Brasov and Bran (the castle not the flakes)

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Friday, August 18, 2006

He Said:

When traveling for extended periods in the past, I found that if I went a week spending only a night or two in any one place that I should stop to recharge by staying four or five nights in somewhere low-key. Since we are going to be hopping around quite a bit over the next few weeks we decided pare down a bit of our ambition to see all there is to see in Bulgaria and Romania, and instead stay for five nights in Brasov. Being in a place long enough to become familiar with it, go back to good restaurants a few times, and possibly even get a little, dare I say...bored...does wonders in helping one recover from the dusty bus rides, packing and unpacking, train ticket queues and the like. But after a few sedentary days of calm, I start to look forward to getting moving again.

With all that in mind, after only one day in Brasov we decided that this was the place where we should stay a bit. Although our hotel is considerably less than luxurious, the rest of the town is wonderful and has everything travelers like us could want: plenty of sites to visit, great views, cute restaurants, friendly locals, excellent transit connections, first-rate architecture, and of course decent internet access. We've spent most of our time here walking the town, slowly seeing the sights, gaining serious weight dining on the great cuisine, catching up on reading, and doing travel planning for upcoming parts of the itinerary.

One moment gave me a smile few nights ago. We were sitting at a sidewalk table of a Scottish pub eating meat pies and sipping a Belgian beer, Brazilian singer Shakira was playing on the radio, and through the widows of the community center across the street we could see about a dozen Romanian couples taking swing dance lessons. It really is becoming a globalized world, isn't it!

Yesterday we took a day trip to the nearby town of Bran, known for its historic castle. The place was once inhabited by none other than Vlad the Impaler, or as he is better known, Dracula. I guess the whole drinking blood, undead, sleeping in coffins thing was a myth which was later invented because he was such a ruthless guy. However, the place really was a chamber of horrors for us, not because of the castle though which was quite cute, but because of the HOARDS of tourists! I guess Romania is no longer that far "off the beaten path." We were ready to shriek in agony after waiting close to an hour in line just to buy an admission ticket! The next torment that awaited us was threading though the narrow corridors and tiny rooms of the castle, while hundreds of mostly Italian tourists took photos with their cell phone cameras (that is between their incessant text messaging) of literally EVERYTHING in the place, from light fixtures to warning signs written in Romanian. After finally emerging from the bowels of the castle an hour later, it felt as if we'd had the blood sucked out of us. Thankfully, there was a pleasant nearby hill overlooking the castle that we climbed to enjoy a picnic lunch away from the hoards. But just to add insult to injury, on the bus ride back to Brasov we enjoyed the company of half a dozen fat, shirtless, hairy, and obnoxious Russian guys sitting right behind us drinking huge gulps of beer from the 3 liter bottles they sell here. Hmmm, maybe we should have just stayed in Brasov...

Tomorrow morning we'll ride a local train to Bucharest again. Then that afternoon, catch our 19-hour international train to Istanbul. If it wasn't for the $500 difference in cost between going by rail vs. flying, I don't think I would have been able to convince Katie to do that long of a train ride again! Got a private cabin again though so hopefully we'll at least get a good nights' rest. Expect an update from Istanbul in a few days.

She Said:

While we are rested and relaxed and feeling completely un-hassled, it is definitely time to move on. We have been in Brasov for five days now, and I am starting to recognize people on the street. And I think people are starting to recognize us - the guy at the internet place, the lady at the pastry shop who insists on having an entirely one-sided conversation in Romanian every time we go in there, the woman at the convenience store where we buy the diet coke, and of course the teen girls at Fast Food Hector (our new fav restaurant - you get 2 hot dogs in each bun!).

I have really been noticing people's hair color here. It seems like most people do their own dye jobs and must have poor eyesight or bad lighting in their houses. Of course you have the typical blue haired (and even purplish hair) old ladies that are pretty standard in the US, which could easily happen from picking out the wrong shade at the store, not mixing the chemicals properly, or leaving it on too long. But what is really strange is the large number of women in their 20s and 30s with really off-colors - red that looks Bozo-the-clown orange (and not on a "punk" person), blonde that is so yellow it almost looks greenish, and a spectrum of unnatural browns khaki to light tan.

So, naturally I thought I could dye my own hair much better than these people, right? I mean, I have spent countless hours in hair salons watching the technique, and more that $15,000 over the last 10 years on coloring and styling services (that number is shockingly huge, but I seem to have a lot of free time to contemplate these things, and that number is a pretty good estimate). It had been 10 weeks since my bon voyage appointment with Frank (who has still my undying hair dyeing loyalty), and my grays were getting pretty unruly. As luck would have it, there is a very large section of hair coloring products at the Carrefour, all with little fake hair samples below the boxes. I picked out a L'Oreal kit (because I'm worth it) that had a color that matched my hair, not really thinking that there would be any issue with the directions.

When it was time to do the job, I opened the box and there were 3 bottles and a large directions sheet written in 8 different Eastern European languages. After a quick trip to an Internet café to visit to watch the "How to video", I was all set. I carefully applied the color, first to the roots as I had seen so many times before, and then to my entire head. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and my whole head gave off a hot pinkish/reddish tinge. So I tried not to look, reassuring myself that L'Oreal had a very large Professional Hair Care business, and that they really were color experts, and surely this whole thing was going to turn out great, just like the color on the box. And guess what?? It did! The grays are gone, and well, my hair did take on a much more blonde color, but what the hell. It looks pretty normal, I think... but the lighting is bad in here, and I don't have the best vision....or maybe I have just been in Romania too long to notice....

We Said:

A few observations on travel in Bulgaria and Romania:

As with much of the world, the small towns in these countries are far more pleasant than the big cities. Although there are some really great sights and food in these places, don't stay in Sofia or Bucharest for more than a night or two.

Both nations are quite inexpensive by American and European standards. Food is of especially good quality and is shockingly cheap. Since both countries will join the European Union in the next few years, don't expect the low prices to last!

Transport via train is quite developed, comfortable, and easy in Romania. Bus transport in Bulgaria is the way to go as the buses are often new and trains have not kept pace.

Internet access is widely available and super cheap, however at times we had computers that you might find discarded on the curb in the US. But what do you expect for 40 cents an hour!

If you are vegetarian or allergic to cigarette smoke you might have a few challenges here!

Many people in both Bulgaria and Romania understand some basic English phrases and words. You will not have serious communication difficulties if you are patient and perseverant.

Both of these nations were great fun, logistically easy, and very rich travel experiences. We agreed that we saw a very small part of both and could easily spend at least a few weeks more in either country if our schedule allowed.
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