Thursday, December 16, 2010

Romania Road Trip

The long-awaited post on my October trip is finally here.

High-level Synopsis.
I tagged along with my friend Florian on the tail end of a Balkans road trip and then spent a few days in Vienna. The itinerary included Serbia (2 days), Romania (5.5 days), Hungary (1.5 days), and Austria (4 days). The Romania portion involved a lot of driving with my German friends Florian and Lorenz. The Austria portion involved a lot of running around Vienna being loud and American with my friend Kate. (Balkans-related photos here; Vienna photos here.)

The Trip.
I started by meeting some German students in Belgrade, Serbia, where they were stopping during their Balkans road trip. The eastern Europeans in the group introduced me to the meat-eating culture: I broke my no-red-meat principle to sample the ćevapčići and pljeskavica. (If you go, make sure to have burek for breakfast, too.) Belgrade is intense: people party hard amidst remnants of the NATO bombing in the 1990's. (We went to a really cool club in an abandoned building.) Our Serbian friend described the culture as "People live like there is no tomorrow."

After a couple of days in Belgrade we made our way to Romania in Florian's parents' minivan. We passed the Serbian town of Golubec, where we drove past a medieval fortress. It was not sufficiently satisfying to just observe the fortress from the road, so we scaled the side of the fortress to get to the top. The dopamine high from fearing certain death throughout the treacherous climb led us to instate the tradition of having one adventure per day. The most dangerous adventures may have involved the other road trip participants going to sleep while I drove in the night.

Our first Romanian destination was Targu Jiu, where we found a place to eat by asking some pedestrians and where we found a hotel by driving to a street where we thought there might be hotels. (The first hotel was too expensive, but they pointed us to a more reasonably priced one.) There I learned about the sculptor Brâncuşi, who walked to Paris to meet Auguste Rodin (of "The Thinker" fame) and then turned down an invitation to study with him, saying "nothing grows in the shade of a tall tree."

After Targu Jiu we spent a few days in the city of Sibiu, which has beautiful churches and other architecture. We drove out to some locations including a fortified church, the medieval town of Sighişoara, and Vlad Dracul's castle. We were particularly haunted by the village of Hunedora, which housed the ruins of a beautiful castle alongside industrial ruins from the Communist era. In the midst of all this were these ornamental gypsy houses decorated with tin with begging gypsy children all around. We exited Romania by way of Timișoara, the most modern city we visited in Romania. There we saw the rose garden, many churches, and Piazza Unirii, a beautiful square. We are not sure why, but we witnessed at least 3-4 weddings in the day we were there.

On the way back to Vienna we drove through Hungary without a map or idea of where to eat/stay. We drove toward Budapest, stopping in the city of Szeged for dinner. We again asked some pedestrians for a dinner recommendation but ended up going to an amazing restaurant on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. There we tried the local specialty, carp soup (the Hungarians love their paprika), while listening to live traditional Hungarian folk music. We then had a bigger adventure in Budapest, where we drove the streets trying to find a hostel from Florian's memory of his last visit there ten months previously. Budapest turned out to be much more of a hot spot than the Romanian cities: the first two places we tried had no vacancies. (It turns out that it is currently trendy to go to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna on the same trip.) We spent most of the next day relaxing in the geothermal baths (which had a surprisingly large and varied selection of baths, saunas, and steam rooms) before heading back to Vienna.

In Vienna I met my friend Kate and we did the standard tourist activities. On the first day (which was also my 24th birthday) I had half a day before Kate arrived, during which I walked through the quarters, got acquainted with a a live Mozart statue, visited the Mozarthaus, and walked into an amazing artist's studio because I liked the way the paintings looked. Kate and I spent our time hanging out in cafes and palaces. We proudly represented America by loudly saying "RAWWR!" (see photo from the Pratersauna, a club in a former sauna) whenever there was doubt as to our origins. All in all, Vienna was as (everything had a curlicue or flourish) as expected.

The driving was quite memorable. There is no interstate highway system in use, so we drove through the main road, which most often had two lanes and passed through the centers of villages. Driving was not as fast as expected given the 60 km/h speed limit, the presence of tractors, cows, and baby carriages, and the difficulty of passing slower vehicles. Night driving was particularly exciting because there were no lights and many exciting curves marked with multiple glowing arrows. Florian often drove the day shifts because of his love for the "national sport" of passing cars. As a result the bulk of my driving experience to date has involved night driving in the Transylvanian woods. I am surprised we are still alive.

I loved Romania a surprising amount. The countryside was beautifully natural: for the first time I observed someone cutting grass with a scythe. On one drive we encountered the most breathtaking sunset I have ever seen. It was also interesting going through Romania during an off tourism season because there were no lines and also no special performances for tourists. I am really glad I went to Romania before it became more modernized (and before there is an interstate highway).

A final important thing I learned on this trip is that you can travel in luxury with carry-on luggage using do-it-yourself travel size containers.