29.07.2011 - 05.08.2011 32 °C
Romania was all about Dracula for us and Bucharest was our first stop on a Transylvanian odyssey. To be honest, not much was expected of Bucharest but we were quickly put back in our box upon arrival. Large, wide streets and an obvious lack of rubbish had us rethinking exactly what we would find here. Hotel Unique was our digs and it was a decent but easy thirty minute walk from the old town (what can we say, they all have an old town). Fortunately for us we didn’t take our receptionists advice or we would have ended up in the wrong direction, she definitely needed to work on her people skills. So we found the general area but the obligatory pedestrian area was eluding us. However we must have looked like we knew our stuff because an Austrian man asked us directions to the pedestrian area. Shrugging our shoulders and giving empathetic looks we declared our ignorance and he toddled off to find someone who knew where the heck they were. Knowing a man on a mission when we saw one we decided to tail him and when he stopped to ask some police directions we knew we were on a winner. We stealthily ducked behind light poles and feigned interest in shop windows until we could tell where he was going then we were off in a race to beat him there and then saunter casually by.
Finally success and what a treat awaited us, cobblestone (shock horror) streets lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, and the like and a catwalk right through the middle. We pulled up stumps and indulged in our first caffeine fix of the day. That allowed us then to explore with a burst of energy and enthusiasm which had nearly been lost after hours in the car, a rude receptionist and a long, hot walk. To no one’s surprise there was construction going on and so once again you had to be very careful where you walked so as not to amputate a toe or a whole foot for that matter. We found the river and ooohed and aahed at the buildings. Not being architects we weren’t sure exactly what you would call the buildings but they looked gothic style and the intricacies of the stone work were amazing. Walking around looking up though was not too smart due to ominous trip hazards as mentioned previously.
It was time for another pit stop and a thirst quencher was necessary, after all it was Friday afternoon and our first night in a new town AND a new country. We have become expert speculators and people watchers, sometimes combining the two commenting on the relationships between people as they walk past and how they can possibly improve different aspects of themselves. Never to them mind you, just to each other. Finally it was a respectable time for dinner so off we went to find a banquet for two. A warm cosy pub looked just the treat and fulfilled our only real criteria – comfy seats. Don’t laugh, when you are sleeping in uncomfortable beds, walking all day or sitting in the car the last thing you want is to be uncomfortable in a restaurant, this we have control over. The first two things Adam wanted they didn’t have which they tell you by just saying no when you point to what you want – “I’ll have the shepherds pie please”, “No!”
He decided to settle on a steak and we sat back continuing to people watch until about 15 minutes later, our timid waiter slinks back to tell us that the third choice is ‘No!’ too and so with that we leave on the hunt for a restaurant that actually HAS food. Unfortunately by this time all of Bucharest is eating so our only criterion is now like finding a needle in a haystack.
Day two starts with a great plan of heading to Parliament Palace and then to the movies, at opposite ends of the city but we are determined to walk it all. After a leisurely morning skyping and generally taking our time getting ready it is lunchtime by the time we arrive in old town so we stop off for a light lunch. After that we were making our way to Parliament Palace when all of a sudden tummy rumbles begin in a way that doesn’t bode well when there is a lack of public toilets. History takes second place to body comfort and we decided to just snap off a couple of quick pics and not worry about the inside. There were better things to do.
Next stop was the movies, an hour walk in the complete opposite direction. We were going to see Harry Potter and YES it was in English. We were smart enough to check that before we went. Our feet and legs were happy to have the three hour break. In Romania, smoking is not allowed inside so to compensate for that in the movies, near the candy bar area, they have a glass box about six feet tall and four metres long that smokers can go in and stand around and have a cigarette. It looked like a big fish bowl. You would have to be hanging for a fag to succumb to that. The movie was great and we headed back to old town for dinner, a long, leisurely, liquor-filled one to end a long, leisurely day.
Herastrau Park is a large park at the northern end of the city and has a lake, café and dum da dum….rowboats. It was a 45 minute walk up to the park but it looked like the ritzy end of town so we fit right in. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, not too hot. In Bucharest though they have these things set up like a ramp about six metres long with one side coming up and over and water jets spraying down so you can walk through to cool down….what a great idea!! It required a number of walk throughs just for the fun factor. We hired a rowboat to give our legs a break and lazed on the lake for an hour to recharge and just soak up the sunshine. Then it was the walk home to rest and then walk back into old town for our last night. Good times were had by all.
It was time to head to Transylvania, Dracula country (ra ha ha (that is a blood curdling laugh…use your imagination)). We had booked accommodation in Brasov for two nights but were going to stop off in Bran for a couple of hours to visit Bran Castle. Bran is where tacky souvenirs go to die and we grabbed more than our share. The queue for the castle was huge so not being big fans of tour groups we hung back a little while to let the rush power through. Finally our patience wore out so in we went. From the outside Bran castle is exactly what you would expect a Dracula castle to be like, set amongst fir trees on a hill and to add to the atmosphere it was a drizzly, very cloudy day so the spooky factor was high. Turrets and stone work completed the picture with a sloping cobblestone path up to a grand entry staircase. HOWEVER once we were inside it was like being in a cattle call AND THEN we realised this was not even Dracula’s castle, he didn’t even live here, some sheila named Princess Irena did. OMG! It is just an ottoman castle in Transylvania and the cluey Romanians have cashed in big time on the Dracula thing. We couldn’t escape though, one way in and one way out, so we had to s-l-o-w-l-y make our way through this castle while Barry Boring in front of us took photos of every nail, screw and piece of wood in the joint.
For those of you who don’t know the Dracula facts here they are. Vlad Drakuli was Prince of Wallachia (a region in Romania) when the Ottoman Empire was trying to take over Romania. He was a sadistic kind of guy who used to impale his Turk victims through their bottom, deliberately avoiding major organs, until the implement would come out of the top leaving the victim to die an agonisingly slow death. He was called Vlad ‘Tepes’(1432-1476) because of this, ‘Tepes’ meaning impaler. He was never a vampire. The Dracula legend came from Bram Stoker who wrote ‘Dracula’ in 1897 and used Vlad and the region as his inspiration. He was never actually a vampire. Sorry legend destroyed.
Anyway the castle was very beautiful and we were definitely not disappointed with the outside. We then headed to Brasov, narrowly missing being sideswiped by some lunatic driver of which there are many. Did you know in Romania over taking is a highly competitive sport?
Brasov is home to the Black Church, so called because of a fire that occurred there in 1689 coating it in black soot, most of which has since been scrubbed clean. It is the biggest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. We never got to go inside because we thought we would wait for our second night and go for the organ recital (I’m sure more exciting than it sounds) but we were having quiet time in our room (sleeping and computering) and missed it. We did spend our time café hopping and soaking up the ambience. It was a great little town with a thriving pedestrian and restaurant strip.
Our second day we hopped in the car to drive 30km back down the road to Sinaia to visit Peles Castle because it wasn’t open on the Monday, which is quite common here. Due to open at 11am we were there at 10am, too early. Coffee time and the never ending but regular search for a mailbox ensued. Seriously, it’s like being in a Where’s Wally book trying to find the damn things. At the scheduled time we traipsed back up to the castle and then the fun really began. You are really going to have to use your imagination here but I’ll do my best.
Okay here goes….Peles Castle was built by King Carol the first and was completed in 1883 and truly is a fairytale castle. It is the most magnificent castle we have seen (maybe outside Salzburg) and has a true Victorian and Romantic feel to it. We powered up the sloping path full of anticipation and excitement, THIS was the castle we were dying to see. The flowers sprang from all directions and had bees buzzing harmoniously in the air amongst the lush green grass. Closer to the top a busker was playing folk music on his guitar and it continued to set the scene beautifully. We followed the signs into the central courtyard to buy our tickets. Your ticket price depends on how many floors of the castle you want to see…..Let’s go for it and paid $30 to see the ground and first floor. At Peles Castle they only do groups and lead them in a variety of languages. The very very limited signage implied you just told them what language you wanted and were added to a group. WRONG! After purchasing your ticket you then walk over to the entrance which is a grand old double door, however only one side is used and only opens every 15 minutes to let in about 30 people. Outside the door every man and his dog who has bought a ticket is pushing themselves up against the door like it is a million dollar giveaway. Not joking! Like old women at a Tom Jones concert these people were smushed up like sardines desperate for entry. The only way we were going to get in this year was to join them, so we did. Then after about 15 minutes one side of the door opened a woman stood there, yelled something in some language and people started pushing forward so we did too and grasping each other’s hands like death we made it…we were on the inside. The fun wasn’t over yet. There was now a mad scramble to claim booty things to place over your shoes and they placed them all in one corner so the slow people all miss out. We missed out. Foreign language instructions given again and resulted in Adam walking over to the lady to say “We don’t understand what’s going on and I’m getting cranky”. The English tour will be soon we were told, this one was a Romanian language group. Sit down and wait here, five minutes. Then the group finishing came back and had to push out through the masses of people wedged up against the door trying to get in. Chaos, complete and utter chaos.
Meanwhile two more groups come and go with us sitting impatiently, our bladders tightening by the minute. How were we going to make it through an hour and a half tour. This was ridiculous. We didn’t even want to do the tour anymore. If the next group wasn’t English we were asking for our money back. Lo and behold, the next group was Italian. Right, up we go over to the desk, into the restricted area, ooohhhh. We expressed our annoyance quite strongly and we think we actually scared them because they all kept scurrying around us pretending like we weren’t there. Finally Adam walked over to the supervisor and asked for her name….that got the ball rolling. Adam stood there and explained his bladder situation and then (I love this bit) put his hand on his heart and said “I am a human being”. Even I had trouble not chuckling at that. Anyway alls well that ends well and we received a full refund. Yay us.
We continued our Dracula odyssey through to Sighisoara, Vlad’s hometown. Driving through Romania is spectacular. Greenery abounds and the traffic slows constantly to allow for all the horse and carts that are regular users of the highways. They sit in their cart with their melons, tools or wives sitting in the back as the horse trots along, seemingly oblivious to the racing traffic around them. If you wave at them they usually wave back. The further north we got the higher the number of horse and carts.
Sighisoara was a one nighter and we climbed the clock tower and saw it was 15 438km to Sydney. Lunch in Vlad’s house was an obvious choice and then searching high and low for the sculpture of him and the obligatory photo. The smaller towns are often more fun because they have character and the little Romanian men and women still strolling around carrying their brooms made out of sticks (that is true and they use them)or sitting on seats all day watching people. There is also a large supply of watermelons over here. Never before have I seen such an abundance of one particular fruit. Roadside stalls are every 2-300m and have massive piles of them, easily 200 watermelons, that they sit beside all day and wait for drivers, walkers, bikers, anyone to stop and buy.
Sighisoara was also our first real sample of Transylvanian food and it was rolled beans with onion and sausage and Transylvanian goulash with maize porridge. I am telling you the truth that it tasted heaps better than it sounds however we wouldn’t want it to be our main diet. Getting vegetables with a meal is a real hurdle and will cost you extra every time. In saying that though the food is as cheap as chips, as is the drink. Bon Appetit.
Finally we were on our last leg of Romania. After taking 6 hours to do just over 300km, which is pretty normal in Romania due to the constant roadworks and the horse and cart situation, we arrived at our pension in Sapanta. Villages don’t get much more authentic than this. A main street that ran for about 300m with a couple of crossroads pretty much covered it. The attraction here though was huge, people from all over the world travel to this village to see the…….Merry Cemetery. This cemetery is special because all the headstones are wooden and painted a bright blue. Then they have little painted pictures (cartoon like almost) of the person and how they died on the back and what they did while they were living on the front. For example one guy obviously got run over by a train because his picture was of him with legs trapped under a train. Very, very quaint. Unfortunately we couldn’t read the epitaphs, which apparently are humorous anecdotes about the deceased, so we just had to use our imagination. It feels wrong giggling in a cemetery but the whole notion behind it is that life is to be celebrated by having fun memories of the person. Good philosophy.
Romania now gives way to Poland with a night stopover in Slovakia to break up the drive. We are heading to Krakow first which receives rave reviews. On the way we are going to stop in at Auschwitz to visit the camps and probably come away emotionally scarred…let’s hope not.