Somewhere between classic Central Europe (like Prague or Vienna) and distinctly Eastern Europe one can find pockets of towns and whole regions that have yet to be rediscovered by tourism. These forgotten spots and undiscovered gems are a mix of central and eastern and teem with life, colors, rich traditions, magnificent castles, charming towns and special people. Some are rural regions that were forgotten (thankfully) by the Communists and left alone, standing now as glimpse into life as it was 200 years ago. Other spots on the tour are cities and towns that were once the furthest most reaches of the Habsburg empire - most still far from the tourist track. In the spirit of other Roads Less Traveled tours, we will bring you to these forgotten places and give you experiences that other tours can’t offer up. You’ll be amongst the locals, their traditions, history and stories.
We will explore the Bukovina region: packed full of gorgeous painted monasteries on the Romanian side and sporting an art nouveau rich town in Chernovcy on the Ukraine side. In Maramures we’ll witness authentic rural life where things have changed little in the past few centuries and where folks still dress in traditional clothing, skilled craftsmen build towering wooden church spires and artists paint colorful cemeteries. We’ll explore two of the greatest Central European cities: Lviv and Krakow; both abuzz with cafe culture, arts, music and great architecture. And as always on our tours, we’ll sneak in some treats like visits to the beautiful Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv and the ruined castle of Vlad Dracula (not the one geared to tourists). We’ll also get a glimpse into the art of decorated eggs with an artist in the bucolic countryside of Romania and learn to make our own pierogies (Polish dumplings) with a local family in Krakow.
Day 1: Transfer from Bucharest airport to one of Transylvania’s great cities, Brasov. This city became an important craft centre for the German Saxons in the 14th-18th centuries and was once heavily fortified. We’ll managed to see a few fragments from Brasov’s medieval days as our tour begins with a with an evening walking tour around the center, including the Black Church. This gothic church was built by Saxons and features a rich collection of tapestries from Anatolia region of Turkey. Tour will be followed by a welcome dinner. Overnight at guesthouse in the center of Brasov’s old town quarter. Overnight: Brasov, Romania.
Day 2: Morning and early afternoon at your leisure to enjoy Brasov. You can take a cable car up the hillside for a nice panoramic view of the area. Explore the fortifications that still surround the city, check out the museums or enjoy getting lost in the old town’s narrow streets. You even have time for a quick trip to Bran castle, the touristy site that gathers Dracula-loving day trippers from everywhere. In the afternoon we will visit two fortified churches, Prejmer and Harmon. Built by German Saxons who founded Brasov, these structures are numerous in the central Transylvania region. Thick walls and turrets surround the church located in the center. Villagers would have workshops and living spaces inside the walls to continue on with normal life during a siege by Ottomans. Overnight at guesthouse. Overnight: Brasov, Romania.
Day 3: A full day excursion to Poenari castle, Vlad Tepes’ (aka Dracula) real castle. This evocative ruined castle overlooks a valley leading into Transylvania. Most tourists go to Bran castle where Vlad maybe spent a few nights at, but this is where the count fending off numerous Ottoman Turk invasions. On the way back we will visit the beautifully ornate Orthodox monastery in Curtea de Arges, one of Romania’s oldest cities and a seat of power for the old rulers of this Wallachia region. This monastery features marble and mosaic brought from Constantinople. We will also visit the Royal Church (Biserica Domnească) and the ruins of the Prince's Palace Complex which dates from the early 16th century. Overnight at guesthouse. Overnight: Brasov, Romania.
Day 4: We leave Brasov and head to Sighisoara, the only medieval citadel still populated in all of Europe. We’ll take a tour of this town that is the birth place of Vlad the Impaler, connected according Bram Stoker’s novel with Count Dracula. The medieval citadel is perched on a hillock and is fortified with a 14th century wall. After lunch in Sighiosara we will head to northern Transylvania, to the town of Sic (Szek in Hungarian). This village, like many in this part of the region, is majority Hungarian. Folk music, dress and traditional dances are still very much alive here. Overnight at a rustic, family-run pension. Overnight: Sic/Szek, Romania.
Day 5: Morning in Sic to enjoy many of the locals in traditional costumes, which are unique in Romania. As we leave Transylvania, we’ll stop along the way at the Nicula Monastery, erected during the 18th century, and is an important pilgrimage site. Now we reach the idyllic countryside of the Maramures region. Nowhere else in Europe can one find such peaceful solitude alongside rich traditions that are practiced everyday, not for the sake of tourism. The region is famous for its 17th and 18th century spindly wooden churches, beautiful hand carved wooden gates and many other artisan traditions.
We’ll pick up some supplies and enjoy a picnic in this peaceful bucolic landscape. Next we’ll stop at the village of Surdesti to see its impressive oak church with a spire of 54 m high – one of the tallest Europe’s wooden churches and built in 1766. Continuing on a scenic drive past rolling hills and cone shaped haystacks, we’ll end our first day in Maramures at a Unesco heritage site, the wooden church of Rogoz. It is famous for its intricate “horse head” consoles that support the roof, and for the woodcarvings on the façades. Overnight: Maramures, Romania
Day 6: Thursday mornings are always market day in the old spa town of Ocna Sugatag. This fascinating and unique market sells fresh homegrown produce, ceramic, animals, local cheeses and natural honey. Ride by horse and cart to Breb, to see the village and a famous wood carver. Walk in the village to explore its genuine traditional life. Continue by car on Cosau valley to see Sarbi - a small village that has many water pools or “valtori”- the village washing machines! One of the locals makes a very strong "Horinca" or plum brandy that those brave enough can try. We can also visit an artisan of straw traditional hats of the valley. Overnight: Maramures, Romania
Day 7: In the morning we will take a walk and visit Desesti church, another Unesco heritage site. The inside paintings are very well restored and preserved. The we will reach a small remote village, called Manastirea, which has a nice legend. We visit the wooden church perched on top of the hill, with remains of exterior wall paintings. We’ll also stop in the village to see an artisan which makes delicate hand-embroideries and necklaces. In Sighetu-Marmatiei, a large town near the border with Ukraine, guests can enjoy a private collection – Pipas museum – which includes cultural artifacts, tapestries, old icons, crafts, lace, antique furniture, old books. Leaving Sighetu-Marmatiei, along the Tisa river, that marks the border with Ukraine, we head to Sapanta, a village famous for its Merry Cemetery, that owes its name to the carved and decorated wooden gravestones with colorful and often humorous epitaphs. Overnight: Maramures, Romania.
Day 8: We take a road in a beautiful valley to Barsana and visit the monastery, which is a new settlement. They said that the spire of their church is 3 m higher than the church in Surdesti. Crossing Prislop Pass through impressive forest and mountain scenery, we drive into the Bucovina region, which was once stretched into modern day Ukraine. Lunch with an extraordinary woman, internationally awarded for traditionally painted eggs. She is using natural colors and also natural wax. Afterwards, we will visit two of the Unesco protected “Painted Monasteries” that this region is known for, the Moldovita and Suceavita monasteries. The exterior walls have been adorned with traditional Orthodox frescoes painted in Byzantine style and date from the 16th century. Overnight and dinner with a family in a local village. Overnight: Bucovina, Romania.
Day 9: More of the extraordinarily beautiful “Painted Monasteries” with visits to two other of these painted beauties. Voronet is known as the for its ‘blue church’ for its rich color-scheme. The most famous painting on Voronet is the large west outside wall covered with The Last Judgment (big fire, people waiting to be judged: angels and devils fighting over them). Red is the predominant color at Humor monastery and its centerpiece is the Siege at Constantinople. Later in the day we will pay a visit to a ceramic maker in one of the local villages. He makes traditional ceramics with old symbols such as the cross, the sun, the corn, but also new interpretation of Romanian legends. His family has been making ceramic for generations and one of his plates is featured on a Romanian postage stamp. Overnight and dinner with a family in a local village. Overnight: Bucovina, Romania.
Day 10: Transfer to Ukraine and the city of Chernovcy, the old capital of Bukovina when this region spanned over both Romania and Ukraine. Being at the cross-roads of Habsburg, Polish and Turkish empires for centuries has resulting in today's multi-ethnic mix. The cultural centers for Jewish, Polish, Romanians and Germans all are still active. The city recently celebrated its 600th anniversary in October of 2008. As such, the renovations of the city are really spectacular, with many Austrian "belle epoque" buildings from late 19th century now restored. This is one of the great unheralded Habsburg cities, just waiting to be rediscovered. We'll take a guided walking tour to see a strange Romanian Orthodox church with twisted towers, a perfectly conserved Art Nouveau theatre, wonderfully restored town hall that looks like it was lifted straight from Poland and the gobsmackingly stunning University complex that is a crazy and fascinating mish-mash of Romanesque, Oriental, Ukrainian folk art and Byzantine all molded into one. Overnight at a centrally located 3-star hotel. Overnight: Chernovcy, Ukraine.
Day 11: Morning at your leisure to wander the old streets of Chernovcy. Then we will head off to the town of Kamyanets-Poldilsky, which became an import strategic point for any empire because of its unique position and layout. A river loops around the entire town, forming a deep canyon that worked for centuries as a wonderful defense system. We’ll enjoy a walking tour of the old town and fortress, which dates back to the 13th century. Along the tour we’ll visit Catholic church that was converted to a mosque (during the brief time the Ottomans held this city before the Polish empire snatched it back). What’s interesting is that the Poles decided to leave up the minaret that the Ottomans had erected.
Before we get to Kamyanets, we will visit the imposing Khotin Fortress that sits along the edge of what was the Bessarabia region. It overlooks the Dniester River, one of Ukraine’s most important waterways. It was constructed by Moldavia's ruler Stephen the Great, who commissioned the famous painted monasteries in Romania. Many a battle was fought here, including one in 1621 where 75,000 Poles and Cossacks defended it against nearly 250,000 Turks. Overnight at a centrally located 3-star hotel. Overnight: Chernovcy, Ukraine.
Day 12: Morning train to Lviv, known as the “city of lions”. it has been both the capital of Habsburg Galicia, a key city in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and had a brief stint as capital of Western Ukraine Republic. It might not be Ukraine’s capital anymore (Kiev has that honor) but it’s culture, charm and tourism infrastructure are second to none in the country. We’ll take a guided tour of this lovely city that is like a sleepier, less popular younger sister to Krakow or Prague but also far less touristy and quite nice in her own right. Guests will see what a diverse collection of churches here, including the atmospheric Armenian cathedral and the immaculately detailed interior of the Boims’ Cathedral.
Our group will enjoy a great dinner at the famous Amadeus restaurant, that overlooks Cathedral Square in the old town. Enjoy top-notch comfort food: grilled sish-kabobs, creamy borscht or tasty vereniki (Ukrainian dumplings) - all served in a cozy interior with live jazz music. Overnight at 3-star Wien Hotel, only a minute from the town’s Rynek (Polish term for main square). The hotel sits above a famous Viennese Coffee House (and very good restaurant) dating from 1829. Overnight: Lviv, Ukraine
Day 13: All day in Lviv at your leisure. One can easily spend all day doing nothing but hopping from coffee house to tea shop to pastry shop. The variety of architecture here is stunning. Make sure to include a visit the Krushelnytska Opera house, a lovely bit of early 20th century neo-Renaissance, and then pay a stop to the neoclassical Italian courtyard for a mid-afternoon espresso. Perhaps some time to wander the outdoor market in search of Soviet memorabilia, fresh vegetables, local honey and many arts and crafts. Worthy of 2-3 hours is the Open-Air Museum of Folk Architecture, just a few tram stops from the center. The museum showcases a variety of wooden buildings and churches reflecting the different styles of villages and ethnicities from the Carpathian mountains and western Ukraine. Overnight: Lviv, Ukraine.
Day 14: Full day excursion to Ukrainian countryside to follow the "Golden Horseshoe" route of castles that spread out from Lviv, including Olesko castle which was once owned by the celebrated Polish King, Jan III Sobieski. We’ll also visit the Russian Orthodox monastery at Pochayiv and some Grecco-Catholic wooden churches that dot the landscape. Upon return to Lviv we will visit Lychakiv cemetery, one of Europe’s finest cemeteries which looks more like an outdoor sculpture museum housed in a peaceful leafy park. Overnight: Lviv, Ukraine.
Day 15: Morning train from Lviv to Poland’s glorious city of Krakow. This is a vibrant university town, an arts mecca, a cafe lover’s dream and one of Europe’s most enticing cities. It’s really the one place on this tour that has not been “forgotten”. Though heavily visited, Krakow manages to hold its many guests well and not overly touristy ala Prague. Since it missed out on WWII bombing runs, the architecture is surprisingly intact, including its Rynek (main square) and famous cloth hall. On almost any given evening there is a concert, usually at one of its many churches, an art opening or an impromptu festival. There are no shortages of great restaurants here; from traditional Polish to dive bar piergoi whole-in-the-walls to high end fine dining to authentic Jewish food. Late afternoon and evening to explore Krakow. Dinner with our local Polish guide to review the following day’s itinerary. Overnight at guesthouse 2 blocks from the main square.
Day 16: Our local guide will take us on a grand four hour tour of this historic city, including St. Mary’s cathedral, the university district and many of the old defensive positions around the town including the Barbrican gate. Afternoon at your leisure to explore Krakow’s many sights, museums, art galleries and a visit to the Wawel Castle. This seat of Polish kings has numerous museums and collections. Overnight: Krakow, Poland.
Day 17: Morning at your leisure to explore Krakow’s many sights, museums, art galleries or just relax at one of the many cafes on the Market Square. In the afternoon, we will take a tour of Kazimierz district, the Jewish quarter. Our tour will include a visit to the only functional synagogue in Krakow and the Galicia Jewish museum. For our farewell dinner we will have it at a local’s home. And we won’t just being eating dinner, we will be making it. Guests will learn the art of pierogies - those tasty Polish ravioli that are filled with cottage cheese, potatoes or meat. Overnight: Krakow, Poland.
Transfer to airport/train station of morning of Day 18
Single Supplement: $500 USD
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