Skip to content

Slovenia: Into the Julian Alps

Driving all day through torrential rain leads us to change course, and head to the mountains instead of the Slovenian beaches.

slo-country

The Slovenian countryside

Despite my disdain of writing clichés, the overwhelming response that Marilynn and I have of Slovenia is “beautiful.”

bled

Bled Lake, Bled Island, Bled Castle

Once we park the rental car in the town of Bled, after a daylong drive through rain and fog, a beautiful lake appears outside our window when the clouds lift.

church-on-bled-island

The church on Bled Island in Lake Bled

We’re staying at the four-star hotel “Penzion Vila Preseren” for less than 60 US dollars, that includes fresh breakfast. Prior to this visit, my only impression of Slovenia has been its sausage.

hotel

From across the lake you can see our hotel – the very small white building to the right

Let’s walk off some sausage on this sunny morning with a five-mile stroll around the lake. It’s a slow walk, due to distractions of beauty such as an island church and a castle in the mountains.

bled-castle

Bled Castle

After a short drive to Bohinj, we’re on a gondola lifting with skiers to the Vogel Ski Resort area, in the heart of the Julian Alps.

reflection-lake-bohinj

Bohinj Lake, near Bohinj

We just roam around, stopping for a couple of cold ones, content to watch the skiers and snowboarders fly by.

lake-from-top

Views of Bohinj Lake and Mt. Triglav (the tallest mountain in Slovenia) from the gondola

Slovenia beckons a more outdoorsy type of people. We stop in a small village in search of the traditional Slovenian sausage (We’re not that outdoorsy today).

me

Watching the skiers at Vogel Ski Resort

“Can I recommend a traditional meal?” our waitress says. “We just made a batch of homemade sausage.”

julian-alps

The Julian Alps

Well, you can guess our response. I discover a sense of irony when our waitress divulges her name. Melania. No kidding. The three of us discuss our travels.

“I loved the mountains of Montenegro,” Melania says. “Away from the coast you’ll find more natural beauty, and no crowds of people.”

She serves our lunch, and the sausage exceeds expectations.

slovenian-sausage

Home made Slovenian sausage – Beautiful!

Beautiful, just like Slovenia.          Ron Mitchell

slovenian-countryside

Slovenia

 

 

 

Driving, Eating, and Drinking Croatia

We stop at a roadside inn near Plitvice Lakes National Park, looking for a place to stay.

plitvice-lakes

Just a few of the lakes in Plitvice National Park

Yet another restaurant/accommodation, “House Sapina,” in the small town of Korenica, pours us a free shot of wormwood based liquor.

yuck

Yuck!

If you don’t indulge in the local food and drink of any country, you insult them. In the spirit of “world citizenship,” we must honor our duty! I enjoy the actual spirits more than Marilynn. Of course, we shall spend the night in this lovely place.

plitvice-falls

Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia

In the morning, we hike through Plitvice Lakes National Park, around multiple waterfalls, seven lakes, and limestone-formed pools reminiscent of Havasupai, Arizona.

p-2

Walkway through Plitvice Lakes National Park off season

Despite our off-season travel in the winter, the shuttle bus fills with friendly Asian tourists. This place must be a madhouse during summer months.

20170302_092344

Photo from a brochure of walkway in Plitvice during season

Time to drive down the mountains to the coastal town of Opatija, full of old, elegant villas and hotels that the rich and famous used to frequent. We find an apartment on a hill, and better yet, a local eatery. We’re only about an hour away from the Italian border, so no wonder the friendly patrons resemble “Sopranos” cast members!

20170222_174348

Why do I feel like I am eating with the cast of the Sopranos?

“You must try our gnocchi in truffle sauce,” our waiter suggests. “We grow some of the best truffles.”

“I make my own gnocchi at home,” I respond, trying to impress.

He’s not impressed. “Try ours,” he says, almost rolling his eyes.

truffle-gnoch

Gnocchi with truffles and mushrooms

Well, the waiter was right. The tiny cut gnocchi in a sauce of truffles, porcinis, Istrian sausage, and sheep milk cheese could be my new personal favorite dish.

amph-pula

The Amphitheater in Pula

The following day we have time to drive to Pula, a city on the coast that highlights an amphitheater built by the Romans for Gladiator games. I can’t help making an analogy to the NFL stadiums in the United States. Let the games begin!

rovinj-2

Rovinj

A final drive north to the fishing town of Rovinj, where the streets are empty and the food is excellent.

rovinj-cafes

The streets of Rovinj

Again, the gnocchi impresses. This time it’s a larger cut, mixed with Ox Tail stew.

ox-stew-and-gnocchi

Gnocchi and Ox Tail stew

However, it’s time to drive out of Croatia, onward to eat and drink our way through Slovenia – homeland of the first lady. All we ask for is that the travel angels keep us safe on these narrow, curvy roads, where everyone flies at high speed!              Ron Mitchell

 

 

Roaming Croatia in a Rental Car

After another mind blowing scenic bus ride from Mostar, Bosnia to the Croatian coastal city of Split, we decide to rent a car. (We’ll split in few days) For a large city, Split offers leisurely beach walks past marinas, bays, and beaches where crowds swim and sunbath in the summer.

walk-split

Walking the promenade in Split

Every city or village has an “old town.” Roman architecture dominates the old town in Split.

palace

Diocletian’s Palace

We finally get our first taste of the infamous Ston oysters at a sushi bar in old town, before heading back to our room at Marina Venta.

ston-oysters

Finally, Ston oysters

Our balcony overlooks a marina, where sailing masts glow in the sunset. Although the café/bar above us sounds like chairs and murmurs dancing on the ceiling, the restaurant below offers the first non-smoking eating area we have seen in Croatia. The farther north we travel, the more nonsmoking restaurants we encounter.

room-view

Another room with a view

Crowds gather for coffee, drink, and carnival entertainment next to the entrance of old town at the promenade. We could certainly spend more time in Split, with plenty to do, but it’s time for a new twist to our independent adventure with the freedom of a rental car.

carnivale

Carnival party in Split

One advantage to travel in the off season is the lack of crowds and traffic. One disadvantage is closed restaurants in smaller towns. Like when we take an eerie, lone stroll through old town in the village of Primosten.

primosten

Primosten

It’s the third small town where we have tried to find food, and we’re starving. Everything’s closed and the place is void of humans, until Marilynn spots a man carrying a bag.

“Excuse me,” she says. “Is there any place open in town where we could get something to eat?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “I’m getting ready to cook my lunch with some friends. You’re welcome to join us if you don’t mind eating fresh sardines.”

lunch

Lunch!

Soon, we sit in Vinko’s café “Dalmacija” (also his residence), which is closed to the public this time of year. Cold beer and a fresh salad doused with the best olive oil we have ever tasted accompanies our lightly dusted sardines and fresh cut fries. Could things get any better? Yes.

Vinko breaks out a bottle of Pelinkovac, a bitter sweet liquor based on wormwood. After a few shots on the house, he breaks out into song.

vinko

Vinko!

“It’s now or never, come hold me tight!

Kiss me my darling, be mine tonight!”

We love this man. Thank you, Vinko!

krka

Krka National Park

Let’s drive into the mountains, and hike around the waterfalls of Krka in the National Forest. Hiking after beers, shots of Pelinkovac, and sardines must be good for you, right? We stroll around waterfalls that gush from small lakes over layers of limestone formed pools. No problem.

maslenica-2

Rovanjska

Onward to the small town of Rovanjska, where we finally find lodging at Dora’s apartments. With no restaurants open in town, we rely upon our survival kit – salami, cheese, fruit, bread, wine, and beer.

Dora makes coffee in the morning. We feel like family having a conversation.

“I was a refugee myself once,” Dora says. “My family fled to Germany during the bombings here from 1990 to 1995, but always had intentions of coming back to Croatia someday.” She retrieved an object and set it upon our table. “This is my souvenir of one of the bombs that destroyed our house.”

morter

The piece of bomb Dora found in what was left of her family house

Marilynn and I are yet again fortunate to be tourists. We drive to the coastal city of Zadar, in search of the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation.

zadar

Old town Zadar

After the bombings, reconstruction included a long cement/stone wall along the Adriatic coast. Architect Nikola Basic designed a set of marble stairs with pipes that create musical notes from the air generated by sea waves.

sea-organ

It’s a place of relaxation, listening to nature communicate to humans naturally, in tones that resemble the sound of whales. We could sit here all day.    Ron Mitchell

 

 

Three Views of Mostar, Bosnia

The three-hour drive from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina follows the blue-green Neretva River that cuts through mountains. We splurge on a driver to take us there, since we only have a two-night stay, and the bus would arrive at nighttime, stealing an entire day from us.

Egan, our Croatian driver who is about 55-years-old, stops at the Ottoman-era fortress village of Pocitelj along the way. Marilynn and I climb the layered rock steps around stone houses that people still inhabit.

pocitelj

Pocitelj – The town and Ottoman era fortress on the Neretva river

“Bosnians are the friendliest people in all of eastern Europe,” Egan says. “Everybody gets along with each other here, whether you’re Muslim or Christian, doesn’t matter.”

“What was the reason for the war?” I ask.

“Politicians argue with each other, and poor people get bombed,” he responds. “No good reason. Just like many places in the world. Bill Clinton is a hero to us for ending the war in Bosnia.”

view

View from the room. Can you see the bridge?

He drops us off near Pansion Villa Nurin Mostar, which provides comfortable lodging and a shared kitchen for only $30USD per night. It’s near the main tourist sight, Stari Most (old bridge), that leads into old town.

bridge-2

Stari Most – The Old Bridge in Mostar

Built by the Turks in 1556, the old bridge was bombed to ruins in the 1990’s, but rebuilt in 2004. Thrill seeking tourists pay to jump off this bridge into the Neretva River during summer months.

Mostar was the most heavily bombed city in Bosnia during the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Reminders of the war remain in piles of rubble.

rubble-by-bridge

The small, old town district has been restored with protruding river rock walkways lined with tourist shops and cafes.

streets-mostar

Streets of Old Town Mostar

Let’s stop for some local brew and delicious traditional food at Sadrvan restaurant.  Spiced minced meat rules, stuffed inside of cabbage, grape leaves, onions, peppers, and formed into cylindrical pellets served with fresh pita bread. Bosnian cookies (shortbread) with cucumber salad accompany the delight.

dinner

Japrako, dolme, bosnian cookies, cevap, sarma and thick semi-soured cream!

In the morning, we meet up with Rasim, the 21-year-old cousin of a friend of a good friend back in the USA, who was born after the war. He brings us to a café for some Bosnian coffee (liquid amphetamine), and lights up a smoke. “I love to hang out,” he says.

“It seems like everyone smokes.” Marilynn says.

“Yes, about 90 percent of Bosnians smoke cigarettes,” Rasim responds. “Smoking, coffee, and beer are my only pleasures in life.”

smokes

When they tried to sell me smokes I pointed out the sign. “Eh. Life kills.” Point taken…

I ask what he does for a living. “I’m a bartender, but haven’t worked in a long time. Jobs are fixed. When you’re 15 and in school you already know if you have a job or not. You have to know somebody to get a job.”

His expression turns morose. “I can’t even hang around on the other side of the bridge for long. They want to beat me up for being Muslim. They tell me to go back to Turkey.” He holds up his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “We’re this close to another war.”

sstreets

Streets made of river rock

Nadzida, who is Rasim’s 19-year-old girlfriend, picks us up for a drive to the town of Blagaj. The Buna River springs from a cave, where mountains surround Ottoman architecture and the Dervish Monastery.

lunch-setting

Lunch setting in Blagaj

We dine on fresh trout from the river, on this sunny day with our new friends.

lunch

Trout, boiled potatoes and chard

The following day, Fedja, proprietor of the Villa Nur drives us to the bus stop. He’s in his forty’s, and was 14-years-old during the bombing in the 90’s civil war. Not able to resist, I ask, “Are you Muslim?”

“That was never a question during Communist rule,” he responds. “Religion was secondary to life, and everyone got along.”

“I had heard that there is religious tension today,” I explain.

mostar

Mostar

“My father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic. I have an orthodox name,” he explains. “So, I get along with everyone. The global war on communism happened all around us. I guess it was just our turn. I was lucky not to lose anyone, but most people lost family and friends in the bombings. Over 8,000 Muslim men were killed. There’s resentment that can’t be forgotten.”

bridge

There you have it. Three different views from three different generations. As for Marilynn and I, we are fortunate to be tourists. Mostar is a beautiful, fascinating place full of friendly people. Speaking of being tourists, it’s time to head back to the Dalmatia coast in Croatia!                      Ron Mitchell

 

 

Next Stop: Dubrovnik, Croatia

The bus fills the entire narrow lane as it twists around curves along the Adriatic coast. It comes within inches of limestone cliffs on one side, and sheer drop-offs into the sea on the other. Once we swing around a mountain a few hours later, viola! The site of the walled city of Dubrovnik sits on the sea in the distance and blows us away.

dub-first-site

Dubrovnik at first sight

An American man approaches us at the bus station. “Do you guys need some directions?” he asks. “I’m very familiar with the area, and know how overwhelming coming into a city like this can be.”

Had I known he spoke English I would’ve talked with him on the three-hour ride.

dub-from-walls-2

Dubrovnik

“We’re okay,” Marilynn responds. “Got a place up on the hill.”

“Well, when you see all the construction on main street in old town, that’s us,” he explains. “We’re building a movie set.” He starts walking away.

movie-set

Building a movie set on main street

“What’s the name of the movie?” Marilynn asks.

Reluctantly, he says, “Robin Hood.”

“Another one?”

He shakes his head and continues walking.

A short, and reasonable taxi ride brings us to the top of a hill. “Follow serpentine street,” driver points. “Street too small for car.”

view

Our terrace. We could sit here all day!

Soon we step out onto our terrace that overlooks old town on the edge of the sea. It’s a sunny day, and we don’t want to leave the Guesthouse Slavka, but need to explore.

walls-to-selves

Ron walking the walls

We walk atop the magnificent wall that surrounds old town. Now, this is a wall! After this city was bombed, a major restoration used original materials to rebuild. Reminders of the bombings remain in a few piles of rubble.

living-rubble

There is still evidence of the bombings

Time for an Ozujsko beer at Buza café that hangs on a sea cliff. We have the wall and the restaurant to ourselves.

rest-to-selves

Beers at Buza

Walking through “old towns” has become one of our favorite pastimes, and often leads to interesting interactions with locals. Like the other day, a woman says something to me, and I think that she’s trying to sell something.

“I don’t speak the language,” I say.

wall-at-night

The wall at night from our terrace

As we walk away, Marilynn says, “She asked you if you wanted to try her restaurant. You said, ‘I don’t speak the language?’ What’s the matter with you?”

We laugh about the woman’s puzzled look, and my ignorance, most of the evening.

Time for some squid ink risotto mixed with seafood, topped with prawn. We’ll take an order of bacon wrapped scallop over hummus with that.

squid-ink

Squid ink risotto

So, the next day we’re walking around old town on a quest for oysters, and who do we run into? Yes, the restaurant woman who speaks perfect English. She remembers me, of course.

“You made me very confused.” She smiles. “Maybe today you speak the language and will eat at my restaurant?” We all laugh, and then explain that we are looking for the famous oysters from Ston, a nearby island.

town-square

Lucija’s restaurant

“The sushi place and four out of five restaurants are closed this time of year,” she says. “Where are you from?”

“The USA.”

“Oh, Americans,” she nods. “In the summer, there are too many Americans here. They all come on the cruise ships. You’re the first I’ve seen in months.”

water

The Adriatic Sea and Dubrovnik harbor

Eventually, we stumble into a new restaurant right on the sea. The Valentine’s Day gods smile upon us with a cold plate (sushi) full of tuna, octopus, squid, and marinated shrimp, atop rocket (arugula) salad.

cat

Someone smells shrimp

The owner presents us with two glasses of cherry brandy, on the house.

valentines

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

Happy Valentine’s Day! In any language.        Ron Mitchell

 

 

Presenting the Coast of Montenegro

We sit and stare at the Adriatic Sea. A few months ago, I had never even heard of the country of Montenegro. Seven countries and five weeks later, we sip beers in the city of Bar, Montenegro, and enjoy a fresh dish of mussels and grilled squid.

sipping-niksicko

Sipping Niksicko, the local brew, with a friend

This meal gives a delightful palate change from the “meat rules” menus of previous stops. (Delicious meats, by the way)

mussels-and-squid

Mussels and Squid

A relatively small city (pop 40,000), Bar presents a mellow pace for the travel weary. While we love big cities, with their fabulous architecture, behemoth buildings, countless domes and monuments, this change to a more “laid back” atmosphere, with lighter food and more temperate climate comes at a perfect time. Who would argue with hanging out on the shores of the Adriatic eating fresh seafood?

bar-new-town

Strolling along the pedestrian walkway in Bar

Montenegrins don’t give out random smiles. They greet each other with cheek kisses and pats on the back. Their language sounds like a mix of passionate Italian and indifferent Russian. There’s just enough English for us to get by.

new-bar-from-old-bar

Views of New Bar from Old Town

We cook breakfast in our twenty-dollar room and finally get to drink morning coffee in our underwear. The bus system here is cheap and easy. For one Euro, we hop a ride to “old town” atop a mountain. Folks still live in some of the surrounding 1000-year-old buildings. I light a candle in St. John Vladimir church.

lighting-candles

Lighting candles…

I may not attend church, but knock on wood and light candles. I have been lighting candles in many, very old churches along the way. Do you realize how many churches we have seen in seven eastern European countries the past five weeks? Odds are favorable that my desires will manifest into reality!

sveti-stephan

Sveti Stefan, a walled village between Bar and Kotor. Now a luxury resort

After several days, we head north on a bus twisting around the Adriatic coast to the city of Kotor.

kotor

Wall of Kotor. Can you see the trail to the fortress above?

This place makes both of us feel like royalty. Especially while staying in the “Duchess” room at a 600-year-old guest house located in old town.

room

Our 600 year old room in Palazzo Drusko

Full of antiques along with modern comfort, Marilynn is petrified that I shall break something. The “Palazzo Drusko” costs $200USD nightly during the season. Traveling in the off-season pays off again, as the cost drops to $39USD.

central-kotor

Old Town Kotor in the off-season

“You don’t want to stay in old town during the summer,” Vladimir from the guest house says. “It’s noisy and too crowded to walk. On top of that, we get four cruise ships a day.”

climb

How many steps?

A heart-pumping set of 1350 steps lead to the top of a fortress above the city. Sweeping views of the bay and towns surround us. On this sunny day, we have the trail, and the view, to ourselves as opposed to “knees and elbows” during the summer season.

views

Views from the fortress above Kotor

Mountains resemble the fjords of Haines, Alaska. Some (including guidebooks) mistakenly refer to this as Europe’s most southern fjords, when in fact it is a ria, which is a submerged river valley.

perast

Perast

Outside the old city walls, we hop a bus to tour some nearby sites. The tiny town of Perast again transports us into a royal fantasy. We sip beer along the shore on its one roadway, before hiring a quick boat to Gospa od Skrpjela, “Our Lady of the Rocks.” Legend says that a rock simulated a figure of the Virgin Mary, so in the 15th century villagers started adding rocks and materials until an island was formed with just enough room to hold a church. Of course, I lit a candle.

islands

Sveti Dorde and Gospa od Skrpjela

A Benedictine monastery sits on a nearby island, which was built on a natural reef.

octopus

Octopus

Let’s indulge in local, fresh, organic Montenegrin food! At Konoba Akustic restaurant, we start with an order of breaded paprika stuffed with cheese. We’ll follow with some Riblja corva (fish soup), jagnjetina ispod saca (lamb cooked with potatoes under a metal lid covered in hot coals) and octopus. I sip the powerful rakija (domestic plum “brandy”), while the Duchess enjoys krstac (indigenous white wine). One more rakija and I may bum a smoke from the guy at the next table.

reflection-1

Reflections in the Bay of Kotor

Alas, it’s time for the Royal family to hop a bus and head north. Who knows what fantasyland awaits?      Ron Mitchell

 

 

 

Stepping into Belgrade, Serbia

One of the joys of writing an independent travel blog includes the freedom to say what you feel, and not be bound by payment for a travel article that “makes people want to go there.”

prince-mihailo-in-republic-square

Republic Square

Once we step off the train in Belgrade, Marilynn and I and a solo traveler from New Zealand, Mac, try to gain some sense of direction. Either these backpacks are getting heavier, or I’m getting older, because I’m hunched with a great view of the sidewalk.

“Man, there’s garbage all over the place, I say to Marilynn.”

“We just need to focus on finding the hotel.” She and Mac study the map, and learn that we’re staying in the same section of town. I lag and notice many beautiful blonde women, with high cheek bones and long legs. They all have a cigarette dangling from their lips, as they walk past fast.

I feel like we stepped into the 1960’s in the USA, back when folks littered at will, dogs ran loose, and most people smoked cigarettes…everywhere.

hotel-moskva

Hotel Moskva

Two miles later, Mac reaches his hostel. We’re almost ashamed to tell him that we will stay at Hotel Moskva, a five-star hotel where notable people like Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, and Richard Nixon have stayed. It’s time to add some vacation to our travel!

hotel-lobby

Old world elegance at Hotel Moskva

“Does this city seem dirty to you?” I ask Mac.

“I love it,” he responds. “It’s a poor country like Bulgaria and very cheap.” He looks at me. “You Americans bombed it before.”

“Perhaps I’ll say I’m from Canada,” I respond jokingly.

“Not a bad idea,” he nods.

church-of-st-sava

Sveti Sava the world’s biggest Orthodox church

We saw no evidence of bombings here, although it exists in some places.

Hotel Moskva blows us away with luxury and friendliness ($89USD nightly), along with the distinct stench of stale cigarette smoke. We sip beers in the upscale lounge, listening to the piano player. Oh yes, definitely back in the 60’s.

piano-bar-better

The piano man at the Hotel Moskva

The morning hotel breakfast (included) fills us with nineteen cups of espresso, and numerous buffets of meats, eggs, cheeses, pastries, pies, etc. The tiny nonsmoking section resembles that imaginary smoking line they used to have inside airplanes. The rest of the cuisine here tastes surprisingly non-distinct.

the-national-assembly

The National Assembly

Let’s get out for some fresh air and explore the beauty of Belgrade. The pedestrian city center consists mainly of modern shops squeezing between magnificent, ornate sculpted buildings. It pales in comparison to recent cities visited, but still nice enough. Perhaps we’re simply a bit burnt-out. (See previous recent posts)

the-victor-of-kalemegdan

The Pobednik monument in Kalemegdan Citadel

Kalemegdan Citadel served as a strategic military post during WWI. Situated where the Sava River meets the Danube, they have done a tremendous job of restoring the massive complex into a pleasant park.

rivers-meet

Confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers

Our final evening, we take a luxurious massage at our hotel spa. After an hour of aromatic oil being rubbed into my weary skin and muscles, I feel like lighting up a cigarette.

Only three nights in this grand hotel, and we’re back to traveling. Riding a 13-hour train to Bar, Montenegro. Gorgeous countryside, and colorful towns, but again littered with garbage. Smokers indulge inside the train, but we’re getting used to it.

towns

Colorful towns between Belgrade and Bar

What we cannot get used to is the constantly screaming two-year-old and his mother who repeatedly pinches his ear and smacks his face. Again, back in the 60’s.

countryside

Countryside between Belgrade and Bar

To escape the madness of our compartment I head to the bar car (imagine that), and see my first refugees. An elderly man, and a middle-aged couple sit on the floor between train cars. I step around them. They get up carrying all their belongings in overstuffed bags, pots and pans dangling from the sides. They are directed to three seats in a six seat cabin. Two puddles emanating the smell of piss remain on the floor where they sat. The three other passengers who were sitting in that cabin left, because of the stench I imagine. I’m not cranky anymore. We have no problems. God save these harmless folks who have real problems. They are struggling to live, eat, and stay warm. Our issues pale in comparison. Bring on the screaming two-year-old. In five hours, we’re stepping off onto the beach in Bar, Montenegro!   Ron Mitchell

 

 

Tolerance in Timisoara, Romania

We squeeze into a packed minivan in Brasov for a boring, eight-hour ride to the city of Timisoara. Marilynn and I expect a short stay at that city, which seems a necessary stop to make travel arrangements on the way to Belgrade, Serbia.

room-without-a-view

Our first view of Timisoara from Excelsior Hotel 

Our hotel sits out of the way on a dark, dreary, dirty street. Hooded silhouette figures of humans lurk on the sidewalks at night during our walk to find a restaurant. We’re lost. An old man’s elderly dog barely makes it across the cable car tracks before the train misses his ass by six-inches. The man scowls at me?

ham-hock

Ham hock and sauerkraut

Finally, we find “Casa Bunicii” where I enjoy roasted duck over duck fat marinated cabbage with spätzle. Mare orders porcini mushroom spätzle in a cream sauce seasoned with sage, leeks, and garlic. Delicious! However, a ham hock from city center is more photogenic.

metropolitan-cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral

A short walk in the light of morning reveals a bright, new world of fabulous architecture, parks, gardens, and three public squares.

libertatii-square

Libertatii Square

Timisoara sits at the crossroads of East and West, bordering Hungary, and Serbia. The region’s motto, “Tolerance and Understanding,” excites and refreshes us – a couple of Americans a long way from home, during a tumultuous time.

serbian

The Serbian side of Unirii Square

Renewed energy, along with pedestrian walkways through the city squares, surrounded by diverse architecture, restaurants, bars, and friendly people, convince us to extend our stay.

catholic-side

The Roman Catholic dome of Uritii Square

This melting pot of different cultural heritages has never experienced an ethnic or religious conflict. It was the first city to revolt free of Communism in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin wall.

putin-etc

A Painting in a Restaurant…draw your own conclusions

Today, Romanians, Hungarians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Jews, Arabs, Italians and Rromas (Gypsies), live in harmony while practicing active cultural and religious lives.

fountain

The water is hypo-tonic and hypo-thermal (must be good for you)

We sip Timisoarana beer at our favorite watering hole in the Piata Unirii Square, where Roman Catholic and Serbian churches face each other. Tolerance and understanding are inherent here, in the Banat region of Romania.

drunken-rat

The Drunken Rat Pub

Tomorrow, we hop a four-hour train to Belgrade Serbia.  Ron Mitchell

 

Welcome to Transylvania: Stumbling Around Brasov, Romania

Nothing like a great sleep on a 13-hour overnight train, until Hungarian Border Police find a problem with our passport. Someone stamped it incorrectly along the way, but they let us out anyway. We must not resemble refugees. Our only vow today is to not get ripped off by a taxi driver, like back in Budapest! That translates here in Transylvania into lugging heavy backpacks for over two miles traversing snow and ice-covered sidewalks. It’s not about the money, it’s the principle (and a sore back).

view-and-fridge-2

Room with a view and de facto fridge

After another nineteen cups of espresso at a coffee shop where we also get directions, Viola! We splurge on a room with a view (US60) at the “Casa Wagner,” smack in the middle of Piata Sfatului, the old town square.

brasov-2

Piata Sfatului – The old town square

Off to a pub! It’s almost noon. We get better tourist information at pubs that at info centers. Silviu, the barkeep at the “Old Firm Beer House,” tells us his favorite local restaurants and his impressions of Americans. “When I worked in Constanta on the Black Sea, American soldiers would come to the bar and drink like maniacs,” he says. “They couldn’t pronounce my name, so they called me ‘Dude’ but I didn’t mind.”

pedestrian-mall

The pedestrian street

We roam around yet another fantasy land of cobbled streets, bohemian cafes, statues, medieval spires, and a Gothic black church, so named due to fire damage.

img_9621

Note the “Hollywood style” Brasov sign above

We take the cable car up Mt. Tampa for inspiring views of the city and take note of the Hollywood style sign near the viewing platform. Really liking this place.

cable-car

Brasov from the cable car up Mt. Tampa

Off to the first of Silviu’s recommended restaurants, “Gaura Dulce” (sweet hole) which has historical roots as a brothel. Let’s get Romanian, with an order of pork liver, fried brains, bounce enticed beef tongue, and blood sausage. Delicious. We even took leftovers and ate our brains out for breakfast the next morning!

brains

Liver, brains, and tongue – oh my!

Vasile, from the hotel, agrees to drive us to Bran Castle, often referred to as “Dracula’s Castle,” about 20 miles away. Built around 1380, this spectacular castle imprisoned Vlad the Impaler for about two months.

bran-castle

Bran Castle

It became associated with Dracula because of appearance rather than Vlad’s brief stay. Mainly furnished and lived in by Queen Marie around the 1920’s, the antiques and secret passages add to the Dracula mystique. A deep shaft leads to a stream on the village level for sneaky ins and outs.

passage-bran

Welcome to Bran Castle

Some locals believe in “Strigoi,” whose souls leave their body at night and torment people. They hunt prey until daylight when they lose their power. Dracula derives from these myths.

inside-bran

The King’s bed inside Bran Castle

Roaming around the hilltop ruins of Rasnov Fortress, a short driving distance away, you could almost see fur donning peasants walking around. Stone vaults held food and supplies for villagers to survive in the event of an invasion by nomadic tribes and armies.

rasnov

Rasnov Fortress

Back at our haven, we waste no time trying another of Silviu’s restaurant recommendations, “Sergiana,” for some more Romanian fare. Subterranean tables greet you with breaded, fried chunks of pork belly. I order the Sarmale (cabbage rolls that originated in Romania) accompanied by pork chop sized hunks of bacon, and Marilynn orders the Ciorba (Transylvanian sour soup with smoked gammon, tarragon, sour cream, and lemon juice or vinegar). This is perhaps one of our best meals ever.

sergova-2

Sergiana, our favorite restaurant in Brasov

Struggling to make forward plans forces us to extend our stay in this lovely city. I guess we’ll need to visit Sergiana one more time before lugging those backpacks again.

Ron Mitchell

The Two Sides of Budapest, Hungary

Budapest does not “grab” us at first. The taxi driver did. It’s a common scam. Unregulated taxis rip off foreign visitors. We should have known better, but we’re travel weary from a train ride, lugging heavy backpacks, it’s nighttime, fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, and all we have is an address full of numbers and consonants for a small apartment we rented somewhere in this huge city. At least the taxi driver brings us to our complex. (quadruple the normal price we later learn)

our-apt

Our apartment in Budapest – better than it looks

He stops and points to what we think is a suggestion for a good hole-in-the-wall restaurant, until he drops our bags on the sidewalk. After a ring of keys opens six locks and three doors, we relax in a spacious clean studio apartment. Albeit, a depressing view. We walk to the grocery store and purchase chicken, cabbage, onion, garlic, yellow peppers, and potatoes to cook in a pot. After a couple of weeks on the road, a home cooked meal sounds good. Time to bed down here on the Buda side of Pest, serenaded by sirens, commuter trains, and church bells.

view

A room with a view

What a difference daylight makes! After nineteen cups of espresso with some chicken/cabbage leftovers for breakfast, a short walk around the corner not only grabs us, but pulls us into a medieval fantasy land.

danube

Parliament and the icy Danube River

Walk along the Danube, where sheets of flowing ice ricochet from pylons of magnificent bridges that connect Buda to Pest, making one Budapest.

chain-bridge

The Chain Bridge

Cobblestone roadways and carved stone stairs lead the way up Castle Hill to the Royal Palace. Ornate sculptures cling to fortresses and buildings. Stone and bronze lions and hunters show stories of those who once lived or served here.

hunter

Statues surround the Royal Palace

From Fisherman’s Bastion, sweeping views of Pest grab our gaze, and remind us of something we have never known.

lookiing-across-to-pest

Views of Pest from Fishermen’s Bastion

We walk across the Chain Bridge. A prince had this bridge built after he tried to walk across the frozen Danube to attend his father’s funeral. The ice melted, he grew furious because he couldn’t walk, and commissioned a British engineer to build Budapest’s first bridge.

the-palace

Walking up Castle Hill

Here it comes. Another scam? Some guy wants to sell us Big Bus (hop on/off) tickets. He understands that we’re skeptical after the taxi rip-off. “That happens to many tourists,” he explains. “Walk with me to the office. I’ll show you.” We purchase tickets that are valid for three days. They not only include a tour of the city, but give us a ride to and from the train station, and exclusive entry into several thermal bath houses. Budapest is full of thermal baths. Who knew?

img_9387

Gellert Baths – Kind of like taking a bath in a cathedral

The big bus ticket is a good move. We hop on, and then off at the train station to purchase overnight (13-hour) sleeper cab passes to our next stop in Brasov, Romania. Hop back on and find a restaurant for some long, overdue chow. Marilynn orders Halafzle, a freshwater poached fish in soup with tomato, pepper and paprika. I order Gulyas (goulash) in traditional soup/stew with beef, tomato, onion and paprika. Devour this delight with huge hunks of white bread!

lookiing-across-to-buda

Looking across to Buda

We take big bus to the Buda side, bring pizza home to our cozy apartment, and stay up all night long watching NFL playoffs broadcast in the German language. Two hours of sleep later, what better time to take a thermal bath with a massage? After a brisk walk to the Gellert bath house, we change into bathing suits and lounge in several of eight thermal pools, ranging in different levels of heat.

mare-hot-tub

Making friends in the baths

A few hot soaks later, we take a steam and then jump into an ice-cold dip. It’s time for a long overdue, healing oil massage that not only eases physical pain, but the psychological pain of the no contest Steelers loss.

parliment-at-night

Parliament at night

We barely make the walk home. Too gassed to go out for dinner, we finish our leftover chicken/cabbage concoction. The next day we must leave, but the overnight train doesn’t depart until seven o’clock in the evening. So, we ride big bus around for several hours, before a final delectable meal of beef stew with galuska (small gnocchi-like dumplings).

dinner

Some of the tastiest meals are not necessarily photogenic

We could enjoy a longer stay in Budapest, but it’s time to let go and grab the overnight train to the Transylvanian region of Romania. Stay tuned!   Ron Mitchell