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!

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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.

Prince Charles and Dracula

I wake up nice and early, hoping for a chance to go for a bit of a walk around town before we get started for the day.

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As you may well have gathered by now, Viscri is a special place.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Prince Charles loved it so much, he bought number 63.  Once belonging to the wealthiest family in the village, the home was in a very bad state of disrepair when it was purchased in 2002 through Charles’ foundation, the Mihai Eminescu Trust.  It’s now an authentic Saxon guest house (almost exactly like the one we are staying in) and you too can stay here (check out www.experiencetransylvania.ro for more info).  He apparently visits every summer and goes riding in the surrounding hills.

“Do not change anything, keep and love this place as it is”, he said.

Under the auspices of the Trust, he has started to renovate the Saxon buildings, as well as supporting the revival of traditional Romanian trades.  The role of the trust is to conserve and generate the villages and communes of Maramures and Transylvania.  There is another guest house in Malancrav not too far away.

It’s a lovely time to take a walk, so I’m not the only one that is up and about.  Being awake early means you get to see the village awakening for the day.

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As I approach our guest house, I note that it’s time for our sheep to go off to pasture.  They all file out of their pen and out the front gate of the house, bounding down the street like woolly puppy dogs, following their caretaker.  I love this place.

Marco is keen to take whoever is up for it, for a walk to see a local tiler.  Most of us immediately think decorative tiles, but rather, we will see how to make roof tiles.  We stroll through the quaint little streets and out the end of town, before heading up a rutted soil track and onto a valley.

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It’s a bit of a hike but its beautiful scenery.  Hops grows in the distance in one direction, some sheep and their shepherd abound in another and from the top of the valley we can see the town below us.

After a little while, we arrive at the tile maker’s property.  She doesn’t appear to be home, so Marco begins to explain a little to us.  It’s one of the projects supported by Prince Charles foundation as it turns out.  Not long into his conversation, the family arrives home from town.

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The lady of the house leads us down to her mud pit and explains step by step how she and her husband create the tiles.  It’s hard work and some people in the village are jealous of the opportunity they have been given to run this business.  Small towns obviously have their problems and prejudices, no matter where they are.

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We wave goodbye and head back to town in another direction.  If the journey here was a hike up the hill, the journey back is a balancing act down the hill.  I’d never thought much of old Charlie, but after the last twenty four hours I have developed a lot of respect for his work in this region.  I was a little curious as to why he was so enamoured of Romania, and I found my answer.  He is, apparently, a descendent of Vlad the Impaler!

As throughout Romania so far, fruit trees litter the scenery wherever you are – on the streets or our in the countryside and you are generally encouraged to just grab some along the way.  Today there is plum and apple trees lining the hillside, so Marco pulls little handfuls off to hand around to us as we trample through the mud.

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It’s time to leave this quaint little village now.  I wish we had one more night to spend here – it’s been such a lovely grounding experience – no internet, no TV, just rural life all around you.  But Brasov awaits us, so we board our minibus once more and get back on the road.

We drive for about an hour and a half before we reach the town of Brasov with its population of less than 300,000.  Again, it was a Saxon settled town and features a walled citadel.  It was the crossroads of many important trade routes that linked Europe with the Ottoman Empire and the Saxon’s grew quite wealthy off this.

It’s also famous for a few other things.

Remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin?  The town of Hamelin is overrun by rats so they call in a magical man with a flute to rid them of the plague.  The rats disappear but the town reneges on its agreement to pay the piper, to which he responds by also removing 130 of the town’s children through a cave, never to be seen again.  For a long time, the fairytale was believed to have been a reference to the death of the town’s children from the Bubonic Plague (caused by the rat infestations) and a thinly veiled cautionary tale of why you should never renege on a promise.  However, there are other versions of the story, and one of them sees the children settling in Transylvania.  And Brasov (in Transylvania) is reputedly where the children emerged from the cave.

The second would be the massive Hollywood style sign perched high atop Tampa Mountain.  But why?  Well back in the 1950’s, the town of Brasov actually changed its name to something else – Orasul Stalin or Stalin City.  The workers of Brasov thought they deserved this honour because they had exceeded their mandated production quotas.  The wish was granted and to commemorate the occasion, the name STALIN was spelt out across the mountain using darker coloured leaves.

At the end of the 50’s, the town was renamed Brasov and all the darker coloured trees were chopped down.  Details on when and why the new sign was erected in the Hollywood style are hard to find.  You can take a cable car up to the top to get a close and personal view, but our time here is very limited and there’s something else I want to see.

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Another is that it’s a good place from which to see Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  At 60m tall, it is spectacular, but it’s best seen from afar like most things of size.  Still, some of us are keen for a closer look.  But that will need to wait.

We take a quick walk around the town with Marco pointing out a number of important sites.  The main square, off which our hotel is located, is quaint and full of restaurants on one side, with an art market set up in the middle.

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The main attraction is the gothic Black Church.  The Black Church is a protestant church, completed in 1477 and it took its name from its fire-blackened walls after a fire took hold in 1689.  The original statues from the exterior are now inside, along with some 120 Turkish rugs which hang from its balconies.  Worshippers at the church drop coins through the wooden grates in the floor and hope for the best.  If you know where to look, there are scrape marks outside the church, which some locals swear are from soldiers’ sharpened swords from the past centuries.

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For those of us who can’t resist, Marco has arranged for a guide to take us to Bran Castle.  Claudia is very bubbly and eager to show us Bran.  Six of us jump in the back of a minivan with a new driver and off we go, Claudia chatting excitedly as we go.  We are a little quiet after our long walk this morning, our travel here and rushed tour of the city and I feel a little sorry for her because she now thinks she is chatting too much.

The queue outside Bran is long, but it’s not a bad queue says Claudia.  It’s usually a lot longer.  We don’t have to worry through because with Claudia by our sides we get jump the queue access.  Of course once we get inside the castle it is busy, but as we have a limited amount of time here, we are directed to particular rooms of the castle where Claudia explains about Vlad Tepes and something else that scared many Transylvanian’s – the strigoi.

Romanian legend has it that the strigoi are the evil souls of the dead that turn into ghosts and haunt the countryside.  They are not born, they are created by one strigoi turning a soul into another strigoi by sucking the blood out of them until they are dead.  Hence this is where the story of vampires and Dracula began.

So how did it become know as Dracula’s Castle?  Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania.  But Bram Stoker himself never visited Romania.  It’s just that his imaginary depiction of the castle from his first edition of the novel so resembled Bran Castle rather than any of the others in Romania.

Dracula’s character is often confused with that of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince.  Dracula as he is perceived today is a fictitious character whose name is derived from Vlad Tepes who was depicted by some historians of that time as a blood-thirsty ruthless ruler (it was said that he impaled so many people on a hill near Brasov that it resembled a forest, so who knows, they could be entitled to that opinion!).  Vlad did actually spend a few nights in Bran Castle on his flight from the Turks in 1462 so I guess that’s where it all got confused.  The moral of this story is Vlad Tepes – real.   Dracula – not real.

Or is he…..?

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PS.  If you want a great guide for your Transylvanian holiday, you can arrange for Claudia to guide you around – head to The Transylvanian for more information.

When the Cows Come Home

Before we leave Sighisoara, there’s time this morning to explore a little bit outside the old town.  Marco takes us on a walk to the local markets, as has become our custom in these Romanian towns, guiding us through the streets with his long tall-Dutchman sized steps, his trail of merry travellers always a few steps behind.

We pass by locals fishing, cycling and sleeping, beating their rugs clean, attending christenings and just doing what locals do.  There’s a small graveyard for unknown soldiers, a dead rat in the river, a plaque marking the height of a flood against a pale pink building, and Romania’s favourite car – the Dacia – lining the curbside.

These markets are not dissimilar to those we’ve already seen, though the mix of locals is perhaps a little more diverse and there is more produce than clothing here.  I become the proud new owner of a locally made straw hat.

Admiring my new hat
Admiring my new hat
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It’s clear you have to be careful where you park your horse and cart these days!

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We return to the old town where we board our bus to the next town, which is only a short half hour (roughly 40km) drive away – Viscri.

The landscape becomes incredibly rural with little farm houses appearing by the roadside, the paved road giving way to a gravel road once we arrive in Viscri proper.  It’s one of the only Saxon villages remaining in the Transylvanian part of Romania, and although it was never a big town, there are only about 500 inhabitants here now.  There are animals roaming the streets all over, a little dog lays across a park bench watching us go by.

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We have another homestay tonight, and once more we are split up into groups for our lodgings.  Our host is Walter and his homes for us are deliciously rustic.  The home I am sharing consists of a large gated courtyard with a main house off to the left and another building to the right – the one I am staying in.  There are also sheds for ‘our sheep’, but they aren’t home at the moment – I guess we’ll meet them later.

We don’t have much time to settle in because Marco wants to show us the 12th century Saxon Church, which is the centre piece of Viscri.  The UNESCO World Heritage listed church was a Romanesque Chapel with a fortified level above, part of which now forms a museum to show you just how the Saxons survived attack.    The chapel was destroyed by the Tatars in 1241, but the Saxons were not to be deterred and built a new church, which is the one still standing today.  In the 16th century, the church was fortified to six levels with a defence tower so the Saxons could fight against Turkish invaders.  Each household had a garret in which their supplies were held for when they were required to fight.

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It’s a very interesting little museum for what seems to be a very quiet little town that’s off the beaten track.  If you are game you can climb up the narrow stairs to the top of the fortification where you get a fantastic view of the town and surrounding countryside.

There’s a lot of stair climbing involved (up and down) but it’s well worth it.

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Coming down from the church, a cobble stone street is lined with brightly coloured homemade socks, hats and slippers.  They are the products of what is known as the Sock Project.  The project began in 1999 when as a result of the town’s poverty, some of it’s womenfolk began knitting socks.  The socks were made from old unravelled clothing, as there was obviously no money to buy new wool.  Some of the socks were given to a couple of German residents in exchange for food items.  The socks were then sold to other friends, who sold to others and it took off from there.

Now there are 125 women who knit a total of about 10,000 pairs of socks in a year, as well as gloves, jumpers, hats, slippers and baby booties and all this money goes straight back into the community.  It’s hard to resist the funky socks lined up along little benches and strung against the fences, so a pair of socks and some nice warm slippers made it into my luggage.

After a few beers together at the local ‘pub’ – a small bar with a bench out the front, we head home for dinner at Walter’s.  Before the main course is served though, Walter tells us we should head out into the main street as the cattle are coming home from the hills.  We all jump up from our benches, cameras in hand and almost tumble over each other to get out the doorways in time.

As we reached the gateway, we could hear hooves and clanging bells heading down the street, along with some mooing.  Coming down the street, each animal would peel off from the group to head to it’s home, without prodding.  It was the most amazing sight, something I’ve never seen in my life and probably will never see again.  It was such a delight!

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Smiles still brightening our faces, we head back inside once the last of the cattle has returned home.

And dinner is awaiting us on the table.  I couldn’t contain my excitement (now I’m being facetious) when I spied the massive bowl of stew in front of me – pea stew!  I carefully tried to scoop out spoonfulls of meat and stew that didn’t contain any peas – which are my least favourite food in the world – but as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy.  The stew itself was absolutely yummy and the meat was perfectly cooked – I lumped it on pieces of fresh bread and it was in fact so good that I didn’t even mind if a pea or two made it’s way into my mouth!

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The Birthplace of Dracula

After another delicious breakfast, we bid Ramona goodbye as it is time to move on to the next town.  On the way out of Maramures, we stop at another local market.  This time, I am excited to disembark from our van to check them out.  Fresh cheeses, speck and plums greet us in the entranceway.  But there’s all sorts of fruits and vegetables to be had, as well as clothes, shoes and socks like the market of yesterday.  It’s fascinating just to see the locals interacting with each other.  They don’t pay us much attention, but one of the ladies tells Marco (who I probably forgot to mention speaks Romanian despite his Netherlands heritage – and of course he lives here) that she is happy to see foreigners walking their markets.

Then on we drive to Sighisoara, almost five hours away.

Our driver, is a busy man.  He is constantly on the phone.  In fact, as well as driving us around, he is running three businesses at the same time – two accommodation facilities and an import/export business.  I’m glad to be sitting in the back of the van, as I’m spared the horror of watching him, talk, drive and write notes all at the same time.

Marco has a special surprise for us today – for lunch, we are eating at – ta da da da – Kaufland!  Noticing our mouthwatering efforts of yesterday, Marco has decided to let us check out the Kaufland grill.  Yay!  Unlike Bunnings, you get more than just a sausage in a bun here at Kaufland.  You have a choice of several grill dishes, either sausages or kofta like grilled meats.  And as our tastebuds alluded to yesterday, they are pretty damn tasty.  Those who don’t partake of the grill wander around to find something else in the supermarket giant.

Outside the grill, a small group of ‘gypsy’ children are milling around, hands shyly stretched out for some coins or a lucky note.  One of our American’s (let’s call him American Dad), pulls out a fiver and hands it over.  Bad move.  More children quickly close in and I’m guessing that American Dad didn’t read the notes about not giving money to anyone deemed to be begging.  He quickly realises his mistake.

At this point, I should probably talk a little more about the ‘gypsies’.  More correctly known as the Roma or Romani (the term ‘gypsy’ is incredibly derogatory), they were thought to have descended from several low north-Indian castes somewhere between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, appearing in Romanian history for the first time in around the mid 1200’s with the invasion of the Mongols (or Tatars).  They were a nomadic people and, in the early days at least, were a welcome source of skilled labour.  They had been craftsmen since ancient times, though with a preference for blacksmithing, they were skilled in everything from locksmithing, to knife/sword making and gold/coppersmithing, and through to pottery, cobblering and stonework.

That was until the Industrial Revolution came along and stripped them of their traditional means of earning a living.  At this point, they became entertainers, telling fortunes, playing music and putting on horse and dancing bear shows.  Many would say, they also became outlaws (hence the saying ‘you’ve been gypped‘).

The Roma continued to suffer persecution, being stripped of their citizenship by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s and added to Hitler’s list of ethnic groups to be dealt with, along with the Jews and Poles.  After the war, Communist governments tried to force the Roma to assimilate into society but instead of creative a cohesive society, it stripped them of any remaining time-honoured values and shattered their once tight social structure.  The end of communism led to massive unemployment in the Roma population.

It’s estimated there are about twelve million Roma worldwide, but this can’t be verified as many Roma hide their identities in government records such as census documents.

(P.S.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Roma in Romania, click here to read this fascinating document written by Viorel Achim titled The Roma in Romanian History).

Back in the van and on the road again.

Finally, we arrive in Sighisoara – birthplace of Dracula (or probably more correctly Vlad Tepes).  Everyone knows the name Dracula.  Sure it’s a made up fairy tale.  But did you know that it was based in actual history?  I didn’t know much about the story, real or otherwise, so I went a bit Dracula mad in my quest to find out more.

I looked to You Tube and Kasabian’s tune Vlad the Impaler, starring none other than Noel Fielding, but how much impaling could you really do with this big old thing?

I read Bram Stoker’s elegantly bound copy of Dracula, and apart from being overwhelmed by a language so old it took most of my effort to relate it to modern day conversation, it left me lost.  And in any case, Bram had not only ever been to Transylvania, but his story was a bit, well, lost in translation.

And then, I found this movie – Dracula Untold, with the delightful Welsh actor, Luke Evans, and it all made a little bit more sense.  Or maybe I was just a little starstruck.

So I think I am now fully up to date and ready to delve into Sighisoara.  Sighisoara is a medieval town in the magical region of Transylvania – that place of haunted castles, gothic churches, werewolves and of course, Vampires.  It’s the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.  Born Vled Tepes III, the Prince of Wallachia, a member of the House of Draculesti.  The town was first settled by the Romans but flourished under the Saxons since the 12th century.

Our hotel is right on the main square, which is currently set up for a concert.  Marco takes us on a quick guide of Sighisoara’s old town, pointing out a few sights and interesting things we might like to check out during the rest of the afternoon.

Markets are set up around the streets leading away from the square with all sorts of products for sale.  There are Dracula swords…

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you can visit the room Dracula was born in…(well apparently the site where he was born in 1431 and lived until his was four years old)…

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buy a passport or some Dracula currency….

or you could be lucky enough to even spot Vlad Tepes walking around town….

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Behind the Church of the Dominican Monastery is a statue of Vlad with what Lonely Planet describes as ‘his trademark circa-1981 porno moustache’:

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There are a few other thing to do in Sighisoara of course – and one of those is to check out the colourful street markets.  Here, you can buy local snacks, flower headbands, peasant shirts, candles and of course, Dracula souvenirs.

The concert that is set up in the main square is an ethnic minority concert showcasing traditional Polish, Czech, Romanian and Croatian (for a start) songs and dance.  There are tents set up on the side of the stage with tables and benches for concert goers to sit and relax with a beer while watching the show.  A small group of local kids take hands and dance to the music in front of the stage.

A nice way to end the day.

Woolly Vests, Wooden Churches and Elie Wiesel

We are staying at Pensiunea Ardelean in Vadu Izei, the first of several homestays on our itinerary for the next few weeks.  I think there were a few of us that were a little bit anxious about what that would mean, but in this case at least, we shouldn’t have been.  It’s a great big house with a kitchen and big dining area.  Out the back there’s a large deck overlooking, well, this…

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Above the entry hall and up a set of stairs are the majority of bedrooms, which sprout off an octagonal shaped hallway.  Each bedroom is roomy, with it’s own bathroom, and decorated in a charming traditional, rural way.  And from my room at least, there is a doorway opening out onto a small balcony which overlooks the same glorious view as downstairs, albeit from a bit higher up.

Downstairs below the dining room, are a couple more bedrooms.  This is also where Ramona (our host) and her family live.  The house is large and airy, simply but beautifully decorated and you couldn’t ask for a nicer setting.

And boy, can Ramona cook.  Breakfast is quite the spread – from simple homemade jams to baby tomatoes handpicked from the backyard, to local cheeses and meats and then this most magnificent kind of frittata.  She catered for everyone’s needs – we had a vegetarian, and a gluten intolerant amongst us, but this was no problem – variations were promptly bought out of the kitchen to accommodate.  We were certainly not going hungry today.

Vadu Izei is a small commune within the Maramures region of Romania.  A commune is a rural subdivision of a country and there are 2,686 of them in Romania.  The population of Vadu Izei is less than 3,000 people and it is located close to the border of the Ukraine.  How close?  Well the Ukranian town of Bila Tservkva is about 700km away by car.  So, close enough.  If you’ve been living under a rock, my intrepidation about being anywhere near the Ukraine is due to the war that has been raging there for the last year and a half.  Fighting started in April 2014 when pro-Russian activists seized control of government buildings across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but I can’t begin to explain the ins and outs of the conflict, so I’ll defer to Associate Director of the Harvard Ukranian Institute – Lubomyr Hajda, who says this:

“It began when the Ukrainian government decided not to sign the agreement with the European Union back in the fall of 2013. This was not just a trade agreement, but also a political agreement that committed Ukraine to adhere to certain European values and principles.

From there the crisis moved very quickly to corruption and regime change. The demonstrations happened in waves, and started primarily in Kiev. Most of the protestors were students and young people, although other regions were represented as well.

For these protestors, it was an opportunity to fight corruption.”

Over 6,000 have died to date and Ukrainian towns have been left decimated and desolate.  Another casualty was the ill-fated flight MH17, which was shot down over the Donetsk region of the Ukraine – to this day we are still not sure by who.

So it’s just something in the back of your mind given it’s coverage by news channels over the last year and a half.

Our driver for the next few days has arrived and we are off to explore the region of Maramures.  It’s a land that seems frozen in time, a region rooted in tradition, customs, folklore and ancient superstitions.

We also have a local guide for the day, Nicolai – a tall man with beautifully friendly brown eyes and it’s clear he is eager to have us fall in love with  Maramures.  Marco tells us our first stop is a local market.  I groan inside, how boring.  A market.  Let’s get on with the sightseeing!  I don’t have any other option so I’ll have to suck it up.

The small town slowly flashes before our eyes as we get our first real glimpses of Romania.  Quaint little houses give way to apartments as we edge closer to the ‘city’ area where the market is held.  Along the way, we pass by a local policeman that has pulled someone over.

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It appears they are gypsies and Marco tells us the policeman thought that they had stolen something from the markets we are about to arrive at.  I have to laugh at this sight – it’s something so unfamiliar to me.  Where am I?  It’s almost like we have stepped back in time.  The local ladies are all attired in full skirts with long sleeved jumpers, scarves tied under their necks.  The gentlemen all have these tiny little hats on their heads.  Nikolai tells us that each village has its own colours for its outfits and their own style of hats made out of felt or straw.

Our van meanders through the streets, around small crowds of locals heading to the market.  We park up the van, proceeding on foot, following behind the locals, who have undoubtedly noticed this small mob of intruders.

On one side of the road there are animals for sale, sheep and pigs and the like, some looking a little worse for wear.  Marco asks how much for the sheep?  700 lev, the farmer replies.  There are all manner of bits and pieces that would belong in a blokes garage or farm shed – belts, bolts and other things I have no idea of the use of.  There’s also a truck selling headstones for those who’d like to plan ahead.  On the other side of the road is what appears to be the ladies market – brightly coloured skirts and scarves, blouses, sensible and comfortable underwear and stockings line the gravel lot.  There are also carpets and bales of wool.  And the food section – local fruits, vegetables and cheeses.

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The markets are actually an eye opening introduction into the way of life here, and I’m starting to appreciate exactly why Marco bought us here.

Nikolai has bought a local snack and offers each of us to tear off a piece to try.  It’s a dough pastry that has a slightly salty, perhaps cheese threaded taste to it, and it’s quite good.

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Maramures is also famous for its World Heritage-listed wooden churches.  The one we are visiting today is the Church of Saint Nicholas in the commune of Budesti.  It’s one of eight wooden churches that have been UNESCO World Heritage listed.  The Church of Saint Nicholas was built in 1718.

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Inside the church, the walls are covered with elaborate paintings of religious scenes.  The wooden eaves and doorways of the building are intricately carved.  Beautiful bright tapestries and carpets adorn the room, giving it a cheerful disposition.

Outside is the commune graveyard, where goats nibble on grasses amongst the fruit trees and elaborate gravestones.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen goats gracing a graveyard with their presence!

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The homes and streets surrounding the church are also elaborately carved with massive wooden gates announcing the front of each.

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Down the road, we stop at a little distillery.  Marco wants to introduce us to it’s owner but he is not around today because there is not enough fruit to distill at present, so we help ourselves to a private viewing.

Next door is this little wool processing shed.  Nikolai tells us how the wool is washed and dyed before being made into local products.

And the end result?  This man’s gorgeous woolly vest!

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Maramures region is a photographer’s delight.  There is just something gorgeous to capture with your lens everywhere you turn – little snippets of life which are ordinary to those living them, but somehow extraordinary to those of us who live a world away in a life overtaken by technology and the loss of the majority of our traditions and ways.

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Our next stop is the Merry Cemetery, or Cimitirul Vessel, in Sapanta.  It’s a unique cemetery where each grave is marked with a bright blue, beautifully carved wooden cross, decorated with a painting and an original poem that tells a little bit about the life and death of the person buried underneath it.  The cemetery’s tradition began back in the 1930’s by Ioan Stan Patras, who carved these crosses until his death in 1977.  The cemetery contains about 700 graves and the tradition has continued on through Ioan’s apprentice Dumitru Pop.

The cemetery’s church is currently being renovated (without any of the care for safety precautions that would shut down an Australian worksite in seconds) so we can’t see it’s true beauty, but wandering around it, from what you can see, it must be stunning.

Our van travels along the road, slightly slowing as we get to this point.  Not really an interesting bridge.  Except that, as Marco points out, the Ukraine is just over there – that’d be about 40km away.

DSC05005A windy ride away, is our next stop, the Barsana Monastery, a wooden monastery built in 1720.  Full of colourful flowerbeds and intricate wooden buildings, the grounds are simply stunning and worth the look around.  Whilst it is free to visit, there is a charge if you want to take photos.

A bit further down the road, someone in the van asks about the pots by the side of the road.  Marco asks the driver to pull over and he and Nikolai explain the meaning behind the pots.  These pot trees are created out the front of any home in which there is a woman looking to be married – all the single ladies, all the single ladies!  Once they are betrothed, the pots are removed from the tree and hung along the front of the house instead.

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Romania’s Jewish heritage harks back to the those Jews that were part of the Roman invasion of the Dacians in 101 AD.  They began setting in various regions of Romania’ during the Middle Ages and continued to arrive in the 15th and 16th centuries, escaping Cossack uprisings in Poland and the Ukraine.  Perhaps the most famous of Romania’s Jews, is a man called Elie Wiesel – winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.  The town of Sighet is host to the Elie Wiesel Memorial House which is dedicated to the memory of Jewish Holocaust Victims and the Jewish way of life in Sighet prior to WWII.  Elie is the author of over 40 books on the subject.  He was born in Sighet in 1928.  At the age of 15, he and his family (along with the rest of Sighet’s Jewish population) was moved into one of two ghettos before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  He survived and went on to become one of the world’s best known humanitarian activitists.  Amongst his most famous works is his trilogy Night, Dawn and Day, which tells the horrific story of the Holocaust through his eyes.

We drive through the streets of Sighet towards home.

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There’s one last stop before heading back to Ramona’s – Marco wants to show us Kaufland.  Kaufland is a massive German hypermarket (part of the same chain that also owns Lidl it operates over 1,000 stores in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) and it’s full of EVERYTHING, with a Bunning’s style grill out the front (which smells amazing by the way).  We wander the aisles stocking up on snacks and wine and beer and whatever else takes our fancy and then load ourselves back into the van, whistfully stealing glances at the grill.

As we drive down the streets towards Ramona’s, we note that the locals are appearing outside, taking up residence at their front gates, or seated on one of the benches that is situated outside the front of each house.  There’s not a single iPad, or iPhone or electronic device of any kind in sight – people are actually talking to each other!  It’s sweet.

Despite my earlier misgivings, today has been such an interesting day opening up the door to Romania so we could peek inside and see what she is all about.  I’ve really enjoyed this change in pace and am eager to see whatever lays in our path from today forward.  We have the rest of the week in Romania, travelling from here, down through the countryside to it’s capital, Bucharest, so we will be seeing a whole lot more of this interesting country.

And hopefully, the food will be as amazing as Ramona’s – our last meal again simple but awesome – soup, schnitzel, chops and potatoes…she even had lamingtons for dessert!

After dinner, we urged Ramona to come and sit with us so we could have a chat to her.  Although we have no shortage of alcohol today, Ramona brings out some of her own homemade wine, which is amazing and very quickly disappears.  She tells us about her life, how she came to run Ardelean and her family.  At this point, her ‘kinder surprise’ (her unplanned youngest son) toddles out to sit on his mum’s lap before bedtime.  We ask where she learnt to cook at which she laughs – she was never a very good cook and had to ring her Mum to ask a myriad of questions when she was first married.  Her husband always used to say his mother’s cooking was the best, but these days his alliances have changed – and quite fittingly so!

Trams, Trains, Buses and Cars

Today is set to be a long day of travel.  L O N G.

From Eger, we board a local bus to Debrecen two and a half hours away.  Debrecen is Hungary’s second largest city.  After spending a couple of hours to stop for lunch and stock up on snacks, we hop aboard the train into Romania.  The carriages are quite comfortable for the journey.  The most valuable thing in my luggage at this point of the trip is my IPOD.  I could not have done without it today, the way it simply turned hours and hours into minutes and a good nap.  #travellersbestfriend.

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Arriving into Romania, we pull alongside another train.  Heads hanging out the window of our train, and noticing the shattered glass in the windows (bullet holes?), it’s at this point we realise how close we are to the Ukraine.  At the border, the Hungarian guards grumpily stamp us out of their country, while the Romanian guards cheerfully welcome us on in with big smiles and a happy voice while they stamp us into their country.  Not what I was expecting for some reason.  Though to be honest, I have no idea what to expect of Romania full stop.  I mean, I have some pre-conceived notions, no doubt obtained from the media over the years – and probably not an altogether bright picture.  But I’ll keep it to myself and see what unfolds.  Especially seeing as this is now Marco’s country and he is clearly excited to show it to us.

At the end of the train ride, it’s another two and a half hours by private minivan transport to a town called Vadu Izei in the Maramures region of Romania.  We drive up into, down around and through the Carpathian mountains, all the time the sky darkening around us.  Images of wolves and Dracula come to mind – yes really.  It seems we are driving forever before we finally arrive in Vadu Izei, greated by our host for the next couple of days, Ramona.

It’s been such a long (and boring) day so I am hitting the hay to wake up fresh and early because I can’t wait til tomorrow to see where it is we have ended up!