We spent 2020 and then some sheltering in place with my high-risk parents. It was a beautiful place to stay and a privilege to be useful until we could all be vaccinated. But, after a year+ of being in one place with a lot of togetherness (plus doing all the shopping and 98% of the cooking), we were getting restless and everyone needed some space. First up were a number of visits to family and friends, then it was time to find somewhere new to light for a while. A search of places we could just live for a month (May 2021) with minimal hassles and no quarantine led me to the Dominican Republic. I’d only been once before to Samaná and that was ages ago. I found a beautiful 2-bedroom/2-bath condo at a great price on Bávaro Beach near Punta Cana. We were a go!
I’ve been offline for some months, enjoying down-time with family and friends between travels. We wandered so much in 2019 (7.5+ months in total, including 12 countries and a couple of extended U.S. roadtrips) that I got behind on blogging. Also, I wasn’t sure I had much to add to the sea of info out there, and if I don’t think I can add something meaningful, I don’t feel compelled to blog just for the sake of it. That said, I do feel remiss about not sharing the awesome Tasmanian itinerary laid out for us by native-Tassie friends, Gail and Lyndon.
We’d been considering a trip to Bhutan for some time, but hesitated because of the requirement that western tourists only visit with government-approved tour guides. The minimum cost for travel to Bhutan is a set $250pp/day, a not insignificant amount for the constant presence of a guide, something we generally don’t like and actively avoid. But still, we heard great things about Bhutan and we’d be in neighboring Nepal, so why not?
I decided a relatively short 4-night stay would be a good way to dip our toes into Bhutan and see how we liked the mandatory guide set up. If the country really entranced us, we could always come back for a longer stay another time. Government-approved guides were an unknown quantity, so I decided to book through kimkim, a company founded by the creators of TripAdvisor and other travel apps. Kimkim brokers local guides and I felt comfortable using them. Kimkim put me in touch with Pelden who was generally good about communicating with me and tailoring a trip to our interests, which meant adding a visit to Bhutan’s first craft brewery/brewpub, coincidentally founded by a former classmate of Pelden.
Time for another beer post from David!:
Trappist beer – brewed by Trappist monks, those of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, formerly the Order of Reformed Cistercians of Our Lady of La Trappe – is widely recognized and revered (certainly by us) as some of the world’s best. The name “Trappist” originates from the La Trappe abbey located close to Soligny in Normandy, France, where this order of reformist (i.e., more restrictive) monks was founded in 1664.
Currently, fourteen monasteries produce Trappist beers under the official recognition of the International Trappist Association. Six are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and the U.S.A. Twelve of the fourteen (excluding those in France and Spain) also qualify for the Authentic Trappist Product label, which certifies that the beer is made within the abbey, by (or under the direction of) Trappist monks, and that profits are solely for the needs of the monastery and its community or for charity and social projects.
Happily, David’s been working on several beer posts. Here’s his latest:
Cabardouche is a new microbrewery in Antwerp located at Engelselei 258 in the Centers van Borgerhout area, just under some railway arches amid a strip of other shops in newly renovated spaces. It joins much larger and well-established local favorites De Koninck (owned by Duvel Moortgat) and Seef as one of the few breweries in Antwerp. The name Cabardouche derives from “Cabaret douze” and harkens to Napoleon’s system of numbering cabarets in Antwerp, with the number 12 (or “douze”) reserved for brothels.
We rent cars frequently when in Europe and elsewhere and have never needed an international driving permit. Just prior to our most recent roadtrip from Belgium, I came across information that really changes things. We’re in Antwerp house- and cat-sitting for a couple of months again and had some days away to do something with while the owners were home between their travels. I booked a rent car awhile back, but hadn’t settled on where we should go. We’d been thinking northern France and the Channel Islands, but were starting to lean more towards Switzerland since David had never been. A “why not” run to Lichtenstein had also piqued my interest so I began plotting out a drive south through France to Switzerland, factoring in a stop in Dinant, Belgium, that had been on my want-to-see list for some years.
The one daytrip I really wanted to make from Sofia was to Rila Monastery. It’s one of the, if not the, Bulgarian site most touted when I was doing my pre-trip research. (Rila Monastery even made an appearance in an audiobook I enjoyed, Street Without a Name, by a Bulgarian woman who left Sofia as a teenager shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and returned years later to her much-changed country.)
Lots of tour companies offer day visits to the monastery from Sofia, many of them combining the monastery with a stop at Boyana Church, another UNESCO site. I settled on Traventuria, a company that operates mid-sized motor coaches from near the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church.
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.