Balkan Road Trip, Part I

JR and I had been talking about taking a long road trip ever since we arrived in Kosovo.  We are fortunate to have U.S. and local holidays off from work, and last week gave us a great opportunity for an extended trip that only used a few annual leave days.   We were considering a few options – one that included Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia; one that included those countries as well as Hungary; and one that took us in the opposite direction to tour Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Italy.   Ultimately, we decided on the first option.  We didn’t want to be overly ambitious with our driving plans because of the baby, and we felt that we would probably still get to Italy and Slovenia in the future, but we weren’t as sure about the other countries, so we didn’t want to miss out on this chance.

Keri, a friend who used to live here, sent me a copy of the itinerary she and her husband used for their trip and I followed it pretty closely.   I spent more time researching hotels than I care to remember.  I’m a big planner, and a worrier, and I wanted to make sure we had rooms with plenty of space for the baby.   Although we enjoyed our trip to Lake Ohrid, neither of us wanted to spend our evenings whispering with Abby sleeping at the foot of our bed, so we wanted suites and we needed parking for our car.  We also aimed to spend no more than 6 hours in the car per day for Abby’s sake and for our sanity.

map

 

Day 1:  Sofia, Bulgaria

We were up early Saturday morning and on the road to Sofia by 8am.  We used a combination of our GPS – which doesn’t always get it right and is easily confused, some printed maps, and my phone when I could get it to work – to help us get to our hotel.   Abby was pretty easy going about the drive.  After babbling to herself in the backseat for about 45 minutes, she took a nice, long nap.  When she woke up, we found a place to stop to feed her and change her.  JR walked into the restaurant first and I said “check the bathrooms for changing tables.”  Um, I’m not sure what fantasy world I was living in that made me ask that question, because I don’t recall ever seeing a changing table anywhere in the Balkans.  At this particular stop, we were able to find a nice area to change her, but overall, when we were on the road we changed most of her diapers on our laps in the backseat.  Which I don’t really recommend.

We made it to our hotel, Grand Hotel Sofia around 2pm.  Parking and check-in were super easy, and they helped us with all of our bags (it was kind of embarrassing how much stuff we had, especially since I had planned to pack lightly).   Although we were all ready for a nap, we decided to walk around instead, so we explored the area near our hotel and went in a few stores.  It was a pretty day to be out and about, and we went to a German restaurant for dinner (really we went there because JR wanted to try the beer).   It was a nice, short visit to Sofia but we enjoyed it!

sofia 1

Day 2:  Bucharest, Romania

It felt like a really lonnnnng drive to Bucharest.  Although we got an early start from Sofia, somehow we (okay, this may fall on my shoulders) didn’t realize that our directions had us crossing a river by ferry to get to Romania.  When we pulled up at the border crossing/ferry platform around 10:45 a.m., we were informed it didn’t open until noon.  Not ideal, but we didn’t really have any other options because no one spoke English well enough to help us figure out if there was another crossing that did not involve a ferry.  You know, like a bridge.  We found a small cafe and ordered lunch (thank you, sweet waitress who at least understood the word chicken) and waited it out.  We returned to the border crossing closer to 12, and we almost missed our ferry because they were in no rush to review our passports.  We just barely made the ferry, and decided to let Abby practice her driving skills.

ferry 2 ferry 3

Funny little story about the border crossing on the other side.  That guy was also taking his sweet old time with our passports so I was already a bit agitated when he came up to the window and said “Excuse me, but I am wondering why does your daughter have a different surname than you?”

I was immediately hot and ready to be all “Um, you have no idea what you are talking about” but before I could start talking, he showed JR the mistake.  Abby’s tourist passport has her last name spelled wrong by one letter.  First, seriously?!  How did that happen?  And how has no one, in SEVERAL border crossing/flights/checks noticed until now?  Thank you, Mr. Romanian Border Patrol Agent.  Luckily, once we showed him that her diplomatic passport matches our last name, he let us go without any other questions.  But we’ll need to get that fixed ASAP.

We continued on to Bucharest and by the time we arrived, we were completely over being in the car.  Especially Abby.   Luckily, we found our hotel easily and we were quickly impressed by the service at Epoque Hotel.   While we checked in, a bartender brought us glasses of champagne and the bellhop unloaded our car and took our luggage to our room.  My kind of place!  We had a one-bedroom suite with plenty of space for all of us, so we settled in and put Abby down for a nap before venturing out.

The hotel was right beside a huge park that had a small carnival and vendors lined up for Easter celebrations.  We made our way to the Old Town and unfortunately, we weren’t all that impressed.  Instead of old buildings, churches and shops, it was mostly pubs and bars.  And massage parlors.   It was kind of underwhelming and definitely not our scene with the baby in tow.  We found a small burger restaurant that was almost empty and sat down for dinner.  As soon as we ordered, the tables started to fill up and everyone began smoking.  Bleck.  I know it’s just the way things go over here, but I still hate it and we try to avoid it whenever possible.  We moved to a bar table closer to the door and took turns walking around with Abby outside until our food arrived, and then ate our burgers and fries (which were delicious!) quickly before heading in for the night.

bucharest 1 bucharest 2

Day 3:   Bucharest, Romania

We were hoping to do some sightseeing, but when we woke up it was pouring rain and cold outside.  Still, we were in a new city and we thought we should power through so we bundled up, grabbed our umbrellas and went outside.  And then promptly turned back around.  Nope, too cold and gross out.   We were both feeling a bit bummed because it seemed like we’d be stuck in the hotel room all day and that was not what we had in mind.  JR suggested that we order room service (not something we do frequently, and always feels like a treat!) and THEN he said I should go down to the spa for a massage while Abby took her afternoon nap.

I was all

brad pitt working out

as I raced down to the spa for a fantastic body scrub and massage.   It was so relaxing and the perfect way to spend a rainy day!

The “Day of Jenni” (as we later named it) continued with dinner.  I was just in the mood for a classic American meal, complete with a cocktail and dessert.  It took some convincing, but JR agreed to have dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.  I had a strawberry mojito, bbq pulled pork sandwich, mac n’ cheese, AND a hot fudge brownie sundae.  JR thinks we should experience the local cuisine everywhere we go but sometimes I need a little slice of home.  Fantastic day in my book!

One more quick plug for our hotel there – we picked the room rate that included breakfast, and it was a great choice.  They had a buffet with fresh fruits, breads and croissants and pancakes, and made-to-order omelettes.  Highly recommend!

To be continued.

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