Poptarticus

Shannon’s Super Sexy Blog. Music. Travel. Randomness. And a Lot of Wine.

The Nuttiest Mountaintop Ever

We left Sibiu to head back to Bucharest for our flight home via the totally weird Transfagaran Highway. If some things are weird in Romania, then the Transfagaran Highway is the icing on top of the weird cake.

Yeah, it is pretty.

DSC00830 (1024x768)

The landscape is barren and there are wild horses – well, I think they are wild – here and there.  On this July day it was hot in Sibiu.  Here, not so much.  In fact there was still snow on the ground in some places.  The road and pass are only open from late Spring until the end of summer or thereabouts.

Before we stopped anywhere, we went to our hotel to check in and eat a picnic we had brought. Our hotel was, well, a little gross/run down/precarious (seriously, no lights in the hallway when you are trying to climb the stairs?) but we were only there one night so we dealt with it.  We planned for a picnic outside but as soon as we were unwrapping the cheese I felt a raindrop.  A guy working at our hotel told us we could sit in this sort of enclosed patio room, which was very nice of him.  As soon as we went in there it started to rain like crazy.

DSC00827 (1024x768)

Oh, and there was lightening, and thunder.  Oh joy.  I am terrified of lightening and believe me when I tell you that lightening hit about 10 feet away from this little building.  It was loud, the earth shook.. we were on top of a mountain, after all.  The empty parking lot filled up with cars and motorcyclists needing to get out of the rain.

Eventually it stopped and we took off, and visited an area with some tourist stalls and a bar/restaurant. It was fairly bizarre there.  A heavy mist lay on everything, and it was freezing.  At one point, we saw this building – literally seconds later, it was gone.

DSC00833 (800x600)

I mean GONE.  Like Avalon.

DSC00834 (800x600)

After some walking around and deciding not to sit in any smoky bars, we went on this crazy cable car that Deborah wanted to go on.  I was nervous that there would be more lightening and I have a feeling that Dan was a little nervous too.  But we did it for Deborah.  I was happy to see that it was not too far to the ground in many places.

We ended up back at the hotel, sitting on our little hotel decks (mine had holes in it, so we sat on Deborah and Dan’s) and eating another picnic.  We had a nice view of the waterfall across the way, and also a sheepherder and his flock.

DSC00841 (600x800)

The sheep, and the sheep herder, scampered up to the TOP of that steep mountain, then came back down.  I wonder what the herder does when it is really cold up there, not just California wimp cold.

The next day we got out of there and continued down the highway for our one night staying in a place by the Bucharest airport.  As we got down the mountain we passed a horse drawn cart and Deborah said “I wonder if that’s the last one of those we’ll see.”  I said “I seriously doubt that.”  Winner? Me.  We passed a few dozen more, some pretty close to Bucharest.

Driving IN Bucharest on the ring road – mi dio.  I thought trying to cross the street in downtown Bucharest was hard.  I have never seen such insane, nutty driving.. its drive with your front bumper taken to the most extreme level possible.  Eventually we made it and our rooms were so nice and air conditioned and had a mini bar with white wine in there.  Bonus!

At dinner we toasted Deborah for planning this adventure.  What an adventure it was.  Many many times I was trying hard to figure out what the heck was going on, but Romania is one of those places that sticks.  When you get home you can’t stop thinking about it. I want to go back someday.

 

Striking Sibiu

While it took a couple of days to get my love fest going with Bucharest, it was pretty immediate in Sibiu.  An absolutely stunning town, with lots of cool things going on – it was a European “Capital of Culture” in 2007.  Dan and Deborah had a little apartment, and I rented a room at the quirky Casa Baciu around the corner.  Run by really nice people and managed by a cool guy named Marius, they let me use their little kitchen to make my own coffee that I had been carrying around since ITALY, 2 months before.  I was grateful beyond belief, but when I made a cup for Marius, he said “are you trying to kill me?” and added sugar.  But he also took a cup the next day, so he must have liked it.

Before I get into some details of the town, I would like to mention something that made me want to get home right at 10 PM a couple of nights.  When I was living in Budapest for one month in 2001, there was a channel on TV that showed the Cartoon Network during the day and until 10 PM, when it would turn into Turner Movie Classics.  Whatever cartoon happened to be on would be abruptly ended, and a movie would start.  You’d never know what movie – sometimes it would be good, sometimes not so good.  Like the Russian Roulette of TCM.  Well, at the Casa Baciu I was surprised and excited that they had exactly the same situation.  Cartoon Network until 10, then some random movie.  One night I watched Risky Business, and one night the Shining.  One night the Postman Always Rings Twice came on but it was the Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson version and that one is pretty lame.  But it was always a thrill to wait and see what was on, just like in Budapest.

Anyway.  Sibiu is so pretty, and well kept, it is like a different world from Bucharest or some of the other places we saw.  There are several pretty squares in the old town, some interlocking with each other.

DSC00798 (800x600)

We happened to be there on the 4th of July, and the three of us cooked a 4th of July BBQ for Deborah and Dan’s landlords and some other people they invited, including four of the most beautiful, sweet little boys.. and after that, there was a concert in the Piata Mare – a symphony playing music from American films.  You could pay to sit in chairs in front of the symphony, or you could sit in a cafe and spend that money on wine instead.  Which is what we did.  The symphony played music from the Godfather, James Bond movies, West Side Story… the whole square filled up with people enjoying the music and the warm summer night.  Glorious.

DSC00800 (800x600)

This little boy got right in my face to say hi.

DSC00788 (800x600)

He was adorable and in general the people in Sibiu seemed like a happy bunch.  Waiters, the folks at my pension, the crowd of locals in the squares every night.  Beauty has an effect on people.

DSC00786 (800x600)

I had killer meals here that cost NOTHING.  Didn’t find any wine bar though, and one day’s morning quest for a smoothie led me into a health food store where I made a new friend, Delia.  It was her first day open, and it turned out my purchase of a tomato juice and breakfast bar thing was her very first sale.  I went in a couple of days later and bought a bunch of tea, spices and other things from her. She tried to give me a bunch of stuff too (I kept telling her, you can’t give it away, dear.)  The store is called Das Bio and if you are ever in Sibiu and need the best organic tomato juice ever you must visit Delia at Nicolae Balcescu nr. 39.

I loved Sibiu and it is not a question of if, but when, I will get back there.

The Road to Sibiu

When we left Arad a day early we made a plan to stay in Hunedoara, which is about half way in a five hour journey.  In Hunedoara, they have a castle.  This, is the castle.

DSC00780 (800x600)

It was a pretty cool castle on the outside, and the inside was pretty much like many other castles I have been in – an empty shell of a castle.  Afterwards, we went to a little bar on the grounds and when I ordered white wine the bartendress told me they only sold it by the bottle.  So I bought one, and it came out warm with a bucket of ice cubes to cool it.  The first taste was shockingly bad for the simple reason that the wine was something like 10 years old.  Oh well.  If you have only one truly crappy wine experience on a trip, that’s a pretty good trip.  Dan smartly ordered beer.

Hunedoara, according to the Lonely Planet guide, hosts the Romanian Bowling Olympics or somesuch, so I was on the lookout for bowling alleys (because how fun would it be to bowl in Romania?) but I never did see one.. we went out to dinner, in a restaurant with only us in it.  Hunedoara is a nice looking town.  Next time I will find the bowling alley.

The next day we drove the rest of the way to Sibiu.  And on our way – we got pulled over by a cop.

I just thought it was a random stop, but it was not.  In fact it turned out to be a sort of tense experience as the officer took Dan’s passport and all the car information and was gone with it for a long time.  First, he wrote a number down on a piece of paper (I think it was 67.) We didn’t know what the heck he was talking about.  Then he left with the paperwork for a long time and came back with a ticket.  It was a speeding ticket! We had been going, I guess, 67 in a 50 zone.  Dan told the guy he was absolutely not speeding, but the officer was unswayed.  Well get this – we had to pay a fine of 80 lei on the spot. That is TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS.  Last time I got a speeding ticket (and I totally wasn’t speeding either, I don’t think) it cost me $350 plus online traffic school. Speeding is a freeking bargain in Romania.  Dan was pissed off though, and when the officer was leaving our car he called him an unkind name.  Fairly loudly.  I think he’s probably the only American in history to have ever called a Romanian traffic cop that particular name.

It was all worth it, for me at least, once we got to Sibiu. Stay tuned….

Smoke and Secessionists

And then we drove south.

It was a long, hard drive from Botiza to Arad, our next base.  We are talking two lane roads through an entire country; and on this particular day we went through a couple of towns where it was market day causing insane traffic.  Switchback mountain roads (with trucks), horse drawn carts and tractors combined with market day meant it took about four hours just to drive the first 90 kilometers or something equally insane.  But there were four more wonderful hours to follow.  I felt very bad for Dan – driving that day had to suck beyond belief.  And to add to the injury, we got to Arad, like two kilometers away from our lodgings, only to sit in a stopped row of trucks interspersed with cars (like the jackass behind us in a BMW SUV who kept his hand firmly on the horn while eating a hamburger.  I am serious) for an hour.

Dude.  That is not going to help.

Anyway we finally made it and somehow found our lodgings – just by driving by because the google map Deborah had printed and the google map I had put in my ipad were both fairly worthless.  Note to self – always try to get a real map of the town before you arrive.

So our first night in Arad we were just a little stressed.  We took a cab to the center and had an OK dinner at a place in Deborah’s Lonely Planet guidebook.  The next day, refreshed, we were really able to check out Arad. It was a Saturday, and the main street was busy with shoppers; we walked along the river, had drinks in a couple of bars, and then a late lunch.

Arad has some big, grand, public buildings and a nice riverwalk.

DSC00757 (800x600) (2)

If you want to go walking along the river on the right here, you have to pay to go into a “baths” place.  We opted not to do that and instead walked on the main road on the left, and found a good place to enjoy a drink.

Earlier in the day we had passed by a pizza and pasta place on the main drag that advertised “pizza happy hour” from 3 pm to 6 pm.  I’ll be honest – by this point, I was getting very tired of a) cigarette smoke in restaurants and b) not being able to understand what the heck the menu was saying. At an Italian restaurant, I can understand.  And half price pizza?  It is a no brainer.  We went at like 3:01 to take advantage of the happy hour special.

Mi dio were we ever happy at La Pergola. I speak the most kindergarten Italian ever and was able to communicate – BLISS.  The pizzas were fantastic.  For the .001 percent of the people who read this who will eventually visit Arad, you must go there.

Then we went back to our pension for a bit of a rest, and a light and easy dinner of cheese and ham and melon on the little terrace.  Deborah and Dan had a room next to a couple of guys who were chain smoking in their room, so badly that the smoke was coming into their room. Then these two came down to the terrace and were joined by two more.  It wasn’t a big space and they all four were smoking.  It was awful. Romania is definitely a place that smokers can go and be happy. But as for us we decided to shorten our nights in Arad from four to three – the smoke was that bad in the place we were staying.  The following day we drove to Timisoara.

Timisoara.  This is the city where, in 1989, the revolution started.  Travel teaches us how the world changed, and why, and when.  In this gorgeous university town, a priest, László Tőkés, was evicted from his post and the city for speaking out against Ceauşescu and what he was doing to the people of Romania.  First, a group of people collected in front of Tőkés home, to keep him from being taken out.  Then, a larger group formed in front of the Timisoara opera house.  Then it started to spread all over Romania.  It started on December 16, 1989.  On December 25, Ceauşescu would be dead.

This is obviously the most thumbnail version of events, and it would take years to really understand what happened in Romania during this time.  Young people died.  In Arad there was a plaque in front of the city hall that commemorated the city’s fallen (mostly young men) and in Timisoara, on the opera house, this:

DSC00776 (600x800) (2)

It is, of course, about the events and the revolution, we can wait for one of my Romanian readers to translate it effectively.  I am curious enough now about this history to make me want to go to Toronto and visit my friends Doru and Josette who emigrated from Romania some decades ago and make them dinner in exchange for a full lesson.

Anyway.  Besides all this, Timisoara is a really beautiful town.  The main square is full of colorful flowers that could rival the gardens in Paris.

DSC00767 (600x800) (2)

At the end is a beautiful orthodox church. Since it was a Sunday there were services and the church was packed.  In Romanian churches you can light a candle on one side for the dead and another side for the living, so I lit a candle for my father on the right, and a candle for my mom on the left to send her some light for her current journeys. I also bought a cool postcard, one of those kind where it changes if you move it back and forth.  It is half Byzantine Madonna and half Jesus Pantocrator.   I love those postcards, I even have one of Padre Pio, even though I am far from religious.

Here is the opera house.  It is hella cool.

DSC00766 (600x800) (2)

In Timisoara – and Arad, too – there is a lot of Secessionist architecture.  I LOVED the architecture in these towns.  In Arad it was a bit falling apart in places, but in Timisoara it was glorious.  Deborah was going on and on about how she wanted to buy an apartment in this building and who could blame her?  Not me, ‘cept I don’t have any money.

DSC00768 (800x600) (2)

We had lunch in a popular pub/restaurant/art space on the river, that was in the shape of a giant boat.  It was just OK but that was fine because we had plans to go back to the pizzeria in Arad at 5:45 and partake of one of their fine happy hour pizzas a second time.  Before that though, we went to a pub called the Drunken Rat.  All in all a fantastic day – and the next day we would leave for Hunedoara, but on the way there is an adventure and Dan is lucky he is not in a Romanian jail right now.  I’ll get all caught up soon, I promise. But before that, one last look at beautiful Timisoara.

DSC00778 (800x600) (2)

From One Extreme to the Other

After my busy days in Bucharest I went north and spent some days in the Maramures region, staying in this farmhouse with my friends Deborah and Dan -

DSC00753 (800x600)

Talk about different.  Maramures is like stepping into the past.

Driving to the farmhouse from the train station in Sighet (short for Sighetu Marmației) was an exercise in dodging horse drawn carts and hitchhiking senior citizens until, finally, we reached the general area of the farmhouse where a religious holiday had everyone in all the surrounding towns walking to church dressed in traditional festival clothing from the region.  I did not take any pictures of the hundreds and hundreds of people walking in gorgeous embroidered dresses, vests and shirts unfortunately… but it was an incredible sight to see.

In the U.S. we are all so busy with our electronics and movies and freeway driving and supermarket shopping.  In Maramures, everyone sits on benches on the street and talks.  At least that is how it seemed to me. It was difficult to find fresh meat and veggies in the small towns – everyone is self sustaining and grows and raises their own food.  They do have outdoor markets a couple of days a week.

The first day I was there it was beautiful, but then it got cool and rainy.  It was a massive difference from hot and steamy Bucharest.  One night Dan managed to barbeque despite occasional raindrops.  We actually sat around a fire! Talk about extremes.

We visited the Merry Cemetery, where the tombstones are painted with the dead person’s occupation and other anecdotes about their lives.  And sometimes how they died.  This dude got decapitated:

DSC00737 (600x800)

And it looks like this guy was a bartender.

DSC00738 (600x800)

One thing that kind of shocked me (and continues to shock me, at every cemetery here) is the life span.  Dying before 50 seems the norm, not the exception. Especially for the men.

We also visited the home of Elie Wiesel, the author of “Night” and many other books.  A Jew living in Sighet during World War 2, he and his family were rounded up and taken to concentration camps in May 1944.  I didn’t mention this in my train post, but when I was on that train I kept having these images of train cars stuffed with people going through that landscape.  I am not sure why, but I did.  Elie Weisel’s house is now a museum housing many details about the fate of the Jews from Maramures.  In ONE WEEK 12,000 Jews, almost all of them from the region were taken from the ghettos in Sighet and transferred to concentration camps.  On only FOUR trains.

After that rather heavy experience, we went to lunch at a restaurant next door where Deborah ordered the house special.  It turned out to be a pork chop and local sauteed mushrooms served inside of a massive buckwheat crepe.  I am fairly sure alfalfa sprouts have never been eaten by a human in Maramures, because lets face it, sprouts are for the horses.

For the first time in my life, it seemed to me it would be easier to be a nun.  You can work your butt off in the field then go home and sit on the bench in front of your house, or you can live here:

DSC00748 (800x600)

The Barsana Monastery is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful (and also a little trippy) monasteries I have ever been to.  Gorgeous structures with lots of shiny varnished wood and fresh flowers everywhere.  The grounds are like well manicured hobbit lands.  They could make “MonasteryLand” at Disneyland and model it on Barsana.

DSC00746 (800x600)

Yes, I think I could be a nun in an alternate universe, one where I was born in Maramures.

On our way back to the farmhouse from here I got us into a bit of a pickle.  Looking at the map, I found a road that went a back way into Botiza, where we were staying.  For awhile it was OK but the road got progressively worse and then eventually impossible.  We had to turn around and I was seriously fearful that we were going to at best get stuck and at worse lose the entire undercarriage of the car.  But Dan is da Man when it comes to driving and he got us out of there.  He also managed to avoid, on the main roads, the thousands of potholes, senior citizens on bikes older than me, pedestrians, hitchhikers who have had more than a few beers, horse drawn carts, oxen pulled carts, sidewalk benches, stray dogs, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam.  It was like some kind of insane video game.

Now begins my “I can’t wait to find a wine bar in Arad/Timisoara/Sibiu.”  I want a wine bar BAD.  Still haven’t found one, but I have many other tales to tell.  Stay tuned.

 

 

The Night Train from Bucharest

Time to play Catch Up.

A week and a half ago I took the night train from Bucharest Nord station to Sighetu Marmatiei in the north of Romania.  My friends Deborah and Dan were there and I was meeting up with them, and flying there didn’t seem too good an option (it would have required a late arrival at Baia Mare, so an overnight there) and driving would require an overnight in the middle of the country.  My last overnight trip on a train was in a shared compartment on a packed car from Paris to Venice and it was truly awful – mostly the sharing.  So for this trip, I booked my own sleeping car which in Romania, is very affordable.  It was only $75!

With a little help from the my friend Doru on the slowtalk.com forum and also, from the fine folks at the Romania train company, CFR, I managed to book myself online.  But I had no idea what to expect.  Did the ticket I was carrying around really mean I would have my own car?  Would it be scuzzy?  Would there be ne’er-do-wells wandering around the train gassing and robbing people? Would the sleeping compartment actually go to my destination or separate from the rest of the train at 3 AM and end up in Belgrade? Or would it be totally sweet and romantic and comfortable, eating cheese and drinking wine while looking out the compartment window?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.  In a reverse of my ideas of a fun-filled night train from Paris to Venice where I’d meet all kinds of cool people and we would drink and play poker all night, my night train in Romania was, while not exactly luxury living, exactly what it was suppose to be.

I’d had a late lunch so at the station I picked up a bread thingy with an egg baked into it and as soon as the train pulled into the station I got on the sleeping car immediately.  It could not have been easier – there was a sign on the outside of the car that said “Sleeping Car to Sighetu Marmatiei.”  My compartment was definitely not the cleanest place I have ever laid my head but it was all mine. And, it was hot.  Before the train left the station, it was like being in a closet that had not been opened in a few weeks, in Manhattan, in August.  My clothes were soaked through in a matter of seconds.  It did not completely cool down, even with the window open, until about four in the morning.

So, I left Bucharest with my head hanging out a train window, because one needs to be able to breathe.

The hours before I went to sleep (or attempted to sleep, anyway) were very nice.  I drank wine and looked out the window at Romania passing by.  There were forests, mountains, tunnels, little towns with children playing outside.  I passed through what appeared to be a camp of Romani.  There were many stops at little towns but the conductor came by only twice – when we left, to collect my ticket and in the morning, when he came to give it back.  He didn’t even glance at my passport.

Sleeping was not so easy.  This was not a high speed silent train.  It was a chug chug that sounded like a train from the 19th century and also, from time to time had a sound not unlike a chain saw sawing off your left ear.  But I think if you are going to take a night train, you need to understand that you may not get any sleep.

There was no bar car, and no frills except for a toothbrush and a small bar of soap.  But it got me where I wanted to go for $75.  I exited the land of screeching brakes and crazy drivers and entered a place where 75% of the people get around by horse and wagon, or walking. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

The Day Where I Realized Bucharest is Totally Awesome

What do you get when you add 95 degree heat with equal humidity, the second day of summer, a killer park in the center of town, and all the strange and interesting characters that inhabit that nutty place called Bucharest?

Awesomeness, that’s what.

I woke up on Saturday with feet that were not going to get me too far, walking wise, because of my march to various locations on Thursday and Friday.  So I headed out into the day with not much of a plan except to not go too far.  I did go to the Gare du Nord train station, which was about 20 minutes away, because the next evening I would be taking a night train to Sighetu in the north (more on this experience later) and I wanted to check the station out.  I’d read that it was a sketchy, horrible, nasty place where I would need to be worried about, well, everything.  But of course it was a train station, just like other train stations, just hotter and more humid on this particular day.

Anyway after I left there I took the metro back towards my place to check out the park next door, Parcul Cișmigiu. While I was walking I noticed what I thought was another antique/crafts market like I saw at the Folk Museum the day before, so I went to check it out.  But it wasn’t that, instead it was a folk festival, with food, drink, music, dancing and booths – in Parcul Cișmigiu, right by my apartment. Bonus for me, bonus for my feet.  I looked at the booths and went and checked out the music and dancing for some time. Me, and lots of residents who were hooting and hollering at the dancers – they clearly love their heritage.

DSC00697 (800x600)

Eventually I needed to eat so I went to get some pizza and wine, and then to a little kiosk where I had another glass of wine and watched crazy people pedal pushing boats around in insane heat.  I mean, it was hot.  Can you see how steamy it is?

DSC00689 (800x600)

Maybe not.  But let me assure you – steamy.

I went home for awhile, but when I walked home I passed by a conservatory of music and the most amazing music was coming out of there.  It was a school and there was classical piano, and a flute, and a voice… all following me down the street.  I felt like I was being followed by music, all day and all night.

I went back out around 7 PM.  First I went to another place down the street from me, close to this cool building:

DSC00705 (800x600)

where they had ANOTHER free festival, this one with music from films.  But it was not really happening yet – so I went back to the park to see more of the folk music there. Now that it was evening and cooling down (a little) the park was packed with locals hanging out and enjoying the festival and the park on a warm summer evening. Hanging out at the main stage, I watched a circle of people dancing together, the circle getting wider and wider, with kids and senior citizens and everybody in between, and some couples dancing in the middle, oblivious to the circle.  Everyone was having so much fun… it was like another world, much less a different part of Bucharest.  In another part of the park there was a stage with a DJ, and beer stands all around, and people hanging out while their kids played and danced.

DSC00707 (800x600)
.

The kids had no earplugs, and the DJ was LOUD.  It reminded me of the good old days of the 1970s when us kids use to run around in front of the speakers with no earplugs.  There was face painting and lemonade, and every single bench (and there were a lot in that park) had several people sitting on it, all ages and walks of life, chilling out and listening to music and drinking many beers.  I just loved it.

But, I had a plan to go to the famous Cara cu Bere, a Bucharest institution, for dinner.  I was a bit worried to show up on a Saturday night at eight PM with no reservation but I got a table on the terrace with out a problem.  My waiter was kind of stiff at first but when I ordered a second glass of wine he said NO and then when I looked at him like waaaaaaa?, he smiled a big smile.  I felt like I had broken through the sound barrier.  I had a very nice meal there even though the music that followed me at this point was akin to Muzak, and was emerging from the bathroom, two sets of salsa dancers were whipping back and forth right in front of me.  There is dancing and music everywhere! I walked home through the crowded bars and cafes of the old quarter and back to where they were showing the film/music festival thing, and they were showing an opera on a big screen there.  But I was tired, so I walked back home.  The moon was full and as soon as I got in the door it started to, out of nowhere, rain.  That made everything even more steamy, but I could watch the steam from my window.

So, in the end – I really loved Bucharest.  Since I left there, I have been asking myself “would I go back?” and I think the answer is absolutely, yes.  I will never forget some of the people and things I saw there.  Not to mention the wacky architecture -

weirdbuildingBucharest

I guess if you don’t want to tear something down you can just build something totally different on top of it.  Not sure how I feel about it, but it is there, and it is kind of cool in a totally bizarre way.  That is Bucharest.

 

 

The Bizarre and the Beautiful

After some days in Venice and some weeks in Croatia and Spain, I have landed in Romania.  Right now, I am sitting in the kitchen of a farmhouse in the rural region of Maramures.  But when I first got here, I spent a few days in Bucharest, a place that many travelers don’t seem to have to much of an interest in.  But me being me, I went anyway.  And I can safely say that it is one of the most intense, nutty places I’ve ever been to. Last Wednesday night, my landlord picked me up at the airport and drove me to my apartment.  It was one of those drives where I tried not to watch the road, or him because he drove like a cab driver in Naples Italy but one on speed.  On the way (and on the preceding car’s bumper) he pointed out (literally) several of Bucharest’s famous squares and monuments.  Later, I would realize that my landlord, by Bucharest standards, was a pretty tame driver – he even stopped at red lights.

My apartment was in a large, communist era apartment building with two elevators, one of which my landlord said he did not like to take because it jiggled around inside.  (It did, and in a fairly unnerving manner.)  The hallway lights did not come on until you walked under them and there was the occasional cockroach on the hall floor.  However, my apartment was very cute inside, and very clean, and had a view out over part of downtown Bucharest.  It was evening, so the first night, I just went out for dinner.

My first impression, after the crazy drive and the communist block apartment building, was this:

 

HauntedHouseBucharest

 

A once beautiful building, now looking like a real version of the Haunted Mansion, with dirty drapes hanging off it, just a total waste of a spectacular structure.  There were other examples of this decay on the same street, everything just rotting.  I was on my way to the Vatra restaurant down the street (you can see the sign in the picture) and the restaurant was a restored building, clean and fresh, with traditional decoration.  I had a cheap and decent meal there, with lots of other tourists.  As I ate a little dance troup came out from time to time and danced.  One of the dancers looked like a young Ciaran Hinds.  Bonus.

The next day I had to get some work done so I did not make it out until mid afternoon.  I walked around in the old town, which is PACKED with bars and restaurants and also, renovation projects.  Construction everywhere.  I walked around the university area, and down to the Palatul Parlamentului, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s massive palace that he razed a huge chunk of Bucharest’s historical center to build (and which he never got to see completed, as he was overthrown and executed before it was done.)

Palatau

There were once 30,000 residences on the site where this behemoth is now.  Ceaușescu called it Casa Poporului – the “People’s House.”  Guess it wasn’t the people who lost their homes in the razing.  I walked back down the wide, fairly run down Boulevard Unirii (“Unification Boulevard”) thinking maybe Bucharest wasn’t really my thing.  Hot, dirty, more screeching brakes than I have ever heard, anywhere, too many dudes with their bellies hanging out, more exposed beer bellies than I have ever seen, anywhere. I went into a Carrefour market and some lady started waving a package of coffee around at me, going on and on about something.  I told her I was a tourist, but she kept talking in a borderline insane manner.  However, I noticed that she moved on to the next person in that aisle after I walked away, waving the package and ranting about something at them.  Maybe she just wanted to know if it was good coffee.  Who knows.

But of course, places like Bucharest need more time than just one night and one day before one can say it’s “not their thing.”  The next morning I got out early and set off by foot in a northern direction.  I wanted to go to the fine arts museum, but I couldn’t find a way in.  (Turns out it is closed on Fridays – huh?) So I kept walking, up into a more upscale part of Bucharest.  There are some very cool buildings up there.

artnouveaubucharest

Like this one.  It was some kind of cultural center, and they have live music and things inside.  (I think.)

My landlord had told me (actually pointing to them and looking at them when we were driving at high speeds past them) about two museums, the folk museum and the village museum.  I was headed up there.  He also told me that from my apartment, to up to the Village Museum (roughly) was three kilometers.  More on that later.

Outside the folk museum, there was an outdoor market going on, sort of like a crafts and antiques sale.  Inside, there were some cool things, like religious imagery painted onto glass.

GlassIconsBucharest

But there were also a bunch of woman guards who followed me around EVERYWHERE like I was going to steal a relic or something.  It made me uncomfortable.  Also I was getting hungry.

My landlord had also told me about the Hard Rock Cafe which was just above the Village Museum.  I love some of the Hard Rock Cafes in Europe so I headed up to check it out.  However, I am not sure where this “three kilometers” my landlord told me about landed in the realm of reality.  I walked and walked for what seemed like miles (later I would find out it WAS miles.) I walked past many more cool buildings, a giant park, and the Arch di Triomph, Bucharest style.

DSC00663 (800x600) (640x480)

I told you drivers were crazy in Bucharest, right?  They are crazy.  It is in your best interest to get across the street in a hurry.

Finally I made it to the Hard Rock Cafe.  It is the nicest Hard Rock I have ever seen. Huge, clean and with lots of nice staff people wandering around.  I was directed to the “non-smoking” side of the bar where I ate a really tasty hamburger and watched the cute bartenders juggle cocktail shakers.  It was so nice and cool in there, and I was so tired from walking but I couldn’t hang out in there forever so I headed out and back down to the Village Museum.

The Village Museum (http://www.muzeul-satului.ro/) covers a large area in a park and has homes, churches, and farm buildings from all over Romania.  The buildings were dismantled and brought into Bucharest and put back together complete with furnishings.  You can look inside many of the structures to see what life was like for the people in various parts of the country.  It was very spread out and there weren’t too many people around, and I had a great time wandering around.

VillageMuseum2VillageMuseumBucharest

In my time at the Village Museum I stumbled on a sort of Indian festival thing.  There were workshops with what appeared to be Indian motivational speakers, stands selling Indian food and clothing, and a stage where eventually there would be some kind of entertainment.  Indian sitar music played over loudspeakers.  It was very hot and I suddenly felt a feeling of total wellbeing, and also, hey, I kind of like it here.

I took the metro back and when I got back to my ‘hood went into the Radisson Blu hotel for an overpriced Absolute Mandarin and Soda. Can you believe this place is in downtown Bucharest?  It seemed like we were in Hawaii, except here there were speedo-clad dudes with yamachas sipping cokes and talking on their cell phones by the pool. The people watching was well worth the extra seven bucks I paid for my drink, and I even got hot roasted nuts included.

RadissonBlu

Boy did that drink go down well. I got home and realized my feet were completely destroyed.  A quick google search and I found I had walked SIX kilometers, not three, and not including the walking around the museums or back and forth to the metro stops.  So maybe it was more like eight, or even ten, kilometers.  But I had a great day and saw a lot.  The next day would be even better, but I’ll save that for the next post.

The London I

Tomorrow, after seven weeks in the UK and Ireland, I head back to France then Italy.  Then home.

Right now I am in London.  And let me tell you, I am totally and completely enthralled with this place.  Because London is expensive it never made it into my plans, but now that I have been here, I don’t see how I cannot come back really soon.

I love cities.  Love them.  I love small cities, I love big cities, I love kind of beat up cities, I love cities that look like fairy tales.  So I knew I would love London, but what I didn’t know is I would be walking around for five straight days with my mouth hanging open from the awesomeness of it all.  London is an all-beat-up fairy tale.  Peter Pan meets Bomb Damage.  Yes, it is awesome all right.

I have walked.  Walked and walked and walked.  Yes London is quite spread out but I have this weird tic where I think I can walk everywhere.  So my first two days, Saturday and Sunday, I walked myself out.  I must have walked at least ten miles each day, maybe more.  Later in the week I got a little lazy and only walked five miles a day or so. I went to the National Portrait Gallery where I looked at paintings of the Tudors and also the Olympic athletes and even the people who are putting the Olympics on – like the caterers.  Really cool photos of caterers.  The National Portrait Gallery is so big that I couldn’t see everything in one day – I had to go back.  But that is OK and you know why?  It is because ALL THE MUSEUMS IN LONDON ARE FREE.  FREE.  I love, love, LOVE when the museums are free because I truly believe that art is for the people and if the museum is free, obviously more people are gonna see the art.  I would gladly pay more taxes for free museums.  Plus all the museums have really great bars in them, where you can get a glass of wine looking out over the rooftops…

I’ve eaten LA street tacos in a hip place called Wahaca, while trying not to tell the couple next to me you don’t eat tacos with a knife and fork.  I listened to Big Ben ring 5 o’clock, and the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral which rang like there was a royal wedding or something, and for what seemed like hours.  I tried to stand completely still for five minutes in a room full of Rothkos at the Tate Modern, but failed.  I’ve walked in crowds where I thought I would go crazy and alone down medieval streets in the old Roman part of town.  I drank in the oldest pub in London and at the top of a tower.  I looked up a lot, at the architectural styles of several centuries, sometimes on one single city block. I am even entranced by the ugliest post-war architecture here, which means that we are still in the honeymoon phase.  “Wow, that is really ugly!” I say to myself happily, skipping down the street trying not to run into someone texting in front of me.

St. Paul’s, viewed from bar at the Oxo Tower, is surrounded by this ugly/beautiful architecture.  I could not take my eyes off it.  A shaft of light broke through scattered clouds and St. Paul’s lit up in the most glorious way imaginable, shining like some kind of rosy colored beacon in the middle of all these drab office buildings.  Hundreds of people work down there and they also drink down there because the all the pubs – and there are a ton of them, let me tell you – are all packed at 5 PM.

The paralympics are going on, and there was a real circus at Piccadilly Circus on Sunday.  Acrobats, tightropers, kids dancing around on balls, a woman floating around under a giant balloon.  London has done a fantastic job with lots of free events, like the circus and also many places to watch the games on giant screens around town.  And if you are trying to figure out how to get somewhere, there are legions of helpers in pink vests who are there to point you in the right direction.  I can’t stand and stare at a metro map for more than 20 seconds before someone in a pink vest approaches me to ask if I need help.  Even if I could figure it out on my own, how awesome is it that someone is there to help?

There are so many museums here, so many parks, so many pubs, so many perches to sit and watch people walk by.  I had five days but I need five weeks, maybe five months.  So, its on the radar – a longer stay here, in this most amazing of cities.

A week in Ljubljana

Slovenia is not on most people’s travel wish list, and I arrived there a month ago with little understanding of what was in store.  I met up with my friends Deborah and Dan there, and Deborah did most of the planning.  So I showed up not really knowing what to expect.  My first stop (not theirs, they spent time in other parts of Slovenia before meeting up with me) was the capital city of Ljubljana.

Our apartment was in a huge building with wide hallways.  The hallway leading to our apartment was eclectically furnished with various statues, wine making equipment, old newspapers, dog bowls, and many other items.  Our landlady is an actress, and the apartment had a lot of cool stuff in it.  It didn’t feel like a rental – it felt like staying in the San Francisco apartment of a really hip friend.  Only in Ljubljana, where the wine is way cheaper.  This statue was in our hallway:

We arrived during the hottest week of the year, and this hallway was like an oven, until late in the week when two days of constant thunderstorms and rain cooled it down.

Our first night we went out and walked along the river, which is lined with cafes and bars.  Every single cafe, every single bar, was packed.  It was Saturday night and it seemed like every person in Slovenia, much less Ljubljana, was out that night.  The next day we went to an antique market and to the castle on top of the hill. When we were at the castle, we went to the restaurant up there for a drink, and saw what others were eating.  I was sure it would be expensive, but after checking out more of the castle and realizing we were starving we went back there to eat something. It was not expensive – it was, in fact, pretty cheap. We ate a local fresh cheese with chopped up fresh herbs on top, local sausages, a tasty homemade ravioli, and some crepes.  WIth wine and beer it was something like forty dollars for three of us. Our waiter was very young, and served us because the regular waiters were all finished with their shift.  He was so sweet and personable.  I will never forget him or that lunch.

That night was the Euro cup final, so it is a good thing we loaded up on food, because we were in for a night of drinking at a local pub with a lot of Spanish students and maybe five Italy fans.  We had made a reservation, which was a good thing because the place was totally packed.  It was also insanely smoky in there.  Slovenians, like Croatians, smoke like chimneys.  I am such a woos when it comes to smoke these days but I managed to make it through and Spain whooped Italy’s ass which made 90% of the 200 people in the room very happy.  And our bar bill – for a lot of beers and glasses of wine over the three hours were there – was only 14 euro.  Crazy.

The rest of the week I did a bit of sightseeing with Deborah and Dan and took care of some business while they went off on their own.  One day I wandered in the afternoon by myself.  Llubljana is not a big town (at least the old part) and it is very lovely.  You do have to watch out for bikers, because they will mow you down if you are not careful.  This woman was walking peacefully with her bike, which I appreciated.

Llubjlana is full of nooks and crannies like this one just down the street from our apartment.

And cool cafes that look like cafes from long ago.  Or ARE cafes from long ago.

The river is a quiet and peaceful one though on our first night, we saw some tempting “booze cruise” action – a barge with a bar and a throbbing beat.  But, there isn’t too far to go so I think it went back and forth a few times. That’s a bar down there under those awnings!

Speaking of nightlife Ljubljana was ALWAYS hopping in the evening.  We went out once on a Tuesday and it was not that easy to find am outside table to sit and drink at.  Finally, we ran into our awesome server from the pub we went to the night of the Euro Cup – she ALSO worked at a wine bar.  Our wine bar tab was far from 14 euros though, mostly because Dan kept ordering a beer for every wine I got, only the beers were way bigger, forcing me to order another wine because he had half a beer left.  But then he would order another beer.  It went on this way for some time.

A full moon, people hanging out in the moonlight:

There was a lot of public drinking by youngsters at the river’s edge.  We are talking whole bottles of whiskey drunk in one sitting by three teenage girls, not just a couple of beers.  A bit worrisome, to be honest, but hopefully they will all grow out of it, or move on to fine wine like I did in my later years.

In our week in Ljubljana. I also witnessed two insane, also really long, thunderstorms.  One was on a day when Deborah and Dan went out for the day and I stayed home to get some work done.  The storm raged, with thunder and lightening and heavy rain, for three straight hours.  Another day – our last – we left the apartment to go to Tivoli Park and immediately it started to rain and it continued for, you got it, three hours.  We spent some time in a cafe and then got out when the rain stopped briefly, only to be forced to a really weird bar overlooking an indoor swimming pool.  I am scared of lightening, and I was scared both days.  Yes, I am a woos.  Also, why we did not bring our umbrellas out that day is a mystery to me.  Here’s the park after one of the rainstorms – it is huge and has lots of empty space.  Lovely.

At the end of that day though, we happened upon a Serbian orthodox church, and when we went in their was a mass going on.  That was very memorable.  Young priests with incense, Byzantine looking paintings everywhere, it was pretty cool.

I loved Ljubljana and would like to go back and live there for a month sometime.  The people were so friendly, and it is a fun, clean, easy to move around in town.  After that we headed north.  I’ll try to get a bit more caught up soon…