Romania was amazing! Here is a really good travel story -- we had a great time, but this is how these things really work. We talk about how great things are, the wonderful things we do and see, we keep our attitude up, and it all sounds like everything goes smoothly. Sometimes it does, but we DID have to work for it this time!
We really enjoyed Cluj, but we were floundering. We saw a lot of the city, even became familiar with much of it. We began to get a feel for the place and the people, even though we really never had a long conversation with anyone. It was a nice city to explore and we felt pretty proud of ourselves for even being in Romania! But, underlying it all, we were very scared. We felt like we didn't really know what we were doing and the resources we were used to falling back on were not there. We kept talking about writing some postcards and then running back to friendly, safe, comfortable BudaPest! (But of course Budapest was pretty scary that first night too!) We wanted to meet people, we wanted to see how people really lived, we wanted to get out of the city and see the villages. I guess we were spoiled in London, Germany and Hungary: we stayed with people who lived there, we ate with them and talk to them, we saw the way they lived. That is the best way to travel! We wanted that here too!
The guidebooks, which proved even more useless than usual, listed a tourist information center run by the Transylvanian Ecological Club, part of the University, on the main square -- but it was no longer there. We found a sign for a Mountain Tourism Club at the Student center, but they only met on Tuesdays so were not able to connect. People were very very helpful, whenever we asked someone they would go well out of their way to help us. Many of the students were nervous because it was the first time they had spoken English to a native speaker! We visited a couple of normal travel agents -- with little luck.
We spent three days in this situation -- enjoying the city and being in Romania, occasionally running off to some medieval tower or interesting museum. But mostly hiding in the Internet Club, doing work we needed to do but also avoiding the things we were thinking. We were afraid of what to do next. We didn't want to leave, we wanted to do cool things, but things were not working. We were questioning if we were really up to this travel thing. It was tough.
In addition to what to do in Romania, we had all kinds of decisions to make, errands to run and things to work out. We didn't know where we were going to spend my birthday and where we were going after Romania... we had thought about going to Dalmatia for my birthday, but we really wanted clear weather for the possible meteor storm. Usually this is a good situation to be in. You start doing the little things, crossing things off the list, and things just start to fall together; but every time we tried to clear up a few of the errands we had to do, things didn't work. We were very discouraged.
About midway through the time in Cluj we decided to ditch the the stupid, inaccurate, guidebooks and follow our instincts. We walked 30 minutes away from the center and went into a travel agency we had heard about and asked about getting out in to the mountains, and how we could see a rural part of Romania. Andrei was so friendly he was almost overbearing! He gave us some options that were far beyond what we had thought about... rent a car and drive around Romania for two weeks!... take the train to 3 out-of-the-way places!... 5 hour train rides away!!?? aauug. Scary! We were thinking about just visiting a family on the outskirts of Cluj! We sulked away thinking that we couldn't handle it.
This only made our floundering worse -- we had something to reach for, but it seemed beyond us. Finally we found ourselves sitting in the central square for an hour or so trying to decide if we should do something that Andrei had suggested, go to a mountain resort village that another travel agent had suggested or just go back to Budapest. After we got something to eat to clear our heads we decided, not at all confidently, that we would do one of the excursions Andrei at Pan Travel had suggested. We had lowered down his many extensive ideas to just one, a place in the Carpathian mountains called Vama.
It took several phone calls to reach him, and collecting our motivation each time, but
that afternoon we finally started to get a few things done... post, phone, money... We
finally talked to him and, after half a dozen phone calls, it was decided. Yes, we would go to Vama. Someone named Boca would meet us at the train station in Vama. We needed to buy a ticket and leave the next day at 12:38. It was a 6 hour ride. Of course, at the last minute he introduced some confusion by deciding that we needed to call him before leaving the next day to make certain all was ok. We were excited, but still scared.
We also moved to another hotel, one right near the train station that was cheap, but really a dump (however, the people were very nice) and when we checked in we discovered that we only had about 120,000 lei and it cost 200,000 (about $12) -- so i had to leave my passport at the desk. I really don't like doing that. On the way back into town we walked past one of the hotels that the guidebooks said was terrible, and peeked inside. It was nice and reasonably priced. Oh well.
We felt like we were on a roll now. We checked out climate data and discovered that the mediterranean tended to have lots of rain in November, but that Prague and Eastern Germany tended to have very little. So we decided to phone a pen pal of one of Cheryln's friends who lived in Dresden to see if we could spend my birthday week there. It turned out that the phone number was bad... but we went to the internet place to look it up. I found the Deutchetelekom website pretty quickly, and we were able to figure out how to use the database but the name was not listed! Then we thought about the extra letters in German and how to substitute an e for an umlaut and it worked! We found the number and called her and she wasn't there. But we called back in an hour and talked to her and it turned out that were eager to actually have us stay in their house! Things were going well and we were excited.
In the morning, Saturday, all the ATMs were down for repairs... and we had to get out money, not only for Vama, but to pay for the hotel and get my passport back. We ran around and around, but we finally found one, paid for the hotel and caught our train.
It was another gorgeous train ride through Romania... mountains and
forests (and lots of army guards along the tracks during one mountain
pass!). We had a compartment to our selves, because we had decided
to go First Class -- a mistake. The guide book said that first class
was only about $2 USD more than the $10 USD 2nd class fare, but in fact
it was over $30!!!! Also, although it is nice to have the compartment
to ourselves --- it can isolate us too much. We only speak english...
no cute old women in traditional costumes falling asleep on the leg
of the super trendy teenage girl like on the previous train!
Also it was very dark when we got to Vama. We were very scared about getting off a the right station, but we managed it. (And learned the Romanian word for 'next' in the process: Prima!) The train pulled out and we were alone in the middle of nowhere.
Then a voice said hello, and there was a young woman who spoke perfect
english. She was our host, or actually our host's daughter. Like
most Romanians the parents spoke Romanian, Italian (which is almost identical)
French, and Russian, but not English. So Ani came 4 hours home from
her first semester at University to translate for us.
After a short drive along the dirt roads we came through a huge gate
(all Romanian houses have big fancy gates!) into a yard with dogs
and cats and chickens. We were directed to a little 3 room house
with wood heat (very warm!) and hot showers.
After our shower we walked over to the main house and a HUGE dinner
was laid out! As soon as they discovered that we don't eat meat,
the meat was replaced with veggies and chicken (from the yard!).
I was so hungry and not wanting to be rude, that I was eating every
thing put in front of me. I felt like a glutton! (When travelling
I train my insides to accept meat if neccessary for those rare times
when there is no choice!) We joked that the mother was like a
a magician because more food kept appearing! We had not eaten
well for the previous few days, but man we ate well in Vama!
The family was very friendly and we had a nice chat after our
huge dinner and dessert (sweet pancakes). Then we slept VERY
well in our cozy little wood heated house.
In the morning, we awoke to find we were in this gorgeous valley
with this tiny little picture book village in it!
We had a big breakfast before we set out on our
'program'. There was an interesting language thing that happened.
At dinner the previous evening they asked us what we liked for
breakfast. We said that we usually ate hot cereal like oatmeal.
In the morning they had frosted flakes and warm milk. We wondered
if this was something that they ate (it was actually quite good
on a cold morning!) but you could tell from Ani's expression that
it was new to her too!!!!
Our 'program' was getting into the family car (a Dacia, the only car
in Romania before 1990 and still about 90%, unlike Lada and Trabant,
they have updated them and still make them. The old ones look just
like Peugeots, the new ones look like Volvos.) and exploring the area.
Before we got in the car, the father pumped up the tires with a hand
First we went to a Ethnographic museum with wooden tools from the
area, some were recent and some were over 400 years old. It was
FASCINATING and we had a private tour guide (the dad) and translator
(Ani). Much of the technology was amazingly similar to the Native
Then we drove a long way through the mountains and over a mountain
pass. We drove to within about 12 km of the border with Ukraine.
We had a picnic with us for lunch and they passed out apples (from
their tree) while we drove. I didn't want to throw the core out
the window, but I figured, 'When in Romania, do like the Romanians!'.
Then we arrived in another little village where we were ushered into
a small nicely furnished modern looking house. I should tell you that
the region we were in is called Southern Bucovina. Bucovina is split
between Ukraine and Romania, so only the southern part is in Romania.
This is the region where they paint the famous exquisitely detailed
We were introduced to a woman who sat down and started painting an
egg for us. She learned it from her grandmother, and was teaching her
9 yo daughter! She described what she was doing, making a design with
warm beeswax on an empty duck egg. Then she put it in yellow dye and
put more wax designs on it, and again with red and finally black.
After working for 40 minutes she had a black egg with lots of fancy
beeswax on it. Then she plugged in her hair dryer and heated up the
egg and wiped it off and underneath was a SPECTACULAR gorgeous red,
white, yellow and black egg!!! It only took 40 minutes! It was
an amazing experience! And then she... GAVE US THE EGG! It was
a gift, she said! We were floored.
After lunch, on my way to the outhouse, I passed the chickens,
the ducks and the beehives!!!!!
We left the village and went to the major tourist attraction of
Bucovina, the Orthodox monasteries which have every square centimeter
of surface, inside and outside, painted with iconography depicting
biblical events for the illiterate. There are half a dozen of these
monasteries in the close vicinity, each with their own primary color.
I'm glad we only went to one, because, although it was a stunning and
beautiful church, it was quite overwhelming!
The next day Ani had gone back to school, and we walked around the
village of Vama, and even up the hillside a little bit. It was very
nice. The family did EVERYTHING for us... the bought our train tickets
for us (a difficult process because we would have had to go to the
next town) and even did our laundry. On that last night we had
another huge meal, and the main course was a very hearty, yummy soup.
The Europeans tend to put sour cream in their soups and so it wasn't
a surprise when I was halfway through my first bowl the mother came
in with a small red pail. But in this pail was cream, fresh, thick sour
cream. FROM THE COW NEXT DOOR! It only a few hours old! It was
indescribable... and it was GOOD!!!!
After a brief encounter with loud hungry mice in the night (our fault
for leaving food lying around) we got up and were driven to the
train station. I REALLY didn't want to leave!! It was such a nice
place with nice people. Oh, and the cost? We paid in Deutchmarks,
but it was about $101 USD. 1.8 million Lei. To us, a cheap weekend,
to them.... they just won the lottery. (average salary is less than
200,000 per month!) AMAZING.
We took the train all the way to Budapest that night and the next
morning were in the baths!!!! Ahhhhh.....