Saturday, August 09, 2014

Veliko Tarnovo

The hotel breakfast was nothing special, I knew, from reading reviews on TripAdvisor. And so when I encountered packaged bread, cheese, and salami along with pod coffee, I was actually pleasantly surprised.

My laziness stopped me from wandering off to look for somewhere else that was open. I had abandoned my "no bread" style of eating a few days ago. It was just too hard on the road.

I'm not sure how I can ever travel the way I used to if I don't eat bread. Everything is bread bread bread except pasta which is also's is just energy and sugar, which I suppose has its place in travel. But it's ultimately not the best idea to eat sugar and energy all the time. Except when you're eating a form of potato. That's a also big on the road. It makes me miss camping with a car and a stove, or being on the road in Thailand, where you get all kinds of interesting meals even at the crummiest bus stopover.

I ate the Lucky Hotel breakfast, then headed out to find enough coffee to stop the incoming caffeine-withdrawal headache. I walked away from the fortress and around the big U, a road on a ridge around a river and island below. I picked a restaurant and went in to get a latte.


What a view. Veliko Tarnovo is kind of out of the way of my regular orbit, but it sure has great views.

Feeling a bit better after my coffee, I headed to tourist info, which wasn't so info-y at all, then found the bus station to buy my onward ticket to Sofia. There I learned about the buses that leave from the center of town. Great! That meant I could just walk from the hotel to the bus tomorrow instead of looking for a taxi. I got my ticket for 0900 and went to visit the town.

I'd thought about stopping in Bucharest and spending only an evening and a morning here. I didn't know if that was the right choice, having not seen Bucharest at all, but this was such a nice place it was hard not to jump to conclusions.

Friday, August 08, 2014

On to Bulgaria

The train pulled into Gorna Oryahovitsa, Bulgaria shortly after 6 P.M. I dragged my bag along behind me off the train and onto the platform, down the stairs, under the tracks, and up the other stairs into the station. I got Bulgarian money from the ATM, found the toilets, and then, for a while, I waited for the bus to Veliko Tarnovo to fill up and leave. I got bored eventually and once I realized I'd still need a taxi from the bus stop once I got there, I hired a taxi to take me the 12 km or so instead.

The driver was marvelous. He wanted to point out the highlights as we drove, and I was grateful for this, but of course, I couldn't speak a word of Bulgarian. He pointed and talked to me, and I nodded and cooed appreciatively. I had no idea what he was saying but his enthusiasm was obvious.

We went down a mountain and then up a hill and suddenly, the sun was brilliantly lighting up the walls of the fortress of Veliko Tarnovo.

"Whoa..." I said. The driver smiled. He didn't need to speak to me in a common language. The light on the fortress walls needed no translation.

I checked into Lucky Hotel, walked down the road to a restaurant, and later that evening, back at my hotel, I was able to see a part of the light show on the fortress.

What a nice town this was.

National Pride

I waved down a taxi to the Brașov train station in the morning.


The driver looked at me and tilted his head.

"Gare? Gar-ah? Gar-uh? Um...choo-choo!"

"Ah, gara," he said with a laugh, and we were off.

I was pretty grumpy from lack of caffeine, but all the train station offered was vending machine coffee and Nescafe. grump...grump...grump.

But the train was nice and I was in Bucharest in a few hours. I tried to get Bulgarian money in the Bucharest train station but no Bulgarian currency was to be had, so I changed the last of my Romanian money to euros and boarded the train to Bulgaria. I'd thought about staying a night in Bucharest and heading on by the 10:30 minivan in the morning, and I'd decided to just get the travel over with in one day. I think the minivan would have been vastly more efficient. It goes to Russe, where you hop on a bus to Veliko Tarnovo. And the train ended up taking an excruciatingly long time.

The train from Bucharest to Russe had only two cars. My seat was in a filthy old sleeping compartment.

"That's cozy." I said.

 Two forlorn British backpackers were there too. "That's what we said."

 I found a conductor and switched cars to a much better one, a traditional car of rows. I got a window seat. Almost no one else was in the car.

"Why is this car so much nicer?" I asked the conductor.

 "It is Bulgarian. The other is Romanian." He bristled with pride.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Looking at Castles

I went on a tour of Peles Castle, Bran Castle, and Rasnov Fortress. These and medieval villages were the reason I'd come to this part of the world, to have a whirlwind trip through Romania and Bulgaria before going back home to work long hours until January.

But this is going to be a hard day to report on without it sounding worse than it actually was. I mean, it wasn't great, but I ended up in a situation I didn't care for and couldn't find a way out.

I had paid the night before at the travel agent's office. The trip had a guaranteed departure for 37 euros a person. That seemed well worth the price to me, as while getting to Bran seemed easy on the bus, I couldn't figure out how to get to Peles without a private vehicle.

But when I showed up at the meeting point in the town square, sipping the latte I'd just picked up, I learned I was the only client.

That sounded awkward to me. Plus, the price is double if only one person shows.

"But it's guaranteed," I sputtered.

The guide made a few phone calls and in the end, they decided to honor the price. I offered several times to go on the bus. "Just tell me how." I've been on a lot of experiences where I'm the only client, and I don't enjoy the pressure at all. The guide feels like he has to entertain your constantly, you feel like you have to be in rapt attention, and it's just awkward.

And it was. He talked a lot about history, managing to make sweeping generalizations based on how groups of people had performing in the past, and showed me a book where an Orthodox saint had supposedly predicted mobile phones, space shuttles, and now was predicting a great disaster. I was pretty uncomfortable at this point, as you might imagine. I am usually able to deflect conversations in ways, but this one just kind of had me going "Huh. You think so."

So that was awkward and endlessly long. But that wasn't the only fun. Also, Peles Castle had an insane entrance approach. You wait in line, buy your ticket (the regular one would have been fine but the guide told me the extended was much better), then you crowd around the door, which is both entrance and exit. And no one lines up and no one behaves with civility. You just push your way in when you hear your language tour called. And if someone is coming out, you push harder.

That was awful, and I cut out early from the extended tour. The guide was waiting for me back at the car.

By the time we got to Bran, I said "I can go in by myself." But here, he wanted to show me around. The castle itself was crowded, very much so. The fortress was easier, but I had lost the will to care by then.

I'm not saying I regret going to Romania. Only that sometimes, the reason you choose a destination doesn't end up being the reason you are glad to be there. I loved the medieval villages, just wandering in them. But the whole castle day was kind of a bust.

I was thrilled when we got back to town. I overtipped, which given I felt uncomfortable with the whole day, annoyed me about myself. Why did I do that? Guilt, I suppose, and knowing that he'd make more with a bigger group.

I picked up my laundry from the place I'd dropped it off the day before and went back out to wander the town. Brasov really was charming, at least.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On to Brasov

The train from Sighișoara to Brașov was 40 minutes late, and I was weary from my night on the train and three-hour tour of the medieval village of Sighișoara.

"Maybe I should have returned to Sighișoara as a day trip from Brașov," I thought. But no, this had been fine. Now I just needed to get to Brașov, check into my hotel, and rest for a bit.

The train was pleasant and empty for a while, but eventually it filled up and chugged on through Transylvania. When we pulled into Brașov, I bought my onward ticket for two days later, then went to the taxi rank.

The guesthouse, Casa Albert, had sent a note before I'd arrived.

"As you exit the train station, you can see the taxis on the right-hand side. (100 m) Approx. cost of fair to city center - 3 euro. We recommend this due to past events when independent taxi drivers overcharged our guests. If you don't want to overpay, do not accept offers from drivers that approach you."

I approached the first taxi in the rank and asked how much to my hotel.

"70," the driver said firmly. What? That's $21, not 3 euros.

"No." This is why I'd rather take a bus.

The next taxi driver said "meter," and motioned to his meter. Great. It was about $5 now.

I was going to Casa Albert, a guesthouse in the pedestrianized zone. I checked in, left my bags, and hurried out to wander the old city.

I could barely move by now, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. I stopped in at a coffee shop for a big latte that kept me going long enough to see trumpeters come out of the building in the center of the main square, play their horns, and vanish back into the building.

I'd planned on going on a walking tour at six, but I didn't have any attention span left. Instead, I stopped by a travel agency and bought a voucher for a trip to see some castles tomorrow.

And then, finally, after a day of touring Budapest, a night on the train, and a day of touring Transylvania, went to sleep.

Vlad's Hometown

I crossed the bridge over the Târnava Mare River, and looked for steps up the cliff to the medieval old town of Sighișoara, Romania. I'd boarded the train in Budapest and disembarked in the morning mist in the Transylvanian hometown of Vlad Tepes III, better known in pop culture as Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul.

Just after eight, I climbed up to the town and followed a cobblestoned path around the clock tower, past the spot where Vlad was born, and entered a square called Piata Cetatii.

The cobblestones were surrounded by buildings in greens, pinks, and golds. The morning was chilly, and I pulled on the pathetic excuse for a sweater I'd worn on the plane. It's really just a crocheted shawl, not very useful, but better than nothing.
I sat down at the only cafe that was already open, one attached to a guesthouse, and ordered an omelet and coffee. I had plenty of time. The old town is small, quaint, and I didn't have to be back at the train station for three hours.

After breakfast, I followed the old village fortified walls around the outskirts of town. You can't exactly follow them completely, as there are houses and buildings in the way, but I was able to walk near them, stopping in at lookout towers and gates as I went. An old man with a cap and a cane stopped under one gate to greet and old woman wearing a headscarf and carrying a small sack of groceries. These were the people who had lived through massive changes during their lifetimes. I imagine they were in their eighties, which would mean they grew up during the second war, then lived under the Soviets, and finally saw that collapse in 1989.

I reached the highest point in town via a long covered staircase up a hill. Phew. That took a while. It was like having to work at getting your good view.

Finally, I was back at my starting point. I gazed up at the starting point, then started my hike back to the train station. Next stop: Brasov.

Morning in Sighișoara

The train pulled in late to Sighisoara, right after the mist burned off the morning.

I approached the train information booth. "Is there a place I can leave my bag?"

"Da. Here." She motioned inside her booth.

I left my bag, bought an onward ticket for a later train, and wandered off, looking for a route to the old town.

I got my first glance.


By Train to Transylvania

I tugged my bag up the train steps and into the sleeper carriage in the Budapest railway station. It was empty save for me. But there were six seats.

"I wonder who will join me."

I found out shortly, when a family of five Germans trundled in. The little kids were adorable and squeaky, and of course a family is preferable to many options.

It wasn't long before it all became annoying. Everyone was stripping down for bed and tossing their clothes on the floor. I climbed up to my top bunk and huddled, sweating in the stifling heat. Mutti had covered the vents with cushions because she'd been cold.

The night was long and restless, as the train stopped and started across the frontier.

Knock knock. "Hungarian border police!" Okay, okay. We'd all show our travel documents and pretend to sleep for half an hour, and then the next knock. "Romanian border! Passports!"

At six in the morning, I climbed carefully down from my perch to the pile of clothing below. I gently moved aside a stuffed shark so I could pull my luggage out. I had to dig for my shoes, by which time I'd quit trying to be quiet. If the family didn't want me to make noise, maybe they shouldn't have scattered their crap all over the floor.

I left the cabin and went to stand by the door. My stop—Sighasoara, Transylvania—was next.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Wired in Budapest

After a day of touristing, and before a night of sleeping on the train, I had to recharge my camera and my phone. Which means off my laptop, since I didn't bring a plug.

I retrieved my luggage from the Radisson and headed to the nearest Costa coffee. I plugged my laptop into the wall and laughed at myself. This really is kind of extreme.

Budapest Day Two

I packed up my bag and left it with the Radisson bellhop. I had a 7 p.m. sleeper train to Romania and wouldn't see a wall outlet or shower until tomorrow night.

I had a goal today—to see a Soviet-era sculpture park on the outskirts of Budapest. I'd seen one of these in the Baltics in 2001 and it had been pretty entertaining.

I took three metro trains and a bus to get there. Ugh. That was a pain in the ass. The #4 metro led to the #150 bus, which shut its doors in my face. I had to wait 15 minutes for the next one. Say what you want about New York City buses, at least they let you get on before they rush away.

The park itself was only mildly amusing, played a bit too straight and not worth the hassle. I don't recommend the effort of going, actually. Maybe if you had a car. The best thing about the park is its website, which makes the place look far more entertaining than it is.