5 Places to Run Far Away from Winter

Winter is really playing hard against my meteorological patience. The German winter one, famous for its negative temperatures – -13C a couple of early  mornings ago – and persistence – once upon a time, I lived to see snow in the happy month of April no less. True is that the summer was very hot this year and the cold season started really only from January. But anyway,  for someone like me, winter is synonimous with bad mood, ugly clothing and limited freedom travel. It also means more than one book finished the day, many coffees and a lot of blogging.

This time of the year I am usually out of Germany till February, in much warmer places, from where I nonchalantly post sunny images on my social media channels. There are many warm places waiting for me and promise to visit soon – anyone said Bahamas? or Cuba? or Zanzibar? -, but as for now, I made a short list of my favourites that I already had the chance to visit in the last years.

  1. Lisbon, Portugal

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Lisbon, and Portugal in general, is one of my pleasant European travel memories. I loved to discover the people, the great food – the wine and the morning pastry are unforgettable – and so many cities that can be visited for one day trips, such as Sintra or Porto. I stayed in the fancy area of Cascais, around 25 minutes by train to the centre of the capital city and I was very happy with my choice, especially after I discovered a very special museum of musical instruments. I went there in one December and I had only one windy and rainy day in almost three weeks of stay.

2. Barcelona, Spain

It is a very touristic and crowded place, especially if you plan to celebrate the New Year’s Eve, but for a change one can try to pay a visit to the South of France for this specific day and night and come back at the beginning of January for the rest of the journey. The Gaudi architecture is interesting enough to keep you busy for long days and there are a lot of food choices for every taste and budget.

3. Israel

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Outside Europe, and only four hours of flight away from Berlin with regular cheap flights every day, Israel offers everything: history, art, religion, beaches, great food, unique shopping, high-end hotels. Bonus: the warm weather. Last December, I enjoyed a couple of days at the beach or sipped my glass of red wine with a great sea view. Once in a while, there is a little snow coming up for a couple of days or minutes, but although everyone is welcoming the event with panic and fear, there is nothing to be afraid of. And if you really miss the snow so much, there may be even some ski options in the Mount Hermon area.

4. New Orleans, USA

How much I love this place! The jazz clubs hopping on Bourbon street, the feeling of getting lost in the middle of the houses with stylish iron balconies and the summer feeling all round the year. The food is special in comparison with the most part of America, with a lot of spices and wise dosis of French influences. What everyone visiting the city should do: book a riverboat tour on the one and only Mississippi.

5. Thailand

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My first winter escape at the end of my first year in Germany was in Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok in the last days of December and the first hours I went through a thermic shock. In Berlin there were some minus degrees and in this city I was hardly able to breath because of the heat wave. Outside the busy Bangkok with its street food and night markets there are many things to see in the Northern region, from temples where one can book a bike tour to hiking, to fancy hotels with swimming pools and silk factories. The North has also cuisine based on fruits and vegetables. The prices are almost symbolical and you will hardly be alone during this time of the year, with many English speaking expats and tourists roaming around. The islands are usually high end destinations with gorgeous hotels and villas to rent, but if you are rather the secluded type, you better do an exhaustive research about where to find your peaceful paradise.

I told to myself more than once that I have one day to learn to ski, encouraged but the saying that you are never old enough to start practising this sport. My friends still hope that one day will finally buy the proper clothes for this weather and use this winter time for some unique trips instead of repeatedly complaying for months about the hard life under the Central European cold – you see, even my conversations are limited because of this weather! I also remember one beautiful winter I spent in Oslo, the first time since childhood when I enjoyed the snow and crispy weather. However, if you will ask me to chose between a sunny destination and one covered by snow, my answer will definitely favor the choice no. 1. After all, one can learn to ski at any age, isn’t it?

 

Pregnant on the road, some lessons learned

The last summer and the last year in general was not one of my best in terms of travel. Maybe it was the worst in the last 10 years. However, there was a very serious reason to spend more time at home, reading or writing, for instance, than on the road: the baby D. was on his way and I had to follow a strict travel diet. But the things were not as bad in terms of travel as it may sound. I did spend almost every weekend outside Berlin and I extensively updated my knowledge about the city, despite the high heat and swollen feet. I did went by airplane twice, at the very beginning of the pregnancy, and spent almost 24 hours from London to Berlin by car. I did not bike, because I usually do not do it in ‘normal’ times, but spent at least two hours every day hiking or walking.

Now, with baby D. almost four months old and ready for his first big travel adventure, I am ready to share some tips for any woman traveller about to add a new member to the travel team.

  • Before you decide any travel plan, consult with your physician. Based on your age, type of pregnancy and specific situation, the doctor can recommend what are the best ways to cope with your wanderlust. After all, your health and the wellbeing of the baby matter the most.
  • Especially in the last months of pregnancy, avoid long trips. Try to keep your curiosity satisfied by exploring the local museums and your neighbourhoud.
  • If your situation allows, try to walk at least one slow hour the day. Avoid extreme hiking though and chose instead slow walks on flat terrain.
  • Always wear verz comfortable shoes. I hated my feet in the last two months of pregnancy: swollen and slow. However, I put in the closed any fancy high heells or uncomfortable shoes and intensively used a pair of sport shoes that were ugly but easy to wear.
  • Avoid carrying big bags. During one day and a bit trip to London, I had a small backpack, with some essentials.
  • Make as many stops as possible. No need to hurry up, take your time and look around. For me, the nine months of pregnancy were a blessed time when I savored every single second, slowly and focused on the present moment.
  • Drink a lot of liquids, especially if you travel during the hot summer days.
  • Include as many foodie stops as you need. Usually, I started my trips with a short stop for a little piece of cake and a cappuccino and continued with a generous lunch. And maybe an icecream a couple of hours later.

This was my happy and generally uneventful experience. Any thoughs and tips to share by other young mothers travelers around?

Buckow, the little German Switzerland

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It is amazing the fascination of Switzerland. There are so many places and corners compared to the country of cantons that it is very hard sometimes to make the difference between the copy and the original. As someone that spent some impressive amount of time in the real Switzerland, I am very cautious with the comparisons. A bit of curiosity, a bit of boredom and my limited options of travel this summer brought me to Buckow, just another destination less than 2 hours away from Berlin, situated in the so-called Märkische Schweiz. From Müncheberg train station, we embarked on a vintage train from the 1980s ride that for 3 Euro ticket (one way, two-way costs 5 Euro) will bring us to Buckow. The train is working only from May to October.DSC01321

The ride lasts for around 10 minutes, and I can even go on the top cockpit to follow the railway road through green forest and camping places or houses with tiled rooftops. In the forest might be many protected birds, as the entire area is considered a natural park, covering around 205 sqkm.

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Those curious to discover more about the train history can visit the small museum situated in the station. DSC01328

From the one and only train station in town, we just followed the Berliner street, following only our travel intuition – as there were no arrows to direct the travelers through various destinations in the city.

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The streets are empty, but I already got used with this first impression after visiting many other places around Berlin. It seems that during the summer either everyone is hiding  behind the stone houses or they just left the area during this unusually hot season.DSC01334From the concrete of the town we are heading smoothly through the forest. The air is much fresh and the temperature get balanced so I wish I can spend here the rest of my trip this time.DSC01336Some people not only wished they spend more time here, but are just having a great time for more than a couple of hours. Some early morning campers – some of them accompanied by their small children – are just getting out of their tents and having a breakfast with a view over the lake and the historical city. DSC01338And it seems that people are doing more than camping. Some may come here to study and meditate in the middle of a collection of stones from all over the North of Europe.DSC01344The famous literary couple Bertold Brecht-Helene Weigel chose this quiet place to spend some creative summer time. Their house is open now as a memorial museum.DSC01350

But you do not have to be excessively creative to decide living or spending a lot of time in Buckow. Many of the big houses have a view and even special access to the lake. Such a lake made me feel for a while to the many enjoyable boat rides around the lakes of Zurich or Geneve. Some of the big houses do have wooden decorations and paintings in the upper part, another reminder of the picturesque Switzerland.DSC01353Our efforts to get into a boat that is supposed to start a tour around the lake in less than 40 minutes failed. Especially after the captain of one of the boats kept making very uninspired jokes in presence of ladies. The time spent waiting for the boat to leave was enough to give us a view over the Schermützelsee. Wish we are one of those lucky owners of a personal boat to just go in the middle of the lake without depending on other doubtful options…DSC01360A good food can lift the spirits and from the balcony of the restaurant of Strand Hotel we keep observing the movement from the lake while tasting some seasonal local mushrooms – Pfefferlinge – meal accompanied by boiled potatoes adorned with fresh parsley and cooked with onions. A very simple meal without excessive oil.DSC01361The soup made from the same Pfefferlinge is creamy and salty.The brown bread with various seeds is a good taste companion. DSC01362When the weather is so hot, except the boat trip in the middle of the lake, sunbathing and swimming is an option not only for the locals but also from groups of youngsters arriving by car from Berlin. DSC01369

I may be tempted to hurry up to go back to Berlin, but I feel there is something else that can be seen here. For instance, the big castle park Bukow, with its special rehabilitation clinic park. Besides Nordic walking and simple hiking – on the Kaloerienpromenade – , it is also possible to try walking bare feet through the water. I take the last challenge, but my swollen feet were not exactly ready to cope with the many little stones.

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A walk through the streets of the historical center was a more enjoyable experience. Many of the houses are available for summer renting which might be a good idea, as the area looks quiet, without too many temptations. There are some small exhibition spaces such as Közwolf bei Brecht presenting local German works, and even a Korean restaurant and a movie theater, enough things to do for offering a right balance between the secluded time for rest and a minimal social face.DSC01396

Not an artist and not on vacation, I prefer to take my regular test around the lake, looking envious from my wooden bench at the kids jumping bravely in the warm water.

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Before taking the bus till the train station, a short visit at the colourful pottery shop bring more impressions about this visit. Maybe the comparison with Switzerland does not make too much sense, but at least it makes me feel I am very very far away of the busy city life. For now, I feel less guilty for my limited travel agenda and it is enough.

For more insights from Buckow, check  the dedicated Pinterest board: https://de.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/buckow-germany/

Neverending summer feeling in Kladow

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The local bus took me from the Spandau train station in Berlin leading for 30 minutes through forests and shadows of the leaves in the Brandenburg area. Not very far away from Potsdam, but on a relatively discrete road, there is a small place call Kladow, just another summer destination of my one-day journeys from Berlin.

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In 1992, Kladow celebrated 725 years, and the old streets and houses are reminding a certain nostalgia. At the first sight there are not too many visitors around, and I enjoy taking notes of different buildings and mentions of anniversary both for the use of the local and of the foreigner.

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The historian in me cannot ignore the old age of the settlement, the over 100 of years of the Firebrigade, or the 20,000 years of the big stone brought from the Scandinavian mountains. Near the lake, an old solar watch catches my attention as I am trying to guess different time settings.

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Close to the historical area, a metal statue of the local sculptor Volkmann Haase is aimed to represent the values of friendship. Me and travel, we are friends for ever and more, of course.

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There is no sign of life behind the windows of the old tradesmen houses. Is just another one of those unusually hot days in August and the streets are, as usual, empty.

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It seems that the entire life is concentrated near the lake, in the many restaurants and small icecream parlors. The sounds of the boat engines ready to go far away are like winter cat snores. Although most part of the boats from the sea parking are privately owned, renting your own is also possible, at affordable prices, like everything around Berlin.

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I change the perspective trying to follow the sound of the rhythmic paddling. Some just chose to enjoy this day by hard work…

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All the way from Potsdam, there is a big group of party boats coming my way. Accompanied by the unmistakable bottles of fresh beers, young groups descend noisily into corners of land. Everyone is having today!

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Expansive villas in the middle of green trees and flowers are interrupting the rustic reveries. As in the case of many other places around Berlin, Kladow is also becoming an attractive real estate destination.

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On the Masha Kaleko road I turn on the left and get lost in the field. I am not alone as many children and families are taking their walks or lunches on the grass. Lying on the grass I am watching a horse being walked around.

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The old big trees are creating natural labyrinths that I wish I am bold enough to follow. Or at least less lazy.

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Slowly, slowly, I am returning to the lake area, ready for another little detour around the waters. Families on bike, with or without dogs running hard to catch up warn me to watch my steps.

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As usual in the last weeks, I make some steps, I stop for a while, took a picture, take my breath and keep walking.

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The lake is very crowded with different types of boats, big white spots on the clear blue bordered by summer green. A German riviera, simple and discrete.

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Wish I am right now on one of those lazy boats, going nowhere, doing nothing, maybe just taking a little sunbath.

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Long walks require some good meal and after wandering for more than 5 hours, I need a long tasty stop. Out of many choices, I decide – how unusual for me – for a Chinese restaurant, Regent, offering the most diverse menu although not with a view over the sea as I would have imagined the happy ending of my trip here. My sweet champignons, with summer sprouts and other typical vegetables are brought on a hot plate, accompanied by a complimentary plum wine that I should politely refuse. The meal is just fine, with too much drops of oil poured on the vegetables.

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I throw one more view over the lake, hoping that there is still time to make just one more such a simple trip around Berlin and I start the long way back to the bus station. Swallowed feet and heavy breath, I offer myself another treat, this time some berries and pamplemousse icecream at the parlour on Sakrower Kirchweg. Fruity sprinkling cold taste that keeps me energized till the next bus chair from where I say good bye to the secret Kladow paradise.

For more inspiration, check the dedicated Pinterest board

Green summer day in Briesetal

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This summer, my travel plans and dreams were strictly limited for a good reason. Which does not mean that I was easily convince to spend quiet weekends at home. Rather the opposite: I just use the opportunity to discover interesting things to do around Berlin. And I was rewarded with a lot of worth to share discoveries. Briesetal, for instance, is just 40 minutes away from Berlin. You take the train till Fronau and from there a couple of stations more a local bus till the city hall. From there, you just need to follow some of the arrows and start walking. DSC01204

We just started the travel day by following the yellow circle sign, leading us from small forests to small lakes with empty boats and white water lilies. Short arched bridges were guiding our steps till the next polite concrete paved path in the middle of the quiet trees. We met many other short time travellers, but we just passed by without not even looking to each other.

DSC01213For a little treat on a hot day, we made a stop at the Boddensee restaurant, a small wooden hotel surrounded by water. Waiters in uniforms welcomed us with a menu whose prices were worth at least a half shining of a Michelin star. Disappointed by the scarcity of our demands, they brought us the cold cokes and smiled when we left.DSC01218

But not for food experiences we were in Briesetal, but for more walking and deep breathing. Just took another 0.6 km tour around the lake Monchsee.DSC01225

There is a little bit more in Briesetal to see. For instance,some spectacular street art decorating the walls of a youth center.

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Or the interesting architecture of the main street, combining old high wooden balconies with modern cubic architecture.

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The shopping opportunities are minimal: the usual food supermarkets and some small local clothes or gardening businesses.DSC01237Without consumerist temptations, I keep documeting the green oasis, tooking just another concrete paved way. You don’t even need special shoes or previous special hiking training. DSC01252The next and last stop was in a small birch forest inspirely located on the Birkenwaldstrasse (birken means birch). The locals cleaning their cars or fixing their yard noticed us with a shy smile, enough to fell us less intruders.DSC01264

The forest continues through a short walk through a newly harvested wheat field. A large area with plain golden roots. On the sides, bushes of wild plants, aparently inspiring enough some street art artist.

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The rest of the trip we slowly walked the streets near Hohen Neundorf. Nothing especially to notice except the big houses with curious eyes not used apparently with expats talking a bit too loudly for this time of the afternoon. The discovery of a gladiola field, at Blumenfelde (flowers’ field) interrupted the monotony. You just need to leave some money in a box and make your own bouquet. I did never appreciate this type of flowers and chose to leave the flowers for someone really in need for some special decorations. In the middle of the overwhelming green, the richness of the colours reminded me how easy is to be happy with your lot, your travel lot,of course.

For more images from Briesetal, check the dedicated Pinterest board

A summer without airplanes

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With only a couple of weeks – hope months – before the winter, the memories of the busy travel summer are still around. For over a month, I did an intensive country hopping, that lead me from the South of Germany to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Romania and Republic of Moldova. Usually, I’m the kind of traveler that can’t wait to arrive at the destination and thus, the airplane is always the choice no. 1. This time, I wanted to challenge myself with more slow travel and thus, alternated between (many) regional trains, buses and even mini-buses. From Konstanz, for instance, I used a regional Swiss connection, booked only 2 days advance from the train station in Konstanz. Surprisingly – and given the usual high prices I’m usually treated by the Deutsche Bahn – I got a very good price. The trains look good, with friendly personnel that helped me politely to get in time the shortest connections for the next destination.

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From the Eastern side of Switzerland to Liechtenstein, there are short-term buses, comfy, with a bit of air condition that goes in the middle of a beautiful scenery surrounded by spectacular mountains and quiet small houses. With the help of the Adventure Pass kindly offered by Liechtenstein Tourism Office I was able to explore extensively Vaduz, but also to use the public network for free for commuting in different parts of the city.

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On the way back to Konstanz, I tried something slightly different regional transportation, using some colourful little trains. When you switch so often countries, expect to significantly improve your linguistic proficiency. During my travels, I did my best – and sometimes succeeded – to leave the English for emergency situations, while using as often as possible the local languages of the country I was visiting. Don’t ask how your brains could feel after changing from German, then to French, then to Hungarian and then to Romanian.

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Due to the close neighbourhood, and the varied professional opportunities, it’s pretty easy to commute from a country to another in Europe: for instance living and shopping for food in Germany, working in Liechtenstein and eventually spending some summers in Switzerland. The trains around 15 o’clock and later are always busy with commuters, many of them ready to use the travel time to solve some important issues using the wifi opportunities on the board.

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Meanwhile, the little colourful trains ready to go in the scenic Switzerland destinations are calling to relaxing and enjoying the summer days, when possible. During the summer vacations, there is possible to take various rides in different popular locations, with windowless trains allowing real life landscape experience without leaving your cabin.

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Compared to the glamorous West, the Eastern part of Europe might be a bit shocking at the first sight. Many train stations look like there were never enough funds in the last decade to invest in the rebuilding, and some people hanging up around can be a bit intrusive. In Timisoara, for instance, I was surprised by the kind help of the lady from the ticket counter who helped me to find a simple and cheap connection to Brasov.

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I haven’t travel by train in Romania for more than 10 years, maybe, but was a bit surprised to discover that not too much changed, in terms of high-class comfort and facilities.

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Even the landscape stayed the same, with lots of weeds around the train lines, and tired personnel, not always able to help you too much. What I sometimes appreciate in the Eastern European part of the world, is the intensive dialogue and life sharing that can be done with full passion for one or two or more hours of travel between perfect strangers ready to share all the details of their life, although did not care about the name of the depositary of their secrets.

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The main reason I wanted to travel extensively slow, was for checking more carefully the reality on the ground, with a diverse overview over the landscape and even more human interactions. History is always present, but you need to be ready to catch it. In Arad train station, I spotted an old tent-roof stone building, hidden on the back of the train lines, most probably some kind of bunker left from the Cold War time.

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For the rest of the trip, I used intensively and on my own risk the local minibuses not only from a part to another of Romania, but also going as far away as Kishinev. The advantages are the very cheap prices and the availability round the day, with regular connections ready to go almost every hour. On the other hand, forget about safety belts, comfort or even cleanliness.

Now, that other travel adventures are calling my name, I’m glad that I made it through the summer and was lucky enough to be back home safe and healthy. A bit of slow travel once in a while can be a very rich experience, strongly recommended.

 

Kishinev, my Easternmost European destination

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I wanted to visit Kishinev for many years, but either I always rather took the plane in the direction of Western Europe, or I was too far away to include it in my short-term travel plans. Familiar with the history and with a couple of good friends from Moldova, I kept regretting that I’m not able to check the reality on the ground on myself. Shortly after the plans to visit Romania were established, the thought of paying a visit, although short, to Moldova, returned. What if? But with the never ending troubles in Ukraine, some worried friends advised me to rather go to the neighbouring Bulgaria or maybe better spend more time in Romania. But I hardly give up, especially when it comes to travel, so kept asking on travel forums and friends about what’s like to be a solo woman traveller in Moldova. When I needed only one more inspiration to finally book my tickets, I met a young taxi driver in Bucharest whose emotional accounts from his home country finally convinced me that I should not miss the chance to go there.

Although it is possible to fly or to go by train, I rather decided to take a minibus, from Autogara Filaret, place that looked completely out of time. The round ticket goes around 40 Euro pro person.

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The journey lasts around 8 hours, it’s relatively safe – if you forget about the need to use safety bells which were completely broken – and the mini-buses on both ways are ready to go every 2 hours. There are around 3 companies operating regularly and phone reservations are also possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy to get a place without, if you are in the station at least 30 minutes before departure.

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The custom checking was relatively smoothly, although during the summer time, the traffic was quite busy with people coming back home from Italy, Spain or France, among others. The country was recently included in the free-visa program of the EU, but many Moldavian citizens succeeded to get a Romanian passport – the two countries have a long common histories and for those with Romanian ancestors it was possible to get the citizenship – allowing them free travel and working opportunities in EU countries. On the way back though, the checking took much more, because entering the EU area involves some serious restrictions in terms of the quantities of cigarettes and alcohol that can be carried. As I was carrying only a small bag for my one night stay in Kishinev, I did not make too many worries and enjoyed looking out of the window. Once arrived in Moldova, the rich landscape kept my camera busy. Kishinev is situated in the middle of a beautiful natural landscape, one of the most favourite destinations for the weekend of the local people being the outdoor experiences of Rezervatia Codrii, a large area covered by forests, small hills and green paths.

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For purchasing my tickets, using the Romanian currency was possible, and in many places in Kishinev, it was still allowed to trade with it. This goes too for Euro. However, for paying in restaurants in shops, you rather need to use the local money, colourful pieces of paper adorned with historical characters from both the Romanian and local history. Many exchange houses are open on Sunday too, especially near the train and central bus station, as well as on Stefan cel Mare avenue.

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My first contact with the city was through its people: the driver of the mini-bus, kindly explained me where I should stop for reaching the street where I had rented a too large apartment; the owner of the apartment to whom I paid around 30 Euro for a huge 4-room complex – sometimes, the monthly salary is around 25 Euro, the country being considered the poorest in Europe – and who bought me some water, coffee and some small breakfast treats; the same owner who the next day insisted to pay my ticket to Dendarium park; the many anonymous people who helped me with directions either in Romanian, English and my very broken Russian. Thus, I felt not only safe, but also welcomed. Maybe the streets were looking bad and the contrasts between the very expensive 4×4 cars and the big holes on the roads were too big to ignore, but the warm hearts can open the eyes for long-time friendships.

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Either part of Romania or the Soviet Union, Moldova regained its independence only recently. The National Museum of History presents extensive local interpretations of history, covering also the repression during the communist years, although there are a lot of historical events completely absent.

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At the Museum of Art, although I was only 10 minutes before closing time, I was allowed to visit the Otto Dix exhibition featuring graphic war experiences during WWI. A couple of weeks later, I visited Dix’s home in the German city of Gera, keeping in mind this encounter.

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Most part of my time in Kishinev was spent walking the long avenues – especially around Stefan cel Mare blvd – noticing the local institutional architecture, strongly influenced by the communist/rigid Soviet architecture.

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In the main square, the arch that was used as a meeting points for anti-governmental protesters in the last months. For now, the situation is stable, the only travel warning being related to the travels in the crony Transdniestr region, which is out of the legal and administrative control of Moldova where it reigns a pro-Russian communist Soviet-style government.

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Almost each historical encounter in this city needs an addenda. For instance, this monument dedicated to the historical character of Stefan cel Mare was moved several times in the next decades due to various historical and political circumstances.

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The institutional buildings are unusually big – sign that working for the public institutions might be a serious offer on a very unstable market – and pleasant apparitions.

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The new national identity is displayed in the most simplest way and as often as possible, but in such an open warm way that you might accept easily the clumsiness of the very beginnings.

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As in Romania, summers in Moldova are very hot and due to the high energy prices, not all the places do have air condition. After a couple of good hours of walking, I decided to have a foodie stop, trying some local specialities at Andy’s Pizza, a local network with air conditioned restaurants all over the city. It’s open 24/24 hours, with home delivery, fast service and very acceptable prices. The menu was in both Russian and Romanian, but the waiters were able to speak some English too. The lemonade was fresh, cold, perfumed and with the right amount of lemon, although a bit too sweet. The veggie mushroom soup was creamy, rich in parsley and with lots of crunchy croutons. I ordered some fresh back bread because curious to taste it, and was not disappointed by its freshness and dough aroma. I continued with a four-cheese pasta with dried tomatoes, nothing special, but consistent and with a good combination of cheeses.

Although I did not notice too many traditional Moldavian restaurants, there are plenty of Georgian menus all over the city, serving also their famous wine. Moldova has its own famous vineyards, a bit far away from the capital city, at Cricova, a special tourist attraction that kept the Soviet space traveller Yuri Gagarin, among others, busy for a couple of good days with its variety of bottles.

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There are many small streets where some traditional architecture and houses that used to belong to middle class people at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them are part of the historical heritage and waiting for enough state funds to be rebuilt. On the Armenian street, some decorations of the windows included also some communist symbols, the famous sickle and the red star.

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For the late evening, I discovered close to my Badulescu Bodoni street, near the high building hosting the OSCE Mission, a huge park, Parcul Morii, with long trails of ups and downs stairs, few small restaurants and a huge lake with little beaches and walking paths. It looked like late in the evening, most part of the city’s population is out from the hot apartments for enjoying the fresh wind of the beginning of the night.

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Some courageous one were swimming, others were fishing, the kids were running around and young people were gathering together to look at their iPads – there is free wifi in the parks of Kishinev – or to watch and play some street music and dance. Earlier on in the city, I encountered a group of break-dance youngs and in the front of Stefan cel Mare central park, people were also listening to various music improvisations.

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After so many experiences the other day, I started my next and last day in Kishinev, with a colourful and very sweet breakfast, at Caramel, on Banulescu Bodoni. The indoors looked very elegant, with white and green stripes wall papers and a very welcoming service. The big rose macaroon has a combination of sour rose, very crunchy, but maybe too sugarly to have an original taste. The same was for the chocolate mousse, where I also felt too much oil and artificial sweet flavours.

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The Monday mornings brought more movements on the streets, and on Armeneasca street, fresh veggies and huge water melons were on sale.

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Nearby, there were also other products sold at very small prices, mostly Made in China and of low quality. More interesting finds were at the flea market near the National Theatre, on the – already famous – Stefan cel Mare blvd. Looking around at product descriptions and recommendations of travel destinations, the usual reference system we are used with in Europe is completely different. There were recommendations of trips to Georgia and Armenia, of beauty products from Belarus or of ready made clothing products from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Buses for Moscow and other local destinations in Russia are regular.

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One of my addictive discovery was the street sold kvass. With my usual innocent face, I asked the vendor what does it mean, what are the ingredients used? She – many teenagers were selling it, probably as a temporary summer job – was so surprised by my question that I felt ashamed to ask one more time. Instead, I bought if for less than 0.50 Euro and instantly fell in love with. A traditional beverage in Russia and Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet countries, it’s a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread, with an accidental – due to fermentation processes – alcoholic concentration of less than 1.2%.  During my last 4 hours of travel in Kishinev, I tried to get at least one cold plastic glass per hour.

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At another end corner of Stefan cel Mare blvd., I was introduced to the huge Dendarium park, a local Botanical Garden, with beautiful roses and various selections of local flowers. There were not too many people around, so I enjoyed the silent presence of nature. Without a clear tourism strategy and too many street maps showing the directions, a successful trip to Kishinev should relate to the recommendation of the locals, and given my pleasant experiences I had by far, it’s a great opportunity to meet new great people.

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Kishinev is a green city, with an urban presence growing up on the slopes of hills. The central area used to be always the privileged habitation of rich communist elites, while the newly areas of block houses were built for hosting proletarians from all over the Republic and other Soviet countries. In the countryside, people keep planting their gardens with fruits and vegetables and vineyards, and their hard work is a valuable source of revenue. The country might be poor and with salaries at the limits of survival, but the people keep smiling, I rarely heard cursing or aggressive encounters and the street women fashion is always glamorous.

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Although at the very busy central bus station, where comical events can take place, names of other cities like Cahul or Orhei, were screamed loud for attracting more travellers I decided that it might be enough for this one short trip and booked my bus ticket back to Bucharest. But did not want to leave before another foodie treat, at Blinoff, serving traditional Russian pancakes. I ordered another tasty lemonade – after so many glasses of kvass, I needed a change – which was very well made – it seems that people here really know how to prepare it – plus some hard cheese and mushrooms filling and bechamel sauce blinis. An excellent lavish treat before saying ‘good bye’. For a fresh glass of kvass I’m ready to return any time. And not only.

For more pictures from Kishinev, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/kishinevchisinau-republic-of-moldova/

Bucharest, a non-sentimental tour across 555 years of history

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The risk of knowing well or quite well a city you want to write about as a travel writer is to focus too much on the critical perspectives and writing too much about what not to do in the city rather than what’s really worth to see if you only have a couple of days to spend there. To be very honest from the beginning, Bucharest is by far one of my least favourite cities in Romania, but from a trip to another or a longer stay to another, I learned to know it and for the writing purposes it might be enough.

The city changed a lot – maybe too much – in the last decades, and this can be see especially in the architectural development – and its big failures. However, sometimes completely by chance, some streets still kept some original architecture from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century that the visitor cannot ignore it. My favourite one is situated at the beginning of Popa Nan street and used to belong to a worldwide famous local singer, Maria Tanase, that also used to be the muse of the famous sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

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If your observation is sharp enough, you might see very often these many-plies of cables. It looks exotic, scary, mysterious or threatening, but there is nothing to be afraid of: the technological needs of the city overpasses the technical ingenuity of its urban planners and at least for now, this is how various communication cables are set together – not necessarily in the most elegant way.

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Most often, behind the curtain of cables, traditional architecture can still be admired. The local ‘brancovenesc’ style is integrating folk and religious motives into solid building structures that used to be designed for the middle class entrepreneurs and traders whose development in the inter-war period was stopped by the installation of communism. Many of those villas were lost for ever, destroyed for being replaced by architecture-by-the numbers, but many of the surviving constructions went into new hands and restored.

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As I haven’t seriously visited the city in the last five years, I enjoyed the discovery of new interesting destinations, including shops. The former communist store Eva, from blvd. Magheru, was turned into an interesting exhibition of products created by local designers. Some of them were so good that I seriously resented the frustration of being on a very tight long-time travel budget. My favourite were the works by Adelina Ivan, Venera Arapu – whose pieces of fashion design I’m in love with for a long time and even have some of them in my closet – Stephan Pelger and Carla Szabo.

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Although at the first sight, the Magheru avenue, connecting University Square to Romana Square, might look very contrasting, with new and old-style shops, some neglected buildings, parking lots and hotels, there are many interesting spots and information telling short stories about the city. Like the statue of the Romanian composer of international reputation George Enescu, whose statue is situated close to the entrance to Eva shop. There is also a museum in the city dedicated to his life and activity – at Cantacuzino’s Palace -, hosted in the house where he also used to live, an interesting work of architecture in itself.

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On the same avenue, Magheru blvd. there is a small refuge that both local intellectuals and expats love: Carturesti bookstore, with Romanian and English books and music, as well as different quality design creations.

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Nearby, at Ciclop Parking, I discovered some interesting works of street art when and where I expected less.

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As you visit Bucharest in our times, in the first half of the 21st century, you have the choice of many hotels and nice accommodations, but once upon a time, Intercontinental Hotel used to be by far one of the most famous, as during communist, foreigners were not allowed in too many places – at least not without strict surveillance of the secret services. From the top of the hotel, one can have an overview of the city, with its various – sometimes chaotic – stages of development, but also an expensive drink at the bar.

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The University Square is not only a meeting place of students – the Faculty of Geography, Philology, Architecture and History are hosted in the buildings around – but also a former meeting place of anti-governmental protesters at the beginning of the post-communism era.

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There is another building in this area whose presence cannot be ignored: the National Theatre that this summer was in process of reconstruction. An allegorical installation of statues was recently created, giving to the entire area a certain surrealist touch.

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Going far away, near Unirii Square, the shopping temptations are threatening your credit balance, but you can just change your focus and look instead at the concert of fountains around People’s House. The entire area with many small traditional was almost overnight demolished, creating a lot of personal dramas. In the summer, the fountains bring more life to the communist baroque architecture of the buildings around, on the avenue that for a short time was called – The Victory of Socialism.

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In the central area, you can rarely avoid the profile of People’s House/Parliament Palace, the second highest after the Pentagon, hosting the local Parliament and other public institutions. Special guided tours in English are available and can be booked on their website, at least one day in advance. The construction started in 1984 and was finished many years after the end of communism. The interior looks spectacular, overwhelming and incredibly lavish, especially if you think about the famous chandeliers adorning some of the rooms, some of them using at least 7,000 light bulbs.

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Nearby, the Dambovita river, that was dramatically cleaned up in the last decades and which creates a lot of problems to the metro network during the rainy days. Otherwise, not a spectacular water presence, and not used for tourist purposes.

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Near Unirea square, most visitors will go to the Old Town, where besides lots of shops and hotels mushrooming, there are also some old museums, and galleries, including the old Bucharest citadel, explaining the city history. Another interesting source of inspiration and information for those curious to know more about the city, the Sutu Palace, just near University Square is recommended.

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In the last years, the Old Town, with its famous street Lipscani – a very local translation of Leipzig, a former street of traders from all over the world – went through a dramatic process of reconstruction. The result: a lot of bars, shops and open air restaurants. Due to its high concentration of tourists, the prices might be a bit higher than in the rest of the city.

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Some old shops, including the one selling wedding dresses were still there.

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Hidden close to the National Bank building, Villacross Passage offers a oasis of quietness and a couple of Oriental shisha lounges.

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Nearby, the Museum of History which has, besides interesting historical information that you might not know about Romania, the National Treasure, of old jewels mostly gold and precious stones, testimony about traditional handicrafts and traditions.

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The Old Towns abounds in foodie offers, including the iconic ‘Caru’ cu bere’ or ‘Hanul lui Manuc’. I rather decided for something more exotic, like the Shushiko, whose main disadvantage was to have the outdoor space situated just opposite some big garbage collection corner. As the summers in Bucharest are very hot, expect some flies coming up and down your food very often due to this. Otherwise, the service was unexpectedly fast and indoors there is air condition and clean. The veggie tempura – carrots, zucchini – was tasty, although the dough was a bit too much, but was brought warm and combined with the soy sauce tasted better. The edamame were well cooked and the avocado tamago sushi not spectacular, just the usual taste expectation.

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From there, the trip continued in other parts of the city, still keeping close to the central area. The Military Circle is another historical reference, with an outside terrace serving beers, among others. Just 10 minutes of walk from there, the Cismigiu park is a recommended destination for the summer time. Another famous and bigger park, Herastrau, with a huge lake where you can rent boats and make bike tours around, is situated on the other side of the city.

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Even after more than one visit in the city, the cocktail – not always successful – of architectural sizes and building heights is unusual. Sometimes, the old-new school of architecture succeeded to change the perspective, as it happened in the case of Novotel hotel, whose glass wing was politely and naturally added to the old structure, dramatically reconstructed.

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The mother of all contrasts is the Revolution Square, just in the front of the building where the communist dictator Ceausescu had his last speech. Controversial statues with ambiguous artistic messages and highly disputable artistic choices co-exist with the classical building of the Central Library or other statues of ante- and post-communism political personalities.

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The former Royal Palace, currently the Museum of National Art is the aesthetic refuge against the overloaded discourse of the street. It hosts an impressive collection of traditional Romanian art and collections by world painters that necessarily should be on the priority list of any visitor in Bucharest. During the anti-communist riots from December 1989, part of the museum, including some valuable works of arts, were partially destroyed.

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On the other side of the street is the statue of the former King Charles I, and close to it was installed a sign reminding, in the colours of the national flag, that the city is celebrating this year 555 years since is documentary mention.

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The streets around are always busy, with the high traffic coming and going to Calea Victoriei. Inside the Romanian Athenaeum the noise stops leaving the floor to the classical music. Every two years, in the autumn, here it is organized the international classical music festival ‘George Enescu‘ and very often, you might encounter free open air concerts organized in the front square. When there are no concerts, a short visit inside is recommended for admiring, among others, the historical fresco explaining various historical moments.

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The streets and small shops on the streets around are charming and with a stylish yet youngish air. With a revolutionary selfie mirror installed on one of the doors of the shops near Hilton Hotel.

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But I did other interesting things instead of taking my selfies. Like, for instance, visiting (finally) Theodor Aman Museum, dedicated to the work and life of the founder of the Romanian school of Fine Arts. Besides the valuable works of arts exhibited – many influenced by the French culture, as in the case of the literature as well – the architecture of the house tells its own story about the living habits and costumes from the end of the 19th century as well.

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Nothing compares, though, with the pleasure of meeting fellow travel bloggers while on the road. At the cosy Infinitea, hosted in a classical garden house in Cotroceni area,  Vlad, from Eff it, I’m on Holiday shared with me some tips and thoughts about the city and travel blogging. Tea houses were introduced in the city a couple of good years ago, but remain a stylish option to spend some good quiet time with a flavoured cuppa and friends in the city, both during the summer and in the winter.

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At a terrace close to the statues from the University square, late in the evening, I quenched my thirst with a rainbow non-alcoholic cocktail at Infusion. In the vicinity, during the summer, an open theatre is playing various movie hits of the year(s).

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At the recommendation of Vlad, I checked the next day some more street art, this time on Arthur Verona street and was not disappointed by the diversity of works and styles, as well as the insertion of the work within the urban narrative.

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From there, I arrived to one of my favourite parks, Gradina Icoanei and Ion Voicu, discrete islands of green quietness in a city of busy and sometimes too nervous people.

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On Blv. Dacia, where a lot of embassies and diplomatic representations are situated, I paid a short visit to the classy French Institute – closed during the summer – where I spent a lot of time in the company of French literature and the special ambiance of a place where it looked there is no place for the outside world.

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After long days of explorations of the city, getting lost without a proper map other than the language, in the most far away areas, meeting a lot of young people and discovering new artists and designers and writers, I left the city with an enriched impression. I still don’t love Bucharest very much, but getting to know it more is my polite way to show my availability for more understanding at least. With so many histories and its rich architecture, this city will always have some secrets challenging me to discover.

One day, will be back.

For more insights from Bucharest, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/bucharest-romania/

For some live videos of the daily life, have a look at my YouTube videos here, here and here.

Hiking at Poiana Brasov, Romania

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Hardly any stay to Brasov goes without at least a very short trip to Poiana Brasov. From the bus central station – the buses are regularly and beware that especially in weekends and during summer holidays are very crowded – a 30-minute trip leads to the little mountain resort that in the last 10 years went through a huge transformation, with many luxury hotels as well as villas and moderate accommodation mushrooming.

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The same can be said about the various restaurants, although most iconic ones, like the classical tourist destination ‘Sura Dacilor‘, with animal fur hanging up on chairs and various traditional items displayed on the walls. It serves a lot of meaty food, accompanied by the traditional beans soup, polenta or the tzuica drink, a very strong plum – usually with a concentration of 28-60% alcohol.

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But Brasov was already too generous with us, offering a lot of foodie temptations, so we decided rather to try burning some more calories. With the cable car, we go on the top of Postavarul Mountain, with a beautiful overview over the entire region. During the winter, Poiana Brasov is changing into a ski resort, one of the top destinations of this kind in Romania.

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The glamour we encountered before disappeared. We pass near a burned cottage and lots of tourists keen to reach the top of Postavarul Massiv. With its 1799 m. it is a relatively easy ride – many experienced hikers preferred to climb on the top by foot too – and the views are very beautiful, embracing the most interesting part of Prahovei Valley. You can have a short snapshot of the heart-breathing view here and here.

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Although the climbing is not that difficult and many people are bringing their 4-5-year children too, it’s important to have good shoes, as a big part of the walking is through sharp stones.

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When the weather is fine and there are not too many clouds, one can see too far away, on the other side of the mountains. Everything looks small and relatively isolated in the middle of the forest.

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On the way back, we go by foot, walking almost intuitively as not the entire path is marked. However, the ride is easy, and we cross path with many people that eventually can help with a direction in case we are lost. Many are either jogging or walking, or trying some extreme sports, driving ATVs or mountain bikes. However, late in the nights or evenings, unexpected furry inhabitants, like big Carpathian bears can be an occurrence and thus, it does not make too much sense to adventure too far away off the beaten path.

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The road we chose – Drumul Rosu/Red Path – is easy as we have proper shoes too and it goes maybe too fast. The landscape keeps being beautiful and there are lots of interesting flowers and small insects to discover.

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We made a long coffee stop – but with a great view – at Postavarul Cottage, built at the end of the 19th century and burned several times. It’s situated at 1604 m. altitude and it still has some free places for accommodation. Such places do have basic amenities – like beds and some breakfast and some common restrooms and during the winter some extra cold is complimentary. Otherwise, it does have free wlan but also some lizards.

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Refreshed and rested, we keep going on, simply enjoying the view and the silent landscape. Although there are a lot of people around – either tourists enjoying their holiday time or locals spending their Sunday here – it’s relatively quiet.

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Back at Poiana Brasov, we made a little tour of some of the fancy locations, but rather prefer to keep enjoying the simple ambiance of the mountain ride.

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Among many interesting facilities offered by the hotels and resorts in Poiana, horse-back riding is one of the most popular, addressing both children and adults, with special classes offered at relatively acceptable prices. Bowling and spa are other two main activities that can be practised here.

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The road back to Brasov can be done in less than one hour and it’s worth the effort. The hiking is easy, but still one should be careful and watch his or her steps. Most probably that on a rainy day, the road gets muddy and the risks are higher, but otherwise, we spent a pleasant walk cleaning the lungs with the fresh air of the mountains.

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When the trip was over I was glad that I decided to return to Poiana Brasov. Although a classical trip in a place where I’ve been for so many times as a kid, it’s always a good and healthy option to spend one Sunday off town, in the middle of the nature, with a minimal investment.

For more pictures from Poiana Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/poiana-brasov-romania/

Foodie Brașov

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With so many activities and walking and hiking, plus the fresh air that always encouraged my appetite, Brasov called my name with a lot of foodie temptations. From classical Romanian restaurants with Transylvanian specific menus – it means a lot of red chilli pepper – to Chinese and German inspired cuisine, this city has a lot of interesting offers for the curious food lovers. Depends what you are in the mood for. One day, for instance, I wanted some gourmet chocolate and paid a visit to the newly opened Chocolat,  branded smartly as a ’boutique-restaurant’. My Ispahan – fresh raspberry mousse, macaron, raspberry again, dulce de leche and a beautiful rose petal on the top brought a fountain of sweetness and fine sugar into my palate. Perfumed, crunchy elegant, with the surprising cold leche in the middle was unforgettable and one of the top foodie experience of the summer. Chocolat, the subsidiary of a similar but richer in offer restaurant in Bucharest, also  has vegan chocolate and a delicious black coffee – to be tasted with a teaspoon of brown sugar.

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Some other day, I wanted to have my first Singaporean noodles, at the restaurant on Appollonia Hirscher Street no. 2. The street is close to the central Piata Sfatului, the main tourist area, where are situated restaurants and bars, many of them offered at a good price with moderately English speaking waiters. The service was hectic and very slow and not necessarily friendly, although I was speaking the language, but at the end, I was brought my rice noodles with veggies, ginger, lemon grass. Too watery and unexpected sweet and not necessarily with a special taste, but a good combination after all.

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Still hungry, I ordered some fish and chips, with tartar sauce and zucchini chips, that, again, were not like the original tasty fish and chips, maybe too oily and the veggies too roasted to keep their original taste, but my hunger calmed down after a while.

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I was luckier with the cocktail too, the honeymoon fresh combination of orange juice, apple, lime and maple syrup. I didn’t feel too much apple, but it was a good choice for the late summer hot evening.

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I could not resist to not have a coffee too, a creme brulée made of double espresso, caramel and milk. Brought hot was a contrast with the previous non-alcoholic cocktail, but brought me at the normal body temperature. Very sweet but still strong enough.

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In the yard of the recently renovated synagogue from Poarta Schei no. 27, there was open a kosher restaurant, a perfect choice for an outdoor meal during the summer. It’s a small friendly place, with nice young people and a lot of traditional foods cooked according to the kosher style (those careful about the highest level of glatt – strictest kosher standards – should request, of course, detailed information from the knowledgeable rabbinical authority). The huge lemonade, that reminded me of the lemonade I cannot have enough in Israel was brought and my day was looking much better.

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The cycle of memories continued with the tasty beef meatballs soup – the Romanian ciorba de perișoare – with a lot of veggies and the exact quality of salt to make it tasty which reminded me of childhood and home-made food.

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I continued with a well done steak with French fries, as simple and tasty as possible.

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As everywhere in Eastern Europe, expect to find a lot of street counters too, selling various traditional pastry and pretzels – covrigi – as well as Turkish-inspired foods as kebap and falafel.

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One of my favourite places by far was the farmer’s market near Star shop, not only for the delicious fruits – was finally was able to have enough cherries without thwarting my careful financial planning for the month – but also for the social interaction. Once you enter this space, expect to be called by one vendor or another to buy rather for them, at a better, sometimes negotiable price. It goes for flowers and everything else sold there.

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Shortly upon arrival, I was more than once recommended to have at least one stop at a famous local crepe store – The House of Crepes/Casa Clătitelor. I was not too delighted with the service – seriously, it’s such a pity that people look and behave so unhappy when they serve you – but some unhappy minutes put aside, I fully enjoyed my fatty crepes: banana filled, with a lot of whipped cream and caramel on the top, accompanied by a fresh lemonade. The indoor space is quite dark but outdoors it’s best also because it is situated on a central street and, together with some bunch of teenagers that were spending some hours here, I did some serious street watching. Me, of course, for the noble aim of travel writing.

Brasov was my best foodie stop during my trip to Romania and was glad that I discover some new full flavoured corners of the city. This is how the good travel memories are always kept tasty.