Thursday, August 17, 2017

Christmas 2014: Romania

Continuing on our European travels, it was time to head further east to another new country for us - Romania. This was over the Christmas break, so obviously there wasn't going to be much sun beating down on Europe. But what's the point in dreary, winter days of wind and rain? If the sun isn't shining, you might as well go all out for the other extreme!

Doesn't snow just make everything look better? There can't be a place on Earth that isn't improved by a dreamy, white blanket. It just papers over any cracks or blemishes and covers it with fluffy flakes of joy!

After a flight into Bucharest, a bus into the city, and then a train up north, we arrived at our first destination of the trip, the town of Brasov. The last time we had seen snow before this was 18,000 feet high up in the Himalayas, and it still makes us shudder any time we think back to those days. It was the type of cold that there was just no escape from. So, what a pleasure it was here having snow on our doorstep, but with a nice heated room to return to. Goodbye freezing our ass off, hello freezing our Brasov!

The snow aside, Brasov itself is a really lovely town, but the two combined to make the place look magical. And as it was Christmas, the centre was alive with market stalls, ice-skating and just general seasonal charm.

Brasov also has a little claim to fame, being home to Rope Street - the narrowest street in Europe. Now, I don't know what the technical difference between a street and an alleyway is, but to me, this way an alleyway. It had no shop fronts or entrances, it was just a long passage with a couple of back doors and side windows. 

Even more confusingly, although Google says Brasov has the narrowest street in Europe, it equally claims that the narrowest street in the world is in Germany! Not sure how those two titles coexist...

As you can maybe see in the photo above, Brasov also has a Hollywood-esque sign on the overlooking Mount Tampa, up to which you can get a cable car. It's a nice way to spend an hour or two, with great views over the city, especially great in the snow.

We've been to a few other cities now that have had Hollywood-esque signs, and I wonder if Hollywood was actually the first to do it, or if it's just the most famous example...? It's quite hard to Google an answer without using the phrase "Hollywood sign".

Brasov as a whole was especially impressive as the main reason we came here was actually to visit the nearby town of Bran, home of Dracula's Castle. And so the next day, we hopped on a bus to take us deep into the heart of Transylvania. While the weather in Brasov was nice and snowy, in Bran, it was more of the blustery, blizzardy type. We were well prepared though and all wrapped up so even the most determined vampire couldn't sink his teeth through all of these layers. No frostbite for us!

It's hard to comment on Bran itself as the weather was too turbulent to see it properly. The castle was great though and I guess the stormy nature added to the atmosphere.

Inside the castle was a museum on Vlad the Impaler, the real life inspiration for Dracula. But the castle grounds were the highlight. It felt like being on set at Winterfell. Wait a minute... Bran... Winterfell... I'm sure there's some Game of Thrones theory to be pieced together here.

We stopped in for lunch and a hot chocolate to warm ourselves, and one of few negatives I'd say about Romania is that the food wasn't up to much. Added to that, they kept giving me sparkling water, even when I specifically asked for still! It's the absolute worst! Why is sparkling water even a thing?! Now there are some foods and drinks that I don't like the taste of, but I can respect how some people might. I don't like peppers, it's a flavour I don't enjoy, but I understand that other people do. That's fine. I am unable, however, to comprehend how someone could take any joy from a glass of sparkling water. It actually hurts me to drink, it's like there's electricity in it. It tastes like robot piss.

Although we didn't see any kitschy restaurants hawking Bloody Marys or Steaks through the Heart (missed opportunity), there was a haunted house, so "When in Rome..."

Even though it was predictably terrible, it was a bit of fun and worth the admission fee. It probably would've been a bit more frightening too if we hadn't seen the two lads in costume having a smoke outside before we went in.

The next day, we hopped on a train back down to the capital, Bucharest. Trains are definitely my favourite mode of transport, they're just the best way to see the countryside, especially when it's all snowy like this.

Bucharest itself was a nice place to spend a few days, and while Brasov is famous for having Europe's narrowest street, Bucharest has it's own honour - home of the world's worst statue!

It's apparently a statue of the Roman emperor, Trajan (who is naked for some reason), holding a she-wolf (or levitating it above his arms). There's also some sort of snake thing coming out of the wolf's head. All in all, it's just a mess, and roundly hated by the people of Bucharest. Still, it's not as though they put it anywhere prominent, like the steps of the National Museum...

We learned of this statue on a walking tour we did of the city, although the tour itself wasn't the most successful. We like to go on these tours in any major city, as a fun way to see the place and learn its history. It's not so fun though in -15 degree weather. The tour started with a good 25 people, but at each stop we would lose a few to the cold, until there were just 8 of us left. At this point, we all headed to a cafe to warm up and just stayed there for the next two hours. So, it was more of a sitting tour of Bucharest. It's just too cold to be looking at buildings in this weather. Cafe owners must make a killing though at this time of year, "There's no business like snow business...!".

We did build up the courage to brave the cold again that night, to go and see the New Year's celebrations outside the parliament building (the heaviest building in the world, apparently). The fireworks themselves were only so so, but there was a good atmosphere around the place. Some people also released lanterns into the night sky but they didn't fare too well in the cold air...

There go your dreams for 2015!

On the bright side, we did see two full moons so that must be a good omen!

The next day, we were back out in the cold and took a wander around the city parks. We were still freezing, but it seems the statues have evolved to keep warm in the snow...

We also made a quick video diary:

And that was that for Bucharest and Romania! We had a great time in the country, and although I can't comment on what it's like for the other 11 months of the year, it's a great place to visit for the Christmas break! And speaking of Christmas, next stop: Turkey! See you then!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Summer 2014: Croatia

Over three years since our visit, and I'm finally getting around to documenting our time in Croatia, based on the rough notes I made at the time. Now, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the blog is called the "Am-Asian Adventure" but, seemingly inspired by our time in Mongolia, we've decided to invade Europe! I was originally going to start a new blog for each new continent, but I didn't for the last two summers in South America, so I guess it just makes more sense to keep our quest for world domination all in the one place. And so the European leg of our travels starts here - along Croatia's sunny Dalmatian coast!

We flew into Zadar on the afternoon of July 26th 2014 (That's a long time ago...) and after a brief walk around the town and a quick bite to eat, we were ready for a nap. That might seem like the tamest of starts to a holiday ever but in our defence, we had travelled down to Cork the previous day for a wedding and, with the party still in full swing, we had to drive through the night back up to Dublin to catch our flight early the following morning. So, an extended snooze was certainly called for.

We were back up and out again soon enough to see what Zadar had to offer, and there was certainly enough to keep us entertained for the 24 hours we were in town. 

Being honest, the main reason why we were here in the first place was because it was the only place in Croatia where Ryanair fly direct! But it was actually a charming destination in its own right, and I'm glad we did get to see it. Its main attraction is the Morske Orgulje (Sea Organ), a set of pipes located on the marble steps of the main promenade, which play music naturally with assistance from the wind and the waves.

It was quite cool actually and like nothing we had seen before. It was just random sounds of course but they were oddly soothing. The whole promenade was very nice in fact, and we just so happened to be there for an annual event called the Millennium Jump, whereby thousands of people line up along the waterside and take the plunge, one after another, like a chain reaction stretching for hundreds of metres. You'd probably have to view it all from above to get the full effect of the spectacle, but it was still enjoyable to watch.

1,001 Dalmatians would've been a catchier name though…

Zadar was equally as pretty at night with most of the tourists flocking back towards the Morske Orgulje, to see the multicoloured lights of the promenade's circular floor. Though with so many people there, it was nigh on impossible to get an uninterrupted picture of the whole thing.

That night brought with it an endless barrage of thunder and lightning, which was incredible to watch, except for the accompanying rain that lasted all throughout the next day, giving us the unfriendliest of welcomes to our next destination of Split. Despite the rain, we were still able to have a wander around and enjoy what is a really beautiful city. The next morning, our still-wet socks were the only trace of the previous day’s downpour, as the sun was back out again in full force. Talk about a Split personality!

We actually returned to Split a couple of times as we went on mini-trips to other nearby locations, so I'll just group all of our time here together.

The centre of Split is built around the remains of the Diocletian Palace and is made up of tall towers, narrow alleyways, and marble arches and pillars, giving you the feeling that you're just walking through a model reconstruction of an old, Roman city.

And that's just one small aspect of the place. There's also the beautiful, tree-lined Riva promenade on the marina, with market stalls during the day, and street performers at night. Marjan Hill offers nice walks and a panoramic view of Split. And the bell tower of St. Duje's Cathedral, lifts you above it all, right in the centre of the city. All in all, it's probably one of the most charming destinations to walk around aimlessly and spend a few days doing nothing in particular.

And I know what you're thinking, "Yes, it looks nice and all, but do they have a frog taxidermy museum?". I'll stop you right there; welcome to Froggyland!

So many questions, so few answers, but sometimes in life you just have to admire the beauty of something, rather than wondering why it exists.

From Split, we had two mini adventures to the islands of Brac and Korcula. We only had a day on each, so I'll just go through them both briefly. 

If you Google Image the island of Brac, 90% of the results will be of one single beach, and this was the reason why we visited the place too. 

This (seemingly) luxurious, white sandy beach is called Zlatni Rat, located in the southern town of Bol, which I can only assume is short for Bollocks because it was a pile of shit! Firstly, it's not sandy, those are pebbles. Next, it was so crowded that you could barely even see the pebbles. And lastly, the beach is just that little sliver, which at ground level, is not a lot of space at all. So imagine seeing that photo above on a tourist website and then arriving on this this tiny, cramped, crowded, rocky beach. No wonder the only photos you see of it online are aerial ones.

I was planning on putting up a photo from my camera to show what it was really like, but it turns out the only one I took that afternoon was of the food we ate!

Great berries though...

The island of Korcula was nicer, similar to many of the coastal towns we visited in Croatia; beautiful coastline, ancient buildings and charming alleyways. Overall, a better choice of destination.

And that sunset...

From Korcula, we made our way across to Dubrovnik; another stunner on Croatia's never-ending Adriatic coastline. We loved Split, and actually most of the places we visited in Croatia were incredible, but Dubrovnik comes in top of the pile. Croatia as a whole is just a great place to travel on a budget as the majority of its charm comes simply from walking the streets, admiring the architecture and gazing out over the seas. And Dubrovnik had a giant tick in all of those boxes.

And, as if Dubrovnik didn't need another string to its bow, it's probably now most famous as the filming location of King's Landing in Game of Thrones, drawing a fresh flock of tourists inside its walls. And unsurprisingly, local guides have jumped on the opportunity to run Game of Thrones walking tours around the city. We didn't go on any, but eavesdropped on a few while making our own way around.

Unfortunately, they weren't filming any scenes while we were in town, but that doesn't mean we didn't see any famous faces slacking off in the sun.

Those toys aren't going to make themselves!

Our last stop of the holiday was originally meant to be one of our first, but the weather in Plitvice National Park was so bad on the day we were planning to go here from Split, that we decided to juggle things around and do it at the very end. And so when we finally did make it here, the weather was... even worse! So bad in fact, that the first hour and a half was spent huddled inside the bathroom at the head of the walking trail, waiting for the rain to die down.

It didn't, so eventually we just had to bite the bullet and go for it. All the rainfall also meant that the path was completely flooded, so most people just trudged through the puddles with wet shoes and socks, but we hopped along from stone to branch to ladder, like a little obstacle course, and managed to make it through clean and dry.

Rain aside, the park itself was really great, with lakes, waterfalls and forest paths, and eventually the sun did come out a bit and we could enjoy it properly.

And here's our first European video diary:

So, we're back travelling in the comfortable surroundings of our home continent! I'll try to zip through the rest of our undocumented journeys in the coming weeks (just so Eur-ope to date!), starting with our snowy new year trip to Romania.

There really is a huge difference between travelling in Europe and most of the places we visited in Asia. There’s a stark contrast between the relaxed atmosphere of Croatia and the hectic nature of somewhere like China - it’s European sophistication versus you’re-a-peein’ on my shoes. And yet, you do miss that sense of unpredictability that Asia gives you. Let’s hope Europe has a few surprises up its sleeve…