Bucharest

After a long, slow, grinding train ride we finally arrive in Bucharest. Immediately after leaving the train we are swamped by shady looking characters offering us taxi rides. Oh dear, Bucharest is going to be one of *these* cities. Getting to the Hostel proved to be our first major challenge as unfortunately my friend Stuart had not printed out a map to the hostel. Getting directions was hard as everyone we asked was trying to sell us either a taxi ride, or private driver. Like hell they were going to tell us how to walk. We eventually managed to get some directions from a service station which we at best, vague. After a fair bit of walking it was clear that we were lost in a very dodgy neighborhood of Bucharest. We asked several strangers for further directions but got different answers every time. Eventually I snapped, pulled out my laptop, fired up my mobile internet (paying the significant roaming data charges) and found a proper map to the hostel. Yay. Found it at last.

The next day we decided to do the tourist trail. There’s basically nothing to see in Bucharest other than the extremely extravagant, decadent every-other-adjective-to-describe-excess “Peoples Palace”. It was difficult to understand how such a structure could be built without plundering the entire countries economy for many years, oh, wait. That’s exactly what they did.

That evening we were to catch a train to Istanbul at 12:16(am? – more about that later). We arrived at the train station and noticed that there was no train to Istanbul on the information boards. After a lot of confusion and asking around we really just couldn’t figure out where or if there even was a train. The station staff spoke almost no English but did keep telling is “Tomorrow!” “Tomorrow!”. Was that “Tomorrow” as in a few hours time? Or tomorrow as in lunch time the next day? We just couldn’t really seem to establish this basic shred of information with the Language barrier presented. While we were trying to figure this out we were also surrounded by a hoard of scammers trying to take advantage of our desperation. One dodgy character was trying to pull what I think was the cruelest scam I’ve ever encountered in my life: He was trying to tell us that the train to Istanbul was leaving from a station 60 kilometers out of town, and he would drive us there for 300 LEI. Nice try. If we had have fallen for that one we’d be in the middle of nowhere and 300 LEI out of pocket. Eventually we were starting to realise that we had screwed up. The train left 11 hours ago, at 12:16pm. We confirmed this after pulling out a sheet of paper printed previously. We headed straight back to the hostel and booked last minute flights from Bucharest-OTP to Istanbul-Attaturk.

Unfortunately the hell of Bucharest wasn’t quite over. The next morning we had to head straight to the airport to catch our flight which unfortunately meant a trip back to that damn train station, with all of those dodgy private drivers, and taxi drivers. By now they all know there’s a couple of desperate tourists trying to get to Istanbul so they’re all shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. By now we know all of the possible ways to get to Istanbul – We also know that none of them can offer us anything other than a scam.

The next challenge was to figure out the airport bus. This was somewhat stressful as once again we were hitting the language barrier with the station staff. We eventually got a ticket but couldn’t establish where the bus left from. We had already seen two busses pass us by while we franticly looked for the bus stop, all the while dodgy characters followed us around shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. Eventually we found the stop and boarded a bus. Big sigh of relief. Finally, we were out of this hell hole. As we sat on the bus we watched this horrible city slowly decay back into sparse grassland. After about half an hour I looked out the window to see an Airport fading into the distance. What?!?!? Have we somehow managed the mother of all screw ups and miss the airport stop?! Noooooooo!!! It as as if Bucharest was throwing one last punch. A guy on the bus confirmed that we had missed the airport. Great, We thought we were clear of this place. We stood up with our bags to try and exit the bus. The bus didn’t stop. It kept on going and going and going. At this point I’m on the brink of nervous breakdown. A couple of people at the front of the bus asked us in (would you believe it) English why we were trying to get off. “We missed the airport” We said. “Which airport” they asked. “OTP” We responded. “You stay on” the woman shouted. Whew. Apparently there are two airports in Bucharest and we hadn’t arrived at ours yet. We arrived at the airport and sat for an hour or so in an almost euphoric state. We’re finally leaving this place.

Brasov

After the long train trip from Cluj we finally arrived in Brasov. We decided to catch a taxi to the Hostel who (predictably) ripped us off, charging 4 times the going rate. By the next day we had managed to hire ourselves a private driver for the whole day. We paid an almost negligible 180 LEI (£36) for his days service. He drove us everywhere! First Peles Palace, Which by my standards wasn’t hugely interesting, it was very pretty and ornate, not to mention snow covered as it had been snowing in the mountains that morning but Gee, you know, I’ve seen so many palaces in the United Kingdom that it wasn’t anything new to me. We then went onto Bran Castle A.K.A. Dracula’s castle. We were greeted with an intricate castle perched on a sharp peak of a small mountain. We went inside and were very impressed with it. It had many small rooms and staircases throughout all of the numerous additions over the years, which made it much more interesting than the castles one would find in, say, England.

The second day in Brasov we rapidly hopped around all of the sights (Churches, towers etc) and saw the “Narrowest street in Europe” which was more like an alleyway and a little disappointing. I was hoping for some shops at least. Nope. We then caught a soviet-era cable car up to the top of the mountains overlooking Brasov, primarily to visit a large “BRASOV” sign at the top (very much like the Hollywood sign). As it had been snowing heavily it was freezing cold and subsequently, a tad depressing up there. After visiting the letters we had a beer inside a large, empty, run-down, freezing cold cafe which was a far cry from the comfortable cafes found on hilltops in New Zealand’s cities (or anywhere else I’ve been for that matter).

Food in Brasov was amazing: Everything we ate was top notch, service was excellent and all so incredibly cheap. When I say cheap I mean cheap, about a quarter or less than the prices often seen in say, London. The food was definitely my prevailing memory of Brasov. It’s amazing how much happier you feel when leaving a place feeling like you’ve had good value for money!

All and all Brasov was good. We met interesting people, saw awesome sights and ate amazing food. It’s one of the most enjoyable places I’ve visited so far. As I type this I’m sitting on another train to Bucharest: Romania’s capital city. Something tells me things aren’t going to be quite as utopian as what we’ve had so far.

Cluj

My arrival in Cluj-Napoca was very bumpy indeed. Literally. The plane bound up and down as it came to an eventual stop on the heavily pot-holed, concerningly rough runway of Cluj-Napoca airport. We were all loaded into buses and transported all of 50 meters to the airport terminal. I guess they have at least some regard for health and safety! After a bit of confusion trying to establish how exactly we were meant to get from the Airport to the Centre we eventually came across a small “Dogbox” down the road with a grumpy Romanian woman inside, whom spoke no english at all. With some pointing and hand gestures we managed to get bus tickets. The bus trip from the Airport was a real eye opener, I had not seen so many ruined buildings and shantytowns in my life. Finally, I think, I’m in eastern Europe. Proper.

Eventually we got off the bus at a run-down public square. It was quite a sight: Walls broken, cobblestones missing, weeds everywhere, rubbish on the ground. Wow. The first thing we did was made our way to the main railway station as we were due to catch a train to Brasov that evening. When we got to the station we discovered that we had just missed a train, leaving us with an hour to kill. We wandered down the road and found some slum like housing with children playing in piles of rubble. I couldn’t help but whip out my camera and snap a picture, as I had never seen anything like it before. Within seconds the kids had noticed me and were throwing stones my way in anger. Ooops! better get out of here!

We strolled down the road a bit more and found a playground with 3 kids kicking a ball around. As we approached the ball flew out over the fence and onto the road. I thought I’d be nice and kick it back in. Mistake #2 of the day: Don’t kick balls while wearing two huge packs. The ball didn’t make it back into the park, Instead it bounced off the fence, back onto the road and was immediately run over by a passing car, bursting the ball. I immediately panicked! I just destroyed their ball. I felt absolutely awful as I saw them come onto the road to collect its carcass, staring at it in disbelief and making gestures suggesting they thought there may be some way to repair it. My friend Stuart made the suggestion that I should give them some money for it. Somehow that blunderingly obvious solution to this poignant situation had not crossed my mind. I handed the kids 20 LEI (£6) for their ball and left. Whew. That was that largely solved. With the kind of prices we saw in Cluj, 20 LEI would have bought them several new balls and let them live like kings for a day so that definitely should have covered it!

Eventually we boarded the train for a 6-hour ride to Brasov. Looking out the window along the way was interesting. I saw a lot of small villages and shantytowns without a single car in sight, or even provision for cars. They had no streets, driveways or garages for cars either. There also did not appear to be any electricity or telephone lines wired to any of these places. They seemed to be surrounded by crop fields and were seen moving goods around on horse carts. I was surprised to be seeing this kind of living in an EEA member state! Amish (like) people perhaps? The entire world could go into financial meltdown and these guys would hardly even notice.