I left the Ukraine and passed into the north east of Romania by bus into the northern town of Suceava, continuing my journey towards Istanbul.
I took the bus from Chernivtsi to Suceava in Romania, which takes more than 3 hours despite being only around 60 km only away. The reason is that you are held up at the border for more than an hour. The border guards seem a bit confused by my passport but waive us through after a little wait. Suceava is pleasant enough in the centre and has a few nice bars and restaurants in the centre, including Oscar Wilde pub (There is only one thing worse than having a pub named after you in Suceava ...). I like to have a few weird dishes, especially when entering a new country, so for dinner I ordered tripe soup and a whole octopus. They are both very tasty, even though the tripe has the slight whiff of manure to it and the octopus is a little slimy when consumed whole. After gobbling all of this I feel a little queasy! and have an early night.
The thing to do here is to see the painted monasteries in the surrounding countryside. These were mostly built in the 16th century, as the Turks were knocking on the gates of Europe. Perhaps to ostentatiously advertise their christianity in the face of approaching Islam they painted the sides of the monasteries with biblical scenes. Some of the monasteries are also fortified, so that they can double as mini forts in case the Turks got any closer. The artistic style is pre-renaissance, and the depictions are entirely without perspective; the baby Jesus is always depicted not as a real baby, but as a tiny adult human being, nonetheless they are stunning. I was accompanied on the trip by an Italian woman who seemed to be an expert on this kind of art, her expert knowledge and manic enthusiasm made the experience all the more rewarding. In all we visited 5 such monasteries, each with a unique character, and made all the more atmospheric in their mountainous settings. Unlike Sigulda in Latvia this region really does look a lot like Switzerland.
I got ill again immediately after the tours to the monasteries so I again spent four miserable days in a soulless hotel on the outskirts of the town. This is a bit of a low point, but I manage to bounce back after 3-4 days and plan the onwards trip.
Next I head towards the small mountain town of Borsa, in the region of Maramures. Finding a bus in Romania, particularly in this region, is a bit of an art, and one that I have not yet mastered. I asked several people, including those who work in the bus station if this bus exists and where to find it, they assure me that it does not exist. I asked the women in the hotel to ring the company, who tell me that it is running and that it leaves from the main bus station. Again I went back to the bus station, and again they told me that it does not exist. Eventually I found some Polish people by the side of the road and asked them, and they said that they were waiting for that same bus so I stuck with them and eventually it came, although 30 mins late. That's so Romania! but part of the fun of course. The town is not that far but the journey took close to five hours as the roads are so bad, and also very windy, although the scenery is spectacular, so the bus trip is well worth it almost in its own right. It's much like the alps around here, except that it is much less deforested, and the agriculture is of a much more basic type. One of the characteristic sights is the haystack, which I saw dotted around the fields. The villages are incredibly basic and backward looking, even more so than the areas I visited in Ukraine. I arrived in Borsa, the town itself is a bit of an uninteresting sprawl along a main road, built mostly for tourism, in particular the ski lifts at the end of the valley. Still the surrounding villages and countryside are beautiful. The basic rural life that the people are living here is in stark contrast to the cities of Romania, this is exactly why I wanted to come here, stray a little from the classic backpacking route and you will find this kind of thing.
The next day I climbed mount Pietrosul. 2300 m, so a fair height, but not quite the alps. This is the tallest peak in this particular mountain range. From the hotel the walk took me nearly 9 hours round trip and nearly destroyed my knees, but the walk is not particularly challenging except maybe a bit at the very top. The route takes you through a tiny village, and onto a wooden monastery that is constructed entirely without nails, the wooden pieces simply slot into each other like pieces of lego, from there there is a wooded trail until the trees finally give up and there is a clearing and a very picturesque little lake, from there you're very close, but the last part is a grueling zig-zag hike to the summit. At that point I was completely covered in cloud and could not see further than 10 m, at each point edging along the path and trying to spot the next blue marker on the stones. To my extreme surprise there was a thin layer of snow at this point, despite it being August. It's a short hop along the ridge to the summit proper. I'm told the views are stunning but I guess I'll never know, however, the snow and the fog gave the experience a slightly mystical feel, which was rewarding in its own way.
The next day I took a chair lift in the other direction. This thing is very rustic (a nice way of saying dilapidated), probably built in the 80's under comrade Cecescu. It's quite a weird sensation to take a chair lift whilst not wearing skis or a snowboard, and the thing goes at quite a pace so you have to do a rather undignified cantor at the end. From the top of the lift I went to a series of waterfalls called the horses waterfalls. On every tourist trail there is a waterfall, but this one is genuinely quite pretty. It feels great to be up in the mountains again, as much of the travelling I've done upto know has been across very flat land. My knees are shot from yesterday's hike however, so I returned to base quite early.
Cluj and Sighișoara
I need to be in Georgia by a certain date and being ill for 4 days has put me a bit behind schedule, so I spend only one night in Cluj and then one in Sighisoara. The transport here is rather slow so getting around takes up most of my time. Still I managed to spend one nice evening in Cluj and a nice morning in Sighișoara. Cluj is quite a charming student town of a reasonable size, well worth a look, but I can't say I did anything of much note here. Sighisoara is a very small town on the rail route between Cluj and Bucharest. It's ridiculously pretty, built onto a hill with buildings of pastel colours. More than anywhere else I've been so far it feels like a tourist trap, but it is maybe worth enduring the kitch and the Dracula souvenirs to spend an afternoon here.
I took the train from Sighisoara to Bucharest. I've been here once before, and have fairly mixed feelings about the place. By the time I got there it was getting very dark and the hostel was very far from the centre. I took a series of metros, all of which were poorly lit and felt decidedly seedy. The hostel was far from the centre and the neighbourhood feels very poor. Many people sit out on the streets, strangely it reminds me of Cuba, people live their lives in the open air, not really doing anything of note. I finally found the hostel, it looked like a normal apartment block from the outside and there was no sign on the door, but inside it was very nice. I chatted with the owners of the hostel who shared some of their wine with me, and I in turn dished out some of the Ukrainian vodka that I had been keeping in reserve all the way from Lviv. The owner of the hostel used to work in Scotland so speaks great English. Upstairs everyone was glued to their electronic devices and not in the mood to chat so I had an early night.
The next day I spent some time walking the streets of Bucharest. The focus of tourism is a small old town, which has some architectural charm, but the vibe is somewhat ruined by strings of tourist restaurants with overly pushy waiters. Every third or fourth joint is a strip club, with dubious adverts for "massages" upstairs. Bucharest is trying desperately to tap up the stag do market by the look of it. I took the chance to do some light shopping in Bucharest’s modern shops and have some lunch in one of the increasing number of trendy restaurants outside of the old town. Some parts of the city feel quite hip and affluent now, with many young Romanians spending (relatively) large amounts of money. This is not the bargain basement destination that it once was. I feel quite tired for the rest of the day so I head back to the hostel quite early, my appetite for sightseeing in another European city are well and truly at rock bottom, so I have a lazy day, followed by a bit more wine with my friends from the hostel. There are plenty of things to see and do here if you are so inclined, but I feel the need to pace myself given that I will be travelling for more than 6 months in total.
The next day I went to the tiny town of Vama Veche, principally because it is a convenient location to pass into Bulgaria and then further onto Istanbul. Vama Veche has a reputation as a hippy town, even during the Socialist years dissidents and counter culture types would gather here, surprisingly un-hassled by the regime. Nowadays it keeps a slight hippy vibe to it, but is sliding more towards the black sea beach resort edge of the spectrum, not normally my kind of place. However, strict planning rules have kept the encroaching concrete to a minimum, and most of the buildings are still adhoc wooden shacks. There are still a few ageing hippies hanging out here living in tents on the beach, but they have been largely replaced by younger Romanian holiday makers. The main street is lined with bars and cheap Kebab shops, and the beach accommodates a series of techno clubs. This is a place where young Romanians come to vomit. Unsurprisingly I took an almost instant dislike to the place. Still my hostel is very charming and has a friendly atmosphere. I spend the evening at the hostel drinking into the small hours and chatting to locals and tourists. An American guy who was travelling Europe whilst busking gives us an impromptu concert, reeling off his take on some of Dylan’s greatest hits. I shared out the rest of the Ukrainian Vodka which went down a treat, the hostel had a great communal vibe, with lots of young backpackers enjoying themselves. Despite my best efforts to be miserable I end up enjoying myself here, drinking until the wee hours of the morning and finally catching the sunrise on the beach.
The next day I downed a large bottle of water and went for a quick dip in the black sea, looking out into the water I tried to guess the direction of Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia, the other countries that border this sea, most of which I have or will visit. The dip in the sea freshened me up and I felt able to continue with my journey, onwards to country number 7: Bulgaria, and the black sea city of Varna. It's only 100 km away but it turns out it is surprisingly hard to get to. I'm told there is a direct bus to the city which leaves at 2.30, and there is another one at 4.30. I waited patiently for the first, and then the second bus, and of course neither showed up; one final leaving present from this deeply dysfunctional country. There is nothing for it, I decided to walk to the border, which is only 2 km away. I got to the border with no problems and cross into Bulgaria on foot, which is simple to do as the border crossing is pretty quiet. From here there is one long road to Varna, about 100 km away, so I tried to hitchhike. There are 3 separate groups of people all trying to do the same thing as me, one of whom informs me that he has been waiting here for several hours! This does not bode well, so I decided to start walking further along the road where I might be able to find some local traffic. I walked for about an hour along the road, sticking my thumb out to any passing traffic. None of the cars stopped, and the traffic is quite thin here, a car passing me perhaps only every 4 or 5 minutes. None of them seem to contain the hitchhikers that I encountered earlier either. I start to panic a little bit as I was running low on water. The worst case scenario is to walk to the next town which is 7 km away and stock up on supplies and try to spend the night there. Finally after more than an hour a van stops for me and picks me up, he is only going another 15 km down the road but this is better than nothing, and at least I will be in a town where I can possibly stay the night. After some stuttering conversation in broken English he offers to take me all the way to my hostel for a price! I end up paying him around 15 euros, which is not bad for a trip of 100km, and given that it is almost getting dark it seems like the sensible thing to do, so I let him take me all the way there. Factoring in what he paid for the petrol, both there and back, I can't imagine that he made much money, I think he was acting more out of sympathy rather than anything else. I made it to the hostel finally just as it was getting dark, and wolf down a quick kebab and hit the hay as I must not have slept more than four hours. This feels much more like the adventure I had in mind though, and I'll miss Romania, with its dysfunctional infrastructure and friendly, if slightly unusual and abrupt, people.