First Stop: Romania
I was in Sofia. I needed to end up in Paris. I had two weeks to get there. Beyond that, I didn't have anything else figured out. No rail passes. No flights booked. I was just going to wing it through Europe.
I can't say this was the best idea ever. I had always heard that traveling through Europe was cheap and easy. I must have been doing something wrong. Because it didn't end up being that cheap, and it didn't end up being that easy either.
But I made it, and I'm still alive. So that's something.
My friends in Sofia, eager for a "international" getaway, joined me on the first leg of my trip. When hashing out ideas for our destination, we had some cool cities in mind. Berlin, maybe Budapest, maybe a small city off the coast of Montenegro.
Then we tried to figure out how to get there…
Budget airlines like Ryan Air weren't quite the magical travel solution that I thought they were. Only a handful of flights had the jaw-dropingly cheap prices everyone talks about. Those flights never seemed to be going anywhere we wanted. When they did, they landed in a airport that was out in a field somewhere 100 miles away from your destination. No thanks.
Ticket to ride
So we settled on some good ole fashioned train travel. Trains in Eastern Europe are cheap, but sluggish. Budapest would have been an 18 hour ride. Yikes. So we narrowed in our destination list a little, settling on an eight hour ride to the capital of Bulgaria's mysterious neighbor to the north: Bucharest, Romania.
My love for train travel in the States is already documented. The same points held true in Eastern Europe.
We laughed. We slept. We drank wine. We saw the Bulgarian countryside through the window of a rickety train. We sat next to a middle aged Bulgarian man who downed a two liter bottle of beer and then shamelessly threw the bottle out the window. We saw the same man proceed to lay the moves on another middle aged Bulgarian lady in our car, scoring a several hour long nuzzle session.
Before I knew it, we were in Romania.
Another cool thing about train travel is that, if you take your time, you can see the culture and landscape slowly change. You get a sense of the geography and distances between places. You see what things change drastically, and what things stay the same.
At first, Romania felt a lot like Bulgaria, except without all the Cyrillic writing everywhere. The sidewalks were still all busted up. Things weren't all that manicured. There were McDonald's.
Walking tours: do them
But you have to dig a little deeper to get into the differences...
That's why, you need to get some insider information. The best way to do that? Go on a walking tour. That's my number one tip for visiting any European city (especially Eastern European cities) – Go on the walking tour, and do it as soon as you can.
First, the people who lead these tours are great. They are almost always charming locals who love their city. They sprinkle in tips, jokes, and history (along with the occasional snarky anti-communist antidote) into a entertaining and informative walkabout.
A little taste of communist history
Secondly, on walking tours, history gets real. I'm not the kind of guy who would plunge into a Romanian history textbook for fun, but on the tour, I was encaptivated. Especially by Romania's shaky past with communism.
Their former communist dictator, Ceau?escu (char-chez-co), was not as competent as some of the other Eastern European leaders. While his citizens were struggling, he was busy proving how awesome he was by building a slew of record-breaking buildings.
When communism was finally overthrown, things got dicey. The citizens released years of pent up frustration on Ceau?escu, and revolted in a place called Revolution Square. There was a lot of violence, and you can still see remnants of it. Behind some of the beautiful renovated buildings in the square, there are apartment buildings littered with bullet holes.
Once they finally got ahold of Ceau?escu, things moved fast. They held a "trial" for him in a kangaroo court, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death all in a day. Not death by something like lethal injection though, they pinned him down, and opened up a firing squad on him.
All this happened in my lifetime. Weird.
The land of vampires
Another great thing about the walking tours are all of the people that you'll meet. They're from all over the world, and they've also been all over the world. You'll never find yourself short of a good conversation while walking from site to site.
We happened to meet an awesome Romanian girl visiting Bucharest from the north part of the country – Transylvania. She talked about how great it was, and gave us some sweet tips on what to see. It was settled. We had to visit the land of vampires.
You can't visit Transylvania without seeing Dracula's castle. So we did. It was ok, but packed with people. I guess this was good for Drac, since he'll always have a plentiful supply of blood.
The castles were great and all, but the best part about our adventure through the Transylvania were the gorgeous mountains. Seriously, the views alone would have been worth the drive.
We topped off our Transylvanian adventure in a small, fun town nestled in between the mountains called Brasov. We ate delicious Romanian food from a touristy restaurant, watched some Romanian dancing, and had a treacherous little drive back through the mountains at night.
Romania was good to us.
Until next time,