THE KAERU KID: Roaming Romania and Bulgaria

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, “The Innocents Abroad; Roughing It”

In spite of one’s best intentions, it is difficult not to have preconceptions about countries and people. But as Mark Twain put it so well, the best way is to travel and to meet people in different countries. This is one of the main reasons I travel so much. Sometimes, governments can be odious, but the people are usually warm and hospitable.

When hearing about Romania, the following images often come to mind: The land of Dracula; a poor country recently ruled by a despot, Ceausescu, with social problems of disabled and orphan children; there being few English speakers and few signs in English; lithe girl gymnasts, etc. All of these were later proven to be incorrect.

I usually meet locals via couch surfing, and so it was in Bucharest, the capital and largest city of Romania, which has a population of 2 million. I arrived early in the morning and the couple expected me in the late afternoon, so I checked my bags at the train station and made a visit to downtown Bucharest to board the hop-on, hop-off top deck bus for an overall view of the city. The tourist information office at the train station was unmanned.

A BIT OF PARIS­ IN BUCHAREST— Bucharest was once called “Little Paris” because of its Arch of Triumph, wide boulevards and fountains.photo by Kaeru Kid

A BIT OF PARIS­ IN BUCHAREST— Bucharest was once called “Little Paris” because of its Arch of Triumph, wide boulevards and fountains.
photo by Kaeru Kid

Bucharest was once called “Little Paris” because of its Arch of Triumph, wide boulevards and fountains. The Parliament building is the second largest in the world, but it was closed to visitors, due to meetings there for the next two weeks. Their trolleys and subways provide better public transportation than many of our cities. Upon first impression, I was impressed by Bucharest.

Lipscani — named after Leipzig, where many goods originated — is a street and district that is restricted to pedestrians. However, the Romanian term for Leipzig, “lipscani,” came to mean Western traders, not just the German city. Many restaurants here set up tables for al fresco dining. There are upscale shops and much construction is taking place, illustrating how much improvements are taking place throughout the city. The Romanian National History Museum, host to a replica of Trajan’s Column, which depicts the Roman victory over the Dacians (ancient Indo-European people who settled here centuries before), is nearby. After the Roman victory, the area became known as Romania, and the Romanian language heritage is from that time.

I gave myself a pat on the back for finding my couch surfing couple’s apartment by using public transportation. Their apartment was the typical Russian cement block structure with small rooms. The key to the apartment was a small round piece of plastic that is placed over a metal square on the door. A sensor recognizes the plastic code and unlocks the door. The small spaces are efficiently used and everything is immaculate.

I took my hosts, a young couple in their late 20s, who spoke fluent English, to a restaurant of their choice. They wisely picked a popular spot called Carul cu Bere (beer cart) in the Lipscani area. We drove there in their small Romanian made car, a Dacia. The restaurant was huge, and had curved carved wooden staircases. They served authentic Romanian food, such as meat-stuffed grapes and cabbage leaves, lots of polenta, stew in a breadbasket and meat in a gravy sauce. Their house beer was just OK. Dancers provided entertainment. The total cost, including our beer and tip, was $35.

On another night, the couple made dinner for me. They are college educated, and own a cottage/farm out in the country, where they share fruits from their orchard with neighbors and receive homemade unpasteurized cheese, yogurt, and many different liquors made from berries and other fruit. The dinner was a typical Romanian dish called mamaliga, made with crumbled cheese mixed with yogurt and added polenta, accompanied by the homemade liquor.

Bucharest seemed to be bustling; I didn’t see any beggars or homeless people. People on buses made the sign of the cross whenever a church was passed; it was obvious that the long Communist domination didn’t quash people’s religious beliefs. The majority (85 percent) of the people are Romanian Eastern Orthodox, about 5 percent (mostly Hungarians) are Catholic, and the rest are Muslims, Jews and other Protestant branches.

In order to see as much of Romania as possible, I had just a short but pleasant stay in Bucharest. I reached my next destination of Brasov by an inexpensive comfortable train ride. I saw beautiful forested areas with nice large Alpine-type homes along the way. I had a reservation at Budget Guest House (www.budgetguesthouse.ro) for a king bed, private bath, TV and Wi-Fi, that cost less than $30 a night. The pleasant owner met me at the train station and took me by bus to her home. She even provided a full hot breakfast for $3 and did my laundry for a small charge. I made day trips from this central location, and it proved to be a good idea.

Brasov was small enough to walk to the Old Town to see sights such as the Black Church, so named after a fire left it blackened, an active synagogue, interesting medieval buildings such as City Hall around the main square, remains of city gates (especially the fairy castle-appearing Ecaterina Gate), and Strada Sforii (Rope Street) one of the narrowest European streets, at about 4 feet wide. There is also a prominent lighted sign on Mt. Tampa that spells out “Brasov,” much like the Hollywood sign. It’s a good way to orient oneself when walking about.

I ate outstanding Romanian food at Ceasul Rau — which means broken clock, perhaps because the late hours it stays open — where one can see grilling of meats on an open pit. The prices were reasonable. Eating at Marele Zid (Great Wall), which is located right on the Piata Sfatului (main square), was a bad choice, one I made only because a reviewer said it was the best Chinese restaurant in Romania. It was nicely decorated, but the chef was a Romanian who claimed to have trained in China. Perhaps he had to cook for local tastes, because it could not come close to Chinese restaurants in China or the United States. Maybe this was my punishment for eating Chinese food in Romania.

At the train station, I bought a $7 ticket for a two-hour ride to Sighisoara on a packed minibus, starting a day trip adventure. Sighisoara’s medieval old town is surrounded by walls, and requires a climb to the top of a hill. The famous Bell Tower, which houses a disappointing historical museum, is within the walls. However, the panoramic view from here is worth the small entrance fee. Dracula was born in this town. A plaque is posted at the house, since many tourists are attracted to the town, just to see this plain building. A tour of the whole old town can be accomplished in about two hours. A lunch of a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup and beer and tip cost only $5. Two medieval-costumed men walked around the town acting like town criers. They entered the restaurant, and when they saw me, they banged a drum and shouted a formal greeting in perfect Japanese. The return trip by train cost $12, but was roomier than the cramped bus.

Pele's Castle. photo by the Kaeru Kid

Peles Castle. photo by the Kaeru Kid

Gina, my host at the guesthouse, arranged a private driver for $70 for the following day to take me Sinaia to see Bran (Dracula’s) Castle. Unfortunately, he had poor English skills. On our way, we made a stop to see Peles Castle. I have seen many castles throughout Europe and Japan, and this one is as magnificent as any of them. It was mostly made of wood and the carvings and furniture workmanship were majestic. Exceptional silver, gold and ceramic works were displayed throughout the castle. I didn’t pay the extra fee for photography, and thus was unable to take photos while inside.

Once, during my time in the Army, I had an opportunity to fire AK-47s that were made in Russia, China and Romania. The range master asked if one felt better than the others, and I selected the Romanian one; he agreed. The pride of workmanship still exists.

We sat in an entry room until there were enough English speaking tourists to provide a guide. Since I saw only one couple waiting for the English tour and being impatient, I joined a Korean group. I wondered how much description was missed because occasionally the group would burst out laughing at the guide’s comments, or they would “ohhhh” in unison.

We drove through light snow in October to Bran Castle, where Bram Stoker placed Dracula. In truth, Dracula stayed here a few nights, at most. His real castle is much further away on narrow roads and then requires a steep climbing walk to the entrance deterring most visitors, including me. This castle looks menacing and there’s also a climb to the entrance. The whole town depends on the Dracula legend for its survival, and does a brisk business from local and foreign visitors. The interior of the castle was ordinary and no one would visit if not for the tenuous Dracula connection. The audio tour is worthless.

The last stop was at Rasov, a small town with a fortress on a hill overlooking the town. Because there is a long climb to the fortress, a tractor pulling an open carriage is provided for around a dollar. But because of the snow, it could not gain traction, and the service was canceled. So again, I got my exercise walking up. The fortress was in ruins, except for the outer walls and there were signs indicating what each pile of rubble used to house. A large Quonset hut building just outside the fort was hosting a renaissance faire festival, with women in medieval costumes, men in armor fighting and musicians.


Las Vegas Tidbits

The third annual Las Vegas Aki Matsuri Japanese Festival will take place Saturday, Oct. 20 from 11 a.m. to 9 pm. at the Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza, which is located at 4255 Spring Mountain Road, in Las Vegas. The event will feature a cosplay contest, live performances, a karaoke contest, food and beverages, games and prizes and a Bon Odori. For more information, visit http://lvakimatsuri.com or call (702) 387-4500.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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