Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

GSP 4: Bucharest, or a Transylvanian enigma

My surprise day in Vienna meant finishing travel to Bucharest on a Sunday morning, hence missing church.

Because I took a night train, my cabin had two open bench seats when I entered, and two top bunks above. A young Romanian woman and I had these uppermost bunks, which meant warmer temperatures, but less disruption as people came and went. By some point, all six berths were filled, the backs of the lower seats lifted up and hooked in place to form the middle bunks -- a pretty ingenious system.

The cabin didn't offer much room for luggage, but top bunks offered another perk: access to a storage area behind the bunks that extended out over the walkway up and down one side of the train car.

By the time I awoke, only my top-bunk mate remained. We talked occasionally in German -- mostly about sewing, since she was hand stitching colorful bow ties she planned to sell --  until the train reached her stop. Then I watched, alone, as the train rolled through a pass in some mountains.

A glimpse of the mountains near Romania's Predeal pass.

A glimpse of the mountains near Romania's Predeal pass.

Once I reached Bucharest, one of my Orthodox contacts had the evening free and agreed to meet me for dinner. After I'd settled into my new home for the week -- an upstairs room on the second floor of a small Protestant church's building -- I set off to meet her.

It turned out she'd chosen a meeting spot near several key landmarks in the city. So, after introductions, Catalina showed me "kilometer zero," the spot from which Romanians measure distances to all other locations in the country. She then turned and pointed out some memorials in the middle of the street, erected in honor of people who died during the 1989 revolution.

Monument and art sculptures near the site of Bucharest's kilometre zero.

Monument and art sculptures near the site of Bucharest's kilometre zero.

After noting a few other landmarks, we walked to a Russian Orthodox church known for its ministry to students at the nearby university, and then into the "old town" of Bucharest.  At one point, Catalina stopped to show me the interior of a beer hall somewhat similar to the one I'd seen in Munich. Though Romanians speak a romance language (possibly closest to Italian), she told me both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires played a role in shaping Romania's history and culture.


After a bit more walking, we had dinner beneath the trees in a restaurant garden. As with life in many urban centers, the food nodded not to Romania's culinary history, but another country's: Mexico. But when we parted later that night, she gave me a more local taste: a kind of marmalade made from roses in her parents' backyard.

I used some of the marmalade in my morning yogurt.

I used some of the marmalade in my morning yogurt.

Over the next few days, my tastes of local life came from more ordinary sources than a typical tourist might seek: the metro system and grocery stores. Since I stayed at a church that week, I mostly cooked for myself, using Google Translate to help me decipher container labels in the dairy section and find the right spices to make a tomato soup. Thus I found the yeast a store employee said they didn't stock, saw beer in two-liter bottles and learned the proper way to buy produce (you take it to a separate weighing station to get labels with the per-bag price before standing in the checkout line).

At Catalina's suggestion, I took a free walking tour Monday night, where I learned more about the relatively recent history of communism in Romania, and its end in 1989. The guide explained some of the city's eclectic architecture, how an engineer saved some Orthodox churches by dragging them away from sites where Ceausescu wanted to build, and why some have called Bucharest "Little Paris."

My last night in the city, I returned to one of the tour stops for dinner: an early 19th century inn that once hosted merchants and caravans. Due to rain and other guests, I couldn't get a seat in the large central courtyard, so ate inside the wine cellar, trying a bean soup served in a bread bowl. Verdict: too short on soup, long on bread, but otherwise flavorful.

Like that soup, Bucharest left me feeling like I hadn't quite found the pulse of Romanian culture, despite two wonderful connections with women I interviewed. Between its enigma and a handmade shirt I only later discovered I'd lost there, I may have to return for another visit.