April 06, 2008 GMT
Introducing Bulgaria

31 Mar – 6 Apr 08
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Lots of stuff closes down on Sunday in Greece so we had a difficult time finding an open fuel station in the north of the country while trying to stay clear of the main towns. After running the tank down just short of the reserve, we headed for the nearest big town (Thessalonika) to find some fuel. When we finally found a station we only pumped 10L before the power blacked out and the pump stopped. We took this as an omen and closed up on the border to overnight at Lefkonas ready to get out of Greece the next day.
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The Bulgarian border was easy. We didn’t get off the bike and we were through in a few minutes.
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The longest part of the proceedings was a short conversation with the immigration man about how far we had come on the bike and where we wanted to go. He sent us on our way with a good luck wish and a big smile. That pretty much set the tone for our first week in Bulgaria.
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Bulgaria got itself free from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century but unfortunately only had a few years before falling into the orbit of a Soviet Russia. The 70 year hibernation that followed left the country poor and under developed. In the last 15 years the country has pulled itself into the modern age with the pace of change accelerating over the last 5 years as the country met EU requirements then gained EU membership.
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There is still plenty of poverty in Bulgaria, particularly in the rural areas where the new economy is yet to get moving, but much of the country is starting to express the first signs of a new prosperity. We rode north into a changing landscape…
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…greener, wetter and, unfortunately, colder. There were lovely rivers and creeks…
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…which needed topping up. The regional centres had made good use of the open areas left over from the Soviet period such as here at Blagoevgrad…
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…where a strong café culture had developed around many smart restaurants and coffee shops, although there were also plenty of the old monuments remaining. This cracker was also at Blagoevgrad.
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The capital city of Sofia has about 1.5 million souls and is a laid back comfortable sort of place. It has…
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…a nicely proportioned cathedral that was much more interesting than many of the bombastic monuments we have found in Western Europe. The Russian influence is clear in some architecture like this Church of St Nick.
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There are a few ancient buildings surviving, like the St. George Rotunda which was a Byzantine church built on a prehistoric temple, then a mosque, then a church again.
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But after the wonderful sites of North Africa the historic interest is minimal.
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Sofia has its share of Soviet era dinosaurs including this monument…
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…that is huge, but is falling apart and has been boarded up for public safety.
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We discovered straight off that Bulgarian beer…
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…is great. And in the first few days we tried a local Traminer, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon…
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…all of which were good and keenly priced.
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Bulgarian traffic is well ordered in a way that we haven’t seen in any of the Mediterranean countries or North Africa. In the big cities of Sofia and Plovdiv, however, many of the streets are cobbled and in Sofia the cobbles came with tram tracks and rain…
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…which are not good fun. Unfortunately, they are still…
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…laying streets this way. Down one tight lane, in fact, this one…
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I tried to turn the bike in its own length and had what we politely call a “static drop”. There was no damage to us or the Elephant, but it is a fair bastard of a thing to stand up in these circumstances.
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The big cities have modern shopping malls with all of the usual stuff (only in Cyrillic). In one store, we found this promotion…
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…for a new perfume for boofy blokes who can ride a motorbike across Europe one-up with three support vehicles. Jo reckons I don’t qualify, so I won’t need any for Christmas.
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Down in Plovdiv, the old city is being renovated to preserve some important Bulgarian history. The city was the centre for the National Revival Period beginning early in the 19th century and culminating in liberation from Turkey in 1878. Houses reflecting the architecture of this period, and holding historical collections celebrating the significant development of the nationalist movement, have been restored and opened to the public. This one…
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…held the Ethnographic Museum. It was well enough presented but a little light on substance to justify the $5 entry. Others…
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…have been turned into restaurants or apartments. These were a wonderful contrast to still more Soviet era monuments…
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We have been given a definite impression that the Bulgarians have a very clear sense of their history. But, on a sunny Saturday afternoon…
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…after a week of rain, all of that seemed less important than enjoying the benefits of the new Bulgaria in a friendly, comfortable and well ordered city.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 11:08 AM GMT
April 12, 2008 GMT
Black Sea, Warm Heart

7 – 9 April 08
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We had planned to spend two days in the Bulgarian centre of Plovdiv, but early on the second day it started raining and kept raining for the next 48 hours. Despite a hotel room slightly smaller than a shoebox, we settled in to watch cable TV, read and wait. We ventured down to the bar only for beer and braved the weather outside only to eat.
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Jo ventures out to hunt and gather in torrential rain at Plovdiv. Riding jackets are better in the rain than our down jackets.
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On our third night we decided that we would head to the Black Sea coast the next day, rain or no, and went to bed listening to the steady beat of the storm against the window. I slept fitfully, waking every hour or so and looking out to see the rain heavy and consistent. Sometime not long before dawn, however, the rain cleared and we woke to crystal skies and an icy wind that was slowly drying the roads.
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We bolted. The road to the Black Sea coast runs across the black soil of the Thracian Plain. This expanse of fertile flat-lands covers one third of Bulgaria and runs north to the border and the Danube River Delta. It also explains the historic wealth of these lands and why Thracian wines were world famous before the Romans had introduced grapes to the Gauls. We rolled through the major coastal city of Burgas and cruised south into the little coastal town of Sozopol in the early afternoon. It started to rain shortly after.
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The town of Sozopol has been developed for many years and has a seedy “Bondi” look about it; although, the lack of surf gives it away.
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For the next two days we explored the 200km that constitutes the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The first thing we noticed was that we were asked routinely if we were visiting to buy an apartment or land. There are real estate agents everywhere specialising in selling property to Western Europeans. We didn’t bother to tell the locals that living where we do in Australia, the Black Sea coast isn’t great value at any price.
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A few older villages on the Black Sea are being restored to show the traditional pine over stone architecture but most of the coast is being pulled down to make way for new development.
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Most of the coast is a construction site. Huge villa and resort developments are underway to satisfy the insatiable appetite of poor UK or German sods who missed the cheap deals in Spain and just want a place in the sun; a cheap place in the sun. For about £150 k you too could buy a three bed apartment on a hill, some distance from the sea, but with a sea view. The further up the coast we rode the more depressed we became.
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This monstrosity of a resort has a faux ship built out from the hotel containing the restaurant and other facilities needing a little ambiance.
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In our explorations down back roads (oh the joys of being an independent traveller) we found two overgrown old holiday camps dating back to the communist days. They had the look of military camps with low-set huts and communal facilities. They were almost laughable compared with the huge resort developments just a few kilometres up the coast. But as we discussed our discovery we realised that our best family holidays had never been in resorts. It seemed to us that most families could have as much of a memorable holiday at Comrade Butlins as they could at the Ramada Black Sea Resort.
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We were too depressed by all of this to stay on the coast. We think that this will all end badly for the Bulgarians. Between boorish Westerners and corrupt local officials the whole of the coast will soon be alienated from the ordinary people and Bulgaria will be poorer for it. We headed north-west away from the coast, back into the rural heartland to close-up on the Danube River.
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We found the Srebarna Wetlands on our way north. In a country as small as Bulgaria, there are few areas for wildlife so this was a pleasant place for a lunch stop.
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After a ride halfway across the country (not so far really) we reached the Danube and the Bulgarian frontier at the town of Ruse. We took a room on the 13th floor of an old Soviet era hotel that was ridiculously expensive and falling apart. It did, however, give us a wonderful view over the city, the river and the port.
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The old city of Ruse was a pleasant (grounded) experience after the coast.
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The river port at Ruse was quiet while we were there but we do like a room with a view over a port any time.
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Some barge trade still goes up and down the Danube but up until 100 years ago the river was the means of most trade and cultural exchange. We reckon it’s thanks to the river that the Bulgarians and Romanians make such good beer!
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We spend our last day in Bulgaria wandering around the old city while I snapped some shots of some of the old Soviet era cars that are still on the roads.
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The ubiquitous Ladas still keep going despite their age and the beating they get from the locals.
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This is the iconic East German Trabant. These are now a cult car in Germany complete with restoration clubs and specialist parts suppliers.
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I didn’t know what this one was. Perhaps it is an old Dacia “Renault knock-off”. If you know please let me know.
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Bulgaria had been a pleasant surprise for us. Despite the difficult language and Cyrillic script, we were very comfortable there. The people were genuinely friendly and pleased that we were not just there to buy a cheap apartment. The wine was fine. The beer was beaut. And, we fed ourselves well and often. A good result all round.
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The most telling comparison for us in this country was not between city wealth and rural poverty. Rather, it was between the cities with their ample and well ordered Soviet era parks and public spaces, and the coastal areas where rampant capitalism will soon alienate the entire coastline from the Bulgarian people. A stifling communist administration never had much to recommend it, but neither does the unfettered development now underway.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 04:51 PM GMT
April 21, 2008 GMT
Romania 101

10 to 19 Apr 08
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We drifted into Romania on 10 April and got carried along in a tide of traffic towards the capital. We had found a list of Bucharest hotels on the web and had good mapping of the city for the GPS so we anticipated a relatively easy run into this big city. By the time we closed in on the centre, however, the traffic was nearly gridlocked and the Elephant was an overheated handful. An hour and a half to hunt down a hotel and we were all hot and bothered.
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Bucharest gridlock
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We spent two days walking from one end of town to the other and our feelings about Bucharest are mixed. On one level it is a very beautiful city. It was remodelled in the 19th Century by French architects and has some wonderful buildings and world class parks, but it also has appalling traffic congestion that leaves most of the city gridlocked much of the day. This is another city that the cars ate.
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Bucharest park.
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Jo with the spring blooms in a Bucharest park.
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Bucharest has many beautiful buildings and elegant streets, but…
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…it is hard to photograph anything without a view-finder full of cables.
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Bucharest also provided an interesting contrast between the elegant 19th Century buildings of the city and the colossal Parliament Palace. This legacy of the Ceausescu era is the second largest administration building in the world (the Pentagon is the largest).
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This is a side view of the Parliament Palace. We couldn’t get back far enough to get the front with our camera.
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It also got a big tick for having water features that worked. We have seen dozens of water features on our travels and almost all are dry! Bucharest manages hectares of fountains all blasting water into the spring air. On a warm spring day with the sun behind, they are enchanting.
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…and the fountains work!
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After the hustle of the big city we rode east to the Black Sea coast. This was mostly an uneventful ride over the broad plains of the Danube valley, that is, after we had spent an hour and a half getting out of town in the Saturday morning gridlock. By the time we cleared the city the engine was one click short of overheated and detonating under load. The rider was just detonating.
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Doesn’t this look like fun.
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During two days in the town of Mangalia, the Elephant sat in the hotel’s front garden under its cover. Unfortunately it also sat with its parking lights on as I had inadvertently turned the key one click too far before removal. It was a silly mistake that left our battery so flat it wouldn’t run the GPS much less spark the ignition.
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As has often happened in tight situations, a friendly local went out of his way to assist us. A delivery driver brought his van around and parked in close. We found two lengths of 10 amp electrical cable. From (bitter) experience I knew that these would not crank the engine so we connected the cables and let the Elephant draw some power from the van for about 15 minutes, resisting the temptation to press the starter and smoke the cables.
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No slave-start cables but a length of electrical cable will do the trick if you know how.
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When there was enough power in the Elephant’s battery to give a bright ignition light, we unloaded the luggage and Jo and the van-man gave a big, running push while I jump started the beast in 3rd gear. The engine fired easily and we were away!
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After such a bad start-up we rode the length of the Black Sea coast to the town of Tulcea on the edge of the Danube Delta arriving with our rain suits and the Elephant caked in mud thrown up on the dirty road. We had three days on the Delta , one day to see the sights and two to wait for the rain to stop. On the first fine morning we headed back to the centre of the country looking for dry weather.
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The Danube is a big river this close to the mouth so ferries are used in many places.
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We found the Transylvania Highway and, eventually, Transylvania. Jo kept the clove of garlic she had been saving in the food box readily at hand. Unfortunately, vampires were thin on the ground but we did find some delightful Transylvanian Gothic architecture and interesting towns.
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Brasov had a well preserved old city. Like all of the cities and towns we have visited in Romania, it is very clean and well ordered.
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We even found Bran Castle, the place Bram Stoker is supposed to have used as inspiration for the Dracula story. It didn’t look too scary in the broad light of day.
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Bran Castle was a very modest little dwelling compared with others we had seen.
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School children head up the path to Bran Castle. Romanians are very proud of their history and take folk art and music very seriously.
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This little pile, Peles Castle near Sinaia, was more to our liking. The architectural style looks good set into a mountainside forest with snowy peaks behind.
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We found this bust of Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler) in his home town of Sighisoara. Those mad eyes were enough to make you pucker up.
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This part of Romania has an interesting German and Hungarian history. While wandering through the old grave yards we were surprised to find that Johannas were thick on the ground…or in the ground, as the case might be.
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Johanna finds her name everywhere for a change.
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So far we have found Romania a clean and well ordered sort of a place. Our only real disappointment has been that the regional cuisine is not strong and most of our meals have been lacklustre. The vegetables, in particular, have been poorly prepared. This has been very annoying for people who believe, to mis-quote Anthony Bourdain, that you never trust a man who mistreats vegetables!

Posted by Mike Hannan at 03:48 PM GMT
April 27, 2008 GMT
Talking in Tongues

Communicating is always a problem for the independent traveller. It is not that the lack of language skills stops the traveller getting fed or finding a bed. Far from it, most of the basic things in life are simple transactions. If you walk into a hotel it is reasonably obvious that you are after a room, a fact that you can confirm with a single word: room, zimmer, camere or whatever. After that, it is just a matter of confirming that the room is liveable by looking at it and sorting the price by writing a few numbers on a scrap of paper. The rest is just the detail.
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Nor have we lost weight because of our lack of language skills. Apart from boasting that we can order a cold beer in 20 languages, there are many forms of communication other than speech that can get you fed. On several occasions we have been in restaurants and, being short of language and a menu, have used some hand signals to indicate that we needed feeding. Food and drink have always appeared, often a better selection than we would have made had we been able, and often more enjoyable for the mystery.
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No, the problem of language is not domestic. Rather, it goes to the heart of our reasons to journey independently in the first place. Without language a culture seems impenetrable. Without language, we can observe, note, question and infer, but we cannot really understand. Language and culture are entwined, each so fundamental to the other that at the end of our time in each country, when we have filled pages of our journals with observations, historical rationale and explanations, much remains a mystery.
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None of this dents our enthusiasm to go on and to learn what we can. There is a simple joy in being adrift in an exotic sea of humanity, washing along in its day to day tides. We may never understand the forces at work below the surface but, soon enough, we understand the routine and the rhythm of daily life.
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Besides, it seems to us that culture is only one layer of understanding and that people are more similar than many would like to admit. The mothers speak to their babies the same way in every language, the fathers lift their children onto their shoulders with the same simple joy everywhere. The young men pose and the young girls flirt with a thousand cultural variations but basically the same message and purpose. The old men walk around the mighty Elephant with the same misty look, remembering the sheer joy of their youthful strength and passion and wondering, like the old Ulysses, if life will hold one more adventure.
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And above it all, people are kind to strangers, and this propels us on. Each time we tell the story of our journey in return for a favour done, we carry forward the expectations of yet another soul. For it seems that the idea of the journey transcends culture and that there is a universal belief that to journey among strangers is an honourable thing, worth doing for its own sake.
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In late January 2008 on a rainy Tuesday, we stopped at a busy, muddy intersection at a small market town in the south of the Riff Mountains of Morocco. The policeman on duty saw us stop and check the road in both directions obviously considering which way to go. He left his post and walked over to us and signalled the question “can I help”. We confirmed the direction we needed to take. He then indicated the broader question, “where are you going”. We told him our story in a few mixed words of English, French and Arabic and a lot of sign language. A huge smile came over his face and he said to us in a few words.
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“So, you and your wife go on your bike. You go to all the world’s countries and see all the world’s peoples. Good luck! Good luck!”
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Perhaps that night he went home and said to his little daughter, “you will never guess what happened today. A man and a woman came to our town. They were wearing space suits and riding on a puny elephant. They told me they were going to see all of the world’s peoples and all of their places. I gave them a gift. I gave them a smile and a wish, and they said that they would carry it over the Riff, over the high mountains, across the endless wheat plains and through the forest of the bear. And they said that they would take it to the warm Pacific and cast it into the air and it would float back to me”.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 07:24 PM GMT
Steeling ourselves in Romania

20 – 23 Apr 08
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We ended our track across Romania at the rust-belt town of Hunedoara in the west of Transylvania. We had come there to see Hunyad Castle, a medieval pile started in 1409 with major extensions about 1446, but stayed because there was a good hotel and it seemed like a nice enough little town.
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Lunch in the carpark of Hunyad Castle, Hunedoara, Romania. Our little petrol stove gets plenty of work for these lunch stops.
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After securing the Elephant and stowing our gear, we changed into our walking clothes and headed off to get some exercise and see the town. What we found was an interesting endnote to our Romanian journey that left us hopeful for the country’s future.
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The inappropriately named Hotel Heaven was a nice enough stop in a neat and tidy town.
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Under the planned Soviet economy, Hunedoara was turned into the second largest steel centre in Romania (or the entire Balkans) with the steel mills growing to equal the size of the town. The population grew to 86,000 in a well laid out town of ugly Soviet style apartments, wide streets and nice parks.
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The industry was never efficient as raw materials were sourced from Australia, India and Canada, but these small details don’t seem to bother central planners. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, traditional protected markets for Hunedoara steel disappeared. The mills were too inefficient and too dirty to compete on world markets and they closed without a whimper casting half of the population out of work.
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The skyline tells the story! Dozens of stacks and no smoke. The steel mills covered a larger area than the town built to support them.
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Things are still tough in Hunedoara, as they are in much of Romania. Jo noticed that there were a number of second hand clothing shops along the main street and a visit to the major super market found it well stocked but lacking a big line in luxury goods. Despite these indicators, we were surprised how well the town is surviving.
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Renovations to the castle are part of efforts to broaden the town’s income in tourism. There are several noteworthy sites in the district, but not enough to make it a tourism centre.
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There has been some small reinvestment in the steel industry and several new factories have opened up to take advantage of cheap land and a skilled workforce. The population has dropped by about 10,000 leaving those who remain with a well appointed and comfortable town. Above all, the town retains the same clean and ship-shape look that we have seen all over Romania.
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Arceler-Mittal have got one electric furnace and casting and rolling mills going but Hunedoara will never compete with other steel centres that have better access to raw materials and modern (clean) capital.
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We started chatting about the town as we rode north towards the Hungarian frontier. It seemed to us that Hunedoara was a talisman for the whole of the country. It may have taken a bit of a beating over the last few years, but a strong community pride remains. With a bit of a run-up, they will be over the fence and away.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 07:33 PM GMT
 


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