Sunday, June 10, 2018

Transylvania Trip

Everyone's heard of Transylvania. It has a mystical ring to it. Because I have a Romanian mum I've always felt some kind of a weird connection to the place and as I'd never been, it was on my "to do" list for this trip.

Originally, my plan was to catch a train from Bucharest and spend a night in Brașov (pronounced Brashov) and then get another train onto Chinsiau but the connections to Moldova were all just too awkward. When you're trying to pack a lot of counties into a relatively short space of time, flying is always going to be a decent option and the cost of flights in Europe has come down a lot.

So, with three nights booked in Bucharest and therefore two full days, it was a no-brainer to go on a day trip from here. This was all organised effortlessly by my hotel. After a tiny misunderstanding about the pick up time (I thought it was 7 am but turned out I had an extra half an hour to make a coffee) Marien (I hope I got that right) the driver came into the hotel lobby to pick me up.

I was off for a big day out - a trip to Transylvania!

Team photo (minus Alex who took the pic)
For me, the main objective was to see the Carpathian Mountains, spend some time in that part of Romania and to meet some people. Dracula and all that mumbo-jumbo wasn't important but a bit of trivial icing on the cake.

I bought a shared tour specifically in the hope that I'd be able to spend a day with some fellow travelers (and also because it's much cheaper) and the group I was with were lovely. Two ladies from Switzerland, one from Canada and one from South Africa.

After a brief exchange of "what's your name and where do you come from" (sadly, I always remember the later, but never the former!) we all settled down for the long drive north. I tried to get some "shut eye" but was too excited really.

Around Bucharest, the terrain is very flat and the motorway north was very straight. But after passing the town of Ploesti (famous, for me for their football team FC Petrolol Ploesti, named because it's an oil town) some hills start to appear and the road starts to get increasingly windy.

Soon, the countryside was starting to morph into something more akin to Switzerland, appropriate as two of our party were from there.

Eventually, after about an hour and a half's drive, we arrived at a very plush looking town/village in the Carpathian mountains called Sinaia. It's a ski resort but in the era of global warming their skiing season is increasingly being curtailed.

Just to the north of the town was our first destination, Peleș castle.

OK. Admission of ignorance time. I'd never even heard of this place before. In fact, being a bit of a moron, when I first saw the name - you'll never guess what I thought... yes, that there was an apostrophe missing. That this was Pele's castle!

Don't be daft!

Pele doesn't own any property in Romania (at least I assume he doesn't). Ironically though, there is a famous person that every Brit will know that owns a lot - Price Charles!

One of these owns a lot of Transylvanian Property
It's that "ș" again.

We really should have a bit of a primer on the Romanian alphabet before proceeding.

Anyway, the place is just stunning. It's set in such a beautiful site overlooking the valley. It reminded me me of Austria, my first ever trip abroad.

There was bedlam outside as hundreds of tourists queued to squeeze through the narrow door to be led around the "castle" with a tour guide of your language. Although Peleș is called a castle, it is more like a mansion. When I think 'castle', I think military.

Queuing Bedlam

Magnificent Courtyard

Reading this was my first knowledge of Peleș

Not Carol King, King Carol

Marien & me
Eventually we were allowed in but the bedlam went on a bit longer as we waited for our tour guide.
Several of us began to wonder if we should start ad libing ourselves.

Eventually the guide came down the stairs and started telling us about the extraordinary opulence of the building we were in.

I don't know if it's just me but I kept thinking it's a camp "Del Boy" out of "It's only fools and horses".

Classic Del Boy...

See what I mean, Rodney?

The building is quite remarkable in a number of ways, notably it had a very innovative central heating system and the curious sounding "central vacuum cleaner" (I forgot to ask Del about that.)

Every room we were led into was designed with the most extravagant furnishings and fittings. I started to feel a bit angry really. Why would anyone be so concerned about their own personal comfort to pay to have such decadent surroundings made for you. "Have it, flaunt it" was never more extreme.

4-5 different types of exquisite wood paneling in this room

King Carol liked war and personally led some troops into battle in wars

His weapon room

Battle gear from all over the world

Even the stained glass had a military edge

Worth more, no doubt, than the World Cup

Dining Room

Now I could tell you a thing or two about that rug

Their own private theater

I must say, I left the building feeling a little relieved to get back to the real world. It's almost enough to make you go Communist. Really, how can such concentrated personal wealth be justified? At the time, of course, there were millions of poor people struggling to even feed themselves.

So, who was this guy?

King Carol I ruled over Romania for 48 years, from 1866 to 1914

King Carol I - ruler of Romania from 1866 to 1914

Romania's history is complicated and I still only have a vague understanding but if you watch Paul's "LangFocus" video from the last blog you get a nice snapshot of their early pre-history.

To understand the more recent changes this one needs to remember the basic Romanian regions...

This is a simplified snapshot of how the borders have changed in the last 100 years.

Europe's borders, generally have similarly changed a lot. I love this animation to show it.

After Peleș it was the relative short 50km trip up to Bran and the famous Dracula's castle.

It is a short trip "as the crow flies" but unfortunately we had to drive and we were fated to experience the Romanian road system at it's worse.

Ironically I'd just told Marien how Georgian roads were so much worse when we got caught up in a seemingly interminable traffic jam that must have gone on for half an hour at least.

Basically, one carriage-way on quite a long stretch of road was under repair and so a set of automatic traffic lights had been set up to direct traffic on the other lane from one of the two directions. It would appear that the stretch was too long and/or the light changes too rapid for the traffic to flow properly.

Some drivers, got frustrated and started ignoring the lights which obviously made it worse. It was chaotic.

Marien called the police...

He then took us down an open road as a detour to skip the traffic. With dark clouds looming overhead the thought going through my mind was 'if it starts pouring we could be stuck in this field' but it stayed dry and we got to Bran only a little later than planned.

Jam here

We were all rather hungry by that time so we ate at a nice restaurant in Bran. I had vegetable soup and meat in cabbage rolls with polenta and sour cream (again). Delicious.

The South African lady, Alex, very kindly phoned the Parliamentary Palace for me so that I could go and visit tomorrow. Thanks again, Alex!

As we exchanged travel stories, Jody, the lady from Canada (who, I have to admit, I thought look a smidgen like Jennifer Aniston out of Friends) came up with a brilliant travel metric that I had never heard of our thought of before.

When I told them that my next stop, Moldova, would be my 60th country, Jody very politely asked.

"I hope you don't think I'm rude, but how old are you?"

"58" I replied after some hesitation (I always have a tendency to round up to the next one, when it's not yet true!)

Then she told us about her "bucket list" thing of trying to go to the same number of countries as the age you are.


I had to do a retrospective analysis of this and I've found that I am currently "on par" as I was in my mid/late twenties.

My travel history - No of Countries Visited against age

Bran is an unashamedly touristic town. The castle there was picked specifically to propagate the Dracula myth. Mumbo-jumbo. Not interested.

Whole Bran 

Nice views and a spectacular site

Count Dralgula

After Bran we headed off to Brașov just in time for a soaking as the dark clouds finally burst open just as we arrived.

Still, it's a lovely town.

I decided to get out of the rain, have a beer, and connect to my loved ones in Australia for twenty minutes.

Waiting to be served - sometimes Romanians don't seem to want your custom

The bells of Brașov...

Our route into the Carpathians and back 
Brașov is actually the other side of the Carpathians from Bucharest, so to get back we had to climb up the hills and then back down again the other side.

Brașov to Bucharest - the ups and downs

Finally, we arrived back in Bucharest where it was time to say goodbye to my lovely group. Peleș was fabulous, Dracula's castle... meh, the Carpathians wonderful, Brașov a bit of a wash out - but meeting you guys was the highlight. Thanks guys!

Thanks, especially, to Marien, our driver and guide. Brilliant job. It was stressful getting out of that jam but he did so with a calm authority. He has a wise head on young shoulders.

After getting back, I was quite hungry again so I popped out just around the corner from here to another Google-recommended restaurant.

They have this lovely secluded garden area at the back where you can get away from the thumping disco beat of the Old City and instead be charmed by traditional Romanian music. The singer, a chap with an accordion reminded me of Jonas, my father in law.

I had a lovely chicken stew with cheese and polenta washed down with a nice glass of red wine.

OK. There's been one Pele reference in here. Not really enough in a World Cup blog.

Frustratingly I found out that a big match was just finishing in Bucharest, a cup final in fact, between Steaua and Rapid Bucharest. Rapid won 3-1.

Oh well. No regrets!

I'm off to the National stadium tomorrow...