Europe | Romania | Bucharest – Bears and boars in Bucharest
My main intention of visiting Romania was to follow the trail of Prince Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler but best known as Dracula. And so I found myself in Bucharest where his resting place is said to be. (Cue vampire pipe organ music).
Getting here (and detained by Bulgarian police)
Back on the train. I had opted for bus travel in Greece and Turkey as it had been faster, more frequent and did not cost much more than the train. Besides, my rail pass had expired when I reached Athens.
I had caught the 11 p.m. Bosfor Ekspresi from Istanbul Sirkeci, which ought to have reached Bucharest in eighteen hours. However there was nothing ekspresi about the journey. At 6 a.m. the train stopped at the Bulgarian-Turkish border station of Svilengrad for routine passport checks. The immigration woman who checked mine had it in her mind that mine was a forgery. Admittedly my passport is well travelled such that the wrinkly inside front cover looks like a botched home made job. I was told to get off the train with my bag and wait in the office while her colleagues examined my passport, ran their fingers over it, sniffed it and scratched at the plastic laminate. They couldn’t determine if it was real or not, and I was driven to the headquarters a few miles away. Here, more scratching and sniffing went on before they ran it through the computer scanner and determined that it was real. No kidding, I thought, as I slapped my hand to my forehead Homer Simpson style.
By this time the train had already left. The officers told me how to get to Bucharest by way of changing trains a few times. I had to wait till noon for the first train out of Svilengrad to Dimitrovgrad. From there I then took one to Mihajlovo, then to Gorna Oryakhovitsa, then to Ruse on the Bulgarian-Romanian border. The stations were all in remote towns, and no one spoke any English but I somehow worked out the right stations to get off. The signs were also all in Cyrillic which didn’t help matters. By the time I got to Ruse it was 10 p.m., and I had a six hour wait for the 4 a.m. train to Bucharest. I slept in the station until my train arrived, and got in to Bucharest around 7 a.m., about fourteen hours later than expected.
All this because of some overzealous immigration woman on a power trip who was probably behind her quota on spotting fake passports. It’s easy to see why as she’s obviously not very good at it. So that was my time in Bulgaria, a day spent travelling on rickety trains and fleeting glimpses of the countryside from train windows. You can bet which country I’m not visiting for tourism purposes in the future.
Bucharest is closed
Public holidays, the scourge of travellers. I hadn’t counted on it being Orthodox Easter weekend when I arrived in Bucharest on Saturday, but it was. The public holiday stretched from Saturday to Tuesday, which meant that practically everything shuts down and the locals go on holiday.
With nothing open I had no choice but to walk around and hope for the best. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that there is nothing particularly remarkable about Bucharest. Everything just seems to have an air of dreariness about it. The buildings are square, grey and drab. The main boulevards may seem to be litter free, but turn a corner and you’ll see where they ended up; swept up against buildings or collected in the gutters. Graffiti decorate derelict buildings long abandoned from construction due to lack of money.
I strolled down to the People’s Palace, a large square building which is the second largest administration building in the world after the Pentagon. Even the pavement outside the palace is cracked and broken up, but I got the feeling no one could be bothered doing anything about it.
I also took a walk in the Herastrau park, a large sprawling green area with a lake and is fortunately one of the redeeming features of Bucharest. The park is larger than it looks on the map and I barely covered a quarter of it from a morning of walking. Locals dressed in their Sunday attire were casually strolling around. The Village Museum, which is situated in the park, was also closed. Otherwise I might have had an interesting time looking at the displays of Romanian houses and architecture dating back to olden times.
Bears, boars and brains
If I thought Turkey was a cheap place to visit Romania is even cheaper. I could eat and live quite well here; a generous meal could be had for a few dollars.
One lunch time I visited the Burebista restaurant with another Aussie, Derek, and dragged along an American girl called Sunday. We had wanted to visit this place as it served Romanian game. The restaurant was decked out with solid wooden chairs and tables, sort of like what you might find in medieval times. To add to the atmosphere there were various stuffed animals lounging around the place. A large boar head on the wall, several pheasants and ducks, bear skins on the floor, and a large stuffed bear looking back at the diners. They must have at least ten endangered species there.
Derek and I went a bit adventurous and ordered breadcrumbed veal brains and boar meat balls for appetizers. The boar was nice and tasty but as for the brains, well, it had an interesting texture. For our main course we ordered bear. I actually liked it as it was certainly different from other meats I have tried. But let me tell you that having a stuffed bear staring at you while you’re eating one of his cousins doesn’t exactly assist in digestive matters. Especially when you’ve had brains as an entree.
Sunday wasn’t game to try anything as far flung as that and deferred to the venison. Over the meal we tried to outdo each other with stories of the various weird things we have eaten on our travels (I see your cow’s intestines, and raise you pig’s ears!). Well, at least I can tick bear and boar off my list now.
In search of Dracula’s tomb
One afternoon a group of us hired a driver to take us to Lake Snagov, where Dracula’s tomb lies. Vlad our driver (yes, ironic isn’t it) took us on an interesting ride in the Vladmobile, weaving in and out of traffic, sometimes with millimetres to spare. We were hanging on to the seats with both hands most of the time. That’s another thing about Romanian drivers, they’re all insane.
When we got to Lake Snagov, we hired tiny fiberglass boats and rowed out to the island in the middle of the lake. Here, there is a monastery run by a nun and three monks. In the monastery we got a glimpse of Dracula’s tomb, which turned out to be a slab of concrete in the ground with his picture on it. There wasn’t much else to look at on the island and we left shortly after, but it was interesting nonetheless to have tracked down one of the legendary figures of medieval times. And there was no need for garlic or crucifixes either.
Maybe next time
I’ll have to admit that the most interesting thing I saw in Bucharest was Dracula’s tomb. Other than that the city lacks the charm and sophistication of other European cities. After the revolution and overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989 Romania seems to be struggling to emerge from its era of oppression, but the transition is occurring slowly. Few travellers would fall in love with Bucharest, and perhaps it was just the timing of my visit with Easter weekend when everything was shut, but I saw little that impressed me enough to make a second visit.