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Published: July 10th 2016
Piata Sfatului-Council Square
This month we celebrate the 5 year anniversary since we began our non-stop nomadic gypsy lifestyle. 4 continents, 29 countries, 142 beds and countless ornate churches later we are still in one piece and, despite a few newly acquired aches and pains due to old age and cheap Ikea beds, ready for more.
We found ourselves in Lviv, Ukraine without a plan of where to go next. We thought about seeing more of Ukraine or perhaps moving on to Russia. Russia needed an expensive visa and Eastern Ukraine didn’t have much pull for us. Indecision seemed to rule the day until we read of the so-called Gypsy Train that leaves Ukraine nightly for Romania.
The Gypsy Train is an overnight train that goes south from Lviv to the small town of Sovotino on the Ukraine/Romania Border. It takes nearly 12 hours to travel the 430 kilometers, so it would not be a quick trip. Because the cost of a bed is only about 7 dollars US, we could afford to purchase the whole 4 bed compartment for ourselves. It seemed like the perfect answer to our dilemma.
Called the Gypsy Train because
the area that it travels is known for its Roma population, the train makes frequent stops and is a mainstay for the generally poor population that needs to travel between towns. While several Roma families were in the Lviv train station, our actual carriage seemed to be filled with mostly tourists and Lviv families travelling into the Carpathian Mountains to visit family and friends. They were friendly and everyone seemed in a good mood as we left the station for our slow-motion journey into the Ukrainian night.
A lady from the neighboring cabin who spoke English quite well and seemed to be a Gypsy Train expert took us under her wing and decided to give us a tour of our cabin and even took Nanci off to explain the intricacies of the restroom facilities. She told us how to lock our door and even how to secure the door so “robbers” couldn’t come in the night. To be honest, it felt pretty safe and after watching the sunset outside our compartment window, we made up our beds and settled in for a noisy, but fairly restful night sleep.
When we awoke in the morning
we discovered that we were nearly alone in our carriage as most everyone had disembarked during the night. We arrived right on time (9 AM) in Sovotino. We caught a shared taxi to the border and felt like quite a curiosity as we made our way to the bridge that crossed the river into Romania. Most people had bicycles and packed lunches and seemed amazed to see old American tourists fully loaded with suitcases, cameras and computer bags commuting along with them across the border.
Another cab ride on the Romanian side of the border took us to an ATM machine, money exchange and restaurant before we made our way to the Sighetu Marmatei train station to find onward transportation. The train station was dusty and quiet and exactly what you might expect for a small border town in Romania. A few stray dogs, a mostly empty café and several harmless looking men who seemed to have been drinking since much earlier in the morning were about all that was around. Our train didn’t leave for several hours, so there wasn’t much to do except sit around in the shade. No other passengers were nearby until departure
time, so we had the whole place to ourselves.
Our next train took us high into the Carpathian Mountains. The foliage was thick and richly green. The narrow railway generally followed the natural path of the river through the valleys between the sharp hills. Tiny villages with ancient stations dotted the way. We stopped at each one. The towns were full of uniquely styled houses on tightly packed small plots of land. Each had a full garden with every kind of vegetable that could be thought of. Fruit trees were abundant and each house had a grape arbor and chickens in the yard. Every house had at least one brightly colored, fully bloomed rose bush that added a unique touch of beauty to the bucolic scene. Unusually arranged haystacks dotted each open space and horse drawn wagons pulled large loads of hay along the few narrow roads. We truly wished that we had set aside time to visit.
The train conductor was as busy as any we had seen. We were amused to find that at each stop, Gypsy men and women with children in tow somehow got into the train. After the train
would get moving again, we would see them pass our glass-walled cabin followed rapidly by the conductor a few seconds later. He would escort them off the train at the next station, only to repeat the process as soon as the train moved again. We enjoyed watching the brightly clothed families as they were met outside the trains at each stop by happy relatives.
Soon enough we were out of the mountains and began to pass through the pastoral farmlands of northern Romania. Surprisingly, many of the farms were still using horse drawn wagons and plows although modern machinery prevailed on most. The fields gave finally gave way to city and after a long two days of travel we reached our new home of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Called Cluj by most all of the residents, Cluj-Napoca is a beautiful, modern town that is the business center for the Transylvania region of Romania. A bustling and completely gentrified old town area of the city is populated by bars, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants of every variety. Several large colleges are located in town and provide an abundance of clientele for the busy area. Modern malls and houses
can be found in town and Cluj is by no means most tourist’s vision of Transylvania. English seemed to be spoken as readily as Romanian nearly everywhere.
Large stadiums, an ornate botanical garden and very nice parks are spread throughout the city and are well used by the citizens for walks in the mornings and evenings. The first week of our visit was marked by heavy rain and the second week followed with an unusual heat wave that made our visit less than it might have been. While we didn’t get out of town much, we did have lots of time to explore the historic old town area of the city. We had a beautiful, very large apartment right in the center that provided the perfect base to make journeys during breaks in the rain or during the perfectly cool evenings.
Two weeks passed slowly and we were off again, farther into the heart of Transylvania. Our next stop was the picturesque town of Brasov. Centered amongst the most famous parts of Transylvania, Brasov is much more touristy than Cluj. We liked it right away. The town is located in a valley between two
rather large hills. It has a beautifully restored medieval section of town where most of the tourists visit. Many castles and small medieval towns lay in the nearby mountains and thus Brasov makes the perfect base to explore the classic Romania that most visitors envision when they think of visiting.
The heat wave cleared and the sunny weather mostly returned as we spent our first few days exploring the town itself. The cobbled alleys and streets are blocked for pedestrians and are absolutely beautiful. Medieval buildings are remade into restaurants and cafes. Umbrella covered seating areas line the streets between the multi-colored buildings. Mt. Tampa climbs high above the town and has a funicular that whisks visitors hundreds of feet above town in just moments and provides gorgeous views of the entire area. The summer weather made for gorgeous sunsets and there seemed to be some sort of festival every day in the main square. The enormous gothic Black Church’s bells can be heard often both day and night, echoing between the hills surrounding the area.
We found public transportation to be fairly inexpensive and easy to use. We made our first excursion to
the famous Bran Castle. Better known to tourists as “Dracula’s Castle”, Bran Castle is probably the most visited site in the area. We purposely visited on a weekday to avoid the tour bus throngs of visitors. Of course, Dracula being a fictional character, he never actually visited the castle and many visitors seemed to be disappointed by the lack of winged mammals at the castle. Although it was a little busy with visitors, we found the history of the castle to be very interesting and the rooms were well restored and very picturesque. We explored the grounds of the castle (which most people don’t) and had an enjoyable day.
Another day we journeyed farther into the foggy mountains to visit the more modern Peles Castle. Built as a summer palace by a Romanian king, the castle was one of the most ornate buildings we have visited in Europe. No luxury was missed in the design of this beautiful building. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of going on a weekend and the castle was jammed with hundreds of noisy tourist bus riders. Still beautiful, but difficult to enjoy which such large crowds.
Another day we
St. Michael's Church
Matthius Corvinus statue in Cluj-Napoca
visited nearby Rasnov Castle. More of a fortress, this less restored castle is much older than either Bran or Peles and is in a more ruined state. Nevertheless we enjoyed our day here, exploring the hilltop ruins and imagining what it must have been like to live in ancient time Romania. The views from atop the hills over the surrounding area were amazing and would have been worth the visit by themselves. The sleepy town of Rasnov also had interesting architecture and a nice town square.
Our last adventure in Romania was an all-day train excursion to the medieval town of Sighisoara. About 2 ½ hours by train north of town, Sighisoara is probably the best preserved ancient town in Romania. Located high on a hill the town features towers, tunnels and blocked streets and alleyways. Very touristy but still very picturesque we were glad we made the extra effort to make the visit to this unique town. Trains do not run on time here and it made a long journey even longer than it should have been, but visiting will give us a great last reminder of the unique beauty of Romania.
are off in a couple of days to our next country and next adventure. We will be travelling more rapidly for the next month but after our nice stay in Romania we look forward to all that is to come.
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