Greetings from beautiful Central Europe,
Would you believe it we had a blow out on a back tyre on the way to the border. David changed the wheel over without any drama, but we had no intention of traveling without a spare into Bulgaria or Romania.
It was Sunday and with only a few small towns between us and the border we weren’t liking our chances, but figured we’d try anyway. We found our way into a run down looking industrial estate in a small town and would you believe the only shop that was open was the toughest looking Turkish guy doing puncture repairs with a bunch of tires lying around his factory.
Desperate we figured we’d give it a go. He was friendly and engaging and without a word of English. After communicating our needs, we patiently waited our turn drinking the compulsory cup of tea. He was the hardest working Turkish guy we had ever seen with a constant flow of business. Although not the exact tyre, we were on the road again within about 2 hours a minimal delay. We were pretty happy.
We arrived at a town only about 25km from the border, to find they were pumping water out of the lower levels of there small apartments blocks. There was debris and mud all over the road, it was pretty clear they were mopping up from some pretty recent flooding.
The mountain range ahead was also looking ominous with dark clouds, blotting out the horizon, we pushed on any way. We only needed to travel about another 15km, before we were into the rain and it was bucketing down, On the way back down the valley, the roads started becoming awash with water, mud and debris, by now I was starting to get nervous, all the water had to be going somewhere. The creeks had well and truly broken their banks and local crops were being flattened by the water and the rain wasn’t letting up.
We crossed a bridge and came to a small town called Derekoy, it was underwater. One of the locals approached and let us know they were having a small problem to turn around and head back. I was thinking, mate thats no small problem you have to deal with. We gladly turned around to head to higher ground fearing landslides or that parts of the road might wash away.
After surveying the surrounding topography, we parked in a deserted service station on the highest ground we could find, the rain felt like it was getting heavier and we discovered the trusty Renault was not entirely water proof, but our problems were insignificant compared to what they were having to deal with in Derekoy. While we were parked, at least 10 heavy earth moving machines went by and 4 army tanks, women and children were being bused out and men in. We went to sleep in our leaking van wondering what we would find the next morning.
We woke to sunny morning and the peaceful sound of the cows coming down from higher ground, had a cuppa and headed towards Derekoy and the border. What we saw was worse than we could have ever imagined. The town had almost been flattened, the bridge we drove over the day before had become completely awash with water.
Cars had been washed down the creek, homes simply no longer existed. Homes that survived were no full of mud and the sparse belongings ruined. People had lost there lives. We were told that the towns folk might receive 1-2 days help to clean up, beyond that it would be up to them, they weren’t expecting any financial help either. A fresh water truck was under military guard, homes where people had lost there lives were also under military guard.
Women were being bused or taxied back into town while we were there, the expressions of devastation on there face was clear. Some had already started the clean up. It was shocking, but beyond offering our symphonies there was little we could do but move on. Parts of the road beyond Derekoy had been washed away.
The border, it took us two hours to leave Turkey and get into Bulgaria. What we didn’t realise was that phone lines were out due to the rain, so when they took David’s passport and told us to wait, we started getting a little antsy. The problem was very simple, they just couldn’t check if we had any traffic fines or other issues, before letting us leave Turkey but they didn’t tell us.
Finally we were allowed out, before entering Bulgaria we had to pay to disinfect the car, we sat in the bay waiting for the disinfecting shower to start and waited and waited, nothing happened so we drove off, as we looked back the shower started! No one cared, they had our money. Despite all we had heard about people trying to rip you of at the borders, we found the Bulgarians friendly and helpful, giving us advice on which roads to take.
This area of Bulgaria had also coped the intense rain, the roads were bad to start, now they were partially covered by landslides or simply caved in, makes for stressful travel.The small town on the Bulgarian border was also mopping up after the rain. The first task, in Bulgaria, was to get local currency and fuel for the car. Not so easy.
Rural regions in Bulgaria where quite poor, with people living basic lives, herding there cattle, goats and horses on in the open fields and growing there own fruits and vegetables. Consequently they have little money and no need for banks and petrol stations would only take the local currency with no facilities for cards. Not desperate for either we pushed onto a bigger town and found a bank and filled up the car. Petrol is cheap in this country about 1.40 $Aus a liter.
We hadn’t planned to spend any time in Bulgaria due to all the stories we had heard, but after driving through Derokoy, a 2 hour border crossing, landslides and caved in roads and then having trouble getting money it was pretty late in the day and we weren’t up to a second border crossing in the same day we decided to camp for the night.
Much to our surprise, the Black Sea coast is rapidly developing huge resorts for cheap package holidays for Europeans. All of the resorts are gated with security and everything you need behind the gates including markets. Also to our surprise the beaches were the best we had seen since leaving the Bahamas, although not up to par with the Bahamas. With a great climate, the Black Sea over 20 degrees Celsius, combined with the fabulous beaches it was easy to see why it was getting popular.
We even saw a Gary Player signature golf course going in.-There had obviously been some pretty nasty weather systems through recently as David put it the Black Sea was ‘feral’. Logs and debris had also washed up against the guardrails on the sides of roads where water had been flowing over them. Away from the pockets of resorts was a lot of undeveloped coastline and large open rolling fields, with stunning yellow sunflowers in full bloom, wheat and corn crops and acres of vineyards, it really was very pretty.
We had read in our ‘Lets Go Europe’ that Bulgaria was pretty conservative and to dress accordingly, but to our astonishment billboard advertising was less than conservative. Forget girls in bikinis advertising drinks and cigarettes, try g-strings and in some cases nothing. It was easy to tell the tourists from the locals as well. Tourists were sunburnt and locals looked like they had stepped out of the eighties.
We drove to a resort town called Albenia and found a campground located behind the resort, it was average at best. The showers were common, with no cubicles and instead of the water draining through the drains it pooled on the floor and then cascaded out the door, it was also not very clean. We decided to go smelly. We were pretty tired, but to took a short walk to the local shop, it was cheap, we spent up all our local currency, went back to the Van cooked dinner and slept.
In total we spent less then 24 hours in Bulgaria, we stayed on the Black Sea Coast as we knew this was more touristed, mainly because we had heard so many stories. In hindsight we feel some one was looking over our shoulder when we had the tyre blow out, had this not occurred chances are we would have been caught up in the flooding.
Next country Romania.
It took less then 20 minutes to get through the border, including paying for another car disinfect, this time they didn’t even bother to turn on the overhead cleaners, but were content in the knowledge they had our money. We also had to pay an ecological tax, with either local currency, which we didn’t have and couldn’t get on the border or Euros.
Our only ten Euro note had a tear in it and they refused to take that as well. We managed to scrape together 4 US$ , originally they wanted more, but we refused and they accepted the 4$US. We also had another issue at the border, that was going to be a real bother the entire time in Romania. After being stuck in Alexandroupolis for 4 nights we researched insurance for Bulgaria and Romania and were meant to be able to buy it at the border in both countries.
Unfortunately they had no facilities to sell it to us at this border crossing, after some deliberation, they sent us on our way suggesting we could buy insurance at the next town or ‘be very careful’. We chose the insurance option, only problem the phones lines and internet were down in the next town and the next and the next town, so we were having trouble getting insurance. We pushed on looking in every town for the ‘Carte Verde’ sign to try for insurance, but with no luck.
We stopped in one town David got out and I stayed with the car, he asked someone on the street for help and the next thing he knew he was down an alley way with a guy and a briefcase full of photocopied documents and a small crowd gathering, he raced back to the car a took of like a bull at a gate, explaining the situation later. we had heard about these shammers but never expected to get caught up with one.
The driving in Romania is downright scary, leaving us both white knuckled and in fear of our lives, not helping was the knowledge playing in the back of our minds that we were traveling without insurance. Romanians in general own two types of cars, shitty little Dacias or stolen BMWs and Mercs and they drive with a death wish.
It was not uncommon to have to slam on the brakes on a blind corner to avoid a head on collision or drive of the road on straight stretches. Trucks drive with their wheels on the center line an cars behind them with half the car in the opposite lane looking for overtaking opportunities. Cars from behind were as scary as cars coming from ahead, overtaking us as we were overtaking trucks, turning two narrow lanes into three.
We figured that they would have no problem driving us of the road, I mean what’s two dead tourists in Romania? It was more awful than you could ever possibly imagine. The Romanian cities were angry places as well, we tried to limit the times we had to stop in them, but it was inevitable as bank machines simply don’t exist or don’t work in the rural regions we also needed petrol and food.
Supermarkets were fenced in with bared wire and had security gates. Handbags and bags had to be left at the supermarket entrance under security. I didn’t realise this and just wondered in to one, I was followed by undercover security, not realising what was going on until I absent mindedly ran my trolley into theirs.
Shopping itself was a task, trying to find foods that looked even vaguely familiar to foods we new we could prepare in the Van. Forget shopping bags as well, grocery shopping had never been so stressful.
Our first stop in Romania was the Danube Delta, a huge wetlands where the famous Danube River meats the Black Sea on the Romanian, Ukraine border. We arrived to find that there had been recent flooding in this region as well, towns were mopping up or simply inaccessible and the bird flu had wiped out much of the wildlife which the area was famous for.
We arrived late in the day at Crasnov a small, typical rural Romanian town. Cows were wondering down the road bringing themselves in for the day. People were heading home parking their wagons in the driveway and tethering their ponies on the front nature strip alongside the families of chicken and geese. Going to rural Romania was like stepping into a time warp, it was pretty amazing. Cars were oddly out of place and peoples lives were very simple, still heavily relying on horses for transport and ploughing the fields.
We headed for the only campground around, not wanting to risk free camping. Things were looking up on the campground, front we had found a winner. That is, easily the winner of the worst campground in Europe. It was over grown, full of stray dogs (we had read and been warned about rabies), there was more rust than water coming out of the shower heads, the toilets didn’t flush and the entire place had a fairly unique smell.
The thing that clinched it as a winner though was the mosquitos, I honestly believed we were either going to be carried away or sucked dry. We went to bed wondering if we be chewed up by a rabid dogs, die off the bird flu or catch Ross River Fever or Dengy Fever from the mosquitos or simply die of a slow poisoning from the cocktails we’d made up to get rid of the mosquitos.
On the positive note on the way into the campground we ran into the only other two couples crazy enough to be traveling in this region. We set up a wagon style camp and tried every volatile concoction to try to drive away mosquitos and voted that it be better to continue being smelly than use the showers. We realised what luxury we were traveling in in the trusty Renault as we the only vehicle with a potty.
We also had the joy of watching an amazing sunset over the Danube, one of the best we had seen, the frogs were also crooking away in harmony. We are big fans of the ole’ frog, I think if there are plenty around it means the water way is doing O.K. The older swiss couple had a well set up Nissan Patrol with a tent on the roof and the young Germans had a VW Transporter 2 years older than the Renault. It was great night swapping stories, but we went to bed as they headed of to locate a venue to try and watch the soccer world cup.
Choosing not to spend any longer in the region, as the Germans were telling us they almost tipped there VW over on the atrocious roads we headed off to Transylvania, but not before a very late start as we were enjoying the adventures and interesting company. The Swiss had warned us about how bad the roads we were going to be traveling on were and there was at least 20 km of road works.
What they failed to tell us that they had actually fully dug up the road and it was now not even a goat track. We managed to cover 350km in around 9 hours, slow, painful travel that was taking its toll on the trusty Renault and on us. Adding to our travel woes, was the lack of bridges over rivers. You would be driving along and the road would abruptly end. The only way to get across was rickety old car ferries.
We were accosted fairly heavily on the ferries by young men wanting to clean our windscreens when we refused they took to begging and then intimidation, not fun.
The last week had been pretty draining and we were both exhausted. We didn’t make it to Trannsylvania, but instead stopped in at incredibly picturesque town in the mountains just outside of Bran. Again we arrived at dusk to the cows and horses bringing themselves down from the surrounding hills for the night. People were standing holding open there gates as their cows with cowbells tinkling away would peel off to there homes.
We pulled into a place that vaguely resembled a campground, to find it was accommodation for a bunch of young men from Moldavia working in the nearby timber mills. They welcomed us in and we parked in a corner out of the way. Moldavia is a small country between Ukraine and Romania that has guerilla warfare going on and is occupied by the first Russian army. Why the boys were in a small town in Romania we don’t know, but they were pretty rough looking and we felt better being on their side of the fence.
We were woken early the next morning to a banging on the window, we had to move on as the boys were headed to work and the complex would be locked up for the day. Exhausted we moved out a quickly as possible found a place by the picturesque river and had a cuppa before tackling the day.
Brasov a pretty town located in the mountains, we drove through got lost and ended up at Mount Brasov, a lovely ski mountain. We pulled to the side of the road to try to figure out how to get to Draculas Castle, a cop pulled up and very sternly said “you vill move da car”. We try to explain we were lost and had just pulled in to look at our maps, again “you vill move da car”, he sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzeneger. We ask him where Bran Castle is, eventually he says “you vill take dat road and you vill move da car.” We figure now would be a good time to move da car, not wanting to mess with this tough guy cop and end up in some bribery scandal.
We eventually found the famous Bran (Draculas) Castle. It was small but fun. On our way around we met some friendly Americans, but realised they were keeping a safe distance from us, we hadn’t had a shower since istanbul. Our clothes hadn’t seen the inside off a washing machine since Delphi in Greece! We had been hand washing our undies and a few other bits and pieces every so often though.
At the Castle we started taking photos, as we were leaving we were followed by a mean looking security guard, who very abruptly asked us for our tickets, we produced them, but failed to produce the ticket you have to buy to take photos. When we entered we hadn’t noticed the fine print in Romanian indicating we needed a special ticket to take photos. The very, mean, angry security guard escorted us to the ticket office and forced us to buy the ‘photo ticket’ almost us much as the entry ticket, we would have rather deleted the photos than cop this nasty treatment, time to get out of Romania and head for the Hungarian border.
We made it to within about 100kms and decided to stop at the only campground we were aware of on the way to the border at dusk, not wanting to travel on the Romanian roads at night or go through a border crossing when we weren’t sharp, we had heard a few stories about being ripped of when leaving Romania by other travelers.
We entered the town of Ordea the next morning only about 5-10kms from the border and got completely lost for about an hour. There was not a single sign indicating the direction and road to the border, we couldn’t believe it, we couldn’t find our way out of the country. We arrived in Hungary with no problems at the border exhausted, wrung out, over stimulated and just plain weary. We had had more than our fair share of ‘rich travel experiences’ and it had worn us out.
Arriving in Hungary was like arriving back in civilisation gone were all the stray dogs we had be seeing since Italy. Romania was the worst strays we never got used to seeing dogs that had been hit by cars or tucks every few kms rotting on the side of the road, its the small things that gradually wear you down. Also gone were the prostitutes standing on the side of major roads, I feel very sorry for these girls and wonder what will happen to them.
We certainly appreciate the privileges of being born into countries like Australia, UK and America. All of a sudden the roads became drivable and the drivers civil and patient.
We headed for a campground just outside of Budapest parked the Trusty and jumped into the pool, where we met a hoard of Kiwis! Turns out to be a Kiwi family on a six month Europe program. Six of them traveling full time and other members flying in and out at various stages of the trip, they currently had seven along for the ride and the their van wasn’t huge.
They were the nicest people buying us dinner and beers and then taking us back to their van for chocolate, the first we’d had since leaving the Bahamas. My gosh it was soooo good. We had a Hungarian Goulash at the campground restaurant, it was superb. I’d been hanging out for goulash since the Swiss mentioned it at the Danube Delta and I wasn’t disappointed, we’d been existing on stale bread and pasta sauce for some time now and the change in diet was welcome.
We got up the next morning marginally rejuvenated, but still exhausted and caught the bus into Budapest. It was like going to Disney Land, it was clean, the gardens where beautiful, we weren’t hassled by a single shop vendor, there weren’t hordes of tourists, it was the prettiest town we had seen in a long time.
We spent the day wondering around the Castle Hill on the Buda side, listening to the buskers, on their violins and then wondered across the footbridge over the Danube to the Pest side. We lingered to have an ice cream and listen to a free open live jazz concert. We wondered around the shops stopped for a beer and watched the passing traffic, eventually making our way back to the campground for another goulash a swim and a sound nights sleep. We sadly fair welled the Kiwi family and warned them to be careful in Romania and headed in the direction of Vienna.
More good places to come,
David & Mel