Viva Italia!

Unsurprisingly, I woke with a sore back and a numb bottom after far too little sleep. I checked in at around 4:15am onto my WhizzAir flight… eventually. I had to argue with one of the staff that I didn’t have to pay to have my rucksack shrink-wrapped for its own protection. This after she tried to get me to take it through the security baggage check as hand luggage! A slight problem given the two knives, fork, aerosol sprays and so forth that showed up in the X-ray.

We compromised with me removing the sleeping bag and bedrolls (thus actually creating more dangling straps for the machinery to snag on and her saying that I "had been warned". Whatever. I’d made a wild guess that between this rucksack and the last, my luggage has gone through something like 40 flights in the last 16 months. The only problem I’ve had was when jobsworth Israeli guards started jabbing probes into all the damaged seams of my old bag.

Despite this, I was just waiting to see all my luggage pop out of the carousel in Rome item by item like the memory round of The Generation Game. To make matters worse, I was now rather thirsty. None of the water fountains in the airport had any actual water in them. And the cheapest drink I could find was 8.5RON. I only had 6.6RON left on me. So I filled up my water bottle from the tap in the loo.

After an hour or so I was eventually bundled on my my plane and grabbed a window seat. An Italian couple crammed in next to me, the wife holding one of the most beautiful little toddlers I’ve ever seen. As a result, she was spilling over into my seat, but I just didn’t care. This kid was adorable and amazingly well behaved, doing nothing the whole flight but sleep, giggle and look angelic. A shame the same can’t be said of two other children on the flight. One screamed constantly as if terrified – or in pain. His parents ought to get his ears checked in case the pressure change was causing him some discomfort. The other one just cried and wailed until his parents gave him things.

And finally… bump, screech, welcome to Italy – my first ever visit. I landed at Ciampino airport, the "budget" one of Rome’s two which is actually nearer the city. My luggage also arrived in one piece and swiftly off the carousel and I opted to jump onto the express bus into the city for six Euros. There are other options involving buses and Metros which will save you a little money and potentially a lot of time if you’re lucky with the scheduling. The express bus takes an hour, but that’s mainly due to Rome’s notorious traffic.

My hostel was a short, easy walk from Termini past the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore – a huge ornate church. Rome has quite a few of these… I checked in and asked where was good for breakfast, at which point I was handed a packed lunch for free! What’s more, it wasn’t bad at all. Two juices (carton and can), crispy red apple, croissant, chocolate roll and two sweeties. Superb.

As I only had three days and Rome’s rather over-indulged itself with touristy niceness, I set off straight away for the Metro in the direction of the Vatican. I wanted to see the Vatican Museums, but this didn’t happen as the queues were simply unreal. I’d hazard a guess at 2 1/2 hours, which I just wasn’t prepared to wait for. Instead, I walked past the end of the queue to the St Peter Basilica. Free to get in and swift queues as a result. The only marginal bottleneck is a perfunctory security check. Have a quick gander at my YouTube video to have an idea of the scale of this thing.

Inside, this is one impressive building – but you won’t see if it your shorts are too short or you’re exposing your shoulders. Think "mosque" and you’re dressed fine. Ornate, enormous and containing the only Michelangelo statue marked with his signature. The Basilica is apparently built on the site where St Peter is buried and a tiled area marks the spot (no "X"’s, Indiana Jones fans). Underneath are the catacombs where past popes are interred. Needless to say, the biggest and brightest memorial is to the fairly recently deceased John Paul II.

You can also climb the dome which apparently offers a tremendous view. However, it costs money and – partly as a result of this – the queue’s huge and slow-moving. In addition, if you don’t know that you have to pay, you won’t find out until you’ve waited ages and you’re at the front where the kiosk is. There’s no indication further back. If you are interested, I believe the prices are EUR4 / EUR7 for stairs/lift.

Like the West Bank of Israel, the Vatican has its own postal system separate from the rest of Italy. As such, I sent a couple of postcards from their post office. This wasn’t just an excuse to stand underneath a fully operational air conditioning unit for fifteen minutes. Honest.

I browsed my Lonely Planet and the huge tourist map I’d been given at the hostel to spot my next tourist destination. I picked on the Pantheon as being one I’d heard of and walked there via the Castel Sant Angelo, the Pont Umberto I and the Piazza Navona. Then I popped into a McD’s to get away from culture for a short while. I guzzled pre-processed flab and artificially flavoured coloured water in the blazing sun. There was no shadow from anywhere as the light was coming right done from above. Ouch.

I then attempted to use the (free) loos in McD’s. First of all I queued for ages as an Asian man washed his hands. And his arms. And did them again. Maybe he thought he had just finished surgery. But, no. He did all this for around two minutes then went into the only cubicle. Good grief. Finally I got in, closed the door, spotted that there was no paper and left again. I didn’t do the whole arm-scrubbing thing.

The Pantheon is a strange building. From outside its huge, plain columns are very imposing. A little decay and damage makes them look all the stronger in a "look at the punishment I can take" kind of way. Inside, it’s all lovingly crafted with a huge domed roof and just looks too clean and modern compared to the outside. In a way it’s like walking into the TARDIS. The old columns are weather beaten while the interior looks like it was just finished off yesterday.

Well, from there to the Area Sacra with its ruins, Chiesa del Gesú, Piazza Colanna, Palazzo Chigi, Temple Adriano (currently being worked on and behind huge curtains), Piazza di Monticitoria… the names trip off the tongue like a fluent waiter reading you the menu in an Italian restaurant. Nothing I’ve ever eaten, however, has looked as awe-inspiring as the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain).

I can’t repeat the words that almost slipped from my lips as I rounded the corner into this little square and came face to carved face with this masterpiece. I can’t repeat them partly as they’d have been rude and unsuitable for this blog, and partly because as I only almost said them, so technically repetition would be impossible.


The Fountain is beautiful. Bold and incredibly crafted without being gaudy, showy or in bad taste. People loitered around and were chased off from standing on the edges by guards in white hats armed with evil Whistles of Doom ™. They’re probably on full-time patrol since a Milanese tourists took a skinny dip there a couple of years ago (careful – low resolution boobies at that link).

I people watched and relaxed for a while, then refilled my water bottle from one of the countless fountains littering Rome. I don’t know how anyone sells bottled water in this city when cold, clean water is available for free at every other street corner. Even in weather such as today’s, the water was cool and refreshing.

Stoppering my bottle, dunking my cap and slapping it on my head to keep cool I marched ever onwards. Trinita del Monti, Piazza del Popolo, Mausolea Augusta, Ara Paris, Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuelle II, Colonna Traiana, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Piazza della Repubblicam Teatro dell’ Opera… and finally back to the hostel to complete check-in.

I could describe everything I saw, but this is one of the longest blog postings I’ve done so far so I’m afraid you’ll just have to believe me when I say that they were all pretty damn impressive.

I showered (boy I needed that) and went online for an hour before chatting to a Romanian roomie for a while. Then a walked down the road for an authentic Italian meal – a slice of pizza, sold by the kilogram! Pretty good it was, too.

The hostel does free sangria most nights, so I joined most of the rest of the population up on the roof, guzzling away and chatting. The terrace overlooks the Colosseum if you know what direction to look and we enjoyed the heat, breeze and view as we demolished two tureens of the free booze.

The company and conversation were great and almost every continent was represented with people from – amongst others – Romania, Peru, NZ, Oz, US, UK, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden… At midnight, the terrace closed and we split into a few groups. One of the US guys, the two Swiss girls and myself just walked next door to an Irish bar (apparently the oldest in Rome) and paid a whopping EUR5 each for a pint of Harp. Ow. Still, that being all we’d paid for all night, it was till a cheap evening.

Somehow I managed to stay awake past closing time and chatting-after-closing time despite the long night before. A good day. A long day, but a good day.

Bucharest inside and out

I’ll be honest – it was just too darn hot. In the morning, after a teeny amount of sleep, I just had to get up to escape the stifling heat in the dorm. I showered, and didn’t feel much better as I only exchanged the hot sweat for hot water.

The main tourist sight in Bucharest is the Palace of Parliament, an enormous building built at huge human cost by Ceausecsu. Homes were flattened to create the huge open space required for its foundations and the planned promanade in front of it. It’s still around 10% unfinished, but amongst the largest buildings in the world. There’s no denying it’s impressive, but in the heat I wasn’t about to circle it to find out excactly how big it was. I’d also been told that the tour was a little dull (for every room, the guide just tells you the dimensions, material the carpet is made from and what the room is used for) so skipped that and just took some exterior photos.

I walked around for an hour or so until I found a shop selling postcards, then sorted some stamps from a Post Office (there’s a novelty – every other country in Europe seems to sell them from gift shops or tobacconists). Off they went into the wild postal yonder and I headed for a (very) nearby cinema to finally catch Transformers in the big(ish) screen. Pretty enjoyable in a “my brain has turned to cheese” kind of way. Bizarrely, despite the film being brand new, the print used seemed to be scratched to hell and even jumped a couple of times. I suppose it’s just that whole “Bucharest” experience.

Like Cluj, the cinemas in Bucharest all seem to have one screen but each show a different film. I noted that another was showing The Shooter and walked round to that one after scarfing down a McD’s. OK, so it’s hardly touristy but it was so cheap and I did miss it in Oz (the film, not the McD’s). Great film, by the way. Probably full of factual holes that would make any any military person weep into his dress uniform, but I don’t care.

I located a pizza place with the help of the kind staff at the hostel and ate as much of that as I could before collecting my things and catching the last bus up to the airport. My flight checkin was at 5:00 and the only other option was to pay for a room for about 4 hours, and a taxi. Cheapskate that I am, I’ve developed an ability to sleep on concrete and tile floors.

More transport woes

Nothing too bad, in fairness. After a pleasant night’s kip I had a last quick wander around Brasov and got my bags packed. I opted for an earlier train – a little more expensive, but quicker and more comfortable. I was cutting it a little close so I caught a taxi rather than use the bus. After all, at Romanian proces it wasn’t going to break the bank.

The driver was a nice old geezer who’s English was marginally better than my Romanian. Still, you can just tell when someone’s not pulling a fast one and he got me to the station in good time and was happy with the tip I gave him. I bustled in, bought my ticket, and with a good ten minutes to spare strode onto the platform.

And waited over an hour for the damn train to arrive. I wonder if they modelled their system on the UK? Regardless, once I was on the train the journey was pleasant enough though there was the usual problem of arriving at a station and not knowing where the hell I was. Roughly a third of the Romanian stations I passed through had signage visible from the train windows. Not useful if you’ve not got a route planner for the railway system!

Directions to the hostel were a doddle. Two Metros later, I strode down a main street, into the large entrance for the “Heaven” night club (yes – that type of club) and up some steps to a lovely warm welcome.

I very quickly got talking to a bunch of people in my dorm and ended out at dinner with a lovely gaggle of young ladies in a bistro not too far away. Our waitress was phenomenal, badgering away in sing-song English as she translated the menu and took credit for all the cooking. Seriously, if you met her in the street you’d pray that she’d not sit next to you on the bus. Utterly hatstand. But brilliant at giving you a giggle round the dinner table and making the meal that little bit more enjoyable.

I settled on the peppers stuffed with meat (nice Romanian grub) followed by the local equivalent of a jam doughnut. Being a fat person I had two while the girls had one each. For Romania, it was a little pricey. But for a quality bistro with top-notch food, it was stupidly reasonable.

From there we hooked up with some guys we’d been talking to earlier and bar-hopped for an hour or two before returning to the hostel… to find one of the hostel owners in full swing at karaoke with several drunk Spaniards. I pity the people who’d wanted an early night. I also pity the hostel owner as he’d have his wife to face in the morning!

A couple of us did a u-turn and headed back out to find a club. After a short wander we found one playing fairly naff music but packed with teenagers. The price to get in was less than a beer back home, and they sold the local brew in huge bottles for barely a quid. An hour or so was spent in there before I decided that my eyelids really were serious about this whole “being closed” lark and dragged my heavy feet homeward at something approaching 4am.

Castles, castles and more castles

The hostel I was at did a good deal on a day-trip which would save me quite a bit of time and some money. Rather than getting the bus / train / fire-breathing horse-drawn carriage to Rasov and Bran, then going to Sinaia on the way to Bucharest I could do all three in one day for the very reasonable price of 65 RON including a guide. Smart stuff.

So up I got at a reasonable hour and joined my little group for the drive. We started at Sinaia, which was usually the end of the trip. The driver was new, Sinaia the furthest, and our guide wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the castle there as it’s also the one which closes the earliest!

Peles (the “s” should have a cedilla underneath, but I don’t believe there’s an HTML code for it) Castle is more like a palace, and is another reason our tour guide usually prefers to save it for last. The turrets look like something from a fairytale and it’s set in some beautiful gardens. A tour is compulsory as the building is mainly constructed of wood and has some incredibly expensive and rare decor. Having said that, the price was reasonable (especially as our own tour guide had a handful of spare student IDs to get us in cheap) and the Castle guide both interesting and loaded with information.

The tour took around 45 minutes and encompassed the lower floor of the building. Access to the upper is only available on the last Sunday of month in the off-season (September to May). This is to restrict numbers and potential damage to the building. With three to five thousand tourists a day during the peak season, the stress would tell on the timber structure all too quickly.

Next up was Bran and a lunch stop where we argued for ages over where to eat and couldn’t pick one overpriced tourist trap from the other. The shops round here all sell Dracula souvenirs as this is the castle featured in the Bram Stoker’s Dracula film – very briefly. The castle itself is imposing, looming over a cliff edge, but the interior is a little bit disappointing. It’s mainly been reconstructed with smooth, white plaster walls and some mildly interesting knick-knacks of the period. The stories about Vlad are more interesting than the building itself, but the exterior’s nice.

And on to Rasnov (another missing cedilla – wake up W3C), with another different “castle” up high on a hill. This is a set of ruins and somewhat more interesting, though not as pretty, as Bran. Included in the nominal entry fee is a nice little museum with some old gidgets and stuff, and there’s an archery range towards the back that I didn’t get to see. The view from the un-refurbed collapsed ruins at the top is rather nice – mainly as you can’t see the wretched Hollywood-style “Rasnov” sign that’s plastered in front of the Fortress.

After a good hour or so there, we headed back to Brasov where I wandered back into town and gorged myself on my obligatory Romanian KFC. As I re-returned to the hostel, some of my companions from the previous night were heading out for dinner so I joined them and topped up my carbs with some rather fine jam pancakes from the same place we’d dined at the previous evening.

Yes, Brasov is a nice place for a couple of days.

Dracula’s birthplace

The real one, apparently. Vlad Tepes, also called Vlad Dracul and Vlad the Impaler, lived in a little house in Sighosaura until he was around four years old. It’s now a restaurant. He must be rotating in his grave. Or on a stake. Or whatever.

The old city, the interesting part, is very small and can be wandered round in an hour or so. It’s very gritty and atmospheric with three museums which don’t take too long to visit. The main one is in the clock tower and worth the entry to get to the top for the view. Most of the main signs are in Romanian only with smaller ones being in a random choice of others. Bizarrely the first floor had a lot of rocket ships in it. It seems the chap who pretty much invented rocket-based propellants and got the US to the moon was born in a nearby town but grew up in Sighosaura. Very rightly, they’re rather proud of him.

The other two museums are the smallish armoury and the tiny torture museum (one chamber, 8 exhibits) but you can get one ticket that covers all three for a tiny price. They’re meant to open at 10:00 but don’t expect them to stick to it. The torture museum didn’t open until almost 11:00 and that was after I’d asked someone at the armoury where it was twice as I couldn’t find it.

For lunch I had a chicken roast and chips and I’m sure I was overcharged for it. I sat at Joe’s and it took ages getting served. The chicken seemed a cheap option until I came to pay for it and found that the price was “per 100g and you have had 300g”. It still didn’t ad up mathematically but it was too hot to waste my time arguing over pennies so I walked off.

A quick internet check and then I walked to the train station via the hostel to pick my bags up and jumped onto the 14:28 to Brasov. As I got on the train, several people I’d met in Cluj were coming the other direction, doing the same route as me but a day behind.

At Brasov, I was met by a nice girl from my hostel who made sure I got the right bus there. Checkin was quick, the staff superb and I was shortly settled in, showered and heading out to dinner with some people from my dorm. We found a nice pizza place where we supped wine, ate cracking food and chatted.

Afterwards we grabbed some beers from the nearby supermarket and sat in the hostel nattering until we started to drop from exhaustion.