A Travellerspoint blog

October 2010

Poenari Fortress

Romanian roads don't leave much room for error

sunny 8 °C

Our visit to Poenari Fortress in Transylvania was definitely worth writing about. First of all, it was organized by the girl who seemed to be running the hostel we were staying at singlehandedly (she looked about 18, but was probably 20). She said she had a friend with a car who was a good guy and would drive us out there, and we would each pay him 40 Euros. She also told us that there was another guy staying at the hostel who wanted to go, but not by himself, so if we went he would be able to afford to go as well. Okay, well, Poenari Fortress was actually a hide-out of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. "Dracula"), so we said yes. She told us we'd have to leave by 8am the next day because it's a long way to Poenari from Brasov, and she kept telling us we'd have to eat lunch in the car because of the time factor, and we'd be gone all day, especially if we also wanted to see Bran Castle and the Rasnov Fortress (both closer to Brasov than Poenari).

At 8am we were ready to go, but our driver was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later the hostel girl informed us that there was a "small accident" with the car, which the driver had been trying to fix late at night, and now he was tired and had slept in but was on his way, but we'd just have to go in a different car. This did not fill us with confidence. Further questioning elicited a reply of "No, not an accident like boom! Just a small problem with the car. Don't worry, he is good driver!" All right, then. When the driver arrived we were shown to a small, new-looking, four-door Chevrolet. It seemed okay - but on the driver's side the air bag (and thus the whole centre of the steering wheel) appeared to have been ripped out of the car. Our driver got in, we all introduced ourselves, and we started off down the road. So far, so good. However, our driver was having trouble switching gears - there were some jerks and some grindings, and he said "Damn! I want my car!" We went a bit further, the driver cursing the Chevrolet and nearly killing several pedestrians. Suddenly another car came too close and there was a small Bang! as the driver's side mirror was hit. This did not seem to bother our driver as much as the fact that he hated the Chevy he was driving. We went a bit further and then he said, "Damn! I'm getting my car!"


So we drove back to the hostel and switched to his car, a two-door Opel from the mid 90s. The driving immediately became much smoother, although not slower or less scary for the pedestrians who had to jump out of the way. Finally we got out of town and started winding our way up into the hills. There were amazing views of steep slopes and old farmhouses, flocks of sheep, cows, haystacks and forests in the gold morning light. It was really beautiful - and the road was all hairpin turns (which the driver took at speeds I would never have dared) and sheer drops into the valley. We passed a horse and cart with a family who waved and smiled and didn't mind us taking their photograph. We stopped a few times to ask directions. Our driver had never been to Poenari Fortress before. It took us about four hours to get there. One section of the road was patched and full of potholes so deep we had to slow to a crawl to get over them. At first the driver didn't realize how bad the potholes were, and tried to keep up some speed. Then he got angry because of the potential damage to his car, and slapped his hat on the dashboard so hard that the buckle on it flew into the backseat and landed on my arm. At that point I thought he was going to order us all to get out and turn around and leave us by the side of the road - but we kept going and we did, at last, arrive at Poenari.


For me, the main attraction of Poenari Fortress was that we had to climb about 1480 steps to get up to it. The fortress itself is mostly ruined - an earthquake centuries ago caused some of it to slide down the mountain, and what's left is a couple of towers and ramparts on top of a very steep hill. There's a caretaker who charges you 5 Romanian lei to get into the ruins once you've climbed all the stairs (divide by three for Canadian dollars) and a wooden outhouse should you need to use a toilet. And the view from up there was really spectacular, especially with all the trees on the hillsides turning red and gold and the sun glinting off the river winding through the valley far below. The driver walked up all the stairs and came to see the fortress with us. He told us he was 20 years old, and it was interesting to watch his mood change from foul to peaceful and maybe even happy over the course of the day. In the morning he cursed the Chevy, cursed the pedestrians for not getting out of the street fast enough, swore in both Romanian and English about the potholes and their effect on his car, and generally seemed to be having a terrible time. After the walk up to the fortress and more cigarettes and Coca-Cola, he talked passionately about the corruption of the Romanian government, how they did nothing for the people, how some things were better under communism (although he was really too young to have experienced much of that himself), and at one point said, "Life is shit. My salary (as a bartender) is enough for food for me, my mom and my sister. My mom has enough to pay the other bills, and that's it." He told us he made about 1000 Euros per year, and his car cost 1000 Euros, so he'd be paying it off for a while. We talked about the political systems in the United States, Romania and Canada, healthcare and how it worked (or didn't) in those countries, and other similarities and differences. He tried to convince us that Romania sucked, and we told him we wouldn't have come to visit it if it all sucked. All four of us talked about life all the way back, and towards the end of the trip, when I said I hoped his car hadn't sustained too much damage from the potholes, he said, "Ah, what does it matter? It's just a car. It's just a material thing." He sounded happier, and made some remarks about love and happiness and "in Romania, love is in the air." Later he told our hostel girl that he'd be happy to take tourists on trips like that again, but only if they were tourists like us. Jason says he thinks the driver just hadn't had any coffee in the morning, but by the afternoon had consumed enough sugar, caffeine and cigarettes to make a big difference to his mood.

We never did find out what the "small accident" that had led to the initial car swapping was. We suspect the hostel girl of making up stories because she thought we wouldn't be comfortable in the little two-door Opel. I suppose we would have had more room in the Chevrolet, but it seemed to be the car with the most problems. When we asked the driver about his car, he said it was fine and he had just bought it. In any case, it made the trip and everyone arrived intact. We stopped at Bran Castle on the way back into Brasov, but it had closed up for the night so we didn't go in - and no one mentioned anything about trying to go to Rasnov Fortress at that point. Later we had dinner with the American guy we'd shared the ride with, and we discovered that sometimes, if you hang around in a restaurant for long enough, the band stops playing bad covers of Western pop songs and starts in on the traditional Romanian stuff, and the Romanians take a break from smoking for some energetic dancing.

We're in Budapest now. We decided to leave Brasov the day before yesterday and ended up on another night train, and here we are in Hungary. We went on a walking tour that focused on the communist history of Budapest yesterday afternoon, and plan to explore downtown a bit more today.

Posted by arwyn 01:01 Archived in Romania Comments (1)

Rila to Romania on a Special Russian Train

Castles and hay-stacks and bears, oh my!

overcast 2 °C

Religious icons for sale, near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Similar icons were for sale outside the Rila Monastery.

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery was amazing. Inside the church is dark and smells of the beeswax candles everyone is lighting for various saints, and outside the domed veranda ceilings and walls are completely covered in frescoes. Inside the walls are covered in frescoes, too, but it's darker and they look less well-kept and you aren't allowed to take photos. Monks in black robes and warm-looking hats are occasionally seen wandering about through the throngs of tourists, and there are lots of signs informing you that you aren't allowed to go anywhere near the monks' living quarters.


We ended up staying at the hotel Tsarev Vrah, 200m from the monastery. The view (above) from our nice big warm room was beautiful. It was definitely worth the 60 Bulagarian leva. I'm fairly certain that if we had knocked on some doors and spoken some Bulgarian we might have been able to stay in the guest dormitory of the monastery, but we didn't. I felt like it was best for people who were actually religious pilgrims to stay there anyway, and I really liked our hotel room.

We left the Rila Monastery by bus on Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening saw us at the Sofia central train station, reserving a sleeping compartment and negotiating with a tout who did in fact help us but who then demanded too much money for his informational services. Our train was Russian; we had tea in fancy Russian mugs; if we had not been woken up at 5:45am by our Russian train conductor we would have kept on going to Moscow. However, we got off in Bucuresti, the capital of Romania, and took another train to Brasov, where we are now hanging out in a hostel. Of course there was the 2am passport stamping when we left Bulgaria, and the 4am passport stamping when we got to the next station in Romania. In both cases, a uniformed official came onto the train, knocked on our door, took our passports, stamped them and brought them back. We didn't get as much sleep in our sleeping compartment as we had hoped.

The first thing I ate in Romania was soggy baklava from a fast-food joint at the Bucuresti train station, washed down with something pretending to be coffee. When we got off the train in Brasov three hours later (did I mention we spent 13 hours riding trains?), I had some kind of pepperoni and cabbage sandwich with lots of mayonnaise. I was so hungry at that point that it tasted absolutely delicious. After a nap at the hostel (where the dorm room actually seems to be colder than the outside air), we had soup and beer at a pub near the town square. The soup was good and hot and full of fatty pork - which in the case of the one I ordered, was not mentioned in the menu description. "Smoked bean and red onion" clearly means "full of pork and pork fat" in Romania! But I hope you aren't getting the wrong idea here - I enjoyed all of this food! I was hungry, and I was in Romania, where the roof-tops are very pointy and they still make hay-stacks. Imagine the quaint old-fashioned idea of a haystack with a shepherd asleep in the bottom of the pile, a hat over his face and a piece of straw hanging from his mouth. Now just take away the sleeping shepherd and you have Romanian hay-stacks. When I saw them out the window of the train I thought we had gone back in time.

Tomorrow: Dracula's Castle!

Posted by arwyn 12:25 Archived in Romania Comments (4)


previously known as Serdica, Triaditsa and Sredets.

sunny 5 °C

So far, Bulgaria's great! When we first arrived I was tired and the Cyrillic alphabet totally boggled my mind, and I wondered how we would ever be able to do anything in a country where we couldn't even read the street signs, let alone speak the slightest bit of the language. We wandered around the city centre, gawking at the gold onion domes of the Russian Church and the cathedral. We found the Tourist Info office with the help of some other travelers at our hostel and a map they passed on to us, and we got instructions on how to get to a couple of other places. Then we had a "Free Sofia Tour." There's a group of four people in the city who give free tours in their spare time, and you can give them a tip or donation at the end of the tour if you liked it. At 6pm we met our guide, Boyko, on a street corner downtown. We waited a few more minutes to see if anyone else would show up, but no one did, so we basically had a private tour. For two hours Boyko walked us around Sofia's "centrum" (in Turkey and Bulgaria that's what they call the centre or core of the city), pointing things out we would never have noticed on our own, and giving us a very knowledgeable and entertaining history of the city and its important landmarks. We learned that Sofia has been inhabited for a very long time, and every time the city does some excavation or other they end up finding Roman ruins or other important archaeological sites. We even saw the latest example - a new subway line, a new Roman ruin brought to light. Sofia is situated near some hot mineral spring water, and in the middle of town there are public water fountains where you can go and just fill up your water containers with the hot water and drink it when it cools down. It tastes good - clear and fresh, almost sweet. We learned that, despite fighting on the side of the Germans in the second world war, Bulgaria never sent its Jewish population to the death camps. By putting off ratifying that agreement with Germany, Bulgaria saved the lives of 50,000 people, according to Boyko. After the war, however, most of the Jews in Bulgaria left and went to Israel - but hey, they lived to do so.

After the tour was over, Boyko asked us what our plans were. We needed dinner; so did he. He made a couple of calls and we ended up at the most remarkable restaurant. Its name in Bulgarian, Manastirska Magernitsa, translates to "Monastery Kitchen." It's a restaurant where they have 161 dishes from 161 Bulgarian monasteries! The menu is about 35 pages long, with descriptions of how to make most of the dishes. Some of the items on the menu had hilarious names, too, like "Male Marrows Against Divorce." The food was very good. The rakiya (grape brandy) was very strong, and so was the complimentary cognac at the end of the meal! And the prices were reasonable (in Canadian terms). I think for Bulgaria it was something of a slightly more expensive restaurant, but dishes were about the equivalent of 10 or 12 Canadian dollars, which isn't that bad. It was a really great evening, all around. I'm trying not to talk about nothing but food all the time, but there were these cheese-and-garlic stuffed roasted peppers which were so delicious I feel they deserve at least one or two sentences. I don't know what they did to those peppers, but mmm! So good. Reverse engineering needed.

And it turns out that Cyrillic isn't that terrifying, once you realize you have to throw out what you think the letters are and accept that what looks like a "P" is actually an "R," etc. The word for "restaurant" looks like "pectopaht," but it is pronounced like "restaurant." I've been figuring it out and reading signs like mad and can find my way around downtown just fine. Interestingly, you can never tell who in the city will speak perfect English and who will give you a blank stare. We went into a cheap sub sandwich shop on a corner and the guy behind the counter ended up asking us which university in Canada we would recommend to him if he was going to do a Masters in Business Administration. I'm sure Boyko's English was better than mine, and even in some shoe stores in non-touristy areas I was able to ask for a size and try it on (sadly, my feet are too big for Bulgarian boots). But just when you think "Wow, everyone here is so good at English!" you walk into a cafe and the cashier starts trying to use food sign language, holding up different shapes of buns for you to choose from.


Today we took a minibus to the South city limits and went for a hike up the slopes of Vitosha Mountain. The mixed deciduous forest (beech, birch, aspen and alder) on the lower slopes was absolutely stunning - golden fall colours, black tree trunks, emerald green mossy rocks. See photo above. I like Bulgaria. We're staying one more night (tonight) in Sofia, and then we are thinking of going South to the Rila Monastery. Apparently you can actually stay in rooms at the monastery, for about $15 USD per bed. We'll find out!


Posted by arwyn 10:15 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (3)

Midnight Express

A Bulgarian border crossing

overcast 13 °C

The original "plan" was to meet up with my friend Ahmet in Istanbul after the sailing/Ephesus tour, however he's in London on business, so we'll have to defer the meeting for some other time. We've decided to leave the tourism of Turkey behind and continue the journey through Eastern Europe which begins in Bulgaria. We have EU rail passes to get from Bulgaria to Germany but we need to get to Bulgaria first. The standard options are plane, train and bus. Flying in would probably be too expensive for the average budget traveler and we read that taking the train from Turkey to Bulgaria would be slow and sketchy in parts. Not especially wanting to deal with sketchy or slow, it seemed that the bus is the way to do it. So without knowing anything of Bulgaria, we booked an overnight bus to Sophia which is the capital of the Republic of Bulgaria. The bus ride was mostly uneventful with the exception of the Turkey - Bulgaria border crossing.

Leaving Turkey was pretty easy. It was around 1:00am when we got to the border and A Turkish border control person came aboard the bus and took everyone's passport. He mumbled something like "Kanada" as he read the passport and took it from me. A short while later one of the two bus drivers was handing the passports back and we moved on. We moved on about a few hundred meters and stopped at some large dimly lit, nondescript building and everyone started to get out. I thought this was part of the border control so I stepped off the bus with passport in hand and asked the driver what to do. He said it was a smoke break so I got back on the bus. A little while later I realized that it was a duty-free shop that we were in front of when I saw most of the passengers and the second bus driver coming back with bags filled with cartons of cigarettes. While all this was happening, the first bus driver was taking out black plastic bags from a compartment and getting them ready for something. We sat around waiting for a about another 20 minutes while the two bus drivers talked quickly in Turkish and started tearing apart the cigarette cartons and stashing them all over the bus. The smokes went under the stairs, in the top luggage rack and covered with blankets, behind empty seats and basically anywhere else they could stash them. All this happened while Arwyn and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. When the drivers had finished stashing the smokes, we moved on towards the Bulgarian border entry. This part took a long time as we were about 8 busses in line and it seemed like every car and bus was being searched. The first bus driver headed off with another passenger towards some building off the the left which had a sign that might have said traffic control or something like that. Its tough to tell because the Bulgarian language is part of the Slavic linguistic group and it has letters much like Russian. Anyways, these two took off and we never saw the passenger again. (There might have been an issue with his passport or something).

Eventually we piled off the bus and we started to go through the border crossing. Once we all passed through we stood around waiting for the bus to come through and get searched. This appeared to happen in two stages. First, a border crossing guard came on the bus and looked around a bit and chatted with the second bus driver who was moving the bus along at this point as the first driver was still MIA. We saw the second bus driver quickly slip something that looked like a pack of smokes to the border guard who quickly pocketed it, got off the bus and opened the gate. The bus moved to the other side of the gate and stopped. About this time the first bus driver returned and the bus got searched again by more officials with flashlights. They checked through all places I mentioned earlier but only seemed to come off the bus with a few bottles of water that I suppose couldn't be brought across the border for some reason. We all got back on the bus and headed on towards Sophia. A little while later we noticed that there was a black plastic bag with a carton of smokes in the seat pocket of our seat, as well as in the seat across from us where a Turkish girl was sitting. I'm assuming that some stuff got moved around while the second bus driver got some quick advice or something from the first border patrol.

Around the end of the trip when were were in the city limits of Sophia, the second bus driver came round looking for his stash. When he had collected it all, they made a quick stop at the side of the road and dropped it off with some guy who I think was a taxi driver.

That's about the extent of the excitement for the over night bus ride. I get stressed out at border crossings and if you've ever seen the movie "Midnight Express" you'll know why this one was a little sketchy.

Anyways, it's about 3:00 in the afternoon and much colder than Istanbul and the Aegean coast by about 10 degrees. I might need another sweater. Time to find some information about the country...


Here is a quick photo from outside our hostel window. Apparently the red lettering says "Garage"


Posted by jcobham 04:15 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (2)

Ephesus - Pamukkale - Fethiye - Istanbul

Where do we go from here?

rain 22 °C

Since I wrote last, we've been on a cheap bus tour to Ephesus and Pamukkale, then back to Fethiye, and now we've flown back to Istanbul from the Dalaman Airport. I've taken so many photos in the last few days that I don't even know what to do with them all, but I'll put a couple in here.

We ended up spending two nights sleeping on the boat in Gocek, because Aziz from Budget Sailing found us a good price on an Ephesus-Pamukkale tour that left on the 16th (a Saturday) and told us we could just stay on the boat one more night. So at 7am on Saturday morning we were waiting on the side of the highway with our backpacks for the Pioneer Travel bus, which was only 15 minutes late. For about the price of one day in Istanbul (100 Turkish Lira), we got a two-day tour complete with breakfast, dinner, accommodation and entry fees to the sites at Ephesus and Pamukkale. Lunches were extra: 10 or 12 TL for all-you-can-eat buffets, which were pretty bland but filled the gap. Our tour guide, Yousuf, liked to say "No limit on lunch!" which cracked me up for some reason. He was a pretty good tour guide, although when we were at Ephesus I had trouble following his descriptions and histories, mainly because he listed off a lot of names of various kings and gods and his pronunciation of all of them was not what I was expecting. "Hercules" became "Heerculas," for example, and that was one of the easier ones to figure out.


Ephesus was pretty amazing. It rained on us a little at the end of our time there, but we didn't get very wet. The fact that the streets (the streets!) were made of marble says something about what kind of city it must have been. We only spent a couple of hours there (that's the trouble with guided tours) and it would have been nice to be able to spend a bit longer wandering about. Also, there's a museum in a nearby town with artifacts and some more marble statues and things that we didn't get to see. However, getting there on our own would have been more expensive and way more hassle than our super easy cheap tour. You win some, you lose some. Never mind! It was definitely worth it. Here's a photo of the Library of Celsus, because that's what you go to Ephesus for:


Our hotel was in the town of Karahayit, about 15 minutes outside of Pamukkale. It was called "Hotel Halici," which is pronounced "halee-jee," and sounds a bit like "Ali G," and the tour guide made the appropriate jokes. On the way there, we passed through a small village where our guide pointed out a couple of houses with glass pop bottles on the roofs. He told us that this was an old tradition where, when a girl is ready to be married, she puts a bottle on the roof of her family's house. If a young man can break the bottle (I think by throwing rocks at it), he can marry the girl. If her father catches him while he's trying to break the bottle, though, he's in trouble (the guide said, "he kills him," but perhaps that was hyperbole). And if he breaks the wrong bottle, well, then he's in even bigger trouble! Hardly anyone puts bottles on their roofs anymore, though.

Then we stopped by a cotton field so our guide could break off a cotton boll or two to show to us. There were cotton-picker's camps along the way, and a group of people were out in the field picking right near where we stopped. They waved and waved and smiled and held up big handfuls of cotton to show us. I would have expected them to be annoyed at the gawking tourists in the bus, but instead they seemed extremely friendly and happy to have an excuse to smile and wave and show us what they were doing. The sun was going down and glinted off the dome of the local mosque; we drove slowly behind a tractor with a man and wife going home; old ladies were walking the youngest children down the narrow dusty street. It was one of those moments where you just grin and look at everything in amazement - nothing is familiar, nothing is set up for tourists, everyone is going about their own business and somehow you happened to be passing through just then. I took a rather blurry photograph at one point which conveys something of what I'm trying to describe here:


At the hotel we had free range in the Turkish bath, the sauna, the two swimming pools and the three thermal (mineral hot-spring water) pools. It was extremely relaxing. The next day we visited Pamukkale and the ruins of Hierapolis, which are on the same site. Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish; it's this huge cascade of white calcified terraces with hot spring water running through it (mixing with cold water in some places). It has something to do with calcium and carbon dioxide coming out of the ground, which has something to do with the volcanic activity in the area and all the hot springs around. Anyway, it's amazing and I wanted to stay there all day. Hierapolis was something of a spa town (the waters are supposed to give women more fertility) back in ancient times, and you can still swim in the "antique pool." Plus there are ruins all over the place and a museum and a restored amphitheatre that is really quite impressive.


On the tour we met a lovely British couple, Robin and Steve, who co-own a condo in Fethiye. They offered to let us stay there when the tour brought us back to Fethiye that night, and we gladly accepted. We had dinner with them in a local restaurant, they fed us a Turkish breakfast in the morning and walked us to our bus stop to begin our journey back to Istanbul. We exchanged addresses and we'll definitely send them some kind of postcard from somewhere along the way as a thank-you of sorts. They were really kind to us and it was nice to sit around chatting over drinks with them. Thank you, Robin and Steve! Now we're in Istanbul again and it turns out that Jason's friend Ahmet, who we'd hoped to meet up with here, has been sent to London on business. So... perhaps we'll be off to Bulgaria quite soon. We haven't decided yet, but we'll try to figure something out tomorrow.

Posted by arwyn 10:35 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

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