I added Sofia, Bulgaria, on whim to the 8-night side trip I’d planned for us before our latest house- and cat-sit in Antwerp, Belgium. It was really a matter of “as long as we’re in the area (Bucharest, Romania), why not?” I didn’t know much about either Sofia or Bulgaria before then. Pre-travel research confirmed my general impression of a less-than-wealthy Eastern European capital, still recovering from Communism and still relatively new to the EU. As of the latest census I could find, Sofia has a population of 1.2 million people as compared to Bucharest’s 1.8 million. Bulgaria is both the poorest country in the EU and the fastest shrinking population in the world.
Although David’s very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about beer, reads on the subject constantly, is always on the lookout for local craft beers when we travel, and has even written on beer for our local paper, he’s never written for Wanderwiles. (I’ve definitely used his input for previous beer posts, though.) I hope this write-up is the first of many from him. -T
We’d read and heard that the craft beer scene in Bucharest is growing, so of course had to try at least one beer bar while there. I did some research and came up with a list of possibilities. It turned out that Bogdan offers a beer tasting tour and, while we weren’t interested in that, he confirmed one of my top picks as a personal favorite. So, on a free afternoon, we headed to Fabrica de Bere Bunã (The Good Beer Factory), a long stroll down Calea Vitoriei from our AirBnB apartment. Located in an old factory, Fabrica de Bere Bunã offered ten of their own beers on tap and another twelve bottled beers from various Romanian brewers. The place is brewpub chic (white subway tiles, natural wood, and chalkboard beer lists) with two-story seating inside (stools only) and outdoor tables on the sidewalk, too.
I admit I had low expectations of Bucharest. I’ve been to many former Soviet bloc countries and there are certain less-than-positive aspects to them all: the ugly over-sized Brutalist architecture (so often built on the site of historic buildings that would be a treasure now), abundant graffiti (which my dad plausibly chalks up to unleashed freedom of expression), and infrastructure and common areas suffering from the financial costs of Communism. Bucharest definitely has those aspects, but it still boasts a wealth of gorgeous French-style architecture, a picturesque old town, and lots of restaurants, cafés and bars (beyond the “drink till you puke” bars and strip clubs that some Eastern European cities use to entice westerners looking for cheap thrills). Despite some streets still holding onto that grubby party vibe and derelict buildings scattered amongst the pristinely restored, Bucharest has the feel of a city moving up and offers many charming streets, elegant boulevards, and cosmopolitan shopping and dining options at great prices.
We arrived in bustling Agra in the afternoon after spending the first part of the day touring our way from Jaipur via Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri. Our driver threaded his way through the jumble of vehicles, pedestrians, cows and trash as we headed straight to Agra Fort. Hurrying to meet a waiting guide, we didn’t even have time to drop off our luggage.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The semi-circular fort occupies 94 acres and sits behind 70′ walls on the Yamuna River. Part of the fort is occupied by active military so tourists only see a small portion of the huge complex. From the main tourist courtyard, we could see soldiers atop the wall separating us from the military area.
We were in and out of Delhi three times on this trip. Given this, I wanted to try different areas and types of lodgings on each stay. I settled on the following: First up, was Hotel Bright a moderately-priced Indian business/tourist hotel right in Connaught Place, the large, arcaded shops at the colonial center of New Delhi. For a two-night return between Bhutan and Dharamshala, I chose the new Aloft Hotel in the modern Aerocity enclave near the airport. Finally, we used some free Hyatt nights for a stay in the elegant Hyatt Regency Delhi in the more removed southwestern part of the city. Each had their pros and cons and we enjoyed each in their own way. I’ll leave it to others to go in depth about Delhi and New Delhi (There’s lots out there.) and just touch here on a few highlights and useful bits.
We wanted to make the trip from Agra to Delhi on our own, so I began researching Indian trains. Right away, the relatively new Gatimaan Express train caught my eye. The Gatimaan Express makes the trip from Agra to Delhi (and vice versa) once per day in each direction. The Gatimaan actually goes beyond Agra to Gwalior and Jhansi, but it seems largely geared towards people in Delhi wanting to see Agra and the Taj Mahal on a day trip. The Gatimaan leaves Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 8:10 am IST and returns from Agra in the evening at 5:50pm.
Our guide from the previous day’s visit to Agra Fort met us at Coral Court Homestay to walk with us to the nearby entrance to the Taj Mahal. Visiting the Taj was a highlight of this 3-month travel extravaganza, but I worried a little that the iconic landmark would be a let down after the countless images I’d seen over my lifetime. I needn’t have worried. The Taj Mahal was spectacular and we loved every minute of our leisurely visit on a gorgeous day.
We opted to skip sunrise at the Taj, something that’s touted a lot, but which sounded to me like a gimmick…and I just plain didn’t want to get up that early. Besides, we’d put off our visit to the Taj until this year so that we’d see it just after the major cleaning that had its domes covered in purifying mud for much of 2018. I had no particular desire to see it turned pinkish by the rising sun. I wanted to see its freshly-restored gleaming white. The choice turned out to be a good one. We chatted with fellow guests at Coral Court Homestay who got up for a sunrise visit and said they were disappointed to find the entrance queue long and the Taj Mahal grounds crowded. They said it was pretty, though. We arrived around 10am to find only a short line and sparse crowds. And the Taj a brilliant white in the sunshine. The April weather was ideal, too: warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Fantastic!
We opted to hire a driver to take us from Jaipur to Agra, splurging a bit for an SUV so David could stretch his legs. I wanted to make two stops en route: Chand Baori, an ancient step well and Fatehpur Sikri, a town founded as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar and later completely abandoned in 1610.
Chand Baori is located in a small village a short distance off Hwy 21 that connects Jaipur and Agra. We’d heard mixed accounts of the road in India, but this stretch of Hwy 21 is modern, wide and in excellent shape. The road out to the village of Abhaneri where the step well is located is good, too. Our driver dropped us off just at the entrance of Chand Baori, parking to wait for us at a market set up across the street. Surprised to find free entrance, we ignored the many guides hawking their services and entered to stroll around the 100 ft. deep well, admiring its 13 story depth and 3500 steps. Architectural stone artifacts lined porticos around the well. The oldest parts of the well date to the 8th century, but upper parts date back to the Mughal period in the 18th century. Chand Baori has appeared in several movies, including the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
We hired driver Abès for a full-day of Jaipur and environs by tuk tuk. David and I are both fans of tuk tuks. We enjoy the exhilarating feel of being in the thick of things, weaving through traffic, eye-to-eye with those in other vehicles, then enjoying the breeze when our driver hits a straightaway. I try not to focus on the fact there are no seatbelts much less airbags or even walls in these vehicles. They’re fun! Since tuk tuks are vehicles of southeast Asia, it’s often hot, but surprisingly not as much as you might expect. With the temperate springtime weather in Jaipur, we strongly preferred tuk tuks to taxis. And, boy, are they cheap.
I was excited that Jaipur was our first stop in India after Myanmar. After last year’s visit to the west coast of India, it was time to do the famous Golden Triagle: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Flying from Yangon to Jaipur (via Bangkok) meant we could travel just two legs of the triangle since we planned to fly out of Delhi to Kathmandu.
I’d read about Jaipur for decades, dreaming over photos of the fabled Pink City, walled forts and luxurious hotels. Since Jaipur was just one stop on a 3-month odyssey, I skipped the expensive iconic hotels and found a wonderful bit of luxury at a very affordable price at the Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel. The Pink City and all the other wonders of Jaipur still awaited, though.