Road Logbook I – A Slovak, a Chinese and a Romanian enter a car…
…and what results is no joke. This is the English counterpart to the first chapter written in Romanian before, because it is the story of a long road trip involving me and two non-Romanian speakers. So, in april 2014, I had two guests from University, Tomas from Slovakia (pronounced Tomash, the Hungarian way) and James from Hong Kong, because his Chinese name is impossible to pronounce. Seriously, someone tried. For 2 hours. With limited success.
And both of them very different. So different that they couldn’t synchronize to make my work easier, but hey, such is life. So, summing up, within 2 weeks I had driven almost 4000km. That’s 2500 miles for those of you who still count using some dead king’s foot. Tourism through Romania, an experience many thought impossible, many of them my own countrymen, surprised at me having found places to take my honoured guests, turned out not to be such a bad idea. And it was an interesting experience, too: in 11 days’ time, I averaged about 300km per day (that’s about 180 miles, although the metric system seems much more spectacular) on wide roads, narrow roads, winding mountain roads, bad roads, good roads, through heat, driving rain (pun intended) and unexpected snowstorms. Because in Romania you don’t fuck with the weather, the weather fucks with you.
Of course, I have no idea where to start the story. Shall I start with the begining? Nope, not very interesting to say stuff about how I picked up the Chinaman from the airport. Or with the ending? Although I’m a huge fan, I’m not Quentin Tarantino to do it like in Reservoir Dogs; besides, this isn’t a crime story, a story about betrayal, or even a story about professionals. I’m going to do what Sergio Leone did in Once upon a time in America (you can tell I’m a film buff) and start somewhere in the middle; I might even go around different parts of the story and make it a twisted-non-chronological-ordered-thing.
So, in the morning of April 6th 2014, I hop on board the Bluesmobile, a tiny 2-door, 3-metre-tall (of which half was the CB radio antenna), monster Seat Ibiza with 130 horses under the hood (only using 65 at a time, because hey, they get tired). It was 7.30 AM in the western end of Bucharest (by which I really mean the western end, no bullshit like London or Glasgow, whose West Ends are in the centre), with 3 coffees on board (on board myself, not the car), prepared by a very special girl – who actually only made me one coffee, but I wanted two more to be sure everything will be fine.
And I really have no idea whatsoever who synchronized the traffic lights in western Bucharest. Because if you start from one and maintain a constant speed of 60KPH (38mph – I can do these off the top of my head already), which is, coincidentally, the speed limit for said street, you’ll be certain to stop at the next one, which will turn yellow, then red, just as you reach it. I have no idea what they were thinking about, but it’s the noisiest, dustiest, most polluted part of Bucharest, and noise and pollution levels would, I’m certain of it, drop drastically if they were to just do a good job with those damn traffic lights.
But it was early morning, before the 8am rush hour, and so I could bend the laws of physics (and a few traffic laws too), maintaining a constant speed of 70kph (that’s about 42mph) while artfully dodging the huge potholes in the road surface. But hey, our president-ex-mayor-of-Bucharest-ex-sailor put it this way: winter ain’t like summer (referring to said holes).
Great, so I took the two companions from their hostel next to Cişmigiu Park in the centre (that area has hostels and cheap accommodation, the street is called Ştirbei-Vodă), and started on our way to Ploieşti, probably the largest city in Romania (except for Bucharest), famous for its refineries, dutifully bombed by the Allies during World War II, to deprive Hitler of his precious oil. First scheduled stop, the Slănic-Prahova salt mine, 100 meters (I’m not turning this into feet, thank you) below the surface of the Earth. I went through Praid, in Transylvania, with James a few days before, and found the salt mine there closed at 4.20pm – it had been closed at 3pm, because you desperately need sunlight when you’re in a deep cave below the earth, right? But apparently salt mines are pretty well known outside Romania as big tourist attractions, and it’s only us and the Polish who have such big mines. At least that’s what I recall from what Tomas told me, and he wanted to see such a mine.
But, in spite of my through-the-roof energy levels when I left, within less than 45km (and that’s about 28 miles) I started to feel my eyes closed. You know the feeling, having your eyelids made of lead, the works. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s the worst state to be in when you’re driving. You lose your ability to constantly track and know everything that goes on around you. It happens because, when you drive for long periods of time, the act of driving relocates to some unconscious-subconscious part of your brain, and my two passengers, on whom I’d been relying to keep my conscious mind engaged and awake, were fast asleep. I could never sleep like that, especially in the car, I wonder how they did it to this day – I was probably doing a very good job of driving, I can find no other explanation. So, what do?
Obviously, you’re on DN1 (that’s sort of a British A-road), the biggest trunk road of Romania, so you look for a parking space on the side and take a break. Yeah right. I drove 10km (6 miles) until I found one. I have no idea why, but when I’m a passenger in a car, I can’t shut an eye. Why does it happen when I’m driving? Why is my brain trolling me? Why, brain? What have I ever done for you to treat me so disrespectfully (that’s a quote from the Godfather). But apparently this is known as highway hypnosis, and I’m not its only victim. I did finally manage to pull over, and noticed trees next to the road. Therefore, at Puchenii-Mari, I did what every Romanian on the road does to clear up his thoughts. For those of you who live in countries with too many motorways, that’s go behind a tree and take a pee.
And that was a good idea, because it made me recall what a friend did when he was going through France, and highway hypnosis is stronger on motorways (seriously – 100 miles of motorway are so boring that you’re certain to fall asleep unless you have company). And, because I remembered that, to ensure freshness of breath in difficult situations (kebab with garlic sauce), I had in my pocket some chewing gum – exactly his treatment for highway hypnosis. A good few swallows of mud (my truck-driver coffee), and two gums to chew, and I got back behind the wheel.
This way I managed to drive for 350km (that’s 220 miles, hope you’re learning the metric system already), that day, without feeling tired at all. I wasn’t exactly happy that driving moved to my subconscious and nothing was engaging my conscious mind, except looking for speed traps and announcing them on the CB radio, at least until we had an interesting discussion with Tomas and James about discrimination and business and how anti-discrimination laws damage productivity. Chewing gum helped, as if my caveman brain wouldn’t want to fall asleep when it thought that I was eating. After detouring for a few kilometers due to poor signage and my not using a navigation device, I got on the secondary, 40km (how many miles?) road to the salt mine. On heavy rain, of course, and (barely) mediocre road quality.
Now I’m not the kind of guy who considers everyone slower than him to be morons who need to get a move on, and everyone faster than him to be dangerously speeding bastards, but honestly, on that road and in heavy rain I was doing 60kph and people were overtaking me – I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the most pleasant experience for their cars’ suspensions.
As for the salt mine, not too spectacular if you ask me. Huge, tall, with a scary, creaking elevator that descended 100 meters into the abyss, and a hammer and sickle on the top, a relic of the fifties. It is actually a functioning sanitarium, because apparently salty air is good for recovery. I also had to explain to them who two statues were depicting, the Roman emperor Trajan, and the last Dacian king Decebal (wikipedia will provide a decent history lesson, because I’m a bit too lazy here), and the old joke about why Romanians are a nation of homosexuals: everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, we’re descended from Trajan and Decebal… [The joke has a hidden meaning, poking fun at the ridiculous modifications the Communist regime brought to Romanian history, and the way said modifications were worded.] The salt mine in Praid was nicer – instead of dropping 100 meters into the Earth you were driven in by a bus. Although you had to get used to the smell of diesel in the tunnels. By the way, the walls in salt mines are salty. You can taste them, they’re clean.
And then we started on our way to Peleş Castle, in Sinaia. That’s the summer residence of the Kings of Romania, currently a museum. Romania was a kingdom between 1878 and 1947 (when Michael I was forced to abdicate by our dear friends, the Communists). Probably the most prosperous period in our history, if you ask me. Travelling on the Prahova Valley, on the DN1 made me a bit apprehensive, because that road is well known for traffic jams, but going away from Bucharest on a Sunday at noon was a breeze. After getting lost for a bit on the windy mountain roads and winding up next to the cable cars that lead to the top of the mountains, I changed direction and got to the Castle.
Which is probably the smartest and most livable Castle of any dynasty in the world. Seriously, it was designed with electric power, the first electric elevator, integrated vacuum cleaners and cast iron radiators. What impressed me most, though, was the very cozy, intimate, livable atmosphere, which I didn’t find in any other palaces, such as what you can find in Vienna. Or worse, the Versailles. Seriously, I know you’re rich and powerful, but why would you want to live in a place where you need a map just to find a bathroom?
After Sinaia, we left for Bran Castle, a fortress guarding a mountain pass in Transylvania. Also known as Castle Dracula, although, get this, it had absolutely nothing to do with the guy. No, seriously, not kidding. Dracula was a badass, but this castle had nothing to do with him. Not even with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose castle was in the Eastern, not Southern, Carpathian mountains. It was actually used as a summer residence by Queen Mary of Romania, from the English royal family, who was famous for tending to the wounded during the Second World War. Which made her pretty badass too, if you ask me. A very relaxed route towards Bran – that’s where they want to build a new motorway (lol), with the occasional speed traps. Romanian mountain scenery – „look, guys, see the snow on the top of the mountains? That’s where we were supposed to be today, but we couldn’t, because snow!”. I have to admit that killing prepositions is one of my favourite pastimes…
Other than that, plenty of shepherds on the side of the road, and the occasional roadside merchant selling smoked cheese. Sort of like cheddar, but better, and traditional – and probably cheaper too. Then I spent an hour in Bran castle, also explaining to the guys why the real Dracula was a badass, how he scared a Turkish army with a forest of impaled corpses, the story of the Night Attack when he had a small army dress up as Turks and sow chaos into a Turkish camp, wanting to catch and kill the sultan himself, and the real version of how he killed the whores, insane and crippled by inviting them to a feast and setting the house on fire – he actually did that while only those who wouldn’t accept to work for him, according to whatever they could do, were eating, thereby killing only those who were a drain on society. Cruel, but hey, it was the middle ages, and winter wasn’t coming, but the Turks were. In force.
And then we were back on the road to Bucharest, 150 kilometers, and I’ll take advantage of this short intermezzo to say that James gets carsick. And he took pills for that. Hats off to him for not getting sick for 2900 kilometers with me. Hats off to me too, for my fine driving abilities! During those 2900 kilometers we crossed the mountains 3 times, through gorges and very windy, difficult roads, and remember that he didn’t get sick then. Also remember that I drive a 2-door car and he was lucky enough to be seated behind me that day. You can probably tell where this is going. After we crossed the mountains for the fourth time (surprisingly, no queues, even though we were heading for Bucharest on a Sunday evening), and everyone was asleep, at about 80km from Bucharest, we stopped on the side of the road. For a… thicket break. You know, to clear our brains and bladders.
After we were back on our way, something seemed amiss. I could see James’ face in the rear view mirror. And, while I was getting angry for not being able to be back in Bucharest in broad daylight (which is pretty important to my driving style) – I was to be back about 15 minutes after nightfall – I see the chinaman become yellow. Well, yellower than he already was. And on the straightest stretch of road, on the ring road of Ploieşti, 200 meters before a roundabout with a police car (no idea how they didn’t see us), where I couldn’t stop without blocking half a lane…
Well, I’ll just say that I found out how quickly you can stop a car from 100kph. A ton of car, probably – a Seat Ibiza with 3 people. But I digress: I stopped in less than 5 seconds. Hearing him snort and make puking noises behind me, after telling him at least 3 times to tell me if he’s getting sick, made me stop the car, switch on the hazard lights, pull the handbrake, open the door, unfasten my seatbelt, get the hell out and open up the seat for the guy to get out took me what felt like less than 8 seconds. I could work in a pit crew for Formula 1, what can I say. It was especially fun to see all the traffic and an ambulance go around our car, which was stopped in a bad place. I was already preparing my speech to give to any policemen who would stop around… and the damn human wasn’t even puking. So what, I stopped for nothing?
So I got him up into the front seat, and I ensured he had a plastic bag ready. When I offered to go slower to calm down his sickness, he told me that it would be better for him to get to Bucharest and stop the car as quickly as possible. Unfortunately I couldn’t go too fast, as it was evening and the glare from other cars didn’t allow me to go faster than 70-80. This paragraph is dedicated to Victor, who said I’m a reckless driver for driving at 110-120kph on Romanian roads. But I managed to get back to central Bucharest, and took the guys to Caru cu Bere.
Caru cu Bere (The Cart with Beer) is one of the oldest and most famous (and certainly not the cheapest) restaurants in Bucharest. Really good food, and it appears in the film „Philantropy” („Filantropica”), which Tomas saw and loved, and I encourage everyone to see, because it’s probably the best Romanian film ever made. That’s a personal opinion. The guy who served us was pretty nice too, striking up jokes about the dancers and food, he’s the guy who asked about World of Warcraft – if you’re reading this, we loved you.
We ordered tripe soup („ciorba de burta”), soup made from (one of) the stomach(es) of a cow. Really good, one of my favourites, considered a manly food in Romania, although the tripe itself can be chewy. Part of the appeal is that you make it to your own taste, by adding proportions of garlic, sour cream and vinegar, and I taught the boys how to do this. Then Tomas ordered sarmale, and James ended up with more pork. Which is funny, since he criticised me for serving him too much pork and polenta („mamaliga”), when he wanted to sample some traditional Romanian food… made with rice (the irony is, we actually served him Pilaf). If that’s not stereotypical (in a funny way, of course), I have no idea what is.
As for me, I took the traditionally cheap route: beans and sausages. That’s because we also sampled some Romanian wine, some Fetească Neagră (Black Maiden), one of the old-world wines you can only find in Romania. Very good, very dry, but obviously not found abroad because we have no idea how to sell our stuff. After some comments on the (female) dancers, James told us that his mother taught him that women are dangerous – to which I could only reply „stop listening to your mother, dude!” (jokingly, of course). But I did like him – he ate like a true Romanian – the soup and the tripe, and the shawarma (the arabic version of the Kebab, with chips and salad, in a roll – the typical Romanian fast food) from Calif in the historic centre of Bucharest (best shawarma in town, trust me) with everything („cudetoate”). The way Romanians eat it. Tomas, on the other hand, who considers the best vegetable to be meat, didn’t like the tripe too much, eating the soup but not the „socks” (tripe). And, blasphemy! The shawarma he ate was just meat and sauce!
One thing I can say for certain, the sleep I had that night was probably the best and most well-deserved rest I ever had. Further on culinary preferences and what else happened during the road trip, in the next chapter…