About Jonny Scott Blair
Jonny Blair is a self confessed traveling nomad. He sees every day as an adventure. Since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland ten years ago he has traveled to all seven continents, working his way through various jobs and funding it all with hard work and an appetite for travel. His website Don’t Stop Living, a lifestyle of travel' contains over 1,000 stories and tips from his journeys round the globe. He wants to show others how easy it is to travel the world, give them some ideas and encourage them to do the same but most of all he aims to constantly live a lifestyle of travel. He is currently based in Hong Kong and on Twitter @jonnyblair.
Latest Posts by Jonny Scott Blair
Romania is a fantastic destination for anyone interested in seeing Dracula’s Castle, aka Bran Castle in Transylvania and having an adventure in vampirial culture. Inspired of course by Irish Writer Bram Stoker who rose to fame after his novels on Dracula.
Bran Castle, situated near Bran and in the immediate vicinity of Braşov, is a national monument and landmark in Romania. The fortress is situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, on DN73. Commonly known as “Dracula’s Castle” (although it is one among several locations linked to the Dracula legend, including Poenari Castle and Hunyad Castle), it is marketed for resale in 2014 as the home of the titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
There is, however, no evidence that Stoker knew anything about this castle, which has only tangential associations with Vlad III, voivode of Wallachia, the putative inspiration for Dracula. As discovered by the Dutch author Hans Corneel de Roos, the location Bram Stoker actually had in mind for Castle Dracula while writing his novel was an empty mountain top, Mount Izvorul Călimanului, (6,670 ft) high, located in the Transylvanian Călimani Alps near the former border with Moldavia.
Below is Dracula Beer in the town of Bran.
Who is the real Dracula? Legend has it that Vlad Tepes is the man that Dracula is based upon and most go along with this theory so we will stick with it. You will see his statue and head bust around parts of Romania.
Bran is in Transylvania in rural mountainous Romania. It’s a truly gorgeous spot.
The town of Bran itself is sometimes where travelers spend a night and aside from the castle, there are churches, a market, some monuments and lots of decent bars, cafes and restaurants to explore.
The highlight of any trip to Bran is Bran Castle.
Top photo credit only: Bran-Castle.com.
Lake Orumiyeh (also Orumieh or Urmia) in northwestern Iran is one of the world’s largest landlocked salt lakes, but it is shrinking.
Orumiyeh is fed by roughly 60 rivers and streams—some permanent and some ephemeral—that also deliver salts. Because the lake lacks an outlet, those salts accumulate in the basin. As the region’s arid climate evaporates the water, the salts crystalize along the shore.
Before I launch into this I’m just going to mention a list of all the cities, towns, villages and remote places/settlements that we visited during our month in Iran, so you get an idea as to why I still haven’t even covered half of our time there and still need to write about Bazargan, Maku, Tabriz, Orumiyeh, Bandar e Golmaniyeh, Kandovan, Osku, Qazvin, Gazor Khan, Alamut Castle, Tehran, Tarjrish, Zarad Band, Mashhad, Kerman, Kaluts, Rayen, Mahan, Yazd, Chak Chak, Kharanaq, Mesr, Khoor, Khalate Talkh, Bayaziye, Salt Flats near Khoor, Esfahan, Shahr-e Kord, Yaseh Chah, Sadegh Abad, Dakmeh, Shiraz, Persepolis, Marvdasht and Nasqh e Rostam.
Our first few days in Iran, we based ourselves in the city of Tabriz. From here we could do day trips to a load of nearby places and we decided to visit Lake Orumiyeh, famous for being a salt lake and the largest lake in Iran. We also saw some photos of it that made it look like you were in the clouds so we had to visit!
Lake Orumiyeh is a massive salt lake in northwestern Iran near the border with Turkey and Iraq. The lake is between the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan (Iranian provinces – not to be confused with the country, which is separate).
At its full size, Lake Orumiyeh is the largest lake in the Middle East and the sixth largest saltwater lake on earth with a surface area of approximately 5,200 km² (2,000 mile²), 140 km (87 mi) length, 55 km (34 mi) width, and 16 m (52 ft) depth.
Lake Orumiyeh, Iran.
The obvious way is to get to the town of Orumiyeh and head from there. Orumiyeh is close to both the Turkey and Iraq borders, so if you’re coming in overland, you can use it as your first stop in Iran. However we headed first all the way to Tabriz and then to Orumiyeh.
Bus station in Tabriz, Iran.
The bus from Tabriz to Orumiyeh leaves from the main bus station in Tabriz. Just ask around until you find an Orumiyeh bus. In December 2013 it cost us around 60 cents (US).
On the bus to Lake Orumiyeh.
Our map – planning Lake Orumiyeh.
The bus from Tabriz to Orumiyeh.
The journey is memorable as you get a view of the lake as you go past it and across a bridge to the town of Orumiyeh – at points you can see the salt which looks like ice or snow – but it’s not.
The bridge to Lake Orumiyeh.
Most travelers base themselves in Orumiyeh and just visit the lake on a day trip – there are buses in summer season, but we ended up sharing a taxi out there. One thing to note is that the government try not to make it a “tourist attraction” as clearly it’s not meant to be for that purpose, but for a few $US you can get a taxi there and back from Orumiyeh – you’ll have to bargain them down from Orumiyeh station.
Crossing the Bridge to Orumiyeh.
If you’re not keen on the hardcore backpacking adventure to get here, you can always head to the village of Khoor later on, and simply organise a trip to the Salt Flats for sunset – which we also did. I’ll also cover our visit to the lakeside town of Bandar e Golmaniyeh separately.
Gorgeous Lake Orumiyeh in Iran.
Officially standing on the salt is forbidden as the Iranian government protect it and we respected this. Lake Orumiyeh along with its approximately 102 islands are protected as a national park by the Iranian government.
Beautiful Lake Orumiyeh in Iran.
Top photo credit only: earthobservatory.nasa.gov.
Moldova’s Chisinau (previously known as Kishinev) intrigued me, surprised me and overwhelmed me over a four day period in and out of the city, across the border into Tiraspol, Transnistria and a countryside jaunt to Orheiul Vechi and Butuceni.
If you want to travel to Moldova, I’d definitely recommend spending some time in the capital city – I spent three nights there which is ample unless you’re a serious history buff. Chisinau is where you’ll get an insight into the history and culture of the nation. It’s also the biggest city so the easiest place to meet locals and for the socialites out there, it has the best bars in Moldova.
Random art in Chisinau, Moldova.
The city is pronounced Kay She Naow and I arrived after a night train from Bucharest in Romania ready to explore under grey and wet mysterious skies.
Here are my personal 12 easy and cool sights to see in Chisinau’s city centre.
Street statues in Chisinau, Moldova.
Eternal Flame Memorial: The Eternal Flame Memorial is dedicated to the unknown soldiers from Chisinau, Moldova who died in the Second World War. It is housed in a nice park which is worth a walk as you will also see soldiers manning the place and may catch them marching.
Soldiers at the Eternal Flame Memorial.
Piata Centrala (Central Market) – Eastern European cities are not renowned for their central markets compared to the Middle East and Asia, but Chisinau is different. Just off the main street Stefan cel Mare Boulevard you’ll find the truly eclectic and chaotic central market, known as Piata Centrala.
Chisinau’s Piata Centrala – central market.
It is a bustling market that touts a ton of indoor meat, fish and fruit sections and clothes stalls.
Monument to Victims of Stalinist Deportations — outside the main train station in Chisinau is this monument dedicated to those who sadly died under the rule of Stalin in the old USSR.
Monument to victims of Stalinist deportations.
Monument to victims of Stalinist deportations.
GI Kotovski Monument — where Yuri Gagarin Boulevard meets Negruzzi Street, you’ll find a shopping Mall called Atrium and a Casino. In front of it sits the Grigory Ivanovich Kotovski monument. GI Kotovski was an adventurist, Soviet military and political figure and a participant in the Russian Civil War. He was also a Russian gangster and bank robber and later a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union. Below, Kotovski sits on a horse.
GI Kotovski statue.
Liberation Monument — outside the swanky looking Chisinau Hotel, on a prominent corner you’ll notice the Liberation Monument. This memorial commemorates the Soviet liberation of Moldova in August 1944.
The Liberation Monument.
Town Hall – Moldova’s main street Stefan cel Mare Boulevard is drenched with stunning architecture. The Soviet times brought some significant buildings, which these days are largely used for local government. The Town Hall jumps out at you, but all along the boulevard you’ll also be admiring the historical buildings.
Town Hall in Chisinau, Moldova.
Stunning architecture on Chisinau’s main boulevard.
Parliament Buildings – Moldova has been a separate republic since 1991, after the break up of the Soviet Union. The city since became known as Chisinau.
Stefan cel Mare si Sfant – you’ll notice Stefan cel Mare’s name brandished around in this corner of the world, so sooner or later you’ll ask someone who the hell he is. He has a statue in the public gardens and the main street in the city is named after him.
Stefan cel Mare statue in Chisinau, Moldova.
Stefan cel Mare is also known as Stephen III (of Moldavia) and Stephen the Great and Holy. He was the Prince of the Principality of Moldova between 1457 and 1504, and the most prominent representative of the House of Mușat. During his reign, he strengthened Moldova and maintained its independence against the ambitions of Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire, which all sought to subdue the land.
Stephen achieved fame in Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans. He was victorious in 46 of his 48 battles, and was one of the first to gain a decisive victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Vaslui, so it is no wonder that Moldova are proud of his achievements. Without Stefan cel Mare’s victories back in the day, it’s likely the current country of Moldova wouldn’t exist.
Stefan cel Mare Boulevard.
Triumphal Arch – Pyongy has one, Paris has one, Vientiane has one and bang – Chisinau can say the same with it’s Triumphal Arch, which is fairly close to the Parliament Building and opposite the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity.
The triumphal arch in Chisinau.
Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity – I loved the fact that this extremely beautiful church is in a really leafy park bang in the city centre, yet there wasn’t a tourist in sight.
Selfie at Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity.
Chisinau’s Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity.
Dinamo Stadium – this is not the national football stadium in Chisinau, Moldova – that belongs to FC Zimbru on the edge of town (I saw it only from the bus) and it is also NOT the stadium that used to be the national stadium – that one is the Republic Stadium which has been allowed to overgrow and is now a sight for sore eyes sadly. Still, I headed to check out the Dinamo Stadium as I have to visit at least one football stadium per country – it’s a given.
A wet day at Dinamo Stadion.
Moldovan Orthodox Church — while the Nativity Church is the most visited and the most popular, I loved the colour and decor of the Moldovan Orthodox Church even more – it is situated near the Eternal Flame monument and park and on the corner to the left past the Liberation Monument.
Moldovan Orthodox Church in Chisinau.
Aside from these 12 things, it’s just a cool city to hang out in – two of the shopping centres are worth a trip too – MALLdova for its punnery and Atrium which offers a view of the city if you ask the security to get a lift to the 9th or 10th floor.
During my 4 days in Chisinau and Butuceni, it rained non-stop for 24 hours, heavily! Above, the view over Chisinau from Atrium Shopping Mall.
Yaseh Chah (Persian: ياسه چا, also Romanized as Yāseh Chāh) is a village in Hureh Rural District, Saman District, Shahr-e Kord County, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 702, in 222 families. (source – Wikipedia)
On our one month long stint in Iran, we loved our time in this remote, small village thanks to our friend Rasool, our host from Shahr-e Kord. Iranian people are the friendliest people you will meet on your travels, and having now visited 100 countries, they are easily the most hospitable I have personally experienced.
Panny crossing the bridge to Yaseh Chah.
Above, entering the village.
If you want a taste of real Iranian culture, don’t book a room in advance –it’s very easy to stay with locals. We had about 5-6 invites to stay with Iranian families and took the opportunity to stay with Fatih and Issa in Zarad Band (near Tarjrish in North Tehran) as well as with Rasool and his family in little known Shahr-e Kord. We also spent an afternoon and dinner with a family in Marvdasht who we met on the bus between Shiraz and Persepolis. All three experiences we had were with local families and simply an unforgettable memory you can never replicate.
No public transport exists in Yaseh Chah so you need to drive yourself. Our contact Rasool drove us there so find someone to take you out to Yaseh Chah if you’re up for something a little different — the nearest big city is Shahr-e Kord.
Nonchalant spot of backpacking in Yaseh Chah with the locals.
So one morning in Shar-e Kord, Rasool decides to take us out for a drive through the mountains. The landscape is gorgeous and we make a few essential “photos stops” on the way. We end up in two really off the wall remote villages, either side of a river from each other. One of these villages is known as Yaseh Chah, so we toured the village.
Yaseh Chah is small desert town nestled in the mountains and very much old school Iran. Houses made from mud, brick and wood make up the village and you can walk through some arches and into mud tunnels where people live their lives. It’s where old meets modern – every place has electric, and most of them probably even wi-fi.
Panny and I were the only two foreigners walking around this ancient village, possibly for the last 6 months or a year — maybe even longer. This means everyone in the village will want to talk to and welcome you.
We walked through the narrow streets through the village, where we have the place to ourselves except for a few locals who come to chat.
The streets of Yaseh Chah. Then, we head down to the river, which separates Yaseh Chah from another village settlement called Sadegh Abad.
Sadegh Abad in Iran – opposite Yaseh Chah.
The river in Yaseh Chah.
Exercising in Yaseh Chah!
On the see saw in Yaseh Chah, Iran.
On the see saw in Yaseh Chah, Iran.
A great view of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. As for the rest of the city, here’s my top ten.
1. Scottish Parliament – back in the late 1990s Scotland finally got their own parliament and while the 2014 referendum was a chance for Scots to get complete freedom, most of the country are happy with the own parliament, banknotes, country and legislation.
You can go inside the Scottish Parliament for free, get a tour, meet MPs etc. It’s a fantastic building and given the recent referendum vote on independence, there’s already a lot of history.
2. Edinburgh Museum – this is a free museum with a load of cool relics and memorabilia down the years on everything related to the city itself. Edinburgh Museum makes an easy stop off museum on route to the Parliament while walking the Royal Mile.
The Edinburgh Museum.
3. The People’s Museum – opposite the Edinburgh Museum is the People’s Museum.
The People’s Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.
4. National Gallery – this Art Gallery is also free and it has a massive range of modern and old school art.
The National Gallery.
5. Edinburgh Castle – this is a masterpiece and needs no introduction – tourists all over the world flock here to explore the famous Edinburgh Castle. Inside there are museums, displays, memorials as well as great views of the city.
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
6. Easter Road Stadium – Easter Road is the home of Hibernian FC – Hibs. They are one of the biggest two clubs in the city and their green and white Easter Road stadium is worth a trip.
Hibernian 2-0 Alloa.
7. Tynecastle Stadium – it only felt right for me to visit both of the big football clubs in the city. While I went to watch Hibernian, I also went to visit Tynecastle Stadium, home of their city rivals, Heart of Midlothian, most commonly known as Hearts.
Tynecastle Stadium, home of Hearts.
As a secret bonus – head to the Dicken’s Pub and ask for Callum – he will take you to a secret Hearts Museum for a full tour.
Tour of the Secret Hearts Museum with Callum.
8. Royal Mile - Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a hive of activity. From the many diverse bars, cafes and restaurants to the bagpipers, the Scottish shops and the Churches. Take a leisurely stroll and enjoy this famous street.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
9. Haggis, Tatties and Neeps – No visit to Edinburgh should be complete without trying the national dish of Scotland – haggis. Ask for Haggis, Tatties and Neeps with a whiskey cream sauce and you can’t go wrong.
Food of Scotland – Haggis, Tatties and Neeps!
10. Scottish Music — You’ll hear bagpipes wherever you go, it’s one of my favourite types of music.
Edinburgh is well connected by train to other parts of Scotland and England and by air to many international destinations.
Conjuring up images of English countryside is something we do as children. Wide open spaces, gorgeous forests, winter walks, howling wind and typical English mansions.
I wasn’t thinking of my teenage years reading Mansfield Park and watching Poirot and Jonathan Creek. While they had their fair share of English mansions, I wanted some relaxation for my return to England after a stint in Edinburgh, Scotland. When reality of these English countryside resorts hits you though – they are exactly what you expected.
I had already stayed in another countryside manor — the Clumber Park Hotel and Spa in Nottinghamshire — and so was now ready for The Doxford Hall Hotel and Spa in Northumberland England.
After Edinburgh, I needed a rural stop over and this did the trick.
Doxford Hall Hotel and Spa is set in a somewhat isolated yet beautiful spot. When I arrived at Doxford Hall (an hour earlier than planned) I was in for a treat.
Here is a top 10 rundown of the things I loved about my stay at the Doxford Hall Hotel and Spa.
The Rooms: I had Alnwick Castle, 14. Note that each room is named after a castle and mine is the nearest local castle in Alnwick which is en route to Newcastle.
The Library – the library is great for getting work done, or if you want to take in some reading of the likes of Mansfield Park (and the odd Jonathan Creek mystery). It’s relaxing, peaceful and the perfect spot for some travel writing and a cup of Earl Grey tea.
Wi-Fi and more books than anyone could ever read (Short Circuit excepted).
Abundant Breakfasts – I awoke and headed hungrily to the restaurant to find a huge range of food and even a breakfast menu. For a start – yoghurts, cereals, fruit all fresh, a range of juices and toast with jam, honey and butter.
Plus of course the English fried breakfast, which came with black pudding!
The Staff — they make you feel at home.
The Countryside – having grown up in Northern Ireland and lived in Tasmania for a while, I love the rural countryside. True relaxation, harmony and views unobscured by skyscrapers.
Doxford Hall plays host to around 100 weddings a year as well a lot of conferences, events and banquets. It’s a great place for a special occasion.
The Walks — the walks you can go on from the Doxford Hall are marked out for you.
The Bathroom – charming and delightful with an old fashioned claw bathtub, as you’d expect in an English country inn.
Slippers, dressing gown and a range of toiletries.
The Spa — Kick back in the jacuzzi, go for a swim or let off steam in the sauna. The Doxford Hall has a fairly large Spa centre and even better – I went down early morning and had the place to myself.
The Decor is All Things English — do you bother to look at the walls when you stay in another hotel in another town in another country? Walls, carpet, cornices, chandeliers all with a design and flambouyance to them that are oh so very English — rural English that is.
The Tea Tray — afternoon tea or coffee with English biscuits? Yes please! My room had a tea and coffee tray with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, a kettle and biscuits. It wouldn’t be England without afternoon tea.
And so the journey must go on. To enjoy the delights of English countryside the way you dreamed it up as a child, here are the details.
Doxford Hall Hotel
Northumberland, NE67 5DN
Reservations: 01665 589 700
A lonely Northern Irishman out in the middle of nowhere on a mission to tour Orheiul Vechi in Moldova.
A morning goat in deepest Moldova. On a drab dreary dark lonely Wednesday morning on a Moldovan November, I awoke in in Chisinau on a mission to visit Orheiul Vechi Monastery.
Moldovan wilderness at Orheiul Vechi.
Place to grab a coffee or a 10am beer in Chisinau Moldova.
Where the bus drops you off.
Church (Ascension of St. Mary) — at the very top of the hill you will see the church which is dedicated to the Ascension of St. Mary. The church was predictably shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the communist regime. Services resumed in 1996, though it still looks abandoned. Archaeologists have uncovered remnants of a defence wall surrounding the monastery complex dating back to the 15th century.
Church in Orheiul Vechi – just knock on the door and they will let you in.
Church on the lonely hill
Inside the church – there are great murals on the walls, something quite similar to the monasteries in Bucovina Romania.
Cave Monastery — the highlight is the cave monastery. The below door is the entrance to Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery.
The steps down to the cave monastery.
In this cave I met Vasil who lives in Orheiul Vechi. The cave monastery looks like a man’s face in the rock side when viewed from afar.
The nose and face shape of the monastery. One of the rooms out the back has bats in it. It wasn’t clear to me what the room was originally used for, presumably shelters or sleeping quarters for religious people who came here.
In the room with bats.
Vasil admiring the views. Admire the Views – the views of the countryside here are remote, inspiring and sublime.
Moldovan wilderness at Orheiul Vechi.
Grave on the Hill — there is a curious stone cross tombstone – a grave on the hill. It makes for an eerie feeling seeing the world behind it and a breeze blowing by.
Then, I headed down into the village of Butuceni. The cave monastery reminded me of Kandovan in Iran, Goreme in Turkey and Davit Gareja/ Uplistsikhe in Georgia.
After a few days in Bucharest, I boarded a train heading north to Suceava and then on to the town of Campulung Moldovenesc where I stayed at the trendy Dor de Bucovina. I had read all about the Bucovina region and made it a priority to visit the UNESCO listed coloured monasteries here. I first headed to Moldovita Monastery.
UNESCO listed Moldovita Monastery.
Moldovita is a grand complex on the top of a slight hill in the town of Moldovita. Getting here isn’t particularly easy since there is no public transport. This place is slightly less beaten than you expected it to be. In its untouristy charm the joys of Moldovita sparkle in the morning mist; it’s a sleeping giant.
Moldovita Monastery, Romania.
It’s best to hire a car or book a tour to get here. As I work on the move these days I was able to get a private tour organised which meant I could visit a load of the key sights in the region in one day including Cacica Salt Mine.
Other tourists gather to admire Moldovita.
You really need to see Moldovita in the day time. If you look at this photo you might understand how the dark lights of northern Romania fade the beauty down a notch…yes the colours have to be seen in daylight hours.
Amazing coloured murals on the side of the walls of Moldovita.
Inside Moldovita main church.
What is ridiculous and apparently true is that all these pictures/murals were painted by one artist, in the same year – Toma of Suceava in 1537. Each mural represents Christian Orthodox art (mostly painted in yellow and blue) and tells a story – a procession of saints lead up to the Virgin enthroned with the Child (Jesus) in her lap on one side and that much is obvious. I popped inside to pray and photos are actually banned.
As I stepped outside of the grounds and visited the cemetery, there was an odd eeriness surrounding the entire morning. I’d just seen something incredibly inspiring here at Moldovita and I knew it, but something baffled me – apart from the group of Italian tourists I met, there were no other travellers here. Why not? Have I missed something. Paris’s Eiffel Tower, NYC’s shops and Sydney’s Opera House can go back up their own wombs. Moldovita is a cooler place. You might just love it and you will never ever forget it!
A moment of inspiration at Moldovita.
My adventure continued in southern Bucovina and I also visited Marginea, Suceava, Sucevita and Cacica. More on that coming.