Having someone in the car with you is always a joy – a new person met, their experiences learned of and his or her company enjoyed. It was this way with Anna, the American hitchhiker, in the car. We talked and talked and talked. So much so that for our second day in the car together I feel we were too exhausted to talk from talking!
I picked Anna up in our Moldovan hostel. She wished to go to Poland but transport links were difficult so on a recommendation from the hostel she was heading to Romania first before turning north. Chișinău is close to the Romanian border and we had a short 80km drive to get there. However, a few rogue turns coming out of the city and we must have reset the route on the satnav: 80kms later and we were nowhere near the border. Upon inspection, we were heading for an entirely different crossing at the very south of Moldova where it meets Ukraine and Romania. Whoops!
The plan was to make it to Brașov; a beautifully architectured town plateaued in the heart of the Transylvanian mountains. Although we’d headed for a new border we were still making good time in between our discussions on education, politics and Americans chasing their forefathers history in Europe. That was, until we reached the border. 3 and half hours sat in Pico crossing into Romania and we weren’t making it to Brasov that evening.
Instead, we got to Buzău at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. Arriving late in the evening we had nowhere to stay and nowhere to park in the town. So on the outskirts, a night in Pico on the front seats beckoned.
Not so well rested the next morning, we headed up the mountain to a large dammed lake. Alas, the pass to Brasov was closed. Having driven for 3 hours to get there, this was somewhat disheartening. But where navigation had been a problem the day before, it was not on that day. Taking a chance on a random side street, we managed to bypass the problem with minimal effort. It was a glorious drive up the winding road as autumn colours beamed through the translucent leaves of the mountains’ flora. Some QI podcasts later and we reached the spectacular opening up of the plateau in the mountains. Not that Anna noticed – she was having a kip!
We lunched in Brașov and it was time to say goodbye as Anna continued her journey north where Poland signaled the end of her current adventure. I departed to the town of Bran and it’s famous castle.
Bran’s castle is famous for two reasons: as a strategic defensive point in the Wallachian/Transylvanian pass to defend the Austro-Hungarians from the Ottoman Empire and perhaps more notably, as a national monument and the setting for Dracula’s castle. It gains its infamy for Dracula from the Vlad III Dracula, colloquially known as Vlad the Impaler. He’s a real historical figure that some suppose was part of the legend that formed Bram Stoker’s inspiration for the Dracula story. The oddity is that Bram Stoker never visited Romania and Translyvania in his lifetime. Such is an author’s beautiful imagination and fortune that he could pick the most beautiful castle I’ve ever seen in the flesh as a setting for his famous story.
A cheeky selfie in Bran castle
Perched atop a rocky outcrop its strategic quality is both clear and its look idyllic. The castle is well maintained and its place in Romanian history is also enjoyably displayed. Entry was cheap too and is certainly worth a visit if you’re anywhere near Bucharest. I’ve no doubt hostels and the like will provide day trips there.
Unsurprisingly, the bottom of the castle is a classic set of tourist traps and markets selling Dracula related goods. The special part is the building itself so I’d definitely only throw these a cursory look.
A random sidenote here – Romania has more stray dogs than I have ever seen in any country. And they are all in excellent health and condition. Having spoken with various people, it appears that they are treated as community dogs and well fed by all. It was a pleasure to see once you got used to the sheer numbers of them roaming around the countryside.
That night I drove to and camped in the town of Făgăraș. I hadn’t meant to. I’d been preparing to camp out at the beginning of the Transfăgărășan – a famous road of bends and sweeps that traverse a gorgeous gorge. I stopped as I drove past the town because a sign caught my attention: Făgăraș Castle – The Undefeated Citadel. Well, this sounded most interesting and as I pulled up to the castle I was awed by its magnitude. A quick, friendly conversation with a security guard and I was camping in the car park ;)
The next morning I ventured into this unconquered palace. It was an impressive castle: having withstood 14 sieges, it had never once fallen. Surrounded by a giant moat, still filled with water, and a huge exterior wall encasing a secondary interior wall I could see why. The castle has a reasonable museum charting Romanian history through the ages too. Then it was onwards to the Transfăgărășan.
This road holds a worldwide infamy as it’s was named Top Gear’s favourite road of all time. Created during Ceaușescu's dictatorship it was a prestige project of Romanian workmanship. It’s also known as Ceaușescu's Folly because it serves no actual purpose; there are several quicker roads that get from Făgăraș to the south and Pitești. It was merely created to exhibit Romania engineering and what a fine piece of engineering it is. I drove its curves and banks, climbing higher and higher. It wasn’t the clearest day but glimpses out of Pico’s windows gave me spectacular looks down the gorge where I’d risen through nonetheless. I drew above the clouds and into the snowy pass. At the top I was breathless with enjoyment. Now that was a drive.
My sheer delight at the road Pico and I traversed
The bends and sweeps of the snowy Transfăgărășan
As I descended the pass, the weather took a whole other turn as it often does on the other side of a mountain. Rain and mist came down around me and I came across a swing footbridge with no planks and no hope of crossing – it made for a good picture. Further down the road I came across a pair of German hitchhikers: Johannes and Till.
A most useless swingbridge
These two were a true partnership of adventure. Not only were they hitchhiking across Romania having got a flight for €2.50 but they are scaled the pass by foot in a day. Johannes was wearing jeans! What followed was the most fantastic conversation I’ve had on the road. In Johannes, I met a German counterpart. We discussed many things from how crowds move at festivals to website user experience to our relationships with others and how we enjoy giving hugs; whether the recipients want them or not :) It’s a conversation that I delighted in and will never forget. Fortunately, he’s coming to Brighton to study soon and I look forward to extending much British hospitality.
Johannes and I at the damned lake high in the mountains just after meeting the two boys
They had only been after a lift to the next town as they headed to the capital, Bucharest. Little did they know when they waved me down that I was headed there that day. We lunched in a small town bakery and somehow I managed to negotiate a new car jack at a hardware store having broken Pico’s original one trying to free him in Ukraine during the engine breakdown. What fortune we’d had in crossing paths: I gave them a lift the whole way.
Arrival in Bucharest bought rush hour traffic as the working day drew to a close. My accommodation in the city was a treat. Iulian, a cycling traveller I’d met in Norway, had set me up with a close friend and colleague of his, Vlad. We met outside Vlad’s office and unbelievably, he handed over the key to his apartment. As I made my way to the flat the clouds let loose their load. Rain fell harder than anywhere I’ve been before or since on this journey. It’s safe to say that when the rain comes you should expect wet feet in Bucharest – the rain just can’t drain away quick enough.
Once I’d settled in Vlad’s place, he arrived back from work and we got to know each other. In Romania, this is achieved over a few shots of pálinka – Romanian brandy-like homebrew made from any fermentable fruit available. It’s similar to rakia from the other Balkan states: it’s fiery on the way down and fills you with warmth. Vlad’s fridge was full of the stuff as he works with Iulian and others to provide solar panels and energy to remote parts of the country as part of their non-governmental organisation. Their rewards always come in the form of pálinka so there was plenty to share around and enjoy. What a great welcome to the city.
My day exploring Bucharest was a busy one. Vlad kicked it off with a visit round his local area to pick up cakes and deliver them to the factory that produces his company’s custom made shirts. The brand’s called Vandercamp and based on your measurements they will make you entirely custom shirts in the Italian fabric of your choice. The website will soon be in English so check it out at www.vandercamp.com. Having never been in a clothing factory before this was fascinating and I had an enjoyable conversation with the floor manager. Next, we travelled to Vlad’s accountants while we discussed the economics of Brexit and Romania’s role in the EU. Having been dropped off in the Bucharest’s centre, my exploration of the city truly began.
Discovering the city by the tour bus was a good idea: easy to hop on and hop off, all the best places to visit on the route and cost effective at 25 Lei (about £5). I started at the Parcul Herăstrău, a large park to the north of the city. After visiting the Arcul de Triumf, which is currently being renovated, I dined at the ARC Bakery. Its full name is the ARC ‘Lifestyle’ Bakery, which is a strange name for a French restaurant in a Romanian city but it’s a lifestyle I could certainly enjoy. I hadn’t even realised the restaurant was French orientated until I was seated and I viewed the back wall of bread-baskets describing everything in French. The food was excellent and the service swift – I recommend!
Arcul de Triumf selfie
From the French bakery exploring the park was easy with a good old stroll through both sides around Lake Herăstrău. One side has the national village museum showcasing Romanian peasant life, which with recent adventures I discovered was not part of a bygone era. The other side has the recreational areas, including Romania’s national rugby stadium (it seats 5,500 people –smaller than every UK premiership club stadium!). Throughout the park there is a grand selection of statues, which I took great delight in photographing. One particular area paid homage to European statesmen and politicians who aided Romania entering the EU. Having discovered a lost pair of children’s sunglasses I had great fun dressing up the figureheads.
A smiling figure
Next came the Palace of Parliament. Facts about this building astound: it’s the heaviest and the largest civilian administrative building in the world. The heating and electricity bill alone is around £5 million per year – a reasonably sized city uses this amount! Despite it’s 20,000 underground car parking spaces, as much as 70% is unused.
The Palace of Parliament: just huge
Why have such a large building in the first place one asks: the answer lies in history. This magnificent marble, crystal and wood architectural monster formed a grand prestige project for Romania’s Soviet Era dictator, Ceaușescu. Having visited other capitals of the Communist world, he set forth on ambitious projects to define Romania’s construction abilities (just like the Transfăgărășan road). Whole areas of Bucharest were demolished and a small hill even flattened to make way for this behemoth. Forced labour kept the costs down with thousands rumoured to have died for it. It now forms the seat of democracy in the country and although vast swaths of it are empty and the building is losing its glint, it is a most impressive building to behold.
Other than just to see this building, my reason for visiting was to check out the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC). It’s sat in one of the wings of the building and without a bit of persistence you wouldn’t find it as it’s hidden round the back. I tried entering through several gates and was told to exit swiftly by security. I tried one final entrance and as I was being turned away from the parliament building I mentioned MNAC and was then directed in. It was very empty on arrival – I’m not surprised why!
One of several entrances I tried to get in
The museum was good. The temporary exhibition in the downstairs hall was of Jiří Kovanda’s work – anti-heroism and resistance. The art here was interesting: it celebrated a Romanian artist whose very art form was to not be noticed. He’d make performances in public locations where he and others would just stand like normal member of the publics and take photos of themselves – no fanfare at all. Some would clearly see this as no art at all and I can totally appreciate that. However, the thought of performance without audience was an intriguing concept to me nonetheless. There were a variety of other more traditional mixed media pieces so at least there’s something else to look at too!
Upstairs in the more permanent exhibition space, two floors up, were visual pieces of modern art – compared to the photos of a man standing around downstairs this felt like classic fine art. They ranged in their quality and some were particularly good. There were blasts of colour and creativity from installations you could only see with your eye pressed against a small screen to surreal sculpture pieces to a room of heaters and fake icebergs simulating global warming.
For me art is anything that provokes a reaction; something that makes you feel something. It's why galleries with white walls exist: to exaggerate the reaction from a plain background. In reality, I just loved being in the realm of art again. I felt like I’d not seen any for a while and I wasn’t sure when the next time would be (I needn’t have worried – I got a huge fix in Uzbekistan!). The museum inside was definitely worth a visit for the 10 Lei entrance fee plus 10 Lei photography fee (about £4 in total). MNAC’s art was reasonable – however, the real showstopper was getting inside the Palace of the People: just an incredible building.
A psychadelic skull I very much enjoyed
Visiting the old and narrow streets of the Lipscani district was a great little wander too. It’s definitely worth a stroll through the bars and restaurants that make up this area. In summer, it’s probably a would-be stag dos dream and a historical traveller’s nightmare but I enjoyed poking around and grabbing a slice of pizza.
The evening bought more excellent conversation with Vlad shared over a few ales. Who knew my Romanian host would love a good bitter and that I’d be able to find some in the city! Vlad had visited his mother on the way home and she had impressed upon him something for us to dine on. Chiftele (Romanian vegetable meatballs) were on the table and Vlad had me guessing what their ingredients were with hilarity; I couldn’t even get close. They were made with courgettes and tasted delicious!
After an Instagram post I made that evening (@sequel.world) I received an unexpected message. Cai, another American hitchhiker I met in Norway, was arriving in the city the very next morning. We met for brunch. Or rather, her brunch and my lunch as I arrived so epically late having spent ages getting everything together. A good catchup on our past month apart had us joking and laughing in Dianei 4. This is an excellent restaurant and place to hang out in Bucharest with its laid back atmosphere, shabby-sheikh styling and excellent grub. It’s also totally set up for vegans too: so for those of a meat and diary-free persuasion, it’s a must visit.
Late into our catchup, we realised we were both headed to Bulgaria that day. Of course, a lift was offered and we set onwards again in Pico. Another day, another country and a visit with an old university friend beckoned in Sofia – all of that in the next post ;)
Sunday 9th October – roadside near Buzău
Monday 10th October – Făgăraș citadel
Tuesday 11th October – Vlad’s apartment, Bucharest
Wednesday 12th October – Vlad’s apartment, Bucharest