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Joining a Bucharest walking tour in Romania

Romania is a place I’ve wanted to go for a while now. I was inspired by the mental images of its old Eastern European traditions, the imposing Government palaces, locals driving Dacia branded cars, meals consisting mostly of cabbage and/or polenta and perhaps bumping into the legendary 1990’s footballer Gheorghe Hagi. Probably not wearing his conspicuous yellow Romanian football top though so maybe I did see him and just didn’t realise it! So how better to experience some of this than on a Bucharest walking tour with Bucharest Walkabout Free Walking Tours.

The start of the walking tour

The start of the walking tour

Bucharest walking tour

My friend Ket had already mentioned the walking tour to me for our first full day in the city … on a cold, late February Saturday morning. You never quite know what to expect with free tours where you simply turn up (no booking required) so we were pleased to see about 50 people gathered for the tour. We were split down the middle into two groups and ended up with our guide Alex. She spoke ever so clearly and had an array of A3 size laminated photos to aid the tour. Fact: apparently Romanians can understand many other languages although it’s not so easy to understand Romanian due to its Slavic influences.

The Bucharest walking tour meeting point at Unirii Square Park

The Bucharest walking tour meeting point at Unirii Square Park

The meeting point

You meet at Unirii Square Park, by the clock next to the fountains for 10:30am. We were giving an initial spiel about where we stood in the old Uranus-Izvor neighborhood and how unbelievably it had been full of houses and churches. Until that is in the mid 1980s when Nicolae Ceaușescu wanted to replicate other cities’ Communist boulevards by flattening it all to create Bulvardul Unirii (Victory Boulevard). Chauchestu supposedly said “If you want to keep the buildings then move them” So they did! And on rails somehow!

The Bucharest walking tour meeting point

The Bucharest walking tour meeting point

You don’t get to see the Palace of the Parliament on the tour, which lies at the western end of Bulvardul Unirii  so make sure you go and see it afterwards! It’s supposedly the heaviest building in the world and is instagrammable at both night and day … although it’s not as lit up at night as I thought it might be. Romania saw France as a flourishing culture in the 19th/20th century so they named lots of the buildings Palace something, even ‘Palace of the Telecoms’ and ‘Palace of the Post Office’.

Palace of the Parliament off in the distance

Palace of the Parliament off in the distance

Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament at night

Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament at night

Some local alcohol

First up on our walking tour was a stop at St Anthony Church, next to Hanu’ Lui Manuc restaurant. The church is one of the oldest buildings in Bucharest. It looked far too new to be old, so none of us got the answer right when asked. After which we headed over to the restaurant opposite and saw the last remaining outside wooden flooring. It looks just like stone until you get up close and personal to it. We also sampled some Tuica, a local spirit (not included in the “free” trip but about half of the tour coughed up some money to try some). Hanu’ Lui Manuc  is indeed a lovely building and one saved by an architect back in the 1980’s when he told a “white lie” stating that the Turkish building had been a secret location for Communists to meet, ultimately saving it from destruction.

The last remaining parts of the wooden street

The last remaining parts of the wooden street

Sampling the local Tuica drink

Sampling the local Tuica drink

Vlad and Dracula

Next up was a stop at the ruins of Vlad’s Citadel and a bust of Vlad the Impaler. In reasonably specific detail Alex described why Vlad the Impaler was called Vlad the Impaler. And yes – he impaled people, but by doing so dabbled in one of the earliest known forms of physiological warfare. Unfortunately he didn’t meet his maker by the same technique so never got a taste of his own medicine! It’s here that Alex touched on Dracula and Transylvania. Dracula by Bram Stoker is the 3rd most sold book in the world after the Bible and Harry Potter!! However in reality there are no vampires in Romains (they come from Serbia) and Bram chose the castle as it looked like it “could” be Dracula’s castle rather than it actually being Dracula’s castle!

Finding out why Vlad the Impaler was called Vlad the Impaler

Finding out why Vlad the Impaler was called Vlad the Impaler

Soon after we skirted around the 3rd best bookstore in the world Cărturești Carusel (according to The Telegraph newspaper that is) so go and give that a look after the tour too. Another stop en-route was the Greek nun monastery  called Stavropoleos Convent which still has 6-7 nuns living there. We entered the courtyard and had a look around but couldn’t actually go inside as a service was taking place at the time.

The nunnery aka Stavropoleos Convent

The nunnery aka Stavropoleos Convent

Coffee and lunch!

The penultimate stop was in a coffee shop next to Caru’ cu Bere. Some advice! Be first in the queue like we were otherwise you’ll have a long wait to be served. After this much needed caffeine stop we made our way to the University Square for a few final stories, before giving Alex a well-earned tip for 2 hours well-spent. If you fancy learning a bit more about Romania then this Bucharest walking tour is well worth booking up.

It was a friendly little group and we’d befriended a backpacker from the UK, a Geordie lass from Newcastle and an American girl from Arizona. It was cold. We needed some food so we headed to Dianei 4 just 200 metres away. It was the perfect way to end the morning, drinking soup in a “haunted house” feeling restaurant with peeling wallpaper and dilapidated looking furniture! It was actually pretty cool and ended a great morning in Bucharest.

Country counting and does it really matter?

An oft discussed topic is whether it matters that a travel blogger’s been to 111 countries or just 11? Is it then of any concern whether a travel blogger then shares that they’ve been to 111 countries or just 11? Although it’s the bloggers with the higher numbers who are more likely to share them, wielded as some sort of badge of honour. A confirmation of their expertise and pedigree as an influencer/source of knowledge. Country counting is one thing but then telling everybody about it is something slightly different. So let’s talk a bit more about country counting?

Country counting using the Been app

Country counting using the Been app

So what counts as visiting a country?

There’s generally the consensus that a stop at at international airport for a few hours doesn’t count. So that’s why Oman was never on my own list, visited after a short stop at Muscat airport on the way back from Australia. Some people go as far to say unless you’ve had a beer land-side then that doesn’t count as a visit to the country either! Not quite as black and white that one but personal “rules are rules”! Others say you should at least stay one night in a country for it to count.

There’s also the debate of what’s actually a country in the first place. To confuse matters, according to Wiki there are 193 Internationally recognized sovereign states,  8+ states with limited recognition, e.g. Abkhazia, and 60+ non-sovereign territories that are recognised by the UN as part of some member state, e.g. Hong Kong.

When it boils down to it does it really matter anyway? If a person wants to highlight the number of countries they’ve been to in their Twitter bio. then they’re fully entitled to do whatever they like. Social Media is still a funny place where people get irritated by the smallest and most inconsequential of things.

Having a cheeky beer at the airport

Having a cheeky beer at the airport. Source

The negatives of country counting?

Opponents of the “country count” might suggest that it’s a mild brag or even Western privilege. Who are they trying to impress? Most of the world’s population only ever visit one country; their own! Is it actually all pretty meaningless if you don’t immerse yourself in its culture? Try their food? Drink their national drinks? Interact with their people, both young and old? Possibly even live there for a while? Have you really “been” to the United States if you’ve only spent a long weekend clothes shopping in New York City?

Environmentalists might suggest that visiting lots of countries is by far the worse thing you can do as an individual. Far-flung destinations can’t be reached in anything other than a plane, even for the most sustainable and eco-friendly of travellers and it’s your own personal carbon  footprint that you’re adding to. A return flight from LON to NYC creates the same weight in CO2 per person as two old style VW Beetles!

I’ve already been fortunate enough to visit Germany, France and Switzerland (all overland on occasions) and when visiting Basel recently I realised I could visit 3 countries within 10 minutes at Dreilandereck. Now if I’d only ever been to one of them before would crossing a bridge in a suburban part of town, taking a photo and then walking back over the bridge really count as visiting a country. Technically yes I guess? Deep down? No

country counting and western privilege

Country counting and western privilege. Source

The positives of country counting?

Supporters of “country counting” might answer why does anybody count anything? It gives you achievable targets to aim for. It incentivises you to start with anything, starting out at number 1. One marathon can become two, then five and then ten or more. Would I ever knock someone for saying on their bio. that they’ve run 10 marathons? Certainly not! My dad’s run over 870 of them. Now that DOES need adding to a bio! So these people have definitely achieved their totals through a lot of hard graft and expense.

Some people have visited 50+ countries and spent 3 months living and teaching in all of them far aware from any touristy haunts. Now that can only enrich them as individuals. However either way, travelling to many countries shows you live and love travel and the more of them you’ve been to the more it will have moulded you and taught you the ways of the world.

Those who travel possibly favour experiences rather than “things” and that’s better for you mentally and creates less “stuff” that you don’t need anyway. It must surely give you more experience, opinions and knowledge of the world in which we all live? But if you haven’t been to as many it certainly doesn’t lessen any of the interactions you’ve had in them.

Interacting with the locals

Interacting with the locals. Source


If you’re a “country counter” and like to mention it then then good for you. If you don’t choose to display and don’t see it as important then then that’s fine too! I favour the latter because as far as I see it one person’s 15 meaningful country visits equates to another person’s superficial 38. And if you’ve covered the whole of America that should give you more “points” than someone who’s only ever visited Orlando! Maybe drop that one into the conversation if a “county country” goes all superior on you due to their higher numbers.

How many countries have I been to? I know the number as I wondered how many it might be when putting this post together. Is it important? No. Is it in my Twitter bio? That will be a “no” too.

Here’s a great country counting blog post by Adventures & Sunsets that sums things up pretty nicely 🙂

What do you think of country counters?

Experiencing the wonderful Winter Olympics

I’ve been to the Summer Olympics before but enjoyed the Winter Olympics at Sochi 2014 even more, and this is why. First of all it was in Russia, a place I’d never been to before. That’s the great thing about sport. Big events such as the Olympics give you that incentive to visit places you’ve never been to previously. Second it meant I could also explore Moscow en-route. Thirdly it all seemed so much more accessible. Accessible in the sense that we were talking to presenters and competitions at most of the locations. It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, them or us!

At the mountain cluster of the Sochi Winter Olympics with skiier Chemmy Alcott (left)

At the “mountain cluster” of the Sochi Winter Olympics with Chemmy Alcott (left)

Mixing with the competitors and TV crews

My most vivid memory is that of watching the BBC presenters at the slope style event just a few days before we flew out. 48 hours later we’re right there on-screen walking amongst them. Here’s Team GB’s Billy Morgan talking with the BBC’s Graham Bell … and there’s me to the side of them, sporting my Union Jack beanie! In the photo above on the same day we casually chatted to skiing hopeful Chemmy Alcott, with her posing for photos as if she was an excited spectator herself!

TeamGB's Billy Morgan & BBC's Graham Bell commentating on the Slopestyle. Me in the background

TeamGB’s Billy Morgan & BBC’s Graham Bell commentating on the Slopestyle. Me in the background


Interviewed & appearing on the mountain cluster scroreboard

Interviewed & appearing on the mountain cluster scroreboard

Where we stayed and what we saw?

Adler was the actual town where the Winter Olympics village “coastal cluster” was situated. It was from this base that we could easily take the train/bus up to the “mountain cluster” of Krasnaya Polyana high above. Incidentally Sochi is actually the name of the Black Sea resort so it’s the ‘Sochi’ name that they used for the event. Sandwiched in-between our stay in Adler was 1-2 nights either side in Moscow as that was the main route from the UK. As it happened we had to go to Moscow anyway to get our accreditation and event tickets we’d ordered online. We “probably” bought a few too many of them as some days it felt like we were up and down the mountain like a yo-yo!

  1. 13th Feb – Slopestyle & Ice Hockey (Russia vs Sweden)
  2. 14th Feb – Super Combined Skiing & Skeleton (with Lizzy Yarnold)
  3. 15th Feb – Curling & ice hockey (Russia v USA) & men’s ski jumping
  4. 16th Feb – Snowboard Cross

Meeting all the other spectators and “Games Makers”

What sticks with me the most were the people we met working out there along with our fellow spectators. We posed for photos with security guards who were as curious of us as we were of them, made new UK-based friends, and got involved with the Russians and Americans at the Russia vs USA ice hockey game. THE grudge match of the Olympics!

Meeting some security guards at the Winter Olympics mountain cluster

Meeting some security guards at the “mountain cluster”


Fellow Brits with some "Games Makers" at the Winter Olympics' skeleton track

Fellow Brits with some “Games Makers” at the skeleton track


Mixing at the match of games - Russia vs USA in the Winter Olympics men's ice hockey

Mixing at the match of games – Russia vs USA in the men’s ice hockey

There were obviously a fairly large number of Brits in Sochi for the Games but not necessarily all in the same place. Whenever you saw a Union Jack you inevitably couldn’t help but wander over to say “hello”.  Now if these Games had been in the French Alps I’m sure there would have been 1000s more Brits abroad and conversely less interaction with any of them. The extra complexity of getting visas and having to go to Moscow for the tickets made it just that bit more difficult to attend.

It was totally worth it though now looking back as we were able to openly mingle with the BBC journalists and presenters. We appeared up on the big screens and we featured in news feeds and Instagram posts. We didn’t quite get the chance of bumping into Claire Balding, but we knew where the BBC studio was. It’s just that timings meant we were always on the march somewhere else. However with such low numbers of Brits out there, if you really want to in Korea I’m sure you’ll get to see this event’s lead presenters as Claire Balding’s decided to stay in the warm BBC Manchester studio this time around.  As the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games approach, once again there’s that big effort required to get the tickets, get the accomodation and actually get out there in the first place.


Being photographed for the bbcsport Instagram feed

Being photographed for the bbcsport Instagram feed


After speaking with BBC journalist Anne Thompson we appeared on the BBC Sport news feed

After speaking with BBC journalist Anne Thompson we appeared on the BBC Sport news feed

So any tips for attending the Winter Olympics?

  1. Flags! – Take a Union Jack Flag. In fact take a handful of them!
  2. Portable battery charger – to keep your iPhone fully charged up on the slopes. Get the RAVPower 22000mAh Power Bank!
  3. Adaptors – make sure you have the right ones for all your gadgets
  4. TV cameras – get involved and try to get interviewed
  5. Hand warmers – you might be in the hills standing around for quite a while
  6. Walking boots? – helped with the grip and keeping my feet warm
  7. Warm stuff generally!! PyeongChang is going to be COLD!
  8. Chat with the competitors – they were ever so approchable in Sochi
  9. ENJOY it – it really is an amazing spectacle!!

Anybody going to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics this month? 🙂

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