Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Onwards, upwards, downwards (repeat x5)

Currently, I am on the mother of all trips. Was in Riga (that’s Latvia in case you don’t feel like looking it up) for the last two days, and left the hotel there at 6 this morning. Flew from there to Prague at 8.15 and changed planes to Bucharest, from where I am typing this (though I can’t get online despite the promise of free wi-fi in this cafe, so I’ve no idea when this will actually be posted). I now have to hang around here for a few hours before beginning what for ticketing purposes is the second trip, but what to my body is the same trip. Flight to Athens leaves at 7.15pm, and from there I go to Dubai. I’ll be in Dubai for 6 (probably) joy-filled hours in the wee hours, before boarding a plane to Brisbane, where I will end this approximately 42 hour trip on Friday morning. It is, quite possibly, the most ridiculous trip I’ve ever taken (and I’ve lived in the Pacific, where trips were routinely ludicrous with stops at remote atolls/chemical weapons dumps). I intended to do some kind of live blog of the trip but internet access appears to have stymied that slight “can I make this trip vaguely fun” attempt. So at least you, the long-suffering reader of this blog, are spared this less than thrilling experience.

I’m not quite sure when I will actually sleep on this trip, but we’ll cross that bridge when it becomes a major issue. I will be on business class from Athens onwards, so it might be easier than the worst case scenario. On Friday I actually have to go into work in Brisbane, which will be an interesting experience, as I imagine by then I will be a gibbering wreck. Still, it could be amusing, in its own way.

My carbon footprint from all this will be larger than one of those massive meteorite craters. Sorry, world.

Monday, October 12, 2009

5 places that tourists to Romania often visit but shouldn't really bother with

1. Bucharest. Let's face it, it's a dump. OK, it has almost certainly the best nightlife in the country, and great cultural events, and reasonable shopping (by Romanian standards), and nice people. But it's a dog's breakfast of a city (and is, in fact, a city apparently ruled by swarms of feral dogs). Ceausescu absolutely devastated it, to the point where the only really interesting building is the hideous monstrosity of the Casa Poporului, Old Nic's most ludicrous folly. The traffic is diabolical and the roads are awful. I've had more than one person tell me, when they hear I live in Romania, "I hear Bucharest is a beautiful city". Where did they hear this? Or more importantly when? 1927? [To be fair, I've also heard people describe it as Europe's ugliest capital. Of the ones I've been to, I'd have to agree - though I haven't been to Tirana, Minsk, or Chisinau, and I suspect one of those might come close]. Basically, if you want to come for Romania for nightlife, then Bucharest is probably the place to go. Otherwise, avoid it.

2. Bran Castle.
Bran castle is actually quite an attractive place, in a beautiful setting. But why people flock there in their thousands is beyond me. Romania has tons more and better things to offer than it, and Bran Castle as a tourist trap is mostly notable for being a triumph of marketing. Bear the following things in mind if you are thinking of going there: (a) There was no such person as Dracula; (b) the Romanian scenes in the book of that name take place nowhere near Bran; (c) Stoker based his character on a number of different historical characters, one of which may have been Vlad Ţepeş; (d) Vlad Ţepeş may, possibly, it is speculated, have spent one night at Bran Castle. If you want to visit a relatively attractive small castle in a nice mountain pass, then Bran might be for you (though Sinaia is much better, and easier to get to). If someone tells you that it's Dracula's castle, then snort derisively and tell them to spin that line with someone more gullible.

3. The Black Sea Coast.
Awful. Rubbish-strewn, over-priced, ugly, over-developed eyesore. Just skip it. If you are here and need to go the beach, hop over to Bulgaria.

4. The spas. There are a fair few spa "resorts" in Romania, but all the ones I've been to are really really run down. They need a lot more work doing than a lick of paint. The abundance of mineral water here means that one day Romania will be the envy of Europe with its spas, but that day is a long way off. For now, they're really only of interest if you are one of the people who enjoys the whole masochistic "medicinal" spa treatment vibe thing.

5. Cluj. I want to like Cluj, I really do, but it's really never grabbed me. It's got one or two nice things to see, but as with many cities here, the whole Communist project was fairly destructive, and has left behind the sort of city centre in which you end up looking round thinking "I bet this used to be really nice". For a city with an attractive Hungarian architectural style, which is less of a mess, I'd definitely recommend Targu Mures over Cluj any day.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

5 places tourists to Romania should visit

1. The monasteries of Bucovina. Absolutely stunning places. If you have to pick only two then I would recommend Voroneţ and Suceviţa. Really you cant fail to be blown away by them. They'd be stunning if they had been created last week, but to think these paintings were done 500 years ago and have been exposed to the elements ever since, then it's impossible to fail to be impressed.

2. The Saxon villages (and especially the fortified churches) located in the old German dominated area roughly demarcated by Sibiu to the west, Brasov to the east, Sighisoara to the north, and the Fagaras mountains to the south. Again these places are incredible. Biertan in particular is just out of this world, but many of the others too are simply spectacular, and unlike anything you will find anywhere else in Europe.

3. Maramures Beautiful traditional villages, great scenery, interesting wooden churches, people wearing folk costume just because they damn well want to and not because it attracts tourists, weird stuff like the "Happy Cemetery", and possibly the best museum in Romania (The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance).

4. Sighisoara Arguably you could include this as being part of no.2, but I think it's worth giving a section to all on its own. Stunning mediaeval city, that would only be improved if they stopped allowing traffic up there. Wander round the German cemetery, the church, the clock tower, sit on the walls, eat a delicious meal in one of the restuarants up there and then stay in one the expertly renovated old houses in the main square. Central Brasov and Sibiu are also very nice, but something about the quiet atmosphere of Sighisoara makes it, for me, the best city to be in in the country.

5. Driving around Now there are lots of downsides to driving around in this country, not least the fact that it's really hard work (bad drivers, bad roads, horse carts, cows, drunk people on bikes, villages with no pavements so children etc are all walking on the road etc etc), but there are also a lot of upsides. These include some spectacular views and scenery, gorgeous villages, and the fact that because there are no motorways to speak of you see it all without zipping by it in a blur (that's a bit of a double edged sword obviously). I recently drove up the Bistrita valley and over the Prislop pass, for example, and it it just amazing. Then there are all the other passes over mountains (Bicaz Gorge being possibly the most incredible). If the difficult bits scare you, then perhaps get someone else to drive you. Whatever, it's worth it.

Other places which might make the list but I haven't been to them - the Danube Delta, The Iron Gates, areas of the Apuseni mountains, and more.

Next up: "Places that tourists often do go to in Romania but shouldn't bother with" (liable to be significantly more controversial)