The Best Worst Trip

In 2010 I wanted to go somewhere different.   A country somewhat off the radar with friends and family.  While Turkey has been a fascination of mine since I was 12, lots of my friends had been there.  Hungary sounded fantastic but suddenly I was meeting people who had been there. A few years previous I had met a couple of Romanians who sparked an interest in this (relatively) unknown country.  Hmmm…

Landing in Bucharest only reinforced my stereotypes of Romania – 1980’s communism.  Let’s just say Bucharest is not an attractive city.  What a shame, because apparently 100 years ago it was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  Pieces of that beauty still exist, but overall, this is a city best avoided.

But I certainly didn’t mind my little bit of luxury – I used Marriott points to stay at the JW Marriott.  This hotel is a bit over the top – my room had two 48″ flat screens within 15 feet of each other.  HUH?

You may remember that Romania was ruled for over 20 years by the brutal communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.  (click here for Wikipedia article)  One of his “accomplishments” was this building.

One of the craziest sights I have ever seen. Ceaucescu’s monument to himself – The “Palace Of The People” – at 3.7 MILLION sq. feet is the 2nd largest building on the planet. Only the Pentagon is larger. This building took years to build, and required razing 1/6 of Bucharest. 480 chandeliers, 3500 tons of crystal, 2.2 million sq. feet of wool carpet are just some of the insane statistics. And while this monument to himself was being built, Romanians were starving.

The next day I hopped a train to Suceava, in northeast Romania.  As I found out later, some Romanian trains can be almost pleasant.  Unfortunately this one was most certainly not.  It stopped in every town, and reached a max speed of maybe 30 mph.

From the luxurious JW, to the basic “High Class Hostel” (closed now).  Guidebooks singled out owner Monica as an excellent guide, and her hostel as a great deal.  Indeed she was a fantastic guide for the focus of my trip to Suceava – the painted monasteries.  These UNESCO World Heritage sites are like nothing else in the world.  Nearly every inch is painted, with the exception of floors and roofs.

The monasteries are painted with scenes from the Bible and local Romanian history. Each of the 4 I visited has a different prominent color – red, yellow, green, and blue.

Voronet is the best-known of the monasteries, primarily because of this fresco, depicting the last judgment. It’s considered as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel. I haven’t seen that, but yes, this fresco is amazing.

The inside of the monasteries were possibly even more amazing.  Unfortunately, no photography was allowed.

But it wasn’t just the frescoes that grabbed my attention

During our day trip we also stopped in a nearby village known for its black pottery.

From Suceava via train to the mountain town of Vatra Dornei.  “Back in the day” Vatra Dornei was basically an Aspen, a resort town for the wealthy elite of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  It could best be described as having a faded glory.

No pics worth sharing, but Vatra Dornei did produce my favorite story from the trip.  Trying to check into a hotel, the charming girl working the desk showed me a room which smelled of cigarettes.  When I asked for a non-smoking room (knowing it was likely hopeless), she responded with a quizzical look – “well, you don’t have to smoke in your room if you don’t want to.”

Unclear on the concept, obviously.

Next stop, Cluj-Napoca.  Cluj (“kloozh”) was meant to be merely a stopover while I waited to meet my guide for the next phase of my trip, but it was a pleasant surprise.  A medium-sized university town, Cluj has a fantastic energy and I found myself wishing I had more time there.  While there were no standout sights, I enjoyed my two nights there.

Maramures was the focus of my trip.  This traditional region was somehow largely left alone by Ceaucescu, and remains a land held back in time, known for the “last peasant culture in Europe.”

If you are going to Romania, do yourself a favor and hire Andrei (owner of Pan Travel) as a guide.  His is not a boring “this building was erected in the year….” tour.  Andrei is incredibly friendly, and his style of guiding me around the Maramures region was to pull into a village and just start talking to people.  Thanks to Andrei, I was able to meet some fascinating people, drink homemade brandy, poorly attempt to build haystacks with some peasants, and even got invited into a couple of homes.

Between not knowing the language, and being too shy, these are experiences I could NEVER have had on my own.

One of the things the Maramures region is known for is the wooden gates. For generations families proudly built these intricately carved wonders. Unfortunately they are disappearing. They are expensive to build, and many families have learned that they can make a lot of money selling their antique gates to foreigners.

Hanging out with a few girlfriends in one of the villages.

One of the highlights of my 2 weeks in Romania was helping 3 peasant women build haystacks for an hour. They laughed and teased me for my poor skills. Andrei is convinced I was the talk of the village for months.

At one of the homes we stayed in, the husband was a blacksmith, which made for a interesting morning.  In Maramures a market travels from village to village, coming back to each village about once per month.  Like markets everywhere, it’s a great opportunity for people to socialize, purchase, and make trades.  Take out the cars & trucks ringing the market, and it felt like stepping back 600 years previous.

Many of the women supplement income making and selling rugs, and often the wool is from sheep they have raised.  They use traditional looms, making me feel like I had stepped back in time.  Hopefully this quick video gives a sense of how fascinating it was.  I was especially amazed at how the wool is processed (the very end of this 2 minute video).

Andrei was very excited to take me to the “Merry Cemetery” in Sapanta (“suhpoontza”), but I was dubious.  Upon arrival though, I was faced with a tough choice.  Listen politely as Andrei tried to tell stories about the cemetery, or take photographic advantage of the most remarkable light I had seen yet in Romania.  I fidgeted for 10 minutes while Andrei did his thing, then excused myself, asking if he could continue his stories 30 minutes later.

Sometimes it pays to be a bit rude, because I’m pretty pleased with this photo.

The Merry Cemetery is remarkable.  In 1935 a woodcarver broke from tradition and created a headstone that whimsically told the story of the person to be buried.  The cemetery is now filled with 800 headstones celebrating life.  Were I willing to be buried, this is what I would ask for my gravestone.

And yes, after I got my photos I thoroughly appreciated listening to Andrei read some of the headstones to me.

Unfortunately I have no idea what this woman’s name is.  A shame, because meeting her was a highlight.  Andrei knocked on her gate to compliment the carving, and she invited us into her yard.  She showed me her rug room (filled with generations of hand-crafted wool rugs), and insisted on giving Andrei and I grapes and flowers.  We left with a trunk full of flowers from this woman!

This man told us that he used to be an officer in the Securitate. If his story is true, he was responsible for some horrible practices. It’s hard to believe that this kind and gentle man could do that, but one never knows.

Last video – 1 minute of your time.  Maramures is also known for it’s wooden churches.  These simple structures are filled with naive paintings and embroidery, and the keepers who explained the history were fascinating.

My time in Maramures was at an end, and Andrei dropped me off in the medieval walled city of Sighisoara.  This beautiful city was a photographer’s delight, and I happily spent 2 nights there, wandering aimlessly.

For those interested in the Dracula myth, Sighisoara was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), which the city has no problem capitalizing on.  Dracula-themed stuff was everywhere, but it didn’t destroy the charm of this place.

My only regret of this trip is not spending more time in Brasov.  I had iniitally blown off Brasov, since it is a focal point for tourism, largely due to the nearby Bran Castle, supposed home of Vlad Tepes.  Happily, multiple people convinced me to go.

The main square of Brasov was a delight for street photography. Great photo subjects were everywhere. Unfortunately I lacked the language and the nerve to approach them, and stuck to surreptitious grab shots.

With hundreds of years of history, Brasov was amazing to visit.  Great sights were everywhere.  I could easily have spent a week or more exploring the city and the surrounding area.

But – I purposely avoided Bran Castle, and I don’t regret that.

Every traveler must get scammed once (or three times, as in this story by my friend and co-worker Jeff Bell), and I am no exception.  Romania’s bus system is exceedingly nonsensical, to put it mildly.  Brasov has multiple bus stations, and a man took advantage of my obvious confusion.  “I am tour driver.  I take you where you want to go.”  After initial skepticism (always listen to your gut…), I agreed on a price with him.  He would drive me to a nearby fortified castle, then to the famous Peles Castle.

I should have known when the drive started off with him stopping at his house.  He did indeed take me to my destinations, and was an excellent guide along the way, as we spoke in a pidgin of Romanian, Spanish, German, and English (somehow we made it work).  Dropping me at my destination, suddenly he loudly and publicly demanded 50% more than our agreed price.  Sigh.  I argued and won… sort of.

The fortified church of Prejmer is one of the best preserved in Europe. Built in the 1200’s by Teutonic Knights, it protected the villagers, who took refuge in cells within the church, which is surrounded by 36 ft. high and 12 ft. thick walls.

My new “friend” dropped me in the mountain village of Sinaia, home of Peles Castle.  Begun in the late 1800’s by King Carol, this castle looks like something out of a fairy tale.  I wanted to tour the castle, but was offended by the high ticket price ($17 US).

A quiet night in Sinaia, then a train to Bucharest for one more night at the JW Marriott (a rather pleasant way to end a trip!).

Why the “Best Worst Trip” ????  Romania is not exactly ready for prime time in tourism world.  Need directions?  Ask someone under 30.  Anyone close to 40 or over is likely to be bitter, angry, and sometimes even aggressively unhelpful.  I got screamed at by a taxi driver.  Yelled at by ticked sellers.  Hotels and restaurants often don’t grasp the concept of customer service.   And of course – “You don’t have to smoke if you don’t want to.”

But two years later, this trip sticks in my head like no other.  It was a fascinating place, and I realize that I grew a lot, and learned even more, during my two weeks there.

I hope to return.

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