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27 July 2013 / M

Day 1 – Arriving in Romania and driving toward the mountains

At the end of May/beginning of June B and I went to Romania for 9 days. It was an eye-opening experience and the people and places there moved me greatly. I thought I’d write a post about each day we were there and tell some of the stories from the trip.

The photos from this day start here.

We flew into and out of Bucharest, though we never visited the city itself. We planned to at first, but then decided there was too much we wanted to see on our tour of Transylvania. I would like to try to go back and visit the capitol one day. At the airport, we picked up the rental car which we’d use for the 9 days. I was nervous about driving in Romania thanks to things I’d read online about how crazy the drivers are there. We set off and about a minute later I was honked at for some inappropriate roundabout behavior, but things went ok after that and I managed to not get lost despite the traffic and some confusing construction. Soon we were on one of the country’s few freeways, heading west towards Pitesti where we’d turn off onto the Transfaragasan Highway, a road known for its twisty turns and amazing views once it gets into the mountains (a west-east line called the Faragas Mountains, which are essentially an extension of the Carpathians). The drive to Pitesti was fairly boring. I didn’t realize it’d be so flat in the entire area around Bucharest, so it was not until we were well off the freeway that things started getting prettier.

The freeway was fairly easy to navigate, but I did start experiencing common Romanian road hazards when we were on the smaller highway. There were horse-drawn carts on the road (these are still a common way for people from villages to get around). There were people walking or cycling on the side of the road. There were people parked in a lane of the road. There were bad potholes that you needed to avoid. There were stray dogs in the road who didn’t care that a car was coming. I don’t remember any specific incidents from the first day, but these things made driving a much more different experience than it is in the US or just about anywhere in Western Europe.

As we drove, we saw many roadside altars which ranged in design from simple wooden crosses with a bit of a wooden cover over them to elaborate little huts with a statue and paintings and icons. Most people in Romania are Orthodox Christians and the artwork had that Orthodox style to it, similar to what you see in Greece or Russia. One village we passed through though had a building that wasn’t quite a church, but definitely was too big to be an altar. We pulled over to take some photos.

Chapel along the road to Lake Vidraru

Before we took the photos though, we had a little encounter with a local woman. An elderly woman came up a side road towards us. She was dressed in the traditional way many older women dress with a scarf over her head and a long, dark skirt on. She had a plastic bag and some embroidered cloth in her hands. She had few teeth left in her mouth. I turned towards her to say hello and she took that as an invitation to come over and talk to us. In a language we could not understand at all. At first I tried to get her to understand that we don’t speak Romanian, but she didn’t seem to care. She talked on and on, making various gestures, pointing to the chapel, pointing to the town, pointing to the road she’d come up. I settled into just smiling and nodding. I realized eventually though that she wasn’t going to stop talking, so I needed a way to make an exit. I started walking slowly over to the car as if we were about to leave. Still talking, she followed us in that direction and then said goodbye and carried onwards towards the town. I wish I knew what she went on about.

We carried on up the highway, which was much more quiet now. Pretty much since we left the airport, we’d been counting all the stray dogs we saw along the road. There are thousands of feral dogs in Romania and there were some wandering around just about every highway and parking lot we came across. None of the dogs we saw seemed too scary, but we never pet them or fed them. I know counting the ones we saw is practically like counting the number of cars you see on a highway, but it was something to keep us occupied during the long drives in the car. And once we saw all these altars popping up along the road, we started counting them as well. So we kept a running tally, which B named the God vs Dog count. It wasn’t just counting. We also developed rules of what counted for each and what didn’t, and had discussions about whether a specific thing we saw should be included or not (“Is that dog a stray, or does he belong to those people?” “Is that altar too big?” “Does just a cross with no roof count?”). It helped pass the time in the car. I’m not sure if God or Dogs won.

A bit further up the road past the village with the chapel, it finally felt more hilly and the Arges River ran alongside the road. We soon arrived at Poenari Castle, a fortress high on a rocky tip that Vlad the Impaler once fought off Turks from. His wife also jumped from the fortress towards the river below when it looked like they were about to be captured. We had plans to hike up to it the next day.

Poenari Castle

Soon after the castle, the road entered a river valley and then climbed up to a tunnel, on the other side of which was Lake Vidraru. The lake was huge, but all artifical, only existing thanks to a high dam. The road immediately went over the top of the dam, where we got sprayed by mist coming from the water spilling over the dam.

Lake Vidraru dam

The views up the lake were gorgeous, with high, snow-topped mountains at the far end of it. We’d be driving up to the mountains the next day, but at the moment, I was very glad that just up the road was the hotel we had booked for the night. It had been an overwhelming day and I was exhausted.

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