For the first time in my travels I jumped around like the stereotypical American tourist: I hit four countries in less than two weeks. I went from the south of France to Prague to Budapest to Brasov, Romania.
In Nice I celebrated as I joined the locals watch their country beat Germany in a very exciting football match. After the win everyone was in good spirits and celebrated but without too much chaos other than filling the Fountaine du Soleil with singing, splashing, flag waving humans; harmless fun. Therefore it was heartbreaking to me when, on Bastille Day, a psychopath terrorist drove his truck through that exact place I'd been with friends just one week earlier, killing 84 and wounding hundreds more.
Prague was out of the way but I knew if I didn't go now there was no telling when I'd have a chance to see it. And too many people raved about it for me to ignore it. Understandably so too! What a special place! I can't believe it took me so long to go there. Everywhere you look is beauty. Never before have I been to a city that was so clearly both medieval and Renaissance. The narrow streets, the sounds of music played on traditional instruments, the sweet cinnamon smells of baking trdelnik wafted through the air, the impressive, nearly 700 year-old Charles Bridge, the dancing clock tower and, the ancient Jewish quarter...all of it fantastic! And it is even more beautiful at night!! I was told that Hitler loved Prague so much that is why it was spared during the war. That even included the unharmed Jewish quarter which he intended to preserve as a museum of sorts showing "how the Jews used to live." Prague certainly deserves more time than I gave it but so much to see, so little time.
Budapest was next. Nicer than I expected but still gritty (apparently my hostel was located on prostitute row). However the thermal baths were wonderful (although I still prefer those in Turkey), and viewing the Parliament at night and eating delicious langos were worth the entire trip.
Romania was another country that had been highly recommend by several people I'd met in my travels. In typical fashion I did no research but looked at a map and saw there are quite a few castles so I figured I'd do a castle tour of Romania. Little did I know what I was getting into. The country surprised and impressed me at every turn and I fell in love with it immediately. A passion that only grew with the more time I spent here. Here are some of the things that surprised me:
1. Alternating fields of sunflowers and corn can be found throughout. I even saw a large field of solar panels tucked in there.
2. It's more developed than I expected yet still very traditional, which gives the country it's charm. You can buy anything and everything you need, food is plentiful, roads are good and modern cars are everywhere yet it's not uncommon to see horse drawn carts on the main roads or hay fields harvested with scythes. There are also villages that still have a central well as their main water source.
3. Gypsies! I'm not surprised that they are here but that they are everywhere! As an American I have a romantic image of gypsies so when I saw a band of them on the move in their horse drawn carts filled with their children and household items, I got quite excited. They still wear the traditional dress with scarves and skirts just as media images have portrayed except that they are a bit more...rotund...than I expected. Romanians, on the other hand, see them as a source of shame and embarrassment.
4. It's more expensive than I expected. Certainly Romania is less expensive than many countries in the western world, but I thought it would be cheaper than it actually is. In fact, many travelers I spoke with felt the same way. And, according to some Romanians, the prices have gone up in the last five years but not their wages.
5. Although I'm a vegetarian, I pretty much have a live and let live philosophy. Yet the amount of meat they consume in this country is, quite frankly, revolting. From what I've observed they eat little else besides meat, pork fat, bread, cheese and polenta with cheese; maybe some tomatoes, onions, cabbage or corn but no substantial amount of real vegetables in their diet. I couldn't even find green veggies in the markets and only frozen in the supermarket. And from the looks of their bellies, it's obvious. They also smoke a lot. I suspect this is why they have the shortest life expectancy in the EU and the top five causes of death are 1)coronary heart disease 2)stroke 3)hypertension 4)liver disease 5)lung cancer
6. Restaurant service is incredibly fast. Too much so actually. Although it's nice to quickly get a menu and drink, as soon as you are finished they whisk away your dishes. I'm used to slower service and, usually, actually enjoy being ignored once I get my food. Having the dishes there makes sitting at the table, typing away on my iPad, seem less like I'm just occupying their space.
7. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say everyone here is nice, I will say that most everyone I met has been exceptional. From the hostel workers in Brasov to everyone in the mountains that adopted me, fed me and invited me to join them. Also, the best hostel I stayed in to-date was the Kismet Dao in Brasov. I was also surprised by how many people speak English in Romania. Even if they won't speak it they often understand it.
8. The Romanian language is actually one of the Latin romance languages and sounds similar to Italian in the melodic way they speak. In fact, Latin was spoken in Romania until the early 1800's.
9. No two homes are alike! Nowhere, anywhere. The shapes, style, colors, designs...trapezoids, castle style, rectangles...pink, purple, yellow, green, blue, cream...some with tile, decorative paint or reliefs, and some just plain, but always with orange tile roofs. In Sibiu you are always being watched as the roofs have eyes!
10. There is no lack of things to do in Romania. Multiple castles (including Dracula's), monasteries, walled cities, and fortified citadels are nice to tour, then you have countless mountain trails to hike, caves to explore, salt mines to visit, wild raspberries to pick, twisty roads to drive on and charming villages to meander through. For the first time in two years of travel I wished I had a tent and sleeping bag; it's that kind of country. Oh, the places I could go… And if you're here at the right time you can take in the four-day electronic music festival in Cluj or the rock festival in the mountains near Brasov.
11. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about Romania is how utterly beautiful it is. The rolling hills, green mountains, well marked trails, countless rivers, waterfalls, glacial lakes and charming villages repeatedly took my breath away. The numerous mountain springs provided fresh drinking water with no need to filter. There is no urban sprawl so the cities are condensed and the rest of the country is wild and wonderful.
I was so happy to be back in the mountains and I met so many wonderful people there; friends and families that invited me to join them for food, sightseeing, camping, etc. Each time I had to say good bye to these kind and hospitable people I'd met it was harder and harder, nearly bringing me to tears with the last family with whom I parted ways. I think it means I've been traveling too long. Although I meet so many lovely people and am not often alone, I'm starting to feel lonely and a bit tired. As absurd as it may sound, thank God for FB! Honestly I don't know if I'd have survived this long without the virtual connection to everyone. I really enjoy keeping up with your lives and appreciate all the support you've given me along the way. Hopefully I will re-charge during the month of September in Slovenia while I work in a beautiful valley at the base of the alps with horses and dogs and possibly even some people.
For now, I will continue on to Croatia and evaluate everything in September.