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Mwuuaaaah-ha-ha-haaa: Touring Transylvania

Written on: Wednesday July 8th, 2009

I had a free week and no idea where I wanted to go. After the wonderful time I just had in Greece, I really didn't feel like island hopping the Aegean solo, and ticket prices to many other nearby destinations were now at high season prices. That's how I found myself inside a taxi, riding from the Henri Coanda International Airport toward the Funky Chicken hostel in the city center of Bucharest.

Romania wasn't really at the top of my list for places to visit, but the more I looked into it, I thought it would be a nice spot to see before heading off to Turkey. I planned for two nights in Bucharest, which proved to be more than ample to see the highlights of the city. Bucharest received a major facelift in the late 1800's, much of which was designed with French flair. The most obvious examples of this were the oversized tree-lined boulevards and their very own Arc of Triumph. But there were other attractions too, among which my favorites were Revolution Square and the Parliment Palace. Revolution Square gained historical noteriety in 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu saw his grasp of communist power fade into the crowd of angry locals. He was chased out of the city and caught a few hours later, never to rule again. The Parliment Palace, on the other hand, was still very much in existance. And this place was massive!! It was the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. Just walking toward it was impressive, and upon striding closer, I realized that I simply did not have the time to tour the interior.

Hostels were wonderful places to meet other travellers. And you never knew from where the folks would be who were sharing your room. In this case, I had the rare priveledge of meeting somebody who lived very close to where I grew up. Drew was from Sheboygan, and we were both amazed at the statistical improbability of two Sheboygan County guys meeting in a tiny pub in Bucharest. That was reason enough to hoist a pint and chat the night away with a small group of other travellers, two of whom would be joining me on the next portion of my Romanian Exploration.

Ken, James and I set off early the next day for the train station. We were headed to Brasov, the unofficial headquarters of Transylvania. However, before arriving at that city, we stopped in Sinaia to hike some of the scenic mountains that made up this beautiful region. Having no real idea where we were going, we simply got off the train, stored our bags and headed uphill. Asking locals was absolutely zero help, but did provide some comic relief as we tried in vain to communicate our questions. After a fair amount of time bushwhacking on our own, we eventually made it to the upper station of the gondola. Locating the trailhead from this point was easy, and we followed it to the summit of the ski resort mountain, stopping only briefly to visit with a shepherd and his flock. The views were magnificent over the Carpathian Mountains, inclining us to relax for a spell and have a picnic. We finished the food just before the rains came, making for a significantly trickier descent. Back at the station we popped a beer while waiting for the next carraige to bring us to Brasov.

Brasov was an adorable town. Old houses, old churches, a decent pub scene and its very own 'Hollywood' style sign on the mountainside. Our hostel was good, despite the ridiculously low ceiling height at the dorm room entrance...I think all of us smacked our skulls on the damn thing! But the major attraction here was the castles; specifically, the Bran Castle, better known as Dracula's Castle! We headed out the next day to tour the structure and read the tales of this famous place. Built in 1382 the castle was originally used to defend the region against would-be Ottoman Empire attackers. Less than a generation later it was the home of Vlad Tepes, nicknamed Dracula (the Devil) for his cruelty toward his enemies. Centuries later it was after him that the legendary Dracula of books and films was based.

Heading back to Bucharest for one last night, I hoofed around the city for hours looking for a place to stay. The Funky Chicken was fully booked, and few other cheap places to crash existed. Eventually I found a bed and settled in for my evening's rest. The next day would be a long but entertaining experience getting from Bucharest to Istanbul. We took the eighteen hour train completely across Bulgaria, filling the hours and our bellies with beer. The incredibly diverse mix of people made the ride all the more enjoyable, and making friends with the conductor kept me in good favor with the border police. Sleep was minimal during the overnight ride, but that hardly mattered, for today when I arrived into Istanbul I would once again be traveling with a friend!