Treasure trove of COOL STUFF in Romania & Belgrade

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
Trip End Nov 09, 2010

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Flag of Romania  , Transylvania,
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Based on our time in Bled, it was really nice to stay put in one place for more than 2-3 days, so we decided that instead of making our way slowly to Romania and stopping along the way, that we would just suck it up and ride the train until we got there. We spent a lot of time online trying to figure out our route-- I don’t think too many people travel from Bled to Brasov, Romania, so it was not very straightforward! But we finally mapped it out to where we could get a direct, overnight train from Bled to Belgrade, Serbia, wait 10 hours, then get another night train to Bucharest, then catch a 5 hour train to Brasov, and arrive by early afternoon on the 3rd day.

Day One: We leave our lovely little apartment in Bled and hike to the bus station. We take the bus to the Lesce train station. This is a tiny little station. No fancy electronic boards with the train arrivals and departures to watch--just 4 train tracks and a “helpful” guy who didn’t know which track it would come on or when. So we wait. The train is late. We don’t see many trains come through, so we figure the “next one” must be ours. It pulls up. It is a total beater. We cannot imagine this is our overnight train, but show the ticket to the train driver and he motions us to get on. Then the conductor comes through to punch our tickets. He shakes his head. “Wrong train”. He motions for us to wait. He comes back and tells us to get off at “blah blah” station and then we should wait 10-15 minutes and the train to Belgrade will come through. “No problem”. For these smaller stations, the trains stops for about 30 seconds, so you have to be ready to get off. We leap off at “blah blah“. We pray the Belgrade train is coming because we are in the middle of nowhere- or so it seems from the middle of the tracks at 10pm in the dark. 10 minutes go by. 20. 30. We are getting nervous. I’m starting to be thankful we still have the tent. Finally a train comes chugging around the corner. We are yelling at whoever will listen, “Belgrade? Beograd?” Everyone on the tracks is nodding and pointing and telling us to get on. We are on the right train, now where are our seats? We decided not to spend 100 euros for the sleeper cabin, since our experience has been in Eastern Europe that the First class cabins are never full, and those seats were free with our eurail pass. So we end up in a cozy little 6 person compartment, which we have all to ourselves, so we lift the arm-rests and have our own beds. We are feeling pretty lucky at this point--but then the interruptions start. 4 different conductors come in and want to see our tickets (over a period of an hour). We think we get to sleep now, but then the passport controls start. We go thru passport control when leaving Slovenia. We go through again when entering Croatia. Again when leaving Croatia. Again when entering Serbia. And of course these are all very serious customs agents cramming open the door, flipping on the overhead lights, shouting “PASSPORTS”… How’s anyone supposed to sleep on this train??? I’m glad we didn’t waste any Euros on the sleeper cabin.

Day 2: We arrive Belgrade just before 7am. The first thing we have to do is buy our overnight tickets to Bucharest. I’m getting a sleeper cabin this time!! And turns out, we got our own cabin with two bunk beds and fresh clean sheets for about the price of a hotel, so we booked it. We are tired, but we cannot imagine spending the day in the train station, so we look around for a baggage check. I see a picture of a suitcase, so we head in that direction. It is sort of behind the main part of the train station, and there is this little old man that comes running from the “smoking group” to the tiny little window (See photo!) he crawls in, pulls our bags through and takes our passports, and then carefully and excruciating slowly, writes out a luggage claim ticket with our passport numbers on it. We try to get a peek into the dark cave where our bags our going--it seems likely that we will never see them again! Then, we go into the café for a coffee and coke because the information desk doesn‘t open until 8am. As we are in the cafe, we hear a “pop” and smell smoke, and look over just in time to see a small electrical fire being stamped out near the coke machine. Note to self… “don’t plug laptop in here!!” Then finally, map in hand, we head out to kill about 8 hours in Belgrade. They had an amazing medieval fortress and several Orthodox churches with incredible paintings and mosaics inside. After our day of touring, we get back to the train station in time for a couple of beers. Jeff decides he wants to run out and see one more sight. I stay in the café with our bags. When Jeff gets back, we have one more beer and then I send him off to get a few snacks for our overnight trip and instructions to “spend all the Serbian money we have left“. Our train leaves in 15 minutes. Anxiety becomes severe when I see a train on the track and it is supposed to leave in 5 minutes. Finally, Jeff comes around the corner, we throw on our packs and hurry to the tracks. It is a beater. We simply cannot believe this graffiti covered train is ours. It isn’t. Luckily, I walk up a bit and see that track numbers 4 and 5 are on the same track--so our train is actually BEHIND the beater train. How were we supposed to know THAT??? The conductor shouts, “42 & 46?” Those were our bunk numbers--apparently, they were waiting for us, because the second we got on the train, the horn blows and we start moving! The conductor asks for our tickets and we give him the Eurail pass. He says he holds onto the tickets until the morning--this means they don’t have to disturb you in the middle of the night- hoorah! But a few minutes later, he comes to us, grim-faced to tell us that our passes are not valid in Serbia. He says he doesn’t care, but at the border they will come to check and we might have to pay. He says wait 15 minutes. So we are sitting in our cabin, trying to figure out what to do about money--since I usually carry the money and only have 10 euros. Then Jeff confesses that he has been stashing Euros and has about 100--of course, my initial reaction… “what, you’ve been stashing euros??“ quickly turned to joy because now we wouldn’t be thrown off the train in the middle of Serbia!! Turns out, the person who might’ve cared that we didn’t have valid tickets never came on board, so we were able to get settled into our cabin. Our cabin was clean, but there was no air, and it was stifling hot. We were already smelling pretty ripe from no showers and touring in the hot sun in Belgrade, so we opened the window to get some air. Well, a little tip for you-- when the train is going 10 MPH, there is no air flowing. So, we did what any suffering tourist would do… we broke into the stash Jeff bought at the train station. He had bought 4 beers, one bag of pretzels and a bag of chicken flavored potato chips (yes, they tasted as bad as they sound!!). I am surprised that he was able to get all this with the money I gave him, and he tells me that he didn’t actually have enough, that the guy in line behind made up the difference for him since the guy behind the counter was pulling things out of the bag! People in Belgrade were nice like that--during the day we had several people see our open maps and not only tell us how to get there, but walk us to our destination. I was surprised at how many people spoke English, although my Russian helped a little as they use the Cyrillic alphabet and many of the words on signage and such was similar enough that I could figure it out. Back on the train… we had a very decent night’s sleep in the cabin once the train sped up enough to get the air flowing and we arrived in Bucharest around 6am the next morning.

Day 3: We had to buy our tickets to Brasov, so headed straight to the ticket window. This is where we had the initial shock that there was going to be zero language capability. We could only write down the time and say “Brasov”(pronounced “Bra-shov“, so that even took a couple of tries). Our train was going to leave in a few hours, so we got some Romanian money out of the ATM and sat at the cleanest looking place in the station-- McDonalds. Even though it was early morning, there were crowds of people in McDonalds so we thought maybe we could get an egg mcmuffin --or rather, we were hoping against hope!! Turns out all those people were having burgers and sandwiches and coffee at 7am in the morning! We weren’t quite ready for that, so I got a coffee. The BEST COFFEE I have had in 4 months. I was sooo happy! It had frothy milk and everything--I didn’t even need to put sugar in it and it only costs about $1.00. I had two of them. It took 5 hours to get to Brasov, where we were picked up by an adorable Romanian girl in her red BMW and whisked away to a lovely apartment very close to the historical center of town. After showers and a nap, we headed into town and had a nice meal at Dean’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. After our long exhausting journey, we weren’t feeling too adventurous and an Irish pub sounded like a safe bet! Although, the name was just a name, it was just a restaurant, but it was good ;) We spent a couple of lazy days in Brasov, sleeping late and wandering around aimlessly before planning a couple of day trips where we saw some really cool stuff! We did have one “Romanian” meal in Brasov, where we had the most delicious soup ever. Jeff had “Gulas”, and I had while bean and bacon. I don’t know what they were, but the spices were incredible. I’m definitely going to look up Romanian soup recipes when I get home---Wow!

We took several day trips from Brasov- to Bran to see Bran's castle.  From Wikipedia, "Commonly known as "Dracula's Castle",  it is marketed as the home of the titular character in Bram Stoker's Dracula. There is, however, no evidence that Stoker knew anything about this castle. There is evidence, however, that Vlad Tepes actually did use the castle during his raids into Transylvania." We took the bus there--the bus is sometimes a little more challenging than the train. On the train, it is obvious where the stations are, so you know when to get off.  For the buses, they just seem to stop on the side of the road and let people on and off.  But in this case, there was no mistaking the stop--we were in the middle of nowhere, then suddenly there were kiosks lining the streets selling dracula mugs and t-shirts.  Another day trip was Sighisoara.  We went to the bus station in Brasov, and after asking 4 different people and getting four different answers, we somehow ended up on a mini-bus that did in fact get us there !  This city is a Unesco World Heritage site.  Vlad the Impaler was born here, and his home is now a restaurant, where, of course, we had lunch!  To return to Brasov, we had to find a bus stop near "THE stop light" and flag down another mini-bus!  Third trip was to Sinaia, home of the Peles castle, which was fantastic.  It was built in the 1800's, with all kinds of modern conveniences like central heating and a central vacuum system.  The wood-working on the walls and floors, the Venetian murano chandeliers, the King's weapons collections--al breath-taking.  There were also "themed rooms"- most of the castle was decorated in German style, but there was a Moroccan room, a Venetian room, and, our favorite, the Turkish smoking room!  Brashov and surroundings was a great place to visit, with lots to see and do!  We highly recommend!!
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DAD Plaster on

YOU HAVE GOT to write a book!

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