Extended Weekend

Extended Weekend: Bavaria

Posted by Strainu on December 12, 2012
From Bucharest / No Comments
Versiunea română aici.

The road

Map

Because we are talking about cities a few thousands kilometers from Bucharest (Munich and Nuremberg mainly), the transport will be made by plane. Of course, if you feel like a road trip, you could go by car, but it will take you at least 2 days to get there.

Both TAROM and Lufthansa have daily flights from Bucharest Otopeni to Munich, both early in the morning and later in the afternoon. Prices are usually around 120-150 EUR per return trip, except in Oktoberfest season. From Munich airport, there is the S-Bahn that can take you downtown or wherever your hotel is in the city.

To get from Munich to Nuremberg, you can take the plane (another 100 euros) or the ICE (high speed train), at about 50 euros the non-refundable promo ticket.

Rating: ★★★★½

Accommodation

The first time I was in Nuremberg, I stayed at a rather shady Mozart Hotel, an experience I don’t want to repeat. Fortunately, at my other trips I decided to use big chain hotels – both Accor and BestWestern have hotels for all budgets throughout Bavaria. This makes Germany compete win France at the number and variety of chain hotels.

You can safely pick a hotel in the suburbs of Munich for example, as S-Bahn service is regular and almost always on time.

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

Nuremberg

Nuremberg is a little on the downside when it comes to sightseeing – in fact, except the Castle and a few small museums, there is not much to see. However, if you’re interested in Nazi reminders, you can take the tram to the suburbs for some WWII-related places. In downtown, you will find the famous “Way of Human Rights“.

See the Wikivoyage article for details.

Human rights way
Human rights way
Tramvaiul-metrou
The tram sometimes becomes a metro here…
Nuremberg 2009
Castelul
The Nuremberg castle

Full collection of Nuremberg Photos at Flickr

Munich

Munich, on the other hand is a jewel of old architecture (as with many German cities, some of it was rebuilt after WWII) mixed with amazing 20th century architecture like the Olympic area and the BMW Museum and building.

Downtown

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Many bikes on a pedestrian road
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Metro (or U-Bahn)
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The palace (Rezidenz)
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Odeonplatz

Panoramic Views

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TV tower – from the cathedral’s tower
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Panoramic View. To the right of the picture you can see the BMW headquarters.

Museums

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Hyperinflation before the War meant stamping the money instead of reprinting.

The BMW Museum

(Almost) Everything in Munich revolves around BMW. So it makes sense for them to have a huge museum, just across the street from the huge factory and headquarters. As a note, the BMW headquarters are registered as a historic monument in Germany.
Sediul BMW
BMW headquarters
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The museum’s building
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The first exhibits: the classic BMW 326
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…next to the future fuel cell…
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…and electric cars.
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BMW started with planes, the went on to produce motorcycles, cars and now even bikes.
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They also have an impressive F1 tradition, both in the past…
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…and present
And all that because of their great engines:
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The car above misses a red button. Can you guess where it should be?
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Well, probably in the gear lever, it’s a Bond car after all, right?

I’m ending the BMW Museum tour with one of the great-looking BMW art-cars. This one from Esther Mahlangu (1991)
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More great photos from the BMW museum and Munich at Flickr

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternatives

Any City Break in Europe will probably do it – just find a cheap plane ticket and go for it. We’ve already covered Prague, London, Lyon among others on this blog.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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Extended Weekend: Băile Tușnad (more stuff)

Posted by Strainu on June 17, 2010
From Bucharest / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

I told you last year about the wonderful time we had at Băile Tușnad. This year, we decided to return to that part of the country to run and to do some hiking. You will find the practical information in the older article, so I won’t return to that.

Zona Tusnad - Sf. GheorgheMasivul Puturosu

There are a whole lot of trails in the volcanic mountains around Tușnad (see the maps above), but since we only had a half-day at our disposal, we decided to concentrate on two parts: Tinovul Mohoș (the Mohoș Marsh) and Masivul Puturosu (Puturosu -Smelly- mountain) with its sulfurous caves and its own Marsh, called Buffogo.

Tinovul Mohoș is a “reversed marsh”, as the guide put it: at the last volcanic eruption in the region, a layer of solidified lava landed on a lake. On this layer, small plants began to grow, forming an ever thicker layer of soil. The soil is much like a sponge – if you step on it, a hole appears, wPlanta carnivorăhich quickly fills with water. Depending on its thickness, different plants can grow on it: at the edge of the lake grow real trees, while in the middle only small pines and flowers can survive. What’s interesting is that one of the species of plant here is carnivore (see the photo on the right). The small drops on it are the poison that dissolves the insects it consumes.

The access to this area is only allowed with a guide. The tours leave every hour and cost 3 RON (1,5 for children). Consider another 5 RON/car for parking.

The other area we visited is accessible from the Best Western hotel in Balvanyos. Take the road from Bixad to Sf. Ana, but instead of turning left at the crossroad, turn right and go for another 2 km, then park at the hotel. From there, just follow the track marked with a blue circle (see the second map above). It will take you to all the interest points on that mountain.

Unlike most of the peaks around it, Puturosu Mountain (1143 m) is formed mostly by sedimentation, with some areas, like the 60m wall near the Sulfurous Cave, where magma intruded during the last volcanic eruption.

The gas emanation from the mountain are the southernmost appearance of the volcanic elements in the Carpathians. Unlike other similar emanations, this one does not only contains carbon dioxide, but also hydrogen sulfide, which is responsible for the yellow deposits on the walls of the caves – see the images below. The gas is present to about 1m from the ground (as high as the color on the walls 🙂 ), and it has an almost instantaneous effect if you go below that height.

If you take the trail around the mountain clockwise, the first cave is also the most famous one, called simply “The Sulfurous Cave” (the first image from the left). It’s an old sulfur  mine. When smelling the level of gas, one can’t help wonder how were the miners surviving in that hole?

Peștera sulfuroasă20100606-IMG_3216Tinovul Buffogo

Going forward around the mountain, you will get to a second cave, called Timsós Cave (the image from the middle). This one has a smaller opening, but is much deeper, and it goes down vertically, which means it is filled with poisonous gas.

From there on, the trail becomes very narrow and slippery. People with fear of heights should avoid it. During rainy periods, you should be well prepared if you are going that way. If you’re unsure, it’s better to go back and take the other way around the mountain.

If you continue, you will end up going to a forest so dense it will remind you of all the jungle movies you have ever seen. 🙂

In the end, you will reach a new crossroad. If you go to the left, you return to the hotel. It’s much more interesting to go forward, to the Buffogó Marsh. This is much smaller than Mohoș Marsh, but the water is much closer to the surface, and there is no guide. This means that you will end up full of mud, but it’s also much more fun.

The flowers in the Marsh are the same as in Mohoș, but a striking difference are the gases that escape from the water, making it look like it boils (the picture from the right).

After you’ve had enough of the mud, go back to the crossroad and take the trail back to the hotel. On the way, don’t forget to stop by the Birds’ Cemetery and the Killer Cave.  The cemetery is a valley filled with gas, where many birds, but also mammals have died. The Killer Cave, just next to it, is the biggest of all the caves on the mountain. It’s called Killer because there is no sulfur deposit on the cave walls, which means there is no warning on the gases inside. You can still see dead bats inside if you have a light with you.

From now on, the rest of the road is just going around the mountain and ending at the hotel.

At the end of the trip, you can return and enjoy a panorama of the Sf. Ana lake:

Panoramă Sf. Ana

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Extended Weekend: Prague

Posted by Strainu on June 11, 2010
From Bucharest / 3 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

Because we are talking this time about a more distant destination, the transport will be made by plane. The Czech airlines, CSA, has 2 flights daily from Bucharest Otopeni to Prague Ruzyne, one early in the morning and one in the afternoon. Prices are usually pretty high, but you can get a “City break” package from tourist agencies at excellent prices (for details, see the accomodation section below).

From the airport, there is a bus to the nearest metro station, which costs 26 CZK (the usual fare for Prague). From there, the metro should take you anywhere your hotel is.

Rating: ★★★★½

Accommodation

The best price to visit Prague is by choosing a “City Break” offer from tourist agencies. All of them sell the same package, from OK tours, which start from 199 EUR for flight + 3 nights in a hotel + breakfast. Of course, prices vary by the hotel. The hotels in the offer are:

  • Hotel OLYMPIC TRISTAR ***
  • Hotel ORION ***
  • Hotel SIBELIUS ***
  • Hotel U KRIZE ***
  • Hotel CHRISTIE ****

We chose the Olympic tristar, which is a little far from downtown, but with excellent public transport access. The building itself is a “classical” communist block, much like Romanian University dormitories, with small rooms and old furniture.

However, the rooms were clean, there was a TV and shower in the room and the breakfast was decent.

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

There is a whole lot to be seen in Prague, except the major tourist attractions. You should go through the more modern neighborhoods, like the 18th century buildings around the television tower with kids climbing on its side. They give you a different perspective on the city than the downtown. Or perhaps you would want to go follow on the footstepts of Kafka, the famous Czech writer, or the infamous soldier Svejk.

Turnul de televiziuneDSC07381

Of course, you shouldn’t miss the Prague Castle, the Jewish quarter (where you will find quite a few different nations actually, perhaps more than in other parts of the city) or Staré Město (the old city), including the astronomical watch.

Castelul PragaCeasul Astronomic

The Carol Bridge is a city on it’s own, with it’s many painters and souvenirs vendors. It is also the place to start if you are looking for a river trip. They’re a bit expensive compared with other European cities, but it’s well worth it. I recommend the small wood boats from Carol’s bridge instead of the large, impersonal metal boats that depart from other places on the river.

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On the other hand, you should avoid the museums, as they are unusually empty. For instance, the National Museum is a monster building, but the permanent exhibition would probably fit in the Military Museum from Bucharest.

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Rating: ★★★★★

Alternatives

Wien and Budapest seem likely replacements for those of you who already know Prague. The Hungarian airline, Malev, has an offer much like CSA’s, but the price is a little bit higher.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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Extended weekend: Băile Tuşnad

Posted by Strainu on September 12, 2009
From Bucharest / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

The quality of the roads are very different. Until Braşov the DN1 or DN1A are pretty good. So is the road from Braşov until Sfântu Gheorghe, although this portion has an unusually noisy overcoat. After that, there are plenty of potholes and the average speed is very low. The trip takes 4-5 hours by car.

By train, the trip takes 4.5-6 hours. There are a few direct trains from Bucharest, but most of the trains getting to Tuşnad leave from Braşov.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

There are plenty of private homes that offer accomodation, both in Băile Tuşnad and in neighboring villages. Most of them offer mediocre quality, but there are some good places to stay. There are also a few hotels left from the communist era for the most picky clients.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

What to see

There are a number of tourist trails from Tuşnad and the neighboring villages. You can go to the Sfânta Ana Lake by foot (3.5-4h) or to a sightseeing tower (15-30min.) from where you can see the whole Olt valley. There is also a cross you can visit, but the trail is pretty steep, so make sure you’re fit before going there.

In the city you have the Tuşnad sources, famous for their healing capacity and the Ciucaş Lake, which is little more than a poorly-maintained park with a pond in the middle.

Lacul CiucaşLacul Sf. AnaPe drumul dinspre Lacul Sf. AnaValea oltuluiTurnul

(Pictures made by Cathy and used with permission)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Alternatives

  • Sighişoara is a little further, but better known than Tuşnad.
  • In the same area, you can visit any number of hungarian towns or Târgu Mureş

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Extended Weekend: Côte d’Azur

Posted by Strainu on August 14, 2008
From Paris / 3 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

The Côte d’Azur is far from Paris (about 1000 km), so if you leave by car, make sure you have 2 drivers. A much easier way is to go by train – 6 hours by TGV or 10 hours by night train. I chose the latter solution as it allowed my to save a day.

Between the resorts you have bus services (slow but cheap – 1 euro) or local trains (more expensive but much quicker). For instance, between Cannes and Antibes you make almost 1h by bus and 12 minutes by train.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

You can find accommodation for all budgets on the Côte d’Azur. However, you should consider booking at least 2 to 4 weeks in advance during the summer, as there are many tourists in the area.

If you’re looking for a low budget restaurant, don’t bother looking near the beach. Instead, try near the fishing ports – you might have pleasant surprises. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

Cannes, Antibes and Nice are all alike, except for the “Croisette”. The “Croisette” is almost the ultimate in showing off. In one end you can also see the famous “Palais des Congres” where the film festival is held. Further down the street, you have the 4* and 5* hotels on one side, the private beaches of those hotels on the other side, and in the middle, 100k+ euro cars. 🙂 However, you can also find some lower-budget restaurants on the beach, but their prices are still above average. The beach is from sand, which is very unusual in France. This is not the case in Nice and Antibes, where you have to stay on rocks.

The rest of Cannes is just an ordinary resort, with shops, hotels and all the rest. There are some museums, like the Musée de la Castre, sitting in the former Castle of Cannes (photo 1) or the Musée de la Mer (Sea Museum). From the tourist port of Cannes you can visit the Lérin Islands, that were protecting the port in the Middle Ages – Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat. I went to the larger one, Saint Marguerite (photo 3 and 4). It’s covered with a pine forest and hosts a village and the Fort Royal, home to the Sea Museum and a youth hostel. The museum is not very large nor very interesting. The good part is that it’s free for students. If you missed the last morning boat and need to spend some time on the island, you can visit the natural reservation on the eastern side of the island or the WWII bunkers.
Chateau de CannesDSC04613DSC04662DSC04654

Nice is known for the half-moon shape of it’s beach. I can’t really understand the fun in spending the day laying on rocks, but hey…France is a free country 🙂 The main attraction except the beach is the Colline du Château, a mountain top at the end of the Angel’s Bay where the town’s castle and cathedral once stood. From the top, you can see the port, with the ferries to Corsica (photo 5) as well as the whole bay, as far as the airport (photo 6).

The pedestrian district, comprising the Promenade and several inland streets is home to some interesting buildings like the enormous Acropolis convention center/multipurpose hall and the very odd Louis Nucéra Library (photo 8). Another place to visit in Nice is the Garibaldi Place.
NisaNisaNisaNisa

Antibes was once as important as Cannes or Nice. Nowadays it seems a little “sleepy”, the main interest spot being the port.

Even if Monaco is generally considered as a single city, that’s not true – the northern part is called Monte Carlo, while to the south there are other cities. Due to the lack of time, we only made a half-day walk in the country, looked at the Prince’s Palace then left back for Antibes.
Rating: ★★½☆☆

Alternatives

If you don’t have 3 days, you might consider going from Paris to the Atlantic Ocean. Another destination could be the Northern Sea or even the African seaside if you go by plane.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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Extended Weekend: Benelux – Luxembourg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Bruges

Posted by Strainu on August 13, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

There are 3 ways to get around:

  • a car – which we choose; we rented a car from Sixt and left for the “Autoroute du Nord”; the highway is expensive and not as good as you’d expect in France (still better than the ones in Romania, of course) and pretty much “average” in Belgium and Holland.
  • a bus – Eurolines has routes between all this cities; the trip takes forever – count 7 hours between Paris and Amsterdam.
  • Thalys – the high speed train that liks Paris, Bruxelles, Koln and Amsterdam + regional trains from there.

We had some problems with the GPS in Utrecht, due to the road works in progress which were changing the look of the city. The rest of the road was smooth. You should consider about 4 euros/h or 30euros/day for parking in Holland.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

The initial idea was to spend 1 night in Liege, 2 nights in Amsterdam and one in Bruges. Due to the lack of time, we gave up on the nights in Liege and Bruges. In Liege we found a Premiere Classe hotel downtown and in Bruges a small hostel, both at about 20 euros/person/night.

Amsterdam was a whole different story. The hostels were both expensive and fully booked 2 weeks ahead. As a back-up solution, we decided to stay in Utrecht, about 35 km from Amsterdam. We chose the Strowis Hostel, which delivered all the promises from the site. We particularely liked the back yard and the hosts. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

The cities

Luxembourg is a mix between a tourist and a business city. It tries to do both roles as good as possible and in my opinion it works. However, not everybody agreed – some of my friends found it too “official”.
Luxemburg in a strange light on deviantart

Amsterdam is of course known for its canals, bikes and drugs. I personally found it to be a dirty city (the only one in western Europe who could be compared with Bucharest) and hard to live in if you have any kind of prejudices – and how many of us can honestly say they have none? On the other hand, I just loved the museums; perhaps was it because I am attracted to Flemish painters because of their choice of colors or because of the nice contrast between the old artworks and the modern layout.
DSC03829DSC03830

Utrecht was much more “quiet” than Amsterdam. Despite the same active night life, the city seemed to always me asleep. I’m sorry we only had a few hours to explore it.

Bruges is the medieval city by excellence. Between the old churches and houses you walk on small stone-paved, car-free (at least in the city center) streets. The downside is that once you see one of those, the rest are pretty much alike.
DSC03833DSC03840
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Choose 1 city from Holland, 1 medieval city and a very small country (like Lichtenstein, Andorra, San Marino or Vatican) and you’re all set. Pretty cool, huh? 😀

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Extended Weekend: Loire Valley

Posted by Strainu on May 14, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Transport

Map

To visit the Loire Valley, you’re better off to stay in one of the big cities, Tours and Blois.

The road from Paris to Tours is quite good. The downside there are many route changes and the itinerary has some toll portions. It will probably take you about 2 hours to get there. Blois is on this route, about 1h30 from Paris.

We have chosen to stay in Tours and get there by TGV. The trip takes little over an hour from Paris Montparnasse and 59 minutes from Massy. Unfortunately there are only a few trains that go in the Tours main station. Most of them stop in a small station on the outskirts of the city, and from there you have to take a regional train. Besides, the trains are a little old. It’s not particularly pleasant to hear the outer shell strongly vibrate at 300km/h.

To get to Blois, and even to Tours if you would like to save some money, you can take some classic trains from Paris Austerlitz. The trip takes about 2h to Blois and 30 more minutes to Tours.

To get around the valley the best is to have a car. If you don’t, you have to get around with local trains (TER) or with local buses. The trains are fast and quite expensive, while the buses are slow, cheap and few and far apart. Be careful, in the weekends the transport sucks (there are fewer trains and no buses).

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Accommodation

The Loire Valley has accommodations for all the budgets, from campings and the cheapest hostels to 5***** palaces and even reconverted castles. Tours is in the center of the region so it will probably be your first choice, but Blois has its own charm and nothing compares with the experience you will have if you decide to spend some days in one of the villages in the region.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The castles

I grouped the castles by their region. You should be able to visit all the castles in a group during a single day, without running to much.

Chenonceau and Amboise

Chenonceau and Amboise are placed more or less on the route between Tours and Blois. The first castle I visited, Chenonceau remained my favourite. It was built in the 16th century and it is called “Le chateau des Dames” (The Ladies’ Castle) because it was owned by the wife (Catherine de Medicis) and the mistress (Diane de Poitiers) of the French king Henri II. The castle spreads over the Cher River, so the view is guaranteed from the ball room, which is over 60m long. The domain and the gardens are pretty impressive, although not comparable with the ones at Versailles.

Amboise is different. It was built from an old fortress and the successive kings added new buildings or destroyed old ones, so the current castle is formed from 2 very different wings. This castle gave me a very pleasant surprise, as it was the only one which had a brochure in Romanian. Unfortunately, neither the castle nor the domain were impressive.

Entry fees were 10 euros in full, 7,50 euros for students at each castle.

ChenonceauxAmboise

Rating: ★★★★☆

Blois, Chambord et Cheverny

The Blois castle is the most intriguing of them all. It’s made from 3 different wings, of which the most beautiful is unfinished. It has an impressive side on the road and an interesting collection of weapons.

Chambord is arguably the most famous castle of them all. It’s a huge royal palace surrounded by an endless park. The village of Chambord is practically a touristic attraction in itself, being pretty much unchanged from the 17th century. This castle houses the famous double helix staircase, by which 2 people could see each other but never meet.

Tickets for students are 5 euros at Blois and 7,5 at Chambord.

BloisChambord

Rating: ★★★★½

Chinon et Langeais

Chinon is more of a fortress than a castle. It’s made of three distinct parts separated by ditches. It’s currently undergoing a huge restauration which will see the main tower rebuilt from scratch. This decision is unfortunate, in my opinion, as it takes most of the charm of the castle. Chinon also has a museum dedicated to Jeanne d’Arc.

Langeais is a small castle not to far from Chinon. It’s the castles where Charles II and Anne de Bretagne married, making Bretagne a part of France. The most interesting thing here is the drawbridge, which is lowered each morning.

ChinonLangeais

Rating: ★★★½☆

Luynes et Tours

Luynes is a private residence and can only be visited with a guide. Its charm is given by the small histories told by the guide and the many family pictures. It’s placed in a suburb of Tours and you can get there by bus.

The Tours castle is the city’s art museum. I personally found it totally uninteresting.

Luynes

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Well, there isn’t really an alternative to the many castles in the Loire Valley. Perhaps the English countryside? If you know an area with such a high concentration of castles, please let me know.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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