kung Fu Panda on a laptop set up on a cardboard box.  The days are hot and sunny, but the nights pleasantly cool and breezy.

Here are a few photos from Split and Korcula.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sweating in Split

Hello from Split, Croatia, our first stop on the Dalmatian coast.  As it's been everywhere on our trip so far, the temperatures are very warm, in the 90s during the daytime, but luckily, for the first time, we have air-conditioning in our room!  We found a small apartment with a kitchenette, just a few steps from the historic town center, so we are enjoying the best of both worlds - strolling on Split's marble streets in the daytime, and huddling under our blankets in the blissfully chilly apartment at night.

We are just up the street from Diocletian's Palace, formerly the Roman emperor's summer residence.  Now, within its ancient stone walls are a mix of apartments, shops, restaurants, bars and hotels.  The streets are narrow, crooked, and it's pretty easy to get disoriented and lost, as we nearly did the first day.

Along one side of the palace is Split's picturesque harbor, where vessels ranging from small excursion boats to mammoth cruise ships are coming and going all day and night.  This afternoon, we will roll our bags down to the harbor and board a fast catamaran ferry for Korcula Island.  Then we will travel on to Dubrovnik, Croatia's crown jewel.

Rooms here are pricy because it is high season, we got a pretty good deal on our modern, clean apartment for 90 euro per night, or about $111.  Restaurant meals are more reasonable, each night we have dined on seafood and local meat specialties at mid-priced eateries for $40-$50 for the three of us, including beer and wine and appetizers.  A large draft beer can be found for as little as $2, and an ice cream cone costs 7 kuna, or just over $1.

All for now, here are a few pics.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


We arrived in Croatia on Monday after a grueling, 7-hour train ride from Budapest.  I say grueling because the temperature was in the high 90s, and there was absolutely no water on the train, and we were not allowed to get off the train to buy drinks.

But once we arrived in Zagreb, things turned around right away.  We were captivated by the city's beautiful historic buildings, shady public squares and fountains, and lively cafe scenes.  Locals strolled city streets in the dusk, enjoying the relative cool of the evenings.  We loved the large fruit and vegetable market near our hotel, and enjoyed excellent meals, from Italian pasta dishes to fresh seafood.  Zagreb has many of the charms of Budapest, but on a much smaller and more manageable scale.  Locals seemed friendlier, maybe because not as many tourists hang out there.

From Zagreb, we visited Plitvice Lakes National Park, a bus ride about two hours away.  The park consists of a chain of lakes with crystal clear water, that shines turqoise and emerald green in the sun.  Visitors tour the park on trails, and a system of raised wooden walkways.  The lakes are interspersed with dozens of waterfalls, some towering, some just a few feet high, which fill the park with the soothing sound of rushing water.

Here are few photos from Zagreb and Plitvice.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Treat for the Ears

Here is a link to a short video clip of the musicians playing at a Hungarian restaurant during our stay in Budapest.  Of course, we ate goulash and chicken paprikash, which were delicious! The place was tucked away in a back street near our hotel, which was also in a very quiet residential neighborhood.  Mostly locals were dining at the restaurant that night, joyously singing along as the band played traditional Hungarian tunes.

A Hot Time in Bupapest

Greetings from Budapest, Hungary.  We have been in this beautiful city on the Danube River for four days now, in the midst of a sweltering heat wave.  We were told that on Sunday, a record was set for this time of year, because the mercury never went below 24 celcius (75 fahrenheit) during the night (of course, it was much hotter, in the 90s, during the daytime.)

Our Budapest highlights included: walking on the grounds of Buda castle near dusk, admiring the sweeping views of the city below, including boats on the Danube and the massive yet intricate Parliament building; soaking in the city's famous Gellert thermal pools; bicycling around shady Margaret Island, and watching the locals try to stay cool; and cheering on Spain in the European championship game at an open air cafe in the very touristy, but lively, Vorosmarty Square in central Pest.

Also, meeting some very nice American ex-pats at a Fourth of July picnic, held in a beer garden in City Park, a sprawling recreational and cultural oasis in the northeast quadrant of the city.  The party was held in the shadow of the park's George Washington statue, a fitting location.

Along the way, we became experts on using Budapest's excellent public transportation system, including the Metro, buses and electric street cars.  And lots of walking.

Now it's off to Zagreb, Croatia, by train.