6 day itinerary for Romania and the Transylvanian region

Romania, and in particular Transylvania, conjures up images and feelings of some far off place . . . in the mountains . . . in the forests . . . with castles . . . kind of like Lord of the Rings, but with a spooky vibe . . . and indeed it is all of this.  And while there are not as much of a concentration of stellar attractions as you would get in Western Europe, that is kind of Romania’s charm and it makes for a great roadtrip for a week or so, with the itinerary below

Driving through Transylvania’s Fortified Saxon villages and exploring Bran Castle

Once you creep over the Transylvanian Alps, you’re into a wide lowland area of rolling hills that is dotted with picturesque Fortified Saxon Villages, well preserved Old Towns and, of course, the famous Dracula castle of Bran Castle.  Whilst some parts of more worth visiting than others, the whole area easily allows you to dream back to what it must have been like in a bygone age untouched by the modern world
The Citadel of Sighisoara, Bran Castle and the fortified church of Viscri are must sees.  The rest is more about the slow paced vibe of the Transylvanian lowlands.  Total of 2-3 days is probably enough, and I’ve listed some tips below

Sleeper Train from Budapest to Bucharest

One of the best things about making your way through Eastern Europe is being able to do so on the extensive train network rather than relying on flying or buses, and one of the longest routes is the Budapest-Bucharest
I’ve listed some tips / things to be aware of for the trip below but, in summary, whilst its not the most comfortable of sleeps because of the number of stops, I’d say it’s overall worth it based on the scenery you see in Transylvania (in particular crossing the Transylvanian Alps), the savings on hotel costs for the night and the lessened environmental impact from flying.  But more than anything else, it’s just quite good fun.  Again, detailed tips below

Eger – wine tasting in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

Eger’s central square is very pretty and worth sitting around in whilst looking at the views of the Minorite Church, but it is the wine tasting in the Valley of the Beautiful Women that gains the attention.
To manage expectation though … it’s not quite what you’d expect.  There doesn’t quite seem to be the hoards of beautiful women helpfully grouped together in one picturesque valley.  It’s also not quite a valley …. more like a park around 70m x 35m / 230ft x 135ft with a few wineries round the outside.  False advertising? Yes for sure, but it is worth a visit as once you get past the initial surprise at what you’ve taken a 2 hour train from Budapest for, it does kind of grow on you.   Firstly, the wine cellars are deceptive – there must be around 40 of them and most have cellars / drinking / eating areas that go back around 100m / 330 feet under the hills, which makes for quite a lot of wine drinking area around such a small park.  And secondly, the Valley of the Beautiful Women attracts locals and tourists alike to generate what must be quite an atmosphere in this compact spot in the summer festivals (sadly we missed one by a couple of days)
Worth a day trip / overnight trip, but manage expectations
Some high level tips:
  • Getting there – trains leave every hour or so from Budapest’s Keleti station, and it’s less than a 10min taxi into the centre of Eger / the Valley of the Beautiful Women
  • Accommodation – we stayed at the Hotel Senator which had a perfect location and felt like going back in time a bit.  Slightly overpriced (USD100 per night) and maybe a tad basic in places, but worth it for the location and the randomness

2 days by the beautiful Lake Como

It’s a big shout when people say somewhere is the most beautiful place in the world . . . but, yep . . . Lake Como takes it.  Picture perfect Italian villages punctuating luscious forests as they meet the lake’s crystal clear waters, and all against the stunning dramatic backdrop of the Alps.  It’s hard not to just stop and gorp at it over, and over again

Naturally in such a beautiful place, it comes with a huge demand from others wanting to visit and, especially in summer, the costs go through the roof.  The cost is something hard to avoid, but it’s actually relatively easy to avoid the crowds with a few simple tips and enjoy what makes this place such a world famous destination

Portugal highlights on a 2 week roadtrip

Portugal is a great country for visiting for 10/14 days as it has a heap of varied things to experience and not vast distances to cover.  By basing yourself in the 3 major areas of Porto / The Douro Valley, Lisbon, and the Algarve, you can use each as a hub for adventures nearby and also be able to stop off on a few places directly in between that are great for a couple of hours or so

 

Big highlights for me were actually some of the smaller places that I’d never heard of before I arrived in Portugal.  In particular the gorgeous Duoro Valley wine region, the hilltop town of Sintra and the beautifully charming streets of Cascais.  Plus, the more famous highlights of port tasting in Porto and various neighbourhoods of Lisbon

 

Each piece that makes up this itinerary has its own travel post, but I’ve also condensed the key points and listed some more general tips below

Wine tasting around Pinhao in the Duoro Valley

What a surprisingly wonderful experience the Duoro Valley offers! I must admit that, like many others, I hadn’t heard of it before making the trip to Portugal and had mainly thought of the Algarve and Lisbon area when thinking of Portugal. . How wrong I was – the Duoro’s combination of vineyards, steep dramatic slopes and river views is one I can’t think of anywhere else in the world, let alone Portugal.  When you add into the mix that there is the more unusual Port wine to sample along with the normal table wine, then you have a real gem of an experience and, in my opinion, the highlight of Portugal

A long weekend for Lisbon and the surrounding gems of Sintra and Cascais

Lisbon is a supremely elegant city stepped in history and with atmospheric neighbourhoods to head off and explore, but I actually found the two surrounding places of Sintra and Cascais to be the real gems of the visit

I would suggest staying in Sintra or Cascais rather than Lisbon. Staying in Lisbon you are always going to be surrounded by fellow tourists, day or night.  Whereas places like Sintra and Cascais offer a very different experience when the crowds have left for the day (or before they arrive if you’re an early bird). And the trains / Ubers make it so simple to pop between the 3 of them. I had some magical times in the likes of Sintra wandering around in the early morning having the place to myself, and enjoying the quieter evenings in Cascais.  Be bold and stay outside of Lisbon for the better experience

The Northumberland Coast (in summer!)

The UK isn’t known for its beaches, and for good reason – its only warm enough for them 3 months of the year and even less the further north you go!  That’s why the coastline of Northumberland, and in particular Bamburgh Beach and Embleton Bay, comes as a bit of surprise when I put them in a list of the top beaches in the world.  But before you write it off as nostalgic madness, consider a few factors:

  1.  The castle backdrops – Bamburgh Castle is an imposing 11th century Normal castle that looms over Bamburgh Beach from its crag right on the waterfront and with as much history as almost any castle in the world.   England dominates the world for stunning castles by the beach, and Bamburgh is the jewel in the crown.  Dunstanburgh Castle, whilst more battered over the centuries, provides a similar backdrop for Embleton Bay
  2. The quality of the sand – the sand tone in this part of the world is the same as the powdery sand you find in the tropical beaches of the likes of Brazil and the Caribbean, and is so fine it squeaks, which is in stark contrast to some of the pebble beaches you find in the eastern Mediterranean and south of England
  3. The cute villages by the water – the likes of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, with its gorgeous white cottage square green circled by local pubs overlooking the beach are about as quaint and lovely as anywhere in England
  4. Few tourists – “best kept secret” seems to have held well for decades and you simply don’t have the volume of fellow tourists as you would in the south of England.  The beaches are wide and long, and you will likely have big chunks to yourself
  5. The Northumberland Coast Driving Tour – you have some great nearby attractions that share the quiet vibe.  In particular, Hadrian’s Wall (the well preserved northern boundary of the Roman Empire), Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island – a key centre for the spread of Christianity in Britain in the Dark Ages and infamous site of the first Viking invasions), and the various quaint Northumberland villages dotted no distance from the coast

 

It obviously doesn’t hit the tropical beach vibe, but is nonetheless beautiful.  Just be sure to go in summer!

Durham’s Cathedral, Castle and village

The famous travel writer Bill Bryson, after seeing half the world, was gobsmacked when he saw Durham and wondered why no one had told him about it before.  So much so that he decided to become Chancellor of Durham University and says, “If you have never been to Durham before, go there at once. Take my car, it’s wonderful.”  Easy to see why – the setting with the magnificent Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle perched high on the tight meander of the River Wear is just stunning and is complemented by the small narrow streets that branch off all through the nearby town

 

An easy day trip from Newcastle (see here for tips on Newcastle – A day in Newcastle), one of the key stops on the main east coast line that runs through the UK, and a must if in this part of the world

 

Top tip – be sure to walk around the river right by the waterfront.  The best bit is from Framwellgate Bridge to Prebends Bridge, but you can also walk all the Elvet Bridge