60 Day Europe Bash – Balkans

Me standing outside in front of the colorful and beautiful frescoes under the archway of the Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016

I’m back in Budapest, Hungary. It took pretty much all day yesterday to get here from Dubrovnik, Croatia, but I’m back. And, Budapest is still breathtakingly beautiful especially on a warm, sunny day. I was in Budapest three weeks ago on my first Rick Steves tour, “The Best of the Eastern Europe,” and spent a great deal of time exploring this beautiful city. But the one thing I didn’t get to do was to walk around the behemoth Hungarian Parliament area and take a tour of the interior so that’s what I did today.

I have to confess, I like to plan things out, sometimes to the ninth degree, but when it comes to traveling, sometimes it’s just best to allow certain things to fall into place. And, yesterday was proof of that. I let go of figuring out how I was going to get from the Budapest airport to my hotel. And, there it was, a shuttle service that got me, rather inexpensively to the Novotel Hotel in time to meet my new Cosmos tour director, Maya, and group for my “Treasures of the Balkans and Transylvania” tour.

Although the 13-day tour officially began yesterday, and ends back in Budapest on June 12, we actually started this morning with a city bus tour of Budapest, where we stopped and hit several of the highlights including Heroes Square, the area around St. Stephen’s Basilica, and a walk around Fishermen’s Bastion and the Matthias Cornation Church. I took in the gorgeous Parliament on my mine since I had not seen the inside of it during my previous visit to Budapest. Tomorrow we travel to Serbia and from there Bulgaria, Romania and back to Budapest over the next 10 days.

My 60-Day Europe Bash, April 24 to June 22, 2016, travel blog is in six parts: Berlin, Heart of Europe, Adriatic, Balkans, Vienna and Munich. This is the Balkans portion of my trip, which included Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, from May 31, 2016 to June 12, 2016. Follow along through the photos and captions. 

Although I’ve seen some of the sites in Budapest, including this, the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side of the Danube, this and other sites are still worth seeing twice. June 1, 2016
The Matthias Church in Budapest, on the Buda side of the Danube. June 1, 2016
Heroes Square in Budapest, Hungary. June 1, 2016
Street in Budapest looking toward the St Stephen’s Basilica. June 1, 2016
The Charles Bridge in Budapest, Hungary. June 1, 2016
The Mihály Vörösmarty Monument honoring the early 19th century Hungarian poet and playwright Mihály Vörösmarty. However, he is best known for his patriotic lyrics and it is for that reason that his statue stands in this square in the middle of Budapest. Vörösmarty Square is one of the busiest places in the downtown section of Budapest. This area is a hubbub of activity, boasting luxury stores, antique shops, a famous pastry shop and several other retailing establishments. June 1, 2016
The impressive exterior of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. It’s actually too impressive to capture in totality when you’re close to it, so here is as much of it as I could get in one photo. A Neo-Gothic base topped by a soaring Neo-Renaissance dome, it’s one of the city’s top landmarks. June 1, 2016
Another view of the very impressive Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. June 1, 2016
Guided tours are provided for the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, but the only one available without much wait was in Spanish so I took it. I did pick up a few bits of information, but the spectacular interior speaks for itself. This gold foiled and frescoed majestic area is considered the official main entrance. June 1, 2016
Me in the glitzy legislative chamber or assembly hall of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. June 1, 2016
I was intrigued by this man on a bridge statue. He is Imre Nagy, a Hungarian politician who was secretly tried, found guilty, sentenced to death and executed. It was years later that Nagy was rediscovered as a hero. This monument in Budapest shows Nagy keeping a watchful eye on lawmakers in the Parliament across the way. June 1, 2016
The Lajos Kossuth Monument in Budapest by the Hungarian Parliament building. The statue is in honor of Kossuth, the leader of Hungary’s 1848-49 War of Independence against Hapsburg rule. June 1, 2016
Statue of former Hungarian prime minister Istvan Tisza also by the Hungarian Parliament on Kossuth Square, Budapest, Hungary. June 1, 2016

We left Budapest, Hungary, Thursday morning for Serbia. Wifi, which has been pretty descent throughout my trip, was non-existent in Serbia but is working pretty well here in Bulgaria. Plus, my T-Mobile data roaming and cell phone service, which has also been working rather flawlessly since I began my trip in Berlin almost six weeks ago, shows no service for Serbia and Bulgaria. Both countries are listed by T-Mobile as service provided areas so I’m not sure why there is absolutely no service.

On Thursday we were able to get a little sample of Serbian life when we stopped in the city of Novi Sad for lunch. Novi Sad was founded in 1694, when Serb merchants formed a colony across the Danube from the Petrovaradin fortress, a Habsburg strategic military post. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Novi Sad became an important trading and manufacturing centre, as well as a centre of Serbian culture of that period, earning the nickname of the Serbian Athens. Today, it is the second largest city in Serbia and in addition to still being considered a major cultural center, it is also the Serbian financial center.

We made it into Belgrade, Serbia, in time to get checked into the hotel and get ready for a group dinner. As far as getting out and walking around Belgrade, well that wasn’t a part of the tour, but the bus did drive around and Maya, our tour director, pointed out the different landmarks. These long bus rides are exhausting and after being on the bus all day, I was quite tired and after dinner all I wanted to do was sleep.

Although we did a walking tour in Budapest, this tour could have easily began in Sofia, Bulgaria. Even though we stopped twice in Serbia, we really didn’t get to see or do much to warrant the two days of bus riding It took to get to Sofia.

Yesterday’s walking tour in Sofia was short, but sweet and brought us to three very different churches, the 4th century Christian Church of St. George, the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas and the Bulgarian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Today was all about the Rila Monastery. Considered to be the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, it was named after its founder, the hermit monk Ivan of Rila. It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, a little more than 70 miles south of Sofia. Founded in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments.

The Name of Mary Catholic Church in the old town square of Novi Sad in Serbia was built in 1895. The has four altars and twenty stained glasses depicting saints and church fathers. June 2, 2016
The Name of Mary Catholic Church in the old town square of Novi Sad in Serbia was built in 1895. The has four altars and twenty stained glasses depicting saints and church fathers. June 2, 2016
The interior main altar of the Name of Mary Catholic Church in the old town square in Novi Sad, Serbia. June 2, 2016
The interior main altar of the Name of Mary Catholic Church in the old town square in Novi Sad, Serbia. June 2, 2016
The interior floors, with its beautiful quilt pattern, in the Name of Mary Catholic Church in the old town square of Novi Sad, Serbia. June 2, 2016
At the beginning of the Dunavska streets in Novi Sad, Serbia. On the corner to the left is the city library housed in a structure that was built in 1895.
The family monument is to the Victims of the Raid in Novi Sad, Serbia. Civilian hostages in several places, were rounded up and then killed by Hungarian troops n 1942. mostly Serbs and Jews, were rounded up and then killed. And, behind the monument is the Petrovaradin Fortress, overlooks Novi Sad and is on the banks of the River Danube. June 2, 2016
The communist-looking apartment complexes as we enter Sophia, Bulgaria. June 3, 2016
If you happen to pass the Sofia, Bulgaria, city center, you will definitely notice the Statue of Saint Sofia standing on a column in the middle of a bussy crossroad. June 3, 2016
The Church of St George is an early Christian red brick rotunda that is considered the oldest building in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It is situated amid the remains of the ancient town of Serdica. Built by the Romans in the 4th century, the church is a domed structure built on a square base. June 3, 2016
The Russian Orthodox church officially known as the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is located in central Sofia, Bulgaria. June 3, 2016
The Russian Orthodox church officially known as the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is located in central Sofia, Bulgaria. June 3, 2016
The interior of the Russian Orthodox church officially known as the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is located in central Sofia, Bulgaria. June 3, 2016
The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Built in Neo-Byzantine style, it serves as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria and it is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, as well as one of Sofia’s symbols and primary tourist attractions. June 3, 2016
The Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church in Sofia, Bulgaria, was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War from 1877 to 1878. It is named in honor of the 13th century Russian warrior prince. June 3, 2016
Walking through a small park in Sophia, Bulgaria, I cam across this hauntingly expression-filled sculpture.  June 3, 2016
The Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by St. John of Rila, a hermit canonized by the Orthodox Church. Destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. Although photos inside the church are prohibited, stunning frescoes abound under the arched pillars outside of the church. June 4, 2016
The Rila Monastery compound in Bulgaria includes a main church, a museum and these monastic cells surrounding a large courtyard. June 4, 2016
The Rila Monastary complex in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016
The outdoor frescoes of the Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016
A close-up of the colorful outside frescoes of the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016
A close-up of the colorful outside frescoes of the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016
Me standing outside in front of the colorful and beautiful frescoes under the archway of the Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria. June 4, 2016

Packing and unpacking has become my routine. There’s a certain flow to traveling, especially the longer you’re on the road. I am so glad I’m packing light because handling a larger suitcase with my backpack and the few things I keep in my day bag would be too much to deal with when I’m staying no more than a night or two in a place. Those one night hotel stays and the long hours on the bus, even though we stop every hour and a half or so, wipe me out more than spending the day walking. But, it’s the best way to see and do as much as possible on a tour. I get it.

I’m in Bucharest, Romania, for the next two nights. But before I jump to Bucharest, I just want to write a little about Bulgaria. Although Sofia, the capital and largest city in Bulgaria, is impressive, it just felt a little cold to me, and I don’t mean weather-wise. I am utterly impressed by the frescoes in Sofia’s orthodox cathedrals, but as far as the charm and vibe of a place, I got more of that from Plovdiv and Rousse. Plovdiv has a history and artsy air to it while Rousse has an old world almost French charm to it.

Last night we stayed in Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria. A small, historic town that was Bulgaria’s capital during the Middle Ages with a grand fortress. Tărnovo was a joy to hang out in for a night because during our group dinner we had a beautiful sun setting scenic view of it.

Something I didn’t expect is how amazed I’d be by Bucharest. I don’t know what I was expecting but I certainly was not expecting such a sprawling city. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Bucharest tomorrow when we do our city tour.

We’re in Plovdiv. Bulgaria’s second largest city located along the banks of the Maritsa River. We stopped here to explore its Old Town, with its revival-period houses and ancient ruins, is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world. June 5, 2016
The old town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is one of the oldest towns in Europe. The eastern fortress gate Hisar Kapia is a remnant from the Middle Ages. Affluent Plovdiv merchants, educated and wealthy people who traveled around Europe, demonstrated their prosperity by constructing beautiful, richly ornamented houses that became emblematic of the old town. During the 19th century Bulgarian master builders erected lovely houses on cobbled lanes with large bay windows as part of the revival of old town Plovdiv. June 5, 2016
This arch is one of the gates to the ancient fortress of Hisar Kapia in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. These are small remnants of Plovdiv’s Byzantine-era past. Hisar Kapia is a medieval gate in Plovdiv’s old town and one of the most famous tourist sights in the city. The gate was built in the 11th century AD over the foundations of a gate from Roman times (probably from the 2nd century AD). Hisar Kapia is one of the three entrances (Eastern, Northern and Southern) to the acropolis of ancient Plovdiv. During the rule of the Ottoman empire revival houses were embedded in the remains of the old stone walls around the gate. June 5, 2016
The St. Nedelya Church tower in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The first temple to Saint Nedelya at this location was built in the early 17th century and is one of the few churches built on this area.  June 5, 2016
Inside St. Nedelya Church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The majority of the icons inside the church were painted by Dimitar Hristov Zograph and his son Zafir, later known by the pseudonym Stanislav Dospevski. Frescoes from 1871 are preserved in the temple. June 5, 2016
Inside St. Nedelya Church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Preserved frescoes date from 1871.  On the west wall under the balcony, on both sides of the entrance, these murals depict St. George and St. Dimitar /Demetrius/ in the typical iconography of horsemen warriors. June 5, 2016
The outside of the St. Nedelya Church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
The Etnographic Museum in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Its exhibits are on show in a beautiful house, which is a fine example of the Bulgarian Baroque architecture of the National Revival Period. It was built in 1847. June 5, 2016
Dr. Stoyan Chomakov House was built in 1862-1865. The doctor was one of the most active fighters for autonomous Bulgarian Church before the Liberation from Ottoman domination in 1878.  In terms of its architecture, the Neocalssical style popular at that time, was abandoned. June 5, 2016
The main pedestrian street in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
The main pedestrian street in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
The Stadium of Trimontium in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, was built in the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. during the reign Emperor Hadrian (117-138). The Stadium is located beneath at Dzhumayata Square, close to the main pedestrian street in Plovdiv where only part of it is visible. June 5, 2016
The Roman theatre is located in the city center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It was constructed during Roman Emperor Trajan reign of 98–117 A.D., and currently hosts between 5000 to 7000 spectators. June 5, 2016
Me at the Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
From Plovdiv, we made our way to Veliko Turnovo for the night. This is the fortress in Veliko Tărnovo in Bulgaria served as the Second Bulgarian Empire’s primary fortress and strongest bulwark from 1185 to 1393, housing the royal and the patriarchal palaces. June 5, 2016
Me at the entrance to the fortress, a medieval stronghold located on a hill, in Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
This art etching is on the side of a building in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, but I saw other etchings in other Bulgarian cities. I can’t seem to find much information on these wall art etchings, in Plovdiv, then different ones in Veliko Tărnovo and another one again in Rousse, they are striking. June 5, 2016
This art etching is on the side of a building in Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
Another art etching on the side of a building in Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria. June 5, 2016
We left Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria to head to Bucharest, Romania. And, on the way, we stopped here at the city of Rousse, or Ruse, Bulgaria for lunch. June 6, 2016
The Dohodno Zdanie, an imposing Neoclassical edifice on Freedom Square in the city centre of Rousse, Bulgaria. It was built in 1898–1902 to accommodate local theatre performances. June 6, 2016
Rousse, Bulgaria, is known for its 19th and 20th century Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture and is often called Little Vienna. June 6, 2016
Something I don’t see much of anywhere, a pay phone on the main pedestrian street in Rousse, Bulgaria. June 6, 2016
My view from the 19th floor of my balcony at the InterContinental Hotel in Bucharest, Romania. June 6, 2016
My view of Bucharest, Romania, from the 19th floor of my balcony at the InterContinental Hotel. June 6, 2016

Bucharest, Romania, is so much more than I could have ever imagined. It is an eclectic, bustling city that has this old world elegance with a mix of abandoned mess as an added bonus. I was anticipating cold and dark, but instead Bucharest has proven to be lively and engaging. When we crossed into the Romanian border yesterday, it was gray and raining. The stark concrete passport control office was a vision of sheer gulag fright. It didn’t help that at the same time we were going through passport control, our tour director, Maya, was talking about the atrocities of genocide and economic desperation during the time of Ceaușescu.

Nicolae Ceaușescu was general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and also the country’s head of state from 1967 to 1989 until he was executed. He was Romania’s second and last Communist leader.

A country’s history, especially one steeped in the throws of Communism should not define it. And, today’s Bucharest is the exciting and thriving antithesis to the Communist days of old.

There’s something very humbling about Bucharest with its beauty and its ugly so present and so in your face. No apologies necessary. See it, accept it and just enjoy it. It is a feast for the eyes and the senses. I have no idea what’s in bloom but this city has a floral smell to it. Bucharest in bloom…in more ways than one.

The good, the bad and this well worn architectural splendor (with a hint of beautiful old world charm) is one of many such wonders that reside in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
The library of the University of Bucharest and the statue of King Carol I, which the library is named after, in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
Originally the Palace Square in Bucharest, Romania, this was renamed Revolution Square after the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife fled by helicopter from the roof of this building on Dec. 22, 1989, but were apprehended and executed thus ending Communism in Romania. June 7, 2016
Some more of the eye catching architecture in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
Casa Capșa is a historic restaurant, now hotel, in Bucharest, Romania. First established in 1852 As a pastry shop, it evolved to a place where Romanian writers could meet and talk. June 7, 2016
This bronze sculpture by Ioan Bolborea’s in honour of Romania’s favourite playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale, is located in front of Romania’s National Theatre and my hotel, the InterContinental in Bucharest, Romania. It was unveiled in December 2010. June 7, 2016
The InterContinental Hotel in Bucharest, Romania, where I’m staying, is next to Romania’s National Theatre and this bronze sculpture of Romania’s favourite playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale. June 7, 2016
Biserica Creţulescu, a historic church in Bucharest, Romania, was raised built around 1720. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s Communist leader from 1967 to 1989 until he was executed, wanted to demolish a number of churches, including this historic church. June 7, 2016
Peering into the back yard garden and balcony of a home in heart of the city of Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
This Catholic Orthodox Church on a Main Street in Bucharest, Romania, was pushed back and hidden by two buildings alongside side of it to prevent it from being demolished by Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Founded in 1774 the small church boasts two exterior frescoes as well as a richly ornamental interior, complete with golden altar. June 7, 2016
Something I don’t often see, an outdoor book store, but here it is in Bucharest and it has quite the clientele. June 7, 2016
The art of Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
The architecture of Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
The Colţea Church, in Bucharest, Romania, named after the hospital that surrounds it, was built from 1701-2 on the site of an older, wooden construction. June 7, 2016
The outdoor frescoe of the Coltea Church in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
The Palace of the Parliament or more commonly called the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania, is beyond unreal in its opulence. And, to think that during the six years it took to build it, starting in 1981, the people of Romania suffered. And, never mind the families whose homes were destroyed to build the megalomaniac Palace of Nicolae Ceausescu’s, Romania’s Communist leader from 1967 to 1989, desires. June 7, 2016
The grandiosity of the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania, cannot be truly captured. We spent a little more than an hour touring the Palace and only glimpsed a handful of its 3,000 rooms. June 7, 2016
This is the official entryway to the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. The building was constructed almost entirely of materials of Romanian origin. June 7, 2016
Another ornately decorated huge room in the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
The marble staircase inside the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. June 7, 2016
Another opulent room, Unirii Hall, inside the Palace of Parliament or more commonly called the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania, is the world’s second-largest building (after the Pentagon) and former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation. Built in 1984 (and still unfinished), the building has more than 3000 rooms. June 7, 2016
The exquisite decor of the Alexandru Ioan Cuza Hall in the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. This room leads to a very picturesque balcony. June 7, 2016
The view from the balcony of the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. In order to construct the Palace, the Uranus-Izvor neighborhood was demolished. June 7, 2016
Me on the balcony of the People’s Palace in Bucharest, Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s Communist leader from 1967 to 1989, planned to address his people on this balcony had they not executed him first. Instead, the balcony was first used by none other than Michael Jackson, who declared to the adoring crowd below, “I LOVE BUDAPEST!” June 7, 2016
Traveling on my own means oftentimes having dinner on my own. That’s exactly what I did in Romania at an restaurant in walking distance of the hotel. Although I don’t speak the language, I’ve seldom had a problem ordering a meal and/or eating on my own. This time was no exception. The meal was delicious, right now, I’m enjoying dessert, and the outdoor atmosphere was also lovely. June 7, 2016

It’s the tale of two castles and a vampire. Romania has it all. We said goodbye to Bucharest and made our way to Braşov by way of the first castle, Peles Castle. In the middle of a forest, Peles Castle in Sinaia is gorgeous inside and outside. The Neo-Renaissance castle was built between 1873 and 1914 under the auspices of King Carol I of Romania. It’s a castle of true riches with some 160 rooms, various valuable collections of paintings, sculptures, armours, carpets, tapestries, statues, potteries, china dishes, stained-glass and exquisitely carved wood furnishings.

The second castle, which we saw the following day, Bran Castle, began as a hillside fortress of the Transylvanian-Wallachian border in the 1400’s. But it wasn’t until Queen Marie of Romania and Czech architect Karel Liman initiated a comprehensive restoration work that the fortress became a residence of the royal family. Queen Marie, who died July 1938, was married to King Ferdinand I who succeeded his uncle, Carol I, as King of Romania from 1914 until his death in July 1927.

However, Bran Castle is more notably known as the possible inspiration for Irish author Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel. Stoker describes a vast, ruined castle on the very edge of a terrific precipice. And, although Transylvania is mentioned, it’s the main chapter, Dracula, who is believed to have been inspired by the 15th-century Romanian general and Wallachian Prince Vlad III the Impaler, who was also known as Dracul.

The fortress turned Bran Castle is so much less regal than Peles Castle, it has its own hillside charm and Dracula attraction that makes it worth seeing and experiencing.

Another important aspect of this trip is staying in Braşov. Located in the central part of Romania, it has the old world charm of Bucharest but on a much smaller medieval scale and with the backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains. It’s town square and adjoining streets are pedestrian friendly and filled with shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s the kind of place where an evening stroll and people watching is the perfect thing to do.

Me standing by the terrace of the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. The elegant 19th century castle has about 160 rooms. It is filled with stunning wood furnishings, priceless art, statues and carvings. June 8, 2016
The inner court of the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
The grand entryway of the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
The music room of the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
The gorgeous stained glass in the music room of Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
The dining room of Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
One of several gorgeous wall carvings of Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
A royal bedroom in the Peles Castle of Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
The king’s office in Peles Castle of Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
A gorgeous vase located to the side of a staircase in the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
An outside doorway of the Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. June 8, 2016
Elisabeta-Carmen Silva (1843-1916) was the daughter of Hermann, Prince of Wied. In 1869 Princess Elisabeth of Wied married Prince Carol I of Romania, becoming in 1881 the first Queen of Romania, following the recognition of the country as both the kingdom and the Ottoman Empire as major European powers after the War of Independence of Romania in 1877. She was the patroness of the arts, founder of charitable institutions, poet, essayist and writer, the founder of the charitable institutions of the people was dubbed the “mother of the wounded.” During the war in 1877, Elisabeta organized hospitals, ambulance services and care for the wounded and obtained medicine.  June 8, 2016

We covered a lot today, the Peles Castle of Sinaia, Romania, and then back to our home base of Brasov, Romania. As I mentioned, Brasov, located in the central part of Romania, has the old world charm of Bucharest but on a much smaller medieval scale and with the backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains. It’s town square and adjoining streets are pedestrian friendly and filled with shops, restaurants and cafes.

The gorgeous city of Braşov where we’ve been staying for the past two nights. Brașov is a city in the Transylvania region of Romania, by the Carpathian Mountains. June 8, 2016
The city of Braşov in the Transylvania region of Romania. June 8, 2016
The city of Braşov in the Transylvania region of Romania. June 8, 2016
The city of Braşov in the Transylvania region of Romania. June 8, 2016
The city of Braşov in the Transylvania region of Romania. June 8, 2016
The city of Braşov in the Transylvania region of Romania. June 8, 2016
The Black Church in Brasov, Romania, dates from 1477 when it replaced an older church. Originally named Saint Mary’s Church, but in 1689 a great fire destroyed the interior and blackened the walls and roof. June 8, 2016
The fresco of the Black Madonna in the Black Church in Brasov, Romania. The smoke from the great fire of 1689 caused the walls to turn black. The story of the Madonna fresco painting is that before the fire, her dress was blue, but after serving the fire, her dress turned black. The people look at it as a miracle and see the fresco as a beacon of hope. June 8, 2016
Catherine’s Gate, a city gate surviving from medieval times in Brasov, Romania. June 8, 2016
The restaurant where our tour group, and other groups, are having dinner in a building that dates from the 1540s in our home base in Brasov, Romania. With a Cosmos tour this is considered an optional excursion. I decided to try this outing of dinner, with a wine tasting and a folk show with music and dance. June 8, 2016
Me in the wine cellar about to participate in a wine tasting before going upstairs for dinner and a folk show with music and dance. June 8, 2016

Today, we visit the next castle of Romania, close to our home base of Brasov, Bran Castle. It is linked to the Dracula/Vampire tales but in all honesty, it is a very sedate place. I expected to feel a little scared, but no such thing occurred.

Bran Castle close to Braşov, Romania, was a fortress situated on the border between Transylvania and Walachia. It is commonly referred to as “Dracula’s Castle,” after Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula tales. The Dracula character is said to be based on Vlad III the Impaler, Prince of Walachia, who spent his childhood in Transylvania. Vlad lived in the mid 1400s and Bram Stoker wrote Dracula around 1897. June 9, 2016
The inner court of Bran Castle close to Braşov, Romania. June 9, 2016
The bedroom of King Ferdinand I inside the Bran Castle near Braşov, Romania. June 9, 2016
Photos of Queen Marie of Romania and King Ferdinand I in Bran Castle near Braşov, Romania. June 9, 2016
Called the Iron Maiden, this torture device is on exhibit at Bran Castle, near Braşov, Romania. June 9, 2016
Souvenirs outside of Bran Castle near Braşov, Romania. Could Bran actually be the castle referenced in Stoker’s book? Well, if souvenir sales around the castle are any indication, then it must be so. June 9, 2016
Me at the secret stairway, which is quite narrow, inside Bran Castle close to Braşov, Romania. June 9, 2016
A portrait of Vlad Tepes Dracul, who spent his childhood in Transylvania, earned the name “Tepes,” which means impaler because of his cruel habit of impaling his enemies. His second surname, “Dracul,” means the Devil’s son in Slavonic language. In 1897, Irish writer Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” imagines the story of a vampire who lives in a castle in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains…something similar maybe to Bran Castle. June 9, 2016
Back in Brasov for our last night in this Transylvania region of Romania. June 9, 2016
A view from my hotel of the gorgeous city of Braşov, Romania. The church in the distance is the towering Gothic style Black Church. June 9, 2016

Its time to move on from Brasov, Romania to Cluj-Napoca, the heart of Transylvania. Along the way, we stopped in Sighisoara, a medieval town with 11 towers within the city walls which surround cobblestone streets, ancient houses and churches. Legend has it that it is also the bird place of the notorious Vlad the Impaler. A walk through the town’s hilly streets with their original medieval architecture, magical mix of winding cobbled alleys, steep stairways, secluded squares, towers, turrets and enchantingly preserved citadel, is like stepping back in time.

 

The clock tower in Sighisoara, Romania. Although a quaint town with structures 300 years old, it’s claim to fame is that Vlad III the Impaler, who supposedly inspired the fictional Count Dracula tales, was born in Sighisoara. June 10, 2016
Between the Citadel Square and the Clock Tower in Sighisoara, Romania, is this yellow building…the Vlad Dracul House….now restaurant. It’s said to be the place where Vlad the Impaler, the historical character who inspired the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is supposed to have been born, in 1431. June 10, 2016
The big carved rock on top of this stoned pillar in Sighisoara, Romania, is of Vlad the Impaler, the historical character who inspired the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is supposed to have been born, in 1431. June 10, 2016
A Main Street in Sighisoara, Romania, where most of the 164 houses in the city are at least 300 years old and are considered historical monuments. June 10, 2016
The square in Sighisoara, Romania, including the Clock Tower, where most of the 164 houses are at least 300 years old and are considered historical monuments. June 10, 2016
It’s called the Scholars’ Stairs in Sighisoara. Located at the end of School Street and connecting the Citadel Square with the Church on the Hill, the Scholars’ Stairs, or Schoolboys’ Stairs, as it was also known, makes for an interesting piece of medieval architecture. Built in 1642, the covered stair-passage was meant to facilitate and protect schoolchildren and churchgoers on their climb to the school and church during wintertime. Originally, the stairs had 300 steps, but after 1849, their number was reduced to 175. And, yes, I walked up and down the 175 stairs. June 10, 2016
To the north of the Clock Tower stands one of the most representative gothic-style structures in Transylvania, the Church on the Hill – so called because of its location on the School Hill (1,373 ft high). First mentioned in a document in 1345 and superposed on a former Roman basilica, its construction lasted almost 200 years. Initially a Catholic church, it became the main church of the Saxon inhabitants of Sighisoara, who had shifted from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism after the 1547 Reform. June 10, 2016
Part of the Church on the Hill in Sighisoara is this cemetery. June 10, 2016
Part of the Church on the Hill in Sighisoara is this cemetery. June 10, 2016
We arrived in the city of Cluj-Napoca, in the heart of Transylvania, Romania, in the late afternoon and took a quick get acquainted walk.The Franciscan Church is a place of worship in Cluj-Napoca. It was built between 1260 and 1290, on the site of an older Catholic church destroyed during the Tatar invasions in 1241. In 1390, the Benedictine monks received the church. June 10, 2016
The Romanian National Opera in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, is one of the national opera and ballet companies of Romania. The Opera shares the same building with the National Theatre in Cluj-Napoca. June 20, 2016
The Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral is the most famous Romanian Orthodox church of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The cathedral was built between 1921 and 1933, in Romanian and Byzantine style. June 10, 2016
Piaţa Unirii (Romanian for Union Square) is the largest and most important squares in Cluj-Napoca. The St. Michael’s Church, with the highest church tower in Romania, is the second largest Gothic-style church in Romania. The church, to the left, was constructed in two phases. The first from 1316 to 1390 and the second from 1410 to 1487. Also, the statue of King of Hungary Matthias Corvinus is located here. June 20, 2016
A square in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. June 10, 2016

After spending a night in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, we began our travel westwards by way of the elegant city of Oradea, Romania, into Hungary and our return to Budapest. Located just eight miles from the Hungarian border, it spans both shores of the Crisu Recede River. The picturesque town of present-day Oradea was rebuilt in the 18th century to the plans of Viennese engineer Franz Anton Hillebrandt following the then-trendy Austrian architectural style called Secession with its richly decorated facades of pale pink, blue, green and white. In addition to the many Baroque buildings, Oradea is remarkable for its particularly rich collection of Art Nouveau architecture.

The Unirii Square in Oradeo, Romania. June 11, 2016
From the old characteristic trams in the Unirii Square of Oradea, Romania….June 11, 2016
To the new and modern trams of Oradea, Romania, in the Unirii Square. June 11, 2016
The Unirii Square.town square of Oradea, Romania. June 11, 2016
The City Hall of Oradea, Romania, in Unirii Square. June 11, 2016
The Assumption of Mary church also known as ‘The Moon Church’ in Oradea, Romania’s Unirii Square. Started in 1784, but not finished until 1832, the Moon Church gets its name from a mechanism installed in the tower that marks the phases of the moon. June 11, 2016
Inside the Moon Church of Oradea, Romania, during a baby being christened. June 11, 2016
A close up of a fresco inside the Moon Church in Oradea, Romania. June 11, 2016
The Main Street in Oradea. Oradea is one of the main education centers of Romania. The city is home to the University of Oradea, one of the largest universities in the country. June 11, 2016
An overview of the Unirii Square town square of Oradea, Romania. June 11, 2016
The Greek Catholic bishopric palace in Oradea, Romania. June 11, 2016
A walkable bridge in Oradea, Romania. June 11, 2016

Back in Budapest, Hungary, but not for long, and done with being in a tour group, but not done with traveling in Europe. I leave for Vienna, Austria in the morning. I’m on my own but I’ve set up some day tours and will even incorporate some hop-on/hop-off bus rides in my last two cities of  Vienna, Austria, and Munich, Germany. I am also getting towards the end of my 60-days with just 11 more days to go.

The Balkans tour, made up of Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, with Cosmos included a much bigger group than what I’m used to….44 as opposed to 24…and more international travelers, especially from Australia. The mix of people from different nationalities added a very special element to the group that made it fun, different and informative. Plus, I want to thank our tour director Maja and driver Mihai, for making the experience even more enjoyable by their presence.

This bares repeating, Romania was so much more than what I expected it to be. Of the 13-day tour, we spent six days in Romania. Albeit, we began and ended the tour in Budapest….but it’s in a different league altogether…it’s Budapest.

But, what about Bucharest, Brasov, Sighisoara, Cluj-Napoca and Oradea, all cities that make Romania a desirable place to visit. Throw in Vlad III the Impaler, whom the Count Dracula tales are supposedly inspired by, with the Bran Castle of Transylvania and you have the stuff of what makes travel exciting.

Saying good-bye to Budapest at the Budapest Keleti Railway station for the last time as I make my way by train to Vienna, Austria. June 12, 2016