Friday, 21 September 2018

Transylvania Ski Trip 2018 - Part 2

Romania 2018 – Our Transylvanian Ski Tour in Review
Part Two

From Râșnov our vans took us to Bran Castle where the real Vlad Tepes, after being captured by the Hungarian King in 1462, was imprisoned for a month or two.  Built in 1377, this castle and its infamous visitor, Vlad the Impaler, were likely the model from which Bran Stoker took his fictional Dracula.  The castle was illustrated in a book by Charles Boner and printed in Britain in 1865.  Bran Stoker had a copy of that publication.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and other books, films, and plays which have resulted from that character, have made Bran Castle one of the most visited tourist sites in Transylvania.  Today, a rather large market has sprung up in the nearby village on its eastern side.  This Romanian style shopping area was not in existence when we last visited Bran Castle in 2004.  It has many items hand-made in Romania.  Fur hats, jackets and coats, linen table cloths and runners, embroidered cloth, old coins, watches, scarves, leather and fur gloves, wooden trick boxes, and weaving made from cloth, straw or rattan are available.  This time, there were even items with ‘Dracula’, ‘Transylvania’, and ‘Bran Castle’ written, sewn, or printed on ‘T’ shirts, sweat shirts and ball caps.  Those had been unheard of in 2004.
Bran Castle sits on a high ridge and a visitor has to walk up a rather steep incline to get to the gate house or old customs house.  From there, a single set of long, stone steps lead to the castle’s door.  

 There is no moat, draw-bridge or spacious court yard for a horse or carriage.  Those additions were the fictional creation found in Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula.  Bran Castle was a defensive structure and has only one way in, the massive double oak doors with their ornate, giant knockers.

The castle was built for the royal family in the late 14th Century.  Each room has a ceramic fireplace, most have their original furniture, and they give you a glimpse of how the wealthy once lived.   

Amazingly, thieves managed to steal the king and queen’s ebony-wood, four-poster bed.  In 2004, that ornate bed was still in the King’s bedroom.  I took a number of close-up photos of the intricate carvings in its head and base boards.  Its canopy was of similar wood and had rich patterns carved into the beams.  The replacement bed is just a plain-Jane king-size bed, its frame stained in a dark shade to simulate aged wood.
Without doubt, to ‘steal’ such a massive piece of furniture took inside cooperation. It would have been an awkward item to carry down the very narrow winding passages and stairs.  My guess is that it was partially disassembled and then lowered out the window to awaiting arms where it vanished into the night, post-haste.  My pictures from 2004, if I ever dig them out, should help trace it to its new owner.  My images have better detail than those rather bland images currently posted in the king’s bedroom.

 Most of us still had ski points on our ski passes and these points can be carried over until they are used up.  This permits you to ski a few hours each day and still tour the towns nearby.  Some of us went back up the mountain for a lovely stroll and lunch.  Others put their skis back on and spent the day in the snow and the sun.

 On January 15th we departed Poiana Brasov for Sinaia and their high alpine ski region.   From Transylvania, we crossed into the neighbouring province of Wallachia, a trip of just under an hour.  Romania and its countryside are breathtaking.  

Thankfully, the trip was run in broad daylight, reducing the speed our vans were able to accomplish.  This provided a chance to enjoy the ride while seeing a part of the region.

Vila Wendy (spelled with one ‘L’) was right in the heart of the city, and we had rented all three floors.  The boys, Dave, Peter and Trevor, took to bottom level.  Tam, Shelley, Nathalie, and Katherine took the 2nd floor while Bruce, Shannon, and I took the top floor.  

Aged, but very well maintained, each apartment at Vila Wendy had modern facilities and was well stocked.  Water bottles and juices were in the fridges, bread and butter on the counters, and fresh fruits in baskets on the table.    No one other than guests lived in the villa and the employees, who greeted us and left every afternoon, did not speak a word of English, German or French, the three languages members of our group spoke.  This only became a problem when we needed supplies or tried to pay for the accommodation. 

Yes, this is Romania, and I had been here in 2004.  I knew that businesses in many small towns do not take credit cards or foreign money.  The only currency is often the Romanian lei.   Our ski club had made arrangements and had sent the funds via a CIBC bank transfer to the Transylvania Bank in Sinaia.  Unfortunately, we were told, it never arrived. 

This put me in a bit of a quandary as I had to extract over 7,600 Lei from the local ATM machines.  Some had a maximum of 200 Lei, and I found one which handed out 2,000 a day.  In the end, I had the cash and I did not get hung, drawn, and quartered by the local thugs…speaking of which, the local security company in Sinaia is called ‘Thug Security’.  I believed Trevor took a picture of the vehicle with its logo.

Sinaia is the city where Romanian royalty resided during the long, cold winter months.  Most of the homes are stately villas, albeit in dire need of repair.  

 The villa next door was where the crown prince secretly met his young mistress on more than one occasion.  It’s for sale and at 5,000,000 Euros—a steal with its rich and royal past.   

Almost each house in Sinaia has its own name and there is a great book, translated to English, which gives the history of the two railway stations, the town, the famous monastery, the hotels, and many of the homes.

Across from our villa lay a beautiful park with an ice skating rink, Christmas decorations, and one of the oldest hotels in the city.  Covered in snow when we arrived, well over a foot of new snow blanketed the walkways and paths of the park the following day.  This snow storm continued for several more days, luckily most descended overnight and it was sunny each morning.   

For the skiers, the deep snow shut down the lifts.  These remained closed until they shoveled their way in and out.  For the wandering, inquisitive tourist, it was fantastic.  Yet, Nathalie was out the door early, traveled easily on her own, and often got in a day of skiing as well as meeting us in town for dinner.

There are few things as beautiful, refreshing, or enjoyable as a bright new day with lovely sunshine, deep fresh snow, and crisp cold mountain air.  That first day, we took the opportunity to tour the city from one end to the other—beautiful!

The following day we hiked up to Peles Castle.  Once there, we paid the entrance fee and spent a few hours inside a palace built by King Karl I for his wife.  It is the first castle ever built which had electricity, a built in vacuum, and a stained-glass, retractable roof.  The original generator still powers the castle, the Crown Prince’s villa next door, and the nearby medieval village.  What a majestic day that was.

The next morning, new snow again greeted us.  It erased any idea of taking the effort to go up the mountain and ski.  There are actually two different ski operators on one mountain in Sinaia’s ski region.  It may seem a little confusing, but it’s not much different from the old days when Blackcomb opened at Whistler.  Yet, in BC each company had their own mountain.  At Sinaia, the better of the two ski region’s lifts are only reachable by taxi or bus.  The older company has its gondola base right in Sinaia, but they only offer one high-alpine lift.  As a result, we opted to hike up to the historic Monestary.   The pictures speak for themselves; the scenery was spectacular. 

Sinaia with fresh snow on the ground is incredible; it’s a visitor’s winter paradise.  They still have gas lights operating in the park at night, each post individually decorated for Christmas.  The fountain, covered from the elements, is lighted and had decorations surrounding its circular form.  Music played on outdoor speakers, and locals took their families on strolls or onto the ice rink.   The whole town is reminiscent of Dickens’ 19th Century London in a much smaller scale.

We found many small bars and restaurants in Sinaia.  We were often drawn into these quaint establishments to seek warmth, lunch, drinks, and later dinner.  We even found an Indian restaurant right in the downtown core.  

A British bar, Old Nick’s, became our meeting place after lunch, and we had more than a few pints to quench our thirst.  

I even found a kiosk on the main road with a lady who not only spoke and understood English, but she had a brother who lives in Toronto, Canada.  At her kiosk, a cold beer was 1 Lei or about 30 cents (3 Lei to 1 Canadian dollar), but you had to stand outside near her window to keep warm.  Yet, the narrow lane had local items for sale on hooks tucked into the niches of the stone walls and I could look these over while I enjoying the conversation and beer.  Not known to be succinct; I had more than one beer at her outlet.  I assure you, the beer were ice cold!

I dropped my book, The Curse of The Red Crystal, off at two local book shops.  I was wearing my red ski vest with Canada written in large white letters on its back.  In one store, I met an older fellow who spoke to me in clear but extremely awkward words of English.  Without elaborating while in the store, he spoke to the book shop’s owner in Romanian.  He had offered to personally take me to the main post office for stamps.  He had noted the post cards I had just purchased.  Apparently, it was a short walk from the book store.  

This trip took me off the main tourist road and into a more deserted area where the locals live and shop.  It reminded me of the Romania I recall seeing in 2004; little seems to have changed.  People kept to themselves or peered out a door or window at strangers who happen to pass by.  The few people on the street noted my chaperone, and stayed where they were, not coming over to take a closer look.  Even with the older fellow at my side, I did not linger to take too many pictures.  I had the odd feeling I was an intruder and we moved on.

Once away from the store and out of earshot of others, this white-haired man told me how wonderful it was to meet a Canadian or anyone from the West who spoke English.  During communism and later the terrible dictatorship, English was strictly forbidden.  To avoid torture or imprisonment, he had not spoken one word for over 30 years.  To him it was important that no one in Sinaia even thought he spoke fluent English.

“When I was young, it was different,” he said in a quiet but jovial voice.  “We learned English in school and Romania was a modern country embracing technology.  Even during the war, we could speak English.  Then, the Soviets came and you could be sent to prison as a spy; under Comrade Nicolae, it was torture and death, so I never spoke another word of English.” 

In the post office, the older fellow only spoke Romanian but an Orthodox priest, to whom I had just been introduced, spoke in broken English.  Asking what I needed, he helped me buy the stamps.  My host feigned ignorance of English and simply smiled at me while nodding his head.  We had an understanding that he wished to keep his secret to himself.  I bade them all god’s good grace, and headed back up the steep hill to the main road in good spirits.  The priest came out of the post office and kept an eye out.  Several times I turned, took a photograph, and waved back.  Then, he was gone and I found myself back on the main road.

Day after day, the new snow fell.  Shannon and I took photographs or looked for geo-cashes.  Bruce went out and fed his leftovers to the local dogs.

Peter, Trevor and Dave found a lovely breakfast cafe, trudged through the deep snow drifts, fell in love with the waitress, and never missed their morning stroll or coffee.   

Tam, Katherine, and Shelley followed Peter up and down all the hills and tails joining in on the many sightseeing events. 
One of those journeys, we went to the Casino Sinaia where we paid for a tour.  The Casino was once an opulent structure and an operational gambling facility.  
 It was shut down a few years after the Soviets took over.  Later, it was used to harbour displaced communists fighting western oppression.  These refugees paid their Romanian hosts back by tearing up the inlaid wood floors and breaking down the furniture as well as many of the inner doors.  These pieces were thrown into the large fireplaces making the need to go out and gather wood (like the locals) redundant.  When they left, only the walls were standing.  Our guide explained that, basically, it had been gutted.

Their infamous dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, later used the casino as his winter office and some repairs were made.  His wife had an office and an apartment across from his.  Her part of the second floor of the casino was lavishly decorated in her own style.   

Ceausescu often called his inner circle to Sinaia for meetings where he often handed out brutal discipline.  

“Those ministers,” our guide remarked, “had to sweat it out in the small foyer next to his grand office.”

I was in the Capitolo in Havana, Cuba and sat in Fidel Castro’s chair.  I saw no reason not to sit in Ceausescu’s chair as well.  I must say, Fidel had a more lavish office with a table clock carved out of solid gold and a better chair. 

On our fourth day, the snow suddenly stopped.  Tam, Shelley and I put our ski clothes on and grabbed their skis, poles, and boots.  Then, we caught a taxi which took us up the mountain.  Tam and Shelly had all their gear with them and were going to get ski passes.  

 I went to rent boots, skis and poles in a small rental shop.  Luckily, it was quite busy and it took a while before I found a seat and tried on several pairs of boots.  I had just taken out the equivalent of $50.00 and had the bill in hand when Shelley popped in and told me the high winds had just shut down the ski lifts on the upper part of the mountain.  The gondola was still running but  there would be no skiing that day.  The rental shop owner tried to sell me the package saying I could come back the following day. 

“Just pay for the equipment and we will store it all here for you.  You save time and do not need to wait in line.”  The owner suggested.  Not being a fool, I kept that cash in my pocket.

 Slightly saddened by having the high-alpine lifts closed for another day, we walked down to the bus loop.  Sinaia has the same great bus service as Delta, British Columbia.  Their buses run each hour, and we had just missed one.  It was not the same service as that which is provided the skiing public at Poiana Brasov, Transylvania.  There, the longest wait time is 30 minutes.  We called the same taxi driver who had just brought us to the mountain, and he picked us up three minutes later. 


More to come: More skiing, mountain vistas, and the demonstrations in Bucharest.  That’s what an eastern European ski trip is all about—the remarkable journey, not just the skiing!

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Our Transylvaniain Ski Tour - 2018

Romania 2018 – Our Transylvanian Ski Tour in Review
Part One    note: Spelling is Oxford English- ignore spell check

Most of our gang of 10, five members of the Pacific Ski Club and five members of the Victoria Alpine Ski Club, departed Vancouver on the 7th of January, 2018.  One member was already in France, but all of us converged in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, on the 8th of January.

Our mad drivers--undaunted.
Unless you have ever traveled in the old USSR and its Soviet satellite states (for me it was Yugoslavia in 1980), you cannot imagine the way transit operates in Romania.  Driving at break-neck speeds, on roads which are in questionable condition, at night, in the middle of winter, passing both a police car with red lights and its siren on as well as a ambulance with its emergency lights ablaze, both of which were driving far too slow for our caravan of brand-new Mercedes Benz 7 passenger vans, is an experience few will forget (unless they were sleeping—yes, one guest missed most of the exhilarating ride).  Needless to say, solid lines or double solid lines are just there to let you know the location of the center of the road and in no way impede rapid forward progress.  These painted barriers are crossed without regard to safety even on blind corners.  The thought being: obviously, at night, if a vehicle were coming at you from around a corner, you should see the glare of their headlights well in advance and move over.  Needless to say, although we were over twenty minutes ahead of any unwritten schedule, the traffic eventually came to a standstill.  Tam was finally able to find a bush.  Most of us got out stretching our legs and seeing if we were in one piece; the drivers smoked and chatted about the head-on collision.   
Waiting for the carnage to be cleared
Yes, there was a collision in our lane on a blind corner a half kilometre up the road, the system—or the thought behind the system of reckless driving—failed.  This is a daily occurrence which has no affect on the drivers and once the wrecks were pushed to the side, the mad pace to our destination, Poiana Brasov and our hotels, continued.

 The people in Romania are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet.  Check-in was smooth and shortly, those not too tired, walked down to one of the big hotels for dinner.  It was 9:30pm local time when we walk in the door. 

“You’d better hurry and order if you want food or drinks.” The smiling male waiter said after seating us and quickly passed out menus.  “The kitchen closes in 10 minutes.”
"Quick.  Read the menu.  We've only got 10 minutes."
Why we all wondered and then asked our server.  
“Why it’s Christmas here in Romania.  We follow the Orthodox calendar.  “You are lucky we are even open, but we are a hotel.”
Merry Christmas, everyone!

A live band was playing Romania carols beside a 25 foot, fully decorated Christmas tree and people were dancing—adults, children and all.  Well, a very Merry Christmas; and, after that drive out of Bucharest, thank god we are all still alive!

The service was friendly, the food was hot and came promptly, tasted great, and the drinks were wet and well deserved.  You cannot lose weight if you go to Romania on a vacation.

Poiana Brasov (meadow of Brasov) is nestled some 12 kilometres up from Brasov, Romania’s second largest city.  Fresh snow lay on the ground and the ambience of this small alpine village is truly remarkable.  If you are a keen skier, this was not the resort for you.  If you love to travel, experience remarkable things, see ancient castles, eat fantastic food, and see a country few ever visit; this was the trip for you. 

Some of us, Nathalie for one, skied quite a few days; being an early bird, she was up on the hill before anyone noticed she was gone.  Most of us skied a day or two up in the alpine, but by far, the trip was an excursion into a winter wonderland almost lost to time.  
"I don't drink wine!"

Everywhere one looked, a part of the past looked back.  Brasov itself is one of seven cities founded on the extreme eastern boarders of the Austrian Hungarian Empire to guard against the Ottoman raiders.  Tradition, history, and a land not so different from British Columbia greet you.  

Escaping the cold in Poiana Brasov

Most of us spent a day or two strolling through the village of Poiana Brasov as light snow fell covering the sidewalks, streets, and houses in a winter wonderland.  Small kiosks dotted the main street; restaurants, hotels and a few shops separated by tall evergreens and open fields made up most of the town.  The ponds were frozen, the locals bundled up, and skiers from all over where walking about in their new ski wear often heading into a warm bar to escape the cold.  Local musicians, with their whole families in tow, often came in and performed at most of the establishments singing carols, dancing, or a combination of the three.  Guest were supposed to donate their coins, reminiscent of the carollers standing in front of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Counting House in 1843.  Yes, time stands still in some places.

Our group soon found the local transit station and for 20 lei (about 75 cents) you could go into Brasov with the local bus.  They run every 30 minutes and most of us used transit more than a few times.  
Brasov's Town Hall with the Christmas tree.

Brasov is an old town known as Kronstadt when founded in 1211.  It has the famous Black Church, the Town Hall where the Pied Piper took the children of Hamlin, St. Catherine’s Gate, the Black Tower, the White Tower, and an aerial tram which gives you a spectacular view of the entire region.  Breath-taking; awe-inspiring; a camera buff’s dream!  Yes, there were even Geo-cashes to be found in Brasov if you had the application on your cell phone (we found a few all over Romania).

I drop off one of my books.
On my first visit to Brasov, I had dropped off a number of my books, The Curse of The Red Crystal, at three local book shops.  The following day, Trevor, Dave, Peter, Nathalie, and I went into town an hour earlier than the rest.  As we walked through the promenade, we soon noticed that all the markets and shops were still closed.  As it was a bitter, cold winter morning, we began to look for refuge, yet even the bars and restaurants were still not open.   Getting chilled, we went into the first establishment we found.  In the comfort of that restaurant, everyone ordered a thick hot chocolate to ward off the cold.  A few minutes later, my cell phone rang, and I went out and met with Bruce and Shannon and a few others who came to town with a later bus.  While returning, a fellow came up the snow covered sidewalk from behind and asked if I was the famous Canadian author, Anton Von Stefan.  Had the group not been with me, no one would have believed it ever happened.  He had bought my book the day before, recognized me from the photo inside the back cover, and invited me to a scientific writer’s convention later that day.   As it was in Brasov, I accepted and had a great afternoon.

Brasov was decorated with Christmas trees, fir wreaths and streamers, seasonal lights, ornaments, and a beautiful Christmas market.  These small booths sold local wears, decorations and food.  Each had a smiling face or two which greeted us in their language; a few spoke English.  The market covered most of the central town square.  Most of our group tasted the food, especially the meats, cheese, and pastries. 

Their last king, Mihai I (Michael I), had passed away on the 5th of December, 2017.  As a result, all official flags were at half mast, and there was an exhibit in the Town Hall showing photographs and memorabilia of the royals.

The group found two locals who were just starting up a tour company and had several vans with two way communication.  We hired them for a day to take us to Râșnov Castle and then on to Bran Castle, both in Transylvania.  
The massive front gate

With mist and fog lying about, the cold winter air nipping at your chin, our vehicles climbed up from the valley past ancient fields and homes.  Our drivers conveyed the history as we passed. 

Upon arriving at Râșnov, a lone kiosk with an older fellow who sold me a cold beer stood before the imposing walls of the castle.  Once we walked through the main gate, we were greeted by a vast open field, a narrow road which climbed up to the next castle gate, and a massive stone fortress in the distance.

“Up and until five years ago, no one ever thought anyone would pay to come up here and see this castle.” Our driver and guide said.  “Only children ever came up here and played in the ruins.  Renovations began in 2010 and it’s only recently been open to the public.”

One could call it a citadel as the castle is actually a small village surrounded by fortifications and many imposing gates.  When we viewed it, only a few shops were being used and these sold local wears and not the usual souvenirs—not a postcard to be found; no trinkets made in Asia. 
Real Antiques
Most of the structures were remarkably intact for all of the years they have been left neglected.  Lots of original farming tools, broken wagon wheels and wooden axles, iron barrel and wheel hoops lay about forgotten and unused.  These stood against the long-ago shuttered doors, walls or just lay on the ground where someone from the past left them.  In a few years, once the tourist dollars come in, Râșnov will be cleaned up but it just won’t be the same.  Yet, the ghosts of the past were present in the mist which surrounded us that day.
Shannon & Shelley

“During WWII, it was still used as a fortification to protect the locals from the ravages of war.”  Our guide remarked.  “I used to teach, but I am going to give working as a tour guide my full attention this year.”
Our 'Guide' (center in green)

I found an iron cage used to imprison the unsavoury and almost couldn’t get back out.  The door hinges were badly rusted and only a tourist would be smart enough to crawl in.  
A leftover from the middle ages - "serves him right!"
Back in Poiana Brasov, we took to the hills...
A great place to meet good-looking Romanian women

We enjoy a drink with a local lass.
...where in a gondola, suspended on a thin wire cable, high above the freshly fallen snow, I talked to two very lovely locals whereupon we ended up in a bar at the mountain's base.  As I said earlier, Romanians are some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet.

More to come: Bran Castle, our ski trip to Sinaia (too much snow), and the revolt and demonstrations in Bucharest.  That’s what an eastern European ski trip is all about—the remarkable journey, not the skiing!