- 102616 First Class All the Way, Baby!
- 102716 The Trip in the Journey
- 102816 Bucharest
- 102916 Hallowe’en Rave at Dracula’s Castle
- 103016 Castles, Forts, and a 400-Year Old Hotel
- 103116 Through the Bicaz Gorge to Suceava
- 110116 The Painted Monasteries
- 110216 The Wooden Churches of the Maramures
- 110316 Happy Animals and a Merry Cemetery
- 110416 The Apuseni Mountains, the Bear Cave, and the Ice Cubes of Oh-Brad
- 110516 Castles, Forts, Sibiu, and Beer at McDonald’s
- 110616 Poienari Fortress; the True Castle of Count Dracula
- 110716 Epilogue; the Trip Home
102616 First Class All the Way, Baby!
I can’t believe the day finally came. I’m sitting here packed and completely ready to go, and I still have at least two and-a-half hours before I have to even think of getting to the airport.
This trip began, oh I don’t know, maybe four Christmases ago when mom offered to take me on trip somewhere, just the two of us. She loves travelling and so do I, I love her and she loves me, so going on a trip together just made sense. She said we could go anywhere in the world – it was my choice – and we’d be travelling on points so we could go Business Class. The only condition was that I had to pick somewhere that she and her friends were unlikely to travel to on one of their semi-annual trips together so destinations like Hawaii, Australia and Switzerland were off the map.
I had initially selected Vietnam and we were scheduled to go there a few years ago but one thing led to another and mom ended up joining me in Africa instead, where we spent two weeks travelling around Zambia and Namibia together. We both had a great time and I thought that was that, but then the next Christmas that rolled around mom told me that the Vietnam vacation was still on the table.
Then life got in the way as it tends to do; I was busy going back and forth to Zambia dropping off instruments and shooting a documentary while winters in Florida, summers at the campground and the occasional trip to Europe kept mom’s travel bug at bay. Along the way Vietnam got dropped in favour of Argentina or maybe Estonia and Latvia but at least we settled on a timeframe. I ruled out the Baltic’s as being too cold for the time of year and Argentina as being to big for the time we had and somehow settled on Romania. Mom said “sure” and handed me her credit card: she’d be footing the bill but the booking and planning was on me.
And here I am, ready to head to the airport where the glories of Business Class and all it’s luxuries will begin. To be honest I’ve been more excited about travelling first class than actually landing in Romania. That’s not really true; I’m super-excited to see Romania and all it has to offer, it’s just that I can imagine the pleasures of travelling first class more vividly than I can envision all of the who-knows-what that I’ll be seeing over the next couple of weeks. After all, I’ve travelled Business Class before (thanks mom!) and I know what to expect while I’ve not yet been to Romania. So it’s easier for me to picture the comfy, reclining seats, the great food and the wonderful variety of endless drinks than it is for me to imagine painted monasteries, ice caves, and Bran’s Castle, hence when my mind has daydreamed about this trip it has tended to focus on what it knows best: the front of the plane and it’s associate upscale lounges.
Not that I’ve had much time to think about the trip at all, coming as it is at the tail end of a whirlwind of travel. I recently spent two weeks in Venice and Slovenia with m’lady and shortly after we arrived home in Ottawa we took off to Nashville for a couple of nights to see some concerts (as is our habit).
And now here it is a half-dozen days later and and once again I’m packed up and ready to move. I spent the last week planning and replanning this trip, booking, cancelling and rebooking hotels and car hires and just getting an overall feel for what mom and I might be experiencing during our twelve day romp around Romania.
Okay, I got more than a feel. Over the last week I’ve looked into every nook and cranny the internet has to offer and pored through a pair of Romanian guide books I borrowed from the library. I even started reading the copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that m’lady bought for me, which is is sure to contain information invaluable to our imminent travels.
I’ve written up detailed daily itineraries that ride a balance between gotta-get-there and free-to-wander but truth be told the deeper I dug the more specifics I wrote down. Romania seems like it has a heck of a lot to offer but we’ll have to wait and see how fast we end up moving around and what sort of experience we’re after and as we do so we can adjust our (or more accurately, my) schedule accordingly. If we have to skip a few things we’ll skip them, but hopefully we’ll be willing and able to squeeze it all in.
And so it has begun:
M’lady dropped me off at the airport nice and early and I cruised the extra-short priority line through security and went straight to the lounge. I poured myself a healthy Crown Royal & Coke, grabbed a small snack tray and started into the New York Times crossword puzzle.
I was really looking forward to meeting up with mom in Toronto so we could officially start our vacation together. My flight was supposed to arrive in Toronto five minutes before hers but it was delayed by ten minutes, kiboshing my plan of meeting her at the gate when she arrived. She was flying economy from Moncton to Toronto and would have some drinking to do if she wanted to catch up to me – I took full advantage since the moment I walked through the door.
We met up at the Maple Leaf lounge in Toronto with a big hug, a plate full of snacks, and a liberal draw on what was for me yet another bottle of Crown Royal. We had a couple of hours to kill and they went by quick and easy as we caught up on every little thing and I ran through my plans for our next dozen days. This was the first mom had heard about any of the attractions I had lined up for us and I was pleased to see that she seemed pleased with all of it.
And speaking of being pleased we left the lounge early and rushed to our gate so we could board the aircraft and let the pampering begin. We were the first ones on the plane and we soon made ourselves at home in our wide, fully-reclining seats. We picked our welcoming drinks and perused our overly fancy menus, changed into our complimentary slippers and scrolled through the hundreds upon hundreds of entertainment options.
A guy wearing an actual chef’s hat greeted us by name and took our orders for both dinner and our pre-landing breakfast. I plugged into a Muhammad Ali documentary and mom watched Life Of Pi while we were served hors d’oeuvres and a steady stream of wine (for mom) and bourbon. Dinner was delicious, the hot towels were shockingly refreshing, the cheese and port selection after dinner was divine, and when the steward came to make our beds with fresh sheets and pillows we were both impossibly full and very sleepy. We pulled eye masks and earplugs out of our complimentary toiletries kits and tucked in for a few hours of easy rest in posh comfort as our Boeing 777 blasted eastward through time zone after time zone at impossibly high speeds, skirting 32,000 feet above the Earth.
102716 The Trip in the Journey
I was already awake when the deep blue lighting in the cabin slowly morphed into a bright, morning-like hue. I was a little disappointed with my small-ish (though tasty) breakfast until I realized I was only looking at the hors d’oeuvres. When my mushroom-smothered omelet was presented upon a fresh tablecloth alongside coffee, fresh fruit, sausages, a warm croissant and a flickering, fake candle I was already full but it was just too good not to eat.
(Just before we landed I heard one of the world’s most clichèd lines for the first time in my life as a stewardess came on the PA asking, “If there are any doctors on the flight would they please make themselves known to the cabin crew.” I was very glad that I had decided not to go for my PhD back in music school, as my belly was definitely too full and I just didn’t feel like getting up to help. As a result I have no idea what the matter was.)
When we reached Istanbul it was mid-afternoon local time, but to our internal Canadian clocks it was only seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and despite what our globetrotting wristwatches were telling us we had only slept a few short hours on the plane.
I was very excited to get to the Turkish Airlines lounge. I had been fortunate enough to visit the airline’s flagship lounge on a stopover during my first trip to Africa back in 2008 and I had memories of it being one of the greatest rooms ever; floor-to-ceiling marble, a snooker table, vast food and drink selections and so much more.
My first impression was that the lounge wasn’t as magical as I had remembered it, but that’s to be expected – my rose-coloured memories recalled some sort of airport nirvana with bikini-clad unicorns serving rainbows made of cotton candy from overflowing trays of diamonds and moonbeams. In real life it’s not that, but it’s still a pretty sweet place to kick back for a few hours while waiting for a connecting flight. I poured myself a few Jack & Cokes, grabbed some delicious snacks and a wifi code while mom drank a coffee and immediately slept it off.
I snuck downstairs and found some cool features I had missed last time. In addition to several extra food options there was also a golf simulator, a large car-racing slot track with flashy NASCAR monitors, several big-screen video games and a grand piano down there, one of two grand pianos in the lounge. These things would have to wait for our return trip though, as I hurried to get back upstairs before mom woke up.
After pounding a quick last drink and welcoming another welcome drink when we arrived in our seats for the final leg of our journey it was everything I could do to stay awake for the ninety minute jaunt to Bucharest, though I managed. We got in about a half-hour late but no matter, in a stroke of genius I had pre-booked a car to take us from the Bucharest airport to our hotel. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this but it sure won’t be the last. It was cheaper than taking a taxi, we arrived with the car already pre-paid with tip included, and the driver was waiting for us in the arrivals hall holding a sign with my name on it. How cool is that?
I’ve always wanted to get off a plane and find someone holding up a sign with my name on it. This was shaping up to be a good trip.
It was a long ride to our hotel with the driver hitting speeds in access of 90 kms/hr through the city streets. We arrived at the Europa Royale in the dark, all we could see of the place was that there was a Starbucks across the cobblestone alley from the hotel’s front door. We would have to wait for morning to find out if we were in a cool area or not, but at least we’d have coffee nearby.
Our room was nice but the view outside of our window was of the inside of the hotel mezzanine, with a suspended walkway just inches from our curtains. I half-considered going out to find a bottle of water and maybe some mix for the bottle of Jack Daniels I had brought with me from Duty Free but I was too tired and lazy to go anywhere. So rather than finding us some drinking water I successfully encouraged mom to wash down her pills with the leftover wine she had pocketed from our last flight. She did so, turned in and was asleep in no time.
I lay there exhausted and wide-eyed for a solid two hours before sleep finally came. Maybe I should have gone for that mix after all. Or, I thought as mom snored away in the next bed, maybe I should have just taken some pills and drunk them down with a little leftover wine.
I woke up at 11am, sleeping a solid nine or ten hours despite needing a few hours to get to sleep last night.
Mom slept until 12:30pm. When I told her what time it was she couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you wake me up!?” she cried, shocked that I had let her sleep so late.
“Because,” I stammered, “last night I specifically asked you what I should do if you were still sleeping at noon.
“And you told me I should let you keep sleeping!” I reminded her.
“Well, you should have known I wasn’t serious,” mom said curtly, wiping sleep from her eyes and pulling plugs out of her ears.
Clearly, one of us is crazy.
We both got up and around and headed out to find some breakfast…er…lunch. Stepping out of the hotel I was happily surprised to see the cobblestone courtyard outside our front door led straight to the Old Princely Court just a few metres away. The Old Princely Court had been on my list of things to see today. I knew it was around our hotel somewhere but given that we had arrived after dark last night I had no idea just how close it was.
The Old Princely Court had been built by Vlad Peles* in 1459 as either a palace or a residence and today it sits in disarray in the middle of Bucharest’s bar/restaurant district. We stopped at a bust of the old impaler for a few photos before heading off to find somewhere to eat.
We walked a large circle ‘round the pedestrian-only area of Bucharest’s old town. With summer long gone we certainly haven’t arrived during high tourist season. The streets were quite barren and several of the businesses were locked up. When we finally selected a restaurant we were all-but scuttled straight back out of the place with the explanation that a large group was arriving and would soon be eating up all of their food.
We ended up eating at what is probably a pretty hoppin’ venue at night but was sitting pretty empty in the mid-afternoon. It was definitely more bar than restaurant, with professional stage lighting dangling over the DJ booth and a dedicated Jack Daniels station that sat sadly dormant in the corner, no doubt due to the nearly non-existent lunch crowd. We both had the penne with bacon and it was tasty as all-get-out, if a bit small. Lacking any semblance of ambiance or friendliness, we waved for the bill and quickly got out of there.
The only time the waitress smiled was when she saw that we had left a tip.
We wandered back to the Old Princely Court and poked our heads into the small but ornate church built next to the ruins. I took a few pictures while mom wandered inside. Eventually I joined her and as we walked out she suggested we get someone to take a picture of us together.
“Nah,” I said, never one to get excited about having my picture taken. “We’ll get one later.”
We walked up Victorie Street, which I had read was the main shopping district but had nothing that interested us at all, and then we ducked down a glass covered alley called Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse that is famous in town. It was really just a narrow strip of empty restaurants waiting for customers and again not really very interesting.
I scanned a tourist map the hotel clerk had given me and saw that the Parliamentary Palace was just around the corner so we set off to look for it. This proved to be a fairly easy task because first of all I had already purchased a miniature of the building and I had it in my pocket for visual reference, and secondly the Parliamentary Palace is the second largest building in the world (The Pentagon is the largest). So yeah, it was hard to miss.
From across the street the Parliamentary Palace looked rather boring so we decided not to get too close, lest we get sucked into a tour. We circled around towards our hotel along a wide, tree-lined street and walked through a park, arriving back on the cobbled streets of old town where we continued right past our hotel and found a place to sit down for a beer.
By 5:30pm we were back in our room laying down for a spell, shaking off the final dregs of jet lag. Later we went for dinner across the street in a large, old building with a courtyard that was littered with dinner tables belonging to the host of restaurants that inhabit the place.
We went up a set of stairs to a busy-looking eatery and were asked if we had a reservation. When we told the lady that we had no reservations at all she suggested we go downstairs, directing us through a different door than the one we came in.
Opening the door to head downstairs I howled and recoiled, nearly shearing the fingers off of my right hand. The door opened outwards and with the door handle just a centimetre from the doorframe there was virtually no way to open it without seriously jamming one’s fingers. I had stopped myself before incurring any serious damage, but the bones in two of my fingers were certainly bruised.
I stopped and stared at the door with wonder, my mouth agape and my right hand throbbing. The doorframe and handle configuration was so poorly designed that to use it was to invariably injure yourself; there could be no other outcome. I marvelled at it, and also at the fact that the friendly waitress had pointed me to the door and offered no warning whatsoever, nor any sympathy after the fact. Either she’s a new employee and unfamiliar with the obvious issue with door number two, she’s a forgetful (and clearly unapologetic) person, or she’s just really, really mean, and perhaps a bit evil.
Downstairs we found a restaurant carved out of a cool brick cellar with no injurious doors in sight. We decided to stay.
The last time mom and I vacationed together I accused her of copying my food order pretty much every time we went to dinner. This trip I was determined to force her hand. Just as I had done earlier at lunch, I silently made my choices and waited for mom to tell me what she would be having.
And once again she picked exactly what I had picked; we both ordered the chicken schnitzel with rustic potatoes (pan-fried with onions, peppers, and bacon…so good). I guess we just like the same foods!
After dinner we strolled another loop around the very stroll-able neighbourhood. It was chock-a-block full of bars and restaurants but seemed pretty dead for a Friday night. Before too long we were back in our room, we played a couple games of crib and mom got ready for bed. I spent an hour or two on the internet and still wasn’t tired so around 11pm or so I decided to go out and see if I could find anything going on.
I turns out that when it gets late it’s a completely different world out there.
The streets were now completely packed with young people perusing the extensive and busy bar scene, many with drinks in their hands enjoying Europe’s liberal open-liquor laws, or lack thereof.
I walked up and down searching for live music. The busiest bars had crowds outside that made it almost impossible to even continue along the sidewalk, and most of them featured live DJ’s. After a thorough walkabout I found two places with live bands and selected one at random, a place called Bordello.
The bar was really busy but not uncomfortable, and everyone seemed to be really into the music. On stage was a shirtless, tattooed heavy metal trio backing a reggae singer. When I walked in the guitar player was absolutely shredding through No Woman No Cry while the singer danced on the bar with his wireless microphone. Eventually I noticed the place had a couple of GoGo dancers strutting their stuff from perches on opposite ends of the old, stucco-ed room. I stuck around for three or four songs and though I was having a pretty good time I decided to call it a night.
Dodging through the surging crowds on my way back to the hotel I noticed through the windows that most (all?) of the bars also featured GoGo dancers, and while the streets were jammed with happy revellers the bars were even more so. Clearly Bucharest likes to party.
Back at the room mom was snoring hard. I popped in my earplugs, closed my eyes and started drowning her out in no time flat.
*We’ll be hearing a lot about Vlad in these pages. The son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad III was the inspiration for the title character in Bram Stoker’s wildly popular novel Dracula, and because of this famous association the prince has gone down in history as the personification of the entire vampire mythology. Vlad and his brother spent a good chunk of their youth in Turkey as part of a prisoner-swap and it was there that he came to appreciate impalement as a preferred means of torture. He took to the vile practice with such vigour, wiping out so many enemies (and innocent bystanders) through this horrible torture method that he became forever known as Vlad the Impaler (“Peles” translates as “the Impaler”). [back to the story]
102916 Hallowe’en Rave at Dracula’s Castle
Woke up, packed up, went to Starbucks. Mom got a small coffee, I got a medium. If we had known these were destined to be the last Western-style (‘normal’) coffees we would find for the next ten days or so we might have both ordered extra-large. We didn’t so we didn’t, but we did sit in a window seat relaxing with our morning drinks and discussing our coming day in what is probably the biggest and oldest Starbucks I’ve seen; the long, two-storey building obviously dates back hundreds of years.
We retrieved our luggage and checked out of our prepaid room. Steps away a row a taxis waited, we were directed to the first in line and were whisked to The Radisson about a mile away where our car-rental agency had a satellite office set up in the very grand hotel lobby.
We waited and waited and finally received our small four-door rental. There were no GPS options available so we immediately set off to find a gas station where (we were told) we would be able to buy a map. Without really knowing where we were going we headed in what we thought (correctly) was the general direction of the airport and pulled off the main street at random in an increasingly bewildering and unsuccessful search for any gas station.
Finally, we found one. I walked inside and flapped my arms about, the clerk obviously misunderstood what I was asking for and told me they had no such thing. Luckily the other clerk was better at interpreting mime, she got it immediately and pointed me to the map section. I walked out with a very nice, laminated highway map of Romania.
I wonder what the first lady thought I had asked for?
With no ability whatsoever to speak the local language we will have to rely on just this map, the sub-par GPS on mom’s phone, and my semi-accurate Spidey-senses to get us around. I especially prefer to use my Spidey-senses. When kept limber they are at least as accurate as a mediocre GPS. In fact, when used in conjunction with a good highway map my Spidey-senses offer a virtually foolproof method of navigation, or so I am led to believe.
To prove the point we soon whooshed right by the airport on exactly the highway we needed to get to Bran, our destination for the day. To celebrate we stopped for lunch at a small place with a surprisingly large menu. Mom and I both got pizza (at least we ordered different toppings this time), she had a beer and I had a small, strong coffee. Romania has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving; driving with any amount of alcohol in your system at all is illegal so I’ll be saving my drinking for times when the car is parked for the day, and at this point we were far from stopping.
I made a snap decision to skip the Snagov Monastery as we zipped by it heading towards Peles Castle. Though I wanted to see the rumoured grave of Vlad that sits behind the monastery it looked like we wouldn’t have time to stop there and visit Peles Castle, and I’m pretty sure mom would be much more interested in a castle than a mound of vampire dirt, assuming there’s even a mound.
It took us quite some time to find Peles Castle but find it we did, snagging a last-minute spot in the small parking lot. We soon found out that the castle was a kilometre or more up a stone pathway through the woods. We walked through the fallen leaves and took several short breaks, perusing the wares of the many vendors that lined the pathway.
When the castle finally loomed into sight we saw the path went even farther, looping all the way around to the other side of the castle. We thought we’d never get there!
And we almost didn’t. When we finally arrived we immediately got in a long line and managed to purchase tickets just in time to hop on the last tour of the day, starting in ten minutes. Unfortunately we would only be able to tour the first floor; only earlier groups can add on the tour of the second floor. We also noticed that the fee for taking photos was more than double what it cost for both of our admission fees.
And though the photo fee would have cost close to $30CDN in retrospect we both agreed that we should have paid it.
The Peles Castle is a beautiful structure that served as a summer getaway for the Romanian king. Built in the late 1800’s, the castle is remarkably well preserved but most impressive is the fact that it remains fully furnished, sitting just as it was when the king died nearly a century ago. Everything you looked at was royal, regal, and highly polished. The place was so impressive that a blind mind haphazardly aiming a camera around the place would invariably end up with postcard-quality pictures.
But at least we saved $30!
Our large group was ushered through room after room by a small, hard to understand English guide, each of us wearing paper sleeves over our footwear to protect the carpets. There was a music room, a smoking room, a dining hall with a table that would seat at least forty people, and all of it decorated and furnished with jaw-dropping pieces of art. One of the more interesting rooms was the armoury collection, about 1,500 swords, guns, and shields arranged in spectacular fashion throughout the small room. Most impressive was the mannequin horse and rider, both outfitted in full suits of armour unique to Romania. Oh, to have a photo of that horse in it’s armour, looking like a four-legged tank!
Outside I tried to make up for our mistake by taking as many pictures as I could of the statues and scenery before we were ushered off the property by security guards that were clearly interested in going home for the night.
And who can blame them? Tonight was, after all, Saturday night of Hallowe’en weekend in the land of Dracula! If there were parties to be had they would be this very evening, and boy did we have a party to get to!
Back at the car we descended through the curved streets and continued on through the dark, gloomy hills and narrow country roads towards Bran, home of Dracula’s Castle.
Well, one of Dracula’s castles anyway. There are three castles in Romania with connections (however tenuous) to Vlad Tepes, and hence to Dracula. There is the Corvin Castle where the dark prince was held prisoner for a short time, the Poienari fortress which Vlad actually had built and really should stand as his actual castle, and this castle sitting atop an imposing rocky outcrop in the small town of Bran, which just fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s digs so well it gained the reputation of being the Dracula’s Castle.
Though it isn’t. In actuality Bran Castle likely has no connection to Vlad the Impaler whatsoever, though good looks and good press have propelled it to the number one spot on the vampire tourist trail.
We checked into our nearby pensiunea and relaxed from the long driving day with a few glasses of Jack Daniels & Coke. I surprised mom by pulling a couple of sets of cheap plastic vampire teeth out of my suitcase and we goofed around with those for a while before heading out to the party.
Doing research for this trip it occurred to me that being in Romania over the Hallowe’en weekend might offer some unique opportunities, so I did some digging and stumbled upon a facebook page advertising a party at Bran Castle. I knew it would probably be pretty crowded and maybe a little kitschy but figuring it would also be a once-in-a-lifetime experience I just couldn’t resist arranging for us to be there.
I mean, a Hallowe’en party in Dracula’s Castle with complimentary wine and vodka and a rare chance to tour the place at night and encounter in-costume characters along the way, and with huge EDM afterparty rave on the front lawn until dawn? No way was I missing something like that, even if I had to drag my mother along with me!
And I didn’t have to drag her at all. After giving her ample chances to stay in for a quiet evening with promises that I would tour the castle again with her in the morning mom would have none of it. She pounded the last of her drink and led the way out the door and down the quiet, narrow road. Rounding a corner the castle, lit up for the evening, loomed overhead and we soon found ourselves on a narrow street busy with restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourists.
We ducked down a crowded alley lined with booths on both sides selling clothes and souvenirs, foods both sweet and savoury, soft drinks and cups of hot wine pulled from cisterns, and between it all stood a huge lineup of people about five wide and impossibly long.
Could this really be the line to get in to the party?
As we wandered closer and closer to the front it became clear that yes, this unmoving crowd of costumed revellers was indeed the line we would have to join to buy our tickets and get in to the castle. As I stood there wondering how long it was going to take us to get in through my periphery I heard mom being befriended by a very loud, very drunk, and very befriendly Australian girl dressed as a witch.
“WELL HELLLOOO GAIL, IT”S VERY F***ING GREAT TO F***ING MEET YOU, YOU”RE DAMN BEAUTIFUL, YOU ARE!!!!” she yelled.
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you too,” I heard my mom answer while I scouted the ticket booth a few dozen feet ahead of us. I noticed that security was holding up the line in an effort to limit how many people were getting into the party at once.
“How are you?” mom asked her new friend.
“I’M VERY F***ING DRUNK IS HOW I AM!” she slurred at the top of her lungs, and turning to look for her friends in line she yelled to all who would listen, “HEY EVERYBODY, MEET MY BEST FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD…(what was your f***ing name again? I’m sorry, I’m really drunk…oh yes, Gail), MY BEST FRIEND GAIL, FROM F***ING CANADA!!!! (you did say Canada, right?)”
I saw that the line was just about to start moving; security gave the two ticket ladies a nod and opened the gate. By this time my mom had been introduced all around and by association I too was being forced into the drunken fray. Admittedly this was pretty great for us; getting drawn into the line several thousand people ahead of where we should have been might save us hours of waiting on a night that was now threatening rain. I am usually loath to bud into any line but for my mother’s benefit I made an exception this time. Hanging my head and trying hard not to look too sheepish I took hit from the bottle that was thrust towards me by one of my new best friends and avoided eye-contact with the people behind us,
A young sober couple from Saskatchewan soon got pulled into the group as well and by some blessing we four Canadians almost immediately got separated from the loud, drunken trio who had brought us together in the first place, so far ahead in such an enormous line. Moments later mom and I were at the ticket booth.
Regular tickets cost 50 lei, or for 150 lei we would also gain access to the all-night afterparty on the lawn. I’m not really sure why i urged us towards the upgraded tickets (maybe I was still feeling the sting of not upgrading to the photo pass at Peles Castle) but I did and we bought ‘em.
Through the gates we said goodnight to our Saskatchewanian compatriots, put on our late-night wristbands so we wouldn’t lose them and started our slow rise up the hill towards the castle. The castle was lit from below by a digital projector that cast colourful psychedelic patterns onto the towering walls through a fine mist that had just started falling from the sky. As we neared the top of the hill we found ourselves in another large line – more of a crowd really – as a thousand costumed revellers were left to our own devices to funnel ourselves through the single doorway that led up and into the castle proper.
The crowd swelled around us as we hunkered down for warmth against the slight rain and the chilly wind, and at long last we made it in. Up the stairs we went, moving ahead a step at a time as the crowd was being slowly siphoned into the first room of a self-guided night tour of the castle’s interior. Just after we got in a guard closed the door behind us, cutting off the next wave of people for a little while at least.
Though it was really crowded at the beginning, we waited until most people started to move on and miraculously found ourselves alone in one of the first rooms on the tour, free to read the information panels and gawk at the period furniture at our leisure. We let the crowd ahead of us get even further ahead and still managed to stay in front of most of the people that eventually got in behind us, so though the castle was clearly much busier than it would be any other day of the year we found a pocket that wasn’t too crowded and rode it all the way through. We managed to see everything in the place and at a fairly relaxed pace too, considering that there was a huge, drunken party raging all around us.
Each room had a large ceramic stand-alone furnace, which was pretty nifty, there were maps and drawings showing the history of the building, characters dressed in fantastic costumes livened up rooms decorated with furniture that was over five hundred years old, there were weapons, antique dressing gowns, suits of armour and two rooms full of torture devices, each one more horrible and unthinkable than the last.
When the circular tour finally dumped us in the central courtyard we elbowed our way to the drink table and grabbed a couple of paper cups of poor wine. The rain had stopped and people were whooping it up in the shadows of one of the coolest, creepiest, most castley castles you’d ever want to spend a Hallowe’en party in. Shirtless Vikings were brandishing swords and standing on walls, mummies and other members of the living dead were lurching two-fisted up and down the concrete steps, and warlocks offered witches Dixie cups filled with black vodka while coloured lights flickered and strobed and the strains of techno beats drifted up from the lawn below.
And while it was fun, unique, and very cool it was also cold, crowded, and not really our scene at all.
We finished our bad wine and grabbed a couple more, took a last gape at the cool architecture that surrounds and creates the Bran Castle courtyard, warmed up with a long linger in the gift shop and headed down towards the afterparty rave. On the way down the hill someone overheard me lamenting for a Tim Hortons coffee and asked if we were Canadian. We met Judy, a fifty-something copy-writer from Toronto who told us about a really nifty thing she had signed on for called Remote Year. She and about seventy others, each of whom have some sort of job where they can work remotely with computers and cellphones, are spending twelve months together working and travelling abroad in twelve different countries with all transportation and accommodation booked for them and concierges on hand to do everything from arrange photocopy and fax services to, I don’t know, to maybe booking a sidetrip from Belgrade to Bran for the weekend so half of the group could attend a Hallowe’en party in Dracula’s Castle. They pay about $2,000 a month for the privilege and it sounds to me like an idea that could really take off.
She was a bit tipsy and very nice, we walked down to the lawn together but ultimately got separated. Mom and I took our place (at the end of the line this time) and waited to get in to the large, white wedding-style tent that was vibrating with electronic dance music and thunderous techno beats. While I tallied perhaps eight hundred people waiting in front of us the rain started to fall again, if ever so slightly. I looked at mom and she looked at me, both of us shivering.
“Whatever you want to do, it doesn’t matter to me,” she said, and I believed her.
I would have cut and run without a moment’s hesitation save for the fact that we had already paid an extra hundred lei each to get into this afterparty, and even though it was obvious that neither of us would enjoy the party very much, if at all, the bracelets had cost us over $30 each for crying out loud. I hummed and I hawed and hummed again before finally giving in. If there had been no lineup at all I’m sure we would have just stuck our heads in the tent for twenty minutes at the most before leaving anyway. It didn’t seem worth it to stand in line for who knows how long? just to not have that great of a time for a half-hour or so, tops. Or so I rationalized.
In no time at all I made the call and we bailed.
As we walked back through the entry gate I was shocked to see at least 1,000 people still waiting in line to get in, even as the ticket lady at the front was screaming, “It’s sold out! The party is completely sold out!” I was kicking myself for having stuck our perma-stick bracelets on our wrists already. Otherwise we could have easily sold them to someone in line, getting our money back from a party we hadn’t attended and at the same time helping somebody else get in.
Outside we bought some hot wine to warm up and slowly meandered through the merchandise and food stands that remained open, which seemed to be most of them. When our cups ran empty we bought a couple more and took our sweet time wandering in the direction that we had come from nearly seven hours earlier. We eventually found ourselves on the road back to our pensiunea.
Walking home from Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania along a dark road on stormy Hallowe’en evening just after midnight…what could happen? Well, of course we’d run into a cute, friendly miniature pony, that’s what!
Back at the room we were quick to bed. I woke up around 3am and laid there driving myself crazy over the fact that I had us put on those wristbands right after the guy at the gate had ripped our tickets. We didn’t have to put them on until we went to the afterparty and yet we did. I’ve been to a thousand concerts and I really should have known better. If we had just pocketed the bracelets until we needed them we would have ended up in a win-win situation, and I hate missing out on win-win situations. Though I suppose there is the chance that a wristband alone wouldn’t have gained someone entrance to the party – they might have needed an untorn paper ticket in addition to a bracelet so I guess I could have well been laying there kicking myself for selling useless wristbands to someone. And so win-win became lose-lose in my addled, sleep-deprived brain, but either way it’s a blessing that we weren’t stuck waiting half the night to get into that stupid rave tent.
I came this close to getting out of bed and going back to the castle to check out the party tent. It was scheduled to keep going until dawn but by that time of night the place was bound to be nothing but zombies. I decided against it and went back to sleep.
103016 Castles, Forts, and a 400-Year Old Hotel
We woke up refreshed and decidedly unbitten by vampires at around 9am, or was it 10?
This was our first of many bookings that included breakfast, as is the norm around here. We each grabbed a coffee and some pastries, cheese and cold cuts from the kitchen counter and sat a few tables down from the only other pair of people in the dining hall. To our pleasant surprise the lady who checked us in last night and spoke no English set plates in front without a word; plain omelettes and tomatoes to supplement the host of self-serve options.
We ate up and packed up and were soon on the road to Brasov. It was another dark and gloomy day but at least the rain looked to be holding up. We passed through Rasnov and wowed at the fortress that towers over the town, casting occasional glances down at our map and rudimentary GPS.
Brasov was pretty easy to find, being one of Romania’s largest cities and one of the country’s big tourist spots. We found the old town area soon enough and circled it a few times looking for a place to park before finding a great spot just a short stroll from everything.
We walked through the courtyard that was busy with pigeons, kids riding miniature cars, and tourists wearing sweaters and jackets against the chilly afternoon. We gravitated towards a large, dark church and almost asked someone to take our picture in front of it, but it all looked too gloomy.
We found the entrance with a sign that indicated that the church should be open, only it wasn’t. We walked around the back and found a preacher shaking hands with people as they left through a side door. It was a Sunday, after all. We poked our heads in and the pontiff pointed to his watch, indicating that the place would be open to tourists at noon. We looked at our own watches and suggested that it was past twelve o’clock already.
In retrospect it’s quite surprising how quickly he was able to communicate to us that the clocks had gone back an hour the previous night despite not uttering a word of English. Also curious to note is that in North America the clocks go back next weekend, making the whole needless affair that much more confusing. I’ve now gone from being seven hours ahead of my home-timezone in Ottawa (with mom formerly six hours ahead of Moncton), to being six hours ahead, and mom now five. And next weekend it will go back to how it was yesterday, seven hours and six respectively. And all this confusion for what? That’s right, nothing. Stupid Daylight Savings Time. Doesn’t save a bit of daylight as far as I can figure.
We ended up going back to the courtyard and finding a nice place with delicious hot chocolates and I suppose I have Daylight Savings Time to thank for that, so there’s one thing in it’s favour. After we warmed up we paid up and went back to what we discovered was The Black Church, named thusly because of damage sustained in a fire in the 1400’s.
You watch, as we go through these castles we’ll find pretty much every place burnt down or got ransacked in the 1400’s. I think it was a pretty rough century for those that found themselves in charge of things.
Anyway, the church was old all right, but not very ornate. We sat in the front pews for a spell and craned our necks towards the vaulted ceiling with it’s arcs and contours. It’s amazing that they figured out how to build these sorts of things with nothing but their heads to scratch and manual labour to exploit. Even the most basic leveraging mechanisms and tools as elementary as lathes and ball bearings were still new inventions thanks to contemporaries like Leonardo Da Vinci back when they were building these vast, seemingly immortal monoliths and yet here it is, still standing and looking pretty good after almost six centuries.
We stretched the church out as long as we could, checking out the old painted murals that miraculously survived the fire, wandering past all the old cushioned thrones where the city’s upper class could sit close enough to the alter to actually hear the sermons, and reading as many of the historical panels as we could stand in the back room where they also kept the ancient stone gargoyles that could no longer cling to the walls outside the church.
Back out in the blustery autumn day we stopped at one of the merchant booths along the square and bought a few souvenirs. It was so cold it actually began to hail, but not until we were safely back in the car. We turned on the heater and warmed up as I checked the map and mom punched Sighisoara into her GPS. A few roundabouts later we were headed out of town and through the countryside. The hail let up and we were making good time. Seeing a fort off the highway we decided to stop and check it out.
The fort wasn’t really very interesting at all but once we walked up, up, up to the top we were rewarded with a pretty nice view of the surrounding area. The already frigid day turned even colder way up there in that drafty fort so we didn’t stay very long, though I can’t imagine we missed very much in our rush. It was a nice enough little detour that probably would have been nicer in the middle of the summer, but either way we both agreed that this particular fortress was best appreciated from a distance.
Soon enough we arrived in Sighisoara, but despite the fact that we could see where we were on the GPS and we could see where our hotel was on the GPS, without the GPS giving us the actual directions from here to there (which it didn’t) we couldn’t possibly figure out any way of actually getting there from here.
Finally I parked the car and left mom inside while I ran around looking for the place. I found it in no time and soon discovered why we had been having difficulties. Our hotel was in such a magical location it seemed like you couldn’t possibly be allowed to drive there, but it turns out if you were staying in one of the few hotels in the town square you could indeed park there. So we did, inching the car up a cobblestone hill and hugging the walls as we pulled through a stone arc in the old clocktower, finally parking in front of our hotel just feet from a staircase leading up to the Citadel. I grabbed our suitcases from the trunk and ushered mom inside.
The Fronius was built in 1609 and is one of the only buildings in Sighisoara that survived the fire that all but wiped out the city in 1676. It has seven rooms available to guests and the best location in town. At $160 for the night (breakfast included) this was by far the most expensive accommodation on the trip but when I found this place online I couldn’t resist so I booked it, my treat.
The lady led us upstairs and presented our room, which was really quite spectacular. The photos don’t quite show it but in the corners of the ceiling arcs original paintings of cherubs and other unearthly scenes have been restored in light pastels. There was an anteroom leading into the room proper off of which was the very spectacular bathroom with jacuzzi tub. The beds and pillows were super-comfy, the furniture had been hand-picked from all over the country and was all very nifty, and the view was just great. We poured ourselves a couple of drinks and relaxed our butts off.
When we finally went out it was with great relish that I locked the door. Amazingly, all of the locks in the hotel are completely original; the actual lock and key to our room was over six hundred years old. And it still worked like a charm.
Stepping out of our hotel we were smack dab in the middle of old town Sighisoara, which is renowned as one of the best-preserved Medieval towns in all of Europe. We executed a short walkabout that took us around the corner to the stunning clock tower (after stopping at a gift shop or two of course) and across the small square to the church, which features a bust of Vlad the Impaler.
The more mom finds out about Mr. Impaler the less she likes him, and I guess you can’t fault her for that. Vlad was a bit of a nasty fellow. He once had more than 20,000 Turkish soldiers impaled simultaneously in a valley in an effort to scare away the rest of the invading Turkish army. It worked, but yeah, pretty nasty.
He is, however, the tourism bread and butter of this country and here we were not only in Vlad’s hometown but we soon found ourselves standing right outside of the house where Vlad Dracul lived with his wife in the very building where their young impaler was born.
It’s now a restaurant. Really. Of course we went in, again my treat.
As unpleasant a fellow as Vlad was I’m just a sucker for going to historical places and there was no way I wasn’t going to visit the house where Count Dracula was born. And hey, it’s a restaurant? All the better. We entered a door marked by the sign of the Dragon and walked upstairs.
When the waiter came we ordered Dracula’s Dinner for two and a couple of local beers like any good tourist would. Honestly, after perusing the menu we were both just in the mood for the (almost) all-meat sampler, it had nothing to do with being at Casa Dracul, really. I meant to get the waiter to take our picture but when the pork chops, chicken breast, beef rolls, sausage, pickles, and smattering of potatoes arrived I was too excited to dig and forgot to ask.
The food was quite good and very filling. Casually sipping on my very tasty beer and patting my full belly I looked around the room and wondered if the room had changed much since the devil was born here. Outside we did another quick walk through the lovely cobblestone streets and circled our way back to our amazing hotel, enjoying a nightcap in the very cool basement bar. It was just mom and I, relaxing on comfy couches underneath remarkable arching brickwork that has held up for centuries, a television flickering in the corner and our hotel clerk springing into action at our every whim. Upstairs in our room we poured one last drink and were pleased to notice that unlike our other rooms so far this one wasn’t way too hot.
We played some cards, sipped our drinks and just enjoyed the plush luxury of our room. We turned in around 11:30pm, though taking into consideration the surprise time change earlier in the day I suppose one could argue that it was after midnight.
Before going to sleep I read a few chapters of my Dracula book in which the young doctor keeps running back and forth to visit his patient in the insane asylum. Several times Bram Stoker describes him fumbling with the keys and locking the old asylum doors, scenes I can easily picture after dealing with the ancient locks in our hotel room.
And then I closed my eyes and went to sleep in a room where people have been closing their eyes and going to sleep for over a half a millennium.
103116 Through the Bicaz Gorge to Suceava
I slept great though I could certainly have slept longer, but I was excited to pack in as much as I could of Dracula’s hometown on such an auspicious day!
Mom and I went downstairs and found a wonderful spread laid out for our breakfast. There was coffee, four kinds of homemade jam to go with the extensive bread and rolls on offer. The three kinds of cheese and cold cut slices were arranged in perfect, uninterrupted symmetry on large serving trays, plus there was yoghurt, tin foils of cream cheese and pate, cold cereals, fresh fruit, and homemade applecake that the hotel clerk insisted we try.
We took our seats and were offered eggs from the kitchen. Of course we both ordered omelettes.
It seemed to me like the entire breakfast had been laid out for just the two of us, and with only a few minutes left before breakfast ended for the day it looked like whatever we didn’t eat would end up wasted. Mom pointed out that another table in the small dining room was set for two and sure enough a couple and their dog (who we had met the night before and wrongly assumed were employees/friends of the hotel) sat down to breakfast just as we were finishing up.
Of course mom forgot all about her breakfast and reached out for the dog, who jumped on her licking ferociously and wagging its stubby little tail.
We went out for a daytime walkabout through the same streets that we had strolled last night. It really is an exceptionally beautiful area, if small. The Sighisoara clocktower is an obvious highlight, its coloured tiles, though dulled by the gloomy clouds that have been following us this whole trip, adding a bright splash to the ancient structure.
(For some reason the sun just refuses to shine. Every picture comes out gloomy because it’s gloomy. I guess in this case it’s somewhat appropriate – on Hallowe’en day in Transylvania I suppose one should expect a little gloom, but come on!)
The sixty-four metre high clock tower is unique in the country because of its mechanical puppets that move along with the workings of the giant timepiece. We never once saw them move nor did we hear the bells chime despite that fact that the clock seemed to keep proper time, so the puppets must be connected to the mechanisms that make the bells sound, which must, in turn, be faulty. Still, the moveable(?) characters are pretty awesome.
We wandered through the base of the tower, discovered a lookout with some great views of the city below, found that we couldn’t get into the church and walked every cobbled street in the ancient Medieval town. I left mom to her trinket-shopping while I mounted the covered staircase leading up to the Citadel. I won’t say that the 176 steps weren’t worth the climb but aside from a graveyard, a locked church, and a slightly better view there wasn’t much reason to go up there. Back at the room I told mom as much as we packed up and prepared to set off for another day driving around Romania.
And a day of driving it was. I had us heading through the Bicaz Gorge, a bit of a detour through the countryside that the internet promised would be one of the best drives available in Romania. We followed the map for a few hours passing farms and haystacks, horses and carts, pretty hills and villages, and many, many dead cats and dogs along the way.
One thing’s for sure, Romania should hire people to clean up all these dead critters and Romanians as a whole should keep a better eye on the countless dogs and cats that roam obviously a bit too freely along the side of every road. I can’t tell you how many times mom pointed out for me to “watch out for those dogs,” or “be careful, there’s a cat!” It must have helped – I didn’t hit a single animal. Or maybe I didn’t hit any animals because unbeknownst to my mother I was, in fact, driving with my eyes open.
Just before we entered the Bicaz Gorge we stopped at a country resort for lunch. I had chicken breast stuffed with cheese with yummy sliced fried potatoes on the side and a coffee. Mom had chicken as well, with fries and a beer. It must be nice to be the passenger!
As we ate lunch a light snow began to fall outside. As we pulled out of the parking lot the snow started coming down in earnest and soon turned to hail.
“First snow I’ve seen this season and it’s when I’m on vacation!” mom said.
The potential for inclement weather was one of the big considerations when deciding on this trip. For some reason few if any perpetually warm areas came up when planning this trip, though a few places were nixed because they would have been too cold. Romania was just on the cusp of being too cold, with temperatures promised to sit generally between five and fifteen degrees Celsius, which seemed reasonable enough. Unfortunately the weatherman has been punching under his weight so far on this trip, delivering us less-than-ideal temperatures and weather overall, but whattya gonna do? Neither of us depends on a nice day to enjoy our time on vacation or otherwise so we buckled up, buckled down, pulled on cozy sweaters didn’t let our useless sunglasses weigh us down one bit.
That said we weren’t disappointed to see the snow dissipate into mere dark clouds and wayward flakes as we ascended and descended the mountains through winding switchbacks.
I had been wondering if I’d notice when we entered the Bicaz Gorge, but when we found ourselves completely surrounded by towering cliffs of limestone hugging both sides of the impossibly twisted road I figured we were in the right place. The gloomy day grew even darker this deep in the rocky crevice. The roadside cliffs jutted skyward at angles so steep that at times we were actually driving underneath solid rock. So little light made it to the bottom of the gorge that the photos I took look like they were shot in the dead of night, though it was only about 4pm.
In what was one of the most scenic spots of all we saw a roadside craft market and I hit the brakes. Pulling alongside the first shop we managed to just beat a busload of tourists that soon arrived on foot from the larger pullout up the road and around the bend. We stayed ahead of the crowd fingering soft wooly mittens and fur-lined coats, pondering over stitched blankets and rugs, looking past children’s toys and wicker baskets, and steadfastly avoiding a thousand clocks, ashtrays, plates, coffee mugs, and everything else you can imagine boasting the sly face of Vlad Peles. In the end we bought nothing.
Just as the bus people started overtaking the area in earnest we got back in the car and finished our tour through the gorgeous gorge and back up the switchbacks and over the hills towards the city of Suceava, which ended up being significantly closer than I thought it was going to be. It was a good thing too, because even with our surprise early arrival we didn’t get to our hotel until 7pm, after spending two tense hours speeding down dark roads and randomly slamming on the brakes for the countless slow-moving and nearly invisible horse-drawn carts that crawled along the highway loaded down with twigs and logs.
But find it we did, thanks to mom’s GPS. I was surprised that I had booked a hotel in such a lousy location, alongside the highway beside a car dealership and across the street from a farmers field with the city twinkling far in the distance. I must have pre-figured that we would be arriving late after a long day of driving and opted for something a little cheaper than a place in a better location.
No matter, the hotel was very nice and with nowhere else to go we lounged for an hour or more over a few drinks in the hotel restaurant before ordering a nice dinner, which we followed up by lingering over another drink or two before calling it a night. Since we’ve run out of duty-free Jack Daniels I’ve been making it a habit to start each restaurant meal with a Jack & Coke. It’s a pretty easy habit to start, what with mom picking up the tab, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the prices and mixed drinks seem pretty reasonable here in Romania, as is almost everything else.
Each table in the restaurant had a remote doorbell which you were supposed to push if you needed service. Unfortunately our guy was so good we didn’t get to use it, and when he brought our bill we added it up and found that almost three hours of drinks and meals had come to well under $40 for the both of us. So yeah, I don’t feel too bad about ordering JD everywhere we go!
Back in the room we played our now-obligatory best-of-three crib tourney after which mom started reading my Dracula novel while I researched our plans for the coming day. The next few days had some considerable flux available as far as routing and attractions went, plus I had to figure out which monasteries we should visit between here and Bistrita. Soon mom put in her earplugs and turned in while I clicked on my bedside lamp and plotted out routes, directions, and destinations with a pencil, paper, and google maps. This trip isn’t just going to plan itself you know…it’s just going to feel that way!
110116 The Painted Monasteries
We went back to the restaurant and filled up on the free breakfast, lingering over an extra coffee or two after tearing through perhaps the best morning spread of the vacation so far. I even had toast – first time on this trip.
It’s amazing that these people are so good with breakfast and yet finding something as basic as a toaster is almost unheard of. Ah, culture.
As we packed up we saw the sun beaming outside, the first drops of sunshine we had seen so far. We paid the bill and rushed out to our car only to find the sun had disappeared back behind the clouds, where it would sit for most of the day fighting a mostly losing battle for sky supremacy.
No matter, we shrugged and smiled and drove into the centre of town looking for our first painted monastery of the day.
We found what we thought was the place pretty much straightaway but were forced to drive right by when we couldn’t find a side-street or any place to park the car and investigate. We ended up pulling off at another, very old church that seemed to be undergoing renovations. Mom is very prone to pulling on doors to see if they are open; she did and it was so she disappeared inside. I shrugged and followed her in.
We could hear workers doing their thing behind a gilded wall. On our side of the wall we saw wooden scaffolding, taped up cracks in the wall, and a coffee cistern in the corner. Yep, this was obviously a construction zone and not the painted monastery that we were looking for, but it was cool nonetheless. A guy walked through a golden door wearing a hardhat and trying his best to ignore us as he went about his renovating business. We stayed another minute or two before leaving to explore the building from outside.
Mom pulled on a few more doors but the workers must have run around bolting them shut. We walked through the pleasant church garden and soon got back in the car.
A few blocks back and we managed to find a street where we could pull off and walk to what was indeed the Painted Monastery of St. John The New, a St. John I had never heard of before and one who hailed from this very town of Suceava, and whose remains were famously contained within the monastery’s alter.
I guess it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the painted monasteries are painted. Outside, the centuries-old images fade from top-to-bottom, almost to the point of disappearing at the base of the exterior walls where the sun shines the brightest and countless rainstorms have caused the most severe erosion.
As we entered the church an old, handkerchiefed lady sitting near the entrance said something to us in her own language. We looked at her with incomprehension and she spoke again, pointing at us this time. We smiled and shrugged. “We only speak English,” we told her. She muttered something else to no-one in particular and dismissed us with a wave.
I peered into the din and saw several people dressed in black crossing themselves at what I would later discover was the alter that held the Saint’s remains. At first glance (and taking into consideration the lady who greeted us) I assumed that we were walking in on a funeral. I said as much to mom who dismissed the idea right away, so I let her enter ahead of me and hung my head, reverently following behind.
The inside of the monastery was painted entirely in biblical scenes and it was beautiful. When I finally determined that mom was right and there was no funeral taking place I lifted my eyes to the ceiling and marvelled at the endless art. Just like the church we had just visited this one also had a golden wall with three doors, dividing the room roughly in half. We saw a church official come through one of the doors and mom asked if I thought we could go in there. I hated to disagree with her again, especially after being wrong about the funeral but no, I really didn’t think we could go through the golden doors. I think she took my word for it; she didn’t go up and try the handles like I half-expected she would.
Outside we walked the grounds, watched men draw water from the church well, and gaped at the vivid art covering the brand new church that sat behind the old and faded painted monastery.
As we aimed the car west out of the city the sun actually came out for a moment and had both of us reaching for our sunglasses with surprise. Eventually we pulled north off the main road and drove through several villages in search of the Humor Monastery. Just as we were beginning to worry that we had missed it we saw a tourist info booth, a rare sight indeed. We pulled in and spoke to the lonely, eager attendant long enough to find out that the monastery was only about three hundred metres further up the road. As I thanked him and turned to leave he struggled to point out several other local highlights, almost begging me to take one of his hand-drawn, photocopied maps of the area. I was momentarily tempted by a salt mine we could visit a mere fifty miles out of the way but decided to drop it before I got too excited.
The monastery was beautiful, basking stark and white in the breaking sunshine. The bleach of erosion caused by centuries of exposure has worn away much of the exterior artwork, though the shelter provided by the wide eaves of the roof has protected the art near the top of the walls in full, vibrant colour. From a distance the faded paintings look like elaborate stains dripping the wrong way, running colourfully up the blanch walls.
We went inside and found just a single lady selling prayer candles and other religious icons in the corner. There was no one else in there and it was very quiet – I think only one of us was breathing. We were completely surrounded on all sides by countless Biblical paintings, all in blue and all clearly the work of the same artist, that stretched along every wall and covering every inch of the arched ceiling. The sight was absolutely breathtaking.
There are a handful of these painted monasteries in the Suceava area of Romania, the exteriors are covered with artwork that dates from the 15th and 16th centuries and they are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art. The monasteries are unique in Europe because the art serves not merely as decoration or even to exalt one of the many holy saints, but to convey the stories and morals of the Bible in a literal manner to a rural population unable to read the stories themselves.
Walking into a painted monastery is like being hit with a vivid artistic explosion of the Bible in living, vibrant colour. Aside from the sensory barrage of the sheer magnitude of colour, the artwork itself is incredibly active and yet instantly solemn and it really, literally takes your breath away – as I say: breathtaking.
Back outside I climbed the tower next to the monastery and called down to mom, waiting patiently below for my report. The stairway (if you can even call it that) to the upper observation area was remarkably steep and narrow; it was like crawling up a tunnel. Each uneven stone step was a good 18-24 inches high and the stairway itself was no more than twenty inches wide.
My report: she was smart to wait outside.
Back on the main road it wasn’t very far at all to the turnoff for the Voronet Monastery, one of the most famous of them all. It was more of the same and better, much of the exterior has been restored and the inside was – you guessed it – breathtaking. I paid an extra fee so I could take pictures, but photos inside the monastery weren’t allowed. When I found mom and I alone in there I swallowed my honour and clicked three quick pics, with no flash of course. Though it was just the two of us I even coughed when I took each picture to cover up the digital shutter sound (why does the camera even do that?); even God wouldn’t have noticed.
The Voronet Monastery was so darn nice we decided to make it our last, skipping a few detours that would have taken us to other monasteries and getting on with what would prove to be an amazing two and-a-half hour drive to Bistrita over beautiful hills and past snow-topped mountains.
One of the mountain ranges we scaled took us through the Borgo Pass, famous for being the home of Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s book, though from our perspective it was just another in a seemingly endless series of remarkably scenic and picturesque vistas. The only actual connection to Dracula to be found along the Borgo Pass is completely fake and fabricated. Sitting at the summit of the pass is The Hotel Dracula, proudly exploiting the vampire tourism industry since opening their doors in the early 1980’s. We barely craned our necks in the hotel’s direction as we sped by, but from what I saw it actually looked like a pretty nice place. But can you imagine the vampire-loving goth weirdos you would meet if you stayed there? To me that’s the creepy part. As I say, we drove right on by, aimed at Bistrita.
After such a spectacular drive the city in central Romania was a bit of a letdown, nice as it was. We followed the main drag to our hotel, passing a curious series of giant sculptures of apples along the way – we must have seen a dozen massive apples. This was the last room I had pre-booked until our second-last night in Romania, and once again I had picked pretty good. Very classy and very professional, our very inexpensive room came with two bathrooms and two balconies, which I believe may just be a first for me.
The only hint of Dracula in the place was the name of the hotel’s fancy-pants dining hall, the Jonathan Harker Room. Bistrita figures significantly in Stoker’s Dracula, being the city the soon-to-be-captive Jonathan Harker departs from before falling into the hands of the evil vampire in the early chapters of the book.
We passed up the upscale Jonathan Harker room and walked to the pedestrian avenue just behind the hotel. Clearly a virtual beehive of restaurants and gift shops during the tourist season at this time of year it was positively barren. We walked the whole strip anyway, from the oldest church in town nearby our hotel to one that looked even older at the opposite end of the wide, bricked street. When we got there mom tried the old, wooden church doors and finding them locked up tight we walked around the crumbling building and satisfied ourselves by watching crows in a nearby tree cast huge, eerie shadows on the dark, gothic walls. It was very Alfred Hitchcock.
Rounding our way back we found a cafe that was open and spent the next two hours having beers and burgers. This was my first and only hamburger in Romania. Not bad; not great.
Though our hotel was in a great location and the architecture and buildings lining the old town were great, Bistrita didn’t seem to have much to offer us on a chilly Tuesday night. We ended up back at the hotel playing our now ritualistic games of crib and made it an early night.
For once (okay, twice) our hotel room wasn’t too hot.
110216 The Wooden Churches of the Maramures
After a good night’s sleep we got up and went downstairs for breakfast. I love that breakfast is nearly always included in the price of the room, and while they all tend to be quite similar with their rolls, cheese, yoghurt and trays of cold cuts there is generally enough variety to keep things interesting.
This morning, for example, was the first time that bacon was available. I found some pieces that weren’t too undercooked (turns out much of the world prefers their bacon in sushi form) and loaded up my plate.
Properly fuelled, we retraced our steps from last night beginning with that oldest church in town which is, in fact, the oldest building in town, dating back to the year 1270.
It was absolutely beautiful inside. Again with the three-doored gilded divider, again painted top to bottom, the walls and ceiling held panels featuring Jesus feeding the flock with his three meagre fishes, Lazarus being risen from the dead, and John the Baptist in his hair-shirt dunking Jesus in the river and kicking off the whole baptism craze. What a building, and what a feat for the architects, engineers, artists, and construction crews of the 13th century. Both of our hats off to all of them for building something so very, very outstanding. And durable, it turns out.
We continued our walk back to the older-looking-yet-newer church and past a nifty statue of a man taking a photograph, which of course I had to take a photograph of (which I can’t find, somehow). The church was still locked up tight as a drum and in the daylight we could see that it was quite obviously undergoing fairly extensive renovations.
We did a bit more walking and bought some souvenirs, mom found herself the wallet she had been needing to buy and tried on some clothes before leaving them on the rack. On the way back I stopped and exchanged $50CDN on the black market with a large, conspicuous man holding a wad of bills in front of a decidedly empty currency exchange shop. I got a pretty good rate too.
We checked out of the hotel and got on the road heading to the northern end of the country, the Maramures. Our entry point into the Maramures was a town called Baia Mare and with not much to do but drive we opted to get there along the back roads, even though the ‘highway’ was pretty back-roady already. We ended up finding a very nice drive over hill and dale past valley villages and the occasional random mountain sculpture, munching chips, cookies and any number of road-snacks along the way.
The temperature floated just around ten degrees all afternoon which was pleasant enough, especially compared to the near-zero temperatures of the last couple of days. That said, it’s back to gloom, gloom, gloom. Sure, the gloom had it’s place on Hallowe’en at Bran Castle but c’mon already! As amazing as the mountain drive though the canopies of colourful autumn leaves was, it would have been a dozen times nicer on a crisp, sunny day. But I guess you can’t ask for everything, and we really enjoyed the drive nonetheless.
Baia Mare turned out being much bigger and more industrial than the quaint country village I had pictured. We drove around a bit and stopped for a pair of too-small European-style coffees and pressed on. Heading out of town we stopped at our first wooden church, something the Maramures is well-known for and understandably one of the area’s main tourist draws.
The drive through the Maramures proved to be quite amazing, with brilliant leaves and impossible switchbacks leading up and down spectacular mountains, and all of it under a great, gloomy sky. As we rose up our first impossible hill we passed a cyclist pedalling hard and steady. Along the way we kept stopping to take pictures and every time he would huff and puff past us. Again and again we leapfrogged as he kept an impossible pace consistently up, up, up that big hill, just a few hundred metres from the Ukrainian border.
By the time we peaked we had left the cyclist well behind, and after interrupting our lovely country drive a few times to stop at another wooden church or two and marvelling at the many elaborately carved wooden gates along the way we started looking for a place to hang our hats for the night.
This was our first non-booked night and we decided to stop sooner than later in order to save as much of the Maramures as possible for tomorrow, just in case it gets sunny. That said, it was well-approaching dusk when we stopped just before the tiny village of Mara and booked into the first pensiunea we saw, a fairly substantial country place with a large restaurant and a cute dog outside who greeted us with a big smile and a wagging tail.
I had finally been clever enough to purchase a bag of beers at a gas station earlier in the day and I stocked our fridge before we went down for dinner. With only Romanian menus in the basic eatery a waitress who could speak some English was summoned and she talked us through the menu. Of course mom got the schnitzel, her international standard, while I changed it up and went with a local goulash. On my waitresses suggestion I went with what ended up being cold mashed potatoes for my side, curse her. Mom ordered the side I was going to ask for which turned out being the best rustic potatoes of the trip which she kindly shared with me, turning her oblong plate towards my side of the handmade, wooden dinner table.
Upstairs I enjoyed a few cold beers and stayed up watching an old Cary Grant swashbuckler on television long after mom had read herself to sleep.
110316 Happy Animals and a Merry Cemetery
We bought breakfast at the hotel, the first time it hasn’t been included since Bucharest, though we slept through breakfast-time when we were in Bucharest anyway. We both had omelettes and dry toast. It’s surprising (and disappointing) how they often don’t serve butter with breakfast in Europe.
Overall the breakfast was quite light and fairly mediocre but as we packed our bags we were pleased to see the sun shining brightly outside. We checked out and while getting into the car mom spied some puppies playing in the yard behind the hotel.
She dropped her suitcase and was on top of them in seconds.
She picked them all up, cuddling, kissing and talking to each one of the little yipping balls of fur. Back and forth, she took turns playing with this one and that while the others jumped around vying for her attention. She even picked a favourite. Mom was so excited playing with those little dogs it almost looked like she was the one wagging her tail.
I have no idea how I was able to get her away from there.
As soon as we got in the car the gloom came back out, strong and proud and burying the sun for what would prove to be most of the day. We continued our loop through the Maramures, stopping at several wooden churches along the way though we couldn’t get inside any of them. Well okay, I got in one, but not really. While the doors leading inside the church were locked the stairs going up to it’s attic (belfry?) were open and up I went.
As beautiful as these things are both inside and out, it’s really interesting to see behind the veil. It’s amazing the complex engineering and labyrinth of woodwork that is necessary to uphold the vaulted arches and steeples that are architecturally so unnecessary. But of course, that’s churches for you; structural showoffs that are forever and always striving to be the most ever-the-top grandiose buildings in town.
Back in the car we passed our hundredth flock of sheep and herders and decided to stop. I called over to the shepherds for permission to take a few pictures while mom was immediately and happily overcome by the three working dogs. I roamed through the flock, clicking away at the curiously painted animals (for identification we thought, though every flock we saw seemed to have the same pink colour sprayed on their backs) while mom played with the dogs. She was so busy scratching their ears and patting their heads that I’m not sure she even noticed the sheep.
As we continued the loop around the Maramures we started passing by grand churches pretty regularly, wooden and otherwise. So many in fact that we weren’t even stopping anymore, one of us would just point and exclaim, “there’s one!” and we’d oooh and aaah as we drove past. Mid-afternoon a steeple rising a bit off the main road caught my eye. I was so taken with the coloured tiles that I made the snap decision to pull off for a closer look.
And I’m so glad we did!
We immediately came across a brand new wooden church just being built which was pretty interesting in itself, and as I clicked a few pics we heard church bells pealing from around the corner, the sound emanating from the steeple that had drawn us to stop. I pulled the car around and stopped in front of what turned out to be the Merry Cemetery.
In my research I had come across the Merry Cemetery and marked it as a Must See – it was even scrawled in the corner of my handwritten itinerary for the day – and then promptly forgot about it. I’m a bit of a cemetery-hound (okay, a lot), and I make it a point to visit cemeteries whenever and wherever I travel. I’ve noticed on this trip that mom has a similar streak in her, and we were about to experience the coolest cemetery I’ve ever seen.
Surrounding just the niftiest church we’d noticed all day is a cemetery containing more than eight hundred wooden headstones, each hand-painted and carved by one man and his apprentice. The blue gravemarkers each contain an etched painting of the deceased in any number of situations, with text (in Romanian) relating a funny or ironic story about their life, mostly written in the first person (or so I’m told).
There were lots of paintings featuring people doing happy things like playing music, drinking, and socializing, though several of them had odd, even macabre imagery. Mom pointed out one painting of a woman and a car, suggesting that the unfortunate girl must have died young by being run over by the car in the picture. “No way,” I laughed, and had a field day pointing out tombstone after tombstone. “Hey look, that guy obviously died playing cards with his friends, and that poor lady died riding her horse!
“And you’ve got to feel bad for this guy,” I teased, “succumbing to an acute case of playing the piano.”
Of course I took a picture so I could later punch the text of mom’s sad traffic accident victim into google. Roughly translated, it reads:
“Here I, Ileana Holdis, get some rest. Call me short – as was my life – as one morning it was my fate to die, run over by a motorcar by the roadside. Alas my poor mother, so upset that I left her and daddy. My beloved followed me angry but I left, with blurred angels.”
When will I learn that mom can (at times) occasionally be correct?
Though we must have wandered around for nearly an hour it was all so vivid and bright and unlike any other cemetery I’ve experienced I could have spent the whole day. I can’t imagine how much more interesting it would’ve been if I could actually read the engravings instead of just marvelling at the artwork.
What a great, fortuitous stop.
We made our obligatory rounds at the surrounding gift shops and dropped a few lei. I bought a small, inexpensive rug and a nice traditional shirt for m’lady back home and mom stuffed a bag or two full of goodies of her own. We threw it all into the back seat of our little rental and continued on the day’s adventure.
As the afternoon wore on the sun actually came out, surprising us as much as it annoyed us, shining brightly as it was from the direction we were pointed. We kept to the side roads through countless villages and past innumerable horse-drawn carts and eventually got to Zalau, where we combined the forces of booking.com and mom’s GPS to get ourselves booked and delivered to the very nice Griff Hotel.
We dined successfully and succulently in the hotel restaurant, I got directions (and a hand-drawn map no less) to the nearest variety store that turned out being less than a hundred paces away and literally just across the street from the front door of the hotel, we played a couple of games of crib with our now well-worn deck of cards (I won two straight and am now up four lei overall), and called it a night.
110416 The Apuseni Mountains, the Bear Cave, and the Ice Cubes of Oh-Brad
Breakfast wasn’t so great, once again we caught just the tail end of the breakfast hours and hot things like eggs of sausages were cold and picked over. No complaints; we did pretty okay with the standard cheese, buns, cold cuts, yoghurt and coffee with a few “could we have two more cups of coffee over here please?” thrown in to make up for it.
After getting such detailed directions last night to a store that was only seventy-five metres away I eagerly asked the girl at the hotel desk where I might find a post office. I wanted to buy some stamps so I could mail a few postcards. She gave me directions to a corner just a few blocks away and right on our path out of town. I thanked her, packed up the car and off we went.
I stopped at the appropriate corner, grabbed a blank postcard for communication purposes and set out to find my post office. I was surrounded by official-looking buildings, any one of which looked like it could hold a post office, so I asked a man in a suit walking by if he could help me.
I pointed at the back of the postcard where one would affix a stamp and asked where I might find a post office. He took the postcard from me with a quizzical look on his face. Turning the postcard around he saw it featured the Painted Monastery of Voronet and started babbling in Romanian about how I might find my way back to Suceava.
“No, no,” I implored, grabbing back my postcard and again pointing to the blank space that I was hoping might soon hold a stamp. “Post office,” I said.
“Post-o offeece-o,” I repeated, quite helpfully I thought.
Finally he got what I meant and started pointing me towards a block of office buildings several streets away in what was for mom and I the wrong direction against busy traffic.
“It’s not here, in one of these buildings?” I asked, sweeping my hand towards any number of wonderful choices. He shook his head and walked away.
I half-believed him and started back in the direction of where mom sat waiting in the car when I noticed a lady sitting idly in a taxicab treading a newspaper. Aha! Surely a cabbie will know where I can find a post office.
I knocked on her window and, again pointing to the empty stamp-spot on the back of my postcard I asked her where the post office was. Just like the last guy she took my card, turned it over and started explaining in her native tongue that the painted monasteries were very far away, though I think she said she’d be happy to take the fare.
And once again I grabbed the card back and flipped it back over, relying on my mime skills and pretending to elaborately lick a stamp and place it conspicuously in the upper right-hand corner of the card. She got it (I must be a good mime) and indeed pointed me to a building just across the street on the far corner. So the hotel lady was right after all, I thought, and a curse upon that lying man in the suit, my thoughts quickly added.
I ran over and noticed two mailboxes in front of automatic glass doors, clearly a good sign. Inside I found a lady selling cell phones, with nary a stamp in sight. Again with the postcard, again with the painted monastery bit, again with the mime, and finally she points me toward the same group of buildings that poor cursed suit-man pointed me to.
So, I had learned that hotel lady and taxi lady had directed me to what was in fact a pair of mailboxes and not a post office, that to buy a few stamps that I could quite honestly do without would require driving in a vague, general and wrong direction and would probably require significantly more miming, and that the Painted Monastery of Voronet was very far away. Armed with all this information I returned to the car, tossed my now-quite-manhandled postcard into the back seat and promptly got us lost trying to get out of town, post office, postcards, and their itinerant stamps bedamned (or, as I wrote in my notes that evening: “Got us a little lost getting out of town, as usual. Soon found where we were going, as usual”).
Boy, I love travelling!
For once we found ourselves a genuinely sunny day and we rejoiced in it. We were treated to a beautiful leafy drive up into the Apuseni Mountains in western Romania and we enjoyed every mile. This was cave country and I am a big fan of spelunking and make a point of exploring caves at every opportunity, if only because it allows me to use the word “spelunking” a lot. I was surprised to discover that mom in all her extensive travels had never visited a cave before, never spelunked as it were, but that was about to change.
Of the many cave choices the Apuseni region had to offer I had narrowed it down to two, and schedules being what they were I was disappointed to find that we’d only have time for one. Mom and I discussed the merits and drawbacks of the two options and though the ice cave of Scarisoara would have been my first pick, of the two Scarisoara was significantly harder to get to and would involve a lot more stairs and climbing. So it was with a tip of the hat to Ayla from Clan Of The Cave Bear that we chose Pestera Ursilor, the Bear Cave.
Pulling off the main highway (small as it was) we found ourselves on a narrow paved strip passing through a few small villages before finding ourselves in a parking lot, literally at the end of the road. We parked the car, got out and stretched our bones.
There were several locals selling their wares nearby from ramshackle booths and tables. I asked a lady “Which way to the cave?” She pointed us up a steep road and offered to sell us a bottle of honey. “Can I drive my car up there?” I asked.
“No machines, only walking,” she answered, again offering up the bottle of golden resin.
We started up the very steep road and another merchant pointed me towards a staircase. “That’s a short-cut,” she said, in obviously pretty good English. She explained that there were a lot of steps but it was shorter than taking the paved switchback. We mounted the stairs and started a slow climb.
There were a hundred and twenty of them (I’m a stair-counter) and though we stopped for a few breathers along the way mom made it without too much trouble at all. I hope I can still do that sort of thing when I’m sefirxty-thrnive years old. Curiously, I think this is the only time I’ve had to climb up to get to a cave. Usually one has to go down down down to start a spelunk, not up.
But up we went to the small, concrete info centre/cashier booth. We paid our fee (well, mom did) and started our tour just as mom was about to buy herself a frozen cone of her favourite ice cream. I made her put it back (no food or drinks allowed in the cave) and we hurried to catch up with the Romanian-only speaking guide and our small group.
He gathered the eight of us around and extended a hearty welcome, cracked some jokes and made sure we were all familiar with the safety rules and the do’s and don’ts of spelunking. Then he told the story of how this cave was first discovered when an earthquake shook it open in 1975 before finally beckoning us into the kilometre and-a-half long chamber.
At least that’s what I think he was going on about.
The cave was, well, cavey, with stalactites and stalagmites both large and small growing from impossibly curved floors and ceilings and curtains of rock that have built up drip-by-drip over eons covering the walls. The first thing that the guide pointed out were dozens of cave bear skulls and bones that littered the cavern floor next to our artificial walkway.
These were the remains of over a hundred cave bear, an oversized species of Ursus that went extinct almost 30,000 years ago. Pretty cool if you ask me.
Beyond that the guide led us through chamber after chamber of the stone chapel, pointing out one feature after another to the Romanian tourists while mom and I hung back and gawked, not understanding a word.
Caves are one of those places that only the most skilled photographer can do justice. They are so detailed, so colourful, so contoured, but so dark. It’s really hard to get a decent shot with a flash and even harder without one. All the more reason that I should have bought a fridge magnet adorned with one of many stellar, professional shots of the cave from our guide when he offered them for sale at the end of the tour in lieu of tips. I didn’t; I’m just not that into fridge magnets.
The climax of the tour was at the farthest end of the cave. Here a full cave bear skeleton had been discovered intact, the complete remains of Ursus spelaeus laying just as it fell. Seeing an extinct beast protruding from the dirt in it’s true ancestral home, well, it really takes you back.
And it provides one of those rare “cave shots” that even an amateur can make look pretty good.
After almost an hour the tour dumped us outside, high atop the steep paved switchback that was lined on both sides with small tourist booths. We resisted everything until we hit the bottom of the hill where I bought us each an unidentifiable home-made pastry snack from an old, bent woman in a head scarf; a feeble attempt to stave off our pending hunger.
Back on the main road we stopped for gas and mom went straight for the ice cream cooler only to find it empty. She was hankering for that treat that got yanked out of her mouth before entering the bear cave, and no amount of potato chips was going to satisfy her, freeing me to shove the whole bag into my mouth like chips were oxygen and I was a drowning man.
We drove the long way, up up up our steepest mountain so far and past the tiny town of Aries. We stopped at the peak amid a blanket of snow; the car’s thermostat told us the temperature was down to -2 degrees. As we began our slow descent we passed a bone fide ski town sporting surprisingly modern hotels with large, windowed restaurants sitting next to mountain-ghetto compounds of bare wooden shacks.
And nowhere at all that one might find an ice cream.
I had read that this area was known for artisans that specialized in carved wood and after seeing so many wonderfully carved wooden gates and churches throughout the country I figured they would be worth a look. As we descended the mountain we kept our eyes peeled for any sort of artisan or tourist shop (or ice cream stand) but found nothing. With a twinge of regret I drove our little car right past the turnoff to the Scarisoara ice cave but there was certainly no time for that sort of thing now.
We were heading east – the sun set early on this side of the mountain and as such the thermostat didn’t warm up with our descent as I had expected it to. Dusk came on fast, we started looking for a hotel and soon found none.
We drove and drove, pulling off at any sign of significant population and we consistently struck out, with every futile detour eating up more time and bringing on more darkness and hunger. We saw a relatively large dot on the map and made for the town, or hopefully city of Brad (or “Oh-Brad” as I called it, trying in vain to remember lyrics from the opening number of the Rocky Horror Picture Show which, in retrospect, was probably a bit annoying).
We were shocked to discover but a single hotel in the relative metropolis of Oh-Brad, and while the hotel did indeed have a room available the lady explained in broken English that they had a large party booked into the place for the weekend. With the accompanying ruckus that was expected we should probably look elsewhere, she suggested, if we were actually interested in getting any sleep. We took her advice and passed on her room.
Half-starved and pretty tired of driving we somehow made it all the way to Deva and booked into the first place we found, a not-so-great but significantly-better-than-nothing hotel/gas station on the main drag. When the proprietor finally came to greet us we paid him 190 lei in cash, lugged our luggage up to the small, nondescript room and pretty much ran to the restaurant.
In the empty eatery we found the proprietor leaning against the bar and wiping a glass clean. Clearly running a one-man-show, he joined us at the table and without a printed menu in sight listed off the few food options he could think of.
“We have pig…” he said, thinking hard and looking at the ceiling. “And salad,” he added, after a long thoughtful pause.
“Do you have chicken?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, brightening. “I can make chicken!”
“And perhaps French fries?” he implored hopefully, one eyebrow raised.
Anxious to eat anything and fast I ordered the chicken ’n fries and mom agreed to the pig, hoping she was ordering pork chops. And yes, fries would be okay for her too.
And yes, okay, salad. Anything that would get some food on the table.
He ran back to the kitchen like Grover the waiter in a Sesame Street skit. It turned out there was somebody else back there skilled enough to sear meat. Our man put in our request and came back wearing his talkative tour-guide hat, asking about our journey and commenting on what wonderful sights we missed along the way.
We asked him about the fort we had noticed on our way into town. He shrugged it off, adding that the Corvin Castle that was on our schedule for tomorrow also had little of interest. When he found out that we only had time to visit the main floor of the Peles Castle last week he lamented that the second floor of the castle was the greatest attraction in all of Romania.
“And you missed it,” he said, smiling broadly and shrugging his shulders.
When he dropped bowls of lettuce and tomatoes in front of us alongside a pair of plates of our long-awaited hot dinner all was forgiven, and he buzzed off while we tore into the food like wild animals.
It’s a good thing we were the only people in the restaurant.
We were so hungry that the mediocre food tasted positively heavenly. We sat back after dinner rubbing our bellies in sated satisfaction, troubling our innkeeper/waiter/tour guide/barkeep/critic for a beer and a Jack Daniels & Coke.
“Would you like ice in your Jack Daniels sir?” he asked me.
Oh right, I thought. I often forget that ice is usually added only upon request in Europe. “Yes, I’ll have some ice please,” I answered.
“Would you like two cubes,” he asked, “or three?”
“Whatever,” I replied.
“Two,” he asked again, leaning in a little, “or three cubes of ice with your Jack Daniels sir?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I insisted, smiling at the absurdity.
“Two then?” he said, his eyebrows raised.
“Yes, two is fine.”
“Or three?’ he interjected quickly, perhaps sensing a twinge of disappointment in my voice. “Three is fine, it’s merely your choice sir.” He looked at me with almost mock eagerness.
“Yes,” I said as firmly as possible. “Definitely three. I’ll have three cubes of ice in my drink please.”
“Okay,” he said with a shrug, like it suddenly made no difference to him whatsoever. He walked slowly to the bar and noisily plunked three cubes into my glass with tiny chrome tongs and a hint of disdain.
After drinks mom paid the bill (again, cash) and we went back to the room for a short evening of cribbage and a few chapters of Dracula.
As I lay reading about the heroic crew riding the rails across Romania in pursuit of their shape-shifting quarry the plaintive sounds of canine howls and jostling trains filtered through my earplugs from beyond our dark window and added a soundtrack of realism to Bram Stoker’s brilliant, vivid writing.
Pretty cool, if you ask me.
110516 Castles, Forts, Sibiu, and Beer at McDonald’s
When I woke up I could still hear dogs barking; I could still hear trains rumbling. I got up and looked out the window only to see a run of grimy railroad tracks and a big mangy dog leashed up in the dirt yard behind the hotel.
Sure, there’s something to be said for the freedom to pick and choose your accommodations on a whim, but let’s just say I’m glad we will be reverting back to pre-booked rooms for our next two nights.
Breakfast was lame, our worst of the trip. There was no buffet, instead our guy made us a pair of small omelettes, plain save a tiny smattering of grated parmesan and a sliced tomato on the side to offer some hint of flavour.
At some time during the night our chatty tour guide turned into a gruff sourpuss, dropping our plates in front of us with hardly a word. It probably started when I insisted on precisely three cubes of ice in my drink last night.
Following mom’s brilliant suggestion we went straight to the McDonald’s next door immediately upon checkout. This was the first McDonald’s we had seen on the trip and we hoped that their McCafe could supply us with proper North American sized coffees for our morning ride.
We ordered coffees that were indeed almost American-sized but were otherwise tasteless and terrible, and I couldn’t help myself and ordered a chicken McMuffin breakfast sandwich, which was exactly what you’d think it was and was equally tasteless and terrible. Had we been there later in the day I would have unquestionably tried a bowl of McSoup and perhaps ordered a McBeer, which I could see in the cooler was in fact a Tuborg tallboy.
Seriously, beer at McDonalds. Oh, the wonders the world holds.
Despite the lacklustre review from our hotel receptionist and the bunk directions spewing from mom’s GPS we visited the Deva Fortress that stood unmissable, towering over the city.
We rode the funicular up the castle; it was mom’s first and my steepest and the angle up the intimidating precipice was daunting to say the least. “If we start to fall take my hand,” mom said, staring out the window and down towards our rapidly-shrinking car.
“If I have to die I want to do it holding my child’s hand.”
The fortress was pretty cool in both senses of the word. Rising high and impossible atop a mountain that juts out of an otherwise flat landscape, the wind and the thin air surrounding the inviolable, thick and sturdy fortress shaved several degrees from an already chilly day. The ramped walkways leading up to the drawbridge were frosted and slippery, we circled the massive stone garrison and gazed at the sunny valley shivering in the morning chill below us before clamouring back towards the funicular, happy enough with a short visit.
We were first in what soon grew to be a substantial line of people waiting to squeeze into the large hillside elevator. Mom was determined to hold her spot so she could stake out a good view for the ride back down when a man deftly and without a word butted right in front of her and leaned against the automatic door just as the funicular was arriving.
She looked at him and then over at me, surprised shock and not a little indignation all over her face. She almost said something.
Luckily she didn’t, as it turned out dude was the funicular operator and even with twenty or so of us squishing into the small glass box mom held on to her her prime spot at the front.
Looking up at the fortress from below it seemed positively impenetrable, and I thought what I always think when I see one of these fortified castles: Why would any invading army in their right mind bother attacking them at all? Aside from all the work getting up to them (forts and castles are invariably built on top of something tall and inconvenient), I just don’t see the point. Sure, let the king or lord or whomever lock themselves in there, safe behind thick stone walls with their soldiers and food stores and such. Why wouldn’t the marauders just ignore the forts and invade all the poor, defenceless townsfolk, taking over everything but the big, strong fortress. Those people locked up inside would get hungry soon enough and when they inevitably came out wouldn’t they find the invaders well-entrenched, and possibly even busy building their own, even more impressive fort on the opposite hill?
But I guess there’s that old saying, “If you build it, they will come.”
Our next stop was Corvin Castle, and given our unintended extended drive in search of a hotel last night we had only a short drive to get there.
Now this is a castle’s castle. One of the largest in Eastern Europe, the Corvin Castle looks so perfect you’d almost think Disney built it. Walking across the long gangplank to the front gate I was shocked when mom asked the ticket lady for two senior prices. When I admitted to my mom last year that I had started pulling my own little “senior-scam” asking for the senior discount at the movies and such places she acted horrified. Imagine that a child of hers could possibly pass for sixty-five or older!
But hey, when it’s her lei on the line all of a sudden I’m grandpa Snelgrove.
I asked the nice young lady for an audio guide in my squeakiest voice and mom and I took our time going room-by-room through the massive castle. There was the dungeon that apparently held our old pal Vlad the Impaler for a day or two several centuries ago, dramatically improving the touristability of the place. There was the knights hall, with swords and suits of armour and real-live maidens dancing to ancient lute music playing on a portable CD player. There was the well that had been dug by three prisoners over the course of fifteen years. The king who had promised them their freedom should they succeed in finding water died while they were still digging. When they finally struck water and completed the well the late king’s nasty wife reneged on the offer and had the trio sentenced to death.
There was also the chapel, which held the inscription left by those three poor prisoners: “You may have water, but you have no soul.”
In all we spent two or three hours exploring the castle, and to think last night our waiter/barman told us there wasn’t much to see here. Next to the Peles Castle (even if we only got to see the first floor) this was probably the most impressive tour of the trip. We kept meaning to ask someone to take a picture of the two of us together but in the end we didn’t, though mom grabbed my camera a few times, insisting on taking a few shots of me.
On the way out of town we stopped at a gas station and bought all the junk food they had including a frozen cone of mom’s favourite ice cream, which seemed a long time coming.
We drove to Sibiu on a freeway – our first one of the whole trip. The road was smooth, fast, and well-maintained with a speed limit that felt easy and safe at 130kms/hr. Almost nobody was speeding and those that were did it autobahn-style; flashing their lights once or twice as they approached at impossible speeds, locked forever in the passing lane. It would invariably be a Mercedes or Audi, and always silver.
In Sibiu we drove straight to the old town. We took a ticket and drove under a gate that led up to the square. Both mom’s GPS and my Spidey-senses told us that our hotel was up here somewhere, but where? I left mom in the car and set out to find it on foot. It quickly occurred to me that if our hotel was indeed in the immediate area then we were booked in a great location.
I found myself in an area that was reminiscent of San Marco’s Square in Venice. The elongated buildings framed a vast courtyard lorded over by a tall Medieval clocktower. Rows of restaurants and upscale shops stretched to pinpoints down wide pedestrian avenues that jutted out from the square. Sibiu was a nice looking town all right.
I popped into a hotel and asked the concierge for directions to the Hotel Luxemburg. Though her details seemed sound they merely led me around the corner and back to the car where mom waited patiently, the hotel’s location still locked into her GPS which didn’t help near as much as you’d think.
What did help was the photo of the the hotel I saw on mom’s phone. I soon spied it and another minute later we were checking in. Our room was in a UNESCO heritage building and came replete with a fridge, WiFi, a splendid view of the arched church roof just outside our window and the cobbled old town with it’s wealth of shops and restaurants sitting just outside our door.
Let’s just say it was a significant improvement over last night’s digs, and it cost less than $70 for the night.
We both kicked back and had a beer, put our feet up and relaxed, and eventually built up enough energy to go out for a walkabout. The whole area is nothing but cobblestone and old, amazing architecture, and very, very nice. I kicked things off by virtually running up the 12th century clocktower, spying on mom from the top as she perused dinner menus in the courtyard below and stopping briefly on the way back down to watch the intricate and ancient clock mechanism click another of it’s endless minutes. A thousand cogs turned just a wee bit and a metal plate flipped over with a very reliable sounding chung! while outside the giant minute hand moved one-sixtieth of the way around and told the whole town whether they were early or late.
With not a thing to do and all night to do it we weren’t early or late for a darn thing no matter how many minutes the clock decided to count off. We walked randomly down several of the streets busy with tourists and locals alike, popped into a few random shops and just strolled around slow and aimlessly, soaking in the town.
We stopped at the big, beautiful church that we could see from our hotel room window. Its doors were locked and tomorrow being a Sunday we wouldn’t have a chance of seeing inside so we took in as much as we could from the outside, walking all the way around the old building in the dying light and clicking a bunch of pictures.
Then we popped back into our hotel for another beer before heading out to dinner.
Back in the big square the evening lights added a whole extra level of awesomeness to the architecture. We picked one of the restaurants lining the square almost at random, selecting the very place I had seen mom checking into earlier when I was up in the clocktower.
And wow, was it a great meal! Mom ordered pasta with chicken and mushrooms, I had the chicken breast stuffed with feta cheese and red pepper in a gorgonzola sauce with rosemary-roasted potatoes on the side. Hands down, it was the best meal of the vacation so far. We had been drinking local brews the whole trip, often a brand called Ursus, but this was the first time I saw Ursus Black on the menu so I ordered one. It was a brilliant, nutty stout, much tastier than a Guinness. Oh, everything was all so very good.
Back at the room I almost skunked mom twice at crib, which of course means I didn’t skunk her at all. That said, I’m up four lei.
110616 Poienari Fortress; the True Castle of Count Dracula
I tell you, the staff here at the Hotel Luxemburg aren’t just friendly and professional, they also make a heck of a breakfast.
Mom and I sat down with our plates already loaded from the do-it-yourself table when the friendly (and professional) girl came by to take our coffee order. I noticed a small menu on our table.
“Why yes sir, we can certainly make omelettes for you both!” she said brightly. “Would you like ham in them, cheese, or both?”
Well, she was just so darn friendly and professional we just had to get both!
And such was the great start to the last day of a great vacation. We got on the road nice and early, gassing up well before 10am.
Part, if not all of my plans for the day had us driving to Bucharest via the TransAlpina scenic route, following what is arguably the oldest road in the Carpathian Mountains along a trail that was first forged in the 2nd century AD. Unfortunately the road is seasonal; it closes every year right around this time and a quick internet check showed that we had missed our opportunity by just a few days. We soon noticed the snow-capped mountains in the distance and could understand why the road might be closed.
Disappointing as this was, on the upside our day had been freed up considerably and I had a very exciting option up my sleeve.
I’ve noted before that there are three castles in Romania that claim a connection to the very evil and very tourist-friendly (AKA lucrative) Vlad Peles (AKA Vlad III the Impaler). There is Bran Castle – where we celebrated Hallowe’en – connected to the beastly son of Dracul only by it’s physical resemblance to the castle in Stoker’s celebrated tome. Then there is the Corvin Castle, which we discovered during our visit there just yesterday is rumoured to have held the original vampire as a prisoner for only a couple of nights, and even that is just a rumour.
And then there is the real deal: the Poienari Fortress.
Sitting high atop a rocky cliff (aren’t they all?), Poienari was actually built by Vlad Peles himself, or maaaaybe his brother. More accurately, the fortress was built by the poor souls who happened to be living in a nearby town when Vlad and his sizeably army showed up, slew all the children and the elderly and circled the town with their slain bodies. Vlad then had the horrified survivors rounded up and forced them all to work building this fortress until their clothes fell off.
I don’t really understand that last part about the slaves being set free once their clothes fell off but every darn placard and sign I read mentioned it so I guess that was the deal.
Anyway, the Poienari Fortress was a mere twenty-five minutes out of our way, just north of Curtea de Arges. The only catch was that once there I would have to climb up 1,480 steps to reach the ruins.
“There must be another way up there,” mom insisted.
“Apparently not,” I replied with a shrug, nervous about committing to such a prodigious climb.
Luckily I’ve gone up the steps of the CN Tower three times, and I figured if I can scale the CN Tower and it’s 1,776 steps in less than eighteen minutes I should be able to make it up 1,480 steps to Dracula’s fortress without too much trouble. I just wasn’t sure I felt like it, and if I committed us to a detour of almost a half-hour in each direction I would feel pretty committed to going up those steps once we got there.
“Whether we go to Poienari or not,” I asked my mother as I pulled the car off the highway and on to the smallest road we’ve seen this entire trip, “you always prefer to take the side roads, right?”
She agreed that yes, she preferred the smaller country roads and fate promptly called her bluff.
What was indeed the smallest, most remote road we’ve driven so far suddenly and without warning became unpaved and rose through the smallest, most remote villages we’ve seen before promptly deteriorating into a virtual cow path that capped our pace at no more than ten kilometres per hour.
This was the first dirt road we hit on the whole trip and it was hitting us hard. Every time we bottomed out with a sudden smack! of rock-on-chassis mom would jump with a start and I would thank ye gods that we were driving a rental.
After fifteen kilometres of gruelling road that kept us down near 5kms/hr and started to really challenge my nerves we found pavement and it felt just like gold. In what seemed like no time at all we arrived in Curtea de Arges, swung left off the main road and I spent the next twenty-three kilometres convincing myself that the climb up to Dracula’s Castle would be a cakewalk compared to the CN Tower. It wouldn’t be nearly as vertical, I told myself. And unlike in the CN Tower there would certainly be patches of level ground, I reasoned. Plus it was almost three hundred steps shorter, and after all weren’t the last three hundred steps of the CN Tower the hardest ones? I saw a sign for the Poienari Castle and pulled the car to the side of the road.
I lightened my camera bag, packing just my camera and zoom lens, an extra camera battery just in case, a small bottle of water and a large can of beer, locked mom in the car (this is vampire country after all) and started up the stairs to Vlad’s fortress.
Eager and cocky, I took the steps two at a time and soon came to a small sign beside a bench where a couple was resting on their way back down. The sign said I had gone up 453 steps already. I couldn’t believe it, it felt like I had barely started the climb and I had already gone a third of the way up. This was going to be easy!
Still, I reduced my pace to one stair at a time and when I noticed a bead of sweat falling from my head I slowed right down. This wasn’t a race and mom had insisted that I needn’t worry about her, just give her a book to read and she could wait for me all day long.
How very fitting that I left her reading Stoker’s Dracula.
Still feeling good, at the two-thirds mark there was a bench with another small sign and soon enough I came around a corner and there it was, Dracula’s Castle.
I found a man selling tickets, charging a mere five lei to visit the castle. As I was fishing through my pocket for some money I heard what I thought were kittens in the small booth behind him.
“No kittens there sir, those are puppies!”
And puppies they were, only six days old and just as cute. It’s a good thing mom stayed in the car – if the 1,480 steps didn’t make her heart explode these little mewing balls of fur certainly would have. Their mother started to growl at me as I clicked a few pictures so I gathered up my camera and set off on the final leg of my climb.
As I got closer it occurred to me that…yes…those are actually two mannequins impaled on bloodied stakes just outside the fortress walls. Classy. Could be worse though, I heard someone saying that Vlad used to mark the path up to his fortress with impaled villagers.
I can see it now: “Hello up there! Terribly sorry to bother you, but is this the way to Dracula’s castle?”
“Oooooowwwchhhhhh!” moans a poor impaled man in rags, pointing up the hill.
“Okay, thank-you very much!”
In actual fact the Poienari Fortress is not much to see, just a handful of antique brick walls that somehow managed to withstand the earthquake that destroyed the rest of it. There’s nothing to go into, only half-walls to walk around and a monstrously great view.
After much deliberation I decided not to open the victory beer I had carried up with me – I just didn’t feel like it, plus the country has a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving – so I ended up bringing it back down again after my thirty minute romp at the top. I wonder if carrying a half-kilo of beer up and down 1,480 steps takes the same amount of energy as it would to carry 740 kilos of beer up and down one step?
Either way coming down was way easier and just as much fun as going up; I’m sure I did it in half the time. In all I was gone for about ninety minutes, mom hardly had time to miss me at all.
Heading back towards Curtea de Arges we stopped at one of the many fruit stands the local women had set up in front of their country homes. Before mom had a chance to reach for a couple of pears and apples the friendly lady opened a bottle of homemade…something and offered my mother an overflowing cap full. “It’s strong, but sweet,” she said with an accent that could be described using exactly the same two adjectives.
“This one is just strong,” she said, holding up another bottle. “Would you like to try it?” she asked me.
“Is it like tequila?” I wondered aloud, completely forgetting about that whole “zero-tolerance” thing.
“Well, yes, it’s a little like tequila,” she answered, filling the unscrewed bottle cap for me.
It was, in fact, a lot like tequila. I asked her if she made it herself and she said no, her grandfather was the one who made it. From pears.
And so we got back in the car, mom with a small bag of fruit and me with a sticky used wine bottle filled with homemade Transylvanian moonshine, minus one cap full. Mom started into a pear while I stowed my bottle safely in the trunk.
With our Romanian vacation all but finished we continued past Curtea de Arges and on to highway A1, covering the final hundred and thirty kilometres back to our starting point in Bucharest locked in at a steady 130kms/hr. About an hour later (go figure) we curved our little rental car onto the busy ring road that skirts the capital.
I had booked our last night into The Phoenicia Grand Hotel, a place near the airport that boasted consistently high online reviews. As we neared the hotel we saw a young family crossing the highway, dad struggling to lift a baby stroller full of baby over the concrete median while mom held her other children back from the relentless traffic, responsible parent that she obviously was.
We changed lanes to give them extra room and laughed ourselves silly about it the rest of the way to the hotel.
Walking into the hotel lobby I instantly agreed with the online opinion. The place was big and gaudy with a touch of class, almost Vegas-like. The huge, marbled lobby was cluttered with squawking birdcages, chandeliers, flowers, plenty of fancy furniture and a pretty grand piano with ivory keys that was being used as a giant planter.
I noticed the posted price advertised rooms for 160 euros per night whereas I had arranged our room online for just $118CDN, and as usual that included breakfast. Another victory for the pre-booker. And frankly I had selected the hotel specifically for it’s proximity to the airport just ten minutes away, the fact that the place was nice was just a bonus.
We emptied the car completely, searching under the seats and scouring the trunk and the glove box for anything we might accidentally leave behind and in the process noticed just how messy the rental was. My side of the car was absolutely littered with broken potato chips while mom’s side was scattered with cookie crumbs. (As mom said, whether a little dirt or a lot made no difference; it would still take the same amount of vacuuming.)
And all the while a friendly bellhop stood by with his luggage cart, eager to show us our room while insisting we take our time, which made me feel very rushed. I loaded up the cart with my luggage, my passport, hats, sweaters, sneakers and a thousand loose odds and ends, plus a couple of plastic bags hastily jammed with nearly a dozen miniature churches, monasteries and castles that I had collected along the way. I had to take everything I had up to the room and somehow squeeze it all together to make it plane-worthy for our return trip tomorrow. Mom was pretty much packed already and left all but her smallest suitcase in the car.
In the room I tipped our semi-patient bellhop semi-generously and we settled in to drink the last of our gas station beers. The room was very international, with American-sized beds and linen and even a North American-style three-pronged outlet in the wall, allowing me to plug my computer straight in and avoid fumbling around trying to get mom’s bulky adaptor to work. Eventually I got to packing and made short work of it, stuffing two suitcases and two carry-ons full with the finesse and expediency of a seasoned but lazy traveller anxious to get home.
We set both of our alarm clocks for 6:30am and placed a request for a wake-up call at 6:45am just in case, finished our beers and went for dinner.
While the hotel was by no means isolated neither was it in an area where restaurants were a short and pleasant stroll away. It was a case of ‘eat in the hotel’ or ‘get in the car and drive’. We opted to try out one of the two hotel eateries and were seated in their Italian place by 6:15pm.
Though we were both tempted by the extensive pizza menu mom ordered pasta while I settled on stuffed gorgonzola chicken breast for the second night in a row, with thrice baked potato on the side. When mom passed on a beer in favour of a ginger ale I glanced at the prices and decided that I could order a Jack & Coke and between us we would have just enough to pay for the meal in cash, thereby using up the last of our lei.
The food was very good and so was the Jack Daniels. When the cheque came we saw that taxes and gratuities had been included (the first time that’s happened on this trip), pushing our bill over our available cash by exactly the price of a shot of Jack Daniels.
I truly felt bad as I leisurely pulled on my ever-so-tasty drink and watched mom and the waiter scratch their heads circling and pointing at one item on the bill after another. The process required to pay part of the bill in cash and the remainder with a credit card turned out being much more complicated than one might expect.
And still I sipped away, feeling just terrible.
For lack of anything else to do, after dinner we walked through the overly-vegetated courtyard behind the hotel and killed time wandering through the extensive lobby.
We were back in the room by 8pm with nothing left but to end our country-wide cribbage tournament. For those keeping track, after a strong finish I was the victor, finishing six games up and winning mom’s last remaining lei. Better luck next time.
Mom had a shower and got ready for bed. We talked about the last couple of weeks and both agreed that it had been a fantastic, unforgettable trip but we were also both very excited to get on the plane in the morning. It occurred to me that I had been having such a great time that I had completely forgotten to get excited about flying Business Class on the way home.
I tell you, it’s so very great to cap a vacation by looking forward to the long flight home instead of dreading it!
Eventually mom installed her earplugs and turned in and I pulled out my book, digging into the last dozen or so pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I’ve been plugging away at the book this whole trip. It’s a great read, and how apropos that I finished it here on our last night. The timing was perfect, especially after making the trek up to Vlad’s fortress just a few hours earlier.
“The Castle Of Dracula now stood out against the red sky, and every stone of it’s broken battlements was articulated against the light of the setting sun.”
110716 Epilogue; the Trip Home
We got up at 6am, both of us rising to the ringing of our internal clocks before our external alarms even had a chance. Beating the alarm is a hereditary skill we both share, though neither of us trusts ourselves like my grandmother did, a woman who never needed an alarm clock regardless of how early she had to get up.
Bleary eyed and not very hungry at all we made our way down to breakfast just as it opened at 6:30.
During my online research I was intrigued to see how consistently the reviews of this hotel included the phrase “best breakfast ever”. I told my mom that we should expect much, and despite the fact that we were in for a Business Class day of being continually pampered and fed like pigs I told her we should make a point of saving time to check out the breakfast buffet here at the Phoenicia Grand for ourselves.
And yeah, the place has the best breakfast ever. Their remarkably extensive selection includes both breakfast and dinner options and at first sight it’s instantly impressive. There was a smoothie bar, an omelet station and a pizza oven all manned by men ready-to-serve, and everything looked to be of the highest quality. The butter and jam section even featured an actual bee’s honeycomb dripping fresh honey into a wooden bowl. It was all very, very classy and quite delicious. They even had real, North American-style coffee.
I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza fresh from the oven and dug out an inaugural piece of steaming lasagna with fresh bread, scalloped cheesy potatoes and a liberal squirt from one of the many hot sauces available filling my plate. Mom chose more traditional breakfast items and was still picking away when I sprang up for a very unnecessary second round.
We stuck to our schedule and got to the airport right on time, returned the rental car easy-as-pie and relaxed in the airport lounge where I nursed my full belly with a frosty can of beer and a bowl of nuts. Hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere.
As expected, we were wined and dined all the way to Turkey though unfortunately our delayed departure from Bucharest had us landing in Istanbul more than an hour late. After a quick run through the airport gift shop we had a mere twenty minutes to enjoy the elegant and wonderful Turkish Air Executive Lounge. I pounded a couple of Jack & Cokes and somehow stuffed a couple of slices of some delicious pizza-like snack into my swollen stomach while mom made do with just a coffee.
We had to go through security at the Istanbul airport despite the fact that we were merely changing planes from one international flight to another and had never left the secure area. Then at our gate we had to go through two more security checks. Finally, before we got on the bus that took us out on the tarmac to our plane staff held us back and went through the bus, checking that it was clear (clear of what, I don’t know) before allowing us passengers to board. It was a level of security I had not seen before.
It’s possible this was because it was the day before the US election, or perhaps because someone had set off a bomb at this very airport just a few months ago. Or maybe it’s because security guards had fired shots at a vehicle that refused to stop at one of the airport checkpoints just a day earlier. Either way it sure made me feel extra-safe as I settled into my seat for the twelve-hour flight to Toronto.
While mom did the smart thing and spent much of the flight sleeping I settled my mind with a steady diet of Jim Beam, tasty snacks, hors d’oeuvres and full-on meals, and an endless stream of movies including Avatar (wonderful), The Secret Life Of Pets (cute, and darker than I expected), and Batman vs Superman (dark, and even dumber than one could imagine).
Just after takeoff mom blurted out, “Dammit, I was going to have the lady take a picture of us together in the hotel lobby back at the Phoenicia!
“Now here we are without a single photo from this whole trip of the two of us together!” she lamented, crossing her arms with a frown and putting on her headphones.
“Excuse me,” I said, handing my camera to a stewardess and elbowing my mother, “would you please take our picture?”
So here it is, the only photo of the two of us on our trip to Romania:
In Toronto we went through the hassle retrieving and rechecking our luggage, securing my boarding pass (mom was able to get hers back in Bucharest), and ensuring we’d be able to relax in the Maple Leaf lounge while we waited several hours for our final connections, which were both in Economy. All worked out well and we arrived in the lounge tired from our flights and the seven-hour time difference, and very, very thirsty. I got a glass of water for mom and drank about a gallon of lemonized ice water myself before starting into the Crown Royal.
We had a pretty long layover to endure before we each caught our own flights home, hers back to Moncton and mine to Ottawa. I took the opportunity to thank her for such a fantastic trip but I was too tired to fully articulate how much I appreciated that we could go on such an unforgettable trip together and have such a great, great time the whole time. She was too tired to do anything but nod her head sleepily. I’ll have make a point of thanking her again when we aren’t so exhausted.
Thanks mom, for taking me to a country I’ve always wanted to visit, for being game to following every path and trail I set before us, for clamouring up and over stairs, ramps, hills and bridges in the cold and the snow without a single word of complaint, for picking up the tab for every hotel, dinner and drink (especially the drinks), and especially for being the kind of mother a son can spend two weeks with exploring a foreign country and have absolutely nothing but a good time doing it.
And finally, thanks for the six lei. You really should brush up on your crib game.
Finally the time came and I walked mom to her gate, leaving her with a hug and another sleepy thanks. I got bounced back to Business Class for my final leg home and found myself seated next to a Senator (the political type, not an NHL player). Being the eve of such an historic election we exchanged a few words about Trump (“Sure, tens of millions of Americans truly believe he’ll be a great President,” he conceded, “but they’re all wrong.”) but soon we lulled into ignoring each other and I plugged in to the entertainment system. Amazingly, I found a documentary about vampire mythology in Romania. Of course I tuned it in and watched while I fell in and out of sleep, sipping on a final Crown Royal & Coke.
One segment of the doc focused on a village in Romania whose citizens had collectively decided that a recently deceased man was a vampire. So they dug him up, chopped off his head and burned his heart for twenty-four hours straight at a nearby crossroads. Astoundingly, this happened in the year 2003. The documentary interviewed several townsfolk, including the widow of the alleged vampire and the man who cut off his head. Everyone agreed the steps taken were absolutely necessary to save the town from the stricken best.
In other words, Romanians actually, honestly believe in vampires.
Maybe mom and I are luckier than we thought getting out of Transylvania unscathed…
…Or maybe not!