Romania: May 2009

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May 23rd 2009
Published: June 15th 2009
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We touched down in Bucharest and immediately noticed the heat! It was lovely, a dry 27degrees and not a cloud in the sky 😊 Once we cleared customs we found the bus we needed to the city and hopped on, some random guy who spoke no English helped us with our tickets and stowing our packs - we assumed he worked for the bus people... until we got to our stop and he helped us off again and then wanted to walk us to our hotel. Needless to say, having experienced this sort of thing before, we pessimistically assumed he was dodgy and made it clear we were fine and needed no more help - he was very keen to help and this further confirmed our suspicions. But then, to our mortification we realized he was just a nice old guy who was trying to help us out - he walked off sadly and we felt really bad at having assumed the worse 😞

Anyway... we arrived at our hotel and were very impressed indeed! A lovely hotel with modern and funky fixtures and fittings and a really relaxed and comfortable feel to it - they even have a fish tank as the reception desk! After changing from our London clothes into something a bit more appropriate (woohoo - jandals!) we headed off to see as much as we could of Bucharest in an afternoon!

Bucharest is full of awesome gothic architecture, intermingled with grim grey office blocks - remnants of the communist era - where any colour was fine - so long as it was concrete grey! We wandered the streets and took in the sites - Bucharest is quite small as far as cities go, and a great deal of the ‘sights’ are all quite close together - so we managed to see quite a bit. We stopped off for a yummy traditional Romanian dinner on one of Bucharest’s oldest streets - Strada Lipscani. Next we headed back along Strada Lipscani and were a wee bit puzzled when the footpath turned into narrow boardwalks on each side of the wide pedestrian-only street. We soon found out that the space in between the boardwalks was being excavated and was full of half covered roman ruins! I think the plan was to eventually have the middle of the street as kind of an open museum- where you can look down on the history of Roman Bucharest as you walk along the boardwalks - it was actually really interesting and cool. Bucharest, like London, has been continually built on-top of its historical past throughout the decades.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and were quizzically surprised when the waitress bought a tiny fish in a bowl to our table - to accompany us as we ate we supposed?! It was really quite cute, both the fish itself and the gesture 😊 I spent breakfast feeding the fishy while Kristi told me not to... after a great start to the day we charged off to the main train station Gara du Nord to get our tickets for the afternoon train to Sibiu. We also took the time to visit the Arc de triomphe - it seems every second city we have visited has one of these! To get around Bucharest we used the underground Metro system - which is fast, easy and safe - we even had another old Romanian women take us under her wing and make sure we were OK and knew where to go etc. After only two days we were very impressed at how friendly the people in Romania are!

Before we knew it we were on the train to Sibiu - a 6 hour trip - in our first class cabin (we had been told horror stories about the trains in Romania!) sitting across from the two sternest looking women in eastern Europe. However the train trip was pleasant and the views were stunning - although we did arrive in Sibiu about 45minutes late.

We were picked up at the station by Doris, a 20yr old Romanian university student who worked for the British couple at whose guesthouse we were staying at while in Sibiu. Doris was great, she spoke excellent English and gave us a run-down of the town and some of the things we should do during our stay. After 20minutes or so we arrived at the small village of Cisnadioara about 10mins outside of Sibiu where our guest house ‘Secret Transylvania’ was located. We don’t usually plug accommodation much - but if anyone ever goes to Sibiu it is well worth looking up Jez and Di at Secret Transylvania - it was just fantastic - they really know how to look after you! We arrived at the renovated Romanian house, which was brilliant, were shown our room and then had drinks and a chat in their bar 'til Kristi and I were two sleepy to stay up! In the morning we were greeted with a full English breakfast and oodles of fresh coffee and juice - yum! We spent all of meals in the gorgeous little dining room - in awe of the culinary wizardry that Di produced for each meal!

After brekky we were dropped of at the Astra Outdoor Museum - a truly fascinating and remarkable achievement. Basically the ministry of culture and tourism have turned a large forested area (complete with stunning lakes and streams) into a massive rural village - with buildings (both originals that were relocated and replicas made specifically for the museum) from all different periods throughout Romania’s history. We wandered the meandering paths though little mini-village after mini-village for most of the morning - it really was fascinating. We had arrived on the only day the museum was technically closed, which meant it was free to get in, but you couldn’t go inside the buildings - which was fine as there was just so much to see just wandering around outside! The whole place was wonderful, one minute you’re strolling through thatched cottages, the next you’re passing windmills and animals traps - it was quite surreal.

Eventually, after several hours, we caught a bus to Sibiu. The outskirts of town could have been anywhere, modern buildings etc, it was only once we passed the ancient walls into the ‘Old City’ that the magic happens. Sibiu is a lovely town, full of character buildings and churches and a mixture of architecture spanning back centuries - we were both quite taken with the main square which is just beautiful. We wandered away the afternoon and stopped to have drinks a couple of times as the heat grew too much - Kristi was instantly a fan of the local lemonade - which comes served in a jug with a bottle of water to mix in as you like! Talk about fresh! After a few drinks stops we paused on the main promenade and bought some Shwarma’s for lunch - which turned out to be enormous! The whole old city has a definite charm to it, the cobblestone streets, the looming churches and the seas of terracotta rooftops are just captivating.

That evening we returned to Cisnadioara and explored the tiny village, we walked up the stream to the famous Frog Rock (about which is there is a lovely local legend) and also climbed a hill nearby to visit the oldest fortified church in Transylvania (12th century!). Finally it was back home for a magnificent 3-course meal courtesy of Di; I had been dutifully sampling local beers all day and was more than a little tipsy when we went to bed, the fact that we had a full day trip to Sighisoara and then several hours horse-riding the next day had escaped me - which I duly paid for in the morning...

Doris arrived in the morning and was to be our guide for the day, we headed off to Sighisoara, the birthplace of the Infamous Vlad the Impaler. Doris was an absolute gem we learned so much more from her than we ever could have by just driving or training around. As we drove through the stunning countryside and quaint villages Doris told us about a myriad of aspects of Romanian life. We were shocked at the colour of the houses, they were all so bright and vibrant - there would be a lime green house, beside a bright red one, next to a bright orange - it was crazy, but it did make sense when you realized that during the communist regime the locals did not own their own homes, so now they were ‘cutting loose’ as such! It certainly makes for interesting views! We passed many interesting villages along the way, including a small settlement of Hungarian gypsy’s who were busy building enormous hall-like houses. These gypsies made the majority of their income by selling brandy-making paraphernalia. Weird. We also drove through a town called Copsa Mica - which once held the dubious title of "most polluted city in Europe". The reasons why are grim indeed: the town used to be a hub for the production of commercial lead. The whole town used to be covered in a think black grime, that was essentially lead dust. Looming behind the village is the abandoned lead-works factory, complete with its imposing, monolithic cooling towers - all scared with the grim black grime. The story of the town is tragic, they cannot eat any food that grows in the ground - its poisonous, they can’t drink milk from cattle, or eat the beasts after they grazed on the grass, children are still regularly born with horrific birth defects etc. The saddest thing is most of the people are way too poor to move away, they have no choice but to stay and endure. The government is busy repainting apartment blocks (there is a stark contrast between these and the black grime covered ones!) and building flash new apartment blocks (for very cheap prices!) but I can’t really see anyone wanting to buy them, and they are still way beyond the means of the average local. Very sad indeed.

Another really interesting aspect of Romania is the sheer number of abandoned factories that litter the, otherwise stunning, countryside - they are everywhere, these enormous grey hulks, with smashed windows and no sign of life whatsoever. After the revolution of 1989 the factories were more-or-less abandoned completely and left to go derelict. Often there would be villages of crazily bright houses all in the shadow of some immense grey skeleton of a factory, very, very eerie.

As we approached Sighisoara we came across a large roundabout and Kristi and I commented on a couple of ladies standing by the road in very skimpy outfits, we assumed they had broken down, but there was no car. Doris informed us they were prostitutes and the clients would just drive up to the roundabout, cruise around till they picked a favourite, then they hop in the car and off they go. Very strange indeed; a roundabout of prostitutes... classy. Sadly, all the girls were pretty stunning too!
Soon we arrived in Sighisoara and wandered up to the famous clock-tower that is one of the more famous landmarks of the town. It's basically a giant cuckoo clock, every hour some small statuettes pop-out and do a little jig and then flee back inside for the next 60 minutes. Its very imposing and pretty cool. Beside the clock tower are several museums (weapons, clocks and torture!) and then Vlad’s birthplace - which is now a modern restaurant. Of Course. We climbed a covered staircase (built in 1642) to reach the top of the small hill in the centre of town and admired the views, the church on top and a cute little house perched right on the end of a fairly perilous decent. On our way down we walked through a Saxon-Hungarian cemetery - which was really cool, many of the graves were centuries and centuries old, but more disturbing was the sheer number that had names and birthdates... but no death-date. Yep, they were all ‘waiting’ for their occupants to arrive. Yikes.

After a bit more exploring and a drink stop, we headed out of Sighisoara and headed to Plodd (great name eh!?) for our late afternoon horse ride - we were both pretty excited about this - me even more so once I bought some Nurofen to deal with my headache! Plodd is a tiny village way off the beaten track - dirt roads most of the way. We arrived and were met by a Finnish girl who would be taking us out for our private ride - just the two of us which was awesome! Soon enough Kristi and I were in the saddles of Tornado and Luana and walking down a rough path through the village. Interestingly, most villages have no running water or inside plumbing or toilets (even in some of the bigger towns!) as the majority of people use communal well water - however just about every house in Romania has satellite TV! There were all these ancient little stone shacks, thatch roofs, with ultra-modern satellite dishes whacked on the side... a bit surreal. Well, satellite tv costs 1 or 2 Euros a month - a LOT less than inside plumbing! After leaving the tiny hamlet of Plodd we entered a vast expanse of forest, fields and meadows where we would spend most of our time riding. It was just stunning; the whole area is so untouched and pristine. As there were only two of us our guide took some time to give us a bit of instruction too - which was much appreciated and very useful. We wandered through green pastures, dense forest and through sparse woodlands for hours - we could have been the only people in the world, most of the time weren’t even on actual tracks or paths - it was just magic. Sadly we had to head back eventually, although even that was awesome as we had a nice long run though the fields and really let the horses stretch out - my horse Tornado wanted desperately to get past Kristi’s - but they were having none of it! So we just raced on and on until eventually we had to slow and negotiate our way through the last fields and back to the homestead. This was probably our best ever horse-riding experience - words cant really do it justice, the horses were fantastic and incredibly fit and healthy and the scenery was breathtakingly majestic. Such an awesome day!

Eventually we had to leave Plodd and head back to Cisnadioara, with Doris again telling us all about the ways and means of the Romanians. It is worth mentioning that for dinner that evening we were given wheels of brie as an entree - which was fine until you cut into them and realized the cheese inside was all molten, oh my goodness, it was divine! Served with mini-pickles and warm crusty bread it was heavenly! Di is a fantastic cook and we were spoiled in the extreme by her gastronomic delights, but the cheese was something else entirely. Siiiigggghhhhh.

The next morning we fortified ourselves with another giant breakfast and then prepared to leave Cisnadioara and take a train to Brasov. Doris' boyfriend (a cab driver) gave us a lift to the station and before we knew it we heading to the home of Dracula’s Castle!

We arrived at Brasov in the late afternoon and soon got settled in. Our room was the flashest in the guesthouse and even featured a giant spa-bath and funky coloured lights in the bathroom (they changed from red to blue to green to gold every 30seconds or so... very trippy). The couple who run the guesthouse were Romanian, and they treated us like family; I even got to try the famous Romanian dish of Sarmale (pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with a mix of minced meats, rice and spices) - which Cristina had made for her family 😊 The house was high up on a hill on the edge of the Old-Town of Brasov and afforded postcard views over the whole valley in which Brasov lies. Brasov even has a Hollywood-esque sign way up in the forested hillside - as do several Romanian towns for that matter - the idea of giant signposting seems to have caught on there!

We walked down to the main town square, past the colossal Black Church and spent the afternoon wandering around town and appreciating the bustling atmosphere of the small city. We had a lovely meal at an outside restaurant inside the central town square and generally just watched the world go by for the evening.

The next morning we caught a series of buses and soon found ourselves in the famed town of Bran; home to legendary Vlad the Impaler - inspiration for Bram Stokers infamous ‘Dracula’. This is definitely one of Romania’s, and Transylvania especially, most famed landmarks and a huge source of tourism, from home and abroad. The castle itself sits on a small hillock, surrounded by towering green peaks. The castle is very impressive from a distance and then surprisingly small when seen close up, but then it feels massive again once you go inside! We had a good look around, but strangely did not find any vampires, half eaten bodies, coffins or even bats. This was a surprise. Still, the castle is very cool and we even found a secret entrance at the base of the hill where we are pretty sure old man Drac hangs out during tourist hours... Before wreaking mayhem on the townsfolk at night.

We made our way back to Brasov just in time to beat the incoming rain and said goodbye to the lovely hot weather. We wound away the hours at bars and restaurants before hiking up the mighty hill to our guesthouse (yeah right, - we took a cab...)

The next day was pretty miserable, gone was the 30degree weather and here was the murky rain and 15degree chill. Still we gamely trotted off down the hill to explore the epic Black Church during its limited opening hours. The church was given its name after disaster struck in 1689, when the 'Great Fire' set by Hapsburg invaders, leveled most of the town, heavily damaged the church, blackening its walls. Restoration took almost 100 years. Now it’s more of a dark greeny-grey colour (they should really change the name). The Church was very impressive; apparently it is the largest of its kind east of St Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria (which is MASSIVE!). After leaving the church we dodged the cold showers and did a last few hours of shopping and exploring before the bitter rain forced us back up the hill - we actually walked this time - which I thought was impressive. We had a very early start in the morning to catch our final train back to Bucharest and then on to the airport (Via the Tempo Hotel, where I had foolishly left my jacket a week earlier!) so we had an early night with some takeaways - we felt we had to appreciate our luxurious room!! Romania had really opened our eyes in a lot of ways - we have travelled a fair bit but have never actually seen genuine poverty in a Western Culture like we did in Romania, the grim shadow of the communist era behind every colourful village. But the people make the country, they were friendly and generally quite helpful and receptive to tourists (and all the women were ridiculously good-looking).

The next morning started innocently enough, we were at the train station with at least 40minutes before our train left just after 7am. We had had no qualms at all with the public transport in Romania (despite dire warnings of delays and cancelations).

We should have known.

The train was over 2 hours late and that effectively ate up all the time we had set aside to rescue my jacket. We did however make good time to Bucharest and arrived at 12.15pm -

1 hour and 10 minutes until FINAL check in for our flight.

The airport was about 50minutes from the train station.

The hotel and my poor jacket were 10minutes in the opposite direction.

20minutes round trip.

Should we risk it?

Of course - but only after we found the fattest, slowest and most navigationally disadvantaged driver in Bucharest.

We actually had to guide him through the streets of Bucharest. Us. Guide him. Sigh.

However as luck would have it (and I do mean luck) we made it to the airport with about 3 minutes to spare. We bolted into the terminal and were tearing around looking for the check-in counter, only to notice our driver was thundering along beside us. “I have to make sure you get your flight!!” he yelled. Ummm, ok. Not really sure what would have happened if we had missed it? Was he going to drive us home to London? Anyway, we made it (!) and soon enough we were leaving Romania and back on a plane winging it to the Albion ...

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