Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe

Budapest, Hungary

Stop #25

This was my second visit to Budapest, with my first visit about 15 or so years ago.  The city is as beautiful as I remember it, but this time it felt like there were a lot more tourists.  I was probably too ambitious about seeing as much as possible in the day and a half that we spent there, clocking just about 22 miles on my iWatch in one day!  But I’ll have great photos to remember this city for the rest of my life, so it was a small price to pay!

There are three additional portfolios for Budapest and the links are below.  I wanted to capture more details of each because I remembered them being some of the most incredibly beautiful places from the last time I visited this city.

Highlights:

  • Hungarian Parliament – this was one of our first stops.  I got pictures just after sunset and during twilight and then returned the next morning for dawn pictures.
  • Buda Castle – now a museum, it is the building you see on the hill with the green dome in all the pictures of the Buda side of Budapest.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion – I visited early morning to beat tourists and then returned with Randy later in the afternoon.
  • Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill – we climbed this hill after I had already been walking around for miles that day, so I was a little pooped at the top.
  • Heroes’ Square in City Park – we caught this during the golden hour!
  • National Theatre
  • St. Stephen’s Basilica – we visited before leaving so I just realized that the photos are still on the memory card in my camera…oops.
  • Széchenyi Chain Bridge – the pretty bridge with the lions on each end.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Stop #24

Sofia is one of the oldest inhabited locations in Europe.  It’s name comes from the Saint Sofia Church, which is not the large Eastern Orthodox church that everyone thinks of when they hear about Sofia.

Highlights:

  • St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.  I was able to pay to take photos, so I spent some time thinking through each picture while Randy patiently waited for me.
  • Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street in the city.
  • The Ivan Vazov National Theatre, where we sat for coffee and relaxed near the fountains.
  • The Russian Church, Sofia, which strictly forbids indoor photography (the green and white church below).
  • The Central Sofia Market Hall.
  • The ancient Saint Sofia Church.  In the 14th century, the church gave its name to the city, previously known as Sredets.
  • The 4th century St. George Rotunda (the oldest building in Sofia).

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Stop #23

Plovdiv was, for me, the best part of Bulgaria.  It felt like the type of city that will grow to outpace the rest of the country.  And it had a Roman Amphitheater (which was undiscovered until a landslide in the 1970s) that kept me occupied for quite a while.

Highlights:

  • Walkable student city with great restaurants, galleries and bars
  • Competes with Sofia in things cultural and in nightlife.
  • Great walking city.
  • Lovely old town.
  • One of Bulgaria’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities and also Bulgaria’s second largest road and railway hub and economic center.
  • Roman amphitheater.
  • Roman stadium.
  • Roman forum.
  • Roman Odeon.

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak

Stop #22

Link to Wikipedia

The oldest settlement in Kazanlak dates back to the Neolithic era (6th-5th millennium BCE). The Thracian city of Seuthopolis was uncovered near Kazanlak. In the 4th century BCE, near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis and close to the city, a magnificent Thracian tomb was built. It contains painted murals representing a Thracian couple at a ritual funeral feast. The tomb was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Stop #21

I wanted to visit Veliko Tarnovo because a colleague from Deloitte was born and raised in this city.  I did enjoy seeing some of the history that she described come alive.

Highlights:

  • Grand old city of the czars – Veliko Tarnovo was the capital in Medieval times.
  • Bulgarian czars lived in a palace that is now in ruins close to the Cathedral in Tsaravets Fortress.
  • Set amidst beautiful forested hills, especially colorful in October.
  • Citadel of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
  • Most prestigious university in the country.
  • Tsaravets Fortress one of Bulgaria’s most beloved monuments.
  • The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God  is a former Eastern Orthodox cathedral located on top of Tsarevets hill. The cathedral was the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch from its construction in the 11th–12th century to its destruction in 1393.

One of my favorite things about this visit was the unique modern style of paining in the Cathedral.

Bucharest, Romania

Stop #20

Visiting Bucharest makes you realize what a tyrant can do to destroy what was once a beautiful city.  Remanants of old mansions and nice looking buildings are hidden behind graffiti and lots of wear.  Many historically significant buildings were destroyed by Caucescu and replaced with ridiculous looking Soviet concrete buildings.  He tried to create his own style, which is just plain ugly.

In the 1930s and 1940s, people referred to Bucharest as “Little Paris”.  Visiting there today, all you can do is wonder how anyone could think such a foolish thing!  About 2 million people live in Bucharest today and the city is where most activity takes place in Romania.  But you can’t help but wish that the city will have some resurgence or rebirth that will allow it to become beautiful again.  We didn’t stay there long, and I don’t feel that we missed much by leaving!

Sinaia, Romania

Stop #19

Wow! Wow! Wow!  This place makes you feel like royalty!  I’ve never been this intimate with such gorgeous woodwork (all walnut, which is by far my favorite), Murano glass, marbles, expensive artwork and tapestries.  If you visit one thing in Transylvania, this is your stop!

Highlights:

  • The beautiful Bucegi Mountains are in the background.
  • Sinaia is full of colored wooden houses that contrast with wgrander 19th century buildings.
  • The town was a summer retreat for Romania’s first king, Carol 1.
  • Pele’s Castle / palace has everything you would expect to see in a palace – hidden passages, fairy tale turets, galleries all over the place, and classical statues. It is by far the best castle I saw in Transylvania.
  • The Grand Reception Halls of the palace borrow from Moorish, Florentine, and French styles.
  • The only grander palaces I’ve seen are now the Hermitage and the Royal Palace in Madrid.

Bran Castle, Romania

Stop #18

Bran Castle is the one everyone talks about when they mention Transylvania.  My vote would be to skip it and go instead to Pele’s Castle in Sinaia.  It was the true highlight or Transylvania.

I managed to get some pictures of Bran Castle that look as though nobody is anywhere near the place, but in all honesty, the place was mobbed more than any other stop on our itinerary.  It was both frustrating and disappointing.  The owners have marketed the place as Dracula’s castle, but as far as I could tell there is nobody that relevant that ever lived here.

Highlights:

  • Bran’s Castle – Muzeul Bran was built by Saxons from from Brasov in 1382 to defend the Bran pass against the Turks.
  • Bran the town is a “carnivalesque gauntlet of stalls hawking vampiric Tshirts and a myriad of day trippers. Somewhat Tacky!”  I couldn’t agree more.  Thank goodness we packed in other stops on this day!

Brasov, Romania

Stop #17

I had really high hopes for Brasov.  I saw great pictures of this place and expected it to be spectacular like Sibiu.  But when we arrived, we saw a spectacular mountain in the background with the word BRASOV in huge letters (like Hollywood) on the side facing town.  It was a turnoff.  But the town was nice, just not the nicest in Romania.

When I read up on the place, one of the sources said that the city is notable for being the birthplace of the national anthem of Romania and for hosting the Golden Stag International Music Festival.  They need to work on their sales pitch!

Highlights:

  • Brasov is a Medieval town surrounded by a 12m high and 3 km 15th century wall built to defend from Turkish attacks.
  • If you like cobbled streets and fairy tale turrets, there are plenty to see.
  • The streets are pretty much a maze.
  • There are loads of “Bohemian” cafes
  • Architecture is pretty interesting with Austro-Hungarian gingerbread roofs, baroque gods, medieval spires and Soviet flat-tops.
  • Piata Sfatului is a really nice square
  • This is a good launching point for the Transfagarasan Road, although we went the other direction

Transfagarasan Road, Romania

Stop #16

The Transfagarasan Road is Romania’s highest asphalted road.  Everything you read about the road tells you that Top Gear rates it as the “world’s best road”.  We made a last minute decision to start driving this road around 3:00 p.m.  We ended up getting to our hotel at 11:30 p.m.  Mind you, Google Maps brought us to a road that even a Land Rover or a Jeep wouldn’t be able to navigate.  I guess it was made for horse drawn carriages.  That added about two hours of extra driving after an exhausting day.  Romania’s roads have come a long way from what I’ve heard, but they still have a long way to go.

The road is a Ceausescu project built in the 1970s over 4 and a half years.  It has literally hundreds of switchbacks and few guardrails or barriers.

I even got some great shots of three foxes that we came across on the drive.

Another highlight is Vlad the Impaler’s actual castle, which we saw at the end of the Transfarasan Road.

 

Sibiu, Romania

Stop #15

We will some day go back to Sibiu because we loved it and didn’t have enough time there. Sibiu is one of the cultural centers of Romania and was European Capital of Culture for the year 2007. It is an important Transylvanian town with lots of interesting architecture, beautiful buildings, and a great amount of activity.

After World War I, Sibiu, formerly a city in Austria-Hungary, became part of Romania.

I took most of the panorama views from the towers of the Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral.  I especially loved all the deep dark colors in the Sibiu Orthodox Cathedral (pictured in the cover photo).

I especially loved the market where I grabbed some photos and a whole bunch of fresh berries and nuts before we left.

Corvin Castle, Romania

Stop #14

Corvin Castle is one of the largest castles in Europe, and definitely Randy’s favorite visit of the trip. The castle was was laid out in 1446.

The castle is Renaissance-Gothic style. The castle also has a double wall for fortification and has both rectangular and circular towers, typical for Transylvanian architecture. Some of the towers were used as prisons.

We visited the Knight’s Hall, the Diet Hall and the circular stairway.

While we were in Budapest, we came across a painting of the Castle, which I’ve posted below with the information about the painting.

 


Sighisoara, Romania

Stop #13

As one guide book stated, the Medieval town is so pretty it should be arrested! Sighisoara looks like the buildings that Disney tries to emulate when drawing backgrounds for its fairy tales. Largely built in the 16th century, the homes have colored tile roofs.  I didn’t get much sleep this night because I wanted twilight, night, and dawn photos…and it was definitely worth it!

The city is also the birthplace of Vlad Tepes the Impaler (his statue is in one of the photos).

Sighisoara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Maramures, Romania

Stop #12

Maramures is the most traditional region of Romania. With many Gothic wooden churches with steeples that rise to the sky, you feel like you stepped back in history as you ride through this region. Carriages pulled by oxen and horses pass by on the other side of the street. Farmers are dressed in clothes full of patterns you might never imagine worn together. People are hanging out by the street sharing the latest news of the village. It was fascinating to me.

It was said that Ceausescu encouraged the people of Maramures to maintain their traditional culture, contrary to the policies in place for the rest of Romania.

As for the story of the unique wooden churches, here is how it goes.  In the 14th century, Orthodox Romanians were forbidden by Hungarian rules from building churches in stone. So the carpenters of the region used wood to express spirituality. The churches have interiors have walls painted in biblical frescoes (which look like folk art quite honestly).  But the churches are quite unique.

Spis Castle, Slovakia

Stop #11

Built in the 12th century, Spiš Castle was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and then owned by several families and later by the state of Czechoslovakia then Slovakia.

Originally a Romanesque stone castle with fortifications, a two-story Romanesque palace and a three-nave Romanesque-Gothic basilica were constructed by the second half of the 13th century. It underwent multiple additions and renovations over the centuries and even burned down in the 1700s.

In 1993, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kosice, Slovakia

Stop #10

We entered back into Slovakia on the Eastern side of the country. Kosice is the major Slovakian city in the East. As one of 2013’s European Capital of Culture, Kosice has plenty of sights.

The city has a town square/plaza. There was a musical fountain (which for whatever seemed to be really common on this trip).  The city was a bit sleepy, but had some fun places to hang out at night…great pubs.

Highlights:

  • Singing Fountain – it seems neat at first, then seems really tacky, and then it is all good and fine again.
  • Cathedral of St. Elizabeth – a 14th century Gothic Cathedral.
  • Statue of Andrassy – Statue of Kosice’s coat of arms, the first municipal coat of arms in Europe.
  • State Theater is a beautiful building in the town square.

Tatra Mountains

 

Stop #9

The High Tatras are the tallest range in the Carpathian Mountains. The range runs along the border of Poland and Slovakia. I wish I had taken more pictures of the towns that we drove through. Lots of ski resorts and unique looking buildings with high pitched roofs. Very beautiful place.  And one town we drove through was Gronkow in Poland … could that be where Gronkowski’s family is from?

Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

Stop #8

Today it is a museum housing the Crown Treasury & Armory, State Rooms, Royal and Private Apartments, Lost Wawel, and Exhibition of Oriental Art. We needed separate tickets for each of them, so we splurged and it was worth it!

The State Rooms and the Private Apartments were the best part. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1364! And the original was founded in the 11th century!

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow, Poland

Stop #7

The first church built on the site of present day St Mary’s Basilica was built in the 1220s. The views from the tower are a real highlight and have amazing views of the whole city.

On every hour, a trumpet signal is played from the top of Saint Mary’s towers. The song ends mid-stream to commemorate a famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city.

Saint Mary’s Basilica also served as an architectural model for many of the Polish churches that were built abroad, particularly those like Saint Michael’s and Saint John Cantius in Chicago.

Krakow, Poland

Stop #6

By far, this is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen. It rivals Prague and Budapest, which are both extraordinary.

Highlights:

  • Royal Wawel Castle and Cathedral –  Today it is a museum housing the Crown Treasury & Armory, State Rooms, Royal and Private Apartments, Lost Wawel, and Exhibition of Oriental Art. We needed separate tickets for each of them, so we splurged and it was worth it! The State Rooms and the Private Apartments were the best part. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1364! And the original was founded in the 11th century!
  • The main square is Rynek Glowny (main square) – Europe’s largest medieval town square (200m x 200m).
  • Town Hall Tower – The Tower is the only remaining part of the old Kraków Town Hall (Ratusz,) demolished in 1820 as part of the city plan to open up the Main Square.
  • St Mary’s Basilica –  The first church was built in the 1220s. The views from the tower are a real highlight and have amazing views of the whole city.
  • The Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a Roman Catholic, Polish Baroque church built between 1597–1619. It is the biggest of the historic Churches of Kraków.
  • Florian’s Street is one of the main streets in the Old Town.
  • On our way out of town, we visited Schindler’s factory, which housed the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who famously saved the lives of his Jewish labor force during the Holocaust.

In 2000, Kraków was named European Capital of Culture.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this 13th century historic center is a merchant’s town with Europe’s largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces, and churches with their magnificent interiors.  The town’s fascinating history also includes remnants of 14th century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues, Jegellonian University, and the Gothic Cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried.

Birkenau, Poland

Stop #5

Birkenau (Auschwitz II) is where most of the mass killings actually took place. The camp had more than 300 prison barracks. Still remaining are remnants of gas chambers and crematoria.

  • At Birkenau from 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe.
  • Jews were killed in large numbers using a pesticide called Zyklon B.
  • About 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, and at least 1.1 million of them were executed.
  • 90 percent of those killed were Jewish.

One of the last buildings I saw in Birkenau was the one that left the most lasting impression. It is a building where medical experiments were performed on pregnant mothers or new mothers and their newborn children. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pit in my stomach I felt when I read that sign.

Auschwitz, Poland

Stop #4

It is almost impossible or maybe even irresponsible to visit Krakow without taking a day trip to Auschwitz. We decided that we wanted to enjoy Krakow and ordered our trip to visit heartbreaking Auschwitz first.

Auschwitz (Auschwitz 1) is the main camp. Birkenau (Auschwitz II) is the larger camp about 2 km away.

Auschwitz I began as a polish military barracks, but the Nazis converted it into a death camp in 1940. You will see the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” in some of the pictures. This translates to “Through Work Freedom”.

It was a very depressing and moving exhibit with piles of shoes, glasses, luggage and other items heaped in never-ending piles with their rightful owners long-perished.

Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941.

Of those not killed in the gas chambers, many died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

Prisoners remaining at the camp were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Orava Castle, Slovakia

Stop #3

Orava Castle (Oravský hrad) sits on a high rock above the Orava river . Dating to the 13th century, Original design was in Romanesque and Gothic style, but it was later reconstructed as a Renaissance and Neo-Gothic building. It is now a National Monument.

We were lucky to see it in autumn, with yellow and orange leaves surrounding the rock on which the castle sits.

Bojnice Castle, Slovakia

Stop #2

Bojnice is a historical town in central Slovakia. The centerpiece is the Castle, built in the 12th century in Gothic and Renaissance style.

The castle wasn’t open to visitors on Mondays, so we didn’t get to tour the inside, which was fine given the day we had planned!

Bojnice Castle was originally built as a wooden fort, and written records refer to the castle in 1013.   In the mid-1900s the castle was confiscated by the Czechoslovak government and became the seat of several state institutions. It was destroyed by fire and later reconstructed in 1950.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Stop #1

We landed in Budapest and immediately rented a car to head to Bratislava, recognizing that we would spend plenty of time in Budapest at the tail end of the trip. We arrived in Bratislava as the sun was setting, and the three most obvious things we saw when we arrived were Bratislava Castle, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and Most SNP.

Highlights:

  • Bratislava Old Town – or Hviezdoslavovo Namestie – this is where you find embassies, restaurants and bars.
  • Martin’s Cathedral – 10 kings and one queen were crowned in this 14th century church. The reason you can’t miss this church is because it sits practically on the highway, at the edge of the old city walls.
  • Bratislava Castle – today’s castle was reconstructed in the 1950s after a fire in 1811 that left it ruined for over 100 years.
  • Most SNP, which is actually Most Slovenského národného povstania or the “UFO Bridge”, is a road bridge over the Danube. At the top of the bridge is a restaurant that looks like a flying saucer.