Sunday, July 13, 2008

Romania: Transylvanian Awakenings

True to form, I was not content to merely chill out in Istanbul for a week. Memories from a recent conversation on vampires (yes, I think we had had a couple of drinks) drifted up from my consciousness, and next thing I knew, I'd found a cheap ticket to Bucharest, rented a car, and driven deep into the Carpathian mountain region of Transylvania, home to the legendary Count Dracula. Truth be told, I was probably also killing a bit of time before meeting James in Baku on Sunday, but this seemed like a great way to do it!

Avoiding fanatical police and their speed cameras (who seemed even more intent on extorting cash from unwary drivers than even the Moscow militsii), and the insane Romanian drivers, I was immersed in a fairytale fantasyland. Sheer mountainsides (some still dotted with patches of snow) towered over narrow passes, and each ridge seemed to be home to a Disney-like castle, clinging improbably to the sheer face. Local warnings in every village warned of bears (Romania has 60% of Europe's bears, apparently), although the vicious stray dogs seemed to be more of an issue for me, as I was pursued through backstreets of remote villages. The steep mountain passes with their iridescent shades of every type of green gave way to rolling hills and fields of golden wheat, the villages morphed into local fortified hilltops, and it gave me a sense of how Bavaria and the Austrian Danube Valley must have looked a century ago.

In the towns I passed through, horses and carts waited patiently at traffic lights next to Audi's and Skoda's, and everywhere, roads were being dug up for new EU-funded roadworks. The roadsides to these verdant pastures and the banks of bubbling brooks were sadly clogged with every type of garbage imaginable, but it thankfully didn't do much to dim the beauty of this gorgeous landscape.

Alone with my thoughts, my camera, and my mighty blue Toyota Yaris, I spent a few days driving where the whim took me, through historical towns such as Brasov, Sinaia, Sighisoara (where Dracula was born), Bran, and Sibiu, veering off to explore smaller villages which seemingly hadn't seen a motorised vehicle for some time, and battling wills with the Romanian truck drivers, seemingly determined to blot my little Yaris out of existence.

I was rewarded with quaint medieval towns, delicious meals in obscure places, some interesting new acquaintances, and some great ice-cream- not to mention of course, plenty of castles! Strangely enough, I didn't find any bats, nor were there damsels being terrorized by anything other than Romanian men, so it appears any vampiric tendencies may has disappeared with EU membership.

After the idyllic countryside, I found myself back in Bucharest. It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Bucharest. On one hand it houses the 2nd largest building in the world (after the Pentagon)- a monument to autocratic excess, and on the other it was a city that never quite succumbed to the ugliness of Soviet architecture.

It’s relatively recent embrace of the West and rapid integration into the EU has made it both a construction zone, yet relatively devoid of the gleaming new buildings nor fancy modern shopping districts that adorn cities like Kiev, Budapest, or even Baku.

As a result, a wander through it’s city centre is both fascinating, yet curiously deflating, despite interesting sights, and the best efforts of a wonderful local friend who played tour guide.

It does, however, have good restaurants and interesting nightlife. Those inclined can even glimpse flashes of Moscow in one nightclub, complete with a swimming pool, go-go dancers, short bald guys and bored Barbie Dolls!

Ultimately, Bucharest’s charms cannot quite compete with the fascinating and beautiful countryside which awaits just a short drive away, but it's a nice place to spend a few days.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

1 comment:

cmotes said...

To really set the mood... try reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. It's really good.