30 June – Focsani served its purpose as a waypoint for our journey northwards but had nothing else of note to interest us. The road today followed a river valley for ages with not very inviting looking towns until we finally climbed out into more rolling countryside. We had a little trouble finding our accommodation with the address listed so resorted to the GPS co-ordinates and found it. It was out of the town which sits at the foot of a huge dam we went up and over to find this “motel”. First appearances were not deceiving – it was grotty. The complex had quite a few little cabins and a “motel” block – three floors with about 10 rooms one each floor. Grotty from the outside and tacky on the inside. Decided to go for a drive around the lake – what a horrible road – we bumped along for about 20kms before calling it a day and returning the same way. Did however find a gorgeous pensiune offering meals, so stopped off dinner and had we known about this place it would have been much much better than our ‘motel’.
01 July – Not such a great night in our grotty motel – awoken by screaming and what we thought was an argument but turned out to be a medical emergency as there were two ambulances outside when we ventured out. We had decided the night before that we would ditch the second night we had booked – it was just too cheap and not cheerful for comfort. Back down into the outskirts of Bicaz before heading off through the Bicaz Gorge. What a spectacular drive through the narrow canyon with high rocky outcrops – it was spoilt a bit by all the tourist shacks lined up along the sides of the road selling “souvenirs”. We climbed up and out of the gorge over a couple of pretty passes and through various villages. The local handicraft in this region is wickerwork with loads of little stalls selling baskets, chairs, brooms and other odds and sods.
Made it into Sighisoara and breathed a sigh of relief to get have a “nice” place to stay – it was an old villa built in early 1900’s, renovated nicely within a short walk of the old city up on the hill. We made the pilgrimage up to the top, little streets with quaint buildings and a nice square for refreshments to sit people watch. Moved to another place for our dinner – that was a surprise – I ordered Transylvanian sour bean soup which came served inside a huge hollowed out loaf of bread – very tasty and oh so filling.
Back home to base in time to watch our own sound and light show going off in the way of a thunderstorm.
02 July – After a comfortable night in our pensiune, spent a little time before setting off trying to figure out the next leg of our journey through to Germany. Leaving Sighisoara behind we got into some lovely countryside with rolling green hills dotted with little villages. It is so much more pleasant driving than on the hot plains. Turga Mures was our target for our first break. This town was so similar in layout to Arad, the first town on our entry into Romania but poles apart in charm. The buildings were clean and tidy, the pavements in good condition and a very pleasant area to walk around. A nice little patisserie for our refreshment stop and then back on the road.
Stopped at little local restaurant in the countryside for lunch – nice vantage point to watch the horses and carts venturing out into the fields. We then had a short hop on more scenic roads through to Bistrita and our hotel for the night just a short walk from the town centre. Another pleasant town square – again with a large pedestrian street lined with outdoor tables and seating areas. We walked around all the interesting old parts of the town before dining in a restaurant offering traditional food – sadly we didn’t have room for dessert but they sure looked inviting.
03 July – Heading north today towards the Ukrainian border. About 200kms – the first half was on a typically bumpy road, so slow going but then it improved markedly as we headed up into lovely rolling hillsides and neat little towns. Our destination – Sapanta – a fairly rural little village but renown for its “merry” cemetery to which tourists flock to. We had a lovely local pensiune right opposite the cemetery. Ileana the owner’s mother was a very gracious host.
The pensiune was in a typical house which had been converted into rooms for accommodation. We had a nice clean room and if you overlooked the bright pink bath and toilet it was a neat little place. Took the visit over to the cemetery – what an interesting place. In the late 30’s a poet/writer decided that the people buried in the cemetery deserved something fitting to show for their lives so he started created these carved wooden grave markers, painted bright blue with a carved picture of the deceased person showing their profession or what they did in their life (eg. weaver, homemaker, miner, fireman etc.) then under the picture was a carved poem about their life and death.
Reading through the translations afterwards – some of them were not very kind about the deceased – ie. he was far too fond of the drink and it got the better of him; others detailed the hard life they had suffered and there were even a couple of curses attached to graves of children killed in car accidents directed to the drivers of the cars. All in all a very illuminating visit. Even more outstanding was the new church that was being built on the site (how a town which would be way smaller than Cambridge could afford such a building beats us) and this was not the only church being built in this small town – just down the road the Catholics were in the process of building a wooden church and then about 1km away the local monastery had also built a fantastic wooden church with a 75m spire along with new quarters for the monks. Did a quick search on google and found that there were 400 monasteries in the country with about 3500 monks and nuns so it they must still be getting new recruits coming through the ranks.
04 July – Last full day in Romania. Ileana showed us her special heritage family room used for special events – weddings, funerals, Christmas etc. Two of the walls were lined with brightly covered hand-woven rugs, the other two were hand painted with red flowers on a blue background. She had a couple of display cabinets with old china and some very finely decorated eggs. She then showed us her loom and demonstrated hand spinning. Their sheep’s wool is very coarse and they don’t do too much in the way of carding out all the flotsam and jetsam.
The tourist buses had arrived bright an early to start their visit of the cemetery. We set off first to have a look at the monastery with the wooden church – the workmanship required to construct these churches is amazing as it was stunning.
With that done it was one the last leg of our trip. We travelled within spitting distance of Ukraine for a while – we were on one side of the river and just on the other side was Ukraine. Went though a bit of forest and then it was down onto the plains again – fortunately the temp has dropped a few degrees so a little more pleasant.
Saw our first gypsy caravans today – just two of them and very distinct – very grubby covered horse-drawn wagons (a bit like the pioneer wagons in the USA) with all manner of things hanging on the outside and crowded inside with grubby looking kids and adults, quite different from the few other Roma we have seen in the towns – the women wear very bright coloured long skirts, white blouse and an equally bright headscarf.
Stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some lunch supplies then it was on to Oradea our stop for the night. Here was yet another lovely surprise – coming into the city it looked to be fairly typical, bland apartment blocks and boring buildings and even the street where our hotel was located was not particularly inspiring. The hotel itself was in a new building, nicely furnished and a very comfortable room for our last night. Went out to explore and just a couple of blocks away we came into the town centre and boy what a contrast – some gorgeous buildings, lovely pedestrian streets and a really nice feel. Since joining the EU, Romania has received grants to assist with beautifying their cities and where they have this grant they seem to be making real inroads into bringing these cities back to life.
Dined in the courtyard of one of the very old early hotels – this one still needed renovation but would have been very grand it its day. The biggest surprise was when we opened the menu – first thing we saw was Monteiths Summer Ale and Pilsener available as well as Old Mout Cider on the drinks list and then one very expensive cut of meat from New Zealand (it was in the grill section and when translated back at base – it came out as Cattle Muscles from New Zealand so have no real clue as to its cut).
05 July – Our attempt to find the nice patisserie we had seen in town the night before failed so it was just a tea and coffee instead before heading off in the direction of the border and a new country. The border was only about 30 minutes away from Oradea – manned by both the Romanians and Hungarians – they checked our passports and made us open the boot to ensure we hadn’t got any stowaways and then we were waved off. Flat going all the way through to Budapest – this part of the country a lot more prosperous than the little corner than we covered earlier on. Managed to get to our accommodation right in the middle of the city with not too many hassles although finding parking was a bit difficult as we couldn’t get enough local coins to feed the parking machine. It is a good thing we don’t easily get put off by outside appearances, as the apartments were in a very old and distressed looking building and up the first two flights of stairs was particularly dark and dingy, but once into the apartments themselves – bright, airy and very modern. 9 rooms most with their own en suite facilities and a very up to date kitchen area.
Within walking distance of the Danube they were certainly a good find. We ate a quick dinner in before heading off to see Budapest come alive by night – this place seems to be a mecca for young tourists – bars were crowded with 20 somethings making the most of cheap booze. Down on the river, had to wait a while for darkness to fall, but once it did the buildings and bridges all came to life with lights.
06 July – Quick blat on to Vienna. Arrived mid afternoon to our nicely placed hotel which enabled us to just hop on the tram for the short ride into the centre. Armed with the local map were able to cover all the interesting sights to see. What a lovely city – compact centre with elegant buildings and very clean. To really appreciate this city you need to come for a week or so, armed to the teeth with a load of cash and take in all of the different theatres and museums.
We were happy though to just wander around and admire its beauty. Of course we had to sample Weiner Schnitzel for our dinner.
07 July – Another day another capital. Prague today – again arriving mid-afternoon. Our easy to find hotel was again right next to a tram stop with a short ride into the centre. The last time I had visited Prague – so many of the buildings were being restored and covered in scaffolding and there was hardly a soul around. Fast forward 30 years, the buildings are visible and the tourists are there in throngs.
Very interesting areas on both sides of the Danube. After a wander around the inner part of the city we crossed over the historic Charles Bridge for a break in a little bar to people watch for a while. Nearby we chanced upon a really lovely walled garden before having to find refuge from a thunderstorm in a local restaurant. When the skies cleared we were able to amble back to the centre and catch our flash tram straight back home.
8 July – Another day another country – Germany today and our stop for the next few days – Lake Wannsee just 20 minutes from Berlin. We knew our hotel was going to be close to the railway station, just didn’t realise that it was just outside our window (all five lines of it). Oh well, them’s the breaks.
09 July – The train into Berlin was a relaxing 20 minute trip. Berlin is not as compact as the other three capitals, so we made use of our day travel ticket and sampled trams, underground and buses. Ticked off the big things Brandenburg Gate, remains of the wall and checkpoint Charlie. At the remains of the wall there was a very moving timeline of Berlin’s history prior and post war and the fall of the wall.
10 July – Wet and miserable start to our day. Spent our day visiting with Torsten, Lydia and two of their five children – their two sons Jonathan and Florian. We had met Torsten when he was still a student in the late 80’s in Czechoslovakia when at that time he was living in the then DDR and over the years we have kept in touch, at our last get together Florian was just a toddler and now he is a bright and bubbly teenager and his brother Jonathan is about 16 and a very fine young man. The family were staying in their caravan just about 30 mins from our hotel at Wansee at another lake – so we joined them there first before venturing out for lunch at Ferch and then on to Potsdam.
The first stop was at San Soucci Palace for a wander around their impressive gardens then into the old town for a delicious stop at a local ice-cream parlour. We then spent an hour or so in the early evening enjoying the ambience of the old town before farewelling our friends. How fortunate we are as we travel around the world to meet such lovely people and to be able to share joint experiences.
11 July – Monique led us a fine little dance this morning as we headed south and ended up going through the middle of Potsdam before finally getting us on the autobahn and a straight blat down to our destination – a tiny little village Eisenbuhl and a divine apartment to stay in. Came prepared to cook our own dinner so it was a nice relaxing evening.
12 July – Regensburg was today’s target – and with a diversion to Bamberg arrived at another of our friend’s place mid afternoon. Tom and Gabi once again made us feel so welcome in their lovely home as we settled in and caught up on their news since seeing them 18 months ago.
13 July – Tom and Gabi had discovered a new museum for us to visit, so it was off to Neumarkt and the Maybach museum. This was quite a new museum, very nicely laid out with a good display of Maybach cars and bikes – everything was explained in both German and English. The company originally developed and manufactured diesel and petrol engines for Zeppelins, and then rail cars. Its Maybach Mb.IVa was used in aircraft and airships of World War I. The company first built an experimental car in 1919, introduced as a production model two years later at the Berlin Motor Show. Between 1921 and 1940, the company produced a variety of opulent vehicles, now regarded as classics.
We had a short break out of the museum for lunch and returned to finish the last exhibits before returning home. Dinner in the local beer garden made a pleasant end to the day.
14 July – Said our farewells and it was on the road again down to Munich and the BMW museum situated in the Olympic park. Very impressive museum with a very large temporary exhibition celebrating the centenary of the company and then their permanent display of their vehicles. We managed to spend a good 3 hours before having to tackle Friday afternoon Munich traffic.
Fortunately we had only 90 odd kms to get to our next stay for the night but we did have quite a lot of very slow spots. We did feel for the folks in their cars travelling towards Munich as they had to deal with a large nose to tail pile-up accident which backed the traffic up for miles. Mindelheim was the stop for the night – another pretty town with some very attractive old buildings in their town centre. Our small hotel was a renovated water-mill used to mill flour in days gone by. Quite a lot of the original woodwork still in existence and also the belts and pulleys were a feature of the restaurant. The countryside in this region is so pretty – very green fields and forests interspersed with quaint little villages.
15 July – Another autobahn blitz – through the very green German countryside, followed by a short stint of about 10kms through Austria before finally hitting Switzerland. They really do exploit the visitors using their roads. We had to buy a vignette to use the motorways (all other countries have short tem ones – ie. 1 week or a month) but the Swiss make you buy a pass for a year and at 40 euro it makes it an expensive exercise for just a couple of days motoring. We needed to break our journey through to France so it was a little town called Biberist that got the tick for our stay for the night. Nice and orderly as you would expect from the Swiss – streets are clean and countryside very green.