Hello Friends & Family!

Welcome to my first ever attempt at blogging…I figured that now was as good a time as any to get started, as I’m about to embark on what’s being called the “trip of a lifetime”.

I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to take some time off from a very busy career to do some traveling, reflect and decide what I’d like to do with the next chapter of my life.  My very own version of “Eat. Pray. Love.”

So here’s the scoop.  My last day of work was October 31st, subsequent to which I packed up my worldly belongings, put them in storage in San Diego, filled my car with a few suitcases and made my way up the west coast en route to Seattle, which is serving as my “home base” and official address of record for the next several months. After a quick flight to the east coast for my cousin’s wedding (congratulations Bobby & Susan!) and a fabulous excursion to NYC with my Mom (Jane) and sister-in-law (Kathi), it was time to get busy with details of trip planning–obtaining visas, new passport pages, vaccinations, hotels, flights, etc.

I departed the US on December 30th, with the following itinerary (in order of travel):

New Zealand

Australia

Thailand

Vietnam

Cambodia

Indonesia (Bali)

Myanmar (aka Burma)

Bhutan

Japan

I returned to the US in early May, then took off again, this time for South America.  Just 2 destinations on this leg of my trip:

Peru

Argentina

And finally, beginning in July, a jaunt through Europe:

England

Wales

Ireland

Netherlands

Czech Republic

Croatia

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Hungary

Romania

Italy

France

Portugal

Spain

Thanks for joining me on this fabulous journey!

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CRUISING THE ROUTE DES GRANDS CRUS

Halfway through my 2-week stay in Sancerre, France, Sibyl, one of my classmates at Couer de France language school, and I decided to “get out of dodge” for the weekend.  Sancerre is a charming little town, but if you read my previous post, you learned that it’s a bit, ahem, quiet (or calme as the French say), and after a week there, Sibyl and I were looking forward to escaping for a couple of days.

Sancerre is located in the Loire Valley, which just so happens to border the beautiful region of Bourgogne (aka Burgundy), famous of course for producing some of the best wines in France.

The Bourgogne region

The Bourgogne region

For winos, the single most important area of Burgundy is the “Route des Grands Crus”, that wends its way from the city of Dijon (yep, where the mustard originated) down to the village of Santenay, about 40 miles south.  The route stretches through glorious countryside featuring rolling green hills, dotted with charming stone-built villages and perfectly-tended vineyards everywhere you look.  To further break it down, the Route des Grands Crus covers two regions: the Côte de Nuits in the northern section, known for its sophisticated reds made from Pinot Noir grapes, and the Côte de Beaune in the southern section, known for its white wines from Chardonnay grapes.

Route des Grands Crus

Route des Grands Crus

Sibyl took the initiative to rent a car for our road trip, about 3 hours each way from Sancerre, and after a rather late start on Saturday, we made our way to the very nice town of Beaune to sample some local burgundies and then on to the picturesque, yet sleepy village of Puligny-Montrachet where we were booked at Le Montrachet Hotel.

Puligny Montrachet sign

Arriving in Puligny-Montrachet

Le Montrachet Hotel

Le Montrachet Hotel (no, that’s not our rental car in front)

The hotel offered a five-course prix-fixe dinner that we opted to splurge on, one of the highlights being a seriously dangerous cheese cart – dangerous to the waistline, that is.  How French women manage to stay so slim with so many temptations is beyond me.

Le Montrachet cheese cart

Le Montrachet cheese cart

The next morning, after a quick walk to the local boulangerie, we made our way once again to the town of Beaune for a wine-tasting at the Marché Aux Vins, which offered a unique tasting experience in a 14th century Franciscan church, where you are given a glass and set loose to taste 12 different local wines (serve yourself – yikes!) set up on a series of candlelit wine barrels.

Sibyl at Marché aux Vins in Beaune

Sibyl at Marché aux Vins

Afterward, we explored the town of Beaune, had a leisurely French lunch (side note to Elyce D. and Julia L…the restaurant was a dead ringer for La Bonne Soupe on W. 55th in NYC – I had a crazy feeling of déja vu when we walked in) and then met up with Francois, who owns a local touring company that takes guests on 4-wheel drive tours of Route des Grands Crus vineyards.

Hospices de Beaune

Hospices de Beaune

An enormous cow at a town fair in Beune

An enormous cow at a town fair in Beune

It was a great way to learn more about the area, see some “off the beaten path” villages and, you guessed it, taste some more wine.  Highly recommended, as Burgundy wines can be a very confusing and Francois helped to simplify and demystify some things for us.  I’m thrilled to have come away from it able to understand how to decipher a wine label from the region!

Vineyard on the Route des Grands Crus

Vineyard on the Route des Grands Crus

The famous Chateau du Clos de Vougeot

The famous Chateau du Clos de Vougeot

Pinot noir grapes almost ready for harvest

Pinot noir grapes almost ready for harvest

Wine tasting with Sibyl and tour guide Francois

Wine tasting with Sibyl and tour guide Francois

Lineup of Bourgogne wines at tasting

Lineup of Bourgogne wines at tasting

‘Merci beaucoup’ to Sibyl for brainstorming the trip, renting the car and serving as chauffeur.  It was a fun weekend excursion to a magnificent part of France.

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BACK TO SCHOOL – SANCERRE STYLE

I arrived in the small town of Sancerre, France on a sunny Sunday morning.  I had arrived in Paris from Portugal the night before, and after an overnight at an airport hotel, took an early train to the town of Cosne-sur-Loire, which has the nearest train station to Sancerre.

Sancerre - in the middle of France

Sancerre – in the middle of France

Many people are familiar with Sancerre for its namesake wine, and while I was subconsciously planning to indulge in a fair share of wine during my stay, the primary reason for my visit was to take a 2-week French course at Couer de France School of Language.  I took a semester of French in college, and had the opportunity to practice the basics: bonjour, merci, au revoir, etc. on subsequent visits to France, but other than that, my retention of the language was meager at best.  I was looking forward to going back to school and improving my skills.

After settling into my little apartment near the town center, my broken toe and I took off (with the aid of our trés fashionable walking stick) to hobble around the town and see what we could see.

My apartment in Sancerre

My apartment in Sancerre

I quickly learned that Sunday was a very quiet day in Sancerre, with no open shops (no groceries pour moi) and only a couple of open restaurants. I would learn during my 2 weeks in Sancerre that Sundays were not significantly different from every other day.  It’s a very quiet town, with very interesting store hours: most everything closed on Sundays and Mondays, and also closed every day from noon to 3pm.  Some shops weren’t even open during their posted hours, so one had to be very flexible with their shopping habits.

Les Fossiles Bar - closed on Sunday!

Les Fossiles Bar – very cute, but closed every time I tried to go there!

View from the La Tour of Sancerre

View from “La Tour” (the tower) of Sancerre

That said, Sancerre is a lovely place…a medieval hilltop town overlooking the vineyards of the Loire River Valley that gives one the sense of having stepped back in time. Sancerre has a population of less than 2,000 people, many of whom seem to be engaged in some way with the wine industry.  I became a fan of Sancerre wine during my visit and learned that 80% of Sancerre is white, made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are grown in the local chalky soil that contribute to the dry, mineral quality of the wine.  The remaining 20% of the area production is Pinot Noir, which creates light reds (Sancerre Rouge) and rosés.

Church in Sancerre

Church in Sancerre

With hostess Brigitte at "degustation" (wine tasting). Her son and daughter-in-law wrote the book that we're holding

With hostess Brigitte at a “degustation” (wine tasting). Her son and daughter-in-law wrote and illustrated the lovely book about Sancerre wine that we’re holding

The region is also known for “Crottin de Chavignol”, the best goat cheese (chèvre) you will ever taste.  It is produced by local farms in the tiny village of Chavignol (just outside of Sancerre) using traditional methods and is one of the rare cheeses that can be eaten at various stages of maturity, each with its own unique flavor and texture.  Yum!

Hanging with goats at chevre farm in Chavignol

Hanging with goats at a chevre farm in Chavignol (the goat behind me just happens to be eating my coat)

The final product - Crottin de Chavignol

The final product – Crottin de Chavignol

I was able to experience the local delicacies through “field trips” arranged by Couer de France during our off-time.  Class was held Monday-Friday for half days, and generally there was some sort of outside activity also offered each day (wine tastings, cheese tastings, historical walks around the town, cooking classes).

My class was very small and intimate, with only 4 students and a very patient and good-humored teacher, Laurie.  It was a great experience, with lots of laughs, and though I didn’t come away able to speak French fluently (in hindsight, I think that was an unreasonable expectation ;)), I feel that I have a good foundation for whatever “next steps” I choose to take.  Thanks to my classmates Sibyl, Andy, Arthur, Angie and Liz (and our instructor, Laurie) for helping to make class such a fun and positive experience.

My class (L-R) Me, Andy, Laurie, Arthur & Sibyl

My class (L-R) Me, Andy, Teacher Laurie, Arthur & Sibyl

Coeur de France school

Coeur de France school

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SPA-ING IN THE ALGARVE

I arrived in the Algarve region of Portugal on a Friday morning after a quick overnight in a hotel near the Paris-Orly airport.  The flight is a quick one, only 90 minutes non-stop.  Upon arrival at the Faro airport, I was greeted by a driver and taken to the Longevity Wellness Resort, just outside the small town of Monchique, about an hour west of Faro.

Map of The Algarve region

Map of The Algarve region

“The Algarve” is the name of the southern region of Portugal, which covers an area of around 2,000 square miles along the Atlantic Ocean.  It is very popular with tourists for its warm climate and its seaside locale, and serves as a retirement destination for many ex-pats, primarily Brits.

Monchique is in an area that is known as the “garden” of the Algarve, as it is situated inland in the thickly wooded mountains.  It is specifically recognized for its four hot springs, where water is bottled at the source and visitors come from around the world to be healed and restored.

Monchique

Monchique

I chose the Longevity Wellness Spa after a single day of reading online reviews—I had no time to do a great deal of research and hoped that I had made the right decision.  I would be here for a week, after all.  My goal was to find a place that was not just about relaxation, but that took a more holistic approach to wellness, with a program of diet and exercise integrated into the visit.  The exercise would have to be tailored for someone with a broken toe, and it seemed that Longevity would be able to accommodate.

Longevity Wellness Resort

Longevity Wellness Resort

My initial impression of Longevity was a bit mixed.  The building is über modern and a bit stark and cold.  However, after a few hours of being there, the brilliant staff made it seem warm and welcoming.  Upon arrival, I was given a calendar of activities for the week, including everything from meetings with nutritionists to physical fitness tests to Pilates classes, and of course, spa services…this is a spa, after all.  Every day I was indulged with some kind of decadent treatment, including body scrubs, wraps, massages, facials and detox baths.  It was very nice indeed, and one could easily become accustomed to it. Interspersed between the various activities, were 5 healthy meals per day, which the staff was extremely emphatic about.  They knew immediately if you skipped a lunch or snack, and would find you on the premises to gently nudge you if you happened to get off track.  The idea was to get your body into a rhythm of eating regular small meals to help reset your metabolism.  During the time between all of this “activity”, there was little else to do but read and lounge by the pool.  I have to admit, that a week of this was nice, but more than that probably would have been a bit monotonous.

The spa

The spa

My toe at the pool

My broken toe  at the pool

My hat goes off to one of my fellow spa-goers, Bert from The Netherlands, who had committed to a 3-month stay in order to get himself healthy and back in shape.  While I’m on the subject of guests, I have to name drop for just a moment, and mention that Florence Welch of the band Florence and the Machine was also staying there.  I’m a huge fan, and though I gave her space to unwind and be “anonymous”, it was fun to spend the week in close quarters with her.  Just a bit of harmless scoop…she looks much younger in person.

By the time I left, I felt cleansed, polished, massaged and buffed to within an inch of my life.  It was a very nice feeling, and I was a bit concerned about what would happen to my super-healthy self once I arrived at my next destination:  Sancerre, France, the land of wine, cheese and baguettes…!

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BROKEN BONES IN BIARRITZ

Biarritz on the map

Biarritz on the map

The seaside town of Biarritz is located on the Côte Basque along the Bay of Biscay in the far southwest corner of France, just over 10 short miles from the northern border of Spain.  In the 19th century, it was believed that its Atlantic waters had therapeutic properties and it became a top “wellness” destination for the European elite.  In the 1850’s, Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) built a palace on La Grande Plage (the main beach), which hosted many royals in its day, and which today is the 5-star Hôtel du Palais.

Town of Biarritz

Town of Biarritz

Today, Biarritz is still a popular beach destination, but also well known for its beach casinos and its surfing (who knew you could surf in France?).

View of church from the shore

View of church from the shore

The famous Miremont Patisserie

The famous Miremont Patisserie

Amazing rock formation

Amazing rock formation

The Rocher de la Vierge - named for the statue of Virgin Mary on its summit

The Rocher de la Vierge – named for the statue of Virgin Mary on its summit

Pier leading to Rocher de la Vierge

Pier leading to Rocher de la Vierge

The purpose of my visit was to spend a couple of days relaxing at the beach prior to beginning the Camino de Santiago, a looong trek commencing in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port (about 2 hours east of Biarritz).  The 500-mile hike along the foothills of the Pyrenees following the northern border of Spain was to serve as the final adventure of my gap year, taking one month to complete and concluding in the town of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are purported to be buried.  Every year, thousands of people come from around the world to hike the Camino for many different reasons, and it’s supposed to be a life-changing experience.  I was excited to begin my trek, and had shipped my fully loaded backpack into Biarritz in advance of the trip.  It took ages to prepare for…since one carries everything on one’s back, it’s necessary to keep the weight as light as possible (no more than 10% of your body weight – which is a huge challenge to pack for 30 days), and my best friend prior to taking off for Europe was REI, searching for the lightest weight, quick-drying, non-stink items I could find.

Unfortunately, the Camino wasn’t meant to happen for me, at least not at this time.  The day before I was supposed to leave, I was walking along the beach in Biarritz, taking photos, and “pop”, I jammed my toe into a big rock and broke my toe.  Who breaks their toe on the beach?  I couldn’t believe it…thought I would be able to “walk it off”, but by the time I had hobbled back up to my hotel, I knew it wasn’t good.  The hotel called a doctor who examined it and ordered an x-ray for the next day.  The results confirmed that it was in fact broken and I was told it would take 6 weeks to heal.  After going through the stages of disappointment and frustration, I decided “right, I need a Plan B”.  So what does one do in Europe when they are on crutches?  How about go to a spa and then go to language school?  Sounds good.

La Grande Plage minutes before breaking my toe

La Grande Plage minutes before breaking my toe

My Camino backpack - wrapped up for next time...

My Camino backpack – wrapped up for next time… :o(

The next day I put booked my new itinerary, and after a couple more days in Biarritz, I boarded a plane for the Algarve in Portugal.

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AIX MARKS THE SPOT

Map of Provence

Map of Provence

I was surprised at the size of Aix-en-Provence (“Aix” for short – pronounced like the letter).  I had done little research on the town before my arrival, and for some reason I had envisioned a sleepy town surrounded by rolling hills and fields of lavender.  Instead, I was greeted by a bustling town of approximately 150,000, featuring an array of sidewalk cafes, cobbled shopping streets, graceful fountains, elegant squares and historical churches.  A bit like a miniature Paris, tucked in amidst the dramatic landscape of southeastern France.  Aix is located about a half hour north of Marseilles and the Côte d’Azur, and is home to several universities, art schools and galleries…which is fitting, as one of its most famous residents was Paul Cezanne.

La Rotunde fountain in Aix

La Rotunde fountain in Aix

My long train ride from Venice (with a couple of changes along the way) ended at the Aix TGV Station at around 8 o’clock in the evening.  If you travel there, take note that it is about 30 minutes outside of town and a 40€ taxi ride into town.  My hotel, the Hotel de Gantes, was perfectly situated right in center of town, on rue Fabrot, a pedestrian street just off of Cours Mirabeau, the primary boulevard that runs east-west through Aix.

Cours Mirabeau

Cours Mirabeau

I had only one night and the following morning in Aix, so I was even more pressed for time than usual, but I did make it to dinner at an outdoor café in Place de Verdun and the next morning explored as much as I could before it was time to head for the station again.  I was very fortunate to have a perfect late-summer morning in which to sightsee, and more fortunate still to be in Aix for its famous Saturday market.  The outdoor marketplace is divided into 4 different sections, my favorite of which is known as the “Marché aux Fleurs” in the Place de Mairie.  The peak time to visit is apparently in the spring (le printemps), but it was really lovely during my visit as well.

The flower market

The flower market

The market

The market

The Belfry

The Belfry

Statue du Roi René

Statue du Roi René

After meandering through the market and stopping for a café au lait, it was time to bid adieu to Aix and hop on another train.  This one bound for Biarritz…

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AMO VENEZIA!

I’ve been infinitely fortunate to have visited Italy several times in the past, and like many others have fallen hopelessly in love with the culture, the people, the sights, the history and of course, the food.  Previous trips have included Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terra, Lake Como and the beautiful Amalfi Coast, but for one reason or another I never made it to Venice.  So, I was determined to make “The Queen of the Adriatic” a priority stop during the European leg of my gap year tour.

Italy Map

Italy Map

Venice Map

Some key sights in Venice

I arrived in Venice around noon via a bus from Villach, Austria, having connected from a train from Ljubljana.  The entire journey took about 4 hours and was surprisingly comfortable.  I was a bit apprehensive about taking a bus, but was assured by my booking agency that it would be much faster than taking a train the entire way.  Surprisingly, the bus was amazingly modern, sleek and new, and provided easy access to the Tronchetto stop for the vaporetto (basically a water bus), which would take me along the Grand Canal to my hotel near the Rialto Bridge.

A vaporetto on the Grand Canal

A vaporetto on the Grand Canal

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Venice, as I’ve heard conflicting reviews about the city—magical, touristy, dirty, romantic, dynamic, smelly, crumbling, magnificent.  I’ll cut to the chase and say that I absolutely, positively, unequivocally loved it.  I’ve never seen anything like it, and though I could understand some of the criticisms, my feeling was that the positives far outweighed any negatives.

In my day-and-a-half in Venice, I made it to most of the key sights via a combination of vaporetti, traghettos (gondolas that make quick passes across the grand canal) and walking – ambling around Piazza San Marco, climbing the Campanile, exploring Doge’s Palace (crossing the Bridge of Sighs into the prison cells) and visiting Frari Church.

Piazza San Marco with the St. Mark's Basilica and the Campanile

Piazza San Marco prominently featuring St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile

Hall of the Grand Council in Doge's Palace - home to Tintoretto's Paradise - the largest oil painting in the world

Hall of the Grand Council in Doge’s Palace – home to Tintoretto’s Paradise – the largest oil painting in the world

Bridge of Sighs - leading from Doge's Palace to the prison

Bridge of Sighs – leading from Doge’s Palace to the prison

I loved the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern-art museum housed in the palazzo of the late heiress, featuring many works that she collected during her lifetime.  Right on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro district, it is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, admiring the artwork and strolling through her home and courtyard (where she is buried along side her beloved dogs).

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

An excitable sculpture at Guggenheim Museum

An excitable sculpture at Guggenheim Museum

My one big “oops”…I may be the only person to have visited Venice without actually venturing into St. Mark’s Basilica.  I was waiting in a long line to get in and at 5pm promptly, they closed the doors…oh well, next time.

By far my favorite thing to do in Venice was to get lost in the maze of streets and alleys outside of the heavily touristed areas.  I think it’s here that you experience the real magic of the city, stumbling across quaint little squares, medieval churches, lopsided houses, interesting shops and amazing bridges (I think there are more than 400 in the city) that cross the tiniest of canals.  It’s hard to comprehend how it was all constructed and even more amazing that it is so well preserved today.

One of 400 bridges

One of more than 400 bridges

Tragicomica Mask Shop near Frari Church

Tragicomica Mask Shop near Frari Church

I highly recommend my hotel – The Ai Reali – recently opened in a centuries-old building, and a nice combination of old-world charm and modern convenience.  The staff there was excellent – super helpful and charming.  They recommended a great restaurant for dinner on my first night, Trattoria Antiche Carampane near Piazza San Polo, which has a sign outside: “no pizza, no lasagne, no menu turistico”.  It was a bit hard to find (I was 20 minutes late for my reservation because I kept getting lost on my way there), but it was well worth the trek, featuring the freshest of local food served steaming hot.  Delizioso!

Hotel ai Reali

Canal entrance to Hotel ai Reali

Trattoria Antiche Carampane

Trattoria Antiche Carampane

I wish I was able to spend more time in this amazing city, and hope to return one day.  My schedule was tight however, and I was obligated to leave early in the morning for my next destination.  I decided to leave in style, and splurged on a private water taxi to the railway station where I bid arrivederci to beautiful Venice and boarded my train for Aix-en-Provence.

A water taxi - spendy, but worth a splurge

A water taxi – spendy, but worth a splurge

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LJUBLJANA – PUT IT ON YOUR RADAR

Many people outside of Europe are unfamiliar with the small country of Slovenia, located at the tip of the Adriatic Sea and bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia.  It used to be part of Yugoslavia until it seceded in 1991.

Map of Slovenia

Map of Slovenia

I’ve been hearing great things about the country from travel aficionados and was looking forward to visiting it for myself.  I arrived in the capital city of Ljubljana (pronounced LOOB lee ahna) after a long train ride (beginning in Budapest with changes in Vienna and Villach along the way) and checked into my hotel (Hotel Cubo – LOVED it!) just a bit before 10pm.

Modern, yet cozy room at Hotel Cubo

Modern, yet cozy room at Hotel Cubo

I had one full day to check out the city and was determined to see what I could.  The weather had actually taken a cool turn, which was a nice break from the constant heat of the past few of weeks.

Overhead view of Ljubljana

Overhead view of Ljubljana

Ljubljana is a cute little city, whose historical center is situated along the Ljubljanica River.  There are several bridges which cross the Ljubljanica, the most notable of which are the Triple Bridge and the modern Butcher’s Bridge which is noteworthy for the padlocks (or “love locks”) attached to its railings by couples to symbolize eternal love for each other…they attach the lock and throw the key into the river (similar to the Pont des Arts in Paris).

Triple Bridge

Triple Bridge

"Love locks" on Butcher's Bridge

“Love locks” on Butcher’s Bridge

I found the city to be pretty, clean, friendly and progressive, boasting a multitude of trendy restaurants, charming cafes, fashionable boutiques and well-preserved historical monuments, the most famous of which is Ljubljana Castle, perched on a hill overlooking the city.  It is very easy to navigate the city and communication is aided by the fact that most everyone speaks English.

Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city

Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city

After a day of exploring the city, I had a fantastic dinner at a restaurant called Valvas’or, situated along a cobbled street not far from the city hall.  I ended up joining a couple of friendly guys from Belgium who were sitting at the table next to mine and who were also visiting Ljubljana for the first time.  They were as impressed with it as I was.

Valvas'or Restaurant

Valvas’or Restaurant

Unfortunately, since I was sans iPhone (which also served as my camera), I was unable to take pictures during my visit, but have included a few on this post that were pulled from the web.

I really enjoyed my stay, and wish I had more time to explore outside the city.  Lake Bled is supposed to be magnificent, but will have to wait until next time.   Next stop: Venice!

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I THINK DRACULA STOLE MY iPHONE!

My flight from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Budapest, Hungary was 2 hours late, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to spend any time in the city of Budapest prior to rushing to the train station to meet my brother, Peter.  We were scheduled to take a train journey from Budapest to Bucharest, Romania, beginning with a night train into the region of Transylvania.

Map of Romania

Map of Romania

Set aside any starry-eyed visions of the Orient Express – this Romanian train was old-school, Eastern bloc style.

Oh no!  Is this our train? (thankfully not, but ours wasn't much better!)

Oh no! Is this our train? (thankfully not, but ours wasn’t much better!)

We shared a private cabin with 2 bunks and its own little en suite bathroom and shower, though the last thing we considered was actually taking a shower.  The smell coming from behind the door was reminiscent of a port-a-potty and that’s all I’ll say on the subject.  Despite the smells, we were both famished and made our way to the dining car for dinner.  When we slid open the door, we were both almost knocked over by cigarette smoke.  Apparently, Romania has yet to pass a clean air act…but we went with it and ordered dinner, which was a bit difficult to taste, despite the waiter/chef’s constant assurances of how fresh and delicious all of the food was.  Lots of wine was definitely in order…

Smoky dinner on the train - can someone open a window please!

Smoky dinner on the train – can someone open a window please!

Lots of wine Romanian wine was in order

Lots of Romanian wine was in order

After a short night’s sleep, our train pulled into the station in the town of Sighisoara (pronounced SIG-ee-shwara), and we were very happy to quickly de-train and breathe in some fresh Transylvania air!

Founded during the 12th century, Sighisoara is considered one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the well-preserved fortified town features nine defensive wall towers, cobbled streets, colorful burgher-style houses with tiled roofs and several ornate churches. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracul, who inspired Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.

Colorful street in Sighisoara

Colorful street in Sighisoara

Vlad the Impaler - not a nice guy

Vlad the Impaler – not a nice guy

Vlad plaque

Vlad plaque

We spent the day wandering around town checking out the sights, including climbing up the Clock Tower which afforded great views of the old town below and walking the 179 covered steps up to the Church on the Hill, built originally as a Catholic church and changing to Lutheran when the Anglo-Saxons invaded in the 14th century.

The Clock Tower

The Clock Tower

Lower Town - a view from the Clock Tower

Lower Town – a view from the Clock Tower

Covered steps to church

Covered steps to church

Sighisoara cemetery

Sighisoara cemetery

Converted tower at Church on the Hill (inspiration for Grandpa's house from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang?!)

Converted tower at Church on the Hill (inspiration for Grandpa’s house from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang?!)

Drinks with Peter outside our hotel

Drinks & dinner with Peter outside our hotel

The next morning, we felt we had seen most of the town, but enjoyed a couple more hours strolling around, hanging out together.

Peter at the Tailor's Tower

Peter at the Tailor’s Tower

Hanging with a local burgher

Hanging with a local burgher

Jimmy the Old Town dog

Jimmy the Old Town dog

Holding Dracula mugs

Posing with Dracula mugs

Sighisoara locals - they would randomly bang on the drum and recite poetry

Sighisoara locals – they would randomly bang on the drum and recite poetry

In the afternoon we boarded another train (it was 2 hours late) south where I hopped off in the town of Brasov and Peter continued on to Bucharest to catch a flight back to Amsterdam.

Brasov is 30 minutes from Bran Castle, a picturesque multi-turreted construction with ties also to Vlad the Impaler.  He supposedly spent some time imprisoned there and it served as the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s book.

En route to Brasov, I had a panicked moment when I realized my phone was missing.  For the first time, I was really out of contact with the rest of the world and worse still, unable to take any pictures, as I used it as my camera as well.  But, hey, whatcha gonna do?  I shrugged my shoulders, toured around the castle and then took a cab back to the train station to take yet another night train (this one a bit better than the first), back to Budapest.

A pic of Bran Castle - pulled from the internet

A pic of Bran Castle – pulled from the internet

Upon arrival in Budapest I logged on to a wi-fi connection and managed to track my iPhone back to Sighisoara (yep – the Find My iPhone app really works!).  It was located a few miles outside of town, and surprise, there were no replies to the pings I sent to email me immediately.  I resigned to the fact that it was a goner, and ended up remotely erasing it.  To my knowledge, my little iPhone is still residing somewhere in the countryside of Transylvania. RIP.

Goodbye my friend!

Goodbye my friend!

Next up:  A train (or, more precisely, 3 trains) to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

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A DAY OF REFLECTION IN BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

On my final day in Croatia, I arranged for a driver (Robbi) to pick me up at my hotel in Dubrovnik for a day-trip to the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina, on recommendation from my friend Shari, who visited a few years ago.

Bosnia & Herzegovina - next door to Croatia

Bosnia & Herzegovina – next door to Croatia

After crossing the border (with only a nod from the border guard – no passports checked), we stopped at the Vjetrenica Cave (cave of wind) near the small village of Zavala.  When you stand in front of the cave, you feel a strong blast of cold air blowing from its entrance (hence its name), which dies down after you’ve walked for a few meters inside.  I donned a hard hat and followed a guide inside for a slippery walk a few hundred meters into its bowels.  It maintains a steady temperature of 11º Celsius year round and is almost 7km in length, though it’s believed that a small tunnel actually reaches out to the Adriatic Sea, which is 20 km away.  It’s so amazing to experience these natural wonders.

Outside cave in Herzegovina

Outside the Vjetrenica Cave – the wind whipping through my hair is coming from the cave

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

Our next stop was the town of Mostar, which we reached in about an hour via winding roads, mountain passes and expansive valleys.  Along the way we passed by relics of the Bosnian War–overgrown bomb shelters, collapsed buildings, and villages long since abandoned–a sobering dichotomy in the midst of beautiful countryside.

An old schoolhouse bombed during the war

An old schoolhouse bombed during the war

Mostar is home to one of the most well-known sites in Bosnia, the Old Bridge or “Stari Most”.  Originally built by the Ottomans in the 1500′s, Stari Most was constructed with local stone, which is very pale and takes on different hues depending on the position and intensity of the sun.  The bridge stood for more than 400 years before it was destroyed during the Bosnian War in 1993. Prior to the war, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks lived in seeming harmony in Mostar, but when the war began, the Croats and Bosniaks forced out the Serbs, and later began shooting at each other from across a front line that followed the Neretva River over which the Stari Most bridge used to extend. The bridge was one of the many casualties of war, collapsing from constant bombing in 1993.

The original bridge collapsing in 1993

The original bridge collapsing in 1993

Today, Mostar is still separated by the river and a new Stari Most (reconstructed in 2004 to mimic the original), with the Muslims and their mosques and minarets on the east side and the Catholics and their churches and cathedral on the west side. Along both sides of the river remain crumbling buildings, vestiges of the bombs and mortar shells that pummeled them during the war.  While the people appear to now live once again in harmony, one can only assume that while they may have forgiven, they can never truly forget.  It was humbling to visit.

Stari Most bridge today

Stari Most bridge today

River leading into Mostar

Neretva River leading into Mostar

Muslim side of Mostar

Muslim side of Mostar

Crossing the bridge

Crossing the bridge

We made our way back to Croatia, stopping along the way for a late lunch, and the next morning, I boarded a plane for Budapest, Hungary where I was to meet my brother for a train ride into the Romanian district of Transylvania.

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DUBROVNIK – THE PEARL OF THE ADRIATIC

Dubrovnik has been called “The Pearl of the Adriatic” for good reason.  Simply put, it’s spectacular.  It’s a walled city perched above the Adriatic Sea in the far southern part of Croatia (not far from the northern border of Montenegro).

Beautiful Dubrovnik

Beautiful Dubrovnik

We (my Backroads group) shuttled there from the island of Korčula, driving across the Tudjman Bridge into the city in the late afternoon.

Bridge leading into Dubrovnik

Tudjman Bridge leading into Dubrovnik

After checking into our hotel—The Grand Imperial, perfectly located just outside the Pile Gate to the Old Town—we cleaned up, then headed out to one of the most memorable bars I’ve ever visited.

Grand Hotel Imperial

Grand Hotel Imperial

The Buža Bar is located on the back side of the town wall.  To enter, you cross the Old Town, then pass through an arched tunnel through the wall to an outdoor bar perched literally on tiers of rocks just above the sea.  It’s made up of a couple of safety rails, tables, chairs and the bar itself – that’s it.  This set up would never fly in the US, but we were really pleased that Croatia is more liberal in its approach to safety.  We watched the sunset, then walked back into the old town for dinner on the patio of a restaurant called the Café Royal.

Looking down at Buža Bar

Looking down at Buža Bar

Buža Bar

Buža Bar at sunset

We met the next morning for a guided stroll through the Old Town, ending in a 2 km walk around the perimeter of the wall (a must-do!).  A little insider note if you happen to visit: when you’re walking along the main street (the Stradun) in Old Town, avoid walking or standing in the shallow channels that parallel the street, as doing so will supposedly prevent you from ever having money or getting married!  Our guide told us that you’ll never see a local breaking this rule, but it’s funny how many tourists do.

View of Dubrovnik from the wall

View of Old Town from the top of the wall

The Stradun where the stone walkway has been polished from hundreds of years of use

The Stradun, where the stone walkway has been polished to a high shine from hundreds of years of use

Steps in Dubrovnik

Steps in Old Town

Market in Dubrovnik

Marketplace

Church of Saint Blaise

Church of Saint Blaise

Cute alleyway

Cute alleyway

Kayakers setting sail - a view from the wall

Kayakers setting sail – a view from the wall

When you enter Old Town by the Pile Gate, as you walk along the Stradun, look carefully for a gargoyle head called the “maskeron” jutting from a stone wall just opposite Onofrio’s Fountain.  You need to jump up on it, facing the wall and balance yourself while taking off your shirt.  If you’re able to do this, you will apparently marry the first person you see when you jump down and turn around.  Before you ask…no, I didn’t even attempt it, but I love the story.

The maskeron - jump on it and balance yourself while taking off your shirt and you will find love

The maskeron – jump on it and balance yourself while taking off your shirt and you will find love!

After our wall walk, the Backroads Group said our good-byes, and went our separate ways.  Yet another great experience – one of my favorites!

Many thanks to Marija & Erin for being such fantastic leaders and making this a truly special trip!

With trip leaders Marija & Erin

With trip leaders Marija & Erin

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