Little Kook Cake Shop

With all of my travelling, I’ve had little time to write about some of the local things I’ve been doing with my time. Between my trips to Venice and Germany, I popped over to the Athens Flea Market to pick up some fun souvenirs for my friends in Gottingen, and I finally got a chance to try this funny little tea and cake shop I’ve been dying to try since before Christmas. We had arranged an embassy meetup back in December, but they were unexpectedly closed so they could decorate for Christmas. Fast forward four months and I was finally coming back!

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Little Kook lives up to its name: the décor is definitely kooky! The waitresses are dressed up in elaborate costumes, and there isn’t an inch of wall or ceiling space that isn’t covered with some interesting decoration. There was an entire room just devoted to Christmas.

Looking over the menu, I decided I was more in the mood for savory than sweet, but they had several cakes, crepes and ice creams that I would love to come back and try. I got a savory tuna crepe and a glass of their homemade lemonade. Food and drink were outstanding!

Liam and Violet would totally love this place, and I’m sure many of my friends and their kids would enjoy it, as well. Though with all of the stairs, it is not a good place for strollers and young wandering toddlers. But we will definitely be coming back here after school is out!

Monemvasia

Four hours south of Athens along the southeast coast of the Peloponnese, you’ll find the Byzantine island of Monemvasia, a name meaning “single entrance.” The walled city and fortress were built in the 6th century AD, and aside from some tourist shops, restaurants and hotels that are built into the existing structures, not much has changed since then. One can easily get lost along the narrow cobblestone walkways, although the fortress isn’t very big, so you won’t be lost for long. If you stay within the city walls, you have to park your car along the roadway that leads from the mainland to the front entrance. Fortunately we got a pretty good spot — the advantage of arriving on a Friday afternoon.

But I wouldn’t say our trip down was particularly fortunate. We had this fantastic idea to flip Violet’s car seat to face the front so she could watch a DVD with Liam. Four hours in the car is the longest she’s ever endured, and I doubted she would sleep the whole way. The first half of the trip went well — she loved watching Curious George, her new favorite, and a perennial favorite of Liam’s. But then we left the turnpike and headed into the mountains. She started crying, and we figured she was getting tired again…until Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Oh, God, what a mess! We managed to change her clothes and wash up at a gas station. A short nap later and still 45 minutes from our destination, the vomit comet struck again. More cleaning up at the side of the road.

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Photo courtesy amusingplanet.com

Finally, the magnificent island came into view. With a stop for lunch and “Vomigeddon” we added almost 2 hours to our drive. But we made it!

We had to park along a road that leads up the entrance to the walled city, then carry our things to our hotel. We were sure to pack light (and made notes to economize even further for our upcoming trip to Venice). The staff at the Likinia were very friendly, though I think we exhausted their knowledge of English when we inquired about a washing machine. No bother — we aren’t new to the concept of hosing off a puky car seat cover in a hotel shower. (Thanks to two-year-old Liam during our move to Florida.) The shower at this hotel was a bit tiny, but serviceable. Our room was nicely furnished, and the view from our windows was lovely.

Because I’m the expert in car seat disassembly, I volunteered to hike back to the car to collect the car seat cover and other victims of Violet’s unfortunate eruption. And while my task was less than stellar (having to do this on the side of the road IN THE DARK was especially trying), I did have a chance to wander the streets at night. So few people were out, it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves. While James had the unenviable task of clean-up duty using a bottle of baby shampoo I picked up on the way back, I ordered take out from a promising restaurant nearby called To Kanoni. As I waited for our food, the friendly proprietor chatted with me, provided me with brochures and maps, and told me all about this lovely city. I couldn’t wait to explore the next morning!

The children woke up bright and (alarmingly) early. Breakfast wouldn’t be served until 8:30, so we had a couple of hours to kill. A few episodes of Care Bears on the best invention ever (AKA the Amazon Fire stick, plugged right into the hotel TV), and then it was time to get dressed and run around the courtyard in the sunshine. What a lovely morning! No surprise, we were the first guests to arrive for breakfast at 8:30 sharp. They provided a very nice spread: omelets, ham and cheese cold cuts, little sausages, cereal, greek yogurt and honey. All things we enjoy. It took a little explaining, but they were also happy to make Liam a plain-Jane omelet to his liking.

We decided it best to spend the day wandering the streets at our leisure. Liam enjoyed leading the way, turning around at dead ends, looking through holes in the wall at the sea below, and discovering narrow passageways and staircases. Liam had studied the map, and he was intent on finding a path that led down to the water. But it eluded us. At the front gate we saw kids dressed in marching band uniforms ready in for a parade. Saturday was Greek Independence Day, so we expected to see a little parade.

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Slowly, we made our way up and up and up. Finally, we made it to the entrance to the upper town…and the door was locked! Closed for Independence Day. Do’h! We briefly contemplated making a day trip to Simos Beach on Elafonisos island, but we were understandably not anxious to get back in the car to drive through the mountains again. So after a brief siesta in our room (and more Care Bears…all the kids want to do while we’re on vacation is watch TV!), we explored the old lighthouse. Built in 1896, it wasn’t nearly as old as everything else on the island. We couldn’t go up into the tower, and as lighthouses go, it wasn’t terribly impressive. But the views of the sea and the mainland were.

Time for lunch! We enjoyed our meal from To Kanoni so much, we decided to eat lunch on their rooftop terrace. I ordered the traditional Independence/Feast of Annunciation day meal, fried cod with a garlic sauce. A hungry cat kept pestering us. Violet was hollering “kitty!” as I was trying to shoo it away. Back off my fish, feline! I called the waitress over, and she brought up a water gun and chased him off. Hilarious! She left me the gun just in case. He eventually came back, eyeing me from a corner and biding his time until I got up to leave. But he kept his distance when the water gun was in view.

While the kids took another little siesta, I hiked back to the car to get the car seat cover back on and reinstall it. At least half a dozen people stopped to ask me if they could take my parking spot. So glad we came Friday! On my way back I wandered up a path from the road to a small cemetery that appeared to be the final resting place for the town’s priests. An interesting juxtaposition of modern photos with old-style tombs, and with a lovely view of the sea.

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In the late afternoon we wandered around the upper reaches of the lower town, finding many dead ends and crumbling houses. Prime real-estate! We also came across some lovely private homes. Can you imagine actually living here? Paradise! Except for the parking situation…

As our intrepid (ahem…bossy) leader took us down another path, I discovered we’d lost James with a sleeping Violet on his back. Liam and I decided to wait for them on the porch of our hotel…James had the keys, of course! We waited and waited…and just as I was seriously starting to wonder where he went off to, James and a still-snoozing Violet showed up. He had found another path to the eastern reaches of the town, and it had a lovely view. He was happy to take us back…and he was right.

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Not quite so bright and early Sunday (a technicality…it was daylight savings in Greece that weekend), James loaded up our car while I took the kids to breakfast. On his way back, he found that path down to the sea, the one we couldn’t find Saturday. I’m so glad he did. What a gem.

Then it was back up and up and up and…the door to the upper town was open! Yes! And totally worth the climb. The views were spectacular, and the old church was in remarkable shape. There were other ruins of residences and administration buildings of the byzantine nobility. Apparently this was the part of the island that rich people lived, back in the day.

The kids stopped for a snack outside the church, and it’s one of the few times they stay still enough for a photo together.

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For the trip home, turning Violet’s car seat back to rear-facing helped tremendously. No more eruptions from her. But then Liam had us pull over every 10 minutes because he was feeling sick! Clearly, we cannot win. After the fourth time we pulled over, I insisted he eat a cookie. That helped. Thank God — at the rate we were going, we would have been lucky to make it home for bedtime.

Chillaxing like the Greeks

As I embark on year two of this little adventure of ours, I find myself assimilating to my new home country. I picked up the words for right (dexiá) and left (aristerá) from my Pilates instructor. I learned another way to ask, “How are you?” from my hairdressers (Ti káneis?). But the phrase I learned recently that I like the best is sigá-sigá. People here say it all the time, and its literal meaning — “slowly, slowly” — pertains to both speed and attitude. I like that. As I’m rushing around trying to get Liam ready for school or driving Violet to a Gymboree class we’re late for, now I’ll take a deep breath and say, “Sigá-sigá.”

The other day I felt like a true Greek. I was driving through an intersection I pass all the time, one with a clearly marked “no left turn” sign. I always see cars pull into this little space to make the left turn anyway, and I, the law-abiding American, always drive blocks out of my way to get going the right direction. But yesterday, as I was the first in line at the red light (that I was craning to see right ABOVE my passenger window), I decided to give this little maneuver a try. I expertly pulled my car into the spot, and three cars lined up next to me. When the light changed, simple as could be, I was on my way. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t try this sooner!

I had some time to kill yesterday before my hair appointment, so I popped into this café my friend Katy recommended called…um…Kokkine Svoura, if my translation of Greek letters is correct. Ah, here’s the website. I was close. Kokkini Svoura. I’m getting better at this!

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At any rate, it was a charming little café with couches and a bar — presumably one gets cocktails here at night. Katy said the brunch on the weekend is fabulous, and the cookies and hot chocolate are stellar. Feeling a bit peckish (This is a word I say now. Because…Europe.) I proceeded to order way too much food.

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Holy cow, that’s a huge hot chocolate! The flavor was salted caramel, and although it wasn’t as good as Ghirardelli at Downtown Disney in Orlando (hands down the best I’ve ever had), or Coffeeway’s white hot chocolate, it was definitely in the top five. I also couldn’t resist trying a cookie, soft and warm right out of the oven. Oh. My. God. So good. This was dark and white chocolate chip.

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And then the sandwich I ordered came! A chicken salad wrap with homemade chips. The wrap was quite good, but the chips and dip were outstanding. I could have definitely eaten more of those! Or maybe not…I was about to burst when I hurried out to my hair appointment.

I had a lovely time at Cut My Hair, as always. We’ve all become pals. Here’s where I could put my new phrase into practice. Sigá-sigá. It’s so nice to have some kid-free time in my day to relax a bit. And have a little fun. I told Harris, my colorist, I wanted to try purple this time, and he mixed this up special for me.

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I think this is my favorite one yet.

A lovely weekend in Nafplio and Epidavros

With warm weather finally returning, we decided to spend a weekend at the seaside Peloponnese town of Nafplio. It’s about a two hour drive southwest of Athens, and we couldn’t have picked a lovelier weekend in February to make the journey. Sunny and 63 degrees (or, rather, 17 degrees…still getting used to Celsius). I booked us a family studio apartment at the Bonne Nuit Pension, a decent little place in an excellent location, right in the old town.

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We started the day at Palamidi Castle, an 18-century Venetian fortress set up on the highest point in Nafplio. I was told there were two ways to get to the castle. You can either kill yourself climbing 999 stairs…

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Or drive your lazy ass to the top. Let’s see…carrying a 20-pound toddler on my back while listening to an 8-year-old’s constant whining all the way to the top, or parking 30 feet from the entrance. Honestly, which would you choose?

Once inside, we traipsed all over the various bastions. The views of the city and the bay were amazing. In this photo, you can see the ridge above the old town, and the small island in the bay is the Bourtzi, a water castle used as a fortification in the 1400s.

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The kids absolutely loved climbing around, playing peek-a-boo through some of the architectural elements…

…and carefully looking down at the sea.

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Some openings had safety bars and some didn’t. Thankfully my boy is very cautious, and my girl can’t climb all that fast. Yet. For the most part the paths were clearly marked, though at one point we walked ourselves along a narrow path right to a staircase leading nowhere, and we had to turn back. After walking every inch of the castle (at one little 8-year-old’s insistence), we had a little picnic lunch in the courtyard near the entrance.

Then it was naptime. For the grown-ups, not the kids, as it turned out. They jumped on one bed while the tired adults slept in the other. Actually, James did all the sleeping. I’m a mother. A nap in the middle of the day…as if! Feeling relatively well-rested, we hiked down to Arvanitia Beach along a gorgeous path right along the sea. It wasn’t quite sunset, but the views were still spectacular.

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Not a railing in sight, which made for good photos, but I was scared to death my baby girl was going to try and walk right off the edge and plummet into the sea. Thankfully the trail meandered back away from the water so she could walk on her own. The beach itself wasn’t much to look at, but we did get to see the back entrance to the castle with all of those stairs we decided not to take.

Instead, we climbed a nearly equivalent amount of stairs as we wandered around the old town back to our hotel. Well, maybe not 999…but our feet were aching all the same. Thankfully, one of the restaurants a friend had recommended was a short distance from our hotel, so we had ourselves an early dinner (6:30, so early by Greek standards) at Alaloum. I finally got some of this Greek lamb everyone keeps telling me about. More skin, fat and bone than I typically enjoy, but the meaty parts were excellent. The restaurant was small, but not too crowded or smoky, and we were treated to some complimentary gelato for dessert.

As we walked home, we came across a festival in the main town square. The Greeks celebrate Carnival all month long, and with Clean Monday just a week away, the festivities were really ramping up. Kids in costumes and their parents danced in a circle as musicians played traditional Greek music. Weary from our day of driving and climbing, we made our way back to our hotel and all of us conked out before 9:30.

The next day we drove about an hour East to the theater and archeological site of Epidaurus…or maybe Epidavros…it’s spelled both ways, but the Greeks seem to prefer the latter pronunciation and spelling. They play it fast and loose with their U’s and V’s.

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The theater is the best preserved from this era, the 4th century BC, and it is renowned for its excellent acoustics. You could stand in the center of a little circle on the stage and hear your own voice bounce back to you like you were talking through a microphone. Clapping also sounded wicked cool. You can see the kids really enjoyed that.

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The theater was remarkably well-preserved, but the rest of the site was not. No bother, though, because the kids just wanted to climb on everything.

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Monkey see, monkey do!

On our way back home we made a brief stop at the Corinth Canal, built in 1893.

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Apparently it doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore, but it sure looks cool! We stopped for lunch at the Goodies right next to the canal, and inside hung several photos showing how it was built. Liam got a real kick out of that. And Violet was happy to have her “fry fries!”

Now that James’ refugee travel has been put on hold, we’re planning more of these little weekend getaways for the spring and early summer. Next stop in March, Monemvasia!

An Arabian Night

We’re so fortunate to live in such a vibrant area of Athens, in Halandri. We can simply walk a few blocks to some of the city’s best restaurants. One that caught our eye when we first moved here was Pars Persian Restaurant. I can’t believe it took us a year to finally try it! Actually, I can…it’s hard to get out to a romantic dinner when you’ve got to find and pay for a sitter in a foreign country. But I’ve decided this is no time to cheap out. We live in Greece, dammit! Let’s have some fun!

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So, with that attitude, we got our butts out of the house for a much needed date night. No excuses! And I have no regrets. The restaurant was FANTASTIC. The décor was ornate and interesting. The food was ethnic, but still familiar enough to be satisfying. In addition to Greek, the menu had an English section and what I can only assume was a Persian section. Many of dishes had lamb, beef or chicken served with tomato or yogurt-based sauces and rice. Definitely some Mediterranean influences.

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We picked two appetizers that paired perfectly — yogurt with dill and the kofte berenji. We also ordered Persian bread, and a pot of Persian tea to share. Perfect for a chilly February date night.

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As we waited for the rest of our meal, we gazed around the ornately decorated dining room. The ceiling was draped with cloth, making the room feel intimate and cozy. Heating lamps provided extra warmth. The walls were covered with interesting elements from the Middle East. Outside the dining room there was more décor as you walked in from outside. Landscapes hung on the walls, and these little dolls greeted you on your way to the restroom.

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Our food arrived without too much wait, and we dug in. I ordered the Chelo kabab, a lamb dish similar to the Greek cuisine we usually find. It was tasty, but James and I both preferred what he ordered more: the Khoreshte fesenjari.

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Mine made a prettier picture. Yum! James’ dish came in a bowl with sauce, which you spooned out over rice. The sauce was rich and sweet, made with pomegranates. He got it with beef meatballs, but it can also come with chicken.

After our meal we walked back to our house, dropped off the leftovers, and took the car to The Mall. Normally we would have elected to stroll around our neighborhood, but the wind and the cold made us think otherwise. I recently discovered The Mall’s VIP parking lot, which foreign embassy employees can use for free. At 8:45 it was almost completely empty. Score!

We soon realized why. Nearly all of the shops were closed! And it was still 10 to 9 when we got there. I guess closing time operates on “Greek Time” as well. Or maybe all the shops close at…8:30? On a busy Saturday night? I don’t get it. This mall has a huge movie theater. The place was teeming with people, presumably eating at the restaurants and waiting for movies to start. Seems like a good time to open up shop. Oh well. Still too full for dessert, we grabbed a hot chocolate and took a stroll. We talked. It was nice. This is why date night is imperative. Seems like we never have a chance to just talk at home. It may be pricy, but it’s worth it.

Sunday Supper

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When I first arrived, I remember thinking I wouldn’t have much opportunity to make friends outside of the embassy community. And while most of my friends here work or have spouses working for the US government, I’m pleasantly surprised at how many Greeks and Europeans I’ve gotten to know. People are so incredibly friendly here…I really shouldn’t be surprised at all.

Case in point: I had the amazing opportunity to enjoy a traditional Sunday Greek supper with a local family I’ve gotten to know. Now, I’ve been to tavernas before, but we usually just order what we know, and we honestly have no idea what is good. Or if it’s even good — usually we end up in a very touristy place. So I was delighted to try a taverna in a small neighborhood in Athens recommended by folks who know good cooking.

We arrived at 3, hoping to avoid the rush at 2. I’m still getting used to the mealtimes here: lunch/supper at 2, dinner at 8 or 9. The restaurant was still packed…lots of families linger. We managed to squeeze our party at a table really only meant for four. We had four adults and three children. Yikes! But we managed. The place was loud, but I was relieved it wasn’t smoky.

Katy and her husband, Dmitrius, greeted us warmly and happily translated the menu. Near the entrance to the taverna was a large metal cask with spigots for red and white wine, which the wait staff would pour into little metal cups and distribute to the tables. We must have our wine! I overheard D ordering the wine, and I pointed out that it was the one thing I could actually order in Greek. Ha!

After hearing the translated options and recommendations, we settled on a Greek sausage accompanied by Gigantes (giant white beans), a beef ragu with pasta, shaved pork and fries for the kids, and Dolmadakia with yogurt (rice wrapped in grapevine leaves). And we started with a not-so-traditionally-Greek spinach and cranberry salad. It took us a bit to flag down a waiter, but once we ordered, the food arrived promptly. We all tried a little from each other’s plates, in typical Greek fashion, so we got to try some roast goat and potatoes as well. Unfortunately, by 3 they were out of lamb. The food was absolutely fantastic, the best Greek cuisine we’ve had since we got here. The kids loved it, too. The Dolma was probably my favorite. I remember trying them years and years ago, but I’m sure they were not this good.

We drank, we ate, we all got to know each other. Liam charmed the adults, as usual. And Violet and little Aimilia played peek-a-boo with each other. Violet couldn’t get enough of the goat. I caught her gnawing on a gnarly piece of skin and fat and just LOVING it. As we finished our main course, the staff brought out a complementary dessert: yogurt covered in berries and syrup. So yummy!

Our friends promised to take us to their favorite seafood restaurant next time. I had to admit that I’m not a fan of the whole-fish-on-the-plate thing, but I’d be happy to try squid and prawns, so long as there’s a minimal amount of dissecting required. I come from the Midwest, where seafood is a bit of a mystery. But I’m excited to try it!

Halloween in Transylvania

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A well-timed business trip to Romania turned into a perfect long-weekend getaway for our family. Just in time for Halloween, we booked a private tour of Bran Castle, famed residence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Peles Castle in Transylvania. We’d be staying in Bucharest for a few days, and I managed to find what turned out to be the perfect hotel for our family. The Orhideea Health & Spa offers spacious two-bedroom apartments for about 100 Euros a night. A large Carrefour down the street and numerous take-away restaurant options meant we could focus on fun family sight-seeing without worrying about what to do for dinner. Breakfast was included, which made me and the kids happy. They also serve dinner in a restaurant on the top floor, though we didn’t think the food was very good. We ended up not using the spa or the indoor pool, but it was nice to know those options were available.

Our flights were all kind of wonky this trip. James had to fly in from Timisoara in the afternoon while the kids and I flew Tarom Airlines (Romania’s premier, ahem, only airline) from Athens in the middle of the night. We didn’t make it to the hotel until 2 AM. Uncharacteristically, I’d not done a lot of vacation planning for this trip, so we hurriedly scoured Trip Advisor for some kid-friendly sight-seeing options.

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First stop, the train museum! Because…Liam. The Muzeul CFR is housed in the Gara de Nord train station, sort of the grand central station of Budapest. After admiring the big trains and watching a couple of them pull out of the station, we mosied over to the museum at the end of one of the platforms. Inside we found all sorts of artifacts, maps, and models of trains throughout history. But the most impressive of all was a huge model train that was an actual scale model of real areas throughout Romania. We met a wonderful docent who delighted Liam (and us!) with fun facts about the model and about trains in general. I asked if I could take photos, but he said we would have had to pay a fee when we bought our ticket. (We learned later this is common at all of the museums.) We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and because the museum was so small, I think Liam took his time really looking around.

Next, we decided to give the subway system a go. We find it so interesting how different cities and countries manage their transportation systems. While Athens works on an honor system, with simple ticket validation and a hefty fine if you’re caught without a proper ticket, Budapest uses a scanner and turnstile. The train cars were quite nice, with benches running along the walls, and the cars were wider than in Athens. The space between cars was completely open, so as the train made a turn you could see the bend in the cars all the way down the track. Quite a sight to see!

We spent the rest of the cold, dreary afternoon looking for a good museum. Liam spotted a huge Triceratops skull in front of the Muzeul National de Geologie, so we ended up going there. The skull was a bit misleading — there were a few dino models inside, but mostly it housed a vast collection of rocks. As you can imagine, that only took about 30 minutes for Liam to breeze right through. Just as well — we had a big day ahead of us in Transylvania the next day, so best to pace ourselves.

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By the end of our first day we were marveling at how affordable everything is in Romania. Museum tickets were all less than 5 Euros, we got a HUGE two-bedroom apartment for the cost of a single hotel room, and groceries cost half of what they would in Athens. Perhaps this is because Romania opted to keep its currency, the Lei, instead of switching to the Euro. Interestingly, Romanian leis are made of plastic instead of paper, and each bill has a small, transparent shape, like a little window (that’s what Liam called it).

Cristi, our private tour guide, met us bright and early Friday morning in our hotel lobby. The service we booked through Viator actually contacted us to suggest we switch to a private tour because we had a small child, and it was definitely worth the extra 50 Euros. They provided a car seat free of charge, and our guide was fantastic. As we drove out of the city, Cristi told us all sorts of facts about Budapest, some history about Romania, and we talked at length about his experiences as a child living under the Communist regime. He was only about nine when the wall fell, but he remembers his parents and grandparents having to stand in long lines for food. And he remembers how excited he was to try McDonald’s for the first time! He said he dreams to one day visit New York City, and he was thrilled to hear that we’d lived there once. I guess it’s very difficult for Romanians to get a US Visa these days. He hopes that will change soon. He also told us Romanians love almost anything American, especially the holidays, like Halloween. No trick-or-treating there, but lots of decorations up around town!

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As we approached our first stop, Peles Castle, we were told about its grand history and even grander rooms. It’s really more like a palace, with 170 ornately decorated rooms,  30 of which are bathrooms. James and I would have thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour if we could have ditched the kids. First off, it was still quite dreary and cold, even colder in the mountains, and Liam was NOT HAPPY about this situation. Then, Liam was under the mistaken impression that we’d be getting a private tour of the castle, so he threw a fit when we had to crowd in with a huge group of strangers for the English-language guided tour. He finally calmed down a bit when I exasperatedly handed him the camera and told him to start taking photos. But then Violet decided she wanted to nurse RIGHT NOW. Thankfully there was a female docent who overheard Violet’s pleas and motioned me to come around a curtain where there was a chair and a little bit of privacy. I say “little bit” because from the tour group’s vantage point, I probably looked like part of the exhibit. Sheesh. When we finally made it out and met Cristi in the courtyard, he asked if we’d like to tour the grounds. We opted for hot chocolate at the café instead.

Refreshed and in slightly better spirits, we stopped for lunch at Halewood Winery in Prahova Valley. Cristi recommended a few Romanian delicacies on the menu — the tripe soup (we opted for the less, um, intestiny option, beef soup), the “skinless sausages” called Mititei, and a Romanian dessert which was like a large, round donut covered in cream and blueberries. Romanian food is soooo good!

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Bellies full, we continued our trek through the Carpathian Mountains to Bran Castle. The clouds cleared out and the temperature rose. Beautiful fall foliage followed us up, down and around the curves, while craggy, white rocky outcrops rose impossibly high up ahead.

Now, clear your minds of all that spooky Dracula stuff. Bram Stoker set his infamous vampire tale at Bran Castle, but he’d never actually been here. And subsequent renovations by Queen Marie have transformed it into an almost quaint neo-classical cottage. But no bother — it’s still way up on a hill, and the tourists love it. No tour groups — we were free to roam around ourselves, and Cristi served as our private tour guide, pointing out various rooms and telling us of the history of the place. Liam loved walking through the narrow halls and peeking into the tidy rooms. dsc_0112 He especially loved the secret staircase through the walls discovered behind the fireplace. At the base of the castle stood a huge collection of souvenir booths. Cristi said that until the movies, Romanians hadn’t even heard of Dracula. This tourist industry sort of cropped up when people started showing up wanting to see the place. It was all a bit kitchy, but we couldn’t leave without getting a magnet, a statue of the castle for our mantel, and couple of T-shirts. Liam picked out a bell with Vlad the Impaler’s picture on it. We explained to him all about Vlad and the Dracula myth. He seemed to get the gist.

dsc_0153 On our final day we went to the Natural History Museum, which was VERY COOL! Better than I’d imagined it would be. Very modern, like a museum you’d see in the States. From there we took the subway to beautiful Herastrau Park. After riding the little choo-choo train (seems like we’ve always got to do that wherever we go!) we discovered the best Romanian street food ever: spiral potatoes. Actually, who knows if these are really Romanian, but who cares? They totally hit the spot. And of course we had to try the Kurtos Kalacs, fried bread molded around a thick rod, then coated in sugar. Sweet crunchy deliciousness!

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Lunch and done. Let’s look at some little houses! Next we took a lovely stroll through the Village Museum, an outdoor display of quaint little houses they moved from the countryside dating from 18th-early 20th century. You couldn’t go into most of them because they were too fragile. But with the falling leaves, lovely lake, and traditional music, we really felt transported in time. I spotted a sign for hot wine. Wine…for a cold fall day, you say? Sure, let’s give it a whirl. It smelled great, like cinnamon apple cider with a hint of tannins. But it tasted kind of revolting. I thought as it cooled it would taste better. It didn’t.

Our trip ended too soon. I wish we could have had just one more day. Cristi highly recommended seeing the Parliament Palace, reputedly the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. But we were worried the kids wouldn’t do well on another lengthy guided tour. We also missed seeing the Old Town, a few blocks of medieval buildings in the heart of the city. Perhaps when we return to Budapest someday we’ll be able to see them. Maybe we can leave the kids at home, ha!

We’re actually thinking of making a return trip to Romania in the spring, this time staying in Timisoara and seeing some of the more medieval castles associated with Vlad the Impaler. Perhaps they’ll scratch that spooky Dracula itch that Bran Castle didn’t. Budapest, Hungary is a relatively short train ride from there, too. This trip went so much better than Malta, I have high hopes that our family will be able to survive more travel!