Out of Romania! To Budapest!

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sunday, October 8, 2006

At Athens Airport. Made it! Am feeling a little smug- up early, packed. With mixed feelings left sandals and two pairs of shorts behind; bag considerably lighter now, but that means am leaving sunshine behind for good! High in Bucharest 58 degrees. I also did what I consider a sacrilege. I ripped poor "Vanity Fair" in half and left the first part behind. Had lots of trouble as shoulder now so bad I cant lift my arm above my head- and somehow have to manage the backpack. And, apparently because in so much pain, am grinding teeth in sleep and now TMJ is coming back (other side of jaw this time). Erg.

Checked out- and took the Acropolis Metro (first time). Boy, what a difference! Huge, all gussied up in marble with statues and artifacts- obviously done for the Olympics- it even had a MAP! Navigated to correct train and got to the airport. Managed to get a ticket to Bucharest (took a few false starts) but I am waiting to go! Kinda proud that I can manage European elevators now, know that floor numbers are different and so on. Wonder what it will be like in Bucharest?

In some ways, sorry to leave Athens- sunshine is nice. But, like all tourist destinations, the people are overwhelmed and not as friendly as I would like (I hear this discussed by other travelers everywhere I go). In restaurants, food is simply put on the table- never an interaction with the waiter. Never a thank you when you buy anything. Last night, I ate at the same café as I had the night before- they recognized me and were friendlier- but not exactly effusive- I think the crush of people is just too much (I even let the swaiter use my computer to watch a head banging DVD he had made). One Irish lady a table over kept saying she simply felt 'like cattle' whenever she ate, bought, toured in Greece. As noted, in Karpathos, away from crowds, the Greek hospitality is quite different; I suppose this rules true for everywhere.

As for the people otherwise- have to say the handsome Greek Ideal of man is short lived from my perspective. The men seem to peak in the mid twenties, shortly thereafter, a little paunch appears that swells with each year. Ah well- most of those statues we study in school are definitely of teens!

Read a guidebook at bookstore here at airport- Bucharest sounds pretty grim indeed. We shall see. Boarding.

BUCHAREST

Oh Sweet Mother of God. What a place. When I checked in to this hotel, the lady at the front desk wouldn't take payment for tomorrow saying "People often decide to leave here and go to the mountains- you might too". My goal, first thing in the morning is to go to the train station and try to book an overnight train to Budapest. I can't wait to get out of here and the thought of being here more than 24 hours gives me chills.

The flight from Athens on the Romanian airlines was notable only for two things. First, the spiders and flies. Once we took off, the spiders started down from the overhead luggage compartments. I was a little freaked, but apparently others were prepared and laughed brushed them into the aisles and stepped on them. I thing we should have let them make webs to catch all the flies that buzzed about the cabin. The other thing was the 'lunch' served by rather sulky flight attendants: stale bread sandwiches; a slice of cheese and yellow peppers- the flight attendant spilled orange juice on me- she wiped herself off. Ah well, chalked it all up to modern air travel and wasn't too phased.

Arrived in Bucharest and proudly navigated to the bus and made it Universitii Square (I am staying nearby at a hotel from the travel guide). I got lost a bit, and wandered but made it to the hotel- they didn't have my reservation. Appears most of Bucharest is 'offline' right now. Only room available is a small one with a shared bath. Now, with my shoulder at the point where I can't lift my arm, I really wasn't going back out on a late Sunday afternoon with the backpack to look further so I simply took the room. Room is a misnomer- when you open the door, it hits the foot of the bed, it is pie shaped and where the head of the bed is, I can stretch my arms and touch the walls- cells at Alcatraz are bigger- but it is clean. And I only paid for one night. Tomorrow I will learn about sharing a bath with the rest of the floor.

Anyway, dropped the bags and since it was only 4ish, I went to a restaurant around the corner recommended by the front desk lady (who is nice). Restaurant was 'authentic' and quite quite empty- as only person there I had quick service- braised cabbage (yes, I like cabbage) and sausage. I then walked to get my bearings.

I wasn't too impressed with the city, but it being a Sunday afternoon and me being tired I tried not to judge too hastily. I first explored my area, looking for an internet café and was unlucky for a while- most of Bucharest, indeed, being offline. So I walked. My first impressions were bleak.

Much as the guidebook says, this is the 'wild wild east'. Having been one of the last countries to shake off communism/despotism (remember Ceaucescu?) its economy is in shambles- and the guidebooks say that literally the city is in the process of falling apart, and will fall apart soon. This is not hyperbole by any means. As I walked, it seemed that the entire city is varying shades of dark brown leading to black. Everything is covered in soot and dirt and turning black. Roofs are rotting. Cars are abandoned in the streets. Beautiful buildings are moldering on the main streets (I hope to take pictures tomorrow- but if I can get the hell out of here, you'll just have to take my word for it). The more I walked, the more depressing the whole place became.

Litter mounds in the streets. Homeless people squat everywhere. Unlike Athens, the wild dogs here roam in packs. I was semi terrified by a pack of 6 on a side street- and unlike the wild dogs of Athens, these are large dogs- thigh high or higher- German Shepherd mixes- they roam together and the guide book gives advice on how to frighten them away when you are cornered (by pretending to stoop and pick up a big rock)- and this is all serious. As time passed and I walked I simply saw more and more that worried me- I also had a growing feeling of unease and just didn't feel safe. When I finally found an internet café that was working, I explored routes out and find that flying out isn't an option- I'm going to have to take an overnight train (which I wanted to avoid- again, guidebook-and even Eurail guide- calls the Bucharest routes the most notorious- even when you get your own stateroom some people are gassed under the door- then the lock is picked and they are robbed. Yippee. I'm feeling very much the intrepid traveler!) but flights out are prohibitive so tomorrow- to the train station.

I came back, unpacked and went out walking again for the evening because I couldn't bear to be in my cell. I walked through the University area (which was crawling with students but remained spooky) up and across a square towards the other side of town. As night fell I realized there are few streetlights, fewer roadsigns and while the streets were crowded, most buildings were dark. I walked by huge blocks of communist era apartments that were unlighted. Huge and beautiful 19th century buildings- totally dark and crumbling. I'm pretty gutsy, but eventually turned around because it was just too scary. I went up to a main street- one of the wide boulevards that were rammed through the old city by Ceaucescu. While heavily foot trafficked and lined with some lights and shops, the spookies pervaded. I went up about a mile to Romanu Square and started back- it was about 8:30.

The crowds were changing- beggars were coming out and so were pimps. At first I just walked and ignored everything. As I kept going, everyone got bolder. Beggars would hit me on the arms when I ignored them (yup, yelling something in Romanian as I kept walking) and the pimps starting grabbing my arms and pulling me towards alleys; this on a busy street. I wasn't comfortable to say the least. This happened innumerable times. The crowds were mostly changing to young students and I kept walking as fast as I could. I began walking at the very edge of the curb (dangerous in itself here) but still was accosted every 20 feet or so and got a little surly myself as my arms were buffeted and grabbed.

I made it back to Universitii Square and headed down towards the area where my hotel was. The beggars were lighter here, but the pimps more numerous and aggressive- and the streetlights far fewer and blocks of darkness far longer.

Ok, frankly, I was scared.

I got back to main street off of which my dinky hotel lies- and made for the Novotel. A new brightly lit building with a doorman, I shook off a particularly aggressive pimp (I almost fell this time fighting him off) I got to the Novotel, was escorted in by the doorman and promptly ordered a martini. And drank it. It was $30 leiu- I have no idea how much that is, nor do I care.

As for money- the leiu confuses the hell out of me. Most know I can't figure out a tip, never mind exchange rate. Well, I finally got Euros down- now I turned in Euros for Lieus so have two exchanges to keep in mind to get back to dollars- and frankly, didn't care at the martini ordering point. And don't plan to be here long enough to get too deeply involved.

I made it back to the hotel (down a sidestreet next to the Novotel) looking out for the pack of wild dogs (only saw three down at the end of the street in the dim light). I'm in the little cell writing and listening to pigeons craw and coo in the airshaft outside my one window. Yup, I'm outta here tomorrow if I can. Even if it is on the night train from Bucharest.

--
And here I am, on the night train from Bucharest! We are currently going through the flatlands in the heart of Romania- mostly farmland, could be anywhere in mid America- flat for the most part, everything tilled. The little houses we pass are squat and ugly- same to be said for many places in the U.S.

Got up and started the day with breakfast. The hotel staff has been uniformly cheerful, helpful and English speaking - very nice at breakfast, I had a choice of four different 'breakfasts du jour' and frankly could tell little difference of one from another and ended up with sausage, yogurt, bread, small cucumbers and tomato. I paid extra for my second cup of coffee.

From there, shower in the shared bathroom- really not that bad. It's, well, a shared bathroom for the floor. It was empty, I went in and showered and I left. Not that bad. I dressed and immediately headed to the Metro to go to the train station to get a ticket out of town. I went into Metro (none of the escalators work) and actually figured my way around the system (easier than Athens) and got to the train station and managed that as well...cranky ticket agent but with the ticket in hand- back on the Metro then to Internet café to book a hotel in Budapest (I arrive at 5:40 a.m., hotel wont do me much good at that hour, but I plan to find it and sit in the dang lobby if I cant get into the room). A quick description of the Metro- the ceilings are painted black. The walls are a pale brownshit shade. I luckily counted stations before getting on- it is impossible to see out the windows (never mind an announcement system) all the windows are opaque with graffiti, and its not pretty graffiti.

From there, advised hotel here I was not staying tonight- they didn't seem surprised and I guess that many people cut short their stays in Bucharest. I put my bags in the storage room and headed out to see more of the city.

Now, as noted last night, anyplace can get a bad rap on a Sunday night. Empty streets can be spooky (University of Pennsylvania on a Sunday night in some areas I am sure can be scary). I decided that between the guidebooks instilling fears and the bad luck of it being a Sunday, I'd give the city another try. So I went and walked. In the daylight, the poor city still looks beyond bedraggled and I have to agree, it is getting ready to fall down. Buildings are a mess everywhere, my impressions of the prior evening did not change. Garbage, abandoned cars, wild dogs, power lines sagging down to chest height, empty buildings. It jus aint pretty. And the sad thing is, it could be pretty.

The older architecture (it was shooting for the name of "Paris of the East" back around WWI when a lot of building/rebuilding was done) is lovely. But look at the pictures- everything is falling apart and black with pollution, rusting with neglect- empty.

The newer, Communist era buildings, are scarcely faring any better. I still don't understand how concrete can crumble and crack and turn black- but it does. Not as old as the beaux arts buildings, the communist era buildings are still in just as bad shape!

I walked down and found Ceaucescu's Palace. It is phenomenally large. It makes Buckingham Palace look a little on the dinky side. When he built it, he not only tore down everything to make the Palace and parks around it- but created a huge boulevard through the center of town- I have no idea how far it runs but it is quite wide and lined with concrete structures (see photos for details) none of which have any charm. He destroyed neighborhoods, blocks, towns, to do all this. Looking at the Palace and all the damage done to the city to make it- and looking at the condition of the rest of the city, no wonder they took him and his wife out and shot them.

I stopped by a small monastery near the palace- it looked charming and interesting, and while mentioned in the guidebook all was locked and people eyed me suspiciously as I walked around. After a bit, another tourist came in, got the same stares and left.

I got lost (of course) heading towards the hotel again and only because of that found the ruins of the 'castle' of the original Counts of the area (see pic- hey, am getting this travel thing together). It was closed. Somewhere in there Count Vlad (Dracula ya know) is buried. It didn't look like much.

I walked around, snapped more interesting buildings and decided that was it for me.

Back to the hotel, strapped into the backpack, to the Metro (which, if I do say so with some pride, I navigated quite well) to the train station. I was early, and sat and watched people. I think I might have liked Romania a little more if I hadn't let the travel books get to me- it's a sad place to be sure. I never heard a single person laugh the entire time I was here. Economically its in bad shape and trying to get into the EU. The capitol city is falling down. But I might have found Bucharest pretty in its own shabby way if I just wasn't scared of it. They say the surrounding countryside is going to boom- the little villages and towns in the Carpathian mountains are already becoming the 'new' travel destination because of their unspoilt beauty. I am going to miss out on that. I am still glad to be heading West, I can't say I am not. The poverty, dirt and bleakness of this cities life just was a 'vacation' atmosphere. I am sure people live out their lives here in perfect contentment- but as I said, no one seemed happy at all. Heads down, no smiles.

So, the countryside slips by, moving up into foothills of the mountains now, villages by streams. Some are picturesque, some are not. I am trying not to judge so much.

Nicest memory I will have of Bucharest? Last night I woke myself up from my sleep with laughter. I don't recall the dream, but my friend Randee was in it and for some reason we were just laughing and laughing at something: how nice to waken yourself with laughter instead of a nightmare! I guess I had my first laughmare- it was good (need to look up the roots of 'nightmare' and find out what the 'mare' means).

Off to dining car (I think). Conductor has to come and lock the room door so I need to ring for him. If I wish to go too the men's room, I have to ring for him. The door has two internal deadbolts, two chain locks. I wonder if I am crazy for even leaving it! But I'm hungry and want to get to bed early (will be up at 4) so, its off to eat. Lets see if I make to Budapest without incident- I'm certainly hoping so!

--

The train ride was surreal. Once locked and bolted into the small cabin, I was somewhat snug and safe. I turned off the lights and lay in the bunk watching the moon come up over the Carpathians. Since I don't wear a watch, time is irrelevant. I spent hours musing and watching small train stations pass. A fog came out and blanketed the entire plain off to the distant mountains. It gleamed in an eery milky white in the moonlight and after what seemed hours, I tried to sleep.

Have you ever taken an overnight train? If you can sleep in a car or airplane or small boat, you might not fare badly on a train. It does rock with a certain gentleness, but it is noisy. And as the train rounds bends or hits uneven track, the whole thing screams out. We also stopped at every station. The chain locks on my doors swayed and banged (was that a rattling made by the train? Or the bandits come at last to gas me?) and people walking in the aisles can be thrown into the door, making everything rattle and startling me into worry again.

At one point, we stopped at a large station, I thought it was the border so went out of my room- I was able to see the station sign and looked it up on my map- we were only in the middle of Romania- it had been hours- I began to wish they WOULD gas me so I could sleep.

When we hit the border, that was unmistakeable. Every door was banged on, we all had to stand and present passports to the Romanian Guard. Rough, loud, and big they gave me a little scare as my face doesn't resemble my picture (I've lost 60 pounds since it was taken years ago). I got to meet the next higher up Guard and was questioned. It went well once I yawned right in his face (I couldn't help it) while trying to answer- he laughed and repeated "So he say 'Yeaaahhhawn'" and left me be. Half an hour later the whole thing repeated with the Hungarian border guard. I got a little taste of how scary this could be back in the 'old' days. Middle of nowhere, made to disappear into the night and wilds of the Romanian outback.

Somehow, at some point, I drowsed. The train was 12 hours long. Since stops are not announced, and it is your responsibility to be up and out (it stops for 2 minutes, no more, at stations) I feared being a stowaway and ending up on the other side of Budapest so I never really slept.

Budapest at 5 a.m. I coulda kissed the ground.

Navigating here was much harder- as everything is in Magyar and that language simply has no relation to any other language in Europe (Indo-European; Latin roots). And I wasn't at my best at 5 with no sleep. I tried using my lieu, no good. I wanted a Metro ticket but lacked cash! While a member of the EU, they are not on the Euro (I had backup Euro with me)- wouldn't take-directed to the Money Exchange, that wouldn't open for half an hour. Stuck.

I found an ATM in the corner, took out several hundred "Forint" and got a ticket. And navigated the Metro to the right area- dawn was breaking. And I walked. Reading signs in Magyar- somewhere in the dist of which the streetlights were turned off! But, yes, I found the hotel. They let me in, let me use my room (even though check in is at 2) and were friendly kind and helpful.

I dozed intermittently for about 4 hours and was up. The room is huge. An old mansion, the hotel is graceful, high ceilinged (still has pallets for beds though) and I have a private bath- and tv- no internet but spacious, and quiet.

I got out the guidebook, got a map, and began to explore.

What a beautiful place! [of course, after Bucharest, there are few places I would not find charming]. Stately old buildings (all gleaming and cared for), wide streets (washed daily like Paris) no litter, in fact, so many garbage cans (every twenty feet) I wonder how they are all emptied. No wild dogs, smiling people, wide vistas across the Danube, sunshine, running cars, street lights. Ahhhhhh.

I crossed a beautiful bridge into Buda (I am in Pest) and climbed the hill to the old Royal Hapsburg castle. It is large and nice, but not much on the inside so far as I could tell (I didn't venture far in, splitting headache and the thought of being inside without a breeze just made it worse) so I took in the views from the heights and walked around the old city. It seems Buda has the heights and the old city, Pest has the lowland across the river, newer buildings and commerce.

The old city was lovely. Commanding views, immaculately maintained. I went from the Palace down to St. Matthias Church. It is where the Hungarian Kings used to be crowned. I loved the interior, all painted in colors with mutli colored tile floors and great frescos (very Gustav Klimt- and as they weren't stopping people from taking pictures, I tried to get a few, but all came out fuzzy- imagine the Madonna by Klimt- cool). There was a little door in the back and I went in and up and found myself in the 'museum' and saw the usual chalices and monstrances. But as I went, I ended up in the large room overlooking the main altar, where the king used to sit for mass. Not only did they have his church 'throne' but also the Hungarian crown. I enjoyed it immensely.

From there, a wander gradually down the hill and to the Danube (great view of Parliament) and along the Danube back to the room. Another nap, and here I sit at a café after some hot stew and not so good weinerschnitzel- awaiting my dessert of pancakes.

Tomorrow- more walking (I wonder how many miles I do a day?) and then make plans to move on to Vienna.

First impression of Budapest- lives up to its reputation, which is widespread. Buildings much like Amsterdam, just no canals. Friendly people. Clean. I feel safe. Whew.

Now if only I could figure out Magyar, and the Florint- a new tube of toothpaste (never mind adding weight to the bag) cost me $900 Florint- a deal? A rip off? Who knows! And as for my left over Lieu from Romania- no one will touch them. I tried almost a dozen money changers- no one will take them. I fear giving them to the beggars as they might toss them back at me! And yes, Budapest does have beggars (I counted four- they sit on the bridge, holding a prayer card in one hand and the other hand out palm up). And Budapest has three or four buildings that need work (but, scaffolding everywhere it seems as buildings are sandblasted). I saw one abandoned car, and not one single stray dog.

Here come the pancakes (crepes) smothered in chocolate and confectioners sugar, filled with nuts!

POST SCRIPT-- THIS FROM A DEDICATED RESEARCH ASSISTANT OF MINE (Thanks Pat)

From an internet site on word origins:

No, a nightmare is not a dream about a scary horse. The origin is fairly simple, but not obvious. The night portion is straightforward, it comes from the word night. It's the mare part that makes people think it has to do with horses.

Mare is simply an Old English term for a demon. So a nightmare is a demon that visits you at night--a scary dream. A mare was a demon, known as an incubus (male) or succubus (female) that descended on a sleeper, paralyzing and suffocating them, and had sexual relations with the sleeper. Over the centuries the meaning has become generalized to any frightening dream. Another term for the original phenomenon, still used today, is night hag.

The word is an old one. The OED2 attests to nightmare as early as c. 1290. Night is recorded as early as c. 825, but it is such a basic word that it is likely far older than surviving manuscripts. Mare is dated as early as c. 700. Mare also has cognates in many languages, including Dutch, German, French, Polish, and Czech, and ultimately derives from the Indo-European root *mer-, meaning to rub away or to harm. *mer- is also the root of murder and mortal.

The phenomenon of night hag is well documented. Some people experience a sensation of paralysis, including difficulty breathing, and couple it with a sensation of being visited by other beings. In today's modern mythos, it is extraterrestrials, not demons, that visit and perform strange sexual acts. The paralysis and visitations are not real, just figments of the mind in active dreaming. But these dreams are powerful, as attested to by the persistence of the myth, only the supposed origin of the imagined visitors has modernized.
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