Transylvanian Myths and Realities

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Ce nu i-a placut: prima cazare in Brasov si toxinfectia alimentara ….

Braşov and around-Sighişoara
July 6-10

Romania feels quite different from the Slavic countries surrounding it. The Romance language and the Western influence thrive while people curse the time of communist leader, Ceauşescu, and enjoy the possibilities of the future.

Favorite experiences:
– Tour with guide, Georgiana, to castles and fortified churches
· Braşov square and cafes
· The kindness of strangers
· Ciel-Voyages: extraordinary travel company who saved my trip

Least favorite experiences:
· Food poisoning
· Location of first Braşov lodging

· Sometimes finding your train car is tricky

. Don’t be a hero.  Ask one of the attendants where you should go or you might miss your train.
· Travel everywhere with mini-pharmacy!

Vampires, Microbes and Bears, Oh My!
Again (I think this will be a recurring theme!), what a complex history for Transylvania: Dacian, Roman, Hungarian, Ottoman, Habsburg……Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, back to Hungary, finally landing in Romania only after WWII!   I am already frustrated by not having the time to know more about the country, the history, the language… But on we go!

My ride in on the train from Bulgaria was a long and interesting one.   I had a cabin to myself on the overnight train and the attendant looked after me, warning me to make sure and lock my cabin, protect my stuff.  He concerned me a bit, so I slept with my whistle and pepper spray.  After a 2 hour border crossing, we arrived in Bucharest, the seediest-looking station I would experience.  I boarded my day train to Braşov and took my window seat in the little car with 6 people facing each other.  I dozed most of the way, but woke up to hear a local talking to a Mexican visitor about how dangerous Romania is Brasov-happy view

.  He warned her not to trust anyone; talked about the competing mafias; told her not to fall asleep or people would rip her off; she could get drugged or poisoned; and basically painted an awfully grim picture.  When they departed I awoke and realized that the teenager across from me spoke English when I asked him if the train was late.  He said, “You are in Romania; of course the train is late!  So I asked him about the conversation I overheard.  He was such a nice, helpful kid.  But he had nothing positive to say about Romania.  His family is trying to move to Australia.  His opinion was that Romanians don’t care about their country.  They have no pride and will not take care of things, throwing rubbish about and disrespecting property.  I raved about the beauty of the countryside, the history, the castles, anything positive I could think of having just arrived, but he did not relent, speaking quite eloquently but hopelessly.  So at this point, tired and expecting the worst, I was ready to grab that flight to Barcelona and find a beach.  After getting ripped off by the taxi driver (knowingly- argh), I landed in the main square in Braşov, Piata Sfatului.  I was so happy at the sight I literally almost shed tears.  It is a beautiful little square, a tiny Plaza Mayor!  I smiled from ear to ear, went right to the TI and found a place to stay.  Logistics over, it’s off to lunch on the square!  I can’t describe how thrilled I was to be sitting on the square, eating a good, affordable lunch, taking in the scenery:  children chasing pigeons, families slurping away at ice cream cones, couples basking in the sun, old folks promenading about Brasov- one woman play

.  What were my train mates talking about?  This is a gorgeous and happy place!

After savoring the square for a while, I decided to slap my backpack on and walk to my hotel.  The map I glanced at showed it just 100 meters off the edge, why not?  Well, it’s a 25-30 minute walk up a steep hill and you don’t have the street number, super-turista!  This isn’t the kind of wandering that I was after!  After quite a long time, stopping multiple people to ask, knocking on random doors (nobody ever answered), finally someone explained that it was up and around the hill, at the very top near the mountain (FAR more then 100m off map!).  Finally, I got there, drew a bath in my Jacuzzi tub (the reason I booked here), and enjoyed the view of the city at Casa Cristina (overall not recommended, reviewed on TripAdvisor).

Braşov itself is a terrific little city.  The city as a whole is larger, with about 300,000 people, but the old town is compact.  The square, the streets and the beautiful lush parks are absolutely great places to linger.  The streets, especially the pedestrian street off the square, are so active and alive.  This seems like quite a prosperous place at first glance.  I pondered how important it is for a place to have a center, something to orient people, to anchor them, an agora, and something to represent their place in this world Harman fortified church

.    As I enjoyed a delicious dinner at Bella Musica, a great cellar restaurant just off the square, I listened to a young British couple discuss finding meaning and permanence in life.  I took it in, devoured my eggplant and smiled visibly in appreciation of my own life.  At that very moment began a Barry White song, “You’re My Everything,” as if Hubby were channeling my thoughts from across the world, sending me a “Back at ya, Babe.”  Not a bad ending to a day with a rough start.

On a high, I made my way back up the hill.  Still carrying the myth that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I tried to cut through multiple paths to avoid the long walk from earlier, meeting multiple dead ends.  Every single residence had a dog, a very big dog that sounded like he was very serious about eating me.  After a huge Rottweiler stuck his whole head under a gate to growl at me, I had flashbacks of our experience on the mountain with Macedonian sheep dogs.  I found the perfect sharp rock, about 10-12 lbs, that I’m sure would do the trick and carried it with me, leaving it safely inside my gate on arrival.   In the morning I would ask about the dogs and the safety of the neighborhood.  I was told that the neighborhood is safe but the dogs are “protection” from the bears who like to come down in the neighborhood looking for food Harman fortified church

!  Oh my.  Some hikers were killed a few years ago on the trails above.  Geez.  This isn’t the place I want to encounter my first bear.  Next time, I’m following the beaten path home.

Finding no organized tours leaving the next day, I took in the city (in the pouring rain again!), the old fortifications, Black Church, more parks, and had to arrange a private tour with Georgiana  whose name I got at the TI.  Generally a good source of info, the TI did, however, give me the wrong bus time so I missed the last reasonable bus to see Peleş castle.  Que sera. Instead I got to see a random one-woman play, all in Romanian, at the tiniest theatre with about 30 other people.  It took me a while, but I figured out that it was Salome, the play by Oscar Wilde with the decapitated head of John the Baptist… (see photo!)  At any rate, it was utterly enjoyable although I didn’t understand a word.  The actress was excellent, and I have no idea the name of the production, the theatre or her, but I sent her my “bravos” as I left.

Although I woke up the next morning as if I were the one drunkenly celebrating at the World Cup party by the owners upstairs (I wasn’t invited), I was excited to see Georgiana, my tour guide in her bubblegum-pink jacket and ponytail, right on time at my hotel Bran Castle

.  I shot some caffeine and ibuprofen and we took off first to see Harman, one of the old Saxon fortified churches from the 13th century, set in a nice little town where 107 German residents (to be exact) still attend services.  We were the only ones here and Georgiana had the caretaker let us in to take in the serenity.  Georgiana and I chatted about her life in Romania, her college education in tourism and economics, the current economy, and the beauty of the country, among other things on the way to Bran Castle.  I originally refused to visit “Dracula’s Castle” out of principle.   First of all, a fictional character, come on.  Second, the man, Vlad the Impaler, on which the book was loosely based (supposedly- I haven’t read it), was probably never in this castle.  But the castle, from the 14th century, is interesting for its history on Queen Marie and as a contrast to our next stop, so off we went.  Georgiana is quite informed about the history of the castle and about Vlad.  It turns out that he is a national hero to some, psychopath or not, having fought off the Turks, and has as fascinating a story as the fictional Dracula one.  If you don’t know the disgusting story of how he got his nickname, read here!  At any rate, touring the (touristy) castle for the castle itself was actually worth the effort.

As the day continued, I started to feel sicker and sicker Bran castle courtyard

.  I was having such a good time, but told Georgiana that I may need to go back to Braşov and change my plans to see the next castle then leave town. She encouraged me not to miss Peleş Castle, so I agreed and slept in the car as we went, missing most of the gorgeous countryside with green rolling hills and horse buggies.  (TIP: rent a car.)  By the time we arrived, I had quite a fever, a throbbing headache and a feeling just like before my worst food poisoning episode a few years back.   Georgiana was so sweet.  Peleş Castle requires that you join an organized tour, and Georgiana isn’t allowed in.  She talked them into letting her accompany me so that if we needed to make a quick exit, we could.  There was a good chance I would eventually pass out, start vomiting or worse.   I splashed some cold water on my face and we joined the 45-minute tour.  About halfway through, I was simply crashing and Georgiana helped me escape, giving me a speedy narrative as we made our way to the exit and I held on for dear life.  Sick as I felt, I was glad to get a peek inside Peleş.  It is beautiful, with delicate wood carvings and opulence in every detail.  It is called “Neo-Renaissance;” all I know is that it was extravagant and beautiful.  This was another of Queen Marie’s, but supposedly she preferred the simplicity of Bran.   Obviously, I missed the interesting history and am intrigued to know more, so have added it to my reading list (along with Stoker’s Dracula!).

The Kindness of Strangers
By now, it was clear that I wasn’t going anywhere Bran Castle

.  I composed myself and the patient driver and Georgiana rushed me back as I tried to convince them that I would be fine (my appearance said otherwise).  Georgiana called a friend, got a recommendation and made a reservation at another hotel back in Braşov for me.   I landed at the Old City Pension (TIP:  recommended!) where they gave me a quiet room and let me have a late checkout the next day.  I managed to call my hotel in Sighişoara, change my reservation and did not leave the room for 18 hours.

Feeling an infinitesimal amount better the next afternoon and having my own traveling pharmacy, I decided I could make it two hours to Sighişoara, on the way to my next destination.  I stepped out onto another cute little square where I could catch the direct bus to the bus station.  I found the bus with a Sighişoara sign and hopped on, to get the last seat in the back, squished between two men.  At first, a drunken old man 12 inches away from my face simply stared at me. Thank goodness he moved and I dozed off, awakening in another cold sweat.  The only tourist on the bus, I was a horrifying site, but the kind man next to me nudged me as I approached my stop and tried to make sure I knew where I was going.  (In retrospect, I’m guessing they wanted me off the bus.)

After one taxi refused to take me to my hotel, I lugged my bags up into the old citadel and found my little hotel built into the city walls.  I could not have been happier to arrive at the Pension am Schneiderturm, a house from 1795 renovated as a hotel 3 years ago.  Sorin, the owner welcomed me right in, carried my bags up, gave me “the most beautiful room” and made me some magic tea with herbs, flowers, and honey.   I rested a bit, kept down 2L of water (for a bit) and wandered around the tiny (thank goodness) little medieval town, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler Peles Castle

.  It is touristic but a cute stop, nicer outside heavy tourist hours.  I tried to eat (very bad idea) and went back to my room where I realized having a platform bed built on top of the city wall was probably not the best idea tonight, as I would crawl up and down the little steps many times. (Other rooms have normal beds.)  But I eventually landed to snooze and watch more Etno, Romanian folk music video channel showing a live folk festival.  I was so glad that I didn’t throw out traveling pharmacy as I had considered when purging weight from my bag a few days earlier!  After a rough morning, I crawled downstairs and Sorin talked me into more magic tea and toast/honey.  He apologized profusely that they were closing the hotel and going to a wedding and let me stay a few hours longer than practical for him, I think.  He helped me with train schedules and taxi and even paid the taxi driver for me knowing I didn’t have change.  He wrapped up a ceramic sugar bowl as I gift as I departed.  TIP:  Stay at Pension am Schneiderturm in Sighişoara, without question!

Reluctantly, I was off. My destination was Maramureş, in NW Romania. I bought a ticket for Baia Mare giving myself permission to get off halfway in Cluj Napoca if I felt too bad. I found myself in a car with 2 ladies and a young girl.  Again, I must have looked frightening (and surprisingly the gothic look is not in fashion here) Peles Castle

.  As I snoozed, awakening occasionally to glimpse the beautiful rolling hills or a little hamlet on a lake or a flock of sheep, the ladies watched out for me, making sure I knew where to go. (On these trains, you should be ready to jump off as many stops are 2-3 minutes and are not announced!)  Feeling triumphant for my 3.5 hour ride, I disembarked at Cluj to land in the first hotel I found, Hotel Fullton ($51, tiny room, not recommended, reviewed on TripAdvisor).  The hotel did, however, give me the contact information for what would turn out to be one of the kindest people I would encounter.

Dănuţ Tăşămăn runs Ciel-Voyages in Cluj.  Because I hadn’t planned ahead and landed in Cluj on Saturday night, it would be impossible for me to get a tour to Maramureş and Bucovina as I had hoped. (NOTHING is open after 3pm on a Saturday!)  I talked to him Saturday night, told him what I was looking for BUT told him it all depended on how I felt the next day.  He worked up an itinerary for me as I tried to will myself back to health, along with counting on minibar peanuts and cake and an intensified pharmaceutical care plan.  Progress!  I kept down some food and managed some research on next stops.   In the morning, I called Danuţ and told him that I wanted to test myself with breakfast.  After keeping down a bit of food, I met him at their office around the corner.  On a Sunday, he arranged a do-it-yourself tour for me with a rental car and accommodation.  We had to wait for a few hours in his office to hear back from one of the places, so we talked about our travels, literally covering the 7 continents between us (he much more traveled than I).  It was such a pleasure to meet someone sharing the same passions for appreciating the miniscule to extraordinary things in every corner of the world.    But the most remarkable thing was his generosity in providing me the opportunity to see a bit of his country, sacrificing his own time Sighisoara- random photo

.  He even called to check in with me a few times.    I won’t get on my soapbox about the lack of customer service left in this world, but Ciel-Voyages is an exception, and reminded me of how I was taught to treat customers as a child.  I was blown away by this service, no, simple kindness.  My perception is that their expertise is in more elaborate, more expensive international trips, but they truly saved my trip to Romania, because as I would discover, these destinations would be difficult to put together independently.

Although I missed many of the “sites” I had hoped to see, I experienced the kindness of the Romanian people and frankly, it will be more memorable than yet another church or museum.  With gratitude, I took off in my little

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