Thursday, December 27, 2018

Romania & (ukraine...just a taste)

Fighting through 4 inches of snow that fell with a freak Fall snowstorm, delayed United (so what’s new), an almost missed connection in Munich we arrived in Bucharest on a cloudy cold Friday afternoon to missing baggage (United is nothing but consistent!). That aside our guy Mihai...designate guide, driver & friend...for the next 8 days is on time and drives us directly into downtown.


Stop 1 is to the House of Parliament, the seat of Romania’s government. It is the worlds second largest building, that is 9 floors deep and 12 floors high. It feels very communist...reminds us of our time in Russia. The tour feels like a realtor showing us around only to find that the many great halls of this building are rented out as always to pay the’s a grand convention center. Imagine renting out our Capitol, but then again not such a terrible idea given the state of our government. Aside from the grandness and I mean truly grand in terms of scale where some halls are as big as a football field and as high as 50 feet with spectacular chandeliers and carpets, but not much else.

 Nothing wrong with the picture lighting...they keep the lights low to save on power.
Balcony built for Ceausescu to address his people.  Instead, celebrities such as Micheal Jackson waved to his crowd.

Next stop is the Revolutionary square where the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made his last speech. I recall watching that back in 1989, my first semi-adult exposure to Romania through the revolution that was in progress. The view on TV indicated a large square but now it looks smaller as other new buildings have come up as as are the memorials to the fallen. Mihai points to the terrace where Ceausescu caught a helicopter and split town. 

Temperatures are below freezing and requires us to keep moving.

We decide the last stop for the evening is the old town. Well the old town is bustling, restaurants, bars, strip clubs, young people wandering around with no respect for the freezing weather. We visit one of hundreds of little Orthodox churches in the middle of their evening service. 

Then some local Shawarma cooked up by Turks who I suspect were heading west but somehow got caught in interesting Bucharest. And in the same place, they figured why not set up a currency exchange, a perfect match! The local beer a decent lager and goes well with the fresh shawarma and salads. We are staying right smack in downtown where apparently the last King Mihai bedded when he returned from exile. Nothing says welcome like sharing royal digs.

This morning we are headed north to visit Peles Castle and Bran Castle...home of the Dracula.

The Peles Castle campus has the larger Peles castle and the smaller wannabe Pelisor castle which was presented to King Ferdinand by his father King Carole the first for his wedding. The castle is rather modest and almost completely built with wood and housed King Ferdinand and Queen Mary’s six children. This castle is in the nice to see category.

Peles Castle is closed for the season but it’s grounds and the smaller Pelișor castle are open. Still what we see from outside makes it worth the visit.


More north and we are in Bran, where Vlad the Impaler’s castle sits on top of a hill. This Bran castle made famous by Bram Stoker in his legend of the Dracula. So not a lot of Dracula here which is rather disappointing given that was one of my key temptations to visit Romania. 

Yeah, thats the dude!

Curiously enough there is a Torture museum in the castle that highlights the very cruel Medieval Europeans who water boarded, contorted, impaled and performed other heinous acts.

This is the impaler...enters one end of the body & exits the other. Vlad then allowed the victim to bleed to death which apparently could take days...Medieval times were cruel

Saritha fulfills her desire to eat some Kurtos Klascs while I enjoy my first Romanian Ferst (hot) wine. I am liking Romania now.


We stop at Braşov for a bit to wander around and get some glue wine. The hill overlooking Braşov has a Hollywood like sign on it with the name of the city. Not a lot going on in this town on a freezing evening. So we stop for a bite in a local buffet and must admit the smells and the taste of the soup was heartwarming.

 Supposedly this is the narrowest street in the how do you differentiate between an alley and a street?
 Town Squre that is yet to take on the holiday spirit


Further north we spend the night in a village called Viscri. The prince of Wales has over the years become a patron of Romania, promoting it as part of sustainable farming. As part of his foundation, he has a 4 bedroom guesthouse that we are lucky to stay the night in. Even though this is a village, the accommodations are reasonably modern with heating and en-suite bathrooms.

Dinner is simply brilliant with Celery soup and a 6 hour win braised pork. 

However breakfasts are not much to write about and that is true across Romania.

After a country breakfast, we take a horse cart ride to the local blacksmith who is a gypsy. 

Interesting hanging out with Eshwan’s gypsy family as he makes a little horse shoe for us. His wife makes felt shoes and takes them to the local cooperative to sell them while the little boy plays with his bicycle.

The village historically was settled by the Saxons who came from Germany. But over time the Saxons have gone and it’s mostly Romanians and Gypsies. 

They have a fortified Church that we visit but was closed...

...however we stumble into another Orthodox Church that was having a service. Unfortunately Saritha are I are the attraction for the 5 minutes we are in the we decide to leave given it's never a good idea to compete with god for attention.


This town has a lower modern part that is the living city and a older medieval city on top of the hill in the middle of town. The old city has a castle obviously, a church no surprises so far, but the kicker is that... 

Vlad the impaler was born here. The house he was supposed to have been born in is now a restaurant and a little circus of some sort. 

Romania is not particularly dynamic when it comes to leveraging tourism. Consequently not a lot of action in the old city outside of a few no-energy souvenir stores. Perhaps it’s because we are visiting outside the season?

 The ever pleasing narrow winding streets of medieval towns all over Europe

 Town square!

Got to have cobbled streets...wonder how well Medieval Orthopedics did?

Gura Humorului (Bucovina)

A long 5 hour drive through the Carpethian mountains gives us the best of this country...the low alps with the lazy pines. Love them. We are going to spend the night in the region of Bucovina, in a quaint little town called Gura Homerolui. 

When wake it’s snowing and while at home I would begin to worry about shoveling and traffic, not today and not here...Mihai is doing all that. 

After a typical Romanian breakfast of vegetable stews (dips), cheese, cold meets and tea we are going to go fight the snow. Our first stop is a painted monastery called Voronet. The colors are brilliant after some 300 years. The base blue is from Azure and the other colors are plant based.

The second painted monastery is Humor but the colors are not as vivid as in Voronet. These monasteries are managed between 10 and 12 nuns, who do the cleaning, maintaining etc. but a priest leads the service. Seems like girl power is behind in the Orthodox Church.

After the monasteries we plan to drive several hours north towards Ukraine to a region called as Mura Mares. Sadova village beckons through Elena Coca who paints a variety of eggs.

Along the way we stop at Viorica’s for lunch. In many villages and towns in Romania, women welcome strangers into there homes for meals for a price as a way to supplement their income. We have such a privilege in Viorica’s home. She feeds some delicious bean and potatoes soup, fried trout from the stream across her farm, stewed mushrooms and eggplant and bread that she baked...all washed down by blueberry moonshine. Now why is this not more popular is a wonder.

Breb (Mara Mures)

Post lunch it’s a lovely drive through the Carpathian mountains in the middle of a light snow storm, that makes the pines look even more glorious. At some point we cross from Transylvania in to the Mura Mures region that is north of the country. 

We are going to spend the next two nights in a little village called Breb. Breb has a population of about 1200. Our hosts are Luneta & Ion who welcome us with dinner that consists of soup, stuffed cabbage & a variety of dips/ stewed vegetables that we wash down with a variety of moonshines made from apples and blueberry. Desert is the most unusual form of an apple pie we have ever tasted. Imagine an entire meal sourced from your backyard...rural living is tempting.

The morning in a village it appears starts with a rooster signalling its time to wake up and so it is true here in Breb as farmer Ion gets to it.

We start with a visit to the wooden church in Budesti. I don’t care much for it aside from the fact that a local outlaw called Pintea has his armored shirt hanging in there. But by god it is cold this morning...less then 0 Fahrenheit.

Next stop is the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta. 
Some dude named Stan Ion Patrias decided that death need not be sad and instead chose to add some levity to the event. The cemetery has ones life’s story rendered as a humorous tale on there wooden tomb tablet.

Solotvyno, Ukraine

Since we are a couple of miles from the Ukrainian border, we decide we should cross over to show our solidarity to them given their challenges with the Russians. The border crossing in Romania is easy or so we are told. We cross a rickety old wooden bridge across the River Tisa to Solotvyno in Ukraine. 

The customs and immigration in Ukraine smells and feels like when we visited Russia, cold, unfriendly and difficult. Still the immigration lady who wants to know what we plan on doing and when we say we are here for lunch, she recommends a restaurant to Saritha. So passport stamped and we welcome ourselves to Ukraine. 

We drive for a couple of miles as we explore the border town ....

...and then Mihai takes a wrong turn and we get pulled over by the cops. Oh yeah! It’s party time now as I contemplate spending time in a quasi-communist prison. After certain negotiations we are allowed to proceed...phew.

A stop at the local super market suggests that life in Ukraine is really cheap...hello retirement! 1 Lei (Romanian currency) = 6.5 Ukrainian currency. The market certainly has interesting food though seems biased towards packaged vs. fresh food.

Lunch is at Seline which is apparently the towns best restaurant. 

Our neighbor is an incredibly inebriated gentleman who is drooling on a half eaten pizza competing with half a jug of beer. We are half expecting him to throw up that we decide to move seats. Our drinks and food are actually pretty good...that was a pleasant surprise.

The return uneventful.

Turda Salt Mines

The salt mines were along the way and so we check it out. I wont go in to the history which it appears is captured well here, but never having been in one, it was quite the experience. Especially since it was in use since the late 19th century and goes deep deep in to the ground. Check these pictures.

Alba Iulia

This is where the great union of Transylvania and the Kingdom of Romania took place on December 1st, 1919. As such the city is the center of the nation's centurion celebrations.

 Entry to the Citadel where the great union took place

 Gypsy's always seem to bring color to the drabness around


We came to Romania thinking of it as Europe only to learn it still feels and looks like the old eastern block country...the remnants of communism are seemingly time consuming to clean up totally. However Sibiu, which is now my favorite Romanian city that has the old world European charm to it all with its Christmas markets, cobbled streets, curvy & narrow streets. Even though we spend just about a day and half here, I am smitten...these pictures remind me why.

Old Town

 This is the "Bridge of Lies"...where if you lie, the bridge will collapse...@Washington Post nevermind the Pinocchio test, try this instead
 One of many towers for the vocations...this I think was for the cobblers/ shoemakers
 “ochiuri ale orasului" or Roof Eyes...the old town has many of these suggesting that some one is always watching you.

Christmas Market

  Rain or Shine...Ferst Wine beckons!
 Like any Christmas market, the temptations are everywhere

 Mihai figures he should allow for the birds to participate in the markets too
Christmas market at the top of the day, still quiet


Over the years as we have traveled, there has been one truth that remains with us. The beauty of any country lies in those who live there and what they make of it. That is irrespective of what their politics, religion, economics etc. are. So here as we wandered that last 10 days in Romania, Mihai validated that for us. He loves his country and loves even more to show it off to visitors, its history, its people, its monuments and its wonderful rural beauty. We had a good time and thanks very much to Mihai.

Romania & (ukraine...just a taste)

Fighting through 4 inches of snow that fell with a freak Fall snowstorm, delayed United (so what’s new), an almost missed connection in Mun...