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.
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...
...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.
|A great place to meet good-looking Romanian women|
|We enjoy a drink with a local lass.|
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!