The Lone Wanderer Arrives
Backpack pulling down on your shoulders. Luggage rolling beside you like a loyal pet. Happy to be stretching your legs after hours of lousy food and noisy children. You’re filled with a mixture of wonder, excitement, trepidation, curiosity and most importantly – freedom. Your luggage follows you out to face the firing line. Standing neatly side by side – staring straight ahead, silently scanning for some flicker of recognition – they aim their signs at you, but the names don’t match. You walk past without incident. They continue their vigil, signs aimed and ready. Your luggage follows you towards the massive glass doors. They automatically slide open and the Romanian air hits you. They close behind you – and there you are. Here at last – the lone wanderer. All of Romania lies stretched out before you.
I’ve always preferred travelling alone. I’ve lived through the above scenario countless times. I guess I prefer it because I’ve always been very independent. In addition, I think it forces you to get outside your comfort zone and really experience the culture on your own terms. Away from family and friends, your life left far behind, you have to immerse yourself in the experience. It’s all up to you. It builds character. Then again, maybe I prefer travelling alone simply because I’ve had no other option. When I was in Cuba, I vividly recall a fellow traveller telling me she admired my independence and wished she was alone, because her friends were driving her mad. Why do some people have such an aversion to being alone? I can understand not wanting to travel alone for security reasons, but do you think health and safety is what prevents most people from making a unilateral decision and doing what they really want to by themselves? I look at it this way – you come into the world alone and you go out alone, so best learn to enjoy your own company. Anyway, there I was outside another airport – just me and my loyal luggage, trying to hail a cab while entire families piled into cars. I’ve noticed its more difficult for a single traveller to get a cab as opposed to a large group. Sometimes being alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be!
Note: the number of cabs pictured above does not necessarily reflect the number of cabs that will be there to greet you.
I wandered around the front of Sibiu Airport trying to figure out the local customs as they relate to haling a cab successfully. I felt like Jonathan Harker – alone in a foreign land full of mystery and intrigue, fumbling his way towards his meeting with Count Dracula. In retrospect, Sibiu Airport proved to be much like Transylvania – small, quaint, slightly quirky, perfectly functional without a lot of fuss and a certain charming laissez-faire. No mystery and intrigue – yet. I made one important observation regarding Sibiu Airport cabs – they don’t like to be seen together. Like tigers, they hunt alone. One cab pulled up every five minutes and it seemed to be taken. My luggage and I were overjoyed when we finally made contact with a cab driver and, after a brief exchange in broken English – which he seemed to get the gist of – we were off. First impressions of Romania – no rush. Ideal for a vacation. You can worry about prompt, speedy cab service back in the UK. However, Sibiu cabbies do have one thing in common with other cabbies I have encountered around the world – refusal to speak. My entire trip was in silence. What was he saving his voice for? I envision the cabbie joining his comrades at some secret, sound proof location. Within its walls, he practices Shakespeare, opera, public speaking and prepares his lengthy address to the United Nations. But I could be wrong. Anyway, I took Depeche Modes’ advice and started to “enjoy the silence” for what amounted to a very short, inexpensive cab ride to my B&B.
As we weaved through Sibiu, its charms remained hidden. Street after street, row after row of greyish factories and Communist era flats. Briefly, I thought I’d made a mistake coming here. But Sibiu is like that. It sneaks up on you. Just when you think one thing – it does the opposite. Turn a corner and your preconceptions are shattered. You have to slowly discover its charms. Nothing is obvious. Everything is understated. I discovered this the first time I ventured from my B&B towards the historic city centre. I was surrounded by Communist era flats, some of which looked curiously war-torn (were those actually bullet holes I saw?). There was the odd vacant lot here and there. It looked a bit rough and ready. Again, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake coming here. Then in the distance, peering up over the dull buildings, was a magnificent looking spire – the first sign I was onto something. Surrounded by dull modern architecture, I turned a corner and suddenly I am confronted by the mediaeval wall surrounding the historic town centre. It truly is a small, exquisite jewel nestled within the grey modernism. Like a jewel, if you take the time to hold it up to the light and turn it slowly, it will reveal a few more of its secrets – greatly increasing its value.
Like Prague, Sibiu is a photographer’s dream. Take any winding medieval street and you can discover several riches. Everywhere you look there is something photo worthy. Personally, I love turning a corner and seeing something new. That’s what life should be about.
I never got bored walking up and down the same Sibiu streets. I took countless photos from countless angles, each photo unique. Sibiu is like that – no matter how you look at it, it remains unique. Unlike Prague, however, it is not plagued by too many tourists. I fact, I’d argue that Sibiu is just the right size – big enough to give you lots to experience and small enough that you get to experience most of it. Like Palermo or Lisbon, Sibiu has some edge – which I love. It’s not too clean, corporate and sanitised – perfect for a keen photographer.
Follow these links to see my glorious 35mm black and white and colour shots from my week in Sibiu, and tour of Transylvania doing researching for my serial novel “Once Upon a Time in Transylvania”:
I had the good fortune to stay at the aptly named Pensiunea Fortuna. A serendipitous choice, since I was in Sibiu in part to research my serial novel and the B&B had a strong literary theme. I have to say the wallpaper was some of the most creative I’ve ever encountered. They had pasted pages from books on the wall and over that placed a pen and quill creating a 3D effect. Like much of Romania, my room was subtly quirky. It had two beds (one a kind of bunk bead) and a lovely balcony overlooking a quiet garden, where you could enjoy your breakfast. I found the B&B very affordable, clean, quiet and placed in a great location – just a 10 min walk to the historic city centre. Service was polite and unobtrusive. One minor issue – don’t spring for the breakfast. You’re better off having breakfast in the city square. It’s surprisingly cheaper and better quality – and you can people watch!
Walking to and fro. What are they all up to? Whenever I go aboard, I pay particular attention to the people. If I risk sounding creepy then let me kindly explain that this stems from my love of people watching in general. Possibly it also stems from having grown up (culturally deprived) in a small, all-white, VERY conservative tourist town in rural Canada. As a result, I like to observe different types of people in different settings – rather like an amateur anthropologist with Buddhist inclinations.
Interestingly, most of my social interactions in Sibiu were with women – by far. They are predominately the ones in shops, restaurants and at the B&B. I have very little interaction with Romanian men – aside from the aforementioned cab driver (that fountain of conversation!). However, I do recall one Romanian man shouting at me from across the street, assuming I was a fellow Romanian (Incidentally, almost everywhere I have travelled I have been mistaken for a local. In Italy, Sicily and Spain, people approached me on the street and started talking to me at length only to discover – much to their chagrin – that I did not understand a word of it). Turns out he wanted to know where I had just come from (I came out of my B&B). Specifically, he wanted to know the street number. Probably totally innocuous curiosity, his abruptness magnified by his broken English and my non-existent Romanian. Despite his persistence, I politely explained I was not going to tell him exactly what house I just came out of (why did he need to know?). He was very apologetic, wished me well and continued on his way. In retrospect, a healthy curiosity regarding a stranger on your street is probably a good thing. With a history of invasions, occupations and decades of harsh Communist rule he was entitled to take a look at me and think: “What now”? Actually, the threat of a return to Communist rule is still very real, but that’s another story.
During my week-long stay, I never saw any crime or antisocial behaviour. I felt safe wherever I went – night or day. I couldn’t’ help but take special notice of the women – a bad habit if mine! Their eyes, hair and complexion hinted at their Roman ancestry. From my perspective, they were beautiful without knowing it. Like much of Romania, they had a subtle, simple, understated beauty – not at all gaudy or presumptuous. I’ll never forget the site of a woman in evening dress peering out from fluttering curtains. For me, this summed up the beauty and mystery beneath the hard exterior. Believe it or not, this vision appeared in hotel depicted below – second floor, far left window.
I apologize to any female readers who may feel let down at this point. I guess you’ll have to travel to Romania and check out the men yourself. However, if you’re into silent types, then I suggest a cab driver.
Wherever I go, I love photographing the architecture. I love the lines and angles. Sibiu’s sky was dominated by some special features I had not seen anywhere else in my travels. A curious type, I mentioned them to my tour guide, while we were driving through the countryside. I asked what the “eye-like” windows were for on rooftops. I thought perhaps they were for ventilation. She explained to me that they were called “The Eyes of God”. They were designed so that wherever you walked in Sibiu, the eyes of God would follow you and you’d know you were safe. Furthermore, anyone who had these “eyes” on their roof was a member of a certain religious order. If you were in trouble and needed help, you’d know which house to go to – the one with the eyes on top. Sort of like that Block Parent programme we had in Canada back in the 70s, I guess. You can see what I mean by “eyes” in these photos:
Here’s a house I had a particular affinity for. It was near the market – not exactly a posh area.
The inspiration for Norman Bates’ home in Psycho?
Tour of Rasnov and Bran Castle
You could easily do two says just in the city and spend several more touring the countryside surrounding it. Transylvania is famous for its medieval towns, villages, forts and castles so I recommend hiring a local tour guide to ensure you experience as much as possible. You can see my review of the tour guide here:
I’ve stayed in touch with her, and he sent me this email:
I have added a picture to this mail…Do you recognize the place and the characters?
One week later after your visit Johhny Depp, Alice Cooper and Joe Perry (The Hollywood Vampires) came on a tour in Bucharest and went to Bran:)
What was she talking about? Well, here’s me:
… and here are my stalkers:
Driving along with my tour guide, a spritely song jumps from the radio. She explains that it is an old Soviet era pop song from the 80s. It sounds like a Russian take on Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. My guide explains the lyrics. A young man is in love with a woman. As a token of his love and devotion, he saves for weeks to buy her that special something. Something signifying his feelings for her. Something she will not forget. When the moment is right, nerves almost get the best of him, but love overcomes all. He hands her an orange. The entire song is about a young man giving the girl of his dreams an orange. Proof that love is universal; it’s just the currency that changes.
Romanian beer is clean and refreshing, much like Lithuanian beer. Must be the spring water. Beer is the distilled essence of the country. What feet trampled the ground from which my beer sprang? What toil, death and rebirth fed the hops? In a way, it is surprising that their beer is so light while their history is so dark. Perhaps that is why their beer is light; it offers an antidote to a history of invasions, occupations and harsh dictatorship. The only dark beer I had on tap was surprisingly light and refreshing – not nearly as strong as the dark ales and beers of England, Germany and Belgium. Aside from the excellent pints, Sibiu’s grocery stores carry a wide assortment of surprisingly inexpensive Czech and German bottled beers that are not readily available in the UK.
Dining in Sibiu is incredibly reasonable. I found I could visit a highly rated restaurant and enjoy an excellent meal and two pints of local beer for the equivalent of £11. The service and quality of food were excellent. I did not have a bad meal during my week there.
A particularly memorable meal occurred at Intim, with a its lovely terrace overlooking the Piata Mare (historic town square). My friendly waitress told me they were the first restaurant in Sibiu to serve pizza – back in the 70s, evidently. My pizza was like no other. It was thick, like Sicilian pizza, but served in a deep casserole dish – rather like a quiche. An interesting hybrid of tastes and textures!
A favourite of mine – which I kept returning to for pints, coffee or food – was the Atrium Classic Cafe. The outside setting was the best in Sibiu. Sitting next to the historic iron bridge, I felt I was at a crossroads. Everything flowed by me – even the wind. A very special place to sit and past the time. You can see the cafe’s parasols here:
Romanian “pretzels” and donuts will ensure your diet is a thing of the past. The enormous “donuts”, which every disconcerting business person is brandishing by 5 pm, resemble calzones and are filled with chocolate, cheese, or strawberry jam.
I’m not going to spend too much time on the food. There’s already tonnes of information out there on the topic. In fact, I’d argue there is TOO much. Too many people post pictures of their food along with anecdotal evidence. To a certain degree, I think this ruins the fun in discovering that special place yourself, even if you have to endure a few bad experiences to get to it. In Sibiu, luckily, I never had a bad experience. However, as one last recommendation, I’ll steer you towards these two tradition Romanian restaurants situated within ancient wine cellars.
The Historic City Square (Piata Mare)
Normally I avoid city squares. They’re like “Roach Motels” for tourists. However, the Piata Mare will always have a special place in my heart. It was there, amongst it charming cobbles and period buildings, that I felt truly relaxed and stress free – watching the people go by. Common sense dictates that you avoid eating in city squares. For example, you’d never eat in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, although I must admit I enjoyed a 25 Euro gin martini at the famous Harry’s Bar. Sibiu’s square, on the other hand, was a wonderful and inexpensive place to eat, drink, chill and observe daily life in Sibiu. Surrounded by history, I was perfectly satisfied sipping a Romanian beer, or enjoying a double espresso, and relaxing in the sun-drenched square. Suddenly, dark clouds descended. Thunder roared. The rain pounds the cobbles around me. Surrounded by mountains, the weather changes quickly. Much like the city itself, it keeps you on your toes. The storm comes in quickly, but just as quickly it leaves, the Sun comes out and – miraculously – the cobbles are dry. The Piata Mare returns to life.
Quiet and Zen like, the Piata Mare was the perfect haunt for me. Towards the end of my stay, its peace was disrupted by a car show. In the USA or Canada, such a show would be dominated by large, flashy cars. Curiously, and very telling, in Sibiu it was small economy cars that people were climbing in and out of and taking pictures of. A final testament to the quiet charm of Sibiu.
I travelled to Romania back in June. It’s taken me until now to write about my experiences there. Why is that? Here’s a one word explanation – teaching! Teaching takes up nearly all my waking hours – and much of my free time. As a result, I write whenever I have the chance. The fact that there has been two months between my trip and this blog post, and my memories of Transylvania are as vivid now as they were then, is testament to the its unique powers. It is a special place. Unforgettable.