WELCOME!

img_0698a1Welcome to my blog!

I am a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

My most recent posts include a link to my latest published story from last summer’s trip to Krakow, Poland, and my June trip to Yosemite National Park, the High Sierras and Mammoth Lakes, California.  Previous posts include my late April and early May trip to Romania where I still have some relatives from my mother’s side.  Before that are my posts from my early April trip to Venice, my favorite city in the world!  Also, my March trip to the Dominican Republic’s new Amber Cove cruise port, and recent stories published before that.

Watch out for my next posts from ????… maybe Germany in late summer to follow in Martin Luther’s footsteps highlighting next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and Shanghai and Wenzhou, China in the fall!

Richard along the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, April 2016.

Richard along the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania.

Richard in Krakow at the Sts. Peter and Paul Church.

In Krakow at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

(Header image is my photo from St. Barth, view from the Colombier Lookout.)

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My novel of international intrigue, Warming Up to Murder, is available as an ebook, and in Kindle and Nook formats.  It’s about a TV reporter who finds himself chasing the “big story” spanning two continents.  See the links below.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/richard-varr

http://www.amazon.com/Warming-Up-Murder-Richard-Varr/dp/141344976X

Story published!

Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

My story, Krakow from Above: Tower Views of the Medieval City, has been published on the travel website http://www.GoWorldTravel.com  Here’s the link to the story:  http://www.goworldtravel.com/travel-krakow-poland/

View of Market Square from the Cafe Szal. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Market Square from the Cafe Szal. Photo by Richard Varr

Yosemite National Park: Granite Peaks, Towering Waterfalls and Lazy Meadows

Half Dome as seen from the valley floor. Photo by Richard Varr

Dramatic Half Dome as seen from the valley floor. Photo by Richard Varr

Yosemite National Park was on my bucket list, and my June visit was even more thrilling than I could have imagined.  It’s where bold granite peaks pierce the sky, towering over the park’s famous and often tourist-packed Yosemite Valley; where alpine lakes reflect treed panoramas, and where gentle meadows extend far to the base of mountain ranges.

Bridalveil Fall. Photo by Richard Varr

Bridalveil Fall. Photo by Richard Varr

“What makes Yosemite so special is there are so many different features all in one place,” says John DeGrazio with YExplore Yosemite Adventures (www.yexplore.com), a tour operator specializing in hikes, backpacking trips and tours within the park.  “You have giant granite cliffs, rounded domes and 2,000 foot waterfalls all in Yosemite Valley.  There are 200-foot trees and different wildlife.  And when you explore the high country, you realize there’s so much more.”

View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Photo by Richard Varr

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. Photo by Richard Varr

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. Photo by Richard Varr

The best time to view the waterfalls is in the spring, when melting snow swells streams, leading to the dramatic spectacle of the park’s several waterfalls spewing torrents of water down steep slopes.  I visited in mid June, just a day after drenching rains shrouded mountaintop views and added even more runoff to the already pulsing tributaries and rivers.  In Yosemite Valley, the most popular waterfalls are the Yosemite Falls with both the upper and lower falls – North America’s highest, with water spewing down more than 2,400 feet.  Others within the valley include Bridalveil Fall, also dropping from dramatic heights and reached by a short hike from the valley’s main thoroughfare.   On the other side of the road, the thin stream of appropriately named Ribbon Fall needles down a high peak adjacent to one of the park’s most popular towering granite monoliths, El Capitán.

Tunnel View. Photo by Richard Varr

Tunnel View. Photo by Richard Varr

El Capitan. Photo by Richard Varr

El Capitan. Photo by Richard Varr

Outside the valley, several spots throughout the park’s enormous and varied high-country terrain of 1,170 square miles offer splendid views – viewpoints from where you can see key features including the glacier-sheered granite Half Dome, the park’s most popular landmark.

Richard at Tunnel View.

Richard at Tunnel View.

Half Dome juts up a mile from the Valley floor, and can be seen from the popular Tunnel View lookout which also includes the 4,500-foot-high El Capitán, Bridalveil Fall and the so-called Cathedral Rocks.

Tenaya Lake. Photo by Richard Varr

Tenaya Lake. Photo by Richard Varr

Olmsted Point near alpine Tenaya Lake offers yet another view, while Glacier Point looks down upon these rock formations from the south.  “What makes Glacier Point unique is that you’re seeing many of the features of Yosemite Valley from 3,000 feet above the valley, and you really get a full appreciation of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall,” explains DeGrazio.  “And all the while you’re looking at all of Yosemite National Park like you’re looking at a map.”

View of rocky spire. Photo by Richard Varr

View of rocky spire. Photo by Richard Varr

These are just some of the highlights of Yosemite.  What I found particularly astounding – reflecting the sheer size of the park – is that much of it is only accessible to experienced hikers and backpackers.  There are short hikes of a mile or two, moderate half-day hikes, while reaching the top of Half Dome for example is a full-day hike – a 16-mile round trip taking up to 12 hours and ascending almost a mile high at the same time.

View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point. Photo by Richard Varr

“It’s a combination of endurance and elevation gain not like many other hikes available.  A lot of marathoners do this hike and they sometimes say it’s harder than a marathon,” says DeGrazio.   “You have the chance of looking down from the highest peak in Yosemite Valley.  It gives people a feeling of being on top of the world, and for many many people, this is a bucket list accomplish.”

Tuolumne Meadows. Photo by Richard Varr

Tuolumne Meadows. Photo by Richard Varr

Mono Lake with tufas. Photo by Richard Varr

Mono Lake with tufas. Photo by Richard Varr

A drive through scenic Tuolumne Meadows at the park’s east end along winding Tioga Road leads to the steep turns of the nearly 10,000-foot-high Tioga Pass, which is closed in winter.  At the foot of the pass is the small town of Lee Vining skirting salty Mono Lake with its crusty and contorted tufa rock formations shooting up from the lakebed.  Another place of interest nearby is the mid to late 19th century gold-mining ghost town within Bodie State Historic Park, where many dilapidated old wooden houses, churches and saloons are in a state of preserved decay.

Building in a state of preserved decay. Photo by Richard Varr

Building in a state of preserved decay at Bodie. Photo by Richard Varr

Atop Mammoth Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Snowcat atop Mammoth Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Mammoth Lakes Mountain Village. Photo by Richard Varr

Mammoth Lakes ‘Village.’ Photo by Richard Varr

To the south along U.S. Route 395 is the quaint and upscale ski town of Mammoth Lakes with its trendy restaurants and many hotels – especially in and around Mammoth Lakes’ retail “Village” area – serving as a good choice for a home base for travel to Yosemite during summer months.  A gondola ride or mechanical Snowcat adventure up Mammoth Mountain offers truly great views of the surrounding snow-capped High Sierras.  It’s also a quick drive to nearby Devil’s Postpile National Monument, made up of basalt columns naturally strung together in the shapes of pentagons and hexagons.

ROMANIA: Eastern Europe’s Best Kept Secret

Brasov central square. Photo by Richard Varr

Brasov central square in Transylvania. Photo by Richard Varr

From the pulsing streets of Old Town Bucharest to the medieval towers and forested mountainsides of Transylvania, Romania has a rich history and its own cultural heritage stemming from rural traditions, including its Orthodox churches with painted icons hundreds of years old.  It was my first trip to Romania and I found it progressive, but juxtaposed alongside traditional values and with reminders of its Communist past – especially with that era’s architecture in Bucharest.  In addition to the capital, I visited the port city Constanţa on the Black Sea, and then on to Transylvania’s Braşov, medieval Sighișoara and Saxon-influenced Sibiu.   For tourism information: http://www.romaniatourism.com

Palace of the Parliament. Photo by Richard Varr

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest. Photo by Richard Varr

BUCHAREST: The Pulsing Capital

Bucharest’s most visited attraction is the Palace of the Parliament, the colossal office building ordered built by the dictator Ceausescu in the 1980s.  Used today by the Romanian upper and lower houses, the block-like structure is the second largest administrative building in the world, smaller than only the Pentagon.  Inside are columned grand halls, expansive lobbies and meeting rooms.

Rebirth Memorial in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters. Photo by Richard Varr

Rebirth Memorial in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters. Photo by Richard Varr

Along  Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) sits the former Communist Party Headquarters from where Ceausescu gave his last address before being captured, and later tried and executed in 1989 on Christmas Day.  Outside, a marble needle sculpture known as the Rebirth Memorial stands as a tribute to the thousands killed during the revolution.  And across the street is the former Royal Palace that now houses the National Museum of Art.

NATIONAL VILLAGE MUSEUM, Bucharest

Homestead in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Homestead in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Away from the city center, I spent a Saturday afternoon exploring the must-visit National Village Museum within Herastrau Park and Lake.  Along the lakeshore are several dozen old wooden and grass-covered village homes, windmills, mills and churches, some dating back more than 200 years, relocated to the site from all over the country.  Vendors sell jellies, traditional peasant garb, musical instruments and more.

VIDEO:  Craftsman and musician Marin Predușel plays a traditional cimpoi at Bucharest’s National Village Museum.

Underground houses in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Underground houses in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Windmill in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Windmill in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

“The museum is very important because it’s about the roots of every Romanian,” explains spokeswoman Andreea Nanciu.  “The museum speaks less about our parents, but more about our grandparents because there was a time when our parents moved to the city and kind of forgot where they came from.  It’s about our grandparents and their lifestyles and living a very sustainable life in the countryside not very well known by youngsters today.”

Church in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Church in the National Village Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

OLD TOWN BUCHAREST

“The most important buildings in the villages were our churches.  It was not only a place where people went to mass but where people gathered,” says Nanciu.  “The houses were not very close to each other, so it was a good place where people would meet and socialize.”

Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town Bucharest. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town Bucharest. Photo by Richard Varr

To catch the pulse of Romanians at ease, a stroll along the cobbled streets of Old Town Bucharest is an exciting afternoon or night out.  Clusters of outdoor tables and lounge chairs line the narrow pedestrian walkways lined with cafes, restaurants and shops.  Street musicians strum guitars and serenade passersby, some of them seemingly very talented.

Stavropoleos Orthodox Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Stavropoleos Orthodox Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Princely Court Orthodox Church at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Princely Court Orthodox Church at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Princely Court Orthodox Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Princely Court Orthodox Church. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The historic Old Town is home to several old churches including the 18th century Stavropoleos Church with its Byzantine-style porch emblazoned with icons.  The Old Princely Court Church, with its layered architectural design and faded frescoes, dates back to the 16th century and is one of the city’s oldest.

 

 

 

Rembrandt Hotel

Rebrandt Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Rebrandt Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

I was a guest for one night and enjoyed my stay at the stylish Rembrandt hotel, located in the heart of Bucharest’s Old Town.  It’s only a minute or two walk to the center of the district’s many restaurants and cafes, as well as some of the city’s iconic Orthodox Churches.  It’s also a short walk away from the sights along Calea Victoriei.  Small and cozy, the hotel has 16 spacious rooms with leather armchairs and an outdoor café along the pedestrian street.   www.rembrandt.ro

Spacious guest room in the Rembrandt Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Spacious guest room in the Rembrandt Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

CONSTANŢA: Gateway to the Black Sea

View of city center toward the Black Sea from the minaret of the Great Mosque Carol. Photo by Richard Varr

View of city center toward the Black Sea from the minaret of the Great Mosque Carol. Photo by Richard Varr

When in Romania’s largest port city on the Black Sea, it doesn’t take long to realize Constanţa is all about its Roman past and its current architecture.  Founded as Tomis by ancient Greeks in the 6th century B.C., it was conquered by the Romans about 20 B.C. and named by Emperor Constantine the Great after his sister.

Imposing art nouveau casino building. Photo by Richard Varr

Imposing art nouveau casino building. Photo by Richard Varr

Roman Mosaic. Photo by Richard Varr

Roman Mosaic. Photo by Richard Varr

 

Today, the city’s Roman era comes alive with the Roman Mosaic, an elaborately patterned mosaic floor dating back to the 4th century A.D.  “They found it by mistake,” says Diana Slav, a tour guide with Constanta Free Tours.  “That’s how they discovered the rest of the stones nearby that were part of thermal baths.  They’re trying to restore that area to be another archeological park.”

 

Central Ovid Square with Museum of National History and Archaeology. Photo by Richard Varr

Central Ovid Square with Museum of National History and Archaeology. Photo by Richard Varr

Roman-era sculpture in the Museum of History and Archaeology. Photo by Richard Varr

Roman-era sculpture in the Museum of National History and Archaeology. Photo by Richard Varr

And just a stone’s throw across Ovid Square named after the Latin poet, in early 20th century neo-Romanian style architecture, are many artifacts dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times in the Museum of National History and Archeology.  They include centuries-old, well preserved sculpted marble pieces of Roman gods, while broken marble columns, giant urns and vases, elaborately carved sarcophagi and other pieces are in small protected courtyard area.  Similar pieces sit toward the city center in the city’s Archeological Park.

 

Great Mosque Carol with minaret for views of the city. Photo by Richard Varr

Great Mosque Carol with minaret for views of the city. Photo by Richard Varr

Other highlights include the Grand Mosque of Constanta or Great Mosque Carol, named after Romanian King Carol who built the mosque out of respect for the city’s Muslim community.  Climbing 140 steps up a spiral stairwell to the top of the minaret leads to widespread views of Old Town to the Black Sea.  The neo-byzantine style Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral has an array of painted icons within its nave.  Along the esplanade on the shores of the Black Sea sits one of the city’s landmarks, the iconic Art Nouveau Casino, now abandoned but under consideration for restoration, and shaded gazebos and lookouts to gaze upon the port and scenic vistas.

Esplanade along the Black Sea with casino building. Photo by Richard Varr

Esplanade along the Black Sea with casino building. Photo by Richard Varr

Once a bank, restaurant and even a cabaret, the Genovese architectural style House with Lions is very impressive, getting its name from the four lion statues atop its front columns.  “The lions symbolize power,” explains Slav.  “This was a rendezvous place, and in the evening in order not to be seen by the wives, they used to take the ladies from the cabaret through the entrance on the other side.”

Esplanade looking out toward the Black Sea. Photo by Richard Varr

Esplanade looking out toward the Black Sea. Photo by Richard Varr

Constanţa is just a 10-15 minute drive or taxi ride from Mamaia, Romania’s most popular resort town along the Black Sea.  Situated on a thin sliver of land five miles long, its many beachfront hotels and resorts fill up during the warm summer months.

Constanţa Free Tour

I recommend signing up for this free tour.  Diana Slav is an excellent, energetic and knowledgeable tour guide who led our group on a two-hour tour of the city, sharing tales from ancient Roman history to present day ghost stories.

http://www.freetoursnetwork.com/#!constanta-free-tour/c1oo1

BRAŞOV: Medieval Towers and Bran Castle

View of central Brasov as seen from the White Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

View of central Brasov as seen from the White Tower, with massive Black Church in the center.  Photo by Richard Varr

Brasov "Hollywood" sign. Photo by Richard Varr

Brasov “Hollywood” sign. Photo by Richard Varr

Pastel-hued homes line the streets of central Braşov, all sitting at the foot of the 3,264-foot-high Mt. Tampa.  But what catches the eye – particularly from the city’s main square – is a look up the mountainside to see the Brașov sign atop the summit, much like Los Angeles’ iconic Hollywood sign.  The center is nestled within a valley, and a quick hike up one slope to see the medieval, so-called Black Tower and semicircular White Tower (both towers are actually white) offering stunning views of the city core.

Brasov cobbled street with Black Church in the background. Photo by Richard Varr

Brasov street with Black Church in the background. Photo by Richard Varr

Rope Street, one of Europe's narrowest streets with Brasov sign seen in the distance atop the mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Rope Street, one of Europe’s narrowest streets with Brasov sign seen in the distance atop the mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Imposing Black Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Imposing Black Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Highlights include the medieval 1420 Council House topped with a trumpeter tower within the central square.  A short walk leads to the imposing Black Church, in Gothic design, getting its name after it was blackened by fire in 1689.  Şchei Gate and Ecatherina’s Gate, with their arched entryways, were once part of the old city walls.  What’s left of those walls now sit below Mt. Tampa, where you can hitch a ride to the mountaintop with a cable car for the best views yet.  Walking back to the city center, I squeeze through one of Europe’s narrowest streets called Strada Sforii or Rope Street, more like a tight alleyway between two buildings.

Bran Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Bran Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Bran Castle and Râșnov Fortress

One of the most visited sites, Bran Castle, is just a 45-minute to an hour drive from central Braşov.  I hired a cab for the afternoon for a visit to the so-called Dracula’s Castle, where vendors hawk Dracula t-shirts, refrigerator magnets and other tacky souvenirs.  “If you go there and it’s really quiet, and if the wind blows, you can get really scared.  It’s like the sound in horror movies,” says Linda Ehrmann with the Râșnov Tourist Information Office, adding to the mystique of the castle who writer Bram Stoker penned in the late 19th century as home to the vampire Dracula.

Queen Maria's Music Hall and Library in Bran Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Queen Maria’s Music Hall and Library in Bran Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside, I walk through narrow passageways and twisting stairwells leading to the castle’s many rooms.  The 14th century castle was built by Saxons to defend Bran Pass from conquering Turks, and became the summer royal residence for Queen Maria of Romania starting in 1920.

Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

The mountaintop Râșnov Fortress is also a stop on most day excursions to Bran Castle.  The fortress dates back to the 14th century and was also built to protect the local Saxon people from invaders.  Today, some ruins remain but most of the fortress has been restored with cobbled pathways leading in and around buildings with their chipped stone façades.

Buildings inside Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

Buildings inside Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

“Râșnov was a place of refuge for the city,” says Ehrmann.  “It was also a place of bonding as people were stuck in there a long time.  They had a school and the priest was with them which gave them a sense of community.”  From the fortress’ walls, views stretch deep into the green-belted and snow-capped Carpathian Mountain Range and to the city of Râșnov below.

Wall along Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

Wall along Rasnov Fortress. Photo by Richard Varr

SIGHIŞOARA: The Medieval Citadel

View from the Clock Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

View from the Clock Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Medieval watchtower. Photo by Richard Varr

Medieval watchtower. Photo by Richard Varr

Often referred to as The Museum City, Sighișoara’s central Citadel remains a walled and elevated fortification that gave me the feeling of stepping back into medieval times.  The streets remain cobbled with arched city gates.  Towers than once served as lookouts now peer down over forested mountainsides.   During medieval times, the towers were run by guilds, and thus the names Tailors’, Butchers’, Spinners and Blacksmiths’ Towers, to name four of the seven.

 

Cobled Citadel street. Photo by Richard Varr

Cobled Citadel street. Photo by Richard Varr

Clock Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Clock Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

The central Clock Tower, with its pointed central spire and four smaller ones, was once the City Hall but is now home to a history museum.  At the top and exposed through an opening in the wall, 15 figurines can be seen as part of the old medieval clock.  Opposite the tower, a building with a golden yellow façade is on the site of where Vlad the Impaler was born and lived for four years.  And at the top of the Citadel – which I reached by grunting up the 175 steps within a 400-year-old covered stairwell – sits the so-called Church on the Hill, a 14th century gothic structure.

Vlad Dracul House, now a restaurant. Photo by Richard Varr

Vlad Dracul House, now a restaurant. Photo by Richard Varr

Covered stairwell to the Church on the Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

Covered stairwell to the Church on the Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

Up to the Citadel. Photo by Richard Varr

Up to the Citadel. Photo by Richard Varr

“The Citadel is alive because 200 people still live in the Citadel,” says Transylvania tour guide Peter Suciu.  “It’s not just commercial.  People have houses here and maybe a garden.  It’s a medieval place but it’s still inhabited until today.”  Most of the buildings’ stone walls survived a massive fire in 1676, and the town buildings were eventually restored through the years – thus the town keeping its medieval character.

Residence Fronius. Photo by Richard Varr

Residence Fronius. Photo by Richard Varr

Residence Fronius

Fronius lounge. Photo by Richard Varr

Fronius lounge. Photo by Richard Varr

While in Sighisoara, I was a guest at this wonderful seven-room inn dating back to 1609 with medieval stone walls in the heart of the Citadel, right next to the covered stairwell leading up to the Church on the Hill.   In particular, the curved stone ceiling over the bar and lounge area caught my eye – like that within an old medieval beer cellar.  My room was in a separate part of this hotel reached by walking through a small flowered courtyard.  Another interesting highlight is the old water well, also from medieval times, in the reception area and next to the bar.   The building housing the inn was one of many stone structures to survive the devastating 1676 fire.  www.fronius-residence.ro

Transylvania Tour Guide Peter Suciu

IMG_0601A shout out to the excellent tour guide Peter Suciu.  I had the pleasure of meeting Peter in Sighișoara after one of his tours and chatted with him for an hour or so about history and traditions of the region.  Peter is available as a private guide covering cultural tours and history, events, hiking and biking, and traditional villages, crafts and cuisine.

info@wanderlust-tour.ro

www.wanderlust-tour.ro

Taxi Service

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Because train connections are spread out throughout the day and my time was limited, I hired Adrian Stretea’s taxi service for the hour-plus drive from Sighișoara to Sibiu.  His fare was reasonable and he speaks fluent English. +40 0740 688 312