The End of Eastern Europe

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
Trip End Feb 04, 2008

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

This is the whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe blog.  Hmm, I haven't been sure how to write this entry.  All our experiences so far have been what a traveler would wish them to be: great weather, delicious food, lovely people, unique culture, adventure, etc.  Occasionally you encounter the odd mini-problem, as expected, but these are largely overshadowed by the other 99.9% of the experiences you have had, and are therefore brushed off and soon forgotten.  They are unremarkable.  That is, until we began travelling down Eastern Europe.  We have had good moments, but there have been so many remarkably bad ones that our spirits began to falter a bit and we began to wish for home.  Things are beginning to look up again though.  I'll just explain.

Perhaps Budapest is better in the summer.  I think even when you look at the pictures you will see how bitterly cold it was, making sightseeing a bit of a chore!  That and we made the mistake of being overly frivolous by not planning anything ahead, so we arrived at 6 a.m. by train with no accommodation to go to, and train station staff that are surely trained to go out of their way to not help you and make you feel like annoying crap.  Maybe we just asked all the wrong people.  We did find a place two hours later, and it was warm, clean and the lady at the front desk was incredibly nice, which bolstered us a bit.

We planned our two days by staggering what we saw outside with indoor moments.  See something outside, have a coffee, walk to that building, drink a hot chocolate, and so on.  Budapest is divided, simply enough, by the Danube river into Buda and Pest.  Ha! In Buda, the west side of the Danube we braved the winds on Varhegy, aka Castle Hill, where the Royal Palace stands along with museums, expensive and trendy restaurants and Matthias Church which, although meant to be magnificent to see, was closed and the tower was covered in scaffolding!  In Pest, we wandered the streets and buildings, the highlights which were the very colourful Parliament and Heroes' Square which is magnificent and highly impressive even in sub-zero.  Amongst the looming pillars enormous statues of knights and men on chariots dominate the square.  It was constructed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of... I can't remember!  Look it up!  I'll look it up later.

As for the food... meh.  Not our thing.  Nice cabbage though.  Also, everywhere we went, save the lovely woman at the hostel, we were treated like a nuisance.  Bad luck?  Maybe.  We hope so, but I can honestly say, in my life I have never been treated so badly when ordering a meal or asking for directions.  A woman that served me in a food court put effort into making me feel like the crap being trampled on the bottom of a shoe by sighing loudly, smacking the counter in exasperation, rolling her eyes, and yelling in a very condescending manner to me in Hungarian.  Probably best I didn't understand.  All I did was order the chicken by pointing to the sign.  I'm not kidding, that's all I did.  I was overwhelmed, she left me pretty devastated.  And I haven't even told you about the bus driver (outside of Hungary though) that was so abusive I ended up crying and about whom I am writing a letter of complaint.  I don't know, Scott and I have traveled and been in the service industry extensively and can therefore forgive a lot, if not everything, so for bad experiences to stand out so clearly is surprising and sad to us.  It's a big lesson also, as it highlights the enormous impact you can have on a visitor to your country.  Huge.  Impact.

Onwards we travelled to Romania where we decided to spend our New Year's.  The man in the same train compartment as us, a lovely man that gave us lots of advice on travelling in Romania, was balanced out by the man from hell at the train station that told us he didn't care if we stayed in the station forever as he was angry we had a guesthouse booked already and wouldn't go to his.  Anyway.  We decided to skip Bucharest as other travelers had told us it was ok to do so, and instead we headed to Brasov in Transylvania to spend some time with Dracula.  I said that to get it out of all your systems.  That is not what Transylvania is however.  Yes, it's where Vlad Tepes (the notorious impaler on which the mythical Dracula is based) chilled out, and yes, the landscape does inspire a chilly awe and eeriness, but wow, is Transylvania ever gorgeous! Tree covered hills and mountains, cobbled medieval streets, castles and old fortifications, beautiful old buildings... that is the improved and realistic image of Transylvania.  The town square in Brasov was set up with a stage for the New Year's celebration, and the Christmas tree and decorations were still up in full force.  We're not sure where anyone eats on New Year's Eve, as every single restaurant closed at 5pm.  We found one that was open with tables available, went in, I asked for a table for two, and the waiter yelled at me "NO!", pushed past me and ignored us.  Yes, Happy New Year to you too, you ____! (Fill in your own blank).  What is with the overly angry people?  Our bad luck again?  We hope so.

Despite sleeping in, New Year's day we awoke to a ghost town, all the hung-over drunkards were still in bed.  Amazingly, the cable car to the top of Tampa Hill which overlooks Brasov with its flashy Hollywood-style sign was open, so we headed up to take in some spectacular, snow-covered views while eating warm soup and polenta with sour cream which, by the way, is delicious.  And the waiter was super nice.  That brought the tally to a whopping three people that treated us like human beings since departing Prague.  Before descending on the cable car, Scott and I concluded the obligatory winter ritual while "strolling" the snow covered hill, and slipped and fell hard on our asses.  We did this at different moments in time, but both on Tampa Hill, nonetheless.   Back at the bottom, we walked around the old medieval wall and its ancient bastions, climbed as far up the Black tower and White tower (both were closed) to get overviews of gorgeous little Brasov, walked the one minute through Str. Sforii, famed as one of the narrowest streets in Europe, and tried, in vain, to visit the dominating Black Church, as it was closed from the 31st to the 2nd, precisely when we were there.

As a must, we took a freezing 40 minute bus ride (the windows were completely frosted over) to tiny Bran, where Bran Castle, aka Dracula's castle juts impressively out of the craggy mountain side.  Market stalls and haunted Dracula houses milking the Vlad Tepes history for all its worth aside, it's a stunning area, and the castle from the outside is magnificent.  I say from the outside because it was closed, even though it was January 2nd and the tourists were crammed at the gates hoping someone would change their mind.  I really wanted to see the inside of the castle, but what can you do?  Everything in Transylvania shuts at 5 pm on the 31st and reopens whenever.  And we were leaving before whenever arrived.  Anyway, Transylvania was awesome, not to be missed in Romania.

Our train to Sofia in Bulgaria was physically uncomfortable, but quite fun.  We couldn't get a sleeper cabin, so sat in a compartment with three other guys from Latvia travelling their way to Tibet via the turbulent Middle East.  Oh so amusing they were, dressed the same in army garb (they are not in the army), with the same army boots, army packs and tents and sleeping bags should they go camping in -20 degrees instead of staying in a hostel or guesthouse. But it's ok, they said, the sleeping bags were rated to -30 degrees (although they haven't tested that theory), and they're lugging around a Coleman stove with three aluminum pots to boil water.  THAT, my friends, is roughing it.  Or stupid.  Anyway, when we arrived in Sofia we all ran to book our onward train to Istanbul and only five spaces were left, so we may be sharing strange stories and wine with them again.

Ah, Sofia, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of our sprint through Eastern Europe.  Everyone is helpful and friendly, the language barrier is not an inconvenience to them, the food and drinks are well priced and delicious... we had no idea!  To us this was a stopover on the way to Turkey, and it's turned out to be a highlight.  We stayed at Hostel Mostel which is the cleanest, cheapest, friendliest, most inviting place we've stayed.  Breakfast is included and also spaghetti and beer at night!  Fabulous!  And the staff are funny, and helpful.  The people of Sofia are relaxed, and the city is a surprising mix of ancient meets old meets modern.  Easily walked, we ambled around the sunny, snow-covered city, seeing everything from ancient Roman baths situated over hot springs in the middle of the city, to the beautiful and cavernous Aleksander Nevski Church, to the many city parks, gardens (albeit, covered in snow) and streets with monuments, shops and restaurants.  It's a beautiful little city, really a pleasant surprise, and one definitely worth visiting.  Strangely enough, pizza is a thing here, excellent, yummy, giant slices of quality pizza with cool toppings you can just take away and they are cheeeeeeeeeeep.  This afternoon, we are going to a Bulgarian restaurant to eat dinner before jumping on our Turkish train.  We're not sure what Bulgarian food is, but everything in Sofia is a revelation and a positive experience which has put a more than positive end cap on our trek south to Istanbul.

Canaussie rating:

Brasov, Romania: 5, it's so beautiful

Bran Castle: 4, if only we could have gone in...

Brasov's "Hollywood" style sign: 5, it's way too cool, especially at night, it looks like its hovering

Sofia: 5, easy-going, pretty, relaxed... great little city

Polenta with sour cream: 5, strange, but delicious

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