Sibiu, Romania: Over the past two weeks we have explored a huge swath of southeastern Europe, getting to know parts of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, on and off the beaten path. In Vienna we hired a car and headed due east, spending the bulk of our time in the Transylvania towns of Brasov and Sibiu and also visiting Budapest, Bucharest, the Baltic sea resort of Varna, and Bulgaria’s fortress town of Veliko Tarnovo.
These are the Top 10 Surprises in the Wild East:-
#10 It hasn’t been a holiday in hell. Eastern Europe has a reputation for hard traveling and I quietly feared this would be the kind of vacation in which I need another vacation to recover. Our first night in Romania, in Oradea — an armpit of a worn-down industrial town a few kilometers from the Hungarian border –gave me real reason to worry. The hotel we stayed in (the best in town) was lousy with a dismal breakfast. Many abandoned factories, relics of the communist era, disfigure the landscape around Oradea. After passing ugly mass housing blocs and unkempt streets with power lines galore, I imagined this environment would be the new normal in Romania. The journey has indeed been arduous, including an unplanned visit to a pediatric hospital to deal with my son’s upset tummy. To my surprise the hospital was well-equipped and clean and Dr Dora’s caring medical attention top-notch. These challenges have been mitigated by the warmth of the Romanian people — and by dull blades.
#9 But getting around is hellish. I average 100 km a day cycling on secondary Western European roads. I assumed that we could easily manage several hundred kilometers a day driving on primary roads in Eastern Europe. I was wrong. The pot-holed roads are terrible; the highways — all three of them — incomplete; and in cities road signs and operable traffic lights are scarce. It’s slow-going here, with some days requiring a full day in our boxy Fiat to cover 300 kilometers. On which occasions my son doesn’t ask “are we there yet?” but rather, “when are we going home?”
#8 Bulging bellies are in fashion. Thankfully, Speedos are not. In the Black Sea resort of Varna, a destination popular with Russians, Ukranians, Romanians and even Brits, I have never seen such a dense collection of seriously bulging bellies. It’s an epidemic.
#7 The Black Sea isn’t black. And it reminds me of Vegas. The sea is dark blue, actually. Varna has all the accoutrements of Vegas — casinos, cheeziness, booziness, an Eiffel tower, an Elvis impersonator, male and female belly dancers, and plenty of ways to spend your lev.
#6 Bulgarian food is tasty. Really. After subsisting mostly on pizza and an occasional McD’s (whenever we can find one) in Romania, I was pleasantly surprised by the tasty and healthy salads and grilled meats and vegetables in Bulgaria. Maybe I’ll start of chain of Bulgarian kebab restaurants.
#5 The Communist standard for efficiency endures. Border crossings, despite EU membership and nearly two decades after the fall of communism, involve a frustrating and time-consuming process of procuring exit and entry stamps, validating car registration, money exchange, and the purchase of “road tax” stickers. Our crossing from Bulgaria into Romania took two hours on a Sunday morning.
#4 Traffic jam = 2 horses and buggies. Cars, trucks, tractors, horses and buggies (and sometimes donkeys and buggies), bicycles, people selling fruits, vegetables, garlic and even erotic beach towels (hundreds of kilometers inland)…..just about anything goes on Romania’s two-lane roads, except for easy driving. The friendly gal pictured in this photo sold us some berries while we were held up during some road construction.
#3 Pedestrians rule. Romanian drivers are ruthless and frequently reckless, overtaking cars on blind curves, for example. But in a courtesy and civility which I have not seen anywhere else, at crosswalks Romanians drivers unfailingly stop — sometimes screechingly so — and patiently wait for pedestrians to cross the street.
#2 Roadside “quickies.” There are three types of people commonly found alongside Romanian roads: hitchikers of all ages; people selling stuff; and what I will politely call working women. On major trucking routes these scantily dressed ladies can usually be spotted waiting in areas where it is easy for trucks and cars to pull off for some fast customer service. Judging by the number of idle vehicles, business is good. Very good.
#1 Dracula is nowhere to be found. Except on mugs. But we buy garlic at roadside stalls. Just in case.