France? Done it. Spain? Been there. Italy? Austria? England? Check, check, check.
You know where we haven’t been yet? A former Communist country. Hey! That sounds exotic!
Okay, that’s not exactly how the conversation went. It went more like this…
Want to spend Halloween at Dracula’s Castle? Heck yeah, book those tickets!
So that’s how we decided to spend a week in Romania.
Now, I was a bit nervous when we started planning this trip. I mean, I love the idea of seeing new places and especially love the idea of telling people that I spent a Halloween in Transylvania, but I am a child of the 80’s. Communism is a big black cloud that we were taught to fear while growing up. I mean, come on… Wolverines!!! (Let me know if you don’t get that reference. I’ll explain it to you.)
But, man, Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler. Dracula. “Listen to them, the children of the night, what sweet music they make…” And Ryanair can get us there in a few short hours! So I pushed my 1980’s views of the Eastern Bloc aside, hopped on that plane and landed in Bucharest last Tuesday afternoon.
We had a few small problems after landing. The customs window shut down with us next in line and didn’t bother to reopen for a good 30 minutes, leaving the line to just build and build with no explanation. One man started yelling in Romanian, and the customs officers just yelled right back. This was our first experience in Romania with “the customer is not always right”. It was repeated with waiters and flight attendants. So, here’s your first tip. Don’t yell at the workers in Romania. They yell back.
Our next small problem was locating our rental car lady. They are supposed to meet you with a sign with your name on it once you get through customs. You know, like the fancy folks that land in New York and their chauffers are waiting with a black suit and hat, ready to whisk them away in the back something fancy with tinted windows and cushy leather seats. Like that, only everyone gets that same treatment and there are tons of names on signs being held by taxi drivers and rental car agents. And then our name wasn’t even there. We finally tracked our lady down, she led us to our car (a Subaru, not a limo), got in the car and did all the paperwork sitting in the front seat. Then our credit card didn’t work. See, they didn’t actually believe it was us using it. So, Ben got them on the phone and convinced USAA that yes, it is us. Yes, we elected to come to (former Communist) Romania of our own free will and could you please turn our card back on, thank you. That done, car rental lady went home for the night and we drove out into Bucharest in a Subaru Forrester with a hole in the exhaust, rumbling away down streets that used to be called Ceaușescu Avenue and Ceaușescu Road but are now named Liberty Way and Freedom Square because, after all, Romania isn’t Communist anymore.
Bucharest is a large city and has the evening traffic to prove it but we made it to our hotel, dumped our stuff and went out into the night to see what we could find to eat for dinner. Since I had the bad feeling that once we hit the rural areas the menu choices were going to be mainly tripe soup with a side of pig intestines, we opted for Pizza Hut, where we were greeted with the question, “Smoking or non?” Everyone smokes in Romania. Everyone.
(Formerly Communist) Romania has really latched onto the idea of Capitalism. Everywhere you look in Bucharest you see an ad for something, and not just a quiet, subdued billboard. Think more Times Square level. Every ad is lit up or flashes or is enormous and they are all dropped on top of or hung down the front of historic buildings.
The next morning we went out into the city to see it in the sunlight, grab a geocache and stand in front of the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world. Built by Ceaușescu while the people in his country were starving, the only building that is larger is the Pentagon. We had a nice long talk with the kids about government and dictatorships while they rolled their eyes and yawned.
Another thing you notice as you walk around the city is just how many abandoned buildings there are. Huge buildings, taking up half a city block are empty and disintegrating while the inhabited ones around them are full of stores, apartments, schools.
In the afternoon we left the city and headed West to a tiny village called Corbeni. Along the way we got a good look at true, rural Romania. Things here seem to have stopped in time. Horses pull wagons, crops are harvested by hand, the people still herd animals. Every group of cows or sheep we saw had a human babysitter with a stick. It became a game with the kids to find the “stick man” any time we saw a flock of farm animals on the side of the road. Side of the road… middle of the road… whatever. We discovered the reason for the stick men was because not every inch of the country is fenced, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have to weave to avoid an errant cow. It was also here that we had our first encounter with Romania’s stray dogs. They are everywhere.
The reason for our stop in Corbeni was so that we could climb the steps to Poenari Castle, the ruins of Vlad the Impaler’s fortress. And climb we did. 1480 steps up, then 1480 down. Still getting over the flu, my lungs were not happy on the way up. And there were bears, or so we were warned. Hazy, grey, and spooky, the weather was perfect for a visit to Vlad’s castle.
The following day we took to the road and drove on what many consider to be the “best road in the world”. The Transfăgărășan. Really long, really swervy and two days from closing for the season due to the amount of snow the mountains get. Ben had a fantastic time driving, L got my front seat due to her carsickness and eventually we got to the other side of the Carpathian mountains but not before being stopped by a team planting dynamite (or whatever they use these days) in order to blast some large rocks out of the road. At first they told us to stop and wait, then someone decided we could go if we went fast. We went fast and listened for a boom behind us.
And then we arrived in Bran….