Sunday, April 22, 2012

Discover Transylvania 2012

Transylvania is a true gem in Europe.  The word means “the land across the forest” and this could refer to its geographical location as a plateau nestled in the backwards “L” shape that the Carpathians make.  The highest range of the Carpathian Mountains (Fagaras Range) makes up much of Transylvanian’s southern border but the region’s eastern, northern and western borders are all defined by high peaks.  It may be that Transylvania’s folklore and its popularity in Bram Stroker’s Dracula are what bring tourists to the area, but what those tourists find there is much more.  They find beautiful villages nestled in valleys between hills or mountains, old cities with medieval architecture, fortified churches and friendly, easy-going people.  When I was presented with the task of showing Romania to one of my best friends, Transylvania was, hands-down, the region I wanted to display and at the same time, revisit. 

Day 1

The early morning train wasn’t all that early.  The plan was to catch the 6:30 Regio to Sinaia but in the morning the later 11:50 InterRegio seemed like a more attractive option.  The train slowly crept out of the city past the long lines of identical blocks and walls decorated in the same graffiti that was there 3 years ago.  The country-side quickly swallowed us whole as we passed by villages with their houses, courtyards, dogs, dirt roads and villagers.  Poverty is easy to see when just leaving the city. Houses nearly falling over situated a stones-throw away from the brightly colored walls surrounding a large home and a Mercedes.  These scenes display poverty not only in the lack of material wealth but also in the lack of class.  Somehow we barely noticed passing by our first stop, the large city of Ploiesti with its oil refineries situated to the south and east of the city while the north of the city looks toward the foothills of the Carpathians.  This city was once the target of a major bombing campaign by the Allied forces in WWII called Operation Tidal Wave.  Suddenly our faces were glued to the window as faces tend to be when you’re in a train and the mountains begin to rise up around you.  Soon we were at our stop, Sinaia.  With our large packs we made our way off the train into a chilling mountain air. 

Sinaia, though a beautiful location, was a bonehead decision by the trip’s planner (myself).  Sinaia was chosen over it’s neighbor Busteni because it features one of the nicest museums in Romania at the best preserved castle in Romania, Peles.  Busteni, on the other hand, features some great hiking with incredible views.  The bonehead decision was that the trip’s planner deciding Sinaia because of the museum, disregarded the fact that Day 1 fell on a Monday when all museums in Romania are closed.  Either way the short hike up to the castle allowed for some nice views of the town’s architecture and monastery.  We were able to hang out in the courtyard of the castle for a while and walk around its grounds before retreating back down the hill with a bar of nuga and a beer waiting for us at the bottom.  Following the beer we made our way back to the train station for the day’s second leg to Brasov. 

After passing by the beautiful Busteni the mountains the train began to descend until finally we entered the city of Brasov.  Hungry and with heavy packs we hustled around town searching for hostels.  The two hostels we had written down on paper were disappointments.  Both hostels were located in the center and both offering not much other than a number on the door.  Finally after doing some more searching I looked in my pocket to find a flier that one man at the train station shoved into Wes’s hand as we quickly passed him.  It was the flier for the hostel Kesmet Dau.  We were in luck as the hostel had cheep beds and one free drink included. 

Day 2

The second day began with a nice conversation about traveling and being in foreign places with our fellow hostel goers.  A couple of Canadians, Americans, a Brit and a lone Swedish gal made for good morning conversation before heading out.  The days discoveries began with a hike to Tampa, the peak that rises sharply out of old town Brasov that takes you up to the cities very own version of the Holleywood sign.  Views from the peak reveal Brasov and beyond on one side and the snow covered Carpathian peaks on the other.  The hiked looped back down the hill through the forest ending at one end of Brasov’s southern wall were our old city walk began.  That walk took us to the major sites of the city gates, rope street, the square of advice, the black church, the northern wall and finally lunch at a basement restaurant.  From there we returned to the hostel to grab our bags and move on to the next point of interest, Sibiu. 

Day 3

Our host gave us some great advice the night before which led to my favorite part of the trip.  It was the second to last nice day of the trip and we spent it walking from village to village over beautiful Transylvanian landscapes.  Starting in the nearby city of Cisnadie we perused a couple second-hand stores and made our way to the center of town where we circled the beautiful fortified church.  An old local man led us to the edge of town showing us the old dirt road to our next destination.  Passing a flock of sheep through an orchard we spotted the next fortified church in the distance.  The fortress at Cisnadioara is situated high up on a steep hill at the edge of a small village.  On our way up the hill we spotted some deer and at the top of the hill we spotted an amazing landscape viewing Cisnadie in the distance and the mountains to the south. 

After asking the locals for directions to our next destination we were sent up an old wagon road that was hard to follow at times.  Just after crossing the hill’s peak we could see Rasinari, the dream site of a fellow volunteer.  On our way down the hill we spotted some donkeys grazing and a hawk swooping down by the forest.  The town was pleasant to walk through with its dirt road splitting the bright colors of the houses lining it.  We met with the volunteer in the center of town were we picked up some lunch supplies.  After a good chat and some grub we decided to take off back to Sibiu where we hung out with our great hosts at restaurant in the beautiful small square.  

Day 3
Tour of Sibiu.  It’s high walls, old churches, squares large and small and rich history we filled our day which included a trip through the Birkenthaul museum where our host was working.  What’s Europe without visiting at least one museum?  The day was pleasant but you could feel it getting colder and cloudier.  The next day we would be back on the road after three nights in Sibiu and we were hoping for some decent travel/hiking weather.

Day 4

Decent weather we did not get as we woke up to snow and then heavy rain.  The weather stalled our departure from Sibiu but eventually we got out the door and on the road to Deva where you can see the fortress on the hill shooting up out of town.  The fortress was nice but the burrito at Pizza Grande was better.  I was quite familiar with Deva already being that it was my transportation hub for traveling in the northern and western parts of Romania for the two years of staying in Petrosani.  The maxi-taxi ride that I’ve become so familiar with put me to sleep and suddenly we were surrounded by mountains again descending switchbacks, back home in Petrosani.  My good buddy Dragos picked us up at the bus station and we spent that evening first getting some food with some of my best friends in Petrosani, Leddy and Dan, and then returning to Dragos’s for a good evening’s conversation.  Unfortunately, visiting was the extent of our trip to Petrosani.  The weather hindered our main purpose for visiting my second home, hiking in Parang.  Due to the weather we cut our Transylvanian adventure short a half day by taking the day train back, but not before we took some time to visit with Ernest.  Six hours of train and we were back in Buc to meet some friends out for a nice night in Lipscani. 


Transylvania is a pretty face of Romania but not the only face of Romania.  Traveling through Transylvania was a good idea and it showed my buddy a great/beautiful part of Romania.  We hung out with some friends, met some interesting people and talked to quite a few Romanians that had some interesting things to tell us about the history of the country.  Despite all of this, it was great that Transylvania is not the only part of Romania that I was able to show my friend.  Spending a couple days at the beginning and end of the trip allowed us to do some discovering in Bucharest as well.  I’m sure that Wes learned a bunch about Romania and saw many new things but I also learned quite a bit as this was the first time I took a look at both parts of my Peace Corps service: service as a PCV in Petrosani and service at a PCVL in Bucharest.    

Saturday, April 21, 2012

St. Patricks Day 2012

“Everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day”.  Some people love this saying and some people hate it.  Some of the not so Irish or partly Irish like myself love it because it gives them an opportunity to celebrate, whether it be by gathering together with family at grandma’s or with friends at the pub.  It may be that the one’s that despise the phrase aren’t Irish and therefore they don’t find that they have a reason to celebrate it.  I’ve heard people in this bracket complain that people say they’re Irish on St. Patrick’s Day just for another reason to get drunk.  The others that I could see disliking the above mentioned expression are the actual 100% Irish who might see the current and sometimes belligerent interpretation of their national holiday as an attack on their culture.  While perusing facebook on the greenest day of the year I noticed that a friend of mine, whom I respect, posted a comment that showed his discontent of the holiday.  His comment made me think and examine why it is that I celebrate St. Paddy’s Day.  Eventually I’ve determined that the answer to this question more about where I come from than where my great great great grandparents came from.

Corning NY is a small town in upstate New York where workers once immigrated to the area to work in the glass-factory.  Now scientist, engineers and business-men come as all the laborers are now in China.  There is undoubtedly an Irish presence in Corning weather it be in the names of my classmates and friends (O’hare, Stack, O’Laughlin ) but maybe more evident when you see the names of some of the older bars in town (Maleys, Murphys, McKlintock).  When listening to the attendance called out in school you hear some Irish names but it by no means dominates the list like the Italian names do.  Either way, one of the neat things about Corning is that today, like many years ago, you find people from many different backgrounds.  For being a small conservative town a stone’s throw away from the middle of nowhere it does have some surprising diversity.  I suppose a lot of small towns in America is like that.

I first learned about St. Patrick’s Day at home, secondly in the church and lastly in school.  There are two things that I remember most about St. Patrick’s Day celebrations long ago and they have both been present in my last couple of celebrations, the color green and the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People.  That’s right, I didn’t say green beer.  I’m talking long ago when someone, maybe at school, introduced me to one of my all time favorite Disney films.  Check it out if you haven’t yet.  I can’t go on reminiscing about St. Patrick’s Days without mentioning my Great Grandma Mertson who when you walk into her house on the special day it’s like a new green starburst, flavor explosion for your eyes.  On top of that, the traditional corned beef and cabbage is served at her place and it really makes you feel Irish, whether you are or you’re not. 

Finally we get to the part where booze is involved.  I will admit that green beer, Jamison and Irish car bombs took a pretty central role in my St. Patty’s day celebrations of my 20’s but looking back, those were relatively few up until I came to Romania.  In Romania they don’t really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day so the last couple holidays I spent explaining who St. Patrick was to my students then going home to watch Darby O’Gill.  Things are a bit different in Bucharest and this year I was able to have a much more thorough celebration of the Irish holiday.

First off, there are Irish in Bucharest and one of them happens to be my boss.  The Peace Corps Romania St. Patrick’s Day party kicked off the holiday with some old-school Irish tunes playing on the radio, learning to sing one and of course, pin the shamrock on the leprechaun.  Though this last part is probably not traditionally Irish, it was fun and it got people in the spirit of celebrating.  The following day the Irish Embassy scheduled a music event in center of old town featuring an Irish people-pleaser band called the Amazing Apples and a couple of other Flogging-Molly style Romanian bands (literally covering Flogging Molly songs).  After the show, traditionally dressed bagpipers toured old town with a drummer, guitar player and mandolin player.  They played their instruments, sang and danced on the floors of bars throughout old town.  This part of the evening was surely a treat.  Later on my friend Mihaela and I went to an Irish pub we haven’t been to yet to pack into the crowd for an extended evening with the Amazing Apples playing not only Irish tunes but also crowd pleasers like their Lady Gaga/MGMT mash-up.  Even though it wasn’t much like my old-time favorite Corning celebrations of St. Patrick it was still a great time and it did include that good traditional Irish music that you usually hear playing on my computer and ipod during the 5 days leading up to the holiday.

To those who can’t stand the saying “Everybody’s Irish on St. Patty’s Day” my advice to you is to live and let live.  Right, people do use it for an excuse to get drunk sometimes but lets be honest, if St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t an excuse to get drunk something else would be (Friday, happy hour, over the hump, ect.).  Secondly, I believe I read somewhere recently that the Irish are the second largest immigrant group in the United States to the Germans.  Maybe all those people saying that they’re Irish actually are, at least a bit.  What makes the US so unique is that it is a country of immigrants.  Here in Romania we celebrate Romanian holidays where we eat Romanian food dance the traditional Romanian dances and partake in some, at times strange, but interesting Romanian customs that go back centuries.  In the states you find people from all different backgrounds who celebrate in the way their parents taught them which is where they come from and may be quite different from how you were taught to celebrate.  This is one of the beauties of the US.