A trip involving sausages, pancakes, hot chocolate, an impossible schedule, a booklet of mis-information, reliving the 1990s, and that the cold never bothered me anyway.
Tuesday February 9th 2016
My cat loves me. She loves me so much, that she can’t go four hours without coming to see me. My epic Romanian holiday started at 6am on Monday February 8th, when my beautiful cat decided we could get up for a prolonged fuss session and I could open the back door now it had stopped raining for her to go out. Two shots of caffeine, and the realisation that tomorrow is Pancake Day leads to pancakes for lunch. Afternoon swimming to prepare the muscles for being kept upright. Belly dancing in the evening to raise endorphins for the same reason. The X Files, a TV programme that defined my teenage years in the 1990s, restarted. Which took me nicely up to my taxi time, and myfabulous cat sitting on the drive as I piled my suitcase into the back of the vehicle.
Stage one of travel to Romania: a short coach trip to Birmingham Digbeth, with over an hour layover. Nothing is open. Entertainment comes in the form of the floor buffer doing laps, as sporadic arrivals bring in the winter dirt. I’m dressed for the outside of minus whatever, and the entrance door opening is a welcome relief. We all have different coping strategies for our respective waits. Some have paper books. Some rest their head in their hands with a look that they will never leave prison. Some engineer a comfortable looking sleeping position involving their suitcase on its side lined up with the seating; their jacket hood blocking out the sterile light. Every twenty minutes, an announcement cuts through my headphones to say that it’s important that I listen to the fact that the venue is non-smoking. I get to see the actual timings for the coaches I’ll be using on the way home, rather that the timetabled ones on my ticket. A young Indian family, complete with bindis, slippers and fluffy pink dressing gowns, provide stimulus, as they mock chase their younger sibling as it runs after the cleaner. This causes errant spills of coffee, which the cleaner mops up, completing the cycle. Despite the vast number of empty seats, someone sits next to me, eats a bag of crisps, sneezes, and then gets up and goes somewhere else.
The information board keeps telling me my 777 service is direct, departing at 1am. Their interpretation of direct involves two stops in the West Midlands involving no shows. The coach, which appears to have been stored in a freezer, inspires me to put up my hood, cover my face, and retreat my hands out of my sleeves and into my armpits. I rationalise it’s good training for the Ice Hotel. Though I wonder if the air will be dry in the Romanian mountains so the cold won’t be as penetrating. The roads are dark. The coach is dark. The sky is dark, with the new moon and Chinese New Year – the red fire monkey. The arrival at Stansted Airport is a rude awakening of bright lights and an announcement by the driver of our terminal spot.
First stop, toilet, to empty my bladder and the remains of my water bottle. Second stop, special assistance, who have a relay system that involves one person taking me through security and then leaving me in a holding pen. Security is a breeze. I’m so savvy at where I keep my boarding card, passport, liquids bag (now free at the airport, rather than a £1) and x-ray blocking electricals for immediate access. The only snag was my coat elastic getting caught in my trouser button (it is 4am, and I’ve not slept for 22 hours). In my holding pen, Anastasia entertains me with anecdotes of her work, and her commentary about the uneven distribution of money between airports, the waste of money that the London 2012 Olympics was as the buildings lie unused, that staff get uniform changes instead of pay rises, the joy of home-made sausages with salad cream on airplanes, and that the Blue Chariot (aka OmniServe wheelchair) is colour coded to Stansted in case any went missing. And there I was thinking it was due to 70% of the flights being RyanAir, including mine.
As I grip the cold metal rail to board the back of the plane, while my relay buddy carries my case, I’m asked for the fourth time, “Do you have family in Romania?” It seems no-one would go to Romania unless they have family there, in the eyes of those involved in transport and passenger assistance. At the top of the stairs, as my suitcase is stuffed behind a seat so the staff don’t have to fetch it out of a locker for me, they then ask the same reason for visiting question. I’m blessed with a window seat on the wing, and bend the wall covering with the impact of my skull against it. Take off is quick. The journey is quick, as there is a 91mph tail wind assisting us. It’s also causing turbulence, to the point the staff serve nothing, as it’s too risky to hold hot food or push the trolley. A mother tries to soothe her child crying with the buffeting, but is admonished for standing and rocking her baby over the tannoy. Twenty times. In three hours. In Romanian and English. It becomes something of a joke among passengers. When we finally land – almost in a field in the desire to touch the runway – cheers and applause erupt. We’re all dehydrated, hungry, and cooped up from enforced sitting.
Special Assistance comes in the form of a cherry picker box. The young man in orange high vis is quick to strike up conversation. Do you have family in Romania? Where are you staying? What do you know of Romania? Questions give way to information, often in humorous delivery. We have an old monarch, older than the Queen of England. She’s going to outlive Miley Cirus. Vlad the Impaler knew the mountains, so the Turks didn’t stand a chance. Read the history, not the mythology. What? You’re a woman and you don’t have any extra bags to pick up? Can you feel the air with the speed I’m pushing you through the airport? Untravelled Paths – that’s an interesting name for a human.
The tour guide representative is a calmer presence, as we wait for the other seven tour buddies on this flight, before piling into a mini bus. Three lane roads take us past IKEA, a few other multinational warehouses, before it quickly changes to abandoned nineteenth century properties. They are large and dirty, and interspersed with adverts for Coca Cola with a diverse ethnicity and gender in the models, which isn’t reflected in the population through the window. The cars alongside us are also dirty, and like to honk their horns. Random clumps of snow hide in sunless spots, and the grass and trees are dull and barren. The only picturesque winter scene is a canal bridge, with pristine snow framing a shiny barge.
Our octet is split in half. My half is in the Rembrandt Hotel – a tall, thin offering undergoing renovation. Our rooms aren’t ready, so Marius, our presumed email contact, talks us through what I already know from the booking. I now have two copies of my itinerary. Even though I booked the three hour Hidden Bucharest Tour in January from the booklet Untraveled Paths emailed, Marius now phones our guide, who will come at 2.30pm, in an hour. After a very thick hot chocolate in the cafe tier accessed by a winding staircase, I have an hour to stuff my face with 15 hour old sandwiches (thanks care team) and attempt to rehydrate myself around a cup of caffeine to keep me going.
Our guide, a young, ginger haired, white skinned Masters student, is passionate about history that came before her, as well as what is current. Romania is a unity of three empires – Ottomani, Russian and Austro-Hungarian. After resisting the Russians for thirty years, Romania decided it needed its own sovereignty, so in 1866 enlisted German Royalty to be their King – Carol I, nephew of Napoleon III. The German influence was to give them discipline and order, as they are a chaotic people constantly resisting outside control. This is true up until the 1989 revolution against a Communist regime, which they are still recovering from.
The chaotic nature of Romania is evident. Not least in the driving, with horn honking, disregard for pedestrians, right hand filter lanes getting to go even though the pedestrian crossing is on green. And it’s all cars, with the odd buses and trams. You wouldn’t dare have a motorbike, as our guide testifies with two hand injuries from being squashed between vehicles in their disregard of her presence. There is a festival to promote the right and respect of the pedestrian and to create more pedestrian rights of way, but the festival only lasts three days a year. During this festival, graffiti artists redesign a particular mural as a challenge to themselves. Graffiti here is positive, utilising the large, blank concrete walls of building sides as a canvas for beautiful in situ art to reclaim the city from grey. There’s even a street where graffiti is encouraged for self-expression to the community. It’s adjacent to the Architects Meeting House, featuring 2 foot thick gate walls, and an impressive 10 foot long quarry slab at the estate entrance.
Most of the buildings lie in ruin, being reclaimed by nature. The communist era saw the removal of property ownership, and different groups put into a large household. When the regime ended, the house rights were offered to the current residents, with no consideration for the evicted people. Court involvement eats up all the money as to who owns what, meaning people can’t buy the property, so it’s abandoned. These buildings are exquisite, but few have the money to restore them to their Parisian heritage. People in their 30s-40s buy properties and plaster over period features – their only consideration is a quick turnaround in decoration so they can show off ownership and start generating income. Ironically, the big chain hotels see the long term investment in restoring period features in the properties they take on, rather than local people. It’s as if they want to forget.
Forgetting was part of the regime. Removing the past meant Romanians had no identity so were better controlled. This started with the construction of high rise concrete flats, obscuring old churches from view before they were to be demolished. The regime ended before all the Orthodox churches were destroyed, and we were invited in to see the restoration. The arches and domed ceiling are typical of Ottoman influence. Metal candelabras hang from the ceiling. Dark wood intricate carved seats are stacked against the walls. Rich rugs and carpet cover the floor. Many images of Madonna and child. Massive silver urns. Simultaneously intimate in detail, yet grand in architecture for enclosing spaces. Walls exquisitely covered in murals of saints and religious scenes. Outside, plain steel boxes with a cross on top, with lights and incense inside.
Two churches survived intact. The first is all English, made with English bricks by English people, with baby Jesus skewering a dragon outside the entrance. The second is in plain view of Regime headquarters. The nice story is that it survived as the bricks are red communist colours. The reality is more likely the Priest was seen talking to the secret police after people had confessed. The building survived, but at what cost?
I’m broken from my reverie by skateboarding teenagers bumping into me. Revolution Square is the main place for boarding, with the controversial “potato” statue being the perfect grinding apparatus. The three sides represent the three main influences of surrounding empires, the black scribble ball communism, and the continuing peak an indication of coming through the other side. Public money was used, without the public being consulted. The architect head office building is visible from the statue. Bullet holes are also visible in the surrounding buildings, as during the 1989 revolution the army didn’t know who to shoot, but they ended up shooting the secret police snipers on the rooves. The communist leader escaped from the balcony of the headquarters for later capture, and was executed on Christmas Day as a present to the people. Only those born after the revolution seem to come here, others kept away by bad memories. A temporary art installation from the nearby university sits at the base of the potato monument.
The university was the first to be built in Romania, as King Carol I wanted his people to be well educated. A large bronze statue of the King sits in front of the building, and I’m always amused at the trouble they go to, to make horses male. I’m going to spend my life looking up at the balls of bronze horses. The sun shines perfectly on this scene of French architecture. We’re taken to the best example of French inspired architecture. France was the centre of culture before the world wars, and the rich children were sent there to be educated. They came back with ideas for buildings, as well as a language. Romania is a Francophone country surrounded by Slavonic ones, thanks to the King.
Now we’re into residential areas that weren’t demolished, at both ends of the financial scale. The smaller ones surrounding cobbled courtyards with coloured plaster and metal fencing still have people in them. There are no gardens, but potted plants are visible in second storey windows. The larger buildings are largely unoccupied. It’s as if Grand Designs decided to put all its properties in one street and build them out of concrete. There is no continuity in the scale, shape or style. The Chinese influenced building has healthy bamboo at its entrance gates, with a Dacia car parked outside (the only car allowed during communism). The roads were built after the buildings, so it’s somehow miraculous that the roads are straight, and no surprise about the sharpness of corners into narrower routes. Black cables bough above us, and it’s the Internet, a change from the buried cables from home, but I wonder who would pay to dig up the roads here. Young people are hungry to know about the outside world, and the Internet probably accounts for the prevalence of English in teenagers. I wonder if it has been a lifeline for them to reach the outside world as it has been for me with my illness.
My sensible forward planning about eating wasn’t shared by my travel buddies. We stop to eat in a very modern restaurant, Shift, and I get my first encounter with how long Romanian legs are as I struggle onto the stool. Our guide is our translator – we order from the English menu and she tells the staff in Romanian. Here, cherry and cream hot chocolate is an all year presence rather than a limited Christmas edition back home. I also order a spinach, mushroom and cheese tart, which comes in a massive stack of pancake layers. I get pancakes on Pancake Day after all. Dinner conversation highlights the awareness of our guide to sustainability – the EU only had Romania so it would buy its produce, and while this is creating economic growth in Romania it is inherently unsustainable. Still, it must be novel to have the freedom to choose home-made and exports.
A lot of the tour time is lost, and the museums and art galleries mentioned in the Untraveled Paths booklet missed. We’re back on the main road, all eight lanes of it. Our guide tells us to behave like predators and to stare down any driver that tries to ignore us. I accidentally kick a plastic water bowl with a concrete block in it. It’s for the displaced dogs who couldn’t be taken into the high towers, but are still loved by their families. There are even pop up play shelters, a primary colour contrast to the grey backdrop, for the dogs to sleep in. The building responsible for this displacement is in front of us – The Royal Palace. Communists demolished an entire neighbourhood to build this monstrosity. It’s only blessing is that it’s still being used. The rest of the capital resembles Hungary’s Budapest after the apocalypse. All of it proves impossible to photograph, as roads are never wide enough to get the whole thing in. It’s all a random collection of Parisian renaissance, plain concrete, and glass walled ultra-modern foreign businesses.
Our guide’s three hours are up, and she has studying to get back to. She tells us to follow the road back to Old Town, and things look very different in the dark when you’re being honked at. It’s even more random when a celebrity shopper comes our way with a photographing entourage, and then crosses past us again in the opposite direction. There are more photographers down a side street, this time capturing a stationary couple posing by graffiti and a children’s play area. Then, a homeless family target us for begging. We decide it’s best to go into the Metro underground to get over the road, where we’re asked if we want to adopt a dog. It’s all very random, and I’m certainly glad to see the silver-plated brass candle lighting the doorway of the Rembrandt Hotel.
I have the top floor to myself, which gives me views of the adjacent building two metres away. The lift crank is very noisy for the six floors underneath me. The ceiling beams are thick, everything is massive and made from solid wood, with leather chairs and a desk. A neon green fridge contains miniature alcohol bottles, and a wicker basket holds savoury snacks. I have my own wireless Internet server, and a widescreen flat TV. The tiled en suite has underfloor heating and a powerful shower. I fall asleep in the bath, having been awake for far too long.
Wednesday February 10th 2016
I’m woken by the sound of the lift crank at 6.50am, as fellow travellers go down to breakfast for 7am. I squash the air out of my vacuum bags, zip my suitcase shut and take it with me, save dealing with the stairs again. Breakfast is continental, and only one person gets freshly made Belgian waffles as it takes 15 minutes to make one. Service of hot drinks is done at the table as there are three members of staff keen to dispatch us for our 8am departure. The hot chocolate is still fabulous, with high cocoa and full fat milk creating a thick crust on the top. French jazz music plays while I make a honey and jam sandwich for the journey. The five segment sesame bun easily hollows out to accept the sugary preserves. I’m encouraged to take a piece of fruit with me, as is the custom so people don’t starve.
The sun highlights the hidden architecture of an abandoned building in Old Town as we bounce our suitcases over cobbled streets to our mini bus. Two of our group are staying behind, as they had food poisoning on the flight and needed an ambulance. Marius advises us to sleep through the first hour of our road trip to Sinaia, as it is flat countryside. Given the early start, we all oblige, including the lady we pick up at the airport who has just arrived from Singapore. I wake up as we pull into a service station. The sweet pastries look delicious. I order a hot chocolate. “Black or white?” the lady asks. I say white, thinking there’s a language barrier and I’m about to get coffee with milk. But no, white hot chocolate is a thing, and the only time I’ve seen it previously is New Zealand. It’s fabulously thick and sweet. I stand outside the minibus stretching my legs and appreciating the cool air, while Sami the driver cleans the windows with a garage sponge on a stick. It makes no difference to the visibility as far as my drive by photography is concerned.
We climb up a mountain side so steep my ears pop and my water bottle expands with the change in air pressure. Marius takes this opportunity to promote other tours. This is bear country, the densest population of brown bears in Europe as they could only be hunted by communist leaders. The population became an issue when bears started to come into the cities scavenging for food, so they set up feeding stations in the forest to ensure they stay there. This (almost) guarantees safe viewing of brown bears for tourists. I’m amazed by the regularity of road side shrines to Christian Orthodox beliefs, most of which are concrete crosses painted with either an adult Jesus, or baby Jesus held by his mother Mary. Most of the buildings are abandoned, as the people here went to live in Germany for a better life. Red tile rooves are crumbling; coloured plaster falling off the walls. A World War I roadside memorial – on a hairpin bend in the mountains – is well maintained. Marius tells us King Carol I died of a bad heart in 1916 when Romania decided to fight against Germany as it was his family.
The approach to Peles (pronounced Palace) castle is marked by ski chalet buildings, Romanian style aka the stereotypical Scandinavian shape but made of concrete. Instead of clay tiles, the roof is made of sheets of metal cleverly pressed to give the impression they are individual tiles. There is no colour continuity between the buildings (or layout consideration with their density), but the roof metal usually matches the wall colour. Most strikingly is the magenta multi-storey chalet. The buildings look out of place, as there’s no snow – the ski slopes are the other side of the peak. People in high vis ski gear are walking the cobbled streets as we go past in our mini bus that seems too wide to fit most of the roads. A few wooden shacks are filled with tourist souvenirs – sheepskin slippers and waistcoats, intricate lacework, and giant magenta footballs last seen on English beaches in the 1980s.
Somehow, we’re two hours later than scheduled, so our tour starts instantly. Photographs are an extra fee, and a well-worn paid receipt is attached by paperclip to my camera strap. We are instructed to put blue plastic bags over our shoes to protect the floor furnishings, and an elderly woman shuts the door behind our group. The English speaking guide is softly spoken, and I struggle to hear from the back. The general gist is that the castle was built here as at the time it was close to the border of Transylvania (later to become part of Romania), and King Carol I fell in love with the valleys. It’s legend that the first eight gold coins minted when Carol became King are under the foundation stone. He sold his estates in Germany to pay for the castle to be built, rather than use public money. This meant it was easy to reclaim it after communism ended as it never belonged to the people. It was built with electricity, central heating, and is designed for all the dust to be sucked out of the windows. Every room (all 160) has a different theme, and each theme was built with the best architects from that country. The whole place seems to be an exercise in spending money for the sake of it, and I can’t imagine anyone living here. It survived communism, as the staff told the dictator the place was contaminated with a fungus, so they spent one night, and subsequent visits in the hunting lodge.
It’s evident that there are multiple tours going on simultaneously in different languages. We loiter in a room after the guide has stopped giving information, waiting for someone the other side of the door to open it when the group in front has moved on. We pass through perfectly symmetrical staircases lined with vibrant red carpet and dark wood carvings framing hanging tapestries, to waiting in white carved marble corridors with suits of armour, to an armoury with treasures such as a sabre with a dragon handle and shark skin casing, and a replica of the crown made from a Turkish cannon. The stained glass windows are the largest collection, mostly hand painted by Swiss artists. The stand out features for me were the Venetian style chandeliers, which had intricate coloured blown glass flowers among the energy saving candle light bulbs and exposed electrical cables. As I entered the room and my jaw hit the floor with wonder, the elderly woman shutting the door behind me had a happy smile at my reaction. A light wood library with books in four languages (German, French, Hungarian and Romanian, the latter King Carol learned in a year) which various queens and princesses penned themselves as successful authors, and the secret passage behind a fake bookshelf. A music room with piano, harp, and paintings applied directly to the plaster wall. A theatre in gold. An Arab room. A surprisingly dark dining room.
Our basic tour ends abruptly when we’re told the rest is only for upgraded tickets, which we didn’t know was an option. My travel buddies and I head back to the entrance, my brain unfocused with hunger, dehydration, and an inability to appreciate the castle at my own pace. As we step outside, it starts to rain. And, in a rare turn of events, my camera memory card is full as I go to photograph the empty fountain (stopped in winter so the pipes don’t freeze and burst). I shelter in the central courtyard as I expose my camera to the elements. Ground staff chop down brittle trees, while curious ski tourists give the busking guitar player a wide berth. The garden and terrace seem to be the only place with a cohesive theme of statues and plants, and even in the rain, it’s more reassuring than the chaos inside, which reminds me of the room of requirement from Harry Potter. It’s more natural out here, where green lichen has grown on the stone figures, and they frame the view of the surrounding peaks which have a dusting of snow. It’s nothing like the postcards, which feature the yellow plaster and dark wood exterior under a blanket of pristine snow set against a bright blue sky. Even so, the image is not quite the German fairy tale castles which inspired its various towers and clock face.
Part of the hunting lodge is now a café, and when I order black tea they instantly clocked my English accent and asked if I wanted milk. I also got a sachet of white sugar with a sachet of runny honey. The takeaway cup is scalding, which gives me a decent cup of black tea at the expense of a large blister on my thumb. I tried using the honey as a salve, before reaching into my jacket for my breakfast sandwich and apple. Much too soon, it’s time to get back on the minibus, which developed a flat tyre. Marius seemed anxious at further delays to our journey, but thankfully the air nozzle was so large the garage found it without taking the tyre off. Marius talks to us as we continue our ascent up the mountain into Transylvania (translated: place out of the forest). He points out a cross in the forest on the second highest peak so everyone could see it. It runs on its own generator, and as there are no roads each journey to take up building materials took two weeks. I notice a river dam being constructed, and piles of concrete and wooden railways sleepers. The odd farm haw piles of hay held up with wooden poles.
I’m asleep again, until we arrive in Brasov 2.5 hours after schedule and ascend the staircase to Casa Wagner hotel. We were assigned our rooms, and I seemed very special as the host said, “Temple, single” – how did she know?! Marius disappeared after taking money for tomorrow’s activities, and most of the group went in search of food. I stayed in my room with my legs raised, as the inflammation had kicked in. I’d also procured a jug of fresh milk from the staff, so enjoyed another cup of black tea while I let my shoes cool down from overheating on the minibus. Actually, I stripped everything off that was sweat drenched. As a single room, I was out on a balcony, which only offered the view of the adjacent building two metres away, and the smell of cigarette smoke.
Our late arrival meant the Black Church was closed, so I went for an aimless walk. It seemed to be half term for the schools, as the central square was dotted with toy cars, balloon sellers, and adults dressed as cartoon characters to the entertainment of young people. The Black Church (so called due to a fire) had a freelance guide loitering outside it, who quickly pointed out a statue of a child. Apparently, it’s the son of the architect who pointed out a wall wasn’t straight. To thank him, the architect took him to the top and then pushed him off, as sacrifices guaranteed the longevity of a building! The medieval mentality may have passed, but the buildings seem to be a time bubble. This may be due to the successful bastions that are signposted around Brasov as a self-guided walking tour. I scaled one side of the valley slope to access the black and white towers, and was rewarded with the view of sunset over the town, bathing the red tile rooves of houses and the metal domes and peaks of synagogues and churches. The lack of town planning is evident from this perspective. Beyond the bastion walls, concrete tower blocks mark the modern age. Above it all, a Hollywood-esque sign lights up saying BRASOV on the opposite valley side, next to a funicular.
I tried to take photographs of the walking tour but I’d lost the light. I contented myself to looked at buildings marked with a brown diamond in a square for historical significance, but it seemed that every building carried that mark. It was a snapshot of what Bucharest was before communism, with mismatched renaissance architecture, brightly painted plaster walls, and pointed rooves among irregular cobbled streets. One street in particular is highlighted for irregular planning – Rope Street – which you can walk down touching both sides of the walls with ease. It’s advertised as one of the narrowest streets in Europe, but I know it’s not. Any Scottish island or port town purposely builds narrow streets in one direction to minimise cold draughts, and I couldn’t put my arms out down those streets. My own road at home has a few gulleys, where public right of way is honoured from older times, and is equally person-width. Rope Street operates one-way, so my attempt to return to the central square to get out of the cold took me past a gemstone jewellery shop – Nature Gallery. The bright light and ultra-modern interior were a shock, as was the lady of Asian heritage who presented me with rhodochrosite, first discovered in Romania and still mined there. The £11 price tag for a sterling silver pendant probably indicates direct purchase from the mine rather than lots of middle men. She offered me a silver necklace, also from a Romanian mine, but I have plenty of necklaces. She seemed genuinely interested in me seeking out a unique gem from the countries I visit, and she seemed inspired by the paua (abalone) shell piece I picked up from a beach in New Zealand. It was then I noticed Martisor in the cabinet – the love tokens tied with red and white string in preparation for March 1st. They were tiny!
I asked her to recommend a traditional restaurant, and she suggested the guide book of Sergiana, and La Bucatarel Vesel just around the corner. I went back to the room to try and find English menus online for these restaurants, to no avail. Sergiana was closest to the hotel, and I hoped for a take of traditional music and dress and food. Descending the stairs into the white painted brick work of the basement hit me in the face with cigarette smoke, a cacophony of competing conversations, and staff that looked overworked. I decided not to wait the half hour for an available table. Not least because there were no seats. The other restaurant was very plain on the inside, with five people in the smoking section and just me in the no smoking section. The menu came in Romanian, French and English (with dubious translations such as crap in the fish section). I opted for black tea, which had four types of red fruit in it, to offset the lack of milk and honey. It was served with the lid on top of the cup to keep the water hot, with the sugar and tea sachets and spoon sitting on it. The main was two massive smoked sausages sitting on top of a plateful of fried cabbage, with a volume of paprika that made my rose run after two mouthfuls. In case that wasn’t hot enough, a whole green chilli took centre stage in the middle of the plate. The initial service was very rapid, until another family came in. At which point I was left to listen to English music from the 1990s, including Spice Girls and The Corrs. Nostalgic of my teenage years for me, much like the return of the X-Files, but probably symbolic of freedom and contact with the outside world for Romanians. I’m ignored to the point that standing up and picking up my bag doesn’t inspire them to bring me the bill. All £6 of it.
Walking back to the hotel (all roads lead to central square), the international restaurants are filled with happy families eating pizza and other foreign foods. I’m pleased the restaurants aren’t multinational. The only consumerist takeover is Coca-Cola. I’m destined for my bed, where I get to appreciate a walnut wardrobe, walnut headboards, ornate dresser with mirror, painted glass light covers, foot-thick brick walls, parquet flooring, large rugs, flat screen TV, mini fridge, a massive sink, modern shower, and most importantly, an art deco light in the recess for my bog roll. It’s a pity I’m advised against showering in order to build up natural oil in my skin to protect against the pending cold night.
Thursday February 11th
Despite the walls being a foot thick, the ceiling is not. I hear the alarm clock from the room above, and I’m first into breakfast. It’s continental with add-ons – pancakes and omelette portions. Hot drinks are self-service, so I ladle the chocolate powder in thick for my drink, and liberally spread Nutella (aka hazelnuts masquerading as chocolate) and honey on my pancakes before my travel buddies surface. I’m eating a bowl of cereal while stashing items for lunch during conversation. It seems avoiding the Sergiana was fortunate, as it took an hour for people to be served, and that was after they were given a menu in English rather than one in Romanian. There’s surprised consensus that food, alcohol and cigarette prices are cheap, and that we’re all suffering for going too long without food with the travelling. Everyone takes my initiative of making a packed lunch.
Marius appears to have had a rough night, with tousled hair and a fast growing beard. But it turns out this is Marius G, whom we had email contact with prior to the trip. The Marius we’ve known until this point is Marius M, and they joke about being twin brothers due to their appearance. I have mixed emotions – a bit sheepish about expecting MM to know everything from the emails, and a bit betrayed that our main tour contact has now turned up half way through the trip. I take out my frustration by squashing the air out of my vacuum bags and sitting on my suitcase to zip it shut. The regular take out of stuff increases the volume of my thermal gear, but it’s only critical when it comes to Ryanair when compressing it. The hotel reception trust that I haven’t taken anything out of the mini bar when I hand them the chess piece key numbered with my birthday. There’s some confusion as to where we should wait before getting on the minibus – by breakfast, outside the hotel, or by the pink building where we were dropped off. We’re trying to do our best to be organised, but it gives the impression of herding cats.
The scenery is captured in scant waking moments, while we all overheat on the minibus in our thermals. Mostly it’s flat brown grass, with the odd farm house with either crumbling red tiles and faded plaster, or vibrant metal sheet ‘tiles’ with matching exterior paint. Magenta is certainly a popular colour choice. To our left, the black mountains are regular like a Toblerone dusted on one side with icing sugar. The road crosses two diverging railway tracks, and we turn left towards the mountains. The climb is steep, and bare trees become dark green pines, then snow covered pines laden with cones. Many trees are at jaunted angles, felled by the wind, and soon to become firewood.
It’s snowing when we reach the Coca-Cola cable car. Childish wonder and tourist photos abound as our overnight luggage is unloaded from the minibus. This is because the cable car has a weight limit and it only runs when needed, and there is no room at the Ice Hotel. The cable car stops abruptly and swings. Black bin bags of rubbish are unloaded. We joke that they are bodies of people that didn’t survive the night. One in our group is afraid of heights, so we occupy the twelve minute ascent taking selfies with her. Another lady has a balloon with 30 written all over it. It’s her birthday, and we sing. She is suitably mortified at being unable to escape, as the first batch of us are packed in like sardines. My face is pressed against a Valentine’s Day advert, which seems a bit misplaced as you’d only be in the cable car if you were going to Lake Balea anyway. Snow drifts in through unknown cracks in the bright red paintwork.
The arrival building is little more than a vending machine and toilets. We’re told these are the closest toilets to the ice hotel and igloos. The urinals are overflowing with water, and the sit down cubicles don’t flush. A concrete block above the door prevents snow from building, at the expense of thawed water becoming an ice sheet. A blizzard the day before means the snow is a metre deep, and we step up off the invisible ice into it, carrying our luggage as our feet disappear into the fresh powder and wind blows sharp snow onto our exposed skin. We march single file into the warm chalet, to be hit in the face with choking smoke. We go upstairs to discover the locker room advertised in the booklet is just an unoccupied room with a double bed, four bunk beds, and a tiny en suite. There’s a flurry of unzipped cases as we strip off our wet and sweaty clothing and change into a dry layer. Socks are laid on the radiators, butting up next to other people’s socks. Wet jackets are hung over the slats of the bunk beds.
We’re taken through to a no smoking area, where the smoke isn’t quite as dense. There is zero visibility out the large windows, and six are seated to the wooden benches and tables. The decoration is scant, with a solitary reindeer skin on a grey brick wall, as priority is given to smoking areas.The original Marius tells us we have an open tab under our first name, and not to tip the staff, as the management count how much money they arrived with and take any additional for themselves. He also tells us that the staff are kept on the mountain for three weeks at a time, so to forgive them if they don’t smile. I appreciate the honesty, but really don’t want to support such business practices. Mici – skinless sausage – and chips are recommended. Each sausage is priced, and done on an open barbeque which we never see. The chips are freshly cut and fried on the premise. It takes twenty minutes for a group of eighteen British and Irish people to order sausage and chips. Everyone else orders alcohol, and I enjoy my hot chocolate. The food arrives quickly, but my sausages are blood raw on the inside, and my chips crunchy.
Marius is having a shit day. He has a fever, the couple who had food poisoning decided they were well enough to re-join us but missed their transfer in favour of shopping. He leant the laptop to Sami the driver to do a video interview, so it’s on charge and he hasn’t checked the pre-trip emails. He only knows who is doing the tunnel trek activity as it’s in his notebook, but it’s in jeopardy due to the weather. It gives the group time to get to know each other. In addition to the birthday, one couple is celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Most of the women work in the medical or care industry, and one man is an extreme athlete. It is refreshingly easy to talk about my health and disability to all these people, as they understand good days and bad days, physical and mental deconditioning, and the misplaced faith people put in medical doctors as they don’t have to live with their decisions. They actively encourage me to make the most of my life, in the uncertainty of when the government support or my health my disappear further. The Irish and Northern Irish people are happy to recommend things to visit on my next trip. Everybody pokes fun at my hot chocolate consumption, as at every service station and meal it’s what I order if it’s available. They only thing they struggle to comprehend is that I can’t drink alcohol. It seems so foreign to British and Irish sensibilities.
It stops snowing, but with low level fog, Marius decides to refund half the price of the tunnel trek. It’s back to the room to change into waterproof trousers and jacket. I ask about the upgrade I requested to an igloo, and he takes the money in cash there and then – mid change. Outside, hiking through the snow by stepping into the person in front’s shoe print, the only semblance of where the path should be is black plastic hoops. This only lasts to the other unoccupied chalet (only used in summer when numbers demand), and then we’re left to pristine white snow, white fog, and occasionally picking out a white building on the mountain side. We get to the concrete entrance to the tunnel, only to realise we’ve left two people behind. As it is, two of us aren’t feeling up to it, so they go back with Marius while the rest of us entertain ourselves with snow angels, snowballs and selfies.
Once the group was remade, Marius entertained us with everything on the Wikipedia site for the Transfăgărășan road – featured on Top Gear as the best road in the world. The only thing to add is that the lights aren’t always on, as the connecting towns dispute over who pays the electricity bill. Equipped with head torches, we enter the dark and icy tunnel. Black ice on concrete is very slippery, and we spend most of our time holding each other up in a massive huddle. The lights are on, but are so infrequent that segments are regularly pitch black. It reminds me of underground bunkers during wars. My breath is visible in my torch light. Marius seems the most child-like of all of us. He breaks massive icicles off hanging cables and puts his torchlight at the base, creating a light sabre, or ice sabre. He sings iconic songs, or tries to, for them to reverberate on the concrete surrounds. He only knows the held notes of Copacabana, I Will Always Love You, and My Heart Will Go On. I teach him line by line, and am pleasantly surprised at the power while my breath is short with the cold. At least I’m not coughing up smoky phlegm, but I fear the inflammation has already reached my chest, just well-hidden in the cold.
The other side of the 900m tunnel reveals a pristine mountain landscape, pocked with concrete struts curved against the slope. There’s also a laughable wooden fence that seems the perfect height to trip over now there’s over a metre of fresh snow besides it. An errant gust of wind takes the birthday balloon, and we watch as it bounces down the very steep mountain side silently, and without trace. Marius has climbed up to a jutting rock above the tunnel, and slides down to our feet. Soon we’re all clambering up snow with no purchase to define the human slide. Legs have to stick up, otherwise the descent is slow with snow accumulation. I content myself to photograph everyone else, and the mountain view as the sun breaks through, casting yellow streaks on a black and white landscape. Time seems to stand still as we play.
Retracing our footsteps is easy, and Marius takes us to the Ice Hotel now the pathway has been dug out by a woman with a bright orange snow shovel. All the rooms are themed to European countries. Paris has the Eifel Tower outside. Greece has a naked man with a well polished penis. Germany has a naked woman who is surprisingly untouched. Amsterdam has a windmill carved into the back wall, Spain a bull with a matador. The rooms are nine either side of a central corridor lined with ice tables, ice vases with frozen roses, ice stools with checkerboard beige and brown fur covers, an ice tree, and at the other end a glacial ice bar with an ironic chiller cabinet. Someone jokes that at least the beer will stay cool. Neon red beer adverts are above the door in most rooms. I wonder about the safety of electricals in ice, and if they turn those lights off at night. The rooms have arched ceilings, an ice block for a bed against the back and side wall, and a tiny side table. Acrylic fleece with beer adverts are topped with sheepskins. A navy curtain with the same beer advert is the only measure of privacy in the low entranceway.
A short walk away, shallow steps lead up to the newly built ice church, which has a wedding licence and electrical plugs and light switches with ice that’s already frozen over them. The Last Supper is carved into the back wall, with steps that lead down to the altar. A vase of roses and black metal candle holders sit on the altar where everyone poses for a photo giving a sermon. The bookends of Jesus’ life are either side, with an added wall relief of St. Peter. The ice pews are perfectly straight, with seating made comfortable with planks of wood covered in sheepskins.
The steps that lead to the church also lead to the igloos. Once again, the impression given by the booklet was misleading. The four igloos have a shared entrance, a round ice table with seating carved out the walls in between the entrances to the rooms – Luxembourg, Switzerland, Brussels, and Sweden. Sweden is my favourite, as it’s themed to Disney’s Frozen, complete with full sculptures of Elsa, Anna and Olaf, even if the latter bears a resemblance to the hungry caterpillar. I pray to any deity that will listen that this is my igloo. I’m disappointed that there aren’t the advertised fireplaces (complete with red LEDs) as promised in the booklet, as it seemed like the perfect irony in an igloo and one of the reasons I upgraded. The sculptures are underwhelming to me, having done the ice hotel in Sweden last year on the 25th anniversary. Even worse are the dirty tissues kicked under the chairs and stools in every room.
Herding cats is back in force, and I amble over to an inflatable raft that people are climbing into. They are then clipped to a snowmobile and pulled around for two small circuits. It’s certainly underwhelming compared to what I expected from the booklet, and a quick glance at other people in the group reveals the same level of dissatisfaction. We’re busy signing disclaimer forms for injury, but the pen ink is frozen as it’s -2oC. Why we didn’t do this on the minibus or during the long lunch is anyone’s guess. Soon it’s my turn to sit in the raft. I’m handed ski goggles and told to leave my camera bag on the floor. A rope goes up the middle of the raft and we’re told to hold on. We didn’t need to, as we were stuck behind another snowmobile on the circuit so didn’t get up to any great speed. Attempts at acceleration and snow rage just caused snow to be thrown into our faces, which stung on exposed skin and froze my scarf and sleeves solid. I was extremely concerned that my camera bag would get lost under the tank chain, but he just about missed it.
The staff seemed surprised that I didn’t want to do the snowmobile. I explained I much preferred mushing huskies across country than the loud and powerful vibrations of the machine, and the setting here was like the child section of go karting. The scale of the whole mountain enclosure is starting to feel like a goldfish bowl. I ask where the ice rink is, and Marius says under the snow. The staff haven’t cleared it after the blizzard and as only two people want to go on it, it’s not worth their time. I never get the promised refund for an activity not being on my group bundle.
The tubing proves more interesting. While the map implied the track started from the top by the permanent church, the reality was about a third of the height cordoned off by high visibility netting. The tubes say SunKid, and like the inflatable raft have found a peculiar home far from sunny shores. It may be they are used on the lake in summer, but for now our group are breathless making a path up one side of the netting, to slide down. It’s strangely exhilarating, and the climb breath taking. The board says we get thirty minutes of this, but no-one stops us, much like no-one was around to enforce tickets-only to visit the church and igloos. I’m quite content to sit in my tube and photograph everyone else coming down the increasingly polished groove. I set the record for the furthest slide, and only women threaten to beat it. There’s something to be said for having a low centre of gravity.
At sunset, the temperature drops suddenly, so I have to put up with the passive smoke in the chalet. Most of the group are chatting over alcoholic drinks about knowing your limits. I retreat upstairs to the locker room to strip off and lie on the double bed. I realise a bit too late that Marius is on a bunk bed, tucked up with his fever, but decide that I don’t care. People come in intermittently to get face creams out of their bags and to change their socks to go to the ice hotel for dinner. My face is pleasantly protected by my own oils, even though I’ve been outside the longest. I’m realising it’s easier to be where Marius is if I want to be in the right place at the right time. We walk to the evening meal together.
Others in the group are already at the ice bar ordering shots in ice glasses, which fall over as soon as they are put on the ice table, prompting people to buy more. The ceiling is lit up with inbuilt blue LEDs, and we prefer these to the yellow light from the metal hanging chandeliers. Marius says seven times that our reserved tables are the four closest to the entrance (furthest from the bar), in between going back to the chalet to find the rest of the people who have paid for this dinner. The tables are easy to spot – they are the only ones with flickering LED candles, the beer advert lamps lit on the tables, with a glass or champagne orange juice at the place settings with cutlery on a red cloth strip. There are also navy blue beer advert acrylic blankets folded up on the stools. I put a spare one under my feet, and another one over my shoulders so I can lean against the ice wall, polished clear by people before me doing the same.
I’ve given up believing what was in the booklet, so take the meals as they come. The first isn’t a plate of ice, but a branded Hotel of Ice ceramic plate that has frozen water in it, along with slices of lemon, and caviar on white bread. The second plate is hot, and served by Marius in white waiter gloves to speed the delivery so the food is as warm as possible – an orange coloured soup with white bread croutons. The third is pork fillet wrapped in bacon, with irregular cut potatoes, sprouts (just when I thought I’d gotten past the sprouts of Christmas) and white bread. I have indigestion from eating quickly so it’s warm when it goes in, but in the end I lose my appetite as I chew cold bacon. Loud music has been put on, and parts of our group are up drunkenly dancing. Then the fourth and final meal is brought out, which seems to be an apple and raisin cake slice that is bone dry, with a fresh mint leaf and a strawberry that turned to mush when defrosted. A cake is brought out with two fireworks in it, and our group take up a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, only to realise the cake was for someone else completely – a five year old called Andrea, whose mother obviously wasn’t expecting this English rendition of a birthday celebration from a bunch of strangers.
In the ensuing chaos, I dive into an empty room to change into my Let It Go outfit. Having inflammation and having just eaten sustains my exposed skin against the cold. Most of the group are probably too drunk to remember this happened, but everyone takes a photo on their smart phone. The little girl is delighted to see an ice princess. Marius is the only person who asks if he can take a photograph, perhaps to prove I’m not a fever delusion. Everyone is disappointed that the music player won’t accept ipod cables to hear the music I can in my headphones. I get a few “You’re gorgeous” from drunk married men, including the anniversary couple. One drunken woman asks if I’m into men or into women, and she really can’t comprehend when I say neither. I dance in front of the ice piano while our birthday lady videos it, and I take a bow and scarper to the igloos. I’m sad that I’m in Brussels and not Sweden, but I decide that no-one is coming to bed yet, so do my Let It Go routine in Sweden while no-one is around. It takes a while to find a place for the camera that can fit most of the routine in (half way up the arm of the chair), and I’m pleasantly surprised that the beer advert lamp lights up the entire space. I realise that my hands don’t have inflammation, as I lose the motor co-ordination in my hands to pick up my costume, but I do get one clear go at my routine.
I return to the chalet to defrost, to be told I’d missed the talk about how to prepare the bed to sleep in and to be given a sleeping bag (this is not in the booklet). Thankfully I have plenty of camping experience to know how to layer up against draughts. I get plenty of praise about my bravery in the cold, and get asked plenty of questions about how to belly dance, with demonstrations. Essentially, I give a free dance lesson to a bunch of British travellers and Romanian staff until midnight. It’s only when I go upstairs (and sheepishly apologise to the lady cleaning the steps) to get my sleeping bag liner that I see the other Marius for the second time, and he scrambles through torn bin bags to get me a sleeping bag. Back downstairs, the remaining staff and travellers have come from the ice hotel party to continue it in the warmth. One staff member rushes up to me, “You dance Indian. Please.” I don’t know if this insistence is alcohol induced or if he’s delirious from being trapped on the mountain for weeks, but I am grateful that people can recognise my various dancing styles, and give him some Bollywood style hip drops in my outdoor thermals. Given I know Romany Gypsy and Romany Turkish style, I’m surprised he didn’t ask for the dance of his country. Then people are more interested in my headlamp, which I sensibly brought with me. An Irish lady has brought Jägermeister’s for everyone, and it tastes like cough syrup. I hand the rest of mine to someone else before leaving.
The four igloos are quickly filled up as we retire to bed together. I get to appreciate the scale and uniformity of the dome, and how much snow and ice reflects the solitary lamp light on the table and stools. The bed section is a raised semi-circle of clear ice with red and blue LEDs contained within. This room seems a bit of a let down, as the walls are smooth and plastic flags hang from the ceiling. Only the chair is interesting, and it wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. I slip as I climb onto the bed platform and take off my shoes, tucking my leg snow guards and laces into them. Making my bed is easy, as I have two of everything. My big pillows are damp from touching the wall, and I ruin the illusion of sleeping on ice when I lift the pillows up to reveal a wooden crate underneath. The four pillows get stuffed under a red acrylic blanket along with damp cotton strips and a cotton sheet. A sheepskin goes over the red blanket, then the sleeping bag. My liner goes in the sleeping bag, I go in the sleeping bag, then the other sheepskin and the navy acrylic fleece blanket goes over the top. I strip off down to my base layer and put everything under the blue blanket next to me.
I stare at the curtain between me and the outside world before sticking my head into my sleeping bag, before quickly resurfacing. Everything stinks of cigarette smoke. Then I decide I need another wee. The dingy cable car toilets seem more appealing than a dance encore, so I throw on a coat, head torch and stuff my shoe laces down the sides and step into a beautifully clear night. Orion is the defining constellation. Anything below that is obscured by the brown tinged jagged outline of the mountains. The chalet lights are still on. The ice hotel has many coloured lights on the outside of the rooms. The permanent church has a white cross on top, and the ice church a blue one. The black ice death trap under the concrete lip rips at the intercostal muscles in my chest. The toilet still doesn’t flush. On returning to my blanket nest, everything apart from my socks and uncontaminated base jumper stays on top of the pile to de-fume. I sleep like a baby until 2.30am, when a loud argument and altercation happens outside my room. The wooden door to the igloo space is loudly dragged shut as the intruders leave down the steps, and the strangers in Switzerland go back into their igloo. It strikes me how much snow amplifies silence and sound when present. The adrenaline in my system guarantees I wake up every ninety minutes. I’m always warm, but always anxious about dealing with drunk people coming through the curtain. At 7.30am I decide I can’t fit in another sleep cycle. I cough up an almighty phlegm ball from passive smoking and wince at my inflammation. I’ve no idea if I’m meant to reroll the sleeping bag, but the end is damp from hanging over the edge of the bed so I leave it. On the steps outside, there are red liquid droplets that I hope are from spilled wine rather than blood.
Friday February 12th
In the locker room, Marius is asleep. I don’t know if I’m just lucky that I never have to ask for the room key, or if he’s meant to be in here guarding the stuff. One of the Irish ladies is also asleep here. I change into the thinnest clothes I own, trusting my inflammation will keep me warm, and sit on my suitcase to zip it shut. I’m so fed up of repacking my suitcase. Marius’ alarm goes off, and he wishes me good morning. He then trudges downstairs and into the ice rooms to wake everyone else up. Skiing groups have arrived, which surprises me as I haven’t seen a ski lift, and the mountain is too enclosed for cross country. They soon leave their white bread baskets behind to maximise their time outside.
Self-service breakfast is in the corner of a smoking area. There is no black tea, no hot chocolate. The chamomile and green tea don’t appeal, and the vat of coffee hasn’t percolated yet. I don’t think the staff have slept, but they smile at me as they recognise the unexpected entertainment from last night. Cereal cascades from the dispensers and I’m glad to see milk. Every visit to the corner yields new offerings – cold meat and cheese, cucumber, tomato, peppers, omelette pieces, fruit segments. I drink four cups of coffee, the size of which compete with an espresso, and listen to everyone’s tales. Most people had a poor night’s sleep. Even the lady that stayed in the warm chalet said it was noisy. Some didn’t go to bed until 5am, and needed a four person carry across the gap. The Irish lady upstairs had been put to bed at 11pm from excess alcohol, and had woken up cold so had come into the chalet. The fellow people in the igloos had slept okay, even with the random interlude. The conversation the evening before about knowing your limits came to mind.
People periodically disappeared, and I found out rooms 3 and 6 were also being used as shower rooms for us. So three showers between 18 people, made a 20 minute turnaround with an 8am breakfast and reputed 10am departure. I really didn’t feel up to changing my clothes again, or opening my case to get my toiletries out. I did pay my £5 tab, for three raw sausages and chips, a hot chocolate and green tea during my stay, while the round-buying Irish ladies faced a 200 Euro bill each. I admire a glazed fireplace (sadly not lit) while I wait for everyone else to get ready. The black ice death trap was still waiting for us, but the view from the cable car much prettier in the sunshine of snow covered dark green trees and log piles. We all sleep on the minibus until the service station, where the hot chocolate is so thick it passes the meringue test. Marius tells us he recently visited London, and he understands why British people take teabags on holiday with them, and that milk in black tea is nice. He seems amazed when I tell him in India coffee is made entirely with milk as the rivers are full of cremated ashes. Then I’m asleep again until Bran, home of the dubiously linked Dracula legend.
Marius takes us to the ticket booth, then tells us we have two hours to do the castle and lunch. It’s 1.30pm, ninety minutes behind schedule. The booklet’s impression of a traditional lunch involves Marius pointing to a restaurant saying you can get it there. It made no sense to me that I had to tell the company in advance that I wanted this lunch, if it was separate to them. When I eventually found it on the menu, it had already sold out. I ordered the beef goulash, which took a long time to arrive in the busy restaurant. The meat was melt in the mouth, the chilli mild, and the potato pancake (definitely pancake week) comforting. But I had to eat it in minutes, and subsequently had indigestion hiking up the steep slope to the castle. That was the first hour gone (tip: order pizza, it’s the quickest thing they serve).
The second hour was a whistle stop self-guided tour of Bran castle. The only link to Dracula is Vlad visiting one of his girlfriends who lived here. That’s it. But I suppose if you’re a country desperate to milk tourism, and you can’t make any money from the privately owned Monarch castle, then this is as good as any. The timber frame is dark, the plaster walls off-white, the stairs short, the turns intruder and draught proof, the carved doors painted with floral geometry. I actually got the impression that people lived here. While the furniture isn’t particularly fancy, the fireplaces are. Romania could make a thing about fireplaces in their shaped, glazed tiled glory. The second hour goes with me taking photographs of the rooms and information boards to read later. The tourist village of wooden shacks at the bottom stocks the usual items and adds wooden swords and stakes the size of fence posts. The currency exchange is written in red bloody characters. There is a funfair haunted house, and tucked behind that a traditional wares area with hand woven lace, smoked sausages, cheese blocks and lard. The toilets cost a lei to use (20p), and as they have just been mopped, I slide up the tiled step into the cubicle. I’m reliving the black ice death trap with my inflammation, when I notice a cartoon wooden bat from my childhood carved on the wooden door. This is one of the few instances where I take photos in the toilet.
The final leg back to Bucharest is long. It’s the Friday of Valentine’s weekend, and possibly half term for schools, and the roads are packed. The estimated arrival time of 5pm is closer to 8pm back at the Rembrandt Hotel, and we’re grateful to be relieved of the oven minibus, after the eighth repeat of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You of the day. The only conscious highlight was the final service station with an ironic wind turbine generating its power, and everyone commenting on the minibus’ blue LED ceiling lights being like the ice hotel as they got back on the vehicle. Having a shower after cooking in my own oils all day is more important than conserving energy. It’s the only thing I manage, and sleep on a damp towel on the bed.
Saturday February 13th
I’m still conditioned to waking up at 8am, as are the rest of the group, though I doubt their day starts with a phlegm cough to remove passive smoke. I’m not first to breakfast, so I don’t get the waffle. As I’m the third person to request it, I choose not to wait 45 minutes to get it. There is only one lady working today, and it strikes me that all the people I’ve encountered in Bucharest are women. I have to go to her to order hot chocolate, rather than her coming to my table to take my order. I go back to bed until midday check out, and face packing my suitcase for the last time. The contents smell like used cooking oil that caught fire.
Being a Saturday, all the banks are shut, so I’m advised by the receptionist to go to the red light district to a 24 kebab shop that also does zero commission currency exchange. He gives me two fifty pound notes, which I haven’t seen since the 1990s, and didn’t realise was still legal currency. This district in the cobbled streets of Old Town has a medieval pub with plain wooden façade and a bouncer, and delightfully English named pubs and massage parlours such as Aren’t We All Sinners?, Money Can Buy Love, and Cats on Fire (which may be an attempt at hot pussy). A young lady with peroxide blonde hair stops me and invites me into a bar that’s hosting a crafting event. I go in for two minutes before the residual cigarette smoke gets to me. The stuff is familiar to me as I attend craft fayres back home, but I guess it’s novel that Romania is contemporary having been isolated for so long. The young lady apologies for the residual smoke, and says new laws are coming in March to ban public smoking.
Further up the street, the building I’d thought abandoned is now hosting a craft and antiques fair. There is no smoke here, just old carved marble work juxtaposed with tube lighting hanging in groups as a chandelier. The antiques are truly that – relics from before World War II in silver and brass, and loads of costume jewellery rings. The craft is very similar to the other place – colourful handbags, child spoon and forks with cartoon characters put onto the ends in modelling clay, vibrant paintings celebrating chakras and the female form, tooled leather bookmarks. I note an absence of glass and textiles.
A sign outside promotes a self-guided tour of Old Town. I try, but my health isn’t great. I manage two attractions. The first is a church, ornately carved on the outside on the stonework and wooden doors, with badly damaged paintings on the plaster. Inside, the room is initially dark, until an elderly lady puts down her duster and switches the light on. The space is tiny, yet detailed in murals of Orthodox beliefs. Metal bejewelled lanterns hang from the ceiling domes. Two side areas have dark wood high backed seats fit into the curves, with a pair of straight benches against the dividing wall. I feel compelled to sit and try and take in the intimacy. I truly believe that people come here to contemplate their life and beliefs, and most poignantly reconnect with their past. It survived, Romania survived. I put money into the restoration box, and accidentally bump into a man who is making the sign of the cross over his torso three times in succession. I haven’t learned Romanian for sorry, and it’s more a shock that I’ve encountered a man. This is when I encounter the stereotypical Romany Gypsy women with their wizened faces and head scarves. They tend to the candles and incense in the metal boxes, then sit on pieces of cardboard on the floor.
The second stop is Caru Cu Bere (Beer Wagon), a booklet recommended place to eat, which is currently covered in scaffolding. The stained glass windows are largely hidden, so the varnished wood and glass rotating door entrance leads to an unexpected treasure. The wood is very shiny, and every domed ceiling and leading wall has a mural on it. The decades of cigarette smoke has hidden what the paintings are beyond the impression of green. As a Saturday afternoon the day before Valentine’s, it is packed. But even without a reservation, they can fit me in the no-smoking area if I leave before 2pm. Upstairs is considerably plainer in décor, but it’s still fancy. The ceiling is flat with green fleur-de-lis, the tiled floor matching the pattern in brown and blue, the varnished wood shiny, with each seating area having its own metal hooks for coats and bags. Service is rapid, with the white shirted and green bracer wearing staff keying in my hot chocolate onto a digital hand held computer before bringing it within a minute. The uber cheap menu is only available weekdays, so she recommends the meat sizzler and chips. The meats are gloriously fatty cuts of beef, chicken and pork swimming in hot oil on a cast iron skillet, with sweet peppers lurking. The side order chips are on a plate the same size as the main, and the chips are large, irregular, golden with brown edges, and taste of rosemary. I get nostalgic for the chips my Nan used to make, before the days of frozen regular cut chips fried in unknown oil. I inhale dinner in thirty minutes as I can’t tolerate the smoke. I give the staff a 20% tip for the amazing service and explain I’m leaving because of the fumes and not them.
Back at the hotel waiting for our airport transfer, I entertain the receptionist with my holiday photos from the seven countries I’ve visited, as well as the ones from Romania. She seems to crave the outside world, and I’m happy to show her what I’ve seen. Her favourite images are the northern lights in Iceland and the massive paua shells in New Zealand. Then embarks twelve of hours of me sitting upright for the journey home. First the taxi to the airport, where it’s the same people on the flight back as it was on the way here. By chance, the airport assistance guy recognises me (or possibly suitcase) and I get the same jokes. “Your first trip to Romania, you take Untravelled Paths?” “Those people have crazy taste in music. Don’t listen, they are ex-Communists.” “Dracula is immortal as he drank virgins’ blood, so there are no more virgins in Romania.” I’m not about to volunteer that one’s about to leave the country, so instead wish him a Happy Valentine’s Day. “We celebrate Dragobete on February 24th rather than the 14th.” I say the day afterwards is cheap chocolate day. “It’s all cheap.” On cue, a random shop owner hands him a Swiss chocolate that he promptly gives to me. I love this guy, he’s my perceptive and sarcastic knight in orange high vis that matches my suitcase and my jumper. As I walk through a scanner, he offers his arm the other side and I compliment his bicep. He’s temporarily dumbfounded by a genuine compliment. “Thank you. I push wheelchairs all day.” He doesn’t just push them, he lifts them into position rather than attempting three point turns. I’m at the gate before anyone else, and he only knows it’s the right gate because it’s the only one designated to Ryanair. “I’ll be back for you. There will be queues before the plane even lands. It’s all lies. Don’t panic. They can’t leave without you.” It’s all true, except the part about him coming back.
Conveniently, I’m parked next to a vending machine. The hidden salt from dinner has caught up with me. I’m absolutely parched. The machine only accepts notes and only dispenses coins, and I was so close to leaving with changeable currency. Avoiding potentially fizzy water bottles instead landed me with peach iced tea, something I’ve only drunk once as a University student as a freebie and something I hoped never to encounter again, let alone pay airport prices for. My travel buddies get anxious on my behalf and offer to push me to the gate, but I trust in the staff. But not the cleaning staff, and I’m dismayed as an environmental scientist to see them pick the rubbish out of the recycling bins and put it all in one bag on the trolley before carting it off. I’m the only person there to witness it, and the security camera above me, as everyone else is in a different holding area the other side of the boarding gate.
Eventually, someone from Ryanair scans me in, and one of the bad taste in music ex-Communists wheels me to the cherry picker while everyone else gets on a bus to the plane. I’m not alone – a Romanian family with their wheelchair bound son is with me. It’s a stressful affair, as he is lifted out of his own chair and put into one narrow enough to fit down a plane aisle. There’s confusion as to where the boy’s chair is going, and it is going to be put in the hold rather than in the cabin. It does have the flight sticker on it, but I’m anxious on their behalf about the situation. Then, someone is sitting in their seats, when understandably they had paid extra to be seated together. I have an easier time, with my old genteel ex-Commy silently guiding me to my seat and putting my case in the overhead locker.
The flight is as expected. The staff are really, really grateful that I pay for my hot chocolate with exact change. I kick off my shoes, grimace at the brown smear on the toilet, ignore the duty free perfume pitch and the lottery supporting childhood causes. The sunset is spectacularly long, as we’re flying West and keeping pace with it. The landing is applauded, and Romanian passengers do the sign of the cross three times. I wonder how long Romania has had an airport, or how affluent you need to be to fly. I get the cherry picker, as apparently nobody wants to be outside in the cold drizzle on a Saturday night. The Romanian family look to be for translating the thick London accent, as it’s nothing like the Queen’s English they were expecting. Clear enunciation and physical gestures go a long way in life. The boy’s chair is procured and we leave before the rest of the hold luggage does, as it’s been covered up from the rain.
The queue for border control is massive, and I’m quite proud of British queueing prowess that so many people can be sorted in such a small space. I’m sitting watching this phenomenon for an hour due to a wheelchair shortage. Eventually an Omniserv member comes with two chairs and takes us through two at a time with strong thumbs holding the brakes off. There’s a distinct feeling across the airport of it’s Saturday before Valentine’s and I don’t want to be here and judging by the queues, most people are at home. I’m in the lift to the coach station at the same time as my travel buddies who had luggage in the hold. They seem surprised that I’m only half way through my journey home, but there were no direct flights from the Midlands. Thankfully, Café Nero staff are chirpy as I hand over my very continental ham and cheese in a croissant to be toasted, and order a hot chocolate with chocolate drops. I comment about the lack of staff and Valentine’s Day. She says people keep asking her what she’s doing for the day. I tell her, “I’m married to cats.” It seems like a revelation in her thinking, and she enthusiastically says, “Yeah, me too!” She gets out her phone and shows me her three large cats, and I show her printed photos from my wallet of my furry hoard over the years.
The coach stand says 777 Birmingham, and it’s sparse until a mass take at Luton Airport, and then sparse again with a mass exodus at Milton Keynes Central. It’s hard to doze off, and I’m very uncomfortable from ten hours of sitting. I lie down on the floor at Birmingham, and the staff ask if I’m alright. I hold up my disabled card and I explain it’s been a long trip from Romania and I need to stretch out the inflammation. I listen very happily to the announcement that it’s a non-smoking station. The coach to Dudley is very quick, and the taxi service know my mobile number and my usual price. My care team are awake to take over. My cat greets me enthusiastically and I wish her Happy Valentine’s Day. She spends the night sleeping on my chest with her healing vibrations in full force.
I contemplate that the trip wasn’t about what Romania could offer me, but what I could offer Romania and the British travellers with my extremely unique history and ambition. The highlight of the holiday for me was laughter when sitting in an inflated tube having slid down a snow hill, when there was no time restriction. I think we’re all children at heart who want to play in nature, and to be free from control and expectation. Here’s to freedom.