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Scintillating Sinaia

Sep 28, 2014: While wandering Brasov’s streets the afternoon of my arrival, I had located the nearest bus stop, and the kiosk for buying tickets, so I had no trouble getting to the station for the train to Sinaia. On the bus I chatted with a Welsh woman about my own age, mostly about the Scottish independence referendum, and on the train I chatted with a young local woman. I had thought the train ticket reasonably cheap, but going back on a train of lesser status (but a comfortable double-decker) I paid only a third as much. Budget travelers take note!

I went to Sinaia to visit two palaces. Officially they are castles, but since they were built long after castles served any military purpose whatever, and were designed as residences, I refuse to misuse the term. Peles, the one with the crowds, was built as a summer residence for King Carol I between 1875 and 1914. While he was spending money on buildings (lots of it) he had Pelisor built nearby for his nephew, the future King Ferdinand, and his wife Marie. Both King Carol’s wife, Elisabeta, and Marie were talented women, authors and artists.

From the outside the palaces look similar – fairy tale collections of turrets and spires – but the interiors could hardly be more different. I had read that Marie had decorated Pelisor in Art Nouveau style, and as I am a huge Art Nouveau fan I naturally started there. Following a tip from a Fodor’s poster I took a taxi up, and when I got out I turned left for Pelisor while almost everyone else turned right for Peles. Aside from an easily avoided small tour group, and a very few independents, I had the place to myself. And it was drop-dead gorgeous.

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I suppose, if you’re not interested in Art Nouveau, you might not be as enthusiastic as I was, but I can’t imagine anyone disliking the place. Even the tutor’s and governess’s rooms were thoughtfully decorated and charming, and the gold room, literally covered with gilded leaves, was stunning.

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In between Pelisor and Peles I ate an indifferent sandwich in what I thought was a restaurant. Later I discovered that it was just a cafe, and the restaurant was behind it.

I do admit that from the outside Peles is picture perfect. However, I found the inside far too dark and ornate for my taste. I did avoid being officially part of a group – I noticed that you could rent an audio guide for an independent visit – but I caught up to one of the groups anyway. Having paid extra to take photos at Pelisor I didn’t do so at Peles, and I didn’t regret it. It may have been a summer palace, but if you want pomp and circumstance Peles is your palace, if you want charm and elegance, pick Pelisor.

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I wandered down towards the town past a collection of souvenir stands, and found, largely by accident, the Sinaia monastery. Here I first noticed the Romanian practice of stationing large black boxes outside churches, labeled Morti, apparently for people to light candles for the dead. Unfortunately, to me this set looked a lot like barbecue cookers. The monastery had a newer, more ornate church in the outer courtyard, and an older, more peaceful one in an inner courtyard, which I preferred. I took a rest, soaking up the peace.

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Peace didn’t last long. After I managed to find my way down to the town proper, I discovered a major festival in progress. The main drag was filled with booths, many of them selling food, much of it cooked on real barbecues, or in iron pots hung over open flames. I had thought Peles rather crowded, but the real crowds were down in town – the place was packed.

In among the expected stalls, I found one for an anti-fracking organization, and commiserated with the activists. I checked out the souvenirs, but as usual I wasn’t in a buying mood. I was more taken with a light-hearted umbrella installation, floating above the crowd.

My lunch time sandwich hadn’t been very filling, and rather than street food I opted for pizza and wine in the Irish pub, before catching my local train back to Brasov, where I spent more time admiring the main square.

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Beautiful Brasov

Sep 27, 2014: Aside from the political demonstration blocking the direct route to Bucharest’s Gara de Nord, my transfer to Brasov went smoothly. After the train cleared the capital’s suburbs, I kept an eye out for oil rigs around Ploesti, but didn’t see any. (Yes, the Ploesti that was Hitler’s prize and Allied bombers’ target.) AC had told me that the field was still producing, but much of the output was sold cheaply to Austria, while Romanians paid high prices for gas. After Ploesti we climbed into the Fagaras mountains: steep, forested slopes rose on either side, with the first colors of autumn brightening the landscape.

I had shared a four-seats-with-table section with two local women and we had managed some communication, despite not sharing a language. At Brasov the older took charge of me, and the metered taxi she located dropped her in a residential section behind the station, before taking me through the modern city and past a pretty park into the heart of the old, Saxon, town. Apparently the Saxons had lived inside the still standing 15th century protective walls, while the Romanians had been relegated to the Schei section outside.

Planning this trip I had debated: Sinaia or Brasov? Sinaia and Brasov? Sinaia as a base for Brasov? Eventually I settled on Brasov as a base for Sinaia, and after seeing both I believe it was the right decision, although Sinaia might be better if you were hiking or skiing.

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The Bella Muzica, my hotel, was ideally situated on the edge of Piata Sfatului, which I thought one of the prettiest squares in Europe. Historic buildings surrounded it, the 15th century council house was at one side, a major tourist destination, the Black Church, at one end, and it was liberally provided not only with outdoor cafes, but with free benches from which one could admire the fountain and the steep, forested slopes of Mt. Tampa, overlooking the town. There was even an evening trumpet salute from the tower of the council house at 6:00 each day, followed by a parade of costumed townsmen, for those who like that kind of thing.

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After an OK lunch in the basement restaurant of my hotel (across from me a young couple were both smoking, while holding a small child!) I paid an interesting visit to the Black Church. Originally Catholic, it had become Evangelical early in the Protestant reformation, and was bare in comparison to the Romanian Orthodox churches, aside from painting on the pews. But there was an amazing bronze font, dated 1472 and looking like an upturned bell, and a remarkable collection of Turkish carpets to remind me that Brasov had been for many years on the frontier between west and east. And on a couple of tombs, dated 1753 and 1780, I saw paintings of boots. Perhaps the occupants were boot makers? I have no idea. Oh, and for those who are musical the church also contains a Buchholz organ, with 3993 pipes, believed to be the only one in its original form and still in use.

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Reading the history of the church I learned that the area had sustained 30 earthquakes between 1550 and 1600, and that after a “great fire” in 1689 only the walls had been left standing (that’s why it’s the Black Church). No photos were allowed in the church, but I made up for it outside, walking up and down the streets of the old town, and finding many lovely buildings. I was also looking for an Ecco store, as I wanted to replace my rather old sandals, but when I stumbled on it (the Ecco website was out of date) they only had shoes and boots.

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Some of the buildings were in better shape than others, but I always feel that that gives a town a lived-in feel that would be lost if everything was perfect. I noticed plenty of neat details, like the fairy perched above one of the cafes, not to mention the “eyebrow” attic vents. I’m still amused by the sign on the chocolate shop: “Createur de gout”.

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I ate dinner at my hotel, and while the duck with honey and grapefruit was tough, it was also, to my surprise, delicious. For more on the hotel, and my apartment with the “hole” in the floor, see: http://tinyurl.com/lnz5jw4

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Farewell Bucharest

Sep 26, 2014: My last day in Bucharest it rained. Clearly a museum day, but unfortunately, one of the ones I wanted to see, the National Village Museum, was outdoors. I would visit a similar museum later, outside Sibiu, but there would be no substitute for a walk down Soseaua Kiseleff, the northern extension of Calea Victoriei, out to Herastrau Park.

Instead, I started the day at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (seems a somewhat politically incorrect name, but I didn’t choose it). This museum was a bit of surprise, as it concentrated very heavily on religion, as if nothing else in people’s lives was of interest. The curator saw crosses in everything, including embroidery where I couldn’t see them myself. However, a huge room of not very good icons was balanced by a complete cottage, and a collection of costumes. The museum had been kicked out of the building under Communism and there was a display in the gloomy basement devoted to that gloomy period.

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My afternoon museum was the National History Museum, fronted by a recent and quite bizarre statue of a naked Emperor Trajan, looking stoic, holding a dog (Dacian wolf, I gather, but it looked like a dog to me). Inside I found another good costume display, including a set of diplomatic uniforms, a form of dressing up I don’t think I had previously encountered. The display of a few crown jewels in the basement was way outclassed by beautiful gold artifacts, some prehistoric.

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The museum also contained a complete replica of Trajan’s column, broken into pieces so you could get a good look. Now, the column celebrates the victory of the Romans over the Dacians, who were the inhabitants of the area at the time, but rather than identifying with the Dacians, the Romanians seem to have sided with the Romans. In almost every town I visited, a copy of the Romulus and Remus statue was displayed on a tall column in the main square. Any discussion of language would include a reference to Latin roots.

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In between the museums I ate lunch, a good mushroom omelet, at the popular Van Gogh cafe in the old town. Thanks to the rain, instead of the usual crowds outside, I shared space inside with just a scattering of people – cigarette smokers, one and all. I also bought my train ticket out, checking the route to the station as well. Buying a metro ticket was easy – a woman in a booth sold them right by the entry turnstiles, two rides for 4 lei ($1.15 US). Navigating was easy – plenty of signs and a simple layout. Changing lines and getting from the metro into the station was not so easy. Bit of a trek, involving stairs, and the metro was very hot and very crowded. I booked the same car and driver who had collected me at the airport for my Saturday departure. Indulgence is a slippery slope – one ride led to another, to another. Of course, once I got out of Bucharest the taxis were very, very cheap.

At first I had thought to spend four nights in Bucharest, but almost every tourist sight in Romania closes on Monday, and the palaces I wanted to see in Sinaia closed on Tuesday as well. So I cut Bucharest to three nights, leaving on Saturday. I had enjoyed my time in Bucharest more than I expected. In some ways it reminded me of Budapest ten years ago: a work in progress, with possibilities. Although, of course, Budapest was much bigger with more possibilities. But Bucharest didn’t seem overrun with tourists, unlike Budapest these days, so I would consider visiting sooner rather than later. It didn’t make my “must revisit” list, but is on my “would revisit” one.

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Greeting Bucharest

Sep 25, 2014: Shortly before I left on this trip I been reminded of the “Greeter” or “Welcome” system, which I had used before in Japan and Argentina. The results had been a little mixed, but I had spent a wonderful evening with my Kyoto greeter (see: http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/moon-over-kyoto/ ) and had been pleased to be able to arrange for a greeter my first afternoon in Bucharest.

We met at my hotel, and I spent a delightful afternoon with the young woman volunteer (AC). A modern languages graduate, she spoke perfect English, and I was seriously impressed to learn that her other language was Dutch. She had just left her job to start a new venture as a tour guide, and we talked about travel as well as about life in Romania.

We visited the old, a nicely frescoed monastery, the newer, along Calea Victoriei, and the very new, in the form of an aggressively modern glass bank building reflecting its much older neighbor.

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I had voted absentee right before leaving on this trip, unhappy to discover that I had to chose between 19 unknowns for a seat on the NC Court of Appeals, and now I learned that Romania had an upcoming Presidential election with as many candidates. But at least that was only the first round. The slate included a strong woman candidate, who had been Justice Minister, but I was told, not only by AC, that a woman stood no chance. The run off was likely to be between the enterprising mayor of Sibiu, and the Socialist candidate, Socialist apparently being misused as a euphemism for ex-Communist.

She told me about apartment living in Bucharest, and about the traffic. We walked past the monument to the Revolution, now 25 years in the past. We finished a walk through the heart of Bucharest with coffee at one of AC’s favorite cafe-restaurants, and I had intended to go back there for dinner, but in the end felt that I had walked far enough for one day.

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Beginning Bucharest

Sep 23-25, 2014: Once upon a time, dear reader, flying across the Atlantic was fun. If you arrived short of sleep it was because you had been partying in the back of a half empty 747, not because it was impossible to get comfortable, never mind horizontal. Instead of mostly inedible, if not positively hazardous, food, you didn’t have to fly business class to eat well. Transfers at Heathrow did not require you stand for half an hour in a queue in order to redo the security check you endured before boarding the first plane. And so on.

So, correctly anticipating that the journey would be an ordeal, I booked a better than usual hotel (helped by a discount for booking from Tripadvisor and another for booking three nights), the K+K Elisabeta, not in the old town, but nearby and close to a metro stop. And even though I could have taken public transport in from Bucharest’s airport, I allowed myself to be tempted by the offer of airport pick up on the hotel’s website. Whether the 20 euro cost was extravagant or not is a matter of opinion, but when I emerged into the arrivals hall, towing my checked bag, the sight of a man with a sign with my name on it was very welcome indeed.

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Although I wasn’t thrilled by my room, a bit small and with no view, I approved of the shower and of breakfast, and headed off to explore in a good mood. I zig-zagged through the old town, which was not in the best of shape, towards the epitome of hubris, Ceaușescu’s hulking Palace of Parliament. Said to be second in size only to the the US’s Pentagon, and only partially used, it loomed in undistinguished modernity at the end of a tree-lined boulevard. I rather liked the boulevard, which besides some welcome shade offered a sequence of mosaic-floored fountains, but was wryly amused to discover that it ended, at the foot of the folly, in a large parking lot.

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Time to travel!

Despite the name of my blog, I haven’t done any serious travel since I got back from South America mid-December 2012. Last year I was busy with the renovations to my house, but no such excuse this year, aside from the Detroit wedding. All the time I kept saying that my next trip would be back to South America, as I still needed to visit the northwest quadrant – Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. I bought the guidebooks, I read the guidebooks, I made a list of when the weather was optimal where, I reread the guidebooks, but somehow I never produced an itinerary.

It had been fourteen years since I took early retirement so I could travel before I got too decrepit, and I had just had another birthday, so I certainly wasn’t getting any younger. In fact I felt that I was slowing down, and I was facing serious eye surgery in the not too distant future. Time to get moving!

So, just back from the Washington-wedding trip, eating breakfast, I asked myself whether the sad lack of an itinerary was actually due to my not really wanting to go to South America. If I had really wanted to go, wouldn’t I have planned it by now? Maybe, I really wanted to go somewhere else. Maybe, Europe? Next thing you know, I had the Thomas Cook rail map of Europe spread all over the breakfast tabel.

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I decided that this would be a “go back to” trip. I would go back to favorite places in Europe, traveling more slowly than usual, so I could enjoy them at leisure. But I would start with somewhere new. South and west Romania. I had visited the north – Maramures and Bucovina – back in 2006, but I hadn’t made it to Transylvania in the south. Friends had visited Romania in the spring, and reported interesting Art Nouveau buildings in the west, near the Hungarian border. (Shades of Subotica, the Art Nouveau gem in Serbia, right on the Hungarian border.)

I started by locking in the flights – into Bucharest and out of London on American – and checking on availability for the lovely apartment I had stayed in the last time I visited Budapest. Then I found that the railway timetables weren’t cooperating with my plans, and I would be better off flying some legs. Nice to Pau and Bayonne to London were so hopeless I abandoned the idea of going back to Basque country and substituted Lisbon as my last stop.

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My planning usually includes hanging out at Barnes and Noble with a cup of coffee and their guidebooks, before I buy the one(s) I’ll take on the road. But guidebooks for Romania were in short supply. Fodors hadn’t updated their Eastern and Central Europe tome in years. Rough Guide had gone all digital. Bradt didn’t cover some of my destinations. Lonely Planet still had an actual paper guide, but now combined Romania and Bulgaria into one book. I bought Lonely Planet, and cut it in half. I’d do the rest of the trip with a few chapters bought from Lonely Planet and downloaded, Streetwise maps from previous trips, and whatever I turned up online or at Tourist Information offices.

Given the lack of up-to-date guidebooks, I relied more heavily than usual on Tripadvisor for hotel recommendations, plus reading the few Romania trip reports on fodors.com, and combing through the many bookmarks saved on my browser. I booked either direct, or through booking.com.

By the time I left, on September 23, I had all my hotels and flights arranged, and the most expensive of the train trips. Yes, I’m posting this from Hungary in the middle of October, but I arrived in Romania the end of September. I put a report up on my website for my 2006 visit to Romania titled “Roaming Romania With the Tour Guide From Hell”. If you search on the tour guide’s name – Ciprian Slemcho – my report still shows up almost at the top of the list, and he spent years trying to get me to take it down. (Starting out with threats wasn’t the smartest move, but he isn’t very smart.) I think he has finally given up, and is now doing business under his wife’s name, but I chose not to advertise that I was back in Romania.

July 26 – August 4, 2014: Detroit was not high on my places to visit list. In fact, it wasn’t on the list at all, especially in August! But the reason my elder sister was visiting the US for the first (although not, she says, the last) time, was because my younger sister’s son was marrying his American fiancee. In Detroit (well, Dearborn, but still).  Washington is also not a place I’m keen to visit in August, but it seemed a reasonable stop on the way north. We took Amtrak to Washington and would fly from BWI to Detroit. I’d stop off again in Washington on the way home, and my sister would go on to Boston.  (She professed complete disinterest in New York.) I booked us into one of the Crystal City Marriotts, and sent my sister a list of possible sights, which is how come we spent the first day visiting the National History Museum and the Portrait Gallery. Actually, I enjoyed these more than I expected, as I stopped off to visit the gems and rocks at the Natural History Museum on the way, and took a look at Julia Child’s kitchen and the First Ladies’ gowns, neither of which I’d seen before.  In between we ate lunch at the American Indian Museum, always a good stop.

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Inside the Capitol's rotunda

Inside the Capitol’s rotunda

I planned for us to spend the whole of the second day at the east end of the mall. We started out with a tour of the Capitol, which I hadn’t visited since well before 9-11, followed by the Jefferson building at the Library of Congress, which I actually enjoy more. Lunch at the Madison building, next door and recommended in one of my guidebooks, involved a long trek through subterranean tunnels (no, I wasn’t going outside in the heat and humidity if I didn’t have to!) and the promised view wasn’t of the mall. Food was good and cheap, though.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

I had got us gallery passes, intending to go back to the Capitol building for some end of session action, but an unattended parcel scare put a stop to that and we arrived early at the Folger Shakespeare, lucking into an excellent docent-led tour. Coffee at the always popular Cascades Cafe at the National Gallery of Art and a couple of exhibitions was followed by an indifferent meal at the Union Station food court as we waited for our evening coach tour. I am convinced that the coach tour, although not cheap, is the best way to see the memorials. Otherwise, a great deal of walking is required, plus I like to see Washington lit up. This time the tour lasted longer than I expected though, as I think some sites were added – I don’t remember seeing the Iwo Jima statue before. DSCN8822

A late start the next day, plus a non-appearing bus, took the National Cathedral off the agenda. Instead, we visited Kramer Books, not just a truly magnificent independent book store, but also an excellent cafe. The crab cakes were so good I went back for a second helping on my return to Washington. Then we visited the Anderson House, once home to a diplomat, and now belonging to the Cincinnati Society. I had never heard of the Society before my first visit to the house, but learned there that it was formed by the officers in Washington’s army, and one (male) person in each succeeding generation may belong. Regardless of how you may feel about the Society, the house is well worth seeing if you’re in the Dupont Circle area.

I love these Chinese guardians

I love these Chinese guardians

My first night back in Washington I met up with a fellow Fodor’s poster, with whom I had often been in agreement. We dined at Zaytinya, and both the food and the conversation were great. I had one full day in DC, and started, as I often do, at the Asian galleries. As usual, despite the crowds outside, the Sackler and the Freer were virtually deserted, despite two excellent exhibitions, one on China and one on Iran. It never fails, these galleries are always quiet oases. While I value the peace, it does seem a shame that they are overlooked. After my second lunch at Kramer Books (and a book purchase) I returned to the National Gallery of Art and the Cascades Cafe. Here, too, Asian artifacts were ignored – I found a good porcelain exhibit – but so were the decorative arts rooms.

The next day I took Amtrak home. And once again, the train ran late.

Oh, the wedding? That went off well. The chapel was small but historic and the bride was beautiful and beautifully dressed. I enjoyed meeting up with family. Detroit/Dearborn, however, is an area I don’t need to revisit, although I did find the Detroit Art Museum and the Henry Ford Museum worthwhile stops, since I was there anyway.

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