Thursday, August 17, 2017

Christmas 2014: Romania

Continuing on our European travels, it was time to head further east to another new country for us - Romania. This was over the Christmas break, so obviously there wasn't going to be much sun beating down on Europe. But what's the point in dreary, winter days of wind and rain? If the sun isn't shining, you might as well go all out for the other extreme!

Doesn't snow just make everything look better? There can't be a place on Earth that isn't improved by a dreamy, white blanket. It just papers over any cracks or blemishes and covers it with fluffy flakes of joy!

After a flight into Bucharest, a bus into the city, and then a train up north, we arrived at our first destination of the trip, the town of Brasov. The last time we had seen snow before this was 18,000 feet high up in the Himalayas, and it still makes us shudder any time we think back to those days. It was the type of cold that there was just no escape from. So, what a pleasure it was here having snow on our doorstep, but with a nice heated room to return to. Goodbye freezing our ass off, hello freezing our Brasov!

The snow aside, Brasov itself is a really lovely town, but the two combined to make the place look magical. And as it was Christmas, the centre was alive with market stalls, ice-skating and just general seasonal charm.

Brasov also has a little claim to fame, being home to Rope Street - the narrowest street in Europe. Now, I don't know what the technical difference between a street and an alleyway is, but to me, this way an alleyway. It had no shop fronts or entrances, it was just a long passage with a couple of back doors and side windows. 

Even more confusingly, although Google says Brasov has the narrowest street in Europe, it equally claims that the narrowest street in the world is in Germany! Not sure how those two titles coexist...

As you can maybe see in the photo above, Brasov also has a Hollywood-esque sign on the overlooking Mount Tampa, up to which you can get a cable car. It's a nice way to spend an hour or two, with great views over the city, especially great in the snow.

We've been to a few other cities now that have had Hollywood-esque signs, and I wonder if Hollywood was actually the first to do it, or if it's just the most famous example...? It's quite hard to Google an answer without using the phrase "Hollywood sign".

Brasov as a whole was especially impressive as the main reason we came here was actually to visit the nearby town of Bran, home of Dracula's Castle. And so the next day, we hopped on a bus to take us deep into the heart of Transylvania. While the weather in Brasov was nice and snowy, in Bran, it was more of the blustery, blizzardy type. We were well prepared though and all wrapped up so even the most determined vampire couldn't sink his teeth through all of these layers. No frostbite for us!

It's hard to comment on Bran itself as the weather was too turbulent to see it properly. The castle was great though and I guess the stormy nature added to the atmosphere.

Inside the castle was a museum on Vlad the Impaler, the real life inspiration for Dracula. But the castle grounds were the highlight. It felt like being on set at Winterfell. Wait a minute... Bran... Winterfell... I'm sure there's some Game of Thrones theory to be pieced together here.

We stopped in for lunch and a hot chocolate to warm ourselves, and one of few negatives I'd say about Romania is that the food wasn't up to much. Added to that, they kept giving me sparkling water, even when I specifically asked for still! It's the absolute worst! Why is sparkling water even a thing?! Now there are some foods and drinks that I don't like the taste of, but I can respect how some people might. I don't like peppers, it's a flavour I don't enjoy, but I understand that other people do. That's fine. I am unable, however, to comprehend how someone could take any joy from a glass of sparkling water. It actually hurts me to drink, it's like there's electricity in it. It tastes like robot piss.

Although we didn't see any kitschy restaurants hawking Bloody Marys or Steaks through the Heart (missed opportunity), there was a haunted house, so "When in Rome..."

Even though it was predictably terrible, it was a bit of fun and worth the admission fee. It probably would've been a bit more frightening too if we hadn't seen the two lads in costume having a smoke outside before we went in.

The next day, we hopped on a train back down to the capital, Bucharest. Trains are definitely my favourite mode of transport, they're just the best way to see the countryside, especially when it's all snowy like this.

Bucharest itself was a nice place to spend a few days, and while Brasov is famous for having Europe's narrowest street, Bucharest has it's own honour - home of the world's worst statue!

It's apparently a statue of the Roman emperor, Trajan (who is naked for some reason), holding a she-wolf (or levitating it above his arms). There's also some sort of snake thing coming out of the wolf's head. All in all, it's just a mess, and roundly hated by the people of Bucharest. Still, it's not as though they put it anywhere prominent, like the steps of the National Museum...

We learned of this statue on a walking tour we did of the city, although the tour itself wasn't the most successful. We like to go on these tours in any major city, as a fun way to see the place and learn its history. It's not so fun though in -15 degree weather. The tour started with a good 25 people, but at each stop we would lose a few to the cold, until there were just 8 of us left. At this point, we all headed to a cafe to warm up and just stayed there for the next two hours. So, it was more of a sitting tour of Bucharest. It's just too cold to be looking at buildings in this weather. Cafe owners must make a killing though at this time of year, "There's no business like snow business...!".

We did build up the courage to brave the cold again that night, to go and see the New Year's celebrations outside the parliament building (the heaviest building in the world, apparently). The fireworks themselves were only so so, but there was a good atmosphere around the place. Some people also released lanterns into the night sky but they didn't fare too well in the cold air...

There go your dreams for 2015!

On the bright side, we did see two full moons so that must be a good omen!

The next day, we were back out in the cold and took a wander around the city parks. We were still freezing, but it seems the statues have evolved to keep warm in the snow...

We also made a quick video diary:

And that was that for Bucharest and Romania! We had a great time in the country, and although I can't comment on what it's like for the other 11 months of the year, it's a great place to visit for the Christmas break! And speaking of Christmas, next stop: Turkey! See you then!

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