Vienna to Romania – originally written in October 2006

(Copied and pasted from a former blog – links may not work)

We I arrived in Vienna on the 3rd of October, around 8:30am. We had spent the night on a train in a 6-person couchette. Here’s a tip about overnight train travel in Europe: if you reserve a spot in a 6-person couchette, you won’t be able to sit up (there’s no head space). You have to lay down. That’s weird. I mean, it’s better than sitting up for 13 hours in a seat, but you can’t really do… anything but lay down. Anyway, when we got to Vienna, I went to the very conveniently located internet cafe/coffee shop in the train station and looked up a few hostels, since the Hospitality Club people that we had planned to stay with earlier in the week were no longer in town. Found one that sounded good (Hostel Ruthensteiner) and just a few minutes away from the train station. We shelled out a bit of extra money for a private room and were able to check in early. The staff was really nice, the place was immaculate, wonderful location, etc. Two thumbs up. At no point during our trip did we make reservations in advance for anything, and we never ran into problems.

Vienna does coffee really, really, REALLY well. You can have any coffee, anytime, any way you want. To go, to stay, big, small, iced, etc. Coffee, apple strudels, and weird museums were our Vienna theme. The first day we headed out to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to see the catacombs. The church was beautiful from the outside and incredibly packed with tourists inside. To visit the catacombs we had to wait for a guide and take a tour, but that was actually really helpful because we got a lot of good information. There were piles of bones from plague victims and the hearts of old bishops in tins, all deep beneath the church. It was probably the only thing that Manning and I could have been capable of doing that day – we were exhausted from our night of travel and hadn’t really slept much – but man, I’ll wake up for piles of old bones and dead people buried under churches no matter what.

The advantage of staying in the hostel was having access to a pretty decent kitchen, so I cooked dinner and we prepared our own breakfasts while we stayed there. After a decent night of sleep, I was ready to explore. Vienna is a busy, lively city with a bazillion museums. We saw some of the more out-of-the-way spots… the Austrian Folklore Museum (doesn’t seem to have an English version of the website), the Globe museum (which Manning suggested as a joke, kind of, but I thought it sounded great), and the Esperanto museum (we were the only visitors). Honestly, I loved them all. They were 2 Euros or less (with our expired, phony student ID cards), and when would I ever have the chance again to see “the largest collection of globes and globe-related instruments available to the public?” The ground floor of the Folklore museum was pretty cool, but the first floor was AMAZING. It was full of monster masks and bird costumes and we had the entire place to ourselves.

So we had about 3 days in Vienna, we had met some nice people from New Zealand at the hostel, we drank a lot of coffee, and then decided that it was time to get to Romania. We took a train from Vienna that left around 8pm on October 5th and arrived in Alba luila, Romania around 7:30am on October 6th. This time we reserved a 4-person couchette and were a zillion times more comfortable – we even had a fairly decent night of sleep! Waking up around 7am in early October in Transylvania, watching the sun rise while the rain is falling outside… it doesn’t get much better than that. We had to hang out at the station for a few hours to catch a bus to Sibiu, “European Capital of Culture 2007.” We stayed in Sibiu last year in late October, but unfortunately didn’t get to see that much because we had gotten sick, so we figured we owed it to ourselves to explore the town for real. We arrived around 11am or so (the bus ride was only 1 1/2 hours from Alba), found the hostel, and were settled in by noon. The hostel was really, really clean, with comfortable beds, a super friendly staff, great kitchen, and fantastic view. No privacy to speak of, but at least it was affordable and comfortable (about 10 Euros a night, each). We went out for lunch and I ate some of the best pizza of my entire life, and then explored the town. It’s such an amazing place – so Romaniaish. The whole town is under construction in anticipation of this 2007 event and they’re really making wonderful improvements, but there are still plenty of old houses and hidden passages and vine-covered walkways.

I had been exchanging messages with an American woman (Therisa) who is teaching English in Sibiu, and she offered to meet up with us  for drinks. I described us in a text message “I have long black hair, he has bleached blond spikey hair, and we’ll be standing outside.” She responded “I’m the only black woman in Sibiu.” Needless to say, it was very easy to spot each other in the crowds. So we hung out with her for a few hours that night… before the power outage! Oh man, there is nothing better than a power outage in an old town in Romania. It only affected one street, but it was the main street, full of restaurants and cafes. Most of them remained open and just lit tons of candles for the people who were already eating. It was totally dark out with no streetlights, and we walked through candle-lit streets in Romania. I was in heaven.

We went back to the hostel and fell asleep pretty early. The trip had a nice rhythm to it – we weren’t really making plans up until a few hours in advance – we didn’t even know how long we’d stay in a town when we arrived. It’s really easy to travel around Romania on buses (as long as you get an early start), and we were super lucky to talk to a very well-traveled Romanian guy at the Sibiu hostel. He was from Curtea de Arges, which was the little town that was our next destination! This town wasn’t written up in any of the guidebooks that I had seen (though I bet that will change soon) and it had been really almost impossible for me to find any information about how to travel there, other than by car. Last year, we mostly traveled by hitchhiking. This time, we were a bit more pressed for time and did all our traveling by bus – which in many cases is the same thing as hitchhiking. I referred to the mini-buses in Romania as “organized hitchhiking.” More on that later. Anyway, this guy assured us that there are buses that run to Curtea de Arges, told us the town we’d have to stop at along the way, and we were all set. So why Curtea de Arges? Because that’s the biggest town near the ruins of Cetatea Poenari, aka “The real Dracula’s Castle.” Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula, built (well, made slaves build) that fucking castle, on a cliff, and it’s possible to visit it if you’re properly motivated.

I was very, very motivated. We had intended to visit the castle last year, but didn’t make it. Do you know how hard that was? To get all the way to Romania, travel around, visit churches and castles and cemeteries, and then miss out on the castle-on-a-cliff built by Dracula? It was hard. And I swore I would go back and see it, no matter what. While both of us really loved Sibiu, I couldn’t wait to get to Curtea de Arges and make my way up to that castle. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, we took a bus from Sibiu to Pitpsti and a cab from Pitpsti to Curtea de Arges. (continued)…


Vienne vs Wien – Orginally published 14 Oct 2006

Here’s a funny story where I look fairly  stupid, and the only reason I’m telling the internet this is so no one else makes the same mistake (though I doubt anyone else would).

Vienna, as we (the English-speaking world) know it, is spelled Wien to the German world. This I knew. I’ve seen it on maps. But the French call it Vienne. So I bought train tickets from the french website to Vienne. And Vienne turns out to be not just the capitol city of Austria, but also a small town in France, about a half hour south of Lyon. I realized my mistake in the Lyon train station around 5pm on September 30. Fortunately, we are in a pretty good financial state right now, and fortunately, my boyfriend is not the type of guy to get all crazy and mad about the fact that I totally fucked up (I had even gotten us a Hospitality Club host in Vienna, Austria for that night, not even thinking about how long it would actually take to take a train from Paris to Vienna). We weighed our options and decided to just keep heading east by train. It was about 6pm. The best we could do was buy tickets for Geneva, plan to stay there for the night, and then figure out what to do next. The train was supposed to come at (about) 6:38pm and when a train pulled up at about 6:30pm, we got on, figuring it was our train. Guess what? It wasn’t! We realized our mistake as soon as the train started moving about 8 minutes before it was supposed to. I kept hoping it was something super-regional and we could just hop off after five minutes, but 20 minutes later, we were still going. When the train conductor came around, M. did most of the talking and impressed the conductor enough for him to not care that we had the wrong tickets, not charge us for the right tickets, and strike up a friendly conversation about god knows what, but we sure did a lot of smiling and laughing and nodding.

We get to Macon, a small town about 45 minutes from Lyon, wait an hour or so for the next train BACK to Lyon, get in touch with our HC guest to tell them we won’t make it, get back on the right train, get to Lyon, and called it a night. Let’s just stay here, we thought. It’s a big city, there will probably be a hostel, lots of internet cafes, or at least a million cheap hotels and tons of places to eat. After getting stopped and thoroughly searched by the cops, we went looking for a place to sleep. The cops in the Lyon train station were everywhere, and they were kind of assholes. There wasn’t any reason for them to stop us and demand our papers, but then again, the law in France is that there doesn’t have to be a reason. So we had to go back to their office, have them take all our carefully packed clothes and whatnot out of our bags, question our visas, etc. The main cop even questioned how we knew each other, since my passport was from Los Angeles and his was from Philadelphia. We were not fazed or intimidated by these guys (since we don’t carry drugs or weapons and our paperwork is in order) so eventually they became friendly.

Last year, we had arrived in Dresden (Germany) in somewhat similar circumstances (though we were hitchhiking and just dropped off somewhere near the city). It was dark, we had no idea where we were, no plans about where to stay, but within 20 minutes we had found an internet café. After a few minutes, we got the numbers of some hostels and viola, we had a place to stay for something like 11 euros a night. It was easy and we had time to go out and enjoy the night. This was not the case in Lyon, AKA the Lamest City In France. We ended up at some hotel for 60 Euros (which was the cheapest we could find, and actually felt lucky about it) after walking through a MALL, which seemed to be the Saturday night destination for anyone in Lyon who wanted to eat after 9pm (at applebee-type restaurants). However, I have to say it was nice to have a nice shower and clean, private room to crash in after such a bizarre day. We ended up having to eat at a real restaurant (rather than just a quick sandwich), but actually, the restaurant was pretty great, and decorated in retro-style vinyl furniture.

Moving on! The next day, on October 1st, we went to Geneva, where we only stayed long enough to have a sandwich and coffee. From Geneva, we decided to head to Interlaken, Switzerland. I mean, we had already totally messed up our planned schedule, so we might as well enjoy it, right? We had never been to Switzerland and I had always wanted to go, and since it’s a pretty expensive country, it’s probably better that we went now (at a more financially stable time). I had this picture in my head that everything in Switzerland would be pristine, efficient, easy to understand, and safe, and that’s pretty much exactly what Interlaken was like. The trains were really, really nice. The scenery was breathtaking. And we had picked a good day to travel (all in all, about 8 hours on the train) – it rained all day! As soon as we got off the train there were really exact directions on how to find every hostel and hotel in town and very clear maps. We walked to a nearby hostel and ended up getting in a private room (4 person dorm, but no one else showed up). It was expensive, but then again, so is everything else in Switzerland, so we sucked it up.

October 1st had actually been a really nice day of travel. Watching the land go by out a rainy window, reading books, figuring out schedules. But it was also really nice, on Oct 2nd, to finally have a day where we could enjoy being in a new place. The weather was beautiful, the view outside our hostel window was incredible, and we spent the entire day outside. We hiked up the mountains, took pictures of the snow-covered alps, and found a supermarket so we didn’t have to keep wasting money on cafes. We had decided to only stay one night and take an overnight train to Vienna (for real this time), which left around 8pm, but after a full day of hiking and exploring, we were dying for showers. So when we went back to the hostel around 6pm to get our backpacks, we just casually kept walking into the shower area, and kind of “stole” showers. It worked out great, and we were finally on our real train to Vienna the night of October 2nd.