Romania is an interesting place. This was my second time visiting, the first was in August 2007 and I only got to visit Bucharest, the capital. This time, my friend Mike and I got to see most of the country aside from the Black Sea coast. Romania is a surprising place for Eastern Europe. It has very good food, a loose and free atmosphere, a lot to see and do and it has pretty good infrastructure less a few roads near the Carpathians. Romania is on the surface a great addition to the European Union but unfortunately for me, a few bad incidents marred my time there a bit toward the end of my week stay. But those aside, I had a blast in Romania and am very happy I took the time to really explore and experience Bucharest, Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains.
I am telling you right now that Bucharest is as cool a place as Prague and better than Budapest in my opinion and has a lot less tourists. There is a lot going on, there is a great Old Town teeming with energy, nightlife, bars, restaurants and beautiful people to boot; although the men dress really weird/European! Bucharest is Eastern Europe’s secret so to speak as many people pass on it for the more well known and touristed neighboring cities. However, I am here to tell you to go there, it’s pretty awesome.
Bucharest blends its checkered history. You can freely see the ugly face of Communism all over the city that was created and flaunted by their two decades dead former dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu. Then you can stroll down Parisian style boulevards and look at grandiose, beautiful buildings and turn the corner to see dingy side streets flanked by soviet style high rises next to a gorgeous 18th century church and a pack of stray dogs. You can stroll around the old streets of old town. They are so old that many of the streets aren’t paved, cobblestoned or anything-it’s just dirt. But that is the charm of it.
Street performers light up the streets in the evenings. Young synchronized dance teams, bicyclists, puppeteers, comedians and buskers alike entertain tourists and locals in the early evenings in old town. The bars and restaurants literally spill out onto the streets as tables are packed with young people smoking away at a rate of 5 cigarettes a minute (or so it seems). Prices are cheap, beer is cold, fashion is short, tight and a lot of it. Romanian women are amongst the most attractive I have ever seen and they truly seem to believe that short and tight is the way to go…no complaints here!
Mike and I stayed at the Radisson Blu, which is the newest of Bucharest’s top hotels. The place was spectacular and affordable for a 5 star hotel. It is much nicer than the Hilton across the street or the soviet era looking Intercontinental. It also has an excellent pool and the best hot tub I have ever used. It was massive, clean and had the best jets and water pipes for massaging your head and shoulders. When we came back to Bucharest for the last night, we stayed at the Ramada Majestic which was crappy for the 69 Euros it cost but it was a much closer walk to old town.
After Bucharest we headed back to airport to rent a car to drive around the rest of the country. After getting an alleged speeding ticket (I think, which I will discuss later), we headed north into Transylvania.
Transylvania is one of the mythical places in the world where little is known by most about it or even where it is, much like Timbuktu, but everyone has heard of it. It is of course famous because of the Irishman Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”. People seem to think it was based on something in particular or real but apparently the novel was purely fiction although likely inspired by tales of Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler.
The first stop was the medieval ski resort town of Sinaia on the southern border of Transylvania. Sinaia is dubbed the pearl of the Carpathians as it boasts Romania’s only skiing and also has the country’s most awesome palace or castle. It also has some amazing views after you’ve driven up nearly 1000 meters on the windy and narrow roads.
There are some cool medieval houses on the mountain and there is also a nice monastery called Manastirea Sinaia but the highlight for the tourist is clearly Peles Castle (above). The 19th century German Renaissance castle is truly spectacular to view from afar and I am sure it is great from inside but it is closed on Monday’s and we could not enter the day we were there. However, there would be more castles to see.
We next drove up to Transylvania’s most popular tourist attraction, Bran Castle. Bran Castle is alleged to be the home of Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler but as we have come to learn, it is not. It is also likely that Vlad never even stepped foot inside the castle. However, the castle itself is still cool to see and tour through the 57 rooms including some great views across to Rasnov.
Rasnov boasts a cool fortress or citadel style castle that you can see clearly from the road coming from the south. It looks pretty awesome from afar. Unfortunately, when you actually park, they make you take this tractor train thing that is painfully slow and you arrive to see the fortress is actually in pretty bad shape and crumbling. The views make the stop off worth it but you can only get good pictures from the road down below and there is a big Rasnov Hollywood sign style sign on the cliff which is pretty lame; although I was to find out that they are doing it to differentiate themselves from the capital of Transylvania, Brasov, which does the same thing.
Brasov is cool, really cool. It is a great little medieval town that they call “Little Prague”. I must say there are some resemblances in the architecture and the main square as they have s stupid clock thing as Prague does that goes every hour. However, I think it is more like Krakow and is much friendlier and less touristed than Prague and I love Prague.
Aside from strolling around, we ate at this one restaurant called Sergiana which was killer. It is pure Romanian hearty food and after a starter of assorted meats and cheeses and two mains of more pork and beef, we had to be rolled out. We then went to watch the mens US Open final at a cool little sports bar just off the square near our hotel, Hirschner Residence, called Gott. It was a great whiskey and scotch bar that had all the great whiskeys of the world and great prices to match. It was a nice place to watch Djokovic kick Nadal’s butt!
Brasov has some other cool attractions as well. The best is the Black Church which is so called because of its appearance after a 17th century fire. It closes at 5 though so be aware. However, the main thing to do in Brasov is eat, drink and just stroll around, like many of Eastern Europe’s great cities.
After Brasov we drove an hour and half north up to Sighisoara which was the best stop on the road trip. Sighisoara is the epitome of the Transylvania you dream about. It kind of makes you think you’re in another time and space once you leave the main road of restaurants and shops and head up into the citadel.
The citadel has a very well preserved medieval core that is surrounded by beautiful hilly countryside and in certainly captivating. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Tepes which attracts a lot of Dracula tourists. In fact every single store in Sighisoara sells nothing but Dracula related stuff. His birth house is now a hokey restaurant which legions of nutty tourists flock to snap pictures and buy merchandise.
After lunch of Romanian goulash and some other cabbage stuff we were told to try that was very good at a restaurant called Rustic, we headed south toward the Fagaras Mountains and the famed Transfagarasan Road which cuts some 90km through the scenic mountains.
The road was deemed the best road in the world by “Top Gear” which is a show in the UK and I believe the US as well. I can say that it was very fun to drive and it was beautiful with great views and wondy roads but it cannot compare to some other great roads of the world, especially mountain roads. The road itself needs a lot of work, the potholes were brutal and often it wasn’t paved at all. Luckily our rental car was upgraded to an SUV that took the pot hole punishment well.
The end of the road brings you toward the city of Pitesti which is a nothing city about an hour or so away from Bucharest. We just fueled up, got some Romanian pretzels to tide us over until dinner in Bucharest and were off to finish our awesome 700km Romanian road trip and avoid the Romanian drivers as they are amongst the worst in the world, right behind Egyptians and Italians.
As you can tell I really liked Romania. The only real problem I have with Romania in the time that we have spent here this time around is that there is a lot of scamming. For instance, I just returned the rental car and the guy who checks the car was completely scrutinizing every little knick on the car and threatening to charge me and write it up etc and being a real dick about it. The car had a thousand scratches and dents when we got it and we documented them using the little dots on the car outline paper that indicate scratches the lady who gave us the car put on when we told her there were scratches, dents etc. The guy who just checked the car is saying the scratches don’t match exactly to what is on the paper.
So we are like, are you kidding me?! The guy is being a total asshole for no reason when the scratches are marked to try and squeeze a few more bucks out of us. I don’t know what will happen with the charges of course until I get back and get my credit card statement. This is after another scam last night involving restaurants and bars in town.
Last night we had dinner and then drinks at two different places in Old Town Bucharest. Both times when we asked for the check, the waiter pulled the “Our credit card machine doesn’t work” routine, when we know for certain that it does. It all stems from the fact they don’t want to pay the 2% commission or whatever it is to Visa/Mastercard. I get that but it’s really irritating when they do it. So the first place at dinner it wasn’t that much as I was trying to get rid of my Romanian Lei anyway, I agreed to pay cash. The second time my friend Mike was going to pay by credit card and when they pulled the same routine, we didn’t have enough Romanian cash to cover the bill as we were flying out first thing in the morning and they didn’t take dollars or Euros.
Obviously, they demanded we go to the ATM and get more cash which neither of us wanted to do. So there was a small argument and the waitress started getting really feisty and yelling to other people in the restaurant/bar that we were trying to not pay which of course was bullshit. We were trying to pay, just pay by credit card as we saw the machine working but she wanted cash. So all these security “tough guys” who were just big dudes from the street, come up to us and start threatening us with Romanian prison and beating us in the streets. It was ridiculous.
What ended up happening to the dismay of the thugs who looked like they really wanted to beat us up, was the bar owner came up to us and started apologizing and got the credit card machine to work which we knew it did all along. Then the waitress has the nerve to say that tips are not included in the bill. It was sickening-she got no tip. Of course this was on top of the worst scam of all about my speeding ticket that wasn’t really a ticket and the attempted scam from the Romanian police who are noted to be corrupt.
The cop pulls me over right after I got the rental car and allegedly gets me clocked at 103kph. The limit was 100kph so I was going the limit essentially. He claimed it was 70kph because we were entering into a township area. First, I didn’t see any sign about it being 70 and there was no township either where we were.
So the cop, who was a real asshole, tells me I have to pay 201 Lei or about $65 on the spot in cash to him. I refused and he started writing me a ticket which I found laughable as I clearly don’t live in Romania and wasn’t even doing anything illegal or wrong. He starts again demanding I pay him there and I continually refuse as he slowly writes. Mind you he is writing the alleged ticket in Romanian which I do not speak, read or understand. When completed, he gets out of the car and demands that I sign the ticket. I refuse again and he gets pissed and directs another cop to pull another driver over.
A random man is stopped and told to give his ID card to the cop as a witness I think and he signs my ticket saying that I committed a violation which of course I did not. The driver then leaves and the cop angrily tells me to leave and that if I don’t pay the ticket within 2 days it will double. I laugh and ask for a copy of the ticket, not that I was going to pay it anyway, but just to have just in case this comes up on my credit card or whatever from the rental car people.
The cop refuses to give me a copy of the ticket saying that if I don’t sign it then he won’t give me a copy. Obviously, I argue that if the ticket is against me, I should I get a copy. He again refuses and I started berating him about how much of a joke this is and a scam etc and he is the one committing a crime trying to extort money from me. How can you write me a ticket; tell me I have two days to pay; tell me that I wouldn’t be able to leave the country if I didn’t pay; not give me a copy of the ticket, and not tell me how I can actually pay it if I wanted to?
It is a complete joke but I have no doubt that I will have to deal with this crap with my credit card company because the same fraudulent Dollar rent a car people at the Bucharest airport will charge me if the cop actually files the ticket. This is unknown but likely he will because there is no recourse for him. If they do, what can I do? I have no copy of the ticket and no way to defend it other than tell Visa the story and hope they do something about it. What a pain.
So those three scam examples have left a slightly sour taste in my mouth as I board the plane to Turkey. Hopefully nothing will happen and I can forget about it but again, it’s annoying being hassled and scammed like that. Luckily I have seen that crap before and was able to deflect most of it but who knows. I am looking forward to some beach time in Turkey and to just relax!