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Published: August 15th 2013
Wiring Bulgarian styleApologies in advance for this lengthy entry...maybe it's a train trip's reading...
Actually, this is a style that is also prevalent in Romania and pretty much across the Balkans. Although I hadn't seen it quite to this extreme before.
Just as I got reacquainted with Macedonia I came up with the bright idea to leave. Not because it wasn’t great being back but it was more about time management. Oh yes, ever the diary manager and organiser. There was some rationalisation involved. My ‘plans’ were to go to Albania again but, as Ramadan had commenced and would continue until early August I thought I might have a better time there once it was all was over. You know, just in case I stay with a family and have to wait until sundown to eat… Anyone who has been with me while I experience a sugar low will know what I mean by that! I need to eat when I need to eat -there are no two ways about it. Plus I really wanted to go to Romania to visit friends.
So, on a kind of whim I was bound for Piatra Neamt leaving on a Tuesday night and taking the minibus from the village to Ohrid. I had told my family in Ohrid that I would have something to eat with them as the bus wasn’t
Sleep this way
... the other the other way
leaving until 10pm for Sofia, Bulgaria. But, when I arrived at the bus station I discovered that there was a bus leaving at 7pm. It was 6.15pm. No point in hanging around. Apologies to my family for not letting you know but when I have my mind set on moving I move.
Ah yes, then there is the consequence of stubbornness… Being unceremoniously dumped in a big city at a bus station at four o’clock in the morning is never a good thing. No money and clueless I wandered around a little aimlessly being approached by taxi drivers constantly. Sofia rail and bus station is not really the place to be wandering around aimlessly. One taxi driver pointed me in the direction of the bus station telling me that at least that was open. Bless him. So there I waited until the counter opened to purchase my ticket to Bucharest. It was at least an hour and a half of vacant staring into space, which I have become quite adept at over the years, before the opportunity arose. And then the unfortunate news that the bus leaves at midnight. Ugh. What to do for the whole day??? Clueless about
accommodation options at 6.30 in the morning I spied a backpacker. After a meek introduction I asked her where she was staying and basically went with her to the hostel. OMG. What a dive! Please, if you are considering staying at the Nightingale Hostel (hostel to the left, sex shop to the right) ask yourself why. If it is for no other reason than to cut costs then maybe this is the place for you. Otherwise I KNOW Sofia has other, more comfortable and way, way cleaner options. But I was tired and so I stayed.
Sleep is a wonderful thing. It’s something I’m not getting enough of these days. But I managed to have a fair crack at making up for lost sleep. Seeing something of Sofia was another thing altogether. And, before I really knew it I was checked out again and back at the bus station waiting for my 7 hour bus trip to Bucharest. But, just when you think you’ve made up the sleep you’ve lost you go and take a night bus and lose it all again. And then, just when you think you can’t lose anything else you lose your glasses.
Bus stop outside Bistrita monastery
Traian waiting for the rain to stop.
Oh yes. That was a slight hiccup of the plan complete with mild panic attack. But all becomes better after a shower. The mind is somehow able to think more clearly and able to cope with life’s little ‘challenges’. Back to the bus station and bless the Bulgarian bus driver who handed me back my sight in the form of my glasses – in typical Bulgarian fashion. No fuss and don’t make a fuss. I did a little inward dance of joy instead.
There’s a lot to see and do in Bucharest. But, I didn’t see or do anything really. Just a general wander around which was enough for me. All I wanted was to rest – there was another 6 hour bus trip to undertake the following day to Piatra Neamt. Ugh. I’m not cut out for this. I arrived at the bus station ready to take the 1 o’clock bus. I was told to come back for 2pm. When I came back (after a 1.5 hour lunch break) I was gobsmacked to find that it was only a minibus with clearly not enough room. What do you mean I need to reserve a seat???? When I went
back to the information office and told the man (who had told me to come back later in the first place) that the bus was full and we had a ‘problem’ he went into solution mode. But not before telling me I should have reserved a seat (yes, should have could have). Yes, yes, I know that now. No point telling me now. Anyway, if there is ever any question about why I prefer to travel in the east of Europe the answer surely must be that it’s because people will try to find a solution to whatever problem you may have or be experiencing. And so it was that I found myself on a (packed) bus heading in the general direction of Piatra Neamt. I really am not fussy where I go as long as I keep moving. There is a theme here…
Like some hostage operation I was released at about the midway point and turned over to a madman in the guise of a minibus driver. It was quite an experience hurtling along the narrow highway at breakneck speed passing horse and carts/pedestrians/cyclists/dogs/chickens with only millimetres to spare between us and them.
Add to that the constant mobiIe phone conversations and well, I just couldn’t watch the road or enjoy the scenery but was ecstatic when I got to Piatra Neamt – in one piece. And I got the warmest of welcomes from my Romanian friends, a party of five, who had waited ever so patiently for my arrival. Through very kind and accommodating Romanians along the way, I had texted my friends on my behalf to let them know when I would be arriving. Still, I think it was a bit like a treasure hunt for them with obscure clues to boot. But it was so wonderful to have had the opportunity, and to have made it a reality, to meet my dear friend Traian again after 11 years. And on top of that to further extend my Romanian circle of friends now to include Nicu his cycling buddy, Lala Nicu’s wife, their highly intelligent and super organised daughter Codruta (without whom our meeting would not have been so easily made) and her equally intelligent and kind hearted partner Radu. All there at the station waiting for my arrival. And through the course of the weekend to have stayed at Traian’s
family home and met his wonderful wife Annelise and their daughter Mady and husband Robert (recently returned from their own holiday). With friends like this I will never be alone in Romania that’s for sure. How blessed and fortunate am I? Very.
The weekend was spent visiting Bistrita monastery on Traian’s other bicycle, the mountain bike. Not the most comfortable ride but still a ride which included an almighty downpour (I haven’t seen rain for a long time so this was quite a novelty) just as we arrived at the monastery. The ride back to Piatra Neamt was a little awkward. Riding in my jeans and ‘good’ top (thankfully not white!) both of which ended up being wet and covered in mud. Needless to say the bike riding was a little short-lived. Sorry Traian.
In the evening there was a bbq meal in the garden of Nicu and Lala’s lovingly built wooden house. Such a gorgeous night and a very successful combination of great food, great conversation and laughter. And the next day a walk up the mountain in the afternoon followed by an evening meal of Romanian style fish and chips (whitebait of sorts with a very
Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania
Even birds live in gorgeous houses here.
tangy and strong garlic sauce (we are in Romania afterall – it’s nothing without garlic! and bbq’d chips like the night before, all washed down with Romanian beer). Perfection, it appears, comes in all manner of combinations.
The weekend went by very quickly and it was time again to say goodbye. I hope to be back some day (or as one taxi driver suggested just move here why not?) to see these special people again. Thank you to you all, and especially Traian, for keeping in contact with me for the past 11 years. You are all exceptional people and I am very grateful for the bicycle (my old Marin) for making my initial meeting with Traian possible. Sometimes I feel I’m nothing without my bicycle. Or that I’m only half a person and the bicycle completes me. It is the total freedom machine and seems to magically open doors to places and people that I wouldn’t have thought possible and it’s powered by me.
It was on now to Maramures, the north of the country bordering Ukraine, Sighetu Marmatiei to be exact. I had wanted to come here in 2002 when I first came to Romania with
Onca livestock market, Romania
The hat is typical of this region in Maramures.
my bicycle. At that time Australians needed a visa to visit and I had already extended it once whilst in the country which involved a bit of bureaucratic hurdling and finding a local who could speak English. I didn’t want to push things. But, now, I could fulfil my wish. Maramures is known for its age old traditions, mountains and woodlands, exquisite wooden monasteries, and friendliness of the people. I wasn’t let down by any of it.
I spent 5 nights in c. Hmmm. Not all that much to do in the town itself but the hostel I stayed in was clean, comfortable and with a beautiful garden full of fruit trees, chickens and a couple of goats. A wonderful place to rest and recover from the constant dehydrating experience of bus travel in Romania (no stopping for toilet breaks, and even then ever so briefly, always packed and never with air conditioning - in my limited experience anyway). And ofcourse there were wonderful guests who stayed too. I had the good fortune to spend a day with the lovely and very funny Francoise (119 countries visited to date and counting!). We took the bus to Ocna to visit
Onca market, Romania
Decision making - always difficult.
the livestock market. A colourful affair but with not as much livestock as we thought there might be. Interesting though and with enough to see to make the trip worthwhile. Plus, it was on the way to a UNESCO heritage church in Budesti, St Nicholas, which we visited afterwards. We took the minibus there and shared it with a busload of headscarved women wearing the traditional skirts (it takes 4.2 metres to make one skirt which used to be made of wool but is now, more often than not, made of cheaper fabrics – sadly synthetics just don’t cut it and falls very differently).
We got to the church just in time for it to still be open. As with all old Orthodox churches, the frescoes inside are beautiful but what made this one especially so, for me anyway, were the colourful rugs and woven carpets made I’m sure by the local women parishioners with much love. Other churches I’ve been to have not been carpeted. And ofcourse the exterior of the church, all wooden shingled, double eaved, narrow steepled exquisiteness. There is no doubt why this church, amongst others in this region, is deserved of its UNESCO heritage
Francoise and I walked around the village a little. We came across Anuca (see accompanying photo) who was walking in the opposite direction and wanted us to take a photo of her. And not satisfied with a photo of just her she wanted a photo of each of us with her one the condition that it was without her beautifully woven basket which she carried on her back. She was quite adamant about this! Anuca had the most brilliant blue eyes and such a lively nature. Even without speaking the same language she had spirit. It was a very funny way to spend 10 minutes or so and still brings a smile to my face when I reflect back on that time.
A further wander on the main drag and then it was time to try to get a lift back to Onca so we could get on the road to the monastery at Barsana. We didn’t wait too long, being picked up by a lovely young Romanian who had learned his English in Cypress and spoke it perfectly. Then another lift (in silence) to visit the monastery (beautiful yes with gorgeously manicured gardens but
with an expectation to pay for taking photographs – personally I think only professionals who earn money from this should have to pay for that privilege!) and another hitch back with an American/Romanian couple back to Sighetu who spoke both French and English. Honestly, Romanians are such clever people!
The next day I was left to my own devices so I hitched, no problem, to Sapatan, to visit the Merry Cemetery, so called because the deceased are celebrated through epitaths that give some insight into their lives – both through poetic words and naïve folk paintings. It’s hard to be sad when you view these, hence the name of Cimitirul Vesel, the Merry Cemetery. I like to think if I was a local my cross would bear a picture of me and my bicycle. A bit of a wander around the streets with its quaint and colourful ceramic tiled houses, its many horse and carts trundling up and down the street and the general languid air of village life and then it was off to stick out the thumb for the way back. Actually, that’s not entirely true. A truck stopped for me without me needing to stick out
my thumb. Guess there is no way of blending in. I am not a local and you can see it from miles away.
As was the habit of the last few days, I went to my ‘usual’ minimarket to buy provisions for the evening –tomato, cucumber, green pepper and salami (I know I don’t eat meat!) and yoghurt. On this occasion I had a man wanting to help me. He carried my basket for me around the shop making comment on everything I placed in my basket which itself was funny but upon seeing me place my one bottle of beer on the counter his eyes widened. Ooooh, skandal, he said, smiling. I had to giggle. No. No scandal. Ten bottles (I indicated with my hands), scandal. Hee hee. What would he have thought if I put a bottle of vodka on the counter? Trouble?
I really liked Sighetu and could have stayed on (and on, and on) but I wanted (needed) to keep moving. I was, in a roundabout way, now Kosovo bound. As always, it was incredibly hard to move especially when the start was at 5.30 the following morning to catch the 6.20 bus to
St Nicholas, Budesti
Detail of the wooden shingled steeple
Oradea. Ugh. Thankfully I had the good fortune to be waiting there on my lonesome at the bus station when Daniel arrived. I swear there is no shortage of clever, young Romanians. As it turned out he too was travelling to Oradea but in his case to undertake some interviews for his PhD which he was undertaking at Warwick Uni in Coventry. He was so helpful, coming with me to try and find the hostels I had looked up. After trying 3 places and getting nowhere I gave up but a BIG thank you Daniel for your efforts! Plan B, move on to Timisoara but not before a coffee and a wander around (really picturesque place but um, not so great when you’re carrying a pack during the middle of the (hot) day). I asked a man the way to the train station. He pointed in the direction I should be heading. I went and when I was almost there, there he was again. He took it upon himself to be my personal bodyguard and help me buy my ticket and ensure that I was aware of the Roma around me and to put everything of value away. Be careful
were his words (in Romanian ofcourse). I was a bit (but not much) panicky when I saw them all board the same train. But there was no trouble - just sweltering, dehydrating heat on that train. And it was in that furnace that a young woman, Suzana, asked me if I spoke German. Yes. She then went on to say that there was a festival being held that weekend in Sântana where she lives and that a lot of Germans will be there. You are welcome to stay with me and my family if you would like. I had no idea what this festival was about. No idea why there would be a lot of Germans there but I was prepared to be educated.
And that is how I got to stay in Sântana and was educated about their annual festival which this year was celebrating its 145th year. Over the course of 3 days I met so many people, listened to a lot of polka music, ate goulash (I know, I don’t eat meat!), went to a church service which was part of this festival, drank palinka or was it tuica, ate too much deep fried food (delicious
Anuca and me
She wanted the photo not me!
though : ) ), was embarrassingly bestowed with countless gifts (honestly is there no limit to Romanian generosity??) and witnessed a little slice of Schwabisch tradition that remains in this pocket of Romania. Thanks so much to you Suzana for the courage you showed in making the first move to establish contact, to your sister Roxana, to your cousins, and above all your parents who laughed and smiled so easily. Now, when I see the word homemade I will always think of everything that was homemade, and with love, in your home. What a wonderful experience to have experienced.
Onwards to Timisoara. A very architecturally elegant town with a fair bit to see and do. Lots of lovely green spaces, squares, and, when university begins again, students. At this time of year it was quite quiet. But, the city surely has what must be Romania’s best brewery if the beers sold at the hostel are anything to go by. The unfiltered ‘Terapie Platin’ by the aptly named Clinica de Bere hit the spot for sure and was my personal favourite. And what a great hostel, Hostel Mostel is. A lovely old converted house, all parquetry floors and high ceilings,
Note the garlic - this is Romania after all.
positioned in a lovely part of town amongst equally lovely old buildings, by the river, with a resident dog, a garden and bath tubs outside should you want to sit and soak outside. Honestly, what more could you wish for?
And that is where my Romanian foray ended, ever too briefly. It was back to true Balkan soil the following day with a train trip to Belgrade, then the next, a bus trip to Nis and then the next another bus from Nis to Pristina. Apart from Pristina, I had been to these places in 2006. Belgrade wasn’t quite how I remembered but Nis certainly was. As for Pristina, um well, I can now say I’ve been there and done that but it most definitely will not be on my radar for places to return to. The beautiful Rugova Valley however that is another matter altogether. Exquisitely beautiful mountains, winding roads, it was like being back in Montenegro which is not surprising - on the other side of the mountains is Montenegro. But, it was not about places. The trip to Kosovo was to catch up with my friend who I met when I was in Croatia
Detail of a typical front wooden gate
in 2003. Thank you G—for showing me the sights so to speak.
So now I’m back in Skopje looking forward to seeing dear Dragana (my bike) again in the next couple of days. My wishes and obligations to see family and friends have now been fulfilled. I can go back to being a tourist and possibly do something about that extra roll that seems to have appeared around my middle! Have some idea of how that happened – it must have been all that bus travel!
Btw, the blog title comes from a scene in Gone with the Wind. It was showing on TV in Timisoara but alas, I've still not seen the whole movie from start to finish.
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