Monday, November 20, 2017

Random Thoughts and Summing Up

  • Sometimes a bus, sometimes a minivan. Each bus has stickers on the back window showing which amenities are on the bus - television, movies, bathrooms, WiFi, etc. - none of those things are ever on the bus.
  • Buses in Albania and Kosovo have a conductor in addition to the driver.  The conductor's job is to collect the fare, to let the driver know when to pull off the highway to pick up passengers and to make sure every one gets off at the correct stop - every conductor we had took his job very seriously.  In Kosovo, the conductor had the additional responsibility of passing out delicious hard candy.
  • Sometimes there is only one bus station in a city (usually next to the train station) and sometimes there are several stations in one city - buses from the north station go north, buses from the south station go south, etc. Sometimes the bus stations are very nice with plenty of places to eat (Ruse, Bulgaria) and sometimes there are no bathrooms or ticket agents (Sibiu, Romania). Sometimes there are no stations - you are told to stand in front of a hotel and wait until someone calls out the name of the city you are traveling to. Sometimes the name of a bus station is helpful - south bus station - and sometimes the names are not helpful - Station Q7 in Sibiu and Stations Alpha and Beta in Cluj-Napoca.
  • Border crossings can be very long, especially if your bus has to go into a shed (complete with a German Shepard on a leash that is way too long) so the guards can check underneath the bus and inspect everyone's luggage. To make things even more difficult, there usually are no bathrooms available at border crossings.
  • It is good practice to ask the drivers if they are going to stop for a bathroom break before you board the bus.

7:30 am disco-themed minivan to Romania

Bus Station Q7, Sibiu, Romania

  • I am not a fan of pensions. I would much rather stay in a hotel or hostel with a reception desk. Pensions usually don't have breakfast and you have to set up a time to meet the owner to get your key. Then you are pretty much on your own; it is hard to meet other travelers. There are some exceptions - we stayed in a wonderful apartment in Lake Ohrid. The owners lived in the building and were available to answer questions and fix the WiFi.
  • I love staying in restored hotels, especially when the rooms have not been overly modernized (its OK if the bathroom has been overly modernized).
Jovanovic Guest House

Great Ideas (all from Romania)

Book vending machine

Egg vending machine

Some sort of machine that disinfects bathroom door handles

  • Places - I absolutely loved Albania and I am making plans to return to Shkodra to take the boat ride we missed due to the weather. I would also like to see more of southern Macedonia. I am looking forward to my third visit to Bulgaria and Romania.
  • Hotels - Jovanovic Guest House, Tradita G&T (also has my favorite restaurant), Hotel Evmolpia, Gurko Hotel 
  • Food - burek, now and forever

Victims of Communism Memorial - Bunk'Art 2, Tirana, Albania

Biggest Disappointments
  • Plum dumplings in Brasov.  I was looking forward to having these again but they were horrible.
  • The Holocaust Museum in Skopje and the Holocaust Museum, Jewish Museum and Great Synagogue in Bucharest were all closed for various reasons.
  • When we crossed a border, all the passports were collected by the bus driver who took them to the border agent.  When we were cleared, the driver would choose one passenger to return the passports to the other passengers.  Despite my best efforts to look like a responsible bus rider, I was never picked. 
What I Learned
  • If you are in a city with a US Embassy or consulate, you can get a new passport in 24 hours or less.
  • People in Albania are really nice. We got a free taxi ride in Berat and the city bus in Tirana made an unscheduled stop for us so we wouldn't have to find our way to a museum. 
  • Most people in Kosovo love Americans. A store owner in Pristina refused to let me pay for a couple of apples when he found out I was from the USA.
  • My new favorite adjective/noun combination is "lobby bar."
  • Never go hiking without hiking poles.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Romania Part 2

During the last week of the trip I revisited Sibiu, Sighisoara, Brasov, Bucharest, and CsĂ­kszentsimon, the village where I volunteered as a teacher in 2015. It was sunny and around 72 degrees every day so we did some hiking and really enjoyed each city. Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov are great towns to just walk around and explore; there are not many must-see sights, just charming streets, great shops, and amazing food.

Sibiu is beautiful and we stayed in yet another 14th Century guest house. Unfortunately the interior had been renovated with vinyl flooring, generic furniture and an almost unworkable lock - the location was great, however.

Lots of cabbage at the Sibiu Market

Sighisoara, also known the cutest town in the world, requires a lot of climbing to get anywhere.  I think the best way to describe the city is "atmospheric" (Lonely Planet calls it "fairytale-like"). In addition to wandering around (uphill) and visiting the sites, we hiked up to the Breite Ancient Oak Forest. I wimped out on going all the way to the top so I am not sure we saw any actual ancient oaks. Sighisoara also has my favorite gift shop and cafe.

Sighisoara watchtower

Atmospheric Sighisoara street

Breite Forest - halfway up
We took our last bus ride to Brasov. While Susie did the Transylvania castle tour, I took the train up to Miercurea Ciuc and had a wonderful meal with one of the teachers at the village school and her family. I spent the next day visiting the school, helping in a couple of classrooms and walking around the village trying to take pictures through the fog. I also got to meet Ivan, a very cute baby. After a mad scramble across the railroad tracks, I caught the train back to Brasov -- beautiful scenery both ways.

Wooden gate in the village
Brasov was as fun as I remembered and it was nice to be in a real hotel after spending so many days in guesthouses. Our last hike involved taking the telecabina (cable car) up Mt. Tampa and then walking back down on the "serpentine path" which took forever. The views and scenery made it all worthwhile.
Black Church

View from the top of Mt. Tampa.

Halfway down Mt. Tampa

Our last stop was Bucharest, a city I didn't love on my last visit, probably because the weather was awful and I hated my hotel and its location. This time we stayed in a great place in Old Town. It was warm enough to sit outside and eat and we had two full days to walk around. We visited a wonderful gift shop at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, tried to visit a Jewish cemetery (it was closed), went to one last outdoor market, and hung out in a beautiful park. On our last day we were able to see the Choral Temple which has been recently restored and is absolutely beautiful. The Jewish Museum, Holocaust Museum, and Great Synagogue were all closed for a special event -- my second visit to Bucharest and I still have not been able visit them because they were also closed last time. We visited the surprisingly wonderful Kitsch Museum and spent time sampling craft beer and wine.

Fabrica de Bere Buna (Romanian Craft Brew Bar)
What I Learned:
  • That white cheese on the breakfast platter could actually be lard.  It is used as a substitute for butter and it tastes awful. Fortunately, I didn't swallow it.
  • I could live in Bucharest, Brasov, or Miercurea Ciuc.
  • There is a lot of great beer and wine in Romania and we brought back a couple of nice bottles of wine.
  • I once again proved I could live on gogosi (doughnuts with fruit or cheese) and covrigi (pretzels).
  • Romania is a beautiful country and there are a lot more places I need to visit.
Chisignu Park - there is a place for me on that bench

Fall 2019 Part II - Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria

I had a week before I needed to be in Romania for my volunteer assignment and after considering northern Romania and Serbia, I decided o...