The land of Dracula

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November 22nd 2006
Published: December 29th 2006
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Bran castleBran castleBran castle

I almost broke my knee for that shot so you better enjoy it.
I had an empty train carriage all the way from Belgrade to Bucharest except at one small moment in the night when I woke up to find 2 Roma men on the bench in front of mine, looking at me sleeping. I try not to believe those stories about gypies but they're a bit too common for me not to belive entirely in them and I know for sure that there are other empty carriages so I know that these men are not in my carriage because they have to. I stared at them for a while but I knew they couldn't steal much, I had my passport and wallet safely inside an inaccessible pocket (I was sleeping on the side and it was on the side I was sleeping on), my camera was in my daypack which I used as a pillow and my large backpack was on top but I had chained it to the rack. I fell semi-asleep for a few minutes until I heard one of them try to take my backpack. I woke up and looked at them again but they were leaving already, probably because they realized that my pack was chained.

I slept
Romanian parlimentRomanian parlimentRomanian parliment

At the end of a Champ-Elyse like boulevar. Ceasescu destroyed 1/6 of the city to build this and it shows.
well after and wasn't bothered again. I was dropped in a new city slightly after sunrise, something that was becoming a bit of a routine. To my surprise, there was a McDonald in the train station and I succumbed to a early morning Big Mac combo. No better welcome in a foreign country.

Romania is quite an interesting country. For starter they speak a latin language, even though the nearest other latin speakers are in Italy! That's because Romania was the easternmost corner of Europe Rome and the slav invaded eastern europe after the fall of the empire but never quite got around to conquer Romania linguistically. They did leave their genetic footprint behind, which means that the girls are a beautiful mix of latin and slavic features which ends up taking the best of both world. The northwest of the country, called Transylvania, fell to some blood-thirsty nomads that came from the eastern plains called the Magyars but known today as Hungarians.

Romania fell to the turk in the 15th century despite bitter struggle and transylvania joined the sultan's domain shortly after. The place was freed by the russians in the 19th century and Romania ended up
The black churchThe black churchThe black church

Impressive. But hard to get a decent shot as it's surrounded by building. It's the most eastern of all gothic church.
on that side of the Iron Curtain after WW2. They were unfortunate to end up with one of the craziest leader of the communists (which is quite an achievement). They finally killed him in 1989 and very few people cried when he stopped breathing. Ever since the country has been "on the road to capitalism" (which is another word for "the communist old guard bought the public companies for 3$") and has been doing alright, albeit not as good as Slovenia or the Baltic State. It is supposed to join the EU in January 1st 2007.

Back in Bucharest. The city's independant taxi driver have the reputation of being the most rapacious in Europe so I intended to not follow them but getting to my hostel by public transport turned out to be quite hard. Not that it's badly indicated, I just didn't know where to look at first to buy my ticket and find the right bus stop. When I thought I had found it, I took the right bus but in the wrong direction. In the end I managed to get where I needed to be only to realize that Elvis hostel, the guesthouse I had chosen
Romania recycle!Romania recycle!Romania recycle!

I thought this was hilarious. And the locals thought I was crazy when I took this picture.
was closed. I then walked 20 minutes to another one to realize that it had changed owner but was open.

The man at the reception talked to me like if we were in a downtown Detroit. When I said I wanted the dorm he said: "Yo want it, yo got it, brother" in his best imitation of an american rapper. I realized later that he was spending his whole day watching Pimp my ride in the hostel's common room which kinda explain the accent.

Today was Sunday and pretty much everything was closed in Bucharest. That's one thing I noticed about eastern Europe, Sunday is about as interesting as watching Friend's rerun for the third time on TV. Nothing's open, nothing's going on. I did manage to find some stuff to eat at a grocery shop for lunch and a takeaway place that was open for dinner where I had some great salad and chicken brochette.

I didn't do much the first day except walk a bit around the neighbourhood, watch Pimp my Ride with the hostel staff and talk with a british and an american guy at the hostel. The british guy had crazy stories to
Central Committee of the Communist Party buildingCentral Committee of the Communist Party buildingCentral Committee of the Communist Party building

Ceaucescu made his last speech here, before being evacuated by an helicopter. Meanwhile, the crowd was riddled with bullets...
tell about his trip to North Korea among other. Took him a year to get a visa and it had to be with a tour group. Few things he mentioned was how they had to sleep at this huge government owned hotel and eat in the restaurant which was made for 500 customers, and had staff to serve 500, but they were all alone in this huge room. Plus in the middle of the table, there was a plastic flowerpot with a barely disguised microphone. "Straight out of a James Bond movie" he said. Not related at all to Romania but tought it was interesting. The american guy was also a funny character (codename for nutcase). He had like 2 weeks in europe and wanted to see romania, switzerland and scottland all on inter-rail. We tried to make a plan to help him out while telling him he was slightly insane to attempt something like this.

I didn't like Bucharest too much so decided I'd leave the next day to Brasov in Transylvania. But before I left, I went for a walk in the city center, visiting the buildings in Piata Revolutiei, where Ceausescu did his last speech before
Cool buildingCool buildingCool building

In Bucharest
he was evacuated by helicopter, and was shot a little while later.

I also went to see the Palace of Parliament. I'm not really into seeing these government's building when I travel but Bucharest's parliament is something. Ceausescu, that crazy crackpot dictator decided he'd destroyed 1/6 of the city to build a Champ-Elysee style boulevard, except 6m longer than the one in Paris (to show the superiority of Romania, of course) that lead to the humongous Parliament. Well, he did manage to destroy 1/6 of the city (and it still shows) and to build the Parliament but never quite got around to build the boulevard. It was really a monument to the crazy vision of grandeur of that communist.

I also went to see a few churches which are unlike any I've seen so far, they're made of red brick. Pretty nice. By early afternoon I was in the train station and managed to hop on the next train to Brasov. The train was pretty fast by eastern european standards. The land is flat like a chessboard for the first hour and a half and then we go up in the mountains of transylvania which are quite beautiful.
Statue in front of CCCP buildingStatue in front of CCCP buildingStatue in front of CCCP building

Not sure what it represent
We reached Brasov by the end of the afternoon. I had picked Kismet Dao villa as my hostel for 2 reasons: the british guy at the guesthouse had positively commented on the receptionists and the guidebook said the way to get there from the train station was simply to take bus number 1 to the end of the line. There's absolutely nothing I like better when I take a city transport than know I have to get off at the end, it means I don't have to think, I can fall asleep and get off when the driver starts yelling at me. So that's what I did, but the driver was nice enough not to yell, he just poked me until I woke up. I was a bit paranoid at the train station also because that's where Jonny (met in Sarajevo) had seen a traveller get his backpack cut with a blade by a group of Roma, but nothing happened of course.

The receptionist at Kismet had a good personality and the hostel was quite amazing. It even came with breakfast and a free beer (!). I talked a bit with the girls from the reception while watching the
Cretulescu ChurchCretulescu ChurchCretulescu Church

Right in front of parliament. To the side is a statue of Corneliu Coposu who spent 17 years ion prison for his anti-communist activities.
world women's handball final between Russia and Romania (unfortunately the evil russian won). It turns out they're all trying to get out of the country to the US which I thought was a bit sad.

I went outside in Brasov "downtown", called the new Prague in the LP which, even though I've never been to Prague, I find quite funny. Not that Brasov is ugly but it's quite small. Had a nice meal in a cool pancake restaurant. Went back to the hostel and met some interesting people like Simon, a british guy who was going to Bran Castle and Rasnov tomorrow like me, as well as a very nice couple whom I caught making out in the dorm. Ha ha.

Next day was megatouristy day. Bran Castle was the summer castle of the last king of Romania and was sold as Dracula's castle to the tourist but it is bullshit. It's just a nice castle up in Transylvania. I went there with Simon and Janne, a dutch girl who had spent a few months working with street kids in the country. The castle was pretty nice, although to get a good view of it you really have
Ateneul RomanAteneul RomanAteneul Roman

Built in 1888, host prestigious concerts and things like that plus a museum with scenes from romanian history inside.
to go far from the entrance, on the other side. I almost broke my knee to get the cool shot of the castle from far away because I had to go down a steep slope (and of course, decided that the best way to go down a steep slope is to run and get done with it), so you better like it. The interior of the castle was also fairly interesting, albeit the 19th century pictures of Queen Marie don't show enough skin.

One thing I quickly realized about Transylvania is that it looks so much like the Transylvania you imagine. You know, big pine forest, poor peasants, foggy atmosphere and a big rural feeling. That's exactly it. It's the only place in Europe that I saw, except Albania, where people still use horse-drawn carriage to move around.

After Bran we headed to Rasnov, which was on our way back. There's a big citadel on the top of the hill which we had been told was worth a look so we went up there. It was pretty nice and the view from the surroundings was quite amazing although they don't show very well because the sun was quite
Bucharest Champ-elyseBucharest Champ-elyseBucharest Champ-elyse

A Champ-Elyse like boulevar, except that it was planned to be 6m longer than the one in Paris by Ceausescu but was never finished. That\'s pettiness.
strong. We had a good time walking around the ruins. There was a skeleton imbeded in one of the wall, apparently a woman had been intombed there and was found only recently. They put a big glass thing so we could see the skeleton but since I'm a bum I saw that there was a trap that opened to where the skeleton was so we opened it while the employees weren't looking and took a picture of the skeleton without the dirty glass. Anyway, the citadel was quite nice, check it out if you're in the region as some travellers decided to gave it a miss. Apparently there's even an archery range there so if you've always wanted to practice your bow skills, here is the place.

Back in Brasov, some romanian guy started talking with us in english. Simon ignored him because he thought he was trying to sell us stuff but the guy was really cool, he managed to realize I was a canadian by my accent and had worked in New York for a few years before. Simon told me afterward that ever since he travelled in SE Asia and Turkey he's always weary of locals and believe that everytime they talk to him they want to screw him. I find it a shame (albeit I understand the feeling), I've had quite a lot of people try to rip me off but I still like to give people who talk to me a shot, especially since romanian have been extremely friendly (aside from taxi drivers).

We walked around the center of town a bit before having a nice traditional romanian meal. I had sarmalute cu mamaliga. Sarmalute is like meat in pickled cabbage rolls while mamaliga is something which I can only describe as vile, according to Simon it's a cornmeal mush, and it is about as good as it sound. Seriously the meal was good, lots of bread and soup came with it, it's just the mamaliga which wasn't really good. The girls at the hostel told me it used to be the "poor man's dish" but it's making a comeback these day. Ahh well, if I was poor I'd much rather be poor in China and eat their instant noodles than be poor in Romania and have to eat this! No wonder they want to move to the US! I had a good time in the evening with Simon and Janne playing dart and drinking.

The next day I was feeling quite relaxed. I had some vague plan about going to Shighisoara but wasn't too stressed out about it. I copied picture on my CD and went around town with Simon and Janne, who were leaving for Bucharest together at noon, to the Black Church which was quite amazing. It is the eastest (is that even a word?) Gothic Church in Europe. Indeed this area used to be german back in the day, Saxon to be more precise. But nowadays germans are quite a small minority in the country (and not appreciated apparently).

I said goodbye to the people working at the hostel, which I must say, were among the coolest employees I've met on this trip. I showed up at the train station (which double as a minibus station, obviously), and ended up finding a transport to Shighisoara. The ride there was quite short and painless and the scenery was amazing but finding an hostel turned out to be complicated because I picked up "Elvis hostel" again but I guess all the Elvis in Romania disapeared at the same time
Romanian church patriarchat 3Romanian church patriarchat 3Romanian church patriarchat 3

I think that's the "real" main church of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the other buildings are modern addition.
because this one was closed also. I found another one in the center of the Old Town that had a pretty cheap dorm.

Shighisoara has a lovely old Town and is mostly famous for one thing: it is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, son of Dragul. He had the famous habit of "imapling" enemies in a way in which it would take them 48 hours to die. Lovely guy. He was the character on which Dracula was based on. I visited the Old City, the clocktower and various other building, including Vlad's birth house!! There's even a restaurant in there, and even the LP says that it's a tourist trap but I couldn't resist! I had a very bloody steak which was delicious. I could almost imagine baby Vlad impaling his first people here, in the same room as where I was eating.

I had a long walk around town also but I must admit I spent most of the day reading "Wild Swan", a book about China in the last century that is forbidden in China and that everybody rave about. I couldn't put the book down and read the whole 700 pages in a day and

The veil seems in vogue among the older generation in Romania.
a half, finishing at around 3AM (I was alone in the dorm so I could have the light on). Amazing book.

Next day I wasn't sure what to do. I was toying with 2 ideas, go north to Suceava to see the amazing monasteries there but it would take the whole day just to get there as there was no onward transport and I'd have to go back to Brasov or go back to Bucharest and then Sofia. I loved Romania but I was sick of the cold. Every day was colder than the previous one it seemed and going north meant at least 3-4 other days in Romania (the monasteries are very hard to reach) and at the train station I made a snap decision to go all the way back to Bucharest and then take the overnight to Sofia.

So I spent a few hours on the bus to Bucharest, looking at the fields from the window in my empty compartment. At Bucharest I had a few hours to kill which I spent at a cafe, reading and writting. When my train arrived at the station, I had to wait because they attached a new wagon
Bran countrysideBran countrysideBran countryside

From the top of the castle. It really is like I imagined Transylvania. Beautiful
for people boarding from Bucharest (the train had originated in Moscow) and ended up with 3 french guys with alcohol in my compartment. Score!

I liked Romania quite a lot, it is up there with my favorite eastern european country. The capital is nothing to write home about but the rest is very nice, and even then I just saw a small part. I'll have to do it justice one day, not in wintertime and hopefully before the hordes from the west overrun this touristic jewel.

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 33


Bran castle 3Bran castle 3
Bran castle 3

Hmmm. There's a bear on the floor. Wierd. But then again, we're in Transylvania.
Bran castle 5Bran castle 5
Bran castle 5

Look suspiciously like the furniture in my apartment back home.

In rashnov citadel

3rd January 2007

Wild Swans
Salut Victor! Je ne peux m'empêcher de faire un commentaire sur Wild Swans. Je l'ai lu moi aussi il y a quelques mois et je dois dire que c'est le meilleur livre que j'ai jamais lu. C'est incroyable les émotions qu'il fait ressentir. Bon bien sur ce, bon voyage et j'ai bien hâte que tu sois rendu en Égypte...j'ai vraiment hâte de voir tes photos et tes impressions de là-bas! Prends soin de toi! Kim :)
21st January 2007

Hey Vic! I'm happy to hear that you liked Romania, too bad we didn't synchronize our trips so I could show you some other nice places in Romania..and make you tast REAL 'mamaliga" cuz the one you tasted, definitely wasn't the good one! Sending you kisses ;)
29th November 2007

Hi Victor! I'm a Romanian, someone send me to this page and I was very excited to read your trip journal. I'm glad you had a good time here, it's a shame you couldn't visit the monasteries in Moldavia. They're exceptional, especially the Vornonet one (the one with that unique blue colour). And also Sibiu, it's a city in Transylvania and this year it was elected as the capital of Europe. Don't know what happened with the sarmalute with mamaliga you tasted, because they're supposed to be delicious! And with cream on top! Yumm! :p The Bran Castle belonged to Vlad Tepes (also called Vlad Dracul, meaning Vlad the devil, from who the whole Dracula story began). During his reign (around 1450) he imposed those cruel punishments, that's how he got the name. But he was a prince with a deep sense of justice. ;) And he is so needed these days because of the problems we have with the gypsies. :p Not all people here want to leave for the US. It's true that many think of that, but also many young people want to stay here and make a difference. Including me! :D There are still many things to be done for this country. Hope your article will make many people plan a trip to Romania! You won't be sorry! ;) All the best to you all! iulia
18th June 2008

Those pictures of the Bran castle bring back memories. I was in it in July 1989. The interior is looking a lot more comfortable then when I was there. I spent my night in Brasov sleeping in my tent around 200 M from the castle with wolves howling around me all night. :D Mel

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