Two weeks into our family Eurail adventure, we had a big decision to make: should we stick with our original plan to take the train and Couchsurf through Romania and Bulgaria to get to our December destination in Istanbul? Or should we make a lightning fast trip to see Christmas markets in Austria and Germany and up to Scandinavia and then fly to Istanbul? It was tempting to make the most of our first class pass to use the sleek trains in Western Europe and see the postcard-worthy scenery in the Alps. We weren’t sure what they might be like to the east. If you Eurail with kids you want to know what you’re getting into. But in the end, we decided we wanted to see some of the cultures of Eastern Europe that we had never experienced before, and even though we knew it was going to be a little less comfortable – physically and otherwise – in the end we were glad we did.
The beautiful and infuriating Budapest Keleti Station
Our trip from Zagreb to Romania started well enough. We were up on time, our cab came on time, our train left on time, and we had the entire first class car to ourselves. We got into Budapest Deli station just a little late, and we rushed down to the Metro. We needed tickets. The ticket seller didn’t accept credit cards, and we had no forints. She motioned to another window and said “ten minutes.” Agh. I went around the corner and changed some Euros for forints and went back to buy the tickets. OK. Metro to Keleti station. Why oh why are there no escalators in the train stations? Or ramps, at least? And why isn’t the Metro station connected to the train station it is named for? When we finally get into the train station, we don’t see our train on the board. At all. We go to the information desk to see if we can get reservations for the sleeper. No – you need to do that at least 6 hours in advance. You must ask the conductor. OK. Where’s the train? She can’t help me – her computer is down. We think we spot a promising one on Track 11 – all the way on the other side of the station. We get there and they say, “Try Track 6. Or 1.” Both are ALL the way on the other side of this massive station that is beautiful but so poorly designed. We have to walk several hundred yards from one side to the other, our suitcases dragging behind us.
Finally, finally, after our third visit to the information desk, the woman there takes pity on us and calls someone to find out the track number for our train. We get on, and I go in search of the sleeper car. But the very polite porter straight from central casting tells us there is no room. And no room in the couchettes (although I strongly suspect that this less polite porter is just not willing to make up more beds, because it does not look anywhere near full. So we head back to the First Class car (thank you Eurail). We find an empty compartment with plenty of room for us to stretch out, and Magnolia figures out a way we can arrange ourselves for sleeping. BUT. The conductor comes in to tell us that this car will only be going as far as the border. Ugh. We figure we might as well set ourselves up in a Second Class car and try to make the best of it. We find several seats together in a quiet car and settle in. But just as the train pulls out of the station, a boisterous group gets on and argues loudly with the conductor. I can’t tell what the issue is, but these people do not seem pleasant at all. Sure enough, they talk loudly, without stopping. Once in a while one will leave, and the others will do something annoying, like the young couple making out across the seats just behind our girls. Yuck. After it becomes clear they are not going to shut up, we decide to move. We move to a car closer to the café car, which is the only place on the train where people can smoke, and it’s starting to get a little rowdy.
At around 1:30 am, as I looked at my miserable family around me – Calla coughing, Magno curled up like a pretzel on her seat, John sweating and twitching with bad dreams – I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. Well, I had thought we’d be in a sleeper car, but that was not to be. But why did I think we should go ahead and take this horrible overnight train without the sleeper berths? To add insult to injury, I happened to read an article while on this train about someone’s heavenly overnight train in Switzerland, with champagne and nice sheets and blah blah BLAH! I switched off the data connection on my iPhone and slumped back in my seat to try to sleep sitting up.
But then, we wake from a not-very-restful sleep at dawn to a totally new landscape in Romania. The rolling hills are just barely green on this misty November morning. The grays and browns of winter are taking over. We approach a red-roofed town that – aside from the electrical poles – looks like it could have been unchanged for centuries. Smoke pours from every chimney in the town of Agustin as the sun comes up. It’s all very charming and picturesque, until we come upon a splatter of plastic garbage tossed from a back garden towards a stream, as if the house vomited up the indigestible bits its owner had overconsumed.
Just say “no.” I mean “yes.”
We arrived in Brasov, and as we disembarked I saw someone trying to help Magnolia with her bag. We had been coaching the girls on how to say “No” firmly when someone tries to help them with their luggage, because it could turn out to be a scammer who will demand a tip for their often paltry and unhelpful efforts. In this case, though, the perpetrator was our Couchsurfing host, Zsolt, who was actually trying to help. He had a good sense of humor about it. We would come to find out that he had a great sense of humor about everything!
Zsolt drove us from Brasov to their home in Sfintu Gheorghe, where we met his wife Ildiko and their daughters Hongo (which means Heather – another flower girl) and Anna-Villo. We talked for a while, and then they offered us breakfast. And Zsolt offered us shots of Palinka – a plum brandy – to start it off. We were surprised, but we rolled with it. Zsolt offered me a less-strong version he had made with blueberries. We had sausages and bread and an amazing dish made of grilled eggplant and homemade mayonnaise that I can’t wait to try to make at home.
The family is of Seckeler Hungarian descent, and the area is a majority-Hungarian-speaking area within the larger Transylvania region of Romania. They taught us quite a bit about their heritage, and we went to several museums about this culture during our stay.
Zsolt, a biology teacher, showed us around his school in the town. They had very nice facilities, especially his biology lab. The place was astounding! Filled with more stuffed animals than most museums, and several human skeleton models. Great old diagrams and charts. Who wouldn’t want to be a biologist with this classroom, and this teacher? We then went to meet Zsolt’s class. The students crowded around the girls, and they did a great job of answering and asking questions.
We really enjoyed our first Couchsurfing experience as a family, and just couldn’t get over the hospitality of our hosts. If you’d like to learn more about Romania, why not join a small group tour of Transylvania with Unquote Travel? Full disclosure: I’m a founder of Unquote Travel, which was started with the intent to bring more people to experience the wonders of off the beaten path destinations. .
The next leg of the trip was to Sofia, Bulgaria, a place we knew nothing about before arriving. We had made reservations for a four-person sleeper car on the train from Bucharest to Sofia. Our train from Brasov to Bucharest was fine, but we dreaded the three hour stopover in Bucharest. We had heard nothing good about this train station. We read about pickpockets, drug addicts, stray dogs and the like, with no waiting area to speak of. We found it to be not so bad in reality, but we did resort to sitting at the McDonalds to wait instead of the grim fluorescent-lit waiting room.
When we boarded the train, we discovered that it was coming from Moscow, where it had left 36 hours prior. The reservation we made 30 hours prior, then, didn’t really carry much weight. The two Russian ladies in charge of the sleeper cars took a look at our tickets and then pocketed them and pointed us to two separate compartments with other passengers. Sigh.
Our compartment-mates were nice enough, though neither they nor the porters mentioned that the bedding we were offered did not include sheets. We made the best of it and actually managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep. Maybe we were getting the hang of it.
The next morning, we arrived in Sofia to a very very grim station. It was a massive communist building that should have inspired but now sat crumbling and dark. We booked our tickets for the next night’s train and bus to Istanbul and parked our baggage at the station with a friendly handler, who was the first indication that Sofia might be nicer than this station made it out to be. We found the brand new (3 months old) Metro nearby, which whisked us to the center. We were late for the Free Sofia Tour, which our Couchsurfing host had recommended, but managed to find it 30 minutes into the tour. It was a great tour – very informative, with an enthusiastic and friendly guide. (We enjoyed it so much, we went back the next day to catch the beginning of the tour.) We were surprised to find out that most large cities in Europe now offer these free tours, that it’s something of a movement. I wish we had known about them earlier in our European travels, but we’ll pass along the information in case you can use it.
The city is very very old, but none of the buildings are. There are Roman ruins everywhere – the discovery of which delayed the building of the Metro, in some parts. There are mineral springs, with public fountains where people bring their water jugs to fill regularly, but no baths. Seems like a missed opportunity to me!
There were little hidden gems and surprises everywhere in Sofia, like Lavanda, an incredibly charming restaurant where we had one of the best lunches of our trip. I still don’t know how John sniffed that out. He had remarked on it the day before when we walked by, But when we tried to go back for lunch we found only a bar. The girl there pointed up and around toward the back of the building. We went around the building but didn’t see an entrance. We saw someone else go in a door that looked like it led to apartments, so we followed. (Always follow the locals!) We still weren’t sure, but we went up the stairs and found Lavanda, a place that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York. Fantastic meal.
Another surprise was the huge number of super-flashy new gun shops in the city. There seemed to be one on every block. Not sure what that was about. But we wandered around the city and found interesting little scenes all around that piqued our interest and made us think that we might want to come back and spend some more time one day.
Finally, the four of us
For our final train in Europe, we booked a four-person sleeper car on the train to Istanbul. This time, for the first time, we actually got what we were after: just the four of us in a compartment. Of course, this train was only going to the border of Turkey, which we would reach at 2 am. Next year, the train line (and the Eurail pass) is due to be extended all the way to Istanbul, but for now, you must switch to a bus after going through the passport check at the border. The trip was comfortable, and because we knew the routine, we went right to sleep as soon as we boarded the train. The border crossing was painless, and the bus to Istanbul was comfortable. And I will never forget pulling into Istanbul, under the aqueduct, at the break of dawn.
Eurail with kids
And so our Eurail adventure draws to a close. We had some incredibly wonderful times on the trains, and in our travels across Europe. We had frustrations and some uncomfortable moments, too, but above all we had a great adventure on Eurail with kids, and we have some memories that will last us a lifetime. And our kids have learned how to navigate not just the train stations but the metros and buses across Europe like the backpackers they may emulate one day. It’s been a great journey, Eurail, and we thank you for it.
So you’re in DC with kids with plans to visit the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, and all the memorials around the National Mall, but those dag blasted legislators in the Capitol building have managed to shut them all down just in time for your visit. So what can you do? What’s open?
[EDIT: As of Sunday, January 21, there has been no budget agreement and most of the federal government is shut down. HOWEVER, the Smithsonian and National Zoo will remain OPEN on Monday, January 22, 2018]
- The Newseum, Washington’s museum of journalism, is a great place to go to reflect on the news of the day. In front of the museum is a display, updated daily, of the front pages of newspapers from around the world, showing just how ridiculous the U.S. government shutdown looks to people around the world. The Newseum is open from 9 to 5 daily (10 to 5 on Sundays).
- The International Spy Museum currently has an exhibit of James Bond villains, which is rather cool, and its permanent collection is a favorite of kids and their trailing adults. Open 10 to 6 most days.
- The National Building Museum has an amazing show of paper building models, some as small as matchboxes. And there are interactive indoor play areas for building with foam blocks while it’s freezing outside. Open 7 days a week.
- National Geographic‘s current show is an immersive 3D experience about the Tomb of Christ. Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
- … and speaking of Christ… the brand new Museum of the Bible sure wasn’t funded with taxpayer money, so it will be open through the shutdown. There’s a reconstruction of an ancient city that kids might enjoy.
- Hillwood Museum and Gardens is a spectacular place to visit any time of year, though in winter the museum is much more so than the gardens. The permanent collection of the museum includes more Russian imperial art than anywhere outside of Russia. If it’s warm enough, kids will enjoy running through the grounds and spotting the “dacha” cottage, a pet cemetery, a putting green, and the lunar lawn. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 5.
- The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle is known as the first modern art museum in America, with an impressive collection of impressionist and modern art from the 1920s onward. Admission to the permanent collection is by donation on weekdays, $12 on weekends. So perhaps you furloughed feds should hit it up mid-week.
- Artechouse, a massive underground art space with the feel of a dance club, has a brand new exhibit just in time for the shutdown. Parallel Universe features swirling light projections from the Turkish art studio Ouchhh. Open for ages 6 and up during the day; 21 and over after 5:30.
Of course, none of these (except the sweet mid-week deal at the Phillips) is free, which does change the family travel budget quite a bit. To save money, check on some of the local promotional sites, like Goldstar, Groupon, and Living Social to find last-minute deals on entertainment and dining. We’ll be adding more ideas as we find them, so keep checking back, and send your suggestions to editor [at] alloverthemap.net. And don’t forget to email your representatives to tell them what you think of the shutdown.
Travel Gear Reviews
Because I’m a blogger, people send me things. I don’t get it, either. But I guess they want me to write about their stuff. So I figured I would write some travel gear reviews to rationalize the growing pile of stuff that people have sent me.
Sometimes they send me cool things, like like these fantastically cute and comfy shoes from OTBT, and sometimes they are… puzzling.
I do try out just about everything that people send me, because someone went to the trouble to create it – sometimes it’s clearly a labor of love – and they paid someone to seek out bloggers, writers and influencers (which one am I again? Depends on the day.) who might write about it, and one of those people thought I might be the one to do so. So I try to give everything a fair chance.
On my recent trip to Barcelona and Ireland, I took a bunch of these products with me to try them out, and here’s what I thought:
So, here are the travel gear reviews.
The Good Stuff
First, the shoes. From the minute the OTBT Scamper shoes arrived in the mail, they have been in regular rotation for me. They are lightweight, which is great for this perennial overpacker. I almost always fill my suitcase to its maximum, no matter what size bag I bring. And when i am tempted to bring the big bag, as I did on my recent trip, it usually bumps up against that weight restriction. I will never forget the trip home from Belgium a few years ago when I had to unpack and repack my bags – dirty laundry everywhere – at check-in because I was about 5 pounds over the limit. In any case, lightweight shoes are much appreciated. And these are comfy! I’ve been wearing them sockless for a month without a single blister. And did I mention they were cute? I get compliments every time I wear them. OTBT stands for Off the Beaten Track, which is my favorite kind of travel, so yeah, I recommend these.
About that luggage…. I’ve been trying out a really nice carryon bag by ECBC. I’ve got a full video review of it on YouTube, but I’ll give you the basics here. The ECBC Sparrow Wheeled Garment Bag has two separate compartments for clothing, and another for a laptop and/or tablet. The latter can be opened all the way for easy access and for a quick trip through TSA. There’s an included power pack that can be accessed from a zipper at the top of the bag – perfect for recharging when everyone else has hogged the outlets by your gate. Of the two clothing sections, one can be used for hanging garments, with a nice folding section to protect longer pieces. There are two detachable zippered sections that can squeeze in above the hanging garments for small bits and pieces like socks or charging cords. The bottom clothing section is just a big open space for whatever. I’ve used the bag for weekend trips, but for longer trips I prefer one big compartment for everything. I think this bag would be perfect for a quick business trip, with suit and shirt in the hanging section, and toiletries, shoes and gym/loungewear in the other section. The hardware is solid, and the two wheels roll smoothly.
And then came the socks. I’ve known for years that compression socks could ward off deep vein thrombosis on a flight, but I just never bothered. But when the folks at ATN Compression Socks offered to send me a colorful pair, I thought I’d give it a try. Did I mention they were colorful? The ones they sent me were bright red with white stripes and green toes. Elf-y. I was determined to try them, but I didn’t want to show my stripes while waiting to board. So once I was in my seat, I gracefully and tactfully pulled them on. Who am I kidding? Squashed in a coach seat, I could barely lift my leg to put them on. And you know how they are compression socks? They are very tight. And hard to get on. I was cracking myself up trying to get them on. Thankfully, the only person who could really witness this was my husband in the next seat, who was trying hard to pretend he didn’t know me. Though they were tough to get on, and loud as all get out, the socks did what they were supposed to do and I didn’t die of DVT. Hooray! In all seriousness, though, if you need to wear compression socks for health reasons, or for comfort reasons, these will give you some fun reasons, too. You can choose from animal prints, polka dots, doughnuts (doughnuts?), argyles, and more. They have basic black or white, but why would you want those?
Over the years, and I won’t say how many, I have developed a little pain in my knee. It’s not a constant pain, and I can even walk for miles without feeling it. But sometimes, when I’m walking down a hill, I get a little *ping* of pain in my knee. It’s not bad enough to do anything about, but once it appears it likes to come back again and again until I give in and rest it. So when I got an itBandz Knee Band Strap in the mail, I was happy to give it a try. We did a lot of walking in Barcelona, my husband and I, and I didn’t wear this every day. But on the day I knew we’d be climbing a big hill and coming back down again, I wrapped it around my knee and wore it (under skinny jeans, even!) all day. Did I have the knee ping? No. Am I sure the knee band helped? No. But I would definitely try it again on my next big hike, just in case.
And now we’ll move to the really sexy stuff: oral care. I received some cool bamboo bristle toothbrushes from a company with the unfortunate name MouthWatchers. I actually really like these toothbrushes, whose bristles are antimicrobial and very thin at the top which offers better cleaning – they say floss-like, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. They also hold up really well. I’ve been using mine for over a month now and the bristles look just the way they did when it came out of the package. A little sterilization in the dishwasher every now and again and it’s good to go. Of course, if you like to replace your toothbrush regularly, you can buy a 12-pack. I was quite happy with the travel version, and it comes in a power versionas well, if you like to really get into it.
The OK stuff
And how about sleeping aids? I’ve already written about my favorite jet lag cure on the blog. This time I tried the world’s tiniest noise machine by Sound Oasis. This one is so tiny it requires ear buds (included) and fits in a case a little smaller than a glasses case. It offers 10 different tones of continuous white noise – i.e. not a recording of a sound, but continuously generated sound – and 25 hours of run time per charge of its rechargeable battery. I’m not a person who needs white noise to sleep, and I found the ear buds uncomfortable to sleep in, anyway. I hoped that this might be a good option for my husband to keep him from waking up when I snore, but he had the same reaction. Sound Oasis offers lots and lots of white noise machines and sound therapy options, so there is probably one that would work for you; this one just wasn’t doing it for me. They do offer a travel version that does not require ear buds (pictured below), which I think might be a better option.
And now, for my least favorite of the bunch. Because this is a real life review.
I received an email way back during Sleep Awareness Week, which, as I’m sure you know, is in April, when no one can sleep because: taxes. I was interested in the Sleep Easily System because: snoring (see above).
What arrived in the mail was an 8″ x 10″ x 2″ glossy box describing the wondrous contents. A mini audio player with a built-in high-quality speaker! Eyeshades! Specialized earplugs! A charger for the speaker! A book! A summary card for using the system! FOUR sleep recordings! And three bonus recordings!
What I liked: the audio player is a nice small size and can be used with or without ear buds.
What I didn’t like: the recordings themselves. You can choose a nice soothing female voice – clearly a professional voice artist – or you can choose a sort of halting male voice that is very clearly not a professional voice artist. In fact, it is the voice of the creator of the Sleep Easily system. Which is I think part of why this whole package rubs me the wrong way. Here’s the problem: It’s expensive. It’s self-important. It makes you think it is more than what it is. For what is essentially 7 tracks of sound, half of which you are unlikely to use more than once, plus some accessories you can find at the drugstore, if not your bathroom drawer, the price starts at $60.
I guess, in reality, this is not so different from the Sound Oasis product above, but it is pretending to be something different. It is marketed as a special scientific approach to sleeplessness, developed by a behavioral sleep therapist. And sure, maybe he did come up with this particular method and script for the recordings. And maybe it even works to help people sleep better. But to me it sounds like the same advice that anyone would give: try to relax your mind before you go to sleep. I think you could probably pick up an eye mask and some wax earplugs from the drugstore, and search online for some guided meditation and ocean sounds tracks, and have the same experience. And plus, how are you going to hear the recording if you are wearing earplugs?
I received free samples of all of these products for review. My real life reviews are honest and thorough, because I know readers want to know the truth about products before spending their money. And speaking of money….
Some of the links in this post lead to affiliate sites where I might get a few pennies if you buy something there. If you do, thank you very much for helping to keep this crazy dream alive.
That’s it for now. If you have travel gear you’d like me to review, send an email to email@example.com.
Castle Hotel Stays – Ireland
Did you ever dream of being a princess? Or a king? I would have been happy to be Lady So-and-so of Thus-and-such, but I’m generally pretty happy with the life I have. But if you want to pretend you’re royalty and have a staff at your beck and call, there are plenty of places you can stay in a castle hotel, and few places do it better than Ireland. Many many castles in Ireland have been converted to hotels and resorts, and each offers something special.
On my recent trip to Ireland, there were lots of travel bloggers in Killarney for the TBEX blogging conference, and before and after the conference a few of them managed to stay in some sweet castle hotels. I asked them for their thoughts about the castles they stayed in, and they share their experiences (and photos) below.
–Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, Green Global Travel
We were honored to stay in their Ernest Shackleton Suite (named after Kildare’s famous explorer) several weeks before the resort opened to the public, and it was as posh and luxurious as any medieval castle could possibly hope to be. We’ve traveled all over the world, and Kilkea Castle ranks among our favorite places we’ve ever stayed!
-Julie and Charles McCool, McCool Travel
Castle Leslie welcomes guests to a perfect balance of relaxed and historic luxury, on a family estate that dates from the 1660s. Rooms in the castle are spacious and comfortable, with quirky Victorian bathrooms and a strict no TV policy. The Lodge offers more modern rooms (with TVs) overlooking stables that draw equestrians from all over the world. Novice riders (like us) can take a “gentle hack” through the estate’s beautiful grounds, followed by dinner in the award-winning restaurant, and time to kick back and savor castle life.
LOUGH ESKE CASTLE
Few know that Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal was a mere shell before it was lovingly restored just 10 years ago. Now ranking as one of the top hotels in the world, guest can expect a warm cead mile failte from the staff, the majority of whom are local to the area. Rooms at Lough Eske Castle are luxurious and spacious, with connecting rooms for families well thought-out. As castle stays go, this is one of the most affordable in Ireland and you’ll meet a wide variety of people. Located on the shores of Lough Eske, the grounds are a wonderful maze of walking paths; a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the luxury of an Irish castle vacation.
BARBERSTOWN CASTLE HOTEL
When one imagines staying in a 12th century Irish Castle thoughts of cold rugged stones, towers crowned by turrets, ghosts and dungeons most often come to mind. However, when one arrives at the entrance to the Barberstown Castle Hotel Kildare, a warm welcome is waiting inside a pristine white Victorian and Elizabethan blended luxury town house including conservatory windows along with two lion statues on each side of the entry step. A spacious uniquely decorated lobby lounge area opens out onto a lovely terrace which leads to 20 acres of gardens. The reception is discreetly placed on the left as you enter.
If you find yourself lost in the corridors and nooks and crannies looking for the dining room you will encounter elegant antiques and décor of days long past. You may even run face to face into a full body suit of armor around the next corner.
DROMOLAND CASTLE HOTEL
There has been a castle on the site since the 11th Century, but the present building, in all its ivy-covered limestone and turreted glory, was completed in 1835. In 1962, the property was renovated and opened as the luxury Dromoland Castle Hotel.
Freelance travel writer Victoria Hart witnessed a VIP arrival during her visit. “Dromoland Castle is an example of living history,” she said. “So often we experience history through a museum or by visiting ruins. It is refreshing to see a place with over 1000 years of history still being used and enjoyed by people who admire the majestic landscape that first attracted its creators and respect the historical events that transformed it into the place it is today. The level of service is still fit for royalty, and an experience I will always cherish.”
On a recent night at All Over the Map, I invited people to come talk about travel and make a travel vision postcard. (And drink some bubbly drinks.) Guided by art therapist and author of Positive Art Therapy and Practice, Dr. Gioia Chilton, attendees created mini vision boards about their dream trips.
Creating a travel vision postcard is fun and easy and not at all intimidating, even for those of us with sketchy (ha) art skills. I recommend doing it like we did: with friends and drinks and music and great conversation. You can share vacation stories and travel tips along with your own travel dreams.
The Travel Vision Postcard
Here’s what you need:
- art supplies – scissors, glue sticks, watercolors, oil pastels, markers
- travel magazines
- blank postcards or heavy paper cut to postcard size (or whatever size you want, really!)
Imagine your perfect vacation.
Or not perfect, necessarily, but perfect for you. (I’m a big fan of the imperfect vacation.)
Create your vision.
Grab a stack of travel magazines – and if you don’t have any, come over to my office and grab some – and rip out any pictures that draw you in. Use them as inspiration to create a postcard from your dream travel destination. You can collage, paint, or draw your dream – whatever will make you “remember” this dream destination and create your vision postcard.
Write a message to yourself.
On the reverse, write yourself a note from the destination as you imagine you would from that place. You might congratulate yourself on manifesting this amazing trip. Or you might tell a made up story about what you imagine you might do there. Or describe a scene you think you might find there. Or taunt an ex about the great time you’re having without them. 😉
Setting your intent to travel and envisioning your trip are the first steps toward making those dream trips come true. And what are the next steps? Budgeting and planning. And then going!