Diary - Romania

Thursday 14th February 2002 - DAY 15

Starting point: Gyula, Hungary
Ending point: Bran, Romania
Distanced travelled: 338 miles

As planned, we made an early start. We had been advised that you cannot take your car across the border at Gyula so we drove to the small village of ....10km north and were processed through without any problems - must have taken about 1/2 an hour in total. We needed to show our international driving licences and vehicle documents for the first time here. Romania was immediately a very different country from Hungary - much poorer, with cobbled roads and horses and carts everywhere and people definitely stared a lot more (there were much fewer cars for a start), but our first impressions were that it was a very friendly place. The landscape changed very quickly from being very very flat, to much more mountainous (and much more interesting). We tried to buy a green card as our car insurance doesn't cover Romania or Bulgaria, but we the places we found seemed to think we didn't need one and weren't keen to sell us one, so we gave up and drive on without one. We stopped off at the only bank in town, which was undergoing some serious renovation and consisted of a hatch in a wall surrounded by scaffolding, where we were able to change some money. Our progress up through the mountains was very slow as the roads were in very bad condition and there are villages every 5 miles for which you have to slow right down (the only stretch of motorway in Romania is about 70km near Bucharest), but the scenery was incredibly beautiful and it was a clear, blue day. We saw a number of signposts suggesting that we would need the snow chains that we'd bought in Austria, but there was hardly any snow about (like the rest of Europe so it would seem). So we drove on through the mountains to Brasov and then south to Bran where we were informed that we would be able to camp for free in the field just at the foot of Bran Castle where Vlad Tepes (aka 'The Impaler' aka 'Count Dracula') is supposed to have lived. It was dark when we arrived so had a romantic valentine's meal of supernoodles (they were nice) before snuggling up in our sleeping bags feeling fairly cold - not a vampire in sight.

Friday 15th February 2002 - DAY 16

Camping beneath Dracula's castle

It was -7° when we finally crawled out of our sleeping bags early this morning and at first we couldn't work out if the sky was blue or grey, but as the sun began to arrive it turned out to be another cloudless, blue day. The place where we'd camped looked even better by day - Bran Castle is no doubt over-hyped and not at all scary but it was still a pretty spectacular sight from the tent first thing in the morning. A woman from a nearby house came out to try and sell us a big wooly jumper - probably more out of genuine concern than trying to cash in on the tourists - and didn't seem at all convinced that our Rab down jackets were going to keep us warm. When the sun reached us it was still only -2° so a breakfast of porridge and tea was well appreciated. A short inspection of the car revealed some signs of oil at the gearbox, which we'll have to keep an eye on. We wandered up past all the empty souvenir shops and up to the castle to explore the 57 rooms where the royal family used to live. The good thing about travelling through Europe in winter is that you do get the place pretty much to yourself, even if a lot of the campsites are closed. We bought a bottle of 'Vampire' wine for £1, then headed off to the village of Rasnov to see another beautiful castle. Rasnov Castle was even more impressive, especially as the approach is up a windy forest road where being in a 4x4 vehicle was comforting. We weren't surprised to arrive and find we were the only people there, but the 360° views were amazing. Found a little internet cafe by the side of the road in a little village - a most unlikely place, it was more of a shed really - and did some e-mailing. We then headed back to Bran and paid a visit to the local pizzeria. Romanian pizza is a bit different in that it doesn't come with tomato on it - you order 'pizza sauce' as a side dish - but they were good pizzas and so cheap that Robin had two. Three large pizzas and a bottle of wine came to just over £5, which was still probably a vastly inflated tourist price. We are becoming very fond of Romania.

Saturday 16th Febraury 2002 - DAY 17

Starting point: Bran, Romania
Ending point: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Distanced travelled: 278 miles

road south of Brasov

It was even colder this morning: the thermometer was still reading -7° but there must have been a wind chill of about -20°. My camera had completely stopped working. It was too cold to hang around so we packed up straight away and drove off to try and warm up a bit. Our journey took us up through the mountains and past the ski resort of Sinaia (named after Mount Sinai in Egypt, not sure why). We had some Romanian money to use up so stopped and bought some cheese and honey from a man with a stall by the side of the road - we opted for the cheese packaged in wood rather than the ones stuffed into a sheep's stomach. I think we made his week when we said we'd take one of everything - he looked so happy. The roads improved as we approached Bucharest and headed south to the Bulgarian border. The border itself was incredibly confusing - it appears that you have to pay all sorts of taxes when entering Bulgaria by car and nobody seemed to know which ones we had to pay and were all arguing and shouting amongst themselves about it. A guy in uniform who looked official told us we needed to buy 'ecology tax' at $10 and 'bridge tax' at $7 - we made sure we obtained receipts for these. On the Romanian side the customs officials were too busy playing cards to worry about what we were smuggling out of the country and waved us through across the 'Friendship Bridge' into Bulgaria. On the Bulgarian side we had to pay a further 'motorway tax' at $19 and 'disinfectant tax' at $2. Couldn't help feeling like we'd been had, but there was nothing we could do. The border crossing had taken so long that it was getting dark as we left the border. We drove on to a town called Veliko Tarnovo and were heading for a campsite that was listed in our guide book. With no map and no directions we were fairly stuck so stopped to ask some policemen. (We had been handed a leaflet at the border about what a dangerous country Bulgaria was to travel in and showing us pictures of uniformed policemen and warning us not to talk to anyone else!). They looked horrified when we said we were planning to camp 'No, no, no - camping - dangerous' and insisted we follow them to a 'safe' hotel - no doubt where they would get some commission. But we were too tired to argue or make any intelligent sort of judgement of the situation. At $26 it was our most expensive accommodation yet, but at least we felt we'd be safe and the car was parked in a secure area.