DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 137: LOOKING FOR BUCHAREST’S HIDDEN TREASURES


Giving Bucharest a second chance…

As you may have deduced, Bucharest did not make a great first impression on us yesterday. We had a mornng in town today and decided to spend our last few hours in Romania looking for Bucharest’s hidden treasures with a local guide. Through our tour leader we found Mihail, a young, university-educated, multi-lingual professional who works full-time and moonlights as a tour guide. 

 

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The Romanian National Opera House – one of Bucharest’s hidden treasures.

 

 

With Mihail we saw a bit more of the city’s historical centre, Lipscani. During the Middle Ages and then again during the Romanian Renaissance (i.e. 19th century, after Romania was liberated from ottoman rule), this was the commercial heart of Bucharest (which at that time lay along the major trading route between Istanbul and Northern Europe). Merchants and craftsmen from all over the then known world established their stores in this section of the city creating a unique blend of cultures and architectural styles. The area became known as Lipscani, named for the many German traders from Lipsca (Leiptzig in German). 

 

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One of Lipscani’s beautiful old buildings, Today it’s a bank.

 

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Another of Lipscani’s renovated 19th century palazzos. This is now a shopping mall.

 

 

During the years of Communist rule Lipscani was let go to ruin, with many of the 19th century palazzos left derelict. As recently as 2010 much of Lipscani was in ruin, with squatters occupying many buildings and streets left in disrepair. Then, after Romanian joined the EU, foriegn investors bought many of the buildings, renovated them and Lipscani today is as fashionable as it was 150 years ago. There are restaurants, cafes and bars aplenty and we could see, as we walked through, that even the buildings that haven’t been restored yet were under renovation. As Mihail said, there is a lot of energy and momentum gathering in Bucharest, with many people hoping for a much brighter future*. 

*Interestingly the main obstacle towards more rapid and efficient progress in Romania, according to tour guide, is rampant corruption. For example, when the EU gave Romania a few billion Euro in 2011 to improve their sewerage systems and drainage infrastructure, the Minister responsible pocketed most of the money and promptly disappeared! And when funds were given to Bucharest to help implement a city-wide garbage-collection service, the owner of the company that won the tender (a friend of the President’s by the way) suddenly got a new Ferrari. It’s a state of affairs seen all over the world, but one that young Romanians like Mihail want to see changed. It certainly seems like there is still a way to go though. 


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Bucharest is really a place in transition:moving from Communism to capitalism; from old to new; from corrupt and slow to efficient and effective – hopefully.

 

 

One of the most visited buildings in Lipscani is Manuc’s Inn – the oldest standing building in Bucharest. Built in 1808 by the wealthy Armenian trader Manuc Bey the inn was bought in 2010 by a wealthy American and restored to its former glory. Today it is once again a restaurant.

 

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Manuc’s Inn – the oldest building in Bucharest.

 

 

At the centre of the historic area are the remains of the Curtea Veche (translation = Old Princely Court), once the home of Wallachia’s (and then Romania’s) ruling Princes. Built in the 15th century by Vlad Tepes (i.e. Vlad Dracula), the Curtea Veche is today just a set of ruins.

 

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The ruins of the Curtea Veche, with a bust of Vlad the Impaler in front.

 

 

Near the Curtea Veche, tucked down an alley, we saw the Mănăstirea Stavropoleos (translation = Stavropoleos Monastery). Built in 1724 this Eastern Orthodox monastery is one of Bucharest’s last surviving historical churches. Many of the city’s churches were destroyed during WWII and not rebuilt the athiest Communists.
 
 
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The inner courtyard of the monastery shows the blend of Eastern and Western architecture common here in Romania.

  

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The Mănăstirea Stavropoleos is definitely one of Bucharest’s hidden treasures.

 

 

It was interesting to hear, however, that a few churches did survive during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign. For example, when an entire suburb in Bucharest was razed to the ground in the late 1970s to make way for the Palace of Parliament, a number of churches were moved rather than destroyed. The churches were literally picked up off their foundations and moved. Mihail had some old black and white photos form the era that he showed us and it was amazing to see whole buidlings being transported on the back of trains*. 

*Mihail had some other fascinating stories to share with us about life under the Communist regime as his grandparents and parents had been living in the suburb that was destroyed to make way for the mammoth Parliament. For example, he told us how his family were forced to leave their homes in the late 1970s and were moved into one Communist-built apartment blocks nearby, where the kitchen and bathroom were shared between multiple apartments on the same floor. Scary stuff! 


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When they cleared away houses to make way for the Palace of Parliament they moved people out of their houses into apartment blocks like this, where kitchens and bathrooms were shared between 4-6 families.

 

 

Many of the churches were moved behind other buildings to hide them from sight (the idea being that if the churches were hidden, people would forget about religion). Mihail actually took us through the back of one of these Communist-era apartment buildings, through an alley that we would never have found on our own, into a clearing behind the huge apartment buidlings. In this hidden clearing there was a tiny church. One of the oldest churches in Bucharest (with parts dating back to the 16th century and a steeple built in 1715), the Apostles’ Church was lovely.

 

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The Apostles’ Church was moved to make way for the Palace of Parliament and hidden behind these apartment buildings.

 

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The beautiful interior of the Apostles’ Church



Our final stop on the walking tour of Budapest with Mihail was the Romanian National Museum. We did not enter the museum but stopped on its front steps to admire the bronze statue there. The statue shows a man of Roman visage holding a wolf; the wolf was the animal most revered by the first Romanians – the Dacians. The statue is designed to represent the heritage Romanian’s are so proud of: a mix of Dacian and Roman. Unfortunately it is one of the ugliest statues ever. Even the Romanians agree with an enterprising Bucharestian starting up a Facebook page dedicated to the statue’s ugliness! The monument has even been described in the Romanian media as “a monument to Romania’s stray dogs”.

 

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Our guide Mihail and the ugliest statue in Bucharest.

 

 

Mihail certainly succeeded in showing us some of Bucharest’s hidden treasures and he’s helped improve our impression of the city somewhat, but only somewhat! It might be interesting to return to Bucharest in 10 or 20 years’ time, once things have been cleaned up a bit, the construction work has finished and the corruption has been addressed. Certainly it was heartening to meet a local Bucharestian who is so enthusiatic about his city and has so much hope for the future of Romania. 

 

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Bucharest is built along the banks of the Dâmbovița River and iis named after a sheppard named Bucha who settled the city. The name Bucha means joy in Romanian. Hopefully the city will become more joyful over the next few years.

 

  

We left Mihail and his fight for a better Bucharest after lunch and caught a train to Bulgaria. It took us almost 7 hours to travel 220km on what has to be one of the world’s oldest and slowest (but still functional!) diesel engine trains. The journey was pretty uneventful, though it was interesting to pass through the Romanian oil fields* and see how flat and featureless the plains in the very South of the country are.

*Who knew Romania was a major producer of petroleum?! The country is one of Europe’s largest producers of refined petroleum and petroleum-derived products, after Russia. Romania was one of the largest producers of oil in World War II with the oil extracted from Romania being essential for the German war campaign.


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“What do you mean Bulgaria is even poorer than Romania?!” says Shane. “Why are we going to Bulgaria then?!”

 

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Crossing the Danube River – the border between Romania and Bulgaria.


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“Bulgaria hey?” First impressions of the Veliko Tărnovo train station are a little bleak. We’ll see when we go exploring our first Bulgarian town tomorrow…


We crossed the Danube, the natural border between Romania and Bulgaria, at about 5:00pm. As soon as we were across the river, we knew we were somewhere completely different as all the writing here in Bulgaria is in Cyrillic! We learnt the basics of reading and writing Cyrillic before we went to Russia in July but it’s been months since we had to use it so first thing on the agenda for tomorrow is to brush up on our alphabet skills. It’s terrible not being able to read! For now though we’re off to bed – it’s been a long day and we need all the sleep we can get because tomorrow we have a whole new city to explore: Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria!


DAY 136: BUCHAREST AIN’T THE BEST


Bucharest: A strong contender for “Ugliest City in Europe”

We left the beautiful city of Brasov behind morning and caught the train to Bucharest, Romania’s capital city. We’ve only been here half a day and already we rate this as one of the ugliest and scariest cities we have visited on our travels so far. We would put Bucharest alongside Naples, Moscow and Nairobi as one of our least favourite cities so far*.

*Disclaimer: We’ve only been here a short time and are absolutely convinced there are good things about Bucharest that we just haven’t seen yet. I’m sure if we had time to hook up with a local who could show us the best side of the city, our opinion would improve. Based purely on first impressions however, we’re not fans.


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Not so keen on Bucharest, Romania.

 

 

This city is dirty, noisy, chaotic and polluted; most of the buildings we’ve seen are in disrepair (with the exception of the Palace of Parliament – but more about that later); and, to top it all off, there are pickpockets and stray dogs* everywhere. For those of you who have been here and liked it, we would love to know WHY you liked it?! What are we missing??

*There are A LOT of stray dogs in Romania, something we didn’t expect. There are believed to be 300,00 stray dogs in Romania, with more than 65,000 in Bucharest alone! The whole issue of stray dogs is very topical here at the moment as a pack of dogs attacked and killed a 4 year old Bucharestian boy in September. The case led to a new law being passed that allows authorities to kill strays on sight. This has led to lots of protests by both animal rights activists and supporters of the new law. Here in Bucharest the large numbers of strays are thought to be a legacy of Ceausescu’s decision to bulldoze the city’s historic center in the 1980s to make way for the Palace of Parliament. In the process, thousands of dogs were abandoned by residents who were forcibly relocated into small apartments. Thousands of people get bitten by the dogs every year and a few die as well. It’s horrendous! The best policy seems to be to avoid the city’s parks and gardens, especially at night, as this is where the packs of half-starved stray dogs are most commonly found.


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Bucharest: Dirty, chaotic, noisy, polluted and just down right scary!

 

 

Built along the banks of the Dâmbovița River, Bucharest is in the far South of Romania. It has been an important city for centuries, and was once the capital of Wallachia. It was from ancient Bucharest that the infamous Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler (i.e. Vlad Dracula) ruled his kingdom. In 1862, after Wallachia and Moldavia were united to form the Kingdom of Romania, Bucharest became the new nation’s capital city; then, in 1918, when Transylvania joined the party, this state of affairs continued. It was during the second half of the 19th century that Bucharest flourished – in fact, the extravagant architecture and cosmopolitan high culture of Bucharest during this period earned Bucharest the nickname of “Little Paris”. So according to the history books, this place used to be one of Europe’s most beautiful cities (some 150 years ago), but two world wars and 40+ years of Communist rule seemed to have left their taint on this once beautiful city.

 

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This must have once been a beautiful city, it’s just been left to deteriorate unfortunately.

 

 

The single exception to this seems to be the oppulent, OTT (i.e. over the top) extravaganza that is the Romania’s Palace of Parliament. After a quick walk through Bucharest’s old town, we spent our afternoon doing a tour of the Palace of Parliament. Built in the 1980s during the years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship (1965–1989), the Palace of Parliament is one extraordinary contradiction after another: a palace built by a megamaniacal leader to show the world how glorious and powerful Romania was, at a time when people were starving. One of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen, smack in the middle of one of the ugliest cities we have ever seen. An enormous construction that contains rooms the size of football fields, lined in marble and decorated in gold, in a country where 60% of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle in rural villages.

 

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Romania’s extravagant Palace of Parliament.

 

 

The buildings vital statistics are insane, for example:

  • An entire historic quarter was razed to make way for the building and its grounds. Altogether 30 Christian churches, 6 Jewish synagogues and 30,000 residences were destroyed or relocated to make way for the Palace of Parliament.
  • The Palace measures 270m by 240m (790 ft). It is 86m high and extends 92m below ground.
  • It has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall, with 8 underground levels.
  • The building is constructed almost entirely of materials of Romanian origin and is the world’s heaviest building.
  • Estimates of the materials used include 1,000,000 cubic meters of marble from Transylvania; 3,500 tonnes of crystal; 480 chandeliers; 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows; 900,000 square metres of wood; and 200,000 square metres of hand-made woolen carpets.

 

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An example of the opulent interior of the Palace of Parliament.

 

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This is not a parliamentary building, this really is a PALACE!

 

 

It’s ostentatious, it’s way too big, and it’s just beautiful. The 2 hour tour through the Palace of Parliament took us through just 5% of the building and left us gob-smacked. If the Palace of Parliament is an example of the beauty Romanians can create, then it is all the more tragic that the rest of Bucharest has been left to deteriorate so much. We can only hope that, as Romania continues to develop economically and politically, Bucharest is given the love it deserves and that this city can once again be something beautiful.

 

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We’re only here one more day – thank goodness!

 

DAY 135: ANOTHER COUPLE OF SUCKERS VISIT BRAN CASTLE


A visit to Bran Castle, where Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was set…

We had a day trip today to see Bran Castle, the 15th century fortress used as the backdrop for Bram Stocker’s infamous 19th century work of fiction. The castle itself was nowhere near as spooky as we would have hoped, but it was a well-preserved example of medieval architecture that allowed for amazing views of the surrounding countryside.

 

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Stunning views of the Romanian landscape from Bran Castle.

 

 

Bran Castle was built in 1377 by Germanic Saxons who settled in the area on invitation of the Hungarian king. The castle was particularly important from a defensive perspective as it sits right on the border between Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia*. It was therefore a first line of defense against potential invaders and played a vital military role until the 19th century when Wallachia and Moldavaia united to form the Kingdom of Romania.

*These 3 regions now make up modern Romania, but once upon a time they were seperate states – Wallachia and Moldavia ruled by their own kings and Transylvania ruled by the Hungarian king. It was only in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was disbanded, that Transylvania became part of the Kingdom of Romania. 


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Overlooking the border between Transylvania, Moldavia & Wallachia, Bran Castle was an important military outpost for more than six centuries.

 

 

In 1920, the castle became a residence of the Kingdom of Romania’s royal family. It still belongs to the Romanian royal family’s descendents who maintain the castle in great condition and no doubt make a fortune off stupid tourists like us who flock to see the castle simply because it featured in Bram Stoker’s novel.   

 

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Bran Castle is really just an average medieval castle. Well preserved but not that interesting really.

 

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The underwhelming inner courtyard of Bran Castle, Transylvania.

 

 

We were disappointed with Bran Castle all round really. I mean, we didn’t see a single bat, wolf or vampire up there! There was just a creepy Romanian guy (let’s call him”Vlad”) hanging around the castle entry dressed in a cape and plastic Dracula mask who was trying to extort money out of tourists to have their picture taken with him. As if “Vlad” wasn’t tacky enough, lining the entry into Bran Castle there were also a heap of market stalls selling all sorts of “Made of China”, plastic, vampire-themed crap. That and the hordes of tourists in the castle itself made for a less than memorable experience unfortunately.

 

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Bran Castle’s very own “Tacky Market”. Yuck.

  

 

In order to stave off a case of the “Grand Disappointments”, we also went to see Râșnov Fortress. Just a few kilomteres down the road from Bran Castle, Râșnov Fortress is much more isolated and far less touristy. This immense 13th century fortress was built on top of the ruins of a Roman citadel, which is believed to have been itself built on top of a much older Dachian* ruin. Perched high on a hill, the fortress has magnificent views over the surrounding mountains and plains. 

*Dachians were a tribe of early Europeans who occupied much of South-Eastern Europe during the Bronze Age. Modern-day Romanians have proudly told us that they are the descendents of the fierce, wolf-worshipping Dachians and Romans, who conquered this region around 100AD. Certainly Romanians seem to have that fiery Latin temperament we’re used to from our travels in Italy. Even the Romaian language is Latin-based,which makes communication for us a bit easier as it’s quite similar to Italian. Surrounded as they are by Slavic nations it’s interesting that Romanians managed to maintain their uniquely Latin language and culture alive for centuries. 


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The far less touristy, and far more awesome, Râșnov Fortress.

 

Like Bran Castle, Râșnov Fortress was used as a defensive fortification by Saxon-Germans who settled here in the 12th century. Even though it is pretty much in ruins now, the fortress was far moodier and more interesting to explore than the super-touristy Bran Castle. 

 

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The ruins of Rasnov Fortress – great fun to explore.

 

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The name “Rasnov” comes from the Dacian word for rose. Legend has it that when the fortress was originally built the hill top was covered in wild roses. Because of this, to this day roses are planted in the fortress’s inner courtyard.

 

 

The absolute highlight of the day however had nothing to do with castles or fortresses; on our way back to Brasov we stopped off in the tiny town of Poiana. This village sits high up in Carpathian Mountains overlooking Brasov and, in winter, is Romania’s premier ski town. At this time of year it is popular with hikers keen to explore the wilds of Romania*. We joined the other hikers for a short walk through the forest and were rewarded with great views down to Brasov and some of the most amazing autumn foliage colours we have ever seen.

*Just a quick note about the Romanian wilds: they are AMAZINGLY beautiful, but seriously wild. One of the greatest surprises for us travelling through the country so far has been how lovely the scenery is. If you love untouched, unspoilt forests, mountains and hills, this is the place for you. Just be warned that they have LOTS of bears and wolves. Apparently one of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s crazy laws was that no one was allowed to go hunting but him; as a result Romanian wildlife flourished during the 46 years of his dictatorship and this country now has Europe’s greatest concentration of large carnivores. Sounds cool until you find out how many tourists get eaten by bears and wolves each year! Hikers be warned…


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Wonderful views over Brasov from Poiana.

 

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The Romanian forest is autumn is just spectacular.


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We just don’t see forests this colour in Aus!


Tonight is our last night in Brasov – tomorrow we’re off to Bucharest, Romania’s manic capital city. It will be interesting being back  in a big city after a week in tiny towns and rural villages. Hopefully the contrast won’t leave us too shell-shocked! Tune in tomorrow to see how Romania’s Big City treats us…

 

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Tomorrow we’re off to Bucharest, our last stop in Romania…

DAY 134: BRILLIANT BRASOV!


Brașov: Romania’s medieval jewel

Welcome to Brașov – one of Romania’s best preserved medieval cities and the country’s most popular tourist destination. 

 

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Welcome back to civilisation!

 

 

It was with some relief that we left Viscri and rural Romania behind this morning, headed for the city of Brașov. With a population of just over 250,000, this is one Romania’s biggest cities and home to 3 of the country’s most prestigious universities. Brașov has an awesome vibe about it – relaxed but cosmopolitan. It’s all very civilised, especially compared to where we’ve just come from!

 

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The beautiful medieval city of Brasov, as seen from Mt Tampa.

  

 

We’re staying in a great boutique hotel right on the central square, which is perfect for people watching. There are heaps of cafes and restaurants all around our hotel and we had a great afternoon wandering through the old town, soaking up the city’s cool vibe. Being a Saturday there were lots of families and young couples out enjoying the unseasonably warm autumn afternoon. This is definitely a more modern and “European” side of Romania, and much more our style.

 

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Brasov’s hip & happening central square.

 

 

We took an instant liking to Brașov. With its cobbled streets and epic Gothic cathedral, this is a very pretty town. Part of the reason Brașov appeals to us so much is that it surrounded by the Southern Carpathian Mountains. With the trees al yellow, orange and red, the forested hills around Brașov’s old town look like they’re made of fire. It’s just stunning. One of the first things we did when we arrived this afternoon was catch the cable car up Mt Tampa to see the city from its lofty heights.

 

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Catching a cable car, Romanian style. Far ricketier and scarier than in Switzerland or Austria, that’s for sure!

  

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Our hotel is way down there, just on the edge of the main square!

 

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Brasov has its name up on the hill, Hollywod-style. So tacky! The best viws of the old town were from between the letters of the sign.

 

 

The old part of Brașov is beautifully preserved and reminds us a bit of Meissen in Saxony (Germany). The similarities make sense when you realise that Brasov was built by German settlers from Saxony, invited here in the 12th century by the King of Hungary. Originally a Dacian citadel, Brașov only began to flourish and propser when German craftsmen, tradesmen and merchants arrived and fortified the town against attacks by the Tatars, Mongols, and later, the Turks.


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Beautiful Brasov – built by the German-Romanians in the 12th century.

 

  

The location of the city at the intersection of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, together with tax exemptions granted to them by the Hungarian king, allowed the Saxon settlers to propser and Brașov soon became one of the wealthiest cities in the region. This wealth meant fortifications around the city could be continually expanded, and watchtowers built to provide early warning against attacks. As we saw today, walking around the perimeter of the old town, most of the original city walls and a few of the old watchtowers are still standing today. 

 

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One of Brasov’s original watchtowers. This one was struck by lightening in the 19th century and its damaged roof replaced 100 years later with glass. It now houses a medieval weapons museum.

 

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One of Brasov’s outer watchtowers. This one was shaped like a semi-circle to allow burning oil or pitch to be tipped onto invaders more effectively.

 

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The oldest surviving city gate, built in the 12th century. The 4 towers with a large central tower was a symbol used during the Middle Ages to let people know that this town had the right to carry out capital punishment for certain crimes. Enter at your own risk….

 

 

Within the old town itself, one of Brașov’s most striking landmarks is La Biserica Neagră (translation = the Black Church). This enormous Gothic cathedral was built by the Lutheran German-Romanians in the 15th century and got its name after a huge fire engulfed the town (and burnt half of it down) in 1689. The fire destroyed the church roof and left it balck with soot; and even though most of the black has been cleaned off, the name remains.

 

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La Biserica Neagră – one of Brașov’s most striking landmarks.

 

 

After an afternoon of sightseeing on our own we headed out for dinner to a local restaurant with our tour group and enjoyed a hearty meal of fresh, free range, organic foods. One of the highlights of our time in Romania so far has definitely been the food; not because of its complexity or sophistication, but just simply because eveyrthing is so fresh. As much as we might poke fun at how rural and rustic much of Romania is, it’s actually been lovely seeing people live so close to the land and enjoy such a strong connection with their food, their community and their country. Even here in the “big smoke” of Brașov, life seems to function at a slightly slower pace and many things still seem a little more “real”.


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Romania is certainly very REAL.

DAY 133: A TASTE & A WHIFF OF THE ROMANIAN COUNTRYSIDE IN VISCRI


Two cream puffs outside of their natural habitat…

Those of you who are regular readers will be familiar with the term “cream puff”. For those of you who are new to Wandering Soles, here are a couple of cream puffs:

 

Cream puffs.

 

 

And here are the above-mentioned cream puffs in their natural habitat:

 

Cream puffs in their natural habitat (i.e. the city, the 5 star resort).

 

 

 

Whereas this is NOT the natural habitat of a cream puff:

 

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NOT the natural habitat of a cream puff.

 

 

How rustic was our day? THIS rustic:

 

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The most exciting thing that happens in Viscri every day is when the cows come home after spending the day in the fields. Pretty rustic.

 

 

We left the relatively civilised confines of Sighișoara’s medieval town walls this morning and drove about an hour into the hills to the tiny village of Viscri. Viscri may be just an hour from the nearest town but it seems that we are in a different world. A world where chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pea hens, horses, cows, dogs and cats roam the streets, and the most exciting thing that happens each day is when the cows come home. A world where the air is rich in farmyard aromas, so rich it made our eyes water. We are are well and truly out of our element here! 

 

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The German settlers who came here 900 years ago built their houses in the traditional Saxon style. The villagers have continued this traditional building style.

 

 

Viscri is a small German-Romanian village originally settled in the 12th century by Germans invited here by the Hungarian king (as I mentioned yesterday, Transylvania used to be part of Hungary). It is one of about 30 such UNESCO World Heritage listed villages in this region and is like a slice of living history. Most of the villagers here live a very basic life, growing their own food and keeping cows, sheep and birds for milk, eggs and meat. 

 

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Life here in Viscri is pretty basic.

 

 

There are just a handful of German-speaking descendants left from the original 13 families that settled in the village from Saxony in Germany 800 years ago, and many of the houses are empty and in disrepair. A small number of houses, however, have been lovingly restored in the traditional style of the area and are still inhabited by the remaining German-Romanians. Our tour group has essentially been billeted out to these families, with each house accommodating a couple of us. It’s a good way to get close to the locals, but it’s a little awkward as they speak no English (only German and Romanian), and we speak tourist-level, crap German at best. Still, Shane and I scored with our home stay as we have a separate little entry into our room and we have our own ensuite bathroom – much easier than having to share the bathroom with the host family! 

 

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The house we’re sharing with our German-Romanian host family.

 

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Our room for the night: simple but clean and comforable.

 

 

We’re actually very grateful to the host family (who, by the way, get recompensed quite generously for their hospitality), as our room is lovely – very clean and comfortable. The only small issues we’ve encountered in our lodgings is that THERE IS NO HOT WATER!  The only way to heat water up is with fire; the lady of the house had to come and light a fire under the water tank in our bathroom to warm some of the water up for us so we could have a shower this evening. Very rustic indeed! 

*Note: I just wanted to put in a bit of a disclaimer here: we’re not really THAT precious. We know millions of people around the world live in conditions like this, and much worse. It’s just a bit of a shock for us as we expected Romania, as a European country, to be a bit more modernised. These are the sorts of conditions we would expect out in the bush in Africa or in rural South America, not in Europe! Still, it is most certainly making this leg of the trip a unique experience, and we wanted to see Romania to learn a bit more about its history and culture!


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The hot water system in the bathroom. Fire and wood in the bottom bit, hot water in the top bit. A bit primitive but it works so we are not complaining!

 

 

After we’d all been billeted out and had settled in, we were taken on a bit of a tour around the village by, Walter, the only German-Romanian gentleman in town who speaks English. He took us down the street (note the singular) traditionally inhabited by German-Romanians, pointing out the unique architectural features of the houses and explaining how the community was organised to help ensure the survival and prosperity of all members. In typical German fashion things seem to be very well organised, with the villagers sharing farming duties and many things working on a shared roster basis. The sense of community is still very strong in the village, even between the German-Romanians and the Roma-Romanians who live in their own village down the road.

 

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We take a walking tour of Viscri.

 

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How most people seem to travel around town in Viscri.

 

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This place is very picturesque, if a little rural for us.

 

 

Walter also took us to see the fortified church that sits at the centre of the town, atop a hill. Characteristic of these villages, the church is built within the confines of a fortified wall, effectively functioning as both a defensive fortress and a place of worship and communal gathering for the people of Viscri. These fortified churches were essential to the survival of these villages as, when they were first settled, they were right on the fringes of the Hungarian Kingdom and were often attacked by  the Turks, the Mongols, the Tatars and other marauders.

 

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The fortified church of Viscri.

 

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The church was surrounded by fortified walls and protective watch towers.

 

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Views over the village from one of the watch towers.

 

Within the church grounds there is also a museum that houses a few items designed to showcase how the German-Romanians of the area lived centuries ago. Looking at how basic life for them must have been made us respect those early settlers all the more! It was interesting to learn that the village only got electricity in the 1990s and running (cold) water in 2001, so really life was pretty basic up until quite recently.

 

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“Come visit the museum of Viscri” says Shane. “Come see old Romanian farming stuff!”

 

 

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Wandering around the grounds of the fortified church.

 

 

Our final stop on the walking tour of Viscri was into the Roma-Romanian part of the village were a blacksmith still plies his trade, making shoes for the village’s horses, and where the old women sit in front of their houses spinning yarn and knitting. In an effort to make some extra money many of the women sell the socks, jumpers and beanies they knit; the wool is lovely and soft and Shane got sweet-talked by one grandma into buying a beanie. Definitely a unique souvenir!

 

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The Roma (i.e. gypsy) villagers live in much more basic conditions than the German-Romanians. The 2 groups keep pretty much to themselves, though they are on friendly terms and trade between themselves.

 

 

We’re having dinner tonight all together at Walter’s house and then tomorrow we’re off again, this time to the city of Brasov. It’s been an interesting day, seeing how the villagers of Viscri live and how they’re fighting to keep their traditional way of life alive in the face of modernity. So many of the villagers have left (and continue to leave) however, that we wonder how long before the history and traditions of the German-Romanians are lost forever. Mind you there are a lot of people supporting these communities in their efforts to rebuild their houses and develop a bit of a tourist trade, so maybe it will continue, just in a slightly altered form. Whatever happens, we feel lucky to have been able to see the village of Viscri and experience something of life here. 

 

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Feeling lucky to be here – though we will be glad to get back to civilisation tomorrow!

 

DAY 132: SIGHISOARA – BIRTHPLACE OF THE REAL DRACULA


Birthplace of a legend

Sighișoara is a small town on the Târnava Mare River in Transylvania, Romania. It’s a rather picturesque, well preserved medieval town that has been put on the tourist map by the fact that the infamous Vlad Dracula (aka: Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Țepeș or Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia) was born here. Not that there’s anything very “Dracula-ish” about the town, except for perhaps the tacky souveniers for sale at every little stall. Still, it’s a very pretty town, as we discovered this afternoon.

 

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The small medieval town of Sighisoara, Transylvania.

 

 

We arrived in Sighișoara this afternoon after a 6 hour bus journey designed to realigned vertebrae and shatter brittle bones (the roads here are sooooo bad we averaged about 50km/h for the trip, which is why it took us 6 hours to travel 260km!). The scenery along the way was all rolling hills and tiny villages, with a few traffic jams caused by such varied obstacles as a horse and cart on the road, cows meandering across the tarmac and even an errent donkey loose on the street. Gotta love this place!

 

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Our views during the 6 hour bus journey this morning: the Romanian countryside and wilderness.

 

 

Sighișoara is part of Transylavania, that most famous part of Romania immortalised in Bram Stoker’s 19th century novel, Dracula. The town was settled originally by the Romans and then, during the 12th century, German craftsmen and merchants were invited to Transylvania by the King of Hungary* to settle and defend the frontier of his realm. Over the years the town was conquered first by the Turks then by the Austrians, though the distinctly German influences remained. When Communism took hold in Romania in 1947 most of the descendents of those original German settlers migrated to Germany and today Sighișoara is home mainly to Romanians and some Roma people.

*Transylvania was actually part of Hungary for more than 1,000 years and only became part of Romania in the 19th century – so Vlad Dracula was technicaly Hungarian not Romanian!


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The colourful houses & cobbled streets of Sighisoara.

 

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Enjoying the autumn sunshine whilst wandering the streets of Sighisoara.

 

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Many of the houses in Sighișoara are more than 600 years old and were originally built by the German settlers who came here at the invitation of the Hungarian king (he invited them to settle on the fringers of his kingdom to protect Hungary from the Turks).

 

 

Due to the majority of the population of Sighișoara originally being German the main church in town is a Lutheran church. Positioned high up on the hill behind the town, the church provided us with a great vantage point from which to view the town and surrounding landscape.


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Views from the Lutheran church up on the hill over Sighisoara’s old town.

 

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Views back over the other side of the hill towards the newer part of Sighișoara.



Behind the German Lutheran church there is also the town’s old German cemetery. It was interesting wandering through the graveyard, reading the tombstones and just enjoying the peace and serenity of the warm autumn afternoon.


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Entry into the Lutheran cemetery behind the church.


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The very serene and peaceful Lutheran cemetery of Sighișoara.

 

 

Walking around the town walls (which are still standing after 800 years), we came across the Clock Tower, once the main gate into the town. The tower now houses a medieval weaponry and torture museum which we skipped in favour of more wandering through the cobbled streets.

 

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The Clock Tower was once the main entry into the old town.

 

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The old town walls of Sighișoara were built in the 13th century and are (mostly) still standing. That’s German engineering for you!

 

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The Clock Tower as seen from the Town’s central square.

 

 

In a corner of the town there is a bronze bust of the Wallachian prince Vlad Dracula, whose parents lived in exile in the town for a few years (hence Vlad Dracula was born here in 1431). Vlad only lived here until the age of 4 though, so the town can only really lay tenuous claim to the Dracula myth, but it obviously keeps tourists flocking to the town so who can blame them for exploiting that link!

 

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Behold: Vlad the Impaler!

  

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Checking out the streets Vlad would have played in as a young child.

 

 

We’re not mad Dracula fans, but even we couldn’t resist the urge to have dinner at the restaurant now established in the house where Vlad was supposedly born. The restaurant itself was not very Dracula-ish at all (i.e. the waiters weren’t dressed up in capes or fake vampire teeth), though the food was great (think potatoes, meaty stews and lots of cabbage). After dinner we had a lovely evening walking around the town, enjoying the peace and quiet of the evening.

 

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Dracula’s Birth House Restaurant. So cheesy we had to do it!

 

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Sighișoara by night.

 

 

We’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep now as tomorrow we’re on the move again, this time to the tiny rural village of Viscri about an hour’s drive away. We’re staying with host families in Viscri (i.e. home stays), so it should be a rather interesting day! We’ll let you know how THAT goes in a couple of days when we have internet again…

 

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Heading into deepest, darkest, ruralest Transylvania tonight….