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Ukraine – What An Exceptional Journey

January 8, 2020

This morning after breakfast we headed to a nearby community so we could visit their Yaremche market which attracts locals by the bus load and tourists from around the world. The vendors carry all kinds of items – handicrafts, homemade liquors, dried berries, honey, souvenirs …. the list goes on and on.

Last time I was in Ukraine I purchased small handmade hutsul figures made by a talented man from a mountain village. I went back to the same market vendor that sold them and when he learned I returned from Canada he went in the back of his shop and brought out the finest work from this artist. I purchased a few more them to add to my collection.

Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant that has been visited by many Ukraine Presidents and Celebrity’s. Once again a superb meal.

This afternoon my passengers had time to enjoy the spa and pool area at our hotel. Some enjoyed people watching in the massive lobby – the hotel attracts a trendy international crowd.

Dinner was at a quaint, very special restaurant that overlooks the ski village. There was a sign saying that it is only open in the winter. We have enjoyed so many excellent meals during this tour but the cooks in this restaurant prepared for us one of of the tastiest feasts. Its common in many of the restaurants and at homes that you start with the First Table – a variety of cold dishes – salads, pickles, fish, cold meats…. Soup often follows and mushroom seems to be the most common one. The entrees were excellent. The dessert was a pumpkin cake that our guide. Taras grew up eating – its called Zapikanaa (means baked). I want to see if I can find a recipe when I get home.

January 9, 2020

We said farewell to the staff at the Radisson Blu, Bukovel. We got to know a few of them during our 4 night stay.

Through the night there was enough freezing rain to make the ski hills very icy. I went out on my hotel room balcony and as the skiers passed I could hear how icy the conditions were.

We ended up departing on time but our driver had to take his time driving through the mountains. There were a number of car accidents.

Chernivtis is known as the “Small Vienna in the East” – its our home for 2 nights. Our charming boutique hotel is located on one of the town squares. It’s interior is very ornate – lovely.

Today is the 3rd Christmas Day Celebration – “angel day” – named after Steven/Stephanie.

Our elegant luncheon featured a shrimp/salmon salad and bbq pork chops – enjoyed by all.

We explored the pedestrian street before our special evening.

Tonight we savoured cuisine prepared by a popular Ukrainian chef in a traditional, beautifully decorated traditional restaurant. At the next table was a young man from Western Australia who is touring Ukraine for a month.

It’s customary that different groups entertain for donations after Christmas. Members from the local Philharmonic entertained us. They were terrific.

As a “Travel With Bradley” SURPRISE the very talented group “Gerdan” performed for us for over 30 minutes. These are professional locals (doctors/lawyers etc) that sing because they love it. There harmonies were so beautiful. Just fantastic!

An exceptional evening – a tour highlight for sure!

January 10, 2020

The breakfast room in our boutique hotel is a very relaxing space. Oversize plush dining chairs add to its elegance.

Our bubbly, local city guide also teaches German at the local university. She was wearing a traditional Ukrainian head scarf that was handmade and painted in Canada many years ago. At that time it was considered a valuable work of art that showed wealth so one would be willing trade five cows in order to get one of them. To this day her Grandmother cherishes this scarf and didn’t want her to wear it but her Mother said go ahead.

She did a wonderful job showing us the city sights. I was surprised when she received permission for us to enter the synagogue – a first time experience for all of us.

We toured the most impressive University buildings and the adjacent Orthodox Church.

Lunch was in an awesome modern Jewish Restaurant. This restaurant was not kosher. It’s interior design and cuisine impressed all of us.

After lunch we toured a display that highlighted Ukrainian Canadians – made us feel proud.

We then continued to one of the largest markets in Ukraine. This one attracts more locals than tourists. It was interesting walking through its maze. Those that needed to buy “new suitcases” to hold their many purchases found deals here.

Dinner was in our boutique hotel. Once again an impressive affair.

January 11, 2020

On our way back to the beautiful city of Lviv we stopped at a Christmas Orthodox Church. This is the second one we visited during this journey. There are a handful of them throughout the country.

When we reached Lviv we dined in a very unique restaurant that highlights the Masons. It’s design is one of a kind – this is one of the priciest restaurants in the city. It’s cuisine is top notch.

After checking into our hotel there was some time to explore the Christmas and handicrafts markets before we boarded a tourist train for an informative city tour.

Dinner was in one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. It’s another really unique one. For the size of Lviv its impressive how many world-class restaurants there are. This one is known for a number of things including a multi-story shark aquarium, variety of live music, thousands of plants and a brewery!

January 12, 2020

After breakfast we boarded a “private for us” tourist coach for a tour. We stopped at a famous cemetery which was unlike anything we have seen before.

The Christmas theme of this tour continued when we took our prime seats in the glamorous Lviv Opera and Ballet Theatre for an odd time 12 noon performance of the “Nutcracker”. It was worth the admission just to see the stunning theatre and the “Nutcracker” ballet was the icing on the cake!

I loved where we dined for lunch. It was a very small, intimate restaurant with so much character. Chicken Kiev was the main course – the best ever!

We had a bit of time in the afternoon for last minute shopping or exploring. Taras kindly took me to see the newest 5 star hotels in the city and we rushed through the local brewery so I could see what it had to offer.

Tonight was our farewell banquet and it was so impressive. First of all we were in an special space that a tourist would never know exists. As a “Travel With Bradley” surprise there was a 6 piece band hired to entertain just us – they performed a variety of music using traditional instruments. Some of us were up dancing. The cuisine was exceptional and the wine flowed.

I could have easily promoted this journey as a culinary one. The cuisine in the top restaurants we visited easily compares or exceeds the quality of the “finest” big city restaurants (like Toronto) at home.

January 13, 2020

We didn’t need to leave for the airport until 11am this morning so many of my passengers slept in and enjoyed a late breakfast. Some grabbed some last minute souvenirs when the stores opened at 10am. Our boutique hotel was so centrally located in the old town, the stores and markets were just a few steps away.

It was a teary farewell – thanks to our amazing local guide, Taras and coach driver, Paul.

Lufthansa airport check-in was tardy but that is typical in Europe. We still had ample time to grab a snack of coffee before our flight to Munich. The flight was full. We had to go through security once again (EU Country) after we landed and that was a tedious process. It was a hike to our connecting gate.

We flew a Lufthansa A350-900 aircraft to Montreal. The crew and food they served was really good – yes, we were pleasantly surprised.

Poor wintery weather conditions in Montreal delayed our arrival in Toronto where there was no snow.

What an amazing journey – one of the finest yet!

Finding Family Roots – An “Once In A Lifetime” Adventure…..

Unfortunately I know little about my family background. The only official family document from my Mothers side is a Great Aunt’s (Grandfathers Sister) birth certificate.

The first time I visited Ukraine I brought a copy of that birth certificate but soon realized after talking with a few Ukrainians that finding family root information is a difficult process, I tried but came home with no information,

When I recently travelled to Romania with a group of passengers I tried again to gather information with no success.

The day before I left on this current journey to Ukraine, Mom reminded me to bring the birth certificate along.

In conversation with Taras, our local guide I told him about the birth certificate and he offered to examined it. He understood some of the writing but he thought our city tour guide in Chernovtsy could possibly provide more insight.

She joined us for lunch and then asked me if she could examine the birth certificate. She also showed it to the front of house staff in the restaurant, A chef eventually appeared from the kitchen and she was the key because after she looked at it, voices sounded excited and I saw big smiles – they figured out the location of the village listed on the birth certificate. I was surprised to learn that it was just a 30 minutes drive from our Chernovtsy Hotel.

We then continued touring (was an excellent day) and at 330pm we had some free time to do as we wished before dinner.

I realized this was my opportunity to “possibly” visit the village I just learned about so I asked Taras if it might be possible for me to hire a driver to take me there, I wanted to take a few village pictures so I could share them with my family at home. He said he knew a driver that might be available and within 5 minutes that driver was on his way to pick me up.

Everything was happening so quickly!

My driver was a young, very professional man – who holds a University Major in English. He drives a KIA which cost him $5000 Canadian and it currently has over 100000 km on it. The car was spotless inside and out.

Very unusual for this time of year, fog was thick as we started out, The fogs erie look added to the adventure. He knew the village we were in search of as he often drives by it when visiting his mother-in-law.

The road sign announcing the village was faded – I feel its look added to the mystery.

I would consider this village that consists of 600 homes to be poor but my driver explained that its location close to the city increases the property values. Old and new homes are next to one another and line both sides of bad shape road. The towns terrain is very hilly.

We stopped at the Orthodox Church. It’s the most beautiful one I’ve seen during this journey. There were a few graves of priests marked with large blue crosses. My driver explained that years ago Blue and Green were the most popular paint colours as they were the most inexpensive colours to buy.

There homeowners dig wells so they have a water supply and some villagers still use out-houses,

Wealthier homeowners often build their own chapels,

It was getting dark and I noticed that no lights were on in most of the town homes (cost saver).

Eventually we came across a middle age lady who was opening the gate of her home. My driver stopped his vehicle and started a conversation with her. Since they were conversing in Ukrainian the only word I understood was “Canada” and once she heard the word she peered in the car so she could look at me. Unfortunately she had no family information to share.

My driver then continued down the village road and came across 2 gentleman, He started a conversation with them and within a minute he told me to get out of the car in order to meet them, Once again I heard the word “Canada” in their conversation.

The man went into his house to grab a cellular phone. He started calling a number of town folk – I kept hearing the word “Canada” during the conversations,

I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn’t getting any answers so he suggested that we visit the village “old-timer” to see if he had any information to share, We walked to the gate of his home but heard a vicious sounding dog, Then all the neighbour dogs started barking. He started speaking in a loud voice in hope the homeowner would hear. There were three small homes on this very small parcel of land. A lady came out of one of the houses to see what we wanted.

The “Canada” conversation started again and she left to chat with her Dad. She came out of his house shortly after and invited us in.

The interior of his home was like entering a time warp. I don’t think he is in good health – he spoke with a weak voice. His tiny home consists of one very small room. The walls are lined with religious figure blankets. His double size bed fills most of the space. He was sitting at a small desk watching television when we entered,

The conversation continued. My driver often turned to me to say that the old-timer was trying to recall memories of my family members but I could tell he wasn’t going to be any help,

A telephone call suddenly came in when that conversation started faces lit up – my driver told me that the person calling located my “relatives” so we jumped in the car and my driver drove to meet them, I misunderstood and thought we were heading to the next village but we travelled just a short distance down the road to find a family of four waiting outside to greet me – husband age 40/wife/2 children.

Their facial expressions looked like they just saw a ghost – ME. The gentleman held his cheeks in surprise that their “long lost relative” had arrived from Canada. I was welcomed into their home and was told that originally this was my “relatives” home but since then it has been renovated inside and out, He explained that the homes large green wood stove that was manufactured in Austria is the same one my “relatives” used to heat the house.

His Mother and Father soon arrived from a neighbouring village. They kindly greeted me with hugs and offered me food, homemade donuts, beverages.,,,

In conversation they kept referring to my Grandfather but my Grandfather was born in Canada so “possibly” they mean’t my Great Grandfather? They claim they are the only family with the same surname as my Grandfather that has ever lived in that village.

Could this family possibly be relatives? I plan on doing some more research in co-operation with Ukrainians who specialize in this – they can search church records and visit with locals and the town mayor who is usually willing to help out.

No amount of money could buy this amazing experience. After I returned to our overnight hotel my passengers were anxious to hear how I made out. They are so excited for me,

This “family” story continues to be an ongoing saga but I feel that I’m much closer to finding the details I am looking for – so the adventure continues – stay tuned,,,

Ukraine – a true Cultural Experience

I’d like to start this blog post by thanking all of you who contacted my passengers and I after the terrible Ukrainian International Airline tragedy that took so many Canadian lives. I can tell you we are touched knowing you were worried about us but as you know at no time have we been in any danger. We are very much enjoying our time in Ukraine but our hearts are with the many families that lost loves ones. Just minutes ago I learned that Iran shot down that aircraft – how tragic.

January 8, 2020

This morning after breakfast we headed to Yaremche, a local community so we could visit their market which attracts locals by the bus load and tourists from around the world. The vendors carry all kinds of items – handicrafts, homemade liquors, dried berries, honey, souvenirs …. the list goes on and on.

Last time I was in Ukraine I purchased small handmade hutsul figures made by a talented artist from a local town. I went back to the same market vendor and when the seller heard I was from Canada he went in the back of his shop and brought out the finest work from this artist. I purchased a few more to add to my collection.

The market is located on both sides of a picturesque river. This picture doesn’t do the scenery justice.

Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant that has been visited by many Ukraine Presidents and Celebrity’s. Once again a superb meal. Caviar was served and the chef shreds the butter which is placed on the table making a nice presentation,

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at an interesting brewery – it was packed with locals getting “plastic bottles” filled with their favourite brew.

We also made a stop to see the upside down house – yes even the toilet is upside down!

This afternoon my passengers had time to enjoy the spa and pool area at our resort. Some enjoyed people watching in the massive lobby – this deluxe 5 star hotel attracts an international crowd.

Dinner was at a quaint, very special restaurant that overlooks the ski community. There was a sign saying that it is only open in the winter. We have enjoyed so many excellent meals during this tour but the cooks in this restaurant prepared one of our best meals yet. Its common in many of the restaurants and at homes that there is the First Table – a variety of cold dishes – salads, pickles, cold meats…. Soup often follows and mushroom seems to be the most common one. The main course entrees were served next. The dessert was a pumpkin cake that Tarus our guide grew up lovin when his Grandmother made it – its called Zapikanaa (means baked). I want to see if I can find a recipe when I get home.

January 9, 2020

We breakfast said farewell to the staff at the Radisson Blu, Bukovel. We got to know a few of them during our 4 night stay.

Through the night freezing rain fell making the ski hills very icy. I went out on my hotel room balcony and as the brave skiers passed I could hear the ice crackle in the snow.

We ended up departing on time but our driver had to take his time driving through the mountains so we were an hour behind schedule.

Chernivtis is known as the “Small Vienna in the East” – its our home for 2 nights. The pedestrian street looks like a movie set!

Our charming boutique 5 star hotel is located on one of the town squares. It’s interior is very ornate – lovely.

Today is the 3rd Christmas Day Celebration – “angel day” – named after Steven/Stephanie.

Our elegant restaurant luncheon featured a shrimp/salmon salad and bbq pork chops – enjoyed by all.

We explored the pedestrian street and area around our hotel before our special evening.

Tonight we savoured cuisine prepared by a popular Ukrainian chef in a traditional, beautifully decorated traditional restaurant. At the adjacent table was a young man from Western Australia who is touring Ukraine for a month.

As a “Travel With Bradley” SURPRISE the very talented group “Gerdan” performed for us. They were terrific. These entertainers are local professionals – doctors/lawyers etc who love to sing and their harmonies were beautiful.

What a wonderful evening – a tour highlight for sure!

An Ukrainian Christmas Experience is Awesome!

An Ukrainian Christmas Experience is Awesome!

January 5/20

We started the day by enjoying a wonderful breakfast in our deluxe Lviv hotel. The buffet certainly pleases all tastes. There is the Ukrainian offerings – salad, sausage, pickles, dark rye bread etc plus everything North Americans are use to eating – cereals, bacon, eggs, yogurts. For everyone there were some special treats like melt-in-your-mouth freshly made cream puffs!

After breakfast we gathered in the hotel lobby where we met our wonderful local guide, Taras and we boarded our coach with driver “Uncle” Paul, and soon we were on our way.

Lunch was in a converted train station restaurant (community of Kolomiya). This is Taras’s favourite restaurant and I can understand why – the feast they prepared just for us was exceptional. The setting was so nice with a wood burning fireplace next to our long table.

The town markets, butcher shops and bakeries were packed with locals buying supplies for Christmas. There was a tiny building located across the road from the restaurant we dined in – they just sell freshly baked bread and there was a steady stream of people buying it.

We stopped at the Easter Egg Pysanka Museum. What a fun attraction. The Easter eggs on display are works of art – many are decades old.

We also stopped at the Hutsulshchyna Museum – it was interesting too – we saw a impressive embroidery work, traditional clothing and exceptional art work. So impressive for a small community.

Our home for 4 nights is at Bukovel, the largest ski resort in Eastern Europe. Rumor had it that the President of Ukraine might be staying at our hotel – its the highest rated one – Radisson Blu. There were 2 passenger helicopters stationed on the resort property – maybe for the President?

The hotel lobby is all decked out for Christmas.

Our rooms are beautiful. I enjoy the added touches like the heated floors in the bathroom. I booked the very deluxe rooms that overlook the adjacent ski hill.

Dinner was a casual affair. The hotel buffet included hot mulled wine – my passengers enjoyed that. Tonight we could come at our leisure but as I expected my passengers still ended up eating together – what a terrific family!

January 6/20

The breakfast buffet at the Radisson Blu, Bucaval is one of the finest hotel buffets I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. There is so much variety and everything is just delicious. Mushroom and Potato filled perogies are found right next to the fried eggs – there are so many hot items, omelette bar, fresh fruit, decadent pastries, salads, smoothies, varieties of coffee and teas, juices – you can order a la carte too and the sweet pancakes served with sour cream are a hit….

We started our Christmas Eve Day journey at 9am. What a beautiful day. The temperature was wintery crisp but the sun shone brightly. Luckily the road conditions were ideal.

“Uncle” Paul our coach driver made a few scenery stops along the way so we could snap some pictures. A small town proudly displayed a life size wooden carved nativity scene. The Carpathian Mountain vistas were spectacular – as my passengers said a picture could never do them justice.

As we drove through one rural village the driver pulled over as a traditional funeral procession passed by. It was quite something to see – my passengers said although a very sad occasion – its something they won’t forget.

In the Carpathian rural communities the deceased is laid in the family home. Friends and family come to pay respect. This is a country filled with superstitions so mirrors are covered in the family home while the body is on display. When the body is taken from the home, chairs etc are turned in an opposite direction.

The body is carried through the town with the casket open. The processional we saw consisted of family members holding banners, four young men carrying the casket and of course there was obvious grief in the faces of those that passed. The processional proceeded right past our coach.

It is believed if someone passes at Christmas or Easter that their bodies go directly to heaven.

Tradition is tradition and its nice that tradition is so important in this country,

Lunch was in a small town in their wedding banquet hall. Everything was extremely modern except for the washroom facilities. Although spotless clean with sink and hand dryer the “toilet” was the squat kind…. it was the major topic of discussion during lunch!

We were running ahead of time so our guide, Taras was able to arrange a stop for us in a very small mountain village (few homes) where they specialize in hand making wool rugs. A lady greeted us and explained the process. Let me tell you making them is very laborious. Two of us purchased one – now how will we get them home? It took 2 weeks for the local ladies to make the rug I purchased – the cost to buy only $80 Canadian…. the average wage in this country is $200 Canadian per month….

Our Christmas Eve itinerary is one that we will remember for years to come.

First we so enjoyed a horse drawn sleigh ride with bells a ringing through the Carpathian Mountains to our hosts home.

We were welcomed with a mug of hot fresh Mint Tea. We toured the great Grandparents home, the Parents home, the cattle and chicken barn, visited the family outdoor chapel and then retired to the children’s home where the festive activities took place.

We were able to help with perogie making in the modern kitchen before we took our seats for a traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve Dinner where a minimum of 12 non-meat dishes are always served.

It was emotional when the family took their seats with us – parents, children and grandchildren. The food was blessed and the Grandmother welcomed us.

We tried to count how many plates of food there were on the table but lost track well after 12 – its tradition to start with the Kutia, a sweet buckwheat type of a stew which is often prepared a few days in advance. Eating fish on Christmas Eve is allowed so herring was prepared 3 different ways. Of course there were the many traditional homemade moonshine shots. Before long we were so pleasantly full.

Entertainment followed the meal – the grandchildren sang, two local children (one being an orphan) told stories in Ukrainian and sang, and finally it was the adults turn – traditional instruments appeared and Ukrainian carols were sung. I was given a guitar to play so my passengers and I entertained by singing our traditional Christmas songs.

What an incredible evening! We are blessed to be welcomed into a family home during the most religious holiday of the year.

The eventing reminded us of the importance of family at Christmas.

As Paul drove us back to our hotel we passed through many Carpathian Mountain towns where we saw young children dressed in traditional Christmas outfits as they walk from home to home singing carols or they perform a play. The home owner in return presents them them cash or fresh fruit.

The cemeteries were lit with hundreds of candles – before Christmas Eve dinner many families visit the graves of departed love ones and they light candles.

We arrived back at our resort just after 10pm and the lobby area was filled with families celebrating the evening. Many children were around the Christmas Tree.

January 7, 2020

It’s Christmas Day in Ukraine – how wonderful for us!

Today we experienced another true cultural experience.

We traveled back into the Carpathian Mountains to the community of Kryvorivnia.

On Christmas Day children dress in theatre costumes and in rural towns they stop vehicles and put on a skit or sing Christmas Carols. I was pleased we had the opportunity to experience it when our driver stopped and the children boarded our coach.

We visited the famous “Christmas” Hutsul Ukrainian Church. We were some of the hundreds that had showed up. The church was unable to accommodate a fraction of those in attendance but that didn’t stop the droves from entering. The service lasted for hours so it wasn’t hard for church goers to spend a bit of time inside the church and then congregate outside with their friends, locals and tourists. We met other Canadians, Americans and Belgium’s who were watching the festivities as closely as we were. The locals were anxious to speak with us – they are so proud of their country, their customs and they thanked us many times for coming.

Lunch was at the social hub of the town – an interesting restaurant that was built in the round. White borsch, potatoe pancakes and homemade donuts were the highlights of this meal.

We stopped at a cemetery. I grabbed a few pictures. Most of the graves have benches or picnic tables adjacent as locals spend time in the cemeteries – family members will stop by with a picnic lunch or maybe to play cards as they wish to be close to those that have passed. Being Christmas candles were lit before mass at the graves and some people left little plates of food too.

Dinner was in Bukovel at a really cool restaurant thats themed after a mushroom. Ukrainians love their mushrooms! The Christmas Dinner they served was exceptional. There were so many courses. Everything was so delicious. I was sad to pass on the many layers of cream honey cake – everyone told me it was awesome. The horseradish vodka was a hit too!

When we arrived back to the hotel a Hutsul band was waiting to entertain us. They were terrific.

Christmas – its the most wonderful time of the year!

Our Ukraine Guide, Taras and our coach driver, “Uncle” Dave.

Ukraine Family Christmas Journey – Part 1

Ukraine Christmas Journey

January 3/2020

I am so enjoying the Christmas season. For me it started early and is ending late as this Ukraine tour itinerary is themed around the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. I am therefore getting to celebrate Christmas twice within a few weeks! Christmas is my favourite time of the year.

This tour is a boutique small group departure. It was purposely designed that way as we spend Christmas Eve in a family home so as you can imagine space is limited.

My group filled with repeat passengers (except for 1 newbie) met me at Toronto Pearson for our flight to Lviv, Ukraine. It is hard to believe that we are going to be elebrating Christmas when the outside January temps in Toronto are so spring like,

After we checked in for our flight and cleared security we gathered in the Plaza Premium lounge for food and beverages. Most of my passengers already know one another from past “Travel With Bradley” tours so this gathering was a true homecoming.

There was a bit of excitement when our flight to Montreal was delayed and then “cancelled” so I was very busy trying to come up with a quick solution. A very professional AC representative was ready to re-book us on another carrier but the two of us decided that it was worth trying to get us rebooked on the next Air Canada scheduled flight to Montreal. If it left and arrived on time there was a great chance we could make our connection with Lufthansa airlines. The Air Canada rep promised me that he would keep an eye on that new flight and if it was delayed at all he would make sure we didn’t board and he would rebook us with another carrier. Since our Air Canada booking was a “Travel With Bradley” group that gave us priority over individual travelers,

Luckily the flight ended up leaving on time and were able to make our connection to Munich. It was a bit of a hike to our gate in Montreal but we were quick. I even had a couple minutes to grab a Starbucks before boarding the flight.

We flew to Munich on a Lufthansa state-of-art A350-900. What a beautiful plane – spacious, oversize windows, modern washrooms.

Due to the winds our flight to Munich was relatively short – 6.5 hours and it was a very smooth crossing over the pond. Service was good and so was the main meal that they served us.

When we arrived in Munich it was a short distance to our connecting gate. They called the Lviv, Ukraine flight to board but minutes later they sent passengers back into the terminal because there was an issue with the plane. I was expecting a major delay but within a short period of time we boarded a smaller regional Lufthansa jet and were on our way to Lviv.

I was sitting in the emergency row so a flight attendant arrived to brief me and those around me on the protocol during an emergency. He soon learned that one of the ladies across from me could not speak English so she needed to be moved from the Emergency row. He asked another couple if they spoke English and after hearing “yes” he moved them into the Emergency row across from me. Seconds later he realized they were not fluent either…. It was a comedy of errors – he had to find another couple to fill those seats. He was getting frustrated.

Even though it was a relatively short 90 minute flight, along with beverages Lufthansa also served a hearty sandwich to us.

Gladly our luggage all arrived in Lviv. Taras (Terry) our local guide was wearing a “Travel With Bradley” polo shirt when he greeted us in the arrival hall. I know Taras and he is a terrific man – very caring and passionate about his country and Lviv, the city where he lives.

It was a 30 minute transfer to the hotel. We are traveling in a 33 seated coach for the duration of this tour. The views from the airport to the historic city centre are not overly exciting but Lviv’s city centre puts it on the map as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. This is a very multicultural place. In the recent presidential election (when the comedian was elected), the majority of citizens of Lviv were the only ones in the entire country that as a majority voted against him.

The core of Lviv is an eccentric place. It’s filled with very “trendy” coffee shops (coffee is a big deal here), hip restaurants and many locally owned shops. Being its the Christmas Season there are 2 main Christmas markets just a couple minute walk from our hotel,

Considering Orthodox Christmas is around the corner, the streets were filled with locals and tourists who are celebrating and shopping,

Our hotel is the highest rated in the city,. The hotel rooms are oversize with high ceilings and they feature a large bathrooms. Touches like fresh roses in the rooms and chocolate truffles on the bed at turn down service help to attract a professional international crowd. The Governor General of Canada has stayed here along with many world dignitaries.

Since we didn’t arrive at our hotel until 3pm it didn’t make sense to take everyone to a restaurant for lunch as dinner was a few hours later so a nice selection of food was waiting in everyone’s room to hold us over.

Instead of resting up most of my passengers were excited to start strolling the beautiful streets of Lviv, The city centre surrounds the doorstep of our hotel. Within a short period of time I had purchased a number of quality mementos that I will be bringing home.

We all gathered at 530pm and Taras toured us around the core for an hour Christmas sights walk. The air was crisp and we could feel the excitement of Christmas. We even visited with Saint Nicholas. He asked if I had been good boy….

Dinner was in one of the most famous Polish/Ukrainian restaurants in the city. I don’t know how Taras our guide managed to get us a group reservation but we felt like VIP’s walking past the long line of people hoping to get a table. This restaurant holds a large number of people but the eccentric decorated dining rooms are relatively small so the experience is personable.

I think it’s fair to say that it would be difficult to top that dinner anywhere else in the world – it was that good! Our meal was a leisurely 3 hour affair – we enjoyed every minute. Platters of artistically placed appetizers were waiting on the table. On on table there was button that we pressed to call the waiter who was very professional. A large dinner salad was the next course – the salad dressing container contained the dressing along with some dry ice so when the waiter poured the dressing on the salad the cloudy presentation was exciting. The salad was filled with various flavors – one of the best Ive tasted anywhere. The main course consisted of spinach filled turkey rolls served with a lazy cook perogies (pasta noodle like but perogie flavor). A liquor shot arrived and we were in awe the way the waiter poured the shots We had a choice of menu when to selecting our dessert – most ordered either the cottage cheese cheesecake or sweet cheese filled perogies – both excellent choices.

When we left the restaurant the lineups of patrons hoping to enter were even longer than when we entered.

Our hotel was just steps away. Most headed to bed but I strolled another hour. The city was buzzing. The venues were all full and the Christmas Markets were colourful and lively.

I feel asleep quickly but woke up in the middle of the night (jet lag) so I took advantage of that time to write this blog post. Hope you are enjoying! You really should be with us,,,,

New Year’s Yellow Brick Road Mystery Journey

New Year’s Yellow Brick Road MYSTERY Journey

December 29/19

We gathered as usual for our pre-departure dinner in Woodstock last night. Everyone enjoyed the beef entree. There were many reunions in the dining room as many sign up for this fun getaway year after year.

This morning after a hearty breakfast buffet we loaded the coach (capacity 50 passengers) and started our journey. Border crossing was quick and friendly. The US Custom agents were teasing my passengers by telling them they knew where we were going on this Mystery adventure.

Weather was ideal for this time of year. We drove into some drizzle but driving conditions were perfect.

Lunch was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Ohio. Since it was Sunday it was packed when we arrived but within 20 minutes we were all seated. Service was excellent. Moe, the professional manager, went out of his way to look after us. I was in touch with him a few times before we arrived and I could tell by his demeanor that he could easily handle our group even though they were already very busy. I provided everyone with $25. to cover their meal – everyone had funds left to spend in the gift shop. Surprisingly their Christmas merchandise was already pretty much cleared out but there were a few 70% off sales.

We made the expected Walmart stop so everyone could pick up their favourite items that they can’t find at home in Canada.

We arrived at our hotel in Middletown, Ohio and enjoyed a cocktail reception before continuing to an excellent family run dinner theatre. The capacity crowd of 600 was quickly served and the food was delicious. Their holiday show was a big production for a dinner theatre and it was excellent. We were all impressed.

December 30/19

It was a very windy morning but the sun was shining.

We took advantage of a hearty breakfast at the hotel and were on the road at 8am.

Most of my passengers thought we were going to head South to Tennessee so they were surprised when the coach started heading North!

Was surprised to see an Amish “courting buggy” (open air) on the road in these frigid temps. I’m sure the two young ones were wrapped in blankets.

We enjoyed an exceptional homemade meal at an Amish home outside of Shipshewana, IN. Tossed salad with homemade dressing to start – noodles – whipped potatoes – garden vegetables – beef (everyone said it was delicious) and baked chicken. Dessert was a choice of blueberry cream pie (real whipped cream) and/or pecan pie (decadent).

The chicken was so yummy, so I asked our hostess how she prepared it. Very simple – skinless chicken thighs dipped in egg and then coated in crunched up Rice Krispies! None of our group imagined she used Rice Krispies. She of course added some spice to that coating too – but let me tell you her simple recipe is a winner!

Our host John boarded our coach after lunch and toured us around the Amish countryside. His wife’s family pretty well line one country road – every farm is owned by a relative. We stopped at a few Amish businesses along the way so my passengers enjoyed shopping. John shared many stories with us. Eighty-five percent of the local Amish men use to farm and now eighty-five percent of them work in trailer manufacturing plants. John retired after working in the plant for over 30 years.

After retirement he built his own trailer – one of my passengers asked him how he transports it. He recently hooked it up to his tractor and pulled it 25 miles to a campground where his family spent their vacation and he then used the tractor to bring the trailer back home.

John and his wife are wonderful hosts. I’m thankful that they are always willing to open their home to my passengers.

We checked into a boutique hotel, filled with Amish charm and got ready for dinner.

Dinner was another Amish Feast (meatloaf and fried chicken) – we had a choice of a number of pies for dessert.

The Musical that followed was a hit with my passengers. I couldn’t get over how well cast the production was. Every actor played their parts perfectly.

A big production for a relatively small stage. Well done!

I arranged for an ice cream sundae social when we returned back to the hotel. The ice cream parlor staff set it up for us in one of their banquet rooms. Everyone sat around and chatted while enjoying their treat. There was some ice cream left so I found a few children with their parents that were staying in the hotel and invited them. When my passengers saw a line of children come into the banquet room they gave them a round of applause – a nice Canadian welcome!

December 31/19

Breakfast was excellent. A chef prepared the tastiest omelettes – thin batter stuffed with meat/veggies and cheese. Many of my passengers also raved about the baked French toast.

Through the night snow fell – plenty of it. When we departed at 830am the roads were slick and there were a few automobile accidents but that didn’t stop the Amish – many were out on the road with their horse and buggies. For the first time ever I saw a double hitch – 2 buggies being pulled by 1 horse – we joked that the husband must be in one buggy and his wife in the other!

Our break stop was at a Starbucks Service Plaza – nice bonus.

The weather continued to improve as we headed towards…… Chicago.

We were greeted by two reps at the historic downtown Macy’s store – the original Marshall Fields.

There was a bit of time to explore before lunch on the 7th Floor in the famous Walnut Room. We were very fortunate to get reservations as this is their busiest time of year as locals flock yearly for the “Christmas Tree Buffet”.

The Christmas Tree that dominated the dining room was as extravagant as the deluxe buffet. Everything they prepared was so delicious. The many deserts were bite size so we tried a number of them!

After lunch we were met by 3 tours guides who explained the history of this store and building. After a very informative hour tour we were on our way to Lincolnshire, an upscale Chicago suburb were we stayed in a beautiful resort that recent underwent a $20 million dollar upgrade.

At 6pm we gathered for a 4 course private “Travel With Bradley”banquet. It was an impressive meal and the servers so kind.

We then moved into another section of the resort for a champagne and appetizer reception.

It was then SHOW TIME – the Frankie Valli and Four Season tribute was just excellent – 7 piece band with 4 upfront singers.

Afterwards we entered a ballroom and brought in the New Year at 11pm – at home in Ontario it was 12 midnight. The patrons soon figured out what we were doing and they started snapping pictures of us. Most of us retired to our rooms but a few decided to stick around for the Chicago New Year countdown and balloon drop.

January 1/20

That a beautiful sunny day!

The breakfast buffet at the resort was a very high quality. We so enjoyed it.

Stopped at the Michigan Welcome Centre for a quick break stop.

Soon afterwards we enjoyed a “New Years Day” buffet in Marshall, MI – another excellent meal!

Crossing the border took no time at all.

I passed around homemade cookies to welcome everyone back Canada.

We arrived back in Woodstock in good time and road conditions were ideal for those that drove home.

We royally brought in the New Year – a New Decade.

Everyone agreed it was a perfect Mystery Journey.

Happy New Year to one and all!

Wheeling, West Virginia – The Christmas Edition

Wheeling, West Virginia – The Christmas Edition

My passengers gathered for a pre-departure, delicious buffet dinner and restful overnight at the Quality Inn, Woodstock.

After breakfast we loaded the motor coach (a capacity departure – 51) and started our journey. It was a very easy and quick border crossing at Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls plus we had the bonus of admiring the falls when we crossed the bridge.

Our morning break stop was at Cracker Barrel. The store was filled with Christmas goodies so many of my passengers and I took advantage of a bit of shopping time.

We enjoyed an Italian style luncheon at Olive Garden. This was a popular choice. The salad bowl was endless, chicken parm or shrimp entree and a choice of 2 lucious desserts. Needless to say by the time we finished our meal we were stuffed!

This is the first time I’ve had a group stay at the Oglebay Wilson Lodge in Wheeling. Many of my passengers reminisced about years ago when Wheeling was a mecca for country music fans – big name entertainers constantly performed at the Capital Theatre.

Wheeling, West Virgiinia is nestled cozily along the banks of the Ohio River.

I booked the luxury rooms at the lodge (they have 54 in this top category) and they were very impressive. The resort was decked out with stunning Christmas displays and many thousand lights inside and out. Some of our resort rooms faced the famous “Festival of Lights” display.

The Ballroom at the lodge was beautifully decorated for the season. We were the first ones to tackle the bountiful buffet – so many upmarket entrees to pick from – it was hard to decide. As we casually enjoyed our meal, a number of coach loads of passengers arrived and before long the ballroom was packed. We had an advantage since were staying at the lodge so we were the first to dine, where as the majority of others were just in for dinner/show and the Festival of Lights display.

After we finished our meal it was showtime. We were entertained by talented musicians and were very impressed with the glass harmonica segment of the show – a spinning musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction.

We were then met by a local guide who was lit up with Christmas lights. He boarded our coach as we drove through the “Festival of Lights” display – one for the most recognized displays in the USA.

Afterwards we gathered for hot chocolate, Christmas goodies and entertainment in a beautiful setting – a perk for those of us staying at the lodge.

The following day we toured Oglebay’s attractions, enjoyed lunch at Cracker Barrel and were met by the same eccentric guide who showed us the lights the night before for a tour of Wheeling. We were all impressed with this community located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Later we gathered for another exceptional meal at the lodge. Some of my passengers dressed for the festive evening.

Four of our passengers acted out the part of “Four Ladies Dancing” (Twelve Days of Christmas) just perfectly at the evening reception that followed. It was fun watching a family in the crowd who were all dressed in their Christmas pajamas – brownie points for the husband who looked so embarrassed when lodge guests clapped for them and starting taking pictures.

We departed the lodge after breakfast. Most of us took advantage of the omlette bar and ate too many breakfast sweets.

Our morning stop was in the charming town of Cambridge, Ohio. We were met by a local guide who took us back in time as we experienced their Dickens Victorian Village. As we strolled admiring over 150 Dickens characters we felt as though we were in Olde England.

Our overnight destination, Sugarcreek is also known as “The Little Switzerland of Ohio”. This small rural community is the “Gateway to Amish Country” and is famous for its Swiss Cheese. There is an abundance of things to see and do here.

We of course savored an Amish buffet feast, took in a Christmas musical, admired the town of Berlin and enjoyed a private dinner banquet in a Swiss Restaurant where the dessert cream puffs were heavenly.

The following morning after breakfast we grabbed last minute photos of the Christmas displays at our overnight hotel before loading the coach for our journey home.

During our travels I passed around massive size Donuts, freshly baked in an Amish kitchen.

Our farewell luncheon was a definite highlight – my passengers questioned how I found this perfect spot – it was decorated to the nines for the festive season. There was a big variety of entrees to choose from but I think everyone enjoyed the chef carved turkey the best – a delicious reminder that Christmas is around the corner.

We were warmly welcomed back into Canada – clearing customs in record time.

We were at our staring point in Woodstock at a decent hour, much appreciated by all.

My passengers loaded their cars with their Christmas Gift purchases and after hugs and kisses were on their way.

I’ve been fortunate to have celebrated Christmas for an extended time with many of you who have traveled with me literally across the world during this season. Christmas will be celebrated again when I host the upcoming Eastern Orthodox Christmas tour in Ukraine.

May the Christmas Season fill your homes with joy.

Merry Christmas to one and all!

Romania – A Journey Filled with Heartfelt Memories

December 5 – Sibiu – Biertan – Sighisoara – Brasov

Today was a wonderful one.  We spent time at the birthplace and hometown of Dracula – dating back to the 12th Century.  We dined in his home!  Later we sipped Romanian brandies in a 500 year old cellar – a “Travel With Bradley” surprise!

This mornings drive through Transylvania was very scenic – valleys, hilly lands and picturesque villages.

We drove through a Gypsy (Roma) community (3-4% of the Romanian population) and saw a massive home which is being built for a Gypsy King.  This Gypsy town was filled with partially built homes – the Gypsy’s are movers and have probably deserted this community but they may eventually return.  Gypsy’s typically have 5 children so once the European borders opened many moved to countries like Germany where the the social programs are much better than Romania.

Our first stop was at a town known for its fortified church (Biertan) which has been designated a UNESCO site.  It’s construction is so unique – the alter is the biggest in Transylvania and the door lock on the church treasury uses one key to open 15 locks!  The church is known for the “divorce house” – many years ago it was forbidden to divorce so if a couple came to a bishop wanting a divorce he would tell them that they needed to spend 14 days in this small house and after that time if they still wanted to divorce it would be granted.  Over 300 years couples were ordered to that house but just 1 couple ended up divorcing.

Only 4 towns in Europe are listed with UNESCO designation and Romania has one (Sighisoara) – everything in town is a monument.  This delightful place has preserved its medieval atmosphere.

This very well known town is the home of Vlad the Impaler (Count DRACULA).  As with every legend, there is a historical background.  We visited the house where Dracula was born and the room where he lived until he was 6.  “Dracula” was laying in a coffin – he did a great job scaring some of my passengers espewhen we moved.  As a tour highlight we dined in Dracula’s home.

We then climbed to the top of the towns famous clocktower and admired a stunning view over this community and the surrounding countryside.

As a special treat we sipped 5 types of award (even in Canada) wining Romanian brandy’s in a 500 year old cellar.   The overall favourite was the mixed fruit variety – many of my passengers are bringing some home.

Romania proudly has the most UNESCO Heritage sites per habitats in the world – there are currently 36 and 16 more are on the waiting list – a formality and they will then be registered.

Our home for 2 nights is the 5 star, Cromwell in Brasov.  This is a state-of-the-art modern 5 star hotel catering to an international, business crowd.  I could move into my room – really like its design and colour scheme – my passengers are chatting about the square toilet in their rooms – something different!

December 6 – Brasov – Bran – Brasov

Today we visited Bran Castle, was made famous by the Dracula fable.  This castle attracts over 1 million visitors a year and is the #1 attraction in Romania.  Tourists flock here from all over the world.  When our guide recently explained to a large group of Japanese tourists that Dracula is a story which has put Romania on the map, 2 of the Japanese passengers started to cry as they believed Dracula was real.  The castle is hidden in the hilly forest of Bran and is surrounded by an aura of mystery and legend.  It was built by the German Saxons in the 14th century.

It was an uphill gradual climb to reach the castle but all of my passengers conquered it and loved the Dracula castle experience.  Luckily this time of year we have to contend with no crowds – often the wait times to enter the castle reach 2 hours.

After touring the castle we had time to visit the local tourist market stalls.

Our private luncheon was in the upscale tea house at the base of the castle.  The Tudor interior was attractive and warm – very professional run operation.

During  the drive over the Carpathian Mountains we passed through a large ski resort area.  The winter ski season will start in a few days.

We visited the 2nd most visited attraction in Romania – the Black Church,  located in the Old Town area of Brashov.  Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside.  This is a massive structure that was originally built as a Catholic Church but later became Lutheran.

We stayed long enough to see the twinkling lights of the Old Town Market.  It’s beautifully decorated real Christmas Tree is humongous.  It towers over the square.  The stores in the downtown offer Romanian branded clothing and shoes – different qualities.  It’s downtown shopping mall is unique – an open space with no walls but a variety of stores.

Dinner was back at our hotel in a private space.  The well presented cuisine and service has been top notch here.

December 7- Brasov – Sinaia – Bucharest

Sinaia is the pearl of the Carpathian Mountains.  Castle Peles put Sinaia on the map.  Although not as famous as the Bran Dracula Castle,  the interior of this castle is much more spectacular.  It took our breath away.  This castle served as the summer residence of the royal family until 1947.

The adjacent monastery, built by Prince Cantacuzino in 1695 was impressive too.  We were able to take pictures in the older Orthodox Church as its not used for services anymore.  Surrounding it is monks quarters.  We saw a number of the 20 monks walking the grounds.

Our private luncheon was in another impressive castle (Cantacuzino) which is currently leased to a famous Russian ballerina.  The chef and restaurant has earned a Michelin Star – this meal was of the upmost quality.  What a wonderful culinary experience.

Our overnight was back in Bucharest at the 5 star Radisson Blu.  After check in we ventured to Old Town and visited the Bucharest Christmas Market which is the largest in Romania.  Each of the Christmas Markets we visited were unique.  This one was the busiest – a Saturday night.

Our farewell, delicious dinner was held at the Radisson Blu.  I changed the location of this banquet as I felt everyone would be more relaxed dining at the hotel as we have an early morning departure to Amsterdam.   

This Mystery Journey featured the best Romania has to offer – attractions, hotels and restaurants.

I think my passengers would agree – Romania offered an excellent travel experience.  The perfect weather was appreciated and we had no crowds to contend with anywhere (other than last nights Christmas Market).

Our local guide, Apollo used the phrase, “In Bradley We Trust”.  I’d like to thank my passengers for “trusting in Bradley” when they decided to book this International Mystery Tour.  We quickly were one big family the mixed and mingled with everyone.  I’d also like to thank our local guide and coach driver – so professional.

I look forward to bringing more groups to Romania – its an amazing destination – filled with surprises – amazing attractions and welcoming people.