Whew mercy, well I’ve just returned from the longest road trip of my entire life here in Romania, and that’s saying something ;)
We left Unicorn City (Cluj-Napoca) on Monday evening, passed through Bucharest, shot up to Galati, spent part of the day there and then crossed through Braila and Constanta to get to the famous Vama Veche on the evening of April 30.
The next morning I woke up at 6:00 am and made my way through the crowds (yes, crowds) to start a full day of filming the May 1 festivities. If you’re American, think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans combined with the insanity of Spring Break in Florida or Lake Havisu and you’ll get an idea of what Vama Veche is like, especially on May 1.
There are young people having fun everywhere, some of them dressed to the nines in all-black “rocker” clothing, others more in the “hippy” style, some sleeping in proper hotel rooms and others sleeping in tents right on the beach. The partying is literally non-stop and if you hate alcohol, partial (or sometimes complete) nudity and noise then Vama Veche during the summer is definitely not for you.
Luckily I am not allergic to any of the above and so we had a wonderful time and met quite a lot of extremely cool and interesting people.
I assembled the following video to give you a brief taste of what our experience in Vama Veche on the first of May was like this year. See if you can spot my brief cameo!
The weather was absolutely fabulous and I was well into improving my tan when unfortunately we had to leave. We returned to Galati (via a ferry) then drove a tortuously long route through parts of (Romanian) Moldova, through the Oituz Pass into “Szekely Land” (jud. Covasna and Harghita) then up through Sighisoara then Targu-Mures and finally back to Unicorn City.
All in all, it was quite a trip involving boats, trains and a personal automobile. I got to see some of the most beautiful parts of this country and talk to some very interesting folks and it got me to thinking about many things.
- Seeing the “Spring Break/Mardi Gras” atmosphere of Vama Veche was great. Even though Romania is long past the repressive Ceausescu-era years, many young folks here still catch quite an earful from their straight-laced parents (and family members) and it’s damned good for them to have one place to go (VV) where no matter how weird or non-conformist you are, there’s bound to be someone there even weirder than you are and nobody cares.
- I have no idea how many people were in VV on May 1 but it was easily in the tens of thousands and yet I saw not one fight, not one argument or confrontation. The peaceful vibe was simply amazing.
- We drove the car over 1,000 km and I got to really see the conditions of Romanian roads, from smaller “drumul judetean” (county) roads to brand-new highways (UK: motorways). I have to admit I was far more terrified on the high-speed highways than I was on the blasted smaller roads simply because it’s obvious that a lot of drivers are not skilled enough to handle the higher speeds (legally 130 km/h or 80 mph) because they rarely get a chance to drive on these roads.
- Romania has a rather simplistic speed limit system, namely 50 km/h (31 mph) inside inhabited towns/cities and 90 km/h (55 mph) pretty much anywhere else. Sometimes the village you’re crossing through is full of children and the road is quite curvy and 50 km/h seems to be a bit too fast. Other times however the village is sparsely inhabited and the road is straight and so 50 km/h seems to be ridiculously low.
- I got my first speeding ticket ever in Romania and I fully acknowledge I was in the wrong. The fines however were quite ludicrously low (they’re based on the km/h you’ve exceeded the limit) and would only deter the very poorest drivers from speeding. If you pay the ticket on the spot, the price is halved and so going 20 km/h over the limit ended up being about 10 dollars.
- Despite the fact that both I and the three separate others who got pulled over were in the wrong, all of the Romanian drivers were complaining up a storm that the police were just trying to “make some money” because the Easter holiday was coming up. There may be some profit involved for the cops but I spoke to them at length and inspected their gear and they were just doing their job like they were supposed to.
- Besides a few speed traps, I’ve come to realize that Romanian traffic police effectively never do any enforcement whatsoever. As far as I’m aware, a cop in a car can’t even pull over a driver in front of them. All they can do is stand in the road in front of a car and motion for them to pull over, and this happens so rarely that it makes all the drivers curse and complain. In all the years I’ve lived here I’ve never seen any other kind of enforcement action against moving violators: no getting pulled over and ticketed for running red lights, lane changes without signaling, driving without lights on, not wearing a seat belt, talking on the phone while driving or anything else.
- The net result is that about 99% of the time there’s no risk of getting stopped by the police for absolutely anything and so everyone and their brother is constantly speeding, sometimes dangerously so. We got overtaken (passed) on blind curves several times and I saw two separate cars blast through red lights without even tapping their brakes. And stopping at stop signs? Forget about it.
- Adding to this fun mix of no police enforcement and cheap tickets is the fact that some drivers are quite experienced and are driving high-performance vehicles and other drivers are behind the wheel of ancient Dacias or even the ubiquitous (literal) horse and carriage. This mismatch of speeds is extremely dangerous and gave us quite a few scares.
- It’s a little hard for me to understand this obsession with building highways when so many regular roads in Romania are fucked up as hell. We even crossed over two different bridges that were so deteriorated that we had to drive about 5 km/h just to prevent the car from shaking into pieces. I really hate to think of the total monetary cost that Romanian drivers must pay in repairs and in replacing tires on a yearly basis due to these blasted roads. Some of them look as though there was recently an aerial bombardment or something and so we’re having to swerve to avoid shell craters.
- Romania is a surreal country and so sooner or later you just know you’re going to see some WTF stuff. We passed through one village which had an old poster advertising Mircea Geoana for president, which caused me to goggle because that election occurred in 2009, some four years ago. We then passed through two more villages in a row, all of them with faded and deteriorated “Mircea Geoana for President” signs high up on the light poles. Wouldn’t someone, at some point, take those down? Apparently not! :))
- The amount of wildlife and breath-taking scenery was astounding as always. The Oituz Pass between Covasna and Bacau county is absolutely amazing. We saw lots of animals as well, from foxes to storks to horses and other livestock (usually not penned in or staked down) but the most amazing thing we saw was a magnificent stag (Rom: cerb) standing on the crest of a hill, looking down on us. Wow!
- Over the years I’ve heard many stories about Miercurea Ciuc, and about how a person “can’t even order a bread” in Romanian because the local Hungarians supposedly don’t speak Romanian (or pretend not to). I can tell you that I had a nice little chat with the folks working in the gas (petrol) station and while yes they had a Hungarian accent, their Romanian was just fine and they were extremely friendly. In fact, not one person we spoke to in Covasna, Harghita or Mures countries was rude or hostile in the slightest and they all spoke Romanian just fine. If you want to meet some rude people who speak with an unintelligible accent, try Bucharest! :P
- I finally got a chance to see all the wind energy turbines in the Danube Delta, which I’ve written about before. All I can say is that those things are absolutely enormous and very cool to see. I have no idea how much energy they are generating at any one time but it warmed my heart to see renewable sources of power in action and not just words on paper.
- Just like in Cluj and all the other places I’ve been to, there is a general consensus amongst Romanians I met on this road trip that 1) it’s somehow surprising that I choose to live here when I don’t have to (because I’m American) and 2) Romania is a shit place to live, primarily because of all their fellow Romanians. And yes, it’s always heavenly and “civilized” in some other country, no matter what facts there are to the contrary!
- CFR, as much as I love it, and I mean you all should know just how much I love Romanian railways, is slowly and surely falling apart. Some of their train cars are modern and nice but the prices keep rising and their speeds can’t compare to inter-city bus services. Fewer and fewer people are riding CFR these days and I can see why. It just makes me sad because it used to be so much more fun (and fast and affordable).
- It was great to spend some time in Galati (and to a lesser extent, Braila) simply because I’ve never had a chance to get out that way before. I have a personal bucket list goal of visiting every single city mentioned in the song Sa Sara-n Aer and now I’m two steps closer to achieving that goal! I’ll have to check but I think I’ve only for 3 or 4 more to go.
- Galati is a port city and has a lovely riverside panorama facing the Danube, definitely worth checking out. The downtown (city centre) is also quite nice due to all of the leafy green trees, something quite welcome during the heat of summer. I wish more cities in Transylvania would follow this example because there’s nothing worse than walking down sun-blasted cement sidewalks on a hot day.
- For anyone who is a Dracula “purist”, both Jonathan Harker and the Count (Dracula) both exit Romania for England in the novel via the port of Galati. If there is any mention of this or application of this “fact” to draw tourists, I didn’t see it or hear about it.
- Apparently each city in Romania has the liberty to customize the warnings about pedestrian crossings each in their own style. A striped line on the street (known as the zebra) is sufficient for some towns. Other cities go with a “zebra” as well as a blue sign on a pole with two blinking yellow warning lights. Targu-Mures on the other hand has insanely bright white lights embedded in the ground that make the crossing look like an airport runway or something. They were so startling and dazzling that we were nearly blinded crossing over them at about 3:00 in the morning when we were passing through that city.
- Despite the lack of sleep in Vama Veche, the crazy gas (petrol) prices, dilapidated roads, close calls with speeding drivers, horses, carts, cows, peasants and even one crazy bicyclist at 4:30 am in the road, poor signage and an incredibly lengthy drive home, we all had a wonderful time and made it home safe and sound.
And we can’t wait to do it again!