Romania
September 2008

 
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September 8 -- Stefan's birthday. Happy birthday, Schatz! We entered Romania from Hungary at Bors, near the city of Oradea. And I hate to say it, but Romania was immediately ugly, chaotic, and full of stray, sickly, desperate-looking dogs.

Romania, for shame. I let Italy have it two years ago; now it's your turn: there can be no respect for a country that throws its trash everywhere, and abuses and neglects its dogs, creatures who live only to make humans happy. There is NO excuse for treating dogs this way, for having starving, injured, desperate dogs living -- or dead -- amid mounds of trash along your road, around gas stations and grocery stores and restaurants and everywhere else. As I wrote in my infamous condemnation of Italy: I judge entire cultures, as well as individuals, based on how they treat dogs. Yes, I judge. I'm not saying that I write off a person who doesn't have a dog (or a cat for that matter), or who doesn't want to be around such like I do, but I cannot respect a person who is cruel or neglectful of animals, or just has no reaction whatsoever to them, particularly when they are suffering. Don't tell me, "Oh, that's just how people are here, that's how we were raised." I heard that all my life in defense of racists in Kentucky and the rest of the South. I was raised in Kentucky, and I still was able to realize that racism was evil, and that slavery was a crime against humanity, period. Just because a horrific practice has historical roots does not somehow make it okay. So spare me any defense of your despicable nature.

HOW can you live every day with more and more beautiful, starving, injured or dead dogs on the sides of your roads? If you can afford all those dang satellite TV services (which you ALL seem to have), you can afford to adopt a dog, get it fixed, feed it regularly and give it some affection occasionally. Create dog shelters for those dogs that you don't adopt and give Germans the chance to adopt the dogs -- or put the poor things out of their misery. Altogether, after a while, you won't have stray dogs anymore. You may not have any dogs at all. And Romania certainly does not deserve to have dogs at all.

It was hard to enjoy anything about Romania given the dog situation.

An hour more into Romania and it was still ugly -- trash strewn, pitiful dogs everywhere, and abandoned factories, some of them with conveyor belts going over the road and looking like they would collapse any minute. I knew Romania would be different, but so immediately different? So much worse than the countries we had visited so far? I was flabbergasted.

We'd seen maybe half a dozen horse-drawn carts in the previous three countries; in Romania, they were everywhere. That's not a criticism. At least the horses looked much better kept than the dogs. We stopped in a small town, on the side of the road, so Stefan could smoke, and out of nowhere, there was a Romani kid suddenly standing there aggressively begging for money. He had his spiel down pat, and he was relentless. I sunk farther into depression. We continued on, and every building was either run down, or brand new and extremely kitschy, with shiny, gaudy tin roofs.

I also noticed -- and continued to notice for the rest of the trip, also in every following country -- that there weren't really fenced-in places for cattle. Rather, single horses, donkeys, cows, and goats were kept on leashes, tied somehow into the ground. Sometimes, they were dangerously close to the road; I'm sure some die every day from getting into traffic, or cars leaving the road.

Starting at the Romanian border, every other shop seemed to be "ABC Non-Stop". What does that mean?

Since it was Stefan's birthday, we decided to stay in a hotel for the evening. Plus, it was raining, and putting a tent up in the rain bites. We stopped at what looked like a really nice hotel, with cozy, new wooden cabins in the back, and I went in to find out the price. The price was right, but there was a problem: there was no water, and they weren't sure there would be any for the next 24 hours. Hmmmmm... welcome to Romania! We traveled on, looking for a hotel, and it suddenly dawned on me that we were being STUPID: there were tons of rooms for rent everywhere, all noted with "Zimmer Frei" ("room available" in German), and unlike the hotels, these people's houses were surrounded by tall, locked gates and fences, which is perfect for the motorcycle -- often, you can't even see into the yard because of the steel fence around someone's house. It's much cheaper than a hotel, and provides much better security for a motorbike.

So, we stopped at the next "Zimmer Frei" sign we saw. I went into the doorway of the gate, and stood in a tidy little garden. "Hello?" I called, again and again. Finally, a woman came out, and abruptly said, "Nothing! Filled! Complete!" Dejected, I walked back through the gate entrance to the street. But she came out suddenly, right behind me, calling to a guy standing on the sidewalk with two young guys. Turns out he had rooms for rent as well, right across the street, and the two young guys were taking one. We got the other. He didn't speak German nor English, yet, someone, once again, we all made our needs known. The yard was locked and you couldn't really see the bike from the street -- Stefan triple locked it, and I'm sure the chickens in the yard helped in guarding it. The room was perfect -- it even came with satellite TV! We had a shared kitchen with the other guys staying there, but they didn't use it. So I cooked up the can of Marhalábszár pörkölt (a stew of beef, pork, veal, and game cooked in lard with onions, bacon and paprika)> I had peanut butter. While I was cooking, the landlord came in and said, "Bugs! Bugs" I'm like, well, okay. So he walks into the middle of the bedroom and sprays a can of bug spray into the air -- and all over our stuff. I was almost busting a gut from trying not to laugh out loud. But, indeed, we never saw any bugs. I had brought a bottle of the brand of wine we served at our wedding, and was very happy to both drink it and not lug it around in my bag anymore. I also have to admit I was thrilled to get to see TV in English -- I watched "Seinfeld", which seemed to be on any country we were in...

The next morning, I got to see an episode of The Amazing Race, something the Lee Family has talked about so frequently -- Gail and Russell, you should DEFINITELY be on the show... after you finish your dang HOUSE. I learned much later that what I'd seen was an episode from Season 11, the "all star" edition. I admit it -- I was hooked. I hate pseudo-reality shows, but I liked how the teams had to figure things out before they could go to the next step, and how some worked together.

Before we left, our landlord came out and presented us with two fresh, ripe pears. I was so touched.

In just a few kilometers, we were in Cluj-Napoca, and it wasn't much to see. We both get overwhelmed in big cities on the motorcycle; it feels like traffic is everywhere, street signage is poor, there's nowhere to park, everyone is frowning, it's really loud... we spend our whole time in a big city trying to get OUT. We continued on, through various little villages, three of which all had the same Romulus and Remus statue, suckling their wolf mother. Romania really wants to stress that "Roman" connection. And they do... but for all the wrong reasons (trash and stray dogs). We passed through Medias, and it was the first normal-looking city -- the houses looked nice enough to live in, the streets were paved, everyone had in-door plumbing, and there were no stray dogs. We took our first Romanian non-primary road, and it wasn't too bad. We passed abandoned factories that needed to be torn down ASAP, right next to shiny new factories. ANd, ofcourse, garbage everywhere. We passed through another village, and every other house had a well outside. Given how much trash was everywhere, I don't know how they keep the well water clean.

We entered Transylvania, on our way to Sighisoara, which LP said, "dreamy", among other things. I think they got a bit carried away. Indeed, it's very picturesque, hence why we took a lot of pictures of it, but when all is said and done, it wasn't as "enchanting" as described. It's probably really fun to stay in the hostel right at the top of old town and to wander the streets at night. It was definitely enjoyable without loads of tourists. But we barely spent an hour there when all was said and done. We had pizza in the restaurant next to the field where the tour buses park, watched some RVers argue with a parking cop, and kept telling the Romani kids "No." I did end up giving my last pizza piece to one of the kids -- he asked for it. Why wasn't he in SCHOOL?!?!? We also tried to visit the Orthodox Church across the river from the town -- I still hadn't been inside one -- but it was locked tight.

On the back of the bike, I often sing. Even Stefan can't hear me when the bike is moving. When I realized we were in Transylvania, I started singing my favorite sings from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But not even that could entirely lift my spirits that day, which was turning out not that great. I was thinking that if every day was like this in Romania and, Gawd Forbid, Bulgaria and the rest of the countries, I really didn't want to do this trip. It was hot, we were tired, I was sick of the trash everywhere, I was exhausted from crying in my helmet over the dogs, and being heartbroken over all the Romani kids not in school. Outside the city of Alba Iulia, on highway E 64, we saw the universal sign for camping (the blue sign with a tent and RV on it, something we rarely saw on this trip). At the turn for the village, "camping" was painted on the curb. We followed the sign into the small village of Aurel Vlaicu, and followed the many homemade "camping" signs on various posts along the road through the small neighborhood, on a reasonably good road but having to dodge a LOT of cows on their way... somewhere... camping? Finally, we ended up in front of a gate at an unassuming house, at a small sign for Camping Aurel Vlaicu (web site takes way too long to download). A woman opened the gate, we drove in, and beyond the tiny courtyard there was a large lot for camping, with just two RVs in it near the front. The couple that owned the place were Dutch, and the landlady told us, "Get unpacked and enjoy the pool!"

Pool?!?!?!?

20 minutes later, we had put up the tent, changed into our bathing suits and we were in a POOL, surrounded by corn fields, with the mountains of Transylvania in the distance. I was swimming for the first time in about five years. It was a this-is-totatlly-why-I-travel moment. It was a wow-how-life-can-turn-around-for-the-better-so-quickly moment. It was Heaven. After swimming, after night fell, we were hot and didn't feel like cooking (although we only had one can to cook, for Stefan; I would have eaten cold tuna). So we ate the pears the man had given us that morning as we sat in the shared eating area and enjoyed the quiet and our luck. The landlord of the camp site, a very friendly, eager-to-help Dutchman, came out to talk to us a bit and make sure we loved his camp site as much as he does. Our fellow campers were in an RV and from the Netherlands. Ofcourse they spoke German and English. They had two dogs, both of whom normally don't like other people but, ofcourse, liked me. There was another camper too, but we never met the people inside. We loved having the whole campground almost entirely to ourselves.

Somewhere nearby, there was a party, and Stefan had trouble getting to sleep because of the laughter. I heard it briefly and fell right asleep. I teased him the next day when he said something, saying I didn't understand how he could have slept as the party raged around us in Hungary, but then was kept awake by a distant party that night. It's funny what can keep one person awake and another person can sleep right through.

There is a small shop in the basement of the house next door, so we were well-supplied in all we needed -- except, ofcourse, no canned dinners. On his way to get cigarettes there, he stopped to talk to the landlord, who asked him where we were planning to go overall while traveling. Stefan told him, and a local sitting with him shook his head and gave a warning; the landlord translated that he was warning about the thieves and road conditions in Bulgaria and Macedonia. We had a huge laugh when Stefan told me later; if he only knew how many people warned us of those things in Romania/

I asked the landlord if we could get eggs for breakfast, and he delivered them later on his bicycle to us at our camp site -- they were so fresh, they still had chicken poop on them. I cooked up some scrambled eggs, and we enjoyed large glasses of cold milk. We decided we most definitely wanted to stay another night, and do what laundry we had as well. So, I went to the main house and talked with the owners. They were very excited we would stay another night, gave us a good price for doing the laundry, and were very excited that we had come to the area specifically to see the Dacian and Roman ruins, "Sarmizegetusa Regia", a site I'd discovered while doing research for our trip. The camp site landlord knew all about it, being an amateur historian about the area. He told me (as he tells all guests) that the reason the road is paved almost the entire way to the campsite in this tiny, tiny village is because the museum of the aviation hero, Aurel Vlaicu, is down the street, and the road was paved when Ceausesco, the dictator, paid a visit. The village of Aurel Vlaicu is named in honor of the aviator.

We didn't start for the ancient Dacian/Roman site until almost noon, because we were doing laundry all morning. It was great to get laundry done, so we'd have enough underwear for the rest of the trip, but it was a shame to get such a late start, because it meant the ruins would be the only sight we saw that day. The road to and through the village of Costesti was okay. Then we came to a huge, kinda kitschy "gate", with Roman figures painted on the two sides. There was a big field, where there must be special music events sometimes. There was also a large painted map on how to get to the ruins. We thought it meant we were getting close -- but it doesn't mean that at all. It's another 16 kilometers at least, on a very scary road. It's a road that, in about five years, is going to be great, as there is a LOT of work being done on it (new bridges being built, everything being prepared for eventual pavement, etc.). But, as for now, it's partly gravel, partly mud, partly sand, and often treacherous. I took us the wrong way at one point (do NOT go left at the church!), and we ended up wasting almost an hour getting to the wrong place and turning around to get back to where we should have gone right instead. I was convinced the bike frame of the African Twin was going to break with all my weight on it. A few times, I had to get off the bike while Stefan made his way around a curve or up a hill. The surrounding area was gorgeous, with beautiful, tiny farms and orchards, simple and few houses (maybe with no running water, but always with a satellite dish), trees, hills, hollows... and, yet, no matter where you looked, no matter how remote, there was always trash everywhere.

The last kilometer of the "road" to the Dacian ruins is the worst, because of the sand, curves and steep incline, and I was convinced we weren't going to make it. But Super Stefan made it fine. It was worth the struggle to get there -- Sarmizegetusa Regia is an outstanding site of ruins, and probably not 50% excavated. Another couple was there when we arrived, but they didn't stick around long at all, and another couple arrived midway through our exploration but, again, they didn't stay long. We explored most of the obvious part of the site but knew that with another couple of hours we could find much more ruins. The wall that encircles the site is massive and largely intact, and the area outside of the wall is largely unexcavated. When we were, at last, done with our exploration of the main site, we stood outside the wall next to the bike, eating cookies and congratulating ourselves on finding such an amazing place. A small four-wheel drive truck slowly drove up the dirt/mud road towards us, got to the grass area for parking, and just turned around and drove right back down. I joked that this was a Romanian driving test - if you didn't die or flip the car, you got your driver's license. What was funny was that, later, back in the village of Costesti, we really did pass a woman taking driving lessons, and she was weaving in and out of the cows all over the street. I don't think I could pass the Romanian driving test. As we were driving back down the hill from the ruins, I noticed that one of the big Caterpillar shovels had uncovered some pieces of a Roman column, and left them laying on the side of the road; this happens not only all the time in Romania, but in Germany as well, during road construction. On a better part of the gravel road, we also passed a little two-seater red Japanese sports car with Spanish plates on its way up -- we both almost fell off the motorcycle laughing -- NO WAY THAT MADE IT UP.

We got back to the camp site and, as we had been warned, there were now 30 RVs from the Netherlands in the camp site, plus some other RVs from Germany. Luckily, they had all finished swimming so, once again, we had the pool to ourselves. Before we went for our quick swim, we had signed up for the evening's cookout: for 11 €, we got three different kinds of grilled meats, salad, bread, and all the Romanian wine and beer we could drink. It was a deal! And the Dutch campers were all lovely people.

As we finished our quick swim, we noticed that a car had parked beside us, and two people were putting up a tent next to our site. Oh no, we thought, what if they are loud? What if we don't like them? We walked closer -- and it was Claire and Yanni from Australia, whom we'd met back in Eger, Hungary! It was an oh-so-happy reunion. We got to talk to them for a long while, unlike in Hungary; turns out that, earlier in their trip, they had been in Germany and driven around the Nürburgring, and were still quite stoked about it.

The dinner was a lot of fun, and the landlord was clearly in his element, walking around serving everyone refills. We were seated with the other German campers who had opted for the dinner, and one of them said he'd found a really intriguing road via Google Maps over the Fagaras Mountain pass, leading to Balea Lac, that he would definitely be taking. He'd brought along the satellite images, and Stefan's eyes dilated. I knew that we, too, would be taking said road.

All decent camp sites have quiet hours, usually starting at 10 p.m. And that's fine with me because, usually by around that time, I'm exhausted, and this night was no exception. We were out like a light by 10:30 p.m. It was such a peaceful night.

The next day, we were making good time at packing up and I was feeling like we were going to get off by 10 a.m. for sure. And then, disaster struck: the bike fell over. It crushed one of the panniers and my stainless steel bottle full of coke, making the latter pop its top off like a CANNON BALL.

Stefan says the bike fell because I put his bag in the pannier too roughly. I say the bike fell because he hadn't parked it as firmly on its side stand as he should have. So we were very frustrated and quite angry with each other for a while. Our angry silence is always deafening. He did a surprisingly good job of pounding out the pannier straight using his hatchet/hammer and a fence post. And the pressure of Coke in my stainless steel bottle popped out the huge dent in it during the ride East. But it will never stand up straight again.

We headed first to the German chain grocery store (Plus) in the town near our campsite, and were delighted to find, for the first time on our trip, cans of ravioli!! Great rejoicing!! And the ATM across the street worked!! More rejoicing!! Then we headed on to Sibiu, 2007 European Capital of Culture, to see the sights and have lunch. Sibiu is supposed to be a good substitution for Brasov, which was really far out of our way. It is a lovely city and it was there that, at long last, I got to go into an Eastern Orthodox Christian church, something I had wanted to do on the whole trip. We went into the Orthodox Cathedral, which Lonely Planet said is styled after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. For a girl raised as a Baptist, then a Methodist, Roman Catholic churches always feel overwhelming to me, with all their statues and icons on the stained glass and massive ceilings and what not; imagine what an Orthodox Church is like for me! All those icons everywhere, with frescos covering every inch of the walls, and architecture that is more like a mosque or Jewish temple, with its rounded doorways and windows. Even new Orthodox Churches feel ancient.

Sibiu also has the Liar's Bridge, a large iron bridge over a roadway into the town square (you go there to declare your "undying love" to your sweetheart). We had a really mediocre lunch, unfortunately, but it was still fun to people watch. While touring the main plaza on foot, we saw our camp host, happily leading a group of Dutch campers through the city. As we drove out of town, I realized that Sibiu was something I hadn't seen at all in Romania at this point: a modern, cosmopolitan, relatively clean city that felt like it had a lot going on. There were lots of young women who looked like they were on their way to work or university studies. Everyone seemed to have a job or somewhere to go. There were banners up all around town for an "enduro extreme" event, and we passed huge ramps being built for it, as well as a large display by KTM. It was the only city in Romania I wouldn't have minded spending the night in and seeing a bit more of.

Then it was on to the Fagaras Mountain pass. We weren't even sure if the road went down the other side of the mountains! As we headed towards the road, we passed many vineyards and even hops growing, something I'd never seen before our Munich trip. And it did not disappoint: except for the trash on the ground everywhere, it was gorgeous. Up and up and up we went. Breathtaking views and winding, winding, winding roads. Almost at the top, we passed a guy on a bicycle, and I totally would have bought him a beer or a juice or whatever he wanted if he'd arrived at the top while we were there, not only for daring the climb, but for daring the freakin' Romanian drivers. I'd noticed as we went up what I thought were towers and wires for a cable car. But they looked awful, and I decided they must be power lines. Nope -- at the top of the hill, we found a Coca-Cola ad-covered cable car, I hope long retired in its little garage. We took some photos at the top of the hill around Balea Lac (yes, ofcourse, there was trash everywhere), and there was a small billboard for an ice hotel (make your reservations now!).

It started to rain a bit as we head down the other side. At first the road was just as good as the climbing side. But it quickly got worse and worse. And worse. The road was full of potholes and various bumps. We were both getting nervous at how bad the conditions were. Stefan has to leave a lot of space between himself and the car in front of him, so he can look out for potholes and other obstacles; he doesn't go slower than the car in front of him, however. Cars would suddenly zoom up and into that space between us and the car in front of us, as though we were holding back traffic (which, ofcourse, we weren't). Then we came to a massive herd of sheep being brought down from the mountain, so huge that we encountered different parts of the herd as we came around different hairpin turns. We took a few pictures, but then I started to freak out because of the Romanian drivers who DID NOT CARE. They were ready to run over any sheep, dog, donkey or person in their way. I started to cry, because I was about to see something die. Even Stefan was astounded, and it takes a lot to get to him. The only other driver taking care was the guy in the car in front of us, from Belgium. After we were almost entirely down the mountain, we stopped down by an ugly man-made lake. We stood in the parking lot and I was trying not to cry about the way Romanian drivers seemed to delight in mowing down living things with their cars. Ofcourse there were two pitiful dogs in the parking lot as well, one of which I dared to pet with my gloved hand. I just couldn't take it anymore. I had to show some kindness. I had to be different than the disgusting, heartless people around me. It was one of the worst moments of my travels.

We continued through a tunnel, further down the hill, and at first we were passing lots of "zimmer frei" signs. But then they got fewer and fewer, and the houses started looking worse and worse. The villages were looking run down, the people were all looking mean. Then there were no "zimmer frei" signs, and there was no camp site where there was supposed to be one -- and quite frankly, had we found it, I don't think we would have stayed in it. Somehow, we'd long missed the turnoff that would lead us to the camp site our Dutch hosts had highly recommended. It was getting dark, we were more than an hour from where we had seen the last "zimmer frei" sign, and we were in Pitesti, a truly awful town. We drove around it as it got darker and darker, and then saw a sign for a camp site. We drove through some very rough looking neighborhoods, then got to a cobblestone road that took us into the woods and farther and farther out of town. There was nothing. We finally came to a large complex of some kind under construction. There was a guy there by himself, and once again, we experienced incredible kindness - he offered to let us stay at the site. He barely spoke English, there was no running water, and we would camp on gravel. We were actually quite tempted to take him up on the offer, because we hated Pitesti, what I had dubbed Pisstown. But we decided to try again for the camp site. We drove back towards town, and realized that the large entertainment complex on the outskirts of town was the "camp site." Further investigation lead us to believe it's a place for hookers and their johns. We drove back into town, resigned to find a hotel. We stopped at a two-star, and I went inside to inquire about a room. The guy coming out was wearing a Kentucky Soccer t-shirt, but I knew he wasn't actually from Kentucky -- who knows where that came from. They had no room, so we went on to another hotel. It's back parking lot had only one entrance, and it was fenced in, but no way would Stefan have parked there if he hadn't been able to lock his bike to a large gas pipe -- if someone broke the pipe, we were all going to be blown away.

The woman who checked us in, thankfully, was very sweet, and put us in a room so that we only had one stair case to climb with all of our stuff. The room, for being a three star hotel, was crap. A three star hotel isn't cheap, and therefore, it should be more than decent. But at this hotel, our bedding had cigarette holes in it and looked worn. All the furniture was ancient (and I don't mean "antique") and mismatched. But there was satellite TV, so Stefan went across the street to the gas station to get beer and we watched Law and Order, which is always on TV, no matter what country you are in.

Breakfast was included in the price, and the meal was actually decent. We were up and out by 10:30, and looking forward to getting out of Pisstown as quickly as possible. On the drive out of town, we did end up in some much nicer small villages, and waved to a guy sitting outside of his house next to his red Honda Dominator. Out of town, we stopped at a gas station where I befriended two puppies, one that I guess was just so weak from hunger and feeling so abandoned she wasn't even interested in attention; she just lay down in a ball on the sidewalk and I petted her with my gloved hand. She seemed to be waiting for me to beat her. Another older puppy, all white, came up and I petted her underneath her chin, and she closed her eyes and seemed to be remembering a happier time, when she thought she was loved. I noticed once again that all dogs were terrified of men, and would scatter if any man, including Stefan, walked by. We got on the bike and I cried for easily 10 minutes solid. I obsessed about these two dogs for the rest of the trip. I still think about them, actually. After that stop, I took food from every meal we had and put it in my pocket, to give to the first strays we came across. I know that did no good beyond a short moment of comfort for the dog and for me, but since it was all I could do, I did it.

I had started referring to Romania as Crapistan. It's a term I stole from Carpetblog, "Caustic Commentary from Constantinople" and one of my favorite blogs ever (thanks to Ann in Ukraine for recommending it once upon a time). Crapistan can be anywhere, and it comes from a country where either the infrastructure is falling apart, or you just don't feel like people are really trying that hard. Not everywhere in Romania was Crapistan, but outside of Transylvania, it was, most definitely. I was getting testy about this country. At some point, we passed a car in a field, a car that had obviously flipped over entirely. All of the occupants were out of the car, standing there with various suitcases. Waiting. There were NO other cars stopped. Did anyone who saw the accident stop? In the USA, especially in the South or out West, there would be at least five cars stopped. Indeed, we did not stop, since everyone was out of the car and standing out in the field, waiting for... something... but if we'd seen the wreck happen, you bet we would have been there trying to help. Shortly thereafter, we passed an ambulance headed that way.

We stopped for lunch at a cafe on the side of the road, and there wasn't a menu, so the cook brought out a raw piece of chicken and a raw piece of pork on a board and had us point to what we wanted. We went with the chicken.

We headed further East, to a site Stefan said was "volcanic." But I didn't have any other details from him. I was starting to feel very isolated on the back of the bike: I didn't know what town(s) we were aiming for, and I couldn't see the map to know where we were. We turned off into a village, then drove around, with Stefan looking for something, but I didn't know what. We stopped to put on rain suits, and I suggested we ask someone who might know what we were looking for. The first person didn't, but the second person, at a Romanian convenience store and outdoor imbiss, did know, and using Stefan's map, showed him how to get there, again, without speaking German or English. But I still didn't understand where we were going, so I asked Stefan to give me more of a description. Turned out it was a series of large volcanic mud pots called "Vulcanii noroiosi", which Stefan had found photos of on the Internet. These muddy volcanoes are outside of the city of Buzau, close to the village of Berca. The Romanian Wikipedia site for Vulcanii noroiosi has the GPS coordinates, but that doesn't really help when it comes to the roads to get there (which are not on Stefan's GPS). We got lost again, and stopped to ask two guys standing next to a car. All Stefan said was, "Vulcanii?" The guy understood, and got in his car and took us to the right road. How nice is that? I have to retract the Crapistan comment for Berca (even though there's still trash everywhere). There were now signs leading to the site, through tiny villages, and it was interesting to see this off-the-main-road view of Romania, which, as usual, was actually very nice. Except for the trash. We tried not to run over a gaggle of geese and a group of testy turkeys roaming the streets, and at last, came to a very nice official entrance for the volcanic area, which we could see on a hill in the distance.

And we were turned away.

For about five seconds, we were mad that the guard was immediately telling us no, that there was no visiting the park in the rain. But, even though that was the limit of his English, we quickly understood why they have this policy; the soaked volcanic ground can't support people walking around on it. It would not only ruin the site, we might also break through at a point and get burned badly (it's happened in sites in Northern California!). And, well, that would bite. At least there is something environmental Romania cares about! So we took some photos from afar, marveled at how much volcanic mud our shoes were acquiring just in the parking lot (we were getting taller with every step), and then rode away. I had seen a sign in English for a bed and breakfast, la Pensiunea Speranta, on the way, and we headed for that, instead of trying to find yet another mystery camp site, and having to put up the tent in the rain. For once on this whole trip, my Spanish skills came in handy! The landlady didn't speak German (unlike 90% of everyone else we'd met) and didn't speak English, but she spoke Spanish! Hurrah! This is a very nice place to stay. It's expensive, and breakfast isn't included, but it's a dang good breakfast. Her assistant's little boy, who wasn't yet a teen, could not have been more of a little gentlemen, offering us sunflower seeds and sitting quietly to marvel at all the bike equipment and us speaking English. The next morning, we found that we actually weren't the only ones staying at the pension; a group of young Romanian up-and-comers were staying as well. They were very nice and one of the guys fawned over Stefan's Africa Twin (as all do). Since our breakfast was meat-heavy, I took all the leftovers in my pocket, to bring some relief to the next couple of desperate dogs we would meet (at a gas station, who were stunned at my kindness).

It was threatening rain, and had rained all night, so we knew that we still wouldn't be able to tour the volcanic site, so we headed East, intent on getting to camp at the Black Sea. We were definitely back in Crapistan for most of the drive. We arrived at Jupiter (yes, that's really the name of the area), just outside of Constanta, well before nightfall. We drove directly to the beach, and were flabbergasted that even the beach was covered with trash. It was everywhere, and people were laying amid it all to catch some rays. I told Stefan I wasn't stepping foot in the Black Sea in Romania, because I'd need a rake to clear the trash away on the beach to get there, and who knows what in the heck was floating in the water! We drove back to stay at Camping Elodie. The camp guard was reading Last of the Mohicans in Romanian, and was as nice as could be, just as all Romanians were to us. The camp site was fenced in and there were just a hand full of other people. That's the good part. However, the bathrooms were DISGUSTING. Look, I have no trouble using a hole as a toilet, but even the holes in Afghanistan had PORCELAIN. These bathrooms hadn't been cleaned in many days. It was beyond gross. But we had no choice - it was the only camp site open. In retrospect, I should have said yes when Stefan asked if we should push on to Bulgaria -- little did we know that the only camp site we ever saw in that country was right across the border.

We put up the tent, unloaded the gear, then rode to Constanta to see the local history museum there, per Lonely Planet Eastern Europe's recommendation, and to get some supper -- I forget why we didn't cook that night. The museum is right on the main drag. The museum is quite good, with really nice Roman and Greek items in the main room, in the basement and strewn all around outside; however unless you are really into Roman artifacts, I wouldn't recommend it. There were some Roman-era piping in the basement, and it looked like building materials from today, laying around waiting to be used in the coming days. In fact, there's not much to see in Constanta at all.

We tried to eat at the restaurants on either side of the museum; the first wouldn't pay any attention to me as I stood there next to the bar, wanting to view a menu while Stefan was off to find a working ATM (which he never did). The next one had extremely loud hip hop music playing which was too annoying to deal with, and the staff watched us leave without caring whatsoever. We ended up at a third restaurant with staff that also really wasn't interested in serving us: we had to go find the waitress when we were ready to order and when we were ready to pay. But Stefan's wood-fire oven pizza and my seafood-over-pasta were quite tasty.

While we were looking for restaurants, a wedding party came walking down the street, everyone in full wedding gear, including the bride, and a few people playing instruments behind her. So I started taking her picture, which delighted her and the wedding party. We noticed this was a common practice, at least in this part of Romania, to walk down the street before (or after?) you get married. And there were a LOT of weddings that night in Constanta. Which reminds me of one other things that happened in Romania, but I don't remember when or where: one was that we saw a traditional village funeral procession. The coffin was on a tractor, with both people and cars walking behind. The people carried colorful streamers of fabric, and all of the cars had their mirrors covered.

It was windy and rainy in our last night in Romania, and now even Stefan was starting to refer to this as Crapistan. We were way overdue to get out of the country.

A warning about Romania and all other countries we visited afterwards: 90% of the time, despite the prominence of VISA and MasterCard Accepted signs, the credit card machine won't be working that day/night; always ask before you order or pump your gas if you can pay that way, no matter how many signs you see assuring you that you can!

The next day, there was a different camp guard, but he was just as nice as the one the day before, and insisted on sweeping the mud from my boots with a broom, saying, "My pleasure! My pleasure" over and over again. Our entire trip was now, officially, half over. We had been on the road for 14 days, and were beginning the 15th. I was feeling really apprehensive about Bulgaria; if it were as bad as Romania in terms of trash and stray dogs, I didn't think I would survive the rest of the trip.

South we went to the border...

Before I end... if you are going to Romania, you might find Passport Romania web site helpful. It's primarily aimed at a Dutch speaking audience, but there is some helpful English info on it as well, like a brochure of recommended camp sites and another on bed and breakfasts/pensions. Drum bun!

Bulgaria Next

Pictures of the adventure.

Back to main page for Eastern Europe tour 2008

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