Serbia and Montenegro…..
Eastern Europe by Rail
The train set off from the black sea resort town of Mamaia just
below the Danube delta on the Black Sea. Earlier that day I had caught some sun and swam
in the Black Sea beach not really knowing where I would spend the night. After a cursory
check of local hotels that were either full or prohibitively expensive I decided to just take a train back to Bucharest that night. As the train steamed toward Bucharest
I thought Mamaia had been interesting with its pleasant boardwalk full of Romanians on holiday and long beaches where wooden
boats sat idle on the sand and seagulls hovered above. As fun as Mamaia had been I sat in my cabin and plotted my next move
after the train would arrive back in Bucharest. The cabin
was empty except for a guy passed out on the other side as the dusky curtains flailed wildly in the heavy wind next to the
open window. Every now and then another train would pass heading the opposite direction and a large gust of wind would shake
the cabin. I laid down on the cracked leather seat and tried to doze off, occasionally drifting to sleep. I have always relished
traveling by train and the syncopated rhythm of the wheel’s clank clank on the track was soothing in a way. As I lay
on the seat falling in and out of sleep I thought perhaps I would sleep in Bucharest
when the train arrived at midnight and leave in the morning for another city.
At various points the train stopped here and there along the way at the odd remote train station and
even the occasional larger town. Every now and then I would peak my head through the ruffled curtain, one eye squinting
half open and peer at the dark train stations. At one point the train stopped at a
larger station, but for some reason I assumed it couldn’t be Bucharest
and laid my head back down to rest. A little later after the train had departed a conductor opened the cabin and looked at
me puzzled and barked a few words in Romanian. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying but after a while it became
clear that I had missed the stop in Bucharest with the help
of a map he pulled from his pocket. He pointed to a town on his map, apparently the train would stop at this town at 2 AM.
Destination nowhere, ETA 2 AM….. I though to myself……this should be interesting. At some point a few hours
later the train stopped at a tiny station in some random village. I though I would get off and just wait until the morning
when hopefully a train would be heading back to Bucharest.
Perhaps I would be a little bored hanging out at the station until the morning but it shouldn’t be a problem getting
back the next morning. As the train finally stopped I peered out the window at the dimly lit station. I jump off the train
into the darkness through some high weeds and grass and crossed several sets of track making my way toward the diminutive
As I walked I could faintly hear music far off in the distance. I continued walking toward the station
and the music grew louder and louder. I wondered where could it be coming from in this tiny town at 2 AM? A bit surreal to
be in the middle of Romania at 2 AM with
mystery music in the distance. As I continued on I laughed, what a funny situation. There was only one thing to do, follow
the music. I exited the train station and walked down a desolate road passing a small store and walked through what appeared
to be a poorly maintained park with high weeds and a few stray dogs. I kept walking and walking toward the music and at some
point there appeared to be a small house in the distance. It became apparent that I had by chance arrived at gypsy wedding
with a loud band in a small courtyard of with perhaps 50 people dancing drunkenly. This detour turned out to be a treat. There
was a man frantically playing the violin, another man hacking away at
keyboard , an intense accordion player and a singer cranking out loud yet captivating gypsy tunes with all their instruments
hooked to very loud amps and speakers. I lingered in the shadows just observing and every now and then someone from the wedding
party would gaze out toward me no doubt baffled at my presence in this strange village. At some point I headed back to the
station and waited until a train appeared at 6 AM.
The station was no less interesting later, as a jovial group of obese chain smoking old gypsy women
appeared with huge baskets full of flowers and traditional dresses about an hour before the train arrived. I surmised they
must be on their way to a market in Bucharest to peddle their
vast array of colorful flowers. The women were laughing and joking the whole time, and were quite friendly and let me take
their pictures. At length the train arrived and sped back toward Bucharest
as the sun rose to the east.
Transylvania is a mystical land in the middle of Romania
tucked amongst the Carpathian Mountains, a place of exotic castles, rolling mountains , foggy
green hills, bats, and vampires. Vlad Tepes better known as Dracula was a Wachallean prince who actually ruled here in the
early part of the 15th century. He was given the moniker “Vlad the Impaler” for the gruesome manner
in which he killed his enemies by impaling them on large stakes and leaving them to suffer a slow demise. As I rode the train
through the mountains and hills I wondered if the real Dracula realized what
would become of his legacy…… cheesy Halloween costumes, b-movies, a Gram Stoker novel, and probably most importantly
that gastronomical delight of my childhood Count Chocula Cereal.
I spent the better part of my time in Transylvania drenched by rain
which I though complimented the Transylvanian scenery. Bran castle is a dizzying structure with secret rooms and spiraling
architecture and the apocryphal home to Vlad Tepes in the 15th century. The castles grounds are haunting on a foggy
day, surrounded by green hills of the Village of Bran. On its grounds was also a traditional Wachallian home covered by a wood tiled roof
and a thick layer of bright green moss. No doubt a fascinating place. Another interesting stop along the way is Rasnov, no
so far away by bus. Rasnov is a quaint little village by a river with bright traditional houses, a small clock tower, and
an aging castle towering over the city on a large hill.
I had based myself while in the Transylvania region in the city of Brasov.
It has been compared to a small Prague and no doubt an interesting place with its cobble stoned plaza, medieval gates, and fountain
surrounded by a giant gothic cathedral.
Bucharest is fascinating city, probably the most interesting way to explore the city is simply strolling
around the city through random antiques markets, grand plazas, and wide boulevards. One of the oddest places in Bucharest is the Centru Civic development modeled after the
Elysees in Paris.
It was Romania’s longtime dictator
Nicolae Ceausescu whose madness led him to
destroy 8 square kilometers of historic
buildings and displace 40,000 residents, to build the development in the 1980’s. He was later executed after the 1989
revolution but not before razing untold numbers irreplaceable structures, churches, and monuments. Masses of buildings housing
Ceausescu’s elite were constructed with gaudy marble fašades along a long avenue built specifically to be a few meters
longer than the Champs Elysees. Paris it is not though,
as many of the building are strewn with broken glass and graffiti, and massive concrete skeletons of building that remained
unfinished from before the revolution sit like dinosaurs not far from the development. Still I found the area interesting
and the nearby Palace of Parliament is one
of the largest most garish buildings in Europe.
I arrived in Sofia late at night and
attempted to find a few hostels listed in lonely planet. This was made all the more confusing as all the street signs and
everything else were in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Massive apartment blocks, weathered university buildings, and towering
office districts with distinctive Eastern European architecture abound in Sofia.
Young Bulgarians riding skateboards with Mohawks congregate in a giant park surrounding the monolithic National Palace of
Culture building. The park with broken empty fountains and cracked concrete was once probably in better shape. Graffiti is
rampant here too but many of the scenes
require no small amount of talent and
are quite artistic in their own way. Sofia has its share of
delightful cafes and coffee shops all along the city. The Bulgarian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was well worth seeing
with its dark capacious interior and neo-Byzantine gold domed roof. Outside vendors hawk all manner of goods atop dilapidated
cars that double as makeshift shops. One most peculiar phenomenon in Bulgaria
I noted was the nearly universal epidemic of women with badly dyed hair. This is not to say they dye their hair a weird rainbow
of colors, rather they are somewhat tame colors that just look odd. Old women and young women alike, even some men, have the
de rigueur unnatural glow of all manner of interesting shades of browns, reds, purples, maroons, and jet blacks to
name just a few.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
A few hours by train from Sofia this small town stands as a wonderful diversion from the big city with
its scenic red tiled houses on sloping hills overlooking a river. Surrounding the city are expansive forests, a castle, and
ruins of a large fortress.
Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro
Perhaps the most relaxing way to spend the day in Belgrade is to amble
along the gentle banks of the Danube. Early in the morning locals sit on the banks fishing
poles in hand as small birds swoop above. Further along the banks sits a small harbor with tattered piers and even more tattered
boats. Looking down at the harbor and river is the centuries old Kalemegdan Fortress and other ruins dating from Roman times.
The rest of the city is busy, dotted with lively pedestrian malls and hulking buildings. The buses in Belgrade seemed ancient and riding around the city in a steamy bus is rather thrilling as
they bulldoze through the streets, the engines are surely quite old and sound like they are going to fall out of the chassis
at anytime. The bohemian neighborhood of Skadarska, home to poets and writers, is one of the cities highlights with shady
cafes and restaurants along narrow cobblestone paths.
As I walked along the banks of the Danube I found the city to be quite
peaceful. But peace in the Balkans is a relatively recent phenomenon. Serbia
and Montenegro were once part of the former Yugoslavia, until the breakup of the republic in the early 1990’s. War later
broke out between Serbia and the republics of Croatia,
Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In
1999 NATO forces bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade
for 2 months until he finally agreed to pull his forces out of Kosovo. Milosevic later lost power in Serbia
and was extradited to United Nations international criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2001 where he was tried
for genocide and atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Shortly before his trial was to ended this year he suddenly
died in his jail cell of a heart attack. It is remarkable that a region so war torn just years before could seem so peaceful
in such a short period, but still there were some reminders of the war and turmoil in the region. One military museum I visited
in Belgrade displayed an American hummer captured in Kosovo.
Also inside the museum, displayed in a large glass cabinet, were pieces of an American Stealth bomber shot down over Belgrade in 1999 along with the captured pilot’s helmet and flight
suit. Another display exhibited
gruesome pictures of civilian casualties from
the NATO bombings of Belgrade in 1999. Despite all the turmoil
of the late 90’s, the region is stable today and the people seem genuinely friendly as tourism returns to the region.