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My Bloody Romania: Not your ordinary Arge??
Do you ever have that dream where you're just traveling along from town to town for weeks on end, meeting people, visiting arresting sights and all of a sudden you realize that you forgot to put on pants before you left America? And when you try to run back to America, gonads only barely cupped in one hand, suddenly you're running in slow motion and Euro-political activists are jumping in front of you and going "No really, how the f*ck did Bush get re-elected? Are you guys retarded or what?"
Another freaky thing that occasionally happens to me on the road is that I'll arrive in an ostensibly ho-hum city, and it really is ho-hum, but there's something about it that tweaks my aesthetic radar and I come away with an inexplicable affection for the place. I had that reaction to Curtea de Arge??.
When I first visited Curtea de Argeş 18 months ago on my LP research trip, I was struck by how well organized it was (un-Romanian-like helpful signs abound), the kind, laid back people, the few, yet above average sights and, by my estimation, the best value accommodations in all of Romania. (That's right, six commas in one sentence. You wanna make somethin' of it?)
The Little Vampire and I rocketed into town well ahead of schedule what with us having no reason to linger on the fog-covered Făgăraş Mountains. Deftly negotiating the easy to navigate, well-signed streets (that's the first and last time you'll hear me use those words in connection with a Romanian destination), we pulled into one of my favorite pensions in all of Romania, Pensiunea Ruxi, unpacked and relaxed a bit before heading out for a tour.
Minutes later we were meandering in and around the atmospheric grounds of the tiny Episcopal cathedral (1526, refurbished from near-ruins in 1875) and adjoining monastery, ogling the cathedral's interior ornamentation and the tombs of Wallachian/Romanian rulers Neagoe Basarab, Carol I and wife Elizabeth, and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie.
A short drive down the road is Curtea de Argeş' other primary, man-made attraction: the Princely Court. The ruins of the 14th century palace are well-maintained (i.e. someone goes around from time to time and picks up the beer cans), if slightly moribund, but the church of the same era is still perfectly intact, including the extraordinary, never touched-up frescos covering every square inch of the interior.
Apart from the fairly dull County Museum and strolling the length of the town's busy, but pleasant main street, that's about all there is to do. You can see it all in about three hours at the laziest of paces. Like I said, ho-hum. Yet, strangely charming.
The next morning after a lovely, gut-busting breakfast in the living room at Pensiunea Ruxi, the cinematically beautiful weather inspired us to take another crack at the Transfăgărăşan Road. We theorized that maybe if we hit the mountain later in the day, the sun would have time to burn off all that moist fog and we'd have a better chance at seeing the lake and waterfall.
Leaving Curtea de Argeş at the dawdling hour of 11am, we wound through the uneventful and dreadfully paved Argeş Valley for 40km, frequently passing yet more brand new lodges and pensions as well as picnic areas peppered with years worth of trash. We hit the mountain just after noon and yet again wiggled up the twisty ascent, this time with a lot more company in the form of tourists and dump trucks that I hoped were loaded with material to patch the valley road.
As we neared the summit, still under a glorious cloudless sky, God must have realized what we were up to and, I imagine, nearly broke his neck grappling for his Blackberry to message Mother Nature. He probably fired off his instructions just as we entered the tunnel, she received them, hit a few buttons on the remote with seconds to spare and we emerged into, yes, even worse fog than the previous day.
Creeping through freakishly bad visibility, we managed to locate the edge of the lake about two feet before the wheels got wet and dutifully took a photo of the eerie nothingness before getting back in the car and inching down the mountain, demoralized. (For the record this is what the lake looks like on a clear day)
After his howling Screw Leif Orgasm, God must've stepped out for a smoke just as we once again passed Bâlea Cascada, because the fog suddenly cleared and there was the waterfall off in the distance, plain as day. We scrambled up alongside the cascading water for a mile or so, but time prevented us from covering the entire distance up to the bottom of the main falls. We had dinner reservations in Braşov at 7pm at a popular restaurant. Having eaten there before, we knew damn well that our table took priority over any waterfall. Waterfalls are a dime a dozen in Romania, honest-to-Buddha chips and salsa are not.
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 more insider info on disastrous Romanian interpretations on foreign cuisine – e.g. 'salsa' = ketchup, 'orange juice' = orange Fanta and 'spicy' = salty.