By Brianna 22/September/16 Romania
Hello friends! According to the full moon I can see from our train to Baku, Azerbaijan, its been a whole lunar cycle since we travelled through Romania. With mountains, mystery and a darkly fascinating history, this country had far more to offer than we could cram into our tight schedule. But that didn't mean we couldn't try to do it justice.
The 100km journey from Chisinau to the Romanian border was 5 hours of what I can only imagine an earthquake simulator feels like. The bone-shaking, stomach-churning Moldovan roads dragged on into the night and by the time we reached passport control we were all a little worse for wear. We entered the country problem-free, although the relief of a smooth, midnight border crossing didn't even come close to the relief of bus tyres on smooth tarmac surfaces. Thank you, Romania. Better still, as we delved into the heart of mythical Transylvania, black, billowing clouds unmasked a full, golden moon to welcome us into the lair of vampires and werewolves (*evil laugh*). Twilight eat your heart out. We pulled into Brasov station at around 5am and hopped straight on the first bus to Bran, home of the famous 'Dracula castle', to spend a couple of days camping and hiking in the Carpathian mountains. Basing ourselves at 'Vampire Camping' (such fun), we went to see what all the fuss with this town was about.
At first, the only creatures from hell we found were other tourists. The queue to enter Bran castle covered the entirety of the village, winding past numerous identical souvenir shops and over-priced market stalls. As the 'real' Dracula ('Vlad the Impaler' to his enemies, 'Vlad the Lad' to his friends) only stepped foot in the castle once, none of us had the desire to cough up the dollar to go inside. We were far more interested in checking out the eerily enchanting exterior. It may not have any real historical status, but embedded in the jagged rockface was the shadowy kingdom of the Dark Prince, peeled from the pages of a fairytale.
Determined to get the best view possible, we spied a cross on the hillside directly opposite. The climb looked pretty steep, and there was no 'path' to speak of, but it didn't look like it'd take that long to get up there. For fifteen minutes we were on our hands and knees scrambling up vertical, muddy, loose terrain. But that was a small price to pay for the reward of spectacular late-afternoon panoramas of the castle, shrouded in pine trees. And, best of all, not a £10 plastic garlic necklace in sight. The struggle back down has been selectively wiped from our memories but I do remember that it was sufficiently traumatic to warrant celebration with some some local cheese, bread and wine. Well, it would have been, if Cheddar hadn't inhaled all of our delicious purchases the seconds our backs were turned. Bitterly disappointed, I retaliated with a cutting remark about the amount of squidge he had accumulated since we began our overland venture. A touchy subject I was insensitive to mention, Cheddar mumbled something about being 'bootylicious' and then proceeded not to talk to me for the rest of Romania.
Hiking on actual trails the next day made a nice change. We clambered through fields and forests in the blistering sunshine, laughing at the thunderclouds looming over the valleys below. Karma and the distant rumbling didn't take long to catch up with us, however, and we spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering about the hills looking like we'd fallen into a lake. Refusing to let a little downpour spoil our day, we came back to tourist central with smiles on our faces, pleased to have seen a different, scenic side to Bran.
Tent packed, we bid farewell to 'Vampire Camping' and the children of the night, ready to exchange fantastical Transylvania for cosmopolitan Bucharest. This plan went slightly off-piste within five minutes of reaching Bran bus stop, where we met a girl who'd spent some time working in Bristol as a welder before moving back to Romania to marry. Passionate about England and familiar with the potential struggles of navigating around a foreign country, she was eager to help us on our journey. She told us that she was meeting her husband in Brasov and he'd know the best way for us to get to Bucharest. He was a short-haul trucker with a much lower opinion of England than his wife. Over a beer (I still don't know how this happened), he taught us some invaluable life lessons on topics such as women drivers, English drivers, Ukrainian women, Turkish gold, problems of England and the life of a short-haul trucker. Most importantly, he left us with this stellar piece of advice:
'When it rains, you must count money and make love.'
When we had finished up our drinks, the couple generously offered us a lift to the train station. Finally Bucharest-bound, we left Transylvania in hysterics, utterly baffled by the day's series of events.
Miles from Budapest, the similarly named capital city has confused its fair share of football fans and popstars over the years. We didn't find any hidden treasure chests here per se, but the Free Walking Tour was amazing. With its invaders, impalers and Manic-Dictators, the 'Romania' edition of horrible histories would write itself. The tour began at the controversial Palace of the Parliament, the worlds heaviest and second largest administration building. Inspired by Pyongyang in 1978, Nicolae Ceaușescu's architectural minefield involved the forced relocations of thousands citizens and such labour-intensive work that many soldiers died in the construction process. The interior is filled with many narcissistic idiosyncrasies like each step and arm-rest being tailor-made to Nicolae and his spouse's measurements. Nowadays, only a fraction of the building and the rabbit warren of tunnels beneath is used. Fresh in the minds of a great proportion of the population, it's hard to believe such crimes against humanity as government-assisted famine, water and electricity rations and student massacres only happened a generation ago. Makes you wonder why you spent all those years at school learning about the industrial revolution, doesn't it?
And then you've got our mate Vlad, who, turns out, actually is a bit of a lad in the eyes of many Romanians and Bulgarians. Cunning and, erm, economical (?) with his victims, Vlad Drăculea protected the land from Ottoman invaders using, erm, innovative tactics in the field of psychological warfare. I won't describe the impaling process here (Cheddar is a bit squeemish) but it's worth a google, especially if you're a Game of Thrones fan. George R. R. Martin has definitely learned a lot from the likes of Vlad. The very thought-provoking comprehensive tour of the city ended at the statue of Trajan and the She-wolf, possibly the ugliest and most bizarre "symbol of a nation" that's ever been (above).
There's plenty more of Romania that we didn't get a chance to see, but time is ticking and we've been neglecting our east-centric mission of late. Vowing to return to explore the Carpathians one day, there's one more county to tick off on our 'Europe leg' before it's onto round two. Take us to Bulgaria!