Saturday, February 24, 2018


After the delayed journey into Bucharest,  we again needed to rearrange what we had planned to do.  We decided we deserved some nice Romanian wine and a good dinner.  So we headed off to find a nearby wine specialist; Abel's Wine Bar.  We tried some very nice hearty reds (and brought a few bottles of Romanian and Austrian wines back to Laos)

Drinks to sooth the stresses of the travelling day accomplished, next it was off to fill the tummies.  A local beer-hall style restaurant popular with travellers and locals alike, was just around the corner. It was early and certainly not full but Caru' cu Bere  managed to find us a table "as long as we would be finished within two hours."  With just the 2 of us that seemed pretty achievable. 

Andrew had a small misunderstanding with the English menu and ordered the traditional Pork Knuckle and I had another dish.  On arrival it was enormous.  On reading the menu again it turns out it was described as being for 2 hungry people :-) He made a valiant attempt to eat it all, but the knuckle won in the end.

The new day dawned with heavy snow showers.  We needed to walk about 15 minutes to the National art gallery.  It was not a great day for looking at the streets as we trudged along, heads down.  It was a relief to get inside the buildings.  There was a very impressive collection of Romanian art and some good international galleries.

The destination for the afternoon was the Cotroceni Palace Museum.  Bucharest has a number of palaces, many with strong ties to the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu & his wife, and their excessive expenditures.  We chose the Cotroceni because it wasn't quite so over the top.  We walked and rode the metro to get there, stopping off for a quick kebab for lunch.  

The Cotrocheni Palace is the official residence of the Romanian President and we had to go through some security screening entering the building and were not allowed to take photos of the structures outside. Inside was interesting.

We walked up the Palace of the Parliament, a Ceaușescu structure that Bucharest is famous for.  The guide books regularly describe the building as the largest administrative building in the world with an area of 365,000m2 & 1100 rooms.  They also say it costs USD $6,000,000 a year for electricity and heating.  We didn't do the available tour here, because a lot of people have commented on TripAdvisor that it is really badly organised, and you can only take in so many rooms.  So we just looked from the outside.

The next day had no snow falling so we actually retraced some of the route from yesterday, but this time we could actually see the streets and buildings.  Bucharest has a reputation as being somewhere you should plan to leave as quickly as possible.  But I think that attitude is changing and the city is reinventing itself.  There are numerous stately buildings.  The historic city however has been over-developed and there are tourist restaurant after tourist restaurant lining the streets in that area.  If we had had a little more time we could have explored another couple of days.

Through the country there has been a strong religious presence.  This ranged from people crossing themselves on buses as they past churches, to large numbers of churches and plenty of people going into them.

We manged to eat well in Bucharest.  For a brief moment pre-trip Andrew had been concerned because friends who had visited there in the 80's had struggled to find any food to eat.  This was not a problem for us this visit. 

Near our hotel was the recently restored Hanul Lui Manuc restaurant. This building had been a trading post/coaching inn in the past. We had a good warming set lunch there including local specialties of sour soup and polenta and cheese.  And a good dinner nearby at the city grill with a shared large platter of sausages.  Afterwards we found that beer hall, the city grill and Hanul Lui Manuc were all part of the same chain.

And then it was back to the airport to reverse the journey back to Asia.  Romania in winter, was a good destination but with the delays we experienced with flights and trains, I think we merely we pleased to have visited, and perhaps could not say we had loved the experience.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sibiu and Brasov, Romania

After having to stay an extra day in Munich due to snow delays, it was a relief to actually takeoff.

We flew into Sibiu, proceeded quickly through a friendly immigration post and headed off to find a taxi.  As we arrived early evening, we decided it was too cold to venture outside,  so we proceeded to have a delicious cheese plate and kebabs in the hotel restaurant.  Both here and in Austria we enjoyed sampling cheese again.

The next morning it was cold, but clear, so we wandered off into the old town.  It was quite charming.

Sadly we could not go the very good art museum the town is reknown for.  In winter they close both Monday and Tuesday, and being  day late into town we of course were there only in Monday and Tuesday.

The town is also well known for the ''eyes" in the roofs of the buildings.  Everywhere you turn you see them, including more modern builds.

We went into the Evangelical Cathedral and paid our admission fee.  We thought we were going to see inside the Gothic church, but after viewing the displayed tombstones, the ladies at the desk said that was all we could see.  They were interesting carvings, but we felt a bit disappointed.

We did visit other churches in the town and had seen plenty of interesting buildings and people.

Having basically wandered the entire town, it was only lunchtime.  It was cold and we were hungry.  I had a recommended restaurant for lunch.  When we got there it was closed so we decided to walk around the block and check out other options - but basically saw none.  Luckily we went back past the original restaurant and it was open.  A hearty meal warmed us up.  Over lunch we agreed we had finished Sibiu, and we should amend our plans and head for Brasov.   

The next morning we walked down to the railway station and headed off to Brasov, about 2.5 hours down the road.  We couldn't immediately get into the apartment we were going stay in for just one night for, as they were still cleaning it.  But over the road there was a boutique burger restaurant where we ate burgers accompanied by crisps/potato chips.

After dropping the bags we did the speed tour of Brasov.  ! afternoon, 1 old town - we might as well be on a bus-tour.

The central square was atmospheric

One of the key landmarks was the Black church - an enornmous Gothic edifice.  It had displays of rugs everywhere relating to the history of the Ottoman empire trade route passing through.

It was short stay, but nice.  

Then the final journey by train the scheduled 2 hour trip down to Bucharest.  We left bang on time, we passed small towns and farms and we viewed not a lot of economic prosperity.  The we stopped...  For about 3 hours... in the middle of nowhere.  The conductor can through occasionally and said something, but the others in the carriage didn't move, so we stayed put.  No one spoke any English, or the ones that did had left in the 1st 1.5 hours.  There was some whisper of a bus out on the main road.  But we had no idea where, so on balance the most sensible decision was to just wait.  We got excited at one point because a flock of sheep was herded past by a lone herder  Luckily we had water and a few nibbles.  Eventually another engine arrived from somewhere and we were off.  Our 2 hour journey had turned into a 6.5 hour lesson in patience.  Andrew was so well behaved - amazing how a lack of options settles him down.  

Glad to be in Bucharest we walked down the platform toward the main hall, to be met by a camera crew who interviewed us about the delay.  Even now we have no idea why it happened - but we were probably on Romanian television. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

An extra day at Munich Airport

We made good plans and left the ski apartment early on Saturday morning: we needed to be in Munich to at 1pm to drop off the car.  It went really well until about 30 minutes out from the airport.  1. the light snow fall started to become very much heavier and 2. our GPS, with maps from a few years ago, couldn't quite handle the major changes to the road layout and kept telling us we were in a paddock and should turn around now.  We stopped listening to the GPS and and started following the actual road signs. By the time we got to the airport the snow was lying on the ground, but we felt relieved we were at the airport and on schedule.

We were delayed about 90 minutes in boarding the airplane, and once on board we were told there would be a short delay because of the weather conditions.  But were happy to be served a drink in the interim.  THEN, the pilot walked out into the main cabin and used the public address system to say there was a backlog of 40 planes in front of us for de-icing and that it would take 6 hours for us to get to de-icing point, therefore the flight had been cancelled.  We returned to the terminal and proceeded to participate in the most hideous customer service we have ever seen.  In front of us were 100 people and 4 service agents.

3 hours later, there were still more than 50 people in front of us, and 400 behind us.  Only then did Lufthansa start making public announcements that passengers should make personal arrangements for accommodation etc.  This was 9pm, and by this stage all the airport hotels were full, so we made a booking in Munich city - 45 minutes by train away.  We had also received an email saying we were booked on the same flight for the next day.  As we were still in the international terminal we had to clear customs and go find our suitcases.  After waiting in a line for 20 minutes at luggage tracking, they said they couldn't locate our suitcases and gave us an overnight kit, but told us to talk to the staff on the departures level.  The lady there spoke better English and said our bags were OK and had been transferred to the flight for the next day.  She actually gave us a EUR10 voucher each for a meal (which we used when we came back to the airport the next day).

We took our hand luggage and took the train into the city.  We got to our hotel just before 11 pm and we went down to the restaurant/bar of the hotel.  We had not had any dinner while waiting in the chaos, but had been given a couple of Kit Kats and water.  We went to order a soup each, only to find the kitchen had closed about 10pm.  Rather dejectedly we returned to our room, put on the multiple layers of winter clothing and returned to the street and the snow, hoping we would not have to walk the entire way back to the train station - where most things had been closing as we passed through.  The absolute highlight of the entire day was finding a Italian restaurant on the corner, where we purchased a couple of slices of Pizza.  It was absolutely outstanding Pizza.  It would have been fantastically good even if we weren't tired, cold and totally tired out by the day.

The next morning we reversed our journey, took pictures of the snow and went through the whole international customs/immigration procedure for a 2nd time.

Today the fleet of clearance tractors were mopping up water and there was no snow on the runways.  And our flight left as scheduled.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Saalbach, Austria: Feb-18 a week of skiing

Having had such a good time last year at Saalbach Hinterglemm, a return ski-trip was organised for Andrew.

We flew into Munich on Finnair with a short transit at Helsinki airport.  Here we watched the snow coming down very heavily and multiple planes being de-iced.  Onward to Munich airport where we fortified ourselves with some coffee and went to pick up our rental car.

Outside the day was overcast, but there was plenty of snow on the ground. We broke the 2 hour journey to our apartment near Lake Chiemsee by returning to Wasserburg am Imm, the town we had enjoyed so much last year as a lunch stop.  Sadly the very good cafe we had been to was closed for 2 weeks winter holidays.  After wandering around the old town for 5 minutes, we chose an Italian restaurant, mainly because there were plenty of people there.  We got back on the road and found our home for the next 2 nights in Bernau.

The next day we needed to go to a larger town to do a few errands and grocery shopping for the next week.  It was equal distance to 2 towns, and we found later we chose the least interesting of the 2.  Rosenhiem was a typical German town but on the plus side we found a brewery restaurant for a good hearty lunch.

Saturday, being changeover day in most accomodation in the ski towns, saw a lot of traffic on the road.  We stopped in the small border town of Reit am Winkel for a walk and coffee.  Back on the road there was one major tailback where it took us about 40 minutes to travel about a kilometer, leading up to an uncontrolled intersection.  After that it was plain sailing.

Back in the same house as last year, Anna Apartments, but a different apartment, Andrew was racing out the door to get his skis hired.  He was so happy when the man put his details into the comouter system and could reissue the equipment he had hired last year and the process took about 10 minutes.

The snow base was far better than last year, but it was a couple of weeks later in the year and lots and lots of children on school holidays.  Andrew skiied 4 days out of 6.  The other 2 days it snowed, one of them very heavily and there was 40cm of new snow overnight.

Quoting Andrew's trip notes...
"The fields grooming is excellent given my 8.30am starts. The lumps have been removed and I can ski down with ease of concentration and appreciate how fortunate I am
This resort attracts many Europeans and their high end vehicles ...The facilities are superb given the 70 lifts that all interconnect
I  have never been able to walk 40 metres to the ski lift in my life, easy to depart and return to the heated ski room
Lift queues can be long at times during the day, a number of people could learn from some English protocols and stop pushing along the queue line
It is lovely to explore new ski runs, pushing the boundaries for AJ.  I did some steep red runs that I managed well, snow was great, it was morning and not many people about. I did a couple of great runs thru a forest 2 valleys over, loved it
Have loved our time here."

I did a few hours work each and relaxed the rest of the time. Next it is back to Munich and a real weeks holiday for me.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hellfire Pass

Since we have been in Asia we have been intending to travel to the Burma Death Railway. However, getting to Kanchanaburi from Vientiane requires some travelling time and it has never quite fitted our schedules. But I had time owing from extra work over year-end and we were able to plan a mid-week trip, avoiding weekend day-trippers.

The night before we took the train we went for a walk around the neighbourhood.  We came across 2 young boys who wanted to try out their English. They did the usual where are you from spiel. Then they asked Andrew. "How old are you?" To which he replied "how old do you think I am?" They looked at each other, conferred briefly in Thai and replied...."67". Andrew looked a bit surprised because um...he is 67...

We traveled both legs of the journey on the local train.  3rd class, windows down and wind in our hair.  While we said to people we were going to Kanchanburi, we actually didn't venture into the town itself, staying 20 minutes outside of town.

And we didn't really want to see the reconstructed bridge "over the river Kwai" Instead our destination was another 1.5 hours further north.  All the way to the end of the line, Nam Tok.

There, we eventually found the driver we had organised, and then we promptly told him we wanted to stop and have some lunch. There had been a multitude of ladies selling fruit, popcorn and meals prepared in banana leaf, but we had not felt hungry until we actually got off the train.  He took that in his stride, and soon we were sitting at the end of a long table at a place that catered for large tour groups.  The food was very good.

Then we jumped in the back of the Songtheaw and sped off toward the museum, about 15 minutes out of town.  Coming from Laos, constant fast speeds and good roads are a bit of a novelty.

The museum was opened in 1998 and was very well done. Back in the 80s a former POW returned to the area and found it totally covered with jungle regrowth.  He petitioned the Australian government and eventually it developed into the museum memorial that stands today.  There is a 2.5km walk along the path of the railway.  Most people appeared to be there as part of tour groups and as such they all walked only a short distance to the memorial and returned to their bus.  We, in the full heat of the day, walked the entire length of the available trail.  There is more, but it is currently inaccessible. While it follow as rail trail, there was plenty of up and down and my phone said we had climbed 20 flights of stairs.   The Australian Veterans Assn have a very good audio-guide, which has former prisoners talking about their experiences.  We walked for less than an hour, carrying water, wearing good shoes while hearing about prisoners working 18 hours a day, with 2 meals of boiled rice, disease, torture...and we had a lovely cool towelette & chilled water waiting for us in our pickup truck.  And we felt rather drained by the effort, poor us.

With the museum visit complete, it was off to our accommodation.  We had booked a room at the Oriental Kwai which had singularly good reviews. Having stayed there, we concur 100%. The location was tranquil, the villas spotless, the staff well trained and the food excellent.  We wished we had booked more time at the resort, with only 10 villas it was relaxed and unbelievably quiet.

Sitting by the river having lunch in the restaurant and Andrew asked me if i could hear the music, which I couldn't.  He continued to look slightly distracted for further 5 minutes until he moved his leg off his phone and I too could hear the Seekers singing at loud volume.  Of course in usual Andrew fashion, he is not quite sure how he managed to become a one-man disco.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Yerevan Nov 2017

Our final capital city in the Caucusus was Yerevan, Armenia.  It also had it’s own unique feel, not the same as the other two cities we had been in.  While the countryside had shown signs of economic challenge, the central city had been heavily renovated.  Apparently there are 11 million Armenians, but only 3 million actually live in Armenia, described as a modern diaspora.  There are large populations in both Russia and the USA and it is common for funds to be sent back to the country.  These remittances make up 17% of the country’s GDP.

Having travelled all day we looked forward to an early dinner at a nearby tavern.  Quite good food and plenty of lamb on the menu.  

We had a brief walk around streets before returning to our hotel.  Andrew purchased a couple of cans of beer which turned out to be a major disappointment as they were 0% alcohol.  Never mind 😊.  But the lady in the shop was most excited to learn we were from NZ, we obviously were a change from Russian tourists. 

One of the images we had seen before arriving in the city was the snow covered Mt Ararat appearing on the horizon.  I thought it must have photoshopped for adverting impact.  But no, the mountain looks to be just outside the city limits.  In fact it is about 80km away, and is in Turkey, not Armenia.  There are no active border posts between Armenia and Turkey, due in a large part to a long standing tensions over genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government.  This is denied by the Turks but is generally accepted to have happened, but no one acknowledges it.

When we were in the city the autumn mornings were not clear and our views of the mountain were not great.  We headed to the park at the top of the Cascades complex.  Very conveniently we could ride the escalators up, while looking at various pieces of sculpture.  The views were good, if limited by visibility.

One small museum that turned out to be a real highlight of the city was the MartirosSarian House Museum.  Established in his former house, there was an extensive collection befitting an artist who had painted for over 70 years.  And as such the change in his style over his lifetime was as interesting as the many paintings.  His studio had been maintained as an exhibit in the museum.  All the components of daily life and the art gave an interesting complete ‘picture’ of the life and works of an artist.

Across the road we indulged before and after the visit in two of our favourite vices coffee and wine and cheese.  Coffee sitting in the sun was a good way to watch the world go by.  

And for lunch we visited In Vino, a wine bar recommended for their wine selection and tastings.  So we enjoyed a plate of local cheese and took tasting recommendations from the lovely staff.  Andrew insisted on taking one of their business cards, because he was going to mention them in his blog.  He didn’t say his blog would be read by a handful of people, mainly located in distant New Zealand.  He hasn’t done something so pretentious since 2009 when he said the same to a small bistro in Paris. I note the website for that bistro is no longer active, probably due in part to Andrew's lack of internet reach?

We walked out to the renovated GUM market.  There were lots of well presented vegetable, stacked like pieces of art, but not a lot of people buying.  And we walked to the St Gregory Cathedral.  Along the way there were plenty of glimpses of Soviet style apartment buildings.

In the three countries the police had very different presences.  In Azerbaijan, it felt like every 10th passing car was a police car.  It felt very safe, but we didn’t see them doing much.  In Georgia they drove around a lot, and used their sirens constantly, and had bright beams on the top of the car.  In Yerevan there were plenty of police and they were actively chasing cars and pulling up drivers.  It was an interesting and obvious contrast between the 3 cities.

Another highlight destination was the natural history museum.  Once we worked out which direction we were REQUIRED to walk in, we saw a stunning collection.  From the oldest shoe in the world – 5,500 years old, through to iron work, roman artefacts, pots.  It was extensive and really enjoyable.  There was also a very good area on the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, it was exceptionally moving.  

Parking was rather inexpensive - an annual pass for the city centre 12,000 AMD about USD 24,

Our final meal was another highlight.  The restaurant Vinograd had constant 5 star reviews on Tripadvisor.  It was well worth the 15 minute walk from our hotel.  We were early and the only ones there, but we were treated beautifully, the wine was delicious, the food generous and tasty.  Andrew concluded his trip with a a 15 year old cognac.  It could not have been better!

The rebuilt city buildings were of pink floss stone.

We stayed at the IBIS Yerevan, which was an ideal location for us to walk everywhere.

Around the city there were plenty of drinking fountains.  We watched an older lady, who knew the trick to getting a good stream of water.  Hold you hand over one of the neighbouring spouts, and your spout will get stronger and easier to drink - local tip :-)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tbilisi to Yerevan

According to the map the road distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan is 301km and 5:45 driving time.  And that proved pretty accurate, as we left the city at 9:00am and we were at our hotel by 16:00pm.  In the middle we visited some UNESCO listed monasteries

We had arranged a car transfer between the two cities with a tourist agency and it worked perfectly, allowing us to see a couple sights we wanted to see along the way, that would have not been possible with public transport.

Once we had left Tbilisi we saw road-side stall, after stall, selling autumn fruit and produce.  One local oddity was that often the stalls also sold washing powder and detergents.  Time and again, it would be that classic combination: fruit and washing power.

After crossing into Armenia we headed into the mountains.  The landscape was unusual in that there were deep canyons with very flat cultivated land at the top.

We stopped at Haghpat Monastery.  It was Sunday and mass was being performed.  The colour of the church garments, the choral singing, and the local with headscarves on added to the atmosphere.  An operational church in a building that was 1st established in 976AD

From here there were clear views of a Copper mine belching out emissions.  All through this valley there were derelict factories and signs of investments abandoned.  There were plenty of people living in towns and Soviet style apartment blocks, but not huge amounts of places to actually work.  Our driver said most men in the past went to Russia to find work. 

The second monastery was Sanahin, which is of a similar style and age, but not functioning the same as Haghpat.

and here the floors had engraved floor stones

From here we got back onto the main roads for the drive down to the capital.  Along the way some of the areas seemed pretty bleak,  Looking at the map later, this was the edge of area hit by the devastating earthquake of 1988 when 25-50,000 people died and 130,000 were injured.  There were many herds of sheep/goats being moved by a lone herder.  The herders fell into two main categories - a young person simultaneously checking their phone or a stooped over, elderly person.

As we passed the highest point, with Mt Agarats in the distance, the temperature dropped significantly (in Yerevan it was warmer again)  

The only traffic incident we had on the trip was near the city where a wedding party of cars were doing strange manoeuvres while driving.  They were clumping together, surrounding the bridal car forcing other drivers (including our car) to have to do some slightly hairy moves to get past them and back to normal.

Andrew captured some great pictures of the typical ovens and the bread therein