The People You Meet – A Hostel Community: Evenings In Eastern Europe (Travels In Eastern Europe #42)

Beginning with my first trip to Eastern Europe and continuing on for several more visits I decided to stay in youth hostels. It is a misnomer to call these “youth” hostels since many of the clientele, including myself, were well past the youth stage of their lives. I noticed at one hostel in Bulgaria that the “youth” included a couple of 70’sish looking Germans fraus wearing large backpacks and enjoying a complimentary spaghetti dinner. I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s at the time of my hostel stays. At this point in my life I had stopped drinking, thus there was little for me to do at hostels other than converse with fellow travelers. I had to do this in the day rooms or reception area since I very rarely shared a room with anyone. For me, sleeping with strangers was something I have up after completing university, I found myself passing the evening hours meeting a cast of characters that I remember now much more vividly than many of the places I visited.

Visitors From Near & Far – The Spaces Between Us
It was in Belgrade that I found myself staying at an accommodation that was more luxury apartment than hostel. Though it was advertised as a hostel, the common area was a giant living room with large sofas and chairs to relax in. All the bedrooms opened onto this room. Thus I had the opportunity to meet the other guests numerous times, but once would turn out to be enough. First there was a Swiss guy who looked to be no older than twenty. We first exchanged pleasantries, than he nervously asked me what I had paid to stay at the place per night. When I told him and added how affordable it was to stay in such a nice place especially compared with other hostels, he grew exasperated. He was dismissive of my opinion. I asked him if he paid the same, he just nodded and walked off while grumbling. Pardon me, but I thought everyone in Switzerland was pretty well off. Maybe this was how the Swiss stayed wealthy, always looking for a bargain.

This interaction was followed by the arrival of an unforgettable couple. Both looked to be in their late 20’s. The man was Norwegian and his girlfriend was an ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia. They were traveling around Eastern Europe on holiday though they lived far apart. The man was from an extremely remote part of Norway far above the Arctic Circle By the way he explained it his hometown was much closer to towns in Russia than those in Norway. His description of the weather sounded truly awful. It was frigid and icy most of the time, summer sounded like it lasted one afternoon in July. He had been to Russia many times and the Soviet Union when he was in high school for wrestling matches. What he vividly remembered about the Soviet Union was how everyone wanted to purchase his Levi’s and an ocean of vodka was always on offer. The man was super cheerful, perpetually smiling, guffawing with delight and was certainly one of the friendliest people I had ever met. Perhaps that was because he was visiting civilization for a change.

Hanging out at a hostel in Serbia

Hanging out at a hostel in Serbia

Endless & Eerie Conversations – Foreign Affairs
The Norwegian’s ethnic Hungarian girlfriend was even more emotive. It turned out that she was a filmmaker. She went on and on and on about the movies she had made and future projects. She was so effusive while talking that I stopped paying attention to what she said and became fascinated by just watching her. After a few minutes I felt exhausted. I soon came to the conclusion that she should be in front of the camera rather than behind it. How anyone ever got a word in with her was beyond me. This woman was truly overwhelming. It was not long before I dragged myself off to bed. The Norwegian who had piqued my interest a few minutes before had become all but invisible to me. Maybe he went back to the frozen north to recover.

For a long time, staying in hostels was the extent of my socializing on trips to Eastern Europe. Since most people I met while touring attractions in the cities did not speak good English and I do not speak a foreign language my social exposure came while hanging out in commons areas. This was how I struck up a conversation late one night at a hostel with a child psychologist. She worked in social services with youth who committed violent crimes. Perhaps it was the low lit kitchen area we stood in or the fact that the psychologist had a pale complexion and dark hair, but there was something eerily foreboding about our chat. She told me how these young delinquent Poles showed little remorse for the crimes they had committed or their victims. Many of them were devoid of empathy. After talking with her for an hour I was just as freaked out by her as the tales she told. What kind of person would want to spend their career investigating the sick behavior of juvenile offenders?

An evening in Eastern Europe

An evening in Eastern Europe

Point Of Departure – Traveling In Opposite Directions
Most of my conversations were more innocuous, but at the time quite revealing. At a hostel in Lviv, Ukraine I met a couple of college age Belarussian women. When I asked them how they got to Lviv, I got a lesson in the sad state of the Belarusian economy. For them to afford a trip from Minsk to Lviv they were forced to purchase the cheapest train tickets possible. This meant a twelve hour plus trip with multiple transfers in provincial backwaters. Some of their waits were hours long. If they missed a connecting train it might be a half day or longer before the next available train. They wanted to travel more in Europe, but Ukraine was one of the few affordable destinations for their limited budgets. They were young, open to the world and looking for adventure, but economics kept them from going further west.

It was not economics, but time that kept me from traveling and meeting more people at hostels across Eastern Europe. I only had a couple of weeks at a time during those trips. It is a cliché to say that there was so much to see. The reality was that there were plenty of sights to see, but even more people to meet. I cannot recall most of the things I saw in Lviv, Belgrade, Krakow or Sofia though I can still see the faces and hear the voices of that eclectic cast of characters I met in hostels all across Eastern Europe.

Zoo Station – Berlin: In Search Of The Laughing Gas

In the winter of 1992 a friend of mine was listening to music at an ear splitting level in a parking lot at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, North Carolina. He said to me, “you have got to hear this song”. According to him, there was nothing else like it. That song was the opening track from U2’s newest album. What I heard next was not the band that had become world famous for the Joshua Tree album and political anthems such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day. Instead, bursting from the speakers was a surge of sonic post-modernism, a euphoric eclecticism quite unlike anything I had ever heard before or since. The song was “Zoo Station”, a head trip of decadent giddiness. I did not realize it at the time, but this was the sound of Berlin on the cusp of a massive transformation channeled through U2. For me, the song captured the essence of Eastern and Western Europe colliding into a convergence. One world being consumed by another and in the process creating something entirely new. The song turned into a soundtrack of the early 90’s for me. Fifteen years later I went to Berlin, in search of the place that had inspired the song, a trip to the Zoo Station.

Transformation - U2's Achtung Baby

Transformation – U2’s Achtung Baby (Credit: Wikipedia)

By Faith Rather Than Hope – Breaking Into One
Berlin was the pivot point on which the entire world turned for much of the Cold War before the inexplicable happened as communism collapsed. The wall built to protect it came crashing down. Berlin was suddenly forced into another reinvention of itself. The moody and dark crucible of the east-west division slowly morphed into the epicenter of an optimistic, united Europe. That transition though was fraught with anxiety. Into this context stepped U2, a rock band struggling with its own transformation, from a wholesome, earnest, super serious group into whatever they could dream up. U2 came to Berlin looking for inspiration, what they found was a city much like the band, struggling through an identity crisis. U2 was looking for inspiration in a city beset by a gloomy, gray winter. The band’s mood was worse than the thick, heavy skies which loomed over the city. Uncertainty clouded everything.

The band was nearing the point of a breakup, with lead singer Bono and guitarist the Edge pushing hard to change the band’s sound with industrial and dance inspired grooves. They were pitted against the more traditional U2 sound preferred by bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. For months they suffered through recording sessions in the crumbling Hansa Ton studios, a place that had once been a Nazi ballroom, then was later used as creative haunts for the musical heroics of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Now it was little more than a half-dilapidated recording studio with a glorious past and uncertain future. It was there that the band came close to dissolving. By faith more than hope, they managed to stumble upon a moment of artistic brilliance. It came in the form of “One”, a song about breaking up that paradoxically brought the band back together. From that moment onward, the band’s creative spirits soared, the upshot was the commercially and critically successful album “Achtung Baby”. And the first song on that album was the one that drew me all the way from a community college parking lot in the foothills of North Carolina to the underground of Berlin. It took me a decade and a half before I finally arrived at the Zoo Station.

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station (Credit: Arne Huckelheim)

Primal Instincts – A Trip To The Zoo
The actual Zoo Station referenced in U2’s song is officially known as the Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station. Found in the district of Charlottenburg, the station gets its name from the nearby Berlin Zoo. Bono, U2’s vocalist, was inspired by a surreal tale involving the zoo during World War II. Due to bomb damage, the animals were freed from their confinement and wandered around the ruined city. Giraffes, lions, zebras and a plethora of other exotic creatures were seen on the streets. The Zoo Station of the song deals with human rather than animal instincts. These instincts happen to be primal ones. During the Cold War, Zoologischer Garten was West Berlin’s Main Railway Station, with the only line going into and out of communist East Berlin. A point of transition, where those coming from a strictly controlled environment were confronted with western decadence. The station was known for its seedy atmosphere, both inside and out. Drug dealers, prostitutes and pick pockets were among the various hangers-on that could be found loitering around the station. It was a place where all the forms of human behavior were on display.

On my first full day in Berlin, I made my way by U-Bahn to the station. Lines into the station included the U2. My expectation level rose in anticipation of what I might find there, perhaps heroin addicts strung out in the station’s bowels, beggars accosting innocents with a litany of mad sayings or transsexual harlots trolling vacant corridors. My pulse level rose as my train arrived at the station. I was, as the song said, “ready for the laughing gas”, that burst of otherworldly energy that comes from giving oneself over to dark fantasies. I imagined stepping back in time to the decadence of something approximating 1920’s era Weimar Berlin, a fairytale-esque world filled with the sultry and sordid.  I got off the train and what did I see? A world of normalcy. The Zoo Station was filled with the usual hustle and bustle that could be found at most any metro station in a large European city. People hurrying between trains or standing impatiently on station platforms. Heading up to the surface I thought things might get a bit more interesting. I was disappointed to find hardly anything of interest. The station itself showed few signs of its former dynamism. There was no tension or transients, nothing but coffee shops, newsstands and people headed in hundreds of different directions.

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten (Credit: calflier001)

Lost In Transit – Outside The Zoo
The truth of the matter was that Zoo Station had lost almost all of its former prominence. First, after the wall crumbled. Then later, with the opening of the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof in 2006. The seedy, surrealistic station that U2 had channeled through their song had long since vanished. The animals had all wandered away from the zoo. Physically the station still existed, but the feeling was lost. The only way to recapture a semblance of it was by listening to the song, but its lyrics were a forceful reminder why that feeling could never be recaptured:

Time is a train
Makes the future the past
Leaves you standing in the station
Your face pressed up against the glass

 

 

At All Costs – Communist Style Customer Service: The Voice Of Authority (Travels In Eastern Europe #41)

The legacy of four and a half decades of communist rule can be found all over Eastern Europe. From the towering high rise apartment buildings that ring nearly every city to the abandoned wastelands of heavy industry scattered on the fringes of urban areas to the collapsing collective farms scattered throughout the countryside, communism left physical reminders all across the landscape. These remnants of a failed system are highly visible, but there are just as many mental scars for the generations that lived through the era. Some of these I have detected while traveling through the former Eastern Bloc countries. Older generations seem more suspicious and less welcoming. Forty years ago foreigners were never to be trusted. In some places that is still the case and visitors are treated as suspects.

Service without a smile - customer service meant something different under Communism

Service without a smile – customer service meant something different under Communism

Authoritarian Indifference– Photo Finish
Communism and customer service were mutually exclusive ideas. The individual meant very little in a communist system when compared to the masses. The communists were building a whole new world, one that cultivated the impersonal at the expense of the personal. Serving individual needs did not serve the interest of the masses. Rules of behavior and codes of conduct were rigid. The state was the ultimate arbiter of the way things should be done. Authoritarianism was all the rage. If someone was in a position of authority, they were to be obeyed at all costs. There are still several generations of Eastern Europeans that act accordingly. My first experience with a person who still obeyed these tenets occurred high in the mountains of Bulgaria at a church in Veliko Tarnovo.

There was only one docent for the church, if you could call her that. The lady was a buxom, 60’sish Bulgar who wore a permanent frown on her face. She sold me and a friend our tickets, peeling them off with methodical indifference. She then opened a door allowing us inside to a drafty, but impressive stone sanctuary with rustic Orthodox decoration. As we stood in silent reverence the woman took a place near us, intently watching our every movement. After a couple of minutes studying the church’s architecture I decided to take a photo. Both my friend and I had seen nothing that dissuaded the taking of photos. I raised my camera and focused the lens. The entire time the Bulgar woman watched me with suspicion.

She did not utter a word until I snapped the photo. Then suddenly she exclaimed “No photo” followed by some unintelligible verbiage. She glared at me fiercely. I could feel the white heat of her anger. When I said in frustration, “Why didn’t you say something?” she moved forward to usher us out of the church. I wondered if there was an actual human being hiding behind her scowl. She reminded me of those minders the communists would send with tourists back during the Cold War, who told people what they could and could not do. “No” was the default answer coming from an entire generation.

No photo

No photo – enough said

Keep Your Money – Against Change
Money is another item that elicits strange responses in formerly communist nations. Try using a large bill in some places to pay with and it will likely be rejected. I experienced this most notably in Kiev. At a small shop I tried to purchase a drink and candy bar with the equivalent of a ten dollar bill. The lady signaled that I needed to give her something smaller. I did not have anything. She raised her hands as if to say oh well. Then she returned my money back to me. This seemed utterly bizarre. Ukraine is a land beset by economic woe, one would think that the expenditure of money would elicit helpful customer service or at the very least the making of change. I obviously had disobeyed a tenet of this rigid economic culture. When I reflected on this incident further, I did consider that perhaps the woman did not want any large bills because she was fearful of theft. Either way, she did not do me or Ukraine’s economy any favors.

For citizens of communist countries during the Cold War being photographed by a stranger could send them into paroxysms of fear. This was for good reason, secret police organizations such as the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the Soviet Union’s KGB were notorious for keeping a close watch on their citizenry. Once a person realized they were being spied on, they assumed – usually not in vain – arrest would be forthcoming. Those who came of age during this time have a deep seated and well-founded fear of being watched.  Old habits are hard to break as I discovered just outside the gates of Krakow’s Nowa Huta district in Krakow. While trying to take a photo of the entrance into the district, I accidentally snapped it at the same time a woman walked into the frame. She immediately shrieked aloud and then quickly scurried away. Everyone on the street at that time began to look at me with suspicion. I slinked away into the nearest tram. This ended my potential foray into Nowa Huta.

The customer comes last

The customer comes last

The Pay Up Proposal – A Less Than Humorous Humiliation
By far my most memorable experience with communist style customer service took place in Lviv, Ukraine when I visited the Korniakt Palace which is part of The Lviv Historical Museum. I failed to pay the fee for the photo ticket when I entered. This was an oversight on my part as I thought there would not be much to photograph. That was until I got to the chambers of King Jan Sobieski III where I decided to take a photo of the furnishings. I did not want to walk all the way back through the museum to pay the photo ticket fee so I decided to snap my photo without a ticket. Very soon thereafter I heard footsteps, than a squat and severe woman walked up to me. She barked loudly in a voice of disdainful pleasure, “You do not have a photo ticket.” With the voice of commanding authority, she ordered me back to the entrance where I would pay the fee. I was dutifully marched back up to the front desk. She then turned and stuck her hand out asking for the money. Once I handed over the nominal sum she peeled off a photo ticket sticker which I was to wear. She then told me I was free to go. My humiliation was complete.

Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.

Sofia

Sofia

Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

A Natural Death– Biełaviežskaja Pušča:  Viskuli, Belarus & The Extinction of the Soviet Union

Many people assume the Soviet Union was created after the Russian Revolution in October 1917, they are mistaken. It was not until after the Russian Civil War ended in 1922 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to declare supremacy over a large part of the Eurasian land mass.  The Soviet Union was only then unified into a singular political entity. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 1922 the Soviet Union was officially declared to the world from the stage of one of Russia’s most venerated institutions, the Bolshoi Theater. It was unified under the Treaty of the Creation of the Soviet Union which was signed by the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, the Transcaucasus and Belarus. Oddly enough it was in the latter republic sixty-nine Decembers later, that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The scene of its denouement was far from the glittering prominence of the Bolshoi stage. Instead, it occurred in a remote section of a provincial outpost, on the extreme western frontiers of an empire that would soon cease to exist. Less than ten kilometers from the Polish border in the Biełaviežskaja Pušča, which contains the last remnant of Europe’s primeval forest, a group of six dignitaries put the Soviet Union out of its misery. The location for this historic event could not have been more ironic, nature is eternal, the ideology of man is mortal.

Viskuli - the hunting estate that was the scene of the Soviet Union's dissolution

Viskuli – the hunting estate in Belarus that was the scene of the Soviet Union’s dissolution

Lost In The Woods – The Paradox Of Progress
Communism was a contagious idea for many reasons, one of which was the appeal of creating an entirely new world. Industrial strength and the proletarian masses were to lead the way. Of course that was not what happened. Whether it was Lenin or Stalin, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, communism had an element of tyranny and anti-reform that planted the seeds of its own destruction. This brave new world was at the point of collapse by the late 1980’s all across Eastern Europe.  It held on for a little longer in the Soviet Union, but by December 1991 the last rites of communist totalitarianism were being prepared just as a long cold Russian winter was turning the world to ice. The document which would put an end to an almost seven decade long experience in human misery would be signed at Viskuli, a hunting estate in western Belarus.

Viskuli had been constructed as a dacha complex used for vacationing by communist officials from the Soviet Union. In itself, that was nothing special. It was the forest that stretched out in all directions from Viskuli which made the area rare and unique. Before man conquered nature this same type of primeval forest covered the entire northern European Plain, but human “progress” over thousands of years had eradicated almost all of it. Much of the forest was turned into farmland or transformed into villages and cities. Even today on the periphery of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca farming still threatens this World Biosphere Reserve’s health. Pesticides and fertilizers seep into the area through run off from farms. Yet despite such threats, this oldest of the old growth European forest has managed to survive, quite unlike the political entities that have made it their playground at one time or another down through the centuries.

The way it used to be - Biełaviežskaja Pušča

The way it used to be – Biełaviežskaja Pušča (Credit: Ralf Lotys)

Death Brings Renewal – The Paradox of the Primeval
The history of protection of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca goes back all the way to Lithuanian and Polish Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries that first set it aside as a hunting reserve. They issued decrees to protect its wildlife from poachers. The actions of a 17th century Polish king who displayed progressive foresight in dealing with the region’s peasantry would have been lost on the historically myopic apparatchiks who spent their holidays pleasuring in Viskuli during the Cold War. In 1639, King Wladyslaw IV freed all peasants in the forest from serfdom and taxation on the condition that they become royal foresters. For the next century and a half this arrangement worked rather well. Such a radical act of progressivism towards the dispossessed puts the Soviets social achievements to shame. It was only when the forest came under the control of the Russian Tsars in the late 18th century that these royal forester’s rights were abolished. It was not long though before the Tsars realized the reserve’s value as a refuge for wildlife. In was once again given protected status.

The warfare and ensuing political upheaval that scarred Europe so badly in the first half of the 20th century also detrimentally affected the reserve. By the end of World War I, German occupation had resulted in the extermination of all European bison in the forest.  Railroads and lumber mills built to support the occupiers brought unwelcome development. Poland did designate it as a national park in the years between the World Wars, slowly reintroducing the bison, but Polish oversight of this area was soon swept away by another World War. The 240 inch thick oaks and luminous undergrowth became breeding grounds for partisan warfare.

Modern industrial armaments brought death and destruction, but the bodies of soldiers and partisans would not find renewal in the decay of these dark woods. A different kind of death had long been integral to rejuvenating the forest. Approximately 6,000 species in the Bielaviezskaja Pusca subsist on decaying logs. Over half the forest at any one time is dead. And it is this death that leads to life. In an odd sense the same thing happened with human influence on the forest at the end of the war. The Soviet takeover led to decrees that protected the forest. This slowed to a halt the forest’s degradation by human indicatives. At least this time, the communists proved that they were much like those they were against. The forest was preserved just as it had been by kings so long ago. Of course this was as much by indifference as it was reverence.

The end of an empire - The signing of the Belavezha Accords

The end of an empire – The signing of the Belavezha Accords (Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image 848095 U Ivanov)

Eternity In The Woods – Survival Beyond The Soviets
A new period in the history of the peoples of what would become known as the former Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991 when the Belavezha Accords was signed at Viskuli. This dissolution also meant a new overlord for much of the forest, the nation of Belarus (Poland oversees a smaller portion of the forest.) Those who signed the accords on that frosty December day were thinking of politics not nature, but they would have done well to contemplate the forest that surrounded Viskuli. It had survived kings and dictators, empires and ideologies as well as several millennia of climatic change. On the other hand, the Soviet Union could not even survive the same century it had been born into. Eternity was still standing amid the woods of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca, while mortality was inherent to the systems of man.

 

Waylaid by “Trei Leu” – Getting Taken: Taxi Torment In Bucharest (Travels In Eastern Europe #16)

It is often said that the only thing certain in life ais death and taxes. I would also add a third certainty, the cheating, scamming and dishonesty of Bucharest taxi drivers. The stories are legion of unsuspecting tourists, travelers and even locals being grossly overcharged by hundreds or even thousands of lei. And it is not just cheating on fares that have given Bucharest taxis a rightfully bad reputation. It is also the fact that they are known for their nasty demeanor. They are mean to their passengers and just as mean to those who avoid their services.  Aggressive, seedy and venal are apt descriptions of the Romanian capital’s cabbies.

In most Eastern European cities tourists are warned to avoid unlicensed taxis. In Bucharest tourists are warned to avoid almost all taxis, whether or not they are officially licensed hardly seems to matter. Of course there are many exceptions, but just to be on the safe side staying out of a Bucharest taxi is a wise precaution. That is unless you like conflict, threats and controversy in large doses. If stereotypes ever saved anyone, then it certainly has to be those potential passengers who have had the good sense to avoid a Bucharest taxi ride based on hearsay. They were saved time, money and trouble. If it seems as though I am being a bit too harsh let me add that I have personal experience with a short, albeit memorable taxi ride in the city. It was my first and what I hope to be last taxi ride in Bucharest for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Ready and waiting - taxis in Bucharest

Ready and waiting – taxis in Bucharest
(Credit: Tiia Monto)

Planning From Behind – A Sense of Misdirection
It was an ill-conceived idea that went against common sense. Find a taxi on the street in Bucharest within five minutes after arriving in the city for the first time.  I would never have tried this if I had been alone, but fortunately I was traveling with a new friend Tim, who I had met at a hostel in Bulgaria. Tim grew up in Chicago and now lived in New York City. He was city smart with experience in navigating an urban jungle. Tim had probably hailed more taxis in a day than I had in my entire life. Plus he was a transportation planner/engineer which I somehow correlated with expertise on finding an honest Bucharest taxi service.

Our predicament resulted from a failure to plan ahead. With a bad set of directions and poor map we figured that our hotel could not be far away. We did have one advantage. The maxi-taxi which had brought us to Bucharest from Bulgaria had let us off close to the city center, but not beside any bus or railway stations. This meant we would not be overrun by aggressive cabbies right away. We would have time to collect our thoughts, strategize and formulate a plan. This all sounded good in theory. A more sensible plan would have involved a better map of the city so we could have walked or taken public transport to the hotel. We were planning from behind, not what anyone should do when faced with the formidable scamming skills of Bucharest taxi drivers.

A Constant Battle – Surprises, Scams & Shenanigans
We had no one to blame but our own selves for this situation. Our guidebooks and the internet had contained countless warnings. To give an idea of how bad the situation can be, Bucharest taxis do not just rip off tourists, they are also notoriously tough on their fellow countrymen. This state of affairs may seem stereotypical of post-communist Romania, a nation stuck in a constant battle against endemic corruption. On the other hand, anyone who has dealt with Romanians will know just how kind and helpful they can be. That makes it all the more shocking when having to deal with a fork-tongued, duplicitous Bucharest taxi driver. They are in a class all their own, a very low and corrupt class at that.

There is no end to the shenanigans these taxis pull on a daily basis. For example, many will list a nighttime rate that is lower than their actual daily rate. The problem is that the daily rate is listed in small font that is imperceptible to those who do not know where to look. Some rogue taxis will take naïve passengers for a ride, then also lay claim to their luggage. The passenger can only get their luggage back after paying a super hefty finder’s fee. Of course, the finder happens to their taxi driver. Only then will the driver unlock the trunk. One of the more clever tricks rogue taxi services use involves having a name and logo that approximates a reputable service. Thus, Speed Taxi (which is one of the more trustworthy company) is often mimicked by a firm known as Street. The confusion they are able to cause has lightened the wallet of many unsuspecting travelers. It also serves as a less than desirable welcome to Bucharest.

Triple The Price – Where It All Started
Our welcome to Bucharest was a little bit better, but not much. Tim and I spotted a taxi that according to our guidebooks was part of a reliable firm. The rate was posted clearly in the window. We approached the driver from behind so as to surprise him. He looked at the address we handed to him, nodded and dutifully placed our luggage in the trunk. We double checked the posted rate with him one more time before setting off. We felt at ease when he turned on meter as the taxi proceeded down a wide boulevard.

Within thirty seconds our calm was broken by shouts from the driver. He began to yell, “trei leu, trei leu, trei leu.” Even with almost zero knowledge of Romanian we both knew he was tripling the price. After a few seconds of shock, Tim and I settled on a plan. We began to shout back for the driver to pull over immediately. At first he tried to ignore our protestations, but we kept on yelling until he pulled over to the curb. We waited for him to get out and go to the trunk. The driver would not look us in the eye.  We hovered close to him as he flung open the trunk. We took our bags out and proceeded over to the sidewalk. The taxi sped off. Within five minutes Tim and I were back to where we started. So was the taxi driver who stood beside his vehicle waiting for another opportunity to “trei leu”.

 

 

A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

Public transport at night in a major city is normally something I try to avoid. Growing up in America I learned pretty quickly that public transportation in urban areas can be a haven for criminals especially as night closes in. There are a few notable exceptions such as New York City, parts of Chicago and Washington D.C., but by and large buses and subways are best avoided, especially if you do not know your way around. Thus I was quite shocked to discover on my first visit to Eastern Europe that inner cities are among the safest areas. I still recall walking down Unter den Linden in Berlin late one night marveling at happy, blissful people strolling down the street in perfect safety. Such a scene is the rule rather than the exception for almost all major cities in Eastern Europe.

The worst thing I saw in Riga and Prague were the entrances to strip clubs, in Warsaw it was a few drunks stumbling through a city park, while in Kiev and Lviv a bit of loud laughter and yelling. In Budapest – the city I have spent the most time visiting in the region – I can scarcely conjure an area I would not feel safe in late at night. Beggars and random drunks are a menace mostly to themselves. One would have to seek out violent criminal activity in the city to actually find it. Sure there are scams, pick pockets and small scale theft, but nothing to cause major worries. That certainly does not mean Budapest is free of depravity or bizarre behavior. I experienced such on a foggy, winter night while riding a city bus in Kispest, the city’s 19th district.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit Aron_son)

In The Mood – Breaking The Impenetrable Silence
On a particular gloomy, December evening I got on Bus #68 with my wife at the Koki terminal, the Kobanya-Kispest shopping mall. We were going home on the final portion of the bus route that ends at Vas Gereben utca. The ride would take about 15 minutes. We had covered this route many times before with nary a problem. Kispest is a working class area of the city. The inhabitants are best characterized by their reserve. Most bus rides are done in impenetrable silence. The passengers practice stoicism with frozen, unsmiling faces. They do not look happy nor sad, just alive, well sort of. The drivers usually offer the most excitement. Driving styles can vary widely or should I say wildly. Sometimes the trip turns into an amusement park ride, with the passenger’s swaying to and fro. A bad driver will slam on the brakes constantly, floor the gas pedal and cut corners at every opportunity. While few ever have an accident, they do plenty of damage to their passengers who are jerked in all manner of unnatural positions. The ability to stay upright is a necessary skill. Perhaps stoicism is the only way to deal with such a calamitous situation.

While boarding bus #68 that night we saw that it was only about a quarter full. We sat towards the back where few seats were taken. As the journey got underway we noticed only two other pairs of passengers in this part of the bus. The first was a father and son sitting in the very back row together. They were clean cut and dressed quite nicely. There was also a man and woman slumped in their seats. We were a couple of rows up from them. It took less than a minute to figure out they were going to be a problem. The man mumbled endlessly, while the woman was not even capable of that much. She would let out a whimpering moan from time to time. Their most notable trait was a body odor that soon overtook the entire back of the bus.The smell actually had a physical aspect, as it did not so much penetrate the nostrils as fill them. It was a force that literally pushed us from our seats and to the front of the bus. Soon, everyone on the bus was complaining about the foul smelling couple. The offending man decided to yell at no one in particular. The passengers were so repulsed that many began to openly voice their disgust.

“Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? – From Raging To Revolting
The situation worsened when an even fouler odor came wafting through the bus. A noxious smell of human feces soon penetrated the entire bus. This sent the passengers from irritation to near rage. I have never witnessed a riot before, but the passengers suddenly seemed to be in the mood for one. I could feel anger rising. Passengers, both men and women, started yelling at the couple. When this did little good, their anger turned toward the bus driver. My wife translated the cacophony for me. The bus driver pleaded helplessness. He said that the people were homeless and mentally ill, there was nothing he could do except to call the police. They could meet the bus at the end of the route. This did little to assuage the passenger’s anger. They demanded something more be done immediately.

A man had been talking to the driver during the journey, they seemed to be acquaintances. He took it upon himself to go tell the offending couple to get off the bus. This began an argument that went nowhere. The man went back up to the front of the bus where he started talking with the driver again. About this time another man, who looked to be in his mid-20’s, began arguing with the man who had tried to tell the couple to leave the bus. The argument grew fiercer. My wife translated. It seemed that the younger man was upset that this guy had tried to throw the couple off the bus. He said to him, “who the fuck do you think you are?” He berated the man until the bus came to the next stop. Just then he turned to get out, but before exiting turned around and punched the guy just below the shoulder, knocking him backward.  That ended one sideshow. Meanwhile, the main drama continued in the back of the bus.

City Buses & Any Buses – Arriving At A Conclusion
Soon almost all the passengers had exited, but not before telling the driver a few choice words. Looking back, I noticed that the father and son who had boarded with us were still sitting in the same place as earlier. They were the only ones to somehow weather this storm. They sat expressionless, looking forward without a hint of emotion. The bus made it to the final stop. We got off as fast as we could. The police were just pulling up. The couple was still on the bus. That was the last we ever saw of them. Later that evening I began to ask myself if it had really happened. Of course it had. It was not dangerous or violent, just bizarre, depraved and sad, not so much frightening as it was disturbing. It definitely had an effect. Every time we rode bus #68 after that, we took a seat right at the front and tried never to look back. That memorable journey did not change my opinion of Budapest, but it did of city buses and for that matter, any buses.

Taken For A Ride – Incidental Conflicts: Experiences In Eastern European Bus Travel (Part One)

Of all the different modes of travel that can be used to get across Eastern Europe I have found that the bus is by far the most exhausting. On multiple occasions I have stumbled off a bus, half-crazed, vowing never to take another one again. Then a year later, I find myself wanting to visit some remote village or historic site with no train station anywhere nearby. I do not have access to a car. Thus, the bus is the only reasonable alternative. Within ten minutes of departure I am filled with regret and silently declare that this will be my last bus ride. Despite such misgivings, I must admit that a bus can give the traveler a unique perspective on a nation, its people and what life is like for those who rely on public transport. I am still not sure if that perspective is worth the pain and bother of riding the bus.

Looks can deceive - especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius

Looks can deceive – especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius (Credit: Bronislava69)

Ready For Rage – The Road To Vilnius
My problems with bus travel began on a trip between Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was run by the Eurolines Company that covers the continent. The bus was clean, relatively new and professionally operated. Unfortunately, the seats were small, leaving very limited space for passengers to maneuver. Dealing with an extremely tight space for three hours was difficult enough, but when I got up to use the bathroom I found out just how bad it could get. I had troubled keeping my balance as I lurched to the back of the bus while bumping into one passenger after another. The tiny bathroom provided an even worse dilemma. Urinating took an incredible amount of dexterity. I was wedged inside what could have passed for an oddly shaped crawl space. When I got back to my seat, the situation worsened, two “gentleman” (I use that term loosely) a couple of rows behind me decided they would converse in something akin to a loud roar. It was impossible to concentrate on reading or sleeping, this bus ride became a test of tolerance.

At least we were on a main highway that was in optimal condition. Even so, the nature of bus travel means that every crack or crevice in the road can be felt. Because there were no seatbelts I was constantly trying to steady myself. Otherwise I would have bounced right into the lap of the woman sitting beside me.  By the time the bus pulled into the main station at Vilnius I was in a near rage. My mood was worsened by the free for all that ensued when the luggage compartment was opened. I was nearly knocked over by aggressive passengers lunging for their suitcases. I only procured my own after a nasty struggle that ended with me in a fit of temper. With pleasurable disdain I knocked another man’s suitcase, to which he was attached, out of the way. To my surprise he did not seem fazed, must happen to him all the time. I was exhausted, enraged and ready to trade blows as I stomped off to my hostel. Welcome to Vilnius!

Here comes trouble - Marshrutka in Lviv

Here comes trouble – Marshrutka in Lviv (Credit: Buka)

Special Services – Roadside Pullouts & Ukrainian Frights
One thing bus travel is certainly good for is creating memorable experiences. A sterling example of this occurred on a trip I took through Transylvania. The bus from Brasov to Sibiu was down at the heel, with an overwhelming smell of smoke permeating the interior though there was no smoking. Of course everyone chain smoked before they got onboard. A flame orange interior and half dirty seat cushions only added to the charm. The driver made up for the aesthetics by providing a special service. When an old man tapped on his shoulder, the driver immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The old man climbed out of the bus and proceeded to urinate in a meadow as cars roared past on the highway. He then re-entered the bus, thanked the driver and we set off again. I sure was glad he did not need to do more than that.

The further east one goes the crazier bus travel seems to get. Everyone should experience a marshrutka once in their life. Marshrutkas are a famous type of minibus found throughout Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they can take the traveler almost anywhere, but only if the traveler survives the experience. I will never forget my first sighting of a marshrutka. I was walking down Svobody Prospekt in Lviv. Suddenly a yellow marshrutka, jam packed with people, their faces pressed up against the windows, rolled slowly by. They looked incredibly uncomfortable. Out of necessity I was unlucky enough to experience a marshutka on my second trip to western Ukraine

I had the distinct displeasure of being on an overcrowded marshrutka returning from the Polish border to Lviv on St. Nicholas’ Day when Ukrainians exchange Christmas gifts with one another. The bus was packed with passengers, their arms filled to bursting with purchases. They were standing against one another in the main aisle. A man leaned on me to the point where at times he was sitting on my shoulder. There was only one seat that did not have a person in it. This was because a woman had paid for two seats, one for herself and the other for two comforters she had purchased. The offending items, as well as the woman were eyed angrily, by those standing in the aisle.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit: Aron_son)

Memories That Last Forever – Bringing It All Back Home
The bus is bad enough, but sometimes the people on board lower expectations even further. In southern Hungary a bus ride from Pecs to the wine village of Villany turned into a one man show, when an inebriated Gypsy got on board and proceeded to serenade the passengers. Half laughed nervously, the other half ignored him. The bus driver finally grew so fed up with his behavior that he let him off between villages in the middle of nowhere. The last I saw of him, he was tottering beside an empty field. That incident pales in comparison to a ride I took one gloomy December night on bus #68 in Kispest, the 19th district in Budapest. A traumatic experience that was so utterly unforgettable that still today I shudder at the mere thought of it.

Coming soon: A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

 

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.

 

 

“Just Go” – Journey To Herkulesfurdo (Baile Herculane): A Picture Is Worth Thousands Of Miles

Whenever the subject of my travels to Eastern Europe comes up in conversation, the person I am talking with almost always asks me “How did you ever get there?” My answer usually involves explaining my lifelong interest in the region. Every once in a while, I will add by saying, “It is real easy. All you have to do is book everything online and just go.” While they knowingly nod at the first part, I can see fear in their eyes when I say “just go.” In that moment, I am pretty sure that they will never “just go.” Perhaps they do not trust my judgment, though I have survived all of my trips. Sometimes they look at me like I am crazy. I will admit to making the trip sound way too easy. Yet the truth of the matter: it is that easy.

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

Magic Act – A Woman In Peasant Dress With A Smile On Her Face
I thought of this the other night while sitting in front of my laptop looking through old photos on the website, Fortepan.hu. Fortepan.hu contains almost 80,000 photographs from Hungary between 1900 -1990 that have been uploaded by anyone who would like to share their photos for the sake of posterity. It is a treasure trove of daily life during a time of great change in the country. One of the photos that captured my imagination was taken in the Banat region (Bansag in Hungarian). It shows a woman in peasant dress with a smile on her face. She is leaning on an umbrella while standing outside a train station in the town of Herkulesfurdo. Both the photo and the town’s name lodged in my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to go there. Go to the exact same place 106 years later and snap a photo in the exact same spot. I was seized by a thought, what if someone looking at this photo felt the same inspiration that I did. And what if that person had never been to Eastern Europe before, but now felt an irresistible urge to travel to a place they would otherwise never visit. What if they decided to “just go.” All it would take is some money, a sense of adventure and force of will.

Let us say that our hypothetical traveler has a passport, money and the inclination to make this trip as soon as possible. They would first book a flight out of Denver, switch planes in Washington and Istanbul before landing in Bucharest. Leaving at 3:45 p.m. (15:45) on March 8th they would arrive in the Romanian capital at 8:45 p.m. (20:45) on March 9th, after nineteen and a half hours in transit. Deprived of sleep, weary from watching one too many melodramatic movies and with their stomach rumbling after consuming a pasta dish swimming in an unknown sauce, our traveler would overnight in Bucharest. A taxi would take them at a considerable markup to an accommodation close to the main train station. They would spend the night with the odd sensation that they were still airborne, as their bed seems to be moving.

Bucharest North Railway Station - the largest in Romania

Bucharest North Railway Station – the largest in Romania (Credit: Daniel Caluian)

Points Of No Return – Urchin Urgings
The next morning our traveler makes their way to the train station. They would be shocked by what they saw. Once a stop on the fabled Orient Express line, the Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucuresti Gara de Nord) has now substituted seediness for grandeur. It is filled with strange characters, illegal cab drivers, petty thieves, corrupt and rather harmless hangers on.  What would an adventure be without a bit of mystery, intrigue and danger from these station urchins? Our traveler finds the ticket window and discovers that no one speaks a word of English. Herkulesfurdo elicits puzzled looks from the female ticket seller. That is the Hungarian name for the town. Using it, rather than the town’s Romanian name could result in dirty looks.

In desperation the magical words “Baile Herculane” are uttered. A ticket is forthcoming. The train leaves at 10:45 a.m. It is a rather uneventful and rickety six hour ride across the Wallachian Plain. Fallow fields stretch out in every direction, waiting for spring to begin in earnest. Plumes of dust fill the air, clouding the horizon. Periodically this scene is broken by oil derricks, hinting at the black gold just beneath the fertile soil. The most notable city along the route is Craiova, one of those places that evoke Ceaucescu era Romania. A place that is famous for making cars, corruption and little else.

There is always a point on any impulsive trip when a traveler wonders if they made the right decision, when the self-doubt begins to feel overwhelming. The unfamiliar magnifies loneliness, fear succumbs to depression. Ignorance of language, customs and culture seems all consuming. This is the moment that proves decisive. Our traveler is too far gone, there is no turning back. At this point what else can they do? And as the afternoon goes on they become more comfortable with the thought. Perhaps this has to do with the striking scenery that comes into view. The train snakes its way into the Cerna valley. Lush forests run up the hillsides. Tucked into this inviting landscape is the final destination, Baile Herculane or Herkulesfurdo. The name hardly matters at this point. Our traveler disembarks at a station that makes them believe it is forever 1900 there.

Point of arrival - Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station

Point of arrival – Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station (Credit: stancosty)

The Search That Never Ends
Our traveler makes their way through the station. Just outside the entrance they look at a printed copy of the photo which brought them this far. They try to reimagine that moment. What was that lady smiling at, a comment, a friend or something else? Why was she holding an umbrella? Where was she going? Where had she been? These were among the many mysteries that would never be answered. Perhaps the more interesting question was why did our traveler care so much? Why had they followed this photo thousands of miles to a remote corner of southwestern Romania? They will probably never know any of the answers to those questions. And that is quite wonderful. Because it will keep them searching and keep them traveling to places like Herkulesfurdo. Places they could have scarcely imagined before they decided to “just go.”