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  1. I had an email from Wizzair the other day saying that, due to congestion at Cluj airport, they advised us to arrive more than two hours ahead of our flight. Our flight is scheduled for 18.30 this evening, meaning that we were planning to be at the airport by 16.30 anyway, so we decided that given this extra warning, we didn't want to stray too far from Cluj today. When we checked into our apartment here on Friday, the host had explained that Cluj had a botanical garden, so we decided to spend the morning exploring that. We checked out of the apartment after breakfast and walked to the train station, where Tim had researched that there was a place where we could leave our bags. Sure enough, there was a man with a baggage room and we only had to pay about £2 each to deposit our bags there. With that done, we were free to walk to the botanical gardens, which were a mile or so on the opposite side of town. It didn't look very far on the map at all and we soon reached a sign in the city centre which announced that we only had 850m to go. What I hadn't realised, however, was that the botanical gardens are located on a hill and the last part of the journey would therefore be rather steep! We made it up the hill in the end and it only cost us another £2 each to get in. As soon as we entered the gates, we were greeted with a beautiful display of flowers. The botanical garden was opened here in 1872 and is linked to the local university. Apparently it is home to over 10 000 plants and covers 14 hectares. I'd hoped that once we got into the gardens themselves they might be flat, but no, the whole garden is on a hill and so there was more uphill to go Once we'd passed through the part with the flowers, we soon found ourselves in a different part of the garden which was more like a woodland. Some of the paths where were a bit more challenging than I had expected from a botanical garden! There was a stream running through the middle of the gardens. We crossed over it on a bridge. Once on the far side of the bridge, we caught sight of some beautiful purple flowers. They looked a bit like crocuses, although they can't have been! By this stage we'd completed a loop and were back in the flower gardens that we recognised We now just had time to walk back into the city centre and get some lunch, before finding the bus to the airport. We found a different restaurant in the old town to last night and sat outside in the sunshine. I had a diavola pizza and Tim had chicken quesadillas. We had time for pudding too; a lava cake for Tim (this one was supposed to be white) and Nutella pancakes for me The final remaining challenge was to locate the airport bus, which we believed departed from somewhere near the station. We retrieved our bags and found the bus stop without any difficulties, but struggled to figure out how to find a ticket. In the end Tim went into a shop to ask someone and we managed to figure out the machine. It only cost 5 lei for two trolleybus tickets - less than 47p each As I said yesterday, it's been a really great holiday and we've had a lot of fun exploring two new countries. It's also been an incredibly cheap holiday; both Romania and Bulgaria have been really affordable and the accommodation in particular has been a real bargain We've also had incredible weather; not a single drop of rain in the entire two weeks. I don't think we could have hoped for better
  2. As we'd seen most of Cluj yesterday afternoon, we decided last night that we needed to plan another day trip for today. Tim had a look at our Transylvania guidebook and read about an interesting place called Bánffy Castle, located in a nearby village called Bonțida. We decided to give it a go. Bonțida is on a direct train line from Cluj, so it was fairly straight forward to get there. The only problem was that the trains run quite infrequently, especially at weekends, so there was essentially only one train which we could get out in the morning and one which we could catch back to Cluj in the evening. We made the morning train at 11.01 and 40 minutes or so later we arrived at the station in Bonțida. First impressions were that we seemed to be absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We had to stand and wait for our train to move on before we could walk across the tracks to the station. It was a very pretty place to wait though Eventually the train moved on and we were able to walk across to the station building and check that we had the right time of 17.53 for the return train. Train time confirmed, we set off towards the castle, which is a couple of miles away from the station. Luckily it's quite an easy walk, all down one main road through the village of Bonțida. The village itself is small but it's in a lovely location. There were some posters up, presumably for a forthcoming election. This politician's slogan reads "For a normal Romania"; not quite as ambitious as making Romania great again After a while we crossed a river. It was bigger and faster flowing than some of the rivers we've seen on this holiday. Once we were across the river, we were getting closer to the centre of the village. There are two churches close together in the central square. This is the Catholic one... ...and this is the Orthodox one. There were also some really big flags in the centre of the square. Just round the corner from here, we got our first view of the castle. It only cost 10 lei (about £2) each to get inside. A castle was first built here in 14th century, with most of today's fortified structure dating from the late 17th century. Renovations were made during the 18th and 19th centuries and the castle was so ornate that it became known as the Versailles of Transylvania. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the castle was destroyed by retreating German troops, taking revenge on its owner - Count Miklós Bánffy - who had been assisting the Allied forces. During the Communist period, the castle fell further into decay. Today efforts are ongoing to try and restore the castle and several bits of it are now open to the public to walk around. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a display of statues. Or rather, the remains of statues, which used to decorate the facade of the castle and which were destroyed by the Germans. We then walked into a room where the walls were covered in patterns. It wasn't entirely clear, but I think these were examples of how the castle would have been decorated. Some of them were really pretty From there we were able to walk around some of the rooms which have now been made safe for visitors. This was the main castle building... ...where there was a big ladder to climb up. (Though not a lot to see once you got up there!) This building would once have been the castle's chapel. The castle used to have a large landscaped park. That hasn't been restored yet, so at the moment there's only a little lake which you can walk around. It's pretty though Once we'd finished exploring, we still had some time to kill before our train back to Cluj. Luckily one of the restored buildings is home to a cafe, so we were able to sit there and have coffee and chocolate (/beer and crisps!). Then it was time to start walking back through the village towards the station. It was a really scenic walk and we were passed by three separate horses and carts on the way. We were back at the station on plenty of time for our train to Cluj, which arrived very punctually. Romanian trains always seem to be on time! Once we got back to Cluj we were hungry, so we decided to walk into the town centre in search of food. On the way we passed some interesting buildings which we'd missed yesterday. There was this really pretty church... ...and this very striking synagogue. The restaurant we ate at yesterday was so nice that we decided to go back. We both had the goulash with gnocchi that Tim had had yesterday. While we were eating, some rather strange figures appeared in the square behind us. It was a group of slightly scary people on stilts Some of them were dancing, while the others were beating drums. Partway through the performance, the lightbulbs hanging above the street were suddenly turned on. We thought the performance was over and everyone was walking away... ...but a few minutes later they all reappeared... ...and danced past us again. It was a rather bizarre performance, but it was nice seeing the old town all lit up with the light bulbs Overall we've had a great two weeks in Bulgaria and Romania It's been really fun to explore two new countries, both of which have turned out to have some beautiful countryside and some really interesting towns. I have a feeling we will travel to both countries again at some point in the future
  3. We had a leisurely start to the day in Sighișoara, enjoying breakfast on the terrace and then walking to the train station, with a detour via Lidl to pick up some food for lunch. Our train to Cluj was leaving Sighișoara at 11.48, so we knew we wouldn't be able to get a proper meal until the evening. We'd opted for first class again with the train, so we had a comfortable, air-conditioned journey through the Romanian countryside, arriving in Cluj around 15.45. There hardly seemed to be any habitation between Sighișoara and Cluj at all; just occasional hamlets, where people still seem to get around by horse and cart. We're staying in an apartment in Cluj. For some reason this has turned out to be the most expensive accommodation of the holiday, at £42.50 per night. It's a really nice apartment though and we've got air conditioning in the bedroom, which is always a bonus Once we'd unpacked a bit, we went out to explore the city. Our apartment is right by this pretty square. As with everywhere we've been in Romania, we didn't have to go far to find colourful houses. We headed towards the city's central square, Piața Unirii, which is dominated by this large church. This is St Michael's church, a Catholic church built by the Hungarians in the 15th century. It's the second largest church in Transylvania, the largest being the Black Church in Brasov which we saw earlier in the week. The owner of our apartment had warned us that the main square was going to be dominated by an event for children. Sure enough, we arrived and found it full of stalls and balloons! There was also a stage with dancing gnomes. In front of the church is a large statue of a man on a horse. This is Matthias Corvinus, who was king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, and who was born in Cluj. From the main square we caught sight of another church which looked interesting, down a side street. We wanted to go and explore that, but first we took a detour to Cluj's central park. We'd seen on our map that there was a lake in the middle of the park. There were some rather colourful boats on it As we left the park we came across a monument to people who died resisting the Communist regime in Romania. From there it wasn't far to the church we'd seen. This is Cluj's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. Work started on the building in 1923 and it was officially opened in 1933. Outside the cathedral is a large statue of Avram Iancu, a Romanian national hero. It was regarded as controversial when it was erected, because historically the population of the city was majority Hungarian. Across the road from the cathedral is a bright yellow theatre and opera building. It's a really pretty part of town overall We walked along one of the main streets, which was decorated with Romanian and EU flags. There's a statue of Romulus and Remus here too! There was still plenty going on in the main square, so we walked to a quieter side street to find somewhere to eat. We found a nice restaurant where I had spaghetti carbonara and Tim had goulash. For pudding we both ordered "lava cake", which was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce in the middle, served with raspberry ripple icecream. It was getting dark by the time we'd finished eating. The main square looked pretty lit up at night... ...as did the square by where we're staying. I think we've managed to see the highlights of Cluj this afternoon, so we went back to the apartment to try and plan a day trip for tomorrow
  4. One downside of our guesthouse not being located in the town centre is that we (or, more precisely, Tim!) had a long walk to the nearest shop to buy breakfast. He did get a nice view on the way though Once he'd returned from Lidl, we sat outside on the terrace to eat breakfast and our landlady brought us coffee and homemade chocolate cake, which was a nice surprise We were able to have a relaxed start to the day because we were planning to visit the town of Mediaș, about 25 miles west of Sighișoara, and there wasn't a train until after 11am. Luckily, the train journey between the two towns is only short. We travelled through some pretty countryside, before stepping off the train in Mediaș around half an hour later. The first sight we came to when we started walking from the train station into the town was this synagogue. We've seen a lot more synagogues on this holiday than I expected! We'd chosen Mediaș for a day trip because we'd read that it had a well preserved historic centre. It did indeed look very pretty as we walked towards it. It didn't take long to reach the main square. There's a little park in the middle of the square, full of colourful flowers. Little streets lead off from here in all directions. We followed one of them, towards the edge of the old town. There we found the remnants of the old town walls. We were able to walk along the side of them for a while. We came to one of the old gates into the town... ...and went back into the main centre. There were so many colourful houses here Mediaș is believed to have been founded in 1146, making it one of the oldest towns in Romania. Again, this was historically a town that was settled by Saxons, and so it wasn't until the 19th century that the first Romanian church was built here. The big church which dominates the town is a Lutheran church. It was originally built as a Catholic church by the Transylvanian Saxons in the 15th century, but converted to a Lutheran church during the Reformation. It was built as a fortified church, in the middle of a fortress complex, and as we got closer we were able to see a big tower, known as the Trumpeter's Tower. It was so called because a trumpeter would sit at the top of it and alert the citizens of the town to approaching danger. This pretty building next to the church complex is a high school, founded by the local pastor Stephan Ludwig Roth. He upset the Hungarians by arguing against Hungarian becoming the sole official language of Transylvania and was executed in 1849. All the exploring was making us hungry, so we set off to find somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where we could sit in the main square. I played it safe with schnitzel and chips again, but Tim was more adventurous and chose a Romanian dish. It was a pork stew, served with polenta and peasant-style potatoes. For pudding, Tim had pancakes filled with nuts and honey, while I had a chocolate brownie. Unbelievably, the entire meal (including a glass of wine for me, a beer for Tim, a bottle of water and a coffee) only came to £21. After lunch we did some more exploring. We caught sight of another tower on the opposite edge of the town to where we'd been previously. It was a really impressive tower, complete with portcullis There's a whole stretch of wall which has been restored here. Just outside the walls, we found the town's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. It was nearly time to go back to the station to catch one of the infrequent trains back to Sighișoara, but we just had time for a final stroll around. It felt like some of the houses in this part of town were competing to see who could be the most brightly coloured This blue was rather striking... ...as was this yellow... ...and with this green As we had a final walk through the main square, we realised belatedly that there is a Mediaș sign here. Admittedly not quite as impressive as the one in Brasov, but it still made for a good photo The train journey back took a little longer than expected, because the train went really slowly for no clear reason (there have been zero train announcements on any train we've travelled on during this holiday - both in Bulgaria and Romania!). But we'd paid for first class again, so we had comfy seats with air conditioning and it didn't really matter. Tomorrow we will be leaving Sighișoara and travelling to our final destination of the holiday: Cluj.
  5. This morning it was time for us to leave Brașov and travel onwards to our next destination, Sighișoara. Train timetables in Romania seem to be quite irregular, so we had a choice of an early train this morning or a late afternoon one which wouldn't get us to Sighișoara until it was almost dark. We decided to go with the earlier train, which involved us leaving our apartment at 8am this morning to walk to the train station in Brașov. We made it just on time for our train and were able to buy tickets from a machine. We went for first class again and it cost around £12 each. The first class carriage was reasonably comfortable, though the air conditioning was so cold that I wished I'd brought a jumper! It was a scenic journey of around three hours to get to Sighișoara. We travelled through miles of sparsely populated countryside, passing the occasional small town. As soon as we arrived in Sighișoara and stepped out of the train station, we got our first view of the old town in the distance. Because we'd caught the morning train, we were too early to check into our guesthouse at the moment, so we decided to walk towards the town centre to kill some time. We soon found ourselves at a bridge across the river Târnava Mare. On one side we could see the old town... ...while behind us we could see Sighișoara's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. We didn't want to walk too far with the cases, so we found a cafe just across the river where we were able to sit outside with a drink (and a nice view!) until it was time to start walking towards our guesthouse. I struggled to find accommodation in Sighișoara when I was making bookings earlier in the year, and so we've ended up staying in a small guesthouse here rather than an apartment. The place we're staying is really nice but when I booked it, it was on the basis that I thought it was within a mile of the train station. It turns out that it is... but a mile in the opposite direction from the train station compared to the rest of the town The guesthouse is on a bit of a hill, so we've got a nice view from our windows. We settled in for a while and then set off to see Sighișoara properly without our suitcases. Sighișoara is another historically Saxon town. German craftsmen and merchants came and settled in the area in the 12th and 13th centuries. Sighișoara became an important medieval city and today is a world heritage site because of its well-preserved fortified old town. As we walked towards the old town, we noticed that there were some serious traffic jams on the main roads into the town. It turned out there had been some sort of cycle race going on today (it looked like a Romanian version of the Tour de France) and so presumably the roads had been closed. There was still a lot of cycling related activity going on in the main square when we arrived, which slightly obstructed our view up towards the old town. Even with the cycling banners, the streets looked really pretty though. The fortified medieval town was built on top of a hill and is known as the citadel. We started climbing up towards it... ...and soon had a good view out across the newer part of town. We emerged at the top of the hill, near Sighișoara's city hall. From here, we wandered through the colourful streets. We passed the house where Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad the Impaler who inspired the character Dracula, was born. There are lots of towers in the town, but the most impressive one is this huge clock tower. This was historically the main gate to the city. The tower also used to serve as Sighișoara's town hall. It's got a very elaborate clock face with figures which looked like they might do something when the clock struck the hour, but we just missed it. From the clock tower we emerged into a really colourful square. This white building is known as the Stag House, because of the stag's head attached to its facade. Down this little street we found the town's Catholic church. It was built by the Hungarians, who have also historically been an important minority in the town. The historical defence system in Sighișoara was organised so that each guild was responsible for defending a tower. This was the bootmakers' tower... ..this one, hiding slightly behind a tree, was the tinsmiths' tower... ...and this one was the ropemakers' tower. This building isn't a tower, but it has a really unusual roof! As we wandered through the streets, we realised that we weren't actually at the top of the hill after all. To get right to the top, you have to use this staircase, known as the Scholars' Staircase. It's an extremely steep staircase, originally built in 1642 to allow people to reach the school and church at the top of the hill more easily during winter, when snow made other routes slippery. The school is right at the top of the staircase. We were rather out of breath by the time we got there. There's also a large church on the hilltop. This is, appropriately enough, called the Church on the Hill Work started on a church here in 1429 and today it's apparently the third largest church in Transylvania. We spent a while walking around the hill top... ...and enjoying the views. Then it was back off down the stairs again! We found a nice restaurant in the square where we could sit outside and get dinner. I had chicken schnitzel with chips, while Tim had Hungarian goulash, and we shared a bottle of Romanian wine. For pudding, Tim had an apple crumble and I had chocolate pancakes It was a lovely place to sit outside After dinner we climbed back down out of the old town. The more modern part of town at the bottom of the steps was pretty too... ...and there were still plenty of colourful houses here We found another Romulus and Remus statue. This definitely seems to be a thing in Romania! The walk back to the guesthouse (the orange building below) didn't feel quite as long now we knew where we were going. And when we got in, we found that our hosts had left us shots of a Romanian spirit to try Not sure what it's called; it tastes a bit like Croatian rakija and it's very strong!
  6. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Brașov this morning We didn't need to go far from our apartment before we caught sight of the Brașov sign on the hills behind the town. The glimpse we'd got of Brașov while out getting food last night suggested that it was going to be a really pretty place. Brașov is the seventh largest city in Romania. Historically, it was the capital of the Transylvanian Saxons. The Saxons began to settle in Transylvania from the 12th century. They originally came to help defend the borders of what was, at the time, the Hungarian kingdom, but they soon became involved in mining and trading too, and built fortified settlements all over the region. Transylvania was unified with Romania after the First World War, and from this point the German population began to decline. There must also have been a significiant Jewish population in Brașov at some point, because we found a very elaborate synagogue. You can't really see it in the photo, but it had really pretty stained glass. We caught sight of turrets in the distance and went to investigate. It turns out that this white turreted building used to be the main gate into the city in medieval times. However, in the 19th century a new (bigger) gate was built in order to allow in more traffic. From the gate we walked towards the town's main square. We were confronted by an absolutely enormous church. This is the Biserica Neagră (the Black Church), a Gothic Lutheran church which was built by the German community. It's so large you have to get quite a long way away from it to fit it all in a photo! The church sits in Piața Sfatului. The centre of the square is dominated by this large building, which used to be the town's council house. Today it houses a history museum. The entire square is so beautiful that it was difficult to know in which direction to look first All sides of the squares are lined with colourful buildings. There were some interesting churches too. And, of course, we could see up to the Brașov sign above the town. We left the main square and explored some of the side streets. There were even more colourful houses here On the edge of the old town we found a park. There were some very unusual flower displays here; this one looked like a peacock with a tail of flowers. There were also some attractive buildings in this more modern part of the town. And we found what looks like another Romulus and Remus statue. We'd read in the guidebook that there is a cable car up the mountain behind the town, so we set off to try to find it. We climbed up a steep road, followed by some staircases, on the edge of the town and into the woods, where we found the cable car station. It only cost 18 lei each (£3.40) for a return trip. Admittedly, when we got to the top there wasn't much of a view initially, because everywhere was so forested. We followed a sign which indicated a 10 minute walk to a viewpoint... and before we knew what was happening, we realised we were behind the Brașov sign! It was really cool to see it from the other side! Once we walked past the sign, we found there was a small viewpoint jutting out over the trees. It was quite busy so we had to wait our turn for photos. It was worth it, though; the views of the town were spectacular. We could see right town to the central square where we'd been this morning There didn't seem to be a lot further you could walk on the top of the hill, unless you wanted to walk all the way back down to Brașov, so we went back towards the cable car station, where there was a small cafe. Tim decided to sample some of the local beers. The cable car was quite busy, but we managed to get positioned near the front for the ride back down From the bottom cable car station, we went for a stroll through the woods on the edge of the town. There were some lovely views from here as well. We could see bits of the old town walls... ...as well as back towards the Black Church in the centre of town. There were some interesting buildings as we came back down into the town too. Even the town's tennis courts seemed to be surrounded by historic buildings. We also found a church with a beautiful silver roof. We set off back down the colourful streets towards our apartment, where we wanted to cool off for a bit. In the evening we set out again, in search of some food. We made our way to the main square, where there were lots of places to eat. It was really cool to see the Brașov sign again now that we'd been standing behind it We could see the cable car station and where we'd walked too. We found a restaurant with a great view to have dinner I had lasagne and Tim had rigatoni... ...followed by tiramisu It's definitely one of the most scenic views we've had dinner to, and a great end to our time in Brașov
  7. Today we were due to leave Bucharest and head north towards the town of Brașov. However, Romanian train timetables seem quite irregular and so our train wasn't leaving Bucharest until the afternoon. That meant we had time to do a bit more sight-seeing in Bucharest, and there was one more sight which I particularly wanted to see but which we hadn't managed to fit into yesterday because it's located a bit outside the city centre: Bucharest's "Arcul de Triumf". The Arcul de Triumf is located near a metro station called Aviatorilor so metro seemed like the best way to get there. We walked to Piața Romană, the metro station nearest to where we were staying, and bought our tickets. What I hadn't quite thought through was that this was a Monday morning and it seems like Bucharest's rush hour is later than we have in the UK. When the metro arrived it was extremely full and we only just managed to squeeze our way on! I hadn't expected it to be so busy, because we were travelling from the city centre to the outskirts, but it felt like a lot of people must live in the centre of town and commute to offices further out to work. Luckily we only had a couple of stops to go, so we survived the crush and were soon out in the open air at Aviatorilor. Once we were off the metro, it didn't take us long to find what we had come to see A triumphal arch was first built here in 1878, to celebrate Romanian independence. This first attempt was a wooden structure, which was eventually replaced by this more solid version in 1936. It certainly looks rather similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but Bucharest has historically been referred to as the Paris of the East, so maybe it's not too surprising Unfortunately the arch is in the middle of an extremely busy traffic junction and so we couldn't get any closer to it. While we were admiring it though, we caught sight of a church in the distance. This is the Cașin Church, which is dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The arch is also not far away from a large park, called Herăstrău Park. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to explore it today, but it looked like it would be pretty. We caught the metro back to our apartment, packed up our stuff and checked out, before walking a mile or so across Bucharest to the Gara de Nord. Once there, we needed to buy our train tickets to Brașov. Romania seems a bit more modern than Bulgaria and it was possible to buy the tickets from a machine rather than having to queue for a ticket desk. Having learned from our experiences in Bulgaria last week, we decided to pay for first class. I'm not sure what the price difference was, but we ended up paying 70 lei each for the journey (around £13). We found the correct platform for our train, but we were a bit early and it wasn't there yet. We were travelling over lunchtime and beginning to feel a bit peckish, so Tim paid a visit to the station McDonalds to get us something to eat on the train. We were therefore in the slightly surreal situation of sitting in Romanian first class while eating chips from brown paper bags First class was quite nice and spacious and, unlike Bulgarian trains, there was air-conditioning. The seats were laid out airline style rather than being divided into compartments, which also seemed a bit more modern. The journey from Bucharest to Brașov took just under three hours and it was an unexpectedly scenic journey, as we travelled past forests and mountains. When we arrived in Brașov we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, because the train station is a couple of miles outside the town. As we made our way down one of the main streets towards our apartment, we caught sight of a large sign on one of the hills above us. Not quite Hollywood, but still quite impressive We found our apartment and checked in. At £35.50 per night, this one was another bargain We've got a spacious kitchen/living area... ...a separate bedroom... ...and what looks like quite a posh bath. There's also a pretty good view out of our bedroom window By the time we'd settled in and gone out to get food it was getting dark, but this photo shows the hills behind where we're staying. Brașov looks like it's going to be a really pretty town and we're looking forward to exploring it properly tomorrow
  8. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Bucharest this morning. After breakfast, we set off in the direction that we'd taken yesterday, soon coming to the familiar building of the university library. What I hadn't realised yesterday was that this was really close to Bucharest's Revolution Square. On one side we had the former Royal Palace (now an art museum)... ...and on the other side of the road we had the former headquarters of the Romanian Communist party. The dictator Ceausescu gave his final speech from one of the balconies on this building, during Romania's 1989 revolution. On the corner of the square is the Kretzulescu church, originally built in the 18th century. From the square we were walking down Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest's main streets, which was modelled on the Champs Elysee in Paris. There were lots of pretty buildings along it. Partway down we found this fountain... ...with a huge Romanian flag flying above it. Every so often we'd come across tiny little churches, squeezed between bigger more modern buildings. This beautiful big building is the headquarters of a Romanian bank. Just across the road from it, we found our way into Bucharest's old town. A lot of the old town was demolished during the reign of Ceausescu, to make way for his new plans of urban development, but the bits that remain are really pretty. Down one of the side streets, we came across this incredible church. This is the Stavropoleos church, originally built in 1724. It was decorated with really beauitful paintings. Not sure what this church was called, but it had an impressive silver dome... ...while this one was the Curtea Veche church, built in 1559, making it one of the oldest churches in Bucharest. I was surprised at how busy the old town was; we came across several walking tours of tourists, and there were souvenir shops everywhere. There were also a lot of restaurants clearly aimed at tourists, including Irish pubs! Once we left the old town behind, it was a bit quieter. We walked through a park... ...and caught sight of what looked like a huge fountain in the distance. It turned out that it was an entire complex of fountains! As you can see in this shot, there was a traffic island full of fountains in the middle, with cars driving around it, and then huge pools of fountains on the other side of that. We walked down one of the boulevards leading off from this fountain square, which was itself decorated with smaller fountains. We were walking towards the Palace of the Parliament. This absolutely enormous building was built by Ceausescu, inspired after a visit to North Korea(!), and is believed to be the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. As well as what you can see above the ground, it has eight underground levels, including a nuclear bunker. Today it is home to the Romanian parliament, plus several museums, and is also a venue for conferences... but approximately 70% of the building still lies empty. We walked all the way around the outside of it (which took ages!). On the way we caught sight of the domes of an enormous church. This is the People's Salvation Cathedral, an extremely new Romanian Orthodox cathedral, on which construction only started in 2010. The cathedral was consecrated in late 2018, but it looks like there's still a fair amount of work to be done before it's finished. From here we walked back down the long boulevard... ...towards the fountains. Taking a different direction this time, we walked towards the national library of Romania. The library is situated on the banks of the river Dâmbovița and it was really pleasant to stroll around here. We were looking for a bookshop, in the hope of buying some Romanian Asterix for Tim. On the way back towards the centre of town, we passed what looked like a statue of Romulus and Remus with the wolf. We thought Romulus founded Rome rather than Romania, but who knows Down this street we found the bookshop we were looking for. It was a really beautiful building inside We found the books we were looking for and then climbed up to the top floor, where there was a lovely cafe, to enjoy some cold drinks. From the bookshop it was back out into the sunshine again. We soon found ourselves in University Square, a large square which was home to several statues. In a gap between two buildings we got a glimpse of Bucharest's Russian church We were really hot by this point; this thermometer suggested it could be as hot as 36 degrees! We decided to go back to the apartment to cool off for a bit, before heading out later for an evening meal. On the way back, we strolled through one of Bucharest's parks. There was a big boating lake in the middle of the park... ...and we found some unusual brown ducks So far our experiences of Romania are positive I was worried from some of the things I'd read online that there would be packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, but so far we haven't seen a single one! Bucharest definitely feels like a big city and we could probably have spent more time here, but tomorrow we will be on the move again as we head to Transylvania
  9. Today it was time for us to leave Veliko Tarnovo (and Bulgaria) behind as we travelled to this holiday's second country: Romania. One of the reasons that I'd planned Veliko Tarnovo as the final stop on our Bulgarian tour was that, on paper, it looked like this would be the easiest place from which to get to Bucharest by train. However, when I looked into it more thoroughly, I realised that that the trains to Bucharest don't depart from the station in Veliko Tarnovo, but from the station at Gorna Oryahovitsa where we had to change on our way from Sofia the other day. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, except for the fact that there are only a handful of trains between Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa each day, and they don't co-ordinate in any way with the trains to Bucharest. So if we'd wanted to travel by train, we would have had to entertain ourselves in Gorna Oryahovitsa railway station between 10.25 and 13.15 while we waited for a connection. I thought about it for a while, before deciding to book bus tickets instead I'd booked tickets online with Flixbus and our bus was departing from Veliko Tarnovo bus station at 12.45. That meant I was able to have a nice lie in this morning, after a relatively late evening last night seeing the light show and finishing the blog Our bus arrived promptly and was more comfortable than the bus on which we'd travelled from Burgas to Plovdiv earlier in the week. That was good, because the journey to Bucharest was scheduled to take around 4.5 hours. The tickets had been very reasonably priced, at around £10 each, including a seat reservation. We left Veliko Tarnovo and travelled through the rocky river valley that we'd been looking at from the fortress yesterday. From here the route led through increasingly flat countryside until, after a couple of hours, we got close to the border near the Bulgarian city of Ruse. The Bulgarian-Romanian border is marked by the Danube, and first of all our bus had to join what seemed to be a queue for permits to cross the bridge. The Danube is incredibly wide at this point. Once we'd crossed the river, we were officially in Romania Almost straightaway, a member of the border police got on board to collect up our passports. Our bus then had to pull over into a bay and wait for half an hour or so before the passports were returned to us. I never like being separated from my passport, but it was relatively painless as border crossings go. The bus was due to arrive in Bucharest at 16.10 but it was running a bit behind schedule by this point - and we got caught in some traffic trying to get into Bucharest - so it was nearer 17.00 by the time we pulled into Bucharest's Autogara Militari. This was not a terribly scenic bus station, on the outskirts of the capital. However, our research had suggested that it was going to be relatively simple to get into the centre of town from here via the metro. The only slight problem was that when we stepped out of the bus station, we couldn't see anything which looked like a metro station or indeed any signs towards one. Tim tested out his Romanian by asking a taxi driver where it was, and soon we were on our way The metro was unbelievably cheap and two tickets cost us 5 lei (95p). When the train came it was modern and spacious and we had plenty of room for our luggage. It was notably different from the metros we've used this year in Russia and Ukraine though, because the escalators were incredibly short; no sooner had we stepped onto them then it was time to get off again We got off the metro at a stop called Piața Romană, from where our apartment was only a short walk away. I'd had a message from the owner earlier in the week, explaining that it was self check-in and giving me a code for the key safe, as well as photos of what the apartment door looked like etc. We found the correct place with no problems and everything worked like clockwork. The apartment is lovely inside. We've got a living area... ....with a dining table, and a small kitchen in a separate room. The bedroom comes complete with its own air-conditioning unit, in addition to the one in the living room. Accommodation in Romania is (slightly!!) more expensive than in Bulgaria, and so this place has cost £36 per night. Once we'd unpacked a little bit we headed out to explore the neighbourhood and get some food. As we'd been walking from the metro station to our apartment, we'd passed this really beautiful building. It turns out that this is the Romanian Athenaeum, a concert hall opened in 1888. There seemed to be some sort of concert being screened in the square outside it. A little further down the road, this impressive building is the central university library. The statue outside is of King Carol 1 of Romania. Our first impressions of Bucharest are that there are some really beautiful buildings, interspersed with some really ugly ones We found this pretty yellow house, for example, overshadowed by a large communist-looking building behind... ...while this building made me feel like we were already in Transylvania We're definitely looking forward to exploring more of the city tomorrow
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