The trip was without incident save some separation anxiety on the part of the newly introduced tour participants for being seated so sporadically. Upon entering the main terminal Radu was right there, exhibiting his great ability to be completely on top of things that we would learn is his norm. We got a demonstration of Bucharest traffic (this developing country has had just enough time to acquire a lot of cars but not enough to make sufficient roads or learn how to properly park them) and got the ten cent tour of Bucharest en route to the hotel.
The first adventure was to a supermarket where Romanians kooky world of junk food was revealed to us. Carole's souvenir spree had begun.
After a delightful dinner of mystery meat with a side order of "what the hell is that?" we cabbed it (mostly on two wheels) to a historical district of town, got some history of Vlad and the city then learned a bit of Romanian urban night life. Steve, Adam, Elyse and Christine smoked from a hash pipe-looking hookah. A pleasant experience that left us wondering if the clouds of spiced apple cake-smelling smoke wafting through the air was really made just from tobacco.
Quote: "Hoo, that's pretty good - it tastes like a party in my mouth, eh"
Breakfasted on, um, stuff then headed out of Buckarest to see Vlad's (probable) grave. We waited at the end of a rickety dock to await the aquatic arrival of the crazy monk. We saw pictures of him in his impressive full robe, but these were stowed in favor of 8 cents worth of gypsy clothes. Though a bit crotchety he was really OK, the only eccentric oddity being a refusal to allow his picture to be taken. The 8 cent wardrobe might be the understandable impetus though. After an extensive explanation by Radu of the whole deal surrounding Vlad's demise, exploration of the grounds and watching a spider make poo we boated back and headed on to Bran Castle.
Along the way we caught first views of the creepy Carpathian mountains. Radu arranged a custom tour of Bran Castle where Vlad was held prisoner for 6 months in a tiny wedge of a room. Many a butt was photographed ascending narrow enclosed staircases, then we made shopping at the bazaar and a few visited the "haunted house". In a grand demonstration of Romanian practical design, the spook house exited directly into the bar with a seating area consisting of benches and backs that resembled opened velvet-lined coffins. On to a traditional Romanian meal...
Radu had Stefan fake dropping the tranny on the bus so with fear in our hearts we unloaded into gypsy horse-drawn wagons passing miles of beautiful and near-vertical Transylvanian meadow. Along the way we discovered that it is not only Death that favors the scythe, in Romania it is also the choice of lawn care professionals. It was 20 minutes or so to the Alpine-looking restaurant where we were greeted with shots of a unique local beverage made from distilled radiator fluid, then proceeded with our dining experience. Radu banished Elysa and Adam to a separate table for ordering stinky tripe soup. Steve described cheese #2 as having a character similar to that of anchovies. Dale offered an alternative culinary perspective, saying it tasted more like it was fermented in a condom. Extended taste analysis could not determine ribbed or non-ribbed.
We departed - by bus - for Brasov, where Carole had to know what tomato ice cream tastes like. Some things are clearly better left a mystery. Jeff and Mitch took a cab to a casino only to be turned away by 2 suited gorillas. Describing the rooms at the Brosov hotel - which was not the four star beauty in the itinerary - in two words one could say "Bed hard". Or "Room hot". Perhaps "Street loud". Actually the winner is "It sucked".
Quote: "None of these taste all that goaty"
Despite what was arguably the worst hotel of the trip, the city of Brasov was magnificent. We squeezed in a few minutes of a concert at the Black Church. Moments after we entered they hit the onimous beginning chords J.S. Bach's Toccata in D Minor (this is for you, Janis).
We moved on to climb butt loads of stairs to butt loads of towers taking butt loads of pictures. Stefan was at the top to rescue our sweat drenched butts and drive us to Shigisoara.
We parked, peed then went for lunch. Some tried Romanian pizza, others ate at Casa Vlad Dracul (3 stars) which is in the house where Vlad was born and lived till age 4. At Elysa's suggestion Steve started telling an improvised accounting of the birth of Vlad. After a minute he handed off the tale to Hallie and the story was told in parts around the table, ending with Carole (Steve provided an alternate ending). After lunch and a quick tour of a torture chamber, most of us climbed more stairs (while Bob guarded the lower village) that ultimately lead to a spooky hilly cemetary and an old church. The church provided sanctuary from the 100F temperatures of the day, we were drenched and too tired to move. Then Radu said "Hey, anyone want to see a crypt?" We sprang like the second coming of Tigger and ventured between two wooden doors in the floor towards the front. Adam and Christine wandered over after everybody else exited and descended into the crypt for a quicky. Radu looked around then closed the doors after them! With the loving couple released we departed for Bistrita. Dinner was in the Jonathan Harker Salon at the Coroana De Aur and we learned how breakfast meat could be used as an oral prosthetic.
Two questions went around the table - if you were a vampire who would you bite and who do you wish was a vampire so you could stake them?
Quote: "Is there a reason there's ice cream on your glasses?"
We were free to do our own exploration of Bistrita, which is another way to say the place is totally eastern block ugly. It was however the step before our plunge into deepest darkest Transylvania. The landscape along Borgo Pass was awesome, culminating with a renovated castle that had nothing to do with the impaler but is the best - if not only - candidate for the home of the fictional Count Dracula. The Hotel Castle Dracula is in Piatra Fantanele, about 100 miles as the bat flies from the Ukraine. We were on our own as there is no town there to explore. Some hiked to a nearby monastary, twice, others played 8 ball and the wusses napped. That night we gathered in costume, freaking out the locals who never expected costumed idiots in July. We roasted meat on sticks - along with ourselves - at a bon fire then went to the monster banquet.
Dining, dancing (at least that's the closest descriptive word), debauchery and having a lay down in a coffin that was found on premises filled our evening - highlighted by Elyse's reaction to getting flashed by John. Things broke up, a few folks hung at Steve's suite for a nightcap, then we all slowly retired. The wind was amazing, with the window open holding the door to the hall was nothing short of a tug of war. Nothing quite like doors that slam themselves shut to cap off a night in such a place! The next morning the valley was filled with a creeping, eerie fog worthy of Castle Dracula. Bloody perfect.
Quote: "I don't want to step on your dress, Dad"
Toured a marvelous citadel in the fantastic throw back town of Biertan. Adam and Christine made out in the doorway of the Catholic cathedral, being thwarted by the prenuptial prison's locked door. Radu demonstrated his usual unbelievable level of knowledge of the area, culminating in the single-most elaborate locking mechanism I've ever seen regardless of century. It actual bore some resemblance in principle to the locking mechanism on the door to an Apollo crew capsule.
Pushing off, we ended up in Sibiu and our best hotel by far, the Continental Forum. Dinner was on our own, most opting for another go at Romanian ultra thin crust pizza, though John and Tracy found a place in a cave that really impressed them. Mandy's dinner was delicious (or at least my half was) - tortellini, pricutto ham and porcini mushrooms in an alfredo sauce. My fruito de mare or whatever pizza had more seafood on it than the rational mind can comfortably comprehend. Ice cream on the way back and - to our utter shock - Vincent slipped into a casino. Mitch followed in a rescue attempt, Jeff followed to rescue Mitch, Bob rescued Jeff - you get the picture. I, for one, got my first really great sleep of the trip.
Quote: "This city has the most beautiful goats in Romania"
After dropping a dime on a pick pocket Radu again regaled us with the history of our surroundings - the restored and polished city of Sibiu. The high light of this, aside from roofs that looked like muppet voyeurs, was St. Michaels Lutheran church which held the promise of another classic creature. As we entered the churches ground-level crypt, evil-sounding chords began to bellow from the pipe organ (oddly just following Carole's rush to the front of the church).
In the crypt Radu told us of the Olla lepulta family. Pointing out the family crypt cover stone. Frank, a member of this influential Sibiuian family, suffered from Acromegaly - a genetic disease that causes serious physical deformations. He was concealed by his family because of his grotesque appearance, but one Easter day managed to escape. He burst into St. Michaels Lutheran church declaring (in Latin) "I am Frank olla lepulta" - or in the local language "I am Frankenstein". People were terrified thinking they were seeing a rampaging creature that had broken its chains. Mary Shelley drew inspiration from this, embellished upon the story in drafting her timeless tale of horror. Thus the church is the final resting place of the House of Frankenstien. As I was walking away I heard some creepy sounding organ music coming from the sanctuary. Hearing this made me feel like I was in a Hammer film.
Dale and Steve climbed the 198 steps of the bell tower. We pushed on out of Transylvania into Wallachia and the site of Vlad Tspesh's stronghold remains. 1500 steps, lots of wind and a staggering view. Its estimated that Vlad could have seen an oncoming army from as far away as Cleveland. Then on to Bucherest, through rain and some serious rainbow action.
Finishing up the tour was dinner at a Dracula theme restaurant, featuring creepy lighting and sound, a meal of mock rat and a visit from the old boy himself. The rat was actually shaped stuffed chicken, oozing colored (red, duh) cheese.
Nighty night, everybody in the lobby by 4:15. Oh well, it was 9:15 somewhere.