Thursday, 9 December 2010

Bucharest Romania

The Black Sea (black and white photo taken in Constanta)

"Dracula's Castle" If you have ever read Bram Stoker's Dracula you can picture the Count crawling down this wall.

The Orchestra House.

So with just six months left overseas we are starting to look at places you wouldn't normally plan a trip to from the US. Romania came to mind.
With as modern as they have become in the past 20 years they still have a ways to go in some areas.
We ended up going with another family, my boss really. I told him about the great price I found for a direct flight over Thanksgiving and he asked if I cared if he and his family came. The boys played baseball together and went to Poland together so we all knew each other and we all get along so there was no issue. Someone in his family works for Marriott so he hooked us up with a room for $80/ night at the JW in Bucharest. So for less than $800 I've got airfare and lodging for four. Going to Bucharest for Thanksgiving!
We left on Wednesday afternoon. No problem with the flight. The airport is SMALL although I didn't realize how small until we flew out. You go through customs and get your luggage. The dollar rental car was a small stand, really like a podium, next to the Thrifty podium. Who needs computers? All the paperwork was filled out by hand. I think he fished the keys out of a box. We walk out to the curb and he says, "Wait here. I'll bring the car up." It really wasn't that the service was that great, there is no parking garage. He had to run over to the tiny parking lot a couple hundred yards away. He pulls up in a tiny Chevy Spark. It was full of scrapes and chipped paint but I wasn't to worried at that point. It was cheap and temporary. The back tire was a little low. The response was, "Yeah, that's how the last guy brought it back." Fair enough. Welcome to Romania.
The TomTom (ours) has limited mapping of Romania. It kinda knows roads are in place but unless it is a MAJOR road there are no names. We bought a map to get to the hotel...
Thursday. I went out to check to see if the back tire was holding the air we put in the night before. It was holding. Good you may say. Now in the day light though I can see the tires better. The back tires were obviously front tires at one point and the car must have needed an alignment. The outside edges of both back tires were almost, you could see little dents that used to be trend, smooth. No big deal, I remember Carey driving around on bald tires for quite some time went we were teens in Florida. Its when you start to see threads that there is a problem. We were headed out towards to airport anyway.
First sight. An outdoor village museum. They went all around Romania and piece by piece took apart and reassembled traditional old (some hundreds of years old) homes. Actually very interesting. All very simple. Small. Fun to walk around though. We saw a squirrel wit really big ears.
The kids spotted a Hard Rock the night before. It was right around the corner so we all agreed we'd go. The exchange rate is about 3 Leis to one dollar so it really wasn't that bad.
To the airport. The night before the guy gave my boss his cell phone number so that on Sunday we could call ahead and he would meet us out front to return the cars. I didn't think much about it but once we got to the airport it became very clear. He only works when there is an appointment. No one around to care about my bald tires let alone swap out cars (I really don't know if they would have had anything else anyway). Back to the memories of Carey's first car... It’s only a long weekend.
That night Carey, the kids and I went to see an orchestra. Very pretty building. 50+ people in the orchestra. It was a piece used in Fantasia.
Friday. Constanta. A 2600 year old city right on the Black Sea. It is now the forth largest shipping port in Europe. We spent the afternoon just strolling through the small old town. We went down to the water so everyone could say they were IN the Black Sea.
That night we got back kinda late so we had dinner at the Lebanese restaurant in the hotel. Really good.
Saturday. Brasov and Bran. Bram Stoker got the inspiration from and used the castle in Bran as the starting point in Dracula. I got most of the way through the book before we went to it so it was really neat to see the castle as he had described it. The castle itself was great. It was something you could really live in. No over the top rooms or hallways. Normal size rooms, with normal transitions, and normal stairways (and one kinda secret staircase). On the top floor there was a pretty good history of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) and the myths. Long story short, Vlad really believed in impaling people as punishment for crimes. This lead to comments such as "his taste for blood." That was then carried out further. His father was part of the Order of the Dragon. Dracula is "little Dracul." It was funny to see the light go on in Brianna's head that Twilight wasn't he beginning of Vampire movies... I think she knew that but didn't really know it went back that far and I'm not sure if she had heard of Dracula.
Brasov is another nice old town. Beautiful area on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains. We finally had a traditional Romanian meal there. I had tripe soup. Cow stomach. Delicious.

Driving around Bucharest was interesting. All the old communist apartments are still in place. You never had to worry about people wanting more than their neighbors. Very dreary. Much more of an overwhelming sense of the communist life style than we saw in Berlin or Warsaw.

Oh yeah. The tires held up just fine. When I turned the car in the response was, "Yeah we were waiting because we're going to have to put on winter tires soon."
The major international airport in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, has 4 gates. All in one small area. Sitting there looking around was like something out of a movie. Flights were on time though and our luggage came with us...

Good trip. Glad we went.

Next stop, Istanbul, Turkey! The week between Christmas and New Years.

As a side note. I just got back from a week long underway on a surface ship. We pulled into Split, Croatia. Extremely beautiful area. More small towns to explore. National parks (I took an excursion to see some incredible water falls). It was enough to put Croatia back on the short list of places to go soon.

Two more to go... Stuttgart Germany

The week of Veterans day I had to go to Stuttgart for work. Brianna has a good friend that moved from here to there and we really like Germany (if that hasn't become obvious) so we decided to take the long weekend up there. It worked out well. Brianna and Danna were glued at the hip and gitty the whole time.
Carey and the kids got on a direct flight from Naples to Stuttgart on Thursday and I met them at the airport with the family we were staying with. We couldn't have asked for more really. We had a place to stay for free and we rented a minivan for the weekend so the families could just stay together and travel around. They were still kinda new to the area so it was a good trip for them too.
Thursday night jumped on a train and bus to a little restaurant. As always, good food and wine. I had pig's cheak. It really was good.
Friday we all loaded up and went to Strasbourg, France. How great is that? "I think I'll go to France for the day..." It is a little less than 2 hours away. We spent the day walking around just enjoying the small town. There was a very pretty church. We climbed the 300 or so stairs to the top of the bell tower. Great views of the surrounding area. We took a nice, glass enclosed, river boat tour. That evening we ate there and then headed back.
Saturday we had a pretty fun and laid back day. We saw Mega-mind at the base theatre in the morning, then went on the hunt for "a great skate park" someone told Austin about. Someone was misinformed... Oh well. Later we went to an indoor water park. They had some waterslides, a wave pool, and a big out door heated pool. That evening we left the kids at home and had an enjoyable dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The Skip was the pilot that flew President Bush onto the aircraft carrier during the Iraq war. The story was awesome. Politics aside, Bush seemed like a very personable person and to this day they still get Christmas cards.
All in all a good weekend.

Berlin (starting to get caught up...)

A shot of the Holocaust Museum

Berlin Cathedral. Some kid doing a handstand in front of it...

We've taken family that comes out to different countries. For my parents we chose Berlin.

Honestly, I kinda screwed up the planning on this one but it still worked out pretty good. We had about 48 hours on the ground in Berlin. In my defense part of the "problem" was that Carey and I went to see U2 in Rome the night before. Woa is us... The concert was AWESOME.
The first day (afternoon) we got on the metro and went to a giant outdoor flea market. The walk there was pretty. There is a giant park (Tiergarten Park), nice walkways, statues, etc. The market was neat. Anything from antiques to spare parts, to paintings and furniture. That night we went to a Brauhaus for good German food and beer. I think with enough time here I could convince my dad that Busch beer really is nasty. Probably not.
Normally we don't put to much stock in hop-on hop-off busses but with some proper planning they can be very effective. This will be a little out of order as I go through the Rick Steves book and look at the bus stops on line but I think I'll cover it all...
Reichstag Building. It is the parliament building. Massive with pretty, huge glass dome on top. There is a nice open grassy area in front of it that you can take in the size and get some really good pictures. Of course there is people watching and pretzel vendors too. I think we ate our way across the city!
Brandenburg Gate. The last surviving gate of Berlin's old city walls. When the Berlin wall was up it blocked off right in front of it. Street performers, people posing and taking pictures in US and German uniforms, a make shift passport stamping stand (we have very few stamps believe it or not now that the EU countries have open borders).
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 gravestone/ coffin looking pillars all at different heights. It is the first government sponsored holocaust museum. Below it is a fairly large museum that outlines the events of the holocaust. Eerie personnel stories, letters, tell of individual sufferings. As with all things holocaust, moving.
Berlin Cathedral. Huge! I think I read somewhere this was the protestants answer to St. Peters. Unfortunately services, or something, were going on inside so we had to admire from outside. Interesting, yet unrelated, the terror threat through Europe has been a little higher in the past few months so the police were enforcing a no parking, standoff, zone in front of the cathedral. We saw two or three cars towed in 15-20 minutes.
Check point Charlie and the Berlin Wall. All through Berlin there is a brick path following where the wall used to be. At Check Point Charlie there is a long detailed exhibit that tells a really good history of the wall. If you listen to some of the tourists, I got tired of reading, you could here people reliving times that they had spent here (one guy in particular was in the service or something and was telling a story about the procedures and some problems getting back and forth). Detailed in the exhibit were the stories of people trying to get over the wall (was no easy feat since there was a huge cleared area where you were likely to get shot) or smuggled out in the trunk or with fake id's etc. We walked up the street a found one of the few remaining portions of the wall. Amazing to think of what it must have been like to live on either side of the wall and the different lives associated with each.
The final morning we went to KaDeWe's. A huge, high end department store second in size only to Harrods in London. I don't think I will ever understand the logic of spending so much on even common clothing (hats, shirts, jeans) but ,wow, there was some pricey stuff in there. The most amusing part was the food section. "Gourmet" foods from all over. What does America have to offer for the Europeans? Betty Crocker. I don't make this stuff up. You see it here though too. There was an international bizarre at the NATO base here in Naples and that's what the American stand had there too.
So we really did pack a lot into our 48 hours.
Some trips are more "fun" than others, but all of them have something to offer as far as history and culture are concerned.

Still catching up

A couple pictures from Ravello.

I really should have stayed on top of this... Now its kinda painful and I have to remember...

My parents came out in September/ October.
We saw a lot of the same stuff I have already written about but we also took a trip back to Cusana Mutri (the hill town we have family from). My Uncle hired a genealogist to meet us up there and go back further in the family tree. The town records people where extremely supportive. We were, mostly by ourselves, able to go back a few more generations and then go FORWARD. The woman working that day looked at the genealogist and said, "Let me take you all up the street to talk to some people." Condensing the story a little, we ended up having coffee in the living room of some very distant cousins (to be exact, my mom's great-great-grandfather and Antonio's great-great-grandfather were brothers). Not the overwhelming family reunion I think I wrote about with the Retrosi's (they had a get together with 80 of their closest relatives they had never met) but still pretty neat.
We also took the time to walk around the town a bit more and it really is pretty.

Another little trip worth mentioning while they were here was Ravello. Every now and then you go some place around here that you think "This is Italy. This is the beauty that I always thought of." Ravello is one of those places. It is along the Amalfi coast but set up in the hills just a little. Absolutely beautiful ocean views and lookouts. If you ever find yourself planning a trip that involves sothern Italy center your time around the Amalfi coast. Its nice to say you've been to Pompeii but if my time was limited I wouldn't spend much of it looking for things to do around Naples. If you do have time to kill there are definitely things worth seeing, and our guests so far have all had weeks here so we have taken them, but Amalfi really is what people picture.

Berlin to follow...