Monthly Archives: June 2015

Athens, Greece – “No” Protest 2015

When in Greece do as the Greeks do, part 2: protest!

We are fine and things seem to be quite calm here in Athens. Given the severity and seriousness of the situation the Athenians are surprisingly chipper.

Saturday and Sunday were very hairy. We didn’t know if we would be able to get money and ultimately if we’d have to leave Greece. ATMs were closed or out of money, people were roaming the streets looking for working ATMs, shops/restaurants stopped accepting credit card – everyone is looking to get cash. Sunday around midnight all the ATMs across the nation stopped working due to capital controls. Fortunately for us, tourists are exempt! The ATMs started turning back on in the mid-day Monday and I was able to withdraw cash. There were reports supermarkets and fuel stations were being emptied but we haven’t found that to be the case.

We had heard the “no” group (no more austerity, leave the EU) was protesting outside of parliament so we decided to go down and check it out. It was very peaceful and all sorts of different age groups and folks from different walks of life were present. There were a lot of news crews and journalists roaming the streets. The “yes” protest (stay in the EU, accept austerity) is tonight and I think we will go to that protest too. Why not, right?

Athens, Greece – Bank Run 2015

When in Greece do as the Greeks do, right?

So, in this case… Join the bank run. Government shut down the banks and people are trying to get cash from ATMs – including me.

We arrived to Greece yesterday knowing there was still financial issues the country was working through with its creditors but we had no idea a bank run would happen. The day we arrived (6/27) we were able to pull a small amount of money out of an ATM at the airport figuring we’d get more money at the many ATMs spread all over the city of Athens. Early on 6/28 we were following the news and we realized we had a pretty big problem on our hands: the Greek government looked like it was going to fail to meet it’s financial obligations and we had heard people were withdrawing money at ATMs. Saturday morning I went out and tried to get as much money as possible. There’s word of bank holidays / closures and no one is sure what’s going to happen or whether we’re able to get money.

I emailed multiple people we knew in Athens asking what to do and how this will all get sorted. No one knew and stated they were in the same situation as Jac and I. The most memorable comment by far was, “good luck to us all!”. Not very reassuring.

I think we will have a very interesting time in Greece. Of all the different situations we planned encountering while traveling, a nations’ solvency was nowhere on the list. We certainly didn’t expect this.

Southern Bulgaria 2015

We were so lucky during the second half our trip through Bulgaria. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into and didn’t know what to expect. We were in the mountains in southern Bulgaria and were able to visit some really cool caves, meet some awesome people, stay in some neat places, and go on some great hikes in gorgeous scenery.

We had no idea Bulgaria was so beautiful. We were here at the right time to see all the mountain flowers in bloom and we had good weather throughout. Tourism isn’t quite in swing yet so we had a chance to talk to our hosts and learn about their lives in Bulgaria. Much like everywhere else they were concerned about the same big three.

Bulgaria is made for outdoors activities. They have different mountain types throughout the country, from rolling mountains like the Appalachians to rugged mountains like the Pacific NW. The tallest mountain is around 9,000ft so pretty much everywhere is traversable by foot and the trailheads are easily accessed by car. Great views can be had pretty quickly, we would only hike for 30min to 1hr before trails would open up and give great views making the reward:effort ratio off the chart. Even the most popular trails are not crowded because of the time of year so we had a lot of time by hiking by ourselves enjoying nature in peace.

There are chalets, huts, and lodges people can stay at while hiking through the mountains. They range from basic (walls & door) to electricity, cafeteria, heat, hot water, internet, etc. We only stayed in one chalet and it was a great time. If/when we come back, I would definitely spend more time hiking and spend more nights in the mountains.

The hosts we had in the mountain areas were really cool. In one guesthouse we were pretty much the only guests. The guesthouse was in the middle of nowhere and had no internet so we were hanging out in the dining area killing time before dinner. We were sitting chatting with our host while the TV played traditional Bulgarian music. Soon Jacquelyn found herself learning traditional Bulgarian dance from the host! One of the nights we stayed near Rila Lakes I went out to photograph the night sky around 11PM. The chalet man, an awesome guy named Martin, came out to see what I was doing. We ended up chatting until 2AM while drinking his homemade rakia, a brandy like drink. That was the night I learned I cannot drink like a Bulgarian.

I would have loved to stay in Bulgaria longer, go on more hikes, and explore more of the mountains.  Bulgaria has all the attributes we like and is definitely near the top of our favorite countries we’ve visited. Who would have thought? :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.


Northern Bulgaria 2015

Bulgaria is a strange country. We’ve been to some strange places but Bulgaria stands out as being the most odd in the bunch. We really are enjoying our time in Bulgaria; we are driving a big circle around the country and we’ve noticed the northern part is pretty different than the southern part so I’ve decided to break this up into two parts. We are in the south now and that will part will come once we’ve left Bulgaria.

So Bulgaria is a weird country for a handful of reasons but I want to stress how much we are enjoying our time here. We’ve had some phenomenal experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Bulgaria has all the attributes we enjoy: the people are kind and generous, the sights are magnificent, stellar hiking, the price is right, and all the roads are pretty much paved. There is one huge difference in Bulgaria vs. everywhere else we’ve traveled: the seclusion and the ability to enjoy activities in solitude. It’s truly remarkable!

With that said, it’s a “make your own adventure” place. There’s not a lot of information online, the country really isn’t foreign tourist friendly as spoken English is not common and the few English information boards we find are often useless. There are some wonderful sights we visited that have 2-5 TripAdvisor reviews and no other information online. It’s like international tourism is just starting and they are figuring out all the things they need to make multinational tourism work.

There’s a problem we regularly encounter and we’ve given it the name “the last 5%”. It seems as though there’s enough information for us to get close to the things we want to do but the last 5% of needed information, be it knowing the hours of operation, the cost, the location, part of the route, activities at the destination, etc., are unknown. There’s always enough information to get very close but we have to figure out the last 5% on the way, when we arrive, or while we’re doing the activity. The best example is when we wanted to visit a tourism information center to get a map for a hike only to find out the road became undrivable and we had to walk the last 15min to the center. We were fortunate someone had put the GPS coordinates for the center on TripAdvisor otherwise we would have never found the place! It also applies to our dealings with people and businesses. The first clue things were different in Bulgaria is when we picked up our rental car from Enterprise with ¾’s of a fuel tank, “this is how we things work in Bulgaria” the sales agent after I expressed surprised for not getting a full tank. It’s not necessarily bad, just odd and different.

Bulgaria is super chill; pretty much everyone is really laid back. Once again we are driving around everywhere exploring and stopping to check out cool things we find while roaming around. Just like in Romania, we find ourselves trespassing a lot to see different things but we don’t really know a better way. We may not find the people we need to pay or find the actual entrance for the place we’re trying to visit. No one really cares. The Bulgarian people are very enterprising. It seems wherever a congregation of people could possibly be there is a shop selling food or trinkets. I had remarked to Jacquelyn that I was seeing a lot of women on the side of the road and it was really strange to see all these women dressed like they are going to a nightclub waiting for buses out in the middle of nowhere . She replied, “Chris, they are prostitutes”. Then it made sense; Jacquelyn’s comprehension skills are one of the many reasons why I keep her around J.

For about the first week we had bad luck with food, it was like we were living in bizzaro world. Things we ordered were nothing like what we envisioned. Everything we ordered seemed to be drenched in cheese, oil, cream or all of those items. One time we thought we were ordering cheese bread only to find we ordered two slices of deep fried cheese each about the size of Texas Toast. The most hilarious mix up occurred when I ordered a “local salad” only to get all the ingredients unprepared on a plate! Jacquelyn ordered a different type of salad and hers came prepared. There was no price difference between our salads so I wasn’t even able to save money due to the lack of preparation! It took a lot of mistakes but we’re now ordering absolutely delicious food and have come to thoroughly enjoy traditional Bulgarian food.

Now, on to the things that make Bulgaria uniquely awesome. There are so many Roman/Turkish/Bulgarian historical sights all throughout this small country a person could probably spend months touring around and never see it all. Outside of Sofia and a couple other touristy areas, there’s pretty much no one visiting the sights, especially international tourists. We thought Romania had a dearth of tourist but we regularly find ourselves alone. There is a lot of great hiking around the country. We went to an area called Belogradchick near the Serbia/Romania border and found an area a lot like where I grew up in the Black Hills – similar trees and rolling mountains but sandstone instead of granite. It was awesome to have some alone time on the trail and enjoy nature free from the ruckus of humanity. The solitude and seclusion has been absolutely amazing and rejuvenating. There are a lot of natural wonders that are beautiful like massive caves, mountains, and waterfalls. We had no idea Bulgaria had such diverse sights to visit

There are still a lot of communist relics littered about and they are endlessly fascinating to us. Just driving down the highway we’d see abandoned monuments with massive statues dedicated to the people and the workers. Socialism started in the early 1920s and there was an monument built by the communists on the site of the first socialist meeting. The monument, called Buzludzha, was used as a meeting place during communism and since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Before we visited we had asked many locals how to find the place and how to get in; almost all the locals thought we were insane for wanting to visit. Since it’s technically closed we were only able to get in after crawling through a hole someone made in a wall. Once we were in it was very eerie and enough of the décor remains to give a flavor for how the building looked when it was in use. It was a surreal experience

We thought the first half of our time in Bulgaria was really cool and fun but the second half is just as good if not better but that’s for next time :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.


Romania Final 2015

Our time in Romania is finished. We visited north east Romania to see painted monasteries and then went south to Bucharest before taking the train to Bulgaria. Our last two visits in Romania were an amazing way to cap an spectacular journey through the country. Just like before, we found beautiful scenery, incredibly friendly & helpful people, wonderful sights, delicious food, and everything was a good value. We’ve been away from Romania for a little over a week and we already talk about our eventual return.

I had mentioned researching things to do in Romania was a bit difficult; there wasn’t a whole lot of information. Jacquelyn found a place in NE Romania near Ukraine with a bunch of painted monasteries. The pictures online were OK and the area was REALLY far away from everything in Romania so I felt we were taking a bit of a leap to visit. I am very, very, very, happy we decided to go. Just like everything else in Romania, it turned out to be absolutely amazing and all the information online did the area no justice. We’ve never seen anything quite like the 500 year old painted monasteries. The monastery paintings are stories from the bible and the important people in the church so the average folks, who were illiterate, could understand all the important things of their religion. Interior murals are quite different than the exterior murals; they are gruesome depicting people being burned, boiled, stabbed, ripped apart by animals and so on. I asked our guide why so many paintings where of people being killed and dying horrible deaths and he told us that they are the important saints and the paintings are of how the saints died. That was pretty cool considering I remember we learned a lot about the saints in church school but I don’t really remember learning a lot about how they died

We spent nearly nine hours touring around to the different monasteries and it seems like we could have spent a couple more days staring at the walls. The It was amazing to see how well the murals held up after 500yrs of exposure to sun, snow, rain, heat and cold. Each monastery was a little bit different and had its own character. Much like everywhere else in Romania, there were only a handful of other tourists and we were really able to enjoy the monasteries free from interruption.

Our time in Bucharest was pretty good. We aren’t really city people so we don’t really know what to do with ourselves in a big city. Probably the most odd thing we saw was the Parliamentary Palace which is the second largest administration building in the world after the Pentagon. The construction started towards the end of the communist period and the architecture of the building really shows it. The building really is huge, just massively huge. I uploaded a photo and it doesn’t do it justice. If possible, try to zoom in to see the window air conditioners – they are normal size but look super tiny. Otherwise, the city is a lot like other European capitols with similar architecture, city squares, pedestrian areas, and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Romania is quite the place. Some of the locals said we were “brave” and other travelers mentioned we were “daring” for traveling to Romania. We have no idea why as traveling around was super easy and everything went nearly perfect. Many countries we’ve visited have great features but few countries have amazing attractions, great people, beautiful scenery, great food, great values, and, most importantly, relatively easy access to the things we want to visit. Of everywhere we’ve visited, I can only think of three other countries with similar characteristics. The experiences and photos I shared barely scratch the surface of our awesome experience in Romania, they were just the highlights. Our day to day travels had many other great experiences. We were sad to go and we miss Romania a lot.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

PS – for those who want to see high def documentaries about the mountains and wilderness of Romania just go on to youtube and look for “Wild Carpathia”. It’s an excellent series.

Transylvania Part Two 2015

The people of Romania and their food are awesome. The tourist places and the scenery are beautiful enough but the combination of the food and the insanely friendly people helped make Romania one of, if not the best, places we’ve traveled. It’s like Romania is one of the best kept secrets for travelers. The combination of what exists in Romania, the people, the food, the scenery, the chill attitude, the ease of access, the tourist places, and the great value, doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world!

In our travels we are commonly greeted with indifference as we are just another tourist. Very rarely are people genuinely interested in us, what we are doing, where we are going in their country, or spend the time to tell us about themselves and their country. We don’t really mind, people have their lives and they are busy, no big deal. Sometimes, like in Australia and Japan, we find a ton of awesome people willing to talk to us and share their lives and culture with us. This makes a destination go from good to amazing and makes our time in the country unforgettable. We’ve had a lot of great experiences with a lot of people but there’s a few that stand out for different reasons.

I had mentioned we spent a lot of time trespassing because tourist places would be closed when they were supposed to be open or we simply found a place where we wanted to visit and couldn’t find anyone to let us in. If we were caught no one would care and sometimes we’d just get asked to leave. If we found out there was an admission fee we’d offer to pay. We’re not total criminals after all :). In one instance we set off a burglar alarm. In the US that’s sign to make a quick getaway but people are so chill in Romania we figured we’d wait to find out who would show up to turn off the alarm and see what happens. After about five minutes of the alarm ringing a five foot flat, 80 year old, woman, who walked with a limp responded to the alarm. We quickly figured out she didn’t speak English so I used the translate app to tell her we were sorry for setting off the alarm and we are tourists from America. She then grabbed our arms and brought us to her home next door, picked up the phone, and called someone. After handing the phone to Jacquelyn, we figured out she had called her granddaughter who spoke impeccable English. The granddaughter said her grandmother asked her to take us on a tour and that she’d be there in a few minutes. The granddaughter spent about two hours with us touring around and then brought us  back to her grandmother who had cooked us supper during the tour! When everything was said and done we had taken around four hours of these people’s lives and we offered to give them money for the food and the tour. In typical Romanian fashion, it was a simple “no” with the explanation that they love their home area and they were so happy we were able to tour and share in their culture. I’ve trespassed a lot of places and I’ve been banned from a lot of places for trespassing, like my hometown mall, this is the best outcome I’ve ever had while trespassing!

Romanian people love to talk. People off the street would ask us how we like Romania, where we are from, how things are going, whether or not we like Romania and so on. There was never a shortage of people who wanted to talk to us. We had a very long train ride across Romania and we ended up in a cabin with six other people. The people were curious who we were but no one spoke English. They all looked at us and said, “Duetsch?”, “English?”, and saidsome other countries. I replied, “USA, America”. They all went, “ohhhh!!!”. Not many Americans make it to Romania for tourism, only around 200k/yr, and the part of Romania we were going to had very few tourist in general so an American going to that area was pretty uncommon. The train ride was really hot so I went out of our cabin and stood next to an open window in the hallway for the last five hours of the ride. The different folks in the cabin would come up to me and just stand with me, say a few words of Romanian here and there, offer me drinks and snacks, and then go back to the cabin. We were going through the Carpathian mountains so it was insanely beautiful – it seemed they all knew the word ‘beautiful’ so I probably said that word no less than 100 times to the different people who kept me company. One person tried to organize a taxi to our hotel for us, one person offered me whiskey shots, one person helped us carry all of our baggage off the train at our destination, and another person walked us down the street until we saw our hotel just to make sure we ended up safely to our destination. It was such an unexpected and awesome experience!

There are some problems in Romania: Romania has some tough demographic trends. To start, Romania’s average income is in the $500-$600/mo range in the bigger cities and in the villages/rural areas it’s much lower. This means a lot of people live well below the US minimum wage; a lot of people are very poor. Many people leave Romania for greener pastures, one person told us Romania’s greatest export is their youth which made sense why there were not a lot of youth around. When driving through rural towns we’d see people in their 50s+ and school age children but nothing in between. Once we’d go to bigger cities with universities we’d find more people around our age. Romania’s population is shrinking: they lost 12% of their population through emigration in the last 10 years, of the 19million people left only five million work so a rather small minority of people are supporting the retirees, the individuals unable to work, and themselves. Almost all the people we met around our age wanted to leave Romania and since Romania is part of the EU they can easily move to a more prosperous place.

On top of the unfavorable demographic trends, everyone we met seemed to despise their government. One particular Airbnb host stands out: she was in her 50s and lived through communism. After communism she became a successful entrepreneur employing multiple people and winning business awards. Her house was very big and she alluded to having many vehicles in the past and doing very well financially with her business. Through a series of events that I do not entirely understand due the language barrier, the government ended up shutting down her business and confiscated her assets like her cars. She was also accused of bribery/kickbacks and was investigated but was cleared of any wrongdoing. This happened over three years ago and when she told the story tears still came to her eyes. She said, “I lived eight years as a worker in communism and 25 years in capitalism. We are going the wrong direction.” She’s actively looking to leave Romania for good. Her story was crazy to hear and something unimaginable for us.

We met quite a few people starting their new careers in tourism. We heard time and time again how people have a hard time getting paid from their work or it takes forever to get paid so people are turning to tourism, like owning and running a hotel or becoming tour guides, because tourists pay when they arrive or when they leave – no lag. We met an engineer who became a tourist guide in Alba Iulia for the huge citadel in the city. In any Western European country Alba Iulia Citadel would be listed as a “must do” destination and be a jewel of tourism but in Romania it’s kind of sort of visited by some people because a lot of people, like us, have a hard time finding places to visit. We didn’t know about Alba Iulia prior to a few days before our visit but once we did learn about it we wanted to visit and we wanted to hire a guide for a more enriching experience. There weren’t many guide options and the only one listed on TripAdvisor never responded to phone calls or emails. We still decided to visit, pulled up to the citadel and saw a sign for guide service. We called the number, stated we wanted a tour starting immediately and he said he was available. It’s not like he ran a company with many guides, he was the company! We ended up having a great tour and learned a lot about Romania, it was awesome! The lack of tourism has really benefited us in lots of way in Romania, places aren’t busy, guides are available, and things aren’t that expensive yet. That said, hopefully many more people come to Romania for tourism and hopefully people’s lives will improve as tourists spend money.

The food in Romania is delicious. Pretty much everyone has a vegetable garden and makes their own alcohols and sweets. The food is a lot like what had back in the US: lots of meat, soups, breads, and spices we are familiar with. But the combination of fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch, subtle yet dynamic flavors, and great care help make Romanian food stand out. Romanians are really good at making sweets like pies and cakes.  There is one dessert, called papanasi, that really stands out. It’s a super soft cheese baked into a donut looking thing served with a sweet cream and berries. Everyone has their own version of the recipe but in all cases it is absolutely delicious!

We stayed at a very small hotel in the middle of nowhere for a couple of days where the hosts lived in the same building. In the morning our host asked us what we wanted for dinner. I had no idea so I just stared at him. After an awkward pause and my blank expression, he asked if we wanted a traditional Romanian dinner and grew a huge smile after I said “sure”.  His wife was the cook and the food turned out absolutely delicious! It was here we learned the typical Romanian meal is a soup, bread, a main dish, and a dessert. People make food and drinks from all sorts of things growing off the land. When we stayed in the mountains we had a host who made jams and alcohols from the mountain berries he picked every year. We also found people who would pick elderflowers growing in the mountains and make a slightly fermented drink like  7Up but way better. It seems as though people could take almost anything and make great food!

Alcohol is a very good value in Romania. Romania makes some amazing wine and pretty good beer. We saw lots of fruit trees and vineyards while driving around but the most surprising thing we saw were HUGE hops farms in the countryside. I think that is what helps keep prices low for alcohol. We don’t drink a lot of wine so we don’t really know good wine but the good news was wine was cheap enough to buy a handful of different types, try them, and then dump them out if we didn’t like the wine. I’m really not sure how anyone makes money on a $2 bottle of wine but that’s not my problem to solve :). Beer was equally cheap. We could buy 2/3rds gallon bottles of beer for about a buck fifty. That’s Franzia cheap

I can’t really think of any bad experiences we’ve had in Romania. I think the worst thing that happened was the occasional rain but that’s not Romania’s fault. We really forward to the day we get to come back. We’re not done yet, we still have a couple more stops in the country and we’re not excited to leave. Romania is too awesome :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Transylvania Part One 2015

Our time in Transylvania has been amazing. Even though we’ve been here for two weeks it seems like we just scratched the surface. This area has made a very lasting impression on us and the combination of what we found in Transylvania doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world. The beautiful scenery, outdoor activities, awesome people, good food, chill demeanor, historical sights, ease of access to the things we want to do, and great values make Transylvania the most under-rated place we’ve ever visited. There is a lot I want to share so I’m going to break this up into two posts. #1 The easy stuff: scenery, tourism industry, and driving in Transylvania. #2 The amazing experiences we’ve had with the people of Transylvania and the delicious food they make. I’m still working on #2 so that’ll come sometime later.

First things first: it wasn’t easy figuring out what to see in Transylvania. Normally, if someone wants to tour a European country the first thing they should do is find Rick Steve’s materials on the country. We were surprised to find Rick Steve’s doesn’t have a guide for Romania and even recommended people skip Romania. The next thing we turned to was TripAdvisor only to find there wasn’t a lot listed. The places that were listed didn’t have a whole lot of reviews and the descriptions of the places were pretty poor. Sites like the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel didn’t help much either. We’ve never encountered a dearth of information like this so we made our own itinerary and figured we’d see at least one cool thing during our two week drive through Transylvania. We ended up being completely surprised by how many things there were to do, how much fun the sites were and, best of all, we pretty much had the tourist places to ourselves because there isn’t a huge tourism scene. We knew Romania had mountains but we had no idea it had so many mountains and with the largest continuous forest in Central Europe. Transylvania has some very stunning scenery. It was really easy to find outdoor activities to do and it didn’t take a whole lot of work to see jaw-dropping beauty. I put some photos up and they really speak for themselves – Romania is very beautiful.

Romania has a rich history of being conquered, subjugated, and passed around by outside forces going back thousands of years. Romania, as we know it today, didn’t exist until after World War One. Because of this, there are a lot of fortifications all over the place dating back to Roman times and even some villages have churches with very large fortifications. A lot of the sites we visited were at some stage of refurbishment, it seemed like everything was under construction. We learned that a lot of EU money and tourist money is being used to make the tourist sites better, which is good, because a lot of historical sites are pretty dumpy and only some are in great condition. There was a huge positive benefit of the dumpiness: we could pretty much wander around anywhere, open doors, peek in everything, and thoroughly explore everywhere, and there were very few “fun police” running around ruining our time. This is pretty different than most tourist sites we’ve visited around the world. We also spent a lot of time trespassing because sites would be closed when they were supposed to be open or we were just interested in visiting. Unlike other places in the world, no one ran us off and no one seemed to get mad! People were generally happy to see us when we were trespassing. After setting off an alarm in one building, we were welcomed with open arms and later given dinner – but that’s a story for part two .

Since we didn’t find a lot of information about what to visit, we’d always ask people for recommendations on what to see during our visit. Almost always people would bring up a salt mine near Turda. We had read about it and planned on visiting it, but it was surprising so many people thought a salt mine was cool. It had its own aura with the locals, the salt mine would come up in conversation and people would pause and say something like, “Oh yes, it’s a very good place. You must go.” So the day arrives and we visit; I never thought a salt mine would be cool but it was awesome! The salt mine had been turned into a mini amusement park complete with a Ferris wheel, mini-golf, pool tables, bowling, row boats, and tons of areas to sit around and chill. Salt crystals were growing everywhere on everything, even the air was salty. Every so often I’d lick my lips and taste salt! It was a really cool visit!

The cost is right for tourism. Most tourist attractions were generally$2-$3 per person to visit, some were free, and the very few ‘expensive’ places, like Bran Castle, were only $7-$10. It was amazing we could go to so many places and see such cool stuff for so little money. In more expensive countries we generally have to choose what we want to do and make some type of judgement call on what we want to see. Not in Romania, we could visit everything! Food, lodging, rental cars, etc., were all pretty reasonable too. We could go out and have a very good three course meal with drinks and desert for $15-$20. That’s a very good deal!

The biggest downside for a tourist had to be getting around. Driving in Romania is insane. The bigger cities are filled with seemingly suicidal drivers and the countryside is filled with dirt roads in bad condition. In the first five minutes with our rental car, I discovered our horn was disconnected. After the first day of driving I told Jacquelyn that we should be prepared to pay for damages for our rental car because there’s no way the car was coming back unscathed. The crap mountain roads, extremely narrow streets, and everyone trying to drive over us was terrifying! That said, I’m thankful for two things which came in very helpful in Transylvania: 1) spending endless hours driving on the gravel back roads of the Black Hills during high school really taught me how to make decent time on crap roads, 2) driving in Albany, NY and Chicago for a year taught me how to deal with super bad and super crazy drivers. We ended up being completely fine and even returned the rental car in one rather muddy piece. These two experiences helped make sure we stayed on the road, didn’t hit anything, and nothing hit us!

So the scenery, the tourist sites, and the trip through Romania was awesome. Even if we hadn’t spoken to a single person in the country, Romania would still be near the top of our list of favorite countries we’ve visited. The unique and extremely awesome part of our trip occurred from all the interactions we’ve had with others and I’ll write about that later!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Vienna, Bratislava, & Budapest 2015

I’m grouping a few places together for the simple reason they are so similar. We visited Vienna [Austria], Budapest [Hungary], and Bratislava [Slovakia] over the course of the last month before and after our tour of the Balkans. The Habsburg’s and the Astro-Hungarian Empire left quite the mark on central Europe. The Habsburg’s were the dominate monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in central Europe for some time until World War One. For the most part, the cities have similar features in similar architecture. There are differences:

* Vienna is different because they have HUGE palaces. While it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrians took the lead so the grand and insanely opulent palaces were in Vienna. We visited the Imperial Treasury filled with jewelry, crows, art, and other very valuable items and it was awesome!
* Budapest was the seat of the Hungarian royalty but didn’t see a lot of activity or construction until the late 1800s to the early 1900s. So Budapest is kind of “new”. The Ottomans had conquered Budapest at one point and the Turkish bath culture stayed long after the Ottomans left. Hungary has had poor luck being an independent nation: as the Hungarians explain it, they wanted help from Austria to kick the Ottomans out and the Austrians graciously obliged. Unfortunately for the Hungarians, the Austrians chose to stay after they kicked the Ottomans out. After much turmoil, the Hungarian royalty tried to get equal footing with the Austrian royalty and that is why it took until the late 1800s for Budapest to be built up.
* Bratislava is tiny, super small, but still has all the marks of an important city. While Bratislava is in present day Slovakia, it was a VERY important city in the Hungarian Empire and many coronations for Hungarian royalty happened in the city. The castle in the city was super hard to conquer and even successfully stood against the Mongols and Napoleon.

I made a remark to a tour guide in Bratislava that Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava are so similar. She replied, “Oh, but they are so different!” Well, sure, different, I guess. I can tell the cities and their culture’s apart as easily as I can guess which country an Asian person is from. So… I have no idea.

All joking aside, the biggest difference we felt was in our pocketbook. Bratislava and Budapest were relatively inexpensive. Food, lodging, and entertainment was all pretty cheap. Vienna, being in Austria and being part of “western Europe” for some time, was substantially more expensive in all regards. Besides money, there was another major difference I could tell: Vienna was packed full of tour groups and was loud, Bratislava was nearly empty, Budapest was super easy to get around and it wasn’t overrun by tourists. I actually wondered if Bratislava was “closed” but found out that it was open but not many people make the journey to Bratislava. It is a lot of fun to wander around the old streets and buildings in peace and quiet!

There is a hangover from communism. There are a lot of buildings around built in the communist block style but there’s also the mentality that lingers. Capitalism brought a very uneven change in people’s everyday life – some people’s lives changed for the very good and a lot of people’s lives changed for the worse. Employment was mandated under communism and there were generous benefits, like three weeks of vacation for everyone. The public infrastructure and housing are now very expensive and out of reach for many, many people. One person explained it as “back when we had communism, it used to cost the equivalent of one loaf of bread to go from my home village to Budapest by train. Now it costs 36”. The housing prices in Budapest are expensive for the locals, and from what I gathered, are similar to what the real estate prices would be in a mid-sized US city where a “good” wage for Budapest starts around $10,000 per year – well below the US minimum wage! Out in the countryside, the wages drop off and the unemployment rates skyrocket to 40%+. Slovakia suffers much the same problems. Even though it’s been over a generation since communism ended these countries are still trying to make capitalism work.

Fun fact, completely unrelated to our travel and it was something we learned outside of our travel: the Habsburg’s were one of the most, if not the most, inbred monarchy ever. Emperor Fernand I was pretty messed up from the inbreeding and one of the only recorded things of him vocalizing was “I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!”

Overall, we thought the cities were fun to visit. It was nice to get our fill on Habsburg history :).

Enjoy the photos :).

Chris W.