Romania Dix Point

Our time in Romania is over, wow that went way too fast. We thought 10 days might be too long to visit one castle and maybe see a mountain, in reality Romania had enough to hold us for a good 4-6 weeks. We haven’t touched the Black Sea, the Delta or gone up to the North where we read the scenery rivals Transylvania and we made a decision not to visit the capital this time. So all in all we need to come back to Romania, there really is so much we want to see and the other bonus is it has to be the cheapest place we have ever been. Add to that the campsites are our kind of style – small, 10-20 pitches, great facilities, right in the villages and less than £7 a night – for us perfect.

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Outside the campsite gates in Carta – scary geese on the main road

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Traditional Carta

We spent much of this week around the Sibiu area, a mix of the very traditional and the modern. The first village we stayed at, Carta, is a place of contrasts. Older housing with much of it still lived in by Romanians who work the plots of land and dress in traditional clothes but also within the village are the houses are renovated and owned by German and Dutch families. Some roads are paved with individual bricks, more than most are dirt tracks. But whether it was the old or new, all have a real pride in where they live, forget the tales of the how run down and ruined Romania is – most of the villages are exceptionally well kept.  We stayed on a Dutch owned campsite, in the middle of the village so very much a part of everything that is going on.  The chap next door had some very unfriendly geese, which did chase me down the road but other than them everyone was very friendly towards us.

Many people still wear traditional clothes

After leaving Carta we spent a couple of days in the Marginimea Sibiulu area, 18 Romanian localities who maintain their own unique styles of architecture and heritage and similarly follow unique cultural practices. We aimed for one of the more remote villages, Jina, half way there  the snow started, as we climbed the snow got heavier, we made it through three villages before deciding against getting the van stuck up a mountain and heading back down. Luckily though we did see a few of the villages, it feels like time has stood still as you drive along the roads. We stayed in Saliste, one of the bigger heritage towns, on a campsite owned by a young Romania couple. We were invited in for a welcome drink of plum / cherry brandy by Iulian, it would be rude to refuse so we took a drink each, then another- then we headed out for a walk around the village to walk off the effects, its powerful stuff and must be what gets them through the bitter winters. It was great to talk to Iulian and hear his take on the country and how things have changed since 1989, the EC etc,

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Saliste Church

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Fagarasan Church

The area is famous for its customs such as the wearing of traditional folk costumes (which look a bit Welsh), glass painting and the most ornate wooden churches, often with the insides painted in elaborate frescos.  The housing is mainly traditional but most of the original wooden houses have long since gone, in some villages there are still a few around and more so the wooden barns remain in many gardens, The architecture is strongly influenced by the Saxons, most streets have the traditional big houses, with internal yards and barns all enclosed with big walls and massive wooden gates.

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A saxon house just waiting for us to snap it up 🙂

In Saliste we found, for probably the first time, no one in the village spoke a word of English. I went to get bread one morning and was a source of much mirth and laughter.  I opened the shop door to be told off by several local women making bread, you buy it from the small hole in the wall outside. I went to stood at the hole in the wall and had no idea what to buy, the lady held something up, they all laughed, it was stuck in the microwave and then given to me, again to much giggling, as I walked away I heard further peals of laughter. Back at the van we had it for lunch, akin to a deep fried pizza with cheese wrapped inside, we quite liked it and have no idea what was funny!

Just outside Sibiu is an amazing outdoor museum where houses from all around the country are brought to and re-assembled. We went down for an afternoon, we lasted half an hour. It is with out a doubt a brilliant place to visit but with the sleet coming down and the wind chill making it feel like it was below freezing we retired to the cafe for hot drinks and thawing, a mega shame as so much to see. The cafe made up for it a little, an original hostelry rebuilt with all the original furniture, tiled fireplaces and stone floors – the coffee on the other hand could rival Greek coffee for pinging your eyes out on stalks.

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Houses at the living history museum

We drove from the Sibiu area up to Baile Felix where we are now parked up in a strange little campsite that rather resembles a car park that has been fenced in so everyone passing can stare in. Just us staying as usual though, despite this being a bit of a holiday haven. The thermal waters are a major draw here with two massive water parks, even this evening whilst it is what you would call ‘bloody chilly’ there are loads of daft buggers sat in the thermal swimming pools, a few are throwing beach balls around but most are just sat. For us spa conjures up the image of a tasteful weekend complex, here its like Butlin’s on acid. The hotels are massive, concrete and just a little scary looking but the cafes and shops are modern welcoming, there are swimming pools, slides, wave pools everywhere and stalls selling every colour of bikini as long as its lurid. All a bit in your face after the calm and tranquility of Transylvania to date.

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The drive up today was the usual long and winding road affair. It has to be said that when they build some decent roads things will be easier and a bit more comfortable. Today we found a motorway, so new it wasn’t on Sat Nav and our map showed it as still being built. We sped over 60 km in well under an hour, then we came off and onto the major European road North West and it took us over 6 hours to drive 130 km! Roadworks, potholes, traffic lights and in places missing roads – it was the never ending journey. Iain deserves a medal as driving here hasn’t been much fun, whilst we are both sad to leave Romania we cannot wait to get back to proper roads, we will be buying a stack of cable ties and getting out the No Nails to put the van back together over the next couple of days!

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A whole new road 

Tomorrow marks our fifth month away – Day 154. No it doesn’t feel we have been away that long but yes France and the windscreen wipers feels like a lifetime ago. We will be making border crossing number eight as we cross into Hungary sometime tomorrow, with over 400 Hungarian Forint to the £ we will be spending the rest of this evening making space in our pockets for our wads 🙂

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We did the mash (it was a graveyard smash)

We are both very aware that everywhere we go I overly wax lyrical about how lovely it is and then we have set ourselves up for nothing else being as good. We really did wonder if Romania could live up to where we had been previously. Absolutely it does, especially when it comes to Transylvania and then it nails it and then some. We have driven over mountains, along ridges and through villages that should be on the outside of a biscuit tin. Even in the rain we could not believe how beautiful it was and how much there is to see on top of the scenery. When we came to a weeny hamlet called Podu Dâmboviţei we saw a few statues along the road side, then we came across these at the edge of the village. From what we understand its called ‘Wedding Zamfirei’ and depicts a traditional Romania wedding, this was the wedding venue and the other statues along the roads are on route to the celebration.

Up in the mountains at a lay-by lunch stop we met the lovely Darina. Despite that neither she or I could speak the same language we established the cheese is made by her daughter and it has never been kept in the fridge, not the best sales pitch I have heard! She wanted to sell us whole round for £5 but we only wanted a quarter for which she wanted a 1/3 of the cost – I know fail for us but she was stood out all day in the cold trying to make a living so its all fine. She kept trying to get Iain out of the van, he wasn’t keen as he thought she wanted to swap him for a cheese! She mimed to get the camera out and started posing for photos, a very lovely lady who despite living a tough life was a joy to meet.

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Darina with her very dubious cheese and homemade drinks

To get from A to B we have used what we could loosely terms roads, if we get out of here with the van in one piece we will be amazed. No matter how slowly or carefully Iain drives things are falling out all over the place, some of the potholes coming up the mountains were at least 6 inches deep. As we reached the high points of Mount Bucegi we experienced a little snow, there was very little settling but large enough flakes to cause a bit of excitement.  As we followed the road down the views over the Carpathians were stunning with hundreds of little villages nestled along the ridges in the valleys, the only problem is each time you stop a pack of 10-15 feral dogs pounces in case you have spare food. They are’t vicious but the sight of the bigger packs is a bit daunting, we have picked up a few odd strays for a walk through as they seem very eager to befriend you.

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Carpathian mountains

The main event then this week was of course Dracula’s Castle. Before anyone else tells us its not the real Dracula’s castle – it is (it’s not Vlad the Impala’s castle but he is actually a different fella, sometimes known as Vald Dracul). The castle in Bran is called Dracula’s castle purely because it’ts the only one in Romania that resembles the one in Bram Stoker’s book. We expected a castle in the middle of no-where and maybe a tourist stall or two. We are way behind the Romanian’s cottoning on to tourism, the best to  describe what we found was Blackpool!  There must be over 150 shacks and sheds around the castle selling souvenirs, if you can think of something they can put a vampire on then its for sale, as we drove through Sunday there were tour buses galore, car-parks were full and it could have given any attraction at home a good run for it’s money.  The village is full of guest houses, big hotels and restaurants, mainly modern and probably built in the last 20 years. Dotted between the modern hotels are the small farms that were here long before mass tourism, and in a few derelict houses the gypsies have set up home. It’s a very mixed bag and we certainly were not prepared for it. We settled in at Vampire Camping (another lovely campsite owner who opened up specially for us) and waited for Monday to make  our foray into the crowds.

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Away from the main village looking back to the castle

Monday morning we arrived at the castle to a sign that said it’s closed on a Monday! Iain checked with a security person who said it is open but only half day, so the sign must be just to annoy visitors then?  we went for a shopping spree around the tatt stalls and a bit of lunch whilst we waited. We met with an  Australian family of seven touring Eastern Europe for five months by car and using hotels. The dad was telling us the worst bit is paying for loos when they are out – seven people going twice a day at a couple of € a day was not in his budget -we did the maths and could see his point! Everyone you meet has a story to tell and we both liked that one very much, its so much more interesting than how much a hotel costs.

It cost us LEU 30 each to get in the castle (about £5) where we took the tour through the castle at the speed at the rest of the throng of tourists. Inside the castle they do dwell more on the actual history of the castle than the fiction, supposedly the heart of Queen Marie is kept in a casket there, luckily we didn’t seen that. Take away the Disney-esque and its a very beautiful castle worth visiting for itself. Add in the Count Dracula connection and it has to be said it does make for castle visit with a difference.

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Bran Castle – aka Dracula’s castle

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Bran Castle inner courtyard

We wanted to see and drive the Transfagarasan Pass whilst we were here (probably most famous as the road Top Gear called the most beautiful in the world when they did a road trip over it a few years back). It is also known as Ceaușescu’s Folly, he had the road built between 1970 and 1974 as a strategic military route with switchbacks that run north to south along the highest sections of the Southern Carpathian mountains for 90 km.  The middle section is only open for three months in the summer so we couldn’t make the whole drive. Our host here at the campsite tells us you can go over the top on a camel in the snow as part of an organised trip, alas we made do with a trip up to the road closure and the views over to the snow capped mountains, if ever there was a reason to visit Romania in summer it must be the chance to drive the whole of this road in a motorhome.

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Rightly known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world

Cartaroad

Its now 18 days since we left Greece, we have still not seen one other motorhome or campervan of any nationality anywhere in either Bulgaria or Romania. The Woolly Wanderers were here a couple of weeks before us and we never quite caught up with them but other than them it seems Romania is very much ours. It may be that people don’t come because campsites don’t generally open until April or May but we have found that if we call and ask they are happy to open early for a night or two. The weather is becoming better by the day so we are going to get the bikes off and visit a few of the villages in the area over the next couple of days.

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Local transport – as many of this model at the petrol variety in the villages

Romania – step back 200 years

Yet again we struggled to find a whole country, we had a simple plan – follow the signs to Ruse and the Danube bridge crossing into Romania. Mega plan except after the first sign it wasn’t mentioned again. Next choice was follow signs for Pyce as there is a crossing there – hey presto Pyce and Ruse are the same place, something the Bulgarians were obviously keen to keep quiet! Whilst we were looking for the border we used the time to practice our six essential phrases we learn for each country – please, thank you, hello, goodbye, where is the toilet, two coffees please – we are reasonably proud that we can do this in five languages to date.

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The toll to cross the Danube Bridge was only €2- (aka as the Friendship Bridge, honest to God if that’s friendship would hate to see the state of their enemies bridge) the trucks veer across the roads to miss the craters and the whole structure looks like it is about to lose its fight against gravity, maybe the ferry is a better option. Anyway, for us our first ever sight of the Danube, very big, very grey and a bit murky as it was raining but none the less impressive. The option of not knowing which country we were in (Greek / Bulgarian border scenario) didn’t manifest itself as the border is smack in the middle of the bridge. Oddly the bridge changes in structure there too, the Bulgarian side has no overhead steel truss work, as soon as you pass under the border sign the overhead trusses are very dense.

The Danube / Friendship bridge from the Bulgarian side

Once safely over at the Romanian side we met a delightful Customs officer who asked why we want to come to Romania in a motorhome and for how long, we told him, he pointed and said ‘GO’. No marks out of ten for charm but 10/10 for swiftness. Iain purchased our latest vignette, €13 for a month, so we are toll free and can drive where we like and we then went mad and bought a map, I am sick of plotting on an atlas. At this stage we were ripped off, massively. Chap appears and tells us we missed paying Bridge Tax, we need to go back and its ROM 3000 (£500!!!) we knew it wasn’t and said no thanks. He then tried €60 – we asked for a receipt, he offered €30 no receipt – I tried  €20 no receipt – all agreed and done. Checking later on the internet its only €6, ah well someone had a good story to tell in the pub of how he made €14 out of a daft British motorhome 🙂

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We were fairly keen on missing Bucharest ring road, as usual we weren’t planning on visiting the capital so saw no reason to put ourselves through the pain of negotiating what we had heard was a bit of a nightmare. With the aid of a map (amazing things) we plotted a good route to the West of the city through the countryside. Our first impressions of Romania? it’s doesn’t appear as poor as Bulgaria – based on the standard of housing and the amount of flash cars. Every village we went through had new houses being built and the older homes were well renovated, we were both very taken with the tin roofs which come is many colours and were often actually styled as tiles. The people were generally dressed in a very old fashion manner, the best way to describe it was peasant style. Whereas Bulgaria was very much the uniform of the tracksuit, big jewellery and black leather jacket – here its more knitted layers, head scarves and dressing gowns with a rope belt.

We fully expected to say Romania was the same as Bulgaria, it isn’t (except the roads which are still atrocious). We saw very few factories or any real industry all the way up.  Here its mainly farmland, ploughed and ready for scattering. We are still on the lowland plateau which resemble the Fens, very fertile, very flat and views over the fields for miles.  Plenty of horses and carts around but seem to be used more for farming than daily transport. In the village we are currently in every house has a small barn in the garden and also a giant haystack, seeing haystacks makes it feel like stepping back a few centuries for some reason.Probably every third car here is a Dacia, whilst this was originally a Romania company its long since been swallowed up by Renault but they continue to churn out nearly half a million cars a year from a factory just up the road.

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the campsite house

We hadn’t been able to find a campsite listed as open before April so we took a chance and headed for Curtea Des Arges. We had details of a small site on the edge of a MTB course, pulled in just as the young lady who owns it was leaving for the weekend. Even though not open she was happy for us to stay, hooked us up and gave us the run of the place – for less than the cost of two coffees in Switzerland!  With heavy rain forecast for Saturday we agreed to stay an extra day, and enjoy the rain from the warmth of the van. The site has everything we need, including a hammock strung up under the eaves to keep Iain occupied.

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Not letting the rain bother him 🙂

We attempted a walk into the main town yesterday, it was about 4 miles and raining hard but we thought it would be a good way to see more of the surroundings. Less than 10 minutes into the walk a very shoddy car pulled over and we were gestured to get in. We did, why who knows. Very kind Roma gentleman took us into town, his 3 year old daughter entertaining us with her ability to count in English! We offered a few RON for the lift but he firmly refused. After a wander around town we started the walk back, half way another kindly gent stops and motions us to get in – and then dropped us off less than 5 minutes back to the campsite. Not such a great walk but a great introduction to the kindness of Romanians and another lesson for us not to believe everything we read about people.

Today we are off to Bran to meet with our new friend Constantin, who owns a campsite up there which isn’t yet open. When I emailed to check on dates he offered to let us use the site anyway – which means we can now visit Dracula’s castle with somewhere to stay just outside, we have our garlic and wooden stakes at the ready.

As of today we have now covered 6500 miles, which if we had driven in a straight line would put us on the outskirts of New Dehli, so thank the Lord between Sat Nav and I we have managed to get us here!

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Us having a break – it’s tiring all this travelling!!