Romania is a beautiful place. No doubt about it. And very diverse. Mountains, valleys, coasts, trees, ocean, big cities, small villages, you name it.
Our entrance to Romania started in the middle of the night. Around 1 AM, when we were abruptly awakened by border control agents asking for our passports. Apparently, even though Romania is part of the EU, their borders aren’t open like for example, France and Germany. After proceeding through passport control, we went back to sleep, awakening to find ourselves a few hours out from Bucharest.
One of the first things I noticed about Romania, and especially eastern Romania, was the trash everywhere. Trash lining the railroad tracks, the roads, piles of trash in pits next to small villages, people leaving trash everywhere. It reminded me of a third world country in Africa, minus the smells and guards with AK-47s.
The second thing I noticed was families. There seemed to be lots of families and children, which was pleasant, and created a safer feeling atmosphere.
Upon arriving in Bucharest, it became apparent that we were definitely no longer in Western or Central Europe. Nobody spoke English, street hawkers, beggars, and con-men filled the train station foyer, security guards were omnipresent, and the smell of urine and feces was everywhere.
We waited in line to get our ticket as a native in front of us smoked his cigarette, paying more attention to getting repeated draws on his death warrant then the stewardess explaining the train lines to him. We reserved seats for a train to the Constanta, where we would then catch our final line to Neptune, a small resort city on the coast.
Waiting in a Romanian train is a unique experience. Hawkers and beggars don’t just stay in the station. They board the train, peddling fruits, newspapers, second-hand books, pictures of the Virgin Mary, and anything else you can think of. And they don’t just walk through your wagon once. No, multiple times they go through and ask you, lest you change your mind at the last minute. The hawkers selling religious wares were especially rude. Apparently if you don’t want to buy a crappy picture of the Virgin Mary, you are no longer deserving of “Christian” courtesy, as indicated by the man who grabbed the picture from Kirsty (after forcefully handing it to her) and stormed off swearing.
Another thing about Romania, should you every consider traveling there. The trains are constantly late, and extremely slow. Don’t expect speed or consistency. And especially not air conditioning. And traveling in a tin can where it is 35 °C outside, means that the inside temperature is close to 45 °C.
We arrived in Neptun where we had booked a 3 star hotel at $50/night. It “looked” on trip advisor like a nice resort hotel right on the beach where we were hoping to get some rest and be able to relax, as the last week of travel had been rather wearing.
A couple of hints about hotels in Romania. They are cheap. But, when they say 3 star, think of an American 1 or 2 star hotels. This hotel advertised AC, WIFI, and being right on the beach. It was right on the beach. Everything else was a lie. A couple of hints about hotel receptionists in Romania (we discovered this at multiple hotels). They will show you a room (the crappiest room in the hotel) and ask you if it is ok. They will pressure you into saying yes and leave you realizing that you just got duped. The lessons of travel! From our research, we had thought that Romanian hotels were very cheap, making the country a good place to stay and “splurge” on our limited travel budget. However, we didn’t realize that the ratings were so misconstrued. Even in Romania, if you want a nice hotel, you must pay for a nice hotel. The one plus side is that we were right on the beach with a room facing the black sea, the waves crashing at the beach below. It was a nice location.
This brings me to my fourth, firth, and sixth observations.
It is well-known that smoking is still way more popular in Europe then the USA. Then take Romania and multiple it times 100. EVERYBODY smokes! Women, girls, grandparents, men, boys, children. If the numerous stray dogs everywhere had fingers, they would smoke as well.
Fifth: Food is very cheap, and fairly good. You can get a meal that would cost $70 dollars in the USA for approximately $20. Needless to say, we splurged on meals! No more supermarket food while in Romania!
Compared with other Europeans, Romanians appeared to have a bigger problem with obesity (no pun intended). On the beach, I often felt like I was surrounded by Americans wearing non-flattering swimsuits! I’m not sure of the reason for this, but I’m guessing that it could be related to the quality and type of food. Maybe obesity, in turn, could indirectly affect the smoking rates.
While in Neptun, we went swimming in the black sea. The sea was very warm and enjoyable to swim in. The beaches were nice but not as great as what we have in Oregon. Many parts of the coast have much shells and seaweed, making walking barefoot somewhat a delicate task and giving a nasty odor in some locations. If you could breed Oregon beaches with Black Sea water, the resulting offspring would be heaven!
One thing I really enjoyed in Neptun was the fact that I think we were literally the only internationals in the whole city. It was nice to not be surrounded by thousands of tourists and to obtain a brief view of Romanian culture, unpolluted by westernization.
After spending 2 nights in Neptun, we decided to head back towards the Alps, instead of braving the trains and heat for 3 days down to Greece. Hence, we decided to make a stop at Brasov in Transylvania on our way.
Brasov is a very nice town, howbeit, much more touristy. While there, we saw the famous “Black Church”, a 14th century Gothic church that survived a fire, resulting in its blackened appearance.
Transportation there was very cheap, 2 lei or 50 cents for a 45 minute bus ride. We repeated our mistake of trying get a 3 star bed and breakfast, instead getting a 1.5 star hotel with a receptionist more concerned with the pending soccer game then checking us in. Fortunately, it was quite cheap, only 26 euros for the night, and right next to the main town square.
We had dinner that night in the town square. The waitress was rather curt and rude, somewhat a shock after experiencing very nice, friendly waiters in Neptun. My guess is that Romanian server rudeness is directly related to the number of tourist in a given area! However, the food was good!
I had a traditional meat dish, consisting of chicken, pork, and beef chunks (my kind of meal)! Kirsty had a traditional dish of cabbage rolls, with a side of polenta, something we don’t have in the US that I can only liken to boiled corn flour with a “cream of wheat” like texture. For dessert, we had some very delicious apple and coffee cakes.
The next day, we attempted to see the Bran Castle, renown as being the place where Count Dracula lived. This proved to be way more difficult than one would expect. We set off in the morning towards the name of the train station that a shop keeper indicated would have a bus that would take us there. However, that train station turned out to be closed! We reasoned that it must then be the other train station. We arrived at the other train station where, after vending off an aggressive illegal cab driver, we learned that it was at a different bus station. So, we took a bus as far as we could, then walked the remaining distance, only to arrive right after the bus had left. So, we waited an hour for the next bus.
While we were waiting, a homeless man and a woman who watch the toilets at the bus station got into a rather vocal brawl. It was an interesting experience, because it appeared very violent to me, but all the locals simply watched and laughed. I think the woman didn’t want to let the man use the toilets without paying. However, this was ironic to me, as I had paid to use that bathroom earlier and they were probably the dirtiest stalls I had ever seen in Europe. No toilet paper, no seats, poop completely filling up the bowels, you get the picture. Not exactly sure why she was charging other than the fact that she could!
We finally got on the bus and headed towards Bran. Bran is set in the scenic Transylvanian country side. Farm houses, cows, sheep, and hay stacked in the picturesque Eastern Europe style dominated the landscape. It was beautiful, except… Bran was stock full of tourists. By the time we got to the castle entrance, the city was jam-packed with sightseers. There was a 3 hour line to go inside the Bran Castle! I was a little surprised. Yes, it is a famous castle, but this was Romania, where most tourists feared to tread. Unfortunately, we only had 1.5 hours left to explore the area, before we had to be back in Brasov to catch our train to Austria.
After discussing, we decided to not try to go inside the castle (most reviews said that it wasn’t that great of a castle with respect to furnishings and architecture). Instead we visited a rural museum that displayed traditional farm houses, barns, and equipment. We then decided to try to get a good view of the castle from the opposing hillside and went on a nice 1 hour hike up a tremendously steep mountain (coming down, we had a couple of falls, but luckily didn’t break any bones!).
After finishing our hike, we rushed to the bus station and pushed our way through to the front to ensure a ride back. Side note: In Europe, especially where transportation is limited, there are no lines, no politeness. You either fight for your spot, or you never get on! Arriving back in Brasov, we picked up our packs out of storage and braved the maze of buses back to the train station. Fortunately, being lost all morning long gave us some working knowledge of the transportation systems, and this time we made it to our destination with no delays!
While waiting for our train, Kirsty went off to buy some groceries and I stayed at the station to watch our packs. At this time, a group of traditional gypsies came through the station. Men, women, boys, came marching in, not using the pedestrian ways, but rather walking on the rail tracks! I was fascinated. Women in bright, accentuated colors walked around smoking cigarettes and carrying huge bags of personal belongings. Men cussed and smoked, barking orders at kids, and begging from the other travelers. Boys walked along the platforms, picking up the tiniest cigarette butts to give to their parents. Many of the gypsies had sadness in their eyes, sadness that comes from being hated, hungry, and homeless. But as a tribe, there was also a vitality about them. They were very much alive, constantly moving, talking, hiding, begging, and ultimately creating a unique contrast of emotions in me as I watched.
Kirsty came back, and we observed firsthand the discrimination that they go through. One crippled gypsy was lying on the platform, begging as the occasional traveler walked by. Suddenly, a local Romanian walked over, grabbed the beggar’s coat, and began whipping the gypsy with his own coat. Other Romanians watched, but did nothing to stop it. Eventually the man stopped and went on his way. Kirsty and I were shocked. We knew that gypsies were disliked, but seeing the physical violence that they bore, gave a new level of understanding to the plight of their situation.
Eventually, a train came into the station. The entire tribe jumped on it from the tracks, and waited for it to leave. It was quite a sight: a train packed full of gypsies leaning out the windows, smoking, jumping on and off the train to pick up cigarettes or go talk to a friend in the next car. I’m fairly confident that none of them had tickets! Then the train left, and they were gone, as fast as they had come. It was a surreal experience for me, and one that I won’t forget.
Eventually, our train arrived and we got into our sleeper car. For the first five hours, it was quite enjoyable, despite the 35 °C heat with no AC. We had the whole room to ourselves, and were able to clean up, have dinner, and enjoy the views. The train went through passes, hills, and mountains teeming with flowers, trees, nature in general. We would pass old farms with the residents outside, wearing traditional clothing and reaping their wheat by hand using scythes. It was like taking a train through a story book.
Eventually, the other passengers arrived and we were required to stay on the top bunks, above the windows, in the 35 °C heat. The round shape of the car ceiling trapped the heat, making it extremely warm and uncomfortable, even at night. And because our bunks were so high, the windows below did no good at circulating the air! So we laid there, thought about our day, and waited for the customs officers to check our documents at the Hungarian border, after which we would be back in the EU.
Thus ended our travels in Romania. It was a unique experience, and with respect to culture, one of my favorites from our trip. If you can endure extremely uncomfortable travel and people who speak no English, then I highly recommend traveling to Romania. The food is tasty and cheap, the countryside is beautiful, the culture is magical, and the experience is one which most travelers to Europe never enjoy. La revedere!