Busteni Or Bust!

October 26, 2014

The first day was – as I’m sure you’d expect – a heck of a lot of travel. We did as planned, got the 6am bus to Dublin, arrived in Dublin at 8am and got our flight at 10am. Gosh, I was anxious on the bus. I don’t know why. Maybe because I felt I’ve been leaving home an awful lot lately, without enough time to settle in between? I felt as if I was leaving in the middle of something. That I wasn’t ready to go away again. I often feel homesick, or rather a kind of faux-homesickness when I even think of leaving on a trip. I felt like this until we reached Newry [roughly the halfway point of the bus journey] and the bus jolted, stopping at some traffic lights. I opened my eyes and saw we’d stopped outside a takeaway called ‘Transylvania’. I chuckled to myself and went back to sleep, telling myself that if that wasn’t a sign that I was going to the right place; nothing would be. It’s maybe the first time I’ve waited for a flight in my own country only to realise that we were the only native English speakers there. When on the plane the announcements were given in Romanian first, English second. Everything screamed “This is not a typical holiday destination! You are going somewhere unusual!” The flight took around three and a half hours meaning that we got into Bucharest at around 3:30 in the afternoon, local time.

As we’d decided to spend the first couple of days in a quiet mountain town called Busteni [pronounced Bushten] we had to get the train from Bucharest to there. Unfortunately rather too much caution meant we’d allowed ourselves too much time to wait for the train so we had to hang around the train station for longer than intended, eating in what seemed to be a chain diner called Springtime. Our first food in Romania turned out to be Lebanese! I got a halloumi, mozzarella and zatar wrap which was either oily, spicy and delicious because we were starving, or maybe it simply was just delicious. We got some Romanian pastries from a bakery nearby, me attempting to pronounce pandispan [and not doing too badly] and getting a slice of sponge cake for my troubles, although the language barrier meant that I thought I’d got my change when it turned out she had told me to wait until she got the rest from the till. They called me back when I started to walk away, peering at the amount of money in my palm that seemed far too little. We quite literally landed in Busteni with a bump, as when we opened the door to get out of the train, there was no platform. So we opened another door. No platform. We checked the other side; no platform. By now we were getting worried the train would start again with us still on it so when we opened another door and found a conductor out there with a torch I made motions to get off and he helped me down what was probably a four foot drop. Andrew’s good manners did him a disservice as they meant he now had to get himself, my suitcase and his own sports bag off the train, which was now starting to move. I may have unhelpfully started to giggle hysterically. As Andrew remarked later; the most remarkable thing about this is the fact that the conductor didn’t seem at all surprised. This is travelling by rail in Eastern Europe. We arrived at Busteni at around 8:30pm, in the dark with Andrew assuring me he knew the way to the Pensiune Kalinder which according to the map was just 1.3km away. This was probably true, but 1.3km with a wheely suitcase, having been on trains, buses and planes all day and above all, it being in a mountain town therefore uphill meant it wasn’t exactly leisurely. And then the dogs started following us. I did the typical thing: dropped back completely and let Andrew deal with them. In retrospect they probably weren’t in attack mode, just curious mode and the noise of the suitcase maybe attracted them. It was just when the first one started barking and the second one appeared then a huge-sounding one barked from behind a hedge… tears were not far away, let me tell you. All I could think was that I was going to get bitten and it would ruin my holiday and I didn’t want to go to hospital where I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t have travel insurance! Phew. Anyway, after nearly dying with suitcase + steep hill we arrived at Kalinder at around 9pm, incredibly relieved that it existed, that the snarling dogs [yes, more] across the road were behind a wire fence, that our suite was just two floors up, that we had a shower, TVs, fridges… We’re not usually the suite type, but we had realised while browsing accommodation that the exchange rate meant that we could almost pretend to be rich people in Romania. They use the Lei, which works out as about 5 lei to £1. This worked very much in our favour, especially in a ski resort town out of season. Not that we’d seen any mountains yet. It was dark, and the skyline was really just fog. We had high hopes for the next morning. Even snarling dogs aren’t as frightening in daylight. Right?

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh? The next day we were all for trying to do two castles. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. Peles Castle is in Sinaia, about ten minutes away by train. Bran Castle is one hour by train to Brasov then half an hour by bus. At least that’s what I’d heard… We ended up wasting most of the morning pottering up and down Busteni main street, looking through the supermarket and trying to locate a path we’d heard about that leads to a nearby waterfall. When we couldn’t find either it or the cable car [which we assumed would be quite easy to find, as it’s a main tourist draw] we headed back to the train station. The ticket machines were more complicated than we expected and we couldn’t work out which train took us to Sinaia, so we just got tickets to Brasov, settling for Bran Castle!This is roughly where the problem started. We were outside Brasov station, probably looking a bit puzzled. A man told us that to get to bran we had to get the number 23 bus and go four stops. This seemed a bit odd as I’d heard it took half an hour on the bus, but we dutifully tried this, counting the four stops and getting off in the middle of a motorway, not seeing any castle. We noticed a nearby motorway bridge and climbed it, thinking that it would be a good castle vantage point. No castles. Andrew reasoned that maybe we’d got the 23 going in the wrong direction and maybe it had been four stops the other way? So we walked to the stop going the opposite way and asked the driver. Nope, no Bran. We went back to the original bus stop and studied the map. No castles. I was starting to get stressed as it was nearly three by this point and the man had told us the castle closed at four. Andrew suggested we go back to Brasov station and try again so we walked to the other stop, again, slightly losing the will to live. A ray of hope appeared when we realised the other stop was near a taxi depot and Andrew took pity on me, wilting in the sun and suggested a taxi. Yep, the journey took about half an hour. It cost about £10 each which for Romania was a large price, but was what I’d been expecting of a taxi, and the sense of relief to actually get somewhere was palpable. And seeing Bran was a delight! People call the entire town a tourist trap, in that it’s geared towards tourist interests. But I like that sort of thing. Market stalls, handmade carvings, bustling medieval-style cafes… And yes, Vlad may not ever have actually been there. Historians aren’t sure. They know he didn’t live there, certainly. But the tourist board decided Dracula fans needed something to visit, so slapped the tag of Dracula’s Castle on it. Hey presto! When we arrived at the castle we found out that the man wasn’t quite right about it closing at four, but that the last entry was at 4:30. As it was only 3:30 we were in good time and the earlier 23-bus frustration dissipated!

Now the entry route to Bran is up a winding path, through trees. You can’t get much more than an glimpse of the castle and when you’re finally up there, you’re too close! The ideal view of the castle is from quite far away. Like, from another mountain. So I’ll give you a professional photo to give you the idea.

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Any photos of mine are quite bitty. Like: Look! Tower!

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Look! Piece of wall!

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Or Look! Medieval instrument of detecting witchcraft! If someone was found to be lighter than the particular pile of rocks that were piled upon the device on that day, well, they were witches and dealt with sternly. Sometimes they were weighed against a Bible which was rather good for them, as very few people are lighter than a Bible. Here’s me, being tested. I have a worried expression, as you would if you were being tried for witchcraft.

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Some Andrew-photos:

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Not many photos this day as inside the castle was dark, outside was very bright and busy with visitors and we were still a little tired from travel. We did take a walk in the castle grounds though.

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Our phones hadn’t yet adjusted to the fact that we were in Romania with absolutely zero network coverage which made splitting up difficult so when Andrew wanted to go exploring for an hour I didn’t fancy waiting in the same spot for him to return. I’d already done the markets and was still too nervous to visit a cafe alone with my poor Romanian so just followed him up the hill, hoping he’d get bored soon. We did see quite a few rural things: a man beating a pig with a stick, a man teaching a young boy how to drive a horse and cart, many horse… leavings. Most of it was houses though. Houses and gardens, some dogs, some cats. Eventually we realised nothing particularly picturesque was going to happen and headed down the hill; wondering where to get the bus back to Brasov. Andrew found the unmarked bus stop completely by accident. Pure luck, as one of the twice hourly buses was beside it! It wasn’t our bus so I waited in the little wooden shelter while Andrew scaled another hill. When the bus got us back to Brasov bus station we discovered what the number 23 advice had been about. Turns out from Brasov train station you’re supposed to get the number 23 bus to the bus station, where you then get the bus to Bran! It’s not four stops along though. Still not sure what that bit was about…

Rather than going back up the hill to Kalinder then coming down again for food, we decided to go straight from Busteni train station for food. I’d heard on Tripadvisor that the restaurant attached to Cantacuzino Castle was pretty nice, and we’d spotted it on the hill earlier in the day [yeah, another hill]. Here it is in daylight.

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We walked up slowly. It was dark by then and we could hear chirps which we assumed might be crickets. We don’t have much crickety experience here in Ireland. They got louder and louder though so I romantically entertained the notion they might be bats. It was pretty cool by this point and I didn’t have a jacket as I hadn’t expected we would still be out at 8:30pm! I had my scarf wrapped around me and didn’t expect to enjoy the night walk as much as I did but the views of the town from the Cantacuzino gardens were beautiful, so much so that we actually wandered a bit while Andrew tried to get a decent shot [which he hasn’t put up online yet]. Arriving at the restaurant we were a bit daunted by the prices but remembered to divide by 5 and closer inspection of the French-inspired menu showed that only the most exclusive dishes were 100 lei! I had pork parcels with mushroom risotto and beer sauce and a non-alcoholic cocktail called a green apple with apple, lime and brown sugar. Andrew had a fish dish with apricot juice to drink. All delicious, and I was only sad that I wasn’t hungry enough to try the pumpkin rolls with pistachio ice cream for dessert. All day we’d been slightly worried that our hotel had no maps of the town and the town had no signposts for our big walking day the next day. Our receptionist didn’t speak enough/any English and we didn’t speak enough/any Romanian to get good directions so when we arrived at this restaurant with friendly, English-speaking waiters we took the opportunity to ask for directions to the cable car, which we got, along with a high recommendation of the whole cable car experience! Which I admit, I was in two minds about. The chef also came out for a chat, asking how we’d heard of them, as wandering up a hill in the dark isn’t the usual way to accidentally find a restaurant. On leaving, we noticed the huge CantaCuisine billboard with his picture on it. Small-town fame, eh?

Back to the hotel we retired, me finding a Gwyneth Paltrow film ‘Bounce’ on TV to help me wind down after the long day. Strange what you’ll settle for watching when you’ve no other choice. Even stranger that you’ll actively enjoy watching it! The next day would be Walking Day…

With the magic of the internet we can now cut straight to that next day! The plan for today was the locate the elusive cable car and think about going up in it and not look down or cry or anything. I refer you to this picture. This view is from just outside our hotel. There’s a cross on the mountain.

157Can’t see it? I’ve made it easier for you.

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Following the directions of the Cantacuzino waiter, we duly followed the main street until we found Penny Market [a supermarket chain] and then started walking up the street [called Strada Telecabinei, which would have been a clue if we’d seen maps of the town for sale anywhere!]. Of course I was in two minds about the cable car. If all had gone as I planned, I would have had the chance to observe a few journeys on it before making a decision. Unfortunately the cash desk is at the front of the station, and you can’t see the cable car until you go through to the open bit, and you can’t go through to the open bit until you pay. Of course there was a walkway out back which I discovered later, but sometimes I need to be slightly forced into making that sort of decision [by being in a fast-moving queue], or else I won’t do anything.

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The cable car takes you up to Cabana Babele, beside the Babele rock formations. From there you have a choice. Go back down, chill out at the rock formations, have a sandwich in the Cabana or take one of the many marked paths that start from that point. Some paths were about 7 hours long and I ruled these out. I’m not overly keen on aimless walks either. If I’m on a walk I want it to have a clear destination; a point where I can say it’s time to head back now. I decided finding the cross would be such a point, and it was also about a 3 hour round trip. Totally doable. The only problem is, the signs were in Romanian so I wasn’t sure whether to follow the path to the Cabana Caraiman as the cross was on Mount Caraiman, or to follow the sign that said Crucea Eroilor. Now I was fairly sure that crucea meant cross. But Eroilor? If it meant ‘Hero’ we were fine, as the cross was known both as Caraiman Cross and Heroes’ Cross, erected to commemorate the WWI dead. If it didn’t mean here, we were probably going the wrong way. The symbol we had to follow on the signs was a red cross though, which I took as a hint. Fingers crossed!

First of all though, we wandered around the Babele rock formations.

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We found our feet on the surface of the moon.

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We [I] posed outside disused huts with unstable ground underfoot, as we [I] figured if it was really unsafe, it would be cordoned off, right? We thought that until we realised the cliffs themselves weren’t cordoned off and we [I] might be idiots.

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Onward with the red cross path!

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After about an hour of wondering where the cross was, because surely we would be able to see it before now, right? We scaled a hill and there it was!

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But we had to pass this first:

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See the clouds there? Yep, we were totally above the clouds.

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Larking about commenced:

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And a random stranger, to show how peaceful it was.

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At this point, things became a bit of a race against time, as I had a return cable car ticket to get back down the mountain. Andrew only bought a single and was going to walk back down, but was going to walk with me to the cable car station. Until we ended up going separate ways. I assumed his way would end up a dead end and with time not being on my side I just kept on following the path I’d used to get there [with the help of a man in his 60s at the chain part], walking quite fast and humming Holst’s Planets Suite to myself to keep my momentum going. Missing that car was not an option! After about half an hour of panic Andrew appeared, revealing that his path had indeed been a dead end and he’d had to double back and run to catch up with me. Up a mountain. We’re sounding super-fit here but I assure you, we’re not. I got back in time though. I’d assumed ‘Last cable car’ meant exactly that, and once it was full everyone else was screwed. But no, they kept sending empty cable cars up until the queue had gotten down the mountain. I genuinely enjoyed my time in the queue, meeting a Northern Irish family and I probably exist in someone’s Facebook holiday photo album as the random NI person they met in the cable car queue!

Once I got down I finished my water as I didn’t have to ration it anymore! I bought more, and got a salam biscuit [chocolate biscuit cake roll in the shape of a salami] from a nice-looking bakery and started the walk back uphill to Kalinder. I was so relieved to be finished for the day! I was also relieved that our phones were now both working, so I could text him and ask if he was still alive when the sun began to set. I watched some Big Bang Theory [which I never usually watch but like I said, on holidays anything seems amazing!] and the modern TV series of Hawaii 5-0 on Sky Universal, which concentrated on some people lost in a jungle/forest park. I hoped this hadn’t happened to Andrew.

He arrived back three hours after I had and after he’d had a shower I cautiously put the idea to him that my knees couldn’t cope with leaving Kalinder, going to a restaurant and then coming up that hill again, so could we eat in the hotel restaurant? He seemed completely up for this idea. Not sure his knees wanted another long walk either! I ordered ‘peasant sausages and polenta’. Polenta is a cornmeal mush, vaguely resembling mashed potatoes and it’s very popular in Romania. All I can really say about it is that it didn’t taste of much, and was relatively harmless. My sausages were gently spicy, although I was overwhelmed by the fact that they brought me six. Six sausages. I ate four and a half. We were amused to discover that the English menu lists everything at higher prices than the Romanian one did. I mean, initially I was horrified but once I realised they were charging us Romanian prices I relaxed. Maybe because we were hotel guests? Something to be aware of, at any rate!

And I’ll end this one the same way I end all of these: with a vaguely ominous sentence about the following day. The next day would involve lots of time on trains…

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