Memorable Moments From a Year of Full-Time Travel (2023)

It’s always fun to look back over our travels for the past year. As Steve and I wrap up our sixth year of full-time travel, we continue to be awed by this amazing world.

Our year was busy with visits to 32 cities and towns, so there was ample opportunity to collect memorable moments. We were in Florida twice, first in March to attend a wedding in Key West and then in December to spend Christmas with our daughters, Stephanie and Laura.

There was sad news in December when Steve’s oldest brother, Arthur, passed away after a long illness. We were on a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean at the time and weren’t able to attend his funeral. This was difficult for Steve, but we honored his memory by supporting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the fire company where he volunteered.

Below, I will share our 13 top travel experiences of 2023. I promise that this is not just a walk down memory lane. Throughout this post, you can find helpful and (hopefully) inspiring information.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

1. Exploring Marrakesh (January)

We started 2023 in Morocco, spending time in Tangier, Rabat, Tetouan, Chefchaouen (the Blue City), Marrakesh, and Casablanca. Of all these places, Marrakesh has stayed in my heart. I find this odd as I was not fond of it when we were there because of the crowds, especially in the medina (the old part of the city).

We stayed in a riad, which you can learn about here. What I remember most about our Marrakesh riad is the huge breakfast we were served every morning, along with the requisite mint tea. We were there in January, so it was cold in the morning. We ate with our jackets on while a space heater struggled to keep us warm.

So why do I remember Marrakesh so fondly? Possibly because it was so different from my other travel experiences. Making your way through the crowds in the medina while clutching your purse to your body and trying not to get hit by a motorcycle while escaping the clutches of the merchants is as real as it gets.

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh
A busy square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, in Marrakesh

There is no shortage of places to see in Marrakesh. The medina has the 19th-century Bahia Palace, the 16th-century El Badi Palace ruins, and the serene 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrassa, a former Islamic school.

Outside the medina, you can visit Jardin Majorelle, a captivatingly colorful botanical garden restored by Yves Saint-Laurent and his one-time love, Pierre Berge. There is also the fun and funky Anima Garden, which features artist Andre Heller’s works among the plants.

Learn more about Marrakesh in our post “Marrakesh: Colorful, Crowded, and Just A Little Crazy.”

Eight months after our visit, Marrakesh and surrounding areas were devastated by an earthquake that claimed almost 3,000 lives. I believe these tragedies touch us more when we’ve visited a place, interacted with the residents, and experienced the culture.

We only spent four nights in Marrakesh, opting for more time in the capital of Rabat after reading about how hectic Marrakesh is. I would gladly trade our time in Rabat for more time in Marrakesh.

2. Sharing Athens With Our Daughters (April)

For two weeks in April, we shared the sights of Athens and the Island of Aegina with Steph and Laura. Steve and I had spent a month in Athens in the fall of 2022, so we were prepared to share the highlights with them.

Of course, we saw the Acropolis and the modern Acropolis Museum. We also wandered the grounds of the Ancient Agora, toured the Panathenaic Stadium, and strolled the streets looking for souvenirs.

Decorated penises for sale on the street
Prettily painted penises, a tribute to Dionysus, the god of fertility, are everywhere in Athens

We also had fish pedicures, went out for fancy drinks, and checked out the Alice in Wonderland-themed décor at Little Kook.

Four people having a fish pedicure
Laura, me, Steph, and Steve enjoying a fish pedicure (well, I’m not so sure about Steph)

This was the second time Steph and Laura joined us in our travels, the first time being in Budapest. Both trips were resounding successes and inspired me to write “9 Reasons Why Traveling with Adult Children Rocks.”

3. Walking the City Walls in Dubrovnik (April)

After Steph and Laura headed home from Athens, Steve and I headed to Croatia, where we worked our way up the Adriatic Coast. We spent time in Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, and Pula. Even though we aren’t Game of Thrones fans, Dubrovnik was fun to explore.

One of the most popular things to do in Dubrovnik is to walk the city walls. The walls are 1.2 miles or 2 km long, and you can easily spend a few hours savoring the views. Entrance to Dubrovnik’s City Walls isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth it.

Ft. Lovrijenac, as seen from the City Walls in Dubrovnik
One of the many outstanding views from the Dubrovnik City Walls

There are many other things to see in Old Town, including the Franciscan Church and Monastery (don’t miss the wide variety of carvings on the courtyard pillars), the Dominican Monastery, the Rector’s Palace (a large Gothic building), and the Dulcic Masle Pulitika Gallery.

The War Photo Limited museum in Old Town displays powerful photos of wars and conflicts around the world. The subject matter is difficult, and the images are unsuitable for children, but I found it worthwhile.

Fort Lovrijenac stands just outside of Old Town. If forts are your thing, it’s worth a short visit.

4. Strolling Pula, Croatia’s Adriatic Coast (June)

The main tourist attraction in Pula is the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, also called the Pula Arena. It is one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in the world and is a must-see in Pula.

The Pula Aquarium is worthwhile, too. Over 200 species of sea life are housed in a 130-year-old fortress. As a bonus, the hallways are full of naval memorabilia.

If you stop by the 14th-century St. Francis Monastery and Church, you can get a little surprise. Dozens, if not hundreds, of tortoises live in the courtyard.

Another cool place is the House of Istria Olive Oil Museum. The exhibits were interesting, and our entrance fee included an olive oil tasting.

However, my favorite memory of Pula was spending several hours strolling the coastline. The water was as clear and blue as any Caribbean Island can offer.

Two photos from Pula, Croatia: the Adriatic Sea coast, a cuttlefish in the Pula Aquarium
The Pula coast (can you believe that blue?) and a cuttlefish at the Pula Aquarium

5. Revisiting Plitvice Lakes National Park (May & June)

Four photos from Plitvice Lakes National Park
There is no end to the beauty at Plitvice Lakes National Park

We’ve seen so many beautiful places that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is definitely on the list.

Plitvice Lakes is a series of sixteen terraced lakes. Well-kept boardwalks lead you around the lakes and waterfalls. There are three hotels and two campsites in the park.

The park is a two-hour-long bus ride from Zadar. It is also a two-hour-long ride from the capital of Zagreb. You can find tours to the park from either of these cities, but I recommend visiting for at least two days on your own as the park is easy to explore, and the hotels are decent.

We were at the park twice this year. The first time was from Zadar. It rained the entire time we were there, so we returned a month later from Pula. The weather was perfect that time.

Since Plitvice Lakes is six hours away from Pula by bus, we stopped in two Croatian towns along the way, Opatija (more on that below) and Rijeka, to break up the ride.

6. Relaxing in Opatija, Croatia (June)

We weren’t impressed with Rijeka but fell in love with the resort town of Opatija. The town lies on the Kvarner Gulf on the Istrian Peninsula.

Opatija has grand 19th-century villas and charming gardens and is walkable. The best part is the 12 km or 7-mile-long seaside promenade, the Lungomare, which passes through Opatija as it goes from the towns of Volosko to the north and Lovran to the south. It is a pleasure to walk.

A majestic building in Opatija, Croatia
One of the many majestic buildings in Opatija

Learn more about all there is to do in this peaceful town in “Why You’ll Fall in Love with Opatija, Croatia.”

7. Venturing to Venice (June)

The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs

Venice lies west of Pula across the Adriatic Sea, and we took the opportunity to spend a few days there.

I was a bit skeptical about Venice. I knew it would be crowded as we were going during high season. It is also notoriously expensive, and I had heard that some visitors were disappointed in it. I wondered if Steve and I would be.

We were not disappointed. Seeing the places I have often read about was a dream come true. We had a tour of Doge’s Palace, which included a walk through the Bridge of Sighs. St. Mark’s Basilica was more magnificent than expected, and I enjoyed having the city almost to myself during an early morning photo shoot.

We only stayed for three nights, but it was long enough to see the highlights and get lost in the streets a few times. And if you don’t get lost, have you even been to Venice?

Steve and I agreed that despite the crowds, we had a great visit and would like to return for a longer time in the shoulder season.

8. Returning to Bucharest (July)

After Venice, we headed to Bucharest, Romania, because we had to leave the Schengen Area for 90 days. We had been to Bucharest in 2018 and had good memories of that trip. That time, we stayed far from the city center, which we could reach via the metro but cut into our sightseeing time.

This time, we stayed in the city center so we could walk to most of the tourist attractions and many stores. Even though it was hot, we managed to see quite a bit.

If you love books and beauty (and who doesn’t?), you can’t go wrong with a visit to Carturesti Carusel. This is one of several Carturesti stores, and it is a vision in white.

Inside the Carturesti Carusel bookstore
The glorious Carturesti Carusel

We came across another store in this chain: Carturesti Verona. The vibe is entirely different but no less charming.

We spent time at well-known tourist attractions like the Palace of Parliament (the heaviest building in the world), the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the National Museum of Art.

The Palace of Parliament, the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the grand staircase at the National Museum of Art
The Palace of Parliament, the Stavropoleos Monastery, and the grand staircase at the National Museum of Art

The National Museum of Art is in the former Royal Palace. It has two art galleries. One features Romanian art, and the other features European art. In between the two is the Throne Hall, where you can get a glimpse of the elegance of the palace. I fell in love with the yellow marble used in the halls and stairway of the Throne Hall.

We also made several trips to Therme Bucuresti, a wellness center that combines thermal and mineral pools, saunas, waterslides, and a botanical garden in a gorgeous environment. Check out our post, “Therme Bucuresti: The Most Beautiful and Relaxing Place in Bucharest,” to learn about this must-visit place.

Not far from Therme is an excellent auto museum called the Tiriac Collection, where you can see over 200 vehicles from 1899 to the present. The collection is owned by Romanian businessman and former athlete Ion Tiriac.

9. Finally Seeing Sinaia (July)

After Bucharest, we checked out the Romanian town of Sinaia. It is in the Bucegi Mountains and is just 86 miles or 140 km north of Bucharest. It is most famous for being the home of Peles Castle.

Peles Castle
Peles Castle

Steve and I had seen a little of the town in 2018 when we took a bus tour to Peles Castle, and we wanted to see more. There is enough to keep you busy for several days, and the cooler mountain climate was a welcome relief after the heat in Bucharest.

Beside Peles Castle, we toured two smaller castles, Pelisor Castle and Stirby Castle. The town center is worth exploring, too, as is the Sinaia Monastery. Learn more about Sinaia in this post.

10. Soaking Up the Kitsch in Skopje (August)

We spent most of August in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. It is one of the most unique places we’ve been.

Due to the Skopje 2014 Project, many buildings have a neoclassic façade, and there are over one hundred statues in the city. Some statues are of historical figures, while others are more lighthearted.

Steve and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence.

The Archaeological Museum and the Bridge of Civilization in Skopje
The Archaeological Museum and the Bridge of Civilization in Skopje

We chose Skopje because it was an inexpensive place outside of the Schengen Area. We weren’t sure what to expect but relished its kitschy vibe.

Learn more about Skopje in “What is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review” and “What You Need to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

11. Discovering Rome (November)

Our 2023 plans included a Transatlantic cruise from Rome to New York City so we could spend Christmas in Jacksonville, Florida, with our daughters. The ship left from Civitavecchia, a town close to Rome, so we spent the week before the cruise in the Eternal City.

Our week was full of activity. We had fantastic tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Colonna Palace, a private palace full of incredible art. We were awed by the chapels in the Capuchin Crypt, where the bones of Capuchin friars have been arranged to make patterns on the walls and ceiling. Skeletons and mummified remains, clothed in the Capuchin habit, are placed throughout.

Steve in front of the Colosseum
Steve in front of the Colosseum

12. Cruising Across the Atlantic (December)

Fifteen days of relaxation featuring fabulous food and world-class entertainment? Sign me up. In 2018, Steve and I started our full-time travel journey by sailing from Florida to Barcelona on the Norwegian Epic. We loved it. This time, we returned to the U.S. on the Norwegian Gem.

During port stops, we got to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa (once is enough), get acquainted with Marseille sufficiently to know we won’t go back, and tour Casa Batllo in Barcelona (the one place we missed when we were there in 2018).

3 photos from a Transatlantic cruise: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Norwegian Gem, contestants in a shipboard game
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, our ship, Steve (black shirt, tan pants) participating in a game

For me, the best part of cruising is not the ports; it’s the shipboard life. From the food to the daytime activities to the evening entertainment, it is relaxing but never boring.

13. Hitting the Highlights in Manhattan (December)

Our ship docked in Manhattan a few days before Christmas. Steve and I spent four nights there before heading to Florida.

We loved our time in New York. It was clean, and we felt safe. Even though it’s a busy city, we had more elbow room than in many European cities since Americans value their personal space.

Despite the winter chill, we packed a lot into our short stay. First on the list was the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Frankly, I was not impressed with the design of the two fountains but loved that the names of all those who lost their lives that day are displayed. I thought the museum’s displays were well done.

The 9/11 Memorial
One of the 9/11 memorials on a winter day

We took a long walk through Central Park (again, very clean and safe) and saw the Blue Man Group. We also braved the crowds and shared a $26 brisket sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen. And, of course, we had to check out the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.

I was disappointed with the tree and the city’s decorations. They didn’t come close to what we saw during our two Christmases in Budapest.

On our last day in the city, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We only spent a few hours there, but both loved what we saw. We agreed we must go back and visit over several days to experience all this epic museum has to offer.

Until Next Time

I hope you enjoyed reading about our top thirteen travel experiences for 2023. Hopefully, you got some inspiration for your future travels. As always, Steve and I love hearing from our readers, so feel free to drop a comment in the comment section below.

Happy traveling,
Linda

The featured photo is of a small harbor in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: November 2023

Hi there! Can you believe 2023 is almost over? I hope you are enjoying this festive time of year and looking forward to memorable holiday celebrations. Steve and I are anticipating Christmas with our daughters in Jacksonville, Florida.

November was a most unusual month for us. We spent the first three weeks in Kotor, Montenegro, and the last week in Rome. Our time in Kotor was pretty laid back, in large part due to the weather. However, our week in Rome kicked our butts as we were determined to see as much of the city as possible in one week.

Here are the highlights, one low point, and details of what we did in November.

Highlights

Exploring Rome

Hands down, seeing the famous sights of Rome was the best part of our month. We had several tours, which helped us understand more about the city. My knowledge of Roman history was pretty weak before we arrived.

Our best tour included an hour and a half at the Colosseum. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being used for entertainment purposes (i.e., blood sports), at one time, it was used for housing and that the games took place over many days, meaning daily life in Rome was put on hold. At mid-day, executions would take place, right about the time the spectators were eating lunch. And when a gladiator fell, the emperor had the final say on whether or not he was killed.

The Kotor Kitties

Kotor gives Istanbul a run for its money with its love of cats. Old Town is teeming with free-range cats. Every cat we saw was healthy-looking, and most were friendly. There is a fountain in Old Town that is a gathering place for many of the cats. Nearby, there is a row of several tiny cat houses. A local woman has been feeding the cats for thirty years.

You can help keep the Kotor Kitties healthy and prevent overpopulation by donating to the Kotor Kitties charity.

Photos of four cats
Four of the beautiful Kotor Kitties

Our Own Kotor Kitty

Not long after we arrived at our Airbnb, we had a visitor: a small, sweet black and white cat. We gave her lots of love and she came to see us several times a day. I wish we could have brought her inside, especially in the bad weather, but we didn’t since it wasn’t our apartment.

A black and white cat looking in a window
Our kitty friend

My Favorite Old Town

Kotor’s Old Town is my favorite old town so far. I liked it even better than Dubrovnik’s. Kotor’s Old Town has narrow, winding streets compared to Dubrovnik’s wider ones. In Kotor, it felt as if I’d stepped back in time. An added plus is that the streets are too narrow for motor vehicles. I also found Kotor’s Old Town less commercial than Dubrovnik’s, although it was no less crowded on days when cruise ships were in port.

Old Town Kotor street
A street in Old Town on a Sunday morning

Low Point

Bad Weather in Kotor

The weather in Kotor flip-flopped throughout our stay. Half the time, we had sunny, cool weather that was perfect for hiking. The other half was filled with heavy rain and high winds. The odd thing was that the good and bad days alternated throughout our stay.

We put our downtime to good use, working on our plans for the next four months.

Steve continued work on his genealogy project, and I worked hard to finish my website redesign, only to get a fatal error the day I hoped to go live.

What We Did in Rome

Fought the Crowds at the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain with crowds

We stopped by this famed fountain, and each of us tossed in a coin to ensure we would return to Rome.

If you visit Rome, don’t miss this beauty. But beware, it is always crowded.

Toured the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica

The Vatican Museums were at the top of my list of things to see in Rome, and I was not disappointed. We opted for a tour that included the museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

I was surprised by the size of the Sistine Chapel. It is much smaller than I expected, and photos were not allowed. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, made up for that. Both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s are places we hope to see again.

Michelangelo’s Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica

Soaked in the Beauty of the Colonna Palace

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I scheduled a visit to the Colonna Palace since it isn’t one of the most well-known attractions. It is an understatement to say Steve and I were blown away. This private palace, built by the Colonna family in the 14th century, is full of amazing artwork and architecture. The Colonna family still inhabits the palace today.

Two photos of the Colonna Palace
Inside the Colonna Palace and in the garden

Explored the Capuchin Crypt and Museum

This place wins the prize for the most unusual thing we saw in Rome. The Roman Catholic church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini was just a two-minute walk from our hotel. The museum and crypt are connected to the church.

We went there specifically to see the crypt, but the ticket included the museum, and you have to go through it to get to the crypt. The museum was interesting, even for the non-religious, but the highlight was the crypt.

When you enter the crypt, your mind can go two ways: either horror movie mode or THIS IS SO COOL mode. We chose the latter.

The bones of 3,600 Capuchin friars have been arranged to make patterns on the walls and ceiling. Skeletons and mummified remains, clothed in the Capuchin habit, are placed throughout. There are five chapels, and each has a name, including the Crypt of the Pelvises.

Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome
Inside the Capuchin Crypt, Rome (photo by Wellcome Images on commons.wikimedia.org license CC BY 4.0 DEED

The Capuchins are an order of Franciscan friars who strive to live like St. Francis of Assisi. Capuchin friars dedicate their lives to prayer and service to the poor.

Photos aren’t allowed in the museum or the crypt, but here is one from Wellcome Images:

Visited the Catacombs of St. Callixtus

After visiting the Capuchin Crypt, we toured the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This was the official burial place for about half a million Roman Christians in the 3rd century A.D.

You can only enter the catacombs with a guide, and photos aren’t allowed. Our tour was only 45 minutes long, during which we walked through a small portion of the 12.4 miles or 20 km of the tunnels. We saw a few frescos and many niches where bodies had been buried. After the novelty of the Capuchin Crypts, these catacombs were a disappointment.

What We Did in Kotor

Hiked to Ft. Vrmac

We had a break in the rain and took the opportunity to zig-zag our way up the 2,575-foot or 785-meter-high Vrmac Mountain.

It took us two and a half hours to reach the top and two hours to go back down. Of course, we made frequent stops to appreciate the view of Kotor Bay and take photos.

A man hiking along a cliff
Steve hiking the Vrmac Mountain

This hike is easy to moderate. I was a bit uneasy on the trail because much of it is along the edge, and it is rocky. I spent far too much time wondering how badly we’d be injured if we fell over the edge.

We safely reached the top and saw the underwhelming Ft. Vrmac, many pot-bellied pigs, and one friendly white cat.

That night, it was early to bed, but only after downing a few painkillers.

Checked Out the Maritime Museum

Steve and I decided to see the Maritime Museum while waiting for better weather. It is big enough to have a comprehensive variety of artifacts, yet not so large as to be overwhelming.

The museum is in a Baroque palace that was once the home of the noble Grgurina family.

As the name implies, the museum’s primary focus is on ships and maritime life. There are many well-done model ships, along with maps, paintings, and photos of a bygone era. There is also a room displaying weapons from the 17th and 18th centuries. Two rooms have been recreated with period furniture, and there are countless examples of items used in daily life (primarily from the 18th and early 19th centuries).

Four boys in costumes
Four of the young boys chosen as Little Admirals of the Boka Navy Kotor in the 1930s

Most of the specimens had English translations but they did not include all the details that the Montenegrin descriptions did (hint: you can use the Serbian translation on Google Translate to translate Montenegrin).

An audio guide is available, but neither Steve nor I found it helpful as it focused heavily on personalities we never heard of. We were allowed to take photos. The entry fee of 6 euro was reasonable.

This museum is okay if you’re looking for a short activity, but don’t feel bad if you miss it.

Visited St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

This Romanesque cathedral was consecrated in 1166. It was severely damaged by two earthquakes, one in 1667 and one in 1979. It has since been restored.

We went there to see the Sacral Art Museum, but I was more intrigued by the interior architecture.

Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor
Inside St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor

Saw a Bit of Tivat

We had a break in the rain, so we decided to see the nearby town of Tivat. It was easy to reach Tivat via a fifteen-minute bus ride. Tivat does not have an old town because the town is too young, having been founded in the 14th century. Kotor, with its remarkable old town, was founded in the 5th century BC!

Tivat may not have an old town, but it does have a town center. Tivat’s center is a twenty-minute walk from the bus station. Walking along the main road to the center, we commented on how unattractive the town was.

Once we reached the center, we decided to head to the bay and look for a restaurant for lunch. We quickly found one and had a quick pizza lunch. At this point, we weren’t impressed with Tivat. Then, we strolled along the waterfront and discovered the area of Porto Montenegro. This upscale area has a large marina, shops, restaurants, and lovely buildings.

We walked around, admiring the modern beauty we had been missing, and agreed that this area deserves another visit.

A man in front of the Porto Montenegro sign
Steve enjoying the elegance of Porto Montenegro

Hiked the City Walls to Kotor Fortress

We were apprehensive about this hike because we had it confused with the Ladder of Kotor hike. We skipped the Ladder of Kotor hike after we learned our limits during our hike in Theth, Albania, in October (which I wrote about in our October update).

On the City Walls hike, you climb up 1,350 steps to reach the Medieval Kotor Fortress (also known as St. John’s Fortress, San Giovanni Fortress, St. John’s Castle, and Castel St. John). The fortress sits 850 feet or 260 meters above sea level and has great views of Old Town and the Bay of Kotor.

Hiking Kotor’s City Walls
A view of the bay from Kotor’s City Walls and Steve and me at the Kotor Fortress

Once at the fortress, you are free to explore the ruins.

We were charged 15 euro per person to hike the City Walls.

Here is helpful information about climbing the city walls from Wanderful Journeys Travel.

If you are more adventurous, check out the details for the Ladder of Kotor hike from Earth Trekkers.

A Bad Airbnb Review (Boo Hoo)

In our last two monthly updates, I talked about the issues we had with our Podgorica Airbnb and how we decided that we would no longer clean or fix things that hosts missed. Our host in Podgorica didn’t like being held accountable and left a negative review. This is only our second less-than-glowing review out of 46 reviews.

Airbnb allows you to reply to a review, but they don’t make it easy. You need to log in on a desktop computer. Really? In this day and age? Get it together, Airbnb.

Fortunately, our Kotor Airbnb was much better. The only issue was that we didn’t have use of the washer/dryer for the first week, but our host offered to pay for us to have our laundry done in the meantime.

Our Take on Kotor

Kotor Bay and the surrounding mountains are incredible. Unfortunately, except for the Porto Montenegro area of Tivat, everything else we saw was uninspiring. If the weather had been better, we would have seen other nearby towns and attractions.

Shopping was disappointing as well. There are three decent-size supermarkets a few minutes’ walk from Old Town, as well as others in the city. For anything else, like clothing, office supplies, or household items, the selection was the most limited we’ve seen in any town.

See more of Kotor in our Kotor, Montenegro Photo Gallery.

Our Take on Rome

After having been in the Balkans for the last several months, it was great to return to a world-class city. We are happiest in places with many attractions, which you don’t get in the Balkans, even in the capitals.

The downside of Rome was the cost. We’ve enjoyed low prices for so long that we had extreme sticker shock. It may seem normal to people in the U.S. and Western Europe, but we can’t get over restaurants charging $13 (12 euro) for a bowl of soup.

After a two-week cruise from Rome to New York City, we will spend four days in New York City. No doubt we will continue to be shocked by high prices.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our November update. Steve and I wish you joy, love, and peace this holiday season.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: October 2023

Hi there, and happy November. Steve and I spent most of October in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and then moved on to Kotor, Montenegro, at the end of the month. We had a low-key month in Podgorica, but Kotor should be busier since there is more to do.

Even though we weren’t as active in October as usual, that’s okay. We will be busy from late November through January. Here is our monthly update with the highlights, the low points, and a summary of what we did in October.

Highlights

A Side Trip Back to Albania

We took a side trip back to Albania, the country where we spent most of September. We spent three nights in Shkoder, where we discovered a factory that makes Venetian-style carnival masks, explored castle ruins, visited the Marubi National Museum of Photography, and saw a few churches.

Our side trip had its own side trip. From Shkoder, we went to the village of Theth in the Albanian Alps for two nights. We spent most of our full day there on a challenging mountain hike.

Then we returned to Shkoder for one last night, where we ate at two of our favorite restaurants, Bar Restaurant Elita and Fisi Restaurant, and relaxed at our hotel.

A hotel courtyard
The courtyard at Hotel Treva in Shkoder

A Great Neighborhood in Podgorica

Our Airbnb was in a new part of town full of apartment buildings, shops, and a mall just a five-minute walk away, but the best part was the nearby restaurants.

One of our favorites was Spago, which had terrific pulled pork sandwiches. We had fun with our waiter, who was quite taken with Hedgemeister.

We also loved Zheng He, a high-end Chinese restaurant. The best Chinese food we’ve ever had was in Quito, Ecuador. The food at Zheng He was a close second.

These websites are in Montenegrin, but the menus have English translations.

Chinese food
Delectable Chinese food at Zheng He

A Killer Steak Dinner

I’m a big fan of filet mignon, which isn’t easy to find as we travel. So, when I found a restaurant in Podgorica called The Living Room, and they had filet mignon on the menu, I was all over that. My filet was perfect, which is a miracle because they tend to overcook meat in Balkan countries (at least for our taste).

Steve ordered a T-bone steak, which was sold by weight. We were surprised when we got the bill and his steak cost 56 euro ($59). But he loved it, and it was one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time.

Ease of Filling Prescriptions

It seems that I have reached the age where filling prescriptions makes the highlights list, lol.

In last month’s update, I discussed the challenges of filling prescriptions in Albania. It was much easier in Montenegro. I was able to use the prescription from an Albanian doctor to buy my medication at an affordable price. The ease of keeping up with prescriptions while on the road ranges from incredibly simple to downright frustrating.

Low Points

More Airbnb Issues

In last month’s update, I also wrote about our issues with our Podgorica Airbnb, including unusable cooking supplies and a poor cleaning job. Our host addressed these. But the fun didn’t stop there. One of the sliding closet doors got progressively harder to move and needed to be adjusted. Then, the water in the building was turned off for a brief time. When it came back on, we had a leak under the bathroom sink. Each of these issues meant waiting for a repair person to arrive and fix it.

We realize things will go wrong, but this Airbnb had more than its share. It’s funny how many more problems we seem to have in newer buildings than in old ones.

What We Did

Toured the Venice Art Mask Factory in Shkoder

Who would have thought that some carnival masks you see in Venice shops are made in a little city in Albania?

We saw a wide variety of masks and learned how they are made. You can read about this interesting attraction in “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania.”

Explored the Rozafa Castle in Shkoder

Steve and I spent several hours at the Rozafa Castle ruins, where visitors can wander at will. The oldest parts of the limestone and brick castle date back to the 4th or 3rd century BC (according to Wikipedia).

The church ruins at Rozafa Castle
Ruins of a 13th-century church at Rozafa Castle

There is a heartbreaking legend about the castle that you can read about here.

Hiked the Albanian Alps

And what a hike it was. We got much more than we bargained for on this hours-long trek along steep, rocky trails and across rivers and a small waterfall.

A man hiking on a mountain
Steve on the trail

We vowed to be more careful about which trails we commit to, but we can’t deny how much we loved the scenery along the way.

A trail in the Albanian Alps
On the trail

Visited the Dajbabe Monastery

The Dajbabe Monastery is a 126-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Podgorica. Its church and several shrines are in a cave. The grounds are covered with dozens of olive trees.

The altar in the Dajbabe Monastery
The Dajbabe Monastery altar

The complex was beautiful and peaceful, but the best part was the cat who greeted us at the entrance and enjoyed all the attention we gave her.

Two photos of a black and white cat
The monastery cat greeting me and holding still long enough for a photo

Strolled the Older Areas of Podgorica

We took several walks into the old parts of the city, including Old Town and Gorica Park. Neither of these wowed us. The highlights of Old Town consist of a clock tower and two traditional restaurants. Gorica Park is a large park whose claim to fame appears to be its adventure course.

We came across the charming Church of St. George near Gorica Park. You can see the ropes used to ring the bells hanging on the front of the church.

The Church of St. George
The Church of St. George

We enjoyed the area around the Old Ribnica River Bridge. The bridge was built in Roman times and reconstructed by the Ottomans in the 18th century.

The Ribnica River was dry when we were there, but that didn’t detract from the charm of the bridge or the small park surrounding it.

The Ribnica River Bridge
The Ribnica River Bridge

Marveled at the Orthodox Temple of Christ’s Resurrection

This is a must-see in Podgorica. We’ve seen a lot of churches, and this one still impressed us. The outside has many reliefs. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with colorful paintings.

Photos aren’t allowed inside the temple, and we believe in respecting that request. This time, we were bad, and both snuck a photo because it was so incredible.

Three photos of the Orthodox Temple of Christ's Resurrection
Clockwise from upper left: the front of the temple, Steve’s clandestine photo of the interior, and a relief of Noah’s Ark on the exterior of the temple

On the Website

We published two new posts in October: the aforementioned “A Venetian Surprise in Shkoder, Albania” and “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023.”

We also published two photo galleries: one for Skopje and one for Tirana. This is a new addition to the website. Please let me know what you think of the galleries.

Where to Next?

We will spend most of November in Kotor, Montenegro, and then head to Rome for eight nights at the end of the month.

In early December, we will board the Norwegian Gem and spend fifteen nights cruising from Rome to New York City.

Just before Christmas, we will have a short stay in New York City. Steve has been there many times, but I have only been there once. That was forty-four years ago on our honeymoon. I can’t wait to see the city decked out for Christmas. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see snow.

Then, we will travel to Jacksonville on December 23rd to celebrate Christmas with our daughters, Steph and Laura. We will be in Jacksonville through January 20th. As with every trip back to the U.S., we will spend time with family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies. This trip promises to be less hectic than previous ones since we took care of many things on our visit last March.

Do you have travel plans for the coming holidays? If so, Steve and I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our October update. Steve and I wish you an enjoyable autumn and, for those of you in the U.S., a Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: September 2023

Hi! I hope you had a great September. Ours was quiet, which is sometimes a good thing. And now, here we are in October, and it’s time for another monthly update.

Steve and I spent most of September in Tirana, Albania. Since we had just come from Skopje, North Macedonia, Albania’s neighbor to the east, we couldn’t help comparing these two capital cities.

The streets of Skopje were uncrowded; Tirana’s streets were full of people. The city center of Skopje is loaded with classical-style white buildings due to the Skopje 2014 project; Tirana is full of unique buildings. In Skopje, stores and many restaurants are closed on Sunday. When we arrived in Tirana, we were shocked that nothing was closed on Sunday. It made sense when we learned that Albania is 60% Muslim. By contrast, North Macedonia is 60% Christian.

Even though our time in Tirana was more laid back than usual, Steve and I got to know a little about this city and the country of Albania. Here are the highlights, the low points, and what we did in September.

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Inexpensive Restaurants

Steve loves to cook, but I would eat out every day if I could. Unfortunately, that isn’t in our budget. But we came close to doing that in Tirana. I can’t remember a place we’ve been where restaurants were so inexpensive. It is possible to get lunch or dinner with beverages for two people for under $20. While the cost of restaurant food was very low, the cost of drinks was similar to what we’ve seen in other Balkan cities.

We took advantage of that, enjoying traditional food as well as Mexican, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. We also ate seafood at Lissus Fish, where I had fish soup and marinated anchovies for the first time. I loved them both.

A sign in a Mexican restaurant in Tirana
A sign in the Serendipity Mexican Resaurant

Seeing the city grow

Albania is one of the poorest European countries, but Tirana is growing. The population of around half a million is increasing by 30,000 people per year, and tourism is rising.

You can read about Albania’s growth in this article by Emerging Europe.

There are already many modern buildings, and more are in progress. I loved the unique architectural styles.

Two modern buildings in Tirana
Two of my favorite buildings in Tirana

A Short Trip to the Coast

It didn’t take long for us to see the Tirana attractions we were interested in, and it was too hot to hike, so we decided to spend a few days at the coast.

We spent three nights in Durres, which is on the Adriatic Sea. The point of the trip was to do a little lazing by a pool and listen to the sea. And that is precisely what we did.

Our hotel, the Hotel Palace, made it easy to relax. I spent two days doing nothing but lying on a lounger and reading (well, maybe I snuck a few drinks and a meal in here and there). Breakfast was included, and there was an amazing variety of foods.

Four photos of the Palace Hotel in Durres
Scenes from our stay at the Palace Hotel

I wish I could sing the town’s praises as well, but frankly, Durres was the least pleasant beach town Steve and I have been to. There is a lot of poverty, and the beach wasn’t very inviting.

Bunkers and apartments in Durres, Albania
Three abandoned bunkers in Durres

Nice hotels are popping up, and there are some upscale shops and restaurants among the rundown buildings.

Dresses in store windows
Fancy dresses in shops on the main street

We stopped at Troy Motor and met Lona. She is super friendly and recommended two restaurants to us. If you are into motorcycles, particularly Harleys, and find yourself in Durres, stop in and say hello.

Low Points

The cost of groceries

We were perplexed by the high price of groceries and couldn’t understand how restaurant food can be so cheap and groceries can be so expensive. The prices may be in line with grocery costs in the U.S., but they were a shock to us after having spent the last several months in Croatia, Romania, and North Macedonia.

Closed Attractions

There aren’t a lot of tourist attractions in Tirana, and two of them on our sightseeing list have been permanently closed: the National Gallery of Art and the Mezuraj Museum, which at one time displayed art and archaeological specimens owned by the Mezuraj family.

Trying to Fill a Prescription

After our experience with buying medicine in Turkey, we were spoiled. All we had to do there was go to a pharmacy and tell them what we wanted. Well, Albania is just the opposite. There, you need a prescription for pretty much everything, and the doctors I saw would only write prescriptions for medicines related to their specialties.

I was running low on diabetes medication, so I found a private clinic. Their schedule and ours didn’t mesh, so I went to a private hospital. First, I had to pay $40 to see a doctor. Then, I spent the next half hour saying no to the battery of tests she wanted to run. She finally wrote the prescription and suggested I get a few simple tests. I got a quote for $43 for a blood test and a urinalysis. This was twice the cost than at the first clinic I went to, so I took my prescription and left.

The doctor said I might have trouble finding my medication and was referred to Farmacia Greke. I did find it there, but it was $100 for 28 pills! I decided to wait until we get to Montenegro, where I hope to have better luck.

After wasting several hours and $40, I learned that it is hard for tourists to fill prescriptions in Albania. Specific medicines may be unavailable or hard to find, they may not have the dosage you need, and they may be expensive. It’s best to make sure you have plenty of all of your medications when visiting Albania.

What We Did

Explored Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2

Two photos of the entrance to Bunk’Art 1
The Bunk’Art 1 entrance

When I first heard of Bunk’Art, I thought it was an art gallery in a bunker. It isn’t. Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are indeed bunkers, but they have been turned into museums about Albania’s communist era (1946-1991).

We visited both. They are full of artifacts that illustrate the horrors of that era. There is a lot of emphasis on the dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country under communism from 1946 until he died in 1985.

Hoxha had 750,000 bunkers built throughout Albania from the late 1960s until his death as he became increasingly fearful of foreign invasions after politically isolating Albania from most of the region.

You can learn more about the Albanian bunkers in this National Geographic article.

Visited the House of Leaves

The House of Leaves in Tirana
The House of Leaves with listening ears in front

The House of Leaves was built in 1931 as the first private obstetrics clinic in Albania. It was briefly used by the Gestapo in 1943. With the advent of communism, it became the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the country’s security, intelligence, and secret police.

The building is called the House of Leaves because of the vines growing on it.

The museum, also called the Museum of Secret Surveillance, focuses on the equipment and methods of the Sigurimi. I particularly liked the exhibit about the movies produced to further the communist agenda.

Checked Out the National Historical Museum 

The National Historical Museum in Tirana
The front of the museum

The National Historical Museum is the largest museum in Albania. It covers the country’s history from the 4th century BC to the mid-20th century.

The best part was the Pavilion of Antiquity, which covers the Prehistoric Period to the Early Middle Ages. I’m not usually excited by ancient artifacts, but they were well presented in this museum. I even saw a few unique items, including this tool to measure dry goods:

Ancient measuring device
An ancient measuring device

The Pavilion of Antiquity had detailed descriptions in both Albanian and English. Unfortunately, the rest of the museum lacked English descriptions, even though there were many interesting exhibits.

Both Bunk’Art museums and the House of Leaves showcase the evils of the communist period. The National Historical Museum of Tirana has the Hall of Communist Persecution as well. I was disappointed here and in Skopje that there aren’t any museum exhibits about the fall of Communism, which was more than 30 years ago.

Climbed the Pyramid

In 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death, a museum dedicated to his “legacy” was built in Tirana. It was in the shape of a pyramid.

After the fall of communism, the pyramid had a few other uses. It was a nightclub, an event space, and a NATO base during the Kosovo War (1998-1999). After this, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

One morning, I decided to see it. I was expecting a wreck covered in graffiti since that was the last photo I had seen of it. I was delighted to find a gleaming white structure with dozens of brightly colored cubes being built around it. These buildings will be used as cafes, restaurants, and classrooms for after-school education.

Here is more information on the pyramid project.

Three photos of the Tirana Pyramid
The pyramid and one of the new buildings

Saw a Movie (With Popcorn!)

I discovered a movie theater showing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. With some sleuthing, I learned that the movies are shown in English with Albanian subtitles. So Steve and I took advantage of the opportunity to see it.

There were only about ten people in the theater for the matinee. Tickets weren’t exactly a bargain at $7 each, and popcorn and drinks were another $14, but still cheaper than U.S. prices.

It was fun to spend a few hours in the theater, but the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the first one.

Perused the New Bazaar

Although we are seldom in the market for souvenirs or trinkets, we had to check out the New Bazaar. This is a neighborhood in Tirana’s Old Town that, as the name suggests, is a market center. There are over 300 businesses in the New Bazaar, but the centerpiece is the eye-catching steel and glass structure built in 2017.

Carpets at the New Bazaar in Tirana
Colorful carpets for sale

No More Mr. Nice Guy and Gal

Steve and I headed to our next city, Podgorica, Montenegro, at the end of the month. As soon as we arrived, we were impressed with the city, or at least the part we were staying in. It is a modern area full of apartments, restaurants, and shops. Our Airbnb was in a new building.

When we first entered the Airbnb, it looked good. It was modern and appeared to be clean. We were surprised to see a mini fridge instead of a full-size one. That oversight was on us. Looking back, we saw that there weren’t any photos of the refrigerator in the listing. Except for one past stay, we’ve always had a full-size fridge. Now we have something else to add to our Airbnb checklist.

We asked our host if we could get a second mini-fridge since we booked for four weeks. She told us that small refrigerators are standard in one-bedroom apartments in Montenegro, and they wouldn’t provide another. I checked other Airbnb one-bedroom listings in Montenegro, and they all had full-size fridges. Interestingly, the dishwasher was large.

As I discussed in “The Truth About Staying In Airbnbs,” apartments generally look great on the surface. However, with a few exceptions, something has been overlooked or ignored. The main culprits, but not the only ones, are dirty cooking supplies, full vacuum cleaners, and dirty air conditioner and bathroom exhaust filters.

Up until now, we have taken care of these issues, not wanting to bother the host for minor things. That stops now. In this apartment, we found two pans that were unusable. The coating on the non-stick pan was flaking off. The spatula was coated with dried-on food. The bathroom vent was dirty and the filter was missing. We also found nine places that weren’t clean, including the balcony, which hadn’t even been swept. We let our host know. They replaced the kitchen items and sent a cleaner to take care of the rest.

Steve and I decided that from this point on, we are not going to fix these issues. We will ask the host to take care of them. I’ll let you know how that goes.

On the Website

There were two new posts in September: “Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023” and “What Is Skopje Really Like? An Honest Review.”

To see more of Tirana, check out our Tirana photo gallery.

I’ve been able to tweak this website a bit to get closer to the design I want. Changing themes is proving to be time consuming and challenging, but I am not giving up.

Where to Next

At the end of the month, Steve and I headed to Montenegro for eight weeks, where we are hoping for cooler weather so we can do some hiking. We will split our time between the capital of Podgorica and the city of Kotor. Then, it’s off to Rome for a short trip before we get on a ship and cruise back to the U.S.

We will dock in New York City on December 19th and spend four nights there before going to Jacksonville for a month. I have only been to New York City once, and that was 44 years ago. I can’t wait to see the city at Christmastime and visit the 9/11 Memorial.

Until Next Time

That’s it for our travels in September. It looks like things will be picking up in the next several months. One thing is for sure; we intend to enjoy the fall weather.

Drop a comment in the section below and let Steve and I know what you did in September and what you have planned for the rest of 2023.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: August 2023

Hi there! Can you believe it’s September already? The summer has been flying by for us, but we’re having fun. I hope you are, too.

Steve and I started August with two nights in Brasov, Romania, and spent the remainder in Skopje, North Macedonia.

Check out this monthly update to see our August highlights and low points, what we did, and where we are going. 

All money is in U.S. dollars.

Highlights

Staying at Hotel Belvedere, Brasov

We made a short trip to Brasov to revisit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) before leaving Romania. That part of the trip didn’t go as planned, as you’ll read below. However, our hotel in Brasov turned out to be a real gem.

We had a large, comfortable room, but the restaurant was the best part. We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and went looking for a late lunch. We were told there wasn’t any food service until 4:00 p.m., and there weren’t any stores or other restaurants nearby. I made do with a granola bar, and Steve sacrificed our last Milka chocolate bar. 

You better believe we were at the restaurant at 4:00. Once we opened the menu, we were hooked. Every option looked so good we could have spent two weeks there and never ordered the same thing twice. 

The food was so delicious and beautifully presented that we ate there on our second night, too. 

Filet mignon with vegetables
Delicious and picture-perfect food at the Hotel Belvedere

Discovering How Much We Like Skopje

Because we knew little about Skopje or the country of North Macedonia, we weren’t sure what to expect. The city is getting on travelers’ radar but still has a way to go before it is well known.

We were blown away. We had a modern, spacious apartment near the city center. It was just a 20-minute walk to the main square. If we walked in the other direction for 20 minutes, there was a large mall with a huge grocery store. There were frequent buses along this street. There was also a small market just a few minutes away.

View of Skopje buildings and mountains
Our morning view

Two things about the city surprised us. The first was the prevalence of English. Almost everyone speaks English. And they speak it well. Signs often have Macedonian, Albanian, and English on them. Information in museums and menus also include English.

The second thing was the lack of crowds. Our apartment overlooked an intersection of two main streets, but there was less traffic and, therefore, less noise than in other cities. It was great to walk on uncrowded sidewalks.

We liked many things about Skopje, but that’s for another post.

Seeing Some Great Museums

We visited several museums and were impressed with their quality, especially the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Independence. You can read more about these museums and other places we visited here.

For a comprehensive list of things to do in and near Skopje, see “21 Things to Do in Skopje, North Macedonia” by Wander-Lush.

The Macedonian Memorial for Holocaust Victims
A memorial statue outside of the Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Museum was the best museum we visited in Skopje. There was so much information that even after two hours, we hadn’t seen it all.

A video about Hitler’s rise to power gave me chills, as I can see how easily a society can head down the road to the unimaginable. Yes, I’m talking to you, U.S.A. 

Even though I’ve been to many holocaust museums, I still learned new things. The video showed bonfires where tens of thousands of books written by Jews were burned. It is alarmingly similar to the banning that is going on in parts of the U.S. where books by Black and LGBTQ authors or about Black and LGBTQ issues have been banned.

The other thing I learned was after the liberation of the concentration camps, General Eisenhower invited members of Congress and the press to tour the liberated camps. He did this because he knew words could never express the horrors found there, and so there would be proof, as he feared there would be deniers.

Making a Kitty Friend

There was a pet store on the ground floor of our building, and they had the most adorable kittens. One was orange, and two were grey. After a few days, the grey ones were adopted, but the orange one remained. 

We liked this gentle, affectionate cat so much that we visited him every day. He was still at the pet store when we left Skopje. We hope he gets a loving home soon. 

Two photos of an orange kitten
Our little buddy

Getting Our Second Housesitting Gig

This past spring, we joined Trusted Housesitters, hoping to get some house sits in places that are expensive to visit, like the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The idea is that you stay in someone’s home for free while they are away. The offerings almost always involve watching pets. 

Not long after we joined, we got our first gig! We weren’t looking for sits in the U.S., but we came across one in the Town of Tonawanda, New York, where I grew up. Steve grew up in the adjacent village of Kenmore. We will be watching one cat named Niki for 17 nights in February and will be able to visit family in the Western New York Area.

Recently, we arranged a second sit. We will spend 16 nights in Bury St. Edmunds, England, in March while caring for and no doubt falling in love with two dogs, Mollie and Angus. We plan to be low-key during this stay but take advantage of being in England to spend time in Cambridge and London before and after the housesit.

Learning to Ask Airbnb Hosts for What We Want

We are happiest when we have a kitchen with what we call the kitchen trifecta: an oven, a microwave, and a dishwasher. You’d be surprised how many Airbnb listings only have two of these three items.

When we were looking for apartments in Albania and Montenegro, dishwashers were prevalent, but microwaves were virtually non-existent. In two that we booked, we asked the hosts before booking if they would be willing to add a microwave, and both said yes. Because we asked, we even got a good discount on our Jacksonville Airbnb.

When you are staying somewhere for four weeks, the hosts are pretty agreeable to any reasonable request.

Low Points

Getting Rained Out in Bran

The whole point of going to Brasov was to take a day trip to the nearby town of Bran to visit Bran Castle. We had been there on a tour in 2018 but hoped to see more of the castle and the town. 

Bran Castle courtyard
The courtyard in Bran Castle

A receptionist at our hotel said we could get a bus to Bran near the train station, but when we got there, several people told us we had to go to bus station #2. But no one could tell us how to get there. 

I saw people lining up to get on a bus, and I asked if they were going to Bran. The driver said no, but he could take us to the other bus station, and he did so without charging us.

After waiting 50 minutes for our bus and an hour-long drive, we finally got to Bran.

Once at the castle, we wound through it along with what seemed like every other tourist in Romania. Once we were through with the inside, we headed out to explore the grounds and the town, only to be met with a downpour even though no rain was predicted. We waited it out at a café, where I had the least delicious cake I’ve ever eaten.

Our first visit, in 2018, wasn’t the best either. The castle part was alright, but the bus trip from Bucharest and back was longer than expected because of heavy traffic. When we arrived back in Bucharest, it was after 11:00 p.m., and the metro wasn’t running. I remember frantically trying to find a taxi at an intersection of three roads. It took a while, but we finally got one.

If we ever decide to revisit Bran Castle, which seems cursed for us, we will stay in the town of Bran, which, from what little we’ve seen, looks quite charming.

Dealing With SIM Card Issues

On our first day in Skopje, we headed to Telekom (T-Mobile) to get local SIM cards. Even though T-Mobile doesn’t have the best reputation in the U.S., it usually works well overseas. 

We got our SIM cards installed but were unable to log into the app to purchase the package we wanted. It took four days and several phone calls before the company could make that happen. Then, we discovered that the package worked in other Balkan countries but not in North Macedonia.

We switched to Lycamobile and paid a lot less for hassle-free SIM cards.

Dealing With the Heat

The temperature was in the mid-90s almost every day, and the sun was intense. We tried to do outdoor things early in the day or the evening, but because of the heat, there were a few things we didn’t do. One was hiking up Mt. Vodno, and the other was a day trip to Matka Canyon. Perhaps we will do these on a future trip to North Macedonia.

We had spent July in Bucharest, and it was hot there too. Note to self: Next summer, go someplace cool or on the water.

Other Things We Did

Wandered Skopje’s City Center

Steve and I spent many hours taking in the beauty of the city center. Its highlight is the 92-foot or 28-meter tall statue, Warrior on a Horse. It is in Macedonia Square and depicts Alexander the Great on his favorite horse.

Warrior on a Horse statue in Skopje
The Warrior on a Horse statue dominates Macedonia Square

This is only one of the many monuments and statues the city erected as part of its Skopje 2014 project. The project also included constructing many buildings and replacing the facades of others to make the city more attractive to tourists and foster national pride.

Four statues in Skopje
Four statues in Skopje

Gambled

Neither Steve nor I are gamblers. We like to see something for our money. The last time we went to a casino was in 2018 in Bulgaria. We played slots there and had what they termed a “massive win.” It was all of $18.

There are a lot of casinos and slot halls in Skopje, so I figured, “When in Rome.” We spent a few hours at the Flamingo Casino playing the slots. We didn’t win anything, but it only cost us $25, so it was a good way to spend some time when it was too hot to be outside.

Planned a Lot

It’s no secret that travel planning is time-consuming and not much fun, but we bit the bullet and made some serious headway on our plans for the next six months (as you can read about below).

On the Website

After two months of working on a new website design, I decided to put it on hold, get a few posts written, and then try designing a new website using a different theme (the basis of a website).

Instead of considering it a failure, I see it as being several steps closer to creating our new site, since much of what I designed can be used with another theme.

Besides the July 2023 update, I published two new posts, “The Truth About Staying in Airbnbs” and “79 Things to Know When Visiting Skopje, North Macedonia.”

If Skopje interests you, check out our Skopje photo gallery.

Where to next? 

We have our travels pretty much planned through mid-March. This is such a change from how we usually travel, which is to plan one or two months ahead. This time, since we booked a Transatlantic cruise leaving Rome on December 4th, we thought it prudent to plan our stays up to and after the cruise.

Our ship is scheduled to dock in New York City on December 19th, so of course, we had to take advantage of that and spend a few days in the city. Then, we will head to Jacksonville, Florida, to spend Christmas with our daughters and stay for most of January to visit family and friends, see doctors, and stock up on supplies.

Here’s our itinerary so far:

Tirana, AlbaniaAug. 31 – Sept. 28
Podgorica, MontenegroSept. 28 – Oct. 26
Kotor, MontenegroOct. 26 – Nov. 24
Rome, ItalyNov. 24- Dec. 4
CruiseDec. 4 – Dec. 19
New York CityDec. 19 – Dec. 23
Jacksonville, FloridaDec. 23 – Jan. 20
OPENJan. 20 – Feb. 9
Tonawanda, New YorkFeb. 9 – Feb. 27
OPENFeb. 27 – Mar. 5
Bury St. Edmunds, EnglandMar. 5 – Mar. 21

Until Next Time

That’s it for our monthly update for August. As always, Steve and I would love to hear about your travels and thoughts about this post.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind and Whim’s Monthly Update: July 2023

Hi there! It’s time for another monthly update. I hope you are surviving the summer heat. Steve and I spent most of July in Bucharest, Romania, where it was hot but, thankfully, not too humid. Even so, we didn’t do as much as planned since we were lazy about getting out before the days got too hot.

We enjoyed four visits to Therme Bucuresti, though. It was a great way to cool off and get some pampering. More on that below.

During the last five days of the month, we were in Sinaia, Romania, a two-hour train ride north of Bucharest. Here are the highlights and low points of the month.

Highlights

Therme Bucuresti

This was our second visit to Bucharest. The first was in 2018. That is when we discovered Therme Bucuresti. This wellness center gorgeously combines thermal and mineral pools, saunas, waterslides, and a botanical garden. Check out our post about this must-visit place.

A large indoor swimming pool
Therme was just as stunning and hedonistic as we remembered

Each visit was over four hours long. Steve spent his time relaxing and dozing in the outdoor pool and the mineral pools, or the chemical baths, as he calls them. I spent my time whizzing down the waterslides, stretching in the water exercise classes, enjoying a heavenly massage, and of course, relaxing in the thermal water.

Don’t miss Therme when visiting Romania, and if you find yourself near Munich, check out Therme Erding.

The lucky folks in Manchester, England, will get to experience Therme close to home in 2025. Judging by the website, it promises to be as good, if not better, than Therme Bucuresti.

The Tiriac Collection

Four photos of expensive cars
Look at these beauties

Steve and I love discovering hidden gems. This usually occurs by chance, and finding the Tiriac Collection was no exception. We were on our way home from Therme when Steve spotted it. After a quick check on Google, we knew we had to visit. I am surprised that this isn’t on more peoples’ radar. I’ve never seen it on a “things to do in Bucharest” list, although it isn’t actually in Bucharest, it is in the adjacent town of Otopeni. It is an eight-minute drive from Therme.

The Tiriac Collection showcases over 200 cars owned by Romanian businessman Ion Tiriac. He is a former professional tennis and hockey player. The collection has vehicles from 1899 to the present. It spans manufacturers and includes a few motorcycles.

Dinner with New Friends

One Sunday, Steve took an Uber to a flea market and struck up a conversation with Felix, the driver. We then had a lovely dinner with Felix and his partner, Ionela. Both work in real estate and are warm and fun-loving. We ate at Hanu’ lui Manuc, a traditional Romanian restaurant in the oldest operating hotel in the city. We had some tasty food and good company and enjoyed traditional music and dancing.

Seeing the Sights

Palace of Parliament

Budapest’s Palace of Parliament
The massive and stately Palace of Parliament

At 9 billion pounds or 4.1 billion kilograms, the white marble Palace of Parliament is the heaviest building in the world. It was started under the direction of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was inspired by a visit to North Korea in 1971. Construction began in 1984 and finished in 1997.

Because of its weight, the building sinks 6 mm or ¼ inch each year.

The chief architect was a woman named Anca Petrescu, who was only 29 years old at the start of the project.

Ceausescu never saw the finished building as he and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day 1989. You can learn more about the rise and fall of Ceausescu here.

Cotroceni National Museum

This museum is part of the Cotroceni Palace, home to the Romanian President. The palace was built in the 1890s and was occupied by the royal family. After WWII, it was renamed Pioneer Palace and was the home of the Pioneers organization, which indoctrinated children into the communist ideology.

A 1977 earthquake severely damaged the palace. It has been rebuilt, staying true to the original style. Each room we saw was unique, and all were exquisite.

Entrance hall in the Cotroceni Palace
The entrance hall in the palace

In 1978, Ceausescu visited Queen Elizabeth in London. This was the first time a communist head of state had visited the U.K. When he returned to Bucharest, he had two rooms refurbished in an elegant French style with the hopes that Queen Elizabeth would visit Bucharest. She didn’t.

Here is a fun article from The Independent about how Queen Elizabeth hid in some bushes to avoid speaking with Ceausescu and his wife.

The National Museum of Art of Romania

This art museum is in a former royal palace and displays Romanian and European art in two large halls. Frankly, the artwork was the least impressive we have seen in museums of this size.

There is also a section of the museum called the historic spaces. We were expecting artifacts in glass cases and were tempted to skip it. We are glad we didn’t. This area is part of the former palace with several majestic rooms and a spectacular staircase. I particularly loved the yellow marble used in the entrance hall and upper hall.

Two photos from inside the National Museum of Art of Romania
A staircase in the former royal palace and an exhibit of 16th-century icons

Two Beautiful Bookstores

Bucharest is the home of Carturesti Carusel, which is often found on lists of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Carturesti is a Romanian bookstore chain. While the Carusel store is their most elegant and popular, we stumbled across another impressive store, Carturesti Verona. As we were walking one evening, we noticed a run-down-looking, squatty building that we thought might be a library or a bookstore. We were entranced once we entered. Despite the small façade, the store is huge.

Carturesti Carusel and Carturesti Verona
Carturesti Carusel and Carturesti Verona

This former home was built in the mid-19th century. Each room has something to delight you, from the architecture to the furnishings to the products. In addition to tons of books, many in English, you can find music, art and travel supplies, games, wine, clothes, and household products. As Steve observed, you could do all your Christmas shopping in this store.

A Short Stop in Sinaia

Way back in 2018, Steve and I took a tour from Bucharest to the town of Bran, where Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) is located. Along the way, we drove through a town called Sinaia. It was so charming that I never forgot it. When we found ourselves back in Romania, visiting Sinaia was a must.

The main draw in Sinaia is Peles Castle. This mind-blowing beauty was built by Romania’s first king, King Carol I. It was completed in 1883, and its amenities were state of the art. It even had an electric retracting skylight.

The castle has so much detail it’s hard to know where to look first. You can take a guided tour, but we explored on our own. Peles Castle is a big draw in Romania, so it is always crowded.

The Great Hall in Peles Castle
The Great Hall in Peles Castle

Peles Castle isn’t the only cool place to explore in Sinaia. There is the smaller Pelisor Castle, built by King Ferdinand I, the nephew and heir of King Carol I (the king and his wife only had one child, a daughter who died when she was four). Pelisor Castle isn’t as impressive as Peles Castle, but it is only a three-minute walk between the two, so it’s worth a stop if you have the time.

Stirby Castle is a small building near the center of town. It was build in the mid-1800s as a summer home for the Romanian aristocracy and is now a museum and hotel. At first, it didn’t seem like there was much to see, but once we entered the lower level, there was an eclectic collection of Romanian history we found interesting.

Sinaia Monastery, which is over 300 years old and is still home to a few monks, and Dimitrie Ghica Park in the town center were also great places to explore.

For a change of pace, we took the Sinaia Gondola 6,700 feet or 2,000 meters up the Bucegi Mountains. The views were some of the best we’ve seen on gondola rides, and the cooler air, at 18°C or 59°F, was a nice change.

Toy hedgehog on a fencepost in the mountains
Hedgemeister enjoying the mountain views

Low Points

The Propped-Up Table

Airbnb allows us to travel comfortably and economically. We spend hours combing over the listings for our long-term stays, but no matter how careful we are, there is often some minor problem with our choice.

This time it was the kitchen table. Our apartment was large, but the kitchen was small. From the photos, we could see that there wasn’t much counter space, but there was a four-person glass-topped table in the kitchen that could be used for additional work space.

When Steve moved one of the chairs, the table started to fall because one of the legs was loose. Fortunately, it didn’t fall far, but we were afraid to use it. The owner replaced it, but it is maddening that it wasn’t replaced before we got to Bucharest. It’s possible he didn’t know about the broken leg, but we see this type of oversight too often.

The Heat

You would think living in Florida for 30 years would have acclimated us to the heat. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Like many places, Bucharest experienced above-normal temperatures in July. Many days the highs were above 32°C or 90°F, and on a few days it hit 38°C or 100°F. We had the best intentions to get out early, but many days we decided to stay in. Since we spent a month in Bucharest in 2018, we had already seen many of the highlights.

I told Steve I felt guilty about not doing more this time. He reminded me that we chose this location as part of our 90 days outside the Schengen Area (no offense to this fine city). We have stayed busy: Steve with his new interest, genealogy, and me with the website redesign.

Because it is in the mountains, the temperature in Sinaia was much lower than in Bucharest. Perhaps we should have spent more time there.

On the Website

Work on the new Wind and Whim website has kept me busy, so I only had one new post in July. It is a love letter to the small town of Opatija, Croatia.

Where to Next?

We will spend the first few days of August in Brasov, Romania. The main reason for this stop is to revisit Bran Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle. We visited it on a tour in 2018, but this time we will be on our own so we can explore more of the area.

For the rest of August, we will be in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. North Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia and gained independence in 1991.

The main attraction in Skopje is its statues. In 2010, the government started an initiative to make the city more attractive to tourists and boost the national identity. The project was named Skopje 2014. It included the construction or remodeling of dozens of buildings and the installation of over 100 statues.

The results have not been embraced by all. The city has been compared to Las Vegas, referred to as the capital of kitsch, and nicknamed Disneyland Balkans by Ashley on Global Dreaming. I look forward to seeing the buildings and finding as many statues as possible.

But Skopje has more to offer. There is the Old Bazaar, dating back to the 12th century, hiking on Mt. Vodno and the Matka Canyon, and side trips to Kosovo. Skopje is also the birthplace of Mother Teresa.

You may wonder what led us to choose North Macedonia and Albania. The answer is simple: the Schengen Area rules. As I’ve discussed in several other posts, the Schengen Area, which consists of 27 European countries, allows unrestricted movement between the member countries. Sounds great, right?

It’s not so great for long-term travelers and digital nomads, though. As U.S. citizens, we can only spend 90 out of every 180 days in the Schengen Area. This restriction has led us to visit places we may not have otherwise chosen, like Morocco, Bulgaria, and Romania. It even led us to Croatia, a country we adore, in 2018. As of 2023, Croatia is in the Schengen Area, and Romania and Bulgaria will become part of it in 2024.

Until Next Time

Steve and I hope you enjoyed catching up with our travels. Please use the comment section below to tell us about your summer adventures.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Wind & Whim’s Monthly Update: June 2023

Hi there. I hope your summer is off to a great start. Ours sure is.

After laying low in May, we had a busy June. We spent most of it based in Pula, Croatia. While there, we took a six-night side trip to three other Croatian locations. After Pula, we spent a few days in Venice, then headed off the Bucharest for five weeks.

June was full of captivating sights and a few minor mistakes. Read this monthly update to learn about our adventures in Croatia and Venice and why Linda needs a refresher course in reading.

The Pula Amphitheater
The Pula Amphitheater

Highlights

Four Weeks in Pula, Croatia

This city was our fourth and last one on our way up Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. Its most famous sight is its Roman amphitheater. It is over 2,000 years old and reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, although the Pula Amphitheater (also called the Pula Arena) is considerably smaller. Today the amphitheater is used for concerts and film festivals.

We enjoyed exploring Pula, including:

Visiting the Pula Aquarium – the aquarium is in a 130-year-old fortress and has over 200 species of sea life. But perhaps most interesting is that the hallways are loaded with naval memorabilia. So this is two museums in one.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find anything online about the naval displays. Perhaps they are new or temporary.

Strolling the coastline – the Adriatic Coast of Croatia has incredible scenery. So it was no surprise that our stroll along the coast led from one picture-perfect moment to another.

Delighting at tortoises living at a monastery – we’ve seen a lot of monasteries but decided to give the St. Francis Monastery in Pula a try. I’m glad we did because it was our first time seeing tortoises at a monastery. There were hundreds, and we weren’t the only adults enthralled by them. Seriously, one man was petting a tortoise’s shell.

Hunting for Austro-Hungarian fortresses – there are several long-abandoned fortresses in Pula. These small fortresses formed a ring around the city in the 1800s. Steve and I went looking for two of them. The first was covered in vegetation and couldn’t be entered. But the second one was wide open, and we were able to explore it on our own.

Four photos of Pula, Croatia
Clockwise from top left: A cuttlefish at the aquarium, a beach on the Pula coast, Steve discovering Ft. San Giorgio is open, Headgemeister meeting a tortoise at the monastery

Learning about olive oil at the House of Istria Olive Oil Museum – I know, an olive oil museum wasn’t high on our bucket list either. But we enjoyed learning about the history and manufacture of olive oil. The entrance fee included an olive oil tasting, which was fun, even if I did choke the first time I drank some. Apparently, some people drink a small amount of olive oil daily. Who knew?

Perusing the markets – I am not a fan of markets, but Steve loves them. He visited a few, including a large weekend flea market, where he found two antique psychology books for our daughter Laura’s counseling office.

A Three-Stop Side Trip

In mid-May, Steve and I were in Zadar, Croatia. Since we were only a two-hour bus ride away from Plitvice Lakes National Park, we took a three-night trip there. It was our second visit to the park, the first one being a day tour in 2018. Unfortunately, this time it rained almost the entire time we were there. The heavy rains closed a large part of the park, and we only hiked for two hours.

We love this park so much that we were determined to try again. The only problem was that we were now in Pula, a more than six-hour bus ride away. And the only bus heading to Plitvice Lakes left Pula at the unholy hour of 5:15 a.m. So we decided to break up the trip by making a few stops along the way.

First Stop: Opatija

The first was two nights in Opatija. The town is on the Kvarner Bay, in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea. It was a popular summer resort in the 19th century and is chock full of the lovely Habsburg-era villas of that era.

Two photos of Opatija, Croatia
The Hotel Miramar and a small harbor on Kvarner Bay in Opatija

The best thing to do in Opatija is enjoy the scenery. It is easy to do thanks to the abundance of seaside hotels and the Lungomare. The Lungomare is a 12 km or 7-mile-long seaside promenade along the bay.

Steve and I spent hours walking the Lungomare. We never tired of the beautiful rock formations along the coast, and we have hundreds of photos to prove it. We also relaxed on our hotel room balcony, which overlooked the bay.

Second Stop: Rijeka

The next stop was the city of Rijeka, just a 20-minute drive from Opatija but a world apart. Our primary reason for visiting Rijeka was to view the Habsburg-era buildings. We saw many, and they were architecturally beautiful, but they were all quite dirty.

We walked around, ate a few good meals, and visited Trsat Castle. The best part of the trip was when we stopped for breakfast on our second morning. As we usually do, we had Hedgemeister join us. When our waiter came by, he was delighted to see a hedgehog. He explained that one of the most popular children’s books in Croatia is about a hedgehog who loves his home. It’s called Hedgehog’s Home or Jezeva Kucica in Croatian. Here is a cute video of the story.

Third Stop: Plitvice Lakes National Park

They say the third time is a charm, and it was. This time we kept an eye on the weather before we headed there, and it was much better than on our last visit, although we did have one downpour.

The park includes sixteen terraced lakes that create over ninety waterfalls. It is laid out well, and the trails are well-marked and well-tended. This time we got to see almost all of it.

Four photos of Plitvice Lakes National Park
Four scenes from Plitvice Lakes National Park

We drove from Rijeka to Plitvice Lakes because the bus trip was too long. This is only the second time we have driven overseas. The drive there was fine, but the drive back was stressful because it was raining the whole time, and a good part of it was spent driving on winding mountain roads through low-hanging clouds.

A Quick Trip to Venice

Venice was hot, crowded, expensive, and wonderful. We had a great tour of the Doge’s Palace, marveled at the beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica, and viewed the city from the top of the basilica’s bell tower.

We also checked out two nearby islands, Murano, known for its top-quality glass, and Burano, known for its brightly painted buildings.

And, of course, we got lost in the maze of streets, a rite of passage when visiting Venice. Google Maps did not work well on the city’s narrow streets.

Three photos of Venice
Scenes from Venice: a cat marionette, a gondola bringing people to a restaurant, a sea creature made of Murano glass

Our Venice trip was short because we were close to the 90-day Schengen Area limit. We had originally planned to spend three nights in Venice but adjusted our plans, as you can read about below.

After our first day, we both felt that this short visit would be enough. But after our second day, we agreed that we would like to spend a week here during a less busy time.

Our Second Time in Bucharest

From Venice, we headed to Bucharest. We were there in the summer of 2018 and liked it. In addition to incredible architecture and history, they have Therme. You can read our take on this amazing wellness spa/water park here.

Low Points

A Rookie Mistake

Midway through the month, we were finalizing our plans for our three-night visit to Venice. We realized that the airport we were flying out of when leaving Venice was an hour and a half away from where we were staying.

Since our flight was at 7:50 a.m., that was bad enough. But the trip would involve walking, taking a ferry, walking again, taking a train, walking yet again, and then riding a bus. All while dragging everything we travel with.

Apparently, when we booked the flight, we were so happy to find a direct one that we failed to check the logistics of getting to the airport. Even after five years of travel, we are still making rookie mistakes.

So instead of spending three nights in Venice, we only spent two. Then we spent the third night in Trieste, so we only had a ten-minute ride to the airport.

Hotel Mozart

In Opatija, we stayed at Hotel Mozart, a charming pink building built in 1894. As pleasant as the hotel was, we quickly encountered a few problems. First, we noticed that there wasn’t a refrigerator in our room, as there was supposed to be. Steve called reception, and we soon had a petite young woman knocking on our door while carrying a small refrigerator.

After shaking our heads that no one had noticed this was missing, we quickly unpacked, turned on the air conditioner to get the room cool for our return, and headed out to explore.

When we returned, the room wasn’t any cooler than when we left. Steve returned to reception only to be told the air conditioner wasn’t working. I was ready to go to another hotel right then, but Steve asked for a discount, and we decided to spend at least the first night.

We had a hot night, and by mid-morning the next day, we still hadn’t heard anything about a discount. I finally went to reception an hour before check out to see what they were willing to offer. I was shocked when the receptionist told me they would give us our second night free.

Those who know me know I love a bargain, so I was willing to put up with another hot night for that sweet deal. We bought an inexpensive fan and lucked out because the second night was cooler than the first, so we slept well. As we were checking out, the air conditioning came back on.

Despite the problems at Hotel Mozart, the staff was superb, the view was great, and the breakfast buffet was delicious. I would consider giving them another try if we visit Opatija again.

You Know What They Say About Assuming

I have a bad habit of not reading things carefully. I did it with train tickets from Paris to London, which cost us US$200 to change the tickets. I also did it at the Sofia, Bulgaria airport, where I led us to the wrong terminal. Since their two terminals aren’t within walking distance from each other, we had to take a taxi to the correct one. And I did this not once, but twice, two years apart!

This time, I failed to read the details about our tour of Doge’s Palace. I assumed we would meet our tour group in front of the palace. When we arrived, I asked a man at the entrance where the tour groups met. He said (in a very unpleasant and unhelpful way) that there weren’t any tours and asked to see our tickets. Before we knew it, he had checked us into the palace and informed us (again in his unpleasant way) that if we left, we would not be allowed back in.

Then I read the instructions, which directed us to the tour operator’s office. We headed there and explained the issue. From their reaction, this wasn’t the first time they had a problem with the palace staff.

Our guide solved the problem by going through a different entrance with a nicer staff member, but the man at the entrance certainly left a negative impression.

Detail from inside the Doge’s Palace
Detail in the Doge’s Palace

One of these days, I will learn to read more carefully.

On the Website This Month

In between our explorations, I’ve been busy updating this website. Soon it will have a more modern look with more functionality. Because this has taken a lot of time, I didn’t have any new posts in June. The last one, from late May, looks at the problems of overtourism and possible solutions

In late June, Time Out Travel published this article about France’s plan to find ways to reduce the number of tourists at its most popular spots.

Where to Next?

Steve and I will spend most of July in Bucharest, then head north a few hours to Sinaia and Brasov. These two Romanian towns are near several castles, including the medieval Bran Castle (also known as Dracula’s Castle) and Cantacuzino Castle (Nevermore Academy in the Wednesday TV series).

Then we will go to Skopje, North Macedonia, for a month, and Tirana, Albania, for another month. After all this, we can reenter the Schengen Area. Perhaps we’ll go back to Italy.

Until Next Time

Do you have any summer travel plans? If so, drop a comment below and tell us about them. Maybe we’ll find ourselves in the same place.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Memorable Moments From a Year of Full-Time Travel (2022)

Happy New Year! Is it just me, or did 2022 go by faster than a Parisian pickpocket can grab your wallet?

I hope last year has left you with wonderful memories and new friends. Steve and I have been fortunate on both fronts.

Sometimes when we are having a low-key day or two (or seven), I feel guilty that we aren’t doing enough or seeing enough. Then I look over our photos and decide we’re doing okay.

These are the memorable moments from our 5th year of full-time travel.

Budapest

The year got off to a slow start. We were still living in Budapest long-term because of the pandemic. In the early months of the year, we only took side trips in Hungary because we didn’t want to deal with Covid restrictions in other countries.

We filled our days with exploring Budapest. The city is full of beautiful sights and cool things to do. It will always have a special place in my heart.

We also went to many comedy shows and made new friends at the Stay Sane Social Club’s quiz nights while we waited for Covid to complete its retreat and spring to make its appearance.

Our Final Visit to Aquaworld

During our two-plus years in Budapest, we enjoyed five visits to Aquaworld Budapest. We love this thermal bath, spa, and waterpark complex. A visit there means lazy days lounging in warm spring water, swirling around in the lazy river, and stuffing yourself silly.

It turns out that thermal baths are one of our favorite things, and Budapest is full of them. I wish every city were.

Read our impressions of Aquaworld here.

Chilly Days in Szeged

In March, we took a five-night trip to Szeged, Hungary’s third-largest city. One of the draws was the thermal baths at Sunshine Aquapolis Szeged, which are connected to the Hunguest Hotel Forrás, which is where we stayed.

The second draw was the Art Nouveau buildings. The city had a devastating flood in 1879 that wiped out most of its buildings. The rebuilding continued into the early part of the 20th century when the Art Nouveau style was popular.

It was colder than expected while we were there, which hampered our sightseeing, but we did tour the New Synagogue and the Votive Church, both of which are splendid. We also enjoyed art in the Reok Palace, an Art Nouveau building decorated with irises.

Interior of the New Synagogue in Szeged
The interior of the New Synagogue

Read more about visiting Szeged in “The Best Things to do in Szeged, Hungary.”

A Rainy Trip to Vienna

Several people suggested we visit Vienna since it is only two and a half hours by train from Budapest. In April, we finally did.

This was during the evacuation of Ukraine. Both the train terminal and the train were teeming with refugees. It was sobering to see people carrying everything they had, and it was tough to see the children.

We had combined our Vienna trip with a visit to Salzburg. However, it was so cold and rainy in Austria that we postponed the Salzburg leg. Because of the weather, we limited our sightseeing to museums, of which there are plenty. And they are phenomenal.

Staircase in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Inside of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (fine art)

We saw art, history, and the Lipizzan Stallions at the Spanish Riding School. We visited a multi-story aquarium and had to leave a crypt tour in St. Stephen’s Cathedral because we didn’t have enough euro to pay. The tour guide was not amused.

Lipizzan stallion looking out of his stall
A beautiful Lipizzan

I wasn’t excited about going to Vienna, as I wrongly assumed it would be like Budapest but larger. There are similarities because of the shared history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But as much as I love Budapest, I found Vienna grander, the museums a cut above, and the buildings in better condition.

When we arrived home, we had a message from the hotel where we stayed. They accused us of stealing a high-end makeup mirror worth $115. There were supposed to be two of these curved mirrors in the bathroom. Our bathroom only had one, and we didn’t give it a thought. Luckily, a forceful email put an end to that.

A Visit to Visegrad

In April, we visited Visegrad, Hungary, for the second time and finally had some good weather.

Visegrad is a small town only forty minutes from Budapest by train. Its main attraction is the Citadel, a 13th Century castle set on a hill overlooking the Danube. You can also tour the 14th-century Royal Palace, which has twenty rooms open to the public and a good-sized garden.

Since we love cemeteries, we enjoyed the Visegrad Cemetery. It is the best-kept cemetery I have seen.

We also enjoyed some fun on the summer bobsled and alpine coaster at Bobsled Visegrad.

We stayed at Hotel Visegrad. Despite some problems with our toilet, it was good. Our stay included half-board and dinner one night at the Renaissance Restaurant. The hotel also has decent pool and spa facilities.

People enjoying a Renaissance dinner
Steve and I enjoying the food at the Renaissance Restaurant

May Visit to Prague

Since we were still in Budapest in May, we took the opportunity to visit Prague for ten nights. We split our stay between two hotels: one in District 1 and the other in District 3, and learned that staying in District 1 is the way to go. It is where most of the sights are and is very walkable.

We hit all the top tourist sights, including the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and Vysehrad Castle. However, one of the most memorable things we did was visit the KGB Museum. Our guide, a Soviet native, was the only employee, and we were the only customers. He delighted in telling gruesome stories, complete with thrashing and horror-film sound effects. He seemed to enjoy this a bit too much.

Another favorite was the Troja Chateau. This 17th-century chateau’s walls and ceilings are covered with ornate frescos. The grounds are pretty impressive, too.

A man sitting in front of the Troja Chateau
Steve and Hedgemeister in the Troja Chateau garden

Read “12 of the Most Interesting Things to Do in Prague” for more information.

Four Cities in Austria and Slovenia

Vienna

Since we had wet and cold weather on our April trip to Vienna, we decided to give it another try in June. We combined this with stops in Salzburg, Lake Bled, and Ljubljana.

Fortunately, the weather was much better this time, so we saw Vienna beyond the museums. It is beautiful and easy to get around. It has been named the most livable city in several polls and is one of my favorite cities.

We spent a day at the 270-year-old Schonbrunn Zoo, the oldest zoo in the world that is still in operation. We also enjoyed the grounds of the Belvedere Palace with their beautiful statues and joined in the revelry of the Pride parade.

The Rollercoaster Restaurant in the Prater amusement park was a lot of fun, too. Your food is delivered on a rollercoaster (surprise, surprise), and a light show plays periodically.

Inside the Rollercoaster Restaurant in Vienna
The Rollercoaster Restaurant – colorful and fun

Salzburg

Salzburg was as charming as you would expect. The highlight was a visit to the Schloss Hellbrunn. The 400-year-old Baroque villa is lovely, but the real attraction is on the grounds. They are full of water features and trick fountains that surprise guests as they wander through the gardens.

We also checked out the Mirabell Palace grounds. I wanted to see the Dwarf Garden. This garden contains seventeen marble statues of dwarfs in various poses. The statues are over 300 years old and were recently restored.

Two dwarf statues
Two of the little charmers in the Dwarf Garden

The rest of our short visit was spent wandering the picturesque streets and trying to pronounce the Austrian names.

Bled

You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of Lake Bled with the Assumption of Mary church standing on an island. It is as magical as the photos suggest.

From the minute we arrived in Bled, we were captivated. And we had a lot of time to be captivated because we caught the wrong bus and spent 45 minutes dragging our luggage around the lake to our hotel.

Besides enjoying the lake, there is some good hiking in the area. Unfortunately, our hiking plans fell through because of my upset tummy, but that just gives us a reason to return.

Ljubljana

The last stop on this trip was the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. Of the four places we visited on this trip, this was my least favorite. The city center is pretty, and the dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana, which I think is pretty cool, but it didn’t seem like there were many things to do there. Perhaps we didn’t look hard enough.

Ljubljana had the most unusual public art I have ever seen. I just don’t get it.

Four photos of statues in Ljubljana
A dragon on the Dragon Bridge and three examples of Ljubljana public art

One of the things I like best about traveling is learning about unusual places. In Ljubljana, Metelkova fit the bill. Metelkova is an autonomous culture zone populated by squatters since 1993. It is sometimes compared to Christiania in Copenhagen.

It isn’t very big, and we were a bit uneasy because we didn’t know what to expect, but no one bothered us. Metelkova is based on the principles of equality and acceptance. Because of this, it has been targeted by hate groups, including neo-nazis.

Read more about Metelkova in this article by Adventurous Miriam.

And for the really adventurous, how about an overnight stay at Hotel Celica? It is a former military prison in Metelkova that is now an art-filled hostel. 

Walking the Dales Way in England

In July, we finally got to do the eight-day Dales Way walk we had initially planned for 2020. We walked the 81 miles and then some since we got lost frequently and had to retrace our steps.

When we weren’t busy dodging cattle and their leavings, we marveled at the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.

We highly recommend this adventure. You do not have to be athletic, although there is some climbing over stiles and navigating rocky inclines. Read more about walking the Dales Way here.

We spent several days before and after the walk in Manchester, a city full of the friendliest people we’ve ever met.

A Month and a Half on the Turkish Riviera

This was our first time in Turkey. Before then, the only places I knew of in Turkey were Istanbul and Cappadocia. Discovering all the beach towns along the western and southern coasts of the country was a happy surprise.

In six weeks, we visited six coastal towns. Each one had a different vibe, but all were relaxing and beautiful.

We enjoyed the super touristy town of Marmaris, admired the amazing scenery in Dalyan, and had fantastic food in Fethiye, including pizza with filet mignon and hollandaise sauce.

We also mistook a nighttime party boat cruise for a romantic moonlight cruise and spent three hours willing the pounding music to stop.

We only saw six of the many, many towns on the Turkish Riviera. No matter which you choose, you can’t go wrong.

Learn more about the places we visited on the Turkish Riviera here.

Bucket List Destination: Cappadocia

Since we were in Turkey, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Cappadocia. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of photos of the dramatic rock formations and the sunrise hot air balloon rides.

Cappadocia is as intriguing as the photos suggest, and our balloon ride was incredible. I was surprised and pleased when Steve said he would do it since he avoids all thrill rides. As he will tell you, there was nothing scary about it.

Three people sitting in front of a hot air balloon basket
Steve, our pilot, and me after our balloon ride

Be sure to check out our post “18 Things to Know Before Visiting Cappadocia.” Instagram does not tell the whole story.

Four Weeks in Istanbul

Istanbul was our final stop in Turkey. The city is full of contrasts: beautiful buildings among slums, kind people who turn into maniacs on the road, and an efficient metro system but undependable bus service.

Visits to fascinating places like the Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, and the Dolmabahce Palace contrasted sharply with walking through rundown neighborhoods. Even our modern Airbnb rental looked out over a litter-filled dump.

The highlight, if you can call it that, was a fire in the building where we were staying. Fortunately, it was limited to the exterior, so no one was hurt or lost belongings.

You can read all the details about our Istanbul stop in “Visiting Istanbul: The Good, The Bad, and The Startling

Off to Thessaloniki, Greece

Greece was a welcome change from Turkey. The first city we visited was Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece.

Life was so much easier there. It is much less crowded than Istanbul, and English is more common, which we don’t expect, but do appreciate.

There aren’t loads of things to do in Thessaloniki. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki was very well done, with excellent English translations. The War Museum was also worthwhile. Strolling the seaside promenade and spotting random ruins throughout the city were also enjoyable.

The highlight of our time in Thessaloniki was a side trip to Meteora. This area rivals Cappadocia for stunning rock formations, which can be almost 600 meters or 2,000 feet high. Some of these rocks have centuries-old monasteries on top. You can tour the monasteries, and they are beautiful.

Then to Athens

After Thessaloniki, we headed to Athens. We stayed in the Plaka neighborhood, which is the best option for tourists as it is close to most of the sights. We walked by the Acropolis daily.

There was plenty to keep us busy. In addition to touring several ruins, we spent time in the Panathenaic Stadium, the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. The stadium was originally built in the 2nd century and was excavated and renovated in the late 1800s. It is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to get the audio guide; it adds a lot to the experience.

Another cool sight is the Psyri neighborhood. It is full of antique shops and restaurants, including the over-the-top Little Kook.

Toy store exterior decorated for Christmas
Little Kook decked out for Christmas

Our First Time in Africa

The last city of 2022 was Tangier, Morocco. It is the first stop on a two-and-a-half-month stay in Morocco before we return to the U.S. for a short visit.

After the chaos of Istanbul and the busyness of Athens, Tangier is a welcome break. There aren’t a lot of sights or museums, but the medina and the promenade along the Straight of Gibraltar are must-sees.

The medina in Tangier
The medina

Everything is easier here. Traffic is light and respectful of pedestrians. Shopping is convenient. The official languages are Arabic and Berber. French is also widespread, and Spanish and English are sometimes spoken.

What’s Planned for 2023?

It’s unusual for us to plan too far ahead, but we made an exception this time. We’ll be spending March in Jacksonville, Florida. While there, we can spend time with friends and family and attend a wedding in Key West.

Then it’s back to Athens for us, this time for two weeks with our daughters, Stephanie and Laura. We hope that Laura’s boyfriend Nick and his mom will join us.

After that? Time will tell.

Until Next Time

I hope you have enjoyed our walk down memory lane. Hopefully, some of them have tickled your travel bug. Steve and I would love to hear about your experiences in the places we visited.

We wish you health, happiness, and prosperity in 2023.

Happy traveling,
Linda

The featured image was taken on Lake Bled.

Our Top 10 Latin American Travel Experiences (2019)

When you are heading to a new location you think about the famous sights you plan to see. But often your best memories are of the little things that no trip planning could have anticipated.

From February through November of 2019 we traveled throughout Latin America. These are ten of our most memorable travel experiences from those ten months (in no particular order).

1. Riding Scooters in the Galapagos Islands
Woman riding an electric scooter

I may look like a nerd, but I just don’t care. This was the best day we had in the Galapagos.

We rented scooters in town and rode them into the countryside to visit the El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz Island.

Galapagos tortoise with grass in his mouth

We ran into this adorable guy at the reserve.

Galapagos tortoise crossing the street

This fellow couldn’t be contained. We saw him crossing the road on our way back to town.

Horse standing in the road

We also saw this free-range horse just walking down the road.

Read more about our four weeks in the Galápagos Islands in “Is a Land-Based Galapagos Trip Right For You?”

2. Spending Three Days in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We took the bus from the capital of San Jose to the Caribbean coast. When we arrived in Puerto Viejo our first thought was “where the heck are we?” This place looked kind of rough. The name translates into “old port”, so that should have been a clue.

Our Top 10 Latin American Travel Experiences (2019) 1

It didn’t take us long to see the charm. By the afternoon we were in love. The beach is just yards away from a wooded hiking area where you can see wild howler monkeys and sloths.

A beachside restaurant

Many restaurants line the beach and embody the phrase “pura vida” (pure life).

Sloth hanging upside down

We enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The name is misleading because they rescue and rehabilitate many species. We learned that many sloths are injured or killed when they chew through electric wires.

The sloth above, who lives at the center, was just hanging around in the open.

Puerto Viejo is the most laid back place I have ever been and I hope to visit it again someday.

3. Visiting Machu Picchu

This is the only tourist attraction to make my top ten. I am not a big fan of Pre-Colombian history, so I questioned whether it would be worth the hassle and cost to get there.

It definitely was. There is something magical about this place.

A view of Machu Picchu

It is not quick or easy to get to Machu Picchu. You have two choices, hike for about four days (definitely not for the couch potato) or make your way to the town of Cusco, Peru then take a train to Machu Picchu Town (or Aguas Calientes).

Linda resting after the Machu Picchu tour

If you chose to get there through Cusco you need to become acclimated to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness, which I was surprised to find out can be deadly. While Machu Picchu is only 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level, Cusco sits at 11,200 feet (3,400 m) above sea level.

The train ride to Machu Picchu Town from Cusco takes a little over three hours and passes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas where you will be dazzled by one breathtaking view after another.

4. Exploring in La Cumbrecita, Argentina

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” Martin Buber

How true this quote so often proves to be. While in Cordoba, Argentina we decided to take a side trip to a German-inspired hamlet called La Cumbrecita.

A foggy backyard

The day started out foggy but turned out to be sunny and temperate.

Wet dog on the shore of a creek

We spent some time playing fetch with this sweetheart in the Rio del Medio.

Steve standing on a rock in the river

We loved spending time climbing (carefully) on the rocks in the river.

photo of a pond

The reward for hiking down a rocky trail.

We saw people every now and then but were often alone on the trails. It was so peaceful and picturesque. It reminded me of how we would spend hours in parks or on nature trails when we were young. Time spent in nature can make you feel like you don’t have a care in the world.

Find out more about La Cumbrecita and Cordoba in “Visiting Cordoba, Argentina’s Second Largest City.”

5. Amaru Biopark

Imagine a hiking trail, a zoo, and a conservation organization in one. That is Amaru Biopark.

This park is built on a hillside and houses animals who have been rescued but cannot be returned to the wild. Because of its location, you will get quite a workout as you make your way through the park.

You will see so many beautiful animals, including African lions, which really made me scratch my head.

Female African lion

I would have loved to hear these animal’s stories, but I didn’t see any programs like that when we were there.

Squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkeys roam free in the park.

A blue-headed parrot

The aviary lets you get up close to many beautiful birds.

If you go, don’t make the same mistake we did. Our first visit was in the afternoon. We were slowly working our way around and thoroughly enjoying the animals when we looked at the map and realized that in several hours we hadn’t even reached the halfway point.

We backtracked so we could get out of the park before dark and returned earlier on another day so we could enjoy all it had to offer.

Overview of Cuenca

You can get some amazing views of the city from the entrance to the park.

You can learn more about this park and our visit in “The Amazing Amaru Biopark.” We highly recommend you explore it when you visit Cuenca.

6. Visiting District 13 in Medellin

District 13 (Comuna 13 in Spanish) is a poor neighborhood in the foothills of the Andes that less than 20 years ago was the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Many people associate the violence in Medellin with Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, but guerrilla and paramilitary groups were also causing problems.

In 2002 the government initiative called Operation Orion freed the district from the scourge.

While it is still poor, it is now a popular tourist stop due to an abundance of street art like this colorful lizard:

Colorful mural of a lizard

There are many small, tourist oriented businesses and young people form dance troupes to earn cash.

A dance troupe and tourists

A series of escalators carry people up the mountainside. At every step, you are greeted with smiles and warm hellos.

At first, Steve was a little apprehensive because of the area’s past reputation. He kept his camera in its case for a while. Then he slowly started taking pictures but would quickly put the camera away after each picture.

At one point I turned around to look for him and he was surrounded by several children and was sharing his pictures with some local children.

Steve and kids looking at his camera

Seeing the positive changes to this once forsaken neighborhood impacted me in a way that very few of our travel experiences have.

Be sure to check out our post “10 Things to Love About Medellin, Colombia.”

7. Sand Surfing in Huacachina

On our way to Machu Picchu we stopped at a tiny oasis town called Huacachina. It is basically a small lake surrounded by huge sand dunes.

There are two things to do in Huacachina; party and sand surf. Our party days are behind us, but we were excited to give sand surfing a try.

Sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru

The lower dune where some people walk up and surf down.

Dune buggies on sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru

Dune buggies take people to the higher dunes.

One method is to ride a board that is similar to a snowboard down the dune. We novices chose the easier method, which is to lay on your stomach on a board and fly down the dune head first.

But before you can do any of that you need to get to the top of the dune on a twelve-person dune buggy. It is guaranteed to be an exciting ride.

Both Steve and I figured it would be relatively safe to sand surf since we were on sand. Unfortunately, Steve found what might have been the only rock in the dunes and got a six-inch cut on his arm.

8. Visiting Santa Cruz Cemetery Manga

This memory is not a typical travel memory. We love to explore cemeteries for the history and art. Early in our travels, we went to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris and it was so compelling that it ruined us for other cemeteries.

That doesn’t mean we’ve stopped visiting them, but we haven’t found another one that comes close to Montmartre.

So we approached this visit as something to do. What a shock. This cemetery is in bad repair and you can see below:

Cemetery crypt with black tarp

As we continued exploring we were shocked to see open crypts with either cloth bags or exposed bones. Perhaps the saddest and most bizarre sight was a tomb with a skeleton lying on top.

Tomb with skeleton on top

Even with the disrepair, there was beauty to be found.

Flowers on a tombstone
Ant Stories

Many years ago I read about a family with young children who visited the Grand Canyon. The mother was a little dismayed when they returned home and all the kids could talk about were the ants they had seen in the hotel parking lot.

Thinking about this I realized that it is sometimes the little things, things that you can’t anticipate and could happen anywhere, that stay foremost in our minds after a trip.

I have started to refer to these as “ant stories” and here are two of my favorites from 2019:

9. Come In and See My Cat

One day Steve and I went to the neighborhood of Getsemani in Cartegena, Colombia. This neighborhood was once plagued with drugs, prostitution, and violence. It is now a safe, authentic neighborhood that attracts many tourists, often looking for street art.

Mural of two colombian women in traditional dress
Mural of a woman’s face

While I was taking these pictures a local man heard Steve admiring a cat outside his door, and invited him in to meet his cat (below).

Cat sitting on a chair
10. Maybe Later

In several touristy areas, we have been annoyed by people who stand in front of restaurants and try to get you to go inside. They are referred to as bringers.

Even when you say “no, gracias” or indicate that you just ate they won’t leave you alone.

It took a while but we finally discovered the magic words that make them happy and gives us some peace.

While walking through Machu Picchu Town we were being bothered as usual. When we said no to one bringer he said: “maybe later”.  We replied, “maybe later”. He broke into a huge smile.

We looked at each other with glee. We had found the magic words. We would never be driven crazy by bringers again!

That’s Not All Folks!

I hope you enjoyed this look back at our ten months in Latin America. These memories and many others have enriched our lives beyond our expectations.

While the memories are priceless, they did come at a cost. You can find out what we spent in “Wind and Whim’s 2019 Full-Time Travel Costs: Latin America.”

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image: llama at Machu Picchu