Romania
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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