9/15/15: Hungover Politics With A Romanian Cab Driver
Ugh. I drank too much last night. The good thing about jet lag is I’m awake at 3 a.m. to take Tylenol and minimize the damage. Woke up to a nice sunburn and food all over the floor on my side of the bed. What can you do?
Scheduled a private car from Sozopol to Brasov, Romania. There were too many bus and train connections to make between the two and some of those connections only seemed to go once a day, so this seemed like the easiest option. It also made 14 hours of buses and trains an 8-hour drive with no stops. The convenience seemed worth the extra cash, and the cash was… not a lot at all.
Of course I was completely paranoid about booking a Bulgarian or Romanian private car on the Web. There’s not a lot of information available in terms of reviews and there’s not really a Better Business Bureau in these countries either. But I’d been in contact with the company manager, Ventsislav, via email. You pay in cash on arrival and he even provided the license plate number in advance. That relaxed me a little. Much to my surprise, Ventsislav himself picked us up. I’d researched him on Facebook, so I immediately recognized him. Lol. The car was nice, too. There were two small cameras on either side of the windshield, which I assumed was for his own protection. After a while of driving and chit chat, I felt comfortable enough to take a desperately needed nap.
The Bulgarian countryside is quite scenic and pans back and forth between rolling grassland and woodsy mountains. An interesting dynamic, to say the least. I didn’t find the Romanian countryside to be nearly as attractive until we started getting into the Carpathians, which are incredibly striking. Also of note is the sort of old world/new world mix in Romania. You have women in traditional dress, horse drawn carriages, and farmers farming by hand right next to moving cars and farm machines.
We stopped at a gas station in Rousse, Bulgaria, right before we crossed the border where we spoke a little more to Ventsislav. He said he’d been driving since 2007, but prior to Romania’s entrance into the EU, it was difficult to do what he does now and cross the border. Romania and Bulgaria are still not part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows free travel between most European countries. I’d mentioned the migrant crisis in Hungary and how this might make border crossings more difficult in the future. He corrected me that these folks were not “migrants,” rather “refugees” and actually seemed really irritated. He said America gave weapons to Syria many years ago and now Europe has to deal with the refugees. He continued that America stepped in in Libya, but where were we now? Several counter statements came to mind, but Jeff and I just agreed that we understood why Syrians were leaving and that we weren’t sure why the United States is not more involved. We need to make it to Romania, so… less is more in this situation. In our defense, the “Migrant Crisis” is literally what the issue was/is called in the United States, so maybe a bit of a translation breakdown here, though I guess I can see how it seems insensitive to call it that. (Remember on post #1 when I said it comes up more than once?)
We crossed the border and were awarded two new passport stamps. Didn’t even have to get out of the car. Passed through Bucharest, which has far more Eastern Bloc housing than I’ve ever seen in other countries. Even Sarajevo. Sarajevo is much smaller, though, I’d guess. (This is completely unconfirmed at the moment, by the way.) We did pass through a nicer part of Bucharest, though I was sleeping again. I imagine that there’s probably a part of Bucharest that has much more opulent architecture, like Budapest.
Ventsislav stopped at a KFC for lunch, which happened to be the nicest KFC I’ve ever been to. We sat outside and enjoyed more conversation. I whined about being tired and Jeff laughed at me for being hungover. Ventsislav said he hadn’t had a single drink in his whole life. His father was an alcoholic and left his mother when he was in the fourth grade. He eventually died at the age of 40 when his liver gave out. It was a happy story (shaking my head “no.”) I replied that it was days like today that I wished I’d never had a single sip of alcohol. (Reading this over a couple years later, it’s interesting how much you can learn about people in an 8-hour drive, right? Like… why do I know this? I don’t mind at all. In fact, I feel kind of privileged. Just seems personal is all.)
We arrived in Brasov just as scheduled and happily paid Ventsislav for his good services. Checked in at our next hotel, which sits right in the Old Town square. Our room looks what you’d imagine a Romanian hotel room to look like. It has high vaulted wooden ceilings, old dark brass sconces and chandeliers, and ornate wooden furniture. It’s very nice, but also very… eastern European. We grabbed some dinner in the square where more stray cats stared longingly up at us. A small black one inched closer and closer to me every time I made eye contact with him. He was also randomly nodding off to sleep, periodically falling over in the losing battle.
Took a quick walk around the square and some of the side streets. There’s a huge church just off the plaza, Black Church, that started being built in the late 1300s. There looks to be a small citadel overlooking the town on the mountainside, too. A little reminiscent of Ljubljana, only the buildings aren’t quite as tall and ornate.
We’ll be catching a tour of Vlad the Impaler’s castle tomorrow (Dracula!). He was supposedly born in a neighboring town and is viewed by Romanians with a great deal of respect since he stood for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Should be interesting. I’ll keep you posted.
9/16/15: Castles And Palaces And Fortresses, Oh My!
Well, as evidenced by my and Jeff’s social feeds today, you can probably guess that we had a full day. Our favorite day yet, actually!
Finally had a solid night’s rest, but didn’t want to wake up. Breakfast was a thousand times better than at our hotel in Sozopol. Walked out to the town square to meet our tour for the day. Gorgeous way to start the day- old, ornate buildings surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, sun shining. Just lovely.
As it would happen, we were the only people on our tour. Works for us because we’re rather impatient sightseers and can move at our own pace. We immediately pegged our guide, Kartsi, as a walking Romanian encyclopedia. He knows everything there is to know about this country. No, seriously. Not a single question all day went unanswered (or maybe he was just making shit up). He is originally from Brasov and said he was very proud to be from there. Apparently, he worked on cruise lines around the world for a while and now hosts tours in the summers and is a ski instructor in the winters. He was heading up a brown bear tour after ours. Romania has the largest brown bear population of any country in Europe—almost 6,000! They drive into a national park at dusk and put food out. By feeding the beers, it helps keep them out of neighboring towns, which was happening often for a time, Kartsi said. If we had more time, this would be on my list of to-dos.
Our first stop was the infamous Castle Bran, home of Vlad the Impaler and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is based on the location. The village of Bran is way commercialized. On our way down the main drag, a man dressed in a black cloak with a werewolf mask jumped out in front of us and scared the living daylights out of Kartsi and me. It was absolutely hilarious. Only moments later, the werewolf jumped in front of two ladies behind us and we heard surprised yelps and laughter. The castle is amazing and displays tons of German influence (much of the area architecture does). An English queen, by arranged marriage, came to live at Castle Bran and decorated the interior. The furniture was pretty startling—tons of detailed, carved dark wood. Actually, really cozy… minus the torture chair with spikes in it. Kartsi said Vlad the Impaler only lived there for 24 hours, but one source on the internet says he never did at all. It is assumed that he was born in a neighboring town and, as we know, he would dine under his impaled victims. Jeff stated that it’s one thing to impale people for the purposes of sending a message, but to dine under their organ-less, staked bodies just means you’ve got issues. Agreed.
From there, we went on an optional tour addition to Peles Castle, a summer home for a royal family. The palace is set even higher in the mountains and is surrounded by the most charming town ever, Sinai (“see-nigh-a”). Several auxiliary homes are built outside the castle, all of which look like giant German mansions. I, for one, would be perfectly happy living in one of the “auxiliary” homes. The palace is beyond ornate and they make you wear little plastic slippers. Being the genius that I am, I pulled slippers for all three of us from the used slippers bin. Worked all the same. The wood carving and painting is breathtaking. Every room has a different theme—Italian, Turkish, Arabian. It even had an elementary form of central air installed. After roaming the gardens, we had coffee and pastries at the cafe overlooking the grounds.
On our way to our third stop, we drove through a gypsy neighborhood. Literal gypsies were riding on a horse cart as we entered the town, handkerchiefs tied over the head and all. Kartsi said the gypsies tended to not want to integrate into society much… and then we saw a little kid pitch a rock across the street dangerously close to a little old man. It was a good sized rock. We’ll just let the gypsies have their space, shall we?
Our last stop was Rasnov Fortress and we took a little tram to the top of a hill. Jeff and I questioned the name of the tram while Kartsi was purchasing tickets… “Tschu Tschu.” Jeff attempted the pronunciation “t-shoo t-shoo” and I noted that the “t” probably wasn’t separate based on other Romanian pronunciations. When we asked Kartsi how to say it, he looked a little quizzically at us and replied, “choo choo”… to which we all busted out laughing. Missed that one entirely. Made friends with the couple in front of us on the way up—an English guy with a Romanian girlfriend. We were talking about the brown bear tour again and the English guy mentioned that maybe the bears were fed tourists. Every group comes back minus one. Very funny. Oh, there were also wedding photos being taken at all these locations! The fortress included. I guess they get married on Saturdays and do additional days for photography. Anyhow… the fortress was built in 1335, oldest structure we’ve seen yet. Pretty well in tact. Offered a terrific 360 view, but wasn’t nearly as awesome after Bran and Peles.
We got to know Kartsi more on the way back. He lives with his girlfriend of two years and has two dogs, of which we saw photos—the dogs, not the girlfriend. Saw his brown bear photos, too. Jeff and I told him that we’d been to several locations teeming with bears and had the misfortune of not seeing a single one. If we went on his evening tour, they’d know we were coming and not show up. In fact, if I started a tour company in Brasov, my brown bear excursion would fail. He talked to us about Romanian politics and history and how you’re required to serve one year in the military if you don’t go to university. I’m under the impression Bulgarians and Romanians really don’t like Russians, by the way. Ventsislav had made fun of the accent and, while Kartsi wasn’t that forward, we just sensed there’s still some general tension there. I think it may have been noticeable during our conversation about Syria and “Russians being… Russians: sneaky.”
We were dropped off at the square and headed to a traditional restaurant Kartsi recommended. I really, really wanted to try Romanian goulash, which is supposed to be spicier than Hungarian, but the schnitzel was calling my name again. I can’t get enough. If the goulash was a starter and not an entree, I would’ve ordered it, too.
If we had more time, I think I could’ve spent a few days in this area and not be bored at all. Jeff said that initially it was the place he was least looking forward to going, but so far, it’s been his favorite day. Indeed.
Taking a train to Bucharest tomorrow and staying at a five-star hotel for a night before flying back to Istanbul. I like to treat us once a trip to a ridiculous hotel and what better place to do it than Romania? Did I mention our entire dinner, drinks and taxes and tip included, was only $19.90 total? YES. If you’re looking for a delightful and affordable trip, Eastern Europe is the place to be right now. Maybe not Hungary at this exact moment, but when I went a couple years ago, I stayed in a five-star hotel for $120. Bosnia and Bulgaria are equally inexpensive. You pay for a flight and your expenses from there are minimal, even flight cost sometimes—Budapest round trip was $570. Just sayin, folks…
Today’s featured photo: Rasnov Fortress in the super picturesque Carpathian Mountains. Romania is a must-see country. Get to it before prices skyrocket!
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