Balea Lac and the Ice Hotel

I wish I could say that I’ve been super busy and too distracted to post lately, but the truth is that I’ve had a lot of free time. I’m feeling pretty relaxed. Instead, however, of devoting this energy to constructive projects (like this blog), I’ve simply given up and become a human burrito.

e2e55e2aaea33943802d68fb82842a40

You see, it’s very cold here. Obviously from my last post (about the blizzard), we’re having an actual winter. I’m adjusting (? maybe?) but the truth is that being outside in the cold basically sucks a lot of your ambition out of you and you end up snuggled in your jammies watching Netflix. I’ve watched some very good TV lately. I watched The Crown, Poldark, Rebellion, and Vikings.

wp-1485154737956.jpg

But every now and then we get an urge to go do something, and after the new year we decided to drive to the Fagaras Mountains and take the telecabina to Balea Lac. In the summer, you might actually be able to drive up to Balea Lac, if the Transfagarasan is open, but right now it’s under about ten feet of snow.

wp-1485085115494.png

The Ice Hotel was our main motivation for making the trek up the hill, and it did not disappoint. We just visited, and I’m glad. I wouldn’t recommend actually sleeping there because the beds were very…firm. Everything, including the floors, is made out of ice. If you’re more of the Yeti/Sasquatch “love the cold” type, this is probably the hotel for you.

wp-1485085115460.png

Trying to find a comfortable way to sit on the ice bed

Each room is decorated in a different theme, and they carve figures out of the walls. I think this year’s theme for the whole hotel was Hollywood. They had Darth Vader, the Gladiator, a dinosaur, and an Orc. Also, Mihai Viteazu and Jesus. Because this is an ice hotel in Romania, after all.

wp-1485085115461.png

Jesus, dinosaur, Mihai V., and an Orc

We toured the hotel and watched the men use chainsaws to cut the ice blocks out of the lake. The blocks were this absolutely gorgeous color of blue. They looked like sea glass. The men used snow mobiles to drag the ice blocks over to the construction site. On this day, they were building an ice church.

wp-1485085115512.png

I think we spent about an hour on top of the mountain. We were lucky because when we got there we had good visibility and we could see the view from the cliffs down to the valley. At some point, it became very cloudy and started to snow, so visibility was basically nil. We decided to leave at that point, mostly because we were becoming ice blocks ourselves.

Here is a short video with some more moments from the Balea Lac and the Ice Hotel.

 

Traveling: Rome

wp-1480604819207.jpg

Rome, Italy – Mythological birthplace of the Vespa

A week ago, we found that we were both going to have a few days off work at the same time. The obvious thing to do in this situation? Book a last minute trip to Rome, duh. We had wanted to go at the end of October, but it hadn’t worked out.

wp-1480604819210.jpg

Actual autumn happening in Rome, Italy!

Thanks to Google Flights and the ITA Flight Matrix, we were able to get a really nice deal on our flight. I highly recommend using both of those websites to help you plan your trips, especially if you have flexible dates. Booking.com helped me find a great deal on our hotel  (located in the Vatican City part of town). I’ve used booking.com a few times now, and I guess I’ve earned some kind of status with them. When you book with them five times, any subsequent bookings are 10% off. It doesn’t seem like too much of a discount when your room is so cheap, but this time it helped make up for the nightly Rome city tax (which ended up being 32 euro for our trip).

wp-1480604818911.jpg

Mosaic floor in the Vatican Museum

Getting to Rome was a bit of an experiment in planes, trains, and automobiles. Our flight was scheduled to leave OTP airport in Bucharest at 6:30. It takes about three hours to get there from Brasov. We didn’t have any luggage to check, so technically we didn’t need to be there two hours before the flight (the airport is not very big and there are no lines at security or passport control). However, our airport shuttle recommended we leave Brasov by 1:00 am at the latest in order to make sure we had enough time.

wp-1480757702406.jpg

Bucharest under the clouds…

So our first day of our Rome trip, we left our apartment at 1:00 am and arrived in Bucharest at 4:00. We got coffee and settled in at our gate to wait for boarding. Our flight was short and sweet – I’m guessing – because I was able to sleep through the whole thing. We landed in Italy and after shuffling through their understaffed passport control, we decided to take the train into Rome.

wp-1480757732573.jpg

The yellow line will eat your leg

Ciampino airport is outside of Rome, so you have a few options of how to get into the city.

  • You can take a taxi – I think it’s 30 euro
  • You can take a bus to the Termini metro/train station
  • Or…you can take the train that will take you to the Termini station

We thought the train would be faster. It probably would be faster. It’s just that you have to transfer to the train station from the airport by a city bus first…so taking the train ended up being about an hour. So you go plane -> bus transfer -> train station -> Termini (bus/metro/train station) -> bus to hotel. Did you get all of that?

capture

Ciampino Airport is a short ways outside of the city

Also, it was rush hour and we were on the main train into the city. Let’s just say, if you’re not cool with being smooshed into fifty of your newest best friends, maybe the taxi would be a better option. Many Euro Trip jokes were made. “Mi scusi!”

 

We purchased the Roma Pass at the airport, so once we got to the Termini metro station, all of our public transportation was free. The pass was a good option for us because we wanted to see the city by walking and public transport and it gave us two site entrances for free. We ended up taking buses and the subway quite a bit – especially over to the Colosseum side of the city. The only taxi we ended up taking was to the airport at the end of the trip. We walked about 11-12 miles a day even with this metro and buses.

We paid:

  • The Roma Pass – 38.50 euro – also gives you skip the line privileges at Colosseum (not to mention you don’t have to wait in lines to buy tickets everywhere else)

Included in Roma Pass:

  • Colosseum ticket (includes Roman Forum & Palatine Hill) – (normal adult ticket price: 12 euro) – note: if you want to skip the line at this site without the Roma pass or a tour group, you have to make the reservation on their website and print your tickets at home and this costs 2 euro)
  • Borghese Gallery – (normal adult ticket price: 20 euro)
  • Free metro/bus rides – (they cost 1.50 euro per person per trip)
wp-1480757625070.jpg

So rude, these magnets (bottom row)

The neat thing about Rome is that there is so much to see – I think you could live your whole life there and not see everything. On every corner, on every building, on every ceiling is art, religious and secular. It’s overwhelming.

wp-1480606247507.png

Note: We did our best to try and see the “big” attractions, namely the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Pantheon, Vatican/St. Peter’s, Spanish Steps, and Trevi Fountain. I have tried to include as many photos of possible because everything was so beautiful, but I have over 400 photos 😦 So, I’ve selected some of my favorites to share.

wp-1480604818896.jpg

Trevi Fountain

One thing that I recommend for any city is the free walking tour. These tours are a great way to quickly get your bearings and see some things you might have missed touring on your own. Normally, the tour guide is a professor or historian, and they love telling you about the city. If the tour is good, you can show your appreciation with a tip at the end. The tour we wanted to take required you to make a reservation, so I think it’s best to check the website ahead of time to see if you can just show up (like we did in Athens and Sofia).

wp-1480757646357.jpg

We saw this protest on the walking tour…I was proud of the dog. So patient. So protest.

Our tour guide took us to beautiful churches where we could see real Bernini sculptures and paintings by the masters. These pieces were just tucked away and not advertised. Without her expertise, we would never have seen them. She also recommended some great places to eat.The pizza place she told us to go to was fabulous and well priced.

capture2

Looks like an abandoned shack on Google maps, but the food was delicious!

Without her advice, I would’ve never tried these baked rice cheese ball things. They were pretty good.

wp-1480757599433.jpg

Interestingly enough, this tiny little eatery was right across the street from Bernini’s family home. But that’s basically the entire city. Everywhere is next to something historic!

capture3

Right across from Bernini’s family home!

Here are some of the places we visited:

 

Colosseum

wp-1480604818897.jpg

wp-1480757568648.jpg

wp-1480757582517.jpg

 

Pantheon

wp-1480604818931.jpg

Here is a video I made of the Pantheon using Google Photos:

 

wp-1480757529397.jpg

buongiorno

Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica

wp-1480757748958.jpg

Vatican City

wp-1480757771387.jpg

“Hello, we’ve been up all night.” 😛

wp-1480757420379.jpg

Inside Vatican Museum courtyard

wp-1480757445335.jpg

A very Catholic pine cone – inside Vatican museum

wp-1480757330791.jpg

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

 

Borghese Galleryno pictures allowed  😥

Wonderful gallery, but you need reservations and you have to be there 45 minutes in advance of your tour time. You also have to check all of your bags (even purses), and you can’t take your phone out or someone on the loud speaker will remind you to put your phone away.

Palatine Hill

wp-1480757330796.jpg

Ancient ruins – Colosseum in background

Palatine Hill is so huge, we could have spent the whole day there and not seen everything. I had no idea this place existed, but it’s amazing. The history of the hill is very interesting – it started as a settlement 3,000 years ago. Then, it became a suburb for affluent Romans. Eventually, the whole thing just became a palace. The hill itself is one of the famous hills of Rome, so you get an amazing view of the city from there.

Trajan’s Column

wp-1480604818904.jpg

Trajan’s Column behind the trees

 

The history of the conquest of the Dacian people carved into a pole in the center of Rome. Yes, there’s a wolf head on a stick at the bottom.

 

Various other places – too many to name!

 

We also ate an amazing amount of gelato and pizza. All totally worth it, even the weird flavors of gelato that I had (like Marsala).

Most of the desserts that we had:

wp-1480606306907.png

Upper right hand corner is Granita – coffee, ice, heavy cream. Wow.

I just realized the photo with the Cassata is messed up :/ Anyway, here is the Wikipedia so you can see what it looks like. I can attest it basically tastes like pure sugar.

wp-1480759997261.jpg

I died and went to pasta heaven, basically

Rome was an amazing city, but we definitely felt like we had enough time there. In a way, it was overwhelming, really – the amount of things you feel like you “have to do” coupled with how every single building is basically a thing to see in itself…yeah, it’s exhausting. Our last day there, I was glad we didn’t have anything really planned, we just went where we felt we wanted to go.

wp-1480760669180.png

Pasta and Pizza and Pasta and Pizza

We ended up splitting an airport taxi with a nice Polish couple from the hotel, so thankfully we didn’t have a repeat of our arrival to Rome. Our flight was later in the morning, so we got some more rest than before. Nevertheless, we still slept the on the flight.

I hope this is a new trend. I look forward to sleeping through all of my future flights 🙂

We ended up getting back to Brasov by way of Gara Nord in Bucurest (airport –> bus transfer to Gara Nord (train station) –> train to Brasov. We slept on the train, too. I think overall, we felt pretty rested when we got home. It was a great trip, and I think next time I go to Italy, I’ll try Florence or Venice.

 

 

Traveling: Athens, Greece

As we traveled from Zakynthos to Athens, we saw so many ancient cities that I’ve only read about in my world history classes. Corinth was the biggest one. I was excited because in Sophocles’s Oedipus, Oedipus is raised by his adoptive parents (who happens to be the king and queen) in Corinth. Giant nerd alert. It was one of those moments where you are finally getting to see the actual setting of an amazing book and it just becomes so real.

wp-1473645037694.jpg

We got to Athens and I used Trip Advisor to find (what else?!) a Mexican restaurant. Don’t blame me, it’s been MONTHS since I’ve had Mexican. Anyway, I got the fish tacos and they were amazing. NO RAGRETS.

I also had a margarita (8 euro). As I was basically pouring it down my throat, I realized that Athens is expensive. A pitcher of margaritas was over 20 euro. That’s way more than you would pay in Atlanta. Too bad, because I wanted like ten more margaritas. Alas…

wp-1473645037813.jpg

We found a little studio apartment on VRBO that let us rent two nights. It was tiny and hot (because like Romania, places in Greece don’t really have air conditioning) and we were on the ground level, so we couldn’t sleep with the windows open. But, we got to stay in Plaka, and we got to stay there for cheap.

There was this cool street art right outside of our front door…

wp-1473645038239.jpg

…and a genuine butcher a few doors down. I enjoyed watching them bring in their meat harvest.wp-1473645038622.jpg

We loved our free walking tour of Sophia so much that we decided to go on one in Athens. And truly, if you are traveling and don’t have much time to see a city – do a free walking tour! Our guide was a local Greek who had the most interesting story. He was born in Greece, grew up in Australia, forced into the Greek military in his 20s, became a special forces soldier, jumped out of planes for a few years…and then he became an English teacher. Now, he gives the free tours to show people his city (and because of the tips at the end). He knew so much about the important sites and saved us a ton of time and money by giving us great tips about where to go (and not go) and how to get around.

Here’s a map of all the places we went on the tour (yellow) and where we went after the tour (orange). Our apartment is the red circle.

Capture3.PNG

The tour started at Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Zeus

wp-1473645039628.jpg

Zeus’s Temple

wp-1473645039290.jpg

Before the tour (and the humidity) in the morning

wp-1473645038802.jpg

Hadrian’s Gate

It says on one side: “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus” and on the other side:”This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus” – you know, because he built a shiny new city and he wanted to make sure you weren’t confusing it with old, crappy, Ancient Athens.

 

This is the site of the first modern Olympics.wp-1473645039834.jpg

We spent some time at the Presidential Palace for the changing of the guards.

The king liked horses so much that he decided the guards had to emulate horses. So every few hours when they change guards, they have to do this ridiculous horse dance.

I hope you enjoyed that video. I “made” it with Google Photos. If you haven’t played with that app yet, you seriously must. Sometimes it just makes movies for me, like a weird, helpful stalker.

We were joined by Leo, one of the city’s dogs. In Athens, not many people have dogs because space is so limited in apartments. What the city does is take in stray dogs, sterilize, vaccinate, and tag them.When the city releases them, they belong to the people of the city. Some of the dogs are famous, like the one outside the King’s guard. He has decided it is his job to protect the guards. He takes his dog job very seriously and barks like crazy at any taxis that go by.

Apparently, Leo has a schedule where he joins the tour for a bit and then goes to cool off in the lake in the park.

Here we are halfway through the walking tour. Still smiling!

wp-1473645040457.jpg

have completely given up on hair at this point because humidity is about 1,000% 

wp-1473645043852.jpg

woman in the red shirt getting bracelet scammed

wp-1473645044328.jpg

bracelet scammers

Okay – I took these two pictures to illustrate something to be wary of when you are touring in a big city. I’ve seen this scam before in Paris.Basically, the men have bracelets and their goal is to get one on you and then charge you for it. They high five or fist bump you and then while you’re talking they put the bracelet on you. Most people are so nice they don’t even realize it’s happening – how can you be rude to a charismatic stranger wishing you peace and love? Once the bracelet is on you, they demand payment. You can’t give the bracelet back. If you don’t pay, you’re stealing from them. That’s the scam. It wasn’t the only we saw in Athens. The last night we were there a very disoriented woman came up to us (not drunk, but definitely dazed on something) and gave us a sob story about how her husband abandoned her in Greece with her baby and could we give her some money to help her get home? This sort of thing really plays with your emotions because who wouldn’t want to help this woman. Unfortunately, it’s not legit 😦

~back to the fun stuff~

wp-1473645041538.jpg

Church wrecked in the 1999 earthquake just re-opened after almost 20 years of renovations!

wp-1473645041888.jpg

Hadrian’s Library

 

wp-1473645046302.jpg

Other side of Hadrian’s library and a great shot of our tour guide and former paratrooper, Jimmy (blue shirt)

wp-1473645044871.jpg

Ancient Agora

wp-1473645045719.jpg

Ancient Agora

 

Our tour ended at the Agora at the bottom of Acropolis Hill. We decided to get some lunch before heading up to the top. We tried the ouzo. It’s basically Absinthe that is white. Like white licorice.

wp-1473645047293.jpg

OUZO! 

Did we like it? You be the judge.

We also had the souvlaki. This was about as adventurous as we got with the Greek food.

wp-1473645047592.jpg

Adventure!

 

After lunch, we headed up Mars Hill to drink in the beautiful Athens city views. If you’re a Christian, you might be interested to know that Paul gave a speech from this hill where he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” Paul was definitely throwing some shade at the Greek temples. I find as a citizen of 2016 that I agree with Paul. Let’s go find God in nature and in acts of lovingkindness – he won’t be in some cold marble building. But aren’t they lovely marble buildings? And what a testament to the Greek spirit that they built them with their hands and without modern machinery?

wp-1473645048073.jpg

On Mars Hill with a view of the Acropolis

wp-1473645048702.jpg

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

 

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus can hold 5,000 people. Yanni performed here in 1993 and later released his album “Live at the Acropolis”. I heard this album so many times. Yanni was so big in the 90s. Admit it, you loved Yanni.

 

More beautiful structures in the Acropolis…

wp-1473645049608.jpg

Propylaea

wp-1473645050524.jpg

Erechtheion with my girls, The Caryatids

wp-1473645052054.jpg

Temple of Athena Nike

and the coup de grâce:

wp-1473645050403.jpg

wp-1473645049703.jpg

Parthenon!

After we finished touring the Acropolis, we returned to our tiny little apartment and readied ourselves for our return to Romania. We ended up driving from Athens to the Romanian border in one day (like 14 hours of driving).

I’ve run out of adjectives, so I will just sum up by saying it was an awesome trip. I’m glad I got the chance to share it with you on my blog 🙂

Traveling: Zakynthos (Zante) Island, Greece

screenshot-2016-09-23-at-5-17-55-pm

Port of Kylini and Island of Zakynthos (Zante)

After we left Meteora, we headed straight for Kylini, which is where we would take the ferry to Zakynthos (called Zante by the locals). On the way to Kylini, we went over this incredible bridge. I say incredible because we paid 13 euro for the toll crossing 😦 I couldn’t believe it was so expensive.

20160901_140905.jpgJust a heads up to anyone who wants to drive on Greek highways: Prepare to pay. Just take out 40 euro out of the ATM and keep it in your car because you will use all. of. it. I think we went through at least twenty tolls while driving through. That’s not really so bad in America because you’re paying fifty cents here, a dollar there…Greek tolls are like, 2.50 euro. Or more, depending on what kind of car you’re in. Tractor trailers were paying something like 15 euro every thirty miles.

wp-1473645035876.jpg

Olive trees everywhere!

But I digress. Let’s get back to the BEAUTIFUL MEDITERRANEAN WATER. It was unreal. I have never, ever seen water that blue, and I have been to Destin several times. It doesn’t even come close. I have no idea what makes the water that color, but holy heck it’s like simultaneously bright turquoise and clear at the same time?

wp-1473645035411.jpg

We caught the ferry at Kylini and spent the next hour just staring at the water. Some people just sat in their cars the whole time, looking bored, but we felt like we were on a cruise. We walked all around that ferry boat.20160901_152034

20160904_133050

Port of Zakynthos

But mostly we just couldn’t stop watching the water. Personally, I was inspecting the water for jellyfish. If you know me, you know that I am scared of jellyfish. I have no idea why. In Finding Nemo, they were really cute, so I’m guessing it’s my irrational brain thinking jellyfish = ocean spiders. I didn’t see any from the ferry, so I felt relieved.

wp-1473645035405.jpg

We could get into the swimming pool from our hotel room!

Once we were off the ferry, we made our way to our resort. We chose an all-inclusive beach resort because we wanted to eat and drink and lay in the sun as much as possible. And that’s what we did for four days.

We had good company. Literally every person there besides us was British. Hundreds of Brits. Blimey.

20160901_185401

View from the restaurant to Tsilivi Beach

wp-1473645035874.jpg

The pool had all these pretty sparkle lights at night – this is the view from the other side of the pool. You can see our room (second from the right).

We got out from the resort a little bit to go sightseeing and do some activities. We went to see the Shipwreck Beach and the Blue Caves. The Shipwreck beach was beautiful, but it was really overcrowded. I think there were hundreds of people there, which is to be expected of a tourist site.

20160904_104057

wp-1473645036846.jpg

20160904_105020

We had enough time to go swimming and explore the shipwreck (and watch people take ridiculous photos with the shipwreck) before we got back on the boat to go to the caves.

wp-1473645036947.jpg

I watched at least ten people take this photo “pulling” the boat. The best was this guy in the speedos.

We stopped at the Blue Caves to do some picture taking and more swimming. We had a glass bottom boat and you could see the fish swimming around the sea floor.

20160904_101238

20160904_103627

I spent thirty minutes just swimming around the area. Okay, I say swimming, but it was basically me doggy paddling around. The water is so salty you hardly have to try at all (eat your heart out, Michael Phelps).  I think it was like 30 feet deep, but you could see all the way down to the bottom.

20160904_122328

Me succeeding at not drowning in Greece

wp-1473645037635.jpg

“Swimming”

We also went horseback riding. It was Claudiu’s first time. I think he enjoyed it 🙂

20160903_170406

20160903_1739310

I found a cute dog at the horseback riding place. His name was Rocco.

20160903_1800280

20160903_180020

Rocco loves me, see?!

After several days of gluttony and sun, it was time to start the last leg of our journey: Athens!

Traveling: Sofia, Bulgaria

14124955_1511300885562370_8860315458310797814_o.jpg

Recently, I went on an awesome road trip through Bulgaria and Greece. I’ll cover the entire trip over the next few posts. The first day of the trip, we drove to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We only planned to spend the night there, but we got there early enough that we were able to do a free walking tour of the city. For two hours, we saw most of the important historical sites and buildings in the city.

wp-1473642814610.jpg

For those of you who don’t know about free walking tours, omg. I recently discovered that this is a thing in almost every city (Brasov included). Basically, you meet up with a tour guide who has agreed to do the tour for free. If the tour guide does a great job, you can give them a tip, but you’re not obligated to pay anything. However,  our tour guide in Sofia (Nikola) was  so incredibly informative that we really wanted to give him some money. He really gave us an awesome view into the history of Bulgaria and the city.

wp-1473642812253.jpg

St. Sofia, symbol of wisdom

Sadly, I spent a lot of time out in the sun after I took this tour, so my brain didn’t retain too many details. I’ll try to describe what I remember.

wp-1473642813122.jpg

“Important Government Building”

Sofia has been inhabited as a city for thousands of years. Over time, it’s been conquered a bit by various empires, but it has retained its spirit and beauty. There are lots of ruins right in the downtown part of Sofia. They are always discovering new archaeological sites as they build.

wp-1473642812972.jpg

wp-1473642813123.jpg

Recently, they’ve finished preserving a new section of ancient foundation. You can see where the ancient foundation ends and the reconstructed part begins at the line. These foundations are thousands of years old.

wp-1473647383745.jpg

One of the things that I liked the most about Sofia was its symbols of religious tolerance.

wp-1473647635484.jpg

There are several houses of worship very close to one another in the downtown area – an orthodox church, a roman catholic church, a synagogue, and a mosque.

wp-1473642814099.jpg

During the second world war, the Nazis insisted the Bulgarians send their Jewish population to the camps, and they basically refused, savings thousands of lives.

wp-1473642814238.jpg

Sofia is built on many thermal springs. The water is supposed to be really healthy for you, but I couldn’t get past how hot and kind of sulfur-y it was. Lots of people were filling up jugs and jugs of water at this public water station.

wp-1473642812938.jpg

Naturally, bath houses were a thing back in the day. This was a really popular place for Sofians to come and socialize and enjoy their delicious hot sulfur water. Our tour guide said it was like the Facebook of the 1800s. Now, I think the building is closed (? correct me if I’m wrong) for renovations, but it’s usually an art museum.

wp-1473642812640.jpg

Bulgaria, like Romania, was a communist country. The statue of St. Sofia replaced the statue of Lenin when Communism fell. Other monuments are not so easy to replace – the former headquarters of the Communist party is still a centerpiece of the buildings downtown.

wp-1473642812861.jpg

Former Communist Party HQ

The people of Sofia are laid back and like to be outside. The parks were jam packed full of people enjoying the night air. I can’t imagine staying cooped up in an apartment when you have such beautiful parks like they do.

wp-1473647301226.jpg

This fountain was very long and when the sun went down, it had beautiful lights!

What would Freud say about our food choices in Sofia?

We got some street food and hung out with the locals before we returned to the hotel to get some sleep for the next part of our trip.

As we were walking back to our hotel later that night, we witnessed some kind of street kid gang roundup by the gendarme. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t feel as safe as I normally do. Watching those kids get hustled up reminded me that there’s definitely a darker side to all beautiful cities.