Archive for May, 2011


We want to see every country in the world, so that includes going to some countries that most people I know haven’t been to, or could point out on a map. That for some reason intrigues me more to go there, so of course I booked a trip to go to Bulgaria & Romania for a long weekend…that happend to fall on our 6th wedding anniversary. I wanted to make sure of one thing on this trip and that was it ended up better than Poland, which was also the weekend of Annemaries’ birthday. I was determined not to let that happen again, and I think we made out alright.

Peleş Castle

Another trip, another new airline. This time we flew TAROM, the national airline of Romania. Not bad, the most posture perfect seats I’ve ever sat in, which really aren’t that comfortable, but ok. They also had an interesting meal service, in that the meal was actually wrapped in a serving mat, genius, and came with a bag to put everything in when you’re done for easier cleanup. Not sure why every airline doesn’t do this, but I guess everyone has to be different. So we were off to Romania.

somewhere outside Brasov….our “try to be artsy” photo of the trip

We land in Bucharest, go through the 21 questions at immigration, and find a taxi…which one again we got ripped off by. I won’t get into the story, but Annemarie was right, I was wrong, and once again we got ripped off by a cab driver. It seems pretty par for the course nowadays, but I never seem to get around it. At least it was the only hiccup of the trip. We made our way to the hotel, Hotel Christina, right outside the city center. The rooms had some unique touches such as craftmatic adjustable beds, and sensors on the shower head to let you know if the water was cold or hot. They also had a pretty good restaurant there, and was uber cheap. I said the Baltics were cheap in an earlier post, but this made the Baltics seem like staying at the Ritz. We had 4 course meals for it was incredible. Again, meat is a staple of all meals in Romania, but we didn’t care.

Veliko Tarnova

So we called it a night, seeing our driver was picking us up early to take us down to Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. This little town, which used to be the capital during the Byzantine Empire, was about 3 hours away from Bucharest. Again, not that much to see between the two towns, except an interesting border crossing where if weren’t with a driver, not sure if we could’ve managed. That being said, we got across ok, and headed down into Bulgaria. The town is quite small, with this fortress overlooking it from all angles. This fortress is massive, and had been around for about 600 years. Bulgaria at one time was the largest country in Europe, and this was the capital. Nowadays, most people can’t point out Bulgaria on a map and it’s one of the smaller, and less established countries in Europe. We spent some time walking around and checking out the views, as this town is right in the middle of a valley. It was pretty incredible, and I think we were the only English speaking people around, as I don’t think this is on the top 10 of anyone’s travel list from the states, but it is quite the destination for people in the Balkans.

the entrance to the fortress in Veliko Tarnovo

We had some time to walk around town as well, which again, wasn’t big, but had quite a few places to eat. Bringing up cheap again, this town was half the cost of Bucharest. Annemarie & I had two small pizza’s, two beers, and an appetizer for The pizzas were the size of small pizzas you’d order in the States, so this was a ton of food as shown below. I couldn’t believe how cheap this stuff was. The beer is actually a half liter as well, so really it’s two beers in one. Let’s just say we left full and felt we ate & drank for free.

We couldn’t find the house!

We headed back to the hotel, and then headed out to a local restaurant in Bucharest before we crashed for the night. The restaurant was Vatra, and was excellent. The only thing we found strange was it wasn’t that busy at 9pm on Friday night, but then we forgot it’s a Romanian restaurant, and mostly non-locals would go there. It was good none the less, and way too much food. We called it a night to get ready for our day trip up to Brasov.

Woke up early, grabbed breakfast, and out the door again for a 2 hour drive up to Brasov. This town was perfect, and right up our alley. It reminded us of Krakow and many other cities, as you’ll see from pictures. We took a tour around the city, and had some lunch before we headed off to see the castles. I’ll just post pictures to describe the places as I can’t do them justice. We did see Bran Castle, which most people know as Dracula’s Castle, even though Dracula has nothing to do with it. It’s a complete tourist trap, but still a sight to see. The area up there is picturesque like no other that we’ve seen, and was totally unexpected. We saw some great sights in the area that most wouldn’t see as our driver was actually from Rusnov, which is the town next to Brasov and knew where everything was. We even stopped by a dirtbike race, that ended up being the practice round for the Romanian Autocross Championships.

a view of Brasov from above

All in all, the trip was great and exceeded our expectations. If we had the chance, we would love to visit Brasov again an spend some time in northern Romania. The food, the wine and the people all made the experience great.

Bran Castle

The next time I update this blog as of now will be in early September, after we get back from Argentina, Chile, Peru & Ecuador….but knowing us we’ll probably hit up a couple more before then. Cheers

Every time I look into booking a trip, I always look to see if we can knock out at least a couple countries if possible. When I looked at booking a trip to the Baltics, I knew it would be quite easy to see Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in a short amount of time. I also looked at adding Belarus to the trip, but after learning about the visa hassle, I decided against it. So we were off to the Baltics, not to be confused wit the Balkans, and during our trip we would hit our 40th country! When I said I wanted us to visit 50 countries before we settled down, I didn’t really think we could reach it. But at the time that I wrote this, we were already sitting on 43 and had plans to already be on 47 before the end of summer. I think we’ll hit 50 and keep going strong.

Orthodox church atop the hill in Tallinn

So we started the trip in Tallin, after a 2 hour flight on Estonian Airlines, yet another one to add to the list. I should put together a list of airlines that we’ve flown as well, that could be quite a list as well. Anyway, so we were coming in for landing, and I got deja vu as the area looked in pretty bad shape, and in fact the airport looked like it was surrounded by a ghetto! Well, it actually was a ghetto, and one of the poorest parts of Tallinn. Good thing the old town area was the exact opposite of this, otherwise I fear we would’ve been on the first flight out of Estonia, stat!

“Make sure the Church is in the middle or off to the side…ok thx!”…ugh

We were only staying in Tallinn for one night, so in our typical style, we needed to conquer the city quick. Well, not knowing that old town was as small as it actually is, we conquered all the sights in about 3 hours, tops! We spent a majority of the time at a cafe on the square drinking, and enjoying some of the best soup we’ve ever had. It was smoked gouda cheese soup with bacon. Now, meat is a staple of the Baltics, and it’s everywhere. I don’t know how the girls stay so thin, but you can’t escape meat here. Vegans, collect your and keep moving because there is nothing to see here. We had a nice dinner, although very heavy even for our tastes, and crashed for the night so we could be fresh for our bus ride down to Riga, Latvia!

old town square in Tallinn

We hopped the bus, which was actually quite nice, and headed to Latvia. The scenery between the two cities was, well, dreadful. There is nothing to see, and nothing to travel back for either. Then again, didn’t expect much, so just wanted to get to Riga. We pulled into the bus station, and nothing looked that great to be honest, but we had to walk for about 10 minutes to reach the old town area and our hotel. We turned the corner, and it we did a 180, as the old town area was beautiful and what we expected. Our hotel was quite unique, as it was built within the walls of an old building that was either torn down or bombed out. The backdrop of our bed was actually the original brick wall of the old building, quite unique actually.

our room at Old City Hotel in Riga

The old town area was great, and very easy to get around. Don’t think many cars have ever made it through Riga’s old town area, as the stones were still pretty jagged in areas, and hadn’t been worn down much. The architecture was very similar to Tallinns, as was the craving for meat 🙂 The weather was great, so we just walked around all day, looked at about a dozen church’s, and then once again, sat in the square and had some drinks while we people watched. After heading back to the hotel just to change, we headed out to some popular local stop for dinner, which was extremely cheap for the amount of food they gave you. Cheap is a word that is synonymous with Eastern Europe, and still holds true in the Baltics somewhat, but I can see prices creeping up slowly as they become even more popular. Glad we stopped by when we did. After taking a late stroll through town and admiring everything lit up, we crashed out and got ready for our trip down to Vilnius, Lithuania!

Freedom Tower in Riga…guarded 24/7 by two people

Morning came, breakfast was had, and we were off to the bus station one last time to head to Vilnius! This is a country that I always heard about growing up, especially during the Barcelona Olympics when their first national basketball team was allowed to play following the end of the Russian occupation. They were made famous by the tie-dye basketball shirts they wore as warm ups. Anyway, we arrived in Vilnius around 4pm, and again, I looked around and had thought I made a huge mistake, since everything looked very drab and dreary. A local man actually spotted us, and pointed in the right direction to our hotel. We walked down the road and saw a gate-like opening on the right side. We walked through it, and immediately things changed. All of these old towns in these cities are shut off because they were walled in like a fortress, just seems strange that nothing outside those walls ever developed as nicely.

Vegans Welcome??

So we roll in to Vilnius and walk around a bit, and much to our surprise, find the city very appealing. It was quiet that day, seeing it was Easter, but we could tell the city was pretty lively none the less. We had dinner at this basement restaurant, that was a favorite among the locals, and came on the recommendation of a business colleague. It lived up to its hype, and even made it’s own beer, which made it more special for me. Again, the food was extremely heavy, and we left quite a bit on our plates, but that’s ok, since again, it was cheap. We tackled the city early the next day, and hit every spot we read about and more, including walking through the part of town that is still identical to the time it was Russian occupied. You will be able to appreciate what we saw a bit more by the pictures we took, but fair to say that Vilnius was a surprise to us, and the highlight of the trip!

sign as you enter the “Russian Occupation” part of town

Also on day 2, we headed out to a small town about 30 minutes outside of Vilnius called Trakai. The town is famous for and old castle that lies on an island in town, and is extremely well preserved. It was the off season, so we figured we could get some good pictures that would make it seem like we were the only people there. I think we succeeded:

Trakai Castle

All in all I really enjoyed Vilnius, and would like to see other parts, especially Klaipeda on the coast, but that was all the time we had for this adventure. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to Belarus now seeing it’s not the easiest country to get to with the visa situation, and there is nothing near it that would be easy to go to either, but that really has never stopped us, so who knows.

Our snack outside the castle…deep fried garlic bread with cheese….nom nom

Keep on traveling!

Now not every trip is going to be a winner, but we have had quite a bit of luck from our traveling over the last 5 years. Almost every trip has had more good than bad, and that would declare it successful. However, our trip to Poland was summed up in one simple word: FAIL!!

Maybe it came from the lack of real planning on my part? Maybe the weather didn’t really cooperate, and in fact got worse as the trip progressed? Maybe it was the fact we didn’t have actual seats on our 3.5-hour train ride between Warsaw and Krakow, and then the return as well? Or maybe it came down to the fact that for my wife’s 31st birthday we celebrated at….Auschwitz? Yes, these all are contributing factors of the worst weekend trip we have ever taken, but on the flipside, we saw some interesting things, and if was under any other circumstance, I would love to go back and spend some more time in Krakow.

So, the real reason we headed to Poland for a weekend back in March was we had never been there…and I found some cheap plane tickets on LOT Airlines. We had to fly into Warsaw, which was unfortunately a 3+ hour train ride from Krakow, our ultimate destination. I knew the trip was going to start out rough when we got to the train station, which wasn’t the main station, and it looked like something out of the Cold War. There were no signs in English, it was freezing, the building was falling apart, and at any time you felt like you were about to be in a sequel to Hostel. Luckily, we found a nice girl who spoke enough English and pointed us to the right train to get out of that hellhole and head down to Krakow. Too bad that it was the slow, miserable train!!

The scenery on the way to Krakow was, well, for lack of a better term, ugly! There really is not much to see between the two cities, especially when you make a million stops at miniscule towns and the train moves at a snails pace. It truly was the worst train ride we have ever been on….well up until that point! 😉

We finally made it into Krakow, and it was an oasis. You would never think that this beautiful old town area of Krakow was only steps from the train station in town, or anywhere near the desolate landscape we had just traveled through. Either way, we walked into town wide-eyed, made it to the hotel, and headed to dinner. Dinner was on recommendation from the hotel, and it didn’t disappoint. I have no idea what we ate (need to update blog more frequently) but it was good, especially after a long travel day. We decided the next day that we were going to head to the concentrations camps since we were in town, so we called it a night early.

This way to Schindler’s Factory

I could go on and on about our trip to Schindler’s Factory while in Krakow, but it was an experience I’ll never forget. I had never even seen the movie until after we visited, since the intrigue was quite high. I highly recommend anyone visiting Krakow to take the time to stop over there, as it’s a piece of history that everyone should see, but again, I could go on for days about it, so won’t get into any deeper in this brief overview.

Schindler’s original desk

Anyway, I had found this travel guide on TripAdvisor named Bob. Yes, his name is Bob, and his company was called, “Bob, the Taxi Driver.” He had received great reviews, so I was a bit cautious we would even get him on short notice, but we did. So at 11am, he picked us up from the hotel, and we were off to see the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have to be honest, I had never heard of the second one, and I’m not sure why, but glad we saw both. Now what can you say? They are depressing, with Auschwitz being set up more like a museum and memorial, whereas the latter is in the same condition as it was founded 60 years ago. That made it a bit more eerie, and surreal to know that thousands of people were trapped in this place. On top of that, it got dark, cold and started snowing while we were walking around, which made it even more uncomfortable knowing that people could never leave, and they were stuck in this man-made hell! Safe to say, we ended our trip a bit early and got out of there, since at one point we were the only ones in the place, and that didn’t sit well with either of us.

Even though the day was really depressing, Bob made it quite informational and taught us quite a bit about the area. He drove us around to areas that tour groups wouldn’t go, and showed us monuments that 99% of the people who visit would never see. That made it 100% worthwhile to have him around, and made up for the stupid jokes he told for about 4 hours straight.

Main square in Krakow

“Work Shall Set You Free”….the lie that ran through thousands

We headed back to Krakow then, walked around for a bit, and then got some dinner, which again was amazing. It’s really bugging me now I can’t remember what we ate, but it was phenomenal from what I remember. We didn’t have a ton of time the next day since we had to train it back to Warsaw to catch our flight, but the sun finally came out and we were able to take some better pictures, and have some breakfast out on the old town squre.

one of the better shots I took in Krakow

At least it ended on a high note, right?

Well, been a while, so there are going to be quite a few posts in a row to sum up our travels from the past 3 months, where we hit another 6 countries! After we were in San Marino, we decided we must check out Venice before heading back to Milan for the Champions League match between Tottenham and AC Milan. Anyway, after a shorter train ride, we dropped into Venice around 7pm, dropped our bags and got some dinner before hitting the city the next day.

Crazy bird guy in San Marco Square

We hear all the stories about Venice sinking, smelling bad, and pretty much falling apart. Well, all of those are true unfortunately, in one way or the other. Venice is sinking, but not in the way we think. The water keeps rising because of the oceans, and the fact that Venice still doesn’t have a good lock system surrounding it. If they ever get that up and running, I think Venice will be safe, but that’s only the first step to preserving that city. The whole city has fallen into ruin, and is dilapidated everywhere you look. Yes, it’s not as easy to maintain a city where everything can only be accessed by canals, but it must be done. The city is not built for children or the elderly either, so if you have them or are so, don’t visit Venice.

We stayed at a small hotel right on the canal, across from the train station. It actually was nice, but you could tell they are always under the constant battle of humidity, especially since it seemed all the wood in the building was being replaced with composite wood. Anyway, it was a good location and the next morning we set our sights on the city. Venice is very small, but at times seems large because you have to walk everywhere, and some of the streets are so small (3 feet wide) that you feel like you’re walking forever in a maze at times. Well, in fact you are, since you technically can never get lost in Venice, albeit we tried a few times and ran into the same thing each time….water!

the view of the Rialto Bridge from our gondola

Now, we did the few things that ever person “should” do when the visit Venice. Have dinner at a nice little restaurant, walk across the Rialto Bridge, sit in San Marco square, and take a ride in an overpriced, and less charming than advertised, gondola! The latter is the most famous thing to do in Venice, as heard by tourists for years, but we’ll confirm that it has lost most of its charm. There are hundreds of gondola’s around the canals, and they all bother you like a peddler on the beach in Mexico. Second, they are vastly overpriced. $85 for a half hour is robbery, but it’s for the experience right? Then, when you think that the gondoliers are going to sing, they actually get on their mobile phones and chat with their friends…..who are also gondoliers! Was it nice going down the Grand Canal on a gondola, sure. Would we do it again, no!

Getting lost in the streets of Venice

Venice is extremely expensive to live in, so rates like these need to exist for these workers to live. The problem is I didn’t think Venice was that great, and didn’t live up to the hype. On the other hand, it’s a unique city, and does have hidden gems to see…like riding away on a boat to see Murano Island, the home of the famous glass makers, which surprise, is also vastly overpriced! We thought we found a killer piece for our home, wherever that might be in a few years, only to find out that it was about 10x the price I had in my head….and there were thousands of pieces in this one store on the island. Safe to say, I can see why their business is hurting as well.

Worker molding out some pieces on Murano Island

The food we had for a few nights there was extremely good, taking away the joint we ate on the first night that was some of the worst Italian food I’ve ever eaten, let alone Annemarie who is a critic beyond critics when it comes to her favorite food. The little trattorias that we found the other nights were great, and tucked away in corners as we expected they woud be, spoke zero english, and everything was homemade. That will stick with me as my fondest memory of Venice.

Best shot of the weekend!

After 2 nights in Venice, we headed back over to Milan to only encounter some terrible weather, which continued throughout the whole day and night. Good thing there was some cover, and that our seats were covered at the match, otherwise it would have been a pretty miserable day. It was a great end to the trip, as Tottenham upset AC Milan, 1-0, with the winner coming in the 80th minute. Standing up and cheering in the middle of a group of Italian fans is not the smartest thing to do, but with the amount of police around, I had no fear. Of course we left the match before most of the Tottenham fans did, and disguised ourselves until we made it back to the hotel 🙂

Great match & a great win for Spurs!