Sunday, 16 October 2016

From Mountains To The City

Goodbye mountains - hello cities!
Enjoying the views.
Street food - Romanian stlye!
My 4 weeks in Podu Dambovitei had come to an end. I was a little sad, as I had really enjoyed the my bedroom view, working with the kids (most of them) and just the country life in general - fresh air, peace and quiet, walking in the woods or hills, and a slower pace of life. I've always loved storms - Sydney Spring and Summer storms are my favourite. A hot 30c+ day, come home after work and crack open a beer, sit on the patio and watch the storm roll in, all thunder and lightning, a bit of a downpour then off it goes, leaving behind a beautiful rainbow... Ganggajang style. Summer in the Romanian mountains wasn't that different really, the storms came in every few days but took ages to roll in, you could hear them threatening for hours sometimes, giving you enough time to bring in the rest of the hay, buy a beer or two and find a nice place to watch it. These things are lovely to watch and listen to, the lightning lighting up the sky, the thunder echoing off the mountains - and you can't take a photo of this really, you just have to enjoy it! My time here was up though and I had decided to head a little further North through the Bran Pass and onto Brasov, Sibiu and maybe even a little place called Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Tepes) if I had time. I had deliberately booked my flight 7 days after my end date with work to do this, and now was the time - I'd waited to come to Romania for nearly 10 years and now I had a fist full of Lei and a week to burn it. Show me what you have Romania!

The "Hollywood" signs are very popular here - you always know where you are too.
The main street of Brasov.
The Black Church.
From Podu I got the 10:30am bus to Brasov, a 2.5 hours trip in a mini bus crammed with farmers (and their scythes), local workers and people going to the 'big smoke' to do some Saturday shopping. I got off the bus at the terminal, just outside the city centre, and grabbed a taxi to my hostel - not my style usually, but considering it was 2 euros between 2 people (and the girl that was sharing had very heavy bags), I didn't really mind that much. I checked into my hostel, grabbed my camera and headed straight out - my style completely! Brasov is known in Romania for being one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and it did not disappoint me either.

Brasov - one of the most beautiful cities in Europe!
An Orthodox church in Brasov.

Romania bakeries are awesome!
Warm weather and sun always helps but it would be hard to make this place look bad - stunning architecture, big plaza surround by beautiful buildings and a church in the middle, shops and restaurants lining the pedestrianised streets - it is a typical Eastern European-style city, making me think of other cities such as Krakow and Prague (even though that's more Central European, it has a distinctive style). Apart from all this at street-level, you have the Hollywood-esk sign on the mountain above the town (just like in Rasnov), just in case you forgot where you were, and the Black Church. The Biserica Neagră (Romanian) is the grand Gothic style church in the centre of the city, built in the 14th Century by the German settlers brought to the region by the Hungarians to populate the area, as well as to develop mines, towns and cultivate the land. The church itself is large, being the biggest Lutheran place or worship in the region, and although it's not really black now, it was named that after a huge fire in 1689 nearly destroyed the whole thing. Entry is 9 lei (€2 or $3), and although I don't like paying to get into a church, is a decent price. I wasn't allowed to take any photos inside (so they could sell the books and postcards?) so I had to soak it all up - apart from the soaring pillars and stained-glass windows, there were beautifully hand-painted religious scenes on the pews, statues and Bohemian Gothic art.

The Black Church.
Smallest street in Brasov.
Dracula Cola!
After the church I decided to walk around the city walls. The city of Brasov was basically founded by the Teutonic Knights, ordered by King Andras of Hungary in 1211 to defend the southern border - they were later evicted but the settlers stayed on and Brasov stayed and thrived. Around the old city there are stone walls and numerous gatehouses, the oldest being Catherine's which is the only one to survive from Medieval times. It was a pleasant walk, I hiked up some stairs which lead me to half-way up a hill to a tower which gave wonderful views of the city and the cool rooftops. Also on my walk around the city, avoiding the wonderful bakeries as I did (only because I would have spent all day eating), I found, by accident, one of Europe's narrowest streets. Strada Sforii was originally built as a passageway for fireman to use but is now a tourist attraction - it is the 3rd narrowest street after Parliament Street in Exeter, England, and Spreuerhofstraße in Reutlingen, Germany (the smallest in the World at 31cm to 50cms wide), varying in width from 111cms to 135 cms and running for 80m. Not somewhere you want to run into another group of people coming the other way or find out that you are slightly more than 135cms wide!

The view of Brasov Old Town from a watchtower.
Vlad Tepes' street.
The main square in Brasov.
I met up with two friends and we went out for dinner. Food in Romania is great - tasty, a wide variety (they do good pizzas here too!) and the beer is cold and cheap. We enjoyed sitting in the main plaza watching the sunset drinking ice cold beverages. When it started to get dark, we headed out of the city centre and to an English pub that was supposed to have a live band on for the night. We found the pub, and although it wasn't very English, it was ok and again, the beers were cheap enough. The band that was coming on was a little late so we decided to search their website and see what kind of music they did. Big mistake - they were  a Grease Tribute band and the lead singer was atrocious! Just after discovering this dirty little secret of theirs, they turned up - I couldn't look at the band and had to leave before they started to play - better than walking out during a performance! I wandered back to my hostel, the last night here in Brasov, in a good mood, full of beer and ready to sleep. 

Brasov fortress.
European architecture at it's best.
Where I am again?
I jumped into my bottom bunk, curled up and was ready to sleep, but there was a snorer. After 6 months backpacking through South America, sleeping in dorms in Japan and a fair bit of travelling in general, you'd think that by now I would be used to this. Let me tell you - you never, ever get used to snoring. It is the worst thing in the World and they seem to start each other up too, like car alarms that are triggered by other car alarms. Ear plugs don't work for me, they irritate me and don't block out serious snorers either. There's only one thing to do - wake the bastard up. Blanket over his head didn't work, neither did clapping/clicking my fingers (sudden sounds can wake them) or throwing things at his head (I was hoping that something would lodge in his mouth/nose and he'd just pass away silently) so I had to kick his pillow to wake him up. He woke up, looked around then rolled back over, none the wiser. Sleep came at last for me too but I was rudely awaken at 5am by a guy vomiting all over the floor near his bunk. Not a quick gag, this was a full-on alcohol chunder that seemed to last forever. To his credit, he cleaned it right up! You have to look on the bright side sometimes.

Sunday is church day.
Church towers.
Brasov's main street.
Apart from the Black Church, there are many in Brasov to see and they are all free, you're able to take photos, are beautiful and aren't packed with tourists. Walk around and you'll find small Orthodox churches tucked away, only the locals going there to pray on Sunday. I will always be amazed at how many people here regularly go to church, kissing icons, kneeling down and crossing chests and just attending the services in general. While walking more or less aimlessly, going where my camera took me, I stumbled across an Anti-Communist memorial. The Romanian anti-communist resistance movement was active from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s and some fighters continuing 'the good fight' into the 60s. After this period, the government really clamped down and there were executions of men and women, including one in 1959 when 80 were 'caught' and killed by the regime. It wasn’t until the overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu in late 1989 that details about what was called “anti-communist armed resistance” were made public. I didn't ask too many people about these days as people my age barely remember it and it's not something you really want to talk about. In most towns though there is a memorial and tombstones remembering those who fought and died to free their country from the Communists, leading to the brighter Romania that we see today.

The Anti-Communist memorial.

Memorial to the freedom fighter of '89.
The inside of churches here are incredibly ornate.
After a few good days in Brasov it was time to move on - I only had 6 days in Romania after the Summer Camp, so I had to move if I was going to see more of this country. I jumped on the train to Sibiu in the early afternoon, having booked a hostel there for a night. I like to only book for 1 night, then if I like it (and there are no snorers) I stay more - I don't like to be trapped in a crap hostel because I've panicked about spaces and reserved for a week! You don't get to catch many trains in our day and age anymore - busses rule South America and Asia and in Europe most people have a car or fly. The train was a decent price and would arrive just before sunset in Sibiu - I got on and was pleasantly surprised too. It wasn't spray-painted with graffiti like the other local trains, but there was air conditioning, nice seats and a lack of gypsies - all good signs! The ride was pleasant, chugging along through the countryside, past abandoned railway stations and tiny villages with their lone church. I read my book, listening to my travel music and train to not get too excited about my next destination - I knew it would be amazing, but you don't want to get your hopes up too much, I would rather not expect too much and then be blown away.
Waiting for the train to Sibiu.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2016.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


My view for the next 4 weeks from my hotel room. Not bad at all.
Bringing in the hay.
My local bar and the owner.
Within 30 minutes of driving from the city centre we were already in the countryside of Bucharest. The city has grown a lot recently but every city comes to an end and I was heading North up into the mountains. The Summer Camp was in a tiny village called Podu Dambovitei, itself nothing special, but it's location was - basically on the doorstep of Transylvania. It was 30 minutes to Bran, home of Bran Castle and the legendary Vlad Tepes, and a further 10 minutes to Rasnov, a pretty town with it's own fortress. A bit further along the road and you'd be in Brasov, one of the most beautiful cities in the whole of Romania. Although I would be working for the next 4 weeks with kids, I promised myself to get out and do things, see the countryside around the village by foot if need be. The kids arrived on Sunday afternoon and work continued until they left on Saturday afternoon, leaving me with the time after lunch on Saturday until 5pm on Sunday when the next group would arrive - not much time, but enough for a bit of exploration.

The mountains of the Bran Pass.
The local church.
A fancy roof.
Arriving at the hotel which would be my home for the next 4 weeks, I stared around like a country person does in a new city at all the tall glass buildings, except for me it was the pure greeness of the trees and the impressive mountains that straddled the town. Podu sits on the road that leads through the pass from Campulung in the South to Bran and the castle that protects this passage, then onward to Brasov in the North. Without a big motorway running this way, the road through town was it so it was busy with logging trucks, caravans of families on holiday as well as your normal cars and motorbikes. I had to get out immediately, so I dropped my things and grabbed my camera and headed out to enjoy it. Local farmers were gathering in their hay and piling it up on 20ft haystacks, using only hand tools with hard-word and sweat, beekeepers were collecting the labours of their winged livestock, the sun was shining in the way that it only does in the mountains - this was exactly what I wanted, I was in heaven, I could move here today. Well, maybe not, but I felt comfortable, relaxed and happy. Sitting in my room that night after dinner, it all started to sink in - I was in the mountains in Romania, a wonderful view from my balcony on the 4th floor, I would get the chance to explore and hike the area as well as see some beautiful towns and cities, all while being paid for it. Not a bad deal really, and one I would fully take advantage of over the next 6 weeks.

Carpathian Shepherd Dog - cute now but they grow to be enormous.
Notice the bear warning.
No money, no honey.
Over the next few weeks I did a bit of walking around the area, the Piatra Craiului National Parc was only a a 20 minute walk from my hotel. The sign at the entrance warns you of bears, and although I am scared of bears I was kind of hoping to see one. That feeling is strange - scared of something but wanting to see it at the same time and hopefully get a picture of two in. I brings back memories of Nepal and the time I spent on a 3 day trek in the jungle on foot. The guide warned us about rhinos, tigers and elephants and what to do if we saw one - climb a tree (at least 6ft tall to avoid the horn) or run for rhinos, stay still and stare it down for tigers and for elephants you just have to pray. There are bears in Nepal too and we were told to get together, yell and make lots of noise so that we look like one big, noisy animal, and also throw things at it if you can. Same goes for other bears really, but I would love/hate to come across a Grizzly in Canada - if tactic #1 doesn't work, you're gonna get eaten, full stop. Luckily (or unluckily) for me I didn't see any bears - I also found a large cave and explored it, but again, no bears or even bats. The cave was huge and I was alone, my mobile flashlight my only source of light, and as I went further in the space became smaller and the air colder and colder - the mind can be an amazing thing and also your worst enemy. I didn't quite run but I did leave quicker than I came in. The mountains and scenery around this area is breaktaking to say the least - so green and so mountainous at the same time. When I think of places like this in the World, I think of Andorra in the summertime, nestled in the Pyrenees, or another little European country called Switzerland. There are two kinds of people in this world, Cat or Dog Lovers, right? Well, I love both for different reasons, but with the questions of Mountains versus Beach, the answer is clear, no doubt about it.

Mountains or Beach? No question really.
The beautiful (but quiet) town of Rasnov.
The view from Rasnov Fortress.
The people in Romania are lovely, and in the big cities people speak a little English, but here in the countryside is another story. I visited the local bar for a drink and I was all of a sudden the centre of attention - a foreigner in this tiny village, walking and with a large camera. What could there be photograph here, they were all wondering I'm sure - sometimes you don't know what you've got. Nobody spoke English, even the young waitress that was forced to talk to me by the grizzly farmers who thought that just because she was young she could speak English (or maybe there was something else going on that I didn't realise). Failing this, I asked if they spoke Spanish and to my surprise one guy did - he also spoke Italian - so we had a fine conversation in 4 languages! I found that people here speak Spanish not only because it's similar and a lot of Romanians go to Spain to study or for work, but they also watch a lot of South American Soaps ("Estoy embarasada con tu hermano!"). This said, not everyone speaks another language here - a farmer I met could only speak the local lingo, but that didn't stop the friendliness of the Romanians, nor did it stop him from trying to sell me a Romanian Sheep Dog puppy! I got on the bus to Rasnov to visit the fortress one weekend and while on the bus I had a conversation with a local woman whose Spanish was better than mine, which isn't saying much really, but hers was great and so we chatted while the mountains went past and we did hairpin turn after hairpin turn through the mountain pass. The other passengers didn't bat an eyelid at this exchange, but I couldn't help but stare at them with their scythes stacked up inside the bus.

Romania love these 'Hollywood' signs.
Japanese tourist.
Guarding the gatehouse.
Rasnov Citadel is quite an impressive sight, in fact better than being up close to the castle itself really - it sits on the side of a mountain looking over the town and protecting the Bran Pass. Built in the 13th Century, it was the safe haven for the locals if and when an army came through the pass. It came under attack in 1335 by the Tatars and was besieged in 1421 by the Ottomans, but was only conquered once in it's history in 1612 and this was only due to lack of water in the citadel - a 500ft well was dug shortly after this. There is a legend with this well - they says that it was dug by two Turkish prisoners who were offered their freedom for doing so. They dug for 17 years, writing poems and verses from the Quran on the stones all the way down the wall, which can still be seen today (although I didn't know this before going). The fate of the prisoners is unknown, some people say that they were released while others say they were killed. The inside of the fortress is interesting but quite run-down and there is very little information about anything - there are plenty of shops selling tourist tack though! The best thing about the citadel is the price, only 3 euros, and the view you get from the top looking down at the town, or from the town looking up at the Citadel itself and the big, Hollywood-like sign that read "Rasnov."

Castle Bran guarding the Bran Pass.
One of the royal rooms in Castle Bran.
Dracula souvenirs.
Bran Castle was next on the list for the weekend - I had to do both in the same day as there wouldn't be another chance for this much time off before finishing work. Bran is a town just a little South of Rasnov, and although smaller in size, it was much, much busier. There is one reason for this - Dracula's Castle. It's commonly known as Dracula's Castle but in reality it has very little to do with Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. The myth, or misconception of Dracula, comes from Bram Stoker's writing of the book in 1897 in which he made the castle the home of the vampire - there is no evidence that states that Mr Stoker knew anything about the castle nor was it the home of Vlad. Vlad Tepes (pronouned te-pesh), also known as Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Dracul, was the Prince of Wallacia in the mid 15th Century and after being given to the Ottomans as a political hostage by his father, fought at tried to keep his country independent from the steam-rolling Turks. Vlad was fighting the new and very powerful Ottoman Empire, headed at the time by Mehmed II (conqueror or Constantinople), and really had no chance, but he fought nonetheless. He became well known for this David and Goliath war, along with his punishments for breaking the laws and acts of cruelty, namely impaling people on large wooden stakes. Back to the castle, it was built in 1212 by the Teutonic Knights to protect the mountain pass into Burzenland and it also played it's part in the defence against the Ottomans. In 1920 it became the Romanian royal family's residence until captured by the Communists in 1948. It is now a museum where you can see the furniture from when Queen Mary lived there, read about the Royal family and occupation, but there is nothing at all about Dracula, the thing that draws so many tourists every year.

The view from the castle overlooking the town of Bran.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2016.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...