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My Bloody Romania: 'Vladling' in Transylvania
Dateline: Târgu Mure??, Romania
The first incarnation of my online blogging presence was called Every Notable Patch of Grass in Romania. The title was apt, as I had already lived and traveled in Romania for nearly a year and was about to embark on my Lonely Planet research trip to canvas the more obscure tourist sites in the country normally frequented by truckers, drunken businessmen and truant teenagers. I had to change my blog's title to Killing Batteries when I moved out of Romania last year (it was either that or "The No Effing Way I'm Spending Another Winter Here Chronicles"). Despite my former blog's authoritative title, I didn't exactly see every notable patch of grass due to inclement weather, the time-space continuum and acute Vengeful God-itis, a terrible affliction that I contracted in my late teens after I was tricked into juggling at a pro-life rally for Christian teenaged girls (the dick jokes did not go over well) and have suffered from almost continuously ever since.
Since I very nearly hold the dubious honor of Best Traveled Romania Tourist Ever, I decided to pad my numbers a bit and knock off a few more destinations this week, most notably Sibiu, a 2007 European Capital of Culture.
Let's just get this out of the way: I hate driving. It's not that I'm a bad driver - indeed I can parallel park a car at an Olympic level - it's just never been fun for me. This may have something to do with the fact that I've never driven anything fancier than a Honda Civic hatchback, but that's the situation nonetheless. Furthermore, I'm filled with manifest dread at the mere thought of driving in Romania. As a whole, these drivers are bat$hit crazy. It's a nationwide phenomenon and common knowledge among the natives (stories appear on the BBC once a month or so about some idiotic, totally avoidable multi-fatality accident like this one), but they don't care.
I've already written at great length about the reality of driving in Romania and although that rant is still largely true, I have to grudgingly admit that the situation has noticeably improved. Rumors of cops cracking down on jackass driving started a year ago and I figured it was just talk to appease EU officials agonizing over last minute membership details that would fall on deaf ears anyway. But sure enough, the number of people driving like they're 30 seconds from giving birth has dropped and conspicuous drunk driving along with it. Though $hitfaced staggering around town still seems to be all the rage, as we saw in a village less than 30 minutes after departing on our trip. Some guy decided to step out, stinking drunk on a Monday morning, shirtless and in the rain, weaving down the middle of a busy national road. Sadly, I was too slow with the camera to capture this classic Romania countryside moment.
Despite improved conditions, over the course of the seven day road-trip I was involved in three near-fender benders, saw one non-fatal van roll-over, observed a mere two people making prudent use of their rearview mirrors (both tourists from Germany) and only feared for my life once when I honked at a lunatic who nearly caused a five car pile-up, who screamed incoherently at me and tried to spit on my car as he drove off. These people honk at each other 25 times before breakfast, but honk at someone to express displeasure about their dangerously incompetent driving and you better be ready to trade blows, brother.
I was joined on this road adventure by my Co-Pilot, Photographer and Translator When It Gets Too Hard For Me Or I'm Feeling Lazy: 'The Little Vampire' (not her real name - she won't tell me what it is because "you're a pervert.").
Since the distance from Iaşi to Sibiu is prohibitively long, even for people who love hours behind the wheel dodging livestock, horse carts, suicidal drivers and escaped winos, I chose to break up the drive and stop for a night in Târgu Mureş. Spine-tingling it ain't, but Târgu Mureş is nevertheless a perfectly nice place to hang out for a day. Their elongated, agreeably manicured Piaţa Trandafirilor ('Rose Plaza', which is indeed rosey) starts slow with a ho-hum concrete cathedral (1934) at one end, then builds with a series of Habsburg-esque buildings lining both sides of the piaţa and ends strong with the side-by-side color-coded Palace of Culture and County Council Building.
The city has an even mix of ethnic Hungarians and Romanians which has historically been a sore spot. Ceauşescu, a legendary loather of Hungarians, actually closed the city to Hungarians while he was in power. Even as late as 1990, the post-Communist government, little improved on Ceauşescu's halfwit approach to domestic policy, brought in ethnic Romanian peasants from the countryside armed with their farming tools to (successfully) engineer a bloody race riot, which was then officially blamed on local Roma (gypsies). Among other things, local Hungarian poet was attacked by a mob that tried to gouge out his eyes. Good times.
Apart from the city's modest museums and aesthetic beauty, Târgu Mureş started blipping on backpacker radars (and the current LP) in 2006 when it became the first city in Romania serviced by a budget airline: Wizz Air. In the ensuing year, budget airlines have exploded here (I've posted a complete breakdown here), with flights zapping in from all over Europe on Blue Air, MyAir (Motto: "Schedule? What schedule?"), and German Wings, with flights starting soon on EasyJet (beginning October 29th) and Ryan Air (date yet to be released).
As a footnote, Romania recently threatened to ban Wizz Air from its airspace for chronic tardiness, ineptitude and horrid customer service. Hmmm, those traits sound familiar. Oh, and I see Delta Airlines flies into Bucharest! How embarrassing would it be for Delta to be banned by Romania? Ooo. I think I just had a tiny orgasm.
To break up the drive even further (and because we didn't really have a choice), we made a quick stop at Bicaz Gorge, a short, but dramatically plunging crevasse that climaxes at the "Neck of Hell" where the accident-waiting-to-happen gorge wall hangs over a busy road. Though I've spared you the photos, the road both before and after the bottom of the ravine has 20-some souvenir stands selling identical crap for identical prices. Who says small business competition is dead?
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet's Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for further ponderings on why God hates him and where one can pick up a Dracula ashtray for cheap.