The end of 2017: Europe

Our last post took us through the Baltic states up to November 3rd and the six month mark of our trip. Now, I’ll run down how we spent the rest of 2017 traveling through Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. I promise I’m working to getting the blog more current for our last couple months in South America!

Leaving Lithuania we took an overnight bus to the port town of Gdańsk to begin twelve days traveling in Poland. As the starting point of World War II and, in many ways, the epicenter of the Holocaust, much of our time in Poland focused on these subjects. That being said, we also experienced a lot that modern Poland has to offer. In Gdańsk, Ryan and I participated in a half marathon and 5k run that let us see a non-touristy side to the city. Our kebab obsession also began here. What more could a budget conscience traveler want than this filling and cheap meal? Behind the train station we found a great viewpoint from atop some old WWII bunkers; now a park and museum called Krzyż Milenijny.

At the finish line

Finish line at Gdańsk half marathon and 5k.

Kebab. Drool.

All across Poland we found incredibly modern and well done museums and Gdańsk was no exception. Here we spent two afternoons at the Museum of the Second World War and the European Solidarity Centre. In Europe we also began seeking out the free days and hours offered by many museums so we could visit them and stay in budget. We also took a daytrip to Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in 1406. Malbork is the largest castle in the world by land area and the museum entry included a really great audio guide!

From Gdańsk we continued on to Warsaw. We toured more immersive museums like the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Warsaw city center was quite imposing with its Soviet architecture, but our AirBnB was near the bike and walking path along the Vistula River that was quite nice.

Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

Our last destination in Poland was Krakow. Atop the hill in the center of town is the Wawel Castle and Cathedral where many Kings of Poland are buried. We spent a day walking around the Old Town and Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. From here we also took a day trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp. While difficult, it was a very meaningful trip and I strongly believe in the mission of the museum to keep this history in our collective memory.

The infamous “Work Sets You Free” sign in Auschwitz.

The end of the rail line that transported cattle cars full of people to the gas chambers.

On a lighter note, we also found the Krakow Pinball Museum. For a few bucks we drank beers and played unlimited games on over 100 pinball machines from across the decades. The last highlight of Krakow for me was seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine painting on display at the National Museum of Krakow.

Next we continued by overnight train to Ukraine and the city of Lviv. Lviv is a totally cute city in western Ukraine close to the Polish border. It was full of these really innovative and fun themed restaurants created by a local company called !Fest. We went to an underground partisan bunker themed bar called Kryivka off the main square. To enter you had to knock on an unmarked door in the back of an alley and proclaim “Slava Ukraine” to gain entrance. After making sure we weren’t Russian spies, the doorman handed over a shot of honey vodka and then let us in. It was totally kitschy but still a lot of fun. There were also a lot of breweries and beer joints here that we enjoyed.

Lviv Beer Museum and pub.

Inside the partisan bunker bar in Lviv.

Next we headed over to Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. There was really so much to do here and its a very lively city. From our hostel we walked all over town. There are a LOT of churches in Kyiv. We went to a few but spent the most time at the Pechersk Lavra, or cave monastery. This Russian Orthodox Church and Monastery was built atop catacombs filled with the bodies of saints and underground chapels. We saw a lot of little old ladies praying and even a few mummy looking saints in their final resting places. We were in Kyiv over Thanksgiving and celebrated the day by gorging ourselves on Georgian food (see my last post) and going to the ballet to see The Snow Queen at the National Opera of Ukraine.

Sunset and the Motherland Monument in Kyiv.

Typical cafeteria food in Eastern Europe.

The main feature of our time in Kyiv was our day tour to Chernobyl. This is just one of those subjects that is endlessly fascinating and had been on our “must do” list since we started planning this around the world trip. Not the most likely tourist destination, there are now a number of tour companies that offer a day trip to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone to see the sight of one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in human history.

The sarcophagus covering Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl.

Ryan and I both have a passing interest in urban exploration, one of our first dates was wandering around the abandoned Fulton Gas Works plant in Richmond before a round of frisbee golf, so visiting Chernobyl checked a lot of boxes for us. While the villages and towns inside the exclusion zone have now been abandoned, I was really surprised to see how many people are still working and living (at least part-time) here. We toured through Pripyat, the town where power plant workers and their families lived, and saw how the forest has begun to retake the area. We were able to go quite close to the reactor now covered by a brand new “sarcophagus” where the cleanup effort will continue for decades. While very safe to visit for the day, we did see a few radiation hot spots on our tour that sent the Geiger counters wailing.

The original sign entering Chernobyl town.

Abandoned fair grounds in Pripyat inside the exclusion zone.

Stained glass from the port of Pripyat town.

Getting a radiation check before we can leave the exclusion zone.

Lastly in Ukraine we visited the Black Sea town of Odessa. We saw some famous sites around town like the Opera House and the Potemkin Steps. I know its supposed to be really nice here in the summer but the weather was a bit dreary in November. That being said, we did have some excellent food and drink and the highlight of our stay was a private tour inside the Odessa Catacombs. Not real catacombs, these tunnels were originally limestone mines used to build the city of Odessa that have been repurposed and reused over the last century for everything from a Soviet fallout shelter to a gangster hideaway.

Inside our tour of the Odessa Catacombs. Thank goodness for our guide; we didn’t want to get lost down there!

Ok, I’ve only got four (or five depending on how you count…) countries to get us to the end of 2017. Thanks for sticking with me through this marathon blog post!

From Ukraine we took the bus to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (pronounced kish-ih-now). Moldova is actually a big wine producer and so we took a day trip to the Cricova wine caves. Like in Odessa, there are old limestone mine tunnels here that are now used for wine storage and production. The constant temperature underground makes it an ideal spot. The Cricova tour was super professional. Our group was driven around the tunnels on a little tram making stops to see different parts of wine production before going to our tasting. One of my favorite parts was stopping at the small theater to watch Cricova’s promotional video. Its super cheesy and I am obsessed with it. Watch it here.

The other big thing we did in Moldova was take a day trip to the breakaway region of Transnistria. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this Russian-speaking region opposed the potential merging of Moldova and Romania and an armed conflict broke out as they declared independence from Moldova. Now a “frozen conflict,” Transnistria isn’t a recognized country, but is essentially operating as such. To visit we took a shared van from the capital and had to go through an immigration checkpoint to get our day pass. Walking around the main city, Tiraspol, was like stepping back in time. They have their own currency (including some funny looking plastic coins) and all around are remnants from the Soviet Union that are still standing, while in the rest of the former bloc most of these things have been destroyed or moved. It made for a really interesting day.

Religious building and military monument in Tiraspol.

Visiting Transinistria can feel like a step back in time.

Next up: Romania! Here we really started to get into the Christmas spirit. It snowed a bit while we were in Brasov and we saw our first big Christmas tree and market in the main square in the Old Town. From Brasov we went to tour Bran Castle. Bran was not home to Vlad the Impaler (the real-life Dracula) but it did inspire Bram Stoker’s descriptions of Dracula’s Castle. Built in the 1300s to defend Transylvania, the castle is now a museum donated by Romania’s former royal family. It was really foggy when we visited. The spooky weather was great for a Dracula sighting but not so great for photos! Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Also in Bucharest we went to the Christmas Market a couple of times and enjoyed mulled wine and a tasty grilled Chimney Cake called Kürtoskalàcs. On our last afternoon we visited the Muzeul Antipa, or Romania’s Natural History Museum. The museum was founded in 1834 and is full of floor-to-ceiling dioramas of stuffed animals and habitats from around the globe. We went thinking it would be a bit kitschy, but the museum ended up being really enjoyable.

At this point we’re now into December and we flew from Bucharest to Athens to meet up with my parents and travel around Greece with them for fourteen days. We took an epic road trip around the Peloponnese peninsula spending two nights in the seaside town of Nafplio and visiting the ancient ruins of Mycenae, Epidaurious and Olympia. After stopping at ancient Olympia, we continued on away from the Peloponnese to spend two nights in Meteora. Meteora is known for Greek monasteries dating back to the 1300s that were built high into the rock formations. You can hike between the seven main monasteries on a mix of trails and road for amazing views of the area.

Can you spot five of the Meteora monasteries?

Obligatory family photo at the Parthenon.

After a marathon 4 day road trip, we drove back to Athens for a few more days to take in the city. Since we got into Europe, we’ve been stying in more AirBnBs, which has given this part of our trip a residential feel and the ability to cook more. Our location in Athens was perfect. We were literally steps from the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. We were also staying right next to Filopappou Hill, which was a park full of walking trails and the city’s best overlook with a full view of the Acropolis.

I can’t recommend visiting Greece in the winter enough. The museums and archeological sights are all half price during the off season and the weather was still stunning. While not warm enough for a swim or anything it was more than pleasant to spend our days sightseeing.

Enjoying the Greek sunshine in Santorini.

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Island hopping on the Blue Star Ferries.

Lastly, we had to visit a couple Greek Islands to complete our tour of Greece. We stayed in an amazing historic cave house in the village of Oia on the island of Santorini and had the perfect postcard-worthy view of the white village and caldera from our patio. I drank too much wine and Ryan got to do a trail run from one end of the island to the the other. Happy times. We spent three relaxing days here before moving on, via ferry, to Naxos. Naxos was a much more down-to-earth island with even fewer tourists and a quaint port. Naxos was the kind of town where our waitress at dinner always came by with a complimentary carafe of wine. Needless to say we come back the next night.

After island hopping, our group traveled on to Italy, parting ways for a few days before reuniting in Rome for Christmas. And I am almost done with this epically long blog post. Ryan and I went down to Sorrento for a few days so we could hike the Sentiero degli Dei or “Path of the Gods” above the Amalfi Coast. We did this amazing walk as an out-and-back hike from Positano so we could make it a little longer and take in all the views. We also did another day hike directly from Sorrento to the town of Massa Lubrense following a trail of painted tile markers that I found utterly charming.

Hiking between villages on the Amalfi Coast.

Then, we headed to Rome for the holidays. On Christmas Day we were joined by Ryan’s brother and sister-in-law. The next day my parents continued on their Italian adventure without us and we traveled with Matthew and Nikki in Italy for the next week in Rome, Florence and Milan. We took in all the quintessential sights from the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican in Rome to the Duomo in Florence. We had some of our best food in Florence and Matthew and Nikki introduced us to the Rick Steve’s Europe audio guide app. Wish we’d known about these free walking tours sooner! In Milan we went to the famous Stadio San Siro to see an Inter Milan football game and ring in the New Year together!

Even the rainiest day in Rome didn’t stop us!

Crostini Misti.

Finally, we made it through 2017. On New Year’s Day we separated from Matthew and Nikki. They continued on to Venice for a few days before returning home and Ryan and I went to stay in Perugia for the week. I studied abroad in Perugia in 2007, so visiting my Italian home away from home brought back a lot of fond memories. This medieval hilltop town has both changed and stayed exactly the same in so many ways. Staying in one place for a week also gave us a much needed break to be lazy and plan the final four months of our trip. From here we were able to plan out our treks in Patagonia and flesh out our time in South America.

And finally on January 10th we left Italy and flew to Marrakech, Morocco. We weren’t totally done with Europe yet as we also visited Spain, but I’ll leave Morocco and Spain for another post!

One thought on “The end of 2017: Europe

  1. Wow, you got to see much in so little time. The Antipa Museum was a great choice because it’s one of the most interesting ones in Bucharest. I think you would have also liked the Village Museum. It’s open air, with traditional homes from different parts of Romania.

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