Vlad 'The Impaler' Tepes

Romania 2000

Vlad 'The Impaler' Tepes

 

I decided to visit Romania in June 2000 for two reasons. Firstly, I had been in Bucharest (briefly) in 1990, shortly after the revolution, not a very successful visit due to the fact the city was in a state of semi-anarchy; not the best place for a first-time and rather naive traveller. Pursued by legions of thieves, pickpockets andRomaia - Political Map Central Bucharestdubious money-changers, I came, had a quick look round, then got the hell out of the place on the first train possible. Secondly I was planning to retrace the route of the German VIth and Romanian IIIrd Armies through the Caucuses to Stalingrad (Volgograd) later that year, and Romania seemed a good place to start. As Romania required an entry visa, I began my enquires with their Embassy in London.

According to them a single entry tourist visa cost US $75, needed to be obtained in advance, and was conditional on proof of at least 12 nights pre-booked accommodation in approved (i.e. rip-off dollar) hotels. However less official enquires told differently. So heedless of their advice I arrived at Bucharest Otopeni Airport on June the 1st, visa-less and expecting to be deported on the first plane home. I don't think.Bran CastleRasnov Castle

Surprisingly there was a visa counter right next to the Immigration Desk which not only issued my visa in less than 5 minutes but only charged me US $32 (and gave change in US dollars). Then the nice lady at the Accommodation Desk beckoned me across, gave me a map of Bucharest, and wrote down some cheap, centrally based hotels before warning me about airport taxi rip-offs. Surely the Embassy had been mistaken and had not been trying to fleece me of hard currency? As evening was coming on I decided to brave the taxi vultures and after some bargaining found a hotel, conveniently a two minute walk from the Universitatti metro station.

Next morning I took the Metro to the Gara de Nord Railway Station to get a ticket to Brasov for the next day. Fortunately it had changed in the ten years since I was last there years I wasn't accosted by gangs of youths trying to steal the timetableSheltering at Rasnov Castle from my hand and the specs off my face like the last time. It even had shops on the concourse and manned ticket barriers on the platforms, although I was glad to see people still wandered about all over the track in front of oncoming trains etc. Some things should never change!

Ticket bought, I walked back to the Centre. A lot had changed here also. The hordes of aggressive "money changers" who Brasovonce accosted you on all corners had disappeared, well nearly. I was accosted by one who wouldn't go away then, on cue, the "ID" flashing bogus "cops" turned up, "arrested" him (they even gave him a fairly convincing kicking, before letting him run away), and wanted to see my money to ensure it was safe. Preferring not to have it switched for a wad of antique notes from the reign of King Carol 1st. or something I declined and left.

Near my hotel I came across the Telecommunication Building, a famous symbol during the Revolution. The bullets had been chiselled out of the wall since my last visit, but the holes were still there. The burned out Securitate Building across the Square had also been demolished. I then recognised a huge supermarket from my last visit. Now it was full; ten years ago its window display had comprised of three ice picks (large, medium or small; one each in stock),  Presumably Ceausescu wasn't a  Trotsky fan.

Next day I got a taxi for the station. Although I made sure he had the meter turned on upon arrival heSighisoara whipped a rolled up coat off a second meter which stood at Central Brasov and the Black Church600,000 Lei! (about US $80). He insisted this was because petrol was more expensive in Bucharest! Perhaps, but no. Unfortunately for me he had my backpack locked in the boot. Unfortunately for him a uniformed policia officer was taking an interest in our dispute and intervened. I ended up paying nothing.

The train trip to Brasov went smoothly and I got in with a couple of Swiss guys and an American guy who were going there also. We got offered accommodation as expected on the platform and ended up in a decent Chalet for a few nights. As the American didn't have much time we hired a taxi for the afternoon and first went to the famous Bran Castle. We started off in the village of Bran before climbing up to the castle itself. As expected its been a big commercialised over the years, the tourist bumf tries to tell you this is the "real" Dracula's Castle although in fact Vlad Tepes probably never set foot in the place. However despite the hundreds of schoolSaxon Fortified Church Inside the Fortified Church, Mediaskids (it was a school holiday, worst luck) it was still reasonably impressive.

Next we went to the ruins of Rasnov Castle, much more Dracula-like. To get there, you have to go up a steepish track which was more than the Romanian car couldn't make it with a full load. So we left it at the bottom and hiked up. The ruins on top of the mountain were really atmospheric; you could see for miles over the Carpathians. Unfortunately the weather suddenly changed and within seconds the sun had been replaced by sheets of rain, thunder and forked lightening, We ran for shelter and hid in a ruined archway, half expecting Bela Lugosi to loom out of the storm at any moment. Instead though, an old peasant woman came round the corner followed by a man with a scythe over of his shoulder. They joined us sheltering as well. It soon became apparent the rain wasn't going to stop so we decided on a quick ten minute dash down the hill to the car. Fortunately, without the three of us it had made the hill so we weren't totally drowned.

The Abbot's TombsBack in Brasov we walked into town for some dinner. The town centre still had many of the old medieval buildings including the Black Church so named as it was blackened in a 17th century fire. There's a statue of Martin Luther round one side, with a bullet lodged in the stone near his head: a stray shot received during the Revolution.

Next day I was on my own again. I checked out the route to the station (I was leaving next day) thenSighisoara went back into town. I took a walk round the old city walls, the Hero's Cemetery of the Revolution, and paid a visit to the museum. Although the captions were all in Romanian the written language is so Latinised you can usually get the gist of what they mean. After lunch I went round the Black Church and was lucky to be in time for an organ recital. Afterwards, I had decided to go up the mountain in the cable car, but after two frustrating hours climbing up and down the steep and hot streets I gave up, thinking it must have been closed down. I Inside Sighisoara Citadelwas on the way back to the chalet when I saw it in the distance descending the hill. But by now I was too hot to be bothered going back again.

Next day I got the morning train to Sighisoara. I had read about this place, an UNESCO Heritage Site due to it boasting the last inhabited medieval citadel in Europe. When approached at the station and offered a private room in the citadel itself I accepted at once.

 Inside, the Citadel was still exquisitely preserved. Perched on a fortified rock, it still has most of its walls and towersInside Sighisoara Citidel standing. The main entrance was through a large portcullises gate with the clock 80m clock tower now housing a museum. From the top you got a good view of the town and you are able to watch the clock mechanism with the automated figures that come out to chime the hour. One of the first houses you come to was the birthplace of Transylvania's Favourite Son, Vlad Dracula Tepes, a.k.a. "Vlad the Impaler" the 15th Century warlord and (sometimes) ruler of Walachia, who had a perchance for impaling captured Turkish and Hungarian soldiers and also the local nobility and anyone else who crossed him. There are five churches including the Saxon church right at the top, you climb up to it through a covered wooden stairway.

Next day one of the daughters of the house I was staying in took me for a drive to see one of the fortified churches at Medias. It was a hellish day with pouring rain, but we eventually got hold if the key and got inside to see the medieval frieze of pictures from the life of Christ. I even let myself be locked in the treasure room so I could watch the mechanism of the Sighisoara Clock Towerfive locks working. Outside is a building where the former Abbots of the Church are buried standing upright inside the walls. A fresco of each abbot is painted over each tomb.

That night I was invited to dinner by the family. Afterwards I played the father at chess. With true Eastern European courtesy he let me win the first game (but he was testing my tactics) then destroyed me in the second. But I did hold him to a draw in the third.

The daughter was a primary teacher at a local school and offered me a place the day after next on her school's annual treat - to a local salt mine of all places. This I had to see, so I spent the next day visiting the rest of the sites in and around the town. In the evening a young English couple arrived. They also decided to come on the trip. Entrance to the Salt Mine

We started at the school at 09.00.Iit was a part private, part state school so probably better than most. I was intrigued to see they had fold-down beds so the kids could have a siesta in hot summer afternoons. It took about an hour to drive the coach with about 50 (very well behaved) kids and seven teachers to the mine. The coach drove right in to the most enormous cavern I've ever been in. I'd been in salt mines in Poland before, but not like this. The main cavern (about 150m by 75m, unsupported) had been made into a huge children's playground, with swings, game areas and even an indoor football pitch. On another level there was a hospital area for people with respiratory complaints: the salt walls produces a very dry and cool The School Kidsenvironment to aid convalescence. Down again there was also the obligatory cathedral carved out of the salt, alter and all. The kids had a great time, but some were a bit confused when they went back out into the light as they thought it was night time.

Afterwards we drove down to the lakes at Praid where myself and the English couple went for a lookThe Cathedral in the Salt Mine around the town and the market where we outdid each other in buying the most ludicrous straw hats. Unfortunately the school party had disappeared. It took about an hour to find them by which time we were due to go back to Sighisoara. We took photos of the school party, promising to send them back as a memento.

Next day I left Sighisoara for the Black Sea Coast. This involved a fairly long journey to Constanta, Constanta Sea Frontchanging at Bucharest. I had been given an address by the daughter where she and her sister stayed on their holidays. I found it OK but it was full. I was given a new address for a hotel which I found although the "moneychangers" were out in force. After depositing my bags in the hotel I went out and was physically attacked by a youth who tried to rip my shirt off to get my money belt. I punched back, luckily hit him in the throat then ran like hell in case he had any friends lurking around. Oh dear.

I spent a couple of days here, pleasant enough I suppose but nothing of particular interest unless you like sunbathing on a rather dirty beach. After two days it was time to go home anyway, so I got the train back to Bucharest without any incident and my flight back to the UK.

 

 

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