Saturday, 17 July 2010

Nine days in Romania


Well it’s been a fair old while since I last had some backpacking to blog about. But, it was bound to happen again eventually and so here it is, nine glorious days in Romania.

Weds 7th July

I arrived in Bucharest, to be greeted at the airport by the usual dishonest taxi drivers offering to scam me out of varying amounts of money for inflated taxi rides. So I took the bus to the train station, and remembered the joy of travelling on buses that play music. First music heard in Romania: The Winner Takes It All by Abba.
Thursday 8th July

Walking in the mountains of Sinaia is great, but when you are walking about 1500m up at cloud level, things can get a bit foggy. This is how I nearly became an episode of Ray Mears’ Survival. All the walking trails in The Bucegi Mountains are clearly marked with posts in the ground or painted stripes on rocks and walls. But when you can’t see more than 20 metres in any direction, finding your way from one to the next is a little more challenging! Anyway, I was only really lost for less than an hour and then found my way back.

Only other hairy moment up there was when something looking very large and wolf-like loomed out of the mist. Happily it turned out to just be a shepherd’s dog, just a slightly wolf-ish one. Phew.

Friday 9th July

Went to see Peles Castle and take a tour of one of the most ridiculously opulent buildings I have ever seen. As a rule of thumb, I think the interior designers back in 1883 were of the opinion ‘why have a simple wall when you can have a carved oak panel inlaid with a relief made from white stone?’

In the afternoon I took the train to Brasov, a medieval looking kind of city, with walls all the way around and its own Hollywood-style Brasov sign in the hills. Brasov also has am amazing town square, not only because it looks great, but because if you sit there for a while, things just happen around you. Whilst having an ice-cream I witnessed a procession of traditional guardsmen, then the bell tolled 6pm and trumpeters came out onto the balcony of the clock tower and played a mighty fanfare. Then an accordion player and his six piece male choir struck up with some Romanian folk/religious music. (I couldn’t really tell which, it was in Romanian).

Friday night was my first experience of Tuica, the local powerful liquor of choice. It is essentially a clear, plum brandy which is about 60% proof so it really does hit the back of your throat with a vengeance. This preceded me meeting some Romanian guys, having a couple of beers with them and then getting taken along to a drum n bass night in Brasov.

One thing noticeably different about pubs and clubs in Romania is that you can smoke inside. The club we were in was small and completely unventilated. I would say it made my eyes sting a bit. Is that what the Rhino used to be like, back in the Southampton days?

Saturday 10th July

Re-learnt the pain of booking yourself onto a tour at 9am, only to go out the previous night until the silly hours. It was a trip to Bran Castle that was to be my slightly hung-over expedition. Bran Castle is famous for being a temporary residence of Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler aka, who Bram Stoker based Dracula on.

Vlad the Impaler earned his nickname by being something of a mad bloodthirsty bastard. When his armies won a battle, he would hold a feast. Which seems like a nice idea, a job well done to his troops and generals perhaps. Except surrounding the feast would be his vanquished and rather dead enemies all impaled on large wooden stakes. Lovely man that Vlad. He did have an impressive moustache though.

One thing I got used to in Romania is the service in restaurants. It can be slow, surly and smile-free. None of your customer is always right crap. The customer is a necessity but an annoyance, and shall be treated as such! This was not the case in all the places I ate, but on the whole this is not service-with-a-smile, hi there, how are you country.

Sunday 11th July

The thing about backpacking is, that if you go away on your own, you will only spend the whole time on your own if you want to. (Or if you are completely socially inept). So it was that I found myself playing frisbee in Sibiu with two Dutch guys shortly before the Holland versus Spain World Cup Final. I mentioned that I planned to try and hitch a lift along the Transfagaran Road, or rent conceivably hire a car if it was cheap.

Instead, they invited me along on their camping trip along the Transfagaran road and the surrounding areas. So, with no camping equipment whatsoever, (I only took a normal sized rucksack for the trip) the next day I went camping for two days in the Romanian mountains and countryside.

Unfortunately the football result did not go the right way. I even wore an orange hat for the entire match. That’s how dedicated I was.
Monday 12th July

So, a rented Ford Fiesta, two dutch guys called Hugo and Willem and a British guy that apparently sounds like Hugh Grant set off for the Transfagaran road and the Romanian wilderness. On the roads, people driving a horse and trap is a common sight. Unfortunately, trying to get a good photo of them from the window of a moving car is tricky and so I failed repeatedly. Not to worry though, you can enjoy a donkey poking it’s head through the open window instead.

As I’ve mentioned it about three times already, I should probably explain exactly what the Transfagaran Road is. It is a road. A road which navigates its way through mountains, over streams, through tunnels etc. It is only open for about 4-5 months of the year, because during the Romanian winter it gets completely covered in snow and is impassable. And public transport doesn’t use it, as it isn’t really the most direct route to anywhere at all. It was essentially built as a bit of a powertrip by the one time President (read: dictator) of Romania, Nicolae Ceau┼čescu.
Man versus nature and all that. Still it is an amazing road to drive along, you have to resist stopping the car around every bend to take another photo or you’d never make any progress.

After driving through the mountains we eventually found our camping spot, an idyllic location next to a mountain lake. Whilst gathering wood for a fire, we noticed that the two guys fishing a bit further along had decided to dispense with the drudgery of collecting wood and instead had brought a petrol-powered chainsaw, to chop down dead trees and cut into chunks as required. Obvious really, I don’t know why I’ve never gone camping with a chainsaw before.

Tuesday 13th July

Hugo and Willem had a two-man tent which three people could probably fit into, but seeing as they are both about 6”5 tall and make me look short, I slept in the Fiesta. And after a reasonable night’s sleep in said car, and another swim in the lake, we set off again to have a drive around before finding a camping spot for the second night.

We stopped at Curtea de Arges to take a look at what is a very impressive monastery there. If there’s one thing you can say for religion, it’s that without it, there definitely would not be as many amazing old churches, cathedrals and monasteries to gape at.

Then, for our second night camping we headed back north in the direction of Sibiu, and found another beautiful spot, next to a stream this time. A stream that I had a quick bath in. Not because it was warm, no it was absolutely freezing, hence the ‘quick bath’.
Wednesday 14th July
Bucharest is a hot place in July. I’d forgotten what it is like to sweat through your t-shirt with a backpack on, so that every time you take the backpack off, then put it back on you feel the damp re-clinging to your back. Lovely imagery there eh? But seriously, even at midnight Bucharest was 23 C, which is just a bit silly really.
Bucharest is home to the Palace of Parliament which is the second biggest building, in terms of landmass, after the Pentagon. Building it meant millions had to starve but needs must when you’re a megalomaniac dictator, and Ceau┼čescu was certainly that. It’s just an absolutely enormous concrete and marble monument to power and stupidity really. Although I think it’s put to good use now.

In the evening, my last in Romania, I tried a traditional Romanian dish called Ciorba de Burta. Which in English is tripe soup. Very garlicky tripe soup. Which, surprisingly was actually quite good. As long as you don’t think about what tripe actually is. Or look at it too much. Yum.
Thursday 15th July

My last day was a day of slowly wandering around Bucharest. Slowly is the only way you can do it really, when the temperature is in the mid-high 30s. Bucharest was much hotter than the Sinaia, Brasov, or Sibiu, but then I guess that’s because they all have a little more altitude. Anyway, I kind of felt like I’d seen Bucharest by mid-afternoon, or just couldn’t be bothered to keep walking, so I finished the trip off by visiting the cinema to see

Predators in Bucharest’s oldest cinema. Nutshell review of Predators? Load of old bollocks. Ah well, the Dracula exhibition I’d been to earlier in the day more than made up for that.

And that was Romania. Highlights were too many to mention, although camping in the wilderness rates pretty highly. And I learnt what it felt like to be the shortest person, so I am probably a more rounded human being now for it.