Saturday, 8 November 2014

Dracula's Castle at Halloween & Other Transylvanian Treats in Romania


My cousin from New Zealand recently went travelling in Europe and when he came to us in the UK I asked him what his favourite place was. He gave an unexpected and unusual answer: Romania. The people, the scenery, the history - it seemed to have it all, so I decided to head on over there too, and what better time to do it than at Halloween...

The first notable thing about any of this is that everything was so cheap! It was also a fantastically exciting and unusual holiday, needless to say.

We flew for £82 each to Bucharest (Ryanair), got the 3.5 hour train from Bucharest to beautiful Brasov in Transylvania for £5 each, and stayed at the immaculate and well-equipped Kron Studios in Brasov for £28 per night, per 3/4 star double studio apartment! (booking.com)

Brasov Town



Brasov is a traditional Transylvanian town, located within a few miles of major attractions Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, as well as the Libearty Bear Sanctuary and the Carpathian Mountains. 

It is an absolute pleasure to spend time in the town of Brasov whether you're simply after a little bit of shopping and deliciously creamy hot chocolate, architectural and historic sights, or even a bit of a test of logic at Mind Games (see below)!

The cable car up the Tampa mountainside is a good little excursion from the town to get into the hills above and take in the views of the town below. The enormous 'black church' cathedral that looms over the town seems suddenly tiny from the top.

'Mind Games' is a fantastic and unusual attraction involving being shut in a room with a series of varied puzzles to solve in order to get out! There are rooms like these in other cities too, and the one in Brasov is fantastic, run by the friendliest and most accommodating people. Mind Games can be found in an alleyway just off the main square where the banks are.

Getting around is easy and the attractions nearby (such as Bran Castle) are simple and cheap to reach by taxi. Make sure you use a branded taxi as pirates are a problem. Martax and Reytaxi are good. 

Other than pirate taxis (a problem in Romania in general) Brasov is a very safe city with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere. 
















Libearty Bear Sanctuary


This wonderful and noble sanctuary for rescued bears was started by a Romanian lady when the first bears were rescued from being exploited or kept as 'entertainment'. Until the late 90s it was legal to own a bear and amongst other atrocities, many restaurants and other places kept bears in small cages outside to lure people in; although it must be questioned which sort of person would be lured somewhere by something like that. 

The sanctuary is set in the natural forest and the 80-something bears have huge areas to roam free. The sole purpose of it is to house the bears and tourism is secondary to that which is refreshing to see - Libearty Sanctuary make it very clear that they are not a zoo. 

It is around £10 to enter and a knowledgeable guide shows groups around at set times on the hour, around three times a day (such as at 11am), but email first to check availability (apamp@clicknet.ro)

The sanctuary is in the forests above the town of Zarnesti and is really only reachable by taxi. It is not very well signposted but if you're driving it's up a winding gravel path after Zarnesti - don't turn off and you should reach the parking area within a few minutes. 

Rasnov Fortress

Set on a hilltop that is visible from the main road to Bran, this enormous fortress from the 14th century was built on top of pre-historic Bronze-Age and Neolithic settlements. The mixture of residential ruins and defensive towers are fascinating to wonder around, with the backdrop of the unspoiled and forested Carpathian mountains. Local people also sell a variety of items such as painted local pottery and ornate scarves. 




















Bran Castle


The legendary castle built by Vlad the Impaler in around the 14th century is the inspiration for the classic novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Its foreboding sheer stone walls glow orange at night, and at Halloween jack-o-lanterns are placed around the courtyard, flickering an eerie light. The narrow tunnels and steep staircases are exciting to walk around, exploring the various chambers and rooms within - many left as they were when various Royals inhabited them through the ages. 

The castle is set on a steep hill and is surrounded by trees. It involves a fairly impressive walk up to the entrance, just adding to the imposing atmosphere. 

Bran town, although fairly geared up the tourists, is a good place to spend some time too, especially if shopping for gifts or souvenirs, and delicious Romanian treats such as kurtos kalacs - a traditionally Transylvanian pastry cooked around a sort of cylinder chimney and covered in various combinations of walnuts, cinnamon, sugar and coconut. 

It is around £5 to enter the castle, although special events can be slightly more, such as Halloween tours. 
























Peles Castle

In the lovely town of Sinaia, just on the edge in the green hills with a mountainous backdrop, lies the stunning and fairytale 19th century Peles castle. It is a simply stunning royal residence which is now a heritage site and open to the public as a National Museum. 

Peles makes a good stop if driving back to Bucharest from Brasov to the airport (or vice-versa). 















Eating Out in Transylvania


Eating out is divine, especially in higher-end restaurants (still around £13 for a main, a drink and a dessert)! Expect traditional central European cuisine on most menus, such as schnitzel, stroganoff and strudel, and also local specialities such as meatballs and cabbage. Transylvanian cuisine can be surprisingly waste-not, and don't be surprised to see 'lamb's brains' or something similar nestled between more appetising options...

Sergiana is a fantastically local, popular and classy restaurant in Brasov, as well as Bella Musica across the main road from the cathedral with its lovely atmosphere and winding low-ceilinged halls and cubby-holes. 






Sunday, 14 September 2014

Italy Road Trip Freedom & Variety: Last Minute Hotels, Top Attractions, & Off the Beaten Path

Road-Trip to Amalfi Through France, Switzerland & Italy

If there is one thing that makes a road trip worthwhile, it is most definitely the freedom to go where the wind takes you, and I mean that metaphorically, because another major draw to the road trip holiday is that you can actually escape bad weather like wind. Rain also - and we did. Our choice to book just our first hotel in advance and no others until we were there meant that we could leave early, stay late, and simply do as we pleased until we had to get the ferry home to the UK!



Beaune, France

Our first stop was brief but extremely pretty. Beaune's passion for everything wine is wonderfully expressed in the Musee du Vin de Bourgogne with everything from antiquated tools and ancient wine bottles through the ages, to detailed information on tasting and wine production in Burgundy. Beautiful wine boutiques and surrounding vineyards also make Beaune a fantastic wine-lovers' destination.


Geneva, Switzerland

Once we had arrived at the edge of Geneva in the evening, we stopped before the Swiss border and booked a 3 star hotel (Campanile) in neighbouring (and much cheaper) France, in Fevey Voltaire. We got ready to go out and eat in Geneva and drove into town. It was late and there appeared to be a lack of open restaurants - we weren't in Italy yet, so we actually ended up at McDonald's... In multicultural melting-pot Geneva! Oh well, at least we had many nights ahead to cram in some culture...

We did enjoy the waterfront and the Jet d'Eau by night - viewed from the Paquis district - which was so pretty all lit up. 















In the morning we enjoyed our buffet breakfast and used the wifi to book our next hotel - we fancied going on to Lake Lugano in the Italian part of Switzerland so we decided to head there after a day in Geneva ambling around the streets, eating ice-cream, pedal-boating, and admiring the iconic Jet d'eau from the pier - the enormous 140 metre tall water fountain on the lake.


Lake Lugano, Switzerland, & Lake Como, Italy

After a stunning drive through the Alpine Valais canton of Switzerland (and paying 20 Euros for the motorway vignette) we arrived in Lugano, Ticino in the evening. The lights across the black water sparkled magically like in Geneva, and the colour-changing fountains added ambience as we ate pasta al fresco in the main square.


















We woke up to a drizzly morning so we drove up Monte Bre for sweeping views of the sheer mountains plunging into the lake. It was stunning even in the drizzle. We had a little walk, fed some random goats some grass through a fence, then moved on towards Lake Como.


Bellagio, Lake Como

The weather had miraculously changed so we spent the day in lovely Bellagio. Although very geared up for the hoards of summer visitors, it is a very photogenic little town with pretty alleyways, an abundance of gift shops, exquisite Lake Como silk, and a stunning mountain setting right on the lake. The similarity between Lake Como and Lake Lugano scenery is striking, with their steep green mountains and deep, dark water. There are many various options for boat trips to and from Bellagio to other main towns on Lake Como, as well as a couple of car ferry options.
















Modena, Italy

We left the Alps and lakes behind to head South for Modena, with the intention of visiting some Balsamic vinegar makers, but it turns out that visits are much more available if pre-organised. No matter, there is plenty to see! We enjoyed a wander through the streets in the evening and a delicious meal out at high quality gourmet restaurant Caffe Concerto with its typical local Emilian cuisine, and of course amazingly thick and juicy Modena balsamic vinegar - not the watered down 'Modena' variety we seem to be subjected to here in the UK.

At breakfast in the morning we booked our next hotel on the Wifi. Lastminute.com, £35, 4 star hotel in Rome with parking and breakfast! Fantastic! 


Rome

After zipping down the autostrada for a couple of hours or so, we arrived in the vicinity of Rome. I had vague knowledge of our hotel's location and directed Richard through the chaos to an area just North of the Vatican. Fed up of trying to find it without any sort of detailed map, we parked up and asked for a city map at the nearest hotel. The kind man at reception printed out the route on Google Maps for us and described where to go in detail. We headed off thanking him profusely, and found ourselves back in the thick of the traffic knowing we were so near but still so far. 

I decided to switch on my data for Google Maps to direct me and it got us straight there in just a couple of minutes - literally around the corner. 

(This worked for the next few hotels actually, and costs are kept to a minimum if you use the data to load the map and then turn it off, leaving your GPS on. When I got home it only cost me around £7 and I must have loaded about 5 different maps on Google. It beats buying a European sat nav and makes sure you limit the use of it - so you're not tempted to be boring and use it for the whole journey - getting lost is part of the fun!) 

We checked into The Zone Hotel and parked in their underground car park. The staff were lovely and booked us a taxi into town - the driver of which took us to a great pasta/pizza restaurant  in the old town when we asked him for a recommendation. Whilst waiting for our table (it was busy and popular which was a good sign) we wondered around the Piazza Navona area and took in the wonderful evening atmosphere, taking photos at the Obelisco Argonale fountain. 









The following day we spent our time taking in the must-see sights (which of course included the Colosseum and the Forum), and the other archaeological sights. The Pantheon is simply stunning, with the sunlight streaming in through its hole in the domed roof, casting a beam of sunlight through the relative dark of this exquisite circular structure. The small gaps in the marble floor drain the rain when it comes in through the roof. The ancient Roman detail so is wonderfully preserved and the building is regarded as one of the single most significant Roman architectural achievements. This cathedral was originally a church for the multiple Roman gods (pan= all, theon= gods) and later became a Christian church. 






















Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, & Herculaneum

We arrived in the town of Boscoreale outside Naples where our hotel was, fairly late at night, so we didn't see what a crummy dump it was until the hours of daylight. However its appeal was in its reality. The delicious and simple foods sold at takeaways - traditional pizza, rosemary chicken with chilli oil, and potatoes with seasalt, were enough to delight our tastebuds, and our beautiful little hotel Hotel La Fenice was run by such friendly staff and was so tucked away we didn't once feel the overly-touristed strain of the coast. Having the pool to ourselves was evidence enough that we knew something the other tourists didn't! 

We of course made the most of the Amalfi Coast, and having the car meant that it didn't matter that our hotel was further out. We drove out towards Positano and the winding coastal roads offered panoramic views. Positano itself was unbelievably crowded. We drove on through this melee and turned off towards a village called Nocelle. We parked the car halfway up this road and walked up the long sets of stone steps into the vineyards way above the Positano. The noise subsided into silence and just the light breeze wafted around the corners of each staircase. The views down to the coast were incredible, the yachts sitting calmly on the surface of the glistening sea. The staircases meandered past people's homes and lazy dogs dozed in the heat. It was unbeliveable to think that people wake up to these views each and every day. 



After arriving back down into Positano late aftternoon it was much calmer. We wandered around and appreciated the exquisite arts and crafts in the various shops and galleries, then moved on to Amalfi. 












We ate a delicious sort of haute cuisine meal at Ristorante Lido Azzurro on the waterfront, complete with amuses bouches and tasty olive bread. 

The atmosphere in the main square of Amalfi was thick with merriment. The restaurants were busy and the buskers sang latin flavour into the dusky evening. After ambling the streets some more, we wandered up the steps of the striking Sant'Andrea cathedral with its striped black and white arched facade, and took in the view from the top.









Visiting Roman archaeological sites Pompeii and Herculaenum were experiences that are difficult to sum up. The unbelievably preserved history, the extremely tangible culture and existence of the Roman people of these ancient places, was just fascinating. The detail at Herculaneum - frescoes, cantines, shop signs, and the sheer size of Pompeii and its well-worn roads (still with the wheel-grooves worn into the stone) are enough to beguile. Pompeii is notoriously hot with limited shade so a hat and bottled water were necessities, and it is also far more busy that Herculaneum; we waited in a half-hour queue for Pompeii, but walked right through to Herculaneum. Prices are extremely modest considering the experience you are getting (around just 10-14 euros per adult for Herculaneum and Pompeii respectively). 











The same day we visited Pompeii, we drove to Vesuvius and did the hour's climb to the crater at the top. It was exhausting in all that heat, and I even borrowed one of the complimentary sticks to lean on (I never do things like that - who needs a stick!?) but it was well worth the effort. To see the profound devastation the eruption brought on Pompeii, freezing it in time, and then experience the enormous crater of the very same culprit the same day really brought home this significant part of history.


Cinque Terre, Italy

Back up in the Italian Riviera on the North Coast in Liguaria (the home of Pesto), we found ourselves in beautiful and fascinating Cinque Terre. This is a set of 5 unique villages right on the coast cut off by green-cloaked mountains. The local farmers have been working the land for centuries to produce local delicacies from wine to pesto, using traditional methods, and methods unique to the land; as there are no roads, vineyards are traversed using steep monorails for example/ This delicate piece of land does not allow public vehicle access and can only be reached by train or boat. You can park your car at the car park on the edge of the first village - Riomaggiore. 

We found our hotel on the edge of this village up on the mountainside, and drove to the car park in the first village the next day. After admiring Riomaggiore and the clusters of colourful buildings clinging to the edges of the ravine, we moved on to the pretty village of Vernazza and walked the long route through the hills and vineyards to the next village Monterosso. The walk was amazingly insightful, and local farming methods can be seen up close, as well as the stunning views of this delicate and beautiful piece of coast. Some of the walks in the region are very popular in high season but there is a tangible collective respect for the environment from tourists and locals alike. 

To enjoy the Cinque Terre region and its walks and train routes you need to pay for a pass. There are various cards available for boats, trains, and walks, and the one we bought was 12 Euros each which covered walking trails and all trains. 




















One evening we took a half-hour drive to the beautiful little port-town of Porto Venere in the evening to eat. It was such a lovely place, I wanted to go back the next day before we left for the Alps but it was raining so we cut our losses and disappeared to chance our luck.












Aosta & The Mountain Pass into France

We arrived in Aosta and it was indeed not raining! Although I wanted to see Porto Venere again, I was happy to be in another beautiful place. The mountain passes were lush and green, with summer flowers bursting with colour, and when we booked up to do a via ferrata rock-climb with a guide at Passy, the views of Mont Blanc were unbelievably picturesque. It was all I could do to hold on, not look down, and avoid being distracted enough to clip my carabiner to thin air and plummet to my peril down the sheer rock face!












Aosta old town was just stunning. Its Roman fortifications and lovely collection of shops and biscuiteries was delightful. We bought a delicious collection of Italian biscuits and wandered the town nibbling on those, and although it was not on the agenda at all, I found myself a beautiful new winter coat in Gaudi Jeans, which - with the summer nearly at a close - will come in handy for the next excursion I'm certain...