Romania - ignore the guidebooks (Sept 2005)
Bucharest - Five days of continuous rain. Thieves, beggars, stray dogs, and street urchins?
When the foreign office, guidebooks, and eve some backpackers are less than positive about a place, you have to go and see it for yourself - welcome to Bucharest. For pretty and historic you can stay in the UK and visit York or Oxford. Instead of being just another plain run of the mill European capital it has unique attractions and a few "ugly warts" as well; making it much more interesting - I loved it.
In view of the bad press I actually advance booked a hostel for the first night, and rather than risk the bus with my "tourist - please rob me" sign of packs on both front and back, decided for once to take a taxi.
Contrary to the guidebooks; when I arrived at Bucharest Garre du Nord I was not surrounded by Gypsies, and my possesions did not vanish. The reality was, unlike other cities, no one approached me in the station, outside the first taxi driver I approached wasn't sure of my hostel address, called across a second who had an "AtoZ" and then happily let me go with that driver who spoke good English. Per request he estimated the cost, and his meter was switched on; he pointed out a lot of sites on the way and did not rip me off.
Unfortunately I timed things badly arriving to heavy rain at Bucharest which had already lasted 24 hours. It rained almost continously for another 4 days, after an hour in it the contents of my day bag were soaked, and during my stay I went from thinking it must surely stop raining soon to this is never going to end. Local news reports showed some areas under a couple of feet of water (the worst I saw was ankle deep pavements), and water dripping on MPs (some with umbrellas) in their Parliament in the Peoples Palace.
I did have some dry days in B, as I broke my stay there with a few days in Transylvania.
Before I plug the brilliant new Butterfly Villa Hostel, the friendly people and sites, I'll get the negative stereotype out of the way:
The foreign office site identifies various scams, corrupt and bogus police, street crime, and theft from hotel rooms.
One of the backpackers I met in Sofia said that one of the group of 3 he was in had her bag slit and her money stolen whilst on the bus, and a French Gendarme (originally from Martinique West Indies) who was staying at my hostel had his camera snatched one afternoon in the main shopping centre by a group of kids.
Even some Romanians hate Bucharest, on a train journey to Sinaia from B I met someone from the second city Cluj, he told me "Bucharest is horrible, it's not the real Romania" He had been robbed twice there.
These cases show you have to be alert but I felt quite safe with my valuables well tucked away.
Despite a "culling" a few years ago Romania is reputed to have a stray dog "problem", so I was expecting to be savaged by vicious rabid dogs. They are still here, and at night in Transylvania you don't hear the baying of wolves (which exist) but the barking of dogs. However they seem quite docile, look amazingly healthy, and are scared of people. Amazingly I saw no dog pooh, perhaps the rain washed it all away.
Beggars and Street Kids
I did not gain the impression that the Romanian people were poverty stricken, many people seem affluent and shops sell luxury goods, I even saw one of those American military Hummer 4WDs (black tinted windows - and we can guess that the money that bought it needed cleaning) - but there are undoubtedly a very poor underclass.
Like Bulgaria people do sift through rubbish for any value, and on a tram I saw a gypsy father and daughter going down the carriages playing accordions but it seemed more desperate than busking in the UK.
Beggars which include quite a few with missing limbs, and street urchins, often barefoot, hang round subways and outside (or until moved on even inside) shop entrances. When you see these youngsters soaking ill fitting clothes during the continuous rain you realise they are in need. I gave my kebab to a girl just sitting soaked in the rain (she was not blatantly begging) as I walked by I could see her wolfing it down obviously hungry. I turned back and gave her (by Romanian standards) a lot of money - she then pestered me and my companion for more. I originally thought she was about 14 but when she got up she pointed to her belly showing she was well pregnant - she could have been any age between 13 and 20.
The dry weather brought more of the urchins out, e.g. a group of barefoot boys aged between 8 and 10 wandering round sniffing glue. The police ignored this, and people waiting for buses moved away (presumably to protect their purses).
My Romanian friends told me that there are now decent homes for these kids and when you meet them in the areas they are housed in they are happy friendly and polite. Those who are on the street "want to be there", and my friends claimed that they often had "pimps" i.e. minders who took most of their money.
I was surprised that the majority of these kids were Romanian not Roma Gypsies. I remember seeing a documentary a few years ago which showed gypsies (in Czech/Slovakia I think) being victimised and run out of villages - but it also showed gypsies saying "yes I am a thief - I can't get work/its all I know/it's how I'm thought of so I am" - a vicious circle.
The Romanians I talked to do not like the gypsies and believe they are responsible for most crime and even mutilate their children for good proceeds from begging. I find this hard to believe - but those I saw with damaged missing limbs were gypsies! Including a 14(?) year old I saw with no legs begging via skateboard. He did well on charity, I gave him the last few coins I had prior to catching my train to Moldova - I did not expect any thanks for this pittance - and got none. But he did well out of other people who gave him notes - they also received no thanks.
The guide books also say that Bucharest is plagued by Mosquitoes at this time of year. I remained pleasantly un-bitten unlike further South or North. I don't know whether it is true but I've heard that the Government/Council now spray the whole city to kill off the mozzies.
Romanian PeopleThe Romanians I met e.g. on the trains made an effort to talk to me and were very hospitable - I was given phone numbers and invited to call them if I went further north to their hometowns which they recommended visiting.
Butterfly Villa Hostel
Is not in the guidebooks yet, it's a new hostel I heard of by word-of-mouth. It is owned by a German Henry (with lots of backpack experience)and his Romanian Girlfriend Alicia (spelt Alis?)assisted by her brother Beeol (haven't a clue as to spelling) and their friend Dan. They provide excellent hospitality, advice, service, company etc.
When I arrived back from Brasov and said I was starving and off to get something to eat I was invited to join their "tea" an excellent salad, and water-melon. They will sit and drink/play darts with you even when their "shift" has ended. Fantastic value for money. Free facilities include breakfast, as much coffee as you can drink, use of kitchen, internet/WIFI, your washing done, Cable TV, DVD and Playstation library. It was a great place to meet other backpackers and we all loved the hostel. I found it very difficlt to leave it was so easy just lazing on the patio. (villa-butterfly.com)
The "Peoples Palace" built by the communist dictator Ceausescu in the 80's and still being completed - it is the 2nd (after the Pentagon) largest by area building in the world, and a sixth of the city was bulldozed to accommodate it.It uses natural ventilation, Ceausescu was scared he might be gassed through air conditioning.
The stairs were rebuilt 7 times to suit Ceausescu's small stature.
Village Museum- 300 homes, buildings and churches transplanted from around Romania. Much better than UK historic theme parks, even the souvenir shop sells decent quality Rmanian handicrafts not tat made in foreign countries. Note it does not open until 11 am as I found out.
Army Museum - supposed to be the 2nd largest (Army?) in Europe. I went with George and Matt (2 policemen) from OZ) - TWICE. Not because it was so good but because we arrived at 1550 on the first day and the sign said museum closes at 5pm and last entry at 4pm so we were refused entry. I've experienced this liberal interpretation of closing time elsewhere in Romania.
The next day we managed to gain entry, I don't know if it was because of the rain but we were the only visitors. It was run by lots of unsmiling middle/old age women and seemed to hark back to Communist days, we certainly got the impression that they either thought we were spies or had interrupted their coffee morning. We would enter one room they would follow us round switch on the lights, wait for us, we would move on, they would switch off the lights and lock the room behind us. They also neglected to mention that most of the museum was under renovation (we assume) so we could not see the exhibits. Anyway unless you want the same amusing communist era experience it is not worth the visit.
TransylvaniaSpent a day in Sinaia and one in Brasov. Even those backpackers that hated Bucharest loved Brasov. Intercity train from Bucharest are excellent; modern carriages, more comfortable, spacious, and less crowded than UK trains. Sinaia is a winter ski resort - not much to do except visit Peles Castle - a walk into the hills.
You know you are getting near when the track is lined by stalls selling souvenirs etc. I got there at 3.35 - last tour 4 pm, but of course the ticket office had already closed. Quite annoying as everyone has since told me that the interior and contents are a must see - that I didn't.
Brasov - is touristy but has retained its charm. As usual my timing was bad and its famous square was filled with bandstand and seating for concert so you'll get part of the square on the outskirts near my hostel.
Stayed at Kismet Dao hostel - not impressed, nor was Bill (from Hong Kong) who I went by bus to see the famous castles of Rasnov and Bran (Dracula).
The 3 bus journeys cost under £1 for a 52km round-trip. Rasnov castle is not as popular as Bran but has a spectacular high location.
It's well was 137m deep and apparently took 2 Turkish prisoners 17 years to dig. They were promised their freedom on its completion.
The castle is reached by a long dirt track from the town, which we came up, there is also a more direct steep "footpath" overgrown and damaged which we took down the cliff/hillside back to the town. Most visitors appeared to be Romanian, apart from a souvenir shop in the castle - tere is nothing particularly catering for tourists. Likewise the town has kept its "charm".
Bran has lots of stalls for tourists - The castle like Rasnov dates back to 1300s, I have read the castle was unlikely to even have been visited by Vlad Tepes - perhaps its link to Dracula was a visit by Bram Stoker?
Most people I met were more impressed with Rasnov. Bran Castle is, however, furnished and was the summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family in first half 20C. The furniture looked quite basic and I assumed it must have been refurnished, but photos of Queen Mary (granddaughter of Queen Vic) showed the same sparse furnishing - not a wealthy family I presume.