Beyond Romania's ice hotel

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In the March Grapevine magazine I wrote about me and my wife's experience in an ice hotel. If I am honest the ice hotel was our reason for being in Romania and as we were busy in the lead up to Christmas we did not really have any chance to research about the country which meant that upon arrival we had little idea what to expect or even what the hotels we would be staying in would be like. Being a natural pessimist I was not expecting much but a quick read through the in-flight magazine and our recently purchased guide book on our flight into Bucharest had raised my hopes.

We flew with Romania's budget airline Blue Air which was like flying with EasyJet but just a little shabbier. As we circled over a Bucharest everything was white with snow; the recent disruption at Heathrow airport sprang to mind, but the pilot adeptly landed the plane on the snow covered runway without a problem. An English speaking taxi driver later told us that the year before there was a metre of snow in the streets of Bucharest and yet everything was back to normal within a day which just shows that BAA have a lot to learn and to explain.

We shuffled off of the plane and through passport control. Just behind passport control was a small baggage collection belt. We looked around to see which belt our bags would be appearing only to realise that the 10 foot long belt circling before me, so laden with bags and suitcases that they were falling off was it, the only belt. Being British at first I politely stood near the belt trying not to actually knock into or touch anybody, before then getting a bit angry and then finally wading in rudely and grabbing our bags as they emerged. This was our first ever visit to an eastern block country and the baggage collection belt experience felt exactly like my preconception of such a (former communist) country. But this was not Ceauşescu's communist country; this was Romania, member of the European Union since 2007. I later discovered that the airport we had flown into, Baneasa, was the airport used by Blue Air and the main international airport. Ah well. You get what you pay for!
Once out of the airport we got into a taxi to go to our hotel; the taxi driver started the engine of his
Peugeot and huge icon of an engine appeared on the dashboard. The taxi driver calmly took his wallet out of his pocket and put it over the dashboard display covering the worrying engine icon. His magic wallet obviously worked as we go to our hotel without a hitch.

There is much to see in Bucharest; the Palace of Parliament is the second-largest building in the world after the Pentagon. This audacious building gives a perfect insight into Ceauşescu's megalomania and boasts some unbelievable statistics; designed and built by 4,000 architects and 20,000 builders, 4,500 chandeliers, 1,100 rooms the list goes on. After our guided tour of the building (mainly in Romanian as we were the only foriegners there) that lasted for around an hour, we were informed that we had just seen 1% of the building. I asked our guide to clarfiy two items in our Insight Guide to Romania. Firstly, as stated in said book was there a sliding roof to allow a helicopter to land inside. She said the was a myth. Secondly, are there secret tunnels in the building. She said there were but she did not know about them as they are secret. I did not pluck-up the courage to ask if the tunnels we build by death-row prisoners to maintain their secrecy. In case you are wondering the guide did speak English, which was lucky as my Romanian is a bit rusty. That said Romanian does share many words with Spanish as it is the only Balkan language with Latin roots. It is quite strange to hear words like 'factura' or 'piscina' in the middle of a Russian sounding sentence.

Also in Bucharest we happened upon a traditional shopping centre; not some glossy mall of well-known shops – although these do exist in Bucharest – but a higgledy-piggledy collection of various stalls selling their wares. Here we witnessed a hangover from the communist days we had read about in our guidebook; downward escalators were blocked and there were security guards stopping people from going down in the lift. Later on in the trip we mentioned this to a local who said he had never heard of such a thing. Having spoken to a number of Romanian's the general feeling was that they were the poor man of Europe and that all other countries are prosperous and living well. They thought the roads were terrible in Romania and that the trains were always late, neither of which we found to be accurate.

My wife Debbie is a much more avid reader than me and before our trip a book called Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker. The book is an autobiographical story of how Blacker moved to Romania in the early 80's, fell in love with a gypsy woman and lived with a group of gypsies (I just looked at the pictures). The book regularly mentioned a plum vodka called Ţuică and she was very keen to try some, so in a restaurant on our first night she ordered a glass. Let's suffice to say we did not bring a bottle back with; rather than a fruity little number it tasted like agua fuerte mixed with vodka. I too came a cropper on the alcohol front. Another item on our list of things to do before we ar 50 is for me to drink vodka in the eastern block, so one night in a less than salubrious bar I ordered a nice sounding concoction from the cocktail menu. The waitress carried drinks over and handed a bright pink mixture in a cocktail glass to my wife. She informed the waitress that the pink drink was in fact for me. I did drink it. It was very nice. But I did ask the waitress to put it in a straight glass for me!

Every hotel we stayed in on our trip had warm hotel rooms. In fact so warm that although it was snowing outside we had to open the bedroom windows in each one. The hotel we stayed in prior to visiting the ice hotel was in Brasov overlooked the main square and contained probably the biggest real Christmas tree I have ever seen; it was bedecked in lights and stood over small wooden huts selling hot mulled wine and other delicacies. It was very romantic and looked truly magical in fact just like one of the high quality Christmas cards available in Todo Papel, Cómpeta. Sorry I should point out here that like commercial TV stations in the UK I have begun to offer product placement. If all goes well next month's article will be a review of my new Rolls Royce.
The list goes on of the things we did during our 8 days in Romania; we visited the European city of culture 2007, Sibiu, where a waitress said to me the strangest thing I have ever heard in a restaurant. After asking us if everything was OK with our food said “if anybody in here annoys you, just let me know and I will beat them up for you”. Normally you could laugh off such a comment, but we were after all in vampire territory, Transylvania. In fact a visit to Bran castle, a delightful castle that has somehow become intertwined with the Dracula story, we began to 'see' more and more vampires. In fact the more we drank the more we saw. Bran castle has no real links with the Dracula, despite a number of vampire films being shot there. In fact Vlad the Impaler, who the story is based, never lived there. However it is still worth a visit.
A must see when in the region is Sighisoara, which is one of the best-preserved mediaeval towns in Europe. After 5 minutes of wandering around it is easy to see why this almost intact 16th century town is a Unesco world heritage site. If it was not for cars parked in the street it is like going back in time. Time seems to have stood still too for some Romanians living their simple life working the land seemingly oblivious to the fact we are in the 21st century. See these people wearing their sheep skins and driving horse drawn carts is a sight to behold.

The people of Romania were very friendly and welcoming, the food was good and we only had chance to see about 10% of the things in our guide book. We would not hesitate to go back to see the painted monasteries in Moldavia, sample the Turkish influenced area of Dobrogea overlooking the Black Sea or to visit the more cosmopolitan Banat region in the west of the country. Maybe one day the locals will realise just what a gem of a country they live in

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