Roaming through Romania and Hungary

castle fortress Brasov Romania

I visited these two countries waaaay back in 1985, when the Texas Girls Choir was invited to a “Goodwill Ambassador” tour of the USSR and a few surrounding countries. I was only ten years old, and one of my only enduring memories was of visiting Dracula’s castle in the cold, snowy, winter month of January. Now we are here in high summer, nearly 35 years later, with a lot of changes in the region!

From small towns to big cities, the scenery is beautiful here

Budapest

From Slovakia, we took a train to Budapest, and spent a few days there. We stayed in District 7, also known as the Jewish Quarter , site of the 2nd largest Jewish synagogue in the world. That area is filled with cafes, pubs, and “ruin bars”, which are combo indoor/outdoor spaces filled with a whole hodgepodge of items- supposedly a remnant of bombings in World War II (although I suspect some of those bars are not anywhere near that old). Still- fun places to hang out and have a drink, especially Simpla Kert.

Just sittin’ in a bath tub… at a bar

Budapest itself is a splendid city to walk around in and explore, with a helpful tram and subway system assisting. We walked along the Danube River at dusk and watched the lights come on at the massive Parliament building, checked out the beautiful Matthias Church, and spent some time in the City Park, home of one of the city’s oldest thermal baths.

Budapest Parliament Building
St Matthias Church
One of the “micro-statues” you can find around Budapest

Gyor and Pannonhalma Monastery

A dear friend of ours was visiting his hometown in western Hungary, and invited us for a visit. We hopped on a train and 90 minutes later were in Gyor. Adam showed us around his town, situated on the banks of two rivers, and took us to the Pannonhalma Monastery. It was established 1,000 years ago, the first in the country, and has one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve been in. Below the monastery, acres of lavender are grown and distilled into oil, producing the most delicious scent all over the area.

Gyor, Hungary
Fields of Lavender at Pannonhalma
Just a small part of Pannonhalma’s amazing library

Lake Balaton

Adam drove us to Lake Balaton, stopping at two ancient castles along the way- defenses against the Mongols and the Ottomans. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Hungary, and the second biggest in Central Europe. We stayed in the town of Keszthely, just one of a dozen small towns along the lake. We went hiking, ate langos (fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheddar cheese), and swam in the lake. There was a wine festival that weekend, and a reggae/rock concert that night. We enjoyed experiencing the more personal side of Hungary.

Keszthely, along the shore of Lake Balaton

Timisoara

From Balaton, we took two very comfortable and on-time trains to get to Timisoara, a town in western Romania. We stayed at an atmospheric, wooden hotel and did a walking tour of their Old Town. They were having a jazz festival while we were there, so it was nice to wander around to the various stages to catch different bands playing as we took in the 18th century buildings.

Jazz Fest!
A bit of rain brings out the colorful side of Timisoara

Sibiu

The trains in Romania are inexplicably slow, so we took a bus to Sibiu, a small town near the center of Romania. They have a beautiful walking center in the historic part of their town, which features several large, old churches, fortification walls, and the “bridge of lies”!

The “Bridge of Lies” will supposedly collapse if you tell a lie while walking across it

Brasov

From there we took a bus ride (in which we were the only riders for three hours!) to Brasov, a town in the heart of Transylvania. This is probably the most beautiful part of Romania, with miles and miles of forests, the Carpathian Mountains, and dozens of castles dotting the countryside. We learned about the convoluted history of the area (Romans, Huns, Bulgarians; Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs; Romania, then Hungary, then back to Romania). Just ten miles from Brasov is the famous Bran Castle, the literary setting of Dracula, although in actuality the castle had very little to do with Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. Still, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s an easy day trip to visit both Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, also nearby.

Bran Castle

While in Transylvania, we tried some of Romania’s gustatorial delicacies, including papanasi (fried dough with sour cream and cherry jam sauce), and sarmale (cabbage leaves filled with meat, rice, and spices), served with manaliga (polenta served with sour cream)…. always accompanied by a frosty Timisoarana beer.

Complacent George is ready for some papanasi

Sarmale with manaliga

Today we head to Moldova, one of Europe’s least visited countries, to see what adventures we can get up to there! And in exactly one month, it’s back to the US for us.

Checking out Czech Republic and Slovakia

Main Square pointy church towers Prague Czech Slovakia

After five weeks apart, Chris and I reunited in Czech Republic to continue our year abroad. We picked Prague for our city to meet in due to its easy train and plane connections.

Prague

We spent a fun three days exploring the city and eating Czech cuisine and drinking beer. We found Prague to be hugely crowded and with good reason: beautiful gothic and baroque architecture, a rich and textured history, and a vibrant old town city center. From reading a few articles, and going on a walking tour, we enjoyed learning some of the weird and funny stories of Prague through the ages, such as why there is a human arm hanging in one of the churches, and the popularity of “defenestration” in Prague’s history.

Our Lady Before Tyne Church
Astronomical Clock
Kafka Statue

Kromêrîž

After having visited both Vienna and Prague back to back, I was ready to get out of town to a smaller place and enjoy some peace and quiet and nature. We took a train to the town of Kromêrîž, population 20,000, site of an archbishop’s palace and huge French garden, along the Moravia River. One of the nights we were there we went to an open-air acoustic guitar concert on the town square, which was perfect. We walked in the gardens and admired the peacocks during the day. A brewery next to our hotel featured their own delightful beer as well as sausages, cheese, and beer cheesecake. We were glad we chose to visit the town.

Town Square
Proud Peacock

Bratislava

We took the train to Bratislava and stayed in an apartment just outside of the main walking area- and I have to say, it is my favorite place we’ve stayed in a while. It felt like being at home, with a terrace outside and a large living room. Best of all, it was next door to the Slovak Pub, which served the best of Slovakia’s national dishes: cabbage soup with sausage and cream, and bryndzovè halušky, which is a gnocchi-like dumpling with sheep’s cheese and crispy bacon.

Chris calls it “Commie Mac and Cheese”, I just call it delicious

In Bratislava, we took a Communism tour and an Old Town walking tour. We also hiked up to the radio/tv tour outside of town for a great view- the highest point in Bratislava!

Bratislava Castle
Bratislava
The art nouveau Blue Church

 

Bratislava
Old Town and the “UFO” bridge
Chris at the KGB Pub

Bojnice

With a record heat-wave in Central Europe, we left Bratislava and headed into the mountainous central part of the country. We arrived in Bojnice, site of a beautiful old castle and the country’s oldest zoo. With a quiet town promenade, plenty of cafes and taverns, an escape room, and a thermal spa, I think this town is on the rise for vacationers (Lonely Planet named the Tatras mountains in Slovakia the number one tourist destination for 2019, so be ready to see a lot more of Slovakia in articles and blogs!).

Bojnice, Slovakia
Enjoying a walk around the castle at dusk

 

Bojnice Slovakia
The small town of Bojnice

And now, we head to Hungary and Romania! Any travel advice for us?

Switzerland and Austria: the crossroads of Europe

clock tower tall pointy church zurich switzerland

With all the times I’ve visited Europe, I’ve actually never been to Switzerland and Austria. Well, except for airport transfers and one brief rental car mishap. So as I was heading to Prague to meet up with Chris, I decided to go overland through these two beautiful countries. With such multi-faceted cities and ages of history within each, I barely had time to get more than an overview of the places I visited, and make a list of things to see next time I’m there. Here’s my favorites for each.

History lurks behind every corner here in Switzerland

Zurich

It was cool and rainy in Zurich, but not actually raining yet- perfect weather for a walking tour in my one full day in the city. My favorite part of sightseeing Zurich was the overall charm of the city center- 1200 drinkable fountains, cobblestone streets, small shops, community gardens, and the smell of roasting coffee everywhere.

Just one of hundreds of small squares throughout the city

Basel

I headed to Basel specifically to see an old friend, even though it was a bit out of my way (I will always make a detour for a friend!). Happily, I arrived there on the day that Art Basel began, a sort of scavenger hunt for 20 contemporary art pieces scattered throughout the city. It was a great way to spend the day there.

“Study for Stairs for a Theater” by Caitlin Keogh

Bern

The next day, Adam and Anna and I took a train to visit the town of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, although still a very small city. We saw the bears, took selfies with Einstein, and had Raclette for dinner. Best of all, it was a day spent with friends.

In front of St Peter and Paul church

Munich

Okay, so I didn’t actually visit Munich, but my bus from Basel to Salzburg had a transfer in Munich. I hopped to it, and in my two hour layover, I was able to visit the Hof Brau Haus and have a Bavarian beer.

That smile pretty much says it all

Salzburg

I enjoyed seeing Mozart’s birthplace and various scenes from The Sound of Music, but to tell the truth I was feeling pretty run down and fighting a cold. My favorite thing that day? Eating this soft pretzel covered in dark chocolate. That, paired with a Viennese coffee, got me through the morning.

It was a tough choice but chocolate always wins

Linz

Salzburg was crazy crowded because of the Mozart 100 race (who in their right minds want to run 100 km? Up and down three mountains, no less?) so I headed to Linz to seek a little more peace and quiet. It was here, between the beautiful churches and along the Danube River, that I finally learned how to ride a Lime electric scooter. Sight-seeing game changer!

Now I totally want to buy one of these

Vienna

In one of life’s ironies, I booked an AirBnB just 200 meters from the main train station. And then I wound up arriving at the west train station and departing from the international bus terminal. But the good news was that, in addition to seeing the churches, palaces, National Library, and gardens of the city center, my accommodations were just steps away from the Belvedere palace and their beautiful grounds. I enjoyed walking through their gardens each morning and evening I was in Vienna.

I spent a fair amount of time imaging what life would be like living in this palace

With Europe’s amazing travel network, such as Ryan Air (my flight was 19€), hundreds of trains a day, and the ubiquitous FlixBus (Vienna to Prague 14€), there’s an excellent chance of passing through one of these cities again in the near future. From one day to one week, I’d recommend any of these for a visit!

Monaco in One Day

picture frame monaco yachts harbor

Monaco is the second-smallest microstate in Europe, but is still the most densely-populated country in the world- is it possible to visit for just one day and see it all? Of course not. But you can see the highlights, even if you’re on a budget. Here’s how.

The Port of Monaco

Where to Stay

Unfortunately, Monaco does not have very many budget hotels. The Hotel Forum, literally on the border of France and Monaco, has one of the best prices I could find. There are tons of options in the city of Nice- an easy train or bus ride to Monaco gets you there in 35 minutes. I chose the charming Marcellin Hotel in Beau-lieu Sur Mer, halfway between Nice and Monaco, and wished I had more time to explore the seaside town.

Getting There and Around

Most people arrive to Monaco by bus or train from France or Italy. Once in the principality of Monaco, you can ride any bus (including the harbor “bateau bus”) for €2, or get an all-day pass for 5€- a great value. There are five bus lines inside Monaco going to its neighborhoods: Monaco-Ville, Fontvieille, Monte Carlo, and Condamine.

Of course you can also just walk around all day, enjoying the pathways that loop through gardens, old forts, historic staircases, and even along the Formula 1 track. Because Monaco is a rather vertical city, be sure to take advantage of the many elevators and escalators that are free and open to the public.

Taking a “shortcut” through the Japanese Gardens

If you really feel stylish, for about €100 per person, you can arrive by helicopter from Nice airport (this price increases dramatically during Formula 1 and the Cannes Film Festival). From the heliport, a town car will take you to your hotel.

Highlights

A good place to start is the Place d’Armes in Condamine. This is where the SNCF train stops, or if arriving by bus from Nice or one of its quaint suburbs, you can take bus 100 and disembark at this stop. There is a morning market here every day, so grab some fruit and a coffee and get ready to walk.

Changing of the Guard in front of the Prince’s Palace

Across the street from the Place d’Armes is a staircase of long, flat steps- the Ramp Majeure– which will take you up to the Palace Square, the heart of Monaco-Ville. Here you can watch the changing of the guards at 11:55 am every day, and you can visit a few rooms in the Palace if you want (€8). From one side of the Palace Square you can look down upon Port Hercule, usually with a cruise ship in dock and mooring space for up to 500 yachts, as well as the stands from the Formula 1 Grand Prix visible. From the other side of the Square you can overlook Fontvieille Harbor, which can hold 60 vessels that are up to 30 m in length.

Overlooking Fontvieille, created in the 1960s from reclaimed land

Atop “le rocher”, or The Rock, are both the Palais Princier and the Old Town. It’s nice to wander through these cobblestone streets, although the shops are mostly cafes and souvenir stands now. The beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate, built in 1875, houses the remains of the princes of Monaco and Princess Grace. Winding through the compact Old Town, at the opposite end of The Rock are the government buildings (Monaco has a Minister of State, rather than a Prime Minister), and the Oceanographic Museum, where you can watch sharks being fed, see models of ships, and view over 4000 species of fish (14€).

Outside the Oceanographic Museum

To leave Monaco-Ville, you can take a bus down to the harbor area, or walk down through the Jardins St Martin. You’ll end up at Fort Antoine, and then you’ll be at sea level. From here you can walk the track of the Grand Prix (or take a bus) and then visit the Brasserie de Monaco for a refreshing Bavarian beer (check out their half-price Happy Hour specials). Directly behind the Brasserie is a supermarket, if you need to pick up any supplies.

Not just drinks: this brewery is 50 meters from the Grand Prix finish line

Of course a visit to Monaco would not be complete without seeing the casinos and the fancy cars. Take the Bateau Boat across the harbor (€2), and then ascend the escalators up towards the Princess Grace Theater. You’re now in Monte Carlo, home of some of the most famous hotels and casinos (and shopping) in the world, as well as the Opera House and the Rainier Auditorium. Be sure to bring your passport (locals aren’t allowed to gamble) and in most cases, expect to follow a list of prohibited items such as shirts, sneakers, cameras, etc depending on the time of day and the establishment. But many of the hotels will let you in the lobby to gaze at the sumptuous interiors, and of course you’ll inevitably see the fanciest of cars parked out front.

The Monte Carlo Casino
I’ll take the one on the left

If you’re an art lover, there’s the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco just below the Monte Carlo casino, which is free every other Sunday, otherwise 6€. The Grimaldi Forum has rotating exhibits, currently one on Salvador Dalí (6€, now through September). The Marlborough Fine Arts Gallery (4 Quai Antonie) also houses some major works by Picasso, Matisse, Chihuly, and more, and is free.

All that should take most of the day! If you have a bit more time, consider taking one of Monaco’s buses to one or more of the following:

The Prince’s Car Collection, which is not actually a museum- it’s literally a private collection of over 100 cars. 6€ for entry, and it is located in the commercial center atop The Carrefour supermarket (also a good place to grab a sandwich and a drink).

The Prince’s Car Collection

The Jardin Exotique (€8) houses thousands of rare plants and has amazing views. It’s a bit far, so take bus number 2.

Visit the beach at Larvotto. There are both public and private sections. The beach can be a bit gravelly in some places and in early June is still quite cold!

Walk the Parcours de Princess Grace. You’ll probably have already encountered bits of this walking path along your day, featuring 25 photographs and descriptions of some of Princess Grace’s activities and her life.

The Fairmont Grand Prix Hairpin Curve

Whether you have a free day in your France or Italy vacation, or a day in port on your cruise, it is possible to see the best of Monaco, so don’t skip it! Do you have a favorite sight in Monaco? If so, tell me in the comments so that I can visit on my next trip!

Failing On the Camino de Santiago

Boots cairn peton Camino Santiago Spain

I had a few weeks’ time to fill in May, so I decided that I would hike the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. My husband Chris had done it two years ago, and he said it was great, I’d love it, after our Nepal hike it would be a breeze. So I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Burgos and got started.

A dawn start from Burgos with my new friend Araceli

The Camino can be started at almost any point in Europe- some paths start from Germany, France, or even Rome- although generally peregrinos start it in St Jean Pied de Port, at the border of France and Spain. From there it is 800 kilometers to Santiago de Campostela, and it takes around 5 weeks. This year approximately 22,000 pilgrims are estimated to hike the trail.

Heading west

I only had three weeks to spend hiking, so I decided to start in Burgos and hike 500 km to Santiago. I was issued my credencial, a passport-like booklet, and told to get at least one stamp a day, and two stamps a day in the last 100 km. The only requirement to get a certificate at the end is that you walk the last 100 km, so the Camino can get quite busy with people doing that final stretch.

It’s fun watching the credencial fill up

The first few days went pretty well. I made some friends along the way, I listened to the birds chirp in the mornings, and the weather was nice- crisp in the mornings, warm in the afternoons. I had Spanish ham at almost every stop, wine or beer in the evenings, and creamy cafe leches every morning. Since we stay in alburgues with restaurants each night, there’s no need to pack a tent or cook your own food. And since we’re hiking four to seven hours a day, we can pretty much eat whatever we want and still burn those calories. It’s a win-win situation!

Just slice off some of that ham and hand it over
A frosty Cerveza- at ten am- is not uncommon, even with a backpack still on

On the third day I developed a blister on each foot, and a sore knee. Blisters are the most common peregrino problem, so I wasn’t too worried. I bought some blister care, and a knee brace at a pilgrim store (they have everything a hiker needs, and there’s one in every so-many towns). Life was good again. Then a couple of days later, I developed a second set of blisters, and ankle pain. When I stopped after a particularly long day (29 km), my ankle was super swollen.

Rows of hiker shoes and boots line an alburgue entryway

I made it to Leon- I had hiked 170 km in a week- and took a rest day. I saw a physiotherapist, who massaged it, taped it, and recommended that I take it easy for a few days.

Getting my ankle looked at- but still smiling

I wanted to finish in the three week time frame I had given myself, and I wanted to try to mostly stay with a group of friends I had made that would all be finishing around June 5 as well. Finally, with a heavy heart, I bought a bus ticket that would speed me 40 km up the road. From there, I’d hike a few half days, and then hopefully be strong enough to get back on schedule and finish.

The bus becomes part of my Camino

I felt like such a failure taking the bus that day. I had set out to walk 500 km on the Camino, and after only 170 km I was facing the choice of dropping out completely, or having to skip sections in order to finish.

The Camino provides me a timely reminder

After the bus dropped me off in Astorga, I walked just 10 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza. I walked slowly, mindfully. No music, no podcasts. I thought about the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. After Jesus’ death, his disciple James came to Spain, and preached the Gospel in the province of Galicia. He died and was buried here, and in the 9th century, a shepherd had a dream and discovered the bones of James. A cathedral was built, and pilgrims came from across Europe to receive a blessing, pay penitence for a sin, or to show their righteousness. The thing is, it is said that in the time James preached in northern Spain, he only converted eight people. Which made me wonder, did James consider his endeavor a failure, or did he call it a success for getting it started in the first place?

The seashell, it’s shape like an open hand, is a sign of the pilgrim

In fact, many of the people I knew on the Camino felt like we “failed” in our own way, by having to take a bus, having to fly home for a family emergency, or getting ill and having to radically change plans. I choose to think that James, with his eight converts, and all of us with our grand plans and less-grand results, are a success. It is better than not trying at all. I may not have been able to do the whole Camino, but I was able to do My Camino. And that’s all any of us can do.

Arriving in Santiago… 409 km hiked in 20 days

Ultreia. Beyond.

The Camino de Santiago