Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

A Guided Tour of Manuel Antonio National Park with Naturalist Johan Chaves

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. –  John Muir

Our villa at Tulemar was like a treehouse, perched high above the jungle and surrounded by nature.  I woke at 5:30 am to the sound of the birds greeting the day and went out to watch the tropical rainforest come to life. Two pairs of scarlet macaws flew poignantly overhead and settled in a neighboring tree where they squawked a bit before taking flight. Kingfishers, warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and tiny hummingbirds enjoyed their breakfast in the morning light. I could have laid here all morning but alas I had to get everyone else up for our seven am tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

My favorite place of all – the hammock

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Morning sunrise from the balcony at Tulemar

Visting Manuel Antonio had been a dream of mine ever since I first visited Costa Rica on a volunteer trip in 2011. Today I would finally see one of Costa Rica’s most popular and beloved parks and I could hardly wait.

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Brasov, Romania

GPSmyCity: Self-Guided City Walks at the Palm of your Hands

Have you ever been traveling in a new city and wanted to know the inside scoop on the best things to see and do yet didn’t want to go with a big tour? If you are like me, you don’t want to bother with carrying around a heavy guidebook all day and the good news is thanks to technology you don’t have to anymore. Everything you need can be found on your smartphone. Better yet, you can find your own self-guided walking tour at an app called GPSMyCity which has over 5,500 walks from over 700 cities around the world.

What Are GPSMyCity Article Apps?

This handy app presents you over 5,500 self-guided GPS-based walks in 700+ cities around the world, featuring the best of each city, from world famous attractions to hidden gems. The walks can be downloaded on your smartphone, and then used without internet or Wi-Fi use during your tour.  The walks may be as simple as “A Local’s Guide to Warsaw Poland”, “The Five Best Cheeseburger Places in LA”  or as specific as “The Top Five Secret Churches of Old Town in Prague”.

There are two versions of the article. The first is the article alone without the GPS which you can download for free. The second option is to upgrade to the GPS-enhanced article for a fee of $1.99 per article. For the upgraded article, you can download at your hotel or wherever you have Wi-Fi and enjoy using it offline without Wi-Fi. The GPS tracking will enable you to chart your progress around the route and make sure you don’t get lost. Many of the articles also include links to articles covering other things to do of interest.

Here are some sample screen shots of what the a downloaded app looks like. To view enlarged, click on each image:

The highlights and main features include:

Work Offline

No Roaming. No Data Plan Needed.

Multiple Walks in Each City

Thousands of travel articles included. See Famous Sights and Hidden Gems

Detailed Walk Route Map

Turn-by-turn Walking Directions, displayed clearly on map. The “FindMe” feature displays your exact location plus Auto Tracking features disc plays your movement on the map, so you know you will always be walking in the right direction.

GPS-Guided City Walks

Lose Yourself Without Getting Lost

There simply is no better way to see a city on foot, at your own pace and at a fraction of the cost you would normally pay for a guided tour.

I’m pleased to announce that some of my posts have been converted into GPSMyCity apps. You can download these apps for free or pay for an upgrade. (Note: Must click on link using your phone or iPad or other app device):

*GPSMyCity is offering a free giveaway on the above two travel apps from Monday, December 12 – Sunday, December 18

To access GPSmyCity articles:

  • Download the free GPSmyCity app for your iPhone. Android version available soon!
  • From the GPSmyCity app, you can browse by city to see which articles are available.
  • You can read the article for free, save it or upgrade to the GPS-guided version to take with you offline.

Thanks to GPSMyCity for providing free updated apps for the period of the giveaway.

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Stavropoleos church

24 hours in Bucharest

“Stroll through more than 500 years of history from the times of Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula to the “golden era” of communism and the ’89 Revolution and unravel the stories of old and new Bucharest”. – Walkabout Tours, Bucharest

I must confess. I’ve had a hard time grasping how I would write about Bucharest. This  fascinating yet often conflicting city has left me utterly dumbfounded on how to best present it. With its tiny treasure trove of charming streets, churches and parks tucked away from huge swaths of historic neighborhoods that were depressingly torn down under Communist rule, I found Bucharest intriguing in its own right as long as I forgot what was once there. An eclectic mix of historic charm, Parisian flair juxtaposed with block after block of notoriously ugly, characterless and stark 80s-style Communist concrete apartments contributed to Bucharest’s confusing feel.

Although Bucharest pales in comparison to the beauty and magic of Prague and some of her eastern neighbors, this city of two million inhabitants has its own unique charm and character particularly if you do not spend a lot of time in the city’s unattractive and somewhat grimy remnants of Communism’s past.  However, if you skip this part of town and try to view Bucharest with rose-colored glasses, you will miss a big part of what makes this city so incredibly interesting and will also not understand a big part of Communist Bucharest’s past. A full day or two in Bucharest is enough to give you a sense of the city before heading off to Romania’s beautiful, magical countryside of spectacular villages, castles and of course the mountains.

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We arrived in Bucharest early evening after traveling for over 24 hours from the US. We  left home on a Saturday morning and didn’t check into our hotel until half past seven on Sunday night. We instantly realized that we would not have a lot of time to explore Bucharest before setting off into the countryside. Given the long distance to get to Romania, we would only have five full days on the ground and we both preferred to spend it in the countryside.

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Looking down on Brasov from atop of Mount Tampa

It is no surprise that the charming town of Brasov is often referred to as “the city at the foot of Mount Tampa”. Beautifully nestled within the natural protection and confines of the Carpathian mountains, the medieval town of Brasov was able to ward off invaders for centuries with its impressive fortification systems of walls, towers and gates. Today, Mount Tampa is an important landmark in Brasov whose lush forested peak can be seen from literally ever street within the old part of town.

The main reason why people visit the top of Mount Tampa is to see the spectacular panoramic view of Brasov. You can literally see where the old medieval town ends and the newer, Communist-era buildings begin. Mount Tampa is also a wonderful place to hike since most of the mountain is a nature reserve containing an abundant amount of wildlife and plants. Getting to the top of Mount Tampa was high on our list for our five days in Brasov and we were finally able to fit it in on our last day in town.

Brasov, Romania

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Brasov Romania

Brasov: The heart of Romania

Tucked majestically beneath the verdant hills of the Southern Carpathian Mountains in Central Romania lies the historic charming city of Brasov, one of Romania’s most visited cities. Awash with gothic, barque and renaissance architecture, this once walled city is one of the loveliest cities in all of Transylvania.

Brasov was founded on an ancient Dacian site in the 13th century at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. A thriving German mercantile community of skilled craftsmen enabled Brasov to dominate the economical life  and importance of the region during medieval times. Beautiful churches and colorful buildings were built along with fortifications to protect the city against invaders. Parts of the 15th century wall still exist as well as a couple of lookout towers.

Today, Brasov remains a charming city to wander and explore, enjoying its stunning architecture, its delightful bohemian walking streets and mass of fabulous outdoor restaurants and cafes. It is also an excellent launching off point to many hiking trails and day trips to medieval castles in Transylvania. I found Brasov delightful and the perfect place to base ourselves for the majority of our stay in Romania.

Brasov Romania

Brasov Romania

We arrived around mid-afternoon after a relatively straightforward three-hour drive south from Bucharest. Quite frankly, getting out of Bucharest took the longest and was the most difficult part of the drive given its swath of roundabouts and signs in Romanian. Thankfully we had GPS in our rental car or else we certainly would have gotten even more lost than we did.

As you leave Bucharest, you pass through the surrounding Romanian countryside a place of tranquility and beauty. In the Middle Ages, Romania was made up of three principalities: Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania with Transylvania inspiring the most legends and mystique. For it was here in Transylvania that the lore of Dracula began and it is easy to see why given the number of castles, fortifications and medieval towns.

Brasov, Romania

Approaching the city of Brasov which is located down in the valley surrounded by mountains.

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We based ourselves at the lovely Hotel Kolping located about a ten minute walk up above the city, in the mountains. It served as the perfect place to stay as long as your wore ear plugs at night or are a sound sleeper. (There is a bit of noise at night from the  barking dogs trying to ward off the bears coming down from the mountains for a midnight treat). But despite the noise, the hotel is lovely with an incredible view of Brasov, a wonderful friendly staff and excellent food.

When we first arrived in Brasov, it was overcast, gray and gloomy yet I still found it quite lovely nevertheless. There would be a day or two of rain followed by perfect, cloudless days. In my option, the grayness captured the romantic mood and sense of mystery of Brasov. It was also great weather for doing a do-it-yourself walking tour which takes only a couple of hours.

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We first went to the Council Square (Piata Sfatului) which is the heart and soul of Brasov, and one of the most beautiful squares in all of Romania. The street is lined with stunning red-roofed merchant homes which once belonged to the Saxons who built these homes in medieval times. The most notable sight to see in the square is the famous Biserica Neagra or “Black Church”.

The Black Church was built from 1383 to 1480 and is the largest Gothic church in all of Romania. It received its name due to the effects on its appearance after a fire damaged it in 1689. The inside of the Black Church can be toured however no photographs are allowed. The church can be seen from miles away and is especially magical viewed from above on Mount Tampa.

After touring the church, the winds came in and swept away the rain clouds. The sun appeared and shined down on the square illuminating its buildings and bringing Brasov  to life. Families were out playing with their kids by the fountain. Couples were walking hand in hand. People were enjoying a cool drink at one of the many lovely outdoor cafes in the square. Meanwhile I was taking pictures of the lively, colorful buildings that lined the square and were even more brilliant with the afternoon sun.

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What I loved most about Brasov was its bohemian, laid-back feel. For a town of its size, I was amazed by how many excellent outdoor restaurants and cafes there are in Brasov.  We found several that we thoroughly enjoyed. The only difficult decision was deciding where to eat! Also compared to other European countries, the prices in Romania are extremely good. We were able to have a three-course home-cooked meal with a bottle of Romania wine for under $25.
Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

One of several main walking streets

Brasov, Romania Brasov, Romani Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romani

Brasov, Romania

Brasov is a great city to spend time just wandering its cobblestone streets and soaking in the character and charm of the city through its elaborate buildings and facades. Some were beautifully restored and immaculate while others were in need of renovation yet still had a story to tell through its layers of peeling paint.

You can also hike or take the tram up to the top of Mount Tampa (where the Hollywood-like Brasov sign is above) for a bird’s eye view of the town. We opted to take the 1960s Communist tram up and hike down. The views were absolutely spectacular and worthy of a post all in itself.

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

Brasov, Romania

As I often do when traveling is make sure to look up. I thought about all the history that I’d witnessed in just a short time in Brasov and without the crowds that are common in so many other parts of Eastern Europe. It was lovely!

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We spent five days in Brasov using it as our base for exploring Transylvania. Within that short amount of time, I easily fell in love with Brasov’s unique beauty, charm and liveliness. I would go all the way back to Romania just to spend more time in this lovely town with its friendly people, beautiful architecture and relaxing feel.

This article is also available for download on the iTunes app GPSmyCity. You can download by clicking this link. GPSmyCity provides a GPS-assisted downloadable version of this blog post. 

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Doors in Prague

Windows and Doors of Prague

“Better keep yourself clean and bright. You are the window through which you must see the world.” – George Bernard Shaw

I admit, I tend to have a small obsession with photographing doors and windows. I don’t know exactly why but perhaps it is because of the mystery they behold of what lies behind. The unknown stories from centuries of the past. I have written several posts on windows and doors from around the world. Up there with Paris, there is no other place in Europe in which I found the doors and window decorations as fascinating and beautiful as in Prague.

Prague is an enchanting, delightful city with some of the most well-preserved architecture in Europe. Yet her beauty has caught on and there are few times throughout the year that Prague is not overwhelmed with tourists. Given the constant crowds, I ended spending a lot of my time looking up and craning my neck to crop out the people from my photos. Thank goodness I did, as otherwise I would have missed so much as the windows, doors and rooftops of the buildings are sensationally decorated.

Prague is known for its interesting decorative door signs that back in medieval times when the signs were used for street addresses. The ornate doors and windows are befitting of Prague’s eclectic mix of architecture ranging from Baroque to Renaissance and Neo-Classical genius. After visiting other places in Europe, I’ve come to realize how incredibly fortunate Prague was to have avoided the bombing from WWII and remain relatively untouched. The entire city feels like an enormous open-air museum that is a true joy to see.

Here are some of my favorite little treasures I saw while wondering the charming cobblestone streets of Prague.

Prague Decorative Windows

Doors in Prague

Doors in Prague

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St. Vitus Cathedral Prague

Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral

Perched magnificently above the River Vltava in Prague lies the spectacular St. Vitus Cathedral, a spellbinding masterpiece of French Gothic architecture whose dramatic spires dominate Prague’s fairytale skyline. The St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic and its chapels, frescos, tombstones and sensational stained glass make it one of the most incredible churches I have ever seen. Its construction took over a thousand years and its origins date back to the end of the 9th century during the formation of the Prague Castle, one of the largest ancient castle complexes in the world.

The first stones of the foundation were laid in 1344 upon an earlier 9th century altar that had been dedicated to St. Vitus. Emperor Charles IV who inspired many of the great buildings and beautification of Prague wanted to make a grand medieval cathedral within the palace grounds and hired architect Peter Parler to work on the church.  Parler worked on it for 46 years until his death in 1399. Unfortunately not much work occurred for several centuries after Parler’s death, leaving the cathedral half-finished until a resurgence in the desire to complete it consumed the national psyche of the re-emerging nation. For the next several decades, a mix of architects, artists and sculptures worked on the church giving it a rather asymmetrical, piecemeal appearance. An opening ceremony for the church was held in 1929 to commemorate the millenium of St Wenceslas. Yet it still took until after WWII for the cathedral to be fully completed. Despite its chaotic past and building, St. Vitus Cathedral is a magical place and a must-see for any visitor to Prague.

As you walk through the castle gates, you will quickly realize that it is impossible to get a sense of how large the St. Vitus Cathedral is given it’s location. It is literally smushed within the buildings of the third courtyard of the Prague Castle and it takes numerous photos to get an appreciation for its sheer dominating size and grandeur.

St. Vitus Cathedral Prague

St. Vitus Cathedral

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Strada Sforii Brasov

The Narrowest Street in Eastern Europe: Strada Sforii in Brasov

Nestled majestically below the peaks of the lush Southern Carpathian Mountains in Central Romania lies the historic, medieval city of Brasov, one of Romania’s most visited cities. Awash with gothic, barque and renaissance architecture, this once walled city is home to many beautiful historic buildings and churches dating back to the 12th century.

Brasov was founded on an ancient Dacian site by Teutonic Knights in 1211 at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. Beautiful churches and buildings were built along with fortifications (a wall and three lookout towers)  to protect the city against enemies in medieval times. Today, it remains a charming city to wander and explore, enjoying its stunning architecture, its delightful walking streets and mass of fabulous outdoor restaurants and cafes. It is also an excellent launching off point to many hiking trails and medieval castles.

One of the most famous streets in Brasov is Strada Sforii also known as “Rope” and “Skinny” Street as it is the narrowest street in Eastern Europe. Dating back to the 13th century, Strada Sforii is approximately four feet wide and it links Cerbului Street with Poarta Schei Street. The street was originally used as an access route by firefighters but today is one of the most interesting and fun tourist attractions in Brasov as visitors and locals alike wander its narrow, winding path.

Strada Sforri

The entrance to Strada Sforri

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Prague Castle

A Walking Tour of Prague: The Prague Castle

Soaring majestically atop the hillside overlooking the glorious city of Prague, lies the Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) in the district of Hradčany. It’s stunning mass of spires, towers and palaces dominate Prague like a magical, fairy-tale fortress. Known as the largest ancient castle complex in the world, covering an area close to the size of seven football fields (70,000 square meters in length and 130 meters wide) this network of towers, churches, museums, halls, gardens and palaces is like a city in itself and is a must-see for anyone visiting Prague.

Scholars estimate that the Prague Castle was founded around 880 by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty. It was also around this time that merchants from surrounding lands began trading in the area and formed a marketplace that would eventually become Old Town Square in the heart of Prague. The first building to be constructed in the Prague Castle was the church of the Virgin Mary which only has a few stones remaining today. Over the next couple of centuries, the immense complex of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings were constructed and modified in various kinds of architectural style, beginning with the 10th century St. George’s Basilica, the St. George Convent, the impressive St. Vitus Cathedral, and the glorious palaces and gardens.

Since its founding, the Prague Castle has held an important role in history as the seat of power for the kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. Today, it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic and has been opened up to the public since 1989.

You can reach the castle a number of different ways however we preferred to take the long hike up from Lesser Town on foot. Leaving Nerudova Street, we walked up the picturesque Malostranské náměstí to the top of the hill and the main entrance to the Castle. The views along the way were stunning and definitely worth the steep walk up.

Prague Castle

Leaving Lesser Town and heading up to the Prague Castle.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

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Lesser Town Prague

A Walking Tour of Prague: Malá Strana

As you cross the iconic Charles Bridge, you arrive in Malá Strana or “Lesser Town, a charming, picturesque part of Prague that peacefully lies beneath the Prague Castle and is known for its delightful winding cobblestone streets, its array of lovely restaurants, shops and cafes, its beautiful buildings and homes, and best of all, its lack of crowds giving this part of town a quieter, peaceful feeling.

Despite it’s name “Lesser Town” (Malá Strana is also referred to as the Little Quarter), Lesser Town is by no means a less beautiful or fascinating place to explore. In fact, it got its name because it was originally the smaller part of town where the king lived which in those days was away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Town markets and square.

Lesser Town Prague

View from Bell Tower looking towards Lesser Town.

After you cross the Charles Bridge, slowly the crowds dissipate and you can wander the charming eighteenth century cobblestone streets – many of them tucked behind gorgeous buildings and jetting uphill –  in lovely solitude.  In many ways, you will find Lesser Town to be Prague’s most enchanting part of town. Despite its intimate size of only 600 square meters, it is easy to get lost within its narrow streets and loose the hordes of people in Old Town. Home to such gems as the Church of St. Nicholas, the Little Quarter Square, the Kafka Museum, Petrin Park, and the Wallenstein Palace and Garden (which sadly was closed when we were there for a private event), you could easily spend a late afternoon or evening enjoying this intimate neighborhood.

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Charles Bridge, Prague

Prague: A Walk across The Charles Bridge to Lesser Town

“Prague. A city imbued with the quiet magic of something intimately familiar, as if from a distant past. A city which serves as a living textbook of ten centuries of European architecture.” – Radomira Sedlakova, author of Prague an architectural guide

There is no bridge in Prague that is more symbolic than the sensational Charles Bridge (Karlův most). Completed in 1402 by court architect, Peter Parler, the iconic Charles Bridge is a feat of medieval engineering that was the only link connecting Old Town and the Prague Castle across the River Vltava, for over 400 years. Lined with a never-ending collection of magnificent baroque statues against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Prague Castle and terra-cotta rooftops of Malá Strana (Czech for “Little Quarter” or “Lesser Town”, the Charles Bridge is a must-see for any visitor to the city.

The Charles Bridge and Old Town Square are the two places I remembered vividly in my head from my visit to Prague over 20 years ago in 1993. Visiting them again in detail did not disappoint. My only regret was not making the walk down to Charles Bridge at night to see the city ablaze with shimmering lights. That will have to be for another visit.

Prague at sunset on the Charles Bridge.

Prague at sunset on the Charles Bridge.

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Old Town, Prague

A Walking Tour of Prague: Old Town Square

Prague is a delightful city to explore on foot with its extraordinary architecture, charming cobblestone lanes and enchanting churches, squares and buildings. Prague’s history is long and deep which makes this spectacular city even more fascinating. Founded near the end of the 9th century at the crossroads of Europe, “Praha” or the “doorstep” became the seat of the Kings of Bohemia with a thriving marketplace alongside the River Vltava in what today is known as Old Town Square. Merchants and craftsman from all over the world would meet here to trade and by 1234 Prague’s Staré Město “Old Town” was founded.

Old Town revolves around Old Town Square which is laced in history and architectural genius and remains the historic heart and the soul of the city. Many believe it is the grandest, most magnificent square in all of Eastern Europe with its intricate pathways of cobblestone streets reminiscent of medieval times and its brightly-hued pastel buildings each with a history of its own right.

Every way you turn, there is an architectural treasure as one building seems to outshine the next. The styles of architecture range from Romanesque (characterized by semi-circular arches that was prevalent in medieval Europe) to Gothic (with its characteristic  pointed arches, ribbed vaults and the flying buttress that occurred after the Romanesque period in the 12th century) and Baroque (began in the late 16th century and includes dramatic use of light, oval shapes, grandeur and large ceiling frescoes).

What makes Old Town and much of Prague itself so utterly spectacular is that much of its treasured architecture from medieval times remains untouched by war or natural causes. There were floods that inundated the city in Medieval times that caused immense destruction but architects simply built over and restored the buildings in a new style of architecture. Many buildings of Gothic style were restored with Baroque facades.

As you enter Old Town, the first thing you see and pass through it the Powder Gate. Built in the 11th century, the Powder Gate was one of 13 entrances into Prague’s Old Town and still stands tall today. It was reconstructed in 1475 during the reign of King Vladislav II in 1475.

Powder Gate, Prague

The Powder Gate

Old City Gate Prague

Old Town, Prague

Walking through the gates, feels like stepping back in time. Despite the masses of people and tourists, if you look up and peer at the stunning, elaborate buildings you are bound to be awestruck by their pure magnificence. Several walking tours and guide books will give you detailed history on each building because of course every single one has a story. Also pay close attention to the detail of the doors, windows and the unique signs decorating each building. You could literally spend hours just walking around Old Town Square.

Old Town Square, Prague

Old Town Square

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