Hello Family and Friends,
We last left off making our way through Romania. When we first set off on our trip we weren't interested in ticking off countries but wanted to spend time and get to know each place we were visiting. After 17 months of leisurely making our way along we decided to pick up the pace and move through a few countries. The main reason for this is that we found out that our friends, Jason and Sladjana, were going to be in Belgrade and we had one night to visit them. We thought it was probably going to be last time we saw friends before we got home so we picked up the pace a little. At the time it didn't seem like a whirlwind but when we were picking out pictures to use for the blog we realized that we busted through quite a few places. This blog covers about two weeks time so it wasn't really that rushed based on a normal two-week trip but it was tough for us to bounce around on buses and trains every couple of days. However, we did see some great places and got to "tick off" several places. Looking at it in the rearview mirror we have to say we're glad we did it. It seems like everyday we're asking ourselves "Where were we when this happened?"
Well, on THIS particular day we pulled into Brasov, Romania. Brasov is in the heart of Transylvania and a great place to be based to see the famous Dracula's castle and other small towns around Transylvania. Brasov is a beautiful city with lots of history,old churches, and a city square. All of this is set with a mountain backdrop.
It was pouring rain when we arrived which was appropriate to set the mood for Transylvania.
We'll get more into Brasov a little further down. We set out to Bran to see what is generally known as "Dracula's castle". We caught a local bus for the one-hour bus ride. This particular bus had about 4,000 air fresheners in it. Why are there so many air fresheners?
How this became known as Dracula's castle we can't tell you. Obviously, we could quote a few things from Wikipedia. That would feel like we were writing a school paper though. Here's what we can say: Dracula was a fictional character created by Bram Stoker, an Irish author, who never visited Transylvania or even Romania for that matter. The character was loosely based on Vlad the Impaler, a horrible historical figure but at most Vlad the Impaler only visited the famous castle. Transylvania was one of the places that Josh used to talk and dream about with Leanne before we left so it is fair to say this was one of his "top spots." Envisioning lonely, dilapidated castles on top of cloudy, rocky and dreary mountains is the image we had in our minds. We expected to hike up to this castle surrounded by trees with a constant drizzle while horse drawn carriages raced up the mountain. Ahhh, maybe we watch too many movies. Instead of this we stumbled across Knott's Berry Farm and Busch Gardens with a sprinkle of Disney Land and a touch of a county fair.
It turns out that every tourist within a 1,000 mile radius comes here to see the castle. Oh well, so much for the imagination. How about a mask to add to the cheesiness?
We walked up a small hill surrounded by 10,000 tourists to reach the castle. If anything it felt like the zombie apocalypse instead of Dracula's Castle.
These masks are actually kind of cool.
Everything looks spookier in antique.
That's the spirit Leanne!
Seriously? Was everybody a midget back in those days? If that's the case Josh would have loved it back in those days.
Bear skin? How dare you, sir! (Josh's nickname is "Bear" back home for those of you who don't know)
There's no denying that it made for some amazing photos.
There's the hilltops we were envisioning.
The green landscape is a good indicator that it rains frequently here. We were caught in a few rain storms ourselves during our visit. However, this day it was just a gloomy, overcast day. We were hoping for rain and crashing thunder to make it feel more Dracula like.
Editing with antique really does make it look more eerie.
Taking an observation break
So long castle and Dracula, the figment of a writer's imagination.
Wait, one last walk around the park for a last look.
The scattered clouds made for a much creepier, drearier castle picture.
The sun made the surroundings look too bright and cheerful. Judging by Josh's face in this picture, he was not as cheerful about taking this picture. He was ready to go at this point.
However, this sign put a big smile on his face.
We caught one last glimpse before boarding the air-freshened bus back to Brasov.
We returned to Brasov with a few hours of daylight left so we wandered through a nearby park. These fantastic ladies caught our attention. We imagined what their eyes have seen and their ears have heard throughout their lives in Brasov. They looked liked the best of friends as they all squeezed onto that park bench ready to recount the latest gossip. It made us miss our friends back in the states. We can only hope you all haven't forgotten about us?
Those clouds look like they could promise a thunderstorm.
This sign said it all for what was on the agenda that day. We were keeping it simple by taking a free walking tour.
Our guide, Alina, showed us the highlights of Brasov.
These guys dress up and play the horns in the town square every night at 6:00 pm.
Town square? We've seen many town squares over the past few weeks.
The "Black Church". It's a nickname given to the church after it survived a massive fire.
The narrowest street in Eastern Europe.
Hollywood? No. It's Brasov!
Great view from one of the hills
Many people have asked Leanne how she has such a variety of clothing while traveling with such a small bag. She wanted to maintain some sort of fashionable look even while on the road. Her little secret is second hand shops. She occasionally purchases a new item of clothing from a "real" store but most of the time she finds gems in second hand stores. The rule is she must donate or giveaway an item of clothing when adding a new item to her attire. This awesome red skirt was purchased from this second hand store in Transylvania. The tag says " Made in West Germany". Now that's one vintage skirt and it only cost $2!
After extending a day in Brasov we were ready to head on our way to Bucharest. To be honest, we were a little leery about going to Bucharest. We met a girl while we were in Moshi, Tanzania just before we completed our Mount Kilimanjaro trek. We didn't exchange information because we didn't really think our paths would cross again. She actually asked the lady we stayed with in Moshi for our information and tracked us down through our blog. We were pleasantly surprised to hear from her and even more surprised when she offered to host us and show us all around Bucharest when we made our way there in a few weeks. Wow, how cool was that! We emailed back and forth and told her we would get in contact once we knew our schedule better but we told her some rough dates for late in July. It was June when she first contacted us. As time neared, we rearranged our schedule to be in Bucharest when she told us she would be available. We wrote her several emails and didn't get a response back. Sure enough, she flaked out. Huh? She hunted us down and then left us high and dry? She even said she would pick us up, let us stay with her, and take us around town. We were excited about seeing her and getting a local experience of the city. We actually did some online investigating to make sure she was okay because we were worried about her.
We wondered if everybody in Bucharest behaved this way until we remembered a rule we've reminded ourselves over and over again. No matter where you go there are bad people in the world and there are great people in the world. In the end, we wondered what her original motive was and decided it may have been a good thing she flaked. We just so happened to run into a bad person so we shook it off. It turned out to be a good thing that we did because the people in Bucharest were very friendly and helpful. (Well, except for one)
After we got settled we headed over to the park. It was so incredibly hot in Bucharest. Later, our guide told us it was the hottest day in history.
This picture pretty much sums up just how hot is was. It was "I am going to take a nap on this bench, right here, right now, HOT!"
Boomerang...it's a funny word to say, but has anyone tried throwing one? It's harder to master than you think. Some guy gave Josh one to practice with while we were walking around the park. We tend to walk around parks quite often; it's a great way to people watch. Josh tossed it around a few times but it just kept soaring up in the air and coming right back down.
That is until this nice guy came and showed him how to properly throw a bommerang.
It was time for yet another free walking tour. This was by far the BEST walking tour we have been on.
Stefano was an amazing tour guide; engaging, funny, witty, knowledgeable, you name it!
Here's a Vlad the Impaler statue that managed to not get destroyed. Our guide explained to us just what impaling was and how many he impaled. This was an image we could have done without.
Coolest manhole covers ever!
There was an explanation for this statue but it was almost as strange as the statue itself. Oh well, here's to being unique.
Some more of the sites around town.
After a couple of days in Romania it was time to move along to Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, we only had a few days to spend in all of Bulgaria so we decided to focus on Sofia. If you find yourself traveling around this part of the world we would suggest spending a lot more time in the country. The coast looks amazing and there is so much to do. We really, really wish we had more time but we tried to squeeze as much as we could into the short amount of time we were there.
We went on yet another walking tour but this one turned out to be a dud. It was so crowded and long that both of us were bored in the end. By the way, what's up with the three dread, mullet guy in front of us? It was definitely hard to concentrate with that baby staring you in the face.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
We were trying to figure out why this street was blocked off so we just snapped a picture real quick before we figured it out.
Ahhh, another protest. Is it just us or are there a lot of protests in Eastern Europe? This particular protest was extremely peaceful and carried out by the middle class families. The protest was to encourage the old communist leaders to step down and let true democracy take over.
After our short stay in Sofia we were headed out again to Skopje (pronounced Sko-pia) in Macedonia. For some reason, we found ourselves saying it with a Sean Connery accent. Try it, makes it sound so much cooler, right? When we originally headed to Skopje the plan was to spend a couple of days in Skopje, Macedonia, a few days in Ohrid, Macedonia, and then head to Kosovo for a night before our rendezvous with our friends in Belgrade, Serbia.
Your not going to believe this when we tell you but the main square in Skopje reminded us of Las Vegas. Seriously. Not so much the gambling but the brand new shiny fountains everywhere made out of white marble. It was pretty crazy. This particular statue is of Alexander the Great who was from Macedonia NOT Greece (at least according to them).
We got away from the crazy square to visit the oldest mosque in town. We're like old pros with these mosques, just wash your feet and in you go. It was so hot outside that getting the feet wet part was the best part of the deal.
We made a quick stop by Mother Theresa's childhood home. We thought she was from Albania but they insisted she was from Skopje so we didn't argue.
We were told that Ohrid was a "must see" stop in Macedonia. We couldn't miss the "must see" place so we headed there for two days of fun in the sun.
There weren't really beaches to lay out at, just mass amounts of people gathered around the side of the lake, laying on stretches of small pebbles and dried up grass. We didn't want to fight for a spot near the water so we decided to spend the first day seeing what Ohrid had to offer.
Stunning little church on the lake
Hiking in flip-flops? This wouldn't be the first time for that. Side note: Josh blew out his flip-flops in Montenegro. He had a few beers to drink and insisted that he needed to go buy new flip-flops immediately. Leanne didn't accompany him on this shopping trip. Huge mistake! He came back with faded red (more like pink) flops that said MONTENEGRO on the soles. Leanne laughed upon the first glance. Josh's response "they were the cheapest I could find." High five to saving money but the flops are awful. They have no grip whatsoever and are incredibly uncomfortable, but Josh continues to sport them until they blow out.
Views from the fort
Taking a little breather by the church
and stopping to smell the roses. Too cheesy?
After our visit to Ohrid we headed back to Skopje (insert Sean Connery voice) for the night before our anticipated departure to Kosovo. Josh was researching and discovered something very interesting. You can't cross the border into Serbia from Kosovo! What? This made no sense to us but we decided to not risk it just in case what we read online was true. FYI, it turned out to be absolutely true. Here's why: Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country. This means that if you cross from Kosovo into Serbia you haven't officially gone through passport control so you have to return where you came from and enter the country through a Serbian passport control. When you enter Kosovo you go through a Kosovo passport control, get the stamp, all that good stuff but according to Serbia you are in Serbia and don't have a Serbian stamp so you are in the country illegally. Clear as mud?
This meant we would have to stay another night in Skopje and take a day trip to Kosovo so we could return to Macedonia to enter Serbia through a different, "Serbian approved" border.
Whew! With all that explained (hopefully) we were on our way to Pristina, Kosovo for the day to see the coveted Bill Clinton statue. Ok, coveted is probably the wrong word but when we originally heard of this while hitchhiking (see Albania to Montenegro post) with the crazy Kosovo guys that picked us up we had to check it out.
Wait for it...
THERE IT IS!!! The old Bill Clinton statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard. The reason for the statue is in thanks to the NATO mission that helped stop the war in Kosovo.
Is that a selfy-stick picture you ask? It sure is. We whipped that thing out amongst everyone walking through the streets and took a picture with Bill like any proud American would do. We received several smiles while taking this picture. Nothing screams "We're American" than taking a picture like this. The good thing is that the people of Kosovo love Americans, almost too much. We found ourselves speaking really quietly to each other hoping that no one would hear us because it was so uncomfortable.
Of course, you can't have a Bill statue without a Hillary dress shop next door.
We're not kidding when we say they love America and Americans (see picture below). For good measure, Josh drank an RC Cola while we were visiting...it's been around since 1905. Did you know it's manufactured in Colombus, GA? We read it on the label. Of course, Leanne took a sip too to represent GA.
While we were quietly having fun seeing all the funny American things there was definitely an ugly side to all this. Kosovo is a very poor country. You can see the damage and ill repair everywhere.
This beautiful church was overgrown with weeds and in need of some upkeep.
An average sidewalk in Pristina. The people in Kosovo were so friendly and we felt bad that we came in for a day to gawk at their Bill Clinton statue and then make our way out in one day. The sad part is that we considered the prices to be high so imagine what it is like for the average citizen. We have no idea how these poor people make it by. They've seen worse we're sure.
The college kids were lined up for registration. It's good to see that they are pushing education. This has got to be the strangest looking university we've ever seen.
We made our way back to Skopje (you just did the Sean Connery voice) late that afternoon and will never forget our short time in Kosovo. Would we suggest visiting there? Meh, maybe. They still have a lot of things to finish including a main commercial street that looks to be half-way finished. There really isn't much to see but if your thing is visiting with local people this is a great place to go.
It was time to bid our farewell to Macedonia and make the long jaunt to Belgrade, Serbia. Our Denver friends, Jason and Sladjana, were already there ready to meet up with us. We were beyond excited. Sladjana is Serbian and they were there to visit her family and vacation on the Adriatic Coast. After a few hours of frustration trying to find a room in Belgrade, we finally settled in and spruced ourselves up for a night out on the town. Sladjana's cousin and her husband even joined us for dinner. The ladies did an excellent job ordering food and drinks for the table. Yum!
Cheers to good friends, good food and good times!
One of the things to do in Belgrade is to party on the boat clubs on the River Danube. It's definitely a unique experience and we wouldn't have been able to figure it all out without Sladjana's help. While Sladjana sang along to the songs, we danced and pretended to know what was going on. It was a blast!
Here's some Balkan bling for you!
We were proud of ourselves because we stayed out until 4:30 am! That's one of the latest nights we've had on the trip. Jason and Sladjana were troopers because they battled right through their jetlag.
Even though it was a Friday night we have a sneaking suspicion that every night is a Friday night in Belgrade. Everyone is ready to party and dance the night away. It just so happens that we put our party pants on that night too.
After less than 4 hours of sleep, we woke up early to see the sights of Belgrade. We were scheduled to leave on a train bound for Budapest, Hungry early the next morning so we had to make as much of the little time we had there.
A reminder of Belgrade's checkered history.
Since we are vagabonds in the truest form, the following morning it was time to board a 6:00 am train headed for Budapest. We definitely rushed through this part of the world and we wish we had more time to visit each place. However, the planet is large and it beckoned us to explore more of it's beauty.
Jason and Sladjana, you made our trip to Serbia a memorable one and we can't thank you enough for meeting up with us. The laughs, the food, the dancing, the music, the fun, it's all something we will forever cherish. We just wish we had more time to spend with you. We hope you enjoyed the rest of your vacation and thanks again for allowing us to take a vacation from our vacation. We miss you guys and can't wait to dance to Serbian music, errr, see you in Denver.
Guess what? We are finally less than a month behind in our blog! Hopefully, we can get caught up soon. To be honest, this blog is becoming more and more of a struggle for us to write. It's hard to keep it up with it after 18 months. However, we've gone this long and Leanne won't let us stop. If it was up to Josh, we would have stopped writing it during our second month on the road.
As always, thanks for following us!
Leanne & Josh