Labor Day in Transylvania

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May 1st 2015
Published: May 1st 2015
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I've made it as far east as I'll be going on this trip, and now I'm 7 hours ahead of all my friends on the East Coast. I've wanted to go to Romania for a long time, and to be honest, this part of the trip came down to a choice between Romania and the Baltic States. I initially chose the Baltic states because flights from Prague were cheaper there. Then when I decided to stay grounded, Romania became the ultimate winner for my tourist bucks.

Since leaving Prague yesterday morning, I've spent 22 hours on trains. The train to Budapest was 7 hours, of which 4 were spent with the same 5 people in the 6-person cabin until we got to Bratislava, where they all got off. The remainder of the trip to Budapest was uneventful, though we did arrive 20 minutes late. Ah, Eastern Europe... I spent a couple hours in Budapest again, mainly using the McDonald's free wifi to stay connected and make sure none of my students were blowing a gasket. Their final test is due at midnight tonight, so you never know.

Then I had my first sleeper train of this trip, though it won't be my last (at least, that's the plan for now). I had a couchette compartment with 4 other people, for a total of 5 in a 6-"bed" compartment. It's hard to describe unless you see it, but basically the seats that people normally sit on become the 2 lowest bunks, the back cushions of those seats flip up to become 2 more bunks, and then the top of the compartment is higher than normal so that the padded ceiling also functions as beds. I took one of the bottom bunks, since my huge bag was underneath one of them. Four of us were going to Brasov (there's a squiggly line under the S that this website won't let me type, but it means that you pronounce the town "Brashov"), so it really didn't matter where we all slept. I was grateful when one of the girls (yes, there were 3 girls and 2 guys - scandalous!) brought back all the bedding around 9 PM and suggested that we make the beds. I had found myself a compartment devoted to rest! The 2 compartments on either side of us, though, had singalongs or whatever, but that's why I bring ear plugs. I had been asleep for about 20 minutes when the conductor woke us all up (very gently) around 10:30 to let us know that passport control was coming aboard. The Hungarian border guards are easily the most thorough that I've ever encountered. At least they do their job. Once they left, we rolled a little ways and allowed the Romanian guards to come on board. Their inspection did not take as long, but when I told the guy I was going to Brasov and would be in the country 8 days, his response was "that's ok." Sure, but thanks for reassuring me. The rest of the night passed without incident.

I didn't sleep the best I've ever slept, but it was better than a regular chair or worse, having to wait in a train station for a connecting train for an hour at 2 AM. I got up around 7:20 AM, new time, which was 6:20 for my body. But the sun was way up and I was curious to see the landscape. It was not disappointing. We were travelling along the Carpathian Mountains, which is where I intend to be for the next week, if I can help it. This was Transylvania. I didn't see anything ghoulish, unless you count the run-down Gypsy parts of several of the towns that we passed through. It was unfortunate. Other than that, the hills and mountains perfectly complemented the farmland with its roaming herds and the occasional deer.

When I got off the train, my first stop was an ATM, which decided it didn't like my card. So I pressed on. It turns out, my hotel was 3 km from the train station, which took about 40 minutes to walk. No big deal, really, since I was way early to check in and I still needed to find a bank. I was hungry, too. After 2 blocks, I found a bank with an ATM, where I took out 1000 lei, the equivalent of $250, which is all I hope to need in cash while I'm here. The money really feels weird, almost rubbery. But it's as good as gold to these folks, so I may as well carry some around.

I apparently picked the swankiest hotel in town - the Aro Palace. It's got a massage parlor, as well as free sauna, indoor heated pool, and 2 jacuzzis. The hotel restaurant also looks rather posh. They gave me a room, though they said it was a bit early, and when I got to it, it looked like the maids hadn't cleaned up after the previous guests yet. I went back downstairs to tell them, and they gave me another room. This one is nice, with a balcony overlooking the Central Park. They even sent up a fruit plate to make up for their mistake. Okay. The first thing I did was take a shower and then a nap. Comfy bed.

The weather is supposed to be bringing more rain in the afternoon tomorrow, so I knew I needed to make the most of today, as tired as I was. So I got a map and headed off down the main street of the Old Town, Republic Street. It's Labor Day here - thanks to those communists from days gone by - so basically none of the major attractions or government buildings are open. They were having a street market on the main square, Sfatului Plaza, so I checked out their wares. There's a big hill to the southwest of town called the Tampa, and on the top, the town name is written in white letters, like Hollywood. It's a pretty good way of keeping your bearings, if nothing else. The Black Church, a Gothic construction from the 13th century, was open, so I went inside. It's massive, and they claim it's the largest church between Vienna and Istanbul. They don't allow pictures, and they've got guards inside to make sure you obey that. There really wasn't much to photograph, really. They did have a seafoam green organ that I wanted to snap a photo of, but those guards are serious. When I left, I found the "narrowest street in Europe" - or maybe just Eastern Europe, or maybe just Romania. Who knows? It looked more like a covered alley than a street, but they get to call it what they want, I suppose. A couple blocks down was the massive synagogue, with Israeli flags all over the place outside. By this point, I was getting pretty hungry, since I still hadn't eaten today (and it was after 4 PM), so I went on the hunt for a supermarket. I found one, so now I have provisions to last the night if I choose to sleep and rest. That train ride really did a number on my back, but at least I didn't have to walk all that much yesterday.

This hotel has free breakfast, and based on the quality of the restaurant, I expect it will be very good. I'm going to try to take a free walking tour of the town at 10 AM tomorrow, before it starts to pour. But I'm on vacation, so I may choose to sleep instead. I'm going to plan on grading those tests in the afternoon and then probably spend an hour or 3 in the heated pool or even the jacuzzi. If it's free, I really would feel bad if I didn't take advantage of that. Anyway, I haven't been really "wowed" by this town yet, but I'm hopeful that Romania won't disappoint. I've still got a week to find out.

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