Tuesday, 26 August 2014


We had three days in Budapest and the place certainly grew on us. We arrived on a national holiday so the centre was buzzing with people. Quite a shock to the system as we hadn't really seen any crowds in Romania at all. 

We were there for Tracy's birthday and it was very decent of the city to set off 30 minutes of fireworks on our first evening to celebrate with us.

On her birthday, the following day, Tracy had decided she wants to visit some Communist propaganda so we went to 'Memonto Park'.

Someone had had the foresight to save many of Budapest's Communist statues in the early 1990s and a couple of dozen of them are now on display. Lots of symbolism, or so Tracy told me.

 You just can't keep a Drama teacher quiet.

 I've never seen Lenin as a kind of Buddha before.

  Ah, maybe that's why it's called Budapest?

 This used to be an 8 metre high statue of Stalin but it was torn down during the 1956 uprising. All that was left were his boots. 

More pictures of Tracy on her birthday in Budapest.

 This fountain played music. Although I don't think it was quite as exciting as she's making out!

 The very impressive Parliament building. We went inside on a tour

This was an interesting little thing. Hungary is obviously tying to come to terms with its past. ( Fighting on the losing side in two world wars, it's role in the Holocaust... This memorial, behind the fountains is campaigning against the airbrushing of Hungary's role in the Holocaust. 

The Nazis occupied Budapest from March 1944 to January 1945. They set up a Ghetto in the city in the November and in that time the Jewish population was reduced from 200,000 to 70,000.

I think now questions are being asked about how complicit the Hungarian Government was in all this. It's interesting to note that in 2006 the last remaining part of the Ghetto wall was demolished. ( Trying to erase the past??)  This is what is being demanded in this memorial protest behind the fountain. Demanding that the democratic Hungarian government remembers and acknowledges its past. 

So this is how we needed our tip, wandering around Budapest looking at old stuff and thinking about History. 

I dropped Tracy off at the airport on the Saturday morning and as she flew home I started the 1,000 mile ride back. I stopped off in Slovakia, and Czech Republic for a day each to look at a couple of castles and then, using a motorway for the first time on the whole trip, rode across Germany and in to Belgium. I'm writing up this final report in Dunkirk having ridden 250 miles through pouring rain to get here today. My final day's riding on the continent being the most unpleasant. 

Heidi must have known we were near the end as well. Coming in to Dunkirk she decided to play up and informed me that my rear light wasn't working. Having caused me problems on day two of the trip with a red warning triangle light and now this, I'm beginning to wonder. Although I have to say that she performed brilliantly throughout the 32 day, 4,000+ mile trip. 

 Ready for the last days, wet, ride through Belgium. 

So- that's it. 

One month, a dozen countries and 4,000 miles. These might be the facts but there're not the story!

Next year - The Balkans! 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Our last few days in Romania

'You can't come to Romania and not discuss Dracula. You just can't. So...

Whilst we'd been to Vlad Tepes REAL castle; one that LOOKED like Dracula's castle and one that is SOLD as Dracula's castle ( but has nothing to do with Dracula or Vlad,) we felt we really needed to visit the Hotel Castle Dracula.

Positioned roughly on the promontory where the Count's castle would have stood (on the Tihuta Pass, or Borgo pass as it's called in the book) the hotel has made an effort to be both a nice place to stay and a gothic, cranberry carpeted, Dracula inspired place. 

We even visited Dracula's tomb in the basement, A creaky-stepped, ghost house-style crypt, with murals telling the story of Dracula. His tomb lies in the middle of a darkened room, lit by a single candle. Suddenly the tomb burst open, Dracula sprung up fom the grave and the candle was extinguished!!!! (Apparently, on the 1990s someone had a heart attack.). We giggled. 

 Coco pops for breakfats at Hotel Castle Dracula 

Leaving Translyvania we briefly popped in to Moldavia province to visit a couple of 'Painted Monasteries'. Expecting little we were somewhat blown away by what we saw. (That's the point of travelling I suppose). There are several painted monasteries in this area and they are amongst the most distinctive in all Christendom. What makes them unusual is that they have frescos painted on the OUTSIDE and they have survived several hundred years of exposure to the elements (a miracle?). 

Tracy was particularly drawn to the devils who are trying to pull the scales down so the person goes to hell - in the middle of the picture.

This one was called Voronet Monastery, where the colour ' Voronet blue' come from. Bet you didn't know that did you?

Heading north, towards the border with Ukraine we enter Romania's poorest province - Maramures.

Bumpy, potholed roads meant we were reduced to around 30 miles an hour and Tracy really suffered as it took us several hours to get where we were going. This was the roughest day's riding for her and when we got to out 'Pension' all she wanted to do was sleep. We were greeted, very enthusiastically by our host who was very pleased to see us. She reminded Tracy (both in looks and mannerisms) of Luna from the Harry Potter films. 

"Hello, and welcome. You are most welcome." She said in quite good English. 
I got my passport out, ready for the inevitable paperwork.
"No, that's OK. Maybe if you were from Bucharest, or a little bit black."
Not quite sure how to respond to this apparently overt racism, Tracy picked on the lesser of the two evils and said. "Don't you like people from Bucharest?"
"I mean Gypsies." Luna replied. "We don't like people who give our country a bad name."
We quickly changed the tone of the conversation to explain what a wonderful time we'd had in Romania and what a great place it was. Luna was overjoyed to hear this.

Perhaps we should have discussed her comments but it's really hard, when you're a tourist and a guest at someone else's place. We had the same experience 10 years previously in a town in Siberia where our host practically told us it was our duty to have (white) children, as the UK was becoming overun by blacks and Asians. I find it ironic that UKIP would find some it's most fervent supporters amongst the communities it so passionately rejects. 

Pictures of our Colourful accomodation in Maramures.

 A vegetarian picnic - bread, cheese, crisps, bananas, wine.

While I'm on the subject of UKIP, later that evening (Tracy was having a snooze) I met another guest, a Romanian guy called Lucio. He'd spent six months working in the Kent countryside. He has a PhD in Agriculture and has returned to Romania to work ( he is a buyer for one of the large supermarket chains). It was fascinating to listen to him talk about how Romania had suffered in the past but now, with the help of the EU, it was beginning to fulfil its potential and develop as a country. He felt passionately that it was the duty of his generation (he's 30) to help build Romania's future.

He was exactly the sort of person who should be portrayed on TV in the UK. An articulate, intelligent Romanian who, with the help of the EU, is making his country a better place. He loved his time in England ( except for the 'rain and the rabbits') but wouldn't want to stay there and certainly wouldn't want to live off benefits. As he said, he's Romanian and wants to live and work and his country. 

We don't hear enough from people like Lucio and the BBCs obsession with giving airtime to Farage and the xenophobic, irrational, small minded UKIP is becoming dangerous. Two weeks in Romania has shown me what the EU can do, that (not surprisingly at all, of course) Romanian's are just normal people. I feel proud to belong to the EU - a club where the richest members help the poorest for the mutual benefit of all. Every time we passed an EU flag or sign saying how the EU had help build this road or support that project, I felt proud. In one of the small Saxon villages the EU had helped local women organise a project whereby they sold handicrafts and ran a cafe to raise money to help educated the village children.

If that fills you with fear, then vote UKIP.

We had planned on taking a steam train ride in to the hills of Maramures, but it was a Saturday when we arrive at the station at 07:30 to get tickets for the 9 am train and already we were numbers 34 and 35 on the waiting list! So we gave up on that idea...

What do you do with dead people? In one small village in Maramures you bury then under a humorously carved cross. In the 1930s a local woodcutter, Stan Patras, started carving crosses to mark the graves in the old church cemetery. He painted each cross blue (the traditional colour of freedom and hope) and on top of each he inscribed a witty epitaph. Of course, we couldn't read the epitaph but some of the drawings were certainly amusing. 

They all had different pictures on each side of the cross. This was on the front of one lady's grave...

And this was on the back!

There seemed to be quite a few traffic accidents for a small village...

 And a drowning

Death and humour - draws in the tourists...

In the nearby town of Sighetu Marmatiei, we visited the 'Sighet prison'. 

In 1947 the Communist regime slaughtered, imprisioned and tortured thousands of Romanians who could or might oppose the new leadership. Between 1948 and 1952 about 180 members of Romania's academic and government elite were imprisoned in Sighet. Some 51 died.

 One of jobs prisoners had to do was build motorcycles.

Now the prison is a memorial to them and all who have suffered at the hands of the Communist regime. Each cell telling the story of one aspect or Romania's recent past, from evidence about prison poetry, torture, life in the prison or more widely, the 1956 uprising in Hungary, Solidarity in Poland or the fall of The Wall. All very moving and beautifully done (WITH EU funding!!! #UKIPSUCK)

*Tracy loves coming on holiday with me - Sighet prison, Killing fields of Cambodia, Auschwitz, Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, Siberain gulags...

Maramures is also famous for its wooden churches. In the 14th Century Orthodox Romanians were forbidden by their Hungarian rulers to build churches in stone. So they built them from wood. The ones we saw dated from the 17th or 18 century.

It was quite amazing to be there on a Sunday morning. The roads were full of people, in traditional costume, walking to church. I took a video which for some reason I can't put on my blog, but I will upload to my Facebook page soon.

And that was Romania. Probably my favourite country in Europe right now. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Don't tell everyone, but Romania's great.

As I think Tracy's Dad is about the only person who reads this - Ian, don't worry your daughter is having a good time. Romania has chocolate!

Transfagarasan Highway. Possibly the best paved road in the whole world - or something like that. It was wonderful and we had reasonably good weather at the top ( torrential rain coming down the other side for a while but then the sun came out and we dried off). 

The one and truly legitimate 'Vlad the Impaler/ Dracula castles sits atop a mountain at the southern end of the Transfag. We walked the 1480 steps up to the top - this took us 25 minutes!!! So you'do better appreciate the photos.

 Tracy counted the steps and made it 1390. But it certainly felt like 1480. 

 Nice greeting at the top.

Apparently the villagers killed Vlad's father and brother (?) so he had them build this lookout/castle and impaled the towns elders on spikes. Like crucifixion, it often took hours, if not days, for people to die this way. Really rather gruesome.

We then based ourselves in Bran for three nights. Bran is famous for its Dracula Castle and although it is a nice enough place it has nothing at all to do with Vlad. Of all the Dracula castles this is the one with the least ( i.e NOTHING) to do with Vlad and yet it's the famous Dracula castle.

There was also a beer festival going on in town, so we made up for last year's alcohol free tour of Scandinavia. 

Another day, another Romanian castle. This one ( Peles castle) was built just over 100 years ago for the King of Romania to live in. 

Romania is home to 60% of the European brown bear population. Something to do with the fact that during Communism no one was allowed to hunt bears ( except the President). But with the collapse of Communism and the onset of unfettered capitalism bears we take and use to 'entertain' tourists. Around 80 of these bears now live in the wonderful LiBEARty bear sanctaury near Bran. A very worthwhile visit.

 Not a selfie I would have wanted to see in Canada! 

Other highlights of the last week...

Walking in the Translyvanian woods

Colourful Saxon villages and their religious art....

Dom with Vlad Tepes in his hometown of Sighisoara ( where I'm posting this from)

 Tracy posing on the medieval covered walkway, built in Sighisoara so the citizens can walk up to the church and the school children can walk up to the school. Very considerate.

As I was typing this up three BMW 1200s turned up at out hotel ( We're staying right in the middle of the historic centre of Sighisoara in a 4* hotel and it' sonny £40 a night!) so I quickly took this picture of the rear end of Heidi and three Italian bikes.

And finally a HUGE thanks to Gavin. Gavin is a UK citizen living in Romania. We met up with him this week and he have us a few tips on what to do and where to go. Thanks Gavin.

 And to finish. In Bran castle there were some scales to weigh witches. I'll let you decide what happened to Tracy!