Within minutes of clicking send in Debrecen, our plans had changed. It turns out Australians can’t actually get into either the Ukraine or Moldova without a visa. We investigated the consulate situation, and found a Ukrainian consulate at the almost-border town of Nyiergehaza, but the person there had no idea what it would cost, what documents were required or how long it would take; just that we had to wait till friday morning when the right person would be in. Spending the weekend and possibly more stuck in a town we’d never heard of really didn’t appeal, so we headed south instead.
Three rides took us to Oradea, a town on the edge of Romania which I remember fondly from 2005. We stayed in the same place, Hotel Parc, with its enormous spaces but hostel prices. It’s a great sprawling building which is hard to find as it has only a doorway on the terraced main street, albeit a grand, art nouveau doorway. Behind, however, there are rooms after hallways of rooms, around a huge black and white tiled courtyard which has been cleaned up from my recollection, but still stands unfindable and unused. When you walk into the rooms themselves, you find yourself in an entranceway that would fit a moderate sized bedroom, but which houses only a mini fridge. This leads into a ballroom, at least four times the size, with a slightly saggy bed, old fashioned closet and little table and stool dwarfed by their surroundings. Also off the entrance is a reasonable old bathroom, though the scale of the ceilings and the bath is offset by the dinky soaps, curiously cracked cup preserved in a little plastic bag and lack of a toilet. We were first given a room with what looked like a grand marble bathroom, but since it was up five enormous stairs we passed it up. Accessibility is a good thing. Our toilet was across the private hall; it also had the ridiculously high ceilings yet the toilet paper was held up by a metal skewer through the holder. It’s an interesting place.
The town itself is fascinating. There are stunning buildings everywhere, though many are covered up with fabric, presumably the first step in renovation. There is a wide variety of styles, Seccessionist coming up most often in those deemed notable enough for a little plaque. I was craving some kind of architectural guidebook so I could get the styles straight, find out why there are so many grand and inventive buildings, understand the development of the place and really absorb and appreciate it all.
Thanks to the gregarious hotel manager, we found out more about the town as it is now. It’s easy to find alcohol but hard to find food, and he tells us that drinking venues are a good place for the girls of the region to make money, now that the impoverished population has a taste of what others have. In that light, the town makes a lot of sense. people don’t actually use the beautiful centre of town except for an out of control nightlife, and of course it must be the leading place to buy wedding dresses and alarming evening wear. Still the place has been significantly updated in the last six years, though perplexingly the main feature seems to have been to get rid of the elegant wavy paving that captivated me before, and lay plain old modern cobblestones instead.
Unfortunately the morning manager wasn’t as friendly as the one at night, possibly because we hadn’t realised there was a time difference between Hungary and Romania and returned an hour late to check out – a fact we only discovered when we tried to take a train out, and found ourselves stuck on plastic train station seats for hours waiting for the next one.
The overnight train took us to Brasov, another town I’ve already seen. We were there because it was a highlight for Lisa, with Dracula’s castle and birthplace in the region. The fun started straight off the train, as the sweetly oversolicitous train guards handed us over to the somewhat comic porter in an official-looking but oversized jacket and cap, who insisted on lugging Lisa’s bag that was about as big as he was. We were lucky he helped, because neither finding our bus stop or buying a ticket was straight forward. He asked for money at the end, which is never fun, but it turned out to be only ten Lei that he wanted, which is barely $3. This is eastern europe.
The hostel was reasonable, the owner was wonderful and helpful, but her advice was a bit problematic. The first time we tried to go into town we were advised to try to buy a ticket on the bus for two lei. the driver waved us on without taking money, which seemed good until the inspector came and also wouldn’t take our money, instead wanting our passports and a 45 lei fine. luckily this is not the first time i’ve been in such a situation, and mutterings of ‘police, police’ don’t faze me too much. we got off the bus and for extra measure got the help of someone bilingual who had seen us try to pay. After a while all parties just wandered off.
Brasov is a pretty town with some city wall, two rival synagogues yet less than a plague of churches and plenty of old buildings in gelato colours, like everywhere else around here. I thought there were exceptions to the rule until I saw gelato being sold that I could swear looked like avocado. We took a good walk around dodging all the other tourists and didn’t have another run in with anyone until we tried to buy groceries at one of their mini supermarkets, and dropped the two litre carton of juice. i don’t really mind that i was asked to buy it, i’m just amazed how all the staff stared in a daze at the mess like they’d never seen such a thing before. their uncooperativeness lead to even more of a mess as we tried to drink a bit from the broken carton and bag it up safely, none of which works very well with such an audience.
The next day we got driven to Bran castle which is as cute as I remember it, and more curious for the evidence of the last owners than for any dracula connections. Queen Marie and her family lived there in the 20s, with gorgeous photos to record as they traipsed about in perfect shoes and white stockings under peasant skirts, 20s eyes and bobbed hair with traditional headdresses. By all accounts though, they did more than play fairytale princess and were good rulers. This time round we also had the pleasure of watching an international folk dancing competition taking place in the tiny little courtyard. The place realy does look like a 19th century fantasy rather than the real 14th century fortress that it is. That day we also attempted the fortress at Rasnov but didn’t make it much further than the ‘train’, a cart with seats attached to the back of a tractor which only pulled us two thirds of the way to the entrance. With the most important sight seen, we reluctantly trained it down to Bucharest, our last visa hope and one of my all time 5% of least favourite places ever.
Bucharest is a grim city, especially in comparison to the lush, green Romanian countryside. While there are indeed patches of abandoned concrete factories which have been bought cheap, run down and sold off for parts, waiting for a decade to be developed into something more commercial, there are also plenty of gorgeous towns and villages in vibrant colour. The capital is made of discoloured stucco and aged concrete. There is greenery many places but you wouldn’t notice, it’s too tired to lift the tone. I guess if you lived here you’d stop seeing it, like any place, and if on the other hand you look closer, there is evidence of much beauty to be found. There are stunning buildings nestled in the back streets of the city, and some up front too, but all need more excavation than renovation, before they can be appreciated on more than an intellectual level. I wasn’t even moved to photograph any of the details I wondered at; ultimately they would all turn out grey. The general feel of the air is worse than in Beijing and there are stray dogs everywhere. I wonder how it was in other times. Only 22 years ago there was a revolution in the streets; there is little direct evidence to be seen, but surely it is not only the pollution but the history and politics of the place that have made the entire city dark grey.
Here too we had quite the bureaucratic adventure. Never mind the extortionate taxi from the station; there’s more. The Moldovan consulate was a joy and gave me a visa in minutes, waiving many of the hoops we expected to have to jump. The Ukrainian consulate, when we found it, seemed surprisingly helpful too. Usually consulates are only open to visa applicants in the morning, but we were sent away to get a travel agent to make a hotel booking for a night and provide a stamp to make it official, and pay the fee at a particular bank. If we came back after 3, he said, and paid the expidited fee, he’d be generous enough to give us our visa that day instead of the usual week, or even the usual expedited 1-3 days. Amazing! If we can’t make it by 3, we ask, how late can we come? “we close at 6”, he says. “I just need a little time to process it.”
We ran off to do his bidding as fast as we could. Six hours later we had a booking from the first travel agent that could actually book hotels – the fourth we had found. I had gone through the bank registration process at two separate branches, withdrawn the money and finally managed to pay it in at the second, and our wonder of a fair, helpful taxi driver getting us back to the consulate at 5:50. I’m sure you can imagine just how much more running up stairs, questioning monolingual strangers and turning in circles was involved, for that to take six hours. At 8pm I got my visa. Most of that was spent arguing with the consulate who decided that his word was law, even words he didn’t speak. The stamp on our booking was from Romania not from the Ukraine – not that I know how the latter could’ve been achieved, we came back too late – though he was still there, we weren’t nice enough to him when I rushed in, panicked that I actually was too late. He had the power to delay and refuse on any of these grounds, and he tried each in turn, but all he really wanted in the end was two direct women to grovel and apologise and give him a little power trip. He could’ve done it in the ten minutes between me showing up and the end of his day; he must’ve enjoyed throwing his weight around for two hours. In the end I was shaking and experiencing a fun range of emotional reactions to being expected to bow my head to another’s patronising manipulations, but I had all the visas I needed to get out of Bucharest and never look back.
As that’s not a very cheerful ending, I’ll let you in on what happened next, in case you haven’t yet seen my shorter updates. On my birthday I drove out of town in Lisa’s very own Dacia, and we’re now enjoying Moldova, somewhere I’ve never been before…
I’d also just like to note that these travelogues are being typed, unedited, in internet cafes on computers that operate in different languages. Just so you’re aware.