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

Archive for July, 2013

Striking Sibiu

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

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.

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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

Monday, July 15th, 2013

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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From One Extreme to the Other

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

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 –

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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:

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And it looks like this guy was a bartender.

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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:

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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.

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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

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

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.