Our bus drove out onto the steamy tarmac of modern Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. It came to a halt in front of a tiny propeller plane that would fly me and my fellow passengers to my next destination on ‘The LL World Tour’: Bucharest, Romania. The aircraft looked like it was built in 1973—the gray leather seats were worn around the edges and super shiny in the middle—from the hundreds of butts that had sat there before me. There were no high tech movie screens or anything near what I experienced on Emirates Air just a few months back on my flight into Istanbul. In fact, the flight attendants still did the safety ‘song and dance’ themselves.
After one and a half hours bobbing and weaving our way through the puffy-clouded skies, we landed in the former communist city of Bucharest and one of the newest countries of the European Union. Back in independent traveler mode—I hit the ground running—smiling through passport control, picking up my checked suitcase, getting Romanian Lei out of the ATM, and finding public bus number 783 into the city. It felt good to be ‘on the move’ once again.
The ride into town was surprisingly lovely and we passed what appeared to be a very green city with shady trees all around. Because of its wide leafy boulevards and public squares, Bucharest is sometimes called the “Paris of Eastern Europe.” I think practically every country I’ve been in seems to claim one city as some sort of Paris: Buenos Aires—the Paris of South America; Dalat, Vietnam–the Paris of Vietnam; Montreal—the Paris of Canada; Dubai—the Paris… no I’m just kidding about that last one.
After hearing several warnings from various friends who said Bucharest was a ‘dump’ (I can’t confirm this for myself) I planned on seeing more of the countryside and headed straight for the train station. Oh, and by the way, I was back in a country where the cars stop for people—ah, civilization.
Before I left Istanbul, I’d wondered if I’d be lonely my first few days back out on my own again. But so far, this was not the case. On the bus I’d spotted a couple guys that seemed like English-speaking tourists… well it’s not detective work to spot a backpack or suitcase, but as far as the English… they just had a ‘look.’ I bumped into them in the metro station and said ‘hello.’ And just like that, as is so easy in the travel world, I had two new best friends for the next couple days.
Derek, originally from Los Angeles and more recently Seattle, was on a whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe. Now that I’m an experienced loafer… committing my time in big cities to at least a week (to several months) or small towns to at least three nights, I hate to see others rushing around so much. He was spending, at most, two nights in each city he hit. He’s getting a small taste of the biggest tourist areas, but never a genuine feel for the ‘real’ place, but, hey, at least he’s traveling. Bobby lived north of London and was a bit of a real estate mogul, buying up properties all over the globe, from Dubai to Sofia and Venezuela to Poland.
I was planning on taking the train to Brasov, but the guys had read that something called a ‘Maxi Taxi’ (a minivan, basically) was cheaper and faster. We schlepped our bags and ourselves over crumbling sidewalks several blocks away from the train station in the not-so-quaint part of the city where locals pointed us to the ‘maxi taxi stand.’ Unfortunately for us, when we got there we found out the one we were looking for did not even stop here. A tall young Romanian guy with a cigarette dangling precariously out of the side of his mouth who never made eye contact told us gruffly that we could head across town to find it or just go back to the train station and take the next train. So much for the ‘two heads are better than one’ theory—I guess three heads are like a quarter brain? I had planned on buying a ticket and waiting for the train. Now, I was walking around in circles in Bucharest. We headed back to the train station and hopped on the next train for Transylvania. Of course, we found out later we’d gotten on the excruciatingly slow local train that made every stop along the way and would take about four hours instead of the express train that would have gotten us there in half the time. Oh well—it was just how things were going. At least this gave us time to get to know each other in our sweaty, hot train car with sticky pleather seats that we shared with friendly, yet smelly villagers.
During the long rail journey, we climbed higher into the mountains where the air was fresh and crisp and my spirits lifted. Brasov (Bra-shov) is the quintessential medieval European city full of old Bavarian-like stuccoed buildings with red-tiled roofs and petunias spilling out of window flower boxes lining cobblestoned lanes where locals stroll arm in arm. A church bell gongs in the distance and the air is misty and cool. Cafes line the streets and idle chatter fills the air. I love it.
Romania is perhaps the most beautiful country in Eastern Europe, a last bastion of a medieval past long since lost elsewhere. The mighty Carpathian mountain range cuts right through the heart of it surprising you with jagged mountain vistas and lush green valleys with several fortified centuries-old villages.
You can just imagine the middle ages with fierce horsemen galloping by on their way to attack and pillage the next tiny hamlet, killing the men, stealing the women, and eating wild beasts with their bare hands.
The mythic land of Transylvania is the region of Vlad (the Impaler) Tepes, the real-life torturous prince who was the inspiration for 19th-century novelist Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. The intact medieval villages of this region are a trip back in time, with their charming town squares, foreboding stone watchtowers, stately churches, and surrounding Bavarian-style homes reflecting the Hungarian and German ancestry.
I wasn’t sure what exactly Romania would be like and this was just perfect. I am reminded once again how much I just love the look and ‘feel’ of Europe and am glad to be back.