A Travellerspoint blog

A City Planner’s Nightmare

Bucharest, Romania

sunny 30 °C

Bucharest is disorientating from the minute you arrive, lacking any coherent organization that may allow a visitor to adapt quickly to their new surroundings. I typically feel quite comfortable wandering the streets of a new city without a map, relying on a few quick glances upon arrival but from there on only checking it if I’m having trouble finding a specific street or place. It is my favorite part of exploring a city, constructing a mental map of my environment which remains etched in my memory for years to come. My keen sense of direction has to date proved adept enough to keep me from getting lost, and in the process, permitted me to stumble upon a variety of hidden treasures away from the tourist centers. This approach, the indiscriminate wandering, backfired on me in Bucharest on more than one occasion, leaving me absolutely clueless as to where I was, which direction I had been walking, and more importantly, how to retrace my steps to a more familiar spot. Bucharest is nothing short of a nightmare to walk around, and if I ever find myself teaching a class on how not to organize a city, this city would without a doubt be the best example Europe has to offer.

Though there are a few major thoroughfares that provide some semblance of order, there is no discernable grid system, or even perpendicular lines on the map. Almost everything appears to operate in acute angles, creating a maze of recurring triangles that ensures that one quickly lose track of which direction they are walking at any given moment. On more than one occasion I ended up back in the same spot I had been just a few minutes before, a humbling feeling. It isn’t a small town either, significantly bigger than the towns I had spent my most recent days in and bigger than any capital in the region. Its sheer size was intimidating and made the prospect of getting lost even less appealing. That said, by the time I was ready to move on it seemed I had finally figured it all out, noting the important landmarks that would guide me to and from the sights of interest on my agenda. Even the bus system became increasingly self-explanatory, a rare necessity to conquer in a city of this size. One can only walk so many miles in a day before their will to explore has been sapped. With no real center, and no hostels conveniently located in a central location, once I left for the day, or returned, there was little flexibility to come and go. Be warned, Bucharest hasn’t been tamed.

The major attraction in Bucharest is the Parliamentary Palace, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington. Though still not completed today, the project commenced in the early 80s, the brain child of then peasant turned Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Unfortunately for him – and to the great joy of most Romanians – he never moved in. Construction was halted at the start of the 1989 Revolution and Ceausescu and his wife were soon arrested, tried, and executed, all within a few hours. Today only a small percentage of the building is used for administrative purposes, leaving the remainder idle on most days, and otherwise used for state ceremonies or as part of the daily tours through it. It was an overwhelming sight from the outside, even more so inside with the grand ballrooms, enormous granite pillars that support it. To stand on the main central balcony and gaze down the main boulevard leading up to the palace permits one a small glimpse into Ceausescu’s delusional mind, the megalomania
that drove him to remake Bucharest.

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It was truly an audacious vision, with an imprint extending far beyond the Palace walls. His ambition was to reinvent Bucharest as a capital, tearing down almost one fifth of the city – most of which constituted the historic center – to create an Eastern rival to Paris. He purposely built this main road leading to the Palace one meter wider than the Champs-Elysee, a decision which I imagine was received in Paris with little more than a laugh. The result is an enormous east-west road bisecting Southern Bucharest, replete with fountains and flanked by seemingly endless run of identical looking residential and commercial combo buildings. In truth, there is nothing offensive about the street. You can tell there is nothing organic about its development but the problem lies elsewhere; the reality that it’s a hollow shell, with little behind it capable of matching its ostentatious image. In fact, there are often empty, undeveloped lots sitting stagnant. Perhaps that is what happens when a dictator’s vision is interrupted by a revolution, but it leaves in its wake an awkward feel to the whole project – more Hollywood set than neighborhood. This Potemkin village is only aggravated by the former university library which sits vacant, a stone frame with nothing left within. Not so surprising this isn’t the only library sitting idle in the Balkans – Sarajevo’s was burned as well during the siege, leaving a beautiful exterior deceptively covering for a rotting, yet to be restored, interior.

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Tears down a fifth of the city but leaves this tree in the middle of sidewalk that goes around the palace?

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I didn’t get a chance to canvas local opinion on the Ceausescu’s vision, whether reinventing Bucharest was viewed as a positive thing at the time – a necessary facelift to revive Bucharest’s greatness. I imagine views would be quite biased though, given the hated figure responsible for the changes and what must have been upwards of hundred thousand people who were forced to relocate. Even more interesting would be how its viewed today? Is it treated as a giant scar? An endearing bastard son they have come to accept as their own over time? Or perhaps an unintended monument to an ugly past? Many possibilities…

The remainder of the city, beyond its confusion, presents a weird fusion of old and new. Almost every part of the city shares this strange juxtaposition, decadent old homes showing off impressive wood and stone work up against nondescript cement blocks, with little continuity in style from one building to the next. The new kid on the block seems to be the even more modern looking glass windowed number, mixed in just as haphazardly with virtually no effort to fit the existing landscape. Throw in all the road work, a constant it seems in all parts of Romania right now, and you make a grim, dirty city feel even dirtier, grimmer. Even more telling of the jumbled manner the city was put together is the sheer number of electricity wires that hang from pole to pole – see picture. It’s a scary sight, with almost every pole in the city harboring a giant knot of wires – ten to fifteen minimum it seems.

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The only real oasis the entire city has to offer is a great central park – the Cişmigiu Gardens – teeming with activity after night falls and a favorite place to congregate for young couples and families. It is a very green area, with plenty of trees hanging over cement paths winding around a number of man made lakes. It has a very pleasant, calming effect on everyone, very much needed amidst the chaotic, cement jungle around it.

The last area of note to mention is the Memorial of Rebirth, the monument commemorating the revolution located in Revolution Square. It’s a strange piece, a giant pillar with what is referred to as a crown though looks more like a brain driven though it toward the top. Next to it sits a wall that is a little reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in that it names all the victims who sacrificed their lives for the movement. It seems to be controversial in Bucharest, with many confused as to the message or symbolism it is trying to evoke.

Memorial of Rebirth

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River View:

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In the end, if not a pretty place to visit it was a fascinating one. Its scars are open. Nothing is hidden. And memories of recent growing pains are latent. Don't spend a lot of time here, but definitely see it. It's unique.

Posted by AAY 13:56 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

A Breath of Fresh Air

Sibiu, Romania

sunny 22 °C

There is little doubt that the real estate I have devoted to Romania’s transportation deficiencies has grown a little old. I must sound like a broken record, and again, my apologies must be expressed to what seems to be an otherwise interesting, albeit frustrating, country to visit. It’s quite unfortunate – and telling – that we are so quick to let moments of frustration – singular or recurring – supplant, if not completely obliterate, any fondness we may develop for a country. So with an eye toward presenting a far more uplifting message in this entry, my intention is to limit my account of the travel and focus more on my appreciation for Sibiu; a breath of fresh amidst all the moments of frustration Romania offered. But first…

Waking up alone in a foreign country on your birthday is somewhat of a strange experience. Though never one to place too much emphasis on my birthday, it was a little goofy spending an entire day in the company of strangers, never mentioning what is personally relevant about the date. Sure the emails from home were nice, but having everyone you care about operating on an eight hour time delay can be limiting. So perhaps next year I will make more of an effort to be around friends and family, though it remained memorable.

As mentioned in the previous entry, my goal for the day was to navigate my way from Sighisoara to Sibiu in as pain free a manner as possible. My transport options were limited to three buses across the afternoon so after one last stroll through the old town I gathered my belongings and set off for the bus station with my fingers crossed. Though there was some confusion over the timing, and one mini-bus missed, I was able to catch a normal sized bus that would take me the three hour journey through the hills. My wait turned out to be less than two hours – genuine progress – though the ride was another story, the bumpiest bus experience one could imagine. The full sized bus had no business on the back roads, with the road’s contours causing a consistent bob up and down for the entire journey, w/ occasional bumps sending the passengers airborne, once or twice catapulted more than a foot in the air. Thankfully the landscape was some of the best I had seen in a few weeks, rolling farmland stringing together one village to the next.

Arrival in Sibiu was somewhat confusing, having been deposited on road side is some random part of town rather than a central bus station, or such. Thankfully there were a few other backpackers – Hungarian and Spanish couples - in the same boat as me, and after a few awkward interactions with locals, as well as a few educated guesses, we successfully navigated are way to the center before heading our separate ways. As I was unable to find housing in advance, my first order business was to find the tourist office in the central square in hopes that they would be able to help arrange a bed for the night. Thankfully this wasn’t much of a challenge, with the office quickly setting me up a hostel 10 minutes from the main square, just down the way in the lower town. When I arrived, it turned out I was their only guest for the night – a little odd.

One of my main reasons for visiting Sibiu was its status as one of Europe’s Capital of Cultures. Each year, Brussels confers this title on two cities within the union as a means of promoting the cultural prowess of a country and more so, in hopes of stimulating its tourist industry. In its initial years the title was typically awarded to well known cultural giants like Paris and Athens, but in time has evolved into an instrument to elevate often overlooked cities not only deserving of attention but also in need of a boost. Sibiu embodies these two characteristics, a fantastic little place which remains off the radar for most seasoned European travelers, particularly the English speaking crowd. Visiting Sibiu was not only an opportunity to check out another one of these anointed cities, but to do so during the height of its reign, with its resulting festivities.

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Each day, locals and tourists were treated to a laundry list of cultural activities, both promoting the local heritage and traditions but also those from throughout Europe. As one would imagine, churning out a daily agenda of activities is a handful for one city or region alone, so talent from all over the continent is flown in to fill in the empty spaces. Events included almost daily concerts on the main square - one of the more pleasant, cleanest I have encountered, particularly in the East – uncluttered by automobile traffic and dominated more by the varied pastel colors of its buildings than some iconic church. There was also an entertaining parade - led by a drum/beat troupe from the Dutch West Indies - held on a pedestrian shopping street near the square which captivated the mostly Romanian crowd (Caribbean culture is, as you would imagine, typically quite scarce in these parts). In the rain I also watched an amusing Dutch rap group whose lyrics were predominantly in English. My guess is the locals didn’t really understand what they were saying, but in most cases this was probably a good thing as their message wasn’t so uplifting.

That night, I stumbled into the Spanish couple from the bus and ended up sharing a drink with them. It was great opportunity to begin practicing the language given my impending move to Madrid. We slipped in and out of the two languages pretty effortlessly, and I learned a little bit about their home Galicia, the region of Spain which I have been most interested in traveling to in during my time there. After parting ways, I found a little Jazz bar to have a drink, delighted to splurge on a Leffe Blonde, my preferred Belgian beer during my five months in Brussels. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the beer in the Balkans, but you typically encounter simply another iteration of light beer with few distinguishing features from one country to the next. After a beer I decided to turn in, go back to my empty hostel and enjoy the solitude.

The next day was spent mostly on foot, exploring all corners of the upper and lower towns, Sibiu’s modern sprawl, and many of its churches. There aren’t many museums worthy of attention, no historical landmarks of note, and few signs of the revolution or scars of communism. It simply is a pleasant little city to meander through during the day, with pleasant parks to sit and read in, great cafes/squares to grab a drink at, colorful architecture to admire, and a marginalized river to laugh at. It was peaceful, packaged for tourism during the time of my visit – on show, in every sense of the word - and that made it good place to be, raising my spirits and overall opinion of Romania before returning to the capital. Next up, Bucharest – a four hour bus ride which proved to be the most pain free yet – normal in every sense of the word minus the pit stops on the side of the highway where everyone ran into the woods to relieve themselves – who needs a toilet?!

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Posted by AAY 02:41 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Mini Bus Hell and Medieval Transylvania

Sighisoara, Romania

semi-overcast 12 °C

Traversing Romania is a deflating, seemingly impossible feat. Beyond basics trips to and from the capital transport lines tend to be both inefficient and infrequent. To fill this vacuum, industrious Romanians have created a mini-bus empire whose lower prices have supplanted the state-run links as the preferred method of travel for both budget traveler and locals alike. In fact, I presume that their popularity has discouraged government efforts to fill in their timetable knowing that despite any upgrades to their service they still will have trouble competing with the speedy, low cost service provided by this fleet of mini-buses. Romanians don’t have a ton of extra money lying around and are more likely to choose based on cost than on comfort.

That said, the owners of these mini-bus lines have yet to truly master the demand and supply curve for their services, at least for certain popular routes. These buses – simple vans with capacity for fifteen or so – roll into train station parking lots every two hours or so, at which point the waiting horde of men and women scurry to the door, throwing elbows, stomping on feet, everything short of biting to gain pole position on the few spots left vacant by exiting passengers. The most egregious offenders were elderly Roma women – the Gypsy-like underclass often discriminated against in Romania. These seasoned veterans have mastered the subtle art of using their short, stout frames to bump unsuspecting foreigners just enough to slow their progress to the sliding door. Each time a new bus arrived it seemed as if only a few passengers, never more than three or four, would get off. Rinse and repeat two hours later. Though I didn’t take the time to consult a Romanian dictionary it would be safe to say there is no word that translates directly to a queue.

Having arrived at the train station at nine in the morning I finally managed to muscle my way onto the bus shortly after one. I was the last one on this time around, and can thank my good fortune to a Romanian girl who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes, keeping me close and using each others positioning to secure a spot. Unfortunately, there was no seat. Instead I stood with my back plastered against the sliding door, head far above the windows and thus unable to see anything outside the bus. I remained this way for almost two hours, until I was fortunate enough to grab a seat in the back when a few passengers were let off in the middle of nowhere. At this point, I really wanted to just head back to Bulgaria, to the Black Sea to rest at the beach for a few days, to do nothing but relax and prepare for Turkey. But I had a plan to stick to..

The Pearl of Transylvania:

The journey to Sighisoara takes one further into the heart of medieval Transylvania. There is a more rustic feel to the surrounding area; far more sheltered from the debilitating creep of Bucharest than Brasov, whose proximity to the capital ensured a far more aggressive assault on the town’s development. Here one truly can feel as if they are taking a few steps back in time, with only the occasional coca cola bottle littering the roadside there to remind you what year it is, how far we seem to have come. The small city, with no more than forty thousand inhabitants, straddles a river, with its modern development extending from one side and its medieval core enclosed against the backdrop of a small valley on the other. The main square and famous clock tower are perched on one of these hills, safeguarded from attack by its now crumbling city walls.

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The approach to the main entrance – through the base of the clock tower – is well preserved, permitting one to enter the old town in style. It opens up on a nice square complete with church, some restaurants, and the birth place of Vlad the Impaler – again, the inspiration for the Dracula story – which today houses a tourist café. The homes are a colorful mix of pastels, quite similar to Brasov and what one encounters throughout the Transylvanian countryside. It was a bad time to visit though as the towns streets were in disarray. This road work took away a lot from the beauty of the place, but I imagine by this time next year it will only be that more pleasant, that more worthy of a visit. Further up the hill, through a wood covered walkway one finds a secluded church surrounded by a giant cemetery, tightly crammed in and adapted to the uneven lay of the land, with the unrestrained flora enveloping each grave. The morning’s rain intensified the green tint.

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At night the place remains quite sleepy. I met an American couple in my hostel who invited me to dinner but beyond that, there wasn’t much life to the town. We set out in search of a kebab place, my mainstay of the entire trip, but after almost an hour of searching, decided best to settle for some pizza, my other bread and butter option. It was a pleasant enough meal and nice to talk to some people from home, as Romania’s surliness had made me a little homesick by this point, particular with my birthday right around the corner. I had considered staying in Sighisoara for two nights, mostly because I was having trouble arranging a place in the next town on my agenda – Sibiu – but decided to press my luck and move on the next morning after one last tour of the town. Sighisoara simply didn’t feel like birthday material.

Next stop: Sibiu - the 2007 European Capital of Culture

Posted by AAY 11:34 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Am I Still in the Balkans?

Brasov, Romania

overcast 14 °C

Crossing the Danube felt like one giant leap into a completely different part of Europe. Though technically grouped with the Balkans, and most often joined at the hip with Bulgaria, it feels hundreds of miles apart, divided by much more than Europe’s widest river. It feels much more Central European, much more akin to a rustic Germany than its Southern neighbors with their strong Turkish roots. This sense of leaving the Balkans was only aggravated when I crossed the mountains separating Bucharest and the southern plains from the never-ending, undulating hills of Transylvania. Its a pleasant reminder of the influence geography can have, that there was a time when we – or to be more precise, invading armies - didn’t have the capacity to cross mountains and rivers with such ease, and that whole communities – separated by mere miles and an imposing natural barrier – could develop in completely distinct ways, with completely distinct results. That is not to say it was a leap forward or backward. Each nation has its own checkered past, its own struggle for independence, its own scars of modernization, its own development challenges. The economy here may be a little stronger, things may cost a little more than in Bulgaria, but it’s not an easily discernable difference.

And to be honest, though pleasant from the perspective of a student of geography, as a traveler the change wasn’t welcome, and in many ways forecasted my ongoing disappointment with Romania. We were like oil and water, with new issues arising on an almost daily basis which fortified the walls of resistance between me and what is otherwise a pretty fascinating country, with varied landscape, pleasant towns, and its share of unique history, both in the short and long term. I presume that things would have been different if the country had seemed Balkan in nature, that I would have been far more forgiving if I felt like it was part of the quirky, endearing nature of the region. Perhaps it would have been different if I had been traveling from the other direction, from Poland or the Ukraine, even Serbia. But I expected an extension of Bulgaria, a far more inviting country whose sunny disposition welcomed me with open arms. I was not prepared for the unforgiving nature of Romania – where Tourists wear giant targets on their back and moving only a few hours down the road can be a discouraging, all day event. My patience was short when it all began and it took all my resolve to resist sprinting back to Bulgaria, a craving that only swelled with each passing day. I lead with this message only in so much as I’m sure the writing that follows will obscure this impression, as I do my best to recount the country’s best qualities and interesting sights. There are some of those as well.

Brasov via Bucharest Pit Stop

Anticipating a return trip in a little less than two weeks I spent only one confusing night in Bucharest – and therefore will save my impressions (and criticisms) for a later entry. I took an early morning train from the Gare du Nord station – a veritable den of iniquity – to Brasov, a notoriously picturesque town situated little over three hours from Bucharest, right over the Carpathian Mountains which separate Wallachia – Southern Romania – from Transylvania. Be certain to count your change when buying a ticket as the women behind the counters are known to, and tried, to short me my change. When I pointed the difference out to her she didn’t even question my math, or show an ounce of contrition. She simply reached for the additional five lei bill I was owed – just over two USD – and passed it my way without batting an eye. This “tourist tax” is a recurring problem, and appears to be perceived as an entitlement of sorts, a job perk for those who face the inconvenience of interacting with tourists.

The trip to Brasov is a pretty one. To get there one must travel through the valley separating two mountain ranges, passing a number of pleasant resort towns that provide a good base for exploring the mountains or skiing come winter time. The approach to Brasov conceals the inner beauty of the town. Tall concrete slabs saturate the landscape in and around the modern train station. For a moment I questioned the suggestion of those who urged me to visit the small city but once the bus began moving toward the heart of the old town it quickly became apparent that Brasov had much more to offer than my first glances led me to believe.

Passing from new to old parts of the city feels like taking a trip in a time machine – from concrete jungle to renaissance Germany in a blink of an eye. The decaying, pastel paints which peel away from the two story homes that constitute the downtown remain the most distinctive, and endearing, quality of the region. No matter the weather – and the sun doesn’t appear to shine too much – it brightens the landscape in a way that is far more pleasant, far more bearable. The old town is nestled against the hills; with its giant Hollywood-esque “Brasov” sign – as tacky as it might be - looming high above. The town square might be one of the best I’ve seen on my trip, with the old town hall and its impressive clock tower sitting awkwardly in the center, surrounded by a colorful barrage of buildings. All of the main arteries of the town depart from here.

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In terms of activities, there really isn’t much to do in Brasov. It is a pleasant place to walk around, with a few nice churches/monasteries, a few hills worth climbing for better views of the city and mountains, and an eclectic mix of bars to grab a drink in. More so, it is used as a base to explore some of the castles that are located in the immediate vicinity of the city, notably Bran and Peles Castle. Bran castle is the more famous of the two, or perhaps the more touristy of the two – allegedly belonging to Vlad the Impaler, the ruthless warlord whose story served as a basis for the popular vampire story Dracula. Though not a vampire, he was a pretty mean dude who is remembered for once having constructed a wall of impaled Turkish bodies as a deterrent to an invading Turkish army. Though the truth of this story is questionable - the Ottoman army is said to have taken one look at their fallen brethren and turned back. Needless to say, this castle has turned into a giant tourist trap, one which I decided not to visit in hopes of sparing myself of the crowds, and more so, the hordes of peddlers looking to make a profit selling Dracula t-shirts to the ‘invading’ tourists.

Instead, I decided to head to Peles Castle – a short walk from the town of Sinaia (one of the cute mountain resort towns located a little short of an hour from Brasov). It was a great decision. Though there were quite a few tourists the castle did not disappoint and is a suggested visit for anyone who ever finds themselves in the neighborhood. It was built in the late 19th century as a summer residence for the Romanian King and no expense was spared in creating an eclectic architectural interior which reflects many foreign styles of the time. I am usually not one to get excited about design features – preferring the history of the room over its architectural merit. Merely standing in the hall of mirrors or bedroom of Louis the Fourteenth at Versailles was too exciting for me to pay attention to the gold plated bed he had once slept on. That said, this place was cool, really well put together with lots of thought and care. Not too flashy, not too decadent like one would encounter during a visit to one of the Western European counterparts. Perhaps the difference is those palaces always seem to have an awkward sense of history, spanning many generations and thus forced to withstand multiple iterations, multiple attempts to remodel the interior to the fashion of the time. It creates a confused environment, lacking consistency – in particular, Schonbrunn in Vienna comes to mind – as an empire grasps to the last vestiges of its greatness, stumbling to the finish line. Here that isn’t a problem. It has a sense of vitality, from a time in Romanian history when there was a sense of optimism, no sense or expectation that it could all come crashing down with misguided alliances in the world wars and then the crushing weight of communism. It serves as a great symbol of a recent time when Romania exuded strength and for that reason seems to be a popular destination for the Romanian people. Meanwhile, foreigners head to Bran for their vampire fix. I wish I had some pictures of the interior to share but unfortunately, like most places in Romania, there is an exorbitant picture taking fee - about 10 euros – which seemed a little steep.

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Sinaia itself was pleasant enough though was undergoing significant construction projects during my visit, something quite common in all of Romania and for which there will be more pictures to come. The EU has recently opened its coffers generously to Romania to improve its infrastructure and the government has not hesitated to put the available money to good use. Meanwhile, Bulgaria has made little use of its funding. It is a green place, surrounded by dense woods and mountains and would be a quiet place to stay for a bit if you wanted to be closer to the mountains. Brasov is quaint, but it’s the area which matters, not the town in this instance. Just depends on how quiet you like it, what your price range is, and if you like antiquated German style hotels which reminded me a lot of what I saw in places like Interlaken in Switzerland.

Next stop: Sighisoara – the “Pearl of Transylvania”

Posted by AAY 10:42 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Head for the Border

Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria to Bucharest, Romania

semi-overcast 38 °C

Before I recount the unparalleled agony of the border crossing into Romania I want to quickly dispel any potential false impression this entry’s title may provoke. Though it would have been a welcome sight, there was no fast food oasis on the horizon, no cheap Mexican treat to soothe my pallet as my Bucharest bound train sat motionless at the border for what seemed like, though may actually have been, an eternity. I did my best to ration the small reserve of chips – both the bagel and potato variety – I had purchased at the train station with my remaining Lev (Bulgarian currency) but my growling stomach quickly defeated any such effort, and then didn’t respond too kindly to finding out there was little more I could offer it anytime soon.

It was not as if I had not been warned by other travelers, had not heard rumors of the excessive wait times to be expected, but having seen how efficient, how pain free every other border cross through the Balkans had been to date, I couldn’t help but proceed a little skeptical. Bulgarian and Romania are notoriously not the best of friends – perhaps an important factor in the equation – but how difficult could it be if Serbia and Macedonia can handle the same task in a 5th of the time? Though the Danube’s breadth forces all traffic to one crossing point – and the word traffic is misleading, there isn’t an extraordinary amount of movement between the two countries – wouldn’t concentrating the resources be a boon for efficiency, not a detriment?

It probably didn’t help the situation that the train – originating in Istanbul – arrived in Turnovo more than two hours later than expected. I found a seat in the emptiest of compartments with a Romanian man on his way back from Istanbul. We exchanged simple introductions, and continued to communicate sporadically across the trip using whatever hand gestures and facial expressions in our repertoire to express frustration over the trip’s length, the oppressive heat, and any basics facts about each other like where we are from or headed. Over the course of the trip it slowly became apparent that he was either smuggling jewelry across the border or was deathly afraid of the border guards taking his watch, necklace and such – more later.

We were soon joined by, oddly enough, two separate Japanese travelers, probably both in the 18-22 range whose refusal to engage in conversation baffled me to no end. Compatriots, thousands miles from home, are prime candidates for small talk on an excruciatingly long train ride with a three hour wait time sitting at the border. I, by no means an extrovert, passed the hours attempting conversation with a person with whom I shared no common language, no common vocabulary – and would have been quite pleased with someone to speak to in English. It just seemed very awkward for 2 solo travelers to refrain from conversation - even if it is out of character; it is part of the beauty of traveling solo, a necessity to maintain sanity.

The train proceeded along smoothly until we hit Ruse, Bulgaria’s fourth of fifth largest city which rubs up against the Danube. Time drew to a stop as one border guard boarded the train to check/stamp passports – meanwhile, four of his buddies remained sitting idly on a track bench talking among themselves, oblivious to the train’s presence. Eventually one stood up, grabbed a giant hammer which he used to pound the under side of the train – seemingly checking whether anyone was clutching on in hopes of earning him or herself a free ride across the river. After more than an hour of patient waiting – the train lurched forward. Soon the mighty Danube emerged in the distance whose crossing afforded a few fleeting moments of entertainment.

The Romanian side turned out to be much worse. We sat idly for twice the time – just north of two hours – much of which was spent with windows forced closed and thus limited air circulation. The reason which was provided by my new Romanian friend was to prevent people from jumping out the windows, or that at least is what I gathered from his mimicking a person diving into water with the window as his prop. I never realized charades could be so fun, so useful, a game – a training ground for later experiences. My food was now long gone, hunger beginning to strike me down and fully aware that dinner was at minimum few hours away in Bucharest. Used to many a long journey, my impatience was astounding. Sitting idly is no fun.

But, just when I thought we could wait any longer, we began to move. The train’s occupants let out a giant, collective sigh of relief, one of surprise, one of disgust for the wait, and one of anxious hope that we would reach Bucharest – two hours away – by nightfall. At the first town, my new Romanian buddy closed all the blinds, got down on his knees, and reached deep into a crevice behind the garbage can to grasp some item he seemed to have been storing across the long trip. Seconds later he pulled out a giant ball of tape. When we then made I contact, and he saw my look of confusion on my face, he pointed at my necklace, shook my hand, grabbed his bag and moved out of the compartment. It was a very strange series of events.

I finally arrived in Bucharest’s Gare de Nord sometime past 8pm, anxious for a snack and exhausted from a long day on the road. The map gave no indication of the pain I was going to go through this day, and to be honest, having done so many trips like this – whether all day or all night – I wasn’t preparing, or expecting, to feel so worn out from it. The only logical explanation is that there must be something far more deflating about spending as much time sitting in one spot than moving at a consistently slow pace for hours on end. The only silver lining was the few seconds I had to view the astounding breadth of the Danube at this stage of its flow, almost approaching its end at the Black Sea. It’s wide in Budapest, it’s a monster here.

As I set off on foot from the train station I dreaded the fact that I would be taking that same course to get to the Black Sea coast in two weeks time, on my way, on this very same train, to Istanbul. What a nightmare..

Danube:

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Romanian Countryside - an Industrial Wasteland:

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Posted by AAY 09:34 Archived in Romania Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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