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  • Day24

    Back on track after my little diversion to Deva, I took a bus to Cluj Napoca a town I knew nothing about except that it was within striking distance of Salina Turda. I first heard about Salina Turda when researching my trips back in 2014, and while I never managed to get there then, I wasn't going to miss out now that I had accidentally found myself in Romania.

    Salina Turda is 30 minutes out of town and is an old underground salt mine that has been turned into an attraction, and is brilliantly surreal. Entering through a crashed UFO looking visitors centre, you rug up for the constant 10 degree temperatures underground and walk down a long mine shaft, cut directly into the weeping black and white salt deposit, which gives the walls an alien look and feel. There are some exhibits showing off some of the original mining equipment, but that's a minor distraction from the main attraction, which is the 13 story high bell shaped cuts into the salt that have been transformed into a wonderland of lights, ferries wheels, games and a lake complete with row boats. It's like a Bond villain suddenly decided to open a child care centre in his underground lair, it's truely bizarre, but unbelievable awesome and would have made the trip to Cluj worth it alone. However, as it turned out Cluj turned out to be one of the favourite places I have ever been.

    Arriving in the hostel in Cluj, I immediately realised this place was different. Within a couple of hours I'd met 3 people who had originally booked a couple of days, but were still there weeks later, having missed trains and buses, not being able to leave. This included Gazel a Japanese guy who has been traveling nonstop for 4 years, 1 year of which has been living in this very hostel, returning every time he could get a visa again and not leaving until he had to. At first glance, there was no obvious reason why, Cluj doesn't have any real 'attractions' or excitement, and was seriously beginning to wonder if there were drugs in the water or a cult I was going to be indoctrinated into. I joined some people from the hostel for dinner and drinks that first night and still didn't understand, after Budapest the nightlife was pretty underwhelming and nothing was adding up so went to bed confused and sleeping with one eye open to ensure I could get the jump on anyone who tried to drag me to the indoctrination. However, the more time I spent in the city, the more it made sense and while, I didn't extend my stay for weeks, I did stay an extra day having been 'Clujed' like everyone assured me would happen. It is truely the Goldilock's of cities, not too big, not too small. Compact and easily walkable, highly cosmopolitan, it's beauthiful without being pretentious and is full of little surprises and hidden spots to be explored. Best of all, it just has one of those chilled vibes where you could get lost in yourself and surroundings finding time slipping by without even noticing.

    It helped that the hostel was incredibly social and full of the most eclectic and diverse bunch of people I've ever met. Gazel, who from his own admission, has gone slightly mad from being on the road too long and wants to go home, but is too far removed from everyday world to feel like he'll ever be able to reintegrate into society, so instead was spending his time roping people into staring into his abstract films he was making. Lilla a mid 30's 'lady of leisure' who was a commodity trader in London for 10 years, but was now studying psychology at the local university, having decided she couldn't be party to the global oil trade any longer. Ahmed the Tunisian engineer, who had bought and missed 3 tickets to leave Cluj, but was still there 3 weeks late. Andrew, a Sri Lankan doctor working in Ireland, who was supposed to be in Bucharest arranging logistics for a contingent of Irish resident doctors coming for a visit, but having glimpsed what life can look like when you aren't working 100 hours a week was spending most if his days on the phone trying to negotiate leave so he wouldn't have to leave.

    Every night ended up being far too late as we'd end up at some little bar or club, whether it was a bar made entirely out of cardboard, a rooftop microbrewery overlooking the entire city or underground clubs playing everything from 50's and 60's rock to heavy metal. On my final afternoon we just all went to the cities large city park with a bunch of beer, food and guitars and spent a fantastic evening chatting, listening to music until the sun finally went down, when we went to a psychedelic tea house out in the suburbs, where we spent the night lying around on pillows in the backyard on the grass looking up at the trees drinking beer and tea until we finally got kicked out, it was the perfect end to Cluj and summed up everything I, and everyone else, grew to love about the place.
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  • Day25

    The train from Cluj took me through the spellbindingly beautiful Transylvanian countryside, past little villages with commanding fortified churches and green like I have never seen before. Eventually, 5 hours later Sighasoara came into view, a view that hasn't changed much in over 600 years. Sighisoara is considered to be the most well preserved still inhabited citadel in Europe and is so pretty it should be illegal, it is like walking through a fairytale. A 12th century citadel built by Saxon mercenaries defending the Hungarian empires frontier, it's amazingly intact and still very much alive, with garishly coloured 16th century gingerbread houses surrounded by intact city walls and 9 of the original 14 defence towers. Each tower named after the guild charged with maintaining and fortifying them, which means they accurately represent the power and wealth of each craft, ranging from a simple rectangle with a single sloped roof to the block tower, a 14th century tower standing 64 meters tall and displaying vast amounts of pomp and bling, including the still working clock, which tracks the days of the week with wooden figurines. My favourite being the boot makers tower, simpler than many of the others, but situated in a quite corner of the citadel and impeccably positioned next to a small square. I had a great couple of days exploring the cobble stoned streets, exploring the towers and climbing the 12th century covered staircase to the church on the hill and its atmospheric and ramshackle cemetery spilling down the hill.Read more

  • Day28

    I had an absolutely epic few days in Brasov, and some of the most fun of the trip so far. I packed so much into the 4 days I was there that it's hard to know where to start or what the highlights were, but Brasov was absolutely beautiful and I met some absolutely fantastic people to share my experiences with, which made it that much better.

    Brasov is up in the Transylvanian mountains, another old Saxon citadel, which has retained much of it's old town charm and is beautifully located at the base of an imposing mountain garishly emblazoned with a Hollywood style sign (admittedly more tasteful than the artistic plantings that spelt out STALIN between 1950-1960) and a cable car that provides outstanding views. Again the town was full of great cafe's bars and resturants and was a great base from which to explore the many attractions close by.

    On my first full day I was joined by Gleb, a Russian heavy metal fan, on a trip out to Bran's castle (Dracula's castle) and Rasnov. Bran's castle is kind of one of those things you just have to do, even though you know it's going to be pretty terrible, and it lived up to expectations. Kitsch as hell, surrounded by an overwhelming number of souvenir stalls with proprietors dressed as Dracula and packed with day trippers and tour groups, it's best viewed from a distance and completely underwhelming inside, but packed with an improbable number of people moving in waves through narrow corridors and small rooms. Rasnov on the one other hand was excellent, empty, imposing, providing amazing views and complete with its very own Hollywood sign, it was a breath of fresh air.

    The next day 4 of us from the Hostel (2 Australian's, an Austrian and a Canadian) decided to hire a car and head to Sinaia to Peles Palace and up two cable cars to 2000 metres with the hope of hiking for a couple of hours to a mountain top hut where we heard had amazing views, food and drink. Peles Palace was one of the most impressive palaces I have ever been too, built between 1880 and 1914, it was the summer palace of the Romanian royal family and is surrounded by the most spectacular mountain and forest scenery. I decided not to pay the photo tax, so have no photos from inside, but it's absolutely astounding. 160 rooms full of the most intricate wood, glass and stonework, it's a showcase of the best of the best of late 19th century craftsmanship, and rivals, or best, anything I have seen in any other place in Europe. The detail is astounding and I'm still marvelling at it. After finishing at Peles, we headed to the cable car and took the rickety old cable cars to the mountain peak and were greeted by the strongest winds I have ever experienced! The views were amazing and it was fun getting blown off our feet, but it did put paid to any ideas of doing the planned hike, so instead we headed back down after an hour or so and headed back to Brasov for an early night to prepare for the next days epic adventure, the Transfăgărășan.

    The Transfăgărășan is the best road in the world according to Top Gear and the dream of driving it has been on my bucket list for years since I first heard about it. Also known as Ceausescu's Folly, it's a 90 kilometre mountain road crossing the Carpathian Mountains between the two highest peaks in the country and was built by the military in the early 1970's using 6 million kilograms of dynamite and at the cost of over 40 lives, it is only open for a few months over summer, between June and September. Since then it has become renowned world wide for its spectacular beauty as it snakes its way up a narrow pass, complete with numerous tunnels, endless twists and countless viaducts it didn't disappoint, especially with the amazing scenery and flocks of sheep tended by Shepard and their maremmas. Victor and Steff were kind enough to allow me to drive the entire route and I had an absolute blast, climbing up in the clear morning and after stopping at the peak for lunch and to look at the glacier lakes to descend through the fast moving rolling clouds that formed in the afternoon. I loved every second of it. The entire day too around 12 hours of driving and we didn't get back to Brasov until after 7pm when I had to grab a train to Bucharest.

    By the time I got to Bucharest at 11pm the most incredible storms had set in, which have resulted in flash flooding and widespread blackouts, which has put a dampener on my plans for sightseeing today, but on the plus side has given me an opportunity to catch up on the blog and start organising my documents for Iran, which is only in a couple of days.
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  • Day33

    Exiting the train late at night at the old dark soviet Bucharest train station leaking profusely from the massive thunderstorm raging over the city followed by a 1.5 km walk through the pouring rain due to the metro being closed due to flooding I arrived at my hostel, which lost power for over 12 hours, I finally saw the Romania I had been promised by my imagination. The storm didn't let up for over 24 hours, leading to widespread flash flooding and a forced day of planning, organisation and seeking refuge in cafes for hours on end. I did finally get out on my second day in the city, but I was a bit sightseen out, so after failing to gain entrance to the people's parliament due to not having brought my passport or having made a phone booking beforehand, I ended up just catching up with Steff, Victor and Sophie who had arrived from Brasov, chatting, wandering the old town and the bizarre grand boulevard and drinking coffee and beers in likely looking establishments, eventually ending up in one of the oldest and grandest restaurants in the city having one final hearty Romanian meal, washed down with palinka, the ubiquitous plum spirit.

    Bucharest was certainly very different to the rest of the places I had been in Romania, having had Ceausescu's heavy handed mark left on it, most notably in the form of the bizarre people's parliament, which is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon and the 3.5 km long boulevard constructed in the 1980's that cuts directly through the centre of the city, cutting the old town in half and requiring the demolition of 10 per cent of the city and forced relocation of over 40,000 people. Today less than 30 per cent of the building is occupied and it's sinking at an alarming rate, probably due to the fact it weighs over 4 million tonnes. It's a fascinating city, and quite atmospheric with its bizarre mix of fading, but elegant, Austrian-Hungarian buildings next to brutalist communist monuments and buildings overshadowing countless orthodox churches. Unfortunately, I accidentally wiped my camera yesterday afternoon so lost 2 days worth of shots.

    At the end of the day, Romania exceeded and confounded all my expectations and gave me so many amazing experiences and memories that will stay with me forever. Exceeding beautiful and clean, varied, cosmopolitan, cheap and friendly it is the complete package, but best of all I met so many amazing people during my time in the country and who made the experiences that much better for being a part of it, which is exactly what I needed after the isolation of eastern Turkey. I'm seriously thinking about coming back in a couple of months on my way back through as there is so much more I have heard about that I want to go and see and do, but I also want to check out Bulgaria in case it surprises in the same way, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
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  • Day27

    The level of sophistication, culture and beauty of Romania continues to astound me. The picture I had in my head couldn't have been further removed from reality (with the notable exception of the proliferation of gothic castles and animal fat and carb heavy diet). Everything from the lush landscapes, the level of cleanliness and civic pride displayed in the towns and cities, which are full of beautiful architecture and buildings and the sophistication of the cafe and bar culture. Combined with the ridiculously good value, as mum said, it's a wonder that it's not overrun with tourists, the hoards of which still don't seem to have moved further east than Budapest.

    Sibiu was a perfect example, another well preserved Saxon citadel and much bigger than Sighisoara (39 towers to 14), it's grandness and impressiveness somewhat out of sync for a town of only 150,000 people. Centred around 3 squares, the biggest being a massive 100 by 150 metres, and split between the upper town and lower town still connected by a buttressed stairway, off of which was my hostel. It's also a constant hive of activity having the most festivals of any town in Romania (a beach volley ball and classical music festival being on during my stay). It was the EU's 2007 capital of culture, which came with a large amount of money to renovate and restore the old towns centre, which is still paying dividends and it was a very pleasant place to spend a couple of days exploring the cobble stone streets undulating downhill and sitting in the squares watching buskers, volleyball and kids playing in the squares fountains.
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  • Day21

    Escaping the rate infested hotel the morning after my international train hopping hobo adventure, it was a relief to see that the town was actually not too bad, fairly small, but dominated by a towering mountain topped by some impressive looking fortress that begged to be explored and Corvin's castle, which I had been admiring on the cover of the Romanian Lonely Planet, was a 20 minute bus ride out of town, plenty to keep me occupied for the day and to convince myself that this unexpected detour wasn't going to be a complete bust.

    Corvin's Castle is one of Transylvania's more impressive Gothic castles, rivalling even the more famous Bran's Castle further east, and was like something out of a fairytale, but with an added layer of surrealness, due to it's location on the edge of one of Romania's more Communist towns and surrounded by a huge number of decaying soviet steel mills. This actually added to the atmosphere, creating some sort of post apocalyptic vampire vibe, fitting seeing as this is the Castle where, reputedly, Vlad the Impaler was held prisoner for 7 years and was sent over the edge of insanity, before being released back into the world to inflict his reign of terror. Built on a bend in the river, it was originally constructed in the 14th century by Turkish prisoners captured during the Crusades as both a luxurious residence and also a fortress to survive attack. A stone in the castles 25 meter deep well, still bears the inscription 'You have water, but you have no soul', left by the prisoners who spent 10 years digging it.

    The fortress above Deva couldn't have been more different. Built on the top of a volcanic hill just outside of town it dominates the sky line and dates back to 1250 and had a reputation as being one of Transylvania's most impregnable fortifications until 1849 when it was accidentally blown up by Austrian soldiers when they accidentally set alight their huge gunpowder supply while under siege by Hungarian revolutionaries during an uprising. Now its a ruined husk, partly restored and connected to the town by a funicular and provides incredible views over the surrounding countryside.

    I managed to find a nice little guest house in town when I got back to town, connected to a cool shaded beer garden, where I relaxed and had a great local meal, joined by the guest houses owner who plied me with what he called Romanian 'scotch', but I suspect was not, an incredibly potent spirit. At any other time, this would have been welcomed, but having had no sleep for two nights, all I wanted to do was sleep, but he was having none of it so it wasn't until I literally couldn't converse any further that he let me finally go to bed.
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  • Day8

    Hier muss man einen Gang zurückschalten um die Schönheiten dieses Landes wahr zu nehmen. Holprige Straßen, klapprige Pferdekutschen, mittelalterliche Burgen und kleine Dörfer an denen der Zahn der Zeit nagt, begleiten uns durch dieses kontrastreiche Land.
    Unseren Bus haben wir zum ersten mal auf einen Campingplatz in Cisnadioara, zu den Offroadern gestellt, während wir uns mit Land und Leuten anfreundeten.

    Campingplatz: Ananas Camping - wir haben zwar 0 Campingplatzefahrung aber uns hat es an nichts gefehlt. Saubere Sanitäranlagen, Strom- und Warmwasserversorgung, viel Grünfläche und trotz seiner ruhigen Lage ein guter Ausgangspunkt für Ausflüge jeglicher Art.

    Sibiu: schöne Stadt mit frischen Früchten - sehr empfehlenswert :)
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You might also know this place by the following names:

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