Adventures in Romania

Posted July 5, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured

One of the great advantages of the Internet is the ability to plan out one’s trip in great detail. I can reserve hotels, buy train tickets, even map out the routes that I will take between meetings. I can arrange by email or Facebook to see long-lost friends for dinner. I can be a great deal more efficient that I was 23 years ago when I first travelled through East-Central Europe.

On the other hand, all this convenience and efficiency can squeeze any sense of adventure out of the enterprise.  Back in 1990, I simply didn’t know what I was doing most of the time – where I was going, how I would get there, who I would talk to. There was a much greater role for randomness, for failure, and thus, for adventure.

For instance, when I first visited Bucharest in 1990, I arrived on an overnight train. In my compartment were a British journalist and a French philosopher. Since all three of us were clueless about Romania, we decided to team up to explore this new land. We stumbled out of the train station early that morning into a grey, empty world. Nothing was open. There were few people on the street. We were hungry, thirsty, and had no Romanian money.

The first thing we did was try to change money. No banks were open, so we did what was normal back in those days: exchange on the black market. The official rate was 20 lei to the dollar in the summer of 1990. On the black market you got 120. We found a fellow dressed in the requisite jeans and gold chains. Halfway through the exchange, he pointed to some cars approaching and warned us that it was the police. He took our dollars, thrust a thick bankroll of lei into our hands, and disappeared. The cars, it turned out, were not police. And our bankroll, it turned out, was a fat sandwich with Romanian currency as the slices of bread and a lot of colored toilet paper as the filling in the middle.

“On an empty stomach and suffering from parched throat,” I wrote in my journal at the time, “I thought Bucharest to be an endless succession of dusty, dirty streets with an occasional Orthodox church thrown in to relieve the boredom, suffused by the sickly sweet smell of garbage and hot sticky odor of car exhaust and plaster particles from ubiquitous construction sites. Many stores were abandoned in the area near the railway station, the glass storefronts broken, the old marquees falling down. Children were playing in the dirt in bare feet. Beggars were concentrated in the downtown section: amputees, ancient toothless women.”

The French philosopher, the British journalist, and I wandered around the city, thirsty and increasingly hungry, and couldn’t find any open restaurants. Finally, near desperation, we walked into a courtyard and discovered an old caravansary. On the second floor, on the veranda that ringed the courtyard, we were able to exchange money properly with the waiter and order pitcher after pitcher of water. There was only one item available to eat, grilled meat and some potatoes, but it was delicious.

The hotel we eventually found put us on the top floor of a seven-story building. The elevator didn’t work. Nor did the communal shower on the floor. There was no hot water or electricity in the room. At a time when you could find comfortable accommodations in the region for $10 a night, this hotel charged us $17 per person. As we dragged our stuff up the stairs and into the room, we met our next-door neighbors: several young men and women. A few minutes after we shut our door, one of the women knocked on it. She indicated quite openly that she was a prostitute, and she was available. We politely declined her services. Then her pimp showed up and was a bit more forceful. We declined their services a bit more forcefully. Either because they were having a non-stop party or because they were unhappy with our refusals, the pimps and their prostitutes turned up the music in their room to full blast.

We thought that was the end of it. But then, in the middle of the night, we were woken up by knocking on the window. This was the seventh floor of the hotel. We didn’t have a patio outside, just a narrow ledge. We opened the window to discover the same prostitute. She had inched her way across the ledge to our part of the building. There was a hasty debate about whether to let her in, but eventually we opened the window. She climbed down into our room, shivering. And then, once again, she propositioned us. We pushed her out of the room into the hallway.

All of this was mortifying, irritating, and very unexpected. By the time I returned to Bucharest in 2013, I had largely removed the element of unpredictability from the equation. I booked my train ticket and my hotel accommodation in advance. I arrived late at night, took a taxi to my hotel, and collapsed onto a comfortable bed. No black market encounters, no prostitutes. An all-night kebab place near the hotel provided a tasty dinner.

I tracked down the caravansary that was our oasis in 1990. It’s called Manuc’s Inn, and it’s located in a renovated Old Town that is now full of restaurants. Manuc’s has been renovated as well. In the courtyard where there had once been nothing but a spigot and sleeping dogs were dozens of tables topped with colorful umbrellas. A gorgeous old bar stood at one end. Sitting on top of a platform, set up where the spigot once was, a performer played Spanish guitar.

The courtyard of Manuc’s Inn in Bucharest

There were two fat menus: Romanian and Lebanese. I ordered the Lebanese appetizer sampler (fatoush, humus, an eggplant spread with pomegranate seeds, preserved lemons) and a Romanian entree — leg of duck with cabbage. A slice of orange-chocolate cake rounds out the meal. Romania has become multicultural, at least for those with money. My meal was delicious, but not exactly cheap.

For one day in Romania, I decided to go off the grid, more or less. I travelled from Hungary to Transylvania, where I stayed for several days in both Cluj and Tirgu Mures at respectable hotels, exchanged money in respectable banks, and ate in restaurants recommended in Trip Advisor. In the back of my mind, I thought it would be fun to pass through Sighisoara, a city I’d long wanted to visit since learning that it was one of the few intact walled cities of the Saxon settlers in the region during the Middle Ages. I abandoned this plan, however, when I checked the train schedules on the Internet and learned that what made sense on the map – Sighisoara is between Tirgu Mures and Bucharest – was a nightmare of train connections.

But a friend in Tirgu Mures explained to me that if I took a bus from Tirgu Mures to Sighisoara – cutting the journey from more than three hours to only one hour – I would have enough time to see the city before catching an evening train down to Bucharest. What she didn’t tell me, however, is that there were two bus stations in Tirgu Mures. And I obviously went to the wrong one.

The website for the bus company clearly said that busses left every hour for Sighisoara. When I arrived at the station, at 9:50 a.m., the woman at the information desk told me that a bus would indeed be there at 10 a.m. at platform 2. There was no one waiting at platform 2. Indeed, no one was waiting at any of these well-indicated platforms. Instead, it seemed as though people milled around randomly in the parking lot of the bus station, occasionally getting on minibuses that were leaving according to no particular schedule.

Finally a woman showed up who was going in my direction. It was after 10 a.m. She assured me that there would be a bus shortly. A bus showed up, she got ready to get on board. But the driver told her that his bus was out of service. A second bus showed up, but he apparently was going in the wrong direction. Finally, at 11 a.m., a minibus showed up and, after the driver walked around a lot and drank some coffee, we took off for Sighisoara.

After the hour-long bus trip, I arrived in Sighisoara and made my way to the train station to stow my suitcase until the train left in the evening. There I met two young law students, one from Portugal, the other from Brazil. Since none of us knew anything about Sighisoara, we decided to team up for the day. It was an interesting echo of my first trip to Romania in 1990.

The clock tower in Sighisoara’s Old Town.

Sighisoara is, indeed, a magnificent place. The medieval buildings are very well preserved, with a worthwhile museum in the clock tower. One of the main selling points of the city, for tourists, is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known by his fictional persona, Dracula. My traveling companions were disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t be able to see Dracula’s castle (which doesn’t really exist, though the promoters of the castle in Bran hype its association with Vlad Tepes). But we dutifully visited the Sighisoara house in which he was supposedly born. On the second floor, you enter a room bathed in a red light, with spooky music playing in the background. A coffin lies tilted upward at one end of the room, with what looks to be a wax figure of Dracula. After a few moments, the figure rears up in the coffin, his arms outstretched and a ghoulish grin on his face. He doesn’t respond to any of our queries in multiple languages, but gamely poses with us for a photograph.

The law students were traveling on a budget. They were carrying a dozen “subs” that friends had prepared for them in Hungary. We sat in the park outside the birthplace of Vlad Tepes and shared these modest sandwiches. It was nowhere near as delicious as the Romanian-Lebanese meal I would have a few days later at Manuc’s Inn. But it was also something completely unexpected: a random encounter, a charming day in a medieval walled city, a shared meal. I was relieved that, even with all the complicated planning of these recent trips to the region, I could still have an adventure, however modest.

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