Romania — diamonds in the rough
Times and Places
by Barbara Moser
We decided to visit Romania after Bulgaria because our good friend, Andreas, would have been upset if we ’d missed his country. We had little to fear: it was an enchanting and adventuresome five days. We took the train to Bucharest, where we spent two short days and one night, and then we took a train to Transylvania, where we were not bitten by any vampires. We were, however, bitten by another kind of parasite in Bucharest, upon stepping down from our train car.
It was cold in the early morning rain and we were exhausted, this being the last week of our summer adventure. We were accosted by a “taxi driver” who said he would take us to an “inexpensive” hotel. Since it was 7am, we thought “why not?” and off we went, stupidly following this creep who picked up a buddy as we entered his car. They decided we should change money along the way at a bank-o-mat.
You’re probably wondering how such savvy travelers as we could make not one but three mistakes — not changing money at the station, not knowing the exchange rate, and following strangers into their cars. There is no excuse: we simply let our guards down.
The cohorts told us the exchange rate before I got out at the bank-o-mat, but the amount they suggested was the highest amount one could take out. That ’s when the light bulb went on. I took out about half that amount, got back in the car, and whispered to Irwin that something was wrong and that I thought they were up to no good.
We arrived at the hotel, which looked seedy. An employee was standing outside, seemingly waiting for us. I got out, and asked him what the correct exchange rate was (because our driver and his buddy had asked for what I later discovered was the equivalent of $200 for the 10 minute cab ride.) This guy was obviously in cahoots with our driver. He didn ’t want to tell me the rate, but I found out at the hotel desk from the equally shady attendant. After sending our criminal friends off and paying them the equivalent of $10 for the ride, we took one look around and decided to find a better hotel. Our choice was across from the Hilton, where, luckily that same afternoon, we overheard a group of Israelis on a guided tour. We approached the guide, who put us in touch with another guide for a full-fledged tour the next day.
For $50 we saw Bucharest in four hours, riding around in a nice Mercedes. Our tour included Nicolai Ceausescu ’s palace, built over a massive area he destroyed on the backs of thousands of Bucharest residents. 7,000 homes and 26 churches were destroyed. Ceausescu starved the people to pay for this monstrosity, moving farmers to grim housing blocks in the city and rationing food, while he moved to his palace and literally lived like a king. The people coined this huge building Casa Nebunulu, The Madman’s House.
Thousands of dogs were let loose when people were evicted from their homes, creating an enormous problem that would continue for the next decade. Ceaucescu had wanted to build the world ’s largest building but the palace came in second place, slightly smaller than the massive Pentagon in Washington. On the grounds, there is a costume museum that ’s worth a gander, but I decided to bypass the palace itself because there were no elevators.
We visited a synagogue, a beautiful old edifice still in use, and talked to a few of the senior worshippers outside. Our guide took us to a lovely outdoor restaurant but the fare there was quite ordinary.
About 30 hours after we arrived, we boarded a train to Brasov. On this state-of-the-art train, we met a family of scientists who were traveling to a mountain resort with their two daughters and cat. They gave us suggestions about where to visit after Brasov, mentioning Sibui. Happily, we took their advice. From Sibui it was on to Timisoara, which is near the Hungarian border and is famous as the starting place of the rebellion that toppled Ceausescu and ended his brutal regime.
Bucharest has its beautiful parks and culture, and is climbing steadily out of its years of suffering under Ceausescu. But, frankly, we were happy to head for smaller more walkable towns, and Brasov was one of these. We had phoned ahead and booked a lovely inn about 15 minutes by foot from the picturesque town square. It ’s not easy to book a hotel when you’re changing countries, which in part accounts for our arriving in Bucharest unprepared.
This inn was one of the nicest and most reasonable on our trip. Brasov is nestled in green mountains and, when you are standing in the town centre, you feel at once protected and comforted by them. We needed that after Bucharest!
The wide pedestrian street called Republique is full of shops and restaurants, but mostly shops. We picked the Ambassador Restaurant, right in the middle of the scene, and had one of the most delicious meals I can remember in the six weeks we were traveling (prices in $CDN!) — whole grilled trout ($4.); Grilled Vegetables ($1.60); Cucumber Salad ($1.60); pancakes with ice cream ($2); and our waiter could tell us what to choose in five languages! “It may come as a disappointment to you,” he said in his exquisite English, “ but we’re out of vanilla ice cream.” Don’t worry, he divided the pancake into two portions and filled it with forest fruit ice cream, drizzled with raspberry sauce, a wonderful end to a fine dinner in Brasov. At the time, the restaurant was only three months old yet the wooden deck chairs and tables were certainly a cut above the pizzeria next door.
The beaded jewelry sold in the boutiques along the mall make great gifts. Romania has its own brand of beaded eggs, not unlike the Ukrainian variety.
After one night and two beautifully restful days (I vow to go back) we were off to Sibui on a less than state-of-the-art train. In fact, the doors between the cars were open to the outside and the compartments open to the beggars; one cornered us in our compartment but, thankfully, Irwin yelled and he retreated. It was quite a harrowing ride for me after the last train but we finally made it. Alas, the train station was equally harrowing, undergoing renovation from top to bottom. I was forced to hobble over unsteady planks in the rain and mud while Irwin followed carrying the backpacks, no longer on wheels. We had trouble finding a hotel but knew we had to because there was no way we were going to get on a train at night in the middle of that decrepit station.
As it turned out, Sibui was also being renovated, refurbished for this summer’s crowd. The medieval town square is quite a sight, with every second building undergoing some kind of repair. That and the mud made the place less desirable than Brasov, but if you ’re going this year, all should be in good order. The potential for this town and others in the area is incredible. Romania is definitely the next Croatia, ready for tourists and still reasonable.
I’ll save Timisoara, on the Hungarian border, for next issue, my last installment before we head out on this summer’s adventure to Estonia, and Lithuania and St. Petersburg. That’s the plan for the first two weeks anyway. Then we’ll see!