Friday, June 11, 2010

Romania and Bulgaria (May 28-June 1)

I don’t know many Americans that have been to Romania and Bulgaria and these are the first countries of our trip that I’ve also never been to before. We keep saying, “Now our trip has really started”, and upon entering Romania we say it again.

Romania and Bulgaria were in many ways our first real tests of the trip. We would visit places that are less wealthy and have different histories and cultures than Western Europe (What images does Transylvania bring to mind versus London or Frankfurt?). We were also worried about theft, especially car theft. Our guidebooks, friends that had been here, and friends that hadn’t, all told us to watch our belongings and our car. A Czech friend summarized the common message with, “Every one of my friends that drove to Bulgaria with their own car came back without it.” An Austrian friend said basically the same about Romania. Since our car is our home and our trip, we were concerned.

On May 28th we hit the road early to hopefully reach our destination in Romania – Sighisoara, Transylvania, from where we were staying in Hungary. The roads to the border are fine and the border crossing also goes smoothly. Romania is part of the EU but a real border is in place because Romania isn’t part of the Schengen agreement. We give our passports and vehicle registration to the official that comes to our car, wait 5 minutes, and are told to go on. The rest of our drive, nearly 12 hours, is pretty tough though.

Horse-drawn buggie

The road passes through countless villages and most of the time we can only average 30 mph. Then traffic becomes heavy and we really notice the great variety of vehicles using the road, ranging from horse-drawn buggies to giant intra-EU lorries, all using the same narrow road passing through the center of every village. In addition to the folks trying to get through town, there are plenty of residents sitting, strolling or playing, chickens scratching in the dirt, and cattle being herded through town as well. One stretch of road, perhaps 10 miles long takes us about an hour because in addition to the congestion, the road is littered with the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen. Not sure what happens if your tire drops into a square-edged, 18” deep, 2 feet diameter hole, but I think it’s more than a flat tire or a bent wheel. And there aren’t just one or two holes like this; we swerve around thousands of these while semi-trucks, farm tractors and communist era “Dacia” cars (Kirstin says they look like old Saabs; I’m too much of a Saab snob to agree) do the same in the opposite direction. No mistakes allowed here!

As we approach Sighisoara the road becomes an excellent, fun-to-drive climbing mountain road and we are pleasantly surprised about Sighisoara and our home for the night, Camping Aquarius, which has grassy spots, internet, is right downtown and has gated access. On our way to dinner we walk past the stunningly beautiful Orthodox Cathedral and have some delicious stone-oven baked pizza with Romanian Ciuc beer and a straight-on view of the illuminated Sighisoara Citadel, the walled city where Vlad Dracula was born.

Sighisoara Orthodox Cathedral

The next day (May 29th) we go inside the Sighisoara Citadel, admire the clock tower and see where Vlad ‘Tepes’ (the impailer) Draculea was born and lived until he was 4. Vlad Dracula the historical figure was the ruling prince of Wallachia from 1456-62 and 1476-77. His nickname came from the terrible and inhumane way he tortured and executed his enemies including the Turks. His cruelty was not unusual during the times, however. Vlad Dracula the fictional character was created in “Count Dracula”, a book published by the Irish writer Bram Stoker around 1897.

Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula

Clock tower and gate of Sighisoara Citadel

Shoemaker’s shop in Sighisoara Citadel

In the afternoon we visit Biertan fortified Lutheran church nearby and then on to Bran, Transylvania, where we camp at Vampire Camping. On May 30th we visit Bran Castle, a.k.a Dracula’s Castle because of its architecture (Dracula probably only visited here once).

Bran Castle, a.k.a. Dracula’s Castle

After lunch we drive south out of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains and then east to the Black Sea, where we set up camp in Mamia, a resort town that my dad visited about 50 years ago. On the 31st we walk along the beach, pack up the car and make our way south. We stop at a nice beach cove along the way and I enjoy some “Crap” with bread. Crap tastes like a salmon cream cheese spread and I hope that is what it really is.

Camping in Mamia

Stepping in the turquoise water of the Black Sea

Enjoying some "Crap"

Later that afternoon we arrive at the Romania-Bulgaria border. The Romanian border official takes our passports and registration, but after 5-10 minutes another official comes back and tells us that we entered Romania in a Mercedes! We immediately say, “no, no, no!” I say “Toyota, no Mercedes. I have never owned a Mercedes.” After a little more of “Mercedes, no Mercedes” he walks away again and we start to worry. We look for some proof that we entered Romania in our Toyota. After a while the first official brings us our documents and says bye-bye. Phew! Don’t know what that was about but I’m glad it didn’t turn into a big mess.

Relieved to be through the border, we drive south into Bulgaria, the southeast most part of the EU. We’ve come a long way from Dunnet Head, Scotland. We stop for lunch on a park bench and then have coffee in the park café, keeping an eye on our car, and are soon joined by a couple of British ex-pats that both comment on how great the schools here are with kids. Back on the road we continue to admire the incredibly rich bird life here, including this stork’s nest with what must be two dozen sparrows’ nests built on its underside.

Stork’s nest with maybe two dozen sparows’ nests built on its underside

We continue driving south along the Black Sea coast and then stay at Neptune Camping, an old communist summer cabin settlement just south of Varna. The only other people staying there are some Dutch cyclists that have travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. They say that foreigners usually stay at the resort up the road. “Only Bulgarians and westerners with something wrong with them stay here.” There’s a grassy areas for tents and the lush trees are filled with birds but the facilities – oh-my! The cabins haven’t been fixed up or even painted in maybe 50 years and everything is damp and rotting. I wear my heavy hiking boots to use the toilet, sink or “kitchen” area, which looks more like a torture chamber to me.

"Kitchen" area

Kitchen soap

I find it interesting to see such a place, Kirstin was just grossed out. There are hundreds of cabins in clusters organized by village name. I presume party members of each village got a settlement of cabins where they would spend their summer vacations. They didn’t pay anything for this but also didn’t have any say in where their settlement would be or when they could go. Central planning, not independent travel. In earlier times the government ran and took care of the cabins, but now the place is a crumbing city in the woods. We go to sleep, happy to be next to our car.

Crumbling city of communist era summer cabins

The next morning we continue south to the Turkish border. We stop for lunch at a little chapel just off the road. It’s a great place for a picnic. Good thing we have 4WD though.

Exiting our picnic spot

Final thoughts on Romania and Bulgaria
Now our trip has certainly begun. We visited two countries that we’ve never been to before, seen some beautiful things, learned a bit of history, walked in the footsteps of my dad, held onto our car and belongings (and actually never felt unsafe or that our things were in any danger of being stolen), experienced some drama with the condition of the roads and nearly had trouble on the Romanian border. We are doing fine and ready for more. Turkey and Middle East, here we come!


  1. Excellent post,

    We made the same trip to Bulgaria/Romania about 20 years ago - no big changes -
    thanks, Stani, seems, we moved back to our youth.

    Sergei, Lena

  2. Yes, sounds like the real adventure has begun. The kitchen picture with Stani made me laugh, "looks more like a torture chamber", who knows, maybe it used to be! And the soap with pieces of God knows what stuck to it, priceless.

    Take care and remember to enjoy the trip, wish it was me.