Kat: I recently spoke to my sister on Skype, who couldn’t believe I was actually in Transylvania. “Is that really a place?” she asked. I’d forgive anyone for thinking Transylvania was made up; the land of Count Dracula has been fictionalised in countless movies and books, until it’s become the clichéd setting for a horror movie. Yet it does exist in the northern part of modern Romania, amidst the Carpathian mountains. It retains the tall pine trees and striking cliff faces, yet these are the only similarities between that and 1950s vampire films.
We arrived in Transylvania on the overnight train from Budapest. Countless rumours abound about train travel in Romania, from burly thugs to pickpockets pumping gas under the cabin doors. In reality we had an entire sleeper to ourselves; not many travellers to Romania on a cold Sunday night. The staff were friendly, especially the moon-faced bartender who brought us free tea and wafers in the early morning.
Sighisoara is the only UNESCO listed city in Romania, sure other cities have UNESCO buildings here and there, but it’s one of the best preserved examples of a medieval city in the world. The town is full of brightly painted houses and historical architecture. We stayed at the most welcoming Pensiune Citadela, where the breakfasts were hand cooked ham and eggs on toast and the location right next to the clock tower. There’s not an enormous amount to do in Sighisoara, one day is enough to explore the citadel. The birthplace of Vlad Dracul (you may recognise the name?) is now a cheesy tourist restaurant, and the souvenir shops cater to the tacky end of the market, with bat mugs and vampire t-shirts. In summer you could hike up to a grove of 800 year old trees, but with the thick snow falls we couldn’t walk far!
From there we did a triangular day trip to Medias, then Sibiu, both more medieval cities. Ready with my itinerary all written out, we tried to buy tickets from the train office. What ensued was a scene from a David Lynch film. The chubby woman got so frazzled with our straightforward, printed itinerary that her chain-smoking female colleague came over to massage her head in a pseudo-sexual way. We watched the minutes tick down as our train came closer and closer, still without tickets in hand. Finally, two minutes before the train left our we had our tickets in hand.
Medias is famous for the fortified church at the heart of the town, while Sibiu is another picture-perfect example of medieval architecture. There’s a fantastic art gallery in Sibiu, where we spent most of the afternoon gazing at Romanian art. Before we returned to Sighisoara, we ate at a local restaurant, where I was presented with a meat plate that featured chicken livers and a sheep’s brain. I must say, the brain was the best thing on the plate; everything else was oozing grease like John Travolta.
We travelled from Sighisoara to Brasov in a train that belonged in a museum of Communist history. I’d been warned off the Regional “P” trains by online forums; “dirty, old and slow” was the common complaint. Which was pretty accurate. They reminded me of red rattlers, with metal flaking off the sides like dandruff. Inside brown was the decor of choice. Brown plastic seats, brown walls, brown window panes that hadn’t been washed since ’81. Cue the Crimson Tide soundtrack and some clanging metal chains.
Justin: I occasionally have a tendency to overestimate my abilities, mentally stretching my capacity into the realm of self-delusion and danger. I know my personality and I know my faults, and this is one of them. But it’s not such a bad thing, at least trying and failing is better than not trying at all.
When it came to skiing I thought that because I skied in Perisher and Thredbo about 13 years ago I should be able to seamlessly hit the slopes in Poiana Brasov and effortlessly glide down the blue and red runs. This illusion was cruelly shattered as I tried to exit the ski lift. I was able to manage to jam my poles while at the same time forgetting to remove my skis from the lift. Two Romanian women screamed at me to no avail, it made me panic more. So the lift was halted as I tried to pick myself up. When I actually managed to get up I skied right into a little kid who was next to his large Romanian family. The kid wasn’t impressed with my jerky awkward carnage, neither were his family.
Disaster continued as I went down the slopes, every times I tried to slow my speed I managed to about face with my legs widely spaced apart, either that or I rammed straight into an embankment of snow or worse a human bowling pin. Ocassoinally I would also stack on a sleep slope, sometimes leaving my poles behind and tumbling down another 20 metres and waiting for a gracious skier to collect my poles and deliver them to me.
Justin, Justin, Justin. When we you learn? Take things slowly, step by step and use caution. I’m like a bull in a china shop, actually more like the running of the bulls in a fine china shop. I had intentions of skiing like James Bond, after a bitter reality check I settled for Cosmo Kramer. Speaking of James Bond, we dined at a Chinese restaurant whose waiter was identical to the bad guy from Casino Royale. He served us with stoic dutifulness barely looking at us and like most Romanians smoking like a chimney, indoors too, when he got a chance.
Back to the slopes: So what I lack in immediate graces I make up for in persistence and heart. I kept learning from my mistakes and linked up with a Romanian ski instructor called Vio, who was a cross between Jean Claude van Damme, Bear Grylls and Kelly Slater. He coaxed more confidence and technique into me and by the 3rd and 4th day I was able to confidently ski down the mountain with control and grace. This was extremely satisfying.
Kat and I have been going through the wars in Eastern Europe in terms of sickness. As you gathered from earlier posts I went through a nasty flu and chest infection that lasted well over a month. Over the past couple of weeks both Kat and I have struggled with Eastern European food, our stomachs and unruly digestive irritations have gained the upper hand unfortunately and today it was my turn to return the favour to Kat and wait and serve on her, really only a pittance compared to what she did for me. I really value marriage in times like this, be together in sickness and health is what it’s all about.
Today we also went castle hunting. We visited the fake Dracula castle in Bran. Like a lot of castles in Europe it once occupied a crucial strategic position separating Transylvania (never get tired of saying and writing this name) and Wallachia. Apparently Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned there for a couple of months. Vlad the Impaler was the son of Vlad Dracul, and is the historical figure Bram Stoker used to create the Vampire myth. The castle was OK, I was more concerned about Kat’s well-being and you get castled-out in Europe sometimes. But it was important to go here, Kat’s penned a novel which she continues to work on and enhance called The Memory of Blood, all about Dracula, the myth and the man.
So our Eastern European trip concludes and we are going back to London again. We need to go there to secure a South Korean visa – that’s right we have signed a one year contract with a school in Eonyang near Ulsan city and Busan, in the southern part of South Korea. We start working there on March 20th and hit the ground running. It’s exciting things are moving forward with freshness and progress and we are really looking forward to teaching kids, the super fast South Korean internet and free accommodation will not hurt either. Ciao for now 🙂 Justin and Kat x