Timisoara, Romania

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After three months exploring the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, we needed to leave Schengen. A couple of cheap RyanAir flights got us to Romania, which we loved when we visited last year. This time we headed out of the capital to Timisoara, on the western side of the country.

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Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral

The city itself has beautiful architecture that mixes Romanian, Austo-Hungarian, and German styles. Several large plazas dot the old town, and the Bega river runs nearby. In 2021 Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture, which seems like a justified choice. There is plenty of art around the city, starting with statues dotting the city center. During the few weeks we were in town, there were two free movie festivals and a free opera and play festival. We went to multiple performances in Parcul Rozelor and watched The Fiddler on the Roof and Grafin Mariza with several thousand other fans. And even though these performances were done in an outdoor theatre, it was the full production, with large casts and and all the set pieces.

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Lots of statues in the streets

Timisoara also takes great pride in its parks. The Bega is lined with green spaces, which are dotted with restaurants, bars, and paddle-boat rentals. A favorite is definitely the Children’s Park, which is dotted with play equipment and scooter rentals, not to mention ice cream vendors. A shady river walk runs for several kilometers through the downtown and made for a less-trafficked way home.

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Piata Unirii, building in the Children’s Park, mural

The most famous (and possibly best) museum in town is the Banat Village Museum. Just a quick tram ride outside of the center, the museum recreates the feel of a small farm or village from the turn of the last century. Dozens of homes and village buildings have been relocated and then decorated with antique and period furnishings. There are even live animals like chickens wandering the premises and grape vines shading the porches. It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, and just around the corner is a small zoo. The zoo is largely farm animals, though there are a few monkeys and European brown bears as the centerpieces.

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Banat Village Museum

About two and a half hours away by car, Hunedoara is home to a spectacularly photogenic castle. Corvin Castle has been restored, along with the famous bridge that leads to it. We were lucky enough to find a BlaBlaCar headed in the right direction, which save us several extra hours of bus travel. The interior of the castle is partly restored, though the rooms are largely bare. It was a fun place to wander around for an hour or so. The best views are definitely facing the castle from the main approach.

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Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

Timisoara was a relaxed place to stay for a month. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, I think the people here were the friendliest. Even our few, terribly-pronounced words of Romanian brought out smiles. At our local market, Piata Iosefin, we got by with our Romanian and even a few words of German.

Also, their graffiti artists seem to be in a really good mood. I’ve never seen so many smily faces and positive notes scrawled on the walls. Any place this welcoming deserves as much attention as it can get! I’d love to head back someday, perhaps to check out the city when it is Capital of Culture in just a few more years.

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Positive and nicely-placed graffiti and stickers
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Jurmala & Sigulda, Latvia

In a surprise twist, just thirty minutes outside Riga are the wide, sandy beaches of Jūrmala. I never thought to associate Latvia with sun and sand. But the locals certainly do. On a hot summer Friday, it seemed half of the country was along the Jūrmala coast. The Baltic water wasn’t warm enough to tempt me to swim (though others were indulging happily), but it was the perfect spot for relaxing. There are small restaurants and ice cream stands along the shore and areas of “active” and “passive” recreation. Zones for sunbathing and being lazy! This beach has it figured out.

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Around Jūrmala

A little further inland is the heart of the tourist area, with pedestrian streets full of small shops and restaurants. We spotted an Orthodox church under construction and Latvia’s largest bronze globe (oddly specific, but it’s something). In one of the main parks was a viewing tower that was free to climb. The catch was that the floors were all grated metal, so looking down was a bit vertigo-inducing. From the top level we saw Riga, tiny in the distance, and the Baltic Sea on the nearer horizon. Since most local buildings are low, the surrounding forest appears nearly uninterrupted.

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Viewing tower in Dzintaru mežaparks

In the opposite direction from Riga is Sigulda, a small town at the start of Gaujas National Park. It is where they happen to keep the castles. In Sigulda itself are the remains of the Castle of the Livonian Order. The oldest castle dates from the early 1200s, though it underwent many iterations through the centuries. Parts of the towers and wooden battlements have been reconstructed and were open for exploration.

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Livonian Castle in Sigulda, path to Turaida

From Sigulda, it was only a little bit of a hike across the river and through the woods to get to the next castle, Turaida. Along the way was the largest cave in the Baltic States, Gūtman’s Cave. The cave was really more of a giant niche with a small spring inside, but the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back centuries. Clearly, it was a big deal to have your name on the wall, and some people even carved scrolls or family crests to make their marks more visible.

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Gūtman’s Cave – the largest (by volume) in the Baltics

Hiking a little further, up and down the local hills (they kept being referred to as mountains on local signs), we arrived at Turaida. This castle is inside a museum/reserve with preserved buildings and a sculpture park. But the main attraction is the castle. Again, it was built in the early 1200s and has been reconstructed. A tower and some recreated battlements loomed over lower ruins.

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Turaida Castle without and within

Perhaps the best part of the museum was a giant swing. Sized so that two adults could stand on it, maybe it’s a forerunner of kiiking?

Overall we hiked about 12 kilometers around the towns, though we didn’t make it to the third castle, Krimulda, because we needed to catch our train back to Riga. The area around Sigulda was beautiful and there are plenty of other trails to explore if we ever make it back.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

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House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

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Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

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Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

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Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

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Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.

Trakai, Lithuania

Just 30 kilometers outside Vilnius is Trakai, a small tourist town known for castles and surrounded by a beautiful set of peaceful lakes. We scheduled a kayaking tour of the lakes (thanks credit card rewards) for a Saturday afternoon during our stay in Vilnius. We were fortunate – rain that had plagued our weeks in the city cleared and July day was warm. It was perfect for paddling.

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Skaistis Lake solitude and in front of Trakai Island Castle

We walked to the main station in Vilnius, bought tickets for the next bus to Trakai, and had just a few minutes to wait. The journey was quick, and from the Trakai bus station, it took about ten minutes to walk to the waterfront where were to meet for kayaking. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the trip for the day. Tomas, our guide from North North East, was fabulous. He took us around the castle, along the edge of the more crowded Galvė Lake and the Trakai waterfront, through a hidden passage to small ponds, and into the peaceful Skaistis Lake. Stopping for lunch on a small island, we enjoyed kibinai and apple-honey tart. My favorite portion was on the quiet out-of-the-way lakes, separated from the dozens of paddleboats and partyboats. Our arms were still feeling good after several hours of kayaking, and we had plenty of daylight left to see the rest of Trakai after returning the kayaks.

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Quiet lunch spot, going around the Castle

We toured the Trakai Island Castle, the main tourist draw. It is incredibly scenic – reconstructed red brick towers and halls on small islands connected by bridges. At one time it was completely surrounded by water but lake levels have lowered over the centuries, and we walked around it, sharing the path with wedding parties and picnickers. Inside is a small history museum and a few collections of porcelain, ceramics, coins, and smoking pipes (apparently guys in the 18th century liked to have flirty ladies put on their pipes… which is something, I suppose).

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Island Castle courtyard; my favorite ceramics in the museum

We saw the rest of Trakai fairly quickly. The waterfront is crowded with restaurants and souvenir stands. Other streets are quiet with colorful houses. We wandered back to the bus station to catch the next transfer back to Vilnius. The bus arrived quickly but the driver waited until it was full to start; not a big deal to us since we had the time.

 

 

Vilnius

With southern Europe swamped by excessive summer heat, our plans to head north looked like the best choice we could have made. After enjoying Estonia so much last fall, Vilnius and Riga looked equally tempting (and Eurovision 2016 didn’t hurt either). First up was the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius. Our apartment was between the Old Town and the Neris River. We were central enough to be within walking distance of all the main sights but away from the crowds. After Prague, however, Vilnius seemed laid back and relatively tourist-free.

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Riverwalk, Lithuanian Saeima, National Library

The long summer days gave us plenty of time to wander around, and evenings were cool and perfect for exploring. We arrived on the longest day of the year – the sun rose well before 5 a.m. and set at 10 p.m. Technically the rest of the night isn’t night, just varied degrees of twilight. Everyone takes advantage of the extra sun. In parks and plazas around the city, there are evening picnics, frisbee, people at the skateparks late into the night. Just a block away from our apartment was Alus Namai, a local beer bar that was a great place to grab a drink at sunset.

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Vilnius Cathedral with preparations for the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis

Our second day we visited the Catholic Cathedral. Preparations were going on for the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis, an Archbishop who served the Catholic Church despite intense persecution during the Soviet Era. I decided to attend the mass, which took place outdoors with thousands in attendance. Matulionis’s casket, normally housed in the Cathedral’s crypt, was brought out for the ceremony and so the faithful could pray with it. Even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė spoke near the end of the service.

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The ‘Miracle’ tile in the cathedral plaza, information about and the ceremony for the beatification of Teofilius Matulionis

Vilnius was a wonderful city to explore on foot. The Statehood Day holiday occurred during our visit – we joined crowds of people heading up the hill near the Three Crosses for the evening singing of the National Anthem at 9 a.m. People came at nine, sang, left. No fireworks since it doesn’t get that dark. It felt much more laid back than the 4th of July in the US.

Vilnius’s Old Town is the largest in Europe and provides plenty of opportunities to explore churches and side streets. The Castle hill behind the Cathedral is open for climbing and is a beautiful sunset spot. We found churches with crumbling interiors that seemed abandoned and small cafes to people watch from. Because it is the capital, there are government buildings scattered around. We hid from a rainstorm on a staircase of the Presidential Palace without realizing why so many people were interested in photographing us.

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Singing the National Anthem on Statehood Day, hot air balloons, church art, Vilnius Castle

The area near the train and bus stations is known for murals, especially one that made the news recently for the interesting current event commentary. Others are prettier and more to my taste but less noteworthy.

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Vilnius has interesting arts……

Vilnius bridges the gap between Germanic and Baltic cuisine. There are plenty of potatoes and potato dumplings stuffed with meats and cheeses but also preserved herring. Kalvariju Turgus, the largest market in the city, was a great place to try fresh local produce, honey, and sausage. We picked up lots of summer veggies and strawberries, as well as incredibly dense hempseed bread (that nearly took a saw to get through). The dessert of choice was sakotis, a layered cake made from a creamy batter poured over a rotating spit. Not quite sweet enough for me, but the ones dipped in chocolate came close.

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Sakotis cake, snacks, Lithuanian beer, goldenrod flower wine

And the beer! Lithuania takes the prize for the world’s best beer, soundly beating Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We read a few articles before arriving about brewing styles that incorporate local yeasts and family traditions – and each turns out a unique, tasty brew. We had witbiers, darks, beers made with peas, cloudy beers, unfiltered beers, saisons, IPAs. Even the mass market brands were tastier than any other country we’d been to. We kept wondering that we’d so rarely seen Lithuanian beer outside of the country: clearly they are keeping the best for themselves. My advice is this: If you like beer, you will like Lithuania. If you don’t like beer, you will probably be able to find beer you do like in Lithuania.

There wasn’t much to offer as far as local grape wine. However, the deficit is partly made up for by local fruit and flower wines. I had a single glass of wine made from goldenrod flowers that tasted like spring. And bread is turned into gira (kvass), a barely-alcoholic drink somewhere between soda and beer. It tastes as good as the bread, and is a favorite summer-afternoon-cool-down-drink

Vilnius really seemed like a great place to live. The relaxed atmosphere and relatively cheap cost of living made it one of our favorite European capitals. It might be harder in the winter, with only a few hours of sunlight, but I’d definitely love to return in spring or fall.

Warsaw (by bus from Prague to Vilnius)

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Travel has started to make airports less fun, so we’ve started planning transit connections via bus and train. The first big test of that was getting from Prague to Vilnius. We left ourselves an extra day, and decided we’d take a bus to Warsaw, have one day to relax, and then hop on another bus to finish the journey. Two 8+ hour bus trips would be enough to find out if trading airport annoyance for longer travel time was worth it. And another chance to spend time in Warsaw would definitely be welcome.

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Warsaw’s Barbican; Warsaw Mermaid in the Old Town Square

Poland was a favorite stop last year, but in our two weeks in Warsaw we didn’t get to do quite everything we’d hoped. We still needed to find the mermaid statue and check out the viewing terrace at the Place of Culture and Science.

The mermaid was easy to locate. We’d passed nearly right by it last year, though it had been blocked from sight by dining tourists in the Old Town’s central square. The Palace was a couple blocks from our Airbnb, so this time we had no excuse to avoid it.

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Modern skyscrapers and the Palace of Culture and Science

The Palace towers ominously amid all the newer glass-and-steel buildings of Warsaw. A ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union, it still seems out of place, surrounded by modern architecture. It is massive enough to house multiple theatres, a college, and museums in addition to the viewing deck. It was quite hot on the afternoon we went, but the 30th floor had a constant breeze. Since our apartment lacked air conditioning, we were content to relax at altitude for a while.

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On the road: stork’s nest, roadside chapel and cross, lots of fields

Eighteen hours on buses, even spread out over two days worth of trips, is a lot of sitting. From Prague to Warsaw was the prettier trip – we went through the hills on a two-lane highway and then descended on to flat plains full of farms and fields. Dozens of white storks were in freshly mown hay fields. Occasionally we’d catch sight of one of their massive nests on top a power pole or platform built specifically for them. The edges of small towns (and even many farmsteads) had ribbon-bedecked crosses marking boundaries. Small chapels served as a spot for prayers for a safe journey. Between Warsaw and Vilnius the journey was more monotonous. Fields and trees made up the scenery.

Since we had the time, the bus was the right choice. Far cheaper than flying, we didn’t have to worry about luggage weight limits and could take kitchen supplies with us. It was easier to get to and from our apartments as well. Rather than planning out an early-morning airport arrival, we could just head to the bus stop in the center of town via tram or a cheap Uber ride. No need to waste two hours at an airport or go through long lines at security. Plus, all that extra transit time let me catch up on reading and podcasts! We’ve planned future stays in such a way that plane travel should become less frequent, taken over by more relaxed bus rides.

Kutna Hora & Sedlec Ossuary

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St. Barbara’s Cathedral and Jesuit College in Kutná Hora

An hour’s train ride from Prague is the town of Kutná Hora. We knew about it because of the bone chapel in the Sedlec Ossuary, but were happy to see we could spend a full day there. Our train car on the way there was nearly empty; we passed through other cozy-looking towns before coming to Kutná Hora’s station. Hopping on a second, two-car train that shuttles visitors between the station outside of town, the Chapel, and the town itself, added just another couple minutes to the journey.

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Interior of the Church of St. James and St. Barbara’s

After a while wandering the old town, we ended up at the Church of St. James. Often overlooked, it is next to a viewpoint that overlooks the imposing former Jesuit College and the Cathedral of St. Barbara. Inside, St. James is quiet and houses an impressive altarpiece.

A ten minutes walk past the Jesuit College (now an art gallery) is the Cathedral. Constructed with money from the city’s silver mines, it is a towering Gothic structure bedecked with gargoyles. Altars built by mine owners (and miners hoping for saints’ protection while underground) dwarf visitors.

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Sedlec Ossuary Chapel; bones unearthed during restoration work

After a meal overlooking St. Barbara’s vineyard (which only produces mediocre wine), we walked three kilometers through the old town to the Sedlec Ossuary. The Ossuary is just a small part of a former Cistercian Abbey. The massive Church of the Assumption also survives, though we decided not to pay the entrance fee for another church.

The Ossuary is a small chapel in the center of a small cemetery. From the outside it didn’t look like much, despite the shiny skulls topping the spires. Once we got to the door, however, we discovered otherwise. Since we arrived mid-afternoon we avoided tour groups and were able to walk right in.

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Bone chandelier

Bone art is visible from the ticket booth, which is tucked into a corner at the top of stairs leading down into the crypt. The four corners of the underground chamber are walled off and each houses large pyramids made of bones – the resting spot of tens of thousands. Above, garlands of human skills and arm bones decorate the arches. A coat of arms created with tiny bones represents the powerful House of Schwarzenberg. In the center is the famous chandelier made from every bone in the human body. Some skulls show marks from the 15th century Hussite wars – sword cuts and arrow holes.

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Ossuary decor

Sedlec Ossuary was eerie, but not disturbing or claustrophobic in the same way Paris’s Catacombs were. It takes only a few minutes to see in its entirety. Since the Chapel was undergoing preservation work, we circled it. In a trench behind the building was an archaeological dig… they had run into more bones. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a cemetery, but that skeleton was more unnerving in its completeness than the random piles inside.

We had a couple of beers at a bar down the street while waiting for our return train. Another few minutes walking got us to the station to meet the evening train back to Prague.