Monday, September 11, 2017

Exploring Romania

Romania is one of those countries we always think of traveling back to. It seems like there's so much to explore. It is a big and versatile country, probably best for those who seek for something that you really can't find in central or western Europe anymore. The nature is beyond beautiful but you also have lots of history to explore and fantastic food and wines to enjoy.


Palace of the Parliament
Bucharest, Romania


Our trip started off from Bucharest where we spent one full day. I'm sure we could have spent a little longer there, but not necessarily more than a couple of days maximum. It's a huge city with a beautiful, yet small old town, which was our favorite. We loved the little shops, cafes and restaurants. The city does need a bit of renovation but nothing out of the ordinary.

The shopping possibilities seemed quite decent as there are a couple of huge malls in Bucharest. They have a good selection of western brands but what's way more interesting is actually the selection of eastern European (and beyond) brands that's still as modern and fashionable but you probably can't get the items in your country. 


Bucharest Old Town

Holocaust memorial, Bucharest

After strolling through the capital, we drove off to Brasov, a famous small town about a three hour drive from Bucharest that served as a base when exploring the Transylvania region. It's a very lovely, charming little city near the mountains. The drive itself is magnificent as the scenery is breathtaking. It could also be a great country for hiking.


On the road to Brasov

On the misty road..


While driving in Romania is definitely recommended for the views, it definitely requires some good driving skills. Even though there wasn't that much traffic, it was one of the worst places to be on the road because of the local driving culture. I can't even count how many times we had to beware of a crazy driver on the road either overtaking other cars in a total blind spot or just stopping on the road without any prior warning.


..still driving..


This aside, the drive to Brasov was so great, it took us about two hours extra time as we were constantly stopping to admire the Carpathian mountains. 



A sight you don't see too other anymore

Brasov, Romania



Brasov is a delightful small town, even when the weather is not on your side as there's plenty of museums, cafe's, bar's, restaurant's and shop's to escape the rain. It's also a beautiful place to spend a couple of days when in the region. While it might not be big enough to really offer you new corners to explore, you can easily pass a couple of days in there. Also, like mentioned before, it's a great base to explore the nearby regions.


One of the main streets of Brasov, Romania


Our intention wasn't to drive the Transfagarasan (which we didn't) but we did drive nearby trying to find the beginning of this famous, scenic route. And still we didn't find it but instead we did get to see some beautiful small villages and amazing scenery. We have a habit of driving around almost aimlessly exploring every little corner we find and Romania was another great country to do this. The food was very delicious no matter where we went and it's easy to find nice restaurants serving traditional, local food.


Sadly, Romanian wines are surprisingly underrated as they would definitely deserve more acknowledgement than what they currently get. Try and taste as many as you can. They totally blew us away.


Driving aimlessly

Stunning Romanian countryside









Bran Castle, Bran, Romania

Bran castle is, of course, a sight not to be missed. It's pretty interesting to take a step in. Again, the scenery around it is stunning.


Brasov

Brasov, Romania


Next time we will definitely pack along our hiking gear and explore the nature a little closer. We can only imagine what amazing trails this country has to offer. Also, we'll definitely drive the Transfagarasan. The food in Romania is simply great so make sure to try mămăligă (polenta with cheese and sour cream), cârnați (pork sausages) and, well, just try everything you can get your hands on. It's delicious! Save time for shopping, if that's your thing, and keep your eyes on the road when driving.



Monday, September 4, 2017

Lago Maggiore

Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy is simply one of those magical places in Italy you can't believe really exist, but they do and we can't get enough of them. Here's why.

Laveno-Mombello

The view



Until very recently we mainly visited lake Como and thought it was simply magnificent, which it truly is but as Italy is full of incredible places, it often feels like it's only getting better every time we look further. 

During our stay in April we felt that lake Maggiore was slightly less-touristy than lake Como. This doesn't mean it's not touristic (it definitely is), but it has a tiny bit more authenticity than the Como region. Our journey began from Malpensa airport as it only takes about 45 minutes by car to reach our 1st destination, Laveno-Mombello. We chose this location almost randomly, mainly basing it on a nice hotel and a famous restaurant. The town is small and vibrant, with the beautiful, almost crystal clear lake and palm trees as well as the snow-capped Alps in the background. The town is small enough to feel completely at ease when spending a day at the hotel spa until early afternoon and then doing a little sightseeing. Just make sure to hit the town before 16.00/16.30 as the Funivia, cableway taking you near the top of Sasso del Ferro, closes around that time. Unfortunately we were there too late and completely missed it. The schedule you find online doesn't always apply as it seems to depend on how many visitors they have that day. 
The cableway is not to be missed because the cars are tiny, only fitting 1-2 people and it appeared as some of them are open on top which looks like loads of fun. 


A walk by the Lago Maggiore
The pool at Hotel Charme de Laveno

We chose the Charme de Laveno hotel and it instantly became probably the best hotel we have ever stayed at. The location is perfect, overlooking the lake. It's very central and you have everything nearby, the interior is simply beautiful and the spa & pool area fantastic. I don't think that a hotel can get much better than this. The service was fantastic and during the night we could actually photograph the night sky over the lake right outside the hotel. 


Night time in Laveno Mombello

Laveno-Mombello was the perfect place for a weekend getaway. Aside the scenery there are a few places you must visit, one of them is Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso. Yet, we didn't turn back yet, instead decided to continue up to Switzerland, more specifically to Lugano and back down to Italy to Baveno, on the opposite side of the lake from Laveno-Mombello.


The lake, the Alps, the nature


Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso


Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso

The drive to Lugano was stunning. We visited the Foxtown Fashion outlet yet left empty handed, not sure if we can recommend the place but as it always turns out with these outlets, it really depends on the time of your visit. Lugano itself is definitely worth a visit. It's small so you're done sightseeing in a day so a daytrip from Italy is more than recommended also because of the prices of the local hotels there. You definitely get a better value when staying across the border in Italy.


On the road to Lugano

..and back to Italy, still on Swiss side.

On top of  Monte San Salvatore

Our third night of this trip was spent in Baveno, in a small hotel with magnificent views. When you continue driving down towards south along the lake you'll see probably hundreds of villas and stunning hotels one after another. There are two islands, Isola Bella and Isola Superiore which we unfortunately didn't visit on this trip. In Stresa you have a beautiful lakeside road with some fantastic looking hotels. It is such a beautiful region to visit.




We definitely recommend to explore lago Maggiore by car as you'll be surrounded by magnificent views no matter where you drive. It's a fantastic region to explore for days, even weeks.

We simply can't wait to return!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sarajevo

Present day Sarajevo is a beautiful, multicultural and a colorful city! What you experience is life at its best. It’s hard to describe but you’ll know what we mean when you get there. It has a very special feeling, as if all of the people of Sarajevo are truly enjoying the very present moment. It’s more apparent in the evenings when people sit in café’s and restaurants. It feels like true joy we haven't experienced anywhere else so far. 


Walking along river Miljacka
By the famous wooden fountain Sebilj, in Sarajevo

We drove to Sarajevo after Pluzine in Montenegro. Crossing the border took a little more time than in other countries on this trip but we were done with the border formalities in max. 10 minutes. The scenery was beautiful although the condition of the roads varied from gravel and potholes to fresh and smooth asphalt. Traffic was decent, not too many insane over takings or other strange death-wish driving habits as in a few of the other countries in the region. Don't start driving with an empty tank as gas stations can mostly only be found in towns and cities. We followed all of the advice we got on parking the car in a trusted parking garage (in our case it was the parking of Hotel Europe) that was recommended by our hotel. I remember reading stories on how it’s not advisable to drive with Croatian plates in Bosnia but we really had no problems what so ever, so I guess it’s outdated information.


We stayed in Sarajevo for four days which was a good time to explore the city. It's not very large, therefore few days should be enough. 


On the road from Pluzine to Sarajevo


Nature in Bosnia

Tourism in Sarajevo is growing fast although it lacks consistency. You see a lot of people doing their best, really making an effort, many tourist organizations are doing incredible work to support tourism in their country but they lack support from the government which is what they really need the most. According to the World Tourism Organization, Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020. However, because of these active people, you get a very personalized experience and definitely feel cared after.


Take a seat in Sarajevo

So what is there to do in Sarajevo?


Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in the 1450s and you can see and feel the rich history everywhere. It's such a fascinating place with many cultures and religions living side by side. Many other cities in the area claim the same but in Sarajevo you can truly feel the mix of different cultures and religions living together in peace. 


Ottoman street in Sarajevo

Sarajevo is still being rebuilt after the war but you have some architectural gems to explore in many parts of the city. It's quite safe to walk around at any time of the day but you might want to keep your eyes open in remote areas. 


Festina Iente bridge

History

There is so much to see in Sarajevo as it has such a rich history! The old part of the city is full of historical Ottoman architecture as well as churches. You can visit the street where the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was shot, that gunshot is also known as the gunshot that started the 1st World War. The newer part of the city has more modern architecture, shopping centers and also more signs of the most recent war - some by purpose, others are still waiting for reconstruction, demolition or rebuilding. All over the city you will also find Sarajevo Roses, a sad reminder of the victims killed in the most recent war. 

Sarajevo Rose is a site of a mortar shell's explosion that was later filled with red resin to mark where mortar explosions resulted in one or more deaths (wikipedia).


Sebilj, Ottoman-style wooden fountain


Sarajevo Rose

We joined a free walking tour by BH Spirit City Tours and Excursions and continued with the Sarajevo Under the Siege and also Tunnel of Hope tours by the same company. This is something you really cannot miss in Sarajevo. The tours are incredibly informative and all of the people you meed during these tours have actually lived it, therefore they are the best to share the stories.

First steps in the Tunnel of Hope



Sarajevo Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track, now an attraction


Old Jewish Cemetery overlooking the UNITIC Business Center and  Avaz Twist Tower.


Tony with Abid Jasar, one of the brave men who built the Tunnel of Hope. Abid Jasar passed away in November 2016.


Map of Sarajevo

Food:


You will not feel hungry in Sarajevo. The food is fantastic! You must try ćevapčići which is grilled minced meat in a form of a sausage, usually served with flatbread, onion and sour cream. To eat with the locals as well as tourists, go to a restaurant called Petica on Bravadžiluk 29, in the old part of the city. Not far from here is also Buregdžinica Bosna (Bravadžiluk 11), which is well known for it's magnificent meat pies.

ćevapčići 



You will not be hungry in Sarajevo!

Shopping:

There are a few shopping centers in the city but the selection is somewhat limited. The western European and US brands are present but the value is not good. However, if you are into some less-known brands you can make some great finds, especially clothes and shoes made in Turkey are great.

In general:

As the rebuilding of Sarajevo hasn’t been as fast as the people have been hoping it was, we recommend to pick a nice hotel.

There was a certain level of curiosity to travel to a country with such a colorful recent history with the days of glory in the 80’s which quickly turned into a long, dark war. It was our first time visiting a country that underwent such a bloody war during our life time, only 20 years ago. And it all happened right here in Europe! That was not the reason for us to travel there, though. It might have been a reason not to travel there, I guess that’s how it is for many people. But we challenge you to visit Bosnia, especially Sarajevo, and open your heart to everything it can offer. 

Destruction

For me it took a day and a half to get over this strangely emotional anxiety I felt seeing all the war scars on the buildings and to see beyond all of it. I felt devastated and heartbroken. Tony took it much better immediately. I couldn’t get over the fact that about half of the people we saw around us, people our age, experienced a war only recently and had such a tragic childhood while we were living a normal life only 2500 kilometers away. It was very difficult to understand how this could happen and how it could last for such a long time. 

In case you're like us and were a child during the Siege of Sarajevo, you might want to learn a bit more. Here's a few movies you can easily find on Youtube or Netflix. Note that as the topic is quite dark and heavy, these movies are not easy to watch either. However, especially two of the first ones were recommended by the people that lived through the Siege. 

No Man's Land
Welcome to Sarajevo
The Whistleblower

Sarajevo is one of the most memorable places we have visited. Even after visiting more than 50 countries and probably three times as many cities, Sarajevo is definitely number one.


Sarajevo today



Thursday, June 29, 2017

How to travel with your.. grandparent!

My 85-year old grandfather is a cool guy. At the age of 80-something he conquered central Europe, smiling in his RayBan Aviator's. Having never been outside Eastern Europe, or former Soviet Union, besides Finland, he has added five new European countries to his list since 2012. Now, when ever he's watching television and sees Paris, Amalfi Coast or Amsterdam, he always proudly announces that he's been there!


Laveno-Mombello, Italy


It's actually pretty cool to travel with your grandparents, so don't hesitate to show them the world!

Most of the time we travel together, yet sometimes he has to fly alone. We've managed to make it hassle free with a few steps we always take before, during and after this travels. Note that this cool dude doesn't speak a word of English, which makes it even more interesting.



Always book direct flights

Direct flights save time and also cause less stress as you don't have to worry about possible flight delays, cancellations or other funny things. It's also way more comfortable for the elderly to have a shorter flight time. It's totally worth paying a little extra.



Paris, France




Cabin size luggage (avoid hold luggage!)

After a couple of incidents when he had to leave either his drill bits or a bottle of schnaps at the airport, he's finally accepted the regulations for prohibited items on planes. Make sure they have a cabin size trolley (preferably with wheels, of course) and it's light enough to be lifted to the overhead bin in the airplane as there's rarely anyone to help (sad but true). 


Ask for assistance!

Most airlines offer assistance at the airport. When he's flying alone from a large airport, I always call the airline for assistance service to help him. They usually arrive with a wheelchair (to which my grandfather rolls his eyes at, he's funny like that, and then proudly walks next to it). Even though he doesn't need it, I do think it's good as sometimes the walk to the gate can get pretty long. The assistance service is usually free but should be booked beforehand. And it's not a problem if the passenger doesn't speak English. Keep in mind that some airlines are friendlier than others and there was an airline that once refused to assist him as he refused to sit in the wheelchair. 
Yes, Estonian Air, I'm talking about you.


Dusseldorf, Germany


Add a note

Print out the flight details and add a note asking to contact you if needed (with a telephone number) and ask your grandparent to keep it in their pocket at all times! Something like Hi! I'm lost and don't speak English! If needed, please call my family on the following number. 

You can even add several lines, first in the language your grandparent speaks and then below the same thing in English, for different situations such as trying to find the gate, where's the nearest toilet, how do I get out of this airport etc. 


Book a two bedroom hotel room or adjoining rooms

A trip with a grandparent is not the same as traveling with your friends so be flexible. In the past we have booked single rooms for him but those tend to be pretty awful so try and get a room large enough to accommodate several travelers or book adjoining rooms so the grandparent can hang out with you at the hotel. 



Amsterdam, Netherlands


They've already managed to live longer than you, they will manage in tough situations! 

Whenever I wonder if my grandfather is going to be ok I always need to remind myself that he's lived longer than I and no matter what happens, he's probably been in that situation before. Older folks tend to be creative and will take matters into their own hands, if needed. 


A few more for the road:

- make a list of their medication and make sure you know what they're taking and for which purpose. Take the prescriptions along on your trip as sometimes the customs might want to take a look. 

- Free the passenger seat of your car for your grandparent. There's usually more space and it's more comfortable. Also, they have a better view than on the back seat of the car.

- Ask them about their seat preference on the plane. 
- Make sure you have enough stops on long car journeys as older people get sore joints more easily.

- Add something familiar to your trip. Either make sure they get the food they always eat in the morning or a visit to a city they always hear talking about on the media. They'll love it!

- Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is your friend! When you're in your 80's you don't walk all day long. So make sure you have transportation available. Even better if it comes with a guided audio tour!


Colmar, France