At the Diaksport Hostel I met a backpacker who had just come from Romania. He warned me about pickpockets and bag slashers--people with razors who discretely cut into daypacks and swipe whatever they can. He also told me that while leaving Romania by train the Customs officials stole his camera. It happened while he was traveling in a cramped, full sleeper. When the Customs people came in for the border inspection they crowded all the occupants into one corner while checking their luggage. After the officials left his camera was gone. In spite of the bad experience he assured me that the Transylvania area is beautiful and well worth the trip. Just watch your valuables, especially your camera. He was also the first of many to tell me not to go to Bucharest.
I was a bit worried about this and started asking around for more information. The bartender in the hostel bar was originally from Transylvania and visited there occasionally. She was a young woman who sometimes brought her two huskies to work with her, so I took an immediate liking to her. I like dog people. She was ethnic Hungarian (or Magyar, I don't know which is correct) and said her family left because Hungarians are treated poorly in Romania. I had read that when the Austrian/Hungarian Empire was disassembled after World War I the people that had been under the thumbs of Hungarians had taken the opportunity to turn the tables. I had not known that there was still a lot of tension with Hungarian minorities, but was learning that this is an ongoing problem. The bartender confirmed that corruption is a problem and suggested carrying American cigarettes as a bribe. The next day I bought six packs of Marlboro's.
After leaving Eger I returned to Budapest to catch a train to Brasov Romania. I used my EuRail pass for the first time--Hungary was the first country I visited since Germany that allowed me to use the pass. Since people my age can only buy First Class passes, I got a first class sleeper. The sleeper car was almost empty and, while the cabins were designed for three passengers, I got a cabin all to myself. The sleeper had two conductors who looked after their passengers. One spoke very little English and the other none at all, but both made a point of showing me how to double lock my door. The one who spoke a little English emphasized that I had to keep the door locked even while I was awake. "Especially in Romania" were his parting words. I had heard and read so many cautions about Romania I was getting paranoid. I found it reassuring that the conductors seemed determined to prevent problems on their car.
It was past midnight when we entered Romania. I stayed awake for customs and passport control and kept a close eye on my camera. Customs was easy; a sleepy, overweight official shuffled into my cabin and asked if I had a video camera. I said no and started to open my backpack. He waved me off and inquired "No video camera?" When I again told him no he left my cabin and shuffled to the next one. I heard him ask the couple there if they had a video camera. I think this guy wanted a video camera. When dealing with customs in Romania, watch your camera.
Passport control was a little more time consuming. The official held up my passport, noted the delamination on the photo page, and stood moaning and sighing while studying my passport for several minutes. He didn't speak any English but was making it clear he was unhappy. I think the problem here was that I had left a couple of packs of Marlboros in sight and he wanted them. However I didn't know how to safely offer them to him so I waited for him to make the first move. Finally he gave up, stamped my passport and moved on. I was in Romania without offering bribes or losing a camera.
I arrived in Brasov at 8:30 in the morning and was immediately approached by a representative of Maria. Maria organizes home stays and is mentioned by name in my guidebook. The guidebook said that her rooms were acceptable but to ignore her alarmist advice. Maria was definitely alarmist; she advised against doing anything but venturing out during the day with a guide she supplied while keeping my arms wrapped around my daypack. Just the sort of thing I wanted to hear.
Fortunately Brasov did not live down to all the stories and cautions I had heard about Romania. I was cautious and did not leave myself open, but I didn't run into any pickpockets or con artists. In fact, other than mildly suspicious behavior from the officials at the border, I didn't run into much of anything.
I did rent a room from Maria in the apartment of an old couple living near the center of Brasov. It was a nice large room for 400,000 lei, about $16. I especially liked the heater in the room. It was a large brick thing covered with glazed tiles, about five feet on each side. It must have weighed about a ton. It had an opening near the bottom less than one foot on each side where a small fire would be lit and burn for about thirty minutes. The smoke rising from this fire would go through a maze of brick baffles, heating the bricks before going out the chimney. The small fire burning for a short while would cause the entire ton of bricks to heat up. I don't know what temperature the bricks reached, they were uncomfortable to touch but not so hot they would blister me. Once heated the bricks would warm a large room for about twelve hours. Brasov is in the mountains and it was late October when I arrived, so it was getting close to freezing at night. This heater kept my large room warm all night long, and only burned as much MFEM as would be used as kindling in a regular fireplace. These heaters, sometimes called ovens, had been used for centuries all over Central Europe, but this was the only time I stayed in a place using one. They are amazingly efficient; if I ever get a big cabin in Mammoth I want to put a heater like this in it. Of course that probably won't happen any time soon.
Brasov was a pretty but quiet town. My first night there I checked out all the night life available and still got to bed early. While making the rounds I did meet Victor Soloman, singer and guitar player for the Rumanian rock band Solo. He gave the impression this was a big band in Romania. He looked like a rock singer--a big guy with long blond hair and a deep gravelly voice. Definitely not a boy band singer. He said he made over $1000 a month touring Europe, which is big money in Romania. He wanted to play in America but couldn't get a visa. If any of you want to arrange a job and visa for a Rumanian rock band, e-mail me and I'll give you Victor's e-mail address.
Well, enough about heaters and rock singers; I know everyone wants to see my pictures. Or maybe your just skimming this stuff because you can't avoid me and want to say something polite about my Web Page. Whatever, I'll start with Brasov.
Brasov is small, so there isn't much to show. It is pretty. Here are a few shots of the square, the hills east of Brasov, the 1420 Council House, the 1595 Church of St Nicholas din Schei, and a hazy view of Brasov from the cable car station.
Now for the famous Not-Dracula's Castle. Not-Dracula's Castle, also called Bran Castle, was built in 1378 as a toll station to tax trade between the Transylvania and Wallachia regions. Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a Dracula, never stayed there, though lots of postcards have a picture of the castle with references to Dracula. It does look like it should be Dracula's castle. The ornate box you see in the center of the last picture is one of those brick heaters I raved about above.
Another castle nearby is Rasnov. It is much bigger but is not in very good repair.
A short train trip from Brasov is Sinaia and Peles Castle, built in 1883, which belonged to the first king of Romania. My guidebook gave thoroughly inadequate directions to the castle, so I had a long walk and wasted a lot of time before finding it. It has 160 rooms, though it didn't have the huge halls commonly found in castles, making it seem small as castles go. The interior is incredibly well done. Unfortunately pictures aren't allowed inside. The setting is very beautiful. It is also close to Romania's ski areas, which I was told are nice and cheap. If I were a king I'd like a castle like this.
The castle grounds were patrolled by Rumanian soldiers carrying what looked like second-hand Kalasnikov rifles. It occurred to me that I was seeing a lot of soldiers and Kalasnikovs in Romania. More on this later.
Also in Sinaia is the 1846 Sinaia Monastery. Once again my guidebook gave ridiculously inadequate directions. The picture isn't that great but I put so much time in finding the monastery I am going to show it anyway.
I spent three days in Romania, all of them in the Brasov area. It is beautiful country with friendly, but somewhat depressed people. Romania's transition from communist rule was not a smooth one, and I gather the people believe things should be going better than they are. I never did fully shake the paranoia that all the warnings about Romania had caused. I didn't have any problems with thieves, but heard so many stories that I'd advise all visitors to be extra careful in Romania. But like the traveler in the Budapest Hostel who lost his camera, I'd go back to Transylvania.
I left Brasov on an overcrowded, standing room only train traveling through Bucharest into Bulgaria. On the train I talked with some Swiss tourists and commented on all the soldiers I had seen. They told me that the soldiers are there because the Rumanian government doesn't trust the large Hungarian minority in Transylvania. I know that prejudice and distrust of minorities is common all over the world, but I had never before been to a place where the government kept armed soldiers widely deployed to keep a minority passive. I remembered the Hungarian/Transylvanian bartender in Budapest who left Romania with her family because of the treatment they received. I also read in the Economist that the nationalist political party in Romania is led by someone who scapegoats minorities, particularly Hungarians. The party is receiving a lot of support during the hard economic times the country is facing. Romania's western border is with Yugoslavia, a case study on what happens when ethnic tensions get out of hand. I hope the troubles there don't spread east
Everywhere I went, everyone I talked to advised me against going to Bucharest. Even in Brasov people advised against going to Bucharest. Well, my train passed through Bucharest on the way to Bulgaria and stopped there for about an hour. While in the station everyone in my compartment besides me got off (the Swiss tourists had to catch their plane back home). While I was sitting alone a young man entered the compartment I was in and started the most theatric begging I have ever seen. He spoke very little English, just enough to indicate he was hungry and say he would take any currency I had. I told him I had no money. I was lying, I had saved a little Rumanian money in case I needed it on my way out of the country. However he didn't look like he was in terrible need and I didn't want to encourage him. He then told me he was sick and needed medicine. I told him I had no money. He then scanned the compartment, verified that the only bags in there were mine, then repeated the sickness claim. I repeated I had no money. He then started to go into convulsions in the seat across from me. I said once again I had no money. He sat up and pointed to the outline of a coin in my pants pocket. I pulled out the coin indicated and offered it to him. It was 100 lei, worth less than half a penny. He slapped the coin down on the seat and stormed off; angry but in excellent health. My stinginess must have curative powers.
On leaving Romania I kept a sharp eye on my camera and had my Marlboro cigarettes ready if a bribe was needed. However the passport and Customs officials were professional and courteous; no problems at all. In thinking back on my own experience and conversations I'd had with people who had visited Romania, all the stories of problems or suspicious activity came from border crossings at night. I didn't recall anyone having problems during the day. At that time Romania had a president who was pushing to get Romania in shape for eventual European Union membership, which meant cracking down on the country's notorious corruption. I think his efforts had driven the corrupt Passport and Customs officials to the night shift. So if you are planning on visiting Romania, I advise entering and leaving the country during the day. Also, watch your camera.
The corruption fighting president is no longer in office; he came in third in an election behind a former communist and a nationalist candidate who blames the countries economic problems on minorities, meaning Hungarians. The nationalist hinted at a desire to expand Romania to historic borders. Hitler would have approved of this guy. The former communist won the election and is now president of Romania. The Nationalist party is still waiting for their chance. I don't know what is going on with the former president's anti-corruption drive.
Before the train left Bucharest a woman with several large garbage bags full of new, fur collared boots entered my compartment. She was the Bulgarian shoe smuggler. That story I'll save for the Bulgaria page.