Off to Find Sofia

With a late start and a last glimpse of Bucharest, we are on the road yet again.  Today we head into new territory – Bulgaria.  If I had no idea what to expect of Romania, I have even less idea what to expect from Bulgaria.  But I have a day’s worth of travel before I find out.

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Marco is unsure how our border crossing into Bulgaria will go because they have been working on the bridge between for some time and traffic delays have been horrendous.  But apart from a false start where the road had temporarily been altered, luck was on our side.  We were straight over the bridge, albeit slowly.

The line of traffic waiting in the other direction was not quite so lucky….

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Before much longer, we are at the border and the formalities are taking place.  As we wave goodbye to the ‘assports’ office (the sign was missing a letter), our heads start swivelling ready to check out our new surroundings.

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But our day of travelling is far from over.  We now have another bus to board, a public one this time.  The ticket windows are odd and purchasers are forced to bend over to buy their tickets.

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We head off in different directions to find lunch and snacks for the journey ahead, absorbing enquiring stares from the locals.  I bought these biscuits to share, which were incredibly yummy, despite having what looked like birdseed on top!

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The first thing we notice about Bulgaria, is that no matter how hard we try – we will not be able to try and pronounce any signage, as it is Cyrillic.  This should be fun!

Cyrillic Alphabet

Finally our bus is ready to board and off we go.  Our driver is grumpy and despite the bus being advertised as airconditioned, it is really hot because the driver has his window open the whole journey to accommodate his chain smoking.  After what seems an eternity, we finally pull into the bus station at Sofia, where we lug our bags onto our shoulders and start walking to our hotel, arriving just in time to head out for dinner.

Marco leads us not far away to a cute little folk restaurant where we were are treated to some fantastic singing and amazing food and wine.  I get my first opportunity to have a good chat to the Japanese couple who joined the tour in Bucharest – Aki and Kazuo.  They are the cutest couple – Kaz speaks more English than his wife, and they have their trusty travel guide with them, flipping through the pages keen to try the local food which their guidebook recommends.  I know very little Japanese, but Kaz assures me I’m saying it right and he seems very impressed.  Who would have thought that a little language I picked up to get me through my trip to Japan several years ago would now serve me well in Bulgaria!

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I wonder what Sofia has in store for us tomorrow?

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Once described by In Your Pocket as “a dirty, smoky and polluted city of two million people and one and half million rabid dogs”, its safe to say Bucharest was not on my list of places to visit in any hurry.  And it’s true that before you arrive in Romania, you read about stray dogs.  A lot.  A 2013 census suggested there were some 65,000 of them roaming the streets, whilst recent reports have the number down to 4,000 – still a little high for my liking.  So where did all the dogs come from?

The 1980’s.

Seriously.  They were the result of Nicholae Ceausescu’s reign and his plan to industrialise Romania.  Scores of people uprooted from the countryside eager to find a place in the city and that meant a huge demand was placed on apartments.  Family upon family lived in an apartment, which meant sadly that there was no room for dogs.  The dogs were abandoned in the streets and, like the population of Romania, the population began to explode.  Many culling programs have taken place over the years though, and I’m here to say, that despite my concerns and the fact I have now been in Romania for a good week, I am yet to see any rabid dogs, and the dogs I have seen have been languishing in small towns, enjoying the streets as much as it’s citizens and tourists do.  Dogs napping, dogs rolling over for a tummy scratch, dogs enjoying the sun.  None of them seeming the least bit interested in me, let alone rabid.

But it does beg (haha) the question – who was this Nicholae Ceausescu?

Well, he was the leader of Romania from 1965 until 1989 when a coup removed him from power and sentenced him to death for crimes against the state, genocide and “undermining the national economy”.  He was a small man and inflicted with a stammer and he suffered from an inferiority complex as a result.  He was initially a popular political figure because of his independent foreign policy which challenged the supremacy of the Soviet Union in Romania, but that didn’t last long.  His policies resulted wide spread shortages of food and basic necessities, an uncontrollable population of rabid dogs and most tragically of all, created a generation of neglected orphans (that became known as Ceausescu’s Children) and subsequently street kids.

Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion and actively encouraged childbirth to grow Romania’s workforce.  There were tax breaks for families with children and fines for those without.  And if you couldn’t support your children?  No worries.  You could leave them in one of the state run orphanages until your financial situation improved.  But most times, the children were never collected and the state had no money to run these orphanages adequately, which resulted in hundreds of orphanages, each with hundreds and hundreds of children in the most terrible states imaginable.  And it was these images that shocked the world in the early 1990’s, if you were old enough to remember them.

Both the Interesting Times Bureau and Urban Adventures run the Outcast Bucharest tour in conjunction with the Parada Foundation.  The Parada Foundation is a non political, non profit, legally recognised NGO, set up with the goal of “supporting homeless children, young people and families through social, educative and social-professional integration services”.  Their services include a day centre, home support for those in difficulty, reintegration services and night street intervention.  And as Sergiu, my guide, will tell you, he is very grateful to them for where he is today.  He is a Parada’s ‘walking success story’.  Abandoned by his parents at an early age, this former drug addict and street child has cleaned up his act and is in the process of finishing high school.  Things are still touch for Sergiu at times, but he has come a long way and is on track to achieve his ambition of becoming a social worker.

It was Parada’s social enterprise that allowed Sergiu to undergo a training program which allows him to show you his side of Bucharest.  He is open and honest with his discussion, very generously sharing the details of his life and encouraging you to ask any questions.

We strolled from the Piata Universitatii (University Square) to Piata Unirii (Union Square) via Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) to visit some of Bucharest’s main sites.

This statue outside the National History Museum, is the most mocked statue in Romania.  It shows the Roman  Emperor Trajan, carrying a wolf.  It was meant to represent the emergence of the Romanian people from the Romans and the Dacians, however the nudity of the statue, combined with the strange posturing and….well you can see for yourself…it’s just weird.

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And of course it has its own Facebook page – Statuia Lui Traian – should you want to check out everyone’s funny photos.

Sergiu asks if I’ve heard of Bruce Lee.  I’m assuming he doesn’t mean Hong Kong’s iconic kung fu legend and he isn’t.  He is talking about Bruce Lee, self-proclaimed King of the Sewers.  You see, in Romania, right underneath your feet, there is a network of tunnels and sewers which are occupied by hundreds of men, women and children (in fact hundreds may not be the right word – the last estimate was 6,000).  Drug use and disease are rife. These sewers are where some of Romania’s neglected orphans ended up.  It’s something from a nightmare.

Just last month, police raided the sewers and arrested Bruce, along with some others after a surveillance operation uncovered organised criminal gangs and child prostitution.

It’s a life Sergiu knows too well – the struggle to survive on the streets.

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Our visit ended with a stop at Parada’s day centre, where Sergiu and I chatted about what it is exactly that they do.  Part of which is run a circus.  On a tour through Romania some years ago, French clown Miloud Oukili was confronted by the misery of Bucharest’s street children.  He noticed they kept returning to his performances, so he learnt their language, began to talk to them about taking drugs and taught them circus tricks.  Today, the Parada circus tours France and Italy with their performances, giving a life to these street children who don’t formally exist.  Parada has reintegrated over 300 street children through its work.

If you are interested in doing the Outcast Bucharest tour, you can book through http://www.urbanadventures.com/Bucharest-tour-outcast-bucharest or www.interestingtimes.ro.

The days heat and the heart-wrenching topic have me in a ponderous mood.  This is the thing that I love most about travel – it’s that it re-grounds you, redefines your beliefs and reinforces what’s important to you, makes you more tolerant and more thankful for your own circumstances and above all – it opens your eyes.  As the quote goes, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

After a brief stop to freshen up at the hotel, I decide I’m going to head straight to Cismigiu Park and enjoy the rest of the day.  I run into Marg at the hotel and she has the same idea.  Cismigiu is the most central of Bucharest’s public gardens.  It was first designed in 1845, but not completed until 1860 when more than 30,000 trees and plants were bought in from the Romanian mountains.  The centrepiece is a gorgeous lake where you can hire a row boat or a paddle boat and enjoy the afternoon sunshine, but there are many beautiful areas of the park, both hidden and obvious where you can enjoy your day.

At one end of the lake is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria and that’s where Marg and I decide to park ourselves for a bite of lunch and a bit of reflection on our mornings, before taking our time to check out the rest of what the park has to offer.

Strolling past the playground on our way to the paddle boats, we check out the freaky kids play equipment along the way.  I’m glad I hadn’t noticed these freaky swings last night as it would have scared the wits of our me – not that they are much less scary in the daylight.

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Our request for a ticket to ride the paddleboats is met with ‘you might get wet’.  Marg and I look at each other, shrug and say ‘yep, that’s fine’.   We are reluctantly given a ticket and told to head over to the boarding pad where someone else will get us our boat.  ‘You might get wet’, says the guy at the boarding pad.  ‘Yep, we still don’t care’.  It seems a strange amount of concern for the possibility of our getting wet and it has me wondering whether there’s another reason, but we step aboard out boat and off we peddle.

We don’t get wet.

Not one little bit.

Tonight we get to meet the newbies that are joining us for the next leg of the tour.  We are losing three of our companions for the last week (including my room mate Hedy) and gaining another five and we can’t wait to see who they will be.  We begin to appear haphazardly in the lobby at the agreed time, anxiously pondering – is that one of the new people, or just another hotel guest?  But finally we have all arrived and get to meet a wonderful Japanese couple, two bubbly girls from Sydney and another US guest.

Marco leads us through the park once more, but in a different direction, for our first group dinner, with the addition of a couple of those who have stayed around today from the last tour, Hedy and Steve.

I noted before travelling to Romania that Stuffed Cabbage Leaves and Polenta are what would be most identified as Romania’s national dish.  Traditionally served at weddings, Christmas dinners and big celebrations, it’s a staple on restaurant menus around the country.  The cabbage leaves are typically filled with spiced pork, sometimes lamb or veal, and served with a side servicing of polenta to soak up the juices, topped with a dollop of sour cream.  So in the realisation that I’ve come to my last night in Romania without trying it, it’s the only logical choice on the menu, which is littered with funny translations.  A good choice it was too – though I’d like to have seen how those beaten and tormented pork ribs tasted!

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Romania has been a wonderful country, surprisingly so.  Although I had no idea what to expect, I have to admit that the pictures in my head were a little grey and uncomplimentary given the news that had filtered through from the country over the last twenty years.  But what I found, was a place of fascinating culture with traditions still being held tight – something I feel we have let go of in Australia.  It’s reinforced to me that I need to make a bigger effort to return to my roots and take up the traditions my Polish grandmother provided for me growing up, so I can pass them on to my niece and the new baby our family is due to welcome shortly.

I’ve delighted in the simplicity of exploring local markets and indulging in bloodthirsty fairy tales.  The beauty of the scenic Carpathian Mountains is a must to be experienced and the joy of picking fruits from the trees as you walk down the street brings back childhood memories of annual holidays to a country town back home in Western Australia.

The people we have met have been incredibly welcoming and have taken kindly to showing and sharing with us their lives, especially Ramona who opened her wonderful home to us and Sergiu who was so open to sharing his story with a stranger in the hopes that it will make a difference.

Thank you Romania for the trip I never expected and will never forget.

Heading for the Capital

An early start awaits us for our trip to the last Romanian city on this tour – the capital, Bucharest.  Claudia is meeting us again, as she is travelling with us for part of our journey to show us a town called Sinaia, about 50km from Brasov.  A string of taxis deposit us and our luggage at the train station where we meet Claudia, and then the train takes us the rest of the way, before more taxis lug us up the hilly, winding streets of Sinaia.

Sinaia is a resort town – full of skiers in winter and hikers in summer and it’s pretty.  Really pretty.  The architecture is what you would truly call Transylvanian – lots of wood, peaked roofs and turrets.  Romania’s first King – Carol 1 – had his summer home here – and it’s that which we are off to see first.

Peles Castle was built between 1873 and 1883, though the present iteration was completed in 1914.  As I mentioned above, it was to be the summer home of King Carol I, however he died a few months after it was completed.  Its architecture showcases a number of styles and features wide terraces overlooking the stunning mountainside scenery.  It had its own electrical plant on the banks of the Peles Brook, which meant it was the first European castle entirely lit (all 160 rooms and 30 bathrooms!) by an electric current.  It was also the first European castle to have central heating and vacuuming.

The castle was open to the public after the forced abdication of Romania’s last king – Michael I – in 1947, only closing during the communist period when it was then used as a private retreat for leading communists and statesmen from around the world.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look inside, but the outside of the castle and its grounds are well worth the visit in any case.

The trail leading back down the hill from the castle towards the town is filled with wooden market stalls selling all manner of goods – leather belts, fur trimmed jackets, shoes and the obligatory tourist items such as magnets and postcards.  Again, we don’t have time to shop, which is a shame because these stalls hold some magnificent stuff, unlike a lot of the other stalls we have come across that have sold tacky plastic toys and other associated crap imported from China.

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After the Castle, our next stop is the Sinaia Monastery.  The Monastery is home to about twenty monks.  Inside the gate there is a large Orthodox Church, which was built around 1846.  Further inside you will find the old church, built in the late 1600’s, the outside of which is covered in religious paintings.  It’s interesting to note the depiction of the devil in the drawings, which is something you don’t often see in Western churches.  These drawings were important because they were used to pass the biblical stories on through generations of people who could not, in most circumstances, read.

We bid farewell to Claudia, who leaves us to travel back to Brasov and we now have a couple of hours to enjoy some lunch and a bit of a browse around the city centre of Sinaia.  A few of us find a great restaurant – in fact a suggestion of Marco’s – and we settle in.  The food is amazing, and my order particularly reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking – lots of dill.  It’s funny that no matter where I seem to be in Europe, there’s always a little something on the menu that is similar to her wonderful Polish cooking.

There’s just time for a quick stroll down the street and back before we all merge back at our meeting point and head off for the next party of our journey – another train ride.

The train ride from Sinaia to Bucharest seems to take forever.  The air-conditioning is broken in our carriage, and despite Marco’s repeated requests to the conductors, they refuse to pull out the keys to unlock the windows.  Many people in the carriage are complaining, frantically fanning themselves with whatever fan-like objects they can find.  I have my earphones in and some of my favourite music blaring in my ears, so I don’t care one bit.

Finally we arrive at the main station, but there’s some walking and a metro ride to go yet.  It’s also quite the hike from the subway to our hotel and just when I am doubting that I can go much further, my backpack feeling like extra weight every time I took a step, we make it.

Bucharest is like none of the other Romanian locales we’ve visited so far.  It’s definitely the concrete jungle I was expecting, though there are some quite remarkably beautiful buildings here too.  Tomorrow I will have the chance to see more of the city.

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Tonight is our last night on the tour and there’s a team dinner to celebrate.  Dinner is not far away, just on the other side of Cismigiu Park, in fact.  The last rays of daylight are blanketing the city in a golden glow.  It makes Bucharest look stunningly pretty.  People are relaxing in every part of the park.  There are playgrounds full of children, benches full of old men and couples peddling away on the river boats.  It’s a little overgrown, but there are stalls, restaurants and miscellaneous vendors all over the park selling beers and snacks and it’s nice to see a park being used so widely.

Everyone is a little tired after the long day, the heat and travel coupled with the realisation that we have reached the end hitting home, so conversation is slow.  Most of our group is continuing on to the next tour which starts tomorrow night, but some of those that aren’t, are still hanging around for another day, so it’s a weird feeling to say goodbye, when we will still see everyone tomorrow.

The park is still busy when we walk back through it after dinner – and I’m talking 9.30/10pm at night.  And the thing that astonishes me most, is that even the children’s playground is still packed – this is not something you see back home in Australia.  It’s not a good thing to even walk through a park at this time of the night, let alone stop off to have a play on the swings or a cuddle with your sweetheart.  Welcome to Bucharest.

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This is not a great photo because apart from being blurry, you can’t even see how many kids were here – but at least you get the picture about how late at night we are talking!

It seems unreal that it has only been ten days since we set off from Budapest on our journey through Romania.  We have seen and done (and learnt) so much, but the incredible Romanian countryside and the wonderful people we have met have made out time stretch out beautifully, rather than feeling rushed.  As I mentioned, I had no idea what to expect of Romania and it has surprised me at every turn.  The beautifully coloured rural houses, the traditional clothes and the retaining of traditional ways of life, the food, the animals and the myths and legends.  It has felt like stepping back in time, and that, at least for me, has been a good thing.