Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Rosy Beer Garden

Sometimes when you travel a lot you get kind of complacent and/or lazy about certain things.  If you're going away for a weekend you check and recheck every detail of your journey. When you've been travelling for over a year you intersperse looking for accommodation for tomorrow night with checking out what costs are like in Riga in September, then carry on booking a room for tomorrow.

Then, after walking half an hour from the train station to your home for the night and messaging your host to tell them you're off the train and should be there in about ten minutes you're met with a surprised "you mean today?!"

So that was how we went from being unsure whether to stay in Arad or Timisoara to deciding to spend the night in Arad to going to Timisoara after all in the space of a few hours.  

Turns out this was just fine.  Arad was pleasant enough, but it's (to me) major attraction, a huge 18th century star-shaped fortress was almost invisible from the outside (due to a combination of low profile, trees surrounding it and the very size that makes it so cool).  And Timisoara was, in a word, lovely.

In fact old Tim' turned out to be our favourite city in Romania.  The walk from the train station to our hostel took us right through the old centre, which is pretty and clean, but all of the restoration work on it gives the feeling of being something that just needed to be done to keep the city a pleasant place to live, rather than something that's been done to dandify it for the tourism industry (unlike the Sibiu upper town and even our fondly remembered Sighisoara).

In a traditional tourist sense we did virtually nothing in Timisoara.  But we had an awesome time anyway.  

We hung out at a music festival in a big riverside park.  While there we visited the craft beer stall, had several cracking IPAs, and learned of the existence of the brand new Bereta Brewing taproom in Timosoara.  We spent and evening there too. Just about everything they made was very good. Maybe a bit too much focus on hops and (dare I, of all people, say it) adjuncts and not enough malt and yeast focussed beers.  But we had a great coconut milkshake IPA, a pretty good saison and a kveik fermented imperial stout (which was, to be honest, less interesting than I expected. Perhaps it just needed more time for the funky bugs to get working).  The night before we left Timisoara I went back to patronize the bottle shop part of the taproom to spend the last of our Romanian Lei. I'd picked a few bottles before asking the young woman working there for her advice. She suggested a pistachio imperial stout which meant I wouldn't have quite enough Lei for the Berliner Weisse too.  As I was putting it back she very sweetly offered it to me as a gift as it was her favourite of their range. I'm partly writing this just to relate a nice story and partly to remind myself that I should post her a nice sour from Belgium when we're there in a couple of weeks.

Our other major outing was a Sunday afternoon walk along the sedate and stately River Bega.  We walked along the north side, which turned out to be a mix of disused industrial land, trails through grassland and behind people's back yards.  On the way back we took the cycle trail which was just full of Timisoaranas biking out to La Pod Popas, a kind of country restaurant/beer garden where I had my best Romanian Mici (basically cylinders of spiced ground beef with mustard [I'd been kind of missing mustard for a while]).  Visiting Pod Popas on a Sunday was one of those instances where visiting somewhere while it was busy is better than when you have it to yourself.

A few other miscellaneous Timisoara gems:
The rose garden (Romania had great roses all over the country)
The parks and squares.  With the number of them all over the city it was hard to figure out how there was actually room for buildings!
The beautiful Orthodox cathedral, which reminded me of a larger, colourful version of the cone-domed Orthodox churches in Georgia and Armenia.
Our final corvigi.  While a lot of similatities exist between Romanian and Serbian (where we were headed next) and other Balkan cuisines, Romania definitely wins the seeded, ring shaped bread contest.

It's hard to believe that there is NO scheduled public transportation between Timisoara and Beograd/Belgrade, two large cities barely 100km apart, but so it is.

We arranged seats on a private shuttle across the Serbian border to the town of Vrsac and said our final fond farewell to Romania, its beautiful rural train trips, its fabulous castles and its perpetually thunderstormy mountains.

Friday, 5 July 2019


Other than the Roma people I'd never really realized how ethnically diverse Romania was.  The majority of the people are Romanian, but then there are also a large minority of Hungarians, of course the Roma and small numbers of Serbs, Ukranians, Tatars, Turks and Slovaks.  And although they aren't as numerous as they once were, the area of Transylvania we passed through on a slow moving local train was the heartland of the Romanian Germans.

Transplanted during Hungarian rule in the twelfth century, these Germans were yet another bunch of Saxons who ended up far from their homeland in East Prussia.  In Transylvania they built fortified churches which made the already beautiful villages we passed even lovelier. And in the case of Sighisoara they built an entire fortified town atop a rocky knob overlooking the Tarnava River.

Sighisoara is one of the prettiest towns I've ever seen, with its multiple defensive towers, central clock tower and church spires all rising still higher above the old town, its walls and its orange tiled roofs.  We arrived at our chosen guesthouse literally seconds before a German woman who was informed we'd got the last room (though our lovely host did phone a mate to find her another place to stay). We were greeted with shots of Palinca, Romanian plum brandy and shown up to our room with an absolutely fabulous view out over the old town.

Sighisoara is a very popular spot for day trippers from Brasov and Sibiu.  On our first evening we got to wander its polished cobbles with almost no one else around.  Medieval towns always seem particularly magical in the evening gloaming! In particular, when we popped out through a tiny little gate to the outside of the walls the view of one of the defensive towers was exactly what one expects on hearing "Transylvania".  (Interestingly, each of the town's guilds was responsible for one of the towers, so they have names like "bootmakers' tower", "butchers' tower", and "tinsmiths' tower".)

Even the next day with the daytrippers in full effect and the restaurants abustle, the Vlad (the impaler) Tepes birth house and the torture museum drawing their crowds, Sighsoara was still an absolute delight.  And as with many such places, a short walk away from the main square and streets (e.g. up the two hundred or so covered stairs to the Catholic Church and associated cemetery [if you're going to build your church on top of a hill high above a town that sees lots of snow in the winter, making it easy for your parishioners to get there on Sunday is a sensible move]) then you could quickly be all alone again.

Before saying a fond farewell to Sighisoara in the afternoon we tried our first corvigi, round baked goods similar to Turkish simit or larger, much narrower bagels.  They're often coated with poppy seeds (Mac), sesame seeds (Susan!) or Sunflower seeds (I don't remember) and are a very moreish snack.

We generally chose the cheaper, slower Regional trains in Romania, both to save money and because train travel through the Transylvanian countryside was just a delightful experience in and of itself.  So taking it a bit slower was no bad thing. Rolling hills, distant mountains (some still snow capped), endless rustic orange roofed villages and swollen rivers, flowing high and fast with the June rains that kept us out of the mountains.

The old town of Sibiu is, for many, one of the highlights of Transylvania.  It was pretty enough, but I have to admit that it felt just a little bland to us, especially after Sighisoara.  The two main squares of Sibiu and the surrounding streets (we stayed on one, in a lovely place with a kitchen and a washing machine [hooray for laundry!]) were very clearly not our favourite part of the city.  That was the lower town. Less scrubbed up, full of second hand clothes shops and a great little market where we bought a big hunk of slightly sour, semihard smoked cheese and two litres of homemade wine in a reused water bottle.

From Sibiu it was another beautiful train journey to the town of Deva.  From Deva we wanted to catch a bus down to nearby Hunedoara, however it wasn't immediately clear where it left from, or even if there was one aside from the single long distance bus that passed between the two towns.  Now Romanian, being a Romance language had proved easier to learn than, say, Polish, but only five days into our visit, we were still at a very basic level. And for some reason I found myself trying to speak Spanish to everyone.  Funnily enough, when I asked a man in the station a out the bus to Hunedoara in garbled Romanian he replied "habla EspaƱol?" and we sorted everything out with no trouble. Then on arriving at our (wonderful) accommodation in Hunedoara, it turned out that one of the two managers also spoke Spanish, so I had a nice chat with him as well.  Apparently it's quite common for Romanians to learn at least one other Romance language.  I'm always so tickled when my mediocre second or third language skills come in handy somewhere other than in their homelands!

The main reason for our visit to Hunedoara (and most people would say, mostly correctly, the only reason to visit Hunedoara) is the fabulous Castle Corvin, which is just plonked down, quite incongruously, in an industrial suburb of the town.  As with Castle Bran (so we'd heard) the exterior of the castle is far more impressive than the inside. Also similarly to Bran (but smaller in magnitude) the area just outside the entrance was a mass of souvenir stands and museums of questionable connection to their immediate surroundings.  So we contented ourselves with a circuit around the castle, which mostly backed onto people's back gardens.

Though there were no other sightseeing highlights of Hunedoara, we had still more fabulous Romanian baked goods there, including a delicious cherry jam filled crescent thing dusted with powdered sugar, cheese stuffed corvigi, and a sweet poppy seed filled strudel.  While we would get on to having a few restaurant meals in Romania, self catering with local produce and baked goods were serving us very nicely indeed thank you.

One night in Hunedoara is plenty, and while I was sorely tempted by the wild Retezat branch of the Carpathians to the south, the forecast still made alpine hiking seem like a poor idea, so we returned to Deva to catch the final train of our travel through Romania.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Welcome to Romania. Feel Free to Cheese Pie

As we were taking the bus into Bucharest from the airport I noted lots of Vatican flags hanging from the light standards lining the road and wondered aloud "the pope isn't visiting or something, is he?" As it turned out, yes he was.  

His official visit was the day after our arrival and lots of streets were closed off.  To get a spot anywhere along the official motorcade route or in the park around the church where he'd be holding the audience you had to have prebooked tickets.  So we didn't get to see his holiness.

With no papal visit on the cards the immediately obvious place to visit in Bucharest was the old town and indeed we'd picked our hostel for proximity to it.  Unfortunately, pretty much every building in the old town was a bar or restaurant and virtually all of them seemed dedicated to serving overseas stag and hen parties.  

With the pope and old town options out we had to find our own fun in Bucharest.  And although Bucharest is far from the most interesting or engaging European capital, we actually managed pretty well.

We spent some time in a big park in the city's northwest, enjoying the greenery and dipping our feet in the water (and admiring the weird circle of giant busts of the "founding fathers" of the EU).

We had some spectacularly good soup.  We'd actually followed directions to the wrong restaurant, but on our way there it started pouring rain.  So hot soup and shots of plum and blueberry brandy seemed like the perfect thing. On the way home we picked up a jalapeno and hibiscus IPA at a specialty beer shop that served notice that Romanian craft beer had a lot potential.

We did a mini architecture tour.  Just like (say) Warsaw or Prague, Bucharest has its share of pre, during and post-communist architecture. But it also seems that every turn in architectural ideology (from French Renaissance to Postmodern) has been implemented to one degree or another, so all of these things are scattered throughout and leave it feeling like a city without a focus.  This isn't quite true, as two places we visited shone as jewels of their styles that drew focus no matter what they were surrounded by:
The absolutely gorgeous Stavropoleos Church (which had a visiting German choir tour group singing in it while we visited) reminded me that with the possible exception of some gothic structures, I much prefer Orthodox churches to Catholic or Protestant ones.
And the monstrous white marble Palace of Parliament, which is apparently the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.  It's interesting that it's garish hugeness feels more like post-communist Turkmenistan than like any other communist era architecture I've seen in eastern Europe.

But the very best thing we did in Bucharest was visit the charming little museum of maps.  It had a focus on Romania and the Balkans (I had no idea just how long the Russo-Turkish wars went on until I saw the military maps of them).  When you entered you were given a magnifying glass so you could pore over the collection (including several original maps by Mercator) in greater detail.  The building itself was great too.

After two days on Bucharest we went to the train station and bought tickets to Brasov, a few hours north, then some fabulous salty-sour cheese pies at a nearby market while we waited for our train.

The trip up to Brasov is supposed to be fabulous with some of the highest peaks of the Carpathians all around.  Unfortunately it was cloudy so all we really got were views of the towns and villages at their bases (this weather would become a recurring theme.  During our twelve days in Romania I was constantly looking for opportunities to go hiking in the Carpathians, but there were thunderstorms in the forecast in the mountains for every single o
day in the country.  This showed in the very high river levels everywhere we went).

Anyhow, Brasov.  It's actually a pretty big town, but virtually all tourists ever see of it is the charming little old town and the famous castle in the outlying village of Bran. We did indeed experience both of these, but our strongest memories will probably be of our hostel dorm-mates.  The memorable ones were two Romanian guys. Now I've no problem mixing and mingling with local folks. In fact usually I love it. But on night one we shared our room with a guy who played dance music on his phone speakers until 00:30 (about 90 minutes after everyone else was in bed with lights out), then started up his personal dorm-room disco again at 06:30.

He departed and was replaced by another guy whose story was affecting: he was far from his home elsewhere in Romania.  He'd been involved in a car accident in which his wife was seriously injured and had been forced to stay in Brasov until the case was resolved.  He hadn't been permitted to visit his wife and had lost his job as a motorcycle mechanic. He'd run out of money and had been arrested again for sleeping on the street and the hostel owner had let him stay for free once he was released from jail.  This was all very sad, and we did our best to be understanding, trying to talk a bit despite the huge language barrier and offering to share our dinner with him. But the whole situation seemed a bit dodgy to begin with, and the fact that he didn't want to eat at all, only to drink lots of vodka, smoke and cry out on the balcony made him kind of difficult to be around.  I hope his story has a happy ending.

So there we go.  Our introduction to Romania.  I hope I haven't made it sound too negative.  'Cause it really wasn't. And as we moved further into the heart of the Transylvania region it just got better and better.