Sunday, 19 January 2020

Maramures Part 1 - The Journey North

Sunset in Bucharest.
My bunk for the night.
I love train travel.
July had flown by! I don't know if it felt the same for everyone else, but for me it was over before I knew it. Work at the camp was over for another year, and although sad to see the students for the last time, as some of them wouldn't be coming back due to age restrictions, it was good to be free! We loaded up our ride back to Bucharest and jumped in, ready to chill for the 3 hours it would take (in good traffic) to reach the hotel. I had a week before heading off on my real holidays, a week to kill in Romania, and I wasn't exactly sure what the plan was. I'd spent plenty of time in the capital, so much so that I wasn't really that interested in another day even, sorry to be said. Last year I caught a bus down to Bulgaria as well as spending some time in Sinai and Brasov. A few years back I worked my way up by train to Sibiu and Sighisoara and loved it. I was hard pressed for somewhere I could go, by public transport, and something that wouldn't be just another city to walk around. I really wanted a little outdoor time, to enjoy the countryside and the sun at the start of August. So I got speaking to some of the Romanian teachers during the drive down and decided to follow their advice and head North. Far North, right up to the border of the Ukraine into Mureș County, the historical region of Transylvania. After getting back to the city, I crashed at the hotel for a bit before heading back out for dinner and a beer with the other teachers. It was good to get out of camp, have a proper, non-camp meal, and a few beers. Plans were talked about and it was decided - a train to the North! I made a trip to the train station the next morning to check out times and prices, and ended up booking an overnight, sleeper train to Baia Mare for the same night.

All aboard and let's go!
One of the many churches in this city.
A big brick church.
Baia Mare.
I'd been on trains in Romania before, and they were always interesting, but this was my first time on a sleeper. I got to the station around 9, a few snacks already bought, and got on my train. I found my carriage and bunk easily enough, folded my bed down and made myself comfortable. Only 2 more people were in my carriage, which was good, as the last thing I needed was for it to be packed, hot and sweaty and even noisy or smelly. As the train started off into the night, I got my book and started to read a bit before trying to get some sleep. My bed was surprisingly comfortable and I soon started to get sleepy, enjoying the movement of the train and the steady clickity-clack of the wheels on the rails. My cabin mates were also getting comfortable, but not quite ready for bed. There was an older woman travelling with a man, mother and son I thought, and while she had gone to bed, he was on his phone and was happily looking at photos of semi-naked women. I have no idea if it was Tinder or Facebook (or some other app), but he was unashamedly scrolling through loads of photos of girls in skimpy outfits. Each to their own I guess, even when your mother is sleeping above you. I turned over and went to sleep and hours later I awoke to the steady noise of a moving train and the sun just peeking over the horizon and into my face through the window. Not a bad way to wake up, not quite going to sleep in one country and waking up in another, but I'd soon find out that this part of Romania is very different to what I'm used to. I got off at my stop, after quickly re-folding my bed, and walked out into Baia Mare, 600 kilometres from Bucharest, 70 km from the border with Hungary, and 50 km from the border with Ukraine. Let the adventure begin!

My first wooden church in Maramures... but there's more to come!
Stephen's Tower in 
Building in the centre - looks like an old theatre, now a supermarket.
Baia Mare - pretty but not much to do.
The hunt for accommodation began as soon as I stepped off the train. I hadn't booked anything before getting here as I wanted to know the lay of the land first. Having no idea where I was, or even what I was going to do, I headed more or less for the centre, checking out Google Maps for places to sleep along the way. There wasn't much in the way of hostels or cheap stays. I spotted the Hotel Mara, a big concrete building shining white in the sun, which looked quite fancy even though I think it had seen better days - it was still definitely out of my price range. I kept going, following Google to one place but then found myself in front of a slightly shady looking apartment building and nothing more. I managed to find a good deal at a small motel for a third of the price of the Mara, with an en-suite room, air-con and a 5 minute walk to a big supermarket. This would be be spot for the night, my place to cool down after walking all day and put together my plan of operations - I still had no idea what to see and do! The plan was to walk into the old centre, find a tourist information spot and get some ideas. I know what you're thinking - why get an overnight train to somewhere if you have no idea what to do? I did have some idea of what was here and what I wanted to see, just how I was going to go about it was the problem. In this part of the country they are famous for their wooden churches and rustic countryside. I wanted to see some of these churches and do some walking. The town centre was a little disappointing, but then again I wasn't sure what I was expecting. It was quiet and just a few bars and restaurants in the main square. Some buildings were quite nice but most were a little run down and nothing really special. The only thing of note is Stephen's Tower, a 40m tall, stone, Neo-Gothic stone tower. Originally the bell tower for the church built in the late 14th Century, it was rebuilt in 1559 and restored in 1619 and a mechanical clock was finally added in 1628. It sits in a small square with a (closed) museum and 2 churches. Nice for a few pics but not much else.

The Tower and churches.
The River Sasar that runs through the city.
The Butcher's Tower - last part of the old wall.
A very large church.
I found the tourist information in the square as well, although it was easy to miss. Google kept pointing me in the general direction, and I always seemed to over-shoot the target, until I discovered it was down some fairly well hidden stairs. After all that work, there was next to nothing in regards to pamphlets and things to do in the area, so I moved on. I walked down to the river and found the County Museum of History and Archaeology, but was also let down by this as there was nobody there and didn't seem to be anything on display. I walked in (for free) and wandered around for a bit, only to find locked doors and not much else. Feeling hot and a bit bothered, I decided to walk to the tour agent which I'd found and see what deals they had. This was the best thing I'd done all day as I walked right past another tourist information kiosk, this one in the local council chambers. The people here, both of whom spoke English extremely well, were very helpful and gave me plenty of ideas. I now had more of a plan of attack and also had to do it on my own - I found that tour agency and everything was already booked out. I walked back to the train station, where the bus station was also, and enquired about a bus to where I needed to go to start my do-it-yourself wooden church tour. The building, which must have been built in the Soviet days, was interesting in an ugly, concrete, half-falling apart kind of way. The guy there didn't sell me a ticket, and there was only hand-written information (all in Romanian), so he just told me that you can buy one of the bus and that the bus will be here around 6:30am. He wasn't exactly sure of the time (but told me not to worry), which didn't give me a great feeling, but figured if I'm 15 minutes early, luck would be on my side. It was a productive day and I felt good having organised everything myself from scratch. I did get up early and got the bus too, and that was the start of my real adventure into this part of the country!

Stephen's Tower.
The town centre of Baia Mare.
Interesting sculpture in the centre.
Big bells.
The bus picked up people along the way, anywhere along the road as far as I could see, and let people off as well. I couldn't see the system to it, but I'm sure there was one, an unwritten country law between bus driver and passenger. I was watching on my mobile to see where I needed to get off, as nobody spoke English well and I couldn't pronounce the name of the town properly either. The little red bus drove through Baia Spire and down to Șurdești, my stop. I asked the driver to let me off, and he didn't really believe me that I wanted to stop in the middle of nowhere at 7am in the morning. A lone tourist with hiking boots and backpack isn't a common sight here I don't think. I pretty much jumped out and immediately felt the fresh air of the countryside after being jammed in with (already) sweaty and smelly people. To be fair, I was offered a seat by a gypsy family at the back and I ended up sharing half a seat with and old lady, I shouldn't be so nasty about how they smelt - it was probably the old bus to be fair. I found my first wooden church within minutes, although I don't think it was one of the old ones on the route. There was nobody there, and the lock on the gate was a simple stick passed though a hole, so I walked in and even climbed the small bell tower for a view of the surrounding countryside. Already feeling fantastic and free, I hiked off down the road to see the next church. I saw 2 other churches, tall, wooden structures that were built nearly 300 years ago! The Biserica Penticostala Șurdești (Church of the Holy Archangels) was a particularly impressive sight, and I was there practically alone, apart from 2 couples in camper vans who'd slept in the car park overnight. Although I couldn't go inside and see the 18th century paintings, the outside was amazing enough. Black in some parts, the newer roof 'tiles' were fresh and a light brown colour, showing the restorations taking place. After some quiet time and some photos, I walked up up the hill, aiming to hit the road and somehow get 18kms to the next town and my next church. I walked through little hamlets, Romanian homesteads with farm animals and dogs everywhere, fruit and vegetables growing everywhere, green grass and freshly stacked hay in fields - the postcard scene of Romania that I love. I even saw a huge pig in his little pen, built right up against the house and barns with cows ready to be hand milked. Gorgeous countryside and something I'll never forget. 

The country life.
But my adventures here weren't over yet - I still had more to see and do here. I had to hitchhike to the next town, do some more hiking along country roads, find more transport to get to a place where I could stay the night, as well as see the Happy Cemetery and more. This trip was going along very smoothly, and making it up as I went along was turning out to be just the right way to do it!

Maramureș County - The Real Romania.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Medieval City

On our way to Sigi!
Rupea Citadel on its hill.
Storks in their nests.
With only 5 and a half weeks in Romania, just over 4 of those taken up with work at the camp, it wasn't always easy trying to get away and see some of the country. Working at the camp was going along just fine - as always, the kids were great, surprising me with how well they use English and actually enjoy it at the same time. The boss of the hotel, Rasvan, is a lovely guy who always tries to make us happy and comfortable. Whether it's wine in his private cellar or barbecued meat with all the trimmings, he will do anything to keep us happy and smiling - but this time he'd outdone himself. I was greeted over breakfast with his usual grin and warm "hello my friend!" and a good handshake, but right after this he offered his car for the day. I was taken aback at this, asked him to make sure this is what he meant (as his English is a little lacking in vocabulary, but not enthusiasm), and so there it was - I had a car for the day! Plans were made quickly, a sandwhich packed and the keys collected. His car was an older model 4x4, not out of place in the mountains around here, but the strange thing was that it was a right hand drive, imported from the UK. This wouldn't be a problem, just a little strange at first. I'm from Australia, so the wheel was on the correct side for me, and I'd owned a van in Spain and driven it all the way to England, so I'd done this before... just have to remember to stay on the right (and correct) side of the road! So, where was I going? A few places came to mind, although with only a day to drive, there weren't a lot of choices... but my work colleague who was joining me (and acting as navigator as it was my first time driving in this country), had never been to Sighișoara. The choice was easy then - a 2 hour drive and we'd be in one of the most beautiful and well-preserved citadel towns in Europe.
A family of storks in their nest, which I think is built to help them nest and breed.
The big citadel on the hill.

Market day in the village.
Cetatea Rupea.
I had my co-pilot and friend Glenn in the car with me, and while I worked my way alone the small national roads of Romania, he guided me with the GPS. We made a few wrong turns along the way, due to phone reception and also not looking at the phone as the countryside was just so  damn beautiful. These little deviations, however, weren't a hassle - we saw some very interesting things along that way that weren't part of the plan. In Romania in Summer, you will see many power lines with bird's nests on them, large constructions with storks sitting in them. I'd never seen these birds before, only their nests on chimneys and poles, so this was a treat. They are very large birds, famed for delivering babies in Romania and many other countries - something I could believe logistically as they looked big enough for the job! One village we drove through even had some sort of festival or market running and there were big crowds of people buying and selling everything from fruit and veg to chairs and plastic toys. This in itself was nice to see, real countryside life, but the thing that amazed me was that everyone was getting to the fair by horse and cart! The traffic was horrible and the parking lot even worse - horses don't exactly come with the latest rear vision cameras, parking sensors and they don't like walking backwards either! We carefully made our way through town, trying to avoid hitting any horses or have them hit us, and continued on our way to Sighișoara. Along the way, we decided to have a quick stop, a half way leg stretcher, in the town of Rupea to see the Rupea Citadel (Cetatea Rupea). We parked the car near the central park to have a quick walk, and run into a Romanian wedding! Everyone one was dressed up in big puffy dresses, the guys in fancy 3-piece suits, and more photographers than any one wedding party needs. They love their weddings here I can tell you, and if we'd hung around much longer I probably would've been made an official photographer! We could see the citadel from the park too, it was that big. The castle is first mentioned in 1324 when German Saxons sought refuge from King Charles of Hungary, but the site is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Romanian, dating from the Neo and even as far back as Palaeolithic (The Old Stone Age which goes back 3 million years). The citadel was originally an ancient Dacian fortress conquered by the Romans, and by the 14th century it had become an impression defensive construction. Sitting on a 120m stone bluff, it is very impressive - it has recently been restored and more than 10,000 tourists now visit every year. Unfortunately we didn't visit, as that would've taken most of the day, but we were happy just seeing it from the distance.
Walking the streets.
Time for a beer!
Its in the details
We finally arrived at the beautiful city of Sighișoara. We found parking easily enough, and also with a stunning view over rooftops to the Clock Tower and the Sighișoara City Hall. Walking through the 'new' town is also interesting, as you're able to see traditional Romanian buildings, maybe 19th century and quite nice, with blocky, Communist-era buildings plopped right next door, making a real Beauty and the Beast contrast. We walked up the hill and into the old town, through the large gatehouse under the Clock Tower. Sighișoara is a popular tourist destination, like many other places here, but apart from the usual Romanian tourists, there are quite a few international ones too. The main reason people visit is for its well-preserved walled old town, which is also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. You can freely walk around the walls, see the towers and even go in some. The streets are cobbled and the buildings are old, cute and very colourful. There are quite a few restaurants to sit and eat, as well as an abundance of cheap souvenirs stores too. A lot of people come here to see Vlad Dracula's house, father of Vlad the Impaler. The man actually did stay here between 1431 and 1435, hosted by the mayor of the city, seeking refuge during the Turkish invasion of Wallachia. Dracul was Vlad Tepes' father and ruler of the Wallachian kingdom at the time and legend has it that the little dracula was born here in this house. It is the oldest stone structure in the city and could well be the birth place of Bram Stoker's most famous character. Being what it is (or could be), the owners have no shame in proclaiming it Dracula's house and have a Dracula-themed restaurant as well as a weapon and souvenir store set up too. The restaurant didn't interest me at all, apart from the tacky theme, it was full of Americans and the prices were pricey. The shop was interesting though and there are real hand-crafted, traditional Romanian painted eggs and other cool souvenirs. By this stage, it was hot and we were a little parched, so we stopped at a pretty little restaurant along the wall for a refreshing beer.

The Clock Tower of Sighișoara
The gorgeous old town of Sighișoara.
The Bootmaker's Tower - One of 10 in the city.
This city is stunning!
The beer was just what was needed for two weary travellers. The service, however, left a little to be desired, but it's not like I'd be coming back anytime soon anyway. The Clock Tower is always in sight of wherever you walk in the city, and many people climb it (15 lei) to get a good view of the surroundings. I decided not to face the queue to get in and up, but to walk the walls and enjoy the view that way, away from the crowds. The tower is a 14th century construction, built to defend the main gate, and also served as the town hall for some time. Later, a few more storeys were added to it, with a balcony and roof. Sadly in 1676 the tower along with much of the city was burnt, but it was restored and improved, but what makes it unique are the wooden puppets next to the clock. The figures are the Peace Goddess, a little drummer, Justice and Righteousness as well as 2 angels who represent Night and Day. What you probably wouldn't notice until reading about it (the same as me) is that there are little moving figures that change every day of the week. The clock was modernised in the 60s to run on electricity, and the tower has also served as a museum since 1898. Walking the walls I bumped into a fellow Nikon shooter and we had the weirdest conversation - it started by this guy and his dad (both holding cameras) walking past us and he said 'nice camera.' I said thanks and then we got chatting. His dad had been to Romania many years ago, before the fall of Communism, and his son was taking him back to see what had changed and what hadn't. The city hadn't changed much, apart from tourists, but society was very different then. It was a nice little chat, honest, spontaneous and friendly. We said goodbye and wished each other well on our travels and photos and parted. Sometimes meeting someone for 5 minutes then never seeing them again can leave an impact on your, change your mood, restore faith in people - you don't have to be Facebook friends and Instagram followers with everyone!

Welcome to Sighișoara!
Walking the walls.
Coloured houses and cobbled streets.
Don't forget to look up!
It was a warm and pleasant day, we walked around the walls, checking out the towers, enjoying the beautiful colourful houses, cobbled stones and the feel of a medieval city. Oppsite the Clock Tower is the Tailor's Tower, one of 10 towers on the walls, and serves as the second gateway into the city. All have names, the Tin Tower, Butcher's, Furrier's, Ironsmith's, Bootmaker's, Tailor's, Tanner's, Ropemaker's and the Face Tower. I'm not sure why they are called this, maybe the tower was in the are where these tradesmen worked, or maybe during peacetime they were actually used for this purpose. Between the Town Hall and Monestary Church is a statue of Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), the famous 'Dracula.' Although not actually a vampire, he was very real and fought the Ottomans for some time, keeping Romania (or Wallachia as it was known then) free. He is famous for impaling people and his tendency for cruel punishment, most famously the two envoys sent from the Turks asking for homage that were put on stakes. I've also read that he was a great military leader, as he learnt from the Ottomans when his father gave him and his brother as a hostages to secure his loyalty to the Empire. After a good lunch we headed back to the car and made out way back home. In this part of Romania there are a lot of fortified churches, something that you don't really get anywhere else. These churches have thick, defensive walls and the church tower looks far more like a bastion in a castle. When these churches were built, it was a troubled time in the country as a mix of German, Hungarian, Romanians and Turks lived and fought together.

The Clock Tower.
'Dracula' was born here.
The fortified church in Criț.
The local pub at Criț... plenty of parking out front.
We saw the town of Cața from the highway on the way up and only stopped for a photo, so we decided to stop at Criț, which was right on the road home.  I went to the church for a look, amazed at it's thick gate and walls, and when I entered I saw a cute little courtyard with small buildings built into the walls, clearly places for tradesman to work, or even to store weapons and house soldiers in war time. There was some traditional Romanian clothes in the church, and although the church was quite standard, it was cool to go in when nobody else was there and wander around. I didn't go right up to the bell tower, even though it was open, as the stairs got very creaky! The fact that they were moving a lot wasn't a great sign that they could hold my weight and judging by the thick layer of dust, nobody else had risked it lately either. We enjoyed the setting sun with a beer (zero alcohol for me) at the Casa Kraus, a 3 star hotel and restaurant which also owns the church. We asked and it is run by Germans and hosts many Germans there for hotel and restaurant booking, which I found weird as we were in rural Romania. The drive out was interesting too, a stark contrast to where we'd just had a beer. The town had one road, from the road to the church, like most Romanian towns, but it was completely unpaved, so we drove slowly to avoid rocks kicking up on the car, which allowed us to see (and take photos as we drove) a very traditional Romanian village. There were kids playing in the street (without phones), people sitting at the bar having a drink (which had a horse and cart parked up out the front), and even old ladies in head scarfs carrying metal pails of milk. Like time had stopped. We jumped back onto the main road and headed home and to the last week of camp. The hard work had been done and I'd also had a good time getting away and seeing more of the country.

Cața and its fortified church - one of many in Romania.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. July 2019.

Birthday Weekend

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