Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Transylvania

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 Rusnov, 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 ocupation, 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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