Transylvania Countryside, Romania

I know you want me to talk about vampires, so I will..kind of; but the truth is, they're definitely not the only cool thing about Transylvania. We got the chance to check out a few of the most adorable towns in the heart of Romania and if you're considering a Transilvania adventure, make sure not to leave these out!

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Dracula
This is the story of a guy much scarier than the Dracula you might know: Vlad III AKA "The Impaler". In 1431, Vlad's dad (Vlad II) was inducted into a knightly order, the Order of the Dragon (the original Targaryens?!). This designation earned Vlad II a new surname: Dracul, which then was passed down to his son. Having dragon as your name is pretty badass, but "drac" can also mean devil.. and this guy really lived up to his name. The Order of the Dragon was devoted to the defeat of the Turkish, or Ottoman Empire. When he was a kid, Vlad III was captured and raised by the Ottomans, but after his father and half-brother were killed by them, he wanted his revenge. After some tough years winning and losing his father's seat, he obviously was a bit pissed off. So much so, that when he finally got his throne back, he invited boyars to banquets, knowing they would challenge his authority, and then had them stabbed and impaled on spikes. Funny thing is, he is still seen as a ruler that was "harsh but just" and generally a positive character in Romania.

SIbiu: Medieval Charm
We rented a car with our beautiful new Romanian friend Andra, and drove out to Sibiu! We decided to go far fist and work our way back to Bucharest through Brasov and Sinaia. First off, the drive through the Romanian countryside is absolutely breathtaking. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains and quaint streams, we could see why some people choose Transylvania for their off-the-grid getaways. Upon arriving in Sibiu, (deemed 2007's European Capital of Culture) the first thing we noticed is how drastically different the architecture is from Bucharest's. Ignoring the hilarious fact the houses look like they have eyes, the impeccably preserved Medieval walls and Germanic architecture combine to send us off to a time long long ago; say about 900 years ago (!!!). The Saxon and Hungarian influence is not only seen in the architecture; many of the folks living here actually are German or Hungarian, some of the signage is also written in these languages, and of course–the food! No wonder this charming town used to be the capital of Transilvania.

Brasov: Dracula's Neighbor
Another adorable town in the heart of Romania is of course, Brasov. This one is quite a bit more well-known to the tourist population, probably due to it's ideal location. It's the perfect mid-point between Bucharest, some of the main ski slopes, and some of the most visited castles (Dracula's castle is only 45 min away in Bran). Like SIbiu, it's also characterised by it's quaint, medieval charm and Saxon influence. 

Sinaia: The Carpathian Pearl
If you're an outdoorsy type, you might want to consider Sinaia. It's breathtaking views of the Carpathian mountains make it a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle in Bucharest. In the winter, it's a less crowded and less expensive alternative to the Alps (the Carpathian mountains are even called Tansilvania's Alps!), and in the summer, it's a perfect place to go for a hike. It's beauty even made it the summer getaway choice of the Romanian Royal family.

For more vampire fun... watch this

Bucharest, Romania

After staying in Bucharest for about a month and a half, it practically felt like home - so here's the longest post we've written as of yet! From time to time, we enjoy taking the time to really experience the culture of a place and feel like locals… and also have some more down time to get design work done! After getting a solid taste of of Romania's capital city, I would say that overall it seems to be an eclectic mix of a post-communist state and a rapidly BOOMING european-bohemian city. 

The Historic Center: A clash of the Belle Epoque and Communism
For the majority of our time here, we stayed in an apartment in the Historic Lipscani District. This older part of the city, decorated with ornate French-style architecture, would have probably extended a lot further today; but sadly, Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist regime and a series of strong earthquakes prevented that from being a reality. Now you just see beautiful Belle Époque buildings right across the street from big communist-era apartment blocks. Voilá, history reflects itself so vividly right before your eyes, gotta love it. But then you have the Centrul Civic District with even more notable effects of the Romanian Communist regime… the People’s Palace. It’s. HUGE. I mean, really MASSIVE. In fact, it's the heaviest building on Earth, and apparently the most expensive administrative building. Many locals say Ceausescu built it that big to match his ego (ha ha). In the 1980s, a huge amount of historical buildings were demolished in the Centrul Civic area and 40,000 people were evicted from their homes with just a day's notice to make space for 8 square km of socialist-realist style government offices and apartments. Not nice Ceausescu, not nice. We kind of ended up avoiding this part of Bucharest's center during our stay, preferring areas North of the river. There, you see a great effort to renovate the streets and old buildings... but don't expect any protection or western-style security around the construction sites!

Lipscani Nightlife: Get ready for a looong night
Getting back to Lipscani, it really does look like Paris! So much so, that it gave Bucharest the nickname “Little Paris”. It’s a super fun area to live in too. The streets are animated 24/7 with young people everywhere and bars upon bars blasting the latest top 40 hits. On weekends, you'll probably find a few latex-thonged lady-dancers or buff fire-breathers–it's totally standard club decor here. The clubs stay open all night... as in until the sunrise–sometimes even on a Tuesday.

If you'd like to stay away from the clubby naked-dancer thing, fear not! There are plenty of alternatives :) There are a few lounge-y bars in the area which we loved, like the Pura Vida rooftop bar (Sky Bar), BiutifulNomad, Bruno Wine Bar, and Bazaar; and some more laid-back "alternative-rock" bars like Mojo Club (British ex-pat bar with karaoke every night and a basement dance club) and 1974 Niste Domni si Fiii (local, cheap, rocker hangout) - Lot's of indoor-smoking happening inside both of these tho. There's also great dance bar/clubs in the area that play cooler, less-mainstream music than the bars on the main strip; like Interbelic, Control, and El Dictador

Just Outside the Center: Bohemian paradise
In between Lipscani and Piata Romana, all along the Calea Victoriei is where you'll find the artsy-bohemian crowd of locals. Once we found our way to the relaxed artsy scene in Bucharest, we really started to feel at home. Places like Gradina Eden (hidden behind Palace Stirbei), A1, and A2 were definitely among our favorite hangout spots. And traveling a bit further north, you find Terasa Baraka and Tête a Tête hidden amongst the trees of Herastrau Park. All of these bars have a very laid-back feel and usually pack up with creative-types and hipsters. Some even have hammocks and fruit smoothies, and they all also function as cafés during the day. 

Arts, Parks, & Coffee: Vampires in the daytime
A non-drinking activity we loved and would highly recommend is taking a stroll (or a morning run) through one of the many beautiful parks in Bucharest. We frequented Cismigiu Park to lay out in the sun and have a freshly squeezed portocale (orange juice) while we watched locals enjoying the little paddle boats and playing chess and backgammon. Herastrau Park is great too, only it's much bigger and has more cafés, bars, and even a skate park.

There are many art-related activities to do too. The Kulturama exhibit space in Piata Revolutiei is worth checking out to see exhibitions and artistic events that promote young talent. There are also constant art gallery shows... we went to like five of them. The art is usually really cool and creative... and the complimentary wine is always nice too. There are lots of museums and tours to check out too... but with so much to see, we didn't really fit those in.

We did however, get a lot of design work done, and got to know the best coffee shops and co-working spaces. My personal favorite was M60. The coffee, the food, the ambiance, power outlets everywhere, comfy chairs, amazing service – it just can't be beat! Other great ones include Tucano Coffee (the one by Piata Romana is the best!) and the pay by the hour co-working space Seneca Anticafe where you get a little check-in bookmark with a famous writer's name (no coffee here though, only teas). Carturesti Carusel is also worth checking out. It's a bookstore/café/event space/gallery in a beautifully reconstructed old building. Another cute but smaller spot is the Libraria Humanitas near Cismigiu Park that has a café area and a great selection of teas.

In the end, it was a bitter-sweet goodbye. We were sad to leave the great new friends we made, but thrilled to start our next adventure!

Belgrade, Serbia

We have a ton of Serbian friends from New York, so we figured we should see what their country is all about! We quickly found out that the Serbian spoken language is pretty much exactly the same as Croatian. So even though we weren't able to read any of the cyrillic, we could at least strut into Belgrade knowing how to say "please" and "thank you" ...but we also quickly learned that all the conflicts and hatred that lie between the ex-Yugoslavia countries is still very prevalent.

Our New York Serbians hooked us up with a cool friend of theirs, Alex, and he showed us around the city. At night, he took us to a really cool neighbourhood that I’m sure tourists never get to see. It was right up our alley and kind of felt like being back in Bushwick: Savamala, Belgrade's self-proclaimed Creative District. You pretty much walk from industrial and abandoned warehouses on one block to super trendy bars & clubs on the next. And all this with a splash of colorful and imaginative street art in every corner! First, we went to a cool concept-store/bar/event-space called Mikser House. It was so beautifully designed I swear I wanted to buy everything inside. Then later, we had a few drinks in Tranzita bar/lounge/club with amazing music, a cool ambiance, and a nice terrace overlooking the Sava River. Other party alternatives include more boat bars and lots of dancing in crazy late-night clubs, but we decided to skip those and have a few days of rest. In conclusion: Belgrade is beautiful and so much fun!

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb. Our last stop in Croatia. And our last stop with Marine. After this, Marine will go back to France and we will move on to Serbia. It's so sad to say goodbye after so many good times together! But I know we will meet again soon, so I will wipe the tears off of my laptop's keyboard and I'll tell you a bit about Zagreb. 

Zagreb is a really cool city! It has a pretty large metropolitan area and a smaller historical center filled with cute pedestrian streets and beautiful architecture. There's also a cute strip with fun bars and restaurants. In the old town, we found a super quirky shop with unique jewellery and other trinkets called PMS: Prostor Manufakturne Slobode (that's Croatian for Manufacturing Space of Freedom). The eclectic lady that runs the shop told us about a live blues concert that was happening that night in Zagreb’s oldest tavern. Sure enough, we found Pod Starim Krovovima (another odd name which translates to "Under the Old Roofs") and all its surrounding bohemian crowd. It felt like we were transported back in time in that cozy tavern that reeked of beer and cigarettes. Everyone was smoking inside (because that’s what people do in Eastern Europe) and the blues-y tunes were heartfelt and soulful. It was an incredible experience and I’m so glad we went!

Šibenik, Croatia

Sibenik (pronounced sheebehneek) is a cute town on the coast, with a very Venetian design to it. Its tiny windy roads seemed quaint and adorable! And the food was amazing. We had some shrimp and seafood risotto - yum! On our way back to our Airbnb, we stumbled on to a free, open-air, arty film screening. It was the SUPERTOON Animation Film Festival. We got the chance to appreciate some amazing work and called it a night. 

The next day we decided to take our airbnb hosts' recommendation and check out the St. Nicholas Fortress (Tvrdava Sv. Nikolelocated close by. It was so cool to see such a unique and well preserved fort! I loved that it wasn't all fixed-up for tourists so we had the place to ourselves and you could climb on anything you wanted! It was also probably haunted. BOO! So much fun.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik is Kings Landing. Shame stairs and all. No joke, Game of Thrones was filmed all over this town. I’m so glad our Hawaiian friends urged us to go there because WOW it’s sooooo gorgeous!! It was my favourite stop in Croatia and I’m still dreaming about it. Everything there was absolutely magical and the pictures don’t even do it justice. We stayed in an adorable airbnb with grapevines in the patio and just a short walk away from the center. We made friends with some cool Spanish musicians that ended up serenading us songs until the break of dawn which by the way is ABSOLUTELY BREATHTAKING in Dubrovnik and if you can do it, it’s a MUST. We had octopus burgers in a nicely designed family-run restaurant and we made friends with a girl that worked in a wine bar. She later left the bar open for us that night when the other bars were closing and we ended up having a real FIESTA with the Spanish music, the delicious wine and all the new friends we made. Absolutely unforgettable.

Split, Croatia

The first thing we noticed upon arriving in Split is that people there love to bathe in the beaches at night. A bit of a strange tradition, but I like it! Split has a really beautiful historical center and it’s where some Game of Thrones scenes were filmed. And of course, we found a cool hidden jazz-wine bar in the midst of all the neon lights and mainstream clubs (check it out: Marcvs Marvlvs Spalatensis). After we got a few drinks in us, we jumped right in the water with all the locals, and swam straight to a floating bouncy castle! What a great night!

In Split we sort of hit a bump in the road (quite literally) when Marine’s car got a flat tire. No biggie, 5 euros go a LONG way in Croatia and before we knew it, we were heading off to the National Park Krka! The park was so beautiful with waterfalls so romantic, they ooze with poetry! After a few hours of fun in the park, the winds start picking up and the clouds start to settle in. Guess what? A HUGE STORM just showed up out of nowhere, completely uninvited and with an attitude problem. We scrambled our stuff together and hid in a souvenir shop. The boats heading back were too packed so we stayed in this crammed shop with about 50 other tourists and had a picnic! Hell, a little rain won’t put our spirits down! We shared some chips and wine with the family siting next to us while our friend went out to check on the situation and walkie-talkied us the updates. Everyone in the shop was happy to get the lo-down on the boats and we were all able to get back without barely getting a drop on us. haHA! The power of the walkie-talkie! 

Pag Island, Croatia: Dancing in Zrće

We met up with some old friends and headed off to Pag Island where all the crazy Summer festivals happen. To get to the island, we hopped on a ferry - and our car came with us! It was pretty sweet and simple and probably saved us a bunch of time on the road (the alternative was to drive further down to road to the bridge). From the boat we admired the dry, almost Mars-like island we were approaching and wondered if we made sure to book an airbnb with A/C.. we did! Our airbnb was actually amazing and the host was so great that he even offered to drive us around like a taxi, if we ever needed a lift.

We weren’t exactly in Novalja’s town center but in my opinion, where we were was even better! Our apartment was right next to a beautiful beach where we could spend the day relaxing, and right in the other direction, just a few minutes away by foot, was the infamous Zrce Beach (where the festivals take place). Lucky for us, first night we were there, the festival was completely FREE! I guess it must have been a pre-festival party because there weren’t any big headliners, but who cares! A free party is a free party! That night we had our first taste of the crowds of people dancing, the crazy light shows, and the amazing stage performers in the Croatia Rocks festival! Every day and night, each of the FIVE stages showcased some sort of crazy-over-the-top spectacle. There were fire breathers, dancers dressed like jellyfish, barely dressed bald ladies (what?!) with shimmering nipple tassels on their silicone boobs, and endless more. There were also bouncy trampoline nets that catapulted people to the water and some strange crane attraction that would dangle drunk people in ways that seemed extremely unsafe… but hey, it was a sight to see for sure! The crowd was young and the music was mainstream, but fully equipped with our bikinis, face paint, and water guns, we danced the nights away to the beats of a few amazing DJs and some really talented performers... including my personal favorite, Jungle

Rijeka, Croatia

After about a 5 hour drive through Italian and Slovanian landscapes (and border crossings), we made it to our first stop in Croatia! Rijeka has a bit of a raw and rugged beauty, but after traveling in more comfortable and familiar places in France and Italy, we welcomed the change with open arms. The language is now too unfamiliar for us to decipher, the currency is no longer Euros, and the buildings are all a bit run down and destroyed. We have reached eastern Europe! Driving in, we saw Rijeka's large port with hanging cranes that looked majestic with a light cloud of mist hanging in the sky as the sun began to set. 

We settled into our sad excuse of a hostel and quickly made some friends. Later that night, we would find out that we were staying a stone throw away from all the best parties. The port area is lined with bars and clubs in every direction (some even on the water). Truthfully, they were all a little on the trashier-mainstreamy side, but that was part of the fun. And on weekends, they stay open ’til the sun comes up in case your feeling extra energized and want to keep dancing all night long!

During the day we wandered around the open air markets that offer an endless array of cheap and delicious fruits, veggies, meats, and seafood. We also found some very cool artsy-hipster coffee shops (check out Dnevni Boravak Cafe). Then, midday came along and it was boiling hot. The large pedestrian street in the centre of the city, where all the shops and fashionable boutiques are, seemed like an endless desert. Our hostel’s AC was down, so we went on a mission to find a fan, and after some pro hand gesturing, we were miraculously directed towards a mall. The helpful local guy said it was a bit far but we decided to try walking anyway. I’m glad we did, because otherwise we wouldn’t have stumbled upon the beautiful rock beaches on the way! We decided to stop for a quick dip and wow, it was gorgeous! The water was perfectly crisp and refreshing. Exactly what we needed. After getting the fan (and WALKIE TALKIES CAUSE WHY NOT) we were getting a bit hungry. That’s when we found Konoba Na Kantunu right by the water. I highly recommend this restaurant. The food, the service, and the price were all worth going back again everyday. I still dream about those fresh anchovies and the octopus salad… Mmmm. Overall, Rijeka seems to be a little grungy-artsy city that fills up in the Summer with in-land Croatians for parties and swimming - definitely worth checking out for a few days!

Fun Fact: Croatia in Croatian is Hrvatska which actually sounds more like "Krvatska" (and not at all really like "Croatia").