If you want to find a vampire then you are probably better off going to Forks, Washington – where you might run into one of those new sparkly versions – than going to Transylvania, Romania, where we recently returned. Romania has yet to truly market the hell out of the Dracula craze that we Americans like to impose as the long-standing symbol to Transylvania. Sure you can find some cheesy Dracula memorabilia; however, it is far less than what you would expect to see. And thank you god for that, because Romania is so much more than a fictional character created by an author that had never once been to this beautiful country.
The peaks of the Carpathian Mountains are like massive stones jetting up out of a river and the extensive skyline diverging around them. Romania is a country of towering, jagged summits and low-lying valleys worked by the local inhabitants. The people are as friendly as any I have ever encountered, and even though language was a slight issue from time to time we never once had difficulty navigating through the landscape or culture. Although, our GPS was wrong nearly 80% of the time and forced us to resort to our basic map navigational skills, and, of course, asking a local of our whereabouts – usually we stopped at a hotel for better chances of a local speaking English.
We only had five days to tour this extensive country and after a little preliminary research into the sights beforehand, we had decided to make Brasov (pronounced Brashov, with rolling the ‘r’ slightly like how the Spanish do with their r’s) as our base for exploration by car. It ended up being the right decision in the end. Everything we wanted to see and do primarily existed in the vicinity of Transylvania – which is a popular region of Romania, like a state or county, and not a city like a lot of westerners are led to believe, including myself initially. Brasov was the perfect city to stay in because it was large enough to offer different things to do every evening after returning from a long day of driving around and touring, but not too overwhelming where we would have to navigate a huge amount of traffic, such as we saw in Bucharest.
One of our first trips was Bran Castle, only 16 kilometers from Brasov. Bran Castle, which of course is the castle that was made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, sits hauntingly high and formidable as we curved through the winding roads to a parking area. But unlike numerous castles we have visited in Europe, this castle is entirely different in its design, and entirely refreshing. I would like to believe the physical difference between castles of Eastern and Western Europe possibly underscores the cultural differences that have existed for centuries, but that could just be me. Nonetheless, to the avid tourist it is like a breath of fresh air to visit a castle of unfamiliar aesthetic appeal. Many other websites and blogs have mentioned that this castle is a tourist trap, but I rather enjoyed it – plus if you want you can see the medieval torture exhibit which has numerous original grotesque devices utilized during the days of Vlad Tepes Dracula (or also known as Vlad the Impaler).
Driving from one town to the next it wasn’t unusual to see horse drawn carriages, or get caught behind one. Of course, I do not mean the horse carriages that take tourists around like they’re princes and princesses for half an hour, but the working kind, which were typically hauling hay, produce, lumber, and sometimes a group of teenage boys cruising the strip. We stopped to see Vlad Tepes Dracula’s birthplace – which is a tourist trap – a citadel in Rasnov with fortified walls and sweeping views of the Carpathians as well as the valleys and towns below, and we snacked upon what we called Romanian road food, which consisted of a wreath of circular pretzels and a couple of wafer-type treats. Driving in Romania, overall, isn’t as bad as many make it out to be. Maybe it’s because I have lived in Europe for nearly two years now and I’ve become accustomed to varying styles of driving, or that I have driven in a handful of different countries – including Ireland, which driving on the left hand side of the road really takes a bit to get used to – but renting a car in Romania and driving around was actually quite pleasant and the more preferable way to travel. After all, we’re Americans and road trips are something we live for, and the constant switchbacks tracing up a mountain is always exciting to drive.
On one of our few days in Romania we decided that we wanted to go on a day hike. I remember one of our hosts – we stayed in a BNB and had the best hosts, always pleasant and eager to share the wonders of their country – asked us “You want to see bears and wolves in natural habitat? Because I need to make call to arrange.” My wife’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head and said that we were only looking for something close and preferably without predators. Luckily, we found what we were looking for. In Brasov, such as in many of the cities and towns of Romania, there is a sign that sits atop a hill projecting the city’s name, much like the Hollywood sign in California. There is also a simple hike, or gondola ride, that one could take to the top for a viewpoint of the entire city. We got basic directions to the trailhead, and almost like everywhere else we went, we got a little lost. And just like everywhere else we asked for directions. A young lady – Romanian by birth but lived in Toronto, Canada for several years and spoke perfect English – helped us out as she was actually on her way to the same trail. The reason why we got a little lost this time was because the trailhead started behind someone’s house, and if it were not for the friendliness of our temporary Romanian friend we would not have found it. Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful, even if it were an inner-city hike. Trees and other plants were in their initial phase of blooming, and the trail was steep making our hearts pound within our chests. When we got to the top we walked over to the view point, which stands next to the city’s sign, and let the cool air whip past our bodies while we took pictures of the town below.
Besides the natural, raw beauty of Romania, and the friendliness that we encountered with the locals, there was also something else that made this trip amazing in its own right: food. The food in Romania is outstanding, and best of all it’s cheap. I say cheap because currently their currency is a 5:1 ratio for the Euro and a 3:1 ratio for the U.S. Dollar – but it is said that Romania will be taking on the Euro as its currency by next year, so prices are expected to increase. Nevertheless, we ate a fantastic dinner every night with drinks and dessert and never once topping 100 Lei (Lei is the name for their currency and is pronounced “lay,” which was only about 20 Euro). We drank Tuica – a very strong alcohol made by plums and a national favorite in Romania – which burned on the way down and radiated from the depths within my gut, and, of course, keeping with the traditions of being a tourist we drank a bottle of wine with the face of Vlad Tepes Dracula plastered on the front label. How could we not? Although, I think I actually preferred the Tuica.
We never did find Dracula. But that’s o.k. I’m from Washington state and I bet someday I will run into one of those melodramatic teen vampires soon enough – although I bet just regular teenagers are often confused with their sparkly counterparts. One of the most beautiful aspects to Romania is that the country has not yet become inundated with tourism. Its awesome landscape is a hidden Mecca of outdoor activity – something I wish I knew beforehand and made time for – and the general hospitality of its people stays with you long after you leave.
This older gentleman was actually very nice despite his stern expression.
I consider the personal comfort zone for every individual as a slight variation from the feared friend zone by singles failing to date someone outside their assumed expectations. But unlike the friend zone, where someone else determines this social station for you, the comfort zone is something we do to ourselves, most of the time unknowingly.
It’s the way we live our lives, comfortably. And in the big picture there is nothing wrong with living a comfortable, ordinary life. In fact, it’s something I strive for. But when the little things in life aggrandize themselves much larger than their inherent quality or character initially intend that is the moment you must push yourself outside of your own self-determined friend zone and reengage that seductive mistress that is your life – or if you prefer to picture a tall dark handsome stranger as the personification of your life, well, that is fine too.
My wife and I (and our friend Dave) did this recently with a little not very well known trail called El Caminito del Rey (The King’s Walkway or The King’s Little Road). This trail has been proclaimed as one of the most dangerous trails in the world, if not the most dangerous – although I believe there is this path in China that could easily contend, but I digress. Located on the cliffs of El Chorro, the trail is but three feet wide and hundreds of feet above a beautiful teal colored stream that would give no relief if you fell. Built originally in 1905 as a way for workers to access the hydro-electrical plant, the trail has long fallen into desuetude. The cement path has broken up in many parts, several gaping holes peer down to the trickling water below, and in a few areas nothing remains at all except the rusted steal beams that stand out as a skeletal reminder of the path’s former glory.
The technicality of the path is not difficult, especially if you have done any previous climbing before. It’s your own mentality that must be overcome, and the fact that people have died on this trail. I have rocked climbed before, but that has been a couple of years ago. There is no easing oneself into this experience. The trail begins with a shear cliff face traverse even before reaching the walkway. And even when upon the walkway itself there are numerous times when you are peering down to the canyon below as you inch along to the next section of the path. Hands against the rock and feet sliding along a rail, like a rib of a decaying corpse exposed to the elements, each movement is deliberate and planned. There were many times I had to steady my nerves, as my knuckles grew white and my hands clenched the rock face. The beauty of the trail is baffling, and mixed with the adrenaline of the climb there really is nothing like it.
The climb took half a day as we took our time exploring caves and taking pictures. After we returned from our time outside of our comfort zone, everything came into sharp perspective. How can anything seem to be so worrisome, so troublesome, when I just succeeded in traversing the El Caminito del Rey?
(photography by Dave Meyers and Kelly Anttila)
There is a little town that lies just an hour outside of Brussels, Belgium. The cobbled stone streets are narrow such as the canals that cut through the town’s center in an almost unplanned network of waterways. Rooted structures of businesses and dwellings align in rows hemming the calm waters as boats full of tourists snap pictures and horse drawn carriages rattle along the uneven roads constructed lifetimes passed. And a charming village it is. A charm, ironically, that only maintained its pristine appeal by suffering through centuries of poverty. Nearly untouched since its golden age, not modified nor updated to the varying modern trends in architecture passed down through the decades, Brugge is a medieval town untouched and somehow lasted through the centuries and all the calamities that come with human idleness, such as modernizing and war. Brugge actually narrowly escaped a massive bombing by the Nazis in WWII because a German officer refused to bomb the picturesque town; something the locals have inscribed into legend as one of two miracles that saved their town from total destruction.
When I had visited Brussels – that unique city that could easily be identified through its savory gastronomy, wide assortment of beers, and a statue of a little boy peeing – the existence of Brugge’s charm eluded me. It was only when I returned back to Spain that a friend had inquired of my travels north and if I had visited Bruja (Spanish for Brugge and coincidentally means witch). After declaring my ignorance he showed me image after image of an anachronistic town that exuded beauty and graceful allure from a simpler era. It took eight months before I found myself in northern Europe again, but this time my wife and I were visiting Amsterdam. We found a bus that would take us to Brugge in three hours – two hours more than if we had traveled from Brussels. It was our best, albeit only, chance to finally visit Brugge and we were not about to miss it a second time. I had suspected the trip to be uncomfortable and long, but with the low lying lands of the Netherlands unfolding before us in varying hues of green and giant windmills turning in their process of irrigating the lands, it was difficult to be annoyed by tight quarters.
After the bus dropped us off we remained with the tour group only so long as to determine the meeting time and location for departure. Our taste buds began to dance in anticipation. Returning to Brugge is like a kid going to a candy shop after eating only broccoli for a week. You don’t count the calories, you simply allow yourself to forget the judgmental voices in your head and gorge yourself on all the delectable flavors Belgium offers. And after temporarily satiating our appetites on steamed mussels and fries we began to meander through the ancient walkways of Brugge.
All those images my friend showed me of Bruja from before were now alive in front of me. It was almost like walking through a favorite painting. Everywhere I turned was a mental portrait I could easily frame and mount on a wall. Stone structures with modern businesses and century old family restaurants lined every street while an extensive plaza unfolded into a picturesque and tranquil setting. The canal tour, however, is by far the best attraction you could encounter. Unlike Amsterdam or Copenhagen or even London, Brugge is much smaller and so too is their network of canals and boats that float them. The canal boats are still elongated and lie low in the water, but they are an open boat which allows for a certain connection to the village from a point of view that cannot be experienced on foot. We floated under several walkway bridges as ducks and swans languidly moved from the path of our overfilled vessel.
I wish I could have spent a week there, just eating and drinking and being merry in an environment that sheds stress as if it were a thick winter jacket. But in the end we were there only for a day trip and we had to catch our bus.
I do not know why the Spanish call that charming town by the name of Bruja. Maybe it’s a simple repurposing of a word – like many Spanish words I know – or possibly there is another legend I simply am unaware of. What I do know is that the town certainly possesses a certain attraction, an almost bewitching magnetism that draws on a deeper level of every tourist.
Capital of the Netherlands and home to over 1200 bridges, Amsterdam is a city full of charm and character and several museums, including one on medieval torture. The museum that most interested me, however, was the Anne Frank Huis museum. Like most of you I was forced to read her diary in junior high, and back then it had little, if any, impact on my life that was already full of Nintendo and shyly talking to girls that had no interest in me. It wasn’t until my adult years that I went back to reread her diary that her words spoke more to me than ever before. Although I could not relate to her circumstances or the time and era in which she wrote, I did connect with the deep emotion and insights most kids her age simply are unaware of, at least I know I was at her age.
“We’ve been strongly reminded of the fact that we’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, but with a thousand obligations. We must put our feelings aside; we must be brave and strong, bear discomfort without complaint, do whatever is in our power and trust in God. One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!”
Entering the building that was her father’s workplace and progressively moving toward the secret annex where Anne Frank and seven others, including her family, had hidden in secret from the Nazis for just over two years in near darkness, her words came back to me, her story coming alive before my eyes. We entered through the very bookcase that had obscured the secret entrance to the annex, ascended the neck-breaking staircases and room after room we moved in rows and totally in awe of the living history we were experiencing. Anne’s room had several photographs of famous celebrities of her time plastered to a wall of insipid color, making it more comfortable and inviting for her long seclusion from the rest of the world. It was the Annex’s attic window that was the highlight for me to see. The same window that Anne Frank looked out of for hours hoping, praying, wishing to be released from her cage, like some wild bird willing itself to be free again.
“I go to the attic almost every morning to get the stale air out of my lungs… Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky.”
Afterwards we left the museum and went to a little café where continued to talk about Anne Frank and her experience, and the legacy of her and her father’s ongoing message of persecution of others based on irrational misconceptions. You can say it was an impactful experience. To cheer us up a bit we ate delicious pancakes, which the Dutch seem to separate into two categories: savory or sweet. I choose savory, which included spinach with ham, tomato, and cheese, whereas my wife went with sweet and enjoyed an extremely rich pancake that was similar to a flat, spongy apple pie. Later we went to the Heineken Brewery.
The Heineken Brewery marks the third brewery we have visited since living in Europe; the first was Smithwick’s in Kilkenny, and the second was Guinness in Dublin. After visiting Heineken it has become very apparent that each brewery, through huge marketing endeavors on their part no wonder, project a particular image, style, and even personality that goes along with their beer, and the brewery tour is designed as a reflection of that personality. Smithwick’s was a quaint, comfortable, and personal type setting, where one feels almost at home the moment you walk into the door. You had a host that walked you through the brewery and answered every question as if it was the first time he heard it. Smithwick’s is the friendly beer. The beer you hang out with on the weekends and go fishing. I don’t fish but you get the point. Guinness is an institution for the every man. It’s the perfect beer after a long day at work, and when you need to revitalize your body with its rich dark flavor. Their brewery tour is self-guided, but makes up for the lack of personal attention through amazing attractions; including a small waterfall. Heineken is none of these. Heineken is a party, a club, a young, wild twenty something year old looking for the time of his/her life. Heineken is all about “yolo,” and what ever comes tomorrow can wait for tomorrow. And Heineken projects this through its club like atmosphere, music, games, and a small ride where you the audience personify the beer making process – bubbles included. A couple of beers at the end of the tour are always a nice touch as well.
I wish we had a week in Amsterdam to explore everything there was, but as always, we never have enough time. We meandered the streets avoiding the hundreds of cyclists, trams moving back and forth along the roads, and crossed dozens of little bridges that span the network of canals dispersed throughout the city. We visited the floating flower markets and ate at a vending machine fast food place where you insert some coins then pull out a deep-fried delight from behind a glass door. We even saw the famous windmills the Dutch are famous for, but that was on a bus ride into the countryside on our way to Brugge, Belgium, and that is another blog for another time.
I am the reason why quarterbacks lose track of the play clock and offensive lines shift nervously before the hike. I am part of that mad mob that unleashes confusion and frustration among teams visiting our Great Northern house. I roar green and blue in my stadium known for causing geological tremors. I have become temporarily deaf and mute among my thousands of brothers and sisters united in cacophonous thunder. Together we swell in ranks and our team, the Seattle Seahawks, rain down upon all those who stand against us.
With Pete Carol and his gladiators of the field football has never been more exciting. Though the 12th man is largely concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, as it should be, our reach is vast. Well beyond the geographical borders of the U.S. the 12th man circumferences the globe. Fellow 12rs, like myself, cheer in unison at ungodly hours of the late evening that bleed into early morning and across countries and cultures that know nothing of our crazed pride. And here we are, going to the Super Bowl to prove ourselves once again that we have the better players, the better team. Although I may not currently reside in the land of the 12th man, I am a 12er through and through, and when kickoff launches into that frozen air of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, I will be screaming at the top of my lungs in a small bar in the south of Spain at 12:30 in the morning and hoping, just hoping, that the pride of this 12th man will be felt half a world away.
When we went to Rome, Italy, I believe I was a bit delusional to think that I might actually see Russell Crowe dressed up as a gladiator signing autographs and performing live reenactments from his movie. And of course he was not there. Although I did see a gladiator – or at least a man dressed up as one – order an espresso from a local coffee shop we were eating breakfast at. I guess today’s gladiator needs to get his caffeine fix before his long day of taking photos with tourists in front of the Coliseum.
Rome is the ultimate sightseer/tourist destination. You can walk anywhere in this beautiful city and turn a corner to see something utterly remarkable. It could be an ancient Roman structure, fountain, statue of some naked person, or a string of wonderfully delicious and creatively designed restaurants with dog parking. In fact, one of my favorite parts about visiting Rome was that if we got tired of walking around we could simply stop at any restaurant, order wine and pizza, and enjoy the view. No matter where we were at in the city we always had a view of something. But other than meandering the streets of Rome for hours – with our mouths gaping wide at everything we saw like we were a part of some Charlie Brown Christmas special – we did have an agenda to keep.
Our first stop, of course, was the Coliseum. However, some research before arriving in Italy proved extremely helpful in avoiding the long lines. The Coliseum can be purchased as a package deal with some other attractions, and by buying the combined ticket at one of the other sights we avoided the hours of standing in line. There were literally only ten people in line at the Roman Forum compared to the hundreds waiting to buy tickets at the Coliseum. And after buying our tickets we then walked to the Coliseum, passing all the other tourists impatiently waiting in line, and gained entrance in seconds. This just goes to prove that a little research beforehand always pays off when traveling. The Coliseum itself, to my surprise, is not round. This might just be me but I always thought the structure was designed as a perfect circle when in fact it’s oval, and very similar to the way football stadiums are designed today; although I doubt many football stadiums have an underground network of walkways and rooms caged off for wild animals right under the main floor. The Coliseum is an amazing feat of engineering and just beautiful to explore its many levels, and if you want the experience to feel just a little more epic then watch the movie Gladiator before visiting. Just don’t expect to see Russell Crowe.
There is this famous fountain in Rome, the Trevi Fountain, which has been used in numerous films worldwide and is a must for tourists. There is also a tradition that goes along with visiting this sight. The tradition states that one must sit at the fountain’s edge and throw a coin with the right hand over the left shoulder, which signifies that you will return to Rome. There is also another legend stating something with three coins that leads to romance and marriage, but since I already had that in the bag, I threw one coin into the fountain and saved the rest for pizza. Only in Europe and possibly Canada can you have a pocket full of coins and be able to have a good night out on the town. The fountain itself is quite remarkable. It was the original end point to one of the many Roman aqueducts and features larger than life-size carvings of Tritons, horses, and a nearly naked guy that goes by the name of Ocean. We stopped by the Trevi fountain a couple of times during our visit and it always appeared to be very popular. So after squeezing our way through the crowd to the fountain’s edge, we threw our coins in and promptly left for more wine and pizza.
The last location on our itinerary was to visit Vatican City. How could we be in Rome and not go to Vatican City? After traveling for the last year and a half around Europe we’ve become accustomed to knowing which locations you should join a tour group and which ones you really don’t have to, and this is definitely one attraction that you should. Not only do you gain deeper insight to the history of such a marvel, but you also bypass all the other tourists trying to save a buck. I would gladly pay an extra few bucks not to stand in a line for hours. Vatican City is recognized as the smallest independent state in the world and governed as a monarchy, placing the Pope in the big chair while possessing all legislative, executive, and judicial powers. This independent state also has its own flag, minted coin, license plate, and postage stamp, and in my opinion it’s one of the coolest places to visit in all of Rome. Just make sure to wear the proper clothing or you will not be admitted beyond the security checkpoint (ie. no shorts or exposed shoulders allowed).
Because Vatican City sees roughly 25,000 tourists a day, hallways, rooms, even outdoor areas become extremely crowded with bodies from around the world. With so many people from all over the world it’s kind of like an international mosh pit of culture and language. No one really knows what anyone else is saying. Due to this roaming mosh pit of tourists everyone in our group were given a one-way radio where we could hear our guide and know exactly where he was at all times. Paintings, tapestries, and statues appear to be boundless throughout Vatican City. One could spend a lifetime looking at every single piece of art if they so desired. We took about four hours. I was surrounded by art from some the world’s most renowned masters, and it was amazing if not a tad overwhelming. Each piece desired hours of consideration, but my mental capacity nearly ran dry after the first. Again I walked in rows – lemming following lemmings – eyes unblinking, astonished at everything I saw but hindered in movement by the thousands of other tourists. Unfortunately I couldn’t land a selfie with the Pope, but I did capture a string of Cardinals off in the distance.
At the end of the tour we entered the Sistine Chapel as guards hushed tourists filing into the room. I figured them to be the Vatican’s noise police. I had seen the picture many times in textbooks growing up, but to my surprise when I first looked up to the ceiling and saw Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam,” all I thought was how small it was. The picture had always appeared larger than life in photos reprinted and commercialized in the U.S. It was an epic moment captured in fresco (paint on plaster). Not to reduce the significance of the piece – neither in its artistry or symbolism – but it’s funny how an image can aggrandize in one’s mind until he/she comes face to face with it. The image yet remained captivating but very distant (sorry no pictures, all photography was prohibited in the Sistine Chapel).
For the rest of our trip we lazily walked through the city, stopping to eat pizza or drink wine and appreciate the city for what it was: a unique blend of ancient and contemporary culture. Eventually I saw that pseudo-gladiator again, or one of his several counterparts, and this time he was eating a slice from one of the many pizza shops. I could only guess that he was carbing up for an epic battle, but then again that could just be my own wishful thinking.