Eastern Europe

Romania

Salina Turda

SalinaTurda-6

While looking up weird and interesting things to do in Romania I stumbled upon this one. We stayed in Cluj-Napoca and took a daytrip to the city of Turda to visit the largest salt mine museum in the world. Salt was first mined here during antiquity and continued until 1932. During World War II the mine was reopened to be used as a bomb shelter. After the war ended, part of the mine was used to store cheese. Finally, since 1992 the mine has been open to tourists to visit.

Nowadays the depths of the mines look like an amusement park with bowling alleys, mini-golf, table tennis and even a giant Ferris wheel. At the bottom of the largest pit there is an underground lake where we hopped into a rowboat and paddled around. It was really cool to wander through and go into the depths. With all the funky architecture coupled with the lighting it almost looked like something from a sci-fi movie. We were both a bit sick when we went so the other plus was that breathing in all the salt was supposed to help with our respiration. Whether or not it did is up for debate, but it was still a cool experience. 

Eastern EuropeRomania

Sibiu

Sibiu-1

Our next stop in Romania was probably our favorite place we visited there. Located in southern Transylvania, Sibiu is one of Romania (and Europe’s) cultural capitals. Divided into an upper and lower half, the Old Town is home to loads of charming buildings. Many of the houses in the center have a common feature, small attic windows in the rooftops that look like a set of eyes watching you. People claim that the windows were purposefully made long ago to instill fear into the townsfolk and to reign in bad behavior. Just knowing that a set of judging eyes seemed to be watching you was enough that people reigned in any bad behavior. This must have felt especially disturbing when Ceausescu was in power, with people knowing that the government was in fact keeping close tabs on them.

One of our days here we headed south to drive on the famous Transfagarasan road. Connecting Transylvania with Wallachia, the road was built in the early 1970’s by Ceausescu as a strategic military route through the Fagaras Mountains. Despite there already being several routes through the mountains, he wanted to ensure a quick getaway route that would be hard to block in case of a Soviet invasion. Now also known as “Ceausescu’s Folly” the road had a huge financial and human cost. Now it is more famous due to being hailed by Top Gear as “the best road in the world.” It’s a winding road that climbs to about 6,700 ft and is filled with hairpin turns, S-curves, and steep descents. At the top of the road is Balea Lake, a beautiful glacier lake. There were plenty of hiking opportunities there as well.

From there we visited an 800-year-old Cistercian Abbey. Built by the Cistercian monks, the abbey is one of the oldest examples of Gothic architecture in Romania. The monks living at the abbey led lives of manual labor and self-sufficiency, supporting themselves through agriculture and brewing ales. Legend has it that the abbey is haunted, with the ghosts of the monks who once lived there. It was really neat to visit and was a quiet place just to relax. Today the abbey is used as an evangelical church, with the priest living right next door.

Our last day in Sibiu we took the bus to ASTRA National Museum, Europe’s largest open-air ethnographic museum. We spent the afternoon wandering through the traditional homes, churches, and windmills, just enjoying the atmosphere and imagining what it was like to live hundreds of years ago. Overall, we just loved being in Sibiu and would definitely return. In the city itself there were loads of great restaurants and cool bars with awesome local beers (Hop Hooligans makes some good ones).

Eastern EuropeRomania

Romanian Castles

RomanianCastles-1

We took a daytrip from the medieval city of Brasov to visit some of the castles in the region. Our first stop was Peles Castle, nestled in the Bucegi Mountains in the town of Sinaia. This was the summer home of King Carol I. Finished in 1883, the castle was built with the notion that it would later become a museum for others to enjoy. This was evident walking through it; each room was lavishly decorated and overall really cool to see. There were tons of details throughout all of the rooms that made it interesting to walk through.

Our next stop was the infamous “Dracula’s” castle. Surrounded by and air of mystery and perched upon a high rock, the castle is an imposing sight. The character of Dracula is thought to have drawn inspiration from Vlad Tepes, ruler of Wallachia and otherwise known as “Vlad the Impaler.” Vlad was most known for his brutal nature and is famous for impaling the bodies of his enemies, the Ottomans, on large spikes and lining roads with them to scare off anyone else thinking to attack him. Although there are many rumors and myths that Bran Castle was the home of Vlad the Impaler, and therefore “Dracula”, historians now seem to agree that Vlad never actually set foot in the castle. Despite this, Romania capitalized on the stories and marketed the castle as connected to Vlad and Dracula to draw in tourists. This worked, with tons of people visiting now every year, and the castle grounds were filled with stores selling kitschy Dracula-themed souvenirs. While the outside of the castle was striking, the inside was much barer as it was primarily used for fortification and protection rather than being the home of royalty.

The last place we visited was Rasnov Fortress. Located 650 ft up in the Carpathian Mountains, this was different from the other places we visited as it was more of a fortified village. From 1331, the fortress was built by Teutonic Knights for protection from invading Tartar armies. The place was later enlarged by local Saxons and used as a place of refuge for extended periods of time. Inside the walls were many houses, a school, a chapel, and other buildings typical of villages during that time.

Romania

Bucharest

Bucharest-6

After a great week in Italy with Kevin and Jess, we flew back to Eastern Europe to visit Romania, one of the countries we were most looking forward to. We started off in the capital, Bucharest, and made our way north from there. Bucharest is a busy city compared to the rest of Romania but nothing too crazy. While there we took a couple of free walking tours and learned of the city’s history as well as some general Romanian history.

Nicolae Ceausescu was the Communist leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989. His government was severely totalitarian and was considered the most repressive in Eastern Europe at the time. There were many shortages which led to rationing of food, water, electricity, heat, and other basic necessities. Under his rule relationships with foreign countries, including the Soviet Union, deteriorated. In December of 1989, anti-government protests in Timisoara were met with lethal force per Ceausescu’s command. When word spread of this, massive demonstrations erupted countrywide in what’s now known as the Romanian Revolution. After a botched public speech by Ceausescu, him and his wife fled the city by helicopter. During this time the Romanian military turned on them and they were summarily captured, put on trial, charged with genocide, damage to the national economy, and abuse of power, and were sentenced to death. The trial and subsequent execution (though the actual moment of execution was cut) were broadcast live to the Romanian public on Christmas Day.

In the late 70’s, Ceausescu ordered a reconstruction of downtown Bucharest that was inspired by Pyongyang, North Korea. To do this, much of the old city center was demolished and over 40,000 people were relocated. Due to this, the ‘old’ section of the city is now much more modern than other cities in Romania that weren’t destroyed. As part of the reconstruction, he wanted a colossal palace (below) for himself and Parliament. It is elaborately ornate inside and is the 2nd largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon). Ceausescu never lived to see it finished.

Since the fall of Ceausescu and Communism, Romania has made progress towards integrating with the West. It became a member of NATO and the European Union in 2004 and 2007 respectively. However, there is still progress to be made, as only this August there were protests in Bucharest and across the country demanding the resignation of the government and an end to corruption and embezzlement. While in the capital, we heard all about this from some of the tours we did. One of our tour guides told us that he took part in the demonstration and was actually teargassed when police broke up the crowds. He described it as his “whole body was crying.” We weren’t there while any protests were going on, as they have calmed down for the moment. It will be interesting to see where it heads though and we hope for the best.

Bosnia & HerzegovinaEastern Europe

Mostar

Mostar-10

From Dubrovnik we headed into Bosnia & Herzegovina to visit the historic city of Mostar. Straddling the Neretva River, Mostar is most known for the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge), a beautifully reconstructed medieval bridge from 1566. The city suffered extensive damage during the Bosnian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia and a few sections of town are still abandoned and dilapidated. Walking from the bus station to our hotel, we saw many buildings with crumbling walls, bullet holes, and bomb damage. Walking further, we got to the area of Stari Most and saw a much more rebuilt version of Mostar, with loads of people wandering through the many cafes, shops, and restaurants. Most of this area is a blend of Ottoman, Mediterranean, and western European style architecture. The view from our hotel gave us a great view of all the styles. It was really cool to see the many mosques dotting the cityscape with their tall minarets poking out above the rooftops. Several times a day the Islamic call to prayer reverberated through the valley from the many loudspeakers perched atop the minarets. We instantly felt welcome in the city, with our hotel treating us to baklava and making us feel at home after sweating our butts off walking there. They even set up a free taxi for us back to the bus stop when we left.

After regrouping, we wandered through the center, dipping in and out of the many shops. Stari Most is the focal point of the city, rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed in the war. It has come to represent reconciliation between the many diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious communities in the area. An old tradition involves young men diving from the top of the bridge and there’s now even a Red Bull sponsored diving event every year.

Overall, Mostar was a really interesting city and we would love to return and spend time exploring more of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Moving on from there, we headed back to Croatia to visit the capital, Zagreb. It was a nice city for a quick stop but nothing too special. We wandered the Old Town and visited some museums, including the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships. Afterwards, we went north to Slovenia and stayed in Ljubljana, the rather quiet and charming capital. We took a daytrip to Lake Bled from here as well to see more of Slovenia’s beautiful landscapes. We had a great time in Slovenia, and here we said goodbye to Chelsey as she flew home. For us, it was onwards to a tour of Italy with our friends Kevin and Jess.

CroatiaEastern Europe

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik-11

After our flight from Istanbul, we arrived in Croatia and spent a couple days in Cavtat to catch up on sleep before we went to Dubrovnik to meet our friend, Chelsey. Our apartment in Dubrovnik was up a hill overlooking the Old Town, so while the views were great, climbing the stairs up the hill was always rough! The city was already popular with tourists but nowadays since Game of Thrones has filmed there, it’s even more popular. Lots of GoT related things everywhere! The main thing to do in Dubrovnik is walk the old City Walls. We did this towards sunset to get the best views out over the Adriatic Sea, and it was pretty great. Another day, we took a ferry ride over to Lokrum Island to enjoy a less crowded side of the area and hang out in the salt pools. We spent the rest of our time exploring the city, kayaking, and testing out all the different gelato shops. Overall a great introduction to the Europe leg of our trip.