Posted on September 22nd, 2009 No comments
I particularly liked our stop at Szentendre on the way to Eger. It’s a charming little village with a museum of a little-known sculptor called Margrit Kovac. Her collection is stunningly unique and touchingly beautiful, unlike anything I’ve seen. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit and I can say so for the rest of the group as well.
-Berta Pires Tour HU2: Hungary & Romania (Eastern European Adventurer)
Before the territory became known as Hungary, as it did in 1000AD, a number of Germanic tribes including the Huns, as well as the nomadic Eurasian Avars, the Franks, the Bulgars and the Magyars, all entered into the region and made efforts to sustain a prolonged possession over the territory. After its creation, the country of Hungary suffered various incursions from the Tatars, the Turks, the Romans, the Russians and the Hapsburgs over a millennium, often incorporating elements of each foreign culture into its own. Today the culture not only reflects its long history of influence from outsiders, but also exhibits a diversity that mirrors its blend of Magyar, German, Croatian, Serbian and Romanian peoples that constitute its population. To explore the culture of Hungary is to explore not one, but an amalgamation of many cultures, which makes for a fascinating and highly educational tour.
Boasting over 2,000 hours of sunshine a year, Hungary is overshadowed by no other European territory when it comes to catering to the sun-worshipper and neither does it pale in significance when it comes to scenery. There is a bountiful landscape between the borders of Hungary, from the high peaks of the cave-riddled Bukk Hills region to the fertile lowlands of the Great Hungarian plain, where the indigenous horsemen- the Hungarian versions of cowboys-don their traditional dress and tend to their herds and perform for visitors.
By far, the most popular destination when touring the Central European country is the dynamic capital city of Budapest, and understandably so, but travellers who choose to venture beyond the city limits are rewarded in spades. The UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site of Holloko, or “Raven Rock,” is one destination not to be missed on a tour exploring the more rural face of the country and is considered by many to be Hungary’s most beautiful town.
Posted on June 25th, 2009 No comments
The Hapsburgs, once a major and long-ruling family in Europe, were based out of Austria and one of the most remarkable structures of the continent is the Hofburg castle, their former residence in Vienna. With its varied and intriguing architecture displaying a mixture of many different styles because the initial medieval castle was expanded upon time and again over the six centuries they retained power, the Hofburg is unequivocally a must-see attraction when touring the country. Also of important note are the Schonbrunn castle and the Belvedere castle, both of which can be found in Vienna. Indeed, Vienna itself seems more like a work of art than a city, as to saunter the streets is to experience a sensory delight and a tour not soon forgotten.
Posted on June 24th, 2009 No comments
Read about Czech Republic Trips
Few destinations can claim to have the variety and abundance of sightseeing attractions as the landlocked Czech Republic. A region inhabited since the Stone Age, its long and fascinating history is well recorded in the architecture of its cities, be it in: the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Old Town in Prague or Telc, the best preserved Renaissance town north of the Alps; the mediaeval town of Cesky Krumlov; or one of the literally thousands of fortresses, monasteries or chateaux sprinkled across the land. With styles and designs ranging from Gothic to Renaissance, from Classicist to Baroque and from Romanesque to Art Nouveau, the cities of the Czech Republic feature greater diversity in and superior preservation of architecture than most countries far larger in size and reputation.
If wandering the narrow streets and gazing at spellbinding architecture sounds like a lot of work, you can always head for some relaxation at one of the dozen or so spa towns that lie peppered between the borders of the Czech Republic. Each drawing from different springs and having its own methods of hydrotherapy, balneotherapy and relaxation techniques, the spa towns, such as Karlovy Vary or Marianske Lazne, are the ideal means to replenish yourself or simply make the most of your relaxing holiday.
Man-made attractions aside, the Czech Republic lays claim to a natural environment that is of equal note. The Czech Greenways, a corridor of 100-year-old hiking trails that stretches the 400km from Vienna to Prague, gives travellers the opportunity to take in the best of the country’s landscapes, as well as providing plenty of choice as to how energetic the journey should be. Looming mountains, shimmering lakes, fertile valleys and lush forests are but a few of the fantastic natural wonders in the Czech Republic, all of which lend themselves to a variety of more strenuous activities like skiing, climbing, mountain biking or watersports.
Eastern Europe is a travel destination with a huge array of fascinating historical monuments, a varied and highly memorable breadth of sceneries and a wide range of diverse and welcoming peoples, each with their own unique culture. Though the more affluent Western Europe is, for the most part, favoured over the East by the majority of travellers looking to Europe to provide a tour destination of distinction, the East can often be the more rewarding option. A region with a history as long and as intriguing as any other on the planet, Eastern Europe also caters to a range of holidaymaker. Magnificent cities like Prague and Budapest offer the luxury that discerning travellers crave, where more remote destinations sacrifice a degree of comfort for the opportunity for travellers to see the real faces of the countries and people.
Posted on June 4th, 2009 No comments
Only recently has Albania become accessible. In ages past, the territory that is now Albania was invaded, plundered and re-invaded countless times by a host of foreign powers. Among those who had a lasting influence on the country were the great Roman and Byzantine Empires, but Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars and Turks all ventured into the borders of Albania at various points in history, more often than not bringing with them destruction and persecution. Few other peoples have endured such perpetual torment over the years and the Albanians’ ability to keep their traditions and language alive throughout the onslaughts speaks volumes about their nature. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that in more recent history, authorities in Albania effectively shut the doors on the Western World and Albania became isolated until its communist regime collapsed in the 1990s. Only then were the Albania borders re-opened to the outside world. Albania today is a country under reconstruction, a nation in the throes of trying to adapt to a democratic system and a country still licking its wounds after a volatile past. A tour here is a tour to a beautiful nation with a plethora of sights and attractions and a proud, unique and welcoming people.
Albania has a mixed topography: unspoiled, sandy beaches; rugged, picturesque mountains; green, plentiful forests; and placid, enticing lakes. Travellers satisfied with admiring the Albania scenery alone will not be disappointed, but those seeking a more active tour have on offer a wide range of activities: sunbathing, hiking, sailing, football (soccer), fishing and cycling, to name but a few.
Albania is an enigmatic country boasting some wonderful Greco-Roman sites and a distinct culture politically isolated from mainstream European society for generations. The mountain scenery is also spectacular, with small villages and remote valleys that have been cultivated for centuries. This country is a living museum—visit before it is discovered by mass tourism. With its fascinating history, along with its hitherto inaccessibility, Albania is a truly distinctive tour destination and well worth a visit.
Posted on May 14th, 2009 No comments
Italy the southern European peninsula, along with its offshore Mediterranean territories Sicily and Sardinia, boasts the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the globe. There remain to this day the visible traces left by the hosts of foreign peoples who have crossed the nation’s borders over the ages-with the result that the traveller is rewarded with sight of some of the most remarkable architecture of a variety of cultures, including Roman, Greek, Germanic, Celtic and Norman. And for those uninspired to tour to historic attractions, there are always the options of taking to the mountainous areas for a spot of hiking, mountain biking or skiing, or reclining in the brilliant yellow sand on the Mediterranean coastline.
Italy’s climate only enhances the allure of the country. Perhaps one of the most hospitable places on the planet due to its comfortably warm and dry summers countering its mild winters, Italy is a prime location for those looking to tour a destination without uncomfortable extremes of temperature. Where the north is home to more temperate climes, the south is decisively Mediterranean, and though there is some regional variation across the country, Italy is mostly predictable when it comes to weather-the only difficulty in planning a tour there is choosing what climate is preferred.
Just as Italy shares a border with, among other countries, France, so too does it share a common mountain, and the Italian Monte Bianco, or in French, Mont Blanc, serves as the highest peak for both nations. Though the 4,810-metre giant of the Alps is world-famous in itself, Italy is perhaps more often associated with the two volcanoes of Etna and Vesuvius, situated on Sicily and near Naples respectively. A tour to these natural wonders yields sights to behold, indeed. For those with an interest in architecture, a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa is a tour not to be missed to see in all its glory perhaps the most blatant and comedic engineering blunders in the world. The major cities of Venice, Rome and Florence house some of the most unforgettable architectural marvels and the works of Italian-born artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli are must-see attractions.
Posted on May 6th, 2009 No comments
Finland’s landscape is dominated by water. The Nordic country is often referred to as the ‘land of thousands of lakes,’ which might actually be more accurate, were the idiom: ‘land of hundreds of thousands of lakes.’ Within its borders, Finland manages to pack in close to a staggering one hundred and eighty-eight thousand lakes that are all over five acres in size and which together constitute one tenth of the nation’s total territory. Add to this the mountains in the northwest, the southwesterly coastline and the fact that two-thirds of the country is sheltered under a blanket of forest and you have a destination with all the elements that cater to active holiday-makers, whatever their taste may be; Mountain biking or hiking in the elevated areas, rambling or exploring in the forests, or boating or fishing off the coast or in one of the many lakes.
Reindeer safaris and dog sledding are among the activities that are available in Finland and only in a few other countries. Even not-so-active travellers will find their ideal relaxation venue, be it under an unspoiled canopy of leaves overlooking a placid lake, atop a snow-crested mountain with a sweeping vista of the lowlands or on a gold-sand beach, listening to the lapping waves of the Gulf of Finland.
Due to their geographic locations, some portions of northern Finland experience no sunsets for 73 days in summer and no sunrises for 51 days in winter, a peculiar experience that never ceases to attract travellers to the country. Those looking for more interaction on their getaway will find it in Helsinki, Finland’s capital and the northernmost capital city in Europe. This bustling metropolis was once a coastal backwater town, but now it is a city that houses numerous important historic sites, as well as serving as one of the world’s centres of art and architecture. It is not to be missed on a tour of Finland.
Posted on May 5th, 2009 No comments
Over the millennium and a half since France came into being, its global contributions have been immeasurable. From gastronomy (and of course, viniculture) to architecture, literature to fashion, politics to art and science to philosophy, France’s influence on modern cultures and societies around the world runs as deep as any other civilisation in history and deeper than most. Moreover, the country manages to retain a mystique as a land of romance and love, a place where everything from the language to the lifestyle and the setting brings immediate associations in the minds of travellers. The intangible aspects of so favourable an association serve to transform the country from simply a geographical landmass between borders into an ideal whose abstract qualities prove more alluring than the draw of any site of interest; of which France has more than its fair share.
France’s natural environment encompasses virtually every topographical form, thereby simultaneously lending itself to a multitude of activities and satisfying many diverse tastes. The mountainous regions of the Alps and Pyrenees in the southeast and south respectively are of perpetual interest to hikers and skiers alike; the over-3,000 km coastline provides ample opportunity for beachgoers and sun-worshippers to bronze themselves in quiet relaxation or among fellow, active travellers; the lush, plunging valleys of the Loire or the Dordogne offer the most picturesque setting for ramblers and explorers to discover the wealth of flora and fauna; and the lapping waters of the Mediterranean Sea off the south coast or the more raucous Atlantic Ocean off the west allow seafarers and water-enthusiasts to get their feet wet. It is little wonder that France is often described as a microcosm of Europe for its spectrum of landscapes.
Sign up for our escorted tours of Europe and experience a face of the world like no other. Though the second-smallest continent in the world by landmass (the smallest being Australia), Europe is as diverse as they come; its spectrum of topographical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and political nuances is truly extraordinary and an escorted tour here promises a tour-of-a-lifetime through an unceasingly fascinating destination. It’s not hard to understand why escorted tours to Europe are becoming an ever-more popular choice for travellers, as they offer a highly entertaining, stress-free and informative way to get the most from this unique continent whose opportunities for exploration and discovery are virtually without end.
Posted on April 20th, 2009 No comments
You could probably consider the life of the tour leader to be outside of the norm. You dispense with the normalcy of a 9 to 5 job and embrace the jet-set lifestyle of the international traveler. Many destinations become your home away from home and not just another “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium”. I can count several places around the world as particularly dear to me. They include, but are not exclusive to, the Lago de Atitlan region in Guatemala, the rugged and remote landscape of Ladakh in Northern India, and the seaside splendour of Essaouira in Morocco. These are locations that stir your belly and tell you that your access to the wider world has granted you something special; places that excite you to make your way back to because they have a certain magic. One such place that I love to share with other travelers is that of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
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Our Cities of Wonder tour takes us through the beautiful rolling hills of Bohemia after enjoying three nights in the magical city of Prague. We visit the grand castles of Konopiště and Karlštejn, sample the waters of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and explore small Bohemian towns that are off of the standard tour radar. But my favourite of them all is the one that we leave till the final nights of our Czech part of the tour. Our day begins as we depart Karlovy Vary for the Dancing Fountain of Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad), continuing through western Bohemia through lush, undulating fields toward the south, bypassing Plzeň (Pilsner), and on to Klatovy, with its beautiful Baroque square for a lunch stop. Afterwards, we carry on through České Budějovice, home of the famous original Budweiser (known as Budvar), getting ever so closer to that town so close to my heart, Český Krumlov.
Český Krumlov, you might ask? What is so special about this place? Many of we tour leaders started off our travels as backpackers. For my part, I spent a number of years living and working in Europe. The former countries of the Iron Curtain emerged from Communism with the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the nineties, this was the emerging “must-do” location because it was exciting, mysterious and, what can you say, cheap! The traveler grapevine took me to Český Krumlov back then and the rumours did not disappoint. I found myself staying here for many weeks over the following several years, returning to see old friends made and old haunts to visit. Český Krumlov no longer became a nice place to visit, but it became a home to return to after months, or years, away.
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But I digress. Did I mention the fact that Český Krumlov is a UNESCO heritage town? Or that it has the largest castle in Czech Republic after Prague Castle? It has the Vltava River snaking through its heart where the adventurous can hop in a raft or inner tube and float down the river. The buildings are immaculately maintained after getting the full renovation treatment in the post-Communist era. Food? The restaurants here offer a range of Bohemian foods and to say that the portions are ample is an understatement. Drink? Czech beer features, with the Eggenberg brewery located right in town, but all sorts of lagers can be found here as can wine and stronger spirits.
We spend two wonderful nights here in Český Krumlov. Popular feedback from Adventures Abroad clients has made that happen who wanted extra time in this gem of a place. My role here is to share my knowledge and personal connections of this spectacular little town. Once we arrive and check into one of the charming little hotels available to us, I arrange for my friend and guide, Oldřiška, to meet us in the town square for our walking tour. Oldřiška speaks fluent English and is a bundle of energy. She tells tales of beer-brewing monks, points out subtle nuances of architecture you would ordinarily pass-by, and proudly shows off her hometown from a beautiful vista. Now with newfound familiarity with Český Krumlov, you are well set up to explore the area when you have your free time.
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Now it is my turn to show you around. The sights? With the help of a local guide exclusive to the fortress, we will be visiting Krumlov Castle itself with its beautiful interiors and traditional well-fed bears that reside in the moat outside the walls. If we are lucky with respect to rare opening hours, we might have the chance to see the Baroque Theatre (circa 1766) also located at the Castle. Restaurants? I will definitely take you to The Two Marys, with traditional Bohemian fare served on big platters under a big awning down by the river with a view of Krumlov Castle just above us. It is a stunning location and the food is hearty. The locally known and extremely popular “Barbeque” restaurant serves up more big platters of meats and vegetables in a cozy cellar-like environment. Laibon, another famous riverside restaurant, caters to vegetarians. And for those of an adventurous nature, the after dinner entertainment can include sampling local lager or tasty Moravian wines in one of the many local pubs. The brave might want to try some absinthe, Van Gogh’s favourite tipple, traditionally taken with caramelized sugar mixed into the highly alcoholic beverage. Shopping? You are on your own on this one, to browse shops with knick-knacks, art galleries, and other Bohemian goods. Just a word of advice on anyone interested in amber, however: don’t buy it here. It is cheap, knock-off amber. You’ve been warned!
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Český Krumlov is more popular than it used to be when I first arrived in the nineties, but that is expected for such a special place. It retains its charming atmosphere a decade and more on. It does not take long to escape from the town centre and take in the gardens of the Castle grounds or go for a leisurely walk along the Vltava’s edge, taking a little break from your very own holiday. I hope that those who have been here will agree with me and with those who have not will have the opportunity to seek out the splendours of the region. I invite you to come along.
Posted on April 9th, 2009 No comments
CROSSING THE DIVIDE: HVAR, CROATIA (Drvenik Mainland)
A beautiful day greeted us upon our last day on the island of Hvar. My plan was to leave early to make the long trip across the spine of this island, one of 1185 of them. This would allow extra time for keen photographers to stop and take advantage of the soft, early morning light. We made our way from the harbour-side hotel toward the bus stand at the edge of Hvar Town, motorized luggage-cart in tow. Our day was going to be a long one, but very rewarding. Our route took us across the beautiful terrain of Hvar to the ferry port on the eastern tip of the island and then back across to the mainland of Croatia. From there, we were to make our way to the border point of Bosnia and Herzegovina and on to Medjugorje (pronounced Med-joo-gor-yeh), the site where six school children claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, and then onward to Mostar, where the stunning Old Bridge, destroyed during the Bosnian War of the Nineties, has now been rebuilt.
It being an early Sunday morning, the town was particularly quiet and we drove out along the main west-east road, encountering very little in the way of traffic. Stupendous views down toward the coast from our high vantage points allowed us to stop for some very scenic photos of the gorgeous island landscape. However, on one such break our bus gave us a couple of signs that it wasn’t up to the task at hand. A bit of sputtering and hiccoughing later, we were off again, but with fingers crossed.
It should be noted at this point that we did need to make it to the ferry point by a certain time and time was not a luxury that we had much of, despite the earlier than usual departure. There were only two ferry departures per day from Sucuraj to Drvenik on the mainland. We were aiming for 11 am, while the next wasn’t until 5 pm. Our progress across the island soon necessitated another stop, for more pragmatic means than photos, and that is when things got a bit more complicated. As we prepared to set off again, our bus decided that it had had enough. I guess it thought it should have the Sunday off. Now we sat stuck in the middle of the island with another hour or so to get to the ferry point and with a couple of hours before the ferry actually left. Finding a replacement bus would not be easy at the best of times. And it was Sunday, of course.
With the sun getting higher in the sky and the bus interior heating up, everyone grabbed the chance to catch some fresh air. Some pontificated on the nature of the bus problem, scratching chins. Some sheltered in the nearby shade; Hvar is the sunniest island in Croatia and, according to the tourist brochures, in Europe too. Some wandered over to a nearby family-run winery: the local family thought that it was Christmas come early.
In the meantime, my driver and I called for a replacement bus. Time was of the essence after all. Being a Sunday, the replacement bus was not as quick as we would have liked. It eventually arrived and I gathered the much happier winery visitors and the others into our new bus and off we went, as fast as we dare, to Sucuraj.
Alas, we missed our ferry by 10 minutes. Ten! Sigh. Our next ferry wouldn’t be for another six hours. That would mean no Medjugorje and a very late arrival into Mostar. Such is the nature of travel. But, wait! What if that fisherman across the way could take us over to the mainland in his boat? With new plan of action in mind, I phoned our agent to organize a bus to meet us at Drvenik over on the mainland, negotiated with the fisherman to take the 16 of us over in his boat, and took the opportunity to have a leisurely lunch by the water in this tiny village. The sense of adventure had seized everyone and all agreed to the exciting, if unorthodox, means of transport off of the island. Meanwhile, our original, newly serviced bus and trusty driver arrived at the port and we planned to have them meet us in Mostar after it took the later ferry.
With plan in place and everyone nourished after a fine meal, we boarded the boat and set off across the narrow strait to Drvenik. The wind was in our hair, the smell of sea salt filled our noses and the potentially catastrophic day had turned into an adventure! Engine puttering along, our vessel leisurely crossed the water, captain peering out from his little window in the stern. The group grinned at one another as they soaked in this rather novel addition to the itinerary. In very little time, we arrived at the mainland and waited very briefly before we were picked up by our new bus sent down from Split. We jumped on board and headed to the Croatian/Bosnia and Herzegovina border. With easy border formalities we left the coast behind us and drove into the dramatic hills and beautiful landscape that the region is famous for.
We arrived at Medjugorje with enough time for people to explore the town whose tourist industry has benefitted greatly from the sightings (although the Catholic Church has declared the sightings of the Virgin Mary to be unsubstantiated). Curiousity satisfied, we again boarded our bus and headed to Mostar, arriving as darkness fell, as we drove past lasting evidence of the Bosnian War with bombed out buildings lurking like ghosts. Tired but elated, we arrived at our hotel and checked in, happy to have made it safely to our home for the night. The cherry on the sundae to this exciting day showed up 15 minutes later with our bus, driver and luggage. Perfect.
I suppose it’s one of the funny things about travel. It would be nice if everything went to plan, but if everything went to plan, then it doesn’t allow for the freedom of spontaneity. Ever Garrison said “Adversity enhances this tale we called life” and I was fortunate to have a great group of travelers ready to seize the sense of adventure that adversity had laid in our path. And we all came out the better for it with a tale to tell.
Our group makes the trip across the strait from Hvar to Drvenik on the mainland of Croatia.
Our group makes the trip across the strait from Hvar to Drvenik on the mainland of Croatia.
Posted on April 1st, 2009 No comments
Poland? Why would anyone want to go to Poland?
Castles, Catholics and Krakow
Few countries have a history more turbulent than Poland’s. With one castle built for each of its 1,000 years of history, the undying spirit of the people is evidenced all over the countryside. Constantly invaded and overrun, the Poles have managed to maintain their cultural identity amidst a fragmented history. Their tumultuous heritage is proudly exhibited in moving museums, inspiring, monuments, and a multitude of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Fortresses built by ancient dynasties and feudal kingdoms have been restored to unrivalled grandeur providing an exciting glimpse into Mediaeval Europe. The marks of history are etched into the modern existence of a nation emerging from modern dark times.
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One constant throughout Poland’s often painful past has been the Roman Catholic Church. Devotion is expressed everywhere, from Renaissance churches, to roadside shrines, to holy processions through every town and village. A people strongly united behind one another, the Poles have celebrated their faith since the nation’s inception, throughout oppression and in times of peace. The ritualistic nature of Catholicism is nowhere better experienced than at Poland’s most holy site, Czestochowa, where pilgrims gather round the clock to worship. It is difficult not to get caught up in the movingly open expression of faith so rarely seen in Western religion. A country so often left defeated in war now constantly demonstrates the power of religion.
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Most everyone falls in love with at least one of Poland’s great cities. A major trading centre and former seat of the kings, Krakow encompasses the power of hope in post-communist Europe. Artistic freedom and market liberalisation has created a most appealing setting for exploration of the country’s history, as well as all the indulgences of modern city life. Bursting with restaurants, exhibitions, attractive architecture, and entertainment, Krakow has incorporated an often painful past with a bright and exciting future. Virtually every day sees another festival celebrated, providing ample opportunity to soak up the unique atmosphere and sample the local delights. One of Europe’s great cities, it will leave you aching to return.
Exploring Poland is emotional and fulfilling. Its accelerated transformation from communist afterthought to European success story is inspiring. This is the time to experience Poland and the opportunity should not be missed.