A summer without airplanes

??????????

With only a couple of weeks – hope months – before the winter, the memories of the busy travel summer are still around. For over a month, I did an intensive country hopping, that lead me from the South of Germany to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Romania and Republic of Moldova. Usually, I’m the kind of traveler that can’t wait to arrive at the destination and thus, the airplane is always the choice no. 1. This time, I wanted to challenge myself with more slow travel and thus, alternated between (many) regional trains, buses and even mini-buses. From Konstanz, for instance, I used a regional Swiss connection, booked only 2 days advance from the train station in Konstanz. Surprisingly – and given the usual high prices I’m usually treated by the Deutsche Bahn – I got a very good price. The trains look good, with friendly personnel that helped me politely to get in time the shortest connections for the next destination.

??????????

From the Eastern side of Switzerland to Liechtenstein, there are short-term buses, comfy, with a bit of air condition that goes in the middle of a beautiful scenery surrounded by spectacular mountains and quiet small houses. With the help of the Adventure Pass kindly offered by Liechtenstein Tourism Office I was able to explore extensively Vaduz, but also to use the public network for free for commuting in different parts of the city.

??????????

On the way back to Konstanz, I tried something slightly different regional transportation, using some colourful little trains. When you switch so often countries, expect to significantly improve your linguistic proficiency. During my travels, I did my best – and sometimes succeeded – to leave the English for emergency situations, while using as often as possible the local languages of the country I was visiting. Don’t ask how your brains could feel after changing from German, then to French, then to Hungarian and then to Romanian.

??????????

Due to the close neighbourhood, and the varied professional opportunities, it’s pretty easy to commute from a country to another in Europe: for instance living and shopping for food in Germany, working in Liechtenstein and eventually spending some summers in Switzerland. The trains around 15 o’clock and later are always busy with commuters, many of them ready to use the travel time to solve some important issues using the wifi opportunities on the board.

??????????

Meanwhile, the little colourful trains ready to go in the scenic Switzerland destinations are calling to relaxing and enjoying the summer days, when possible. During the summer vacations, there is possible to take various rides in different popular locations, with windowless trains allowing real life landscape experience without leaving your cabin.

??????????

Compared to the glamorous West, the Eastern part of Europe might be a bit shocking at the first sight. Many train stations look like there were never enough funds in the last decade to invest in the rebuilding, and some people hanging up around can be a bit intrusive. In Timisoara, for instance, I was surprised by the kind help of the lady from the ticket counter who helped me to find a simple and cheap connection to Brasov.

??????????

I haven’t travel by train in Romania for more than 10 years, maybe, but was a bit surprised to discover that not too much changed, in terms of high-class comfort and facilities.

??????????

Even the landscape stayed the same, with lots of weeds around the train lines, and tired personnel, not always able to help you too much. What I sometimes appreciate in the Eastern European part of the world, is the intensive dialogue and life sharing that can be done with full passion for one or two or more hours of travel between perfect strangers ready to share all the details of their life, although did not care about the name of the depositary of their secrets.

??????????

The main reason I wanted to travel extensively slow, was for checking more carefully the reality on the ground, with a diverse overview over the landscape and even more human interactions. History is always present, but you need to be ready to catch it. In Arad train station, I spotted an old tent-roof stone building, hidden on the back of the train lines, most probably some kind of bunker left from the Cold War time.

??????????

For the rest of the trip, I used intensively and on my own risk the local minibuses not only from a part to another of Romania, but also going as far away as Kishinev. The advantages are the very cheap prices and the availability round the day, with regular connections ready to go almost every hour. On the other hand, forget about safety belts, comfort or even cleanliness.

Now, that other travel adventures are calling my name, I’m glad that I made it through the summer and was lucky enough to be back home safe and healthy. A bit of slow travel once in a while can be a very rich experience, strongly recommended.

 

Kishinev, my Easternmost European destination

??????????

I wanted to visit Kishinev for many years, but either I always rather took the plane in the direction of Western Europe, or I was too far away to include it in my short-term travel plans. Familiar with the history and with a couple of good friends from Moldova, I kept regretting that I’m not able to check the reality on the ground on myself. Shortly after the plans to visit Romania were established, the thought of paying a visit, although short, to Moldova, returned. What if? But with the never ending troubles in Ukraine, some worried friends advised me to rather go to the neighbouring Bulgaria or maybe better spend more time in Romania. But I hardly give up, especially when it comes to travel, so kept asking on travel forums and friends about what’s like to be a solo woman traveller in Moldova. When I needed only one more inspiration to finally book my tickets, I met a young taxi driver in Bucharest whose emotional accounts from his home country finally convinced me that I should not miss the chance to go there.

Although it is possible to fly or to go by train, I rather decided to take a minibus, from Autogara Filaret, place that looked completely out of time. The round ticket goes around 40 Euro pro person.

??????????

The journey lasts around 8 hours, it’s relatively safe – if you forget about the need to use safety bells which were completely broken – and the mini-buses on both ways are ready to go every 2 hours. There are around 3 companies operating regularly and phone reservations are also possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy to get a place without, if you are in the station at least 30 minutes before departure.

??????????

The custom checking was relatively smoothly, although during the summer time, the traffic was quite busy with people coming back home from Italy, Spain or France, among others. The country was recently included in the free-visa program of the EU, but many Moldavian citizens succeeded to get a Romanian passport – the two countries have a long common histories and for those with Romanian ancestors it was possible to get the citizenship – allowing them free travel and working opportunities in EU countries. On the way back though, the checking took much more, because entering the EU area involves some serious restrictions in terms of the quantities of cigarettes and alcohol that can be carried. As I was carrying only a small bag for my one night stay in Kishinev, I did not make too many worries and enjoyed looking out of the window. Once arrived in Moldova, the rich landscape kept my camera busy. Kishinev is situated in the middle of a beautiful natural landscape, one of the most favourite destinations for the weekend of the local people being the outdoor experiences of Rezervatia Codrii, a large area covered by forests, small hills and green paths.

??????????

For purchasing my tickets, using the Romanian currency was possible, and in many places in Kishinev, it was still allowed to trade with it. This goes too for Euro. However, for paying in restaurants in shops, you rather need to use the local money, colourful pieces of paper adorned with historical characters from both the Romanian and local history. Many exchange houses are open on Sunday too, especially near the train and central bus station, as well as on Stefan cel Mare avenue.

??????????

My first contact with the city was through its people: the driver of the mini-bus, kindly explained me where I should stop for reaching the street where I had rented a too large apartment; the owner of the apartment to whom I paid around 30 Euro for a huge 4-room complex – sometimes, the monthly salary is around 25 Euro, the country being considered the poorest in Europe – and who bought me some water, coffee and some small breakfast treats; the same owner who the next day insisted to pay my ticket to Dendarium park; the many anonymous people who helped me with directions either in Romanian, English and my very broken Russian. Thus, I felt not only safe, but also welcomed. Maybe the streets were looking bad and the contrasts between the very expensive 4×4 cars and the big holes on the roads were too big to ignore, but the warm hearts can open the eyes for long-time friendships.

??????????

Either part of Romania or the Soviet Union, Moldova regained its independence only recently. The National Museum of History presents extensive local interpretations of history, covering also the repression during the communist years, although there are a lot of historical events completely absent.

??????????

At the Museum of Art, although I was only 10 minutes before closing time, I was allowed to visit the Otto Dix exhibition featuring graphic war experiences during WWI. A couple of weeks later, I visited Dix’s home in the German city of Gera, keeping in mind this encounter.

??????????

Most part of my time in Kishinev was spent walking the long avenues – especially around Stefan cel Mare blvd – noticing the local institutional architecture, strongly influenced by the communist/rigid Soviet architecture.

??????????

In the main square, the arch that was used as a meeting points for anti-governmental protesters in the last months. For now, the situation is stable, the only travel warning being related to the travels in the crony Transdniestr region, which is out of the legal and administrative control of Moldova where it reigns a pro-Russian communist Soviet-style government.

??????????

Almost each historical encounter in this city needs an addenda. For instance, this monument dedicated to the historical character of Stefan cel Mare was moved several times in the next decades due to various historical and political circumstances.

??????????

The institutional buildings are unusually big – sign that working for the public institutions might be a serious offer on a very unstable market – and pleasant apparitions.

??????????

The new national identity is displayed in the most simplest way and as often as possible, but in such an open warm way that you might accept easily the clumsiness of the very beginnings.

??????????

As in Romania, summers in Moldova are very hot and due to the high energy prices, not all the places do have air condition. After a couple of good hours of walking, I decided to have a foodie stop, trying some local specialities at Andy’s Pizza, a local network with air conditioned restaurants all over the city. It’s open 24/24 hours, with home delivery, fast service and very acceptable prices. The menu was in both Russian and Romanian, but the waiters were able to speak some English too. The lemonade was fresh, cold, perfumed and with the right amount of lemon, although a bit too sweet. The veggie mushroom soup was creamy, rich in parsley and with lots of crunchy croutons. I ordered some fresh back bread because curious to taste it, and was not disappointed by its freshness and dough aroma. I continued with a four-cheese pasta with dried tomatoes, nothing special, but consistent and with a good combination of cheeses.

Although I did not notice too many traditional Moldavian restaurants, there are plenty of Georgian menus all over the city, serving also their famous wine. Moldova has its own famous vineyards, a bit far away from the capital city, at Cricova, a special tourist attraction that kept the Soviet space traveller Yuri Gagarin, among others, busy for a couple of good days with its variety of bottles.

??????????

There are many small streets where some traditional architecture and houses that used to belong to middle class people at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them are part of the historical heritage and waiting for enough state funds to be rebuilt. On the Armenian street, some decorations of the windows included also some communist symbols, the famous sickle and the red star.

??????????

For the late evening, I discovered close to my Badulescu Bodoni street, near the high building hosting the OSCE Mission, a huge park, Parcul Morii, with long trails of ups and downs stairs, few small restaurants and a huge lake with little beaches and walking paths. It looked like late in the evening, most part of the city’s population is out from the hot apartments for enjoying the fresh wind of the beginning of the night.

??????????

Some courageous one were swimming, others were fishing, the kids were running around and young people were gathering together to look at their iPads – there is free wifi in the parks of Kishinev – or to watch and play some street music and dance. Earlier on in the city, I encountered a group of break-dance youngs and in the front of Stefan cel Mare central park, people were also listening to various music improvisations.

??????????

After so many experiences the other day, I started my next and last day in Kishinev, with a colourful and very sweet breakfast, at Caramel, on Banulescu Bodoni. The indoors looked very elegant, with white and green stripes wall papers and a very welcoming service. The big rose macaroon has a combination of sour rose, very crunchy, but maybe too sugarly to have an original taste. The same was for the chocolate mousse, where I also felt too much oil and artificial sweet flavours.

??????????

The Monday mornings brought more movements on the streets, and on Armeneasca street, fresh veggies and huge water melons were on sale.

??????????

Nearby, there were also other products sold at very small prices, mostly Made in China and of low quality. More interesting finds were at the flea market near the National Theatre, on the – already famous – Stefan cel Mare blvd. Looking around at product descriptions and recommendations of travel destinations, the usual reference system we are used with in Europe is completely different. There were recommendations of trips to Georgia and Armenia, of beauty products from Belarus or of ready made clothing products from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Buses for Moscow and other local destinations in Russia are regular.

??????????

One of my addictive discovery was the street sold kvass. With my usual innocent face, I asked the vendor what does it mean, what are the ingredients used? She – many teenagers were selling it, probably as a temporary summer job – was so surprised by my question that I felt ashamed to ask one more time. Instead, I bought if for less than 0.50 Euro and instantly fell in love with. A traditional beverage in Russia and Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet countries, it’s a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread, with an accidental – due to fermentation processes – alcoholic concentration of less than 1.2%.  During my last 4 hours of travel in Kishinev, I tried to get at least one cold plastic glass per hour.

??????????

At another end corner of Stefan cel Mare blvd., I was introduced to the huge Dendarium park, a local Botanical Garden, with beautiful roses and various selections of local flowers. There were not too many people around, so I enjoyed the silent presence of nature. Without a clear tourism strategy and too many street maps showing the directions, a successful trip to Kishinev should relate to the recommendation of the locals, and given my pleasant experiences I had by far, it’s a great opportunity to meet new great people.

??????????

Kishinev is a green city, with an urban presence growing up on the slopes of hills. The central area used to be always the privileged habitation of rich communist elites, while the newly areas of block houses were built for hosting proletarians from all over the Republic and other Soviet countries. In the countryside, people keep planting their gardens with fruits and vegetables and vineyards, and their hard work is a valuable source of revenue. The country might be poor and with salaries at the limits of survival, but the people keep smiling, I rarely heard cursing or aggressive encounters and the street women fashion is always glamorous.

??????????

Although at the very busy central bus station, where comical events can take place, names of other cities like Cahul or Orhei, were screamed loud for attracting more travellers I decided that it might be enough for this one short trip and booked my bus ticket back to Bucharest. But did not want to leave before another foodie treat, at Blinoff, serving traditional Russian pancakes. I ordered another tasty lemonade – after so many glasses of kvass, I needed a change – which was very well made – it seems that people here really know how to prepare it – plus some hard cheese and mushrooms filling and bechamel sauce blinis. An excellent lavish treat before saying ‘good bye’. For a fresh glass of kvass I’m ready to return any time. And not only.

For more pictures from Kishinev, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/kishinevchisinau-republic-of-moldova/

Bucharest, a non-sentimental tour across 555 years of history

??????????

The risk of knowing well or quite well a city you want to write about as a travel writer is to focus too much on the critical perspectives and writing too much about what not to do in the city rather than what’s really worth to see if you only have a couple of days to spend there. To be very honest from the beginning, Bucharest is by far one of my least favourite cities in Romania, but from a trip to another or a longer stay to another, I learned to know it and for the writing purposes it might be enough.

The city changed a lot – maybe too much – in the last decades, and this can be see especially in the architectural development – and its big failures. However, sometimes completely by chance, some streets still kept some original architecture from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century that the visitor cannot ignore it. My favourite one is situated at the beginning of Popa Nan street and used to belong to a worldwide famous local singer, Maria Tanase, that also used to be the muse of the famous sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

??????????

If your observation is sharp enough, you might see very often these many-plies of cables. It looks exotic, scary, mysterious or threatening, but there is nothing to be afraid of: the technological needs of the city overpasses the technical ingenuity of its urban planners and at least for now, this is how various communication cables are set together – not necessarily in the most elegant way.

??????????

Most often, behind the curtain of cables, traditional architecture can still be admired. The local ‘brancovenesc’ style is integrating folk and religious motives into solid building structures that used to be designed for the middle class entrepreneurs and traders whose development in the inter-war period was stopped by the installation of communism. Many of those villas were lost for ever, destroyed for being replaced by architecture-by-the numbers, but many of the surviving constructions went into new hands and restored.

??????????

As I haven’t seriously visited the city in the last five years, I enjoyed the discovery of new interesting destinations, including shops. The former communist store Eva, from blvd. Magheru, was turned into an interesting exhibition of products created by local designers. Some of them were so good that I seriously resented the frustration of being on a very tight long-time travel budget. My favourite were the works by Adelina Ivan, Venera Arapu – whose pieces of fashion design I’m in love with for a long time and even have some of them in my closet – Stephan Pelger and Carla Szabo.

??????????

Although at the first sight, the Magheru avenue, connecting University Square to Romana Square, might look very contrasting, with new and old-style shops, some neglected buildings, parking lots and hotels, there are many interesting spots and information telling short stories about the city. Like the statue of the Romanian composer of international reputation George Enescu, whose statue is situated close to the entrance to Eva shop. There is also a museum in the city dedicated to his life and activity – at Cantacuzino’s Palace -, hosted in the house where he also used to live, an interesting work of architecture in itself.

??????????

On the same avenue, Magheru blvd. there is a small refuge that both local intellectuals and expats love: Carturesti bookstore, with Romanian and English books and music, as well as different quality design creations.

??????????

Nearby, at Ciclop Parking, I discovered some interesting works of street art when and where I expected less.

??????????

As you visit Bucharest in our times, in the first half of the 21st century, you have the choice of many hotels and nice accommodations, but once upon a time, Intercontinental Hotel used to be by far one of the most famous, as during communist, foreigners were not allowed in too many places – at least not without strict surveillance of the secret services. From the top of the hotel, one can have an overview of the city, with its various – sometimes chaotic – stages of development, but also an expensive drink at the bar.

??????????

The University Square is not only a meeting place of students – the Faculty of Geography, Philology, Architecture and History are hosted in the buildings around – but also a former meeting place of anti-governmental protesters at the beginning of the post-communism era.

??????????

There is another building in this area whose presence cannot be ignored: the National Theatre that this summer was in process of reconstruction. An allegorical installation of statues was recently created, giving to the entire area a certain surrealist touch.

??????????

Going far away, near Unirii Square, the shopping temptations are threatening your credit balance, but you can just change your focus and look instead at the concert of fountains around People’s House. The entire area with many small traditional was almost overnight demolished, creating a lot of personal dramas. In the summer, the fountains bring more life to the communist baroque architecture of the buildings around, on the avenue that for a short time was called – The Victory of Socialism.

??????????

In the central area, you can rarely avoid the profile of People’s House/Parliament Palace, the second highest after the Pentagon, hosting the local Parliament and other public institutions. Special guided tours in English are available and can be booked on their website, at least one day in advance. The construction started in 1984 and was finished many years after the end of communism. The interior looks spectacular, overwhelming and incredibly lavish, especially if you think about the famous chandeliers adorning some of the rooms, some of them using at least 7,000 light bulbs.

??????????

Nearby, the Dambovita river, that was dramatically cleaned up in the last decades and which creates a lot of problems to the metro network during the rainy days. Otherwise, not a spectacular water presence, and not used for tourist purposes.

??????????

Near Unirea square, most visitors will go to the Old Town, where besides lots of shops and hotels mushrooming, there are also some old museums, and galleries, including the old Bucharest citadel, explaining the city history. Another interesting source of inspiration and information for those curious to know more about the city, the Sutu Palace, just near University Square is recommended.

??????????

In the last years, the Old Town, with its famous street Lipscani – a very local translation of Leipzig, a former street of traders from all over the world – went through a dramatic process of reconstruction. The result: a lot of bars, shops and open air restaurants. Due to its high concentration of tourists, the prices might be a bit higher than in the rest of the city.

??????????

Some old shops, including the one selling wedding dresses were still there.

??????????

Hidden close to the National Bank building, Villacross Passage offers a oasis of quietness and a couple of Oriental shisha lounges.

??????????

Nearby, the Museum of History which has, besides interesting historical information that you might not know about Romania, the National Treasure, of old jewels mostly gold and precious stones, testimony about traditional handicrafts and traditions.

??????????

The Old Towns abounds in foodie offers, including the iconic ‘Caru’ cu bere’ or ‘Hanul lui Manuc’. I rather decided for something more exotic, like the Shushiko, whose main disadvantage was to have the outdoor space situated just opposite some big garbage collection corner. As the summers in Bucharest are very hot, expect some flies coming up and down your food very often due to this. Otherwise, the service was unexpectedly fast and indoors there is air condition and clean. The veggie tempura – carrots, zucchini – was tasty, although the dough was a bit too much, but was brought warm and combined with the soy sauce tasted better. The edamame were well cooked and the avocado tamago sushi not spectacular, just the usual taste expectation.

??????????

From there, the trip continued in other parts of the city, still keeping close to the central area. The Military Circle is another historical reference, with an outside terrace serving beers, among others. Just 10 minutes of walk from there, the Cismigiu park is a recommended destination for the summer time. Another famous and bigger park, Herastrau, with a huge lake where you can rent boats and make bike tours around, is situated on the other side of the city.

??????????

Even after more than one visit in the city, the cocktail – not always successful – of architectural sizes and building heights is unusual. Sometimes, the old-new school of architecture succeeded to change the perspective, as it happened in the case of Novotel hotel, whose glass wing was politely and naturally added to the old structure, dramatically reconstructed.

??????????

The mother of all contrasts is the Revolution Square, just in the front of the building where the communist dictator Ceausescu had his last speech. Controversial statues with ambiguous artistic messages and highly disputable artistic choices co-exist with the classical building of the Central Library or other statues of ante- and post-communism political personalities.

??????????

The former Royal Palace, currently the Museum of National Art is the aesthetic refuge against the overloaded discourse of the street. It hosts an impressive collection of traditional Romanian art and collections by world painters that necessarily should be on the priority list of any visitor in Bucharest. During the anti-communist riots from December 1989, part of the museum, including some valuable works of arts, were partially destroyed.

??????????

On the other side of the street is the statue of the former King Charles I, and close to it was installed a sign reminding, in the colours of the national flag, that the city is celebrating this year 555 years since is documentary mention.

??????????

The streets around are always busy, with the high traffic coming and going to Calea Victoriei. Inside the Romanian Athenaeum the noise stops leaving the floor to the classical music. Every two years, in the autumn, here it is organized the international classical music festival ‘George Enescu‘ and very often, you might encounter free open air concerts organized in the front square. When there are no concerts, a short visit inside is recommended for admiring, among others, the historical fresco explaining various historical moments.

??????????

The streets and small shops on the streets around are charming and with a stylish yet youngish air. With a revolutionary selfie mirror installed on one of the doors of the shops near Hilton Hotel.

??????????

But I did other interesting things instead of taking my selfies. Like, for instance, visiting (finally) Theodor Aman Museum, dedicated to the work and life of the founder of the Romanian school of Fine Arts. Besides the valuable works of arts exhibited – many influenced by the French culture, as in the case of the literature as well – the architecture of the house tells its own story about the living habits and costumes from the end of the 19th century as well.

??????????

Nothing compares, though, with the pleasure of meeting fellow travel bloggers while on the road. At the cosy Infinitea, hosted in a classical garden house in Cotroceni area,  Vlad, from Eff it, I’m on Holiday shared with me some tips and thoughts about the city and travel blogging. Tea houses were introduced in the city a couple of good years ago, but remain a stylish option to spend some good quiet time with a flavoured cuppa and friends in the city, both during the summer and in the winter.

??????????

At a terrace close to the statues from the University square, late in the evening, I quenched my thirst with a rainbow non-alcoholic cocktail at Infusion. In the vicinity, during the summer, an open theatre is playing various movie hits of the year(s).

??????????

At the recommendation of Vlad, I checked the next day some more street art, this time on Arthur Verona street and was not disappointed by the diversity of works and styles, as well as the insertion of the work within the urban narrative.

??????????

From there, I arrived to one of my favourite parks, Gradina Icoanei and Ion Voicu, discrete islands of green quietness in a city of busy and sometimes too nervous people.

??????????

On Blv. Dacia, where a lot of embassies and diplomatic representations are situated, I paid a short visit to the classy French Institute – closed during the summer – where I spent a lot of time in the company of French literature and the special ambiance of a place where it looked there is no place for the outside world.

??????????

After long days of explorations of the city, getting lost without a proper map other than the language, in the most far away areas, meeting a lot of young people and discovering new artists and designers and writers, I left the city with an enriched impression. I still don’t love Bucharest very much, but getting to know it more is my polite way to show my availability for more understanding at least. With so many histories and its rich architecture, this city will always have some secrets challenging me to discover.

One day, will be back.

For more insights from Bucharest, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/bucharest-romania/

For some live videos of the daily life, have a look at my YouTube videos here, here and here.

Hiking at Poiana Brasov, Romania

??????????

Hardly any stay to Brasov goes without at least a very short trip to Poiana Brasov. From the bus central station – the buses are regularly and beware that especially in weekends and during summer holidays are very crowded – a 30-minute trip leads to the little mountain resort that in the last 10 years went through a huge transformation, with many luxury hotels as well as villas and moderate accommodation mushrooming.

??????????

The same can be said about the various restaurants, although most iconic ones, like the classical tourist destination ‘Sura Dacilor‘, with animal fur hanging up on chairs and various traditional items displayed on the walls. It serves a lot of meaty food, accompanied by the traditional beans soup, polenta or the tzuica drink, a very strong plum – usually with a concentration of 28-60% alcohol.

??????????

But Brasov was already too generous with us, offering a lot of foodie temptations, so we decided rather to try burning some more calories. With the cable car, we go on the top of Postavarul Mountain, with a beautiful overview over the entire region. During the winter, Poiana Brasov is changing into a ski resort, one of the top destinations of this kind in Romania.

??????????

The glamour we encountered before disappeared. We pass near a burned cottage and lots of tourists keen to reach the top of Postavarul Massiv. With its 1799 m. it is a relatively easy ride – many experienced hikers preferred to climb on the top by foot too – and the views are very beautiful, embracing the most interesting part of Prahovei Valley. You can have a short snapshot of the heart-breathing view here and here.

??????????

Although the climbing is not that difficult and many people are bringing their 4-5-year children too, it’s important to have good shoes, as a big part of the walking is through sharp stones.

??????????

When the weather is fine and there are not too many clouds, one can see too far away, on the other side of the mountains. Everything looks small and relatively isolated in the middle of the forest.

??????????

On the way back, we go by foot, walking almost intuitively as not the entire path is marked. However, the ride is easy, and we cross path with many people that eventually can help with a direction in case we are lost. Many are either jogging or walking, or trying some extreme sports, driving ATVs or mountain bikes. However, late in the nights or evenings, unexpected furry inhabitants, like big Carpathian bears can be an occurrence and thus, it does not make too much sense to adventure too far away off the beaten path.

??????????

The road we chose – Drumul Rosu/Red Path – is easy as we have proper shoes too and it goes maybe too fast. The landscape keeps being beautiful and there are lots of interesting flowers and small insects to discover.

??????????

We made a long coffee stop – but with a great view – at Postavarul Cottage, built at the end of the 19th century and burned several times. It’s situated at 1604 m. altitude and it still has some free places for accommodation. Such places do have basic amenities – like beds and some breakfast and some common restrooms and during the winter some extra cold is complimentary. Otherwise, it does have free wlan but also some lizards.

??????????

Refreshed and rested, we keep going on, simply enjoying the view and the silent landscape. Although there are a lot of people around – either tourists enjoying their holiday time or locals spending their Sunday here – it’s relatively quiet.

??????????

Back at Poiana Brasov, we made a little tour of some of the fancy locations, but rather prefer to keep enjoying the simple ambiance of the mountain ride.

??????????

Among many interesting facilities offered by the hotels and resorts in Poiana, horse-back riding is one of the most popular, addressing both children and adults, with special classes offered at relatively acceptable prices. Bowling and spa are other two main activities that can be practised here.

??????????

The road back to Brasov can be done in less than one hour and it’s worth the effort. The hiking is easy, but still one should be careful and watch his or her steps. Most probably that on a rainy day, the road gets muddy and the risks are higher, but otherwise, we spent a pleasant walk cleaning the lungs with the fresh air of the mountains.

??????????

When the trip was over I was glad that I decided to return to Poiana Brasov. Although a classical trip in a place where I’ve been for so many times as a kid, it’s always a good and healthy option to spend one Sunday off town, in the middle of the nature, with a minimal investment.

For more pictures from Poiana Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/poiana-brasov-romania/

Foodie Brașov

??????????

With so many activities and walking and hiking, plus the fresh air that always encouraged my appetite, Brasov called my name with a lot of foodie temptations. From classical Romanian restaurants with Transylvanian specific menus – it means a lot of red chilli pepper – to Chinese and German inspired cuisine, this city has a lot of interesting offers for the curious food lovers. Depends what you are in the mood for. One day, for instance, I wanted some gourmet chocolate and paid a visit to the newly opened Chocolat,  branded smartly as a ’boutique-restaurant’. My Ispahan – fresh raspberry mousse, macaron, raspberry again, dulce de leche and a beautiful rose petal on the top brought a fountain of sweetness and fine sugar into my palate. Perfumed, crunchy elegant, with the surprising cold leche in the middle was unforgettable and one of the top foodie experience of the summer. Chocolat, the subsidiary of a similar but richer in offer restaurant in Bucharest, also  has vegan chocolate and a delicious black coffee – to be tasted with a teaspoon of brown sugar.

??????????

Some other day, I wanted to have my first Singaporean noodles, at the restaurant on Appollonia Hirscher Street no. 2. The street is close to the central Piata Sfatului, the main tourist area, where are situated restaurants and bars, many of them offered at a good price with moderately English speaking waiters. The service was hectic and very slow and not necessarily friendly, although I was speaking the language, but at the end, I was brought my rice noodles with veggies, ginger, lemon grass. Too watery and unexpected sweet and not necessarily with a special taste, but a good combination after all.

??????????

Still hungry, I ordered some fish and chips, with tartar sauce and zucchini chips, that, again, were not like the original tasty fish and chips, maybe too oily and the veggies too roasted to keep their original taste, but my hunger calmed down after a while.

??????????

I was luckier with the cocktail too, the honeymoon fresh combination of orange juice, apple, lime and maple syrup. I didn’t feel too much apple, but it was a good choice for the late summer hot evening.

??????????

I could not resist to not have a coffee too, a creme brulée made of double espresso, caramel and milk. Brought hot was a contrast with the previous non-alcoholic cocktail, but brought me at the normal body temperature. Very sweet but still strong enough.

??????????

In the yard of the recently renovated synagogue from Poarta Schei no. 27, there was open a kosher restaurant, a perfect choice for an outdoor meal during the summer. It’s a small friendly place, with nice young people and a lot of traditional foods cooked according to the kosher style (those careful about the highest level of glatt – strictest kosher standards – should request, of course, detailed information from the knowledgeable rabbinical authority). The huge lemonade, that reminded me of the lemonade I cannot have enough in Israel was brought and my day was looking much better.

??????????

The cycle of memories continued with the tasty beef meatballs soup – the Romanian ciorba de perișoare – with a lot of veggies and the exact quality of salt to make it tasty which reminded me of childhood and home-made food.

??????????

I continued with a well done steak with French fries, as simple and tasty as possible.

??????????

As everywhere in Eastern Europe, expect to find a lot of street counters too, selling various traditional pastry and pretzels – covrigi – as well as Turkish-inspired foods as kebap and falafel.

??????????

One of my favourite places by far was the farmer’s market near Star shop, not only for the delicious fruits – was finally was able to have enough cherries without thwarting my careful financial planning for the month – but also for the social interaction. Once you enter this space, expect to be called by one vendor or another to buy rather for them, at a better, sometimes negotiable price. It goes for flowers and everything else sold there.

??????????

 

Shortly upon arrival, I was more than once recommended to have at least one stop at a famous local crepe store – The House of Crepes/Casa Clătitelor. I was not too delighted with the service – seriously, it’s such a pity that people look and behave so unhappy when they serve you – but some unhappy minutes put aside, I fully enjoyed my fatty crepes: banana filled, with a lot of whipped cream and caramel on the top, accompanied by a fresh lemonade. The indoor space is quite dark but outdoors it’s best also because it is situated on a central street and, together with some bunch of teenagers that were spending some hours here, I did some serious street watching. Me, of course, for the noble aim of travel writing.

Brasov was my best foodie stop during my trip to Romania and was glad that I discover some new full flavoured corners of the city. This is how the good travel memories are always kept tasty.

Brașov changes, but still stays the same

??????????

As travel writers and human beings too, we are caught sometimes between the drive of sharing subjective memories about places we know quite well and the duty to describe, present and explain places mostly unknown to the readers. The memories and secret knowledge of hidden streets are coldly selected for the sake of the information contained, and not for the pros and cons of, maybe, the biased childhood years and distorted memories. However, during my five-day stay in the city of Brasov this summer I could not resist the temptation to run fast on the streets near Cetățuia hills that I always used as a shortcut that I always used without the knowledge of the worrisome adults when coming back on my own from the park to our summer home. This time, from Andrei Mureșanu and Eminescu street on, I climbed up on the hill, for a short tour of the citadel after a short and easy hiking. Built in the first half of the 16th century, the semi-circular citadel was destroyed several times during various fights for supremacy between local princes. The last time when it witnessed serious conflicts was at the end of the 19th century, when it was taken over for a short time by the Tsar’s Army.

??????????

Nowadays, no more blood is shed on the old cobblestone small streets of the citadel, despite the military archery exposed in every corner that makes you feel that some preparations are still under way, although the weaponry maybe needs a fast update. Regularly, tournament shows are organized following the old Middle Age arts, but only for the entertainment. Although the place misses an exhaustive documentary outline, you can still get some small insights about former military fights, the coats of arms of different guilds that eventually contributed with their own financial efforts to the war efforts and who played anyway an important role in the economic development of the city. There is also a small restaurant and a space that can be hired for big weddings and other happy celebrations – events that Romanians love to celebrate with lots of music and food – and a view over the city. As usual, I can only wonder about the many contrasts of this city, mixing old traditional streets, to whom were added layers of industrial constructions, factories and new constructions mostly sharing a strong social statement about the new wealth of their owners.

??????????

The more I was walking the more or less familiar streets of the city, the more I discovered new colours and small doors, leading maybe to welcoming inner yards were people set the table enjoying the summer time with some wine, home-made food and fresh fruits and veggies from the garden. I was not invited anywhere this time, as what I am left from the city are the memories of people who are no more.

??????????

When everyone expects a lot of efforts from the local authorities to preserve and rebuild the old constructions, some of them, I might say, in an advanced stage of decay, I secretly enjoyed the pleasure of still finding the old ads from the inter-war time in a corner of the building, or some old balconies that always made me think about lots of stories taking place behind the big closed windows. When some things stay the same it’s like time stopped, only for bringing peace between me and my past.

??????????

I how could I forget the famous big name of the city set on a corner of the equally famous local mountain Tâmpa that can be seen from the most part of the areas around the center, a permanent reminder where you really are? At the beginning of the communist times, there used to be a statue of Stalin, as the city itself was renamed The city of Stalin, but after the dictator’s death, local communist come to their senses and returned the initial name to the city. As later I climbed to the top – with the help of the telepheric, I’m not that fit – I was disappointed to realize that you can’t practically get very closer to the letter and, who knows, maybe have a special selfie near the city’s name. Couple of time back in the local news was told that a guy followed by a bear – this is their country if you didn’t know yet – saved his life jumping on the top of one of the letter from where he was saved, many hours later by special intervention teams.

??????????

As much as I enjoyed to revisit old places and to hear news from people that used to be my neighbours and my playground friends, I equally loved to be surprised by new constructions, new restaurants and bookstores, mostly situated in the central area, near Piața Sfatului. Due to the intensive industrialisation program launched by the communist in the 1970s, many heavy industry factories were built, producing, among others, tractors, but till today, I haven’t been more than once in those areas, with a predominant architecture-by-the numbers and a local diversity of people from all over the country brought and settled there for economic reasons.

??????????

If I could not take a picture of my smiling near the huge Brasov sign, at least I was able to go on the Rope’s Street/Strada Sforii, a famous city landmark, a very tight path connecting many of the streets and avenues with houses from the old city.

??????????

Mostly destroyed by wars and urbanism plans, the city’s old walls can still be seen in different parts around the old city, very often well integrated into new urban contexts.

??????????

A short hiking visit to Tampa mountain was part of the must-have schedule. Not fit enough to do the climbing on my own, I used the services of the local cable, whose small little ticket counter seems to remain unchanged till the late 1980s. Our small group of tourists – local visitors from other Transylvanian cities speaking Hungarian, some Swiss tourists and us – made it to the top within minutes. As usual, the cable stopped for a short while, a moment when I felt the need to share my knowledge about how reliable this cable is with the little bit scared Swiss tourists. As by many of the unknown paths of my life we had for a while friends among people who built the cable system in Brasov and beyond, we were shared a lot of funny and serious stories about this construction that in just a couple of seconds were back alive.

??????????

Hiking on Tampa mountain is very easy, especially if you have the proper shoes – it rains often up there and it can be a bit muddy from time to time. There are arrows and signs everywhere and unless you don’t want an adventure off the beaten path – not recommended – you arrive back in the city in less than one hour. From the top, I made short recordings of another faces of the city, available on YouTube here and here.

??????????

In the late summer, the nature is in full bloom and with a bit of luck and observation you can find a lot of wild berries. It’s usually quiet as most tourists rather prefer to walk around the cable station, where it is also a restaurant – probably state-owned – whose waiters are still dressed and look like forgotten from the 1980s time.

??????????

There are two ways you can chose to come back in the city, out of which I decided to take the one called ‘Gabanyi stairs’ which is a bit complicated, with a lot of stairs, and stone-made stairs requiring a lot of attention and physical concentration. We crossed paths with many serious joggers, well-equipped and trained, running fast to the top after changing a shy ‘hello’ – always loved this social interaction of the mountains, when you greet completely unknown foreigners and eventually share some thoughts about the next water supply or refuge before continuing your way.

??????????

Near Tampa, there are again some old citadel walls, with small shops selling traditional handwork and some small exhibition spaces of local artists. The towers bear names of various guilds – Draper’s Bastion, Rope Maker’s Bastion, Weaver’s Bastion – another reminded of the strength the guilds used to have here, as in most big cities in Transylvania.

??????????

Very close nearby is the former Universal shop turned into a shining capitalist store, with expensive products and other luxuries, close to a very good farmer’s market, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables mostly cultivated at small and medium-scale by the locals.

??????????

On Alexandru I. Cuza street, at no. 6A, near the Teatrul Dramatic, a sign mention that here was born the famous journalist and photographer Brassai, the pseudonym of Gyula Halász. Born from a Hungarian father and Armenian mother, he grew up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, before moving to Budapest, Berlin and finally Paris the city how made him famous. In this part of the Europe, such biographies are rather the rule than the exception.

??????????

Early in the Sunday mornings, the city streets are almost empty, and except the busy VIPs and tourists hosted at the local Aro Palace hotel, you can hardly see anyone on the street. In such moments, the city reveals its full colours and quiet beauty.

??????????

The city does not have too many cultural attractions, and the small art galleries are still missing, although there are quite many local artists living here. In one of my last days, I am heading to the small local Ethnographic Museum, where one can see an exhibition of local folk costumes from the region, accompanied by some visual and photographic explanations. Although most of them are in Romanian, one can simply enjoy the beautiful colours and textures without too many words.

??????????

Nearby, there is the Art Museum, that thanks to some local collectors and art lovers hosted many many years back impressive Salvador Dali and Miro exhibitions. This time, I visited an exhibition of the most famous local artists Friedrich Miess, together with Arthur Coulin. Both, mostly unknown to the rest of the country, played an important role in the development of the local art school. The paintings were mostly portraits, in various local contexts as well as women in traditional costumes. At the first floor, one can visit a permanent exhibition of Romanian painters, among which Theodor Aman, Ion Andreescu, Nicolae Grigorescu, Iosef Iser or Nicolae Tonitza.

??????????

The streets in themselves are one my favourite exhibition spaces, with their different architecture and styles, colourful – maybe too colourful sometimes – walls and green venues.

??????????

Close to Poarta Schei – created in the 19th century in order to better organise the traffic in the city – the houses kept mostly their traditional style and old patterns, with many old wooden gates that were mostly kept in their original shape.

??????????

In Poarta Schei can be visited the first Romanian school, a very small old-time classroom where children learned the basic of language. The entire area is very beautiful, near the mountain, without too many shops and restaurants and less traffic.

??????????

Back in the central area, near Piata Sfatului, with the old city hall and events taking place all round the weekend, the city is always alive. There is the action, the high-tourist traffic and the new life of the city, but also the historical houses and some newly design fashion and art shops. As I have to say ‘good bye’ without a clear return date but hope sooner than 12 or more years as it happened last, I am glad that I was back for such a long quiet time without anything else to do but roam around taking pictures and notes about new destinations. But I grew up enough for not being delusional: some places will always have their own special memories in our heart that are endangered by the everyday contact with the reality. That’s the risk of the travel writer that I fully assumed already.

For more insights from Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/brasov-romania/

 

Interview with Savannah Grace, author of Backpacks and Bra Straps

savannah

At 14, Savannah started a long journey that 10 years after brought her to 100 countries visited, and two travel books – for now – about her experiences on the road. After the successful I grew my boobs in China, she just released the continuation of the family travel adventure, Backpacks and Bra Straps, focused on the travel experiences in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Nepal. In between the final editing and the last details of the launching campaigns, she had some time for an interview about her lessons learned and other interesting adventures. You can also find her on Twitter – @Sihpromatum – on Facebook and on Instagram – sihpromatum#. The photos were provided by the Savannah. 

journalsWhat are your lessons learned from your travel experiences as a kid?

I am an entirely different person as a result of this trip. I sometimes shudder to think what my life would have been without it. I learned so much about the world, people, cultures, history and most importantly myself and my family. I discovered my strengths, pushed myself to achieve goals I considered impossible and learned that dreams are worth following! This is a world full of possibilities.

I learned to appreciate and be grateful for the things I have, which is something I try not to lose. I realized that I don’t NEED all those things I thought I needed when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.

How much did it take to realize the benefits of travel at a young age?

A definite a-ha! moment was coming into Yangshuo on my first sleeper bus, only 5 days into the trip. Looking out the window at the sunrise revealing the bizarre scenery really opened my eyes to the beauty of being abroad. It revealed the excitement travel could bring. Being on the top of a hill in Mongolia at White Lake looking out over the world was another awe inspiring moment, that was about 2.5 months in. Although I certainly had many similar moments that made me stop and think about the unbelievable experience I was being given, I was still trapped within on a roller coaster of female, teenage emotions. The entire trip was a process of learning and discovery for me and I’m thankful now to have had that opportunity.

Gorgeous Yangshuo, China (1)

How did you decide to write the book? 

The idea of writing this book was put in the air early on in our adventure, as evidenced in my journal entries I’d written in Mongolia. Once our adventure started developing into something bigger than any of us had ever anticipated, we were constantly being told by fellow travellers that we needed to write a book. We felt that telling the story from my perspective as the reluctant, youngest member of the group was the most unique. I dreamed of writing the book for years before I actually started working on it. During the trip I was dedicated to keeping an extremely in-depth, daily journal. After the trip I had Mom type out my journals then I collected all the blogs and brain stormed with the family to get the base for the first book.  After that I just wrote! It took me two years, from age 20-22 to write it. After being rejected numerous  times by traditional publishers because of my inexperience and youth, I made the decision to self-publish. What a sihpromatum that was!!! I researched to no end, put all the pieces together; editor, cover design, formatting, printer  and the very first proofs came into my hands in September 2012! What a moment that was to finally come face to face with my dream of 7 years!

What are your recommendations for other travellers coping with the challenges of writing? How did you start yourself writing? Do you have some favourite travel writers that inspire you?

If you are feeling sluggish and don’t know where to start, just START. I know this sounds like really unhelpful advice, but that’s what I had to keep telling myself. Thinking and stressing about doing it is harder than just DOING it. Simply sit down and start writing, even if it’s about nothing and you’ll be amazed how stuff just pours out of you. There are times where you will have a complete writers block and feel like you were never meant to be a writer and you ask yourself WHY you’re doing it…. Just tell yourself to shut up and go outside and find something beautiful to look at, get fresh air, go for a bike ride. Get the heck out of the house and feel alive again. Don’t go halfway, you have to go all the way. It will be worth it. But nobody can make it happen except YOU! I tend to read more classics than travel books. My author idol, though not a travel writer, is Diana Gabaldon, I love her writing style and the way she can make you see and smell the scenery around you.

What are your travel recommendations for 2014? What are your plans?

This year I went skiing in the French Alps and visited Cape Verde which was my 100th country! It was a wonderful trip to celebrate my 24th birthday. The rest of the year is fully booked with the publication of my second book in the Sihpromatum series, “Backpacks and Bra Straps”. I’m going on a book tour from October-December to and around Vancouver, Canada. We are planning our next major travels in 2015. Hopefully we will be able to manage a 4-6 month South East Asia trip since I have never made it to that region of the world.

What could be the challenges of travel in less travelled destinations, as a teenager and as a woman?

In some countries the mentality towards women and their rights are very different. It can be a challenge to submerse yourself fully into such different cultures and mindsets without taking offence or possibly insulting locals. Being informed is very important, especially for women.