Beginning Bucharest

Sep 23-25, 2014: Once upon a time, dear reader, flying across the Atlantic was fun. If you arrived short of sleep it was because you had been partying in the back of a half empty 747, not because it was impossible to get comfortable, never mind horizontal. Instead of mostly inedible, if not positively hazardous, food, you didn’t have to fly business class to eat well. Transfers at Heathrow did not require you stand for half an hour in a queue in order to redo the security check you endured before boarding the first plane. And so on.

So, correctly anticipating that the journey would be an ordeal, I booked a better than usual hotel (helped by a discount for booking from Tripadvisor and another for booking three nights), the K+K Elisabeta, not in the old town, but nearby and close to a metro stop. And even though I could have taken public transport in from Bucharest’s airport, I allowed myself to be tempted by the offer of airport pick up on the hotel’s website. Whether the 20 euro cost was extravagant or not is a matter of opinion, but when I emerged into the arrivals hall, towing my checked bag, the sight of a man with a sign with my name on it was very welcome indeed.


Although I wasn’t thrilled by my room, a bit small and with no view, I approved of the shower and of breakfast, and headed off to explore in a good mood. I zig-zagged through the old town, which was not in the best of shape, towards the epitome of hubris, Ceaușescu’s hulking Palace of Parliament. Said to be second in size only to the the US’s Pentagon, and only partially used, it loomed in undistinguished modernity at the end of a tree-lined boulevard. I rather liked the boulevard, which besides some welcome shade offered a sequence of mosaic-floored fountains, but was wryly amused to discover that it ended, at the foot of the folly, in a large parking lot.



Time to travel!

Despite the name of my blog, I haven’t done any serious travel since I got back from South America mid-December 2012. Last year I was busy with the renovations to my house, but no such excuse this year, aside from the Detroit wedding. All the time I kept saying that my next trip would be back to South America, as I still needed to visit the northwest quadrant – Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. I bought the guidebooks, I read the guidebooks, I made a list of when the weather was optimal where, I reread the guidebooks, but somehow I never produced an itinerary.

It had been fourteen years since I took early retirement so I could travel before I got too decrepit, and I had just had another birthday, so I certainly wasn’t getting any younger. In fact I felt that I was slowing down, and I was facing serious eye surgery in the not too distant future. Time to get moving!

So, just back from the Washington-wedding trip, eating breakfast, I asked myself whether the sad lack of an itinerary was actually due to my not really wanting to go to South America. If I had really wanted to go, wouldn’t I have planned it by now? Maybe, I really wanted to go somewhere else. Maybe, Europe? Next thing you know, I had the Thomas Cook rail map of Europe spread all over the breakfast tabel.


I decided that this would be a “go back to” trip. I would go back to favorite places in Europe, traveling more slowly than usual, so I could enjoy them at leisure. But I would start with somewhere new. South and west Romania. I had visited the north – Maramures and Bucovina – back in 2006, but I hadn’t made it to Transylvania in the south. Friends had visited Romania in the spring, and reported interesting Art Nouveau buildings in the west, near the Hungarian border. (Shades of Subotica, the Art Nouveau gem in Serbia, right on the Hungarian border.)

I started by locking in the flights – into Bucharest and out of London on American – and checking on availability for the lovely apartment I had stayed in the last time I visited Budapest. Then I found that the railway timetables weren’t cooperating with my plans, and I would be better off flying some legs. Nice to Pau and Bayonne to London were so hopeless I abandoned the idea of going back to Basque country and substituted Lisbon as my last stop.


My planning usually includes hanging out at Barnes and Noble with a cup of coffee and their guidebooks, before I buy the one(s) I’ll take on the road. But guidebooks for Romania were in short supply. Fodors hadn’t updated their Eastern and Central Europe tome in years. Rough Guide had gone all digital. Bradt didn’t cover some of my destinations. Lonely Planet still had an actual paper guide, but now combined Romania and Bulgaria into one book. I bought Lonely Planet, and cut it in half. I’d do the rest of the trip with a few chapters bought from Lonely Planet and downloaded, Streetwise maps from previous trips, and whatever I turned up online or at Tourist Information offices.

Given the lack of up-to-date guidebooks, I relied more heavily than usual on Tripadvisor for hotel recommendations, plus reading the few Romania trip reports on fodors.com, and combing through the many bookmarks saved on my browser. I booked either direct, or through booking.com.

By the time I left, on September 23, I had all my hotels and flights arranged, and the most expensive of the train trips. Yes, I’m posting this from Hungary in the middle of October, but I arrived in Romania the end of September. I put a report up on my website for my 2006 visit to Romania titled “Roaming Romania With the Tour Guide From Hell”. If you search on the tour guide’s name – Ciprian Slemcho – my report still shows up almost at the top of the list, and he spent years trying to get me to take it down. (Starting out with threats wasn’t the smartest move, but he isn’t very smart.) I think he has finally given up, and is now doing business under his wife’s name, but I chose not to advertise that I was back in Romania.

July 26 – August 4, 2014: Detroit was not high on my places to visit list. In fact, it wasn’t on the list at all, especially in August! But the reason my elder sister was visiting the US for the first (although not, she says, the last) time, was because my younger sister’s son was marrying his American fiancee. In Detroit (well, Dearborn, but still).  Washington is also not a place I’m keen to visit in August, but it seemed a reasonable stop on the way north. We took Amtrak to Washington and would fly from BWI to Detroit. I’d stop off again in Washington on the way home, and my sister would go on to Boston.  (She professed complete disinterest in New York.) I booked us into one of the Crystal City Marriotts, and sent my sister a list of possible sights, which is how come we spent the first day visiting the National History Museum and the Portrait Gallery. Actually, I enjoyed these more than I expected, as I stopped off to visit the gems and rocks at the Natural History Museum on the way, and took a look at Julia Child’s kitchen and the First Ladies’ gowns, neither of which I’d seen before.  In between we ate lunch at the American Indian Museum, always a good stop.


Inside the Capitol's rotunda

Inside the Capitol’s rotunda

I planned for us to spend the whole of the second day at the east end of the mall. We started out with a tour of the Capitol, which I hadn’t visited since well before 9-11, followed by the Jefferson building at the Library of Congress, which I actually enjoy more. Lunch at the Madison building, next door and recommended in one of my guidebooks, involved a long trek through subterranean tunnels (no, I wasn’t going outside in the heat and humidity if I didn’t have to!) and the promised view wasn’t of the mall. Food was good and cheap, though.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

I had got us gallery passes, intending to go back to the Capitol building for some end of session action, but an unattended parcel scare put a stop to that and we arrived early at the Folger Shakespeare, lucking into an excellent docent-led tour. Coffee at the always popular Cascades Cafe at the National Gallery of Art and a couple of exhibitions was followed by an indifferent meal at the Union Station food court as we waited for our evening coach tour. I am convinced that the coach tour, although not cheap, is the best way to see the memorials. Otherwise, a great deal of walking is required, plus I like to see Washington lit up. This time the tour lasted longer than I expected though, as I think some sites were added – I don’t remember seeing the Iwo Jima statue before. DSCN8822

A late start the next day, plus a non-appearing bus, took the National Cathedral off the agenda. Instead, we visited Kramer Books, not just a truly magnificent independent book store, but also an excellent cafe. The crab cakes were so good I went back for a second helping on my return to Washington. Then we visited the Anderson House, once home to a diplomat, and now belonging to the Cincinnati Society. I had never heard of the Society before my first visit to the house, but learned there that it was formed by the officers in Washington’s army, and one (male) person in each succeeding generation may belong. Regardless of how you may feel about the Society, the house is well worth seeing if you’re in the Dupont Circle area.

I love these Chinese guardians

I love these Chinese guardians

My first night back in Washington I met up with a fellow Fodor’s poster, with whom I had often been in agreement. We dined at Zaytinya, and both the food and the conversation were great. I had one full day in DC, and started, as I often do, at the Asian galleries. As usual, despite the crowds outside, the Sackler and the Freer were virtually deserted, despite two excellent exhibitions, one on China and one on Iran. It never fails, these galleries are always quiet oases. While I value the peace, it does seem a shame that they are overlooked. After my second lunch at Kramer Books (and a book purchase) I returned to the National Gallery of Art and the Cascades Cafe. Here, too, Asian artifacts were ignored – I found a good porcelain exhibit – but so were the decorative arts rooms.

The next day I took Amtrak home. And once again, the train ran late.

Oh, the wedding? That went off well. The chapel was small but historic and the bride was beautiful and beautifully dressed. I enjoyed meeting up with family. Detroit/Dearborn, however, is an area I don’t need to revisit, although I did find the Detroit Art Museum and the Henry Ford Museum worthwhile stops, since I was there anyway.

Well, area would be more accurate, but I can’t pass up an opportunity for alliteration. I’m not sure how I would feel about living in a major tourist destination!

Back in July my elder sister came for a short visit. She lives in England, and has done a lot of travel on that side of the Atlantic, but this was her first trip to the US. July is hardly the best month to come to central North Carolina – that would be May or October – but we actually got lucky, and only had one day that was a real scorcher. (This summer has been unusual – I don’t think we’ve gone over 100 one time.) Still, some things that would be high on the list in spring or fall – the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and a walk round historic Oakwood (we drove) were firmly off the agenda.

African Moravian Log Church, Old Salem

African Moravian Log Church, Old Salem

The day we went to Old Salem however, was really quite pleasant. We walked round the historic section in the morning, and spent the hotter afternoon in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. I’ve always enjoyed MESDA, and it seems to have expanded since the last time I was there. On the way back we stopped at Replacements Ltd, where I picked up a few much-needed salad bowls, and my sister bought a couple of cups in her favorite pattern as souvenirs. We also admired the museum section, and took the “behind the scenes” tour, which I had read about in the local paper. Hard to believe that this massive, and massively efficient, operation began as one man’s hobby.

The other “outside” day was in Durham, where we visited the Duke Lemur Center. I had done the tour before, but with the lemurs in winter quarters and I was delighted to see them again outside. I can’t imagine anyone not loving lemurs! While we were in the area we took a quick look at the Sarah P. Duke gardens for good measure.


Then we cooled off indoors at some of the local museums. The NC History Museum fitted in nicely after the historic (1840) State Capitol. (The legislators have themselves some newer and larger digs across the road.)  And whatever I may think of the outside of the NC Art Museum‘s new building, I have to admit the inside does a good job of showcasing the art. UNC’s Ackland Art Museum was a welcome refuge on a hot afternoon, and I always enjoy their excellent Asian section.

Of course, I also made sure we did some local eating, starting with gourmet hamburgers at Tribeca. Then I had to take my sister to my favorite restaurant, Oakleaf, and while we were in Pittsboro we both bought jewelry at one of the stores near the historic courthouse. We picked up local tomatoes and peaches at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, and I had intended that we would finish with NC BBQ at Allen & Son, which I think is the best around, but by then I was getting tired of driving, and settled for pretty good BBQ at the new Pit in Durham instead.

I didn’t have to drive anywhere for a few days, as we left the next morning for Washington. By train.

Pompeii - and Vesuvius

Pompeii – and Vesuvius

April 15-16, 2008: I’ve never been that fond of the Ancient Romans: if they weren’t marching off to invade new territory or to supress an uprising, they were cheering on the slaughter of men and animals in the Colosseum at home. The Ancient Greeks seemed so much more civilized (not that they were pacifists!). Sure the Colosseum is impressive, but any dictator can put up an impressive monument if he puts his mind – and his subject’s taxes – to it. But I do have to hand it to the Romans when it comes to living well. I remember visiting a couple of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall on a typically chilly northern English day, and admiring the remains of the bath houses, and the provision of hot water.

Hadrian’s Wall was just a provincial outpost, at the furthest reach of the Empire. Pompeii and Herculaneum were just 150 miles from Rome: Pompeii a port town, and Herculaneum more of a seaside resort for the wealthy. I visited both, along with the sumptuous Villa Oplontis, thought to have belonged to the infamous Nero’s also infamous second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Although people rave about Pompeii, I have to confess that I preferred Herculaneum, but I saw it first.



I heard that the day I went to Herculaneum actual hail fell, but I didn’t see that myself. I did see plenty of rain, starting almost as soon as I got off the Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station, and I waited out the worst of it with an espresso in a handy cafe. The morning alternated between sunshine and rain, but since the many of the ruins at Herculaneum retain their second stories, I could always find shelter when needed. In fact, it proved to be a very user-friendly site, not too crowded, with a good free brochure and plenty to see.

I started at the Visitor’s Center, standing across from the site, looking down at the store rooms and boat houses that once opened onto the beach. I felt a little uneasy, thinking of the 300 inhabitants who sought an illusory refuge there, their bodies discovered only in 1982. Looking up, I saw only clouds, although at other times Vesuvius’ dark cones had been an all-too present reminder that around the Bay of Naples people still live with an active volcano.

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

While I visited the “sacred area” above the warehouses, with its two temples, and an altar dedicated to one M. Nonius Balbus, a senator and local benefactor, and the huge palaestra, reserved for sports, for the most part I wandered in and out of villas and tavernas. I admired the pillars and frescoes in the villas, and checked out the jars sunk into the counters of the tavernas. I especially liked the women’s baths, with black and white mosaic floors and marble seats, and the Hall of the Augustals, the freed slaves, which had featured in the reading I had done before the trip. (I think we tend to forget how many inhabitants of Ancient Greece and Rome were slaves.) Everywhere I looked in Herculaneum I found some reminder of the lives cut short in 79AD, but I didn’t find the site morbid. I could easily imagine the excitement of the archaeologists who first worked here.

Villa Oplontis

Villa Oplontis

On the way to the Villa Oplontis I picked up a sandwich, and when the rain started up again I found a seat under cover and ate my lunch where Nero must often have passed. As would become a theme on this trip, much of the villa was under renovation and off limits, but I could see enough to make me keenly aware of the luxury enjoyed by the Roman upper crust – not just the hot baths and flushing toilets, but a personal swimming pool and room after room full of frescoes and mosaics.

Next day I made an early start for Pompeii, armed with a six hour tour outline and lots of anticipation. The good news about Pompeii? It was a full-size working town, with a forum, temples, theaters (for plays) and an amphitheater (for games). The bad news about Pompeii? It was a full-size town, requiring a great deal more walking per interesting sight than Herculaneum. (Again, some parts were closed.)



The best part of the day, for me, came early, at the Villa of Mysteries, outside the city walls to the northeast, which I had almost to myself. I also liked the Botanical Gardens, which smelt wonderful. As I walked the streets, being careful not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface, and taking advantage of the stepping stones set between the sidewalks at key intersections, I pondered the advantage of having slaves to do the shopping. I also noted with interest that penises were protective symbols here just as they still are in Bhutan. By the time I finally finished dodging tour groups and reached the amphitheater, at the far end of the site, I had little energy left to imagine the gladiators and wild animals fighting and dying for the amusement of the crowds seated above me, especially as most of the seats were missing.

Of course, Pompeii is a truly remarkable sight, but if you only have time for one of the towns buried by Vesuvius, I would recommend Herculaneum.

Roog, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Roof, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Tiles at the Santa Chiara cloister in Naples

Tiles at the Santa Chiara cloister in Naples

April 14, 2008: I had stayed on Capri instead of in Naples because of the garbage strike, but I still wanted to visit the Archaeological Museum. Turned out, the garbage was not a problem. The Museum, on the other hand, wasn’t as captivating as I had expected. Fortunately, I found a couple of other sites that could draw me back to Naples all on their own.

I took the  Circumvesuviana train into Naples from Sorrento, and then had more trouble finding the metro than I did the museum. Unlike every other metro system I’ve used, including Beijing and Moscow, Naples’ system seemed to rely on ESP instead of signs.

Mosaic from Pompeii in the Naples' Archaeological Museum

Art from Pompeii in the Naples’ Archaeological Museum

So, the museum. Yes, there were mosaics from Pompeii, several rooms of them. Yes, there were frescoes from the Temple of Isis. Yes, you could marvel at the Farnese Bull. But, much of the museum was closed, including the Farnese gem collection. And the “supplemental” objects from Pompeii, room after room, had no English labels and were not covered by the audio guide. Although I enjoyed one special exhibition, showing how finds from Pompeii had been used in paintings, in general the museum had a dusty, musty, uncared-for air. It reminded me more of the Cairo Museum than the British Museum. Plus the restaurant was closed. So, instead of spending most of the day there I finished up in a few hours and headed out in search of a late lunch. (I may have hit the museum on a particularly bad day, I wouldn’t advise skipping it.)

Statue in the Archaeological Museum

Statue in the Archaeological Museum

After pizza (and second-hand smoke) at the Pizzeria Belllini I set off on the Spaccanapoli walk from my guide book, encountering two absolutely must-sees along the way. The cloister at Santa Chiara, a serene square with low walls covered in majolica tiles – a profusion of hills, castles, ships and people just going about their daily lives – kept me occupied for much longer than I expected. Then further along I stopped off the admire the statues in Capella Sensevero – a quite remarkable “veiled” Christ, and Il Disinganno – a man entangled in a rope net. I cannot imagine how the marble could have been carved with such realism for the veil, and with such intricacy for the net, but the results are stunning.

Cloister at Santa Chiara

Cloister at Santa Chiara


April 12 – 16, 2008: Admiring the Amalfi Coast, that is, I wasn’t so taken by the town itself. The coast easily made my revisit list, despite an inauspicious introduction. I left Capri, with a cold, in a rainstorm, and as soon as I got off the ferry at Sorrento I fell on the slippery metal quayside. After that, instead of pursuing a search for an elusive bus stop, I treated myself to a taxi for the ride to my out-of-town hotel, only to be cheated by the driver.

Things looked up from there. It’s true that my hotel, Il Nido, was somewhat inconvenient, as its shuttle never seemed to mesh with the train and bus schedules, but I had a great view from a comfortable room at a reasonable rate, and enjoyed the food at breakfast and dinner. Perhaps staying five kilometers outside is why I never warmed to Sorrento, which I found to be a typical seaside town, although one built well above the water. Perhaps finding few restaurants I would be willing to revisit had something to do with it too. It didn’t matter much, as I was just using Sorrento as a base for visiting a lot of other places.

View from Ravello

View from Ravello

I had planned to spend my first day at Pompeii. I even had reservations for the villas that required them. But I just didn’t feel up to it. A nice sit-down bus ride to Amalfi seemed more my speed, and I was able to catch the bus right outside my hotel. I did get to sit down both ways, although not everyone was so lucky coming back.

That ride along the Amalfi Coast? The one the guide books rave about? It’s everything they say. Everything you expect from the pictures. Just stunning. Go see it! (But for heaven’s sake, go early or late in the season, it was already getting crowded, with standing room only on some buses, in early April.)  After all the beauty of the ride along the coast – rugged cliffs and deep blue sea – Amalfi Town came as a bit of a shock. I had expected small and sleepy. I got small and crowded and touristy. I checked the time for the next bus up to Ravello, and had a quick cappuccino right in front of the photogenic Duomo.

Amalfi's duomo

Amalfi’s duomo

And Ravello matched the bus ride. Not that it didn’t have tourist shops (think ceramics), but they weren’t wall-to-wall. I did the walk out to the Villa Cimbrone and just loved the grounds and the views. I could almost (almost!) imagine coming up with the money to spend a night there, although it’s more of a place for honeymooners (first, second, third…)

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

After spending a morning at the Sorrento hospital getting prescriptions for my cold and accompanying cough (25 euro for the doctor, 11 euro to fill three prescriptions), followed by an admirable lunch at the laid-back “Mozzarella Bar” Bufalito, I took the bus over to Positano. Again, I was captivated by the coastline, but also, somewhat to my surprise, by the town.  I had thought it would just be Sorrento with stairs, but I found it charming. True, the hillside on which it is built is steep – but there are little buses to take you to the top. True, there are lots of tourist shops – but they seem more spread out, with actual houses in between, at least in the upper reaches. True, the beach is small, and made of grey sand and pebbles, but there are waterfront cafes, and I hadn’t come to swim. I hadn’t brought my camera either. I just wandered around, admiring the Duomo, watching the crowd disembarking from a ferry, window shopping but not buying, enjoying the views.

That was the day I had intended to visit the Greek temples at Paestum but hadn’t felt well enough. I did, however, make it to Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Archaeological Museum at Naples, they’ll be the next post.

The view from my hotel room

The view from my hotel room


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