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Published: July 19th 2012
Palace - Bucharest
Second biggest building in the world
I took a night train from Belgrade to Bucharest. To do this I had to take a 2-hour bus to the station, take a train across the border, and then catch a night train to Bucharest. Apparently the line directly from Belgrade is out of commission.
I met a few Serbians and they helped me get a couchette. Apparently, they didn't realize that I had already bought a ticket. I thought I was paying the difference between my seat and a couchette but I ended up paying a full fare. I tried to explain it to the conductor when I got off the train, but he gave me the runaround about how this was a separate train and that my ticket was for the train from Belgrade (even though it doesn't exist). It was a futile exercise in jurisprudence. Romania
- Like Belgrade, Bucharest was a lot bigger than I imagined. I got to the train station early in the morning and was a bit distraught. I had emailed myself the address and a map for the hostel I had booked. I asked for some directions when I got out of the train terminal to find the
main street I needed to walk down. I had a bad feeling I was heading the wrong way, but 3 people insisted I was going the right direction. Finally I just said to myself that I would head back towards the train station and continue following the road the other way. If I were wrong then I would just get a cab. Well, it turned out I was right. I found the points on my directions and got to the hostel. The couchette was hot and I didn't sleep well. I was so glad to actually find the hostel, which was down a few side streets. When I got there the receptionist told me to have a seat in the waiting room while they cleaned my room. I waited and waited. Then finally someone came in and said they had a "problem" with the room, but that they had booked me at the hostel up the street. At this point I just wanted to sleep. I went up the street and checked in and woke up 3 hours later.
The hostel recommended I take a free walking tour. I figured that it would be a good way to see
the city. A French girl at my hostel was taking the tour and the guy working the front desk was heading that way so we all grabbed dinner together and then went on the tour. There are a lot of free walking tours, especially in Eastern Europe. Bucharest seemed to have gone through a French phase. I didn't realize there was so much French influence, even though the French never invaded. The communist president was so impressed by Paris that he tried to model Bucharest after it. Its palace is the second biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon).
The next day was pretty much a recovery day. I was surprised what at toll the night train took on me. I was exhausted from it all for some reason. I even decided to bypass Moldova and fly directly to Kiev to avoid having to take two night trains.
On the walking tour we ended at the symphony hall. I decided to get a ticket for the next night. The symphony there was phenomenal. Either the players never missed a note, had a CD playing, or I was sitting in the best spot. However it was, the music
was perfect that night. The inside of the hall was amazing too with marble columns and beautiful paintings. I could have listened for hours. Brasov
- The next day it was off to Brasov to see the old city and to head to Bran to see Dracula's castle
. Brasov was a great medievil town. The center had a square with huge marble slabs that was lined with bars and restaurants. It was a festive town. They also had a free concert that night. The next day I took a bus to Bran to see the castle used in Bram Stoker's Dracula
. The castle wasn't all that big. It would be tough for a tall person to walk through it. It was situated on a bluff in a valley that gave a cool view of the surrounding area. When I got to the castle they were taking a woman out on a gurney. I never really believed in stuff like that but it made me wonder if something freaky was happening inside. I think it most likely was the heat that made her pass out, not the two fang marks on her neck. Ukraine
- Finally, I had
made it to the former USSR
(CCCP). Up to this point I had only been in the Eastern Bloc
. My stereotypes were about to come alive as well. I know in my previous blogs I had complained about not being interrogated, intimidated, or threatened upon arrival to a country that was rumored to hostile. The communist countries of Vietnam, Laos, and China let me in with no questions asked. No one even questioned my passport photo (which looks nothing like me). Well, the passport control at Kiev was not going to let me in without some questioning. I got to the passport control and the lady looked at my passport, stamped it, and then looked at me just as she was about to hand me my passport back. Then she looked at my picture again, then at me, then at the picture, then at me. She asked me where I was born (as if even if I was traveling on a fake passport I wouldn't know the contents). She asked the lady in the booth with her if my picture looked like me. She lady in the booth couldn't tell. Then she looked at it again, and then back to the
other lady. At this point I thought for sure I was going to the interrogation room. "Please, put me in a room with a steel table, a single light hanging from the ceiling, and a Ukrainian official smoking a cigarette and putting it out on my hand,"
I thought to myself. Still, the woman wasn't sure. She summoned a guy to look - then another guy. No one was sure if it was me or not. I'll give them credit; the picture doesn't look like me. I was 10 lbs. heavier, the State Department expanded the picture so it doesn't even look like the original, and my hair is longer. Still, she wasn't sure. She asked if I had another ID card. I gave her my old PA license. I think she was able to see the similarities between the license and me and the license and the passport picture. After about 10 minutes she gave in and gave it to me. Lastly she asked, "are you sure it's you?" - "yes, I'm pretty sure", I replied.
After I had gone through customs I headed to "Arrivals" where I had a car ready to meet me. The driver, Sergey,
looked the stereotypical Ukrainian. We went to his car and it was all pimped out. It had a sound system and chromed out interior. Sergey seemed like the kind of guy who probably had one too many disco biscuits in the heat of Soviet dispensation. He seemed to own the roads too, as we drove on the middle of the road from the airport to the hostel while listening to Euro techno the whole way in. He spoke to me in Ukrainian as if I understood. I just replied, "da, da". When we got to the hostel the energetic girls at the front desk asked me, "Why aren't you smiling?” I told them it was because I was in the former USSR and no one was allowed to smile - at least not in the movies.
The next day became a walking tour of Kiev. I had planned to take a free walking tour of the city, but was going to the wrong meeting location. I decided to just walk around on my own for a bit. I went down the main boulevard and then to the park. When I got back to the main square I saw a
few guys from my hostel and tagged along with them to the main church.
The next day I went to the Chernobyl museum with a French guy I kept seeing in the lobby. He was doing a world trip as well. The museum was interesting. I wasn't sure if they were celebrating the accident or not. The Soviets always seemed proud of anything that was big and there is no doubt that Chernobyl
was the the biggest environmental disaster in history. I guess if something is grand enough (good or bad), then the Ukrainians will embrace it. I didn't realize how the Soviets were actually able to prevent a much bigger catastrophe by draining the water reservoir under reactor 4. If the magma from that reactor had hit the water, it would have turned from steam and set off a major explosion that would have destroyed the other reactors and created a 100 megaton explosion, destroying half of Europe. A lot of people rushed into Chernobyl not aware of the danger posed by the radiation. Unfortunately, the government doesn't acknowledge many of the heroes that gave their lives to prevent a bigger tragedy.
I was finally able to
find the free walking tour. The girl who worked the front desk at the hostel also did the free tour (along with her 2 other jobs). It was a good tour and very informative on how Kiev has changed over the years. Poland
- Luckily my departure from Kiev was without incident. No one gave me a hard time about my passport and the Wizzair
flight from Kiev to Katowice was on time. The only problem was the amount of time it took to get through passport control in Katowice. I swear, every other line was moving 10 times as fast as mine. The guy checking passports took his good old time on everyone. It took an hour and a half for me to get through. I had to take a minibus from to Krakow, which was another 1.5 hours. I followed the directions in my email from the hostel and it took me in the complete opposite direction. When I finally got to the hostel there was a note for me on the door with a number to call. Apparently there was no 24-hour desk. When the girl arrived to let me in I told her
how the directions sent me in the complete opposite direction. She asked if I got the personal email they sent me after I booked online, claiming that in that email the directions were right. She that it wasn't their fault that I got lost. Sure enough, after I check both directions, they were identical.
The next day I got up early and walked a block to the Sheraton
, where I had booked the next 3 nights. I hadn't stayed in a Starwood hotel since Sophia and was looking forward to staying in some nice accommodations. The only problem with staying in nicer hotels is that I tend to hang out at the hotel and enjoy the amenities. I did manage to make it out and see the castle
and to walk around the old town. Krakow is a great city. It reminded me a lot of Prague. Poland is a very Catholic country and there is a church about every 50 meters. Auschwitz
- One of the main sites I wanted to see in Europe was Auschwitz. It's about a 1.5 hour bus ride from Krakow. When I arrived I was told I had to join a tour.
The English tour had just left, but I was able to convince the girl at the ticket booth that I could catch up. Otherwise, I would have had to wait an hour for the next English tour. I caught up to the group and went through the barracks at Auschwitz I. Auschwitz is a network of camps but the main ones are Auschwitz I, II (Birkenau), and III. There were more sites but those are the main ones. I saw I and II. It's hard to imagine walking around the grounds of the tragedy that happened there. My mind seemed to keep flashing back as if it here 1943 and seeing people being marched around or military trucks passing by. It's amazing how organized the operation was carried out in order to prevent a rebellion. The Jews were told there were being relocated to Eastern Europe for work. By 'work' the Nazis meant slave labor. I honestly believe the lucky ones were the ones who got off the trains and went straight to the gas chambers. The ones who were picked out to work basically lived in Hell. They were slaves until they were too weak to work anymore. Many
of them got infections, tuberculosis, frostbite, lice, or something else. The living conditions were horrible as many as 8 people were forced to sleep in the bunks. I counted one of the bunks to have 10 planks for a base. There is more I could write about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, but it's too graphic for this blog. One thing is for sure: the Nazis wanted to dehumanize and shame the Jews (and anyone else they sent to Auschwitz) to such a low level that that words can't do justice to describe the injustice. Warsaw
- I was able to get a train to Warsaw. When I got my ticket they said the next train was already full. I noticed I didn't get a seat assignment for the later train so I just took the one they said was full and rode in the restaurant car. Luckily I was able to get a booth. When I got to Warsaw I walked to the Westin
to check in. Right beside the Westin was the Deloitte building. "I can't get away", I thought. Warsaw is a nice town but I wasn't there for long. A friend of mine put me
in contact with his friend, Marcel, and he took me to the old town and for lunch. Marcel used to be a consultant and it turned out were had both been on the same project (with different companies), though at different times. Warsaw seemed more cosmopolitan than Krakow and had a lot bigger buildings.
Next stop – The Baltic States and Scandinavia!
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