Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: April 2016

Day Trips from Bucharest Romania

During my week long stay in Bucharest Romania I took two day trips from the city. Tours can be easily made from any hotel, and there are a lot of options to see the surrounding Romanian countryside. The day tours were booked with 2 different tour companies, both of which were excellent.

The first tour I did was a 12 hour tour to Peles Castle and then into Transylvania to visit Dracula’s Castle (otherwise known as Bran Castle.) Peles Castle is located north of Bucharest about 90 min away in the Carpathian Mountains outside of the town of Sinaia. It was built by King Carol I whom I spoke of in my last post. He was the King under whom Romania gained its independence and who was much loved by the people. King Carol visited this mountain area, and is said to have fallen in love with the area as it reminded him of his native country of Germany. In 1873 construction of the castle was started. The castle was built in the Neo-Renaissance style and stands boldly against the nearby mountains. It’s an interesting mix of Gothic meets German architecture. The rooftop and towers were black and striking against the blue sky while the outside body of the palace resembled buildings I’ve seen in Bavaria. It’s quite a marvel to see.

 

 

 

 

 

The outside garden area opens with a large fountain and has a lovely walkway that winds past the many sculptures that adorn the garden. I would imagine in the spring and summer it would be especially stunning. As it was still the end of winter when I visited nothing was in bloom yet, but the added bonus of visiting during the off season is that there were very few other visitors. The inside of the palace was immaculate. To visit the inside of the palace you must take a guided tour which was super interesting and told of the history of King Carol I and how the palace was designed. I took a ton of photos because each room had its own theme, and everything in the room was perfectly matched and ornate. There was a stunning spiral staircase, spectacular stained glass windows and intricately woven rugs. The armory had  an impressive display of weaponry and coats of arms. We toured the library, the music room and several of the themed rooms including the French Room, the Turkish Room and a room that had Moorish design. If you’re in Romania be sure to visit this Peles Castle!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Peles Castle we drove another hour to Bran Castle located on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia. This castle couldn’t be more different than Peles Castle. It’s much smaller in size, and much less ornate given it served as a fortress because of its position up on a cliff.  It was used in the 1400’s to defend against the Ottomans. The castle is known as Dracula’s Castle even though in actual fact it has nothing to do with Dracula. It got this name because it’s the only castle in Transylvania that matches Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s castle, even though he never actually visited Romania. Our day trip to Peles Castle and Bran Castle ended with a visit to the super cute town of Brasov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our second day trip from Bucharest was into neighbouring Bulgaria. The border town of Ruse is about an hour from Bucharest just across the Danube River. It’s good to note that Bulgaria is part of the EU so if you don’t need a visa to get into the EU you won’t have any problems crossing the border. Neither Romania or Bulgaria is off the Euro though so you’ll need to change money at the border. There was a Chinese girl who was on the tour with us who didn’t require a visa for Bulgaria, but because her Romania visa was only a single entry she wouldn’t have been able to get back into Romania had she entered Bulgaria. This would’ve been good information for her to have known before joining the tour and getting stuck at the border until someone from the tour agency could come back and get her!

Crossing into Bulgaria was quite literally like crossing into another country. The border town of Ruse looked a lot poorer than the countryside of Romania. The buildings and cars were more run down. The language changed. Romanian is a Latin romance language whereas Bulgarian is a Slavic language with a Cyrillic alphabet making reading road signs difficult. Our first stop was to visit St Dimitrius Basarbovski Rock Monastery which is about 10km from the town of Ruse. The monastery was first mentioned in the 1400’s and is essentially 2 cave like rooms build into the rock of a cliff. The stairs are a little uneven on the climb up so wear good walking shoes. There are some beautiful Orthodox paintings on the front of one of the buildings, and inside there is an alter with candles and offerings of coins of photos brought by visitors.

From the monastery we drove about 90 min to the town of Veliko Tarnovo which is located on the Yantra River. The old town sits up on a hill overlooking the river with the ruins of Tsarevets Fortress visible on the adjacent hill. The fortress was constructed in the 12th century and served as a stronghold until it was overtaken by the Ottomans in 1393 when it was subsequently burnt down. The site was then restored in the 1900’s. It’s a steep hike across the draw bridge up the hill to the reconstructed church called the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. Try saying that 10 times fast! There are stunning views of the surrounding area from the church. The inside of the church is magnificent. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings are painted in a modernist style I’ve never seen in a church before. They were dark and captivating to look at. Very much worth the walk to the top of the fortress area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most interesting things I learned on this day trip to Bulgaria was about the death and dying practices there. While driving thru towns and villages it is very common to see sheets of paper with black and white photos of people affixed to doors and gates. Our tour guide told us it was to notify people of the deceased. This practice is very specific to Bulgaria, as we didn’t see this in Romania at all. I’ve since done some research and these notices are called Necrologs. The first notice is issued immediately after a persons death to announce the person’s death and provide information regarding the funeral. Subsequent necrologs are often posted to the dead person to say how the family is suffering and to update the dead person as to events that have happened since they passed. Often the pictures on the necrolog are from the deceased persons ID or passport. Often the necrologs are signed at the end by the author. It was not uncommon to pass a house that had multiple necrologs fixed to the main gate. Personally, I find practices like this fascinating.

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That wraps up my time in Romania. There is still much of the country I didn’t get to see but would’ve loved to. Alas, next time. Bulgaria was very different and being the first Slavic country I’ve been to it’s made me want to explore more. I’ve just recently returned from a trip to the Czech Republic and am planning a trip to Croatia and Slovenia in June so I’ll be seeing much more very soon.

Have you been to Romania or Bulgaria? What did you think??

Bucharest Romania

Back in February I spent a week in Romania to ring in my kiwi sidekicks birthday. This trip came about from a little game I like to play called “where can we fly for the cheapest price.” Ding ding- we have a winner. Bucharest Romania it is. I knew next to nothing about Romania, apart from its Communist history, gypsies and Dracula. Thankfully, after spending a week there I’m here to rave to you about how awesome Bucharest is and what you should see when you go there. Bucharest was a really cool city to explore. Its got a very urban feel to it, most people spoke English, and the local people were extremely friendly. Most of our time was spent exploring the city, visiting the many wine bars, and eating good food. We took 2 different day trips outside of the city which I will tell you about in a later post.

So before you pack your bags for Bucharest Romania here are a few things you should know before you go. Romania has a pretty sorted past. Parts of the country and then eventually all of the country were under Turkish rule thru the 16th to 18th centuries. In 1866 a German prince was smuggled into the country via Switzerland arriving in Romania via boat as there was no train at that time. He would go on to become King Carol the first King of Romania. He was crucial in the modernization and development of Romania. In 1877 Romania gained its independence from Turkey. After World War 1 Romania was able to again acquire Transylvania as it had been lost to Hungary. In the Second World War Romania was aligned with Germany, but Romania ended up losing much of the territory it had acquired after the First World War. Later in the war Romania would end up changing sides and fought against Germany and Transylvania was reacquired. In 1965 Nicolae Ceausescu took over power and this is where Romania’s communist history kicks in. The country entered a period of repression until he was overthrown and then shot in 1989. Romania is a member of the EU, and today is moving past it’s communist history.

So what is there to see you ask?? Bucharest is an architectural marvel. There is an interesting mix of French Art Nouveau buildings juxtapositioned against the newer drab Communist era buildings. In 1977 Romania had a massive earthquake that resulted in extensive damage especially to the older multi-leveled buildings in Bucharest. The facades of the older buildings are beautiful and adorned with statues. Some of the buildings have been maintained, and others have fallen into a state of disrepair. We found a really cool tour group in Bucharest called Interesting Times. They offer a bunch of unique tours- some were food tours, or photo tours, but the one I was really psyched about was called “Beautiful Decay.” We had a guide take us to some of the abandoned places in the city. We ended up visiting a house that was in the process of being restored by the Institute of Archaeology and an old abandoned factory site. This was a real highlight of the trip for me- I love walking the streets of a city while learning about its history. It was also a great way to take in Bucharest’s urban art scene. It’s a mecca for graffiti art which adds surprising bursts of colour throughout the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While walking in the Old City you will end up stumbling across many of the Hidden Churches for which Bucharest is known for. There are Orthodox churches scattered throughout the city- some down alleys, in small squares and one hidden behind a Pizza Hut. They were very cool to explore as many are still very colourfully painted. I had the fortune to stumble into the Stavropoleos Monastery at sunset and witnessed a group of nuns reading from an old Bible and singing hymns. It was a serenely private experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trip to Bucharest isn’t complete without a visit to The Palace of the Parliament. It is reportedly the 2nd largest government building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington DC. It was completed in 1994 and took 10 years to build. Many of the rooms are today not in use but there are over 1000 rooms. There were 700 architects who worked on the building with a team of 20000 workers. It’s estimated that some 3000 workers died during the building phase. You can tour a very small section of the building as part of a guided tour. Tours are offered in several languages, and you must have your passport present to visit. As it is still a functioning government building you must go through airport style security prior to your tour. If you arrive early you can sip a crisp beer from the concession stand in the lobby. The building is elegant, with marble from floor to ceiling, but has a kindof sterile feel to it. The rooms depict a period past- resembling palaces from a century or two earlier and not something that was build only 20 years ago. Still though, it’s worth a visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent part of the day visiting Therme a huge wellness complex with several heated pools about 10km outside of Bucharest. It’s a relatively new venture, and so there are some kinks that need to be ironed out, but it’s a great way to unwind. Especially when the weather is cold. There are different packages depending on what you want to do, and there is a kids area with a wave pool and water slides. We booked the package that also allowed us to use the different temperature saunas upstairs. Downstairs there’s an indoor and outdoor thermal pool, with 3 aromatherapy pools, and poolside bars and a restaurant. You can rent towels or robes there, so no need to pack your own. Therme is a great way to unwind after a couple busy days of traveling.

That pretty much wraps up our time in Romania. We did do 2 long day trips during the week that we were there. One through the Romanian countryside, and one to neighbouring Bulgaria. I’ll tell you about both of them next time!!

Have you been to Bucharest Romania? What were the highlights for you?

Calculated Risk

IMG_1009It feels like the world is quickly becoming a scary place. The attacks in Paris and Istanbul and most recently in Brussels distort our perceptions of safety. They make us question our security. They add fuel to the political power of the Donald Trumps of the world who want to box us in and want us to feel that it is dangerous to leave one’s own country. That the safest thing to do is to isolate ourselves. To only mix with those who are the same as us; same language, religion, and culture. Makes us feel as though the other or that which is different from us is dangerous. For me however; travel has always been about taking calculated risk. I would never knowingly put myself in danger. Yet, I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable and am ok with changing plans last minute if need be.

Right before Arab Springs happened I traveled thru Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The months leading up to that trip my travel mate and I had discussed back up plans. The Middle East has a long history of instability, and I think it’s a good idea to have alternate plans in place in the event the security situation changes. Thankfully, we traveled by ground from Jordan into Syria and then into Lebanon without incident. 2 years ago I traveled to Bangladesh from Nepal. At that time the situation in Dhaka was unpredictable and my travel partner and I also had back up plans and tried to stay up to date on the security situation. We assessed the information that was available and took the calculated risk of going. Little did we know that we ended up flying in the night before a planned city wide strike and ended up on a self imposed “Lock down” in our hotel after getting information from our embassies telling us it was inadvisable to go out that day. But the following day (and the rest of our trip) was without incidence.

This month I was supposed to travel to Iran with my Yankee bestie. We booked the trip around Christmas, and at that time I had thought it would be super easy for me to get a Iranian visa as there was an Iranian embassy here in Riyadh. Notice how I said was. In early January there was a severing of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi and the embassy closed, as did the Iranian embassy in some of the neighbouring countries. This now made getting a visa much more difficult for me and would have involved a trip to Dubai or Abu Dhabi for me to try and apply. And seeing as my passport was issued to me here in Riyadh so basically I have a Canadian passport but the issuing authority says Riyadh, we weighed our options and decided to postpone the trip until later in the year when I’m not living in Saudi, and it will be easier for me to get a visa. Sometimes you take the risk, and sometimes you decide the risk might not be worth it.

This leads me to my upcoming trip. I’ve blogged before about how I really wanted to see the parts of Egypt that I’ve missed before I leave the Middle East. When we postponed the Iran trip I toyed around with going to Egypt for the 12 days I have off later this month. Then my mom decided to join me. After much thought and consideration, and weighing our options I decided that right now just isn’t the time. There are many parts of the Middle East that I feel are safe right now. I would recommend the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain as a few such places. Then there are other places where I feel like things could be brewing, or places that I don’t want to take the risk. I’m not saying not to go there, I’m just saying I’m a little more cautions when it comes to places like Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. For me there’s a different undercurrent to these countries, and there has been recent terrorist activity. And obviously, I’m not meaning that those countries are entirely unsafe- the resort town of Sharm on the Sinai peninsula is still considered to be safe. Again it’s about taking calculated risk. For me, right now just isn’t the right time. So instead I’ll be meeting my mom in Munich and we’ll be taking the train to Austria, into Czech Republic then to Slovakia and back to Munich.

So even though there are travel advisories in effect for Europe, I don’t have any issue traveling there. Statistically I know that my odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack in Europe are far less than the likelihood of me being killed in a vehicular accident while living in Saudi Arabia. To be fair the likelihood of me being a victim of a terrorist attack in the Middle East is also much lower than my dying in a car accident on Saudi roads. But again, its all about taking calculated risks. Listening to your gut. Applying logic. Weighing the options.

For me though, avoiding travel altogether is never an option. I can’t listen to the Trumps of the world who want us isolated. Who want us to stick with our own kind. For me, humankind is my own kind and I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include traveling and learning from people of different skin colour, who may speak a different language or practice a different religion. I’ve blogged pretty extensively about my love of traveling, and how travel makes me grow as a person, and ultimately has made me a better, more compassionate person. And so I will continue to travel while taking calculated risk. I sure hope you do as well…..

Luxury Dubai Style

As I’ve previously posted, Dubai is luxury at its finest. A place where the police drive lamborghinis and falcons get to fly first class. Neither of those things is untrue. Trust me. So, back in February I spent a weekend in Dubai. Several years ago I was on a single girls cruise to the Bahamas and the boat docked at the Atlantis resort for the day. I remember thinking I want to come back here some time. The beach was fantastic, the aquarium was amazing, and onto my bucket list it went.

Flash forward a couple years and I was living in Saudi (the first time.) I found out that there was also an Atlantis resort in Dubai and was like yep. I’m going. And then the UAE and Canada had a tiff something to do with international flights and Canadians had to pay like $250 to get a visa. And I was like Hell’s no. So alas it never happened.

So in February my kiwi sidekick and I splurged to stay one night at the Atlantis resort. It’s not cheap, but if you book thru their website and are a GCC resident (Gulf Cooperative Council) which if you live in Saudi and have an Igama you are, you get a 10% discount, and admission for 2 to the water park and to the aquarium. Nether of those things are cheap on their own, so it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re actually saving money by staying there (even though you really aren’t.) But it worked for me. Trying to be semi budget conscious we opted to only stay one night and stay somewhere else cheap for the other 2 nights. In theory this sounds great, but I’ve often found that if you’re splurging to stay somewhere fancy for 1 night you should really just do yourself a favor and book for 2 nights. With one night you hardly have enough time to relax, and likely won’t be able to use all the facilities you want to. We sure couldn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

As you can imagine the Atlantis is fancy. We went to the water park which has a lovely lazy river that you can float around in. Since it was February the water felt cool, and it was cold late in the afternoon in the shade. There are a bunch of water slides, all of which I found terrifying. There’s something about flying thru a pitch black tube at high speeds that has me screaming like a teenager and demanding to get off. My kiwi sidekick was brave enough to go on the “Leap of Faith”. That’s the one that drops you pretty much straight down and you go thru the shark tank at high speed. Shark tank. No thanks. If you stay at the Atlantis I would recommend eating at the Seafire restaurant. The steak and the sides were amazing, and they have a really good wine selection. We had a California Zinfandel that made me insanely homesick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went to Friday bunch at Feast. I’m a big fan of boozy breakfast, but this time I paced myself and was a little bit more classy than the last time we went when I ended up passed out by 5pm and with the hangover from hell later that evening. I guess you might say I’m maturing?!

We hit up Irish Village which is always a good time. Especially on the weekend. We took in a VIP movie. We got VIP tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Basically it means you go in a special group (of other VIPs) and get to use a special elevator and make stops on the 125th and the 148th floor. There you are greeted with fresh juices and teeny tiny macaroons and other bite sized desserts. You can stay as long as you want. We timed our visit with sunset. FUNFACT: occasionally the Burj opens for sunrise viewings. That would be pretty cool if you don’t mind getting up at 5:30am on your vacation. The views from the Burj Khalifa towards the Atlantis and the Burj al Arab are spectacular, but weren’t very clear the day we were there as there always tends to be a lot of dust in the air. Still though, it is the tallest building in the world, so really you should go up it if you have the chance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here’s my top 5 list of things you should do in Dubai if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, or you fancy living the high life for the weekend:

1. Stay somewhere swanky. Dubai has a TON of 5 star hotels. I would say YOLO (you only live once) so book into the Atlantis.

2.  Book high tea at the Burj al Arab. And be sure to get there early so you get a window seat to watch the sunset. It’s pretty lovely.

3. You can’t go to Dubai without experiencing Friday brunch. And you best make it boozy in my opinion. They’re not cheap, but the food is phenomenal and that might be the only time you allow yourself to drink bottles of Moët champers (champagne people.)

4. Make a trip to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa. Ponder your existence. Take as many selfies with the Dubai skyline as your backdrop as is humanely possible.

5. See a movie as the VIP I know you are. You’ll get a private attendant to get you whatever you need. A lazy boy reclining chair. A pillow and a blanket. Heaven. Especially after a night out on the town. Just don’t fall asleep and miss the entire movie!!

 

Have you been to Dubai? What’s the most outrageous thing you did while there??

 

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