A Travellerspoint blog

Monday 27th July

In Sofia

sunny 28 °C
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The usual early start had us on the road to Ruse, just over the Bulgarian border which is actually the Danube River.These ex-communist countries seem to be littered with abandoned buildings and factories; apparently after privatisation many of these state-run enterprises were just too inefficient and did not survive. As usual, Howard gave a very interesting and comprehensive history of the area which is far too involved to explain here, but has greatly increased my desire to research it when I get home.
We ran into a few hassles today. We had the usual hold-up at the border as they took all the passports away to check and stamp, as Bulgaria is not party to the Chengin Agreement. Now in Bulgaria, drivers have to pay a road tax, which one does by buying a vignette at the first service station over the border. Both Howard and Mario the driver missed the station, and drove for several kilometres before deciding to turn back, as driving without paying the tax meant that you risked being fined. So we turned back and eventually foung the service station. We had to wait there for 45 mins because the driver has strict rules about driving time and breaks. We took off again, but within minutes were pulled over by the Bulgarian police, who tried to extort 300 Euros from us, claiming that the log records for a particular day were missing. In fact they were missing because the bus wasn't taken out that day; we used another bus to give Mario our driver, his compulsory time off. Howard handled it very well; he refused to pay saying that he knew the law and his rights; that no matter how long we were detained we would not pay, and then he pretended to ring someone to verify that the driver did not drive on that particular day. After much arm-waving and raised voices, the police let us go. Howard said that corrupt police officers often obtain money illegally like this, and the money goes straight into their pockets.
Anyway, after that bit of entertainment we continued on our way,over the Danubian Plain and through the Valley of the Thracean Kings, which is an area where the burial mounds of the ancient Thrace culture have been found. Not much is known of them as they have left no writings. We drove up and over a mountain range, the name of which escapes me, and descended into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. After a brief stop at the Hilton, we were taken on a tour of the city, both by bus and walking.It was quite hot, and a member of our party fainted, but we were able to visit a couple of churches and ancient Roman excavations. Now here I should mention that we have a rotating seat arrangement on the bus; each day you move 2 seats clockwise around the bus, to make it fair and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to sit in the "good" seats. Today I was close to the front, and was able to observe our Italian driver Mario. Now you have to be very skilled to drive this large bus around the European cities, and Mario had got us out of some very tight scrapes. The driving style is quite aggressive over here, and to be a timid driver in a big bus would mean that you would hardly move, as people rarely make concession for your size. So it was quite interesting to watch Mario's Italian driving manners, and the reaction of other drivers as Mario sought to insert his bus in a gap half its size. He seemed to be oblivious to the fist-shaking and horn-blowing as he left this trail of destruction in his wake, but he always seemed to get us there on time.
We finished the day with a meal at the Hilton dining room, before retiring to bed

Posted by bryceb 16:29 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

Sunday 26th July

In Bucharest

sunny 28 °C
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We left Sibiu this morning, and soon reached the Olt River, which we followed via a picturesque gorge, through the Carpathian Mountains.We frequently saw individuals or small groups fishing from the river, often with a small tent pitched by their fishing spot. The natural beauty was marred a little by the rubbish, plastic bottles etc which had been discarded along the river. Along the road, people often pulled up in their car, set up a roadside stall and tried to sell to the passing cars.Occasionally when we stopped, Gypsy children would come up and ask for money, or their older siblings would offer postcards or books for sale.
On the way to Bucharest, we made a few stops. One of the first was a monastery where the monks were having their Sunday Service, and were in full chant. Later we made a roadside stop at a roadhouse which looked quite new. We soon learnt that they had only been open two days and we were the first busload of people to order meals there. They looked a bit panicked at first, but after rallying the whole family they were able to serve up some very respectable meals. I had a chicken salad.
Howard the tour guide, remarked on the big changes he was seeing in Romania on this trip, compared to a few years ago. He was expecting the old narrow bumpy roads, horses and carts on the roads, bureaucracy gone mad at the borders, frustrating waits at shops, and run-down facilities. All of these still existed at times, but it was obvious that Romania is rapidly becoming more Westernized, and there have been huge changes even in the last couple of years.
Eventually we reached Bucharest, and were given a quick tour of the city, followed by a tour of The People's Palace, the monstrosity erected by Ceausecsu with the people's money. It is a huge building, the second biggest in the world after the Pentagon, and as big as the Great Pyramid in volume. The interior is testament to a man who at one time was spending 30% of Romania's GDP on his dream. Some of you may remember when the tide of popular opinion turned against him, and he had to escape by calling in a helicopter, to the building he was in at the time. He and his wife were arrested a short time later, and executed after a brief trial
That evening we had dinner at the hotel restaurant, long ago having given up getting dressed up for such occasions. After dinner we ignored warnings and went for a walk up the street; probably no worse than Hindley Street at 9pm.

Posted by bryceb 07:26 Archived in Romania Comments (1)

Saturday 25th July

Transylvanian Terror

overcast 24 °C
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We left Budapest early this morning as we are to lose an hour going into Romania, and neither the border crossing nor the roads are particularly smooth. We crossed the border and sure enough, we were kept there for about half an hour while our passports and visas were checked and stamped by, you guessed it, armed staff. In the meantime we witnessed one driver at the wrong end of the law, become increasingly agitated as he was prevented from crossing, and eventually walked off muttering abuse. When we were allowed to pass, we stopped at the next point to change some money into Romanian Lieu. Immediately we were accosted by several rival Gypsies, all waving handfuls of money at us, and wanting to change our money. We were able to change it at the more official booths, but not before a fight had broken out among the Gypsies, with fists flying. We were warned about the particular subset of the Gypsy community that had turned to crime to make their living, giving the other members a bad name. Pick-pocketing was their speciality, and in the past, gangs had targetted tour buses and groups. Howard said it was less prevalent now, with a stronger police presence.
On the road again, we drove into Transylvania, and up into the Transylvanian Alps. The area was deeply forested, and the landscape was dotted with small farmhouses in a very poor state of repair, with animals running around in the yard. The old farmhouses looked like the illustrations from a children's picture book and was a huge contrast to the Europe we had seen so far. It was a long drive but we eventually reached Sibiu, where we were given a walking tour of the old part of town, before going to tea back at the hotel, and bed.

Posted by bryceb 21:14 Archived in Romania Comments (0)

Tyrolean dancers

rain 12 °C
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Posted by bryceb 05:46 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Friday 24th July

Hungarian Goulash

sunny 32 °C
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We spent the day in Budapest, a city of contrasts; beautiful and ornate buildings of old, alongside crumbling and rusted concrete flats erected during the Communist era. We did a tour of the Parliament Building, a magnificent structure rated as one of the great buildings of Europe, and the largest building in Hungary. Bullet holes in nearby buildings were left as a reminder of recent struggles, and the security guards all wore guns and kept a very close eye on us. We took a trip to a museum in the country which consisted of several acres of old buildings which had been deconstructed around the country, and reconstructed on site, providing a history of how country life used to be. Again, security staff were armed. We then went to the nearby village, where we took part in preparing a Hungarian Goulash. It was prepared on a pot over an open fire, and the first ingredient was 1kg of lard. The life expectancy of Hungarian males is 67 years, partly due I imagine, to this atherosclerotic staple they consume. Yes, I did eat it, carefully leaving the soupy portion and eating only the vegetables. We thought that was it, but then several other courses followed, leaving us lethargic and sleepy on this warm afternoon, especially with a few wines on board. Back to the hotel for a brief snooze, before going back into Budapest to another dinner accompanied by traditional instruments.

Posted by bryceb 22:06 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

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