The Messed Up Thing About Traveling.

Everyone that spends any real amount of time traveling (well, anyone I’ve run across) comes to an inescapable realization. Traveling makes you want to travel.

I can’t explain why this is. I just know that it’s true. You can travel till you’ve had enough, and yet not long after your return you’ll be thinking about what’s next. Where to go that you’ve never been? What to see? What to do? For the next trip.

In my case, I hadn’t completely decided to cut this trip off officially when the initial idea of the next trip stirred in my subconscious. Exhausted from moving day in and day out, produced two equally strong ideas. First, it was time to head back to the USA. This was enough. I’m tired and broke. Second, where am I going next? What’s the next adventure going to look like?

To answer this question for the curious, it will either be across Africa or across the pacific, from island to island. I’ll figure it out for sure later.

Why such a restless soul? Who can say? I just know that as soon as I’m back in Texas, and sufficiently intoxicated, honest plans will no doubt be afoot.

So, when this happens to you, don’t fight it. When you find yourself traveling; exhausted, poor, and kinda sunburnt, your bag overstuffed with T-shirt’s that just had to be purchased, and your last snatched bottle of hotel body wash all but empty, you start to think about new adventures. This is a turning point. This means you’re no longer a tourist. You’re officially a traveler.

Sitting in the train as it rolls out of Prague, Czech Republic, headed for Krakow, Poland. June, 2019.

You’re a traveler. Now, go travel.

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One Good Day in Cluj, Romania.

Normally, I like to be in a town longer than one day. Being in the middle of an extended journey, this was really a side trip. A passed through the region to see what it was like. I decided that I could stop for a day in Cluj on my way from Bucharest to Budapest. I would spend a day in Cluj. Since I got in on the train in late afternoon, I guess you could say I had a day and a quarter.

Getting to Cluj.

The train station in Cluj, Romania, on a sunny June morning.

The city of Cluj is serviced by both trains and planes. There is an airport on the outskirts of town that provides connection to/from numerous European cities.

The train station is centrally located in the northern part of the city center. As with anywhere else in Europe, if it appears on the rail map you can get there. I took the train to Cluj from Bucharest. The 9 hour journey came in an hour late, but it came in. The Rail system in Romania is solid, but maybe still a little Post-communist by Western European standards.

What Cluj Is Not.

One of the many old buildings the city has repurposed for cultural exhibitions.

If you’re headed to the capital of Transylvania in search of vampires and whatnot, you won’t find it. The city isn’t a warren of mid-evil houses enclosing tight cobblestone street and small squares.

Where it may have been a sleepy little hamlet at one point, those times have long past. There is very little middle-ages architecture, no vampires, and not a lot of old world charm.

Sorry. If you’re interested in Vlad the Impaler and all the vampire folklore (I was!), there are numerous day trip options to the various sites. Sadly, none of them are in Cluj.

What Cluj is.

The Cluj Old Town, as seen from the top of Fortress Hill across the river.

The city of Cluj is a very modern feeling city, with busy streets and throngs of people coming and going. With a population of around 320,000, the current city of Cluj is a vibrant and active place.

The city has a young feel to it. The universities, and its draw to younger Romanians makes it a very trendy city. You won’t find any boiled potatoes or buckets of ale in this town. Countless outdoor cafes, and restaurant give it a Western European feel. The populous, for the most part, is outgoing and friendly.

Exploring the Old Town.

The statue of Matthias Corvinus in Central Square. ST Mathews Church sits quietly in the background.

All that being said, you can have a good time in Cluj, once your objectives have been adjusted.

The old city area of Cluj is compact, well-defined, walkable, and holds most of the historically interesting sites. Your best option is to get out early enough to get a table at one of the outdoor cafes around the central square, where you can enjoy a coffee and views of the very old ST Micheal’s church or the imposing statue of Matthias Corvinus.

After coffee, head east toward the theater and take in the centuries of varying architecture jumbled together along the various street. From the theater area, and it’s impressive Orthodox Church, make your way back down the river to the museum area. They have numerous museums to chose from. They’re all small and quaint by western standards, but their still nice and get you out of the summer heat.

After the museums, find another street-side cafe or bar and cool off with a beer. When you’re ready, cross the river and climb the steps up the side of Fortress Hill. From the top you get good views of the Old Town area.

And, don’t forget to hydrate. The summer sun is surprisingly hot at mid-day.

Thoughts.

Where I would say that no one is intentionally going to Cluj, if you’re passing through Transylvania it’s well worth stopping at. Where Bucharest’s post-communist rot will wear on your emotions after a while, you’ll find none of that in Cluj. It’s clean, modern, and tastefully trendy. If you forgo the language difference, you can easily imagine yourself almost anywhere in Europe.

Drink in the cafes. Walk around Old Town. Check out a couple museums. Then, get on the train. It’s a town that’s worth a stop … if you’re already headed that way.

Now, get out there! Go find new places to see! New cafes to drink in.

The Ascent Of The Two-Wheeled Vehicle Across Urban Europe.

As soon as I wrote the title, I saw everyone thinking motorcycles. Motorcycles are definitely a bigger deal in Europe than they currently are across America. That’s just a fact of congested traffic in congested urban areas that really weren’t designed for motor vehicles. You can get through traffic faster with a smaller vehicle.

But, where this is technically a travel blog, I’m going to consider two-wheelers more suitable for your daily tourist runabout. These offerings come in the form of bicycles, electric scooters, and mopeds. They have all come on the scene lately as great options for a tourist to bang around a city for a couple days.

Rental Bicycles.

Where I’ve seen bicycles for rent in a couple of US cities, I haven’t seen them in the shear volume that I have in European cities. European cities view bicycles with a view that they’re not a novelty.

You can rent at most rental stations with a credit card. Then, when you’re done peddling about, you drop them off at the nearest next rental station. It’s terribly practical. So far I’ve seen the bicycle show in Burgos, Madrid, Geneva, Athens, Santorini, and Tel Aviv.

Rental Electric Scooters.

The electrical scooter, once the domain of anti-social kids, has officially become acceptable and, dare I say, trendy. It’s such a shocking advance that I still can’t get over it.

Much like the bicycle example above, you rent them from a rental station via credit card. Then when you’re done, you drop it off, seemingly, wherever. I’ve seen the scooter show in Athens, and Tel Aviv.

Now, both bicycles and scooters are considered modes of transportation, so they are ridden out in traffic with the rest of the transportation. Yup, you’re just another vehicle.

Some cities have special lanes for bicycles and scooters, but otherwise you’re out in traffic with everybody else. And this is where I have to say that after a couple minutes on s scooter people get fearless. It’s full crazy! Swerving in and out of traffic, arguing with other drivers, talking on the phone, running in packs, riding double, carrying groceries, all on a scooter. Dude, it’s crazy!

You’re thinking that I’m talking about 20-somethings, and lost Middle-ages. Nope. When you see your first 60-something granny cruising on one, you have to question things.

Some cities have specific laws again riding on the sidewalk. Get caught and you pay a sturdy fine. NOBODY CARES about this. Watch when you’re walking around. Definite safety tip.

Rental Mopeds.

The longtime champion of the backpacker set, the moped is definitely still a go-to item for efficiently getting around overpopulated tourist towns. Granted, moped’s are still the reigning champions of island hotspots and beach towns. That being said, their ability to cut through traffic and go all day on only minimal gas is making them pop up in urban centers as well.

One dividing line between mopeds and the others, is licensing. Renting a motorized moped is really renting a vehicle. You’ll need a drivers license and whatnot. In most places you’ll actually be asked for an International Driver’s License (available in the USA from AAA for a reasonable fee), so be prepared before you go.

Old-School Options.

for those that refuse to yield to the conventions of the younger generation, all the standard options are still available. Every Major rental car chain, and a bunch you’ve probably not heard of before, are alive and well.

Most agencies have a stable of smaller cars than the standard American inventory, but that’s because they fit well on smaller streets and in congested areas. Don’t be afraid to go get that smart car. You’re not buying it, it’s a rental.

Now, with all that being said, you get out there and find some way to get around town. Have a good time. Go crazy. Just not with the scooter, on the sidewalk. Cause … I’m walking here!

A Quick Run Through European Rail Passes.

Where I’m not averse to rental cars, I like to use public transportation when traveling in Europe. There are two big reasons for this. One, things in Europe are closer together than they are in America. You can get from place to place in a practical manner. Two, the train system goes almost everywhere. If you add a bus and a plane, here and there, you can get around pretty easy.

Types of Tail Passes.

You can buy your train tickets each time you want to travel or you can invest in a rail pass. Rail passes save you considerable money and effort, but they need to be purchased before you leave the USA to travel. This will require a little planning.

As far as type, there are a lot of them. There are single country passes, multiple country passes, and (basically) all of Europe passes. They also encompass all different number of day options. There are many forms, from two to three day continuous use tickets, to fifteen days or more scattered over a couple months. Once again choosing the right one will require a little preplanning.

All of that being said, there are really two different vendors to choose from for US based tourists. They are EURail, and Raile Europe. They both have pluses and minuses. They both can also help with planning and rail reservations.

I suggest you look at both. I have used both. As a rule, I use EURail. I like the service they provide, and have had good luck using them. Also, they have a great timetable app.

What You Get in Your Pass Package.

Your (multiple country) rail pass will come with three main items.

My current rail pass that I’m using to travel around Europe. It’s an EURail pass for 2019.

First, the ticket. It’s two piece and will need to be filled out as you go.

Second, you get a rail guide. The guide explains how to read the rail pass, and what different terms means. Importantly, it also tells you what rail companies in each country are included in your pass. Not all rail companies in an included country are always included. It will depend on the country you’re traveling in.

Third, you get a rail system map of Europe. It gives you basic touring information. At this point in technology, it’s really just an addition to the timetable app.

Rail passes used to come with a timetable booklet that allowed you to figure out if you could get from one destination to another. To be honest, the app is incredibly easier to use, and just better. It also updates with changes, where the printed book did not.

How to Use It.

The ticket will Need to be validated before you can take your first trip. You can have it validated when it is sent to you or you can just get it validation stamped at the train station you happen to be at, when you’re ready. The ticket needs to be validated for use within a certain amount of time after purchase. I believe it’s six months. You should check before you purchase your pass.

Now that you’re ready to go, the ticket has boxes for the first use day and for the last use day. Fill these out as appropriate. There are also boxes for each travel day (if it’s a five day ticket, then there will be five day of use boxes).

Attached to the ticket is trip worksheet to show each individual trip you take during a travel day. It’s important to remember that a day is 24 hours. Once you start a day, you can travel as many times as you want during that day. You just need to annotate each trip BEFORE you get on the train. The ticket voucher needs to be filled out to be valid.

A Thought About Reservations.

The major routes (busiest) and high speed rail systems (fastest lines) among others require an addition reservation from the train station before you travel. This is basically done to make sure they don’t oversell seats on the heavy routes.

Reservations require an addition charge on top of the rail pass. They should also be handled in advance of when you want to travel. Once all seats/sleeper sections are reserved, that’s it. Reservations on popular routes do and will run out. If you wait until when you want to travel to get your reservation, you may not be traveling that day. This has happened to me in more than one occasion. (When reservation start to go, they cascade from one time to the next, and soon there are none for a whole day. When you’re standing at the station with your bag and this happens, it sucks.)

The app will allow you to only see options that don’t require a reservation. This can be very helpful, if you’re a spontaneous person. Keep in mind that these options usually take longer to get where you want to go.

I hope that this may have helped to answer any questions kicking around. If you have a specific question, drop it in the comments and I’ll take a run at it. Some time on the internet will also help. The EURail.com website is super easy to navigate and understand.

Now, get out there and explore! Oh, and try and enjoy yourself while you do it. That really is the point of it all.

Some New Thoughts on Museum Passes.

Normally, I’m not a raving fan of museum passes or city passes in general. They tend to give you one or two must-see locations, and then fill the remainder of the pass with under-visited attractions.

I understand why this is. Don’t get me wrong, if you can find a way to drive traffic to a site that isn’t necessarily performing as well as other sites, that’s not a bad thing.

In the beginning I bought the passes. I was like; yes, I got a pass! Let’s go! Then I would use it for one entry, and that was kind of it. All the other stuff I wanted to see wasn’t included in the pass. So, I stopped considering them.

A couple days ago in Athens I learned the value of the museum pass all over again. I will say that Athens isn’t a cheap city to sightsee in. There are a lot of attractions, and every single one of them charges an admission. In a place as old as Athens, this is to be expected.

When I made my first stop, the Acropolis, I didn’t consider the multi-pass. I should have. Athens has a multi-sight pass. It covers six prime locations, and costs 30.00 euros. Why do I mention the price? Because entry onto the Acropolis costs 20.00 euros. And, the Agora at the bottom of the hill costs 8.00 euros. You can feel the math, can’t you?

It wasn’t until after I had left the Acropolis and was standing at the entry gate for the Agora that I figured out what I hadn’t done. Oops. Live and learn, I guess?

So, if you’re planning a trip to Athens. Invest in the multi-museum pass. It will save you cash. Also invest in the multi-day metro pass. Athens is a very walkable city, especially the historical center area. Still, your feet will hurt after a fashion. Buying single ride tickets will chew through your euros. I burned up my multi-day metro pass.

(Me starring into the sun as it rose over the Parthenon. You need sunglasses in that town.)

Just some thoughts from the road. Now, get out there and see the world for yourself.

A Weekend in Geneva.

The city of Geneva, Switzerland is one of those places you kind of don’t end up at unless you’re headed there. Odd, since it’s the seat of the UN, really picturesque, and pretty much dead in the center of the continent.

I slid through for the weekend, hoping to get a couple pictures of the lakeside and do the necessary stop at CERN. This was accomplished and more, as Geneva turned out to be a great place to visit.

Stopping at CERN.

(Sculpture commemorating the science leading up to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.)

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is located in the western suburbs of Geneva. There is a tram that goes straight to the CERN complex from the city center. It is tram 18, and can be caught from multiple points in the city.

The research center is a worthwhile half-day excursion to make. There are two permanent exhibits to explore. One deals with the science of mass and matter. The other deals with the particle accelerator itself, and some history of the complex. Both are quite good.

Guided tours are available however, the tickets need to be obtained in advance for the day of your visit. They are awarded first come first served, and are quite hard to get. There is generally a much larger number of requests than tickets.

Geneva and the Lake Front.

(Old Geneva and the Lake Front, as Seen from the Cathedral Tower.)

The major shopping and sight seeing options are located on the south side of he river, in Old Geneva. The south side is dominated by the fortified hill that comprised the original defended city center area. The old city area is compact, so walking between one place and the next isn’t an issue. The high area itself is quite steep, but easily navigated.

The Cathedral of ST Peter sits on the high point of the old city, and makes a good reference point when walking. Most of the museums are in this general area of the city as well. If you visit on 19 May, the International Day of the Museum, they are all also free entry.

Logistics.

Getting to/from Geneva is pretty easy. The city train station and airport are both located on the north side of the city, and cover all of the General carriers.

If you fly in, be sure to stop at the kiosk in the arrivals area and get the free train ticket that takes you from the airport to the train station. The ticket and your flight boarding pass, and you have a free train ride.

Also check with your hotel upon arrival. Most all hotels offer free tourist transit cards. This with your passport gives you free travel around the city center on all the local transit systems. So the two together make it basically free to move about!

Swiss Francs are about on-par with the US Dollar, but the city is still otherwise fairly pricey. Don’t let this discourage you though, just plan accordingly.

The people are wonderfully friendly. French is he recognized official language of the city, but you will hear some others too. Almost everyone is happy enough to default to English, if you get stuck. This makes it a good place to practice your French!

Now, get out there and enjoy! Bonjour, from Geneva!

Readying For Europe 2019

One of my two main goals when I departed Kuwait last year was to spend the summer in Europe. The other was to write a new book (which has already been accomplished), but is unimportant to this blog post.

As with the passing of the clock hands, time has cruised by, and it’s almost time to head out for a summer of backpacking and picture taking. The plan (which is rough at best) is to start by undertaking the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage across Spain. After that’s either accomplished or not, I’m going to be on a backpacking train/plane trip across Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Near East. I say it a little tongue-in-cheek because I’ve changed the route about a dozen times, so far. I have absolutely no doubt that it will also change while I’m doing it. The area has so many options that I’m sure I will get distracted. (Hence the title of this blog. HAHAHAHAHA!)

I’m going to start this “series” of post with some logistical information. First will be on plane tickets. I bought my intercontinental plane ticket in advance. I used Kayak.com to scan ticket prices for all airports in Europe, and purchased when I found a ticket that fit my needs. I am flying into London, England, because it was the first ticket that met my pricing requirements. From there, I’ll connect to the mainland by either train or plane.

The ticket search engines of choice for my trips are as follows: Kayak.com, Expedia.com, and Easyjet.com. I find that I like the kayak search engine, and that easyjet and expedia include the majority of low cost ticket options. I plan to use one-way plane flights to connect disparate parts of Europe, without wasting multiple days on the train. This concession to speedy travel is important, because an American tourist is only allowed 90 total days in the EU Zone within any 180 day period. To fit in maximum travel, I need to limit my wasted travel days. That’s why the internal flights are necessary.

Second is the necessity for general getting around. For this I use the train. The continent of Europe has a magnificent rail system. The different country rail systems are all interconnected, and laced together in the different rail timetables. I use EURail.com to purchase multi-country rail passes before I depart America. You’ll get a significantly better rate using a rail pass, as opposed to buying tickets one-at-a-time. I prefer trains to renting cars in Europe as it’s just more convenient. Once you’re in most European cities and towns, you really don’t need a car. I’ve used several different websites to purchase rail tickets over the years. I happen to like EURail.com best. They have good prices, a website that is easy to navigate, and an excellent mobile app to keep up with the train schedules.

Third is hotels and such. Normally I use hotels when in Europe. Mid-range hotels are realistically priced and clean. I use Booking.com for my hotel reservations planet-wide. I like the way the website is laid-out, and I find the mobile app works without issue everywhere I go. If I can book before departing, I do. With the unknown path and timing of this trip, I will be doing a lot of booking on-the-fly.

The initial part of the trip (the Camino pilgrimage) I’ll be utilizing Albergues and Pensiones, which are basically pilgrims hostels. The state-run units are first come, first served. So, it will all be a day-to-day hunt for a bed. (That should work out well.) For the city traveling that comes after that, I am going to try my hand at renting through Airbnb.com. It’s my first time utilizing them, and I’m excited to see how it turns out. If it’s a good experience I’ll definitely continue, as the prices are well-below hotel rates.

Fourth major task is packing. When going to Europe, I normally pack for a European Holiday. On this occasion, the bag will be somewhat different. With the pilgrimage planned for the beginning of my excursions, I’m packing specifically for the Camino. With the addition of a GoPro and some swim trunks, the packing list is Camino specific. When I’m done, I can change out the pack (Send home stuff I no longer need, and add stuff I find while traveling). I’ll be adding a complete list of my Camino packing in an upcoming post, as soon as I know what it’s finally going to be.

Right now, The planned country list goes something like; England, Spain (multiple stops), Holland, Germany (Multiple stops), Austria (Grand Prix weekend), Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland (multiple stops), Croatia (Ultra Europe weekend), Greece (multiple stops), Turkey, Israel (Multiple stops), Romania (multiple stops), Hungary, Switzerland, and then back to England. I’m sure that It’ll change along the way.

That’s the current plan. The next series of post will be coming from this summer’s European and Near Eastern (Turkey, Israel, maybe Lebanon) experiences. I hope you’ll enjoy the notes-from-the-road.

The continets of my Camino backpack. It’s camino specific, at this point.

That’s the basic logistics of the beginning. It should be a crazy trip. I hope you find some useful information that you can use in your own travels. If you have any ideas/suggestions, definitely let me know in the comments.

Now get out there! Go travel somewhere.