Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blazing through the Balkans Part II

Targeting the Balkans as we near the end of Year 2 of our Senior Nomad travels. 
 Welcome back! Here is part two of our Blaze through the Balkans.

Bucharest, Romania: At the Sofia train station we made the mistake of looking a bit confused and that led to a dervish of a man who asked if we needed help, and without waiting for the answer grabbed our heavy bags and took off. He turned and impatiently waved for us to follow him and there wasn't really an option. Actually, he was helpful since the station was under-going renovation and indeed, we might have gotten lost trying to find our platform. He found our train, hauled our bags on board and lifted them up onto the overhead racks. It appeared by his body language that we needed to tip him. We gave him around $5. and he became very agitated and angry because he saw I had more money in my wallet and yelled we had given him our "Toilet money!" Apparently just enough to use the toilet. We dug deep a bit deeper and gave him all our remaining Romanian cash which apparently topped up the toilet money. He was still put out, but we thanked him profusely and then encouraged him (firmly) to get off the train. Wow. Rough start to a long, hot journey.
The train ride to Bucharest was long and hot - but we enjoyed meeting other intrepid travelers on board.
We shared our cabin with two teenagers from Turkey who had just graduated from high school and were traveling for the summer. Not only were they happy to practice their English with "actual Americans" they were enjoyable to spend time with. We made friends with several other passengers from a variety of countries as we slowly chugged our way to Bucharest - Michael meeting most of them in the passageway of the train where he could find a breeze if he stood on his toes near a partially opened window. For miles we passed field after field of brilliant sunflowers with their heads turned to the rising sun. In between there were abandoned factories and desolate villages. This is a part of Europe that is truly struggling to find it's place in the new free market economy and the EU.

Michael catching a breeze in the passageway.
An abandoned train station along our route.
Sunflower fields stretched for miles and brightened an otherwise bleak landscape.
We had been forewarned that the taxi drivers in Bucharest were the worst as far as taking advantage of tourists. We'd heard harrowing tales of unsuspecting passengers being driven far outside their destinations, of having their luggage held hostage, meters (if you found a cab that had one) that were set to run at twice the legal rate, etc. Fortunately for us, one of Michael's new train buddies was Romanian and he was willing to help us get a cab. Unfortunately, driver after driver said no because we weren't going far enough or they didn't want to take the amount our host had suggested we pay. Our friend had to catch up with his family, so in the end we were left on our own. We walked across the street to the Vodafone store to get SIM-cards so we could call our host and figure out a new plan. While in line a very nice woman heard us discussing our plight and offered to call a taxi for us and even waited with us until it arrived and made sure the rate was fair. Whenever we've needed assistance no matter the city or the circumstance, we have always found helpful strangers - it gives us continued faith in humanity.

As we got deeper into this part of Europe, the Airbnb apartments begin to get more "interesting". That is the word our daughter Kelly uses when she doesn't want to offend. Like "Mom, this new soup you made tonight is interesting. Meaning you don't need to make it again". In the case of our next apartment "interesting" began at the door. When the taxi pulled up we thought there must be a mistake since we were in front of an" Erotic Shopping Mall". But no, the address was correct. Our host popped out the entrance door next to a sex shop to welcome us and help carry our luggage.

Front doors can be deceiving - the apartment was actually quite nice.
The location actually turned out to be good and the apartment itself wasn't too bad either - however, just outside our window we were treated to all-night Karaoke caterwauling from one of many nearby  bars. And trust us, the later it got, the worse it got...I still have "Big Mary Keep on Rollin', Rollin' Rollin' on the River...boop, boop, boop, boop, boop." in my head. Here's a link to the apartment:

Bucharest was a jumble of neo-classic, Bauhaus, art deco, and Soviet-era monoliths. This was a bright
spot in our neighborhood that was part of a rejuvinization of the old town.
The first day we took our usual free walking tour of the city and our guide informed us the confusion between Bucharest and Budapest is one of the top 5 Geographical mistakes in the world. Here's a link to a website that confirms his story:

The history of this country is a violent from one century to the next - the last century being no exception. Everywhere you looked you saw the heavy hand of Romania's ruthless dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu influence on this city. Not only did he terrorize his citizens, he blighted Bucharest by tearing down historical buildings to construct massive housing blocks and bureaucratic monoliths in the name of systematization - and, to glorify himself he began construction of the "Peoples Palace", the second largest structure in the world. In 1991 as fledgling independence for Romania became a reality, the much despised Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas day. He did not live to see his palace finished.

The Palace of the Parliament, also known as the "People's Palace" is finally being used for all the right reasons.
One of 1,000 elaborate rooms inside the palace. Ceausescu died before he lived out this particular fantasy. 
Note: During these past few weeks we were managing the sale of our house from the road.
The house sold easily, but there were challenges along the way in getting documents signed and sent back to Seattle. Often e-mail correspondence was fine, but we needed to get a Limited Power of Attorney notarized and sent back as soon as possible so our friend George could sign the closing documents for us. The only solution was to visit the US Embassy in Bucharest where they perform this service (for a fee of course) for US citizens. We made an appointment online and took a lengthy bus ride out to the fortress that is our embassy. I think the "no photos" signs and the sweeping cameras started about 100 yards from the first fence. 

The mighty US Embassy in Bucharest opened in 2011
No photos. No phones. No electronics (including Kindles), No backpacks. No kidding. 
This imposing marble structure was built in 2011 and it wasn't designed around the casual visit. Once we showed the guard (one of many) our appointment confirmation, we were checked against a list and then put through rigorous security checks that included taking just about everything out of my purse. Note to self: clean purse! They also took our Kindles and cell phones for "safe keeping" since no electronics were allowed past the entrance. The actual notary process was easy. Next we had to find a FedEx office and get the paperwork back to Seattle. Not as easy, but we managed.

The bus from Bucharest to Chisinau was a tight fit! 
Chișinău, Moldova: We finally reached a city even we couldn't pronounce (Quiche-en-ow) in a country few people can find on a map. Moldova is Europe's poorest country, and one of the most corrupt - quite possibly, those two things go hand-in-hand. We arrived by bus. It was a ten hour journey in a 20 passenger Mercedes mini-bus with leg room designed for those without legs. Once again, Michael became friendly with our fellow sardines. We especially enjoyed chatting with the man sitting next to us who didn't have an actual seat - he sat on a stool in the aisle. His name was Roman and he was heading home for a month's leave from his off-shore drilling job in Algeria. He was beyond helpful when we arrived in Chișinău and used his cell-phone to wrangle a taxi that we shared and got us to our next Airbnb.

Roman was our hero - he helped us get a cab, rode with us to our Airbnb and wouldn't let us pay.
Michael is such a gregarious traveler. If not for his curiosity and willingness to strike up conversations around politics and football (soccer) with just about anyone, and his dedication to using Google Translate, we would not have met so many people willing to help us in countless situations, let alone share their pride and concerns about their country.

Our apartment turned out to be large and luxurious! And albeit Russian style, nicely decorated. We had air conditioning, a huge TV, fast Internet, a lovely big bed, and a shower that did tricks. We didn't explore it much further than music and mood lighting, but apparently it can fire water at you from 20 different nozzles and be turned into a steam room. Maybe next time. Here's the link:

Our host helped arrange three private tours while we were here. That isn't our usual style, but there is very little in the way of tourism here and we wanted to get the most from our short stay. We booked a day trip to Transnistria, a place that is far off the radar, a city tour and a winery visit. 

Michael and I and our tour guide in Chișinău.
Day Trip to Transnistria: The first day we were picked up by Laurencia, our delightful guide for a trip to Transnistria. Where? It is a small strip of land wedged in between Moldova and the Ukraine that calls itself a country. Not a single country recognizes them, not even the Soviet Union. Who, by the way, runs the place. It has a president, a currency, a national anthem, a border crossing and ... that's about it. No other country will exchange their currency, and citizens carry either Romanian or Russian passports. Here's a link if you want to know more:

The hammer and sickle are proudly displayed at every opportunity in Transnistria!
Michael had read a lot about Transnistria and just had to see it for himself. In short, when the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991 Moldova became an independent country but a small group of people (about 500,000) didn't want to go that way so there was a short war between Moldova and the people who lived east of the Dniester River. As we learned, Russia sent "peace keepers" there in 1992 and never left - a bad habit of theirs. The war ended in a classic stand-off. Undeterred, the citizens of Transnistria declared themselves a country and are sticking to their story.

Lenin looming large in front of the Parliament buildings of the dubious country, Transnistria.
 We had heard that visiting Transnistria is like going back in time 40 years to the U.S.S.R. As it turns out, we saw only one very large Lenin statue in front of the Parliament building, an old soviet-era tank on a granite pedestal in a park, and hammer and sickles in abundance, but that was about all the "throw back" we could document. If anything, a new hypermarket that just opened two months ago was far more interesting. Inside, it was similar to Costco, as in a huge warehouse space filled to the brim with food, clothing, household goods and vodka - lots of vodka.

Just a glimpse of the vodka aisle! This store was a big as the Russian ego.
Just a few of over a hundred garish garden ornaments on offer at the Sheriff Hypermarket.
The only thing lacking was customers. The parking lot was nearly empty and inside the employees outnumbered customers 20 to 1. To me it felt like a cover for storing provisions for a huge influx of Russians in the not too distant future. Maybe I was looking for a conspiracy theory to make the trip worthwhile - but there was a sprawling complex of military housing being built nearby, and with the ambiguity of who runs this place, it looks like a great staging ground for any kind of Russian mischief. So... think about it.

Michael and I with our tour guide Irena in Chișinău
We finished our last day in Moldova with a tour of the city. There isn't that much to see, but we certainly saw the influence of communism in the square-jawed architecture and massive statues of war heroes. Michael took a tour of Cricova, Moldova's largest winery - he enjoyed the experience except for the fact there wasn't a tasting included in the tour. In fact it didn't look like tastings were offered at all. A wine tour with no tasting is a sad day out. But Michael was able to see Putin's own stash of wine in the deep underground cellar and sit in the Board Room where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday.

The tour of Cricova winery was interesting ... until there wasn't a tasting.

Michael had a Putin sighting at the winery. He has his own stash deep in the cellars.
That's a wrap on the Balkans and we thank you for following along! See you in Moscow and St. Petersburg!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

1 comment :

  1. I love your postings and travel vicariously via the interesting descriptions of your many experiences. I probably wouldn't be brave enough to travel to some of the locations that you choose, so I am very happy to read about them from a distance.

    One note from this post: you did not include a link to the airbnb in Bucharest. Was this deliberate or an omission?