The sky is getting a strange translucent cover, like a sheet of gray pearlescent silk lit up from behind. It makes the heat thicker, and moist. The friendly border guard tells us names we can't remember of places to see in his beautiful country. Admittedly, we're kinda ready to be taking leave of the lingering starkness of ex-Yugoslavia's troubled history. Though we've met some wonderful people, many a discussion has been had about the overall detached feeling we've experienced as travellers. People do not exchange glances on the street; Erika's typical attempts to smile in a friendly manner have been largely met with blank stares. Perhaps it's the overwhelming difficulty of living in countries recovering from war and economic devastation. Perhaps it's a cultural difference--you don't smile at people you don't know. We have each travelled in numerous places before this trip and neither of us has felt quite this sense if being...if not exactly unwelcome, at least relatively invisible.
Though Romania has had its own share of trauma under the Ceaucescu regime and after, we're hopeful that it will feel livelier and people will be more interactive. Dale in Ljubljana has recommended it after recently spending time there; we also have contacts from Dani, whom we met in Croatia, a pretty cool guy with roots in this country.
The style of houses shifts as soon as the border does. Still flat, the long roads go straight through small town after small town, lined with modest square concrete homes with roll-down shades rolled down, linked endlessly by wrought-iron fences.
Entire towns seem to be miles long and 2-parallel-strips-of-house-wide, with barnlike buildings creating shadowy courtyards and fertile fields stretching out behind. Where are the town centers? Where are the little markets and cafes?
It takes some time to get to a place big enough to host a bank. Maybe we'd have been better off without the bank--or at least less confused. Romanian currency has been so devalued that it takes 1,000,000 lei to add up to $30. Zeros are running amuck everywhere. But if something in the store is labelled "1.5", what does THAT mean? And why does the number on the gas tank need to be multipled by 10? The entire system is to be overhauled in July of this year, so many places list prices both in the old (60,000 lei) and the new (6 lei) versions. After lengthy inept bumbling with incorrect amounts of bills just like the tourists we are, we more or less figure it out. Erika decides it's the coolest money ever because there are little transparent circles on every bill so you can hold it up to your eye and see right through.
Timisoara is the first sizeable town across the border. The outskirts, typically, are drab. The older town center is laid out in a circle and encompasses a beautiful church where the speech was given that helped ignite the anti-Ceaucescu revolution. Everything is in a strange state of crumbling disrepair. Once-ornate buildings display layers of peeling paint and chipped stucco. The river is small and brown. It's hot and muggy, but interesting.
There are few hotels and all are pricey, so it's time for Dave to show off his patented "Ask A Taxi Driver" technique. Six taxi drivers later, here's a young guy who speaks English and bids us follow him somewhere he thinks might be cheap. Not far away, down a small overgrown side street, is something like an ancient YMCA. At $20/night, the big old room painted bright green is the best deal in town. It's filled with young working guys getting kinda rowdy, which is not particularly a problem if you don't mind an occasional beer-chugging human being standing right outside your open window on the balcony his room apparently shares with yours. Don't suppose he's getting any particular thrill seeing us lying on the bed sweltering in our skivvies but better close the window anyway. Gasp.
Besides that, everyone seems to be avoiding eye contact. We order a beer and a gin-and-tonic at a riverside cafe. The hyper-bored-and-trendy young waitress brings us a beer and two gin-and-tonics. She seems rather shocked and disgusted when she hears we just want one drink each. With a roll of heavily made-up eyes she brusquely takes the extra drink back. Another time the waiter brings out a WARM BEER, and Dave is appalled at his total lack of interest in coming up with a colder one. Oh well, says E, it's just a warm beer. But fairly frequently in the days ahead, we'll encounter people whose reactions range from apathetic to resentful when asked politely for whatever service they're allegedly providing. There are helpful people as well, but grumpy service seems to be a popular trend.
It looks like the city's putting some money into renovating the older part of town--fresh paint and patches are livening up the pedestrian promenades and a central square or two.
One of the bridges over town is totally torn up and under reconstruction. The old town is cool, but in a way the strangeness of the crumbling old mansions and overgrown sidewalks nearby is cooler. No one seems particularly happy. Erika continues to want to be somewhere that people smile back. We do find a friendly so-called-Mexican restaurant and order burritos and tortilla chips. The burritos resemble burritos about as much as fishsticks can swim, and the tortilla chips are suspiciously reminiscent of nacho cheese Doritos. It's still good to munch on something other than fried meat and potatoes.
The outskirts leaving Timisoara from the north are even less scenic and more industrial than they were entering from the south. More flat landscapes continue en route to Oradea, the next big town up. Oradea's spacious main square has an imposing statue at the center and is flanked by a startling yellow art-deco building which does not house the cheap hotel promised by our book.
The city is apparently aware of its tourist potential as the other two cheap hotels in the guidebook are closed for renovation. We didn't expect it to be so tricky and pricey to find accomodation in Romania.
As in Timisoara, the Hungarian influence is seen in the architecture of the old town/pedestrian walkway. These cities were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until becoming part of Romania in 1920. Our hostel is run by Hungarians who surprisingly drop the price in half when we start to leave. The woman who runs the place is quick to proudly state she's Hungarian when Erika asks to learn a few words in Romanian. The room is small but festooned with charming decoration, as is a little courtyard where dinner is served.
There are some Roma, known in the U.S. as Gypsies, riding horse-drawn carts along the highway and walking through smaller villages in colorful mismatched attire. In the big city there are also young girls and women holding babies and begging to passing cars and pedestrians. Some Romanians we talk to speak disparagingly of the Roma using their kids to get money, keeping them from school, and being generally untrustworthy. Some tourists who've been taking trains tell of being swarmed with unceasing solicitations after giving coins to a begging child. No similar situation arises travelling by motorcycle--we just wave to people passing in their hay-filled carts and they wave back.
It is pretty disheartening, though, to see the dusty 7-year-olds clutching small babies tugging on people's arms. It's unclear what the story is here. There's always a hierarchy of haves and have-nots -- even in places where most people don't have a whole heck of a lot in general.
Dave has gotten in touch with Alex through Horizons Unlimited; coincidentally, Dani had given us his name also, though Dave doesn't make the connection til later. Alex and his daughter Vanessa live in the bustling city of Cluj-Napoca and welcome us into their home.
Alex meets us on his ruggged KTM 950 Adventure bike and leads us up a hill to a great view of town. Alex has a successful small business and has his next bike on order, a brand-new BMW K1200S. Vanessa is lively and sweet and shows Erika her collection of drawings and books. She has learned good English from attending an international school.
Dinner encompasses another great view from a classy place on the other side of town where Vanessa will discover some cute baby ducks she wishes she could take home. Then it's off to a casual gathering of Cluj's own motorcycle club. There haven't been too many motorcycles on the road, but there is a pretty sizeable number convened for this new group recently brought together by the Internet. It's fun to talk to the local riders about their experiences here and abroad.
As they say, when in Romania, do as the Romanians do and eat some sushi. For lunch the next day Alex takes us to a yummy and surprising affordable Japanese restaurant where we feast on miso soup, tempura, and raw fish. Then it's off to pick up Vanessa at school and see her classroom, where her very own personal art exhibit decks the walls. The evening is topped off with a viewing of Garfield, one of the artist's favorite videos.
Alex takes time to map out a number of possible recommended routes as he knows the roads of Romania well. Erika's hankering to return to the mountains, so a plan is made to take the Trans-Fagarasan Highway over one of the high passes to some glorious lakeside scenery. It's really helpful to get an insider's knowledge and recommendations, not to mention a great place to stay and fun with Alex and Vanessa. Thanks for everything, A & V!
Unusually good weather accompanies the approach to the mountains. It's warm and the sky is clear. Erika is starving so instead of the typical not-too-satisfying-yet-budgetary-dry-puff-pastry-breakfast we stop for a big pizza en route. People are outside in small clusters of 3 or 4, working the sprouting vegetable fields. Look, there's a middle-aged couple bent over farming in their bathing suits! Over there, at the gas station, that hefty woman with bouffant purple hair! And what about that huge stork nest on the telephone pole!
Dave continues his search for Holy Grail #2, a cheap tire gauge, and has mixed feelings to finally locate one, for $40. It's his lucky day though as the next stop will turn up just what he REALLY wanted for $3.
The countryside gradually becomes a bit more hilly, reminding Erika of the area near Livermore in the springtime.
Everything here is reminding Erika of someplace in California, and everyone here is reminding Dave of someone he knew when he was 10. It's a little hazy but finally off to the right are those enticing big mountains.
A small road (reminding Erika of a turnoff from Fresno to the Sierras) eventually borders a pretty river where Erika curses not having stopped for a photo of the huge flock of sheep and shepherds backed by merging mountains (which doesn't remind her of anything in California). The small road meanders up the hillside -- the higher it gets, the less maintained it gets. A little maneuvering is required to avoid the granite cliff-droppings.
The steep zig-zagging road which leads to the pass is visible, but snow spots the mountain above.
A lot of snow is melting and it doesn't seem like much remains. But the closer we get to the top the skinnier the road gets....
until it becomes apparent that it may not be our destiny to cross the pass today.
Still, it's been a scenic detour. Back down towards the bottom of the mountain, there is a rustic little motel near the river (which reminds Erika of a place in some small slightly ticky-tacky town en route to Lake Tahoe) and we head down for a relaxing overnight. The waitress/manager of the place is really sweet; and it's nice to know we don't need to search for dinner or breakfast, as they're just a roll down the steps (ouch, make that a stroll) to the cafe below the room.
En route to Sighisoara, our next destination, some local bikers at a gas station come on over to check out the Transalp. They advise us that the route which looks like a main road on the map is not actually passable. So we hop on the other road, which is newly paved and one of the best Dave has ridden in eastern Europe. This is Transylvania, home of the legendary Count Dracula and his alleged castle. The countryside's really pretty, with small villages and rolling hills and patchworks of fields and haystacks.
Sighisoara is one of the main tourist attractions of Romania thanks to its surroundings and well-preserved German-style walled old town.
Sure enough, it's awfully nice. We have the whole afternoon for exploring the historical center.
There are a few tourist shops, a few knicknack stalls and a few tourists, but nothing like you'd find in a comparable town in Western Europe.
We're stuck behind some obnoxious teenage guys up a long enclosed stairway but manage to lose them by ducking into a hillside cemetery.
Inside there is only calm and birdsong, and pine trees and stately German Evangelical gravestones draped in creeping ivy.
As we rest on a bench, the dark sky starts to put on a show. Ominous gray clouds have gathered, and the lightning looks like it's close enough to strike the pine trees.
Thunder crashes and big plops of warm rain start falling. We figure it's time to get on back, um, somewhere. Crouching under these trees isn't particularly effective as the rain's really starting to come down. We made a mad dash back to that enclosed stairway and huddle up cozily til the storm subsides, nearly an hour later.
The next day brings a few discouragements, like phone cards that don't work and more grumpy service people. We head on to the town of Brasov in the rain and get there in time for a pricey fast-food kebab lunch. Brasov is the most Western-European style town yet, with a very nice walking area, cafes, green hills, big churches and interesting architecture.
Erika finds it intriguing but Dave is starting to feel like all the big towns look the same.
So it's back to the countryside towards Bran Castle of "Count Dracula" fame. Our book says that Rasnov Castle, en route, is better and less touristy than Bran. Definitely not a major tourist spot yet, though it looks like they are trying to re-create the little town within the walls, stone by stone.
There is a rather graphic display of artwork by someone who got his jollies sketching various torture methods from some medieval crusade, and a real live skeleton you can peer down on through glass to the ground below. In the parking lot below, a small crew works on some other project to fix up the grounds.
All saturated-by-tourism warnings aside, we find Bran Castle to be well worth the visit.
The nearby countryside and surrounding village is lovely, though the mountains keep getting obscured by clouds. We manage to keep consumption of Dracula-souvenir-paraphernalia to a minimum
before strolling around the "typical Romanian village" recreation at the castle's base.
Then it's up the hill to the 50+ well-preserved rooms where Count Dracula, who probably didn't exist, probably didn't stay.
A lady stationed in one of the rooms whispers to us in French that she can show us a "secret room the other tourists don't see". Okay, sure, we're special. Up a small flight of stairs, behind a big wooden door unlocked with a massive key, is a thrilling stack of folding chairs and a rolled up rug. Our "guide" proceeds to pull out a pile of hand-knit sweaters and rattle off her prices. Non, merci, we say politely, and are reluctantly led back down the stairs. Later we run into two friendly hiking English tourists who say they were specially selected for this exclusive secret opportunity as well.
Rain accompanies us to the ski town of Sinaia.
A guy near the taxi stand that Dave hasn't even asked beckons to follow him to a room. It's usually preferable to approach someone as opposed to being approached, as those who approach YOU tend to be pretty pushy and aggressive. But it's raining and we're tired, so off we go to an unusual looking 5 story hotel with long wooden eaves and odd triangular balconies. Up up up to the attic which is pleasant and cozy and cheaper than any place where bargaining wasn't involved (though initially there's an alarming lack of water in the bathroom.) There's also a crowded restaurant with lavish traditional Romanian decor and music for dinner later. Romanian food has been tasty and well prepared, though portions seem to have shrunk since Serbia. Every country's menu so far has been dominated by schnitzel, french fries, pasta and pizza.
Sinaia is famous for Peles Castle, the 19th century summer residence of King Carol I.
A cobblestone road leads through a tree-shaded passage bordered with women selling hand-embroidered linens, cups of baby strawberries, and (!?) plastic toy guns. King Carol has a far more elaborate collection of ammunitions, along with other exquisite treasures which furnish his extraordinary vacation home.
Every room (no photography allowed) is in immaculate condition, covered floor to 20 foot ceiling in exquisitely carved wood, sculpted marble, woven tapestries, and crystalled mirrors. It rivals any palace anywhere, even Dave's apartment.
It's a toss-up whether to go to the Danube Delta, which has great ecological attributes, then down the coast; or simply to head to Bucharest. The delta ultimately seems too far away and the coast too touristy, so Bucharest it is. The guidebook says Bucharest has been described as "the Paris of Eastern Europe or hell on earth". Which would we prefer?....
Expecting perhaps the latter, we head out to meet another of Dani's contacts, Vali at Motomania. For some unknown reason we have no problem navigating the big city and locate the motorcycle store in no time. Gabriel and Robert, Vali's coworkers, tell us he's out but to go check out the city and come back in an hour. It's a good opportunity to get our bearings and get a sense of the city. Look, here we are.
Yes, the outskirts of the city look a bit like hell on earth, but the shop seems to be in an interesting neighborhood (near the consulates, the old town and the university).
Later, we meet up with Vali, Gabriel and Robert for a beer at a nearby cafe. The guys are great to talk to and it's interesting to learn about their business, which is doing well. Best wishes for success to Motomania!
For dinner we peer into a pleasant outdoor restaurant where we feel slightly hustled to sit down but the menu looks good, so why not. A young waiter provides highly friendly and un-grumpy service, highly sophisticated and hyper-ungrumpy service, highly ungrumpy and hyper-...was that, slick and slippery? service... Excuse me, the beers are three times the cost of the ones we asked for. And the total on the bill is 20% higher than it should be. Maybe his math just isn't very good. The waiter wordlessly corrects the bill when the error is pointed out. Hmmm...
Bucharest isn't quite Paris, but it's kinda fascinating to see massive communist buildings now crowned with massive capitalist billboards. Ceaucescu had ordered many Western European buildings destroyed and replaced with his special style of, shall we say, stricter architecture, a task which took many years and which fortunately ceased on his execution. So interesting gems pop up here and there between apartment blocks. Up-and-coming small tree-lined streets are sprouting trendy cafes. The old town is in a state of disrepair with little of interest to see, but "give it 10 years", Dave says as he fantasizes about opening up a pub.
En route to checking out the House of Parliament (2nd only to the Pentagon as largest government building in the world) the air seems to be full of water up ahead.
It's confusing figuring out how to cross the street to reach the immense central plaza, but we prove it can be done. This leads to our favorite show in Bucharest--block upon block of dazzling fountains, with spray jumping higher then lower and hula-ing side to side in the afternoon wind.
Finally we tear ourselves away from the fountains and head for the House of Parliament.
The building looks big but kinda empty and unapproachable. The original plan was to go inside, but it costs twice what we paid to see the expensive castles and 4 times as much for foreigners as locals. Guess a few snapshots of the exterior will do. The image of those wild and windy fountains will stay in our minds as we continue on to Bulgaria.
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