Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Novi Sad, Serbia

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, Serbia

Why did we visit Novi Sad, Serbia?  Because it was a nice rest stop our route to rack up countries in eastern europe :)  Ok, that wasn’t the only reason but it did work out nicely as a rest stop on our way up to Budapest.

Turns out that Novi Sad is a very nice city with a lot of history.  The Petrovaradin Fortress is the main historical monument in Novi Sad and also home to the popular European Music Festival, “Exit”.  It sits on the danube river and is only a short walk from the city center.

Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad is pretty compact so its a easy town to walk around.  There are a lot of nice sidewalk cafes where you can sample the local food.  There is also a boardwalk that follows a nice stretch of the Danube.  There is a also a beach but I’m not sure I’d go swimming in the water.  It looks worse than the waters off Hong Kong… and thats pretty bad.

Novi Sad City Center

We didn’t have any plans when in Novi Sad so we just walked around.  Sometimes the best way to explore a city is just to get lost.  That’s how we found the nice walk along the Danube, a couple of very nice parks and some interesting architecture in some back alleys.

Novi Sad Architecture

It’s a nice little town for a stopover to visit a few historical sights or if you like music festivals but not much else.

Racking Up Countries In Eastern Europe… if you can get across the borders.

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Country count... Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria

As you may know I have this competition with my family on who can visit the most countries.  I’ve clearly passed all of them up a while ago but it’s still an obsession and there is no easier place to rack up a significant number of countries than eastern europe.  We racked up 9 countries in less than a week.  Two of the most entertaining border crossings had to be Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania.

Entering Bosnia and Herzegovina

The crossing in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t that difficult but it was very silly that the sole reason of our visit was to rack up the country.  We were traveling from Bled, Slovenia to Novi Sad, Serbia.  It’s only about a 6 hour drive but we took about 10 or so with a stop for lunch in Zagreb, Croatia and a brief snack stop and stroll at some restaurant/farm just across the border.

The main difficulty is to find an efficient route that didn’t take us to far off track.  Google maps shows the roads in Bosnia and Herzegovina but can’t give you any driving directions.  The GPS in our car had only major highways of which there were only 3 in the entire country.  So, we had to guess that a border crossing would be near a big city so we headed for Slavonski Brod.  The border crossing here was quick and smooth.  The GPS lady was freaking out telling me to do a u turn because I wasn’t on a road.  Once I figured how to shut her up we headed in an easternly direction to find a different way out of Bosnia and Herzegovina and back into Croatia in order to continue on to Serbia.

We eventually made it into Serbia for a quick visit to Novi Sad (more on that later).  Then came a rather comical series of events trying to get into Romania.  Once again, our car’s GPS was no help and google thought it could route me into Romania but it turns out google was wrong.  Very, very wrong!!

Attempting to Enter Romania

The plan was to enter Romania near Kikinda then head north through the country and eventually into Budapest, Hungary.  According to google it would only be about an hour out of the way vs heading straight to Budapest.  It was perfect.  A scenic route through a new country.  The problem was trying to find an open border crossing.

Here is our first attempt to cross the border into Romania from Serbia.

1st attempt to get into Romania

We were very surprised.  Google maps said we could get across the border here but this didn’t look promising.  I couldn’t read the sign but I was pretty sure we weren’t allowed to cross the border here.  I had google maps downloaded to my ipad so I reviewed the map and saw another border crossing just north of our location.

2nd attempt to cross the border into Romania.  At least we can see the sign that says “Republic or Serbia”.  So close yet so far.  Denied again.

2nd attempt to get into Romania

There was one more border crossing just north of our location.  This one had to work.

3rd attempt to get into Romania.  No signs just a dirt road.  We went up the road a bit but the weeds started getting longer and the dirt road more impassable.  There was no way this was an open border crossing.  Could we have gotten into Romina this way?  Maybe.  Would we have been arrested as illegal immigrants.  Maybe.  Anyway, we were denied again.

3rd attempt to get in Romania

By now I was getting kinda pissed.  I’m a seasoned traveller and I wasn’t going to be denied entry into a country.  I was on a mission.  Miki sensed my frustration (probably because of my many expletives directed toward google maps) so she got out a map.  Not one of the many electronic maps I had but a paper one.  You know, the old school kind that you have to fold out.  As she’s looking over the map she asks me what I think these little white flags on the maps were.  I look at the map key and it said “border crossings”.

Yep.  We had a map in our car the whole time that labelled all the border crossings for the whole of Europe.  Not surprisingly, our attempted border crossings didn’t have a little white flag.  However, there was one about 30km south of our first attempt to cross into Romania.  The problem now is we were very far away from that border crossing and we didn’t have time to double back.  I temporarily admitted defeat and we headed to Budapest, Hungary.

As we were driving across the Serbia/Hungary border I said I’m not giving up.  Even if we just cross the border into Romania and turn around we are going to do it.  We looked at the paper map and saw the Hungary/Romania border crossing wasn’t that far out of the way.  Off we went.

Hungary/Romania border crossing

Eureka!!!  We finally crossed the border into Romania.  It was pretty quick process and we went into the closest town and find a nice little restaurant for dinner.  At least we did something in Romania rather than just turning around as soon as we entered.  After feeling very satisfied with our accomplishment and a nice dinner we continued our journey to Budapest, Hungary.

Bled, Slovenia – The Adventure Capital of Europe and the Best Day Trip Ever!!

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Lake Bled and the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island

Earlier in our European adventure, I blogged about one of the worst day tours we ever took and now we had one of the best day tours ever.  It was the Emerald River Adventure tour run by 3glav adventuresin Bled, Slovenia.  This tour had it all.  History, beautiful scenery, hiking at the highest mountain pass in Slovenia, white water rafting on the Soca river, swimming at a secluded waterfall, visiting another waterfall (no swimming at this one but still very impressive), jumping from a ridiculously high bridge into emerald green water, a unique car train ride through a series of long tunnels, and all of this in one day long tour that costs less than 100 euros.

View of the Julian Alps in Bled, Slovenia

Packing all this stuff into one day wouldn’t work well if it wasn’t run by a good group of guys.  You can tell they really care about their country and about showing tourists what it has to offer.  Unlike many tour operators around the world, I didn’t feel like these guys were just in it for the money.  They didn’t just want to get you in and out while emptying the most they can out of your wallet.  This level of service has made them stand out.  Just look at tripadvisor.  They are rated the #1 thing to do in Bled and the reviews they have are as glowing as mine.  Well done guys!!!

Jumping from a bridge into emerald green water.  This guy had a very bad entry into the water... but first... ouch.  I don't think he will be sitting down again for a while.

Jumping from a bridge into emerald green water. This guy had a very bad entry into the water... but first... ouch. I don't think he will be sitting down again for a while.

Slovenia doesn’t usually show up on the travelers radar as being an adventure capital.  Switzerland usually holds that title but if you want the best service, the best bang for your buck, the best food, the best culture, look no further than Bled, Slovenia.

Girl fishing in Lake Bohinj

It’s also much, much cheaper than Switzerland.  Just take a look at the price difference for a 3 hour cayoning tour.  I know price isn’t everything but it makes a difference for travelers on the budget.  Why pay twice as much in Switzerland for what is the same if not a better experience in Slovenia.

3 hour canyoning tour with 3glav in Slovenia – 55 euros

3 hour canyoning tour (they advertise it as a half day tour but its closer to a 2 hour tour with only 3 waterfalls to abseil down) with “Trekking Team” in Switzerland – 100 euros

Start of the Soca river. One of the many beautiful waterfalls in Slovenia.

Bled, Slovenia has a lot more to offer the adrenaline junkie.  You can go hiking, mountain biking, sky diving, paragliding, rock climbing, and much more.  You can also get very good 3-4 star accommodation for less than 75 euros per night (even in August).

In our 3 month, 23 country european adventure, Slovenia stood out as one of our favorites if not the top place in Europe we’d like to revisit.

Gearing up for whitewater rafting down the Soca River

Here is a short video of our whitewater rafting trip down the Soca River.  It’s more of us jumping off of rocks, and floating down the river than actually rafting but still a great time just don’t expect class 5 Zambezi river like rapids.

Crashing Local Events (part 2) – Running a Marathon

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Off to the races...

If you follow this blog then you know Miki loves to run.  She’s done marathons, triathlons, half marathons, 10ks, etc.  So, when she saw a poster advertising a marathon around lake Misurina near Cortina, Italy we changed our plans slightly to stay an extra day to attend the race.  There was one slight problem.  The translation we received from the front desk of our hotel was slightly inaccurate.  It went from a marathon to a half marathon to a “short run”.  The staff was very helpful but didn’t really understand what it was but they did know all you had to do was show up.

We turned up on the day of the race and it wasn’t what we thought.  It was only a 3k run.  Miki specializes in longer distance running so this was different but she decided to do it anyway.  She was placed in the “Femminile Seniores” group based on her age and sex with 6 other runners.  The other six runners were incredible.  Miki called them mountain women.  They were tall, big, and looked very strong.  At this point, I would have gracefully disappeared, hoped back into the car and headed for our next destination but Miki just smiled and lined up near the starting line.

Miki running in the Lake Misurina "Marathon"

 

Miki closed to the finish of the Lake Misurina "Marathon"

Not surprisingly, the other women in the group beat Miki but still not a bad showing for running at a high altitude, on a short course, against a bunch of mountain women.  Way to go Miki!!!

Femminile Seniores:

1. Monica Gaspari 10:53

2. Sabrina Boldrin 12:24

3. Marina Piller 12:50

4. Valentina Bachmann 14:51

5. Irene Cicolini 14:58

6. Elena Da Ros 15:25

7. Miki Busscher 15:50

Miki with the race organizers. She was the only non Italian in the race.

360 degree in flight virtual helicopter ride – AMAZING!!!

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

This is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a long time.  They mounted a 360 degree camera below a helicopter during a tour in Nimmo Bay, British Columbia.  During the flight you can pan the camera while the video is playing and your moving through the air.  It’s like you are actually there.  We have all seen virtual 360 tours of homes, etc but these guys (North Studio 360) took it way beyond the next level.  You really have to watch this.  It’s amazing.

I’ve watched it a dozen times up on my 65 inch TV.  I still can’t believe how much it draws you in.  It’s like you are really there.

I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of these guys.  It will be game changer in online advertising.

**You can also find the video here http://www.nimmobay.com/media/360-video/360-video-nimmo-bay-helicopter-resort

Climbing the Via Ferrata in Italy

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Miki climbing the Via Ferrata

The VIA FERRATA!!  This is what brought us to the Dolomites in northern Italy.  I read about this in some travel book (can’t remember anymore which one) that this was one of the top adventures in the world.  After doing it I can say it was a blast and an amazing adventure but one of the top adventures in the world??… maybe a little bit a stretch.  Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.

Our route on the via ferrata

We hired Marcello via www.dolomitemountains.com to guide us up the mountain.  We started off roped up to Marcello even though the whole point of the via ferrata is that you don’t have to use ropes.  The via ferrata or iron road provides the necessary safety measures for you to get to the top.  All you really need is a helmet, harness, and 2 carabiners attached to you harness.  The 2 carabiners are there so you always have at least one clipped into the cable just in case.

Nathan bringing up the rear on the via ferrata

After a little bit of climbing Marcello decided we were ready to go on our own.  He took the rope off of us.  There would be nobody to blame but ourselves if we fell to our death.  Our lives were in our own hands.  Actually, it wasn’t that scary.  The iron cable is firmly bolted into the mountain and you always have one clip into the cable.  You would have to do something very stupid to get hurt.  Even the local kids do this with their families.  It’s like taking a walk in the park for them.

We did make it to the top and both of us wanted to do it again right away.  It was great fun that was very safe.  I would want to hire Marcello to do it a few more times but then we would be fine going out on our own.  Most of these routes are well documented and well marked.  During the peak seasons you can even get traffic jams on some of them because there are so many people.

Miki standing in front of our via ferrata climb

Travel Tip: If you want help with a complete travel package to the Dolomites contact www.dolomitemountains.com.  They can help with hotels, transportation and hiring a guide.  If all you need is a guide for a few days then contact Marcello directly.  You’ll probably be able to work out a better deal.

Check out this video compilation of our climb up the via ferrata.

Climbing the Cinque Torri (5 Towers)

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Cinque Torri from a distance

The previous post explained our lack of experience hiking in Europe so today we hired a guide.  We hired Marcello Cominetti via www.dolomitemountains.com.  Hiring a guide was a little complicated when I was going through the process.  It seems like most foreign tourists do a package tour when coming to the area but we were only looking to hire a guide for 3 days.  I took care of lodging, food, transportation, etc to save on cost.  The main problem I had was the cost of about 400 euro per day for the guide.  To me this seemed pretty steep but after more research and talking with Marcello this was about right.

The Mountain Guide Association, which Marcello is a member, regulates the cost guides can charge based on the climb you do.  For example, a very hard sport climb might only take an expert only an hour to do but would cost 600 euros for a guide because of the difficulty.  That same climb might take someone 6 hours but the cost would still be 600 euros.  The climbing we did wasn’t hard or technical which is why the cost was less.  I’m sure you could find someone who would take you out cheaper but do you really want to literarily put your life in the hands of an amateur.  My recommendation, hire Marcello!!

Starting to Climb Cinque Torri

We also upped the adrenaline factor on our climb today.  We met our guide at the base of a famous bit of rock near Cortina, Cinque Torri or 5 Towers in english.  It didn’t look that daunting driving up the dusty single lane dirt road but it was a different story once we got to the base.  The locals call this place “The Airport” because so many people come here to climb because there are many easy routes.  We didn’t think it looked that easy but we got all geared up with climbing harnesses, ropes, helmets, etc and heading to the start of our climb.

After a brief safety talk our guide started straight up the rock.  While we were waiting for him to get into place, I got one of those looks from Miki.  You know, one of those “what the heck have you gotten me into now looks”.

The ""what the heck have you gotten me into now look"

There was no turning back now so we pressed on…

Miki Climbing the 5 Towers

Our guide leading a route on the 5 towers

I didn’t get my camera out for most of the climb because it was pretty challenging for us.  Marcello just walked up the thing like he was talking a stroll in the park but we struggled from time to time.  BUT… we made it and we felt very, very proud of ourselves.

Summit of Cinque Torri (5 Towers)

Being very proud of our accomplishment I wanted to try to portray the enormity of our accomplishment.  We had climbing several hundred meters straight up.  Once we reached the summit we abseiled down several abseil stations (one length of route can’t reach from top to bottom).  This is hard to capture in a photo but I used a 12mm wide angle lens that gave an almost distorted perspective of the side we abseiled down.  If you zoom in you can see a climber in a red jacket about 3/4 of the way up.  Looks impressive huh…

Wide Angle of Cinque Torri

The next day we hiked up a mountain opposite the 5 Towers.  This gave us a very different perspective on the mountain we conquered (also pictured at the top of the post).  Doesn’t look that challenging from this perspective.  In fact it looks down right easy.  A little change in perspective can make a big difference.

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Cortina d’Ampezzo – a short hike that could have gone very bad…

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Cortina

Cortina d’Ampezzo is located in the Dolomites in the north eastern corner of Italy only a short drive from the Austrian border.  It is a very popular ski destination in the winter and a climbing destination in the summer.  We were there to do some hiking, climbing and enjoying the great Italian food.

We hired a climbing guide for a three days but the first day we arrived we didn’t have a guide but still wanted to do a short hike.  We visited the Cortina information center and got some hiking maps and they gave us some recommended short hikes.  The chosen hike was route 224 to the west of Lake Misurina.  According to the information center this was an “easy 2 hour hike”.  The truth was this was neither “easy” nor a “2 hour” hike.

Cortina Hiking Map

Here was the challenge.  The trailhead started at the lake just off the right of the picture below.  It continued up the right side of the mountain range, around the backside, popped out somewhere on the left down the rock face, then traversed back across to the start of the trail.  Sounds simple enough but the trail wasn’t well marked, it took a lot longer than we expected and the clouds started to roll in and it started to get very cold.

Mountains around Lake Misurina

We started the hike on the well marked trail and we having a good time.  The clouds were just coming in but we weren’t worried yet.

Beginning of the Lake Misurina Hike

Clouds rolling in over Lake Misurina

The backside of the mountain opened up into a stunning valley.  Nobody was around except for a few cows.  It was all still very beautiful because we though the end was just around the corner.

Valley in the Dolomites

Then things started to get worrisome.  The trail forked off in a couple different directions and wasn’t well marked.  The map looked very clear but when we got there is wasn’t clear at all.  We were hiking next to a very big rock face that had lots of small rocks rolling down the steep slopes.  We were anxiously waiting for one of those large boulders to let loose… luckily it never happened.

Back of the mountain... things starting to get scary

At least we would have had some shelter but I’m not sure how much it would have helped without all the walls and a roof…

At least we will have some shelter... sort of.

We finally found a make shift ladder built into the side of the mountain that helped us get down the sheer cliff face.  This put us back on the trail and we could see lake Misurina again… we were safe.  We were so worried I didn’t even take pictures during the period we were trying to find our way out.  I wish i would have take a picture of our escape route so I could ask the information center how they classify this as “easy”.

However, we made it and just as we saw Lake Misurina we saw some local wildlife… a very nice treat.

Our only company on the hike

We made it back to our car about 4 hours after we started.  Double the amount of time quoted by the information center.  Next time we will do more research and plan our hikes much better or hire a guide.

We did make it back to Cortina and started to prepare for our real climbing adventure of the next 3 days…

Mountains around Cortina

Venice, Italy – Too many pigeons, Too many tourists, Too many advertisements

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Panorama of Venice

Venice is supposed to be romantic city that is a must see destination in Italy but our experience was far from it.  Bottom line is there are way too many pigeons, way too tourists and way to many advertisements.  All of these way too many’s ruin the Venice experience you read about in magazines and see in movies.

First, lets start with the pigeons.  They are everywhere and very disgusting.  In Saint Mark’s square you can feed them and every tourist that goes by does which means there are hundreds of them.  You can’t walk through the square without getting crapped on.

Pigeons of St Michel's square - too many pigeons

Next, way too many tourists.  We’ve visited a lot of touristy sites during our travels but this was the worst.  ’ve never seen so many people packed into such a small place and I’ve lived in Tokyo and Hong Kong.  The idea of strolling down the small romantic streets hand in hand with your loved one just isn’t possible.  With so many people you have to walk single file to go anywhere.

Saint Mark's Square - too many tourists

Tourists Everywhere

The worst thing from a photography perspective was all the advertisements.  This I just don’t get.  Why would you cover up beautiful historic sights with advertisements for watches or a outlet mall.  Venice has sold out and it’s ruined the city.

Too many advertisements

and even more advertisements ruining the views of Venice

We did get a few good pictures but even then I felt forced to even take out my camera.  I wasn’t feeling the love for Venice and didn’t really want to take pictures of this place.

Landscape of Venice at dusk

We did eat some good pizza… probably the only redeeming quality of Venice.

At least the food in venice was good

Trying not to be a grumpy tourists we decided to go on a gondola ride.  It’s one of those must do things in Venice so off we went to find our perfect gondola.  To our surprise the guy wanted 150 euro (over $200 USD).  OUCH.  However, this was likely the first and only time we will be in Venice so we paid the fee for a short 45 minute ride.  Once again, totally not what we had envisioned and definitely not romantic.  Just like walking through the streets of Venice the waterways are equally crowded.  Boats were backed up all over the place… it was like bumper boats at the state fair.

Romantic?? Gondola Ride

We did have a 5 minute or so peaceful window when we were out in the grand canal but that was it.  The rest of the time was a less than memorable experience.

Gondola ride through the grand canal

On our way out of Venice it had one last piece of misfortune it wanted to give to us.  A massive parking fee.  Parking in Venice costs 30 euros per day which is outrageous but if you want to park on the island you have no choice.  You can park outside of Venice and take a train it but then you still have to pay 10 euros and then deal with the train, water bus, walking, etc.  The one thing they don’t tell you when you park is that 30 euros is per 24 hours.  If you stay for 25 hours (which is what we did) they charge you another 30 euros whether you use the next full 24 hours or not.  I was pissed and made a huge scene with an ever increasing amount of spectators.  30 euros for 1 hour of parking was outrageous.  Eventually the parking attendant started yelling at me in Italian and all I could make out was something that sounded like police.  Not wanting to visit the inside of an Italian jail I paid the bill and chalked it up to one of those travel experiences.

To end the post on a high note… I was happy with this last picture.  The choir seats of the inside of the church.  The symmetry, pattern of the floors, lighting, it all just worked for me.

Choir Room

Will we be back to Venice?  What do you think??

Monaco – Super Cars… Super Cars… Super Cars…

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Porsche GT - 440,000 USD

We felt very out of place driving around Monaco in our little Renault Megane.  There were super cars parked around every corner.  Porsche GTs, multiple Ferrari’s (they seemed to be the most common car in Monaco), Mercedes Mclaren, Aston Martin, and on and on.

Mercedes Mclaren SLR Roadster - $450,000 USD

Ferrari California ($220k), 599 GTB ($320k), California ($220k) + 2 more Ferrair's just out of view. Over 1 million USD of cars parked right in front of our little Renault

Ferrari California ($220k) - my favorite of the super cars we saw in Monaco

It’s amazing that there are so many super cars in the tiny little country of Monaco.  The entire city landscape can fit in one panoramic photo (the green you see in the photo is France).  The amazing cars of Monaco are probably the cheapest things in the city.  Studio apartments can sell for millions of euros and mega yachts can go for tens of millions.  It’s a pretty amazing little country.

Monaco Panoramic

What do people do when they aren’t buying a new Ferrari??  Go to the famous Monte Carlo Casino.  We weren’t able to get inside because there is a dress code but even if we did make it in I don’t think they would have $5 blackjack tables.

Reflection of the Monte Carlo Casino

Monte Carlo Casino

Not everything in Monaco is expensive.  One free thing you can do in Monaco is swim.  There is a “concrete beach” that you can swim from.  I was hesitant to let Miki go swimming because the swells were pretty big but she was persistant so off she went.  Luckily she’s a good swimmer and did just fine.  We were there very early in the morning so we had the entire “beach” to ourselves.  I’m not sure if that’s because people in Monaco don’t like to swim or maybe we weren’t supposed to be there.  There weren’t any signs saying stay out… at least not in english :) .

Monaco's swimming "beach"

Jumping into the waters of Monaco

Swimming in Monaco

We were only driving through Monaco but unless you own a ferrari or a mega yacht this isn’t really a town for ordinary travelers.