#14 - Bulgaria & Romania
Jeff Willner - 13 October 2001
(Budapest, HUNGARY) - Did you ever read any of those
Cold War spy novels when you were a kid? I soaked those things up. So
I was both nervous and excited as we left Istanbul and neared the border
of Bulgaria. A line of trucks stretched over a kilometer long, queued
up for days, waiting for clearance to cross. It was not an encouraging
sight, and the Soviet style architecture of forbidding concrete block
and peeling paint lent a definite communist feel to the border post.
A friendly trucker chatted with us at the Duty Free shop in no-mans-land
between the two borders where we were getting rid of the last of our
Turkish lire, "Make sure you don't stop for anything once you are in
Bulgaria! Those gypsies will steal everything off the truck." Great.
As if we're not already nervous enough.
Passports were produced at the little metal hut, scanned
by the immigration officer, and details typed into a battered computer.
We were waved to Customs. "Hello!" I said with what I hoped was a harmless
bourgeois capitalist smile. "Open zee truck!" grunted the official. Middle-aged
with a shock of white hair, he was rather severe in his green uniform,
and I could tell he had the implacable eyes of a Party loyalist. He looked
inside the back of the truck, made us open one of the storage bins with
food inside, and then scrutinized the outside at the rear. I could see
what he was thinking, there should be more storage space somewhere inside.
Motioning the women out of the rear seats he found our locked cubbyholes,
which we opened for inspection. None of the previous border guards had
made that connection - I was impressed. His colleague tapped the jerrycans
on the roof to make sure they were empty. They asked about the spare
fuel tanks underneath the truck. All during which I had this goofy grin
on my face - because hey, we were being searched by ex-communists and
were about to go behind the former Iron Curtain. Outstanding.
A couple hours into Bulgaria, we were met at the town
of Plovdiv by Buryan Kirov, a vascular surgeon and the brother of a school
chum. Buryan was a terrific guide, escorting us to Bachkovo Monestary and
Assen's Fort on the outskirts of town, and then taking us to the historic
downtown. We'd talked about him joining the expedition for awhile but he
explained very frankly, "Yes I am a vascular surgeon, but you know I don't
have money for such a trip, my salary is only $180 per month! You could not
imagine the conditions at my hospital. There are no supplies so people must
bring their own scalpels, their own dressings for their heart surgery. It
is sometimes like a war zone." "Why do you stay?" I asked, "Your brother
is in the US, surely you could do better over there." "Oh, I went to the
US for several months but I hated it, I wanted to come back." He led us to
a shaded table at an outdoor café on Plovdiv's main pedestrian-only promenade.
" You see, this is the reason I had to come back." He
continued. "Yes the pay is terrible, but the demands on me are also low.
I must be at the hospital from the morning until noon, but even if I didn't
come in they wouldn't care. It is my professionalism that keeps me there,
sometimes until very late when there is a need. Maybe my clients can't pay
me, but last week one of them brought over a four litre tub of yogurt as
a present. Ah, that was some good yogurt, I ate it all in one week!" He grinned
and patted his belly. "Bulgaria runs on favors. I do heart surgery for someone
and they find their own way to do me a favor. I hunt regularly at the ranch
of a former patient, and my new cellphone was a gift. You saw how old and
beat-up my car is, but maybe one day I save the life of a tycoon - then I
drive a BMW." He winked. "Besides, every day at 5pm I take my table here
at this café and watch the pretty women walk by. You must admit, this is
a pretty good life!" And he went on to lead us in an evening of pure indulgence,
a five-course dinner at the restaurant of a friend, drinks downtown, and
dancing until after 3am in the Plovdiv scene. We had to agree, it is indeed
a pretty good life.
Heading straight north, we climbed winding mountain roads
and went through the cold and foggy Shipka pass. Jody was scrunched up in
the passenger seat, transposing the names of key towns and cities into Cyrillic.
She got to the point that she could sound out the Cyrillic names without
referring to the phrasebook and did a fine job of navigating. We toured through
the Bulgarian mountain country. Etâr village, a living display of actual
old buildings and various water-powered mills assembled into a tourist village.
Arbanasi, a more genuine mountain village with an amazing church whose interior
is decorated with over 2000 murals. We were offered accommodation in a private
home while walking through Veliko
Târnovo, evidently it is a common way for families to earn some extra money.
The Land Rover barely squeezed down the narrow side road, and after parking we
asked if we could have a ride to the internet café in town. "Of course!" our
host was so helpful. He apologized for rushing around and explained that he had
also just opened up a dance school and would be giving lessons that night. I
was amazed at his energy, trolling for tourists during the day, maintaining his
extra rooms, and running a dance school.
Our crossing into Romania was less of a novelty the next
day, though Sally added some excitement when she decided to take a picture
of Europe's longest steel-girder bridge that forms the border between the
two countries - while on the bridge. A soldier stopped the truck and demanded
to know what she was doing. Opting for the dumb blonde approach, she batted
her eyelids and said giggled, "Oh, is there
a problem Officer?" He lectured her for a bit and then succumbed, waving us on.
We drove out the border post into farmland, small villages with patched together
houses, and lots of horse-drawn wagons. They were a fixture in the poorer Eastern
European countries, wagons of all shapes and sizes, usually with car wheels attached
for a smooth ride, and usually loaded with produce or fertilizer. Trying not
to be rude, I would slow the truck down and we'd fire off the digital cameras
as we passed - we got a lot of blurred wagon photos. Bucharest, the capitol of
Romania, is a spread-out mass of six-storey apartment blocks, shops, and tram
lines. The historical downtown is rather small. We arrived at 4pm and had walked
most of it in a couple of hours. Prices are very cheap. Dinner in a very fine
French restaurant was only ten dollars with wine. It was an enjoyable afternoon,
but Romania's real charm lies to the north.
North to Transylvania. It's mysterious reputation
makes you think of dark forests, grim castles, and of course Dracula.
But the autumn leafed lanes and quaint mountain villages were far from
ominous, in fact they reminded me of Vermont. Sinaia was a royal retreat
and remains the playground of the rich. Chalets are nestled into the
mountain slope, a cable-car swings far overhead climbing to the ski-slopes
thousands of feet up. Peles Castle was built a couple hundred years ago
for the royal family and has the most richly decorated and finely carved
interior I have ever seen. Further north, we stayed the evening in the
handsome cobbled old city of Brasov.
Poking around in Bran Castle the next morning we ran
across Janet, a lovely Canadian women traveling alone. We offered her a lift
to the next town. On the way we paused to check out Rasnov Castle, not well
preserved but home to Vlad the Impaler - the gruesome figure whose legend
evolved into Dracula. Evidently in his long battles with the Turkish empire
he developed a distaste for Turks, and for entertainment each evening during
dinner would watch a Turkish prisoner writhe and die, impaled through the
length of the backbone on a stake. In keeping with our all-Vlad theme, we
drove north to Sighisoara, his birthplace, and walked through yet another
spectacularly picturesque old city. "If there is one thing I must do in Eastern
Europe, I must camp in Transylvania!" Jody had been making this point for
days. So we found a campsite in the woods, in the birthplace of 'Dracula',
and we camped
under the stars.
Janet decided to stick with us for a couple of days
since we were going in the same direction, we were quite happy with her
company, so we all headed west toward Hungary. It was a long day of driving.
We stopped to walk around yet another attractive downtown in Cluj Napoca,
bought some picnic fixin's and ate lunch on the road. Twisting through
the narrow valley roads made for some slow driving, but evidently I wasn't
slow enough because I was nailed by a speed trap. No sympathy from the
policeman either. I don't think my blonde act is as effective as Sally's.
Hungary might as well be in the west. We were breezed
through the border never even leaving the truck, and as we drove away
from the border post the most immediate impression was of the absolute
lack of horse-drawn wagons. Even the cars changed, no more little wheezing
Ladas and Skodas, we entered the realm of Volkswagen, Mercedes, and Ford.
Budapest at night was almost mystical. Buda Castle perched proudly over
the river, blocks of renaissance architecture, Parliament with its 365
steeples, and massive churches glowing in spotlights. We spent the next
day on a bus tour of the city and walking through the pedestrian promenades,
parks, and shopping boulevards. It was a relaxing and eminently urbane
way to end our fascinating first week in Eastern Europe.