Bucharest. Way beyond our expectation.
Romania is changing fast, and nowhere is changing faster than the capital.
We arrived on the poorer southern outskirts of Bucharest on Thursday afternoon.
The south side is dug up. Big time. And it’s pretty much what we expected. Crumbling concrete. Rough roads. The occasional horse and cart among the heavy traffic. Trams share the busy main road into town. Stalls sell fresh produce among the smog of old diesels.
It’s punishingly hot.
As we approach the centre things improve.
Quickly. Things improve a lot.
Suddenly we’re in a modern city with glittering high rise bank and oil buildings. There are many beautiful buildings among them. The roads are wide and well surfaced.
Driving in Bucharest is an exciting challenge.
The roads are busy, but not suffocatingly so like London. The result is that between the junctions traffic moves fast. Multiple lanes of cars swopping for the slightest advantage, all racing forward at 50 or 60 miles per hour. Most of them know where they’re going too. Big advantage.
Minty navigates us to our planned stop point with only one small mistake (mine) and before too long we’re parked by the colossal edifice of the ironically named House of the Free Press.
This building has a mind boggling 32,000 square metres of floor space, and was the ministry of information. Now in its less regulated state it still houses much of the country’s media machine.
We’re just north of the centre of the capital city, yet still we have overnight parking for free and a fabulous park with a series of lakes nearby.
After a mini tour we had dinner at Europe’s biggest beer hall, Berariah(it’s fun but don’t expect good food).
The campers tried to settle for the night in the shadow of the press building, but the heat, and a speed hump that every car clattered over, made it hard. At 2am I gently moved us to a different spot while Minty stayed in bed. We were pretty frazzled in the morning, but we had to be up early anyway.
We’d arranged to have the van’s water pump and water heater looked at by Liviu’s team at Motorhome, a motorhome sales and service business near the airport. It seems to be the only such place in the whole country.
This was the first of our brilliant Bucharest experiences.
For four hours Liviu’s mechanic battled away, revealing as he went that the pump is delivering far too much pressure (about 5 bar) to the system and thereby bursting valves and washers in the tap and the water heater.
While the boss told us tales of the revolution the lad fitted a much smaller pump. We still have a slight leak from the water heater, we now have low water pressure, but at least we’re no longer losing more water than we use.
Liviu was great company and I’d have liked to spend more time with him. Perhaps we’ll meet in England.
Enter the dragon.
Destination Bucharest city centre for a gentle afternoon’s drive.
We’ve rented an apartment in the old town for three nights. It’ll be a holiday within our trip, and a celebration of the 21stanniversary of our wedding on Bosigran Cliff.
In the centre parking is regulated and we need to shell out £20 a day to leave ArchieVan in a safe place for the stay. It’s a surprise when everything seems so cheap, but we won’t need to worry about him.
It’s only a ten minute walk to the flat, but we’re hot as hell by the time we get inside, especially after 92 steps up to the flat’s level.
The flat’s shabby, rather ill equipped for a renter, but generous size and in a brilliant location. We have a quick look around then race to get the first load of clothes into the washing machine. Hand washing stopped the moment we’d booked the flat.
We’ve already stripped off and can’t wait to shower, to scrub what feels like weeks of beach and road grime from our hot tired bodies.
It’s a cleaning fest for a while. After us the dog is next. She has been high since I swam her in the Danube a month ago and no amount of sea swims could rid her thick coat of the stench. Being wet will keep her cool for a few hours too. Double bonus.
Renting in an unknown city is easy enough, but you don’t truly know what it’ll be like until you arrive.
Our location couldn’t be better.
The flat is part of a grand old theatre complex. It could do with some love, all sorts of things are broken, but none of it matters to us.
The action is right outside of the door. Restaurants line the streets. Beautiful buildings soar. The river’s only a hundred metres away.
Yet between all the new life there are plenty of places that remain little better than slum dwellings.
We ate at a fabulous Greek called Meze just down the road, the buildings either side of us were literally falling to bits. In London this would probably be scary as hell, but here all feels very safe.
Fabulous Greek? Yes. The food was better than anything we’ve eaten in Greece.
Most places are competitive and priced well. Much cheaper than we’re used to at home despite being in the capital.
Out and about.
A few days in a city is usually fun but exhausting as we walk miles trying to get the most from our time. Here it’s so hot that we have to limit our expeditions.
Ceausescu, the country’s megalomaniac dictator from 1965 – 1989 wasn’t modest in his ambitions. While the population starved he spent like no other world leader.
The parliament palace is only beaten in size by the Pentagon.
Ceausescu had a kilometre of buildings cleared and 40,000 people displaced, along the approach to the building simply to install its fountains.
It’s 9 stories above ground, and a further nine below. It takes as much power as a decent sized city to heat and light.
Only about 30% of the colossal building is used.
It is truly gargantuan.
We walked there, but we couldn’t visit as you need to show your passport.
Instead we walked around the back (that’s a couple of kms walk from the front) to see the equally insane scaled new Roman Catholic cathedral that’s under construction. There can’t be another developed country with more new churches than Romania. God is truly alive and well in the heart of the Romanians.
Barza Viezure Minz.
After an afternoon rest, and an evening drink, we popped into the tiny space that’s the Viezure Minz deli just a few streets away.
And our world instantly changed for the better.
Tudor welcomed us in. His friend insisted on cutting up his dinner to share with us. Sample palinka drinks were poured.
Frequent nibbles of heavily fatted bacon and prosciutto were passed over.
Marlene spoke to us in French, Germans came, as did Belge and Norweigans.
We tried to sing.
We drank. More and more. Palinkas of different flavours.
Amazing pastries were produced from the oven.
We all tucked in.
The men seemed to message the pub across the street, and their beers would arrive.
The atmosphere was wonderful. The shared language was scarce.
Eventually we staggered away having had the best experience of this leg of the journey.
We’re hugely aware that we’re doing something that most people will never do. We are massively grateful for the experience. But it’s only when we sit for an hour and flick through a section of Minty’s Tripline on Our Travels that it truly sinks in how wide our experience has become. Tonight we revisited the Baltic countries where we toured this time last year. What? Only a year ago? It feels like a decade ago.
This is a city steeped in degrees of recent history that we can’t possibly imagine.
The revolution less than 30 years ago saw over a thousand citizens killed.
Including the leader, and his wife.
The square where Ceausescu made his last speech, where it kicked off big time, is just up the road. The memorials are all around.
Only a decade ago, maybe less, the area where we’re staying was a slum, home to the Roma and anyone else they didn’t want but had to put somewhere.
Yet the friendliness of the people is humbling. Their desire to help leaves us wondering what went wrong at home, or perhaps we have never been this warm towards strangers.
I recommend anyone with even a moderate sense of adventure to come here. A long weekend will be enough to get a feel for it, ideally in late September when it’s cooler.
We left Bucharest on Sunday morning.
It was an unplanned genius move. The city was quiet on Saturday, and quieter still on Sunday. The exit was smooth.
An hundred hot miles later we started climbing into the Carpathians again, and thankfully height brought a fall in temperature.
When we arrived tired, fractious and hungry at the base of Sinaia we should have stopped to regain some oomph. Instead we carried on up through the steep, narrow, and ridiculously busy village where people will leave their car anywhere to avoid paying the modest car park charge.
A Ukrainian fellow hauled his Corolla up onto the verge in front of us leaving a gap so tight that a passer by had to help me squeeze through it, while the driver in question stood by and watched.
Yet when we arrived at our destination a generous parking attendant took a look at the van, then moved a chain, indicating that we should park in the big space front of his own car. Thank you. He’d been hassled by fools all day, yet still he looked after us.
At that destination was Peles Castle, the summer residence of King Carol 1, the first king of Romania.
And it was heaving!
Clearly in the summer Romanians flee the city at the weekend and head for the hills. It was 10 degrees cooler than Bucharest – who can blame them.
In Romania wherever there are people there are tat sellers waiting offer the unnecessary to seemingly willing buyers.
Laybys are filled with stalls selling all manner of things that no one needs. Drive up the equivalent to the A1 and buy a sheepskin waistcoat, one of those 1980s car seat covers made of wooden balls, a plastic airplane, an incredible range of gnomes in vivid colours, a life sized plastic stork, an Alsatian, a remote controlled child’s car that’s so big it’ll not fit into yours. There is so much traditional dress for sale that you’d think it had become law to wear it. And magnets. Who the hell buys thousands and thousands of magnetic images of every possible beauty point for miles around?
It’s not just the laybys though.
If there’s a spot that’s likely to have a queue there’ll be Roma hawking baskets of fruit.
And interspersed between it all there’ll be working girls.
Beware the driver with an urge.
The number of times that someone has, with no warning, swerved off a busy road onto an unmade lane in a pall of dust to meet his favourite…
Back to the castle.
I could pretend that we arrived too late to join the last tour of the royal residence. In actual fact we looked at the ticket queue, felt the weight in our bodies, and chose to sit on a step for an hour gazing across the mountains that attracted the king 140 years ago.
Occasionally we both crave restaurant food.
After three nights in the city and three excellent meals out I was craving something simple; lentils, vegetables, nothing fried or baked.
But we were hungry again, and there was pizza.
Two for the price of one.
In 1899, and before he popped his clogs, the king commissioned another rather splendid residence just up the hill for his successor King Ferdinand.
On Sunday night The Cornish Wanderers slept in the grounds of Peles and Pelisor Castles. And the cost of this brush with royalty? About £8.
A route through the Romanian Carpathians really should be called Castle Drive.
8 kms up the road from Peles is Cantacuzino Castle. Now in the hands of private investors, it has a wealth of interesting sculpture in the gardens.
And a very clean loo.
Hold on in there. Plenty more castles to come, but each with its interest.
Bran is incredible for the huge network of businesses that thrive from its fabricated reputation as an inspiration for the Dracula story.
The tiny village sells more tat than Blackpool.
Thunder and lightening should have been the perfect weather to visit Bran, but looking at the sodden 30 minute ticket queue dampened our spirits. Beyond those stalwarts was the hour long queue for the next tour. That was enough to send us back to the van, but not before we’d circumvented the queues and got a couple of photos.
We have hardly sat in a traffic queue since leaving the UK.
Today we queued for hours.
We had driven less than 50 miles by the time we got to our third stop at Rasnov.
It took three hours.
We were back to fractious.
We were back to tired, far too tired.
The city break that was designed to be a rest has left us both knackered.
After the best snack lunch of cheese on toast with pepperoni topping I fell asleep for an hour or so. Minty zoned out with her screen.
Thankfully the hard walk up to the fortress was worth getting wet for.
Today has brought the first rain in ages. It has been weeks and weeks. Since way back when we experienced the flooding in the Delta. We don’t mind. We’ll be cool tonight, and we promise to sleep well.
Rasnov has a its ancient fortified town on a hill top, and it’s certainly a more interesting building than Bran. There are enough structures still carrying roofs to be able to picture life here.
We think of castle life as a constant battle against invaders, in most it was nothing of the sort. Some were never attacked, and most inhabitants spent their time going about life with the added disadvantage of living on top of a huge hill with no lift. Around here the attacks did come, and every lifetime would have seen at least two.
Too knackered to visit the city of Brasov we carried on to Rupea. Now the plains have receded. Forested mountains are replaced by rolling hills. Romania is beautiful again.
At Rupea we pulled into the castle car park and sensibly Minty took Polly up the hill to allow chopping therapy to work its magic on me.
How did I get so jiggered? A couple of hundred mile days have knocked me sideways.
The castle is pretty. It can wait.
My favourite cooking involves chopping. Lots of chopping.
There’s produce soup tonight. The produce from the permaculture smallholding has gone past its visual best so it’s all going in. Gorgeous tomatoes ooze their tangy scent, monster courgette, ugly beautiful peppers, celery and a few handfuls of blé. Seasoned with peppercorns, cumin and smoked chilli, in a good stock. Attacked with a healthy appetite. Lip smacking bloody marvellous.
All that and a cool night too. Oh yes. We slept good.
Packing it in.
The trouble with busy times is that there’s more to write about, but less time to write. In your free time you tend to lie very still, hoping for a hint of breeze, trying to recover the strength you need to visit that citadel, church or market you’ve driven so far to see.
At Sighisoara the medieval fortified church and old town sit high on a peak where the restaurants and tat sellers jostle for space. They don’t miss the chance to flaunt Dracula’s birthplace.
We’ve been spoilt by the beautifully preserved Rhineland villages in France and Germany. While Sighisoara doesn’t match up to these it is easily the prettiest city we’ve visited in Romania.
Two medieval villages, Viscri and Biertan, sit either side of Sighisoara. Medieval yes, but they differ little from any of those that we drive through, but for their roads being even worse, and both having quite magnificent citadels.
Crowning glory. Alba Lulia.
The ultimate citadel bears no resemblance to its forerunners.
Alba Lulia (it even sounds good) was built in the style of French master Vauban.
It’s hard to work out whether this is his design, or simply a close imitation. The fact that the guides don’t specifically credit him suggests to me that it’s an adaptation of his style.
Vauban’s apogee has to be Lillie. I’d suggest that Alba Lulia is even better.
The fortress appears to be a series of earth works from the outside, but on conquering these man made hills there’s an immediate sheer drop into a massive dry moat – a perfect creation for the promenading lovers who’d come a few centuries later.
Within the 2 miles of moat are bluffs, deep areas leading nowhere, except some lead somewhere. Walls on either side are 8m high and identical to further confuse an invader. Beyond the seven gates was a garrison for 10,000 men, and the seat of the Roman Catholic church in the country.
The significance and major events of this town are many, and yet there’s nothing we’ve seen to suggest it should sit on anyone’s schedule. It really does feel more French than Romanian. It’s a delight.
Here in Transylvania villages are pretty places of fine houses painted all different bright colours, and often with flower filled gardens.
They’re troubled places though.
There are no bypasses. Huge lorries thunder through all day. No one pays attention to the 50kmh speed limit. We’re frequently being overtaken in the heart of a village as we slow to the limit.
Somehow livestock scrapes a living on the roadsides. Chickens, goats, sheep, sometimes cows. The old people sit out and try to chat like they did before ’89 when there were fewer cars. And still folk use their horse and cart in the midst of the maelstrom.
Every road is borderer by a deep ditch, a metre or so drop, right at the edge of the tarmac.
Every third driver is obligated to be on the phone, if you speed past the police don’t worry, but if you’re the third driver and you’re not on your mobile…
And then there are the feeder lanes. In most countries when two lanes have to slim to one it’s the faster outside lane that has to move over. Here it’s the opposite. So the slower lane has to join the faster, and no surprise, the guys doing 100kph are not keen to let the dreamers in. It’s chaos.
A Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme reported that road deaths here are the worse in Europe. It’s hard to believe that it’s worse than Poland, but perhaps we’re simply getting used to the crazy driving.
We happened upon the beautifully named Minis by chance.
Our planned stopover was the Camping Alex in Zams. We found it. It looked good. Yet there was no one to be found. That was OK, but the shower block that I longed for was locked. After an hour we gave up and moved on.
Minty had found our campsite in Minis. It’s run by a Dutch fellow, and favoured by French and Germans.
It’s an oasis.
Heat stroke is knocking me sideways most days.
I feel as bad as I did when I juggled three jobs and drove a thousand miles a week.
Within minutes of arriving Min has set up an outside bed, upon which I slide in and out of consciousness for several hours.
A long cold shower brings me back to life to cook, eat, then sleep.
Following the chopping therapy theory, a risotto of sorts, with blé instead of rice.
Lots of garlic, chorizo, sweet pointy peppers, red wine, heavy seasoning, and a couple of chillies. The chillies turned out to be fierce. The dinner kicked arse. What a beauty.
The campsite, Romanian Road, is a blessing. The Friday on which we expected to drive to Arad was spent static, avoiding the sun, doing little but unhurried thinking, cool showers, and eventually a magical wine tasting.
Tomorrow reality must kick in again, but for tonight, we have the company of eleven French vans on a tour, wine from the vineyard, and soon Iggy Pop’s most treasured R6 Confidential show.
It has been the hardest week in a very long time.
Nothing went wrong, it’s just that the sun shone rather more than I can cope with.
Looking back I’ll have loved it still.
It’s over now. We’re heading north, and September is close.