We've covered a lot of territory since we last updated from Bucharest. We spent 10 days in Romania and 6 in Hungary, so this update will include both countries in 4 entries. Since we don't divide up the writing chronologically, I'll outline our route so you don't get too confused, or perhaps to confuse you more.
We started in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. We headed north towards Transylvania and spent 2 nights in Sinaia, a small town in the mountains, then continued north to Brasov. We then headed west to Saliste, a small village in the country to stay at a rural pension, then onto Timisoara, our last stop in Romania. From Timisoara we went straight to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. We were here 2 days, then spent 2 days a little north of the city in the town of Pomaz, and now we are back in Budapest for one more night before we hydroplane up to Slovakia.
After living quite a decadent life in Italy we were ready to scale back a little and head to Eastern Europe. As much as we really enjoyed our 4 weeks in Western Europe, we found ourselves missing the simplicity and/or chaos of Africa. Eastern Europe seemed like a good compromise.
I think most anyone who's been to Bucharest, Romania would agree that there's really not any "must-see" tourist attractions. It's a big city with most of the big city amenities, but none of the charm you find in, say, Rome. While it's really not fair to compare Romania to Italy, we had just arrived from Italy and couldn't avoid the occasional comparison. Bucharest is full of big, beautiful, grand buildings that indicated that at one time, prior to the years of oppressive communism, there were "Glory Days" of Bucharest. But, sadly, the majority of these buildings sit is a state of neglect and disrepair that is more remincient of their more recent past. Romania has great aspirations to join the EU sometime in the next 10 years and are trying to bring their country up to the level required to join. They seem to have a long way to go. However, having said that, I must say, we really liked Romania. Life did seem a lot more simple there...the parks were full of families having picnics, teenagers flirting on rollerblades or in row boats, old men playing chess for hours, amorous couples under the impression they were in their own private room.
Definitely the highlight of our 10 days in Romania was our 2 nights in Saliste, a village of 2000 people in central Transylvania. In our trusty Lonely Planet Guide Book we found a website (www.ruraltourism.ro) that helps tourists find rural pensions. It was a surprisingly user-friendly website in about 4 different languages, with pictures of all the options and specific information on what is offered at each pension. We picked one on our route towards the Hungarian border that offered to pick us up at the train station, and indicated that they spoke English. Beyond that, we really didn't know where we were going.
When I spoke with Ella (the woman who, with her husband, Rudi, owns the pension) on the phone I made sure to describe what Snow and I look like so Rudi could be sure to find us among the crowd of all the other people also debarking the train at Saliste. Once we arrived I realized that it really wasn't necessary, we would be hard to miss. Besides a group of about 10 middle schoolers and their teacher we were the only ones to get off the train. Their mode of transport from the train station was a wooden horse-drawn cart--seriously. Rudi was a couple minutes late and as I assessed the situation I realized that if there had been some sort of miscommunication with Ella and we were at the wrong station or she thought we were coming a different day we would be camping in the field next to the station. There were no buses, no taxis, no cars, no food vendors, no phone, just a one room building that served as the train station that was vacant 5 minutes after the train left. We couldn't even tell which direction the town of Saliste was in. Fortunately, Rudi faithfully arrived to whisk us away to 2 days of blissful tranquility. I think he let us sit there for 10 minutes before he came to give us time to fully appreciate how far we were from anywhere.
Rudi, who is Dutch, and Ella, who is Romanian, have a 9 month old son, Tomas and had recently opened their pension. The main house, where we stayed was only about 6 months old. There were two guesthouses across the courtyard that seemed to be a little older, perhaps among the original buildings on the property. Our room appeared to be decorated directly from the IKEA catelogue. We were living large, for the bargain price of about $25 a night. The view from our room looked out over the courtyard and off towards the hills surrounding the village. I had a hard time pulling myself away from there.
The day we arrived there was a French-speaking Swiss family staying there that was driving back to Switzerland after attending their son's wedding in another small Romanian town, an older Dutch couple who were in the middle of their 10 day stay in Rudi and Ella, and a French man who was 3 days into his 3 month stay there. All the meals were served family-style so we had several multi-lingual meals there. We never could figure out what the Frenchman was going to do there for 3 months. We was in his mid-40's and claimed to be retired. When we asked what he was planning to do while there he answered cryptically, "the same thing I would be doing at home". He avoided elaborating any further.
We rented hybrid bikes from Rudi and ventured into the countryside. It was a fabulous way to take in all the details and really appreciate how rural Romania seems to still be residing in the early 1900s. With few exceptions all farm transportation is with horse-drawn carts, often impressive loads. All work in the fields is manually done with scythes and hoes. We felt like we were riding our bikes through a movie set. Our little rural fairytale ride came to a brief halt when a Romanian soldier stopped us on a rural dirt road at an intersection between two fields to tell us that we could not continue in the direction we had intended. From what we could understand, with the aid of lots of hand gestures, pointing, and oral sound effects, the area that was closed was being used for military tactical training. That seemed a little out of place with the farmer using a pitchfork to load up his wagon with hay 15' to our right. But, no worries, we found an alternative route and were still able to make it to Sibiu, a larger town of 150,000. Upon arriving to the outskirts of Sibui we were catapulted back into the year 2004 when we randomly stopped at a huge store called Metro. We had no idea what they sold and really just stopped out of curiosity. It was Romania's Costco (or Sam's Club), chock full of steroes, TVs, Karchers (a type of pressure washer), huge packages of food, bikes, anything you could possibly imagine. We were in shock. We didn't buy anything, mostly because we didn't have any need for the 10 kilo bag of pretzles, but we also figured that we need a membership--we snuck in the store with a big family going in so we were able to avoid having to show a membership card. Rudi told us later that as foreigners we could have gotten in and bought things with our passports, but we didn't have them with us at the time. Besides, our visit was more for entertainment value than consumer purposes. Our heads were spinning by the time we walked out.
Two days of relaxing in the countryside, breathing fresh air, and sleeping like the dead only made me want to stay two more days, but alas, we needed to move on. We were looking forward to getting to Budapest, Hungary.