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! 

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!

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.

Continue reading “Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 2”

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.

Continue reading “Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 1”

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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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.

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.

I like "The Saint"

It got panned by the critics. Val Kilmer’s acting was indulgent at times. It was somewhat cliché. What was up with those knee-high socks that Elizabeth Shue’s character wore throughout the movie? Those are some of the things that come to mind when I think of “The Saint” (1997). But it struck a chord with me, from the first time I saw it, and I like it even after all these years.

I think it evokes the feel of that time in Eastern Europe very well. I visited Romania in December 1998, for the first time since I’d left in 1991. The movie and the impressions from my trip match. It was cold, snowy, in many ways dreary, there was poverty all around, but still somehow enchanting, inspiring, in a way that made you feel you could do almost anything, as if the slate had been wiped clean and people were free to start things over.

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Simon Templar, the character played by Val Kilmer in the movie, has a long heritage that started in books in 1928. The character itself has been played in movies and on TV by several other actors, Roger Moore being one of the more notable ones. I remember watching Moore in the Saint series as a child growing up in Romania. The films were gripping and I loved seeing a modern-day Robin Hood escape from dangerous situations, just as I enjoyed seeing Kilmer’s character escape from similar situations in this latest installment.

Given the character’s long history, Kilmer had some big shoes to fill in this movie. For example, I thought there were too many close-ups of him. Perhaps the director was trying to establish character, and the close-ups were meant to give us an insight into what S.T. was thinking, but at times, I could see the actor hamming it up behind a thinner-than-usual mask. Still, I always thought Kilmer was charismatic and I don’t begrudge him the less than stellar acting here. Every actor goes through a ham stage in his or her career — most notably of all, the famous John Barrymore, who quite possibly illustrated the very phrase in some of his later film roles.

The film’s tech was amazing for its time. Simon Templar’s phone in the movie — that Nokia phone was something else. It blew me away. I think it could do everything modern phones could do — at slower speeds, naturally — except play movies. I learned it was a Nokia 9000 Communicator, thanks to the Saint.org website. And to think, all of that technology was available in 1997! Nokia was very happy about the phone’s appearance in the movie and even issued a press release about it that same year.

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All in all, “The Saint” is one of a handful of movies in my library that I’ve watched multiple times, and will probably watch again. I like it.

Italian road trip – Day 2 – Florence

Our Italian road trip took us from Pisa to Florence, where we arrived on the evening of February 18th, just as dusk set in. We navigated the Florence streets at night with some difficulty, but arrived at our lodging in due time, where we rested for the day ahead.

Map of Firenze

Here’s us descending the hills of Tuscany into Florence, on the main highway that connects it to Pisa.

See this video on Vimeo

A funny thing happened that evening. We’d been following our somewhat convoluted route through the city, when we reached a bridge we needed to cross but couldn’t. It’d been blocked — barricaded — by the city, for reasons unknown, since no work was being done on the road. We stopped to call for directions. On the other side of the barricades, a line of angry Italians was forming. Apparently the barricades had only been put up that day, and they weren’t happy about it.

One of them, a young, strong fellow in his 20s, had been building up some steam underneath his collar. With no thought of turning around and finding another route, he got out of his car and started to break the plastic ties that held the barricades together, bare-handed. These were thick ties — the same kind used to handcuff people when they’re arrested — yet he snapped them with relative ease. After breaking a few, he figured it was tedious, so he got a sharp hunting knife from his car and sliced through the rest of the ties, then threw the barricades aside and drove right through.

I’d gotten out of my car to have a better look at what he was doing, and stood there amazed. Seriously, it takes guts to have complete disregard for the authorities of a city. On the one hand, what he did was wrong, but on the other hand, he helped us and the many other drivers stuck there. We knew of no other route to get where we were going, and we’d have been lost if he hadn’t cleared the way. and after a short while, reached the place where we were staying — Villa Aurora — a picturesque antique villa perched on one of the Tuscan hills that surrounded the city.

The villa and its surroundings were so beautiful that in spite of my fatigue and the cold weather, I had to make time for a few nighttime photos, after which I slept like a log till early morning.

Tuscan courtyard, night

Interior courtyard at night

We got up with the dawn and after a hearty breakfast, drove into the city to visit. We parked in the subterranean lot behind the railway station, near the church of Santa Maria Novella, then walked through the city for several hours.

A couple of grand hotels

20 eccetto

We visited the Duomo while it was still early morning and the tourists weren’t around, then had the best hot chocolate ever at a place called SergioBar, right in the Piazza del Duomo.

Bell tower

Bronze doorway detail

Morning traffic

Il Duomo II

I highly recommend climbing to the top of either the Campanile or the Duomo, in the morning or in the late afternoon, when the sun casts long shadows on the city. The climb is long and exhausting, but you’ll be treated to some fantastic views of Florence.

Climbing the Campanile

Florence rooflines in early morning sunlight

Tuscan rooflines

Il Duomo

Il Duomo III

After that, we made our way to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio.

Scooter city II

Huddle

Piazza della Signoria II

No Fakes, Thanks

Narrow slit of sky

Didn't I see this in a movie somewhere?

Old lady walking her pooch

We crossed the old bridge then climbed up to the Palazzo Pitti with its hilltop gardens and amazing views of Florence and the surrounding areas, then came back down and slowly made our way back across the Arno to the railway station and our car. Venice was next on our list, but we had to drive a good while till we got there and find a hotel to sleep for the night.

Palazzo Pitti

Hilltop gardens

Tuscan villa

Walled and barred

Where the road divides

Santa Maria Novella

After making our way out of the city, we took the highway toward Venice, then exited somewhere near Modena and made our way toward Ferrara on country roads. It was near Modena that we saw the Lamborghini factory — actually, passed right by it — but it didn’t occur to us till after the fact. That was unfortunate, it would have been nice to take a tour.

We found a small, cozy and very clean hotel on the outskirts of Ferrara and slept there for the night.

Dusk in Emilia Romagna

All the photos you see here and more can be found at larger sizes in the Firenze album in my photo catalog.

Videos from yesterday’s trip

I recorded a couple of videos during yesterday’s trip from Sibiu to Constanta. I forgot to included them in the write-up, but they make a good addition to it. Here they are.

The first was recorded as we were driving through the plateau before the city of Brasov, after I’d taken the last of the daybreak photos.

http://blip.tv/file/3130028
See this video on blip.tv or Vimeo

The second was recorded as we drove through the city of Predeal, which is a popular winter resort in Romania. It was early morning, and snow from a recent late-spring snowfall was still visible.

http://blip.tv/file/3130110
See this video on blip.tv or Vimeo

Driving from Sibiu to Constanta

This morning around 4 am, Ligia and I started a cross-country drive through Romania. We started in the county of Sibiu, Transilvania and finished in the county of Constanta, Dobrogea. I’ve driven the approximate route from start to finish several times, but I only drove this particular route once before. I wanted to take photos during that previous time, but weather conditions and other circumstances conspired against any sort of worthwhile photographs.

It was different now. The weather was with me. It was cold, bone-chillingly cold at higher altitudes, but the sky was relatively clear, and the sun came out as it should. Coupled with the advantage of starting very early in the morning thanks to a bout of insomnia, it meant conditions were right. I looked forward particularly to the dawn, which I wanted to photograph somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, wherever it might be that it caught up with us.

The first traces of light began to paint the sky in lighter grays and blues as we began to ascend the mountains. I spied a clearing ahead, but I just didn’t have a good view of the horizon, so I moved on. The forest began to thicken once more, and I was afraid I might lose the daybreak and end up with nothing. Fortunately, trees gave way to bushes, then shrubs, and finally, a plateau opened up in front of us. I stopped the car and took this photo.

Daybreak

The dawn looked imminent, but 10 or 15 kilometers down the road, the sun was still not visible, thanks to a chain of distant mountains masking its ascent. A calm lake appeared on the side of the road, and the water reflected the increasing light beautifully. How could I resist that? I stopped the car once more.

The sun begins to rise

A little while down the road, the mountains gave way and the red winter sun, tired from its steep climb upward, rested on their shoulders for a bit — just enough for me to take this photo.

Sunrise

I think we were about 30-40 kilometers from the city of Brasov when I took that photo. We soon passed through it and were on our way to the winter resort of Predeal. We spent a weekend there this winter, and I took these photos. I should have a detailed article about Predeal published in the near future — illustrated with plenty of photos, too. This morning, I wanted to show what folks driving on the main (and only) road that takes you through those parts get to see when they drive through the town. Just FYI, there is always a police car waiting for visitors at the intersection in the lower left corner of the photo. Make sure you drive properly, otherwise you will get stopped.

Mountains near Predeal

The cities of Predeal and Brasov are part of the province of Transilvania. Soon after Predeal, we entered the province of Muntenia, where you can find more beautiful winter resorts: Azuga, Busteni and Sinaia. The king of Romania keeps a palace near Sinaia, so it must be a beautiful place, right? Well, it is, and I took photos there as well. I still need to develop them. Meanwhile, here’s what we saw this morning as we drove through Azuga and Busteni.

Peaks at Azuga

Peaks at Busteni

You can’t see the vista from Busteni shown above from the main road — you have to turn onto one of the side roads and climb higher till you find a nice clearing. Buildings and other things obstruct (somewhat) the view from the city, but of all the winter resorts (Predeal, Azuga, Busteni and Sinaia), Busteni has the best view of the mountains right from the main road. They’re literally right there in front of you. It’s quite amazing.

After this the light turned hazy and unclear. The sun hid behind a few clouds, and I put my camera away. Besides, the flatlands beneath the mountains are just that — flat — and they hold little interest to me unless there are crops coloring the landscape. It’s too soon for that yet. I turned to driving and focused on getting to Bucharest and then to Constanta, on the country’s main highway, A2. Little else occupied my mind other than driving until we pulled off the highway near the city of Constanta.

We decided then to turn to some country roads and see some sights. We wanted to visit Cheile Dobrogei, a natural gorge with rock walls up to 40 meters in height. On the way there, we stopped by some farmland.

Farmland in spring

Cheile Dobrogei is a beautiful region where the ground literally breaks up in front of you, revealing its stony skeleton underneath the tough flatland grass and thorn bushes. The walls are perforated with little caves, and below, the cavity lies flat, allowing the road to snake right through. I parked the car on a dirt road and bolted out, running up the slope, full of excitement. (I’d visited the place before, but couldn’t take photos because the weather was dreary.) I get a natural high when I’m climbing hills and mountains. I can’t explain it; I just love it. I ran from place to place on one of the peaks in the gorge, looking around for good photo ops. Here are a few of the scenes I captured.

Cheile Dobrogei II

Cheile Dobrogei I

Toughing it out

After a while, it was time to get to our destination. I drove the car carefully over the stones and uneven terrain in the gorge’s valley until I reached the road, then pressed forward through the countryside till we got to the place where we’re staying. The whole trip took about 9 hours, with breaks for various stops and for taking photos. Not a bad time for about 550 kilometers, and I obeyed the posted speed limits, too.

It’s evening now and the insomnia is catching up to me. Since I didn’t sleep a wink last night, this makes it about 36 hours without sleep. I had the hardest time editing these photos and writing this article. It’s time to get some rest, and I hope nothing interferes with that tonight.

On a side note, I don’t normally rush to edit photos and write about them right away, but that amazing daybreak this morning impressed me so much I wanted to share it with you as soon as I could.

Italian road trip – Day 1 – Pisa

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Our Italian road trip started in Pisa on February 18th.

Map of Pisa
A map of Pisa and the surrounding region.

We arrived at Pisa Airport via Ryanair around 11 am. The airplane passed Pisa, then circled back over Livorno and landed.

High above the clouds.
High above the clouds.
On a Ryanair flight above the city of Pisa, in Tuscany, Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is visible in the upper left.
On a Ryanair flight above the city of Pisa, in Tuscany, Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is visible in the upper left.
On a Ryanair flight above the city of Livorno, in Tuscany, Italy.
On a Ryanair flight above the city of Livorno, in Tuscany, Italy.

It was around noon that we got our luggage and rental car sorted out and left. On our way out, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in the industrial zone outside the city. As long as we were there, we stopped to have lunch. The food was good, but the prices were the same as in downtown restaurants. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to pay the same price, I’d rather have my food in a nice place, not in a hole in the wall near a bunch of warehouses. We left after asking someone for directions, and were soon inside the city. We stopped at the intersection you see below to find our way around.

An intersection in Pisa.
An intersection in Pisa.

We needed to find the leaning tower, and thankfully, there were signs to guide us along the way. Once in the old town center, we found a nice area and decided to stop and visit for a while. We found the parking lot you see below, and parked there.

Downtown somewhere
We stopped here to visit the old town center.

In this photo, you can see the same building visible in the lower right corner above, but from nearby. We parked our car a little ways down this street. The ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) sign, marked by a round red circle, can be seen here. Make sure to obey these signs while you’re driving in Italy. They mark specific areas where traffic is limited during certain days and hours. You can incur hefty fines if you drive through one of these areas when you’re not supposed to do it.

We found a parking spot on this street.
We found a parking spot on this street.

We started to walk around, taking photos of interesting buildings and spots we saw. Nearby, there was this building with a cross on the roof. It appeared to be a church, but was unmarked and not open to the public.

A building that appears to be a church, yet is without any name and cannot be entered. Pisa, Italy.
Not sure what this is, but I liked the facade.

This building appears to have once been a villa for a wealthy family. Now it’s been converted to a bus depot, called CPT Autoservizi Lazzi. There are ticket counters inside and behind it, there’s a large parking lot where people wait to board the buses.

CPT Utoservizi Lazzi
CPT Autoservizi Lazzi

This is the back of the villa from the previous photo. As you can see, a few smaller buildings are huddled next to it, and what’s left of the old city wall abuts the villa on its left side.

Edicola
Transfer point for the CPT Autoservizi Lazzio.

The villa itself was built to last, with plenty of attention to detail. Notice the wonderful ironwork protecting the windows, and the late Gothic columns that divide the window openings.

Wrought iron arches
Wrought iron arches

Guess what I found on the other side of the old city wall? The headquarters for the Asociazione Radioamatori Italiani, Sezione di Pisa (Italian Amateur Radio Association, Pisa Club). Glad to see ham radio folks are still around. While Romania was under the clutches of communism, amateur radio was one of the very few ways people could communicate with foreigners. They used to build their own radio equipment, at risk, and try to get in touch with folks in Western Europe. Some would keep in touch with their families, who’d already fled the country, some would do it for camaraderie, and others to keep their hopes up by knowing they had a line to the free world.

Associazione Radioamatori Italiani
Asociazione Radioamatori Italiani, Sezione di Pisa

I liked the juxtaposition of these buildings and their rooflines.

Corsia 5 bus station
Corsia 5 bus station

The sign in the photo below says “Area di atessa sicura”. I’m not exactly sure what it refers to: perhaps that’s a bus waiting area, or a place where you can wait in peace — for what, I don’t know. At any rate, if you’ll look up at the roofline, you’ll agree with me that it’s an unusual corner. I haven’t yet seen a broken roofline at the corner of a building.

Area di atessa sicura
Area di atessa sicura

A building which housed, among other things, one of the restaurants in downtown Pisa.

Ristorante Centrale
Ristorante Centrale

One of the side streets that branched off the main piazza and roundabout that can be seen in this photo.

Morning walk
A typical Italian street

There’s a church that’s visible in the photo above. There’s a mural underneath the awning that covers the entrance. This is that mural, which depicts the annunciation, or the scene when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s been chosen to bear the Son of God. I would have liked to go inside the church, but that was unfortunately not possible — it was locked.

Ave Maria gratia plena
Ave Maria gratia plena

But enough about Pisa’s streets. Let’s get to what everyone wants to see: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here it is, as seen from the back entrance to the Piazza dei Miracoli.

Leaning Tower I
The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Duomo

Here’s another view of the tower, from its back — an angle that’s seldom used, and that’s why you see no people in the foreground. Everyone goes to photograph the tower from the lawn of the Duomo, because that’s where they do all those silly tricks where they pinch the tower between their fingers, or pretend to push it with their hands and feet, or… well, you get the idea.

Leaning Tower II
The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Here’s a view of the Duomo from its back. This is actually where the altar is located, so if you’re inside it, it’s the front, but such is the way cathedrals are. The back is the front is the back, depending on whether you’re inside or outside.

Il Duomo I
The Duomo of Pisa

These little guys are holding up some family crest — probably the folks who put up the most amount of money to have the place built. Note the smaller cherubim riding on top of something above the water spout. He looks like he’s peeing inside the bowl — a fairly common theme in these older water fountains.

Some cherubim is peeing in the water fountain
Three nice cherubim and one naughty one

Here we go, this is the typical view of the leaning tower, the one that everyone brings back with them.

Leaning Tower III
Leaning Tower of Pisa

And this is us in front of the tower, doing the typical tourist thing and smiling for the camera with the landmark behind us. As cheesy as I think it looks when I see others doing it, I have to admit that it’s nice to have these photos when I look back at the places I visited. By the way, my brother in law, Radu Anastase, took this photo. He’s a talented photographer who at 19 years of age has already had paid work published in Romanian magazines.

Us, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Us, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Here’s another view of the Duomo, from the nice, grassy lawn that covers most of the piazza. Shortly after taking this photo, a guard came and shooed everyone off the grass — apparently, they don’t want people trampling on it, which is silly. It’s practically a historical pastime to get on the grass and take photos of the tower. They might as well get over it.

Il Duomo IV
The Duomo of Pisa

I like this shot of the tower peeking out from behind the Duomo, because it emphasizes the tilt in its vertical axis.

Peekaboo
Peekaboo

I was impressed with the Baptistry, the round dome next to the Duomo. It’s older than the Duomo, and might even be a few centimetres taller than the Tower, according to Wikipedia.

The Baptistry
The Baptistry

Here’s another view of the Baptistry, from its front entrance.

The Baptistry, from the front
The Baptistry, from the front

The Duomo’s front is impressive indeed, with all those rows of repeating arches, held up by rows of Corinthian columns.

Il Duomo V
The Duomo of Pisa, main entrance

Notice the bottom row of columns, which is engraved with intricate reliefs. Can you imagine the work that went into making them?

Il Duomo VI
The Duomo of Pisa, from below

The inside was even more impressive. Light streamed in through the windows in the upper level, reflected off the richly adorned ceiling and filtered down to the marble floor.

Inside the Duomo II
Inside the Duomo

This is a panoramic photograph which includes the main altar and main ceiling mural of the Duomo. You can’t appreciate it fully here, but its original resolution is 2835 x 6852, and it’s made up of three individual photographs.

Inside the Duomo VI
A panoramic view of the inside of the Duomo

I chose to process this photograph differently because I thought the subject matter fit this finish better. It’s one of the side walls of the Duomo, the one that faces the Camposanto.

Il Duomo VII
The Duomo of Pisa, side wall

About the same time that I took this photo, Radu (my brother-in-law), took this photo of Ligia. She’s his older sister and my lovely wife, just in case you’re trying to figure out the relationship. She was walking toward us from the Camposanto.

The shadows were getting longer. It was time for us to leave. We needed to arrive in Florence by nightfall. We headed out the same way we came in, through the back entrance, which was less crowded than the alternative.

What you see below is a typical Tuscan landscape. They have those wonderful conifers which grow in the shape of popsicles, and that specific architecture that defines the region. All this photo needs is a few gentle rolling hills and some distance between me and the villas, and it’d be perfect.

Leaving by the back door
Leaving the Piazza dei Miracoli

I saw this Tuscan villa on the way to our car, which was parked just down the street from here. I love this kind of architecture.

Tuscan villa
A Tuscan villa in Pisa

I’d have liked to have seen more of Pisa, but when we only had a week at our disposal and our route was already mapped out, I had to stick to the schedule. It was time to leave and get on the highway. Firenze, the next stop on our road trip, awaited.

All of these photographs (and more) are available in larger sizes in the Pisa album in my photo catalog.