Friday, August 11, 2017

Tallinn, Estonia



As this trip to Finland is for 10 days and we're sticking mainly to the southern section, there was time to pop down to Estonia on an overnight ferry. It's a quick trip and yet you spend the night onboard, getting off early morning to explore all day before leaving in the evening. For the Finnish it's a shopping trip normally, stocking up on cheap products compared to their expensive country. Jukka, Sini and I have been road tripping around in a car, seeing small Finnish towns so it was time to use the feet and see a city of 440,000. 

We disembarked at 7am to wander through Tallinn. Such a fun, medieval dirt with a great heart and lots of history. Sadly the town doesn't start coming alive til 10am so we had some quiet streets to ourselves. Felt like a Sunday morning. We had an awesome walking tour all over the old city, learning the country's history (conquered numerous times over the centuries and 8 different flags ruled in the 20th century). They're finally independent for the second time (first time lasted 16 hours) and have a good attitude in life. 


The city walls and towers are surprisingly intact for a place that was attacked several times. A major church didn't survive a major bombing and when they wanted to rebuild it, the only way the then in charge Russians would let them, was as a museum to atheism, in an old church. Lots of character around this place. Including their huge freedom tower made of indestructible glass that cracks with the difference between hot summers and freezing winters. 

The old town is fantastic, full of historical buildings, towers, churches and a couple of hills with great views. It's easy to get around and get in some good sightseeing. For lunch we got off the tourist trail and found a Georgian (yes, the country) restaurant and I had one of the best sandwiches of my life. Unbelievable spices mixed in with pork belly and roasted vegetables. Plus the inside section of the restaurant was a staunch reminder of communism with its decoration. Another good spot. 


All in all, it was a great trip to Tallinn. A super fun city with lots to do, buzzing with life in the summer and with cheaper prices than in Finland. The ferry trip is pretty sweet too. Getting your own cabin felt deluxe and the duty free and other shops were entertaining. Solid outing!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Helsinki airport

The men's toilet at the Helsinki airport has full wall pictures of trees and the speakers burst out bird chirps. Great first intro to Finland!

Hiking in the Bucegi Mountains



After the medieval towns, it was time to get back in with Mother Nature. I couch surfed with an amazing Romanian family right at the foothill of the Bucegi Mountains. These are huge mountains that go straight up from the river valley below and are filled with rocks, trees, narrow trails and sheer drops. While these are popular trails for everyone, they cover a lot of height in a short period of time and there is more rock climbing than you would see in other countries. Doesn't stop Romanians of any age from going up there. Quite impressive to see families on a 4 hour difficult trek going up the mountains. 




I'd spent my first afternoon on my own hiking to a waterfall and then higher up for great views. What should have been a 3 hour hike turned into 5 as I tried out a new trail to go back. To put it politely, the trail sucked and even with my mountain goat legs, I had to turn around 35 minutes into the trek. But the scenery all around was amazing. Kind of like Yosemite in California, but with way less people and small villages visable below. Prettty impressive up there and worth the trek. 

Day two, my couch surfer went out with me for a long hike. Way up past where I was, to the top of the mountain to explore. We made good time, speeding up the mountains. On top was an abandoned chalet with great vistas of the countryside below. It's a bummer it's been let go, but other areas became more popular over the years and it is hard to get to. The landscape changes on top of the mountains with wide open meadows and rolling hills with barely a rock. 45 minutes later and we were at the cable car chalet for a well deserved break. No cable car for us today, all legs. Then we checked out the Sphinx, a natural creation similar to Egypt and other cool rock forms. 






The cross, way above the valley is another trek. Keeping those feet moving we reached the gigantic cross made of railroad ties for some of the best views around and lunch. 5 hours of epic hiking and going up almost 2000 meters and putting lots of steps in to get there. A lot of people take the cable car and hike here or there is a parking lot on top, both an hour plus walk away. But the cross was mighty popular and a fun vibe. 






Going down was next. From being up top for hours hiking around, thr towns below looked mighty far away. And they were. We took a different trail, making the trip a sort of loop, not repeating our journey. This section was both the most beautiful and most challenging as the trail was often just barely a half meter wide and over lots of lose rocks. Definitely a place to be careful and watch your step. Of course, this was where we saw lots of families. Crazy. Going up didn't look like fun and for us going down, it was a slow process. It was one of those trails that you look at from afar and think that there is no way you can go down there. But we made it, using chains attached to rocks for support at times, stopping to look up at where we came from in awe. Loving it!





Thursday, August 3, 2017

Around Transylvania




I've been weaving in and out of Brasov now for a week. It's been a grand time, from wedding festivities to a yoga retreat. This was the fun, big city nearby with the Brasov sign up on the hill. To go anywhere, all roads seem to lead here. Even after leaving the yoga retreat to head further north, back to Brasov I went, already knowing the roads and city layout. And then it would be back out on the same roads before finally making a new turnoff and heading north. 


Sibiu was the first destination, another town with a fantastic old town, filled with church towers and remnants of past city walls. The history just walking around this area, knowing how long the towns have been around and what people lived there is impressive. From Vlad Tepes fighting off the Turkish to the Saxons settling and building fortified churches to the Austrian Hungarian empire having major towns, Transylvania has been an important place. Sibiu had some amazing sights, but left me wanting more. Too much clustered together in a decent sized city and after a 15 minute stroll, I'd seen most. Still some great views from a church tower, a nice city park and fun shops to explore made for a decent experience. 
Next up was Sigihisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. Finally a connection to Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula in folklore. He has been everywhere even with little connection to the area. His birth house is available for tours and there is a bust of him overlooking a square. Even more souvenirs being pushed here, but at leas they have a reason. 




Quite the fun medieval town, Sighisoara has some of the best architecture, with the old city being up on a hill overlooking the land. Even higher up, through a 400 year old covered staircase is a church at the top. I came here for the Medieval Festival, an annual event showcasing the city and embracing the past. Sword fights, maidens dancing, old time food, medieval music with lutes, lots of costumes and tons of people. Quite fun!  Lots to explore and enjoy and quite nice to learn the city in two days there and make some new friends. I even got in a good hike to a nearby hill to do some yoga and have city views. Good times in Sighisoara!








Saturday, July 29, 2017

Getting in touch with my inner yogi



This picture, taken from nearby my first yoga retreat shows the grass being greener on one side. The question is, which side did I end up on after 4 days and 3 nights of communal living, epic yoga sessions, Indian religion, yoga theory and meditation?  If you know me, you believe I found enlightenment. Let's just say, I'm well on the way, with lots of great insights from these days up in the mountains of Transylvania with no connection to the outside world. Just me, nature and similar minded people, focusing on making ourselves better. 

My traveling partner, Cristina, had been to this yoga retreat a year ago and wanted to go again. It had been in the back of my mind that I needed to get more into yoga and try out a retreat sometime, so this was a no brainer, I was going. The retreat was located up in the mountains above a small village, with no actual address, rather being the building behind the cemetery, behind the church. A very local, amazing experience with yoga practices twice a day, yoga theory daily, chanting and meditation mixed in with two vegetarian meals. Everyone chipped in what money they could and we cooked, cleaned, ate and slept as a community. From the start, people were at ease and made for a fully welcoming experience. 

While I had done yoga before, I had never done ashtanga yoga. This is a whole new level, taking the sequences and making it not only a spiritual exercise but a full workout as well. Surrounded by 16-20 others upstairs, the sweat poured out and the muscles burned as we went through familiar moves and moves that didn't seem possible. Some of the craziest twists I've done as well as my first head stands and full back bends. We were blessed with two amazing teachers who gave us confidence and strength. After just a few days, my firm was better, my body stronger and my mind clearer. On my last practice, I felt the best, re-energized and at peace after. Can't beat that. 

Here's a couple more photos of the area. No yoga photos, as why would you have a camera around when you're there to ground yourself and focus on improving  the body and mind?  But yeah, look up ashtanga yoga for some fun postures and twists. Full workout baby!









Modern day blacksmithing

Saw some blacksmiths at work outside a church here in Sibiu. Felt like I was back in a different era. Apart from creating rose shaped candle holders.  That probably wasn't as important when you didn't have clean drinking water and the plague was all around you.





Sibiu

The houses of Sibiu have eyes. Seriously. They watch you walk around this pleasant medieval town, filled with cobble stone streets and fantastic architecture. When you look up, there they are, often in random numbers, just watching. And I'd bet you could see the smiles in their eyes if you looked hard enough.











Friday, July 28, 2017

Romanian wedding fun




First celebratory shot at 11am. Reception starting at 4pm. Fourth course at 12am. Dancing. Eating. Dancing. Eating. On repeat for hours til breakfast time. This is a Romanian wedding. A full day of celebrations, laughter, good times with no set time limit. Just keep it going. And then sleep and do it again for day two. 

Quite the grand day for me. Attending a Romanian wedding is an event that brings in lots of people with music, food, dancing and drink from the morning until the morning. This was a traditional wedding up in the mountains, in a small village. I was lucky to be there, way up a dirt road, in the village of the grandparents, far removed from the city and modern fare. Most of the locals were in traditional clothing, drinking homemade cheeses, meats and drinks. A festive time was had before the ceremony even began. Over an hour of dancing took place outside in the sunshine beside the house and barn, with 3 locals working the musical instruments. Awesome, authentic music and gets your feet a'moving!




The main thing people remember from the church service was that it was extremely hot inside and the priest spoke very fast Romanian. Lots of talking and ceremony and blessing of rings and also crowns. Nothing like getting a gold crown on your head like at Burger King. And then taking 3 bites of a biscuit soaked in wine, and then 3 sips of wine. Tradition!  For the bride and groom. And the godparents (friends of similar age). But not the other wedding party members who had sweated through everything with them. After around an hour of standing, we were set to exit and cheer on the newly wed couple and dance a bit with kids throwing candy around. 


The village wedding was a more intimate gathering from the reception to come ahead. Being Cristina's date got me there for a truly amazing experience. We had spent the night before near the grandparents house in a pension and loved the peace and quiet up there. Finding rides with a couple from Miami we made it down to the reception venue, a place we would spend 12+ hours at over the next two evenings. The feasting commenced with a platter containing every Romanian food out there. Packed with meats, veg and cheese it got the body energized for the dancing to come. 

The hora, the traditional Romanian dance, is amazing. Circling up, everyone holds hand, you move in a circle, working those feet and not having to worry about stepping on each others toes. A great communal dance with fast beats and perfect for all ages. It's also a dance that never ends. It's gets faster and faster and the band will tease you with a finish and then just keep on going til everyone is about to drop. The relief when it is over is apparent, and yet they'll often just start a new one. Let it roll!

Numerous courses of food and alcohol come your way throughout the evening. It's a nonstop run of energy pumping in to the body to get you dancing. Or taking a break outside away from the loud band. It turned into too much polka and energy at a high decibel level for a lot of us. Couldn't really talk, which I learned is that Romanians have really loud music during wedding eating time. Just shut up and eat. No small talk. I still tried though...
The band finished by 1am and then Michael started up a dj set that went until around 6 from what I heard. We made it til 2am. A solid run on a great day. The younger generations were still there with the older generations having left around 1am, getting some sleep for the next day. And the party doesn't stop!