A Travellerspoint blog

Baku, Azerbaijan

Our last country for this adventure :(

sunny 22 °C
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Arrived early into Baku on the fantastic sleeper train from Tbilisi (around $50 each for 1st class sleeper). It's the first time we crossed a border by train. At around 10pm, we were quickly stamped out of Georgia at one station, then half hour later at the next station, an Azerbaijan immigration official took over a compartment in the carriage with his camera and laptop, and we all filed in one by one to be processed. It took nearly 2 hours to check out of Georgia and check in to Azerbaijan!

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The night train to Baku. Our last sleeper train and interestingly, the best one of the whole trip!

Azerbaijan is an oil rich country, and the oil and gas just bubbles up everywhere. In the 19th century, industrial oil production started in Azerbaijan, which supplied 50% of the world's oil. The oil barons included the Nobel brothers (from Nobel prize fame). Even in the suburbs of Baku you will see the "nodding donkeys", pumping up the oil.

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Baku have hosted some major events over the years including Eurovision, European Olympics (apparently it's a thing), and this year the Formula1. Here are "Inje” and “Jasur", the mascots for the recent Islamic Games.

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The transport infrastructure is good in and around Baku. A lot of the transport is being modernised including this regional train we caught. It was possible the best train I have ever been on. Must have been brand new out of the factory. Even had a hostess!!

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Some highlights of the stay in Baku......

Old Town history and architecture.
We stayed in the old city of Baku, consisting of a labyrinth of lanes in which we got lost every time we went out or returned. Even Google maps doesn't work well because when inside the little alleys, the navigation apps cant see the satellites. It was fun and after 5 days we had learnt our way around quite well.

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Soviet Baku and metro

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Science academy

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Town hall

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Palace

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Another town hall

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Pedestrian mall

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Nice fountain

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Entrance to metro

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A train station

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Metro

Modern Baku architecture
Interesting article here.

The most iconic image of Baku are the three enormous illuminated "Flame Towers". Video here.

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And Baku is spending millions engaging architects to design futuristic buildings all over the city. All the following projects have started or are completed. Not all these photos are mine.

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Yep - they have copied our Opera House!

Gobustan petroglyphs
We caught the public bus (1hr $1 each) to the town of Gobustan. Here is an excellent visitor centre ($10 each) explaining about the ancient rock carvings. Nobody knows how old these rock carvings are but 20-40,000 years is an estimate. Some are huge and obvious and others required a bit of imagination!

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Alta mud volcanoes
A short distance from Gobustan are some mud volcanoes. Actually they are all over the Baku peninsula. The mud is cold, and spurts out due to the build up of natural gas. It possible to put a match to the top and see shots of flaming mud.

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Posted by MikeinCairns 08:27 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (0)

Tbilisi, Georgia

overcast 16 °C
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If we had more time, it would have been nice to continue the train journey from Bucharest, through Bulgaria and Turkey on to Georgia. This was part of the great Orient Express journey made famous by Agetha Christie. As it happened, we flew to Tbilisi with Tarom (Romania's state airline) .

We only planned a very quick 5 day stop over to visit the sights in Tbilisi and Kazbergi/Stepantsminda in the high Caucasus mountains.

We stayed in two different great Airbnb apartments on the edge of the old city. One was in the typical old rambling tradition Tbilisi home in a small alley. Walking down the street towards our place:

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Here is our place:

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It might look like a condemened building, but in Tbilisi, you can't judge a building by its facade - It was beautiful and modern inside.

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We did all the touristy things in Tbilisi:

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And of course we ate heaps of great Georgian food.

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Interesting fact...Georgians don't call their country Georgia, to them it is Sakartvelo. Also they have a fascinating and unique language and a beautiful script. Thank goodness they also right everything in Latin script.

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Here's a couple of brands you might recognise....

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We caught the bus to Kazbergi and stayed two days. The first day was freezing (literally) and misty and we saw nothing. Then on the second day we had glorious sunshine.

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Posted by MikeinCairns 08:24 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Southern Romania and Wallachia

Timişoara and Bucharest

semi-overcast 20 °C
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The last two places we visited were Timişoara and Bucharest.

We nearly didn't go to Timişoara, which would have been a real pity because it turned out to be one of our favorite places. We caught a day train into Timişoara and arrived late in the evening. We got a brilliant hotel/guesthouse (Tim House) close to the station and on the edge of the spectacular old town.

We spent a couple of days exploring this beautiful town, history and beautiful buildings everywhere you look:

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Timişoara is the only Romanian city with canal public transport

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Then we caught the night train to Bucharest. The train was the oldest we had yet caught. It really could have been in a TV period drama (think Orient Express). But it was in immaculate condition. It still had the beautiful old fashion light shades, big, bouncy leather seats, a little antique wash basin in the compartment. Heaps of fun for the train buff (Mike).

Bucharest was better than expected. It is known as a boring city, but it had enough old Soviet architecture and history to keep us interested for a couple of days.

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Not sure what this is

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No we have not jumped countries! This is the Arc de Triumph in Bucharest!

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The most beautiful building in Romania - National opera house

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The dismal Bucharest metro

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The second biggest government building in the world (after the Pentagon), built by the crazy communist leader/dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Its now called the Palace of the Parliament. Daily tours take visitors through some of the opulence. Ceaușescu was ultimately captured and shot by his people as he tried to escape this building by helicopter.

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The open air Village Museum located in the King Michael park, showcasing traditional Romanian village life. We spent half the day here and still didn't get to see everything.

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Posted by MikeinCairns 08:06 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

Central Romania and Transylvania

semi-overcast 20 °C
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From Northern Romania, we headed into the heart of "Dracula country", trying hard to avoid the touristic tat associated with the Dracula legend.

Highlights were:

Braşov Old Town, we went on a free walking tour and learned a bit about this medieval Saxon town. It was the first rainy day we struck this holiday.

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Raşnov Fortress was an impressive stop over for an hour or two.

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We weren't expecting the tourist town of Sinaia to be so nice. We stayed in Le Petit Chateu, a historic home in the center of town. It was really interesting to meet the owner who explained how the house was taken from her family by the Communists, and she was slowly trying to restore it after a 15 year court battle to regain ownership.

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We visited the royal Peleş Castle. We were reticent at first having visited so many royal households but this was something different and special. So much timber!!!

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We then went up the gondola to one of the highest points of the Transylvania Carpathian mountains (2100m).

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Up the top was the biggest bbq ever. A great selection of meat and more meat. No sign of greenery here!

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We ate kürtőskalács, a traditional sweet like a massive spiral doughnut barbecued and covered in sugar. Margaret ate most of it; I thought it tasted like a burnt doughnut.

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Sigişoara was another impressive medieval town built on a surrounded by a fortress. It's where a lot of iconic photos are taken, but we didn't have great weather for photography.

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This how it looks on a nice day (and a bit of Photoshop)

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Our next stop was Sebeş, a tiny one street rural village about 20km south of Făgăraş. We wanted a base to explore the Bâlea glacier lake (2000m) and the awesome Transfagaraş Highway rated by TopGear as the best road in the world. 

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When we arrived at the lake, the fog rolled in. We nearly lost Margaret in the lake!

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But only about 30 minutes later it cleared to a beautiful sight

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One of the great aspects of hiring a car, is the ability to staying in unusual accomodation of the main tourist drag.
Casa Macarina was a monastery and religious retreat also open to the public. It had a haunted feeling with a seriously scary castle.

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We also stayed at the stately home of Conac Polizu. We slept in the room previously stayed in by Queen Maria of Romania!

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Driving the countryside was a bit stressful at times; the Romanians (like most East Europeans) are crazy drivers. The roads are pretty bad so it is slow going most of the time. The Romanian method is to drive as fast as possible on any part of the road, while avoiding potholes, pedestrians, cattle, horse and cart and other obstructions.

But it was in the countryside that we saw the real Romania and we were so glad we hired the car.

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Wells are still commonly used for fresh water and they come in all shapes and sizes

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Well, well, well....that's it until the next blog - Western and Southern Romania (Wallacia)

Posted by MikeinCairns 12:33 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

Northern Romania - Maramureș, Bukovina and Iasi

semi-overcast 21 °C
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"Bună Ziua" Romania and Europe. That's Romanian for hello.

We crossed the border from Ukraine to Romania by foot. Off the train at Solotvyno, a 1km walk, across the bridge, and into the small Romania town of Sighetu Marmaţiei and the EU.

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Bye bye Ukraine, we have such mixed feelings about you!

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Across the river Tisa

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Hello Europe!

In Sighetu Marmaţiei we stayed at the lovely hotel Casa Royal. Romanians speak a Latin language similar to Spanish, so thankful we can now read signs! However getting our tongue around some of the pronunciation is proving impossible. But we have already discovered that many Romanians can speak English, so it's pretty easy going with communicating.

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The town of Sighet

Tried the regional speciality - polenta with melted cheese and bacon. The one on the internet looked a bit better than the one we got.

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Romanian Gypsies. A fascinating people, with many problems very similar to indigenous Australians. We encountered them in most small towns of southern Ukraine and northern Romania.

Got a share car out to Sapanţa for the day to see two major attractions of the region - Merry Cemetery, and the amazing Peri-Săpânţa Monastery with it's wooden churches.

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Merry Cemetery, very ornate painted timber tombstones that tell a story of the persons life and death.
Read more here

Most tell stories of rural life - women weaving, men working, etc....

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Some are wacky...

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Some show pretty clearly how the person died...

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All the paintings are accompanied by a story, apparently many are humorous. But some poignant.

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More translations here but it's a bit of a depressing read.

A short walk from the cemetery is the famous monastery of timber churches.

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Margaret crossing a bit of a scary bridge

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A lot of the construction does not use nails or bolts. It is carved and fitted together.

Next stop Vişeu de Sus. A train ride from Sighet along the Ukrainian border.

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Stayed in the friendly guesthouse Casa Doce, small but nice pensione,  The highlight of Vişeu de Sus is the historic Mocanita Steam train - a 5hr journey up into a mountain valley.

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We had an exciting adventure when the train derailed on the return!

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By this time, we had picked up a hire car in Cluj Napoca (Romania's second city) and driven to the North East district of Bukovina. The highlights included the Painted Monasteries of Bukovina and Mănăstirea (monastery) Nouă Zosin.

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Finally, we haded west to the city of Iaşi (pronounced 'yash') near the Moldovan border to see the impressive Palace of Culture and other interesting architecture.

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Saw some funky VW beetles decorated with tiles outside an art gallery

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Next part of the journey takes us to Central Romania and Transylvania!

Posted by MikeinCairns 17:00 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

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