March 31, 2016: From Greece to Romania

Today is our big transfer day from the Greek world to the Romanian one.  The alarm went off at four and we were under way.  We had to leave lots of extra time this morning because of the shared bathroom situation in the hotel.  This is one of those things that you don’t think about until you have a semi-panic moving situation and you do not have your own bathroom(s) and realize that all that it takes is someone in another room deciding that this is the exact how that they want to shower that suddenly you might not have access to a bathroom, shower or anything else before spending the entire day travelling.  I think that we will be far more conscious of this risk in the future.  If this was just a normal day seeing Athens we could absorb any amount of bathroom availability risk like that but as we have to catch the taxi and get to the airport on time there is no way for us to do that today.

Thankfully the other hotel room sharing the bathroom was asleep and we had free reign from four until five when we wanted to use it.  So we were ready quite early.  We were going to meet the taxi at a quarter after five but I started moving the luggage downstairs just before five and he was already waiting outside.  So I ran back up to room twelve and let Dominica know that the taxi was ready and already loading the luggage as I was bringing it down so we should get moving as we could leave as soon as we were ready.

Moving the luggage was a bit of an effort because each enormous twenty three kilo bag had to be lugged down the long flight of stairs, taken through the lobby, the door held open, moved outside, down the front stairs, then pulled all the way down the street and around the corner as the taxi was a big Skoda Octavia and could not fit down our street, and then the logistics of getting all of the bags to fit into the car was going on.  So this was not a fast or easy process.

We were underway in our taxi early, which was great.  We have so many failure points on a moving day.  Do we wake up on time?  Is anyone sick?  Did we manage to get everything packed correctly?  Did we miss something?  Did we get our taxi scheduled at the right time?  Do they show up?  Will we all fit into whatever vehicle comes?  Will everything be on time?  Will there be traffic?  Getting into the taxi is a big failure point that we worry about.  This one was scheduled a day in advance with information about what our luggage was like.  He was specifically selected as he has one of the rare Octavias available in Athens, it is the largest taxi available in the city and our best chance of only needing to take a single taxi.  What is great about the bit Octavia versus the slightly smaller Mercedes Benz taxies, the next biggest option in Athens, is that in the MB our luggage hangs out precariously and has to be bungie tied into place.  With the Skoda the trunk is bigger and has a different layout allowing everything to just barely fit inside the car and nothing has to be tied down.  That adds a lot of comfort.

The drive was nice and the taxi driver, that was a friend of the hotel, was great.  He really took care of us.

We got to the airport and got a luggage trolley and were checked in easily.  There were big groups of students arriving right as we got there, but because we are a family someone from Aegean Air ran up and stopped us from even doing the normal ticket printing process and took us to the empty family only line and they handled everything for us.  Athens is a very easy airport to deal with in general and Aegean Air is awesome to deal with.  This all went very smoothly.

Liesl at Athens Airport Ready for Her Flight

We grabbed coffee and pastries on the outside of security because we were not sure what the food situation was going to be like once we got inside of security and we had lots and lots of spare time.

Security in Athens is super simple.  Shoes on, bags in tact, only laptops come out.  It’s very fast, very efficient.

Our one hiccup, one that we did not expect, came when we went to go through border control and our first agent spent some time with our passports and then passed us over to another agent who spent some time with them and then starting asking me if we had come in from Italy… which would imply that we had been living secretly inside of the Schengen for the last four years as our Italian stamps were from 2012!!  We had to explain that we had arrived from Turkey, not Italy, and after some examining of our passports we were allowed to go.  Odd that they found Italy but neither of our Spanish stamps. We have lots of stamps on our passports showing where we have gone in the time since Italy.

We got to the gate and had time to relax, do some posts and such.  By this point we could mostly relax.

Girls Chilling at Gate 21 in Athens Airport

The sun was just rising as we were waiting at the gate for our flight which was not until eight thirty.  It was a nice view from the airport with the sun rising from behind the mountains.  It was a pretty chilly morning for Athens.

We were in row four on our flight which made things very easy.  The flight was not full at all leaving us lots of room for luggage, too.  As always the girls sat with me and Dominica sat alone on the other side of the aisle.  This is only a ninety minute flight from Athens to Bucharest so not even going to feel like we are flying at all.  It does not get much easier than this.

What is amazing is that the locals say that you can get to the airport for an international flight no more than ninety minutes before you fly.  We, of course, being used to American flights and things going horribly wrong, aim for three hours.

Everyone is Ready to Fly on Aegean Air

The flight went quickly and well.  No issues.  We got lots of views out of the windows and could see the mountains of eastern Greece and Bulgaria as we flew over.  Bulgaria is very mountainous.  Coming over Romania things turn to a flat plain, more like Iowa!  I was quite surprising coming into Bucharest that we were flying over the flattest possible farmland for quite a long time with the city just there in the middle of it.

Landing in Bucharest is pretty easy since it is a large, flat plain and not even buildings or houses near the airport proper. Smooth landing and a super easy time going through the airport.  Bucharest is very easy to deal with and all signage is dual Romanian and English.

Getting our luggage took no more than five minutes, Europe does luggage really well.  Then we took what we thought would be a quick bathroom break before customs but it ended up taking twenty or thirty minutes due to one of the children needing to use it for a while and this caused a bit of a panic as we had someone from the car rental place waiting to pick us up outside and we did not want them to think that they had missed us or that we were not on the flight or something.

Thankfully, nothing went wrong and Payless rental cars was standing outside of customs with my name on a sign.  They helped us move the luggage through the airport, trolleys are free in Bucharest, and they had a large van ready for us into which we fit “easily.”  There was just one other person going with us so it was just barely okay.

Our rental car is a hatch back or fast back Ford Focus Eco five speed in silver.  It took at least half an hour to go through all of the car rental paperwork, but it was not bad.  I hate doing car rental stuff, especially on long rentals, there always seems like there is something going to go wrong.  But the process went smoothly and in no time we were pulling out onto the road.

The Ford Focus might be an economy car in America but this is a giant luxury car here in Europe.  After the Kia Picanto in Greece this thing is a cross between a boat and a sports car.  It is so easy to drive and comfortable, I had forgotten how nice driving could be.  It’s new and classy and totally clean.  Everyone has so much more room and Dominica does not have to lean over just so that I can shift gears.

We have a lot of driving to do today.  We have to drive north out of Wallachia where Bucharest is located and into the Carpathian Mountains and over to Transylvania on the other side of them (it’s naming literally meaning that land beyond the forests and the forests being in the mountains.)

Driving in Romania is very easy.  Our first stretch was flat, open farm lands with almost no population around.  Very easy driving.  Before long we had the faint view of massive snow capped peaks rising in the distance, our first time seeing the Carpathians in person.  The view here is very similar to driving west in the American West and seeing the first rise of the Rockies in the distance.

It is a long drive from Bucharest to our new home in Baita, which is much closer to Ukraine than to Bucharest.  Getting to the southern border of Transylvania did not take so long and the sudden climb into the mountains was very beautiful.  Right before we hit the mountains, literally less then a kilometre before, we stopped at a little roadside shop that advertised pizza but they said that they did not start serving until three and it was only one.  There was a tiny market (very tiny) attached there and we picked up some snacks for the car at least as we would not be eating a full meal for some time, clearly.  We had seen restaurants along the drive but none had people eating at them.  Too early for food, I suppose.

The drive thus far had been someone dull.  Very little to see.  Nice, but not interesting.

After our failed pizza attempt we immediately climbed into the mountains and it was gorgeous.  The Carpathians give a completely different feel than the Alps and even driving through them are much more akin to the Rockies in style.  You could easily film movies of the American West here in Romania with little problem.  Almost immediately the buildings became more interesting and larger villages started to appear and our first sizeable settlements were found along with apartment buildings and even grand hotels.

Driving through the mountains was slow going as the big highway is only one lane in each direction and many cars and trucks struggle to get up the roads quickly.  So traffic backs up a lot.

We saw our first wild castle in Romania.  As an American I wonder if I will ever get used to driving along and there just being a castle, unannounced, sitting on a hill.  They are just so casual in Europe.

We drove through Brasov and we got our first serious look at the famous communist era apartment blocks.  Kilometres of nearly identical, drab square apartment buildings.  No different from the “projects” in the US and UK, better in many ways I have heard, but the look in Eastern Europe is unique and this is our first time experiencing it first hand.

As we got deeper into Saxon country we saw many of the famous fortified churches along the road.  That was quite interesting.  That is a unique part of Transylvanian culture that fortified churches were commonly used to protect villages and they are very numerous.

By central Transylvania I was pretty tired.  I got very little sleep last night and the last few days have been extremely busy.  We knew that we could not get into our house today and so were going to be getting a hotel somewhere, we just had no idea where.  We talked about it and decided that it made better sense to get a hotel a few hours short of the house and save some of the driving for tomorrow rather than to push hard to get basically to the house tonight and have no driving at all tomorrow, which had been the original plan.

We spent probably close to an hour looking for a place to just stop for the night.  It was late afternoon so we had lots of time and options.  There were not many cities along our route but in Romania it is common to find hotels in the middle of nowhere along the highway, reminiscent of the grand western American highways like the Lincoln and Route 66 before the interstates came through.

We came into Sighisoara which, on the east side of the city, is nothing but the same drab communist apartment blocks that we had seen before, but suddenly halfway through the city it turns into a quaint ancient Romanian city with an old town and beautiful churches and such.  Dominica looked on and found a few places that looked decent here.  So we turned around and made a few passes through town to see what we could find.  We looked for one place but it was too hard to find so we decided to try down by the river.  Dominica found a good deal at the San Genarro Pensiune which we had seen so I pulled into a spot where I knew that we could park and Liesl and I walked down to the San Genarro to investigate.

We managed to get a one bedroom apartment, yes actual apartment, for the night for two hundred RON which is more or less fifty or fifty five dollars US.  And at that price it included breakfast.  We went up and saw the room and Liesl was very impressed and demanded that we take it.  So we did.

We walked back and got the car and moved it to the sidewalk in front of the San Genarro which is the only place to park.  It is handy, though, as the car is right on the main highway as visible as can be and quite visible from the entire San Genarro dining room so about as safe as it can get.  The pensiune sat right on the main intersection of town so traffic could not have been heavier.

Liesl at the San Genarro

We got into the room and spent maybe an hour just relaxing.  The girls broke out their toys and had some play time.  Then we went down stairs to go to dinner.

Dinner was awesome, I got trout, Dominica got perch and we switched halfway through the meal.  It was very good and not too expensive.  I also got to try tuica, the Romanian plum brandy, for the first time which was served very warm with coffee beans in it.  Delicious.

It was dark by the time that we were done eating.  Everyone was ready for some down time.  So back up to the spacious room, which had a giant living room where the girls could play and would sleep, a big bathroom, a decent sized kitchen and a separate bedroom.  And the views were great.  We had windows on three sides and lots of light.  We were on the main corner and could see the river, the grand church on the far side, the hills, it was very nice.

Once everyone was settled in I went out for a long walk.  It was a nice night and perfect for taking in the city on foot.

I started by crossing the river and heading west to go see the big church that was there, all lit up.  It is a really gorgeous church.

Church in Sighisoara, Romania

I walked a long circuit around the north side of the river going up to see what the neighbourhood would be like and checking out the train station there.

From there I walked back over the bridge and decided to see what the old town behind the pensiune was like.  We had seen a block of it while driving but nothing more.

The old town was very neat and got better as I walked away from the main intersection.  I found a neat old archway leading into a courtyard and poked my head in to see what was in this very interesting place and discovered that this was actually the courtyard that I could see from one of our apartment windows, this was the back courtyard of the San Genarro!  I had seen pizza delivery guys running out to take pizzas into town on foot this way.

I continued up and headed uphill towards the city park and then around towards the lights on the hill, the citadel that we had read something about.

This area, near the park, had some really awesome looking hotels, cafes and eateries.  There were loads of people sitting outside having coffee or drinks at a number of places.  It seems like this town has good night life.

I climbed up the hill and found a vacant and dark cobblestone road leading up to an old archway to the citadel.  There was a light on but no one around.  It seemed like I was allowed to go into it but it was rather unclear and while there was a light this did not seem much like an intended place for people to be, here at the end of a deserted old street in the dark.

Walking up through the archway was amazing.  A twisted cobblestone road at a steep grade through an ancient defensive structure, this was the real thing and just… open.  Once I entered the citadel proper it opened up and there were lights and people and it was much as if I had just stepped into a real life version of Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle and Fantasyland, but without the rides, of course.

The citadel had big squares and loads of shops, restaurants, old defensive towers, cafes, bars, even the city municipal buildings.  There were homes and pensiunes all over.  The complex was immense.  I probably walked around for an hour or more, every turn more amazing than the last.  I have never seen anything like this in real life, it was really something.  There were a fair number of people about as well.  Many sitting out in the square just enjoying the atmosphere.  I could hear a bar or two that were pretty busy as well.

I wanted to explore all night but it was late and I needed to get back and walking around the citadel takes a lot of effort between the continuous changes in elevation and the cobblestones.  Had more things been open I might have stopped at a cafe to hang out.

I walked back more or less the way that I came up.  The archway that I had come up through was at the base of the clock tower and I managed to descend through it just as the hour stuck and I got to hear the old clockwork show get put on.  I could not see it from my position and in the dim light, however.

Back down the hill and back to San Genarro and off to bed.   I will have to bring the family up here tomorrow, they are going to love it.  What a find for our first night in Romania!