Burghausen Castle

Jess, you’ve been back in the states for months now, why has it taken you so long to finish up your European adventure posts (you may be asking)? Well, it’s the darnedest thing. After having been able to live in another world with just myself and my favorite person, far away from the normal stressors of daily life, jumping back into polite society is taking some getting used to and has preoccupied my time. I also think maybe I have been delaying writing about our final European destinations because it will hammer home the fact that the adventure is indeed over, for now anyway. While not living out of a suitcase and being able to somewhat settle is nice, it is an adjustment.

So now, let me tell you a bit about Burghausen. Another magical town in the unexpectedly magical Germany. What a fairy tale. I mean, we visited a castle for goodness sake! And you know I’m a pretty princess at heart.

We left Munich and took the two hour train ride to Burghausen (which sits on the German-Austrian border). We walked from the train station through the newer part of town, stopping for lunch in a small restaurant inside of the civic center. The food was tasty and the waitress very nice. I tried the Flammkuchen which is a sort of German pizza/flat bread, so how could it be bad? Phil had some kind of pork sandwich covered in curry sauce with fries (again, how could it be bad?) that I failed to get the name of. Both were tasty and provided the necessary fuel for the day of walking we had ahead of us.

While at the civic center, we picked up a map and guide of the town and castle. I was very excited to visit the castle. During our time in Albania, we visited a few castle ruins but Burghausen feels like a “real”castle, a castle-y castle. It is intact and exudes that fairy tale quality the pretty princess in me really appreciated.

Burghausen isn’t a tall castle, though it seemed pretty tall to me. It is, however, the longest castle, quite literally. It is the longest castle in the world, in fact. There are seven courtyards to reach the actual main castle that sits on a cliff; on one side it overlooks the Old Town below and the other side is a lake. In the first courtyard, there is a clock tower. Phil and I are people who appreciate a good clock tower. Nearish to the clock tower is a biergarten. Phil and I are people who appreciate a good beer.

After enjoying the beautiful day from the biergarten, we carried on, through more of the castle walls.

From over the castle walls, we had impressive views of old town Burghausen which sits on the Salzach River, as well as views of the lake on the other side.

After walking through the courtyards, we entered the main castle walls. It was SO cool. A castle fit for a princess indeed.

There were a couple of museums housed in the old castle with reasonably priced admission. No castle trip would be complete without going into the actual castle, right? We paid the admission and walked through. They had some interesting old paintings and tapestries,

but the views from atop the castle were well worth the price of admission.

We stayed on that rooftop for a long time. Taking in the views from every angle, reflecting on our grand adventure; our amazing year and a half journey that had brought us to that point. I wanted to hold on tight to that moment so badly. Instead, I observed as it passed. I experienced it in the fleeting nature of moments. The thing is, you can’t hold on; the human experience isn’t tangible.

We took one last look around and headed back down the creaky wooden stairs. Our last stop was the little chapel.

We then made our way down the steep, winding steps at the back of the castle.

We walked along the lakeside path as the castle became smaller in the distance. We talked and walked and made our way back to the train station, after stopping for gelato and picking up a bottle of wine, of course.

We shared our bottle of wine in the hotel that night. Recalling stories from our adventure and preparing for the final stop on our journey. The next day we would leave mainland Europe.

Última Parada: Iceland!

Regensburg Part 2: Walhalla

On our last day in Regensburg we decided to take the hour bus ride to Walhalla. A replica of the ancient Greek Parthanon (we saw the original a few months earlier in Athens…and another replica in Nashville some years back). Set upon the banks of the Danube, Walhalla serves as a hall of fame for notable and distinguished Germans throughout history. Built in the 1800’s before the formation of the modern German state, “German” was initially understood as “Germanic”, and included ancient Germanic peoples (Gothic, Vandal, Lombardic, Anglo-Saxon) as well as medieval Dutch, Swedish and Russian figures.” (thanks wikipedia).

We got off the bus in the town of Donaustauf and would need to do a bit of climbing to reach Walhalla, perched high on a hill. As we walked, we saw the Sanctuary of St. Salvator, also situated rather high up, and decided take a look.

Unfortunately, the doors of the church were locked. We spied a path heading up the hill behind it and I suggested we take it. It was heading in the right direction and I figured if we could take a little uphill nature hike instead of climbing a million steps, it would be preferable. Phil consulted the map and agreed.

On our way up the hill, we passed a very familiar sign; la concha del peregrino or the scallop shell of the camino de Santiago. We saw the golden shell symbol throughout Spain, marking the way to Santiago de Compostela, the destination of the famous Pilgrimage ending at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of St. James. The original camino (road, path, or way) begins just across the French border from Spain in St. Jean Pied-du-Port, high in the Pyrenees mountains. We learned during our time in Spain that there were many routes one could take, beginning in Italy or the south of Spain. We didn’t know there was a route through Germany! What a cool surprise and a nice hello from our years long adopted homeland.

Our path popped us out just beside Walhalla, conveniently at the refreshment stand. We each quenched our thirst with a raddler before walking on to take in the lovely building high on the riverbank.

We took in the building from all angles and popped inside to see the busts of the notable Germans featured there before taking the many stairs down toward the river.

We took a different route back toward the bus stop, through a lovely park, Englischer Garten, where we saw the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower). It seemed an odd place to see a Chinese Tower which was originally built in 1800, and rebuilt later, in 1952. Now it was fenced off to the public which was a real bummer because I was dying to take the little steps to the top floor and peek inside.

We had some time to enjoy the little town before the bus arrived so we grabbed a couple of coffees and pastries from a local bakery. The bakery had no seating so we found a bench to sit and enjoy the sun while we waited. After finishing our treats, we noticed we were sitting directly across from yet another bakery and well, decided to go for round two, ¿por qué no? (why not?).

Our last evening in Regensburg, the sun was shining and we took in the beautiful stained glass of St. Peter’s Cathedral. When I think of Germany, catholic churches and cathedrals don’t come to mind. In fact, I didn’t know that so many Germans were catholic. They are and they have gorgeous churches. The stained glass at St. Peter’s Cathedral rivaled that which we had seen in León back in Spain.

As we wound down our time in Regensburg, the knowledge that we were also winding down the time on our grand adventure. It felt bittersweet to be certain but we weren’t going to let that stop us from experiencing these last few moments and places to their fullest.

Stay tuned for more on our last days in Germany and our final European destination, Iceland!

Adventures in Germany: Regensburg

After a jam packed day in Munich, we were off to Regensburg. Oh, the fabled Regensburg. Just a few months prior, we had never heard of Regensburg. While traveling through Italy with my mother-in-law, Marie, back in May, she struck up a conversation with a German fellow during a cable car ride in Rapallo. She asked the man what was the place to visit in Germany. His answer was Regensburg. Not being a particularly talkative guy, I believe his reasoning was something along the lines of “It’s a nice town with good beer.” I’m pretty sure the same could be said about many a German town but we made note of the recommendation. The next morning, as we came down to breakfast in our hotel, Marie was chatting up another fellow, a young German man in town filming a movie. He too recommended Regensburg.

At that point in our travels, we knew we would be visiting our friends near Frankfurt before heading back to the states but hadn’t planned on any additional German destinations. It’s funny how once a seed is planted it often finds a way to grow. And so, three months after first hearing the name Regensburg, we found ourselves there.

Old town Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s unique status as “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany.” Phil and I jokingly throw around the word “magical” when describing cities to one another. This is because often the word is used to describe travel destinations that to our minds don’t quite fit. Cool, unique, beautiful, mesmerizing, one of a kind; these could be used to describe a number of places we have been lucky enough to visit but magical? When I hear magical, I think of something out of a fairy tale and well, Regensburg is in fact, magical.

After a relatively short, but absolutely packed, train ride (we were lucky to find seats), we found ourselves in Regensburg. It was lightly raining but luckily our hotel was only a short walk down a wide, pedestrian-only street. The hotel was cute and the woman at the desk gave us a welcome glass of prosecco so we were off to a good start.

We dropped our bags and left the hotel to wander about and to find hearty German food and beer, the colorful sometimes narrow streets of old town welcoming us.

We found the Brauerei Kneitinger brauhaus (or brew house), dating back to 1530. It was the perfect spot. The servers sported old-fashioned garb called dirndl (think St. Pauli girl) that one would expect from an old, German beer hall.

We shared a delicious meal of braised ox cheek with dumplings, red cabbage, and the most amazing spatzel. Spatzle is a type of egg noddle often served with gravy, butter, or cheese. Our friend Katie turned us on to cheese spatzle when we visited her and her family in Rodenbach a couple of months earlier. What’s not to like about grown up mac-n-cheese? This particular cheese spatzle we had at Brauerei Kneitinger was topped with bacon and caramelized onions. It was amazing. We had a couple of dunkles (dark beers) to accompany our meal.

After lunch, we walked on and eventually found ourselves across the Danube from old town Regensburg. We sat on a stone wall, enjoying the weather, the view, and each other’s company for an hour or more, content as could be.

The following day, we started at St. John’s church, a lovely little Baroque church.

Followed by an early lunch at a cute little spot beside the Danube called Wurst & Beer. We each ordered a beer sampler and a wurst sampler. It was all very tasty and the gal running the place was very warm and pleasant. I highly recommend starting the day with a belly full of sausage and beer if given the option.

After lunch, we happily wandered for a couple of hours; across bridges, through city and parks, and along the Danube. We came to another biergarten (they aren’t hard to find), the Spital brewery. We ordered two big beers and decided that given our lunch was early and rather small, we should split a little something. We ordered a plate of sausage and sauerkraut to share.

Afterward, we continued on with our pork and beer fueled saunter. Several times during our exploration that afternoon, we encountered [primarily] young adults in traditional garb; dirndl and lederhosen (see stock image below).

We wondered what the occasion was. Being late August, we knew Oktoberfest was still a couple of weeks away, September 17th to be exact (It’s true, Oktoberfest is in September), so we knew they weren’t dressed for the fest. As we continued on, we began seeing more people and even more folks (of all ages) in the traditional dress. We knew something was happening nearby, so on we went to investigate.

In the distance, we spied a Ferris Wheel and soon we were amidst a full blown carnival! There were carnival rides, food, biergartens (duh), game booths, and all kinds of vendors selling their wares. We wandered a bit and enjoyed another beer at the biergarten. I gazed longingly at some delicious looking fried fish and giant pretzels our fellow biergarteners were enjoying. Alas, I was too full of sausage to have a third lunch.

After our beers, we made a beeline for the Ferris wheel. We are firm believers in riding Ferris Wheel’s when presented with the opportunity.

After taking in the views atop the Ferris Wheel, we bought a bag of caramel corn and ate it sitting next to the Danube (second lunch was starting to wear off). We walked back toward the hotel, taking our time, enjoying the city. We stopped for a rest at yet another biergarten (they truly are everywhere). Though not feeling especially hungry, the currywurst caught Phil’s eye. When keeping a steady supply of German beer in your system, it is also important to keep a steady supply of German food in your system so we split the currywurst (hello, third lunch).

After all of our walking, food, and beer, we decided a little rest was in order. Back to the hotel we went for a little nap before heading back out to see a bit of Regensburg at night. During our walkabout, we had seen several posters featuring artist Andre Maier. We were not familiar with him but liked the posters very much.

After turning down a narrow street, we happened upon his studio/gallery. What’s more, he was inside working! It was super cool.

After stopping a beat to watch the artist work, we walked on, across the Danube to take in the lights of old town at night. What a lovely ending to a magical day in Regensburg.

Stay tuned for part two of Regensburg and our day trip to Walhalla!

Return to Germany: Munich

During our time in Spain and throughout our subsequent travels, people usually thought I was German. I’m pale, I’m tall, I’m a big-boned gal who likes to drink beer, so, I get it. Upon our return to Germany (after we visited friends near Frankfurt in August), Phil kept jokingly telling me we were finally in the land of my people. For the record (who’s keeping a record Jess?), my ancestry is primarily English, Scottish, and a little Norwegian. Almost everywhere we traveled; Spain, Albania, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, people thought Phil was a native which he attributed to his Italian ancestry (oddly though, he was never mistaken for an Italian in Italy) and the fact that the Romans long ago inhabited many the lands we traveled.

All that notwithstanding, we arrived in the land of my people after a layover in Vienna. We were relieved when we saw our suitcase and backpacks roll out onto the luggage carousel in Munich. All summer we had heard horror stories of lost luggage in European airports. Up until our flight to Munich, we had managed to score direct flights to our destinations, which greatly reduces the risk of lost luggage. The losing part usually happens when your belongings have to go from one plane to another.

You can imagine our dismay when, at the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria, the woman at the desk informed us that we must check all of our items. Phil and I each had a carry-on sized backpack and shared one larger, rolling suitcase. When flying, we put all of our most important stuff in our backpacks so if for some reason our suitcase went missing, we would still have the necessities.

When told we had to check everything, the woman at the desk could see our displeasure and confusion (we had never had an issue with our backpacks before), and said multiple times, “It is free. It is free.” I replied “I don’t care if it’s free, I don’t want to lose my luggage.” Phil, reminding me it was silly and futile to argue with the woman (who was being watched very closely by a supervisor), quickly searched through our large suitcase and pulled out the smaller day-pack we’d purchased in Turkey; we quickly loaded our laptops, medication, ya know, the necessities, into the backpack.

Luckily, we made it with all bags present and accounted for. We took a train from the airport to Central Station then took another a short ride to a stop right outside of our hotel. Our accommodations were modest but the gentleman working the desk was friendly and they had an honor system beer fridge packed with cold, big, beers in brown or green bottles. One simply took whatever they wanted from the fridge and recorded it with the pencil and paper provided to be charged upon check out. In all of our travels I have only seen this one other time, when we traveled to Costa Rica in 2014 but I feel surely it must be a more common offering than it seems. Let me know in the comments if you have seen the honor system beer fridge.

After relaxing in our room with a beer, we headed out for dinner at a nearby brauhaus (brew house or beer hall). We enjoyed some hearty German fare and a couple of dunkles (dark beers). We called it an early night as our next day was to be jam packed.

We had one full day in Munich before heading to Regansburg so we wanted to make the most of it. We had a couple of things on our list of must sees and left the rest up to fate. Some of my favorite stops of the day included:

Frauenkirche Church: a restored Gothic Church, with very tall ceilings and beautiful, intricate, and colorful stained glass windows.

New Town Hall: a huge, cool, Gothic building. We wandered up staircases and down long hallways, until we reached the top floor, looking down upon the square below.

Theatine Church: Built in the 1660s, the interior was unlike any we have seen. It is intricately sculpted, bright white with reliefs, altars, and columns. Truly a one of a kind.

Munich Residence Palace: The huge palace served as the seat of government and residence of the Bavarian dukes, electors and kings from 1508 to 1918 and includes the residence, theater, and treasury. It is a must see when in Munich.

The treasury was really something:

After spending several hours at the Residence Palace, we had just enough time to head back to the hotel and freshen up before we were off again. We grabbed a quick bite at the  Hofbräuhaus and then onto see one of my favorite bands, Bright Eyes!

We had an unforgettable day in Munich (Phil writes more about it here). The next morning we were off to magical Regensburg. Stay tuned for more!

Bulgaria’s Love of Coffee Vending Machines. Who knew?

When we first arrived in Bulgaria, I began to notice coffee vending machines. I didn’t think too much of it initially as we have seen similar machines occasionally during our travels, typically in a train or bus station. As we traveled around, however, I began to see more and more coffee vending machines; sometimes right out front of businesses but other times, randomly on a seemingly rundown street corner with nothing else around it. What’s more, most of these machines sold good coffee, often Lavazza, an Italian coffee maker. Typically in the U.S., when you see this type of coffee machine, it’s in someplace like an old courthouse or community college with generic and terrible coffee.

I like Lavazza coffee but was curious as to the quality that was housed in the vending machines. Prior to leaving Veliko Tarnovo, I decided to try a cup at the train station. It did not disappoint. Throughout our travels, we saw more coffee vending machines in Ploviv and Sofia.

I assure you, this post isn’t an ad for Lavazza coffee. I found the coffee machines generously scattered around the country to be kind of quirky and unique. I hope you do too.

Stay tuned for posts about our travels in Germany!

Bulgaria Part 3: Sofia

Our train from Plovdiv to Sofia was delayed by an hour for reasons I am still unsure of. Phil and I sat on the hot train and waited and waited. We didn’t know what the hold up was. The steady stream of announcements, in Bulgarian, on the train station’s loud speaker were, of course, useless to us. We knew we were on the correct train, however, so we stayed put. There was a fellow, one of our cabin mates, who had his bag on the train and was sitting outside smoking and drinking a beer with his friend. His “bag” was actually a cooler bag filled with tall boy beers. As we waited, he entered the train twice to retrieve additional beers for himself and his friend.

As we waited (and sweat) I looked up on google translate how to ask the woman in our train cabin what time the train would leave. She responded in English and indicated we would be leaving in another half hour. Eventually, the beer drinking fellow snuffed out his last cigarette and boarded so we knew it must be time to go. As we traveled the two hours to Sofia, the guy drank an additional four tall boy beers. His cooler bag was like a Mary Poppins carpet bag..just when I thought surely, it couldn’t possibly hold any more beer, he would pull out another one. It was kind of amazing. Also kind of amazing is how the fellow was able to down 7-8 large beers in three hours time and walk straight.

After an uneventful train ride, we exited the train in Sofia it was raining; then getting turned around in the less than impressive underground train station (trash, broken escalator, and huge dead pigeon) we eventually were able to find a taxi to take us to our rental.

We dropped our bags at the apartment and headed out for some grocery store supplies and doner kebab for dinner. It was still raining so we navigated the streets, trying not to get too wet, under our small umbrella as best we could. We had grown accustomed to walking under the giant umbrella we had in Gijón (that stayed in Gijón with our friend, Diana). Contrary to what My Fair Lady may have taught you, the rain in Spain stays mainly in the mountains, not the plains, but I digress.

The next morning, we hit the yellow brick road to see the city and see the National Art Gallery.

Saint Sofia Monument

The National Art Gallery is housed in a former palace built in 1880. It’s high, ornate ceilings, chandeliers, and grand staircases certainly give it a royal feel.

We enjoyed viewing the art collection including a temporary exhibit by The Master, Vladimir Dimitrov, a Bulgarian artist we first learned about in Veliko Tarnovo.

After we left the museum, we walked around Sofia, taking in the city, stopping to take photos of the Ivan Vazov National Theater, the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1914), among others.

After our walk, we decided we needed a snack and I just so happened to have saved Cakey Bakey on our google maps list of spots to check out. I’m glad I did. As the reviews suggested, the cake and coffee were very good and it was a cute little spot to take a break.

The next morning, we had a wine tasting! I saw this particular activity listed as an experience on a popular travel app several weeks prior and booked right away. It had great reviews, was reasonably priced, plus, wine! Several of the eastern European countries we traveled to are known (by wine aficionados anyway) to have good wine. In fact, two Siberian women I met in Turkey told me that if I had the chance to taste Georgian wine, I would not be disappointed as it is the most delicious wine. We didn’t travel to Georgia and did not have a chance to sample Georgian wine but their advice got me thinking about eastern European wine and why it isn’t more well known by the masses.

I was excited to learn more about Bulgarian wine and to sample a few. Our tasting was held at a local wine shop named Coupage Wine and Cheese, by a fellow named Alex. Alex was very passionate about Bulgarian wine and although his shop was on the same street as several other wine shops, his is the only that sells exclusively Bulgarian wine, cheese and cured meats.

As we waited for Alex to prepare our wine and cheese samplings, we perused a book he offered us about wines of the world. While Spain, France, and Italy had multiple pages about wine and grape varieties and regions, Bulgaria had only one page, which is not a surprise as those other countries are quite known for their wines. Though Bulgaria has a wine making tradition that goes back thousands of years beginning with the Thracians in the 5th century BC (later conquered by the Romans), so why aren’t Bulgarian wines more well known?

Alex explained that the craft of traditional wine and cheese making in Bulgaria was all but lost under Communism. This was because the state seized wineries and vineyards and set up large operations that churned out mass quantities of low quality wine for the masses. There were no privately owned wineries under Communism as they all became state owned.

After Communism fell, all state seized land was given back to the original owners (or more often their heirs). The new owners of the vineyards often did not know the former family business; grape cultivation and wine making, thus it took many years for traditional Bulgarian wine to make a comeback. Lucky for us, it did. We had a lovely time talking with Alex and sampling wines. We even bought a bottle to take with us to enjoy at a later time.

After sampling the wine we were quite hungry. Alex gave us a few restaurant recommendations and we ended up at a place called Table. It was cute and trendy feeling and lucky for us, they were serving Brunch! Brunch is not a thing in Spain, or in most of Europe from what I can tell, so we were pleased with the opportunity to enjoy some fancy cocktails and brunch food. We both ordered the Eggs Benedict. It is very unusual for us to order the same thing as we usually like to order a couple of things and share them but we were not disappointed as we each chowed down on a full plate of the delicious eggs.

Another must-do when visiting Sofia, or Bulgaria in general, is a visit to the Rila Monastery. It is stunning and beautiful, and Phil writes in detail about it here. We spent a lovely day there and I am so glad we went.

Our final day in Sofia (and Bulgaria) was spent walking around the town, past the Byzantine ruins, and through Knyazheska Garden Park.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and throughout Bulgaria over our three weeks in the country. People were friendly, the food was good, the transportation was reasonable and I highly recommend it as a European travel destination. Next up for Phil and I; Germany and our final days in mainland Europe. Stay tuned!

Bulgaria Part 2: Plovdiv

We left Veliko Tarnovo via train and headed to Plovdiv, our next Bulgarian destination. We had a private coach for the duration of our five hour ride. It was by far the most luxurious we had been in. We paid the extra $6 to ride in first class and it was well worth it.

We exited the train station in Plovdiv and I was happy to see our hotel was right next door because the less distance we have to haul our bags, the better. My relief was short lived, however, as we entered the hotel and the woman working met us at the door and said, “It isn’t working”. We were confused and of course asked, “What isn’t working?”, thinking their computer system was down or something. “The hotel, it’s not working.” “You mean you’re closed?” Phil asked. The woman responded yes and Phil told her we had a reservation and had already paid for the room. She said her colleague should have contacted him and then repeated, “The hotel isn’t working”. She did not apologize for our inconvenience or offer to let us sit in the hotel as we tried to make other arrangements. She just ushered us out the door with another, “The hotel isn’t working.”

Hot, tired, kind of pissed off, and still somewhat confused, we leaned against a small half wall in the parking lot and (after disputing the charge for the hotel with the site we booked it through), we found another hotel closer to the old town that would meet our needs. We opted to skip the 20 minute walk and took a short taxi ride instead.

Our room wasn’t ready so we dropped our bags off and decided to walk around a bit. The neighborhood where we were staying was called Kapana and is the arts district. A lot of cool little shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants make up the neighborhood.

After grabbing a quick bite, we decided to walk to a nearby park and clock tower to check out some views of the city. We could see our hotel from the tower and after looking around a bit, found a path that brought us down off the hill, right beside it.

Our hotel was very large though it appeared as if only one section was being used for guests. Other areas were in various states of renovation. It seemed as if the hotel was once a very happening spot that had fallen into disrepair, was then purchased, and the new owners are attempting to restore it to it’s former glory.

The roof had a huge two story bar area that is not currently in use, except by us to take in the sunset. A giant rooftop bar with a view is a hot commodity in most cities and I hope they get it back up and running because with a little TLC, it would be a great spot.

The next morning we walked through the Tsar Simeon Garden which contains lovely fountains and flowers.

Plovdiv was originally named Phillipopolis (cool name) and has ancient roman ruins of the old city, dating back to the 1st-4th century AD.

Next we visited Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis. A museum now sits atop the ancient ruins of the historical spot that dates back to the second century. It originally served as a pagan temple and a few hundred years after, a Christian Basilica, and later, a cemetery.

The Basilica museum in the foreground

The museum houses some of the best mosaics we have ever seen. Besides being beautifully preserved and detailed, one can also observe the layers in the mosaic flooring, the original pagan designs peaking out from underneath the newer basilica floor. It was really cool, though difficult to capture in a photo.

The mosaic floors of the basilica were huge and largely still intact. A raised, glass floor has been built over the mosaics for all to enjoy without damaging them and we were given paper booties to wear during our time in the museum.

The woman working the front desk of the museum was very nice and chatted with us a bit on our way in and out. She informed us of a combined ticket package available for 15 lev (roughly $7.50) that would allow us to visit five historic locations in Plovdiv (from a list of ten). We really wanted to visit some of the restored homes in old town and many were on the list. Additionally, she recommended we visit the restored pharmacy in the old town as well. The 15 lev was well spent.

The first home we visited was The House of Veren Stambolyan. Built in the second half of the 19th century, the two story home has a courtyard and archways leading inside and is a beautiful blue and white.

We were asked not to take photos in the house and I am (more often than not) a rule follower, so I don’t have many photos of the interior. Lucky for you, my husband is not a rule follower, so I do have a few.

Bulgarian artist, Dimitar Kirov lived and painted in the house in the 1960’s along with his wife and muse, Ro. I actually did snap a couple of photos of his paintings. If you look at the photo of me in the house above, you can see the artist’s photo between the staircases.

As we walked around old town after touring the house, we spied some outdoor mosaics by Dimitar Kirov as well.

We went on to visit The House of Nedkovich, which was built in the 1860s, and has some of the original furniture owned by the original owner of the home, a merchant named Nikola Nedkovich.

The next day we continued our Old Town tour, beginning with the House of Hindlian built in 1834-35; Stepan Hindlian was a famous merchant originally from Armenia. This may have been my favorite historic home we visited. As with all of the homes, the ceilings were works of art. They even had a rose water fountain in the upstairs living room! Bulgaria is famous for their rose water. Every tourist shop has rose water and there are some higher end shops that exclusively sell rose water lotion, oil, and perfume.

We also visited the Hippocrates Pharmacy Museum

and the Klianti House

While in old town, we also stopped in the City Art Gallery which housed an impressive and large collection and was arranged chronologically with older paintings on the first floor and contemporary art on the third floor. I snapped photos of some of my favorites, including Bulgarian artist, The Master (who I mentioned in part 1).

Another great museum in Plovdiv is the The Regional Archaeological Museum. I was actually a little reluctant to go. After having seen a lot of ancient pottery, ruins, and artifacts this summer, I was almost archaeology-ed out. Kind of like seeing a lot of Catholic churches, sometimes you need a little break. I am, however, very glad we decided to go to the museum. They had a unique exhibit of The Panagyuristhe Gold Treasure, a luxurious table set consisting of nine gold vessels of different shapes. Made at the beginning of the 3rd century BC of 23-karat gold; they were found by three brothers (The Deikovi Brothers) in 1949. The pieces were really unusual and so detailed.

In addition to the gold exhibit, the museum also houses a large mosaic from the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis that we visited a few days prior. The mosaic, featuring Neptune, the God of water and the seas, was stunning and so well preserved.

While in Plovdiv, a great spot to take in the sunset (aside from our kick-ass hotel roof), is at the The Alyosha Monument, high atop one of Plovdiv’s hills. The Alyosha is monument is dedicated to the Soviet Army for liberating Bulgaria from the Germans in 1944. It is huge and can be seen from different places throughout the city.

We really enjoyed our time in Plovdiv and I recommend it to anyone visiting Bulgaria! Stay tuned for more from our final stop in Bulgaria, its capital, Sofia.

Bulgaria, Part 1: Veliko Tarnovo

Phil and I said goodbye to Bucharest and boarded the seven-hour train to Veliko Tarnovo, our first stop in Bulgaria. We shared a four-person coach with two German travelers (not traveling together) who were both heading to Istanbul. Compared to their eighteen-hour train ride, seven seemed like a breeze.

Over the trip, while we didn’t exchange names, we did share travel stories and recommendations. One of the Germans was a young man traveling to Turkey to meet up with his Russian girlfriend. The war in Ukraine limits Russians’ ability to travel widely and she is unable to travel to Germany currently.

The other traveler, a woman in her mid-thirties, has been working for a European politician in Brussels for the last couple of years and was extremely burnt out from her demanding job. She was taking her month’s vacation time to travel around Eastern Europe before returning to her job and giving her resignation notice. She indicated she had plenty of savings from her job and intended to take a year off of work to recharge. I hear you, sister. She had also traveled throughout the US for a three month period a few years ago, filming a [as of yet unfinished] documentary about “real” Americans. In an era when Americans are seemingly more divided than ever, she found that, regardless of political affiliation, people are just people and are often willing to help others, individually, even if they differ in political ideology.

I really enjoyed both of our long-term train riding experiences. We lucked out to have interesting coach-mates who spoke English and were keen to discuss travel and life experiences with us. I highly recommend taking a long-distance train when traveling if you’re not in too much of a hurry to get to your destination. Share a coach and who knows, you might luck out too and have some informative conversations and even if you don’t, and have less than ideal coach-mates, at the very least it will make for an interesting story.

We arrived at Veliko Tarnovo on time. The train station was quite small and I believe we may have been the only travelers to exit the train at the destination. We walked out front to see the only visible taxi pulling away. It was a thirty minute walk to our rental and we didn’t want to have to carry our heavy bags for the that long, so we opted to hang out in front of the taxi area, and hoped another would be along shortly.

After a while, we began to doubt that another would, in fact, be along so I went inside in the hopes of the ticket agent calling us a taxi. The ticket agent spoke no English and although I thought I communicated what I wanted pretty well, she handed me a phone number, presumably for a taxi company. I thanked her and went outside. We tried the number, without success, and started to think we might have to walk, when we saw a taxi pull in.

He stopped in front of two women who had been sitting on the curb near the station entrance. We thought they had called him and he was there to pick them up. After an exchange between the women and driver, it appeared as though they decided not to take the taxi or the driver kicked them out of the car, either way we flagged him down and got in. Score! On the way out of the parking lot, the driver stopped the car and had a loud verbal exchange with one of the women and then drove on. It was slightly unsettling but we didn’t have to schlep our bags all the way to the rental in the hot hot so we were grateful.

We arrived at our spacious rental and were happy to see that there was a full grocery store just downstairs from it. We like to be able to cook while traveling though, often due to the type and location of the accommodation, it is difficult or impossible. We unpacked, purchased supplies at the store, and relaxed for the evening after our long travel day.

Around midnight, just was we were drifting off to sleep, we were startled by very loud pops. The sound took me back to our St. Louis days when we would play “gun shots of fireworks?” to determine the source of loud pops. We almost immediately saw the bright light reflecting off of the sliding glass door and went to go check it out. We were delighted to have front row seats to a spectacular fireworks display, and these were no half-assed fireworks, we’re talking professional grade. We couldn’t exactly determine where they were coming from due to it being dark and the town being quite hilly but we assumed it must be a wedding or other special celebration to warrant such a grand show.

The next morning we had a walking tour with a local guide, Iva, who brought along her daughter, Tiana, to show us around the city and tell us a bit about the history. She also made some recommendations for places to eat and things to do.

We met Iva and Tiana in front of the Monument of Mother Bulgaria near the center of town. We walked on, over the Stambolov Bridge, high above the Yantra River and took in some great views of the old town. We also saw the large and impressive monument to the Assen Dynasty in the near distance. The Assen dynasty rose as the leaders of Bulgaria after a rebellion against the Byzantine Empire in 1185 and ruled Bulgaria until 1280. We stopped at the monument and snapped a few photos. It was nice to have someone else who could take photos of Phil and I together. We have a LOT of selfies from our travels and while I love each one of them, it’s nice to have a few us-ies as well.

We entered the old town via Gurko Street, named for  Yoseph Vladimir Gurko, a Russian general who was instrumental in helping the Russians free the Bulgarians from Ottoman Turkish rule, Iva informed us. The street is famous for its historical white homes you can see in the picture below.

We stopped at a cafe on Gurko street as it was a very hot day and a break from walking and a cold beverage sounded delightful. Phil and I ordered sparkling water and Iva a coffee. I was amazed that a hot coffee sounded good to her on the 90 degree morning. I love coffee but I guess not as much as Iva does. Tiana ordered a snack and as we talked with them we learned that young Tiana (I would guess she was around eight or nine years old) already knew three languages; Norwegian (she was born in Norway as her father is Norwegian and the family lived there until 2020), Bulgarian, and English and she is learning Spanish currently!

After our pit stop, we walked to The Nativity of the Virgin Mary Cathedral which was quite impressive from the outside. There is a place near the Cathedral that, every weekend, has two sound and light shows. They light up the Trapezitsa Fortress, which was a huge walled fortress across the Yantra river, and provide headphones that play music along with the lights. She said it was kind of like a laser light show. She told us the show often sells out but even if we could not get tickets, we could enjoy the light show for free from an area nearby. She showed us where she thought the best spot would be.

Next we walked through the heart of old town, which is lined with little shops some of which are simply tourist shops selling typical souvenirs; t-shirts, shot glasses, postcards, and snow globes but others were real artisan workshops selling woodwork, lace, and other fine products. We said goodbye to Iva and Tiana at the end of the street.

We enjoyed a slow walk back to the rental where we relaxed for a bit. Later we enjoyed dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant right across the street from our apartment. After dinner, we headed back to old town to catch the light show. We could not get a ticket but found a nice spot, atop a large stone wall, to see the show. It was hard to capture via photo the grandiosity of the light show but it was truly something to see. They turn off the lights in that area of town to help the lights from across the river at the fortress really pop.

The next day we visited the Boris Denev State Art Gallery. Boris Denev was an important Bulgarian painter from Veliko Tarnovo, and the museum was a two floor exhibit to Bulgarian painters. This is where we first learned about and saw works by Vladimir Dimitrov, known as The Master. He is perhaps the most famous Bulgarian painter and this would not be the last time we saw his paintings. He is right in my sweet spot of modern art (1882-1960) and I really enjoyed his paintings.

The next morning we were off (via a relatively short train ride) to our next Bulgarian city, Plovdiv. Stay tuned!

Bucharest: A Diamond in the Rough. Part 2

You can read part 1 of my travels in Bucharest here. The day after Phil and I visited Cismigiu Park, we headed over to the Parliamentary Palace, truly a site to behold. The Palace is one of the largest government buildings in the world, with 1,100 rooms and 3,930,000 sq ft; only the Pentagon is larger. The building was the brain child of former Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

To make room for the palace, much of old-town Bucharest was destroyed. Ground breaking for the project was in 1984 and for nearly six years thousands of laborers worked twenty-four hours a day on the construction. Ceaușescu was known for his grandiose projects with no concern for budget. He literally starved his people so he could realize his dream of the perfect palace which created anit-Ceaușescu sentiment in much of the country. Ceaușescu died before construction was complete; shot by his people on Christmas day 1989 during an armed revolution.

During our hour long tour we went up several staircases, saw two theaters, a beautiful ballroom, galleries, meeting rooms, and long hallways and that was only 5% of the building. The coolest area we saw was the grand balcony overlooking Unity Boulavard. Ceaușescu had envisioned giving speeches from this balcony. The first person to ever address the public from this balcony in Bucharest was Micheal Jackson in 1992 when he famously said, “Hello Budapest! I’m so glad to be here”!

The next morning, we had reservations to tour Ceaușescu’s former residence at 11am. And what a residence it is, in the swanky part of town. In fact, it is right next door to the Kuwaiti embassy. After touring the home, we walked past several embassies in the area including the Spanish, French, and Swiss to name a few.

Ceaușescu’s former home, also known as Primaverii Palace (Spring Palace), was the primary residence of the dictator and his family from 1965-1989. Each of his three children had an apartment within the home in addition to the apartment of Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, and Elena’s own, private apartment. Apparently the couple slept in their shared apartment together at night but Elena needed her own space during the day. I get it.

The home is large and luxurious but in comparison with the opulence of the Palace of Parliament, feels quite homey and intimate. While Ceaușescu hosted world leaders in the Louis XV day study (copy of a room of the Palace of Versailles), the family did not have overnight guests. Ceaușescu was known to be paranoid about assassination attempts (turns out he wasn’t off base), particularly being poisoned (this lead him to outfit the Palace of Parliament with a unique ventilation system using air from the outdoors instead of traditional duct work) so did not invite others outside of the family to stay at the home.

The Ceaușescu’s added on to the home in the 70’s, adding a dressing room, atrium, and large indoor pool. It was groovy to see the style of the home transition from the 60’s to 70’s. The pool area was really something with psychedelic mosaics surrounding it.

The atrium had lovely mosaics as well prominently featuring peacocks, as Peacocks were the dictator’s favorite bird. In fact he brought four back to his home following a visit to Japan in the 1970’s. Decedents of these four peacocks roam the grounds of the dictator’s former home to this day. Phil and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the new peacock chicks on the property who are apparently quite elusive.

After leaving Primaverii Palace, Phil and I headed to Zexe Braserie, a restaurant our train companion, George, had recommended. The food was tasty and their dessert case featured at least twenty different delicious looking cakes. I had a croissant sandwich of goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds and Phil a pork loin sandwich with pesto. We shared sides of fries and spinach in some kind of creamy, slightly cheesy sauce that was the start of the show. We, of course, had to try one of their cakes. Mine was dark chocolate with pistachio cream and Phil had a vanilla and mango layered cake.

 After lunch we walked through the neighborhood and came upon the Zambaccian Art Museum, which was housed in the former residence of its namesake. A private collection made up of many famous Romanian artists along with Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Renoir. I love modern art so the collection was right in my wheelhouse.

While taking in the beautiful paintings and the building itself, I saw a painting of a place that looked very familiar. I thought to myself, “We’ve been there”. It wasn’t Venice or Paris or a huge, widely recognizable city. I leaned in to read the title and sure enough it was Chioggia (by artist Gheorghe Pestrascu). Phil and I made a few hours visit to Chioggia on our drive to Venice when we visited Italy in 2019.

Chioggia

I also enjoyed seeing three different paintings of artist, Stefan Luchian; one a self portrait, one by artist Traian Cornescu, and the other by artist, Camil Ressu.

The next stop on our walk was the National Museum of Maps and Old Books. What a cool little museum!It contained maps from the 16th century through the present day. We saw an old map of Spain so I, of course, had to take a photo (and zoom up on Asturias).

The next day we made our way to the Museum of Art Collections, a huge museum of private collections that were donated to the museum.  It was organized by the collections donated, and there were laminated sheets, in English and Romanian, about the donors, and their relationships with the artists, if any. There was so much to see; paintings, furniture, sculptures, and swords. You can see more from the museum in Phil’s post here.

Our very favorite exhibit was by the Japanese artist Shizuko Onda. Using multicolored plexiglass and other items, she creates artistic pieces that look different from every perspective. They were truly amazing.

After visiting the museum, we made our way back to the rental, taking in more of the cool architecture that Bucharest has to offer. I really enjoyed our time in Bucharest and highly recommend visiting.

Next stop: Bulgaria!

Bucharest: A Diamond in the Rough. Part 1

Phil and I left Budapest around 3pm and boarded an overnight train bound for Bucharest. We weren’t sure what to expect on the 15-hour train ride as we had read several different accounts of other people’s journeys. Basically we knew to bring our own food, water, and toilet paper as there would be little to none of the above on the train. Phil booked the tickets online several weeks before our trip. A four person coach was the only option available online.

It was an incredibly budget-friendly travel option as the $100 we spent covered both our transportation to Bucharest and our lodging for the night. That is a helluva deal. So much so that we tried to splurge with an upgrade to a private coach when we arrived at the train station but there were none available. Phil even tried to purchase two additional tickets (so we could have an entire 4-person to ourselves) but with the language barrier, that didn’t happen either. So we sucked it up, boarded the train and hoped for the best, knowing that regardless of what happened, it would be an adventure.

We found our cabin, stored the luggage (luckily there was ample storage), and waited to see who might be joining us. The coach had two large couch-style benches that doubled as beds with a top bunk above each. It was certainly no-frills traveling but Phil and I aren’t overly frilly people. Don’t get me wrong, we love a good frill but we are fairly low maintenance and we entered into this adventure expecting a bit of inconvenience.

After a few minutes, a fellow joined us in our coach named George. George had been in Budapest for a music festival and was traveling to Bucharest to visit his family. A Romainian, he attended school in London and has been living and working as an architect there for the past twelve years. As the train slowly left the station, it appeared it would only be the three of us in the coach (score!). The train employee who came to check our tickets informed George, in Romainian, that at the moment, it was just the three of us in the coach but someone could buy a ticket at one of the other stops and join us. We crossed our fingers that that would not happen.

It was a very sunny and hot day and the train was very hot as well. One of two windows in our coach opened (the other one was stuck shut), which did allow for a slight breeze once we got going. When the train stopped, however, it was almost unbearable. Having spent the summer in places that averaged 90-100 degrees, we’d gotten used to sweating. After chatting a bit, and once the train was really going, I decided to head up to the upper bunk and take a nap. Heat rises and the breeze didn’t really but I was tired and had fifteen hours to kill and figured if I just laid still I wouldn’t be too hot. I half slept for a couple of hours as the upper bunk was just long enough for me; the top of my head millimeters away from grazing the wall and my feet touching at the other end. Eventually I re-joined Phil and George “downstairs”.

We ate some snacks and drank some water and eventually rolled through the border check points of both Hungary and Romania (just a few minutes apart) around 7pm. Afterwards, we sat and talked with George. We talked about history, politics, and travel. He gave us some great recommendations of places to eat and things to do around Bucharest. One pro-tip he passed along was when we went to tour the Palace of the Parliment, we needed to take our passports with us. He’d taken friends there multiple times and if they didn’t have their passports, they were refused entry. I do not like to walk around with our passports so this was a very good piece of information.

Before we knew it, it was nearly midnight. We got ready for bed and I headed to the top bunk. Luckily the night and travel through the mountains brought cooler temperatures. We even made use of the heavy duvets provided in the coach. I slept surprisingly well, only tossing and turning a bit. I thought about sleeping with my headphones in but then decided I liked hearing the sound of the train rolling on the tracks. A little after 7am, the train employee came to wake us up and let us know we would be arriving in Bucharest shortly.

We got up and ready and gathered our things. As the train pulled into Bucharest, we bid adieu to George and headed out into the day. It was very early and we could not check into our rental for several hours. Our plan was to find a restaurant or coffee shop to stop at and spend some time. We walked around the train station and decided just to stop in a restaurant attached to it as we didn’t want to schlep our bags around the streets of Bucharest, half asleep.

We ordered a couple of omelets and coffees. Over the course of the three hours we spent there, we each had four cups of coffee. I was a little surprised to see that everyone else in the restaurant was drinking either beer or wine at 9am but hey, it was the weekend and this is a judgement free zone. Heck, I might have joined them if I didn’t think it would have left me snoozing in our booth after one glass.

The owner of our rental was nice enough to let us stop in and drop off our bags an hour and a half before our check in time. We gratefully took advantage of her offer and then headed out to do some luggage-free exploring.

Very near to our rental was the Romanian Athenaeum, a theater and concert hall built in 1888. The outside was beautiful and we discovered it was open to tour. The main lobby is something to behold with four, grand, spiraling staircases leading to the concert hall in addition to the main staircase. The hall itself felt quite intimate and set up in a way that any seat was a good seat.

After the concert hall, we headed down Victory Street, a long main thoroughfare that leads to Victory Square. Geroge had informed us that on Sundays, the street is closed to vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists can enjoy the street, car free and care free.

We snapped photos and stopped in a church along the way. Bucharest may be the city that I have taken the most photos of buildings in. There are so many cool buildings and the juxtaposition of old world european architecture with communist era eastern bloc architecture is very interesting to see.

After our walk we returned to our rental and took much needed showers after our sweaty train adventure and walking around the city. We had the cutest little apartment with a nice balcony and a pretty great view.

The next day we had lunch in the old town at a restaurant our train companion,, George, had recommended. Caru’ cu bere (the beer cart) has been making traditional Romanian food and brewing beer since 1879. Located in a beautiful building with a dark wood interior, they offered a special lunch menu (a menu del dia of sorts) with four choices of starter, salad, entree, and dessert. I had a starter of polenta with fried eggs, covered in cheese, which was delicious and Phil had a tasty vegetable soup. For our salads, Phil had a Greek-style salad with tomatoes, cucumber, and oregano and I had a cabbage salad which tasted like an oil and vinigar coleslaw with a nice addition of fresh dill. For our entrees, we ordered the meatballs (which tasted kind of like burgers with onion soup mix in them cooked on the grill) with polenta and a chicken thigh seasoned with cumin along with raosted potatoes. It was all delicious and for dessert we had flan and a raspberry cheesecake. The cheesecake was not your typical cheesecake and had the consistency of a dense cake with a strong (similar to a gorgonzola) cheese baked into it. It was really good.

After lunch, we walked along the River to Cismigiu Park. Obviously a once grand park, Cismigiu Park has fallen into disrepair, at least a large part of the park has. The grass was dry and browning and the many, once lovely benches had been visited by pigeons a few too many times. There was even an area on the map of the park that showed a manmade lake with paddle boats and a restaurant. Now it is just a dry, cement and dirt pool, the restaurant deserted.

We came across the building below on the edge of Cismigiu Park. The Kretzulescu Palace was built in 1902 by Romanian architect Petre Antonescu. It was initially the residence of Princess Elena Kretzulescu. In 1927 it was purchased by the Romanian government and served a variety of purposes including housing the Museum of Religious Art. From 1972-2011, it served as the office for UNCESCO’s European Center for Higher Education. It now does not [appear to] serve any function and seems to be falling into disrepair. It is such a cool building. I’m sure people, myself included, would pay just to walk through it.

George had told us on the train that “Bucharest is not the most beautiful city” and while that is literally true (it is not THE most beautiful city), it still has a certain charm and a good vibe that I liked. Phil and I agreed that with a bit of TLC, it could be a really beautiful city and more of a major tourist destination. If the bad graffiti was painted over (even with just good graffiti), the streets and buildings were power washed, the cigarette buts picked up, a few more trash cans added around the city, and some of the really cool buildings refurbished, it would be so lovely. I realize that revitalizing a city isn’t as simple as paint and power washers; it’s economics and politics and I don’t know anything about either in Romania. I just know I liked Bucharest and I think it has the potential to be more than it is currently.

Next up: we head to the swanky part of Bucharest, and have more adventures!