Tuesday, January 31, 2017



I had heard from a few people that Bucharest is a depressing city (and I agree), so I flew in late and just stayed the night before heading toward Transylvania to see the famous Dracula Castle! Now, the association of this castle to Dracula is loose at best. Although Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, did indeed set his novel in this region of Transylvania, he didn't have this particular fortress in mind. This castle is loosely associated with Vlad III, a notoriously cruel ruler who may have inspired Count Dracula. Of course, loose associations don't make for great tourism, so the town and the castle really play up the Dracula shtick without a hint of irony, although the locals are quick to tell you it's all made up. It's fun, nonetheless. Since the building was constructed originally as a fortress, it's relatively simple and sparse inside.

Ooo spooky!

Halloween decorations in the castle
I toured the castle right before it closed, got a few goofy selfies, and then headed toward my lodging for the night - House of Dracula, a themed hotel. It was a little creepy inside, and the carpet was blood red, but overall it wasn't as cheesy as I had been expecting. It was still fun to stay there, and I did start reading Stoker's classic novel. The hotel is in Poiana Brasov, a small but lovely ski resort, which meant it was perfectly situated for hiking. I went downstairs in the morning and asked where a good location might be for doing a day hike. The man working the desk took out a map of the town, and sketched in a circular loop that would take me up, around, and back into town. He told me to look for the "triangle" trail, and then the "circle." He said it would take me a few hours, depending on how quickly I walked. Sounded good to me!

I could not have picked a more perfect time to visit the Carpathian mountains. The hills were inflamed with all shades of changing colors. I've never been to the northeastern US in the fall, but I imagine it would look similar to this. So I went, hiking along, mouth occasionally involuntarily agape because the leaves were so stunning. I listened to music, but tried to only listen through one ear because Romania is famous for it's robust bear population, and I knew from growing up in the mountains that bears are more active in the fall as they eat more to prepare for hibernation. The trails were very well marked, but I realized with some dismay that there were more than one "triangle" and "circle" trails - there were different colored triangles and circles. I'd figure it out, wouldn't I? I didn't pay as close attention as I should have. Some of the trails pointed to "Brasov," and I was staying in Poiana Brasov. Of course, Brasov was the neighboring mid-sized city on the other side of the mountain range, but if I hiked in that direction surely the trail would double back.

It didn't.

When I got into a large town (which I later found out was indeed Brasov), I stopped to look at a trail map. I must have looked confused, because a couple stopped to ask me if I needed directions. They didn't speak much English, but the communication happened anyway.
Me: "Poiana Brasov?"
Them: *expression of horror on their faces*
Me: "Really far?"
Them: nod
Me: "... Taxi?"
Them: *look of relief* point me down the hill

I could have hiked all the way back, but it a) would have taken me several more hours, and it was already mid-afternoon, and b) there was no guarantee I wouldn't have gotten lost on the way back. So I wandered down, found a grocery store, and bought a few hard ciders and some sour Skittles, as true adults do. As I was checking out, I asked the cashier where I could catch a taxi. She panicked, and immediately started speaking to another cashier in Romanian. Romanian is a romance language, so I managed to pick up that she was asking if that cashier spoke English. She shook her head, and began asking other employees. Probably every employee in the grocery store was summoned to ask if they spoke English, and one proud high school boy stepped forward as the best English speaker in the store. He not only called me a taxi, but he told me that he would wait with me for the taxi to arrive so that he could negotiate a fair rate with the driver. He asked where I was from, and was pleasantly surprised that I was American. He positively beamed as he bid me goodbye at the taxi - I think I probably made his week, because he got to use his English to help out a cute American girl.

Quick side note on Romania - never in my life have I been in a rural area where taxis were such a feasible way to get around. Even when they have to be called in from a neighboring town and you have to pay for their return trip across the pass, they are reasonably priced. There was one occasion where getting a taxi to come over from another town would have been expensive, but one of the staff at the hotel offered to drive me across the pass himself so long as I would cover the cost of gas. Which brings me to another point about Romania - Romanians are incredibly kind and willing to help a complete stranger.

Back to the story. Dusk was falling as I walked down the country road, searching for the bed and breakfast which would be home for the night. I was greeted with stares and various brays and clucks from the neighbors: horses, a cow, a donkey or two, plenty of dogs, chickens, and a human who couldn't understand why this crazy woman wearing two backpacks was walking down his road. I found the B&B after some effort, and the host was very friendly but didn't speak more than a few words in English. Her daughter translated our initial conversation, including the all-important Wi-Fi password and asking what time I was leaving in the morning. After this, we were on our own to communicate. I showed on my phone the Google translate word for "toilet paper," for there wasn't any in my room, and my host apologized by motioning that she was slowly losing her mind and grabbed me a roll. When I showed her the word for "breakfast," she opened the fridge and pulled out individual items while I placed my order by nodding or shaking my head. Still, we bonded, because when I left in the morning she kissed me on the cheek and grasped my hand firmly with both her hands. What a lovely human being!

I was off to hike in a national park! I left my backpack at the tourism office in the nearest town, got a trail map (I had learned something from the prior day's mishaps), and started hiking. It was glorious.

I fed this sheep herding dog some salami, and she and I became fast friends

I did still get a bit confused, and thought I was further along on the map than I really was. It worked out well though, because the upper part of the loop I wanted to do had some pretty extreme terrain that I wasn't comfortable hiking by myself - picture relatively difficult scrambling, on a misty day with low visibility, when recent rains had made everything muddy and slippery. No thank you. So I stopped at a mountain hut to have lunch, and a cute German student who was studying in Romania for his Master's in forestry struck up a conversation. He pointed me toward the trail back into town, but of course I missed a turn off and got a bit turned about. I then realized I was going to be pressed for time to make it back to the tourism office before it closed to pick up my pack!  So I was speed hiking, practically jogging, through what ended up being the most beautiful part of the hike, and didn't get to appreciate the scenery as much as I might have liked. As I was closing in on town, the cute German pulled up behind me on the road and offered me a ride. Grateful, I jumped in. It struck me that I could have ridden much further toward my evening's lodging with him, because he was headed in that direction (and he was cute), but I also realized that he could be an ax murderer. So I had him drop me at the tourism office and figured out my own transport.

I had been planning on doing more hiking that week, but the weather took a turn - it rained for a few days straight - and I got sick. So, I stayed at my bed and breakfast and took a few days to relax, which ended up being quite the treat and a much-needed break from constant motion.

My last day in Romania I went to visit another castle in Sinaia, and bonded with two fellow Americans and an Australian over how strange our tour guide was (in a lilting voice: "I still believe in fairy tales, so I work in a castle!") and how aggressively strict the other staff were about enforcing the no-photos-unless-you-purchased-our-overpriced-photo-taking-ticket rule. I was very glad to meet them though, because I ended up meeting up with Ian and Grace in Prague because they are living there.

Awkward selfie when I didn't want to get caught taking pics, but that ceiling though...

When our tour guide graciously allowed us to snap photos of a bedroom, when the strict staff weren't looking

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