Eurail with kids: part two of our family Eurail adventure

Eurail with kids: part two of our family Eurail adventure

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.

Pondering the maps for our Eurail with kids adventures

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.

One girl looking out the train window at the Romanian landscape, another trying to get a few last moments of sleep on our Eurail with kids adventure

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!

With our Couchsurfing hosts in Romania on our Eurail with kids adventure

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.

Visiting Zsolt's biology lab

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. .

Surprising Sofia

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.

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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.

A table in the kitchen at Lavanda, Sofia, Bulgaria

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.

A closed amusement park in Sofia, Bulgaria

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.

 

 

The Joy of Making a Mess

The Joy of Making a Mess

A few months back, I asked you to “Watch this Space – Just Not Quite Yet.” I was getting ready to make some changes on the website and I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. It still isn’t. I know just enough about technology to be dangerous, and I made a bit of a mess of things. But I’m working on it. For now, I’m just relishing the joy of making a mess.

It’s good to make a mess sometimes.

In this case, it’s making me rethink everything about how I want the website to look, which is making me rethink everything about what I want the website, and my company, to be. A lot has changed since Vero and I first started writing this blog in 2010. For starters, Vero is no longer working with me, though we remain close friends. We both moved into travel planning together, and while I continue doing it here, she does it through Pax Travel Design.

For another thing, I’ve started a new tour company, Unquote Travel, with a couple of blogging friends, offering small group tours all over the world, from France to Mongolia, from Peru to Cuba, and soon from the North Pole to the South Pole (well, the Arctic and Antarctica, anyway).

And while we started as a family travel site, my kids are almost out of the nest, my clients are not always families, and Unquote’s tours are mostly targeted to millennials!

So maybe it’s not a family travel site anymore.

I think what I want to feature here are stories about great vacations. Stories like Kathy Callahan’s story about a family safari trip, or Karen Schwarz’s story about her family trip to Joshua Tree, or Vero’s story about a girlfriend getaway to Charlottesville. I’d love to hear from you if you want to tell your vacation story!

I also want to write more about food and travel gear and fashion and music and… oh right, this is why we called it All Over the Map. I just want to do everything!

In any case, the website is still kind of a mess, but I’m working on it.

Do me a favor, though, and if you see anything that looks funny, let me know.

Watch This Space – just not quite yet

Watch This Space – just not quite yet

I know, I know. My blog has been pretty quiet for the past year or so.

There was stuff going on. And I’ve been active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and Pinterest, with an occasional Snapchat experiment (username: pctotaro). Follow me there if you don’t already. 🙂

But now I’m gearing up to get active on the blog again. Over the next few weeks I’ll be tweaking the design and rearranging some things, so the website might look a little strange.

Bear with me.

The site should be up and running and beautiful by the beginning of September.

I’ll be sharing stories about great vacations, told by a variety of travelers. If you would like to contribute a story, get in touch and I’ll tell you more.

I’ll also be sharing hotel and resort reviews, product reviews, travel fashions, travel playlists, and travel deals.

But first things first: I’m heading down to Massanutten for a press trip to see what the resort I know as a ski destination offers in summer. I’ll post more about that in the coming weeks, but for now, watch my Instagram for some live updates from the trail.

And later: WATCH THIS SPACE.

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end.

In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

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Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.

I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.

I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.

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We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.

At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.

Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?

A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.

Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?

A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.

Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?

A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee

Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”

Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?

A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.

On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.

So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.

Family Road Trip Through the USA

Family Road Trip Through the USA

After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece’s baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.

Houston family

The Vanamos team (sans Coconut) poses with our host family in Spring, TX – Israel, Michelle, Judah, and Jovani. Also missing from the picture is their 13-year old – Joaquin.

Since we crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. we’ve flown a butterfly path nearly 2,000 miles long towards the east coast along state highways, American scenic byways, and windy country roads. We have avoided interstates for a number of reasons. First, Wesley does not have air conditioning so we roll with the windows wide and the constant truck and SUV traffic on the interstate makes a lot of noise as it speeds past. Second, Wesley tops out at about 55 m.p.h. – I kid you not, we’ve been pulled over twice for driving too slow – and we can hit that just as well on even the curviest of backroads as we can on an interstate. Finally, the interstates are boring. There is more to see when riding the state roads, and the glimpse it provides into small town life makes us feel more connected to a place even though we are just passing through.

The hanging tree in Goliad, TX, where justice was delivered swiftly.interstate.

Justice was delivered swiftly at this spot in Texas.

J is amazed at the shelves full of fireworks at a store in Tennessee.

Fireworks store in TN. J imagines all the mischief he could cause if he only had the time.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

We’ve hardly seen any people as we buzz by under the canopy of the country roads. They apparently only come out of their air-conditioned houses to mow their expansive lawns, put gas in their cars, and visit the ubiquitous Dollar General.  We can, however, smell the same roadkill as the locals, see the rusty cars and other stuff they have piled in their yards, and get a measure on what makes each town unique. We’ve driven through the Arkansas hometown of Miss Teen 2008 (Stevi Perry), saw the Mississippi swamp where Kermit the Frog was born, shared a cookie in Alabama with the uncle of former major league baseball player Josh Willingham, and been enticed from our lunchtime picnic table by a personal tour of the local history museum in Goliad, Texas, by staff member Marty.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination. We will cut off our arm before we submit to your will.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination, as in – we will cut off our arm before we submit to your tyranny.

 

We also made a few interesting stops. The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a 500 mile long trail formerly used by bison to go from watering holes in Natchez, Mississippi, to salt licks near Nashville, Tennessee. After pioneer hunters killed all the bison, it was used for commerce and ambushes by Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians, Ohio Valley tradesmen, and cutthroat bandits. We stopped at the Parkway visitor center for Pioneer Day where Coconut stitched a leather pouch, J wove a basket, and I read the informational displays which I’ve summarized in the previous sentences.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

Pouch making

Coconut learns how to stitch a pouch out of deer skin to carry her musket balls and/or headphones.

We also stopped at the visitor center for the distillery of the internationally famous Jack Daniel’s Whiskey in tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee. We learned that Jasper “Jack” Daniel died from an infection in his toe after kicking his office safe in frustration, further supporting an article I recently read that alcohol makes people more violent.   

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I wax poetic about Jack Daniel’s charcoal mellowing process while Coconut thinks about Pinterest.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

We spent our last day on the road at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. It’s a nice park with a great swimming lake but our stay was overshadowed by the fact that the next day would be the last of our year-long overland trip.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

On Monday, we arrived in Alexandria. Coconut and J were excited to soak up a few days at home with their friends before we set off to New Jersey for the baptism and then to my father’s lake house in New York for the month of August, but R and I were not excited to arrive. As we drove through town it seemed that not a blade of grass had changed, despite the fact that we felt very different. The weight of reintegration had already settled over us, and we know it will be more difficult than reintegrating after a week-long vacation because we’ve experienced something bigger.

We’ll keep our heads up. As Michelle, our Houston host, said to us – even though we felt like we were imposing in a big way, having us there, talking about our experiences and all the things that they have been excited about, was like infusing new blood into them. It renewed their vigor amidst the stresses of going to work, trying to sell the house, and daily living in an American suburb. Somehow, we’ve got to channel all the excitement that we’ve felt for each day on the road into building a new plan for our future – even though starting in September, the immediate future will be spent in Alexandria.