International Writers Magazine: East Europe
although slowly developing as a more popular tourist destination
(especially around the Black Sea region) still remains a relatively
off-the-beaten-track destination generally visited
by the more adventurous tourist.
As part of our months
rail journey around Europe, my boyfriend Elliot and I visited there
for about 4 days. It wasnt nearly long enough to experience what
life in Romania is really like and we didnt see nearly enough
of the country. But what we saw in the time we were there brought home
to us the level of corruption in Romania and we soon learned to appreciate
the stark comparison between lifestyles between Western and Eastern
We caught a train from Budapest to Brasov (I like to imagine it was
similar to the journey albeit fictional of Jonathan Harker
in Bram Stokers Dracula) in the centre of Romania amidst the Carpathian
The journey was slow, long and rather interesting. We had booked our
tickets in advance the day before as we were told this was necessary.
We stood in a queue in Budapest station for the better part of an afternoon
to buy them, then on the day we caught the train and went to find our
seats we found them already occupied by a large family. They looked
rather disgruntled to say the least when we managed to relate to them
(somehow) that the seats two of their children were sitting in were
ours. They huffed, puffed, folded their arms and deliberately looked
away, thankful that they didnt speak our language. The train was
full and we were worried that if we sat elsewhere we would be booted
from our seats as we were attempting to do to the family. Elliot persisted
and eventually the adults agreed to move their two children out of their
We sat down happily and as we settled down it soon dawned on us that
there was a distinctly awkward atmosphere in the carriage. The kind
that felt like we had invited ourselves into someone elses house
for dinner and we hadnt been invited. The fact that the journey
was to be 12 hours long was an all too prominent thought in our minds.
Perhaps this wasnt such a good idea after all.
As the train chugged on (oh so slowly) we realised that the radiator
in the carriage was stuck on full blast and wouldnt turn off.
To top it off, the window wouldnt open. The prospect of a 12 hour
journey in these conditions didnt fill us with joy.
With some trepidation, Elliot decided to try his chances in first class.
He came back about 10 minutes later and told me hed asked the
guard (as best he could as the guard didnt speak English) if we
could upgrade to first class and to his understanding the guard had
confirmed that yes, this would be fine and we should go to first class
and he would come to find us later.
So we moved, with much relief and a certain feeling of smugness. The
carriage we now sat in was lovely and cool and spacious and all ours.
The guard, as promised, came in later on. "Oh, but where are your
first class tickets?" he seemed to ask.
"We dont have them," we explained, "We want to
upgrade to first class. Upgrade. Pay to move to first class." We
gesticulated this and repeated a few words along with actions for an
improved chance of being understood. The guards expression changed
and realisation seemed to dawn on him, as if some invisible light bulb
had flashed on somewhere beneath his blue guards hat.
"Ah!" he said, and explained that he would come back shortly
to collect our money.
Phew, we thought, as for a while we were worried he would send us back
to the jaws of the family in the stifling sauna carriage.
A little later he returned and sat down with his book of prices for
train tickets open on his lap. He pondered over this for a while, and
then asked us for a sum of money (which was quite reasonable and a bargain
compared to prices in Britain). We handed him the money expecting a
ticket in return. Instead, we both received a handshake. "Gentlemen,"
he shook Elliots hand, "Ladies," he shook mine, stepped
toward the door and with a wave of his hand exclaimed, "Hello!"
and with a big toothy grin he departed into the hallway. Elliot and
I looked at each other for a moment, the realisation of our bribery
suddenly dawning on us. It was a completely new experience. I had never
bribed anyone before! In that brief experience, it almost summed up
what life in Eastern Europe is like and how differently business and
life in general is run there. Bureaucracy takes a back seat.
We comfortably sat in first class until we left Hungary and entered
Romania. The Romanian guard came to check our tickets. Where were our
first class tickets? He enquired. Fortunately, he understood more English
than the previous guard and we were able to explain to him that we had
paid the Hungarian guard but had been given no tickets. Unfortunately,
we then had to pay him for our tickets as well. All in all, we paid
twice. Still, this time it was for real and we actually got tickets.
For the first time on this journey we could legally sit
in first class.
We tried to forget about the bribery and having to pay twice and sat
back and enjoyed the vast expanses of Romanian countryside, and it was
vast. Rolling meadows sprinkled with hundreds of white and pink flowers
tumbled on undisturbed save for the odd small village or horse drawn
cart, or pyramids of hay kept together with a wooden stick through its
centre. This was not the modern world. Every once in a while (especially
further north) we would stop in a town consisting of buildings that
looked as if they had been bombed at some point and had fallen completely
into disrepair and were now little more than shells. Children played
amongst the concrete rubble and clothes hung up to dry in the glassless
windows of the grey buildings.
As our journey continued south east, the villages and towns became more
and more sparse and the countryside less and less interrupted. Twelve
hours after leaving Budapest we arrived in the town of Brasov, Transylvania,
at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. We were relieved to find that
Brasov was quite unlike the towns we had seen in the north and was,
by comparison, quite prosperous. This is due mainly to the money brought
in by tourism to the region. In winter theres a good skiing scene
and in summer its a good place for people who are looking for
a relatively inexpensive holiday or for those interested in outdoor
activities. There are many places to hike, fish, climb or go on a wildlife
tour. But predominantly one of the main reasons for tourist attraction
to the region is the legend of Count Dracula, thanks to Bram Stoker,
an Irishman who had personally never visited Transylvania, let alone
Romania or Eastern Europe.
Romanian Gypsy Boy
We were met at the
station by a woman called Maria Bolea, who is mentioned in the Lonely
Planet guidebook and runs the Rolling Stone Hostel. Her mind races
a mile a minute and her enthusiasm and exuberant personality leave you
even more exhausted after a days travelling. At the hostel, travellers
come and go constantly and the kitchen is always full of different accents
sharing stories of different travelling experiences. Many people visiting
this part of Romania visit Draculas Castle. The castle
is situated in a town called Bran, just a short drive away from Brasov.
The weather was sympathetic to our visit, with fog shrouding the mountains.
However, the castle itself did not seem so befitting to spooky foggy
weather. Its not so much a castle, rather a nice summer house
and not very gloomy. The walls had recently had a fresh lick of white
paint, perhaps Dulux Snowy White. It was more cosy than creepy. So if
you go and visit Draculas Castle expecting a maze of dark and
mysterious corridors and large gloomy rooms, perhaps with a bat or two
flitting around the corners
well, you wont get that.
By far the scariest thing at the castle was the sheer volume
of screaming, excitable children scurrying along the corridors and flushing
anyone who wanted to explore the building at a leisurely pace through
the corridors like a twig caught in a violent flood. At one point Elliot
experimented how strong the large group of children pushing against
his back was by leaning back on them and seeing how much they held him
up. The results were quite surprising and they held him up quite well!
We were relieved to evacuate the crowded house and filled our lungs
with fresh air outside as there was scarcely room to breathe inside.
As we left we entered a surreal world outside the building where local
people set up their stalls to attract tourists visiting the house. Its
undoubtedly touristy, but in a rather unique way. The stalls sell
well, pretty much anything really! Strange hats, genuine fur coats,
cheap plastic toys, balls, pipes, snow storms with tropical scenes inside
them. It was as if, still new to tourism, the people really had no idea
how to use the site of Draculas Castle to their advantage. They
knew setting up stalls and selling things to tourists was a good idea,
they just had no idea what to sell. One or two, however, seemed to have
cottoned on and were selling bottles of red wine posing as bottled blood.
However most had just decided to sell whatever they could get their
Brasov, where we were staying, is a pleasant town to spend some time
wondering around. One of the nicer places to pay a visit to is Mount
Tampa, the mountain that the town is based around. Theres a cable
car that runs to the top (or close enough), or you can walk. We chose
to take the cable car up and then walk down through a beautiful meadow,
apparently a hot spot for barbeques and picnics and then follow the
path down through the forest. There are bears and wolves in this area,
but the chance of actually bumping into either are very slim.
The views from the top of the mountain are worth a trip up, but its
still not quite the craggy and bleak mountain range of the Carpathians
that fantasy stories have encouraged you to believe exist here.
Another place that is worth a visit in this area is the Palace at Sinaia,
a town 2 hours south of Brasov by train. The tracks lead through some
very picturesque scenery consisting mostly of thick forests and beautiful
mountain ranges that are perhaps closer to the popular fantasy image
of the Carpathians.
The station in Sinaia is small and quiet and isnt situated directly
in the town but, it seems, a little way outside it. A little lost at
where to go we asked a man who approached us saying, "Bed to sleep?
Bed to sleep?" at us and putting his head on his hands, the universal
symbol for sleeping. When we failed to respond in the positive, he looked
totally put out and walked off briskly. He then paused and turned around
walking back a few paces. Perhaps we had realised our mistake and really
did want a bed to sleep. "Bed to sleep? Bed to sleep?" he
asked again, repeating the same sleeping action with his hands.
"No", we responded and asked again where the Palace was. This
time he looked really fed-up and ran across the road in search of other
tourists who might be in need of a bed to sleep.
As we walked up to the palace, we passed many gift stands selling the
same cheap and tacky crap as we had seen in Bran and as we continued
to walk we caught sight of something much more distressing than plastic
snow storms with little red plastic towns in them. I couldnt quite
believe my eyes at first and only really registered what I was looking
at when I heard my own voice saying, "Its a lion."
Elliot didnt know what I was talking about so I repeated myself
and as he looked in the direction that I was looking in he too saw the
lion cub, tethered by a chain to a metal fence by its neck. It lay on
the pavement without a water or food bowl in sight and nothing comfortable
for it to lie on. The man beside the cub was young and wasnt badly
dressed at all. He certainly wasnt destitute. As we passed him
he raised his eyebrows at us, "You want picture with lion?"
Neither Elliot nor myself responded, as we were too disgusted. We werent
as excited now about our visit to Sinaia Palace as seeing the captive
lion cub had somewhat dampened our spirits.
I told the woman at the ticket stand about what Id seen as she
seemed to speak good English. As soon as I mentioned lion
her knowledge of English seemed to plummet. She shrugged, "I dont
understand", she said, "I dont understand what you mean."
She shook her head and looked completely blank, although I suspected
that she could understand me quite well. I gave up and asked two of
the women who worked inside the palace about it. "Is it legal to
keep a lion?" I asked them after I explained what Id seen
further down the hill. They looked at each other, then at me.
"Yes. Yes." They both asserted, "Its legal."
I later asked Maria if this was the case, to which she replied that
no, of course it wasnt legal. The people I was asking had probably
been bribed by the man with the lion. The police too would turn a blind
eye having accepted a bribe themselves. Thats just the way things
work in Romania. Maria herself had been to the palace at Sinaia many
times, taking tourist groups with her. The staff at the palace will
only give a tour of the ground floor, which, as magnificent as it is,
equates to only 10 per cent of the building. However, Maria offers the
staff a bribe and she always gets to see the next floor up with her
group of tourists. A little more money and shed be able to see
even more. In Romania, this is perfectly normal.
Sadder still is the fact that this lion cub is by no means alone in
its captivity. Many wild animals are smuggled into countries like Romania
(often stolen at a young age from their parents, whom they may have
killed in order to get the young animal) and go either to zoos where
they are poorly cared for, or into private ownership where the owner
will use the animal for personal profit. If youre interested in
finding out more about this or helping these animals, check out BornFree.org.uk.
Although upset by the plight of the lion cub who would not live a long
life (as it grows older it will only be less appealing for tourists
to pose and have their picture taken with it, as it will no longer be
so cute, and as the costs mount to keep the lion alive and revenue for
pictures taken with it decrease, the lion's fate is pretty much sealed),
Elliot and I still enjoyed our tour of the palace at Sinaia which was
stunningly beautiful and ordained with ornate wooden carvings most everywhere
you looked. It's dramatically situated on a hill surrounded by dense
coniferous forests often shrouded in mist. It's also dramatically surrounded
by a fair few soldiers rather stunningly dressed in purple camouflage
uniforms. Interesting, as the purpose of camouflage is to merge into
the background to an extent that it makes it difficult to be seen. Wearing
purple just doesn't seem to have the same effect. They carried large
machine guns somewhat proudly and peered at us from behind tree trunks.
I suppose we did look rather suspicious, what with our large cumbersome
backpacks and the fact we were a young couple taking touristy pictures
of one another in the palace garden. It would have been the perfect
cover act for some kind of elaborate terror plot - that we didn't look
suspicious was perhaps the most suspicious thing of all! Or so the purple
guards seemed to think. One of them laughed at us menacingly as we walked
down the hill. What a merry fellow, we thought, as we walked hurriedly
our adventures in Sinaia were not over yet. No sooner had we hurried
a little further down the hill from the mocking eyes of a purple
guard hugging his machine gun than we were met by a woeful looking
scruffy dog who walked on three legs, her front fourth leg held
up in a heart breaking limp. With her was a small and even fluffier
puppy, who looked up at us with sad and appealing eyes.
I'd never seen
dogs look sadder. We stopped in our tracks and didn't think twice about
taking out the pack of biscuits that we'd recently bought and threw
them a few. No sooner had we done this than another stray dog appeared
from the shadows. This one didn't look nearly so cute or sorry, but
Elliot threw him a biscuit just to keep him happy. When we felt we'd
given them enough, we carried on walking. The other dog that had recently
arrived wasn't too happy about this. He was in a better condition than
the limping dog and the puppy and barked angrily at us. How dare we
decide to leave and not give him the rest of our food? Suddenly it dawned
on us that feeding stray dogs in Romania might not be such a good idea
after all. We tried to walk away, but the more we walked, the more the
larger dog chased us and the angrier its barks became. The other two
dogs chased us too, but their chasing was more pathetic and sorrowful
than scary. We both sensed that the angry dog was close to attacking
us, and as we hurried through the cafe area we passed another dog who
saw the commotion and took up chase as well. With four hungry dogs on
our trail, we threw them the rest of the biscuits amid cries of, "Just
drop the bag!" and "Run!" The dogs all set about to scoffing
up the biscuits strewn across the floor, but we didn't linger around
to watch. We walked very quickly down the hill, casting nervous glances
over our shoulders just to check they weren't in pursuit of us again.
Thankfully only our pride was hurt. There are lots of stray dogs in
Romania, but from then on we learned never to feed them, even the puppies
and the sad ones that limped.
We passed the lion cub on the way down and several more stray dogs that
thankfully stayed out of our way as we eyed them with nervous suspicion.
We sat on a bench in the park nearby the station as the sky clouded
over and started to dampen us with a light covering of rain. The same
man who had asked us if we wanted a bed to sleep approached us again.
"Bed for sleep?"
"No." We both replied, sternly and in unison. We felt a little
warn down by Romania today and were looking forward to Slovenia, our
Exhausted, we boarded the train back to Brasov and were met again by
Maria who changed our money for us 'at a fair rate', she ascertained.
We had always tried our best not to spend too much time hanging around
Brasov station as it was plagued by gypsy children. They wander around
the tracks in their tattered clothes and grubby faces and approach anyone
they see to beg for money. They knew that we couldn't understand them,
but cleverly still decided that the language barrier could be crossed
by use of tone of voice and sad expressions. The gypsy population are
second-class citizens in Romania. They are outcasts in society. Maria
warned us that if a child begged us for money to not give them any,
but instead give them food as this was the only sure way to know that
you would be helping them. Otherwise, she said, they would give the
money to their parents who send them out to beg and they in turn would
spend the money on alcohol and cigarettes. Whether this is in fact the
case or not I don't know and I wouldn't like to judge. What is the case
is that, true or not, many people believe this.
We travelled out of Romania on the same tracks that we had travelled
Back again through the wild meadows and past the thick forests, past
the pyramid haystacks and the horse drawn carts and old towns with no
roads save a dirt track. I contemplated what a fascinating country it
is and to this day am amazed by the stark comparison between the culture
and way of life of Western Europe to that of Eastern Europe and Romania,
where bribery is a way of life and breaking the law is commonplace,
where children and dogs run wild and military men walk around proudly
displaying their guns. It seems that the days of the Wild West have
passed long ago. If you want to travel to the new Wild West, head East.
© Samantha Cliffe October 2006
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