We flew from Izmir into Bucharest on June 4, and took a train out of
Bucharest into Transylvania as quickly as we could get to the train
station. Our guidebook and several first-hand experiences related by
various Turkish acquaintances had convinced Gary that Romania was full
of thieves and ex-Communist thugs. He would have been happier flying
over Romania and directly into Budapest. But as this may well be our
only foray into ex-communist Europe, I was determined to see Romania.
A I recall, it was Bulgaria that I was convinced was full of thieves
and ex-Communist thugs. I read about the thieves and thugs in the
guide books and several travelers recounted horror stories. Our desk
clerk in the first hotel in Istanbul said, “Bulgaria very cheap. Good
for me. When I came back, I did not even have to carry my luggage.
Some people I met befriended me, found out where I was staying, broke
into my hotel, and carried my luggage away. This is a common thing to
do in Bulgaria.” My main concern about Romania was having to live in
either abject poverty with the locals, or pay big bucks for barely
In fact, we have found nothing but kind, helpful, scrupulously honest
people. They live in a world so derelict that to describe it as
pre-World War II would be a compliment. [I don’t think it’s that bad;
it’s generally clean although polluted- G] We visited four cities,
and everywhere the story was the same – the taxis are 30 years old
[they are early 1970’s Daccia, which are Renault 12’s built under a
license with France- G] and coming to pieces, due to having been
driven on totally pot-holed roads [they were not great cars to begin
with- G]. Most of the wiring shows, as they’ve been amateurly rigged
when the electrical systems gave out [hey, what’s wrong with a few
yards of duct tape here and there? -G]. The sidewalks and roadbeds
are crumbling, the trains are filthy and falling apart. Most of the
buildings have not been repaired in 35-40 years. The towns are
unbelievably shabby. The air in all towns except for the tiny ones is
sooty and lead-polluted. I would not put my foot into most of the
rivers or streams – they look nasty.
Apparently, no one has any money. If you buy something, the clerk
NEVER has change – money is simply not circulating. I was looking for
a couple of light-weight tops, as the weather was unusually hot and
sticky. We had made a friend in Sibiu, who took me shopping. There
was NOTHING TO BUY. Shops are tiny, with very small selections of
goods. Granted, we’ve chosen to stay in the smaller towns, but they
are not villages, and towns of this size in western Europe would have
much more stuff available for sale.
And she wants me to have my tooth drilled here!
From the airport in Bucharesti we took a van to the train station ($15
for two). The driver spoke some English. The van was a new Ford. We
drove down large, attractive boulevards, past a monster building built
by the previous regime. He told me that I could find private dentists
where we were going.
Sighishoara, the home town of Dracula
We climbed aboard the train for Sighishoara, home of Dracula, in the
area called Transylvania. This was after a point and click lunch in
the station. We find the only sit down restaurant, and by gesture
confirm that there is time to eat before in the 45 minutes remaining
before our 1:00 P.M. departure. On the menu are such Romanian words
as ‘porc’ and ‘jambon.’! The menu states the charge per 100 grams. I
indicated that we want small portions. We were charge the 100 gram
price. Very good food, $10 for everything, including a beer and a
While we were in the station, several taxi drivers offered us rides to
Sighishoara. We got estimates ranging from $40-$100. The train cost
$4.00 or so each. Can’t beat that.
But the train was very slow, taking about 5 hours to go less than, oh,
200 miles, at most. It was too hot, maybe 30 degrees C (85), to
sleep. There is music to keep us up also: Romanian rap and folk,
jazzercise. We arrived in Sighishoara at 5:40 P.M.
At the station in Sighishoara, a young woman came up to Peg and asked
her if were looking for a place to stay. Peg affirmed, and off we
Meet Marinella and her 1970-ish Daccia, which spits and rumbles
flawlessly over the rough roads leading to the old town. Marinella
speaks English reasonably well. She is 23 years old and very
attractive. She teaches school. Her students are ages 7-11. In
their system, a teacher has the same children for four years. A
teacher must have attended a special high school, and then pass a
difficult exam. I am not sure if there is any additional education
required after that.
She tells us that headmasters do not usually advertise openings,
hoping to hire someone they know. So she had to be constantly on the
lookout for positions. She is not sure if this would be the case
elsewhere in the country.
She said she was waiting for some Russians but since they did not
show, she approached us. She says that they normally only get
customers through a friend in Bucharesti. I got the feeling that she
was looking us over while we wandered about hoping someone would offer
We ascend into the old town, five minutes from the train station, and
arrive at her house. She lives with her parents, her sister, her
grandmother and Stupid Annoying, the dog that I named as I walked
through the gate.
The house is on two levels, and the neighboring houses are just a few
feet away on the sides. We walk down to the first level via a
sidewalk into the backyard filled with grape plants, and enter through
the kitchen door. Our room is upstairs. It has a big, comfortable
bed that converts to a sofa. The ‘mattress’ is really the seat
cushions, but they turn out to be more comfortable than most
convertible sofas we have slept on. This is obviously their living
room, judging by the furniture in the room, and the fact that
Petronella is watching a soap opera when we walked in. She is 18,
still in high school, and stubbornly refusing to leave the room,
despite her sister’s instructions. She had to watch that soap!
Petronella definitely has commercial potential. After the soap opera,
she pointed out to her older sister that the price for the room we
were staying in was $24. For $20, we would have to sleep in the
hallway on a cruddy bed. Seemed like they were swindling us a bit,
the good old bate and switch, but then I looked at those sweet,
innocent faces and decided that Marinella had just made a mistake.
We had dinner in a place that Marinella recommended. It was an
Italian place. It was quite good and inexpensive as well, $3-4 each.
Breakfast was included in the room price, although we did not know
this until breakfast. Peg had a very crisply fried egg. I had good
We went to Bra ov by train. It is 1 1/2 hours in the direction of
Bucharesti. We were told we could not buy a first class ticket. It
turned out to be unnecessary. The train was much less full and newer
than the one we were on yesterday. When we arrived, we walked about 2
kilometers into the center. We could have come by cab or taken the
trolley. We finally found an ATM. There were lots of places to
change money, at a rate of 8500 to the dollar.
The old part of the town was built by Saxons. There is an impressive
number of brick fortifications build in the 12th century. We visited
Biserica Neagta (Black Church), 1385-1477. It is now the most
southeasterly Protestant church. The walls are filled with 17th and
18th century from Anatolia, Turkey.
[Back in Sighishoara]
We were invited to have a typical Romanian supper with the family.
Their supper was white beans pureed to the consistency of mashed
potatoes, with a sauce of garlic, onion and paprika sautéed in oil.
Also served was slaw and crusty bread. It didn’t taste bad, but it
made me wonder what the poor people eat. After supper, the girls gave
me the world’s worst manicure. [I figure that this was a ‘ward off
Dracula’ meal – G]
The countryside is fairly attractive – green hills full of small plots
of farmland. From the train, we’ve seen many people working in the
hot sun, hoeing weeds or scything hay. Almost everyone uses a horse
drawn wooden cart to get to and from the fields.
The family told us that life in Romania is still very hard, but also
freely said that a big part of the problem is that the people “do not
want to work, or accept responsibility for themselves.”
Sighishoara’s old town looked and felt like it had not changed much in
hundreds of years. The houses were in good shape, and are row houses
of some medieval style. Peg also called Sighishoara’s old town a
movie set, ready and waiting for the next Hollywood producer to come
People seem well dressed. There is some begging but a lot less than
in Spain, and no more than in Turkey. The stores are stocked,
although they are not stuffed to the brim as they are in Turkey. The
prices are marked, although I think that inflation was a problem not
too long ago. The Romanian Lei is at 8500 to the dollar.
What I have found amazing is that every shopgirl working in the
smallest kiosk in every depressing railway station, every young guy
waiting tables, and every child under 12, speaks acceptable English. I
cannot get over it. And they always have a big smile when they are
able to help you out.
Petronella makes a few comments about little things that we own. A
nail file. A cheap pen. There is so much admiration in her voice for
these little things that I can’t help but think that they are hard to
I would have gladly stayed with Marinella and Petronella a few more
days. They were charming and as helpful as they could be. They found
someone to wash some clothes for us. Some old lady who apparently
could not see got them back to us quickly. I say that she obviously
could not see because some clothes were dirtier than when we sent
them. They also ordered us a cab that never showed up. So we
walked the two miles or so to the train station, down the steep
hillside, across the river, and past the church.
Point and click and voila! A second class ticket is ours. Can’t we
go first class? Click point click point click click point point.
There ain’t no first class on this train, Bubba. There ain’t no
Toothache has subsided enough that I have not gone to a dentist yet.
Along the way we had to change trains. We were in the middle of
nowhere that used to be somewhere, for next to us were 1950 vintage
factories. They are now abandoned, their huge and once deadly
smokestacks idle in the crystal clear skies. In front of the station
is a small store. The young woman speaks some English. She sells us
some bread, sausage and fruit for lunch. There are tables for those
who want to eat. There is no prepared food; this is not a New York
deli, ya know.
Eventually we got to Sibiu. It is a town of some 250,000. A $.25 cab
ride got us to the center of town. After a few conversations, we
found the Communist Block Hotel. It is about 12 stories, concrete,
glass, and sporting a decor that would make a classless society proud;
not bad, but not pretty either. There is an elevator, however, a
shower and w.c. in the room. All this and more for $25.
In the communist days, women would sit at the exits and monitor the
comings and goings of foreigners and maybe citizens as well. Many
were in the employ of the secret police.
That evening we ate at the fanciest place in town. Beautiful dining
room. English menu (which are pretty common in Romania), great food
and good wine. $12 or so for two! The food seems more like French
cooking than any other cuisine. It is definitely Continental.
Public hospitals, private dentists
No sleep again last night. I gotta see a dentist or get some serious
pain medication. I turn my life over to Peg now. She consults with
the desk clerk. No dentists on Sundays, and this is a holiday so many
are out of town.
Oh, this is perfect. Just what I love: testing our ability to
overcome these sorts of challenges while I suck on ice water to avoid
screaming in pain on the floor.
In Sibiu, where we stayed for three days, Gary developed a severe
toothache. 6 years ago, the same thing happened in Budapest, this
time, in Romania, for crying out loud! On a Sunday – on a holiday!!
[Look, I warned her!] Not a private dentist to be found anywhere. So
we went to the hospital – unbelievably dirty, etc., where the dentisst
offered to pull the tooth.
The hospital: paint peeling from the walls, pipes leaking. Bathroom
was locked, but I think that was so they could concentrate the stench
further. But they did have some pain medication. The nurse broke a
little glass vial, pouring the contents into a cup while I wondered if
there were any glass shards about to descend into my gullet. All of
this in point/click combined with a few words in English.
At 8 A.M. the dentist arrived. I went into her surgery where she
examined me. Her examination consisted of looking at my x-rays and
wiggling my tooth. She wiggled it a little, it moved a little.
That’s how she decided a course of treatment. “The tooth must come
out,” she declared.
Since I probably had $700 in that tooth – why should that tooth be any
different from all the others I have – I declined her offer. But she
did give me some novocaine, expertly injected, and told me in
Point/Click and a little English that 1) she did not have the proper
tools and 2) I should see a private dentist tomorrow. She said she
would do her best if I wanted her to try, while pointing to her only
drill bit. She seemed glad that I decided to wait for a private
dentist. I said goodbye, wished her a happy 21st birthday when it
finally arrived, and headed back to the hotel.
Meet Spear Chucker, aka Doru.
After we went to the pharmacy, we hailed a cab, whose driver spoke
very good English. Doru used to be a physicist. After hearing about
our situation, he phoned a friend of his, a dental student, to find
out if there wasn’t a private dentist somewhere in Sibiu who would
help. Her name is Aura, and she is a stunningly beautiful blonde
woman in her late twenties or so.
The first guy who examined me decided that the tooth I thought was the
problem was not in fact the problem. He looked at my xray (I have the
one’s my dentist in Dallas did in 1995 and the full mouth that I had
done in Spain with me at all times; I am an experienced dental
patient, after all). There was the arrow that Jaime had drawn,
pointing out the potential problem. But the pain was definitely
coming from another tooth.
Aura called the pro, who turned up 30 minutes later. Unlike the first
guy, he knew what materials my teeth were made of. He confirmed the
diagnosis and in a few more minutes, the offending nerve, or rather
the disintegrated mess that was once a nerve, was removed from my
porcelain-crowned tooth. Four more visits and voila! I am a happy
camper again. All for the unbelievable price of $85!
Doru has a friend for life.
Last night we ate dinner in a fancy hotel, the Intercontinental. We
were the only ones there for most of the time. There were two
musicians entertaining us. One is playing an electronic organ, the
other an electric guitar. The organist asks where we are from.
America! He skillfully plays Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” Then he
plays “Over the Rainbow.” Peg stands to sing along with him, doing an
This white table cloth meal with wine cost us $23.
Today we walked about town in between visits to the dentist for
further cleaning of the root canal. The old town here is also a ready
made movie set. Much of it is from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are several large plazas.
We notice that most people in restaurants and cafes do not eat. They
just drink beer, wine or coke. I asked Doru the next time he met us
to take me to the dentist. He said that most people cannot afford to
eat out. He said he had not been in a restaurant in years. In a good
month he makes about $200.
We took him out later for drinks. Aura joined us. We drove in her
Daccia. Doru’s taxi had broken down. He said it just refused to
start. We sat outside, watching a storm develop. Doru told us that he
had several children and a wife. He hoped that the planned oil or gas
pipeline would allow him to work in his field as it would pay more.
His specialty is the transport of explosive materials.
From the little cafe where we were sitting we could see the Fagara
(pro Fagarash) Mountains. These mountains are rugged and can be
treacherous. There are extensive hiking trails. Accommodations are
about a day’s hike apart. There are brown bears.
Later he found out that his car needed a battery. He said that it had
been a slow month so the timing was bad. I asked him how much the
batter would cost. He said $20. I gave him the $20. It was the
least I could do.
More about Sibiu
Sibiu is one of the seven seats settled by the Saxons in Transylvania.
It was wealthiest and strongest for centuries. The old town was once
called the City of Seven Towers. There are five left. The towers and
the walls are brick, the main building material used by the Saxons, as
near as I can tell. There are many interesting views from the walls,
especially on one side of town, where the hill descends sharply.
Near a church there is a tent in which you can get a beer and a
sausage. It seemed very German.
There are many tunnels connecting the upper and lower towns. These
were used to evacuate people during Turkish attacks on the city. Most
of the tunnels are closed off, but there are steps in use.
Sibiu has many museums that are worth visiting.
On to Timi ora (Timishora)
Aura took Peg shopping for a blouse. Peg was astounded by how cheaply
made the garments were, how difficult it was for merchants to make
change, and how readily Aura volunteered to help after Spear Chucker
helped translate. Aura speaks some English but not as well as Spear
I bought a backpack. The shopkeepers of the camping specialty store
spoke English fairly well, and were friendly and helpful. For $40 I
bought one that would have cost $150 or more in the U.S. I am hoping
that a backpack is more convenient than the large, wheeled, and now
battered canvas bag I have been hauling around. That bag is only half
Doru took me to the dentist again and later took us to the train
station where we made our good byes. We had arranged to meet at
something like 3 P.M. He came early. Aura told him that we would
miss our train if he did not pick us up early so he came looking for
us. We had figured out the same thing and were hoping he would come,
or we would have to take another cab.
I was astounded when he turned up when he did. I felt like we had a
friend thinking about us, not just a cabbie wanting to make another
fare. He didn’t want to be paid for the ride to the train station.
He said he would pay Aura the 1500 or so lei Peg had to borrow when
the shop where she bought the blouse had no change.
Then it was on the painfully slow (6 hours: 1527 depart, 2127 arrive),
hot (85 degrees outside) and pretty train ride through the beautiful
countryside to Timi ora. More small plots being farmed, sometimes by
women in their two piece bathing suits who seemed to be enjoying the
sun as they hoed. No pun intended.
It seems that most people prefer to keep the train windows closed.
Despite the heat, the compartments are closed tight except perhaps for
the door. Some people stand near open windows in the corridor. Some
of them are smokers, others just there for the fresh air.
The train is French built, but a long time ago. The toilet seat is
rusted in the open position. The passenger seats, carpets and
everything else are worn and in some instances heavily soiled from the
sweat of decades of travelers. The seat protectors, which are white
linen, have not been laundered in quite a while, or the little old
lady who did our laundry in Sighishoara had the laundry contract.
At last we arrived. We took a cab to the Hotel Banatul ($24), less
than a mile away. Fortunately there are rooms available. What’s odd
is that there are small commercial offices on the second landing, two
of them travel agents. To get to our room we had to go down a long,
bright yellow corridor to what seems to be the building next door.
Our room is pleasant, has a full bath (as did the one in Sibiu) but it
overlooks a street that could get noisy during the day.
A major pedestrian zone is nearby. We are the last ones to eat at the
restaurant the desk clerk recommended. Steak, steamed potatoes,
salad, soup and a vodka tonic came to $10, of which $6 was for the
vodka tonic. They even served ice with the tonic!
Speaking of vodka tonics, they are served as separate drinks. You get
a bottle of tonic and a glass (about 4 ounces) of vodka. You mix it
It is great to have almost no pain; I think the little bit left will
go away. I will sleep again.
Timi ora is near the Hungarian border in the western part of Romania.
The Ottoman Turks were removed in 1716, and then it was governed by
the Hapsburgs. There is a Turkish bath and a mosque from the late 16
hundreds. There are still many ethnic Germans, whose ancestors came
here during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa and subsequent rulers.
I read that there is still a fair amount of German spoken. In 1869
the city inaugurated one of the first horse-drawn trams and the first
electric street lighting in Europe.
It’s tourist time again!
We start at the pedestrian zone where we ate dinner. It leads to a
huge Orthodox Church. We were in one in Sibiu during a service.
There was straw spread about the floors, having something to do with
the service. Priests sang the service while standing on the front
side of a large, decorated partition through which the congregation
sort of peeked. On the side facing the congregation there panels
painted with the images of saints. Worshipers make a sign of the
cross and then touch the floor. No chairs, everyone was standing.
This church is nearly empty but I remember little else about it.
We continued our walk to see what there was to see. I noticed that
there is more money here than the other places we have seen in
Romania. The buildings are in better condition, the cars are far
newer, decent looking trams, streets in better condition. There are
more goods in the stores, more produce, more services available.
We see bulbous domes on churches. We walk past a synagogue, medieval
Somehow we heard about a beer plant. We walked several miles to get
there. You cannot tour the plant but they do serve lunch. They have
a large banquet hall with music amplification in place. They serve
their own beer, one a toasty, dark one. $6 for lunch for two and two
beers. Peg’s sausages were 5000 lei, beer 3500 (8500 to the dollar).
Wooden ceilings 20-30 feet above, massive wooden braces supporting the
roof and concrete walls. This is Neal Pointer’s kind of place. I can
imagine him sitting here. For a very long time.
The Bega Canal runs through town. It is very muddy with no apparent
signs of life, and no appeal whatsoever. It is scheduled for
improvements to allow commercial traffic access to the Black Sea from
There is a respectable tourist magazine the city publishes. One
article I read was “Winter Celebrations.” Peasants from the Banat
area, which I take to be nearby, once celebrated annual
renewal/enrichment celebrations for twelve days starting December 20.
Each day symbolized a month.
There were sacrifices (of what it did not say) and they performed a
ritual called “Strigarea peste Sat” or something like that. This
ritual involved lighting fires on the hills and in the streets. These
fires were kept burning for six weeks. On the last night the carolers
are released in the village. They sing songs about the host’s good
and bad qualities (I never could figure out who the ‘host’ was). For
their efforts the carolers were given small, handmade bags filled with
nuts, fruits and pancakes. Pancakes? I have not seen pancakes of any
sort other than the ones I made in Spain.
The carolers brought with them prosperity and fertile soil. The fires
referred to above were to purify. I am not sure what they purified.
During this period (not sure if they meant the 12 days or the 6 weeks)
the sky opens and the spirits of the dead come back to bless the
house. These beliefs are still alive in Banat villages. Hey, no
worse a set of beliefs than Santa Claus and Jesus, as far as I am
The gifts at Christmas: food, pancakes and sausage. Sounds like my
kind of gift.
Erotic shows and escort services in town are given the same treatment
as other business featured in the publication. This consists of
articles by the magazine’s staff.
There are wooden churches in the area but we have not seen one. One,
St. Mare Mucenic Dunitrie, was moved into town. It was renovated
1967-72. This surprised me. I thought that the communist regime did
not permit this sort of thing. The picture in the magazine shows a
small chapel, simple altar and a beautiful ceiling.
Our room was a bit smoky from car exhaust and noisy until about 1 a.m.
Nice shower, but no curtain so the floor gets wet, which is a common
situation even in Western Europe. This room was recently redone.
We went to a market with $10 (about 85000 lei). We bought 3 bananas,
2 oranges, 200 grams of smoked cheese, 200 of smoky sausage, a loaf of
bread and some tomatoes. We spent only $2.50 for all this! Some of
these items would be left off the shopping list of many Rumanians
because they are expensive. This includes the bananas and oranges,
which are imported.
At a nearby farmer’s market there are tons of attractive fresh fruits,
including cherries, veggies and other items. There are a million tiny
stalls. Deliveries are being made from the back seats of cars. Lots
of cabbage, peppers of a light green color, tomatoes, green onions,
new potatoes. No garlic or large onions. Fresh parsley. Apples
complete with worm holes. Squash. Strawberries. One row of stalls
has mainly soft, fresh cheeses. Here come green beans and peas, some
little brown onions. Kohlrabi. Cauliflower. Carrots. Batteries, a
few tools but nothing else for the car or other hard goods.
We leave this afternoon. Budapest is next.
The train to Budapest
On the modern, well maintained train headed for Italy there is a boy
age 8-10. He slides along the floor, begging. He has only one leg.
He stops at our door and begs for 8-10 minutes. As he leaves, I
notice that there is no stump showing. I can tell that he is sitting
on his other leg, which is inside the same trouser leg as the one we
see. Peg gets up to see if she can confirm what I said. She finds
him one compartment away, standing up while talking to a friend. His
friend laughs as Peg wags her finger at the fraudulent amputee. Doru
or someone had warned us not to give money to any beggars as they are
all frauds. I did not believe this and still do not, but it sure made
me hesitate to give the little guy any money.
At the train station in Budapest we found an ATM machine. We went to
both accommodation bureaus and the places they have left are $40 or
more per night. We hang around in front of the main door of the
station. Finally someone approaches us to see if we are looking for a
room. We ask for details. He says it is a small apartment with all
the amenities except a telephone. He says it is $30 per night. We
say we did not want to spend more than about $20. He says $25 is the
best he can do, and that only because we are staying several nights at
least. We agree to go with him to look at the place. He says he will
bring us back to the station if we do not want the place.
His apartments are in a fairly modern building on the fourth floor.
The apartment he shows us is in great shape. There are laundry
machines in the basement; this seems like a great luxury. We are on
bus route 76, and can walk to the metro in less than 10 minutes.
There are two single beds that are in line with one another. We must
sleep head to head or foot to foot. Hard to snuggle here! The
shower’s water supply is ingeniously connected to the bathroom sink’s
faucet. It is obviously a retrofit shower. It is a modern, molded
He tells us that if he gets someone via the accommodations bureaus, he
gets $40, but must give $12 to them. So at $25 he is ending up with a
little less but if we stay 3-4 days, he is happy with it. We agree
and tell him if we like it, Kay will stay in one of his other
apartments when she arrives. His English was not great but more than
adequate for this job.
The book says that there are lots of soup and salad places in
Budapest. We find one close by and with a little point and click,
we’ve got a decent but light dinner for about $6.00 for the two of us.
We are to meet Peg’s sister kay and her son Nic Wednesday. They will
be with us for almost two weeks.
I think I would like to go back to Romania. Those wild mountains beg
to be explored. Friendly people struggling to make a living, great
food, great prices, beautiful scenery and some great old towns.