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A week of contrasts

2 May 2008 · No Comments

Last week, my friend Mareike (engineer I met on Svalbard last summer) and I spent a week wandering around Romania. Romania is situated in the far east of Europe bordering on the Black Sea. It is a country that underwent a bloody revolution in 1989 and is appears to be building its way back out of the rubble.


Over the week, we spent time in Bucharest (Monday, Tuesday, Sunday), Transylvania (the towns of Brasov, Bran on Wednesday, Thursday) – the same Transylvania where Dracula once roamed, and the Danube River Delta (Friday and Saturday). While I did not experience anything that was completely amazing, the week was filled with a number ‘adventures’ – most good and a few bad and some just interesting.


I think my lasting impression will be that Romania is a country full of contrasts — huge advertisements draping over buildings that are falling apart, a railway system that features both new ICE trains and rusted out tin cans – often in the same station and both going down the same tracks, the beautiful delta of the Danube River that is lined with an incredible amount of empty plastic bottles, similarly old villages sitting at the base of some really large and dramatic mountains alongside piles of garbage, new glass sided buildings that are fed electricity from a rat’s nest of wires, a sex shop adjacent to a church.


 Bucharest advertsBucharest adverts - pt2Bayelva Station ?On the way to TransylvaniaSex Shop


It is also a country where life is obviously much harder than in the west. Many homeless people, many kids asking for money well past midnight, people sleeping under street vents to stay warm. The people we did interact with were mostly friendly. In Bucharest (the hub of our travels), we stayed at a hostel owned by a Canadian couple. The owner was incredibly friendly (not surprising as I believe that Canadians are generally the nicest people on earth (although Scandinavians and Kiwi’s are also right up there)) and made fantastic pancakes. People would see us looking at a map for directions and ask where we were going and point us in the right direction (only to catch up with us again when we took out the map on the next corner and again point us in the right direction). I think that 90% of the people smoke in Romania. If a smoking ban was implemented in Romania, I think there would be another bloody revolution. Religion also plays a strong role in the lives of the people. On a bus, I sat next to a woman who made the sign of the cross continuously as we went by every church. Many of the bus drivers have crosses hanging from their mirrors. Sunday was the Orthodox Easter celebration. On Saturday night, we walked by a church with many people dressed up and waiting to go inside for midnight mass. I found out the next morning that the church services last throughout the night and the entire next day.


 HomelessWaiting for Midnight MassBucharest parkBucharestBucharest people


Bucharest is a city that is filled to the brim with dogs. I think there must be at least one dog for every two people. Many (most?) of the dogs are homeless and roam the city at night, barking non-stop. They were the cause of a few sleepless nights. The city is also undergoing massive amounts of (re-)construction – especially in the center of the city. The buildings along the main drag of the city seemed to alternate between a casino and some sort of ‘sexually oriented’ business. Bathrooms and morning coffee were both hard to find. We found a nice jazz bar with outdoor seating and nice music and we also had a great traditional Romanian dinner in Bucharest. McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut have managed to find their way into Romania, but Starbucks seems to be a bit slower. I imagine it is only a matter of months before their arrival. Note to future Bucharest travelers: do not have a heart attack on any day other than a holiday – the ambulance has no chance of reaching you in time – the traffic is horrid there. Crossing streets, even at the cross walks, was a supreme act of courage.


 BucharestBucharestNo Dogs?? Good luck.In a park - BucharestBucharest advertsBig ass European building


The towns of Brasov and Bran are situated in Transylvania, which is located among the Carpathian Mountains. I was impressed by these mountains – both big and steep. I liked the town of Brasov – it had a nice city square, a big old church, and slower pace than Bucharest. We had a few funny and interesting experiences in Brasov. On our way to our hostel, we missed our bus stop as we could not get to our luggage (the bus was extremely overcrowded) before the bus pulled away. I tried to exit through the back of the bus hoping that Mareike would be able to reach our backpacks through the masses and just throw them out the door. Well, she could not get there and I nearly did not get back onto the bus. We walked back one stop to find the address of our hostel, only to find out that it no longer exists (my lonely planet was outdated (wrong) on a number of occasions). We wandered back toward the city center and found a nice place to stay. It was a bit frustrating at the time…. but sort of funny looking back. We also went to this crazy movie theater, complete with fluorescent lighting, couches with foot rests, tables, disco balls, and no people. Next door was a bar where we got a couple of beers. We saw a really bad movie, ‘Online Crime,’ but experiencing the movie theater was probably worth it (and it was nice to be in from a fairly heavy rain). The next day we went to the tourist trap known as Bran Castle, the fabled home of Dracula. However, Dracula (Vlad Tepes) never lived there. The only thing remotely Dracula about ‘Dracula’s Castle’ was the incredibly kitsch market near its base selling everything Dracula – from coffee mugs, to plastic blah, to more blah, and more blah. The market even had a haunted house. The castle was nice, but probably not worth the special trip.




By the time we left Transylvania, we were both looking forward to getting away from the cities and to seeing the Danube River Delta. We were a bit unlucky in that we were visiting on the holiday weekend and the bus we planned to take back out of town would not be running that day. We scrambled a bit and made alternative plans, but we had to leave much earlier than we anticipated (Saturday afternoon verses Sunday morning). On Friday night, we found an expensive boat to take us into the wildlife preserve of the delta for 3 hours. I really really enjoyed this trip – nice colors from the low sun, lots of birds, a wild cat, and the boat driver was interested in what we were seeing and pointing out different birds, etc. The next day, we hoped to take a speed boat down the river and visit a small village for an hour or so before returning. We walked up and down the harbor looking for a boat to take us. This experience was very frustrating and annoying. Walking along the harbor, we only found boats already completely booked or extremely annoying ‘pimps’ of private boats willing to take us out. We finally found a boat willing to take us to a village, but we were not able to leave when we wanted as the captain was either out getting gas or drunk, I am not sure which. We, along with a few Austrians willing to go out with us to help split the cost, were told to wait as it would be just a few more minutes. A few minutes turned into a few more minutes which ended up being over an hour. Completely frustrated with the situation, we left and went to another pimp that we were negotiating with earlier. This pimp was a very fat, slimy, obnoxious pimp. We did not want to go out with his boat because it would take us basically in the same areas we were at the night before and we really did not want to support his pimping operation. However, we were desperate and running out of time. So off we went on an excruciatingly long, 5 hour journey through the wildlife preserve on a boat that had only two speeds – painfully slow and broken down. About 20 minutes from the end of our wildlife ‘adventure’ (and about 1 hour from when our bus was leaving town), the boat broke down. Long story short, the boat was fixed and we arrived back in the harbor about 15 minutes before leaving town on the bus, meaning we had to rush to get our luggage and then rush to the bus station. It was bad way to end the river delta experience. After looking so forward to seeing the region, I left the area with a bad taste in my mouth. Once back in Bucharest, we went out to the Jazz club we liked before, so at least we were able to end the day on a good note.


 dscf0443.JPGDanube Delta - Photo from Mareikedscf0472.JPGdscf0481.JPG


The last morning in the hostel, we had breakfast with a man from New York City. He was nice enough, but nearly every stereotype of NYC was brought to life. The one thing he did mention was that he found a number of really nice parks around Bucharest. We ended our Romanian experience by finding and wandering around in a very nice park and an empty city (because of the holiday). A good way to end the trip. I would return to Romania if given the chance. I think it is a place in transition and it would be interesting to see how much (if anything) changes over the next years.



Tags: Friends · holidays · Travel