Sunday, September 02, 2007

And So It Ends...

Downtown Bucharest

We left Veliko Tarnovo and rode north toward the Romanian border, losing elevation as we approached the Danube River Valley. We arrived in Ruse at the end of another long, hot day, but this time with the added joy of humidity. So when we found a hotel room with air conditioning, we quickly settled up and bought some beer. Ruse doesn’t offer much, so we rested that night and crossed the Danube the following morning as we headed toward Bucharest.

The House of the People

Bucharest's own Arc de Triumph

Bucharest is a city still emerging from many years under a dictator with a “Western” complex. In some respects he succeeded; it’s at times Paris-esque (or so I’ve heard). The buildings lay along streets lined with trees and fountains. In fact, Nicolae Ceauşescu (the dictator) built one of his boulevards exactly (and intentionally) 6 meters longer than the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Bucharest has an Arc de Triumph situated in an enormous traffic circle, and in what is widely considered his cruelest urban planning effort, a Parliament building which required the bulldozing of 1/6 of the city’s area, displacing nearly 70,000 of it’s inhabitants. And he had the balls to call it “The House of the People.” Not kidding.

Cercul Militar Naţional

But for all the “westernized” areas of Bucharest, it is distinctly a product of years of communism. It’s thick and gray and sprawling. Furthermore, Romania falls exponentially behind progress with distance from its capital. Stray dogs are a problem country wide, along with poverty and gypsies, who are also known as Roma. Some studies show they are Indian in origin, but they’ve been around long enough to speak their own language and solidify their place as national “outcasts.” Often they live in their own communities at the edges of towns, and fierce nationalism across the Balkans has made their lives difficult.

"House of the People" from Ceauşescu's knock-off Champs-Elysees


Our trip dynamic changed dramatically in Bucharest as Greg had to leave for Ljubljana, where he would meet his choir for a tour of Slovenia. That left Joel and I to explore the city in the heat and humidity. We tried to stay outside in the evenings, and we soon found ourselves on the roof of the National Theatre at an outdoor bar. However, we were feeling cosmopolitan (despite our dress) and headed next to a bar called Twice. For more reasons than our style of dress, we didn’t exactly fit in. But we had a great time dancing that evening. And that was Bucharest. The following day was basically the same. Sightseeing by day, beer and dancing by night. We left on a rainy Sunday afternoon by train toward Brasov.

Brasov, Old Town

Brasov, Old Town, lucky picture.

Brasov is Romania’s domestic tourist destination. It’s known for its Old Town Square, its varied architecture, and simply being the gateway to Transylvania. In a beautiful area, Brasov manages to impress. We also visited Bran, the mythical home of Count Dracula, and Rasnov, where Joel honed his bow-and-arrow skills. After a couple of nights, we were ready for our final day on the bikes, and we left for Sighisoara, 122km away. It was our longest day ride of the trip, and the weather was wonderful. After a night there, we caught a train to Cluj-Napoca where Lynne, my second cousin once removed (or maybe my second aunt?) lives with her husband Jim. They’re (you guessed it) volunteers with the Peace Corps working with the local prisons, stray dogs, and a few other things.

Joel works on his sweet bow skills.

Lynne and Jim took us in, cooked us dinner, and gave us beer. When we weren’t eating, drinking, or watching South Park on, we also managed to sell our bikes and buy Joel some Nasonex. We actually had so much fun hanging out with Lynne and Jim that we didn’t see much of Cluj. On Friday, we left on a minibus for Budapest, minus the bikes. After an infuriating night in Budapest (see sidebar), we caught a train to Prague, and the greatest adventure on two wheels came to an end.


I haven’t had much time to decompress and reflect on the previous two months, and I imagine that will take some time. I do know that it’s been a life-altering experience. Together, we bicycled over a mountain pass in the Alps, through lavender fields on islands in the Adriatic Sea, and below tunnels that seemed to run on forever. We witnessed progress, westernization, and scars slowly healing. We met people who’d lived under communism and experienced the horrors of senseless wars that took the lives of their friends and families. And yet it was these people who opened their homes to us, shared their food and drink with us, and talked with us about what it means to live in such an area. It's clear that life changes after living through such things. It has been remarkable.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congrats on your trip Fitz... I am still kinda stunned myself at all that you guys accomplished.
I just finished week one of three in Portland, OR, and rounded out the week with a little trek around a wee hill known as Mount St. Helens... I've done a fair bit of hiking and seen a lot of things, but a hike around an active volcano jumps pretty high on the list. Hope I get a chance to run into you sometime this year, take care!!