Still Wandering Through Romania

Here begins – or continues, actually, my tale of Wandering Through Romania. If you are skipping ahead on purpose, having not already read my previous Romania post, have at it. But, I do recommend starting at the beginning. Everything will make more sense. If I’ve convinced you, here’s the link: Wandering Through Romania. I’ll see you back here in a bit!

So, we explored the big city (Bucharest) and the smaller, more quaint city (Brasov). Now it was time to venture deeper into the beautiful Romanian countryside. Can you feel your blood pressure drop? Can you smell the fresh air and hear the wind in the trees? Oh, I cannot tell you how many times I caught myself humming away as I strolled along wooded country roads, or as I settled in with my morning cup of coffee to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Mmhmm.

Corund (Korond)

Once again, we boarded our bus with our trusty driver, Victor, at the wheel. We left lovely Brasov and headed north to Corund. Although both Brasov and Corund are in Transylvania (a region in central Romania), and the drive wasn’t really that long – about 2.5 hours – it felt like we had traveled to another country! Corund is a commune in Harghita County, which is part of the Szeklerland. Many of the street signs were now in two languages: Romanian and Hungarian. This part of Romania is heavily settled by people of Hungarian descent and Hungarian is more commonly spoken than Romanian. 

As usual, (we were becoming quite spoiled) Derek engaged a wonderful local guide for us here, just as he had done in Bucharest and in Brasov. Zoltan Pal, is a college professor and proud Szekler. The Szekler are descended from folks who, during the 13th century, were sent from Hungary to defend this region, which at that time was Hungary’s eastern frontier. They settled here and continue to live a rural style of life in this remote area of Transylvania.

Zoltan devotes much of his time to promoting the traditional life of Corund (Korond, in Hungarian). He is well-versed in many of the artisanal crafts of the region, even to the point of being an apprentice to a local tinder mushroom craftsman – but I am getting ahead of myself.

We arrived and settled into the charming Arcso Fogado Guesthouse, located just outside of the village of Corund. We enjoyed lunch at the onsite restaurant, which consisted of both Hungarian-style and Romanian-style foods.

Bijoux, Looms and a Potter’s Wheel

After lunch, we were introduced to Zoltan. Our first stop with him was the Aragonite Museum. He showed us around the museum and shared the story of Corundian aragonite. It is a semi-precious stone enriched with carbonated calcium. Aragonite can be found in other places in the world as well, like Spain, Brazil and the Bahamas. Here in Corund, Zoltan explained, it has an important place in history.

Knop Vencel, a Czech geology teacher, chose to open a grinding and polishing factory here in 1909. He employed local people and truly loved his adopted home. The aragonite was mined and then ground and polished, being transformed into beautiful decorative pieces. Many were commissioned by royalty or other important people of the day. Vencel would often have two identical pieces crafted so that he would have at least one perfect piece in the end. There was always the chance of a flaw or accident, so this way he was assured to provide the perfect piece for each client, without delay.

After WWII, a communist collective ran the factory, employing explosives to more quickly extract the stone. This method resulted in irreparable damage to the remaining deposits of aragonite, which now are only suitable for small “bijoux” rather than substantial decorative pieces. Brute force was a common theme during communist rule in Romania – an effort to do things cheaply that often resulted in less valuable products and destruction of the environment.

After our visit to the Aragonite museum, Zoltan introduced us to one of Corund’s very skilled potters. Jozsa Laszlo and his wife, Marta, produce beautiful pottery. Corund is well known for its quality pottery and Mr. Laszlo was very happy to invite us into his studio. He sat at his potter’s wheel, took a handful of clay and slapped it down. As the wheel spun and Mr. Laszlo began working the clay, Zoltan explained to us the process involved in making a piece of pottery. 

The lump of clay was beginning to take shape under the practiced hands of Mr. Laszlo – first a bowl and then a pitcher. Each time he worked the clay into a recognizable shape he would “ruin” it, while Zoltan explained that the clay can always be reworked into something new – it is never a lost cause.

The lump of clay became smaller and smaller as Mr. Laszlo demonstrated this for us. Now he had a very small vase. And still, he worked with less and less clay until he was fashioning a pitcher fit for a Barbie doll kitchen! I have one of those miniature pitchers in my own kitchen now. It reminds me that something beautiful can be fashioned out of a series of “mistakes”.

We were then invited to give it a whirl ourselves. Several in the group eagerly sat down in front of the extra pottery wheels and were each given a lump of clay to work. Everyone agreed it was a very meditative experience, because it was so important to feel the clay and to let it “tell you what it wants to be”. 

Although no one but Mr. Laszlo produced a true work of art that day, we were all feeling the urge to sign up for a pottery class! When all was said and done, Mr. Laszlo brought out a large jug of homemade palinka – a batch he had made for his daughter’s wedding, and poured it into handcrafted cups that he gifted to each of us. What a sweet gesture and delicious treat! Egészségére! (That’s “Cheers!” in Hungarian)

Our artsy-crafty day did not end there, because we were soon whisked off to the home of Susanna, a local weaver. She is a darling lady with some wicked quick moves! Both her feet and her hands were involved in the intricate “dance” required to produce a beautifully woven piece of fabric on her 150-year-old loom. Zoltan explained the complex – yet simple – way the fibers were measured and combined, and how the loom is “programmed” with the pattern, to create the designs. It’s something you have to see to grasp, really. It was pretty magical and mesmerizing to watch Susanna work! 

I brought home a souvenir that beautifully drapes my coffee table in memories of our time in Susanna’s workshop.

Our day was topped off with a visit to Zoltan’s home. He and his wife, Beata, welcomed us with a lovely al fresco meal and yet more history lessons. The entrance to their property is a beautiful, traditional Hungarian gate. Zoltan captivated us with an explanation of the traditions and meanings behind all of the symbols on the gate – truly fascinating and so charming!

Their particular gate was originally built in the 1950s. When they bought the home they made some changes to the gate to better reflect their own family – common practice when someone moves into a home with an existing gate.

What a delightful end to our first day in Corund!

Horses, Mushrooms and Bears – oh, my!

The next morning began with a cup of coffee enjoyed outside with soft morning light and a gorgeous view. I took a leisurely walk up the road near the guesthouse. The setting here is pastoral, with fresh, clean air, field after field and mountains beyond that. It was a sunny, warm day – perfect for spending time outdoors.

We started our day in the minivan but quickly arrived at a point where travel by horse cart made a lot more sense. We piled eagerly into our cart. We enjoyed cozy seats, fresh air and sunshine, the clippity-clop of the horses hooves and the gentle sway of the cart as we headed for the Fantana Brazilor Plateau.

This plateau is home to about 800 villagers. The farms are all designed to be symbiotic. For example, the land required to feed one cow is also fertilized by that one cow. All of the farms on the plateau operate under this premise. Everything is produced as naturally as possible. These are some intrepid folks – living a simple, but hard life, in pursuit of the preservation of their lands and their traditional way of life.

Our first stop here was one of the southernmost peat bogs in Europe. Zoltan, the consummate teacher, explained how the bog came to be and why it is an important ecosystem worth preserving. He has, in fact, created an educational journey through the bog via his boardwalk laden with informational placards and teaching tools like his miniature up-close-and-personal bog “cage”. 

We learned that plant growth – specifically tree growth – is stunted due to lack of nutrients in the soil. He showed us a scots pine tree that was one thousand years old but appeared to be maybe one hundred years old. Pretty interesting stuff! We saw insect-eating plants, deadly “rosemary” that we dared not touch, and loads and loads of edible bilberries, cranberries and linden berries! We all spent some time “foraging” for these tasty gems!

While we were visiting the bog, Zoltan told us about the local brown bears. Their population has increased in recent years, while at the same time they’ve become less self-sufficient, due in part to humans who hunt the strongest and largest of the bears as trophies. The practice of culling the strongest animals has resulted in a weaker, but still dangerous, population of bears.

Local villages are often visited by these hungry animals. Our phones pinged several times during our stay in Corund, warning of bears in nearby villages! Zoltan is hopeful that this trophy-hunting practice has abated and the bear population will be allowed to gradually become more normalized. We never did see any bears during our stay.

We left the bog and headed for Tofigem Farm. Here, they produce jams, syrups and other goodies. Zoltan explained the health benefits of some of these forest berries and plant products and then we were able to taste many of them!

Fortunately we did not fill up on these tasty treats, because our next stop was for lunch at another of the local farms. We sat down to a feast of fresh cheeses, jams, fresh-baked bread, pork belly and delicious local liqueurs laid out on a long table in the beautiful garden. It was scrumptious – the setting, the food, the company… delightful and refreshing!

The afternoon continued with a visit to a tinder mushroom, aka amadou, workshop. Fabian Zoltan is unique. His craft is practiced in no other place in the world! As I mentioned earlier, our guide, Zoltan, is actually an apprentice in this craft. It was really fascinating, the entire process: from hunting the mushrooms, which are found only on beech trees in the surrounding forests, to carving out the useful “meat” of the mushroom and then the pounding and shaping of the “meat” into what looks and feels quite like sueded leather.

We had a couple of mushroom fanatics in our group who were particularly fascinated by this craft. I was pleased to discover at least ONE good use for the mushroom – much better to wear them than to eat them!

We had a chance to rest and regroup at the guesthouse before heading out to a very special dinner. We dined at Vizimalom Panzio Trout Farm. Trout is a popular meal in the region and we were served a delicious – and very filling – dinner of fried trout, dressy fried potatoes and lots of delicious beer. The restaurant setting was so very peaceful – with a garden and a creek, complete with a water wheel. What a great way to top off another perfect day in the beautiful Transylvanian countryside!

Putin’s Jeep and Chimney Cakes

Our last day in the region found us traveling a bit further afield. Our first stop was Raduly Janos’s home for a basket weaving demonstration. Mr. Janos is a Roma (gypsy) master weaver. He demonstrated how to clean the willow branches he uses to make his baskets. He has his very own creation – a contraption that does the work in a fraction of the time it takes to clean them by hand! He was a chatty fellow who loved to laugh. Zoltan was kept busy translating – and, I suspect, NOT translating – much of what Mr. Janos said.

We were encouraged to try our hand using his splitter tool that turned a willow branch into three strands for weaving. He did his work in the open air of his yard, with chickens flitting around. We admired his cobbled-together jeep that sat nearby – he called it “Putin’s Jeep” for reasons we can only guess at. He was quite proud of that car – held together with duct tape, plastic hoses and a generous dash of ingenuity!

Mr. Janos fashioned a rug beater as a sample of his skill – his gnarled hands made quick work of the project as he tamed and twisted the branches into the desired shape. We may all have joked when we were young about taking “underwater basket weaving” as an easy course in school – but I have a feeling we might all have failed that class!

More souvenirs were scooped up and then we bid jolly Mr. Janos “goodbye”.

We enjoyed lunch together at a camp in Criseni – entertained briefly by Lajos, the founder of the only known straw hat museum! Lajos was an enthusiastic man – very proud of his family’s effort to preserve and educate about this local craft. After lunch, we drove to the museum and enjoyed a presentation about the making of straw hats and the significance of the brim size and shape of a hat. Zoltan showed us the machines used to form the hats once the braided strands – assembled by local women – were sewn together. 

We had fun posing under what they like to claim is the largest straw hat in the world and then enjoyed a nip of some local palinka before taking our leave.

Zoltan scheduled a baking lesson by the local kurtos kalacs, or “chimney cake”, makers. These Hungarian sweet treats are topped with cinnamon sugar and nuts or coconut. We learned how to roll out the dough, wrap it onto the baking stick and then to cook it over open coals. They are best enjoyed fresh and warm – and we made short work of them! 

We returned to Zoltan’s house for our Aragonite workshop. He gave us some unfinished stones and taught us the art of sanding them into shiny, beautiful bijoux – a process that involves lots of patience and many different grades of sandpaper. We all came away with an appreciation for the craft and a treasure to take home as a souvenir! 

Afterward, we enjoyed some time wandering through the shops in Corund and then returned to the guesthouse before heading out for dinner.

We were driven to a hunter’s farm up in the mountains where we were served some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten along with peasant soup, venison stew and more terrific Romanian beer! We enjoyed the time to sit together and recap the day, to laugh and just soak it all in.

We bid farewell to our wonderful teacher, Zoltan, after dinner. His enthusiasm and depth of knowledge definitely left an impression on us!

Sighișoara and Back to Bucharest

We hopped aboard our minibus again the next morning. A one-hour drive found us at the entrance to Sighișoara, a UNESCO world heritage site – the best-preserved, and continually inhabited, medieval citadel. Our local guide, Emanuel, began our tour of this charming walled city by walking us through what it would be like to be an attacking army. He showed us how the outward-facing clock tower was menacing and generally unwelcoming, but the inner-facing side was friendly. This was because, once the city walls had been breached, the citizens had best make nice with the conquering forces, right? 

Emanuel talked about the guilds who guarded and maintained each tower (we heard about this practice when we were in Brasov) and pointed out some of the more significant architectural features of the city. Not surprising, Vlad the Impaler was a feature of this tour as well. You can say that the Romanians have taken full advantage of the commercialization of Dracula! At least the references are couched in historical relevance.  

We enjoyed a couple hours of free time to wander the quaint cobbled streets of the city. Some of us climbed the five stories of the clock tower to enjoy sweeping views of the citadel and the more modern parts of the city.

We stayed in a spa hotel in Azuga, just one hour’s drive from Sighișoara. On the drive there we were treated to fruit-filled covrig (similar to a soft pretzel, but sweet), courtesy of our tour leader, Derek. The opportunity to simply relax, enjoy the pool, hot tub and other spa services were just what we needed to top off a very full, very satisfying tour. Yet another example of the thoughtful care we received throughout our tour. 

We enjoyed dinner at the hotel – some amazing food and, really, the best pickles ever! I honestly had some of the best pickles I’ve ever tasted while here in Romania – but these were the very best! The service here was top notch. Our waitress took our orders by memory and delivered them seamlessly, without a single misstep! The staff could see we weren’t eager to end the evening so left us with some bottles of wine and quietly began to close up shop. 

We arrived in Bucharest the next day, with time to enjoy the city (it was fun to wander streets that now seemed a little bit familiar!) while we awaited our Covid tests. With that task behind us, we headed to our final dinner together at the 200-year old Hanu Lui Manoc – formerly a way station/inn that has since been transformed into a delightful open air restaurant – celebrating an amazing tour and new friendships, and to simply bask in our last hours in this surprising gem called Romania!

Cheers and “Multumesc mult” to Derek and Stephanie of Wandering Earl Tours and Janet Jaffe of The Womens Travel Tribe for taking such great care to create this wonderful tour! Here’s to the next one!

Wandering Through Romania

I love to travel, and I confess, I fall in love with almost every place I visit. Many times, I’ve convinced myself that, oh, yes, I could live here happily ever after. Reality does eventually set in, of course. The afterglow fades…leaving behind pleasant memories and, hopefully, a change in my heart and perspective; expanded horizons.

I tell you this about me, because you should realize that I am freshly home from my last adventure and still wallowing in the warmth of a thoroughly delightful experience. I want to write it all down before the afterglow fades, because that feeling — that’s one of the main reasons we travel, right? Hope you enjoy…

In February, I booked a small group tour to a country that has never been on my “must see” list. I had nothing against it – it just wasn’t even on my radar. But, thanks to a year of stifled wanderlust, I was ready – ready to travel just about anywhere! I came across this tour and it snagged me. The itinerary was compelling, the group size was appealing and I had read a few reviews that helped push me over the edge. So, having convinced my friend to join me, I took the gamble – Would we be able to travel by August? Would it be safe? Would I lose my deposit? – and booked the tour. 

Who knew (maybe me, seeing as I have a penchant for it) that a country I was so unfamiliar with would capture my heart like it did?! Romania…utterly surprising and completely unforgettable.

Over the course of 12 days we visited 3 unique locations – spending several days in each – learning about the history, culture, environment and people of this beautiful eastern European country. Our pace was unhurried but each day was chock-full of delights. I had to take notes because we were learning so much every day!


I’ll start at the beginning. We landed in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, on a Sunday afternoon. It was hot and sunny. The climate in Romania isn’t so different from my home state of Michigan – four seasons, hot summers, cold winters. As we rode into the city (airport transfers included with the tour), we noticed that it looked kind of like we were driving into Detroit: a mix of tall and squatty buildings – from old and worn to shiny and new, a fair amount of traffic, and graffiti – quite a lot of graffiti, actually.

Stefan, a Bucharest native and our guide, took us on a walking tour of the city on our first day. Bucharest is a lively city on a Monday morning – a fair amount of car and pedestrian traffic. It gave the impression it is a working city – filled with locals going about their business with tourists like us just sprinkled in. As we walked, Stefan gave us a little history lesson. 

Romania became part of the Soviet Bloc after WWII and remained under communist rule until 1989, although it had gained some independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Stefan told us about his experience as a child during the revolution against Communism, which occurred in December of 1989. He recounted how, when he returned to school in January, all of his school books had had pages torn out of them – the pages that proclaimed and acknowledged the communist rule in Romania. Fortunately, he was young, and news didn’t travel quite so quickly then as it does today. Stefan was blissfully ignorant of the details of that brief, violent revolution that ended in the overthrow and Christmas Day execution of Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife.

Despite the citizens’ efforts to erase communism, Bucharest is full of reminders: Communist-era apartment blocks, colossal buildings erected at great expense while Romanians were struggling to feed their families, beautiful churches that were moved – yes, moved – out of the public eye, by order of Ceaușescu. An engineer, Eugen Iordachescu, actually developed a technique to move entire buildings without damaging them. He was responsible for saving dozens of churches in this manner. 

While communism certainly left its mark on Bucharest, so did many other cultures, religions and artists. As I mentioned, we saw a lot of graffiti around the city. We asked about it and found out that the graffiti is a point of pride for Bucharest residents. It isn’t gang-related like so much of the graffiti found in the US. Instead, it represents the voices of those who had been oppressed for decades, finally able to speak freely and express themselves. In fact, despite some city leaders wanting to clean up the graffiti, the residents insisted that it be left alone. 

We saw things much differently after hearing that story.

The architecture is quite varied in Bucharest – from medieval to modern. We saw Roman architecture, Byzantine-style and many buildings that would have looked at home in the center of Paris!  One of my favorite buildings is this one – the Union of Romanian Architects HQ. 

Its design is quite controversial. The original building was destroyed in 1989 by a fire. The architects chose to use the remains of the original building for the new project. I find it to be a very apropos symbol for this eclectic city with its complex history and resilient spirit.

Another memorable stop was the Atheneum. It is a gorgeous concert hall, proudly constructed using private donations from Romanian folks – definitely not funded by the government. We were fortunate to catch the beginnings of a rehearsal of the philharmonic for an upcoming George Enescu festival! 

Bucharest is quite a walkable city. There are many pedestrian-only streets tucked away from the noisy thoroughfares, especially in the old town section of the city. The art and monuments scattered around the city are well worth seeking out. I do recommend that you engage a local guide who can fill you in on the significance of the things you will see. It makes all the difference! Oh, and take a couple hours to wander through the National Museum of Art. We found it to be uncrowded, and it housed some nice surprises by Renoir, Monet and other world famous artists. The museum itself is gorgeous!

We enjoyed several meals at local restaurants while in Bucharest – especially enjoying the traditional dessert – papanasi – a warm cheese donut covered in crème fraîche and berries! Traditional cuisine reminded me a bit of German food – though, rather than potatoes, we were often served polenta. We were treated to some traditional dancing in an old beer hall – Caru cu Bere – so much fun!

Onward to Transylvania

On Day 3 we climbed aboard our minibus. We headed out of the city and toward the Prahova Valley, Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania. No tour of a European country would be complete without a visit to a castle, right? We were treated to two during our tour, the first was Peles Castle in Sinaia. 

We were dropped off at the restaurant/gathering area at the entrance to the castle grounds, where we could catch just a glimpse of the castle through the trees. We enjoyed a little lunch and purchased some fresh berries from a local Roma woman while we waited for our chance to visit the castle. Those berries were so delicious – fresh-picked, for sure!

A short walk put us squarely in front of this beautiful castle, built between 1873 and 1914, in the neo-renaissance style, by King Carol I. Stefan, again, was our guide here. He regaled us with all kinds of history and details about the beloved king and his castle. We enjoyed our private guided tour and were also able to wander the grounds on our own for a bit. It was a visual feast, the ornate Peles Castle nestled among the trees in this verdant valley – well worth the visit. 

We said goodbye to Stefan here, as he headed back to the city and we moved on to the medieval city of Brasov.


Brasov is one of the most visited places in Romania. It is located in the center of the country, snuggled into a valley of the southern Carpathian Mountains. Originally settled by Saxons, Brasov is situated at the intersection of old trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and western Europe. Brasov was a fortified city, with each tower maintained by a different craft guild. Each guild would then be called to defend their tower, as was custom during those times, and allowed the city to be defended without maintaining a full time army.

We spent most of that first day in Old Town – the Saxon part of the city. Here, again, we were accompanied by a local guide. Anne is of Saxon descent, and well-versed in her city’s story. She filled our heads with all sorts of facts and interesting tales. Anne introduced us to the city’s history and varied architecture as well as its current attractions – including artisanal chocolate and coffee shops and a traditional Romanian bakery! We visited the Black Church, a Gothic-style Lutheran cathedral that dates back to the 15th century. Originally a Catholic church, it was adapted to the more austere Lutheran religion as a result of the Reformation, a non-violent religious transition that occured in 1542. The church, along with much of the historical city, was partially destroyed in a fire in 1689. The church gained its nickname, The Black Church, as a result of the damage it sustained in the fire.

We had plentiful opportunities during our three-day stay at the Aro Palace Hotel (a mid-century-style delight!) to stroll along the cobbled pedestrian streets of Brasov. The Piata Sfatului is the main square that fills with outdoor restaurant seating in the evening and provides endless entertainment – food and drink, shopping and people-watching. 

Anne accompanied us to the workshop of a traditional wood painting artist, Marga Armanko. There, Marga tutored us in this art. Some of us took to it – others did not (that would be me!). Regardless, it was a treat to be introduced to this art by someone who took such pride in it. We were able to carry our “masterpieces” home as a souvenir of that experience. That evening we had dinner at the charming Bistro del Arte, where we were entertained by a pianist while we enjoyed a delicious meal. 

Bran Castle

We ventured out early the next morning in order to beat the crowds at Bran Castle. Anne joined us as our guide on this day as well. She explained that Bran Castle, dating back to the 13th century, may have been visited by Vlad the Impaler (yes, a very tenuous connection!). You may recognize this king as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Did you know that Bram Stoker had never been to Romania when he wrote his novel? He had only heard stories of Vlad the Impaler. He combined some of those details with his own experiences to create the story of Dracula. It is widely believed that Bram Stoker suffered from tertiary syphilis. Whether that or something else, his condition left him bed ridden, pale and sensitive to the light. Sound familiar? 

Unbeknownst to Romanians, the novel inspired people to seek out “Dracula’s Castle”. The castle’s popularity has helped to transform Bran from a sleepy town into a tourist destination. The castle was packed with people eager to see the home of Dracula. Despite its grisly associations, though, the castle is mainly a museum dedicated to displaying the art and furniture of Queen Marie. 

Traditional Egg Painting and Lunch at Gabriela’s Home

After a leisurely stroll around the grounds of Bran Castle and a wander through some of the decidedly kitschy craft stalls in town, we boarded the bus and headed for our next artisan experience. You see, this tour had a theme of sorts, focusing on the traditional arts of the country. 

We were invited into Gabriela’s home, where she served us a lovely traditional lunch, which included a LOT of polenta – just ask our tour leader, Derek! – along with some absolutely delicious visinata (a traditional cherry liqueur) and tuica (a traditional pear liqueur). While we relaxed over our home cooked meal, Gabriela modeled her traditional costume for us. She was very proud to share her treasure, an embellished blouse made by her grandmother 150 years ago! Gabriela was delightful, no English needed, though Anne did her best to translate. Interestingly, Gabriela used several words that Anne was unable to interpret. This may have been due to regional dialects or terms specific to Gabriela’s art form. It simply added extra color to the experience.

After lunch, Gabriela demonstrated her craft – the traditional painting of eggs. She is the only one in the area who still practices this art form. Gabriela has begun to teach the local children in order to keep this tradition alive. She explained how she removes the raw egg from inside the shell using a syringe to blow air in through the single hole, pushing the yolk and white out through the same hole. Clearly this is delicate work! She allowed some of us to try our hand at drawing on the eggs with the melted wax using a special stylus. The process involves several steps that include drawing the design with wax and then dipping it into the dye, letting it dry and drawing again with wax, dipping into the dye, repeating as many times as needed. She said each egg takes about six hours to complete! The designs were intricate and oftentimes depicted traditional scenes. We were enthralled and very happy to be able to purchase all of her available works of art.

We were completely charmed by Gabriela and so impressed by her skill. She gifted each of us with an egg that also included her handwritten explanation of the design. Yes, many of us are now facebook friends with Gabriela. You can be, too:

Returning from our full day, we stopped at the top of the valley to capture the sweeping views of Brasov nestled below. Delivered safely to our hotel after this amazing day, we were left to our own devices for the evening. Several of us headed for the main square and an evening of laughter and traditional palinka (a plum brandy-style liquor).

Beyond Brasov… so much more yet to come

It was time to move on from Brasov. Each day of this tour seemed to build on the last and provide unending delights. Could our experiences to this point be beat? We couldn’t imagine it. We were just past the halfway point of our tour, but, our final days were SO full that I will leave that for another post. I hope you’ll return for it – you won’t be disappointed!

I won’t stop here without acknowledging the hard work of our tour leader, Derek Baron, of Wandering Earl Tours. He crafted a perfect tour, taking into account his audience (we were all women over 50) and the environment, and making excellent use of his local sources. I can’t recommend him highly enough. Thank you to Janet Jaffe of The Women’s Travel Tribe for partnering with Wandering Earl for this tour!

How I Tackled Wanderlust in the Time of Covid

I’m tired of talking about it, thinking about it, and being paralyzed by it. But, Covid has been top of mind for the past year and a half and it appears to be settling in for the long haul. So, how does one tackle wanderlust in the time of Covid? 

That is a question I have wrestled with since Summer 2020. I’ve taken a few local trips – one of which I wrote about in my Trips with Pip series. There’s more of that to come, because Michigan is worth writing about. I live in a beautiful state with many treasures to uncover, for sure. 

I’ve enjoyed taking the few trips I have done this year and felt quite safe doing so. Here’s my check list for travel these days:

  1. Is my destination relatively safe?
  2. Is my mode of travel safe?
  3. Is there a risk of getting “stuck” in my destination?
  4. Is the experience worth the risk?
  5. By choosing to travel, am I putting anyone else at particular risk?
View from my airplane window – Anticipation!!

I’m vaccinated. I wear a mask when appropriate or mandated. I get tested as required. I take other appropriate hygienic precautions. I think the key is that you live your life with a little added consideration for those with whom you might come into contact and follow the law of the land you are in and/or from. That’s about all that you can do. Would I travel to a place that has a dangerously high incidence of a deadly disease? Nope. Will I suspend traveling until Covid is gone? Nope – because I don’t think that day will come anytime soon.

These days, not only am I considering travel while a pandemic is still very much present, but I am also trying to shift away from expecting my kids to be my constant travel companions. I’m seeking out other styles of travel that don’t involve them. So, last winter – and February in Michigan would give anyone cabin fever – I was itching to travel and ran across an opportunity scheduled for August. It seemed like a safe bet – 6 months down the road.

A Facebook group I’m in was offering a small group tour to Romania for women over 50. Romania? Who goes to Romania? Well, I decided that I would go to Romania. The itinerary was compelling and the group size (max. 12) was appealing. Next thing I know, I am chatting with a friend over some wine and cheese. I brought up the tour to her, asking if she would like to join me. I had no expectations that she would agree to go, but after skimming the itinerary, she promptly said, “Yes!” We booked the tour the next morning. That was that.

I waited anxiously for a few months, agonizing over the possibility of the tour being cancelled. I was chomping at the bit to book flights because the prices were great. “Hold on”, they said. “Let’s make sure the tour fills up”, they said. So wait, I did. Finally, I got the go-ahead to book the flights. I’m no expert, but I’ve booked a few flights in my day, and I was really happy to end up saving $200 per ticket by researching online and then calling the airline directly. Who knew that I would be quoted a cheaper price by the agent than the fare I’d found online?! Score! Flights were booked and we began to feel like this would actually happen.

Fortunately, there wasn’t much else I had to do to prepare. I had my passport and my vaccination card, and I was already pretty well equipped for travel with luggage and such. I did purchase a couple of things – namely some no-wrinkle, water-wicking tops and pants and some new sandals that felt like a dream on my feet (they are Skechers, which I know aren’t for everyone, but my wonky feet love them!). I knew we’d be doing a lot of walking and that the weather would be similar to Michigan – which, for August, means hot and humid. 

I also spent many evenings working through the DuoLingo Romanian language course – not much else to do when it’s winter in Michigan and there’s a pandemic, to boot. I learned some pretty useless phrases, like, “I am a woman and you are a boy”, “I am not a child and you are NOT a man” and “the woman has apples”. Try slipping those gems into a conversation, why don’t ya! All I really needed to know were some niceties and a few necessary things like “where is the bathroom?” and “how much for the beer?” DuoLingo failed me on that front, I’m afraid. I’ve a mind to write a note to them to explain that many of us take to learning a new language just so we can get by in a new place. We don’t need to tell people what they are or what they are holding… Ah, well, the course was fun, just the same.

So, all of that to say that I tackled wanderlust in the time of Covid by: 

  1. Dreaming and planning – isn’t that half the fun?
  2. Reminiscing over past travels – taking the time to organize photos and putting my impressions on paper
  3. Traveling locally, and
  4. Making plans for international travel that seems doable. 

Of course, the fact that airlines and accommodations are being pretty liberal with their change fees and refund policies made it much easier to consider than it might have been in the past. Here’s hoping those policies don’t disappear anytime soon! 

I just returned from my tour of Romania, and I have to say, it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. Stay tuned – I’ll tell you all about it soon.

What have you done to tackle your wanderlust over the past 18 months? I’d love to hear about it!

A #PureMichigan Pandemic Adventure

A “Trips With Pip” Story

I guess I didn’t plan very well. I picked the strangest time to begin traveling with my dog – in the middle of a pandemic. Of course, I’d been thinking about it since I brought her home two years ago. First things first, though: I needed to train and socialize her. I don’t think traveling with an unruly puppy would be much fun! 

Prepping Pippi

Pippi is energetic and bossy. It’s taken a lot of work to get her to play well with others. She has come a long way in how she responds to other animals and strangers. She takes time to warm up to people she hasn’t met, so I don’t worry that she will wander off to be taken in by a  stranger’s proffered treats. She does love people, though, and once Pip lets down her guard, she’ll be a friend for life! She is incredibly affectionate – and a generous giver of sloppy kisses. She is smart and eager to please, too. Pippi has learned a lot about how to behave in public: walking well on a leash, leaving things she finds interesting (most often) with a single command, and often taking care of business on command, too (So fabulous, trust me!). She is tiny so can be a bit skittish in busy, crowded places – but I can’t blame her. If I was in danger of being stepped on or eaten at any moment, I might be a bit on edge myself!

In Search of a Cure For Quarantine Cabin Fever

So, with the basics mastered, and the pandemic making me stir-crazy, I decided to book us a little adventure to test the waters. I am always drawn to the Great Lakes. Being a life-long Michigander, I have dipped my toes in all of them at least once (except Ontario, if I’m not mistaken), and many times in my favorites – Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The “west coast” of the lower peninsula is gorgeously rimmed with white, sandy beaches, quaint small towns and scenic hikes and drives. Every season offers something to enjoy. In July I began looking at late August options, hoping that most schools would be back in session and the beaches would be less crowded. 

Pippi sizes up the bed at our AirBnB

Clearly, there were many others who had the same idea. It took a while, but finally AirBnB came through. I found a little studio apartment in Grand Haven. The listing mentioned that it was pet-friendly but didn’t list extra fees, so I contacted the host. Rachel was quick to respond with a friendly, “There is no additional charge. Dogs deserve a vacation, too!” I clearly had found the right place. Rachel continued to offer suggestions for places to go and things to see and do during the weeks leading up to our getaway. I couldn’t have asked for a better AirBnB experience, and highly recommend Rachel’s place to anyone looking to spend some time in Grand Haven with their pet!

Our #PureMichigan Pandemic Adventure Begins

The drive to Grand Haven takes about two hours. I made arrangements to meet a friend for lunch mid-trip. We sat outdoors (the only option on offer in Michigan at the time) at Zeytin Restaurant in the charming town of Ada. Our waiter was welcoming and offered Pippi a bowl of water since it was a hot, sunny afternoon. At one point, Pippi was startled by traffic noise. She spilled her water, which then sent her skittering out of the way and I temporarily lost hold of her leash. I recommend making sure you have your dog’s leash secured before diving into a delicious bowl of lentil soup. If you don’t, you may end up with much of your soup on the sidewalk! Just a tip.

During the drive, we made a necessary pitstop at a roadside rest area. I have to say that one silver lining to this pandemic is that public rest areas are sooooo much cleaner than usual. Despite that, making a stop like this with a pet can be a bit tricky. I couldn’t leave Pippi in the hot car while I went inside. Suffice it to say, the experience was manageable but not ideal. I highly recommend forming a tag-team for this sort of thing, if at all possible.

Day 1 – Grand Haven

We arrived in Grand Haven in the early afternoon. After getting settled in our home away from home, we set out to explore the town. It was a short walk to the business district, which sits right on the Grand River and Lake Michigan. Restaurants had commandeered the main street for outdoor seating. The town was, to my delight, active but not overcrowded. We did some window shopping and went into Must Love Dogs, an adorable pet boutique. The shop has an active Facebook page filled with pet-friendly opportunities – meet-ups with like-minded folks for walks around the area and other activities. I recommend checking it out. 

Pippi and I walked to the lighthouse pier and just enjoyed the fresh air and views of the water. All told, we logged about 3 miles in the heat of the day. The nice thing about traveling solo with a pet is that you find all kinds of opportunities to interact with people you meet along the way. Making connections with strangers is so easy when you have a dog – especially a tiny dog. So many oohs and aahs and inquiries. 

Later that evening, a friend joined us for a visit to nearby P.J. Hoffmaster State Park. It was about a 10-minute drive rewarded by gorgeous sunset views on the beach. I found that most, if not all, parks were welcoming to dogs after the busy daytime hours. I prefer quiet beaches and avoiding the heat of midday, so this suited me just fine.

Sunset at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park

Day 2 – Nature Walks and Some Serious R&R

Day Two was filled with visits to a variety of nature preserves and parks and a fitting finale to the busy day. First, though, we enjoyed breakfast, including some great coffee chosen especially for me by our AirBnB host – just one of many special touches we experienced here. We picked up a picnic lunch at The Toasted Pickle, a terrific little sandwich shop in town. 

Ottawa Dunes (dog-friendly) and North Beach Park (not so much)

We took our picnic to the beach – North Beach Park, which doesn’t technically allow dogs. We parked there and walked through a small part of the Ottawa Dunes, which does allow dogs on leash.

Pippi really loved exploring here. It was hilly, but with stairs, so we didn’t have to slog uphill through the sand. Near the top you get great views of the lake and beach below.

On Ottawa Dunes looking out to North Beach Park and Lake Michigan

After wandering around there for a while, we grabbed a picnic table near the water for our lunch. Our sandwiches and salads were fabulous! Recharged, we headed to the next stop. 

North Beach Park – Great place for a picnic!

Hofma Preserves Nature Trails

This is an inland preserve with trails though a diverse wetlands and woodsy area – perfect for finding all sorts of wildlife. Pip enjoyed this one though the floating bridges made her a bit nervous. We saw birds, turtles and water lilies and found this to be a very peaceful place. The trails here were flat and fairly short. The preserve does connect to Hofma Park for more trail options. It was here, at Hofma Preserve, that I took the signature photo for my Trips with Pip series. This was my favorite trail of the trip.

Duncan Woods

Our last trail of the day was Duncan Woods. I had high hopes for this one – billed as “40 acres of unspoiled virgin forest.” There were more people wandering here but trails were not marked well and we made our best guess. We ended up on a paved “trail” that ended up taking us through a cemetery. I like cemeteries as much as the next guy – they can be pretty interesting – but this was not what we were looking for. By that time, we’d had enough of nature and headed back to town. 

The Pier, Ice Cream and Dinner on the Beach at Sunset

We took another walk to the pier and lighthouse. As I mentioned before, having a pet invites interaction with the people you meet. Most interactions are pleasant and friendly. We did meet up with one lady, though, who made no secret of her opinion as she approached us – “That’s an awfully long walk for a little dog!”, she muttered loudly. Now, mind you, Pippi was pulling me at that point as I had begun to slow down. And, of course, I had her travel water bowl and a bottle of water (necessary accessories for outings with your pet). Oh, well. Some people…

Pippi enjoying the view from the end of the lighthouse pier

What’s a trip to the beach without a delicious ice cream cone, right? We stopped at one of the many  options along the walk to the lighthouse. Plenty of folks were out and about despite it being a weekday. As the sun began its descent, we saw many sun-kissed families trailing home from the beach, with sleepy, water-logged kids heavy in their arms, or juggling umbrellas and coolers as they navigated the sandy paths back to their cars. 

Once again, my AirBnB host, Rachel, came through with a great recommendation. Noto’s at the Bil-Mar sits right on the beach. Any spot in the outdoor seating area provides amazing views of the water and a front row seat to gorgeous Lake Michigan sunsets. Once again, Pippi was a welcome guest. We ordered drinks, tucked our toes into the soft, white sand and settled in for an unhurried evening. The food is very good – but the views just can’t be beat.

 The official Dog Beach, part of the Grand Haven City Beach,  is just to the south of the restaurant. We were able to watch puppies frolicking in the surf, kids putting the finishing touches on their sand castles and couples laying out blankets anchored by picnic baskets laden with romantic dinners-for-two. It really was a great finish to a perfectly lovely getaway. By the way, the sunset really was a stunner.

The End of a Successful Trial Run

The next morning, Pippi and I had a nice lazy morning and then packed up to head home. I found a bag of fresh farmer’s market peaches perched on the hood of my car – yet another thoughtful gesture by our host, Rachel! I arrived home relaxed, refreshed and feeling like I had really gotten away for a bit – a necessary thing this summer, we all know. And, I felt encouraged – knowing now that Pippi will make a great travel companion and a wonderful conversation starter when I visit new places in the future.

Pippi, exhausted but happy, dreaming of her adventures in the sand and surf

Trips with Pip – A New Pet-Friendly Travelogue Series

Hello, Travelers! How many of you are single? Do you travel alone? Do you travel in a pack? Do you have a favorite travel companion? Is that someone two-legged or four-legged? 

I’ve taken very few solo trips in my lifetime – so far – but I hope to be taking more in the future. My kids are grown, I’m single and it’s time to strike out on my own a bit. I admit, though, that the idea of solo travel is a bit daunting. Enter Pippi. 

I have always loved dogs. Living without them seems lonely and unpleasant to me, so, when considering my latest family member, I did think about “portability”. I want to be able to take my dog with me on planes and trains – to travel with me to all the places I want to visit. I don’t like the idea of having her stuffed into the hold of an airplane, so size mattered. Pippi is my pocket-sized pooch. She fits the profile for a “carry-on” pal, has a lion’s heart and is curious and eager to explore new places. I don’t think I could’ve chosen a better travel companion. 

Until this summer the only trips we had taken together were short drives to the vet and groomer, walks in the neighborhood and some lovely visits to Grandma’s house. She has proven to be a good traveler for short car rides and is a polite house guest – only peeing in designated areas, never chewing up shoes or carpet and being generally friendly to all the humans she has come into contact with. So far, so good, right? I figured we would ease into the whole travel thing, and so we got started with some local outings this summer.

Pippi digesting some culture during one of our outings

I hope to develop a foolproof means of traveling with Pippi; learning the ins and outs of international travel with dogs, finding pet-friendly destinations and, by sharing my experiences, perhaps saving my readers some pain. This is where I started:

My Top Five Things To Do When Preparing For Travel With A Pet

  1. Consider what kind of travel you intend to do – for me, it is local, domestic AND international. Will your pet be well-suited for the types of travel you love?
  2. Research requirements for traveling with an animal – I checked government sites, airline websites and did a lot of googling on bringing pets into foreign countries (some require quarantining, which is a hard “no” for short trips, and all have specific requirements for vaccinations)
  3. Related to #2, have your dog chipped with a microchip that is compatible with international systems. I chose HomeAgain.
  4. Purchase a sturdy, yet compact, carry case. I carry Pippi in a Bergan Comfort Carrier. It has great features including the means to strap the carrier into a car seat for extra safety.
  5. Have a safe, comfortable crate available for times when you must leave your pet behind at the campsite, rental or hotel room. I have a foldable crate that travels well, though I will likely purchase one at my destination when I travel by air. Reduced hassle and no extra luggage fees will easily offset that cost.
Pippi, fresh from the groomer, modeling her Bergan Comfort Carrier

I’ll be posting about our adventures in pet-friendly travel in a new series: Trips With Pip. First up will be our #PureMichiganPandemic summertime trips of 2020. I would love to hear about your adventures traveling with your four-legged companions! Please share in the comments.