Trip Start Sep 02, 2005
32Trip End Dec 10, 2005
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We're lagging further and further behind with the updates, so after this one we will fill you in on the rest of our time in Eastern Europe with photos.
I felt 'bombarded' by Romania and didn't really come away with a coherent impression of the country and the people. It was only in having to write this entry that I could get my messy thoughts into any order.
I crossed the border between Hungary and Romania with a few simple preconceptions. For me Romania was peasants, caped-and-fang-toothed Dracula types and Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian Olympian famous for scoring the first perfect 10 in gymnastics in 1976.
Being robbed and spending our first morning with a corrupt policeman after three hours sleep on a hard seat didn't provide the most optimistic lead in to Romania. And the weather was grey and the streets were eerily deserted on the Saturday we arrived, aside from the group of gypsy kids who encirlced me and moved in, tugging at my clothes and begging for money as we walked along the street hunting for food and an internet cafe.
To paint a picture of Romania, I think that if she were a dog, she would be a bitsa (you know - bitsa this, bitsa that)...
- BUCHAREST - smelly doberman in faux diamond collar
Capital cities I have visited seem to have little obvious in common with the provinces, towns and cities surrounding them - people, culture, architecture, and more. Bucharest fit with this generalisation. Bucharest was described in a local expat magazine I picked up as 'the asshole of Europe'; a little unfair, though Bucharest, which was also described in the Lonely Planet as 'Paris of the East' is not the snooty poodle its French pretensions imply.
At first sight, I could pick things that reminded me of Paris - faded elegance, though with more faded and less elegance.
An overused phrase travellers have used to sum up three or four of the Eastern European cities we have visited is 'The New Prague' and Bucharest is one city that has not hopped on this bandwagon.
In going for 'Paris of the East' Bucharest threw subtley out the window. It has an Arc De Triumph, Sacre Couer and a decadent Champs-Elysses style grand avenue, intentionally built three metres longer than the one in Paris. Even Metro stops borrow their names from France's capital.
This grand Parisian masterplan was the vision of egomaniacal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who led Romania from 1965 until 1989 when he was overthrown and executed by the Romanian military, along with his wife, after the violent revolution in December of that year.
Ceausescu's policies included exporting most of Romania's food and other resources, leaving his own people with empty bellies. He appointed members of his family, including his wife, to all the cushy positions in government and bulldozed thousands of villages, along with one fifth of central Bucharest in order to build his ironically named Palace of the People, a true Soviet style monstrosity.
Central Bucharest is fascinating because it feels like a cut and paste scrap book of modern history. No need to visit a museum - take a stroll and in the space of an hour's journey you will pass through Parisian landscapes and past imposing grey communist-era apartment blocks and official buildings. And nestled in amongst the ugliness are brilliant ornate orthodox churches, old men and women pouring in and out for services at regular intervals. It is a treasure hunt to find the visual beauty in Bucharest.
Crosses mark the places where protesters were shot down as they demonstrated against Ceausescu and you can buy a postcard of the 20 storey hotel where journalists reported from, in safety, as they observed the carnage below.
Old men and women sell bags of sunflower seeds on the streets which they measure on bathroom scales. Everywhere, stray dogs roam and occasionally a kind person will leave some food scraps on a doorstep.
Along one wide and bustling street running close to the Palace of the People, huge billboards clutter the skyline in every direction advertising things nobody can afford. You enter one 'mall' which has a temporary market feel, the stalls selling carpets, cosmetics and high pointy boots, stationed by beautiful sullen girls who eye you in your shoddy travellers clothes in distaste. Next door is another shopping centre, this time the shop displays are glossy and the brand names global.
- BRASOV - Rustic Sheep Dog
Our next stop was Brasov in Transylvania. I think it has been described as 'The New Prague'. Nestled in a valley created by the Carpathian Mountains, Brasov has colourful painted houses, dark smoky bars and restaurants and was a good base for us to explore Transylvania. We stayed in probably the best youth hostel ever - free laundry, free internet, free beer and Romanian cigarettes, and a kitchen! A strange thing happened here - the place was infested with amiable antipodeans and it became very difficult to leave the hostel and even to remember that we were in Dracula and not Kangaroo country.
On our second day, Brad and I paid for a shy young Romanian man to drive us to some villages and sites in the county, along with a young smoochy Spanish couple. As we drove further into thel countryside towards Rasnov Fortress we began to overtake horse and carts with Authentic peasants in head scarves and the kind of skirts you can buy at Top Shop this year (not sure if the peasant look has hit Oz yet).
But these people weren't into dress up or fashion, or paid to drive tourists around - they were going about there daily lives in the same way they had for centuries. I was amazed at one elderly couple's fearlessness as we observed, at one point, a sports car blaring top 40 dance tunes invade the peace of the scene and speedily overtake their horse and cart. At another point we saw a horse and cart transporting a group of teenagers who looked otherwise like my 17 year old sister and her mates. No P plates though! Brad's favourite moment was watching one guy reverse park his horse and cart between two cars.
We visited Bran Castle which felt very Draculian. Bran is where Vlad Tepes, the real life figure Bram Stoker based his Dracula on, is from. Vlad ruled the Wallachia province of Romania during the 15th century and was otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler - his favourite form of punishment, used on between 40,000 - 100,000 people in all, was to impale the victim on a stake (purposely missing the spinal cord so they would last longer) and display him or her publicly to frighten his subjects into submission.
Our driver took us up into the mountains and at this point the car broke down for the second time. We asked the driver what he was going to do to fix the car this time?
'I don't know'.
The driver chose this time to point to a picture in a car manual and enquire where Brad thought the radiator was.
After half an hour during which the car had a chance to cool down we were off again for our last stop of the day, Pelesh Castle in Sinia, the highlight of the day and something we had all been looking forward to.
The castle was closed, which irritated us initially, but as we were beginning to learn, in Romania most outcomes can be achieved for a price. A kind man with a key to the castle offered to tour us in Italian for 'whatever we would pay him'.
Leaving the castle we came across a lion. Thankfully it was only a wee little lion and on a leash. A young guy was asking a couple of Leu to have a photo with the lion. He would pick up the cub and hand him over the fence to you for a pat and a pic. We asked where the lion came from. He looked back towards two older companions. They exchanged some words and a laugh and he turned back to us.
I read today that more than half the bears in Europe wander freely in Romania. After our tour we met up with some friends from London for a drink. They'd been told that occassionally, when food is scarce, the bears wander down into Brasov for a bin snack, which was news to us and certainly not something we'd read in our guide book. The year before a frustrated and hungry bear had killed a Brasov man as he could not get into the bins, which the Mayor of the town had encouraged residents to padlock!
- SIGHISOARA - Arthouse Chihuahua
Our final stop in Romania was UNESCO listed Sighisoara, another small town in Transylvania. We only had one day there and it was lovely, a boutique town. Less growly than Bucharest and more composed than Brasov.
We ordered omelettes for lunch at a cafe. One after the other two young gypsy children came up asking for money. We offered the first some toast.
We offered the second some toast and she took us up, but not before requesting extra butter and a healthy serving of omelette to accompany it!
Brad and I spent the afternoon wandering through Sighisoara's citadel and came across a group of the people we'd met in the Brasov hostel. One great thing about travelling - the random meetings with strangers and the excellent and mind broadening conversations that often result when four or five people from completely different backgrounds come together.
One highlight was coming across an older woman in the town square who was churning out girlie bags by hand at an incredible rate, and each one personalised! Brad, a boy from Brisbane, and myself saw this as an ideal opportunity to stock up on Christmas presents, though Brad was a little disappointed that she couldn't make him up a man-bag to take back to Melbourne.
Having learnt a valuable lesson from our last overnight train experience, Brad and I scrounged together every last Romainian Leu and some Hungarian Forint to pay for a sleeper compartment and boy was it worth it! It felt like a (small) hotel room, minus the mini-bar, and behind our triple bolted door we slept like babes.