Eastern Europe 2007
Sunday September 2nd 2007
On my way back from China in 2002 I'd stopped for a couple of days in Warsaw. This time, I started here because flights were much cheaper than flights to Kyiv, and I thought it would be nice to start somewhere familiar.
I only spent a short time in Warsaw. I bought a ticket to Lviv, departing that evening, so I just went for a tired walk up to the old town. I walked via the Saski Gardens and Castle Square under grey skies, and found the experience a bit like intense déjà vu.
At 6.15pm I got on the train to Kraków, from where I'd pick up a connecting train to Przemyśl and then another to Lviv. I fell asleep almost straight away but woke briefly to see a beautiful sunset as we sped south. On the train from Kraków to Przemyśl I met two other travellers and chatted to them as we headed east. At Przemyśl we changed trains for a sleeper, and I was happy to get a little bit of sleep. This was interrupted only by the border crossing, where my battered passport, already veteran of 24 countries, caused a bit of consternation. "What has happened to your passport?", demanded the woman checking it, sternly. For the sake of brevity I skipped stories of Patagonian rain and Atacaman sand, and said I had accidentally laundered it. "Only once?", she asked, with a raised eyebrow and a smile. With that she stamped my passport and I was in Ukraine. It was 2am.
Monday September 3rd 2007
We arrived in Lviv in pitch darkness at 4.45am. I hardly remember arriving as I was tired beyond belief, but I know I found my way to a warm waiting room with my two travelling companions, Johan from Sweden and Brianna from the US. We slept in the waiting room for a couple of hours, before heading into the city at about 6.30am. As we walked out of the station the sky was just starting to get light.
We didn't really know which way town was, but we guessed that it would be in the direction of some huge church spires we could see down the road, and we headed off. Our instincts were right, and after about twenty minutes we found ourselves in the centre of town. I found a hostel and straight away went to bed. I woke up at 2pm, anxious to get out and see the sights. It was a warm afternoon and I headed out to Svoboda, the main street, to check out the atmosphere. Then I walked up to the historic centre, Ploshcha Rynok, and looked around there.
In the evening I met up with Johan and Brianna for a meal. The first place we went to said they were sorry, but they had a power problem and so couldn't do any hot food right now. So we went to a place a few doors away, but they said the same thing so this part of Lviv seemed to be having a power cut. So we stopped at the second place and had a salad.
After the meal we decided to have a look at Castle Hill. This proved to be quite an expedition as the paths up it were unlit. From the top, though, we got some great views of the town. I took plenty of photos. One long exposure was ruined when a large spider walked across my hand but some others came out OK.
Tuesday September 4th 2007
The next day it was raining heavily. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Ukraine had been in the grip of a fearsome heatwave with temperatures well over 40°C, but it had broken now. L'viv in the rain was not quite as enchanting as L'viv in the sunshine, and I decided to book a train to Kyiv for that evening. To do this, I went to the ticket booking office in town, and reused a method which had worked a treat when I was in Moscow - I wrote down my destination in Cyrillic, the time of train I wanted, and the word for 'sleeper', and handed it over. The woman behind the counter passed back a demand for a modest number of hryvnia, I handed it over, and I got a ticket for the night train to Kyiv in return.
The train was at 10pm so I had all day to kill. I met Johan and Brianna for lunch, which we had at a place that Johan had wanted to try out. It was called Kupol and the decor was pure 1930s. It was like having tea round a very old person's house. After lunch I wandered around randomly, taking whichever street looked the most interesting and covering a lot of central Lviv in the process.
By now it was dark, and I set out to walk back to the station. I passed the impressive church we'd passed on our way in to town, took a slight wrong turn into a dodgy part of town, quickly backtracked and made it to the station unscathed. I left for Kyiv at 10pm.
Wednesday September 5th 2007
It was hot and sunny when we arrived in Kyiv the next morning. As soon as I walked out of the station I liked the city. It instantly reminded me of Moscow but was way less huge and intimidating. I walked out of the station on Komintern Street, found a hostel and then set out to explore.
In Lviv, there had been no supermarkets - at least, none that I'd managed to find. There were only small grocery stores where it was quite difficult to buy things because most of the produce was kept behind the counter, and I didn't know many Ukrainian words for food beyond kleb for bread. But outside my hostel here was a huge and well-stocked supermarket, and that made me like Kyiv even more. I bought an ice cold drink and walked up Shevchenka. This led me to Kreshchatyk, the main street, and on to Maydan Nezalezhnosti. This square, the heart of Kyiv, had been the focus less than two years previously of the Orange Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people protested rigged election results, sweeping Viktor Yushchenko to power in place of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich. I sat in the square in the hot September sun and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
I walked up a hill led me to St. Michael's Monastery, topped with golden domes. Near by, a large expanse of parkland overlooked the Dnipro River, and I walked down through the park to the district of Podil. Here, after a bit of searching, I found the Chernobyl Museum. It was about 5.30pm and the museum was supposed to close at 6, but the staff fancied knocking off a bit early and I was rushed through the rooms at a furious pace. There were few signs in English but it was still obvious what a catastrophe the incident had been. Displays showed photos of people who had been killed in the explosion and the effort to seal the reactor immediately afterwards, and there were photos of the now-deserted town of Pripyat.
Back outside in the sunshine, I walked up Andriyivsky Uzviz, which winds past street markets and monasteries from Podil back up to the main town, from where I could see the broad Dnipro river flowing slowly by. In the days after the Chernobyl accident the river had carried radioactivity from the disaster area right into the heart of Kyiv. Radioactivity by Kraftwerk happened to be playing on my mp3 player. In 1986, when I was seven years old, I remember hearing about the accident. Then, Ukraine was a distant place, a province of a country on the other side of a terrible barrier from where I was. Now, in the hot autumn sun, there seemed no possible connection between the Soviet Union of then and where I was walking around now.
Thursday September 6th 2007
The next day was hot again. My first target was to buy a train ticket to Odesa, a task made much easier through being accompanied by April, a traveller from Australia who I'd met in the hostel. At the train ticket office, we wrote out our ticket requirements in Cyrillic and joined a queue. As we chatted, a lady in front of us asked us if we would like her to help us buy our tickets, and she turned out to be a lifesaver. Both the trains we wanted were full and we'd have struggled without a Ukrainian-speaker to help us book alternative trains.
Our trains sorted, we headed out to see more sights, and we took the metro to Dnipro station. The metro cost only 50 kopeks, or about five pence, for a ride, and it was almost as grand and impressive as Moscow's. Dnipro station was near to the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery founded around some caves in 1051. We bought candles and wandered through the caves, passing coffins containing the mummified remains of long-dead monks. Then we walked along to a more modern symbol of Ukraine nearby: Rodina Mat, a huge statue of a woman holding a sword. She is 60 metres tall and stands over the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Around the museum are various relics of Ukraine's Soviet history, with statues and sculptures commemorating the Soviet Hero Cities and the USSR's military victories.
Friday September 7th 2007
The next day I visited this part of the city again, but the sunshine had gone and the city was swathed in mist. I got the metro to Arsenalna and walked through the park to Rodina Mat. It was a Saturday, and there were newlywed couples near all the statues and war memorials, having their photos taken. I spent a while looking around the Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Back outside, the mist had cleared and it was another fearsomely hot day. I set off towards Druzhby Narodiv metro station but I took a wrong turn somewhere. Instead I ended up walking a very long way up and down hills and through random suburbs of Kyiv, until I chanced upon Pecherska station instead. On the way, a couple of people had stopped me to ask something, and both had seemed very surprised that I wasn't Ukrainian. I felt that probably in a few years time, Kyiv would be well on the way to being a major European tourist destination, and I was glad to be here now while foreigners were still comparatively rare.
I got the metro to Dorohozhychi. Just outside the station is Babin Yar, a park area which was the site of terrible massacres after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Today there was a flower market on, and the whole park was filled with colourful market stands. I sat in the park for a while relaxing in the Sun, but it was beginning to cloud over, and it seemed like a change of weather was coming. I walked back to the metro, and by the time I got to Vokzalna, it had started to rain. That night there were power cuts for much of the evening, and I sat in darkness in the small hostel I was staying at, talking to the other travellers staying there.
Saturday September 8th 2007
On my final day in Kyiv the temperature had dropped more than 20°C. It was cool and rain was falling. I walked down to Kreshchatyk again, which was pedestrianised because it was the weekend. I don't know if it was a special event or if it happens every weekend, but the whole street was filled with people playing sports of various kinds. There was five-a-side football, badminton, volleyball, and pole-vaulting. It was a shame it was rainy but I really enjoyed seeing all this going on. The atmosphere was friendly and communal and I decided that Kyiv was a city that I liked a lot.
After Kreshchatyk I walked up to Ploshcha Sofiyivska, where St. Sofia's Cathedral stands amid heavy traffic. It cost a couple of hryvnia to go up the bell tower, to see the view over the bright golden domes to the grey rainy city beyond.
I'd have liked to stay in Kyiv for longer, but my train ticket was booked, and so later that evening I walked to the train station with April. She got her train to L'viv, and then I boarded the night train to Odesa. We left Kyiv at 10.15pm.
Monday September 10th 2007
I felt like I was missing a lot of Ukraine by getting night trains, but then if Ukrainian geography is known for anything, it's for being pretty flat. I woke up to find the sky blue and the sun blazing over green plains. Soon the suburbs of Odesa were appearing, and we arrived on time at 8.48am. I bought a coffee at the station and then walked into town.
Odesa seemed very laid back after Kyiv. I soon reached the steps, which were not nearly as grand as I had expected. I thought I probably needed to have watched Battleship Potemkin to fully appreciate them, and wrote a note to myself in my journal that I should do that when I got back.
At the bottom of the steps was Odesa's ferry port, jutting out into the Black Sea. I was vaguely thinking of getting a ferry to the Crimea, because everyone who'd been there said it was awesome, but my plan was quickly scuppered when I found that the ferries had stopped running at the end of August. It meant I had a good reason to come back to Ukraine, at least, and it left me more time to see Moldova and Romania. I watched the boats coming and going from Odesa's massive container port for a while, and planned my onward journey.
Tuesday September 11th 2007
The next day there was a colossal cruise ship docked at the ferry port, and the city was suddenly full of elderly tourists puffing up the steps, and Filipino-looking crew members enjoying a few hours off their ship. I decided to go to the beach for the day. I headed out to Lanzheron Beach, which looked like a straightforward walk on the map but ended up being more adventurous than I'd expected. The map led me to what appeared to be some kind of old people's home or health spa, and once I'd walked through the grounds of this I reached a high fence. There seemed to be no gate, and I didn't feel like backtracking all the way to the main road, so I scaled it and jumped over. Then I had a ten minute walk through some quite thick woods until I found the beach.
Lanzheron Beach looked like it had seen better days, and this year's season was clearly over. Most of the bars and restaurants lining the promenade were closed, and only a few people were around. I paddled in the Black Sea briefly and then slept on the sand for a while, only just managing to avoid getting horrifically sunburnt.
I liked Odesa but I felt like I'd pretty much exhausted its possibilities after two days. So I decided to head west, into what would prove to be one of the strangest places I've ever visited: Transdnistria.
Tuesday September 11th 2007
One of my main aims on this trip was to visit the breakaway Republic of Transdnistria. I can't even remember how I first heard of this place but I think I chanced across it on the web pages of Tan Wee Cheng. It's a place which I think most Europeans would be surprised to realised they share a continent with, and I was sure that going there would be interesting. The country declared independence from Moldova in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, but was not internationally recognised. Today it remains a country that doesn't really exist.
Information for travellers to the region was scarce but rumour had it that the state was a Stalinist nightmare, with officials watching the every move of outsiders, extracting bribes wherever possible, and arresting people on a whim. Following Foreign Office advice, I'd contacted the British Embassy in Bucharest to ask about the latest situation. They said that right now things were calm and travelling through should be fine, but that it could change literally overnight.
In Odesa I'd met a traveller from Spain called Carlos who also wanted to visit the country, so early one morning we both headed up to the bus station to get a bus to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdnistria. It took us a little while to find the right bus station, but with the help of several friendly Ukrainians, we got there and bought a ticket for a 2.30pm marshrutka minibus to Tiraspol. We drove out of Odesa, through gently rolling hills, and after about an hour we were at the border. This was where I expected things could get interesting. I was not wrong.
Leaving Ukraine was fine. We stopped for twenty minutes or so while passports were checked, got our exit stamps and drove on. A few minutes later we passed a flag and sign declaring that we were now entering what was formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, and our passports checked. Carlos and I were ushered off the minibus at this point and led into a small building by the road. Here we had a few minutes of friendly banter with the guards there about football, then an awkward few minutes in which they just ignored us totally. Finally they cut to the chase and started discussing 'entry fees'. They told us they could only give us a transit visa, valid for three hours, and that it would cost 30 Euros.
I was happy to see that the Euro has now replaced the US dollar as the hard currency of choice for corrupt officials. I offered 20 Euros, and they accepted that. Carlos offered 10 Euros, five pounds sterling and 40 Ukrainian hryvnia. They looked pretty disgusted by the hryvnia, but took them anyway. They gave our passports to another official, and after a bit more friendly banter we got them back, each with a hand-written entry permit on a torn scrap of paper. It was 4pm and we were in Transdnistria.
The road to Tiraspol was tree-lined and pleasant-looking, but extremely bumpy. Traffic was light except for a big convoy of military vehicles. We arrived in Tiraspol at about 5pm. The bus stopped at the now-disused train station, where we found a currency exchange bureau. Having read in my Lonely Planet guide that we should expect all the locals to be deeply suspicious of outsiders and likely to report us to the secret police if we spoke English, I was a bit concerned when Carlos strode up without any hesitation and said "Hello! Do you speak English?". Bracing myself for instant arrest, I was surprised when the girl behind the counter said "Yes I do! Where are you from? How can I help you?" She was called Yulia, and she was so nice and friendly that we spent half our time in Tiraspol talking to her. She gave us some Transdnistrian roubles in exchange for hryvnia, dollars, pounds and euros, and then found a policeman to try to help us stay longer than the three hours we'd apparently been given. This proved impossible, as new regulations required an invite from a citizen of Transdnistria to get anything other than a transit visa. Yulia was apologetic. We asked if there were many tourists in the country these days. "Oh yes", she said. "Two days ago there was a German!" We also asked if taking photos would cause any problems, and Yulia said she couldn't imagine why it would.
Tuesday September 11th 2007
So with our time extremely limited, we hurried off down Lenin Street into town. We passed Kirov Park, and soon reached Ulitsa 25 Oktober, the main street. No-one seemed too bothered by the sight of two obvious tourists taking photos of everything they could see. We didn't really have long enough to do very much at all, but we did manage to buy some postcards, which I hadn't expected to be able to do. I posted four later from Chişinău; only one ever arrived. We popped into a shop to buy some water and snacks. The ladies behind the counter thought we were very entertaining and made sure we bought locally-produced mineral water and a couple of freshly-baked cheesy doughy snacks.
All too soon it was time to go back to the bus station for the bus to Chişinău. We spoke to Yulia again to thank her for her help. She told me her sister was working in London, and gave me her telephone number and a message to pass on. I promised I would and then said goodbye, sad to be leaving so soon when I was just starting to really like Transdnistria. I couldn't believe how different it was to what I'd heard, and developed a great deal of sympathy for the local view that there is a huge disinformation project going on to discredit the little republic. The Lonely Planet guide could not have been more wrong and I found it hard to believe the author had actually been there.
The bus to Chişinău left at 6.30pm. As we swept out of Tiraspol, we passed the stadium where it looked like a football game was in progress. I'd have loved to go and see an FC Tiraspol home game, but it wasn't to be. A few blocks on from there I saw three black people standing on a street corner. I imagined that a besieged Russian enclave like this would not be the easiest place to be from a visible ethnic minority, and I wondered who they were, whether permanent residents or temporary migrants.
Our second border crossing was pretty similar to the first. One border guard took the piece of paper we'd been given on entry, then waved the bus on. A few minutes later at another roadblock, a second guard demanded the bit of paper, and looked furious when we said we didn't have it any more. He beckoned us off the bus, took us to a small building, and shouted at us in Russian for a while. Carlos and I both knew perfectly well that a bribe was all he was after, and made only a cursory effort to look like we cared. He carried on shouting, with words like "politsiya" and "problema" appearing frequently. Eventually he said "Twenty dollar - no problem". He'd already made us empty our pockets and seen that I had 35 dollars with me, so I thought it would be difficult to bargain. I paid him 20 dollars and he seemed pretty happy with that.
Back on the bus, a friendly man smiled at us and asked "five dollars?", pointing at the guard. We said yes, and he laughed. We'd doubtless held the bus up by being foreign but the passengers didn't seem to mind too much. At five to seven, a few minutes before our three hours were up, we entered Moldova.
Wednesday September 12th 2007
At the town of Bendery, just before the border with Moldova, two young Transdnistrians had got on the bus and sat next to me and Carlos. We spoke to them in a strange mixture of English and French, not finding much common language in either but still having a friendly conversation. When we got into Chişinău they showed us to a currency exchange booth so we could get some Moldovan Lei, and called a taxi for us to get to a hostel. A short drive through the dark and potholed streets of the city took us to a place near the centre.
That night a huge thunderstorm rocked the city. I lay awake listening to the rain lashing down, and got up late the next day as a result. Having gone for a short walk through the city centre in the dark when I arrived, I set out for a longer explore, through the city centre parks and past the plain-looking cathedral. Carlos had gone to find a different place to stay, not being much impressed with the hostel, but I soon bumped into him in town. We were both taking a photo of the presidential palace on the main street when a young police officer came up and asked us what we were doing.
One of the consequences of travelling through Transdnistria was that I had no Moldovan entry stamp in my passport, so technically I was illegally in the country. The police officer introduced himself by name and asked to see our passports. I thought this could be a problem, but fortunately, his phone rang before he could look through them. He gave us a quick salute and strode off.
Thursday September 13th 2007
A slight problem in Moldova was that none of the cash machines seemed to accept foreign cards. Luckily I'd taken some cash with me, and I had enough to cover a few days in the country. When I tried to change my notes at a bureau de change near where I was staying, I ran into problems caused by not having crisp new banknotes. I've always heard that this can sometimes be a problem but had never experienced it until now. Luckily the owner of the bureau was very friendly and spoke excellent English. "I'm really sorry", he said, "but the central bank charges us 15 per cent of the face value to change damaged notes". The only note I had that would pass muster was a 50 dollar bill, so I was definitely going to have plenty of lei left by the end of my stay.
I chatted to the currency man for a few minutes. He asked me what I was doing in Moldova, and seemed very surprised that I was just on holiday. I asked him if he could recommend any places I should go and he said he really couldn't think of any. When I pushed him he said that maybe I should go to a place called Mileştii Mici. "You might like it", he said. "But then again you might not". He strongly recommended Moldovan wine, though, and on hearing that I don't drink he equally strongly recommended Moldovan fruit juice.
One thing I liked about Moldova was having learnt Spanish in Central and South America I could understand many written things in Romanian. I began to believe that I could probably understand some spoken Moldovan as well, but I was proven very wrong when I tried to buy stamps for my postcards from Tiraspol at Chişinău's main post office. My first attempt to say "Four stamps for the United Kingdom" ended up with me buying two airmail envelopes instead. I tried again and got the right thing the second time, but only by showing my four postcards and pointing at the top right corner.
Thursday September 13th 2007
After a couple of days I'd pretty much covered Chişinău, and so I walked down to the station and bought a ticket for the night train to Bucharest. The train was quiet and I thought I might get a compartment to myself, but a few minutes before the train left someone joined me. When the train left at ten past five, I spent a while looking out of the windows at the beautiful Moldovan countryside rolling by in the evening sun, and then I got talking to my travelling companion.
He was called Cristi, and luckily he spoke quite a lot of English. He was Romanian but married to a Moldovan, and he said he thought Moldovans were friendlier and more honest than Romanians. It turned out that he was on the first stage of a journey to Italy, where he was planning to work for at least a year. Romania had been a member of the EU for nine months and he was taking advantage of the free movement of labour that this brought. He was leaving behind his wife, and didn't know when he would see her again. As we approached the border with Romania, he said he was just starting to realise how much he would miss Moldova. Like the currency man, Cristi was bemused that I'd come to Moldova as a tourist, and particularly that I'd been to Tiraspol.
At nightfall we reached the border with Romania at Ungheni. We were leaving the broad tracks of the former USSR for the narrower ones of the rest of Europe, and our train was shunted into a yard where each carriage was raised, and the wheels changed. My passport was taken away by the first person to check it, and after an hour or so when the wheels of the train were back on it still hadn't reappeared. Cristi went to ask the train attendants what was going on and they said that it was nothing, and we'd be getting checked again by immigration shortly. And soon enough another border guard appeared. He wanted to know why I didn't have a Moldovan entry stamp, and it was really lucky for me that Cristi was such a friendly guy and spoke English. They had a conversation in Romanian, the approximate gist of which was "So, how come he doesn't have a stamp?" "Because he came via Tiraspol." "Why did he do that?" "Oh, he's a tourist." "Really? Get away!" "No, he really is."
And with that I was into Romania. Cristi shared a colossal bag of Romanian chocolates with me to celebrate his return to his homeland, and I felt terrible that I had nothing to share with him to thank him for his help. He asked me if I could name any famous Romanians. I managed Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Ilie Nastase - the last one made up a bit for the first two. In return, he named most of the royal family. His knowledge of Britain definitely beat my knowledge of Romania, but surely in a few days time I would know more.
Friday September 14th 2007
At Bucureşti Nord station I said goodbye to Cristi, bought a strong coffee for breakfast, and then got on the first train to Braşov. I found a window seat on the top deck. A lot of the Romanians crossed themselves as we pulled out of the station for the three hour journey into the heart of Transylvania.
We rolled through Bucharest's northern suburbs under deep blue skies, and before long hills were rising from the plains. After an hour or so we were in the forested Bucegi mountains, where wild bears still roam. Rocky peaks towered over the train lines and although I was tired from the overnight train journey, I didn't want to miss the scenery by sleeping. A couple of hours later we arrived in Braşov.
I liked the town straight away. The air was cool and fresh, the sun was shining, and the atmosphere was friendly. I spent a day ambling around narrow streets lined with grand old buildings, and took a cable car to the top of Mount Tâmpa. The mountain towers over Braşov, and once you're up there you can't see the very garish hollywood-style BRAŞOV sign attached to it, which reminds everyone which town they are in. In a blissed-out tired haze after my overnight train journey, I stayed up there for a while in the sunshine, enjoying views over the town and its surroundings, and also enjoying being in Romania, which depending on how exactly I define 'country' and 'been to', might be the 60th country I've been to.
Saturday September 15th 2007
I wanted to cycle to Bran while I was in Braşov. It's about 20km away and is the site of castle, claimed on scant but tourist-attracting grounds to be Dracula's castle. But it was the weekend, and all the bike shops in Braşov were closed, so I reluctantly headed out to the autogara and got a bus. I watched sadly as the nice flat tarmac round wound through the mountains to Bran, and then managed to miss Bran completely because it was far smaller than I'd expected. Seeing a sign saying 'you are now leaving Bran', I got off the bus and walked back towards the castle. I saw it now, on top of a hill. Its location was pretty impressive, but it hardly looked mediaeval or terrifying, and when I got back into Bran itself I was confronted with a horrendous tourist nightmare of Dracula souvenirs, sold by people wearing fangs and capes, and decided to head back to Braşov as quickly as possible. The only thing I liked about the town was the view of distant snowy mountains behind it.
When I got back to Braşov the sun had just set. Earlier, I'd got a bus from the centre of town to the autogara, and the journey had seemed very short, so I thought I'd walk back. It seemed the journey had been quite long after all and two hours later I made it back to central Braşov, having walked along dimly-lit streets through endless suburbs, guided only by occasional glimpses of the cheesy hollywood sign, glowing up on the dark hillside.
Monday September 17th 2007
Braşov had a laid-back vibe, and I spent another couple of days there doing nothing much at all but enjoying the fresh mountain air and sunshine. Eventually it was time to move on - I wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before flying back home - so I got a train to Sinaia, another mountain town on the line to Bucharest. I wanted to go up its cable car, which takes you up to 2200m in the Bucegi Mountains, but I'd picked the wrong day - it was closed on Mondays. So I just went for a short walk into the hills and a look at Peleş Castle, which was massively more impressive than Bran Castle. Then I walked back to the station and got the train to Bucharest. The sun was setting and I had a great journey under blazing red skies. I got to Bucharest late in the evening, jumped on the metro and headed for a hostel.
Monday September 17th 2007
It was hot and humid in Bucharest, and I stayed in a hostel above a really sleazy nightclub. I went for a late night walk around the city when I arrived. I'd read about Bucharest's amazing stray dog problem before I came, and when I'd arrived on the night train from Chişinău I'd seen a few running about on the tracks. Now, in the quiet city at midnight, it was clear that some dark streets were dog territory and best avoided. The dogs apparently all descended from a time when there had been massive redevelopments in Bucharest, in which people were moved to higher quality accommodation but weren't allowed to take their pets with them.
I managed to avoid getting bitten by the dogs of Bucharest, and I thought the city looked pretty impressive in places. It has a population of two million, but it seemed much larger, somehow, with its broad streets filled with pounding traffic, and activity and bustle carrying on late into the night.
Tuesday September 18th 2007
I only spent one night in Bucharest. I spent the final morning of my trip walking from my hostel to the Palace of the Parliament, which is claimed to be the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. I could hardly believe the size of it. I wanted to go to a contemporary art gallery in the grounds of the Palace, and this involved walking along two sides of it. This took about half an hour, along shadeless pavements in the morning heat. I was then extremely disappointed to find that the gallery was closed on Tuesdays. I walked back to the front of the Palace, thirsty and lacking in cultural experiences.
On all this trip in these far flung parts of Eastern Europe, I kept thinking back to what I remembered of 1989. I was 11 years old at the time and I wish I'd been a bit older, and been able to appreciate the history a bit more. When Romania revolted in December 1989, I was in Jordan, and I vividly remember seeing an English-language newspaper on Christmas Day, 1989, carrying the news that Ceauşescu and his wife had been shot. It had only taken nine days from the first major act of the revolution to his final downfall.
Tuesday September 18th 2007
I walked from the palace all the way down Bulevardul Unirii, which was another of Ceauşescu's grand projects and is a few metres longer than the Champs-Élysées. Fountains lined the street, making the hot day seem a little bit cooler, and trees kept it shady.
But soon it was time to leave. I should really have sacrificed a lazy day in Braşov for a more active one in the capital, but it was too late to worry about that now. I bought a snack from a shop and then got on the airport bus to Otopeni airport. It took me past lots of things I'd have liked to see properly, and I thought I'd probably like to come back to Bucharest. But all there was left to do now was allow myself to be relieved of a shocking number of lei as I bought a drink at the airport, board the plane and fly home.