Brasov to Bucharest via Rickety Railways
Romania had a difficult last century. It fought on both sides in World War II (depending on who was winning at the time) and then had to endure 50 years under Soviet rule culminating in the disastrous reign of the tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu. Recent years have seen it continue to suffer from a barrage of negative stereotypes and certainly in the UK the country is widely known only for gypsies, orphanages and, of late, so called benefits tourists.
Whilst inter-railing last year I decided that I would visit Romania beginning with a trip to its most famous yet mysterious region, Transylvania the mythical (well fictional actually…) home of Dracula. Before I arrived I really did not know what to expect, whilst I knew that the cartoon images of perma-dark-thundery skies, howling wolves, and bats were completely childish they were nevertheless the only images I had to go on.
To get there I boarded the overnight sleeper train from Budapest to Brasov. The rail infrastructure hasn’t been updated much since the communist era and consequently the train crawls along for most of the journey making the 16 hour slog feel like a much greater distance than it actually is but eventually we found ourselves amongst the expansive and lush Carpathian Mountains.
Brasov makes a great first impression which was helped along by a perfect summer’s day of endless blue skies and beating sun. Surrounded by mountains, it is a beautiful little city which wonderfully retains its old town feel with an abundance of baroque and gothic architecture on offer. Whilst my expectations had been few, one thing I certainly hadn’t anticipated was that the main street of Brasov would feel akin to catwalk and it honestly seemed like every women I passed could be a supermodel. Their male consorts on the other hand I have to say generally looked like they may well have won their quarry in street fights.
At the apex of the city high street roadies were busy building a stage and sound-testing in preparation for a free open air festival that night. I decided I would go and eat something and return when it got underway. At this point I need to say something, if you’re changing British pounds or dollars or Europe then Romania is damn cheap (a beer is for example 5Lei which is $1.25) so I treated myself to dinner in one of Brasov’s top restaurants consisting of a hearty and filling Romanian pork stew washed down with decent Usurus beer. Thus far throughout my trip I had been eating street food zealously guarding my wallet against crippling European city prices but in Brasov I was able to let my hair down a bit as the whole meal still cost me about £5.00.
As dusk settled the festival got under way. It was sponsored by some national brewery who erected tents dispending beer into plastic cups just like at festivals the world over. Romania produces quite a lot of different beers and some of them are really good but unfortunately whichever brewery was sponsoring the event is not amongst them. However, it was cheap and so for 20 Lei I bought a handful of tokens which I then exchanged for numerous pints of gassy, watery lager and commenced making merry amongst the very mixed congregation of revellers.
The Romanian language is a mixture of Slavic languages and Latin (yes the Roman’s were here once hence the name…) so I found it far more recognizable than Czech or Hungarian yet my determined attempts at greeting people with “Ce Faci?” met only with blank stares. Thankfully for me though, Romanian schools have taught English ever since the fall of the Soviet Union so I managed to find people to interact with without too much hassle. I asked revellers what exactly the festival was in aid of, “It’s an election year…the government is trying to gain favour” (Bread & Circus’; the roman legacy perhaps). The bands were a mix of Emo/Punk and Hip Hop all of whom aped their American heroes (Blink 182 Limp Bizkit are clearly very influential here) yet succeeded only in distilling their very worst elements. Nevertheless it was a fun evening.
After the headliners finished I found a cool bar to see in the early hours and it was here that I met Kris who took me under his wing and insisted that I meet him the next night to go and see some Romanian Hard-core groups who were playing in the city. The next night I met Kris at the bar and he took me to meet his friends who had been briefed to communicate only in English for the evening which they duly did. As it was Kris was outvoted by his friends who wanted to see the 2nd night of the free festival predominantly it seems so that they could heckle the headline act. We finished the night drinking beers in the park into the early hours before I got a 4am McDonalds and went off to bed.
For my final day in Brasov I climbed one of the mountains, posed next to the cities own version of the legendary “Hollywood” sign and tracked down the little church where the Scottish indie-rock group “Glasvegas” recorded their delightful little 2009 Christmas EP and left feeling very happy.
Transylvania remains one my favourite regions and I can’t wait to head back there to visit the student town of Cluj-Nipoca.
The next day I was back on the train to Bucharest. It was a hot day and I was hung-over so did not appreciate having to move myself at every station as the rightful occupiers claimed their pre-booked seat (this is a reality of Inter-rail). The carriage was hot and the 3 hour journey felt like a Dante-esque eternity of unquenchable thirst but fortunately we arrived before I passed out with dehydration.
Bucharest is big and though I navigated the subway system without too much hassle, after surfacing at street level I quickly found myself lost in the city. After some minutes wandering aimlessly I sheepishly interrupted two girls in conversation to ask if they knew the address I was looking for. They didn’t but after some reflection one of them offered, insisted even, that she break of what she was doing and help me find it at once. When we reached my hostel we agreed to meet in an hour when she would show me around the city and after reconvening we took a bit of a walking tour which mainly consisted of getting lost together (which for me is the best way to take in a city) and going for something to eat. Later on we were joined by one of her friends and then as night fell we headed to the student area where we crashed some kind of little gathering and got properly plied with traditional, home-made wine and spirits. This was just too much, I had been in town only a matter of hours and yet I found myself in the bosom of a bohemian, student party been treated like the guest of honour.
The next day I explored Bucharest properly. Much of its heritage architecture was pulled down under Ceaușescu’s rule to make way for the big, bold, city regeneration projects typical of the communist style at the time. Wide boulevards and jammed roads are adorned on either side by high rise concrete housing projects (already falling fast into disrepair) crowned with huge advertising signs atop them. Best of all though is the megalithically enormous presidential palace which seems to eat up miles of the city centre and now stands for all time as testament to the messianic delusions of a mad dictator’s ego; the result is a city so grotesque it’s captivating. Whereas Brasoz feels like a relaxed, pleasant town Bucharest is a bustling, harsh city whose people looked stressed and hurried. It really felt like a European capital and one that was reaching greedily for a piece of the post-communist, new world capitalist pie. Bucharest’s “old town” was spared the wrecking ball of Ceausecsu’s progress and and now forms the cities night life and tourist hub, its cobbled streets are filled with hostels, restaurants, loud bars and strip clubs. I passed my final evening here hanging with some Danes and sampling the cheap beer.
So how about those Romanian stereotypes? Well in both Brasov and Bucharest I was stunned to see Roma children roaming (see what I did) the streets in the early hours of the morning and my friends warned me “be careful, they are looking for drunks to pickpocket”. The subject of British tabloid headline’s also came up a few times and as you would expect the Romanians were offended and horrified by being portrayed as benefit tourists and very few I met expressed any intention or interest of ever coming to live in England. I also didn’t see any vampire’s which is a shame because vampires are apparently sexy and cool these days.
I have now done a bit of travelling in my life and have frequently been touched by the friendliness and generosity of people in allowing complete strangers into their hearts and lives but to this day Romanians retain the prize a two days running in two cities I found myself invited to parties within hours of arriving into town! Why was this? Well I suspect it’s a combination of the fact that the country still doesn’t receive that many foreign visitors (I met one other Brit compared to the 1000’s I met in every other place that summer) so I was something of a novelty and I also suspect that the people are making an effort to challenge the negative images the world holds about the country.
I awoke the next morning with a sore head and it was time to go. The train network gets rather complicated at Romania and unless you are headed towards Bulgaria and then Turkey it would have meant doing the 20 hour slog back to Budapest which I was keen to avoid. Fortunately however FlyBe now do a regular Bucharest to Rome run so I $50E I decided to catch a flight to Italy. Whilst Italy went on to wow me with its abundance of treasures, flawless culture and epic romance my time in Romania would remain the highlight of my trip around Europe. It’s affordable; it has a scintillating mixture of beauty and barbarity but best of all it has some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have ever met. It is the one European destination I would most recommend and the place I would most dearly love to return to.