“Everything Is Possible”: Romania, Parte II

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Nice little lunch spot in Piatra Mare.

Our second day in Brașov begins early. It is still dark outside as I tread quietly from bed to our small kitchenette. I put on a pot of hot water for tea and begin to slip into my gym clothes in preparation for the day’s activities: a 5 hour hike through Romania’s celebrated Carpathian mountain range. Originally, Billy and I had planned to spend half of the day driving to Sibiu and back, a medieval town that was awarded the European Capital of Culture title a few years ago. I’m sure it would have been lovely, but what a shame it would be to come this far and not explore the wilderness, no?

Everything is Possible
Our guide for the day, Cristian, arrives precisely at 8:30. During the drive to the trail head, Cristian tells us about his family, his time in the army, and the importance of Romania staying ‘wild’ even in the wake of tourism: “A sheep should be able to shit where he wants to shit!” He also notes the Vlad Țepeș was a celebrated leader; the first to organize a coalition against the invading Ottomans – an original NATO of sorts! Finally, our quirky guide wonders aloud why we would pay him up front; he could just take our money and leave us in the woods. Billy shakes his head and laughs.

The trail entrance is tucked inconspicuously behind several homes, past an inviting meadow complete with a babbling brook. Seven Stairs Canyon is made of limestone and is home to seven waterfalls. Hikers navigate the path through a series of (seven) metal ladders and elevated platforms. We pass through easily, admiring our surroundings. I place my hands carefully as I ascend the longest ladder (115 feet). The metal is wet and cold on my bare hands; I try to ignore the bone-chilling spray of the waterfall to my left. Still… climbing ladders is fun!

Once through the canyon, we still have quite a ways to the top. We plug along, occasionally pausing to take some deep breaths of crisp mountain air. At first I ask Cristian questions: do you think we’ll see any wildlife? What about other hikers? His response is always the same, “Everything is possible.” If at first it seems noncommittal or matter-of-fact, it begins to become playful and soon we are all declaring that “everything is possible.” The Transylvanian forest is dark and thick (as promised), the sun staying stubbornly out of reach until we summit.

During our picnic lunch we compare Italian and Romanian words; the languages are surprisingly similar. Billy and I eagerly repeat sounds as Cristian explains the Romanian accent marks. If initially intimidating, they prove quite helpful. Like that little squiggle under the ‘s’ in Brașov? It serves as a gentle pronunciation reminder: Bra-SHov. Billy and I enjoy salads from a vegan restaurant near our Airbnb while Cristian munches on a few modest crackers.

“You are vegetarians?” he asks.

“No, although I don’t eat very much meat. But Billy does – he’ll eat anything” I explain.

“We have vegetarians here in Romania, ” Cristian acknowledges. “They eat Romanian salad. Romanian salad of pork, beef, and chicken. HA!” His laughter ends abruptly and he says, “I like to make joke.”

Got it.

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Drum Bun
On our last morning in Romania, William and I enjoy two humongous cappuccinos in the main square. It is here that we learn about the attacks in Paris. I will say this, dear Reader: Europe is a small continent and it becomes increasingly smaller when you actually live in it. Quickly, I run through the list of our friends who are also traveling this weekend. Luckily, none are in Paris. And our French friends… what can we possibly say to them?

After a brief (and drafty!) visit to the Black Church, we bid farewell to Brașov and make our way to Sinaia, a quaint town and mountain resort that is home to two castles and a famous monastery. With limited time and limited options (Peleș Castle is closed for renovation each November), Billy and I opt to explore the smaller – though perhaps more elegant – Pelişor Castle. It is luxurious, no doubt, but it’s also a place I could truly feel comfortable inhabiting. Lots of oak detailing and small, well furnished rooms create an aesthetic that is sumptuous but also inviting.

Our Ford Fiesta speeds along Calea București as we make our way back to the airport. I’m excited when a JLo tune is immediately followed by a Marc Anthony song circa 1999. I just can’t believe I didn’t see it in your eyes… Are they still married? Billy doesn’t know. He doesn’t even know who Marc Anthony is. The sheep graze lazily by the roadside.

“What’s Drum Bun?” Billy asks. “There’s a sign for it in every town.”

“Sounds like a round, tasty cinnamon dessert!” I offer while bringing up Google.

Drum bun, pronounced droom boon, literally means “good road.” As in, “We wish you a good road ahead/good travels.” Basically, it’s bon voyage à la Romania. William and I feel better now that we know.

“Awwww shiiiiit!” You can find me in da club, bottle full of bub… I crank the dial way right and start rapping along. Billy bursts out laughing. “I love this song!!” I declare, leaving no room for further conversation. And I do. I love ‘In Da Club’. Even though I’m super white. Even though I’m in the back woods of Romania. Life’s all about the little things.

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A Jaunt to Romania

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Breakfast in Bucharest. Good morning, Romania!

This weekend, dear Reader, William and I are off to Romania to explore the notorious Transylvania region. I know, I know; already images of Dracula and dark impenetrable forests are creeping into your mind…. I’d be lying if I said my penchant for vampire lore didn’t pique my interest in the area too. In fact, Stoker’s description of the Carpathian mountains left me breathless back in middle school:

“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool…”

Amazing! But those who travel here in search of Dracula will inevitably be disappointed (more about that later), it is her wild beauty that makes Romania most compelling. This morning William and I decide to bypass Bucharest, the capital city, after hearing its post-communist aesthetic leaves something to be desired. Happy to head straight for the countryside, we nestle into the seats of our rental car, cue up Google Maps, and hit the road.

Sounds of the Countryside
The drive to Brașov is a little over two hours. Our Ford Fiesta zips along as the sights and sounds of the city fall behind us, the landscape quickly shifting from industrial to agricultural. Unlike Naples, driving in Romania is a relaxing affair. Billy and I have the road almost entirely to ourselves save a few passing cars and the occasional horse-drawn carriage transporting potatoes or lettuce. We pass a bag of trail mix back and forth while I search for tunes.

The radio offers a bizarre mix of Romanian dance music, a surprising amount of reggae, and an eclectic blend of American songs from the 80s and 90s – everything from Bananarama to Michael Bolton (I’m talking lots and lots of Michael Bolton, dear Reader). Outside of our windows, mountain ranges and intricately decorated wooden homes with well-tended gardens come into view. The woodwork is similar to those of the homes I saw in IrkutskLove me, Love me… say that you love me… Fool me, fool me… The Cardigans sing in the background.

When Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” comes on I pause and laugh nervously. “Isn’t this the song from Free Willy?”

“Yeah,” Billy says, “and wasn’t Michael Jackson’s shirt blowing around all crazy in the music video?”

“It’s kinda… inspirational,” I venture carefully, almost defensively.

“I actually like this song,” he admits.

I crank it up. A moment later it occurs to me that I’m driving through Transylvania with my husband blaring the Free Willy soundtrack. It’s funny how life turns out, isn’t it? A smile spreads across my lips.

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In Defense of Vlad
Billy and I make a detour to the town of Bran to see Bran Castle, allegedly the home of “Dracula” or rather, Vlad Țepeș, a Wallachian ruler believed to be the inspiration for Stoker’s infamous tale. In truth, our pal Vlad never lived in the castle but why ruin it for the tourists? We drive into Bran, a town set in the middle of open pastures, and follow the curve of the road past a few small restaurants and a market selling souvenirs. As we round the bend, Bran Castle comes into view. Perched atop a hill where the ground gives way to steep drops on three sides, it certainly matches the description of Dracula’s castle in Stoker’s story.

Initially, I’m disappointed; it looks small (for a castle). William and I park the car and make our way up the hill. The air is crisp, the sun blocked by a heavy cover of cloud and mist. Well, the vibe is certainly spooky enough… Once inside the castle, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s drafty but there is an interesting contrast of stone and dark wood that lends a homey feel. The more I explore, the more I appreciate the castle’s beauty. After all, Romania has a “frontier” vibe so it’s only natural it wouldn’t have the opulence of say, the Vatican or Versailles. The maze of rooms and secret passages continue to impress me. The interior courtyard with covered walkways is charming and I make a nod of approval when we come across small window seats, perfect for reading or daydreaming.

I can’t help but wonder what Vlad Țepeș would think of this current rumor about him being a vampire. In reality, the people of Romania consider him to be one of their greatest leaders. Not only did he oppose the Ottomans (dang, they were always invading!), he also put the crackdown on the boyars (or nobles) when they overtaxed the peasants. He was a real man of the people, Vlad. A Romanian Robin Hood of sorts….

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The Torture Exhibit
BUT! Vlad sure did impale some people. And not through the chest or stomach either – from the rear end, through the gut, and out of the mouth. Gah! Which brings us to the torture room…

First, we enter a small room with three torture devices – forgive me, interrogation devices. The chair and compression vault are nasty indeed but again, I feel let down that there isn’t more to see. That is, until the docent directs me through a small door I had overlooked. Oh what torturous treasures lie beyond! Knee breakers, nipple pinchers, and even a full rack. The instruments themselves are unsettling enough, but the illustrations of them in use are especially impactful. I bend to read the information card next to the pillory, a heavy iron mask used to publicly shame women who were accused of dressing “too conspicuously.” The disappearance of the pillory should make one wonder if in the meantime the common ethic has not disappeared. I furrow my brow. Hmm. Sounds a bit judgey for a museum info card. A few others were written in the same snarky fashion – someone clearly had fun preparing this exhibit.

A short drive brings us to our lodgings in Brașov. William and I have just enough time to walk around the historical center before getting a delicious dinner of traditional Romanian food. He opts for a beef stroganoff while I indulge in a tasty chicken pie with vegetables. We head to bed early because, little did you know, dear Reader, tomorrow we have a big day ahead of us….