Romania is a country that had us intrigued. We knew very little about Romania other than the typical Western stereotypes of roaming Gypsies and the home of the infamous blood-sucking vampire Dracula.
As a recent addition to the European Union in 2007, change is the big topic in Romania these days as it tries to escape its oppressive Communist past. In fact, we were actually visiting the capital during the country's democratic presidential election.
Our goal for Romania was to visit the pristine and simple countryside. We really didn't have an opinion for Bucharest. It was a necessary stop over on the way to Transylvania and we only planned to spend two nights before pushing on to Brasov and Bran.
We were extremely fortunate to have been connected with family friends, Michel and Patrick, who are currently living in the Romanian capital. We've been amazed and truly grateful at how many people have extended a welcoming hand to two weary and budget conscious backpackers.
The tiny bus from Veliko Tarnovo arrived in the Bulgarian border town of Ruse just before 1:00pm. The connecting bus, that we had reservations for, was supposed to leave at 2:00pm. The transfer was believed to be straight forward; at least that's what we were told. It wasn't.
The woman behind the booth didn't speak a lick of English and wasn't interested in playing the 'let's try to use sign language' game. A Greek couple was experiencing the same difficulties but managed to get more information out of her. Apparently the bus was sold out, so we'd need to test our luck at the 3:00 bus. We were frustrated because we had a reservation but couldn't communicate that to the ticketing agent.
As the four of us strategized outside the unsightly bus terminal, a savvy taxi driver approached us with a proposal. He would charge us 100 Bulgarian leva to take us to city centre of Bucharest. The bus tickets were 20 leva per person so for only an extra five leva per person we could leave right away in his private vehicle. It was a good deal so we agreed to go with him.
Although both Romania and Bulgaria are new EU members we were still required to do the typical border crossing song and dance. We were reminded of the vehicle border crossing from Italy into Slovenia earlier in the trip, where the former Customs and Immigration booths remained in the middle of the motorway. It appears that the recent EU membership for Romania has yet to change the border control policies and practices.
When we reached the centre of Bucharest we were surprised at the look and feel of the bustling metropolis. We had done very little research and didn't know what to expect, or even what the city looked like.
Bucharest is an unusual and unique city. It's a city of contradictions and misconceptions. Ugly grey housing blocks from the Ceausescu communist era have been converted into business opportunities with enormous Western advertisements mounted on the rooftops. It's quite an impressive city if you take the time to look beyond its awkward and unattractive side.
Our Bucharest encounter was quite different from our typical budget conscious experiences. After we dropped the Greek couple in the city centre we had the driver take us to Michel and Patrick's condo. Michel was there to collect us in the lobby and escort us to our accommodations for the night.
We were thoroughly impressed and wowed by their five-star condominium. It's quite the grand residence! A drastic change from the 1-star accommodations we've been accustomed to. Put it this way, we were undecided on two or three nights in Bucharest but when we entered the luxurious apartment the decision was easy - we'd stay three nights (we actually wanted to move in permanently but that wasn't really an option). Okay, I'll stop drooling now.
We had such a great time with Patrick and Michel and were spoiled by their generosity and thoughtful hospitality. We hadn't met them prior to our arrival but instantly connected with them and were sad to say goodbye. Thanks again for everything guys!
Aside from our time with Michel and Patrick, an unforgettable Bucharest moment was the tour of the Palace of Parliament. It is the 2nd largest building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington, and remains as a symbol of Ceausescu's communist vision.
Just a few of the interesting facts that we learned on the tour:
-1/6th of Bucharest was bulldozed to accommodate the monstrous building and its surroundings.
- All textiles except some mahogany wood came from within Romania.
- Building started in 1984 and it is still 10% unfinished.
- It has 12 stories, covers 330,000 Sq meters and has 3,100 furnished rooms.
- There are over 2,800 chandeliers with over 3,500 tonnes of crystal.
- The mind boggling debt for the decadent building was paid by exporting the countries remaining food resources, sending hundreds of thousands of people into terrible poverty and starvation.
Let's be honest. The Palace of Parliament is not an attractive building on the outside. It looks like an institution (see photo above). However, once you enter the extravagant goliath you quickly understand what all the hype is about. It was absolutely incredible!
The interior is covered with four types of marble. The halls are gigantic and wildly unnecessary. The stairwells alone were enough to make one's jaw drop. Unfortunately we don't have any photos because tourists had to pay a ridiculous amount to use cameras - and we're cheap.
After our tour of the Palace of Parliament, previously named 'House of the People', we walked down B-dul Unirii road. The road is also known as the 'Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism'. It was intentionally built a half meter wider than the Chaps-Elyesse in Paris and there is one fountain for each county in Romania. Afterall, Bucharest was once proudly referred to as the 'Paris of the East'.
Walking the streets of Bucharest was definitely an educational experience. Several eras and generations seem to blend into one. It's a confused and heavily corrupted city that seems to struggle with its present-day identity. We were glad that we took the time to explore and learn about the resilient city.
If you haven't heard about Ceausescu's dictatorship and the struggles of the Romanian people under his 'leadership', you're not alone. We're embarrassed to say that we had never heard of him prior to visiting Bucharest. Of course we were aware of the atrocities committed in the former Eastern Bloc but were unaware of the specifics and how horrible he was. It was similar to the revelations that we experienced in Cambodia when we learned about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime.
This global adventure has been a great way to educate ourselves on the historical and monumental events that have shaped our modern world. Being in Eastern Europe on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a particularly special moment for us on our journey.
Are you ready for one more Eastern European taxi story? Okay, I promise this will be the last one for at least a few more blogs!
Romania has a reputation for being an extremely corrupt nation. This attitude or psyche is not lost on taxi drivers. Bucharest's taxi's are especially crafty and are known to fleece even the savviest foreigners. We were warned by virtually every guide book and piece of tourist literature so we were on high alert.
We approached a parked taxi and showed him where we needed to go on the map. He seemed like he knew where to go, and he had a meter, so we jumped into the back of the cab and hoped for the best.
As we pulled into the congested traffic, another huge challenge in Bucharest, we noticed that the meter was set to 3.5 ROM per kilometer. The trip into the city cost us 10 ROM and was about 7km. Something didn't add up.
Cameron confronted him, "Is 3.5 lei (ROM) your normal rate? That seems a bit high?"
Of course he played dumb and went on a Romanian rant - all of a sudden his spotty English disappeared completely. We've been pretty good with taxi's on our trip, aside from traveling in Eastern Europe, and we knew this guy was a bad seed.
"Pull over", we demanded. "We're not paying you this ridiculous rate!"
He got excited, pointed to the meter and spit out Romanian phrases that were clearly not friendly. Cameron noticed that he started pushing some buttons on the meter while he cursed at the stupid tourists. Did I mention that he looked like a KGB hitman?
The driver gestured that he needed to get through the massive roundabout that was ahead, and then he would let us out at the side of the road. We agreed because the meter had already jumped to 8 ROM and we had only gone 300 meters.
By the time we had pulled over the meter had jumped to 13.8 ROM!!
The jerk had clicked the meter rate to 35 ROM per km, instead of the already ridiculous 3.5 ROM. We had only moved about 150 meters since the meter was at 8 ROM and now the bill had skipped to 13.8 ROM?! Needless to say we were pissed.
We kept our cool and handed him 15 ROM, knowing that we were the victims of his scam. We were just happy to get out of the taxi before the bill jumped to a horrendous level. We were okay loosing CDN $5 rather than CDN $50. Hey, it's his bad karma!
The driver then had the nerve to assume that he deserved a tip of 1.2 ROM and didn't want to give us our change. Cameron had to use considerable restraint and refrained from profanities as he argued with the corrupt driver.
The story ends with us learning that all taxi's post their rates on the side of the vehicle. DUH! Lesson learned I guess?
What is the average rate you ask? 1.49 ROM per kilometer. Now don't you think 35 ROM per km seems a bit ballsy?
We spent our final afternoon wandering Herastrau Park. Walking around the lake and breathing in the crisp autumn air was a welcomed change to our typical days of sightseeing and organizing an upcoming travel segment.
On that note, we made our way to the Gara de Nord train station to sort out our transportation to the picturesque Transylvanian city of Brasov. We have a EuroRail train pass that didn't work in Bulgaria and Turkey, so we were glad to finally be in a country where it could be used.
We said our goodbyes to Michel and Patrick and boarded our 3-hour train to Brasov. Our next task was to explore the spooky and mythical castle of Count Dracula.
November 20th, 2009