It’s long overdue blog time again!
In May and April 2008 I took the unlikely decision to spend 2 and ½ weeks in Romania, not only that but I decided to spend my 28th birthday there and the look on people’s faces when I told them was one of madness.
“Romania!? But that’s in Eastern Europe!”
“Romania!? But what about the orphanages!”
“Romania!? But what about Ceausescu!”
A lot of people seem to forget that Prague is in eastern Europe, that Rio de Janeiro’s streets are over-run with street orphans and that Franco ruled Spain not so long ago…
O-zone’s hit “Dragostea Din Tei” AKA “Miyahee Miyahoo Miyahahaha” AKA “the Numa numa song,” surely the only internationally known song in the Romanian* tongue, was playing as we came through airport security. A sign surely!?!
*They’re actually Moldovan, but the Moldovan national language is Romanian, as it was once part of Romania.
We touched down in Bucharest….
The Romanian language is not a Slavonic language like you might expect. It is not in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is Latin based, a Romance language and quite similar to Italian. Bucharest’s main airport is called “Otopeni.” Anyone familiar with Italian might know that “Otto” means Eight and “Peni” means “Penises” Somebody somewhere is having a laugh!
The main road from the airport to the city is busy. Too busy. It was upgraded not so long ago yet seems to have achieved little. One day the metro will stretch here, but for now visitors must be content with an overlong bus or taxi journey.
The city itself is…well…a bit skanky. It has that unloved look but also that aged but beguiling look that many old Southern Mediterranean cities have. Sure, there is wealth, like any major city but it seems to be confined to small areas, while the majority of city dwellings take the form of 11, 12 or 14 storey apartments, that look as though they are in urgent need of repair work. Ceausescu’s folly – “Casa Popularii,” AKA The house of the people (cue laughter) sits out like a sore thumb. One fifth of Bucharest was demolished to make way for this monstrosity. Considered the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, it seemingly led to the stray dog problem that Bucharest now has to live with. Those made homeless by the demolitions left their pet dogs behind, who then bred and have lived on the streets ever since. Responsible for a few deaths each year, we were warned not to approach them. As a result dog-related graffiti can be found all across the city…
The shopping centres feel about 10 years behind Western Europe, but there’s a lot of building (mostly with wooden scaffolding!) going on and obvious signs of western investment – here, have a few flashy neon signs and adverts…there we go, EU membership assured. Most people we encountered spoke English and the metro seemed efficient but is limited to 4 short lines. The currency is the Lei, which means Lion. 1 Lei is made up of 100 Bani. When I was there you got 5 Lei for every £1 and an omnipresent Ursus (Bear) beer was 4 Lei (about 80p or $1.20). A couple of years ago the notes were of a higher denomination and then they chopped off 4 zeros. Everyone was a millionaire but overnight a million LEI became 100 LEI. The smallest coin now in operation is 10 Bani, which makes things interesting, sometimes your shopping will come to say 11.91, you give them 12.00 and they just smile back. Sometimes they’ll give you sweets in change, sometimes they’ll even take less than the cost of the shopping because the required pennies simply don’t exist.
The supermarket near us was called “Angst.” Someone else is having a laugh. The staff however looked as though they could do with a laugh. Cue stupid foreign tourists pointing at things behind the meat and cheese counter. “That one there, no that one there…I don’t understand a word you’re saying…”
Round the corner were rows of “kiosks.” With a single person huddled into each cupboard selling cigarettes, alcohol and snacks. All in a row. All selling the same stuff. All competing. Day & night. They all looked as though they hadn’t laughed in years either.
We visited Romania in April & May when it’s warm but not too hot. In winter it can drop well below freezing and in summer it can go over 100 Fahrenheit. On the 27th April this year they celebrated Easter, Romanian Orthodox style. It’s a far bigger festival than back home, on a par with Christmas and is the high point of the orthodox calendar. We foolishly decided that would be a good day to go to the cemetery where former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu is buried and seek out his grave (as you do...) but were surprised to find a large number of police/military/body guards and begging Roma loitering on the grounds whilst families drank booze and had barbecues on their relative’s graves! It is one of the strangest, more bizarre experiences I’ve ever witnessed, best described as a fun filled party atmosphere (complete with balloons and music) but with an under-current of sinister. Men with guns patrolled the aisles whilst Dragan and his family boogied to Wallachian folk anthems and glugged down bottle after bottle of tuica (plum liquor). It looked as though it could turn bloody at any moment, and perhaps it did! I did have my camera on me, but due to the intimidating atmosphere and the beggars, I kept my camera firmly inside my bag. We decided to abandon all plans for finding Ceauşescu's grave. If a gun battle was to happen, it would happen there.
On the way back I made my way into a garage for juice and snacks. The guy behind the till didn’t speak English but wrote the price down. It was way overpriced. I made that stupid “I don’t understand - me dumb foreigner” face and gestured. He then re-wrote the price on a separate sheet of paper but moved the decimal point/comma. He had tried to charge me almost £40 for some snacks and juice. I had heard that corruption was rife in Romania…
Later on that night we ended up drinking at the “English Bar” inside Bucharest’s Hilton hotel, made famous in “The Balkan Trilogy” and full of bullet holes as a result of the 1989 “revolution” (the person who won the “election” after Ceauşescu's execution was one of his former right-hand men). While sitting with my ursus someone’s arse edged perilously close to my ear and we soon discovered that the ass belonged to none other than Woody Harrelson! A quick visit to imdb confirmed that he was there filming Bunraku with Demi Moore, and we heard that she had been in the previous week.
After the excitement of mingling with the stars in Bucharest we headed to the main train station - Transylvania bound. Sadly being used to how things operate in the West we weren't prepared for the experience. There were no ticket machines and out of a dozen ticket desks only 4 were open and each had a long queue, and they weren't moving. Men and women in front quarreled, almost as if you had to argue to get your ticket and I was in no mood to argue in pseudo-Romanian and hand gestures. Time ticked away - if someone were to drug me and leave me here my first thoughts upon wakening might be that this was the meal queue in a Siberian gulag, not post-communist Romania - the opposite queue was moving faster. I switched queues, my queue stopped. A number of people joined my old queue. People jostled, an old man and a woman pushed in front of me, what they said I'll never know. I gave up. We missed our intended train and the next one wasn't due for another 6 hours. When we returned to the station 5 hours later there was no queue and so we had to while away our “free” time in a station where facilities were severely lacking. The public toilet was an experience, you give the little old lady 1 LEI on the way in and she hands you a few sheets of toilet paper as there is none to be found in the cubicles. We discovered this was the norm across Romania's railway stations, but what do you do if you are a few sheets short? My advice - come prepared!
There are 4 types of train in Romania: Personal, Accelerat, Rapid and InterCity.
Personal and Accelerat are the slowest and stop at almost every stop (most are halts) and Rapid and InterCity are the fastest, reaching an exhilarating…35 mph!!!
It took us almost 6 hours to reach the town of Sibiu, joint European city of culture (along with Luxembourg city) in 2007, yet no one in Britain seems to have head of it. Let me tell you this though, because you should have heard of it because it is a very nice tourist friendly city, full of photo opportunities and with plenty of bars and restaurants.
It’s rather Germanic, and reminded me of being back in Weimar, it’s also full of German tourists (and German speakers and menus in the bars and restaurants) due to it being a former Saxon town. Transylvania is actually known as Siebenbürgen in German in reference to the 7 main Saxon fortified towns, of which Sibiu is the largest. We went 2007 on to visit a further 4 of the 7.
We stayed for 2 nights at the 3 star Casa Luxembourg, which was built to be the Luxembourg consulate in Sibiu, but ended up becoming a hotel and gift shop! We paid around £100 for B&B for 2 people and were awarded with a spacious, clean 3 bed en-suite room that looked onto a courtyard and the old church. Very nice!
After Sibiu we hopped on a “Personal” train to Medias, which is another of the Saxon fortified towns. The train was indeed “personal.” We huddled up next to 2 old bearded women who seemed tickled that a couple of westerners would be mingling with the old dears on a rickety old carriage that stopped literally in the middle of nowhere, where pensioners would clamber up and down the steps (none of the train stations had raised platforms) and walk to the nearest village.
There’s also an on board smoking ban, which surprisingly seems to be enforced, so to get your fix you need to make your way to the door…and open it. Even at an a mere 35mph I’d think this would put the notion of quitting in my head, so I’d be interested to see the statistics for the number of deaths each year!
We had to change trains a few times, but it’s a bit daunting when you get to a “main” station, climb down onto the non-existent platform and there’s no information as to where you are, or when the next train is due, and when you do find out that you should be on “Platfom” 4 instead you realise that the only way there is to walk across a stretch of track with a train coming down it. Your alternative is the exit, which is across another stretch of track in the opposite direction. Health and Safety is clearly a new concept!
From the window seats you got to appreciate the poverty and stark contrast to Western Europe. Subsistence farming, horses and carts, towns with dirt track roads. It was a time warp to a time I’ve never known myself. The train journey also took us through Copsa Mica, officially the most polluted town in Romania. As we entered I thought this isn’t so bad, but then we were seated on the right hand of the train, as we looked out the opposite side of the train all we saw was old industry…and lots of it, lying derelict, and then more of it, and more, all of it seemingly abandoned.
I have never been to Mexico but wandering the streets of Medias made me feel like I was in Mexico. The buildings are that yellowy-orange colour that you see in Mexican movies, the streets were dusty, the sun was hot and people were cowering in shaded areas between buildings and makeshift garage-cum-bars drinking beer - none of the bars looked the least bit tempting and so we got our sightseeing done and jumped on the next train to Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Dracul AKA Vlad the impaler, and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Again most people will probably have never heard of this place but let me tell you, it is also very nice! The clocktower is the touristic highlight - places of interest like this in Romania are charged thusly: 5 LEI to enter and then a further 10 LEI to take any photographs, my ticket for the clocktower permitting me to use my camera was a whopping 30 LEI but the ticket actually said 10 but had been scored out and replaced with a hand-drawn 30. That’s capitalism for you; this wouldn’t have happened in Ceausescu’s day! It was also very busy, so it must be a nice little earner for someone.
Also of interest is the aptly named 14th century “Church on the hill.” You need to climb 172 steps to get there, it only costs a few Lei to enter although there isn’t much to see, we cautiously entered the unlit crypt expecting something exciting, alas all we got was darkness and then we were trapped there while a rambunctious tour guide blocked the exit talking at length in Romanian - the international sign for “get out of the way, you are blocking the only way in or out!” does not seem to translate into Romanian.
Teo’s, which is just off the road leading to the steps, is worth visiting, he sells various wines and liquors and will let you try before you buy, we opted for the “fruits of the forest” liquor, which at roughly £4 a bottle is good value for its 25% potency. He also offers accommodation if you feel like downing a bottle in 1 go.
Whilst in Sighisoara we caught the May day celebrations, a grassed area beneath the citadel was set aside and populated with stalls utilising “England” gazebos. Presumably after a few disappointing world cup campaigns they were going cheap on ebay. A beer was only 2 Lei (40p!) and Mici (sausage-like spicy meatballs) were being sold. At one of the stalls I tried a Hungarian sweet pastry and bought a few bottles of local wine. And then 2 horse drawn carts loaded with chanting old women pulled into the festival area, followed by children in national dress who sang and danced on stage, next the old women were on stage singing, the music went on through the night, well into darkness. That night I ventured out to take some night shots…there's something odd about wandering the deserted streets of a dimly-lit medieval town at night, one you've never been to before, where you don't know your way around and you can't speak the language and all the while you are aware that it was the birthplace of one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants the world has ever known, and there you are with your camera and tripod taking photos but feeling slightly scared that no one is around, perhaps because the locals know something you don't...a vampire could drop from the sky and plunge it's fangs into your neck at any moment and you have no garlic, no crucifix, no wooden stake, all this was going through my head while the muffled sound of a David Hasslehoff cover version reverberated from somewhere down below. My spine tingled, the reason for the deserted streets was scarily obvious.
We stayed right in the heart of the old town at Legenda House, which was under £50 for 2 people over 2 nights and they gave us half price vouchers for Casa Dracul (Home of Dracula). His house is now a restaurant and when we tried to gain entrance with “A table for 2 please” the man at the door replied “not tonight, we have a problem with…er…gas” Presumably he meant a problem cooking with gas and not a problem resulting from the head chef’s beer and cabbage binge during the May Day celebrations. As we were on our way out a Romanian couple walked past and asked for a table for 2 in Romanian and were waved straight through. That’s Romania for you!
A warning about Romanian restaurants, some are great, many are awful. The pasta place on the corner, next to the pizza place as you turn and come up the hill towards the clock tower was excellent and good value for money. The pizza place next door was ok too but ALL the pizzas seem to include peas and ham, apart from the vegetarian pizza, which was missing the peas but looked suspiciously as though it still contained ham! (In Bucharest I thoroughly recommend the garlic chicken from Varta in and if you order the soup from Caru du Bere be prepared for a full loaf accompanying it!).
Casa Wagner, however, will be forever etched into my memory as it was the worst meal I have ever paid for in my life. A group of Germans came in sat down and waited and waited and waited and then left after it seems the waitress forgot about them. Another table were complaining about the wine. Our food took forever to arrive and when it arrived looked like it had been purchased in Farmfoods and microwaved hastily. It looked awful. It tasted worse. We asked for still water and got carbonated. We also had soup at Casu Cu Cerb (House of the Stag) one of Prince Charle’s haunts (He owns some land nearby and it turns out that he was in Romania at the same time as us), we ordered two different “sour” soups, one of which was twice the price of the other but we had a hard time telling them apart. They were both watery and lukewarm. We again asked for “still” water and surprise surprise got fizzy water. Note: “mineral” water in Romania actually means carbonated, while “Plata” is the old fashioned kind. Even explaining that you want water “without gas” may still result in carbonated water arriving on your table. Perhaps this is the gas problem that afflicts Casa Dracul, and evidently all the other restaurants in town.
Service in Romania can be bizarre, when you walk into restaurants you can often see the look on the waiter or waitresses face’s “Oh FFS! Not another bloody customer…” Capitalism is still a relatively new concept here I feel. Often you will order a starter and main course and both will arrive simultaneously. Expect to be there for a long time – it’s accepted that it is sometimes best to ask for the bill before ordering your food! All waiters will insist that they will pour you a beer but none will do it properly. Also be on the look out for “substitutions”. You might pick something from the menu that says “chicken wrapped in bacon with peas and potatoes” but don’t be surprised if “turkey and ham with beans and chips” arrives instead. In Sibiu we had to make do with a club sandwich whose main constituents were ham and pineapple. We also tried “sheep’s brain”– it wasn’t unpleasant but it was tasteless and uninspiring.
Humourously, the fish “Carp” is known as “Crap” in Romanian. And “cu” means “and” while “unt” means “butter.” Bizarrely there is a margarine spread made with buttermilk known as “Cu Unt” You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Before leaving Sighisoara I got a phone call from Bella Muzica, the hotel I’d booked in Brasov, the next town we’d be visiting. They were annoyed with me for not turning up and were going to cancel my “second” room because I hadn’t turned up on the first occasion that I’d booked. Eh?! A frantic visit to an internet café confirmed what had happened. I had enquired about staying on a particular day when they had no rooms; I then enquired about a different date and received no response. But they had booked me in without confirming, and then when I enquired about a different date to fit in with the other hotels I’d booked they sent me a confirmation email for 1 night only. Usually when this happens you expect to stay for 1 night and 1 night only, not in this case, they seemed to think I was staying for 2 nights, disappearing for 2 and then re-appearing for a further night. The situation was unresolved as we left Sighisoara…so we travelled to Brasov, where it rained and rained and rained. The train provided some “amusement” as we couldn’t get a seat and ended up standing near the toilet from hell. While on the train I received a call from the hotel saying my booking would be ok. We checked in and I enquired about booking a table for dinner. Once again there was a problem with “gas,” well, actually they didn’t say that, they just said there were no tables free, and so we ventured to the only “Scottish” pub in Romania, which apparently sold “Scottish cuisine” Obviously being a ginger bearded kilt-wearing caber tosser I was quietly looking forward to a bowl of salty porage followed by a sac of sheep’s blood. But sadly their menu was lacking anything bloodied and bagged and instead consisted of madras curry, caesar salad, pizza…and no, not even deep fried haggis pizza!!!
Dejected, and with the rain still dripping we went back to our posh but ultimately tiny hotel room where I hurt my knee on the side of the bed, tripped on the raised threshold going into the bathroom and then hit my head off shelving in the bathroom. If I didn’t know better I’d say they gave us this room on purpose. After that we settled down to watch TV and discovered that Price Charles was on our footsteps and that there was currently a medieval festival on in sunny Sibiu. If only we had stayed in Brasov first after all...after that we probably tuned into one of the ethno music channels, of which there are 3, one Romania and two others which are probably Bulgarian. There’s not much to distinguish them, as all 3 play videos of near identical folk songs that usually contain a chorus similar to “Na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na...” My favourite though, is this one, watch out for the dueling bagpipes at 1:27! We also caught some Romanian pop music, much of which is actually sung in English, though how much the average Romanian listener understands is questionable, take the “New York based” Anda Adam and her hit “Punani” with the lyrics “move you punani, go make yourself some money, move your punani, go make yourself some money girl”
After Brasov we headed back to Bucharest, the plan was also to spend a day in Sinaia, a mountain resort, where Romania’s most impressive palace can be found but the rain put an end to those plans.
We walked out the train station and a number of people came towards us asking if we required a taxi, we waved them away. We had heard the warnings about the taxis – only use licensed drivers yet somehow we got roped in by some “friendly” guy. As soon as we saw his unmarked car we said “No way” and started walking away when another guy stepped in, “I am licensed taxi driver” and pointed to his “taxi.” Sure enough it looked the real deal but I noticed that something was missing and enquired how much it was per kilometer (it is a legal requirement for all taxi companies to display this info on the side of their car). He said “I am licensed taxi driver”, but “How much per kilometer?” I asked. “I am licensed taxi driver!” he repeated. We got in the car and straight away 9 LEI was put on the meter. It cost us 5 LEI for the previous taxi ride to the station. We didn’t even have far to go from the station and I was aware that the meter was clocking up fairly quickly. When it came to crossroads where we should have turned off and ended our journey he kept on driving to another set of lights, and then another before coming down a different street parallel to the one we’d just come down. My blood was boiling, when we got out it has cost us 35 LEI. 7 times more than what a legal cab would have charged.
2 days later we flew to Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital of Translyvania, and birthplace of everyone’s favourite bum touchers: The cheeky girls.
I’ve used over 30 airports in my life and Bucharest’s smaller but more central airport; Băneasa is the worst I have used in my life. Try imagining a merry-go-round sized room – ok, now imagine that most of the space is taken up by the “café” in the centre, which is surrounded by stools, pull back and you have check in desks, attach 2 “sheds” onto the sides and make these more check in desks, the arrivals hall, departure gate and security condensed into a space about twice the size of an average hotel room.
Luckily the flight only cost £5 each. Cluj airport is pretty small too but thankfully not as cramped as Băneasa. Warning – if you do ever visit Cluj and are getting the bus back to the airport bear in mind that it does not enter the airport itself, you instead have to cross a dual carriageway and there are no traffic lights, no bridges, no tunnels. Just pick up your luggage and run!
Cluj is pretty nice too. It is home to the Ursus beer brewery (now owned by Miller), which you see all over Romania. They even have a restaurant in town, which we planned to visit. Once we saw it though, it looked a bit of a let down so we went elsewhere and had another unique dining experience. When we saw “fajitas” on the menu at the “Crying monkey” we thought at last, spicy non-Romanian food! Of course our joy was short-lived, the fajitas arrived minus the fajitas…the “Mexican vegetables” consisted of frozen peas and sweetcorn with a few slices of red pepper – not even chillies! While the “Mexican potatoes” were, well, you can guess…
We shared the hotel with seemingly only one other couple. The guy wore an Ebay t-shirt on the first day at breakfast. Who on earth would wear a plain white t-shirt with the Ebay logo? Then we heard him speak, who else but an American of course! It was his complaint about the buffet breakfast that gave him away; evidently it was lacking waffles and “real” coffee. On day 2 he wore a t-shirt that exclaimed “I survived the Conch Ranch!” Good for you mate.
After 2 nights we headed back to Bucharest but the flight was delayed. The information provided by the airport was minimal. The board didn’t seem to work - Why are we delayed? When is the plane due? No one knew. Our yankee pal was on the same flight as us and was pissed off! He had that “why don’t these morons speak English?” look than many Americans take on holiday with them. This wouldn’t have happened in the land of the free I’m sure.
A few hours later than planned we arrived back in Bucharest and attempted another bus. None of the buses seemed to go to the city centre apart from one. Or at least that’s the message that was conveyed to us. So when it arrived it was busy (One day the metro will stretch to this airport too).
On our last full day in the capital it rained and we didn’t achieve much, the highlight of the day was finding an old British phone box in someone’s garden.
When we returned from Romania I had food poisoning and diarrhea for 4 days. This year instead, I have plans to visit the Ukraine and experience a microwaved Chicken Kiev from inside Chernobyl’s Reactor 4. Wish me luck.
In the meantime, if any of you do ever find yourself in Romania, please entertain yourself with “Romanian Bingo”
First person to spot all 27 wins:
Horse and cart
Old woman in sports socks
Badly poured beer
“Attentie! garaj” sign
Woman wearing awful patterned tights
Woman wearing high heels on cobbled street
Cock crowing in city garden
Roma child begging
Ham on menu
Burning pile of rubbish
People in traditional costume
Person with gold teeth
Train station with no signs to tell you what station you are at, what platform the train is due on or what way the exit is etc
Water “with gas”
Dacia car with cracked windscreen or mirror
Crap (in English, the fish “carp”)
Cu Unt buttermilk spread
Starter and main course arriving at the same time
Old woman struggling on or off train
Smoker sticking head out of moving train doors for cigarette