The Treasure of the Baltics

In an effort to make this post much more readable I’ve moved all the previous images to Flickr.  Click here to see the gallery!

Note: It just dawned on me that I didn’t visit the Baltics.  I visited the Balkans. Truly, I am an American. Shame on me.


On March 8th I received a phone call from my mother. In that tone of voice mother’s have when you are sure you are in trouble, even if you haven’t lived with your parents in a while, “How would you like to…” (my mind was racing to figure out how I could possibly be in the hot seat) “…go to Japan?”.

“Yes,” was my instant reply.  “How would you like to go to Japan… for free?”. Double yes. So completely yes the question didn’t need to be asked.  A few moments of jubilation and my mind kicked back into gear, “Whhhyyyy?”  Turns out Dad didn’t want to go (they had gone to China last year for a month or so for the World’s Fair and he was basically done with Asia), so in a fortuitous turn of events mom thought of me.

So, with the plans sorted, I set in motion working out my plans for Japan: what I wanted to see, what camera gear I could bear to be without, and telling absolutely everybody.

Three days later I wake up and turn on NPR, only to hear about “the tragic events in Japan.”  Tragic events? Great, I thought in my typical self-absorbed mind, the second I get to go to Japan Godzilla turns real and wrecks up the place. Five minutes later I regretted the joke and made a donation to the Red Cross.  My conscience satisfied, I returned to thinking only about how this event affected me and I called my mom.

“I still want to go, now more than ever, especially as a photographer.”  The company from which we purchased the trip didn’t have any information since it way too early to tell how bad the tsunami was.  I don’t know if it’s some pseudo-psychotic reaction to horrible, historically significant events, but when tragedy strikes the first thought in my head is “I want to be there” and I can never square that circle.  Instead of wanting to donate my time and/or energy to help the process, I want to document it.  I can’t figure out if that’s a bad thing or an alternative way of helping.  Anyway…

A couple days after the tsunami occurred, with the YouTube videos of the water absolutely decimating the landscape fresh in our minds, my mother and I decide to keep our plans on.  If anything, tourism dollars would be needed now and in that way we could actually do some good.  Again, I don’t know if this reasoning is logical, but it was what I was operating with at the time.

A few days after that, it all changed again.  The destabilizing of the nuclear power plant put every plan back on the table.  “I don’t want to come back glowing” was my crass knee-jerk joke.  Most of my friends and family were telling us not to go, and after a few days of talking with the tour company they agreed to refund the ticket price.  My mother started looking for other places to visit that my dad didn’t want to go to and that were far enough away from Japan to not be affected.  All I could think about was the Airbus A380 that I wasn’t going to be able to fly in.  Again, horrible and self-centered.

Later that week my mother called, “How about Europe?” Yes. “How about Switzerland?” Yes. I didn’t care where we went as long as it was on a plane and very far away.  I started looking for places that I wanted to go to and thought of Madagascar (yes, because of the animated movie, I wanted to see comedic Zebra, sue me).  Somehow I managed to find two round trip tickets to the island (just the flights, nothing else) for about $12,000 and immediately stopped looking.  Mom laughed when I pitched that idea.

“How about Eastern Europe, like Romania?” YES. WHATEV–wait, what? Romania? The only thing about Romania I had seen was the Top Gear episode where they drive supercars through the underground of the Parliament building. “Um, yeah, sure, I just never thought of that area for a vacation.”  It sure beat going to some romantic beach place in southern France… with your mother.

Turns out we had a great time, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

Travel Journal:

Hello, Everybody!  I’m in Hungary (with my mother)!  She surprised me in March with this sudden trip out of the country and what kind of son would I be if I turned out a trip with my mom (a free one at that)?  We are going to be touring Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania via bus for the next two weeks with 37 strangers and a series of local guides.  It’s my first time being in a non-English speaking country (native speaking, anyway) and about 14 years since my last trip over seas.

Day 1.

On Monday morning (May… 9th?) at 4am we threw our luggage into the car and drove to LAX.  We arrived a few hours before our flight (way too early as it turned out) and watched the sunrise as departing flights roared into the abyss.  A class of Hawaiian middle schoolers was in the terminal on their way to New York as part of their 2011 East Coast tour — I remember when we went to Washington DC in eighth grade and was instantly jealous.  It’s amazing how important Starbucks becomes when you’ve had four hours of sleep and twenty one hours of traveling in front of you. I bought a the current issues of RunnersWorld and the Harvard Business Review (ha!) to read before the flight… but ended up just taking photos of the airport like every other tourist.

Our plane began to board at 8:00am bound for JFK in New York.  The last time I flew across the country I was 13 and was convinced the flight time was going to be somewhere around twelve hours.  Turns out it’s closer to four.  Four hours to fly across the country!  Insanity.  I suppose when you have nothing else to do and your entertainment is completely dependent on if the pilot gives the green light to play a worn out VHS of 1983’s War Games (in fact they played The Tourist but the audio port kept jumping between English and Spanish channels so it might as well have been that scene in Home Alone where the family is watching TV in French with a puzzled look on their faces) your concept of time and space gets a little warped.  Thankfully SkyMall provided all the entertainment one could expect.  From vacuums for the surface of your pool to life-size statues of Big Foot (complete with gestures and surprised looks), SkyMall has been the cynic’s best friend since it’s inception — the original Seen On TV (or Plane).

The flight attendants came by with drinks and …. well, just drinks actually.  It had been so long since I flew I forgot that the airlines are now operating in Hobo-Mode and don’t let anything more than a Sprite pass through their hands without some form of Where-Else-Ya-Gonna-Go? look and an open palm.  There were sandwiches available but who the hell wants to buy a sealed plastic sandwich when you’re screaming across the sky at 500mph in a metal tube secured only by a fabric belt in which you’ve placed your implicit trust to see you safely through the burning hellscape of a plane plummeting from 30,000 feet?  That’s the other thing, not one other person (not even a child) was screaming with their hands up during takeoff, yet every person at Magic Mountain would be doing so if we were on Superman — and that only goes 80mph for a couple seconds. A clear double standard.  I mean seriously, we just expect the plane to get to our destination when we should be absolutely astonished that we took a nap and woke up 4,000 miles from where we started.  Anyway, I digress…

Our plane makes it from LAX to JFK without any real drama.  I hate turbulence with a fiery passion but there isn’t much you can do when it sends the plane plummeting hundreds of feet unexpectedly… at least that’s what I became convinced was happening.  In reality we were probably shifting a foot or two but it didn’t matter — the flight attendants could have been handing out complimentary $1,000 bills and I would have been too focused on white-knuckling the seat (that I was convinced would, without a doubt, be my savior in a “terminal event”).  When we got to JFK I discovered this sandwich called a “Hero”, which just turned out to be a hoagie, albeit a gigantic one.  I ate a New-York-style pizza slice (or at least what I assume is, it was at the airport and sharing the same retail space with a ‘Chinese food’ stand so you can make your own authenticity judgement).  It was greasy as hell so I decided it must be the real deal — it was pretty good.

Getting on the plane to Budapest was the beginning of me feeling like an alien.  I used to work at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (in the most illustrious gift shop) and would deal with foreign travelers on a regular basis, so I know how it is to be on the receiving end of a language barrier.  This, however, was a totally different feeling.  For the first time in my life I couldn’t just turn to someone and start a conversation.  A good 3/4s of the people on the plane were native Hungarian (or a similar region) and were going on in loud conversation that might as well have been filled with Soviet military secrets because I couldn’t understand a damn word.  Even during the second, Hungarian-language run of the safety video I couldn’t put the words to the subtitled text — and I knew exactly what they should have been saying.  One tends to forget how much of the Latin roots of our language we rely on.  In western countries you can kind of get around after deciphering the text of a particular sign — but here the sign could be for Strawberries and have eighteen letters and what look like badger footprints above some of them.  I completely understand where the Russian tourists I would help were coming from when they were simply trying to ask how much a particular item was.

Day 2. (Tuesday, May 10th. Well, Wednesday, May 11th thanks to the time change.)

The flight was uneventful.  Too uneventful.  Neither the audio nor the reading lights worked in our American Airlines 767.  The call light to tell the flight attendants didn’t work either, but word got around soon enough.  That wasn’t a terrible loss, however, as I did not have a burning desire to see Shrek on a twelve inch tube-television from nine feet away at a sixty degree angle. The cabin lights stayed on for about half the flight (until they just gave up after the sixth hour) so we could at least read.  The Harvard Business Review I bought in LAX was actually a really interesting read.  Originally purchased to look really important, it turned out to be filled with articles about subjects I didn’t know existed, management and production strategies I had subliminally subscribed to, and put names to (and refined) concepts that I have known for years.

One of the first things I noticed about the flight were the people — I was unaware that about three out of four Hungarian women are gorgeous.  Santa Monica has nothing on Budapest.  Perhaps its just the newness clouding my judgement but I totally understand why single guys vacation here (next time I need to come outside of a group tour environment).  Seriously, it’s distracting (I just lost five minutes before writing this sentence thanks to handful of girls outside the window).

A quick thought: When you fly across the globe and spend the majority of your time looking out the window you notice how the different countries have approached farming.  For the most part America has a very segmented farm population.  Clear and even squares (or circles in the mid-west [wtf?]) mark farm boundaries in America; apparently haphazard little shapes of land separated by rows of trees make up most of Western Europe; largish swathes of land farmed in rows all around Hungary.  I have no clue why the differences exist, if one is particularly better or more advantageous for a region than another, but it’s a very interesting by-product of airline travel.

We landed at the Budapest airport to discover a very sparsely occupied terminal.  American Airlines only recently began service here (partly why we’re here — the deals were really good apparently) so you can tell that the place is going to be much busier soon enough but it’s really pleasantly empty so far.  We passed through customs and met our Tour Director Orsi (pronounced Orshee), a cute 20-something brunette who speaks surprisingly good English and Charles, our tour-mate and a frequent traveler from New York.  I snuck off and bought a Red Bull at a local stand and cautiously handed the clerk my credit card.  Without a second though he wrote down the credit card number and immediately closed his shop… just kidding.  He took the card, swiped it, and I was off with a Red Bull after nearly a day of traveling through nine timezones.  We took off from LAX at 8am on Monday and arrived at 10am on Tuesday, jarring would be an understatement.  We were driven to the hotel by a really nice gentleman who spoke about three words of English but quite a bit of German.  As it turns out German is one of the major languages here due to a part of the population who works in Austria.

We were driven through some of what I assume is ‘old Budapest’.  It was exactly what I was expecting from a post-Soviet country: weeds growing through cement, dreary concrete buildings without any kind of personality, old soviet cars, and rusty trains.  I was a little concerned that our tour would consist of what I’ve seen from old cold war films, even our Hotel was surrounded by some rather seedy looking areas (from Western standards).  We decided, however, to walk around a bit with Charles and it was then we discovered the ‘real’ Hungary.

There is construction almost everywhere.  Old buildings being renovated, new buildings being erected, and really interesting glass and steel buildings next to parks that would fit in around South Central LA.  Although there is graffiti everywhere, I learned that it doesn’t necessarily delineate the ‘bad’ areas, but rather it almost means that it is a highly trafficked area.  I noticed that there wasn’t as much tagging where people didn’t walk… almost as if it was *gasp* street art.

We stumbled upon a college, actually the college, during a student protest.  We met some students who were clearly disenfranchised with the protesters and informed us they were protesting a potential closing of the school (which apparently wasn’t happening anyway — the language barrier made this uncertain).  After a few moments of cursory observation, we went inside of the building and it was amazing.  While US colleges are mostly outdoors, sequestered to a series of separate buildings, each specializing in a different subject, this college was more like Harvard than anything I had seen on the West Coast.  The building was from the mid-1700’s and maintained it’s classical motif while exploiting the old-as-new re-purposing of the interior halls.  Students were everywhere and an open-air (or at least it looked it it) common area occupied the middle.  This is what I didn’t expect to see, but it was what I had hoped to see: a lively country that I could easily see myself spending a couple of years pursuing an advanced degree in (or even a week just hanging about in the outdoor cafe’s).

There is one building specifically that captured my interest.  It’s called the Whale and it is built between two traditional brick buildings but constructed out of steel and glass.  It is an incredibly striking image when viewed from across the Danube river (or from the side of the river, or from the air, or probably even from a bike riding past).  The building itself is indicative of what I experienced in the city: Soviet era parks and decrepit buildings next to new, modern construction.  There are new buildings going up, or old buildings being renovated, everywhere in a kind of haphazard, no-time-to-plan way.  It is almost as if the city was given a load of construction money and five hours to figure out where to build.

After grabbing some lunch at an outdoor cafe we went through the Great Market Hall next to the University.  What I can only describe as a permanent Farmer’s Market/Carnival, it spread down the entire 150 yards of so of the building, occupying two floors and loads of vendors selling only a few different items.  I don’t really understand why that’s the case, however, as with everybody selling the same items it would be difficult to really set yourself apart.  The market was as if Communism and Capitalism had a bastard love child and neither parents claimed it as their own.  We strolled through the shops, past all the paprika packaged in the same boxes, past all the tapestries and hand-sewn cloth, and back down to the hotel — only this time a bit less wary of our surroundings.  When we got back to the hotel I made the mistake of convincing myself a quick nap wouldn’t be disasterous and ended up struggling to gather the will and the energy to remove myself from the cotton-and-polyester-filled dream machine.

We met with our group in the hotel for the initial briefing.  Almost everybody was over 45 and retired.  I became quite concerned.  We introduced ourselves and I discovered that most of the 39 people along for the ride were either Australian or from New Zealand.  Apparently this is a popular tour for folks from that corner of the world although I still can’t quite figure out the specific reason.  We had a few Brits, some other Americans, and a couple Canadians.  Everybody was extremely pleasant given our different states of fatigue from our various travels.  We disbanded soon after and were on our own for dinner. My mother and I walked in a different direction than we had previously, idly wondering what else is in the immediate vicinity.  The shops that had English names lacked the subtleness that natural speaking stores have (BestBuy not withstanding).  Generally our “adult stores” give a wink-and-a-nod towards their content, but for over 100 yards in Budapest we were presented with quite a few “SEX SHOP” signs that blazed in the night with their archetypal look-at-me neon glow.

We found a small street with several cafe’s littered about and a one-lane road just feet away from the tables.  It seems that people in eastern Europe are comfortable with this situation: while drivers come off as insane and illogical, they are polite and will grant pedestrians the right of way even when there is no need to do so.  While a seemingly small thing to notice, anybody from LA (or the US in general) will probably have a difficult time understanding it. After dinner we walked back to the hotel through some admittedly dark streets and had no trouble getting to sleep after 28 hours of consciousness.

Day 3.

Our first day on the bus was short (an optimistic bellwether to the rest of the trip, perhaps).  We drove through Budapest (or Budapesht as it is natively pronounced) and were introduced to the dizzying amount of history in the area.  In American schools (at least mine) we spent quite a bit of time on World History, but primarily on how it was related to America.  We have a very western-centric idea of what is important (really though one is most concerned with what is directly relevant to you, or at most 2 or 3 Kevin Bacon‘s away), and even though I have done a bit of independent learning about European History, I had a very limited idea of all the crap that has gone down in Hungary and the surrounding countries.

Not only have the borders changed, but their entire systems of government have changed three times since 1900.  With all of this instability a western citizen would think that the people here would be an incoherent mess of ideologies and convictions, but their resilience (conscious or not) has given them an aire of normalcy.  This probably sounds patronizing and I don’t mean to be, but it is an example of a history that I cannot relate to.  I feel innocent here.  As if I have grown up in a safe, protected environment (I have) without any real danger (there wasn’t) and should really just shut up with the petty complaints I have (I plan to).  All around Budapest there are buildings with bullet holes still in them from the uprising of the 1950‘s.  It is a humbling experience.

The architecture in Budapest is incredible.  Coming from Los Angeles where the oldest building is probably 100 years old (and in worse condition than the 13th century buildings here), the scale and detail of the Parliament building is something to behold.  The market I referred to earlier was built in something around the 1700’s, alone with the University next to it.  On the Buda side there is a church built into the rocky hill itself next to the famous Gallert Spa that was in operation in 1918.  Nearby are the Turkish baths which date back to the 15th century, and just outside the city proper are ruins of the Roman town and the aqueduct that supplied water to it and the surrounding farms. In the states, any building that is over 80 years old seems to automatically get a “Historic Site” sticker and is immediately turned into a museum.  These buildings in Hungary are used on a daily basis and keep on kicking.

After the bus tour of the city we went to the artists village of Szentendre, which dates back to the Renaissance or close to it (but honestly, who really cares exactly how old it is, just like everything else here it is crazy old).  The Danube river runs wild here, unconstrained by the banks created for it in Budapest.  A small levy is all that stands between the water and the village, but the city has the aire of inevitability and doesn’t really seem to mind.  We saw an orthodox church that is something like a billion years old and super important, stopped by a cafe for a beer and cake (weird but delicious), and walked around.  This small town (well, 100k+ people apparently, so not that small) has almost been swallowed up by Budapest as the latter’s appetite for suburban sprawl demands to be fed.

When in Budapest I noticed a copious amount of indiscriminant graffiti, which I thought was relegated to the city but indeed it appeared in the artists village as well.  The graffiti is everywhere.  Apparently it is considered absolutely normal.  I didn’t see any city crews cleaning it up nor anybody giving it a second look at all.  I immediately thought of Santa Monica where it is legal in some areas, but this graffiti didn’t have any general artistic merit, rather it was confusingly pedestrian.  Words were scrawled on new buildings, buildings under construction, benches, trees, and even those Old-As-Jesus buildings that are so regarded they haven’t been fixed for half a millenia.  The only explanation I can come up with (besides the-city-has-better-things-to-do rationle) is that sense of inevitability and silent acquiescence to history.  They may not like something but the mere fact that is has happened means it becomes part of the historical record.  Granted mine is probably a very idealized version of the actual reason, but it is the one I like the most so I’m going with it.

That night we went to a ‘traditional Hungarian dinner’ and show.  Up until that point I had enjoyed everything, but I have a sharp distaste for activities that highlight being a tourist.  The resturaunt was in the middle of a park (which was pleasant enough) and we were greated with a shot of brandy in a special cup that we got to keep and a savory scone that was extremely tasty.  Then it got bad.  The waiters, while nice, were obviously playing a role in this play, even more so the band who were playing old American standby’s of the 50s and 60s (seriously, wtf).  Another tour was in the same room filled with Indian and Asian people, the latter began singing to some of the old US songs the band began to play — I thought that would be the icing on the cake but little did I know what was to come.  The dancers came out in traditional dress and began dancing for us while the waiters brought out food in quaint containers that made a mockery of the whole enterprise.  I could almost feel the contempt of the radiating through their eyes as they served this piece of theater to these tourists as a Genuine Hungarian Experience.  Snake oil, anyone?  Perhaps you’d be interested in a bridge?  Throughout all of this bitterness I was dragged up on stage at the end to dance a Traditional Hungarian Dance, which was actually pretty fun.  This American’s icy heart rose three degrees that day.

Day 4.

After an early 6:30AM breakfast we gathered on the bus and headed out for Serbia.  As we drove I reflected that, in fact, “I’m going to Serbia” is a sentence I never thought I would say.  As it turns out the northern part of the country looks remarkably similar to the middle bit of California, excepting much greener and not quite as expansive.  We drove and drove and drove some more until we came to the city of Novi Sad, one of many areas NATO forces bombed only a handful of years ago.  There, a fortress rested on a hill, serving as a reminder of the areas history of strife and bloodshed.  We stopped for a couple of hours and had some free time to find some lunch around the pedestrian area in the central square of the city.

Just like in Hungary there were loads of outdoor cafe’s with probably hundreds of people about.  Also just like in Hungary, loads of beautiful women strolled about (I’m sure the guys are very handsome but I wasn’t paying the least bit of attention to them).  We stopped at a small cafe and ordered sandwiches.  Next time I come I will need to have some language training because I felt like a failed international citizen having to point to things I wanted as if I was a feral child discovered by Jane Goodall in some remote village.  Many grunts and chest pounding’s later two panini’s and a beer were at our table.

We were brought to the fortress after lunch and experienced yet another set of ridiculously old and awesome buildings.  This was the closest yet to feeling as though I was walking down a European street just after WW2.  Although I’m somewhat certain that these buildings were kept in this state as a historical record of sorts, one got the impression that the people inhabiting them did not have loads of upward mobility.  The top of the fortress offered a 270 degree view of the area below it and the newly constructed bridges that cross the Danube river after its predecessors’ decimation by NATO forces.  Again, you could not tell that the people of the city did anything but live each day as happy, motivated individuals.  I can’t say the same for loads of people in the United States who seem to be solely focused on their own dismal situations.

From the fortress we had another few hours in the bus and eventually arrived in Belgrade.  I was stunned that a city I have heard so much about in the news (as the center of some fairly horrible things) could be so lively.  I hate to sound like a broken record but I have been living in a post-Soviet mindset regarding Eastern Europe and really had to check myself and my reservations at the door.  Belgrade looked like a city that was younger and more alive than even Budapest.  Their pedestrian avenue was literally packed with people and I couldn’t wait to get to it.  As my excitement grew, however, the bus drove further and futher away.  Our hotel, as it turned out, was miles away from the place I most wanted to visit.  So, without much time to spend in the city, we decided to walk around our adopted neighborhood and get a sense of suburban Belgrade.  Yet again, the city was scattered with, and oftentimes by nothing more than a fence, decrepit old buildings against brand new houses and apartments that rival the architecture of any new western building you would be likely to see.

We proceeded to an adjacent street, found a grocery store, and proceeded to check it out.  There were two stories of this store, the bottom one had all the things you would expect in a market while the top had a handful of shops, a food court, and a play area for children.  There were some steps next to one of the shops that were unmarked and unblocked, so I went up.  I poked my head up and didn’t see anything, at the same time my mom was told there wasn’t anything up there, which she relayed to me, so I came back down.  A few moments later a young, tall man walked briskly up to me speaking quickly in Serbian (if that is the name of their language — again, bad world citizen) and pointing at my camera.  My camera is, well, conspicuous and after he stopped speaking I explained (in English) that I am American.  He motioned for me to come with him and my mom got a hint of panic in her voice.  I was led down the escalator, me smiling all the way thinking he is being helpful, and the fellow motioned for me to stop in a foyer as he radioed to whoever was on the other line.  What could only be described as a plainclothes security officer stood with us as I just smiled and tried to look like a dumb tourist (not a difficult task).  Three other ‘agents’ came close to us as my mom’s voice registered a slightly more defined note of panic.  Soon there after the first guard came out and shoo’d us away: the international sign for ‘get the hell out’.  We didn’t argue.

We went back towards the hotel and my mother found a resturaunt our fellow travelers decided on so we split up.  I went back to the hotel and went for a run.  I donned my Brooks shorts, Asics shoes, and my Big Sur Half Marathon technical shirt and hit the pavement.  I wish I had cell service here so I could have tracked it with RunKeeper but alas, I wasn’t intelligent enough to acutally think ahead.  As I was running I noticed that almost everybody gave me a puzzled, if not plain weird, look.  I followed a wooded road up for about half a mile and cut through what looked to be a park… more weird stares.  Out of the park I turned right and ran past a soccer (football) stadium… more weird stares.  I ran for about a mile more and even saw a few other runners before I turned around.  I wasn’t even wearing my ridiculously cool (and ridiculous looking) Vibram FiveFingers!  The best I can tell is the above-the-knee shorts combined with a white technical shirt and my green/silver/black Asics clashed with the accepted black or grey shirt with blue jeans motif I noticed earlier.  In fact, now that I think about it, I maybe saw seven guys between Belgrade and Novi Sad with shorts.  How bizarre.

After my run I went into the lobby of the hotel, the Best Western Hotel M, as it was the only place that had wireless internet.  I sat down to have a beer (which was only $2.86) and write when a load of the mens Serbian Volleyball Team walked in.  Not only was I a foreigner in a foreign place, but now I was surrounded by twenty 8′ tall Slavs!  I’ve seen too many movies to not know what to do in this situation, so I smiled, drank my beer, and tried to look busy.

Day 5.

Second day of the long drives as we left Serbia and headed toward Bulgaria.  Our destination: Sofia, the capital city.  The region became progressively mountainous as we climbed up to the 3,300 feet above sea level where Sofia sits.  The city is crammed up next to a mountain range and is protected on all other sides by even more mountains — it sure would be a pain in the ass to capture if you were an invading army.

As we came in we got our fist taste of gypsies.  To the right of our bus was a settlement right out of Slumdog Millionaire, or from the news footage of the poor conflict areas of Africa.  Incredible.  There are apparently several of these encampments around the city, with even more as the countryside begins to spread out.

When we arrived to our Hotel we were told that our lunch reservation had to be pushed up by an hour due to the President of Bulgaria and his delegation having dinner here as well.  The salad was a delicious cucumber and tomato base which was extremely tasty, followed by a lackluster breaded fish-stick dish and formerly-frozen vegetables.  Thankfully they ended the ordeal with a really delicious peach custard pie that was sweet enough to put  a smile on my face.

After the meal we walked around the area in front of our hotel, stopping by an ATM to extract some Bulgarian currency, and discovered a science fair in the middle of a park.  We wandered a bit, through the Dunkin Donuts stand, and eventually made an acquaintance with an older gentleman who turned out to be either a teacher or an astronomer (or both, really).  He spoke pretty good English and explained that there was a lecture series going on in the park and that today’s was on astronomy, which followed the previous talk about genetics.  This wasn’t in a special ‘science’ area of the city, nor did it look like anything particularly out of the ordinary, rather it served as an yet another example of the surprises we have encountered in Eastern Europe.

Upon returning to the Hotel we found loads of police cars outside, with a handful of military-esque cars and guys with little ear pieces and suits.  The President was here.  While that in itself is quite awesome, the best part were the cars that served in his motorcade.  We have all seen the European police films where they drive all these bizarre cars as police vehicles, but these took the cake.  There were BMW 5-Series, 3-Series, Peugeot’s, an Alfa-Romeo, and best of all: a single silver Audi TT Convertible.  The best I could guess it it’s a perk for the Bulgarian Police Department’s Employee of the Week program.  Regardless, you read right, a convertible police car.  It was almost worth the entire trip right there.

Day 6. (I’m pretty sure I’m getting these wrong. 9 timezone changes and you start to lose your grip on the time-space continuum)

We woke up, had a very pleasant breakfast (with chocolate cake, even!), and were on the bus by 8:15am.  We were driven to an area a couple miles away from our Hotel and embarked on a small walking tour of the historical sites littered around Sofia.  One of the most striking was the oldest (and biggest, if I remember) church in the city, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  The entrance was littered with ‘no camera’ signs, so I put my Mk IV away and whipped out my iPhone.  The church was so immaculate I could not bear to let that rule stand.  Fresco’s adorned the 100′ roofs in such intricate detail that I can only imagine how long it must have taken.  Contained in the Church is part of the arm bone from the related Saint, housed in a (solid?) gold box.  Although I did feel a tinge of remorse as I walked around with the lens of my phone tipped out a bit, the little bit I ended up capturing was far too impressive to keep to myself.

The bus was waiting as we returned to the Hotel to take us up to the Rila Monastery some two and a half hours away.  The place itself is absurdly old.  It has been destroyed and rebuilt around four times, the last of which was in the 19th century when a freak fire burned the newly restored buildings to the ground.  The area around the monastery is home to farmers and gypsies who work the fields, and a nesting home for Bulgaria’s population of Cranes (or at least one of their homes).  When we arrived at the monastery there were four other buses and loads of people, which was bizarre since getting there seemed to be a bit of a pain in the butt.  We had lunch at a restaurant close by and had trout from the Carpathian mountain river that ran under our benches.

When we returned to the hotel my mother and I decided to go out and walk around a large park we saw on the way out of town.  I was stunned at how many people, young and old, were in the park.  Not only was it heavily populated, however, but right in the middle of what would normally be a protected national monument, was a steel half pipe and loads of kids skating and boarding all over the place.  It was almost as if there aren’t loads of television shows to keep people inside so they go out and play… imagine that.  We watched the skaters on the half pipe for quite a while before finding one of the three Starbucks in the city — I bought a mug with the cities’ name on it in my single moment of touristy-ness.  We walked up a pedestrian street that had an apparently perpetual farmers market on one side and some really seedy looking areas on the other.  See the note about graffiti at the end of this to understand what I’m talking about.  There was a cafe in the park which we decided to stop and have a pizza at and ended up finding a waitress who spoke broken but overall smooth English.  I couldn’t imagine having to know both our alphabet, the Cyrillic, and both languages all at the same time — my hat is off to her.

Day 7.

We arrived in Plovdiv around lunchtime and stopped to have a short walking tour.  Plovdiv is yet another city in Bulgaria that has a history which puts everything in America to shame.  Dating back to somewhere around 4,000 BC, it has seen it’s fair share of events.  When the modern iteration of the city began carving a tunnel through a hill in the middle of the city they found remnants of a Roman theater, which they ended up destroying half of before figuring out that it was quite large and well preserved.  The remaining half of the theater is a properly operational modern theater, with lights, speakers, and the lot.  It is also the first town I have seen that at one point became completely Muslim as the leadership changed.  There are several minarets scattered about through the city, serving as a living reminder of the cities’ history.

There was a pedestrian street in the middle of the city which, while not as long as Budapest, was much more populated.  When I originally came to Bulgaria I thought the people were very much in the 80’s bit of history and without too much care to western influence but Plovdiv changed that quite profoundly.  There was a little hole-in-the-wall store with a menu the size of the country itself (all in Cyrillic) that we ended up ordering a ham and cheese pancake-type-dish which ended up being much larger than we anticipated.  I found a cafe shortly thereafter and tasted a local beer while I waited for the group to meet at McDonalds (seriously) when a gypsy came up to me and basically demanded money.  I shook my head, thinking I was saying no, but forgot that in Bulgaria that means ‘Yes’ and I could not figure out why she kept on demanding.  Eventually she became disgusted and stormed off.  A few minutes later I realized that I was the bastard in that exchange.

The bus left and we climbed the Carpathian mountains until we reached a summit where a monument stood guarding the valley — a tribute to the defending Bulgarian army against the Turks (if Bulgaria had an army…).  It was much more impressive than I’m making it sound, so you’ll just need to wait until the proper pictures come back!  My mom found a hammock as I tried to buy a drink with a credit card.  The proprietor of the little shop at the top of the mountain must have felt pity for my lack of language skills so she gave me a Diet Coke (or Coke Light as it is called here).

The day ended in Turnovo, a historic (who would have guessed?) little town, home to (another awesome) fortress built into the hills.  We walked around the town for a bit and met a proprietor who has friends in Calabasas (which is about 20 miles from where I live in California) and discovered a hotel with a ridiculous view.  The seating area for their cafe overlooks a bronze monument to the city, which itself is wrapped with a small river and banks of old houses on the cliffs.  We may as well have been in the French Riviera.  Mom and I had cappuccinos as we waited for dinner (which was good, with buffalo yogurt as a desert).  One of the ladies on the tour entertained with her crazy good piano skills as I went back to the hotel for another cappuccino on the cliffs to write a bit more.

When I came back to our hotel I stopped by the attached souvenir shop and found three people who spoke very good English.  All the questions I had been building up and curiosities that had gone unsatisfied poured out as I (probably) drove them mad with my inane drivel.  I learned that an average (give or take) days work is about 500 lev (their currency) per month while working 16 hour days.  To rent a place (which is rare, as ownership is really big here) it is about 200 lev per month.  Cell phone rates are about 15 lev per month, but the phones are not subsidized.  Their political system is as frustrating as ours, with about five major parties making up their parliament (which holds the executive power, their Presidency is largely a figurehead-position apparently).  The US is the major influencer of culture (as evidenced by the love of mid-90’s music) and in related news their beer and cigarettes are cheap (if you are visiting — not if you’re making 500 lev a month).  I spoke with them for nearly two hours until they had gone way past closing and had to close up shop.

Day 8 — To Bucharest!

We made one more stop in Bulgaria, in Ruse to be exact.  It was a relatively small town, around 300,000 people.  We had a quick walk through the pedestrian area until it was lunch and had our requisite free time to wander about.  Earlier in the day we were told about a… wait, that was Plovdiv. I’m getting my cities mixed up. I’ll come back to this.

Upon leaving Bulgaria by way of a bridge across the Danube river, my immediate thought was “oh no, Romania looks exactly the way Top Gear portrayed it.”  Houses were run down, people were about on bikes, random little farms were just outside of families’ front doors.  As we kept driving and eventually entered Bucharest, however, my thoughts turned to “oh no, Top Gear drastically undersold this place.”  This isn’t a poor city. Apparently Porsche sold the majority of their cars to Romanians last year.  I saw a convertible Bentley GTC, a couple of Ferrari’s, and an LA-amount of BMW’s, Mercedes, and Audi’s. Yet another country that makes me feel even more like an ignorant American… sigh.

I must admit that out of all the cities on this trip I have been most looking forward to Bucharest (or Bucaresti as it should be called): The People’s Palace (their Parliament Building), their Arc de Triomphe, and meeting a friend-of-a-friend who works at the U.S. Embassy.  Our Hotel, the Pullman (located in their World Trade Center) was top class, really quite fantastic.  The dinner provided for us begun with a salad topped with a poached egg, beef skewers with a kind of cheesy-grated cauliflower, and a fruit & sorbet dessert — properly good.  While we had the rest of the night for ourselves, the idea of sleep proved a bit too seductive.

Day 9.

The hotel has a fitness center. I am determined to get in some exercise. I set my alarm for 5am, breakfast is served at 6am and we leave at 8:15 — more than enough time.  Come 5am, the phone starts going crazy and I… turn it off.  6:30am comes around before I finally get up.  Damnit.  Delicious breakfast but it wasn’t going anywhere productive.

Ok chaps, Day 8, Bucharest, let’s see what this city has to offer.  We met our local guide that morning and went on a relatively quick local bus tour of Bucharest.  Out of all the cities I’ve been in so far this one is the most insane in terms of traffic.  On any given street you would be lucky to see a street sign and the traffic signals do not appear to be in any standard placement whatsoever.  While they are loads of cameras on the roads I don’t see how you could effectively setup any kind of reliable enforcement camera due to the extremely lax attention to traffic laws (if there are any).  At the end of the day I met a local in the elevator and reflected my opinion on the insanity of the roads, at which point he told me he was a traffic officer and that he thought so as well.  I don’t even know where you’d pull someone over during rush hour in Bucharest, things are just too crazy.

On our bus tour we went by the big historical monuments in the city: their Arc de Triomphe, the Parliament Building, the University, Victory Square, Revolutionary Square, and most interestingly the former headquarters of the communist party.  This is the building where, in 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu incited revolution in the people that had gathered to hear him speak.  They stormed the building, broke through the three main doors and captured him, all while the Secret Police opened fire outside.  There is a memorial there now to the 1,200 or so people who were gunned down at the beginning of the revolution.  Across the facade of the former headquarters of the Secret Police has been preserved, with a modern steel and glass structure jutting up from within it, serving as a reminder and warning to the people of Romania.

We stopped near Victory Avenue (not whats it’s called but Victory Street didn’t have the same ring) to get out to find our own places for lunch.  After walking down and around for a bit, finding only McDonalds, KFC, and cafe’s that served pastries and coffee, we settled on the nearby restaurant suggested by our guide.  Mom had goulash soup (which I’m quickly learning is generally pretty good) and I had a turkey schnitzel (which I’m quickly learning is complete crap and a poor excuse for food) with french fries (strange they aren’t referred to as Freedom Fries here).  Then we headed to the Parliament Building.

The Romanian Parliament Building, formerly known as the People’s Palace and featured in Top Gear’s Season 14 (episode here), which really is the only reason I was initially excited about it.  However when we finally go to the doors the excitement begin to set for real.  The building is massive… truly.  Second only to the Pentagon in terms of internal volume, the Parliament Building is 95% complete and not completely occupied.  We figured out it is roughly 3.9 million square feet.  The annual electricity bill is somewhere around $1 million dollars and the upkeep rings in at nearly $10mil.  When you tour the Pentagon you see people everywhere — it is a really active building; when you tour the Romanian Parliament Building you see maybe three people.  Maybe.  The chandeliers in the building are things of legend, and the size and scope of each room puts any other building I’ve seen to shame (on a macro level).  We figured out that the building covers something around 3.9mil square feet.

This building deserves the term Massive.  It is indeed the largest building in Europe and the heaviest in the world.  When the revolution occurred in 1989 the people figured out it was cheaper to finish the structure than tear it town, now they are forced to rent bits of it out just to try and break even.  The people are of Romania have come to accept the building, for the most part, although it is a symbol of the (essentially) atrocities they were put through during that period of history.  What begun as Ceausescu’s dream has been transformed into a show, an exposé of the true cost of Communism for the capitalist people which now occupy it.  It is both humbling and infuriating.

Instead of getting back on the bus with the rest of our group my mother and I decided to walk down to the restaurant we were meeting our new friend from the Embassy at.  In a bizarre turn of fate, a friend I’ve known from childhood’s high school girlfriend is third in command at the Romanian US Embassy and is the sister of the Dean of Student Affairs at CalArts.  A couple of emails and conversations later and we’re meeting Pat a place in Bucharest with her new Cultural Officer.  Instead of walking down the boring side streets of Bucharest we decided to go down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées… except it’s in Romania and 2km longer and 50cm wider (because Ceaucescu was ridiculous).

We strolled down Kisselef Avenue when I realized that in Romania, even the upper class areas like this one are covered in graffiti.  However, when pictures are taken of these places the everpresent trees hide all of the seedy-looking bits, leaving what looks like a beautifully clean and modern city in the frame.  It’s the classic what-you-don’t-see-can’t-hurt-you move, and it’s executed really well.  The problem of graffiti truly isn’t not relegated to just Bucharest — it is in every city we visited, and every street we walked down.  One just can’t grasp exactly how widespread the problem is until you see it with your own eyes.

After about a mile and a half of walking we realized that our tenuous grasp on the layout of Romanian streets was quickly coming to an end.  We had arrived at a giant mall with a huge promotional poster for an upcoming Scorpions concert (!!!!).  Since we had about two and a half hours until we had to meet Pat and her cultural officer at the restaurant, we decided to check out how a Romania does a western-style mall.  Like ours in the States, there were street-facing stores that you could go in, unlike ours in the states these stores did not connect to the mall inside.  In fact, even after making fools of ourselves in two women’s clothing stores, we couldn’t find the way inside.  After asking directions from four people (four!) we finally figured out that the entrance was just around the corner, literally fifty feet from where we were standing, hidden in plain sight, as if we needed the secret knock.

Inside the mall it was a whole different world.  Instead of the wide walk ways and huge stores we are used to in the states, there was maybe a ten foot gap to walk through on either side, as if the mall was laid out like a vertical, money-making sardine can.  It had what I would consider a Japanese-style consumer mentality (making the most of every inch of available space).  After a quick trip up all six floors and through a very smoky top-floor eatery, we decided it might be a good idea to find the restaurant.

There isn’t really a way to describe the feeling of isolation one gets when you’re in an unfamiliar city and in a country which does not share your language.  Like finding the Mall entrance, it took five different people before we figured out that we were on the right path, only to find twenty minutes later that either nobody understood us or they all lied and we were a good half mile from where we needed to be.  “An adventure” is putting it lightly.

The restaurant proved to be little hassle to find, but we still had an hour until we were to meet Pat.  I wanted to stop walking and have a beer so we found Beer O’Clock, a little hole in the wall beer joint that served ‘Budweiser’.  I laughed a bit at the waiter and told him I couldn’t bring myself to have Budweiser, he gave me a wink and a nod and told me to give it a shot.  A few minutes later he brought out a bottle of Budweiser unlike one I had ever seen before — it was the real mccoy, the original Bud from the Czech Republic, before some members of the family moved to the States.  It was delicious.  The version we have here in the states barely holds a candle to what came out of that bottle.  I wanted to offer up an American bottle of Budweiser as an apology to the Czech Beer Gods.

We met Pat at Care cu Bere in Old Town Bucharest (an ironic name considering the age of everything else in the city).  It was the hottest, most uncomfortable seating area I’d ever experienced.  I had forgotten to make the reservations until the night before, which is the unfortunate reason for the horrid seats that we ended up getting.  Pat and Peter (her cultural officer) were absurdly interesting and incredibly pleasant.  Hearing stories about Romania, from an American, in English, really made the entire visit much more interesting and much more informative.  Whenever I tell the story of how this meeting took place it makes me laugh to think that the Six Degree’s principle had to work twice for it to happen… we were in the Venn Diagram of Six Degrees of Separation.

After our dinner (it was great to have someone order who actually understood the culture and the language) Pat arranged a Cab to take us back to the Hotel.  This was the first time for us in a vehicle not piloted by our trusty (and awesome) bus driver.  It was slightly worrisome.  We had no seat belts in a cab that barely stopped at red lights, let alone intersections or crossroads.  After a quick flirtation with religion we were returned to our hotel, safe and sound.  The Bucharest World Trade Center had obviously invested in proper beds since I fell into dreamland as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Day 10. (was a long one)

We left Bucharest for the mountain village of Sinaia.  Known as the Pearl of the Carpathians, Sinaia is the resort location of choice for many of Bucharest’s more wealthy folk.  It is also the location of Pelesh Castle, the summer home of Charles I and Queen Elizabeth (the monarchs who were brought in after the population voted for the system).

The castle is as incredible and overwrought as if Walt Disney went on a LSD bender and designed Mickey’s nightmare hellscape castle.  Seriously if the lights when out in the building it would instantly turn into a horror film, where the bad guy is somewhere in this creepy old mansion.  Since the lights were on, however, and we had a guide, the castle had a much less the call is coming from inside the house feel to it.  If the People’s Palace took ten years to build, the Pelesh Castle must have taken fifty.  Hand carved wood and marble are everywhere and each room has it’s own theme (a phrase which doesn’t give it justice whatsoever).  I couldn’t take any pictures in the Castle so unfortunately my weak prose and prompt to visit will have to suffice.

During out time in Sinaia we also visited (another) monastery, this one containing two orthodox churches.  The first church was built with dinosaur bones eight billion years ago (or at least it’s old enough for the centuries to begin to blur together) and is, in the orthodox style, covered in frescoes.  The church was built when the monastery was still very young and sooner than later was outgrown, but instead of tearing the church down and building over it, they decided to build a much larger church a few yards away.  When our guide was talking about the smaller church, a couple of monks walked up and did their thing at the entrance (I have no clue what they were doing, but it was monk stuff, which admittedly could have been done just to screw with the tourists) — it was a bit of a shock to see these churches still in active use (in varying degrees, at least).

There are only a select number of things I can keep saying about these churches.  Each and every one of them were decorated in a stunning display of artwork and devotion.  After a while it started to feel like our tour guide was trying to one-up the last church with each subsequent one.  I really don’t want to it to come across as indifference, as even from an atheist perspective, it was impossible not to be held in awe at the craftsmanship and devotion.  I certainly don’t want my lack of literal prowess come across as contempt.

The Carpathian mountains serves as a natural border between the regions in Romania, and Sinaia sits on the edge, almost overlooking Transylvania.  Arguably this was the one place that most of my friends and family were interested in due to its popular connection with Dracula.  To my surprise, when we crossed into this land of mystery and intrigue, it wasn’t a dark and shadow-filled vista — rather it looked like anywhere else.  I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed to find out that it’s a lovely place and the people there aren’t all vampires.

We finished the day in Brasov, a town tucked into the crevices of the Carpathian mountains, rich with it’s own history and surrounded by centuries old fortifications.  We had the best view of the old town from our hotel, which to my surprise was looked down upon by a large “BRASOV” sign on the mountain — a la the famous Hollywood sign.  (We went up to the sign the day after we arrived and there I met a local photographer who told me that the mayor of Brasov liked the Hollywood sign and thought Brasov should have one too).

Brasov was founded around the 16th century and quickly became a regional trading and commerce center.  It was founded by the Saxons and is markedly different than the rest of Romania in its heritage, ancient customs, and religion.  The city built walls around itself to protect against Vlad the Impaler, which still stand today even though their original use is a bit outdated.  The streets and buildings are typical of old Europe (3-4 story buildings with dwellings on 2-4 and businesses on the first) with narrow, stone streets.  Red (or maybe burnt orange) is the color of Brasov, even the newer buildings share the same palette — evidence of local building materials more than heritage I am willing to bet.

Orsi took us on a walking tour of the old city, which is maybe a square mile so it was rather quick.  During the tour, however, the graffiti “problem” in Eastern Europe was re-affirmed.  Everywhere, even on their oldest structures, were covered in paint.  It would be one thing if it was street art, but it was just tagging.  We were constantly reminded of the difference in attitude towards graffiti between this region and the US.  I still haven’t figured out if it’s more of a problem of priorities, local or regional budgetary limitations, or general apathy.  Regardless, the graffiti hasn’t destroyed the beauty of the area, but with the personality it transfers comes a distinct sense of disrespect.

Brasov’s pedestrian street takes up the majority of the old town.  It begins at the main thoroughfare and leads straight up to the Black Church that sits in the central part of the town.  The Black Church was the first non-Orthodox, really old church that I remember touring during out entire trip.  It earned it’s name after catching fire in the 18th century, which gutted the church and turned the stonework on the outside black.  It is also home to the Black Madonna, which earned its name during the same fire (the doors it looks down upon were closed, causing only smoke damage to the fresco).  Interestingly enough, the color mixture used to paint the original light-blue dress the Madonna wears reacted with the smoke and turned black, remaining even after a restoration in the late 20th century.  As one would imagine, she is the patron saint of the Black Church.

Dracula’s Castle

Bran is about a 45 minute bus ride from Brasov, during which time you pass Rasov, an old fortress in the Carpathian mountains.  Rasov was once a vibrant trading area but has long since fallen into disrepair.  Apparently a business man has purchased it with the intention of renovating it but nothing has happened as of yet.  As it is now, Rasov is just a footnote when you’re on your way to Bran.

There is a castle in Bran.  A very famous one.  It has two names, one of them is simply Bran Castle, the other is a bit more evocative: Dracula’s Castle.  The interesting thing here is that Vlad the Impaler had basically nothing to do with this castle.  We heard a couple stories, ranging from him living in the castle from anywhere between a weekend and a year, but certainly not permanently.  While Bram Stoker’s story revolved around this particular area of Romania, there is absolutely no evidence to say that he knew about Bran Castle specifically.  The castle because what it is now after Stoker’s novel became popular and people (who had money) began asking about it.  The shrewd villages saw an opportunity and took it, confirming that Bran Castle was indeed the famous Dracula’s Castle.  Once that took hold there wasn’t anything to get in the way of Dracula fever.  The castle does have a very interesting history in its own right, however, as it was the dwelling of Queen Marie, who had about eight international suitors in the early years of the 20th century.  I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article as it does a much better job at telling that story than I would.

Bran Castle was originally a military castle designed to excise transport taxes between the Transylvania and Wallachia.  It is rather plain on the inside (excepting for a secret door that leads up to Marie’s former bedroom… saucy), but has completely embraced its Dracula connection, turning it into a spectacle when it would otherwise be an interesting footnote in history.

Day 10 (cont).

I went for a run on that first night in my Vibram’s.  I followed an old road up past the city walls and the one of the lookout towers above them, up to a vista with an amazing view of the valley and the modern city of Brasov.  I didn’t bring my phone on the run and I immediate regretted that decision when I reached the top of the hill.  Yet another example of why I need a proper small camera when on vacation!

Day 11.

We left Brasov in the morning and headed to Sighisoara, a medieval town with 11 towers within the city walls.  These towers are the town’s signature raison d’etre, apart from apparently being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.  It seems everything in Transylvania is in some way or another feeding off the Dracula teet, but I suppose you can’t blame them.

Sighisoara really was quite awesome for a medieval town.  Like every other historically important place in Romania the area is in use on a day-to-day basis, even containing a primary school.  When we were walking through the main square there were small groups of middle school age’d children who were in teams in a kind of treasure hunt which involved tourist groups (kind of weird but fun): we all had to take a picture with them as one of their goals and one of our group mates volunteered to say a sentence in Romanian, much to the children’s delight.

There is one particular tower in Sighisoara that is built in three different layers: a square section, pentagon, and octagonal section.  Almost as if the tower was built by committee.   We had lunch in the town but decided not to eat in the Dracula house (seriously his birthplace is a restaurant nowadays… think of how much the rent must be!).

After a few hours we left Sighisoara (love the name of that place, pronounced Sig-ee-shwara) and headed north towards Cluj-Napoca, towards the only Soviet built hotel we stayed in.

After a quick jaunt through the city we stopped at a central square with a gigantic Catholic (I think?) church.  Turns out Cluj-Napoca is the birthplace of one of Hungary’s most loved Kings (and is the current office for the local University’s art department… weird, right?), so it has a gigantic dramatic sculpture next to the church.  Ten minutes later we were back on the bus, heading up a hill towards the hotel.

Now, the problem with walking for miles every day for 11 days is when you have a hotel on a hill, you want to go explore the city but your legs will not handle walking back up the hill.  Also it didn’t help that there were crazy storm clouds (the first we encountered our entire time), which turned out a ridiculous 45 minute storm that caused flash floods in the city.

There was a graduation for what looked like 13 year old students in our hotel (The Hotel Belvedere) although every girl there dressed like she was at a sleazy night club while the guys fuddled about with themselves.  In retrospect it was almost exactly like every single graduation I had California.  There was also a nightclub (with awesome stairs) on the bottom floor of the hotel that didn’t much appreciate me coming down with a camera and slippers (in fact they asked me not to stay), which was fine because it was 7pm and there was literally nobody else there. I digress…

Dinner was nothing to write home about (that’s a lie, there was a very good salad and desert, but I didn’t take pictures of them so I’m pretending it was boring to save face.  Back up in the room I figured out how to bridge the internet connection on my laptop with the wireless so we could have access on our phones (better late than never), since it was the Soviet hotel that didn’t have wi-fi… go figure.

Day 12.

Back to Budapest. Another border crossing. Another seven hours on the bus.  Our hotel was the only one on the trip with free internet and the tour company made Orsi hand out the comment cards before we learned of this…. very sneaky.  The hotel was decent, not great, but not horrible.  There was another hour long crazy storm that night, I was alone so I walked down to the same pedestrian street I had been to the first night with mom and had solitary farewell dinner.

It was a good trip.  I never thought I would have as much fun as I had.  With as much social anxiety as I have I never thought I would get along with, and subsequently miss our travel-mates as much as I do.  I will gladly, any day of the week, make that journey again just to hang out a bit in Eastern Europe.

Random Thoughts and Observations:

  • Escalator handrails go the same speed as the stairs in every country we visited.
  • In Bucharest I saw a street vendor selling shower heads. Seriously.
  • Outside of the People’s Palace a government officials’ vehicle waited with it’s driver. It was a gold and black Bentley Continental.
  • The standard taxi in Bucharest is a Dacia Logan.  Ours had no seat belts and there are really no road laws that I could discern.
  • There are loads of new, empty buildings that are built as tax shelters for the wealthy Bulgarian people.  Most of the half finished buildings in Romania are simply fatalities of the 2009 economic crisis.
  • The external wiring in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania is a haphazard at best.  Cables seem to be strung at will, without any planning or care for future projects.  This causes some random power and fire issues from time to time as wires are crossed or tangled with the street car electricity.
  • Cafe menu’s are living things.  Just because it’s listed there hardly means they are going to have it available.  It would seem that they go through menu’s once a year and don’t bother to make corrections as they alter what they serve.

2 Comments to The Treasure of the Baltics

  1. […] forward a bit to last month (May 2011): On my last day in Hungary, the last few minutes in fact, my iPhone 3GS was stolen.  I had my entire digital life housed in […]

  2. Karen Ross says:

    Awesome account of a great trip Chris. Very well written prose & descriptions of an amazing journey through Eastern Europe. I travelled the route all over again through your writing, with an entirely different perspective! Well Done !!! from a UK based New Zealand Travel Buddy .. May 2011

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