As our overnight train from Budapest entered Romania, we passed small villages with run-down houses, where the horse and cart appeared to the major form of transport. Gypsy men carried bales of sticks on their backs, dogs and chickens played in yards. The derelict shells of buildings and factories abounded, and rubbish was dumped anywhere and everywhere. One thought crossed our minds - we had entered Borat country. A less cynical mind, however, might have sat back and enjoyed the quaint simplicity of life which had endured from a time long past.
We arrived at Brasov (in the state of Transylvania) early Tuesday morning and walked to our hotel, Pension Flamingo. The rooms were generally nice, but the derelict courtyard outside our rooms didn't help the ambiance. Brasov is stated to be the number one tourist destination in Romania (the capital Bucharest receives hardly any tourists). We went on a walk around the town to see the sights, it wasn't particularly awe-inspiring and we were done in half an hour.
In the afternoon, a group of us went for a visit to Bran Castle, marketed as "Dracula's Castle". Bram Stoker's Count Dracula was inspired by Vlad Draculea, a 15th century ruling prince who posthumously gained the moniker Tepes (Impaler) after his favourite form of punishing his enemies - impaling. A wooden stake was inserted into the anus and pushed through the body avoiding internal organs until it emerged from the mouth, resulting in hours, or even days, of excruciating agony. However, Vlad Tepes is only stated to have dropped by the castle once in the 15th century, so a clever (cynical?) piece of marketing by the castle. Some of our group found it interesting wandering through the rooms, narrow passageways and secret staircases but it was all a bit dull in my view.
In the evening, we had a meal at the Gustari Restaurant in the main square. From the look of my mixed grill, they appeared to be running out of meat. After the meal, we ventured down Republicii Boulevard which Mario said was the happening place to go for Brasov nightlife. However, we must have been out on the wrong night as there didn't appear to be much happening or open from what I could see. Me and Tommy headed back along the street and found a nice chill-out bar while everyone else headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, we left Brasov on an 8am train to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. The crap transport infrastructure in the country meant the 150km journey took many hours. We checked into the Hotel Nelisse around noon. The hotel is set in a really dodgy estate of run-down high-rise buildings and stray dogs which even I would have to think twice about before walking through at night. The room was surprisingly very modern and nice though.
Post-WWII Romania is dominated by the chaotic and megalomaniacal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu from 1965-1989. He placed members of his family in top political position and spent billions on expensive follies while his people lived in poverty. Demonstrations against his regime occurred in Dec 1989, the first such was crushed as police riddled the crowd with bullets. Following a further demonstration during a speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building, Ceausescu and his wife were forced to flee by helicopter. They were later arrested and executed on Xmas Day by firing squad.
After Mario took us to lunch at McDonald's (it said something about the area that this was the only "decent" place to eat near the hotel) where I had a yummy Arabia Pitta, we went on a walk around Bucharest. The city is a mix of Ceausescu's extravagance as he tried to turn the city into a Paris of the East, and ugly Communist-era housing blocks, many now derelict. When Ceausescu returned from visits to Beijing and North Korea in the 1980's, entire suburbs of historical buildings were knocked down as reconstruction took place. The Palace of Parliament cost billions and is still unfinished. It is the world's second largest administrative building (after the Pentagon). It has 12 storeys, over 3,100 rooms, and nuclear bunkers. Boulevard Unirii was built to rival Paris's Champs-Elysees and is 6m longer than the latter.
A major problem with Bucharest is the sheer number of stray dogs. Walking around the city as a group, we had a couple of dogs follow us for virtually the entire walk. They managed to cross roads with us, waited outside a couple of churches while we went inside for a visit, and had running battles with other packs of dogs as they crossed into neighbouring territories. In fact, these packs of dogs were not particularly enamoured with us crossing into their territories, but it did speed up our walk through the city.
In the evening, Mario had pre-booked (two weeks ago!) a meal at the beautiful Caru cu Bere restaurant. Set in a former beer house, it was a bit touristy with waiters wearing peasant costumes, sporadic Roma song-and-dance numbers (even I was dragged up at one stage) and large broadsheet-style menus, but it drew in a largely local crowd. After the meal, no-one wanted to stay out late (probably due to not wanting to walk back to the hotel through the dodgy estate on their own in the dark) and Mario's promise of a bar near the hotel proved unfounded so an early night was had.
The Lonely Planet section on Bucharest states that it has "a nightlife scene that's as happening as any in Western Europe". If I'd partaken in this scene, I may have actually liked Bucharest. As it was, I didn't partake, and for me, the city didn't have a lot else going for it, so I won't be putting the city on my list of places to visit again. In fact, this applies to Romania as a whole - I've seen it (okay, only two cities) but I won't be going back in a hurry. However, for those wanting a taste of what Eastern Europe was like before it became overly touristy, a visit to Romania may be worthwhile. So, there we have my thoughts on Romania. Will I ever be able to get a job with the Romanian Tourist Board? Unlikely. Will I ever be allowed into Romania again if I wanted to go? Who knows. Do I care? Probably not. As Borat would say "Yakshemash"!
After Bucharest, we had a very long 22 hour train journey to our next (and my final) port of call, Istanbul in Turkey, passing through Bulgaria on the way. What to do on a near 24 hour train journey? Errr, buy loads of booze and get drunk! What followed was lots of drinking (some of our group didn't appear to cope very well), me dancing with some random station guard who smelt of piss at some station we had stopped at in the middle of nowhere, a session of drunken tattooing before we retired at about 1 or 2am, and a number of stops at various border controls (including being woken up for the Bulgarian exit control at about 3am, and again for the Turkish entry at about 5am, not sure why there was 2 hours between them). We eventually arrived in Istanbul at about 10am, another gaggle of smelly, beer-breath tourists (well,me anyway)!
Glod is a small, poverty-stricken village in Romania. Life is hard there: toilets are little more than holes in the ground, horses and donkeys are the only source of transport, and most young girls are encouraged to marry at 15 or 16. Most people eke out a living peddling scrap iron or working scrubby patches of land. A few years ago, a tall, moustached reporter appeared in their village to make a "documentary" about their lives. That reporter was Borat, and he wasn't making a documentary, but a comedy film with the laughs at the expense of the villagers. In it, Glod would play the part of Borat's home town in Kazakhstan and the villagers were portrayed as a backward group of rapists, abortionists and prostitutes, who happily also engage in casual incest. One resident was told at the time that the rubber sex toy filmmakers attached to his amputated arm was, in fact, a prosthetic.