Places

A spring outing to the forest

There’s a forest near the village of Pelișor (where we’re restoring the fortified church and parochial house through our NGO) that we love to visit. It’s the same forest where I took these other photos. It’s a welcoming place with lovely trees, mostly oak and beech, where we can walk undisturbed or sit down and take in the fresh air and the sights and sounds of nature. We visit whenever we can. These photos were taken this spring during one such outing. Enjoy!

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Places

A visit to The Breakers in Palm Beach

Back when we visited the Flagler Museum, we also visited and stayed at The Breakers in Palm Beach, an historic hotel. I honestly thought I’d published these photos long ago but no, I forgot. I did publish a short video clip I filmed on the beach with a new camera I was reviewing at the time, the PEN E-P2.

So… eight years later, here are the photographs I’ve taken at The Breakers. In case you’re interested in the fleeting red light of the setting sun and how it can be used for portraits, there’s a wonderful spot right outside the hotel, on one of the walkways, where it filters through the palm trees and shines on a spot that’s right at face level. You’ll see it in the photos and yes, that is exactly the kind of red light it is, I did not make it redder in post-processing. If you want to catch it, you’ll have to be there watching, because it only lasts for about 10 minutes each evening. Good luck!

Enjoy the photographs!

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Places

Italian road trip – Day 5 – Crossing Italy from Grottammare to Rome

After a hearty breakfast, we explored the Grottammare fortress and beach, then got on the road to Rome. That’s right, that day we planned to cross the whole of Italy, from the coast of the Adriatic Sea almost to the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, which we would reach on our sixth day after exploring Rome. I believe we took the route highlighted on this screenshot from Google Maps, the one marked with blue.

Route from Grottammare to Rome

Route from Grottammare to Rome

We crossed the mountains, took a quick tour of Tivoli by car and could not stop anywhere, apparently there was some sort of local holiday that day and the streets were packed with people. Since I was driving, I have no photos from there. We pushed on and reached Rome just in time for the evening traffic, which meant it took till after dark to reach the historic part of the city. Because at that time things like online maps viewable on phones and GPS navigation and being able to do instant searches for hotels on phones weren’t available, we had a most stressful time finding a hotel. They were all full or were asking astronomical prices. We finally ended up paying a taxi driver to lead us to a hotel by driving ahead of us. By the time we were in our rooms, it was past 9:30 pm, we had spent most of our day in our car and most of that in terrible city traffic. But we were grateful to finally have a bed to sleep in and a shower with hot (or somewhat hot) water.

Now you get to enjoy the photos. If you’d like to see the other posts from our trip, here are days 1, 2, 3 (part 1 and part 2) and 4; and here’s the overview.

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Reviews

The Pullman Hotel in Bucharest

This is probably the first hotel review I’ve ever published on my site, but I feel strongly about this and wanted to share my thoughts with you.

It’s not often I have high praise for a hotel. I do for this one. My wife and I are repeat customers here and we’ve always had positive experiences. We’ve stayed here multiple times during the past few years and we can both say that it’s the one thing we look forward to our trips to Bucharest. We like to travel, but we hate spending long times on the road, dealing with traffic, bad drivers, hot, sweaty weather and being cooped up in a car for long periods of time. So after all that unpleasantness, being able to unwind in a pleasant hotel room with a wonderful view is decompression heaven. To me, there are certain things which are important in a hotel: 

  • Location: how central is it, based on the business we need to conduct in that town, or the sightseeing we want to do, if we’re there for pleasure. For us, a hotel in Sector 1 (the northern part of Bucharest) is exactly what we need, because we conduct most of our business here and it’s easy for us to head to the highway and get back home. 
  • Parking: I want proper, spacious parking, right next to the hotel, free of charge if possible, guarded and well-lit, to minimize the potential for criminal activities and to make it easy for us to load and unload our car (we tend to travel with lots of luggage); 
  • Comfortable rooms and comfortable beds: yes on both counts. I can’t properly express in words how good it feels to step into a hotel room here after a long, hot day in the car, take a shower and unwind. I know I can get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed and go about my day with confidence. 
  • Price: it needs to be affordable for our budget, yet not too low, so as to discourage the unpleasant types (rude, loud idiots who think hotels are places where you party and make noise). Here the Pullman tends to be on the high side, which sometimes makes it difficult for us to stay here, but it’s still the first place we check when we plan on staying in Bucharest, because it often offers deals and special pricing for repeat customers. 
  • Friendly, helpful staff that resolves our issues promptly: not that we’ve had many issues while staying here, only minor ones, but it’s nice to know they’re always on it when we ask them. 
  • Great architectural design, both inside and outside: while the outside of this hotel is fairly streamlined and modern, the inside is great; it has lots of classical design cues, the hallways and the rooms are carpeted so as to reduce noise, the floors and walls are soundproofed, and best of all, each room has double doors. Let me explain that last part: there’s the entrance to the room, which leads into a hallway, with access to the closet and the bathroom. Then there’s another door that leads into the room itself. What this means is that there are two doors and two walls between your bed and the hallway (which is the main sound source at night) and this ensures you’re isolated from all the hallway traffic and can actually get a good night’s sleep. 
  • Large windows with great views: it delivers perfectly here. Pretty much every room gets a beautiful, panoramic view of Bucharest (see the featured image posted here). 
  • Good closet space and luggage stands: self-explanatory. It’s surprising how many other hotels have terrible closet space and no luggage stands. These two things are staples in a hotel room. They simply must be there. 
  • Armchairs and a work desk: for unwinding and getting some work done. 
  • Key cards that work: in many other hotels, the cards keep going inactive, requiring guests to go back to the front desk and get them reprogrammed. Not so at the Pullman. You can keep them in your wallet, next to your credit cards, you can keep them next to your cellphone or other RFID cards, and they’ll always work. 
  • A great breakfast: while the menu stays the same here, it’s a good menu and the food is very good. They also serve good pot-brewed coffee, which is my favorite, because I’m fed up with bad espresso. 
  • Good WiFi: the WiFi is free here and it works reliably. It’s not the fastest, but it works and you can actually get stuff done on it. I’m writing this post on the hotel’s WiFi. I’ve been to so many hotels where they charge you for WiFi, or it’s free but it’s crappy and peters out, leaving you frustrated and having to resort to 3G on your cellphone or tablet. 
  • Workout and exercise facilities: while the workout equipment selection is limited, it’s enough for maintenance workouts and as an added bonus, there are two saunas (a traditional sauna and a turkish sauna). They’re a godsend after a long of day of work and standing on our feet. 

Here’s hoping things stay the same here, and we can keep relying on this hotel for our stays in Bucharest! 

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Places

Boat ride on Lake Vidraru

Remember my time-lapse video of the boat ride on Lake Vidraru? Well, this is the behind-the-scenes, the B-roll if you will, of that time spent on the boat. The name of the boat is the Mirena and at its helm stands Captain Gigi.

We had a blast and we’d gladly do it again. I hope the video shows the beauty of the nature we saw and the wonderful time we had. Enjoy!

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Places

Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 2

Part 1 of the Venice leg of our Italian road trip ended with our entrance into the Piazza di San Marco. That’s where this story begins.

As you can see on the map, the city of Venice isn’t made up of a single island, but multiple ones. This will prove interesting later on in the post, when you’ll see photos from the Campanile of the Piazza di San Marco (the Bell Tower). For now, let’s see what there is to see in the Piazza. As with the previous post, you can see the photos in the slideshow embedded below, or you can scroll down to see each photo and read my accompanying thoughts.

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Places

Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 1

On the third day of our Italian road trip, we left Florence and started on our way to Venice.

This post contains 50 photos, so get ready to spend about 15-20 minutes here. You can see a slideshow below, or you can scroll down to see each photo alongside my thoughts.

First, we needed to find a place to stay for the night. We kept driving and driving, through Modena and on to Ferrara, but no decent hotel or pension presented itself to us. We veered off the highway, hoping to find a nice, quiet pension in the countryside, but we couldn’t see anything. It was getting darker, and we were getting desperate. We were tired after a long day of walking and driving, and we wanted to rest.

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Places

New town center, Baia Mare, Romania

We began our recent trip through Bucovina in the city of Baia Mare, the capital of the province of Maramures in Romania. A few interesting tidbits about the city:

  • It has a Mediterranean-like climate, which means it can support chestnut trees — a rarity given that it’s located in the northern part of Romania, which in itself is quite a ways north from the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Population is about 150,000 people
  • The region is rich in gold and silver
  • It was one of the few known shtetls in Romania, along with Radauti and Gura Humorului. (Shtetls are, or rather were, pre-WWII, small towns with large Jewish populations from Central and Eastern Europe.)
  • The new town center was built in the 70s and 80s and features modern architecture

We visited the very same new town center. The architecture is certainly modern, but is unfortunately not maintained. Almost all of the buildings show cracks, some of the exteriors have begun to peel off, some windows are broken, there’s graffiti on most of them, and all are covered in a nice, thick layer of muck. I guess some of that can’t be helped after 40 years, but still, some efforts ought to be put forth by the city to maintain the architecture, right?

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The image of the church above is a fairly good representation of the state of downtown Baia Mare and of Romanian cities in general. At first sight, it looks nice, but as you get closer, you begin to see glaring problems such as the state of the sidewalk (potholes among a mixture of pavement, mud, asphalt and stones), poor landscaping, poorly maintained buildings, etc. If you were to look closer, you’d see problems with the building as well. To some extent, this can be blamed on the past Communist regime, where the emphasis was placed on quantity, not quality. The construction issues have only become evident in recent years, as layers have started to come off apartment buildings and public buildings alike, peeling like onion skins, revealing the crumbling masonry work beneath.

This next photograph shows the building defects a little better.

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The buildings look much nicer from nice from afar, don’t they?

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I took most of the photos from a park in the new town center, as you can see for yourself if you look at the surroundings. All in all, in terms of planning, it’s good. The idea of a central park in a new downtown, and the allowance for plentiful vegetation among apartments and shops and hotels is great. But a great idea must also be executed in appropriate fashion in order for it to be fully appreciated. In this new town center, like in most town centers built during Communist times, proper execution just isn’t there.

Look, don’t think I’m bashing Baia Mare. It’s a wonderful city, and there are many cities in worse shape in Romania. All I’m saying is things could be a lot better than they are. The predecessors could have done a better job building the city, and their successors could be doing a better job maintaining and beautifying it.

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Reviews

Christoph Rehage's China hike

Christoph Rehage walked through China for a year, on foot, while letting his hair and beard grow. The total distance walked was 4,646 km. He took photos of himself along the way, then put them together in a wonderful time lapse video which you can see below. He also kept a travel log, which he’s been posting to his website.

I bookmarked his video a few weeks back and meant to blog it. Now it’s already making the rounds. If I hadn’t procrastinated, I wouldn’t be in the me-too group…

It’s a great video, and a great achievement. It’s amazing to see Christoph’s face change through his trip. He emerges a changed man at the end, and exclaims as he puts up a photo of himself at the start of the trip, “Who was this man? Was it really me?” Good question.

The Longest Way 1.0 – one year walk/beard grow time lapse from Christoph Rehage on Vimeo.

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Places

A trip through Bucovina

As announced, we returned last week from a road trip that took me through northern Maramures, Bucovina, Moldova and northern Transilvania. (These are all provinces in Romania, by the way.) Ligia, my parents and I packed into our car and spent about 1 ½ weeks on the road, visiting various places, mostly in Bucovina. We visited several monasteries (the region has some of the most important in Romania and Eastern Europe), most of which we’d visited back in 1991, so it was interesting to see how they, the places around them, and the people living there changed over the years. Along the way, as we meandered through the Carpathian Mountain chain, we got to see amazing vistas like these ones.

Amazing sunset

A sunset in Bucovina

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Rising fog in the morning hours, on the road in Bucovina

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A sunset near Borsa

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At the edge of northern Maramures, about to cross into Bucovina

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In the hills outside the village of Vama, in Bucovina

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In Maramures. Do you notice the start of a rainbow in the lower right corner?

We started with a quick stop in Baia-Mare, in Maramures, where we walked in the newer, more (relatively) modern town center. The historic town center is a few kilometers away from where this photo was taken.

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Downtown Baia-Mare, Maramures

From Baia-Mare, we headed North, toward Sighetul Marmatiei, then West, into Bucovina, crossing over the Northern part of the Carpathian Mountains. While still in Maramures, we visited the tallest wooden church in the world, Biserica de Lemn “Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil”, in a village called Surdesti.

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Biserica de Lemn "Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil"

Night came upon us as we drove over Mt. Prislop, the main crossing point from Maramures into Bucovina. There was no lodging available in Borsa, a mountain resort (what economic crisis?!), so we drove on and found a cabin at the very top of the mountain. We stopped there, hoping for a memorable overnight stay. Unfortunately, the accommodations left a lot to be desired — the bathrooms in particular — so I spent most of the night mulling over my thoughts and taking photos, unable to sleep. This is one of the ones I made that night.

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About 2 am, right on the very peak of Mt. Prislop, in Bucovina

The next morning, we moved on and wound our way into the heart of Bucovina. The first stop was the resort town of Vatra Dornei, which is famous for its natural springs. Here’s one of them below.

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Vatra Dornei, Romania

The monastery at Moldovita was next on our itinerary.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania

The second monastery we saw was Sucevita.

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Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania

After not sleeping very well the previous night, and given the lodging crisis, we decided to start looking for a room around 5 pm. To our disbelief, all lodging in the area of the monastery (about 2 hotels and 3 pensions) was taken. I have no idea what economic crisis they keep talking about on TV and in the newspapers, because when I go out in the world, I don’t see any difference. Lodging was either full or close to full at most every place we visited, even in remote locations. Mountain resorts like Borsa, Durau, Vatra Dornei and Borsec were all full.

Since no lodging was to be found in the area, we drove to Radauti, one of the main towns in the province of Bucovina, hoping to find something there. We were looking for a 4-star place, either a hotel or a pension, and we were about to leave town, disappointed, when we decided to ask a gas station attendant who pointed us to David House, a 4-star pension nearby. Let me just tell you that while 3 stars may cut it in the US, it’s not enough in Europe, not by US or my standards, anyway. Read through our experience with hotels in Italy for more details on this topic, and trust me when I say that you want to look for 4-star hotels or pensions in Romania, if you can afford it. I’ll write more about David House in a future post, but let me just tell you our lodging experience there was superior to all of the other places we stayed at in Romania, and the price was great for the quality of the accommodations.

While in Radauti, we walked on one of its streets. This is one of the scenes we saw. I love the character of this run-down traditional house and the cat perched on what used to be a windowsill.

On the streets of Radauti

On the streets of Radauti

The next day, we visited the cave of a famous hermit called Daniil Sihastrul, who figures prominently in the history of the provinces of Moldova and Bucovina. He was the spiritual advisor of Stefan cel Mare, one of Romania’s great rulers.

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Chilia lui Daniil Sihastrul

After that, we visited Manastirea Putna — an old and large monastery, built in the 15th century. It contains the grave of Stefan cel Mare inside its church.

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Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Very near Manastirea Putna, you’ll find the oldest wooden church in Romania, called Biserica de Lemn “Dragos Voda”. It dates from the 14th century.

Manastirea Voronet was next. Historically speaking, it’s considered the most important example of medieval religious painting from the Moldova province. The exterior frescoes also distinguish themselves through a particular blue pigment that has withstood the passage of time particularly well.

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Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania

The last monastery we saw that day was Manastirea Humorului, which Ligia and I both liked very much. Perhaps it had to do with the way the sun’s rays fell on the buildings and gave them a golden hue, perhaps it had to do with the air, which was cleaner than in other places. All I can say is that we liked it.

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Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

In the market near the monastery, artisans sold traditional handmade linen shirts, called ii. Each shirt takes anywhere from 1 week to 1 month or more to make, by hand. Ligia, my parents and I all bought several ii for each of us. They’re incredibly beautiful, and perfect for summer wear. Linen is wonderful to wear when it’s warm, because it airs much better than any other material, allowing the body to stay cool.

Handmade linen shirts, Gura Humorului, Bucovina, Romania

Handmade linen shirts, Gura Humorului, Bucovina, Romania

We didn’t want to chance sleeping at another place that night, so we headed back to the David House pension in Radauti. The next day, we visited Manastirea Arbore, which is not currently used as a monastery, but as a church. It is also undergoing renovations to the interior, but its interior frescoes are incredibly beautiful, and unlike many I’ve seen, have a more real feel to them.

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Near the village of Arbore, where the monastery resides, there’s a forest of tall conifers which begins as a sort of park on the main road but extends up the hillside and continues into a full-fledged forest beyond.

Walking in a conifer forest

Walking in a conifer forest

From there, we headed toward Suceava and the famous fortress where many rulers defended their country against foreign invasions. On the way, we stopped on a particularly scenic hilltop where a farmer’s family was harvesting hay. You can see them in the lower right corner of the photograph below.

Gathering hay in Bucovina

Gathering hay in Bucovina

Ligia picks wildflowers

Ligia picks wildflowers

The official name of the fortress in Suceava is Cetatea de Scaun, translated roughly as the Castle of the Ruler. It is named so because Moldavian voevods considered it their capital, so to speak. They had other castles where they lived and ruled, but returned to Suceava for the important periods of their rule.

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Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

The last stop that day was at Manastirea Dragomirna and a nearby hermitage. Dragomirna’s architecture is wonderful, and the monastery’s renovation efforts really show. The place looks great, and is being actively used by nuns.

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Manastirea Dragomirna

Manastirea Dragomirna

Manastirea Dragomirna

That night, we were unfortunately unable to find suitable lodging. Every place we found was 3 stars or below, and out of sheer desperation, around 11 pm, stopped at a pension on the outskirts of Tg. Neamt. It was a decision we regretted as soon as we began to unpack our bags, but the deed was done. The next morning, we went on our way with bleary eyes to visit Cetatea Neamt, a famous historical fortress located in that city. Here, recent renovation efforts (completed in January 2009) had also paid off handsomely. The place looked great, and it was a real treat to be able to visit many of the castle’s rooms — something that was impossible at Cetatea Suceava, which was in tatters, with all its upper floors destroyed by the passage of time.

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Manastirea Agapia was next. It’s run by nuns, and it’s got an interesting setup. The cells of the nuns are spread through the village surrounding the monastery instead of being concentrated within. The monastery itself is famous for its interior frescoes, done by the famous Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu. The monastery is also infamous in more recent times for the renovation work done to the cells of the nuns by Diekat, a Greek construction company. They used green, untreated wood, which through their shoddy workmanship, was exposed to the elements over the winter and developed a fungus that caused several nuns to fall seriously ill. They charged 2 million Euro for the work, never finished the job, and were never held accountable by anyone for their crimes. [source] May God punish them to the fullest for what they’ve done.

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Manastirea Agapia

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Manastirea Agapia

Manastirea Varatec, nearby, is also a nice place to visit. It’s of more recent origins than Agapia and others we visited.

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

After lunch in town, we moved on to Manastirea Neamt, which is the ruling body for all monasteries in the provinces of Bucovina and Moldova.

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

The monastery has a somewhat unusual feature: an ossuary where certain of the bones of the more notable monks are kept. Their skulls are inscribed with their names, a detail or two about their lives, and their year of death. This is one of them.

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

While on the road to Manastirea Secu and Sihastria, we found a nature preserve for aurochs, also known as European bison. These are the ancestors of our domesticated cattle, or so the story goes. I wanted to get some up-close photos, but the aurochs (known as zimbri in Romanian) weren’t cooperative. They insisted on resting on a muddy cliff well removed from me and my camera, as it was a hot afternoon.

Rezervatia de Zimbri si Fauna Carpatina "Dragos Voda"

Rezervatia de Zimbri si Fauna Carpatina "Dragos Voda"

The last two monasteries were a daze for me. We’d all seen a few too many for such a short time, but since we’d planned to go, we went, by golly…

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

We were incredibly exhausted after this short and intense trip, and rushed to find lodging for the night. Again, everything was booked, so we kept driving on, hoping against hope to find some 4-star pension or hotel before nightfall. Finally, we did. It was a place called Vila Ecotour, in the village of Ceahlau, near Durau, on the shores of Lacul Bicaz. The pension was perched on the slope of a tall hill and had amazing views of the village, the lake and the adjoining mountains. What a wonderful location!

On a slope overlooking Lacul Bicaz, in Ceahlau

Dawn on Lake Bicaz

Dawn on Lake Bicaz

The last day was spent making our way back to Baia-Mare, still tired, sick of driving, but richer for having seen and experienced such natural and man-made beauty.

I plan to post more photos from each place we visited in separate articles, so stay tuned for that.

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