Travelling Hopefully

30 May

Best laid plans…

My flight to Bucharest wasn’t until 2.50pm on Wednesday 31 May, so I had booked train tickets to Heathrow and arranged for a friend to drop me off at my local train station. However, the train drivers’ union decided to hold a strike for that day, so I arranged to go down the afternoon before and stay in a youth hostel overnight.

A different friend took me to the train station and I had a smooth journey to London, using the underground to reach the hostel, namely St Christopher’s, Hammersmith. The hostel was just across the road from Hammersmith tube station. The very friendly staff checked me in, and gave me assistance in taking my suitcase up the two sets of stairs to the room. I had a bottom bunk in a triple bunk set-up.

After sorting out my luggage, I went for a walk in the local area. A number of pubs, fast food places, and other shops lined the streets. I enjoyed an Ikea hot dog, splashing out the extra 25p for fried onions, and also sampled several beers. 

Although I’ve stayed in youth hostels throughout the world over the last few decades, I still had new experience that evening. Whilst using the toilet/shower facilities, I couldn’t help but hear a couple having very noisy sex in one of the shower cubicles!

31 May

Decent sleep, although my bed was just off the floor. The room had an en-suite, which was helpful, particularly as my key card decided to stop working.

I checked out around 10am and headed via underground to Heathrow. Rather frustratingly, my sister and family were also at the airport, travelling from the USA to Berlin. But they were at another terminal, and there wasn’t enough time for us to meet up before their own flight. So close and yet so far!

My check-in was under 17kg (limit 23kg). I’d weighed my carry on at home, and it was 9kg against the 8kg limit (due to my camera equipment), but fortunately no one asked to check this. 

An uneventful flight, took three and a half hours. No food or drinks offered for free, only available to purchase, and no in-flight entertainment. I read books on my iPhone.

Immigration was quick and easy, a swift glance at my passport, no questions asked. I was reunited with my suitcase and a few minutes later was in the arrivals area. Our local Romanian guide was waiting for us. A number of people had arrived earlier in the day, so there were only five of us to collect. One person had flown in the day before, but her luggage had been delayed until today. She was very relieved that it was waiting for her this evening.

By 9pm we were at our hotel. I had opted to share a room with another woman, should another woman also be so willing, to save on single supplement. To my happy surprise, it seems I’m the odd one out in a group of thirteen, so I had a room to myself without any extra charge. 

I dumped cases and went back down to reception to meet with our guide. He checked passport and travel insurance details, laid out the plans for tomorrow, and then we dispersed. I’d eaten on the plane, so I went to my room, had a shower, and went to bed.

01 June

The hotel room featured a kettle, along with sachets of powered coffee (I carry my own coffee bags), herbal teas, and sugar. No milk or milk substitute. The same offerings were at breakfast, namely no black tea and one had to hunt for the UHT milk. Those who like English tea at breakfast be warned!

At 8am we gathered for a briefing, and headed out soon afterwards. The day was grey, and we were picking up spots of rain as we drove out of Bucharest. We passed through flat agricultural land, the verges lined with red poppies, before climbing up into the mountains. 

The day was a school holiday in celebration of ‘Children’s Day’. No, none of us had ever heard of this either. The roads were crowded, and what should have taken us two hours actually turned out to be just over three. Our guide was already muttering about being behind schedule when we parked at our first destination, Castle Pelisor.

Castle Pelisor was built between 1899 and 1902 by King Carol I as a place for the royal heirs to live. The exterior is described as ‘German Neo-Renaissance style’ and is obviously created to be charming than defensive. The interior was designed by Princess (later Queen) Marie and is described as ‘Art Nouveau’. 

The castle had a lovely feel to it, and we took it in turns to peer into each room. These were decorated in different styles. Particularly stunning was the Golden Room, the walls lined with gold leaf. After our visit, we marched back to our bus, climbing inside just as the rain hit.

More traffic met us as we continued north. Our guide changed his plans. Rather than try to visit a town in the wet, we drove on to Bran Castle, which had been on the agenda for the next day. By the time we reached Bran, the clouds had cleared and we emerged into sunshine. 

Although now associated with Dracula and Bram Stoker’s novel, this was actually a marketing gimmick by the local town to increase tourism. And, judging by the day’s crowds, they’d definitely succeeded. In particular we were surrounded by children anda young teenagers, all very excited but also very polite to us older folks. We took our turn walking through the rooms and climbing up narrow passageways. The latter part of the tour featured darkened rooms with images of ghosts, werewolves, and vampires flickering on the walls. 

We had some free time afterwards. I’d set the group the challenge of photographing tackiest Dracula souvenir, so I made sure that I spotted a few myself. The Dracula head mugs were quite promising, as was the clock. A number of people had very late lunch—our first opportunity for food was around 5pm!

Afterwards we drove to our accommodation for the night. We stayed in what was effectively a bed and breakfast, set in a village near farms. I was given assistance in taking my suitcase up the two sets of stairs to my room. 

What was said to be ‘easy’ walk was an option, so long as we could be ready in 15 minutes. I prepared just one camera to take along, pulled out my walking stick, and joined eight of the group. 

The first part of the path was through meadow and steep uphill, boots sliding on long grass. After just ten minutes of this, with another twenty to go, I decided to stop where I’d reached to admire the views. Two others came to the same decision. They walked back down, but I remained, hoping that the clouds would pass and sunlight to shine on the village. I endured rainfall, and was able to photograph some light on nearby hills.

After carefully making my way back down the slope, I took photos of the houses. The heavens opened again, rain sluicing through sunshine. Taking shelter under a tree, I took a few more photos in the interesting light. 

Dinner was cooked and served by the owner. She offered us a shot of home made apple brandy to start with, a clear and powerful liquid which we all sipped carefully and gingerly. Our guide downed it in one.

Starter was a vegetable soup with sour cream. A number of us ordered the red wine, also made by the proprietors. I thought it acceptable, but two of the party took one sip and decided not to have any more. Main course was a beef and pork stew, served on rice. Pudding was a cake with walnut paste. 

The woman owner spoke no English, but part way through the evening our guide explained that she had grown up in a German family. So after dinner I went to the kitchen and we had a chat in my second language. ‘Your German is very good,’ she told me (in German, of course).

A few people stayed behind in the dining room, but most of us made our way to our rooms.

02 June

I slept poorly, finding the room too warm. The window was a skylight, and not one which could be opened. Sadly, by morning I had developed a neckache, which I knew would become a headache once I rose.

The landing had a kettle and mugs. I made myself a coffee, took a dose of ibuprofen, and reminded myself that these sorts of headaches usually disappear by lunchtime. I went down had a small breakfast and another cup of coffee before packing up and taking my case downstairs. Bright sunlight greeted us, a nice change from the day before.

We left at 8am and arrived in Brasov at 9am. Brasov was historically an important centre for trade and many Germans settled there. The city was once surrounded by a wall, but much of this was destroyed in a fire in 1689. Our guide pointed out Catherine’s Gate. The four corner turrets symbolised that the city had judicial autonomy and could make its own decisions about capital punishment. 

After a walking tour down the lovely streets, our guide released us for 90 minutes. Most of us went to the Black Church, going inside as soon as it opened at 10am. The Black Church was built by the German community around 1383 in the Gothic style, and now belongs to the Lutheran Church. It’s called ‘Black’ due to the dark colour, commonly believed to have been caused by the 1689 fire. 

I pottered around the area, visiting shops and a craft market set up in the main square. The temperature was warm, but not hot, and the number of visitors increased dramatically during the morning.

We boarded our bus and drove for two hours to another historic town, Sighisoara. By now my headache was just nagging one, only really bothering me if I climbed stairs. We passed a hilltop castle outside the town of Rubea. At my request, the driver managed to pull off the road and we piled out to take photographs. A man with a horse and cart was nearby, and multiple cameras aimed his way as well. We’d seen many a horse and cart during the day.

Once at Sighisoara, our guide took us up the steep road to the main square. Sighisoara also has a tower with the four turrets, proudly showing that this city too had control over its own legal decisions. 

We were released for a 90 minute visit. I did a quick look around and then found a restaurant for lunch. Locating an unoccupied table in the shade was difficult, but I did speak to a man looking at his bill. Upon asking, he affirmed that he was about to leave, so I joined him at the table. A moment later, two fellow travellers also looking for lunch joined me.

I had leg of duck with red cabbage. The German beer looked tempting, but unwise on top of a headache, so I ordered a soft drink. The meals were served quickly, and we just managed to finish and pay in time before heading back down to the bus.

The entire group was assembled at 3.20pm, the time we were to meet. But no sign of the bus or our guide. By 3.40pm we were worried that something might have happened, and also wondered why the guide hadn’t given us his mobile number. But then the bus arrived, with fulsome apologies. They’d been delayed, particularly as they’d had to buy fuel. 

We drove further north, taking a comfort break during the three hour journey. Around 6.30pm we arrived at our hotel in Bistrita. Dinner was not included this evening, so the guide explained where restaurants could be found. I decided to go to my room and stay there, eating some food I had on hand. A gentle evening, in view of the headache, seemed the wisest option.

03 June

Still a bit of a neckache when I got up. As ever, I had a coffee in my room as I rose an hour before breakfast.

We left at 8am and had a comfort break up in the mountains ninety minutes later. The wind was cold and we hurried into the restaurant to use the facilities and buy coffee. I took some photos of large abandoned pipes near a hut. Whilst we were there, what we assumed was a wedding party arrived to have photos taken. This caused a bit of a traffic jam in the car park.

Our drive continued, and around thirty minutes later we had a short stop at a wooden church dedicated to St Nicholas. The church itself wasn’t open, but we walked around the outside and admired the construction. By peering inside, through the small windows, one could see the decorated walls. A modern church stood nearby.

As we drove on, our guide explained the process of hay making. The grass is first cut and allowed to do some drying on the field. Next it is spread out on specially erected fences, before being formed into a hay stack. We saw plenty of this in action. The hay stacks looked a bit like people or ghosts, with small heads on top of larger bodies.

Soon thereafter we reached the monastery complex of Barsana. Although there was an earlier monastery on the site, the site was re-established as a nunnery in 1993 and the buildings are new. The sun came and went as we explored the complex. A shop had a range of religious items for sale, and a nun came inside to top up the supplies. 

As the clouds decreased the temperatures rose, giving us a pleasant time in the sun. We returned to the bus and drove on to Sapanta. Our guide took us a short distance to the river, where we admired a wooden tub set up so that people could wash clothes in the churning water. 

We enjoyed a home cooked lunch at a villager’s house, sitting outside in a covered patio. Chickens clucked nearby as we ate vegetable stew served with meatballs and coleslaw. Dessert was a layered cake of apple and chocolate. 

After we’d eaten, our hosts demonstrated how they spun and wove with wool. We then entered their house, and had a short dress up session in which one of the group, and our driver, put on traditional costumes. 

Afterwards we walked the short distance to the Merry Cemetery. Stan Ioan Patras, a local, started to carve crosses for the local cemetery by the time he was fourteen years old. In 1935, he started to carve poems about the deceased, along with their image, often including the way the villager had died. He developed symbolism in his work, such as red for passion, black for death, yellow for fertility, all against a deep blue to represent hope, freedom, and the sky. Often the poems reveal dirty details about the deceased, such as ‘Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.’ 

Patras died in 1977 and left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop. There are now over 800 crosses in the cemetery. 

We only had around twenty minutes to visit, which felt a bit short. I would have liked to have some translations of the epitaphs. The toilets were locked, but as I hovered nearby, the ladies were unlocked. I believe this was meant only for a woman and child, but several of us also went inside. The smell was rather distinctive, and the toilets wouldn’t flush, which probably explains why the facilities were locked up once again after we few had used them.

We returned to the bus and settled in for a two and a half hour drive, again having a comfort break about half-way through. The border with Ukraine was the nearby river, so we could clearly see into that other country. Our guide pointed out the double rails on the train tracks. Ukraine trains are a broader gauge than Romanian, so the two sets of rains allow trains to freely pass between the countries. Asked for his opinion about the war between Ukraine and Russia, he stated that he might be expressing an unpopular one, but he believes the war was designed to make money for arms manufacturers. Nor are the Romanians concerned that Russia might go for them next, as Ukraine is a huge country and it would be difficult for Russia to extend through to reach Romania.

Our destination was the ski resort of Borsa. We arrived around 6pm. I was relieved to only have to drag my suitcase to the first floor, whereas others had climbs to the third floor. As we had an hour before dinner, I opened the door of to my balcony (view of the car park!) and washed a couple of shirts which I hung up to dry in the shower.

Dinner was a three course meal. Fried trout to start, chicken breast with vegetables and a cabbage salad for main course, and crepes with chocolate spread for dessert. I enjoyed a dark beer.

After our meal, our guide explained the three options for the next day. We would be taking a ride on a steam train into the forest. After about an hour, the train would stop to allow us out for two different walks. The first was a six kilometre walk, mostly flat, alongside the train track. 

The second option was a sixteen kilometre walk, flat to start with, with a river crossing. The river crossing did not offer any stepping stones, so his advice was to remove boots and socks and cross in flipflops, borrowing a small towel from the hotel to dry off on the other side. Afterwards there would be an uphill section of around 600 metres which would take around two hours to complete. This would lead out to nice views, but there could be shepherd dogs and people should pick up stones ready to chase them away as necessary. There would also be a steep descent. As there was no phone signal in the area, the guide would only do the walk if two others came with him, so that if one were injured the two could stay together whilst he went for help.

The third option was not to do a walk, but to stay on the train until the end, enjoy an hour or two at the terminus, and then return on the train. 

After describing the second walk, only one person wanted to do it. Most opted for the first walk. I decided, as I love train journeys, that I would take the train to the end and then return on it.  

04 June

Pentecost Sunday on the Romanian Orthodox Church calendar (the Western Church celebrated Pentecost a week earlier). We saw people walking to church, wearing their traditional clothing, as we left the hotel at 9am.

Forty minutes later we disembarked at the train station at Viseu de Sus. The third train of the day was preparing to leave, and I managed to take some photos without people posing in front of the steam locomotive. This narrow gauge railway was built in 1933 to bring logs down to the town from the forest, but now is used for tourism.

We boarded our carriage for the 10.30am departure. Two families joined us to fill the seats. As we set off, I opened a window so to take photos as we chugged up the valley. The river was to the left of us, with views across to houses and the hills. Dogs chained in back gardens barked as we passed them. Small vegetable plots were a common features, as well as chickens. The grey clouds began to lift, and the sun came and went. 

A twenty minute halt gave the crew time to step off the train. Shortly thereafter, we halted again for our group to leave for their walk. The families and I enjoyed the space left by their departure, particularly the two young boys. 

We left villages behind. The trees, green with summer growth, glistened in the sunlight. Several men stood in the river, fishing rods at the ready. The train driver set off the train whistle as we rounded bends, and I leaned out to take photos of the engine. The smoke was white, probably from burning wood, rather than the grey which is caused by burning coal. A car, wheels specially modified to run on train tracks, followed behind us.

The next stop confused me. We piled out at an area with lots of seating, a small refreshment stand, and toilets, as well as a number of hopeful dogs. I had expected a larger area at the end of the line. The father of the family, who spoke very good English, said we’d have ninety minutes there. After taking photos of the engine, I ate my packed lunch, bought a coffee, and then was startled when a whistle was blown and people started to board. I quickly visited the toilet before entering the wrong carriage. But I found a seat. Later I realised that this had been a stop for the engine to take on water.

We continued for another ninety minutes, stopping for some time to wait for another engine to pass us on her return journey. The crew wandered around, checking the track and smoking cigarettes. Our guide had explained that they were all paid staff, not volunteers. 

Around 1pm we arrived at the terminus. There was much more to see here, including a souvenir stall, a small museum, as well as a café. I took short walk into the woods, placing my camera on the ground at a bridge to take timed shots of some waterfalls. 

My train departed at 2.15pm. The locomotive had been moved to what had been the rear on the way up, and as is common on preserved lines, was now being driven backwards. Far less appealing for photos. The return journey took around two hours, including another short stop to take on water. This time I was in the original carriage, and we were joined by other passengers. The day had warmed considerably, but as we were now close to the front, we kept windows shut as the steam was quite strong.

The group were waiting for me at our starting point. They’d arrived thirty minutes before me, having had an enjoyable walk. We boarded our bus and were back at the hotel at 5pm. I bought a dark beer at the bar and took it to my room to enjoy on my warm balcony. Afterwards I had a shower, the water rather colder than I might have hoped for.

Dinner was at 7pm. Although I had been quite warm in my room, one couple complained of feeling cold. The staff said that the central heating would come on a little later. Dinner was beef soup, followed by a version of shepherd’s pie with a side salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. Dessert was a flat cake with pureed apples. 

Afterwards, our guide taped a map to the wall and gave us a talk about the history of Romania. He had grown up under Communism, and lived through the food shortages and the revolution. I left around 9pm as people continued to ask questions, the discussion leading on to the orphanages and the terrible conditions in which those children had been kept.

05 June

Another relaxed morning, as we didn’t leave the hotel until 8.30am. I panicked the driver when I saw a dipper perched on a footbridge and shouted out, ‘Dipper, dipper on the left hand side!’ Driver slammed the brakes and those who were interested in birds had a quick look through the bus windows. 

We were taken to the chair lift. Our guide had explained several times that this was an older construction, so the chairs would not slow down at the top. He urged caution when disembarking, that we would need to be quick to get out and move to one side. Two men helped us into our seats, and we lowered the safety bar as the chair juddered us away from the ground.

The ten minute trip was rather peaceful, giving us views of the mountains and, if one wished to turn around, of the village below. At the top, we had assistance again to step off the chair. None of it was as difficult as our guide had made out.

The first part of the walk was uphill, some sections rather steep. It was a good, wide path, and provided views. Our guide kept going, so it was up to us to decide when to take a breather. We warmed up as we progressed, and layers were removed. 

After about thirty minutes, we had reached the top of the slope. We then had about an hour of walking, mostly level. The sun came and went behind clouds, providing a mixture of light and shade on the slopes. Tall pine trees blocked the views for the main section. In the distance we spotted a herd of cows and a herd of sheep. The cows in Romania wear bells to help people find them in the alpine pastures. 

The last part of the walk was downhill, bringing us to a small area with a restaurant and our bus. We climbed aboard and headed down the road, stopping in a town to have lunch. A breeze kept the temperatures comfortable in the sun. 

Our next destination was the painted church of Moldovita. The preserved state of the outside paintings, which date back to the 16th century, was amazing, considering their age and the exposure to the elements. I was saddened at the graffiti carved into the lower areas. Inside the paintings were in an even better state, depicting saints and martyrs as well as scenes from the life of Jesus. A nun walked around outside twice during our visit, hitting a hammer against a long piece of wood. Our guide explained that this was to summon people to prayer.

We drove on to what our driver had told us was a ‘surprise’. At a house, we were greeted by the owner. As she spoke no English, she asked if anyone spoke German. I ended up as occasional interpreter, as she mostly talked in Romanian but switched sometimes to German.

Her fifteen year old spaniel was fussed over by the group before the woman served us home-made berry spirits. She had collected the bilberries from the woods and placed them into plum brandy. This made for a rather lovely drink with plenty of fruity flavour.

Afterwards we were led upstairs to her studio. She showed us the traditional practice of decorating duck and goose eggs. The eggs are emptied, dried, and painted. Beeswax is applied to the outside and then melted, using a Bunsen burner. Finally a lacquer is spread over the design to preserve it. She had also decorated a number of ostrich eggs. Many of us purchased an egg, the smaller ones costing around £5.00 each. 

Our last visit was to Sucevita Monastery. These paintings date from 1601 and again were well preserved. The church is dedicated to the resurrection, the main image being of the Harrowing of Hell (Jesus descending into hell after his crucifixion to bring out the souls of the righteous, starting with Adam and Eve). I tried to explain this to the guide, who kept insisting, ‘No, the church is dedicated to the resurrection.’ In the end I gave up, deciding that something was being lost in translation, so to speak.

Our hotel was only a few minutes away. We were in villas in a resort complex, very nice rooms but lacking kettles. My room was on the ground floor, and it was a relief not to be dragging a case up and down stairs. The shower was powerful and very welcome after the walk.

Dinner was in the restaurant nearby. I bought a beer for myself and one for the guide, which seemed to slightly embarrass him. First course was minced mushrooms rolled into pastry. Main course stuffed chicken breast with mashed potatoes. (No vegetables.) Dessert Black Forest gateau.

06 June

Finally all neck ache gone. We had an interesting time at breakfast. No milk was available until halfway through. It seems that the milk had been brought direct from a cow, and thus needed to be boiled before we could use it in our drinks. Hot milk however wasn’t that welcome on cereal.

At 8.30am we left, and around twenty minutes later those doing a walk through the forest were dropped off at the start of the trail. Five of us had opted for the alternative, namely to visit the pottery at Marginea. I was interested because the black pottery produced here is unique. The black colour comes not from the clay, but the finishing process in the kilns. The number of potteries has dropped from sixty to only three in recent years.

We arrived around 9am. The main complex was open, and around twenty minutes later the potters were starting work. We watched them pound the clay and form it into the correct size balls for their work. I always find it fascinating when the clay is on the wheel and a person’s hands (and a few tools) shape the clay into pots and bowls. Two potters were at work, talking and laughing with each other. One had golden teeth which flashed even in the artificial light.

A wander outside brought us to the kiln. A man opened it up and we went inside the smoky area, watching as he put more wood on to the fire. Ducks quacked in a pen outside, and several dogs let the neighbourhood know of our presence.

As the walk was supposed to take around four hours, we decided we were in no rush to reach the end point. So we visited the nearby café to have a drink and also popped into another nearby store selling pottery. 

Around 11am we boarded the bus and drove to the end point of the walk. A horse stood in the road nearby, and our driver carefully navigated past him. We pulled over to a spot near the river, where we sat on logs to eat our packed lunch. 

The day had been a mixture of grey and sun, and as we took a wander along the road, the clouds thickened. I took photos of a well, one of the many we’d seen in the villages. At the first spots of rain, I decided to head back to the bus. I reached shelter just as the heavens opened. Others of the group had been further away, and their coats were quite wet by the time they made it back.

The walking group joined us around 1.30pm. We headed off to visit the museum at Putna, which had displays about Stephen the Great as well as church vestments and coffin covers. Dashing through the rain, we visited the church itself, in which is the tomb of Stephen the Great. The outside paintings for the church are long gone, but the interior was similar in decoration to the churches we had visited the day before.

We then settled in for our four hour drive south to our overnight stop. We emerged from rain into bright sunshine once we’d left the mountains.  A break half way through allowed for toilets and a drink, but we were still very pleased to reach our hotel. We had drinks on the sunny terrace. I still had plenty of my packed lunch left, so I ate that in my room rather than order (and pay) for dinner.

07 June

We left our hotel at 8am after another breakfast in which a lack of milk was a feature. However apples and oranges were offered. Meals have featured very little in the way of fruit or vegetables, so this was a welcome change.

Our drive down to the port of Tulcea was meant to take around four hours. We actually arrived around 2pm, having made a couple of stops along the way as well as taking a ferry crossing over the Danube. We had thirty minutes at a supermarket (a Lidl) to buy supplies, particularly any alcohol we wanted for the next two days. Another traveller and I agreed we’d share a bottle of red wine between us, and I talked her into buying the more expensive Romanian wine (£5.00 per bottle versus the cheaper one at £2.50 per bottle).

At 3pm we were at the docks and boarding our houseboat. The ‘Anda’ had a large covered seating area, an outside seating area, and an upstairs sun deck. The cabins were on the lower level. Two women who had had their own rooms elsewhere, but were long-term friends, had to share. I was given a cabin on my own. This pleased me, as the cabins were rather small, albeit en-suite. We were asked not to put toilet paper into the toilet, but into the small bin nearby.

The houseboat had no engine of her own. Another boat towed us through the canal, built under the time of Nicolae Ceausescu to provide another access to the Black Sea. We had a very late lunch (soup and a cheese and pastry pudding) before going outside. The wind was quite strong, and most of us put on fleeces or coats. Bird life flew past. We saw cormorants, a roller (bright blue against the green trees), seagulls, swifts, terns, a white-tailed eagle, wagtails, a blue heron, and one pelican. Storks with chicks stood in their nests on top of electricity poles. Houses and farms offered chickens, horses, goats, and two ostriches. 

When we turned into a side-channel, we left the wind and the temperatures became comfortable. The driver gave me one of his beers, and later on I opened the bottle of red wine (very drinkable) and the two of us consumed it over the course of the evening.

We moored against a bed of reeds. Two of the crew drove one of the small motorised boats into the reeds and tied a rope to a tree to help secure us. Dinner was a sort of potato salad for starter, main course bread-crumbed chicken with mashed potato and pickles, and pudding slices of walnut cake. Afterwards, our guide put up a map of the delta to show us where we had and where we would be travelling. I ducked in and out as a lovely sunset demanded to be photographed. 

08 June

My cabin was pressed up against the reeds and I enjoyed the sounds of birdsong and frogs when I woke in the night. Although our guide had warned that the electricity might be turned off overnight (as it’s run off a generator), this was not the case.

It was good to wander upstairs and make a cup of coffee. There were even small sachets of UHT milk as well as tea bags and hot water. Breakfast was served at 7.30am, and we climbed into small motorised boats at 8am for our trip out on the delta in bright sunlight.

We moved slowly along waterways, looking for birds in the trees and reeds. A kingfisher took off, refusing to be photographed. The cuckoos we could hear flew past, and warblers flitted from the reeds. A white-tailed eagle flew overhead, and we lost count of the number of jackdaws which were very willing to pose on dead branches. Cormorants and herons were resting in trees and in the water, having obviously breakfasted before our appearance.

Our hope was to see the pelicans for which the delta is known. There are two sorts, the great white and the dalmatian. We saw a number of the former, none of the latter, but not in great numbers. One pair decided to pound the cormorants which swam nearby. 

One magical moment was going past an area of water lilies. A colony of terns dived around us, and parents with chicks told us off as we went past. I set my camera speed to 1/5000 sec in order to capture their quick twists and turns. A half dozen terns were attacking a jackdaw, driving him away from their area.

We halted at a village and clambered out of the boats. After a toilet and coffee break, we took a short walk. The local dogs, which all had collars, greeted us, and one decided to join us for our excursion. We looked at the local church, admired a stork in a nest, and returned on the road alongside the river.

Once back on our boats, we started the journey to our houseboat, which we were told would have moved on in our absence. Frogs rested on in the greenery near the banks, and I wanted very much for the boat to stop so I could take some photos. However, our driver spoke no English and I did not know the Romanian for ‘Please stop so we can look at the frogs.’ When the other boat came up alongside, we were able to tell our guide our wish to see the frogs, and the drivers obliged.

We returned to the house boat in time for lunch. The afternoon was spent on the boat, slowly continuing along the river.  And then I made a mistake. My practice, on holiday, is to download the day’s photos on to my laptop, then back them up on two separate hard drives. After the back up, I then reformat the memory cards, wiping the contents ready for the next day’s shooting. I plugged the memory card into the computer and opened the image. The folder containing (what I thought) was all of the morning’s photos came to 60gb. I dragged and dropped the folder (entitled ‘Canon100’, the default name) on to the MacBook, did my back ups, put the memory card back into the camera, and turned the camera on to reformat the memory card. The camera advised me that I was about to erase 80gb of storage. This seemed a bit odd, that there was 20gb more than I’d expected, and a little voice in my head warned me that perhaps I shouldn’t yet erase the contents. I ignored little voice. 

Only later, when I’d worked my way through the photos, did I discover that the camera must have dumped later photos into a separate folder on the card. This has happened before, but very rarely. So the frog photos, as well as those I took of a family of house martins and a swan with cygnets, were gone. A sadness, not a tragedy, and a lesson for the future.

The food on the houseboat was good. Lunch was chicken soup, with an apple-strudle like pudding. Dinner was a salad with feta cheese and ham, followed by minced pork and rice wrapped in grapevine leaves. Pudding was two different crepes, one with chocolate filling, the other with strawberry jam. I had an Imperial Stout (7.5% alcohol) to wash it down.

The houseboat was moored and we spent the evening in chat before heading off to our cabins. I told one Australian member in the group about my travelling companion, Gunther, a small dachshund. She stared at me, wondering what a dachshund was. ‘Sausage dog?’ I tried. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘a dash-hound!’ I clapped hands over ears at this mangling of the German language, wondering if blood would seep out between my fingers. 

09 June

Slept well, and continued to remember not to put toilet paper into the toilet but into the small bin nearby.

Our houseboat began the journey back to port as we finished breakfast. This time, the tug motored alongside us, rather than pull us from the front. We headed through a much broader passage, with little bird life or villages to view. 

As we approached the port, we had to hover to one side as large vessels dominated the river. When we tied up, several boats lay between us and the shore. Our luggage was taken off in the smaller motorised boats, and we were taken ashore the same way.

The drive to Bucharest took around four hours. We had a lunch break and arrived at our hotel around 4.30pm. At 6.30pm we met up for a walk to a local restaurant. I enjoyed pork ribs with sautéed vegetables, accompanied by a dark beer. Afterwards, we had the usual challenge of working out who owed what on the bill.

We returned through the warm night, meeting two dachshunds (‘dash-hounds’) during our walk. I was pleased that the rooms had air conditioning. I turned it on and looked for disk recovery software. One which I downloaded found the deleted photos on the SD card, but the company wanted around £100 if I wanted to save the photos. I decided to look for free software once I was back in the UK. 

10 June

A relaxed breakfast before leaving at 8.45am for a short drive to the Village Museum. This was a collection of buildings transplanted from various regions of Romania. Placards in Romanian and English gave the history of each building, as well as photos of the items inside. Most buildings were shut, due to a lack of staff to guard them. Seems in the past visitors have stolen the objects on display.

We only had an hour to visit, so it was a quick charge around. A number of cats patrolled the museum, and we saw a woman putting food out for them. I was distracted by a couple of birds feeding in one of the gardens. 

Afterwards, our bus took us on to the main city square in Bucharest. There we said our goodbyes to the driver, who had been a helpful, cheerful presence throughout our trip. 

We took a walk past the grand buildings, our guide explaining the history behind each. He also told us about the downfall of the Ceausescus, pointing out the balcony on which Nicolae Ceausescu made his last public appearance before fleeing in a helicopter. Shortly afterwards, he and his wife were arrested, tried, and executed.

The day was beginning to warm up, although the skies were hazy rather than blue. We walked down the main street, which is shut to traffic on weekends. In the old town, we made our way through the much narrower streets, all pedestrianized and featuring shops and restaurants. After visiting the three hundred year old Stavropoleos Monastery, we had lunch at Caru’ Cu Bere. Caru’ Cu Bere was built 130 years ago in the Neo-Gothic tradition, featuring stained glass windows, painted walls, mosaics, and carved panels. I enjoyed a dark beer with my avocado salad.

The afternoon was free to do our own explorations. Most of us had decided to visit the Palace of Parliament, the second largest governmental building in the world and which had been built by Ceausescu as his palace starting in 1978. A neighbourhood was destroyed to build the palace, and 40,000 people were relocated.

Several of us had stayed together after lunch, and we used the map function on my iPhone to find our way to the building. It took longer than we’d anticipated, and I felt quite hot and sticky by the time we’d found the entrance for the tours.

We booked in with our passports, and queued up for the 3pm tour. A guide with his own group, who spoke various languages, including fluent prat, tried to order us around when we’d accidentally gone further than we’d should and had to back up. I think he was trying to arrange priority entry for his own group.

An official English speaking guide took us on an hour long tour of some of the main reception rooms. Lots of white marble, gold-leaf, and huge carpets featured. I found it rather over the top and not to my taste. The highlight was going out on the balcony to look over Bucharest. Afterwards, the guide explained that we’d only seen around 6% of the huge building. 

It was now around 4.30pm and very hot. I’d taken down the phone number of a taxi firm. Although our hotel was around 1.5 miles away, the heat had made us decide that a taxi ride back was a welcome idea. Problem was, when I phoned and received a welcome in Romanian, I asked ‘Is that Speed Taxis?’ The person said something further then hung up on me!

We wandered down the road, trying and failing to hail one of the yellow cabs dashing past. In the end, we gave up and walked back. The map function on my iPhone took us through some back streets, then onto a main road which was closed for the weekend. It was nice to see families strolling through the hazy sunshine, buskers adding music to the atmosphere.

Once back at the hotel, I enjoyed a shower and changed my shirt. At 6.30pm we met in the hotel lobby for our last dinner together. Our guide took us an outside seating area which offered two different menus, one of Japanese food, the other of Italian. I had a pizza and a beer.

After going back to the hotel, five of us decided to find a place for a final drink. We walked around 15 minutes to a place one of our party had discovered the day before. We sat outside in the warm night and I enjoyed a final dark beer. When we returned to our hotel, it was 10.30pm, and I did little more than brush my teeth before going to bed.

11 June

Various departures to the airport during the morning. I was in a group which left the hotel at 9.30am. All went smoothly at check in, and although the flight left an hour late, we made up the time and still landed just after 2pm at Heathrow. 

The hot temperatures made for a sticky journey by underground and train. My kind neighbour collected me around 6pm, and I attended to making dinner and unpacking. Holiday over!

Postscript: I managed to find disk recovery software which didn’t charge for the first GB of recovered files. Hurrah, frog photos retrieved!

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