November 11, 2014

I have been on 15 planes this year. For me, that’s insane. Probably more than I’d been on my whole life up until now. But I’m back, with no real plans to be on another plane until April, and that’s not even a definite plan. But before I can move on with my life I need to finish writing about the Transylvania trip! We spent our first morning in Cluj much as planned, going to see the screening of Andrew’s short film and just wandering, going inside old churches and admiring the architecture of the Orthodox Cathedral. Here’s Andrew outside the Cathedral.


I still hadn’t tried sarmale [rice and meat wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves, sometimes with sauce] so when we found a cafe that specialised in it we thought we’d give it a try, Andrew trying the pork sarmale and me trying the mushroom vegetarian option. We were amused when we were asked if we wanted chili and we said yes, expecting a dipping sauce or maybe flakes. They delivered us a whole chili pepper! We also found an ice cream cafe chain called Betty Ice and were surprised at the quality. I had a scoop of white chocolate and one of salted pistachio. I meant to go back the next day to try the chestnut ice cream, but time got away from us!

It was fascinating spending three nights in a hostel, especially one that attempts to foster such camaraderie between guests. Each day we woke up to find a new activity plus dinner plans on the noticeboard, so on Monday we went to Klausenburger; an outdoor rooftop restaurant which I thought specialised in burgers. It does indeed do burgers, but the name Klausenburg is what Germans call Cluj, so I guess it’s a multipurpose name! Andrew was watching a short film screening as part of the festival so I did that particular hostel jaunt alone, finding out more about the people and the lifestyle. I’d never before realised so many people were part of this… not an underclass, of course not, because even though they’ve opted out of the rat race for huge chunks of time they’ve certainly not opted out of life. If anything, maybe the rat racers are the ones missing out on life. Maybe a peripheral class? A parallel class? I don’t mean people who go on holiday for a week. I’m one of these people, and I’m fine with that. But there are people who hostel-hop long-term. They’re completely free. They book three days in a hostel but might extend their stay for another few days, as there’s no pressure to leave. The next step in their journey is completely dictated by them. Perhaps they’ll flat-hunt in a town they really like, and live there for a few months. Perhaps they’ll meet someone on a train, have a great conversation and carry on the next part of their journey together, simply choosing a place from a pinprick on a map. I spoke to Mick from Australia, who was thinking he might move to Romania for six months. Or a year. Just because. Eddie seemed to be practically resident in Transylvania Hostel. I’ve no idea how long he’d been there, but he seemed so comfortable there and embraced everything with gusto, teaching the newbies his zen-like ways. Richard [who everyone thought looked like Steve Aoki, mainly because he told everyone he kept getting told he looked like Steve Aoki. If someone didn’t know who Steve Aoki was, he would take them to the hostel computer and show them a Steve Aoki youtube] met some fellow Americans in a hostel in Bucharest and… well they just teamed up! I enjoyed the feeling of freedom that surrounded me when talking to them, yet I also enjoyed the anchor I had, knowing I had family and a job I like back home.

Tuesday would be my last full day so I had decided it would be filled with lovely things. In a nearby town called Turda I had heard there was a salt mine. Not just any salt mine, but a salt mine open to the public. I was public. I decided to go. As far as I could gather it’s still a working salt mine, but it has historical exhibits and active rehabilitation for respiratory system as well as a recreational area. Guess which area we spent most time in? Now we were quite lucky. Apparently there’s an old entrance and a new entrance. We just happened to get off the bus near the old entrance so we got to do the same tunnel walk the miners had been doing for… well, apparently a document in 1075 mentions these mines.10299512_10152413631671080_879095996404759587_n

The walls of the tunnel shone with salt. I quickly glanced around and on realising nobody was watching me, scratched some salt from the wall with my fingernail and touched it to my tongue. Unsurprisingly, it was salty! We studied several panels describing how the salt was mined in the old days, using horses to turn the mining wheels. Horses which died down there. Some say the unusual smell down there isn’t damp, or simply the smell of underground, but the smell of decomposed horses. The dead horses left our minds though when we reached Rudolf Mine, the central mine which covers I think seven floors which you can do on stairs or in a lift. Our cameras weren’t great underground, so here are some photos from the Salina Turda website.

Salty stairs!


Salty stalagmites and stalagtites, and the Big Wheel.



Boating lake four floors farther down, in Mine Teresa. Unearthly green lights shine from below the surface. Notice the marbled pattern the salt makes on the walls!


And yes, we went boating. I got splashed a little from water from the lake. Yep, I licked my arm. Salty! Those of us on the boating lake were at the very bottom of this vast chasm and felt so isolated from reality down there that the young family in the next boat decided to try out the echo chamberness of the place, and were whistling and howling. I tried to stop myself but it didn’t last long and I managed a few howls and even a ‘Yodel-aye-ee-oo!’ I nearly ‘Ave Maria-ed’ but held it in. Andrew preferred to stay quiet, concentrating on rowing and worrying I would drop his camera into the lake.

Once we got back outside, we snacked, myself on a gingerbread cookie house I bought from a roadside stall. Andrew had read about a gorge/nature reserve which we weren’t sure if it was near, but it was called ‘Turda Gorge’ so it couldn’t be that far away… right? We started walking along roads with no footpaths, roads that seemed to be used solely by huge vrooming intimidating trucks. I was relieved when we took some steps down off the main road, although I admit I wasn’t sure if they were the right steps. The walk got increasingly more… I wouldn’t say rural exactly. We were passing shacks, things that resembled shanty towns. Vicious-sounding dogs barked from behind hedges and two stood in our path until their silent, staring owner called them off. Bags of rubbish appeared more and more frequently until getting off the path meant standing in things we might not want to stand in. I decided I might stop walking soon, but gave it a short while longer in case the gorge appeared. That’s my downfall, not wanting to miss out in case the gorge is just around the corner! We turned a corner on our narrow path only to find our way blocked by what may have been a bull. It didn’t seem particularly interested in us, but it had horns, and horns meant bulls, right? It also had rather low-hanging udders too so could have been female? We neared it and it swished its tail. This worried me, until I realised it was just swishing flies away. Then it released bladder and bowels. I figured this was a good sign though. I mean, what’s going to attack while having a toilet break? We quietly walked past it, trying not to move suddenly or anger it. Or giggle maniacally.

After cowstacle, we saw a nearby motorway bridge and thought that surely the gorge must be just beyond it, right? I walked under the motorway bridge with trepidation, seeing abandoned single shoes and feeling the uncomfortable uneven surface under my own shoes. I’ve never felt that comfortable around motorways anyway, seeing them as loud and confrontational, without the safety of footpaths. When we got close enough to the path we were planning to follow to see that it was actually a water drainage gutter, it was time for me to bow out. I didn’t want to be the next abandoned single shoe. Both of us were overly polite, me insisting I could call a taxi from a shop I could see in the distance, until we realised there was a river between myself and it, and Andrew being overly polite and insisting on walking me back to the town centre. I’ve never been so relieved to see a town centre in my life, and it took quite a while to get there, me feeling dreadful but minimising my dialogue to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ so I didn’t sound like I was in a weepy huff, which I was. I set him free when we reached town, figuring I could find the bus back on my own, and he could continue on his walk. I didn’t quite find the bus, but found a tourist information centre, in which the member of staff told me my bus was less than five minutes up the street. Win! I got the bus back to Cluj centre, found a bakery and got a caramel and almond strudel and struggled back to the hostel on sore feet and with fuzzy brain, collapsing into bed with my strudel and doing some packing for the next morning. Andrew appeared around three hours later, limping slightly with a tale of having to walk through some sort of briar patch and told me I’d perhaps been best to leave when I did, as the gorge was still quite some miles away and when he got there he’d missed the last bus back, and all taxis were busy. He had to then walk back into Turda centre and get a taxi back to the hostel. Yep, I maybe made the right choice. I think he’d even lost the will to take many gorge photos when he got there.

We still had a last wander round Cluj though, going to Toulouse for some raspberry lemonade and meatballs with sauce and dipping bread. We were too late for a last Betty Ice so grabbed some buns from a bakery at closing time, eating them on the street and thinking that we quite liked this Romania place. I knew the next day would consist of a taxi, two planes, a bus and another taxi, so I glady-but-sadly went to bed. And when I got back to Dublin and Belfast? Yep, it was raining heavily!

Glad The Invader

November 5, 2014

…which is what my Mum accidentally called Vlad The Impaler when relaying my story over the phone to my sister. A slight mishearing that changes the entire history of Wallachia. Wouldn’t it be a lot better to be invaded by someone called Glad?

I haven’t written anything about breakfast on my trip! This is a gross oversight on my part. I love breakfast. All I can say is that each of my holiday days were so full of things that my first-thing-in-the-morning meal was completely forgotten. At Kalinder we’d already paid for our breakfasts, up to a certain cost. We had to pay again if we went over that but the amount was negligible so we figured we might as well enjoy ourselves! I mean, the main thing pushing us over the prepaid limit was pure orange juice, but I wanted it. So there. On the first morning I was overwhelmed by menu choice, and slightly confused at the items they considered breakfasty. Sliced cucumbers? MBS, whatever that is? I had a very tasty ham and cheese omelette and the vaguely listed ‘cereal and milk’. I was surprised to find that it was cereal with hot milk, and made a mental note to find out the Romanian for cold milk before we left Kalinder. The next day I had a fairly bland mushroom omelette, but nice bread, butter and grape jam. On our last Kalinder day I felt very smart for ordering cereal with cold milk, but I had the words slightly wrong. I’m not sure the wording was even that important though as when I said this, the waitress was writing in her notebook and may not have even heard me. I ate my unexpectedly chocolatey cereal with hot milk.

It was time to leave Kalinder and Busteni, heading for our destination. We ran around, taking some final pictures before getting the train to Brasov, waiting and hour and making our connection to Sighisoara.

Final pictures: Rural place, rural things.


Ski resort cobbles together gate from only materials they could find:


Train station times.


I quite like trains normally. I don’t get travel sick on them. But we had to spend what amounted to around 4 hours on trains today, and it just didn’t agree with me. I tried to sleep through it but kept waking up and realising I’d only zoned out for fifteen minutes. My feet and legs felt restless and occasionally went for a walk to the toilet just for something to do. I felt unwell, and was going quite batty. In retrospect, I’d walked quite a lot the day before, and the day before that and probably just needed a long, relaxing lie in that didn’t take place on a moving object. When we got to Sighisoara I felt about as useful as a dead cat and probably looked worse. I felt a sinking feeling when I realised it wasn’t just a medieval town, it was a medieval fortress town and as such, was basically on a rock up high in the middle of the town ‘proper’. The perfect protected vantage point it may be, but up high meant more steps. I sighed, and realised the quicker I climbed them, the quicker I could lie down. Round and round and round we went, with my wheelie suitcase, as the staircase spiralled around the fortress walls. But when we got to the top they had quaint little souvenir stalls, and I suddenly felt much better. Magic, that is. Our hotel was also on the central town square!



The whole town [the bit within the fortress walls – known as The Citadel] as a UNESCO World Heritage Site so after a quick lie down we decided we needed to get out there and explore before the sun set, as the next day we would be getting another train to Cluj. Potted history: it’s a German/Saxon town. As Citadels often have, it was built with fourteen towers, each named for a guild [Tailors’ Tower, Butchers’ Tower]. It’s best known though, for being the birthplace of the actual Vlad Dracul.


This is no touristy invention, like Bran. This is verified historical fact. There’s a small weapons museum in the house with a restaurant upstairs. I’d read that even though it was geared towards tourists, it was actually a pretty nice restaurant and Andrew was quite attracted by the thought of eating in the house Vlad was born in, so we made a note to go there.


I personally didn’t want to eat until later though so we wandered around souvenir stalls and had a look at the remaining standing Towers until the sun fully set and photos were no longer possible. It was really fascinating just wandering around the cobbled streets, seeing what we would find. We found more Vlad.



Yes, I’m wearing a bat t-shirt. On purpose. These things are carefully planned! I have bat leggings too but thought they might be overkill, until I saw a girl on the train with bat leggings. I said “I should have worn mine!” until she turned around and I realised she was about ten years old. This says a lot for my taste in fashion. When time for food rolled around we didn’t pay the extra to see the museum, or the room that apparently has a man in a coffin who sits up when you walk in, but we really enjoyed looking at the armour on display, and the mural.


We sat in the outdoor terrace and were amused by the bulbs of garlic hanging from the ceiling, along with the items on the menu that had ‘blood’ put in their description to make them sound more Dracula-ish. Blood [jam] pancakes, anyone? Even though I’d been feeling unwell earlier I had a hearty beef goulash, with some bread to dip in it.

Some of the places here have pretty self-explanatory names. The School On The Hill, and The Church On The Hill, for example. They’re on a hill. Some wise owl years ago decided it would be a good idea to build a covered staircase so churchgoers and schoolchildren wouldn’t be bothered too much by bad weather when climbing the hill, so the Scholars’ Stairs were born. I knew I wanted to do the 175 stairs [I can’t resist a staircase] but was going to leave it until daylight. Andrew quite rightly pointed out that we might want a lie-in the next morning before rushing to our train, so he would use the torch on his phone and we could do them now. The stairs were lit themselves, but the torch certainly helped me, as tiredness was seriously setting in by this point and I can miss steps when I’m tired. We could hear the chirruping again [this time, in Drac-land bats seemed a very real possibility] and we gazed up at the cobwebby ceiling of the staircase. Not too much gazing though. Sometimes you don’t want to see certain things! We had an atmospheric walk around the grounds of The Church On The Hill and tried to find some views of the lights of the town, but they were mostly obscured by trees. We found a war memorial though, and when Andrew went up by himself early the next morning he reported finding a graveyard, which we hadn’t seen the entrance to in the dark. Sleep was seriously calling at this point though, and after trying to check my emails at the ‘Business Centre’ [computer behind the front desk, which led to customers thinking I worked there and me being awkward enough to play along and give directions, etc]. I was locked out of hotmail as they couldn’t understand why I was trying to log in from Romania. Unfortunately my secondary email address locked me out too, and as it was a joint account with my ex band colleague I didn’t know the answer to the security question. He didn’t change it or anything, he just answered with something that I wouldn’t know. I actually Facebooked him and asked the answer to the question [about a band he liked] and he couldn’t remember either! I had to fill out a form on hotmail answering questions about my account such as the email addresses of people I regularly emailed [names wouldn’t suffice], titles of a few recent emails, last four digits of my debit card, previous hotmail passwords… Once I did this [what I could remember] they said they would process my application to get into the account within 24 hours. Nothing else to do but wait, going to bed and watching a bizarre, misery-filled film in which Clive Owen plays a father whose daughter meets a stranger off the internet who is not what he seems.

Perhaps I’ve been dragging these entries out a little too much, with unnecessary information. Perhaps instead of saying we spent the train journey the next morning chatting to a Hungarian man who tried to translate things a woman seemed really eager to tell us, I should just say that we took a train. I should say that we got to the hostel without complaining that I had wanted to get a taxi but was too chicken to actually come out with it and say I wanted one. I should say that the Transylvania Hostel actually ended up being pretty nice, instead of saying that when I first got there I got negative vibes from the place. In retrospect, my vibes may have just been grumpiness.

Things that made me feel better about the hostel:

Seeing that the mascot was a cartoon bat.
Seeing the pretty darn big room with double bed.
Seeing the modern shower that resembled a dalek.
Sitting down.
Seeing the noticeboard with Sunday’s plans on it. At 6pm a group of people were meeting and going to a restaurant about 10 minutes’ walk away. All were welcome! I thought this was a jolly good use of a noticeboard and as we were hungry we decided to tag along, except it wasn’t tagging along, as all were welcome! About 12 of us ended up going to Mesele Yesele [‘Happy Tables’] and the waiting staff went out of their way to push all the tables together [which they didn’t have to do, two separate ones would have been fine, especially as some of the guests smoked! – Smoking in bars/restaurants is legal in Romania]. When table Tetris was completed and the menus came Andrew shared his phrasebook round so we all knew what we were ordering [although by now I was really getting better at basic Romanian] and the staff were pefectly willing to go round each of us individually and talk us through the menu. I didn’t wait for this though, just plumping for pasta with chicken and gorgonzola sauce [they brought grated cheese and parmesan on the side!]. Andrew got a bit of menu help and ended up with something called ‘Gypsy Neck’ with a side of vegetables and a lot of crackling! The hostellers [I’ll mention them more as I go on] went to a pub afterwards but I needed my bed, and Andrew decided to start as he meant to go on by attending a late night short film screening as yes, Cluj was the location of the film festival his film was being shown at the next morning!

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.


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


Look! Piece of wall!


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.


Some Andrew-photos:



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.



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.


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.


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.





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.



We found our feet on the surface of the moon.


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.


Onward with the red cross path!


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!


But we had to pass this first:


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


Larking about commenced:



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


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…