Travel Diary: Hello Romania

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The Travel Diary is a retrospective blog about our 3-month long wedding trip in 2003. We’re sharing stories about our honeymoon across 11 countries, including accommodation details, recipes, travel stories, and the story of how 2 people started a lifelong adventure together.

Romania had always been high on our list during the planning stages of this trip. It was the first place we were going that felt really “far away”, or at least it felt that way for me. The romance of a place like Transylvania created a sense of anticipation as we boarded our train in Budapest that morning. This was the beginning of “Act 2” in our minds.

Our long green train chugged slowly out of Budapest and toward a new country for us. Our first stop on our diagonal route across Romania was Cluj-Napoca, a university town that we thought would be a comfortable introduction to a new language, new people, new perspective on life. We would be on the train all day, and wouldn’t reach Cluj until dinner time.

On the train, met with a traveler named Christian. If memory serves, Christian was from Germany, and had left university for a few years to go traveling. He was very confident – almost condescending in his manner toward other travellers, but he was friendly enough and we enjoyed each other’s company throughout the trip anyway. When you are sharing a 6-seat train compartment with someone for 12 hours or so, you find ways to connect and converse, even if you can’t wait to ditch them at the platform as soon as you arrive at your destination.

Romania Cabin

I have fuzzy memories of crossing in to Romania for the first time, as I had started to fall asleep in my seat with my head leaning against the window. My husband kept kicking my leg to wake me up, insisting that I was missing out on the transformation of the landscape and architecture of this new, wild place. I remember seeing the trees becoming thicker and taller – more like home than the green rolling hills of Hungary. The train passed through shallow valleys and along winding paths through the hills which were slowly getting bigger and rockier. Simple white plaster homes with tin roofs and satellite dishes turned in to wooden cabins with actual thatched roofs, while horses and carts started to replace cars in the driveway. Between snoozes, I recall seeing an old castle on a hill just for a moment as our train rounded a corner through a canyon. The time-machine that is Transylvania had our attention.

Romania Farmer

We reached Cluj just as the sun was starting to go down. As we exited the train station, we saw a pack of about 15 wild dogs run past. Women with long braids and colourful coats and dresses began posing for pictures and asking for spare coins. The streets were only half-paved, some not at all. Horses and carts mingled with rusty old soviet-era Dacia cars in a seemingly free-for-all traffic system. Among all of this, a woman with bright red hair bundled up in her faux fur chatted on a cell phone, gently swatting away the tiny hands that searched her pockets.

Car Romania

We had arrived in loud, wild, colourful, Romania. But we were also struck by the unfortunate facts about the country at the time – systematic racism against the Roma people, extreme child poverty, and lack of infrastructure are all huge problems that these people face on a daily basis. Most of these problems are the scars left by Nicolae Ceaușescu. The packs of wild dogs that do in fact freely roam the streets of many cities in Romania only exist because under Ceaușescu, many citizens were forced off their farms and out of their houses and into the cement block style apartments you can see dotted throughout the landscape. As a result, dogs and family pets were simply left abandoned, and the generation of animals left behind on the streets have become feral. Be aware that when you see these dogs, you are not to feed, approach, or try to touch them.

Romania Bar

You must also keep in mind that Romania, while it is positively medieval in some ways, is a country with many layers and personalities. For every pack of wild dogs, there is a pack of well-heeled business men. For every Dacia, there is a Mercedes. For every crumbling building, there is a new apartment block. Romania is a country of contradictions, but that is one of the things that makes it so fascinating. It is coming back from a troubled past, and it has a lot of room to grow.

Romania Cluj Traffic

We had agreed to meet Christian for dinner that night, and we needed a place to stay. Our guidebook informed us that in Cluj there were several pensions when we could stay not too far from the centre of town. There were banners advertising the university’s new semester and students rushing home from classes or handing out flyers advertising a student rally. Campus must have been very close by, but much of Cluj looked as though it hadn’t changed since before WWII, so it was hard to tell what kind of business each century-old doorway led to.

We rounded a corner on to a quiet street lined with trees. From here, the din of busy little Cluj was dampened somewhat, and we could hear the dogs beginning to howl as the sun finished setting. Our map had led us to the end of the street to an old iron gate, locked with a big rusty padlock, and a hand-scrawled sign that hung from the buzzer which indicated that we were in the right place. We buzzed, but nothing happened. The dogs howled louder.

We buzzed again. Nothing. Beyond the iron gate, we could see a short gravel path, and a little old house that was completely darkened. Perhaps no one was home. We chatted about our options for a moment – we didn’t have backup plan for accommodation, so we may have to risk walking in to a hotel and being charged a “tourist price” for our lack of reservations and abundance of need. We shrugged, and turned to walk back up the road.

Suddenly, a withered hand with long fingernails gripped the bar of the iron gate beside us. We both jumped and gasped – there was no doubt in our mind that it was either a corpse or Dracula himself. A face slowly came into view – black eyes, a dozen crooked teeth (some of which were gold), and a blood-red smile that crept across a friendly – but startling – face.

“Toureeeshht?” she said in a voice that sounded like creaking floorboards.

We nodded silently. The dogs howled in the distance.

Hello, Romania.

Next time in the Travel Diary: Brainy Backpackers Go To Brasov!

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