Romania


Town of Miklosvar and surrounding area
To many, “Eastern Europe” signifies the old Communist bloc – an area of the world continuously grey and bleak, with long lines filled with desperate people waiting hours to score a loaf of bread or a piece of meat. Fortunately, these stereotypes are mostly a thing of the past. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s and the communist strongholds of Eastern Europe have changed their political and economic bent, Eastern European countries have undergone a slow, but significant, change in their way of life. As many of the countries have entered the European Union and their economies have expanded rapidly in the past few years, many places in Eastern Europe seem as much, or even more, “Western” as their geographical neighbors. Selfishly, we’ve been a little disappointed, hoping to witness some of the old school ways of the Communist era. Well, we finally got our wish…
Sights on drive through rural Romania
As we were waiting in line to cross the border between Romania and Ukraine, a uniformed border guard looked down at the French license plates (a novelty in this part of Europe) on our Peugeot rental car and knew we were ripe for some harassment. He approached us and asked us for the receipt for our payment of the Romanian road tax. We correctly informed him that we were unaware of such a tax, had never been asked to pay such a tax and had found no mention of a road tax in either of the Romanian guidebooks we had consulted. Brilliantly feigning surprise at our lack of knowledge, he informed us that the penalty for not paying the tax was $200 and that, after finishing the border-crossing formalities, I should park the car and come see him in his office.

Once our passports had been stamped, I quickly found myself in the guard’s tiny office. Brashly, the young officer announced, “I just told you the legal process for handling your lack of payment of the road tax. Why don’t you suggest an alternative solution?” Acting perplexed, I asked him what he meant. “The fine is $200. How much do you think is a fair payment?” Resisting my innate urge to punch the corrupt guard in the jaw, I started a negotiation that resulted in an agreement of $40 for the mythological “road tax”. As I began to hand over the bribe money, the guard spotted his superior officer coming towards his office and began freaking out, saying “Put the money away! Hide! Oh, %!@&! Don’t say anything!” Fortunately for the guard but unfortunately for me, his boss reversed course and went away to handle another matter. Wiping sweat from his brow, the guard quickly grabbed the $40 from my hand, and I ran for my car as quickly as possible.
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
It was a rainy day (in fact, it had been raining for days), and just a mile after crossing the border, we spotted pools of water on the road. As we continued to drive, the water started getting higher along the side of the road and under the bridges we crossed. Cautiously, we made our way through sections of the road that were partially flooded. We saw rivers that had escaped their banks and flooded several villages. Luckily, we made it past the flooded area fairly quickly and without incident, only to find out a couple of days later that the floodwaters had risen to produce Ukraine’s worst flood in 200 years, killing 22 people, affecting over 40,000 homes and causing over $800 million in damage (unbelievably, the country’s special disaster fund only has $57 million in it).
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
As we continued our drive, we were pulled over by a police officer. This stop brought our trip total to five – South Africa (speeding – no payment), The Netherlands (driving across a bridge reserved for buses and taxis because we couldn’t read the sign that, in Dutch, told us not to – $60 hit), Croatia (passing a car in a no-passing zone – no payment), Romania (speeding – no payment) and now Ukraine. When behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, I drive faster than the speed limit at almost every chance I get. This is especially true in Eastern Europe, where the speed limits typically hover around 30 or 40 mph–even on the highway. When I got pulled over this time, however, I was definitely not speeding because I had been stuck for several minutes behind a huge truck that was barely moving. When the cop pulled out his radar gun, though, it registered 50 mph – 20 mph over the speed limit. I told him, in English, that his radar gun was incorrect, but my English was as comprehendable to him as his Ukrainian was to me. He quickly cut to the chase and started ask for money. Immediately, we began a caveman-esque process of negotiation, flashing numbers with our fingers, accompanied by grunts and head movements. Eventually, our negotiations ended with the cop pocketing only about 10 euros (about $16). A paltry sum for a story I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Sights on drive to Sighisoara
When you think about Romania, one of three things probably comes to mind: (1) Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in the ’76 Olympics; (2) the draconian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu1 ; or (3) Dracula himself.  (After all, the count who was the inspiration for the evil character is said to hail from Transylvania, an area in central Romania.  His name was Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler,” a name bestowed on him in recognition of his preferred method of punishing his enemies.)
Sights of Sighisoara, a Saxon village
We spent some time in Transylvania during our visit to Romania, and while we can’t testify to any close encounters with a blood-sucking monster, we did stay in what used to be a serf’s cottage on the grounds of a true Romanian Count’s former residence.  Located at the edge of a village called Miklosvar, which is so small that it didn’t even make our map, the cottage made a great base for exploring the area.  One day, we drove to the medieval town of Sighisoara, where we saw Vlad’s supposed childhood home, as well as the charming, cobblestoned Old Town, a bustling local market and a lovely Gothic church wherein lies a fresco of the Holy Trinity in which the Holy Spirit is depicted as a woman.
Cows coming home!
We also spent time exploring the countryside near the Count’s residence.  The area is peppered with tiny villages that seem to have remained largely unchanged over the last few centuries.  The progress of our Peugeot on the single, dirt road that led through each town was often hampered by slow-moving, horse-drawn carriages carrying hay and a couple of weather-beaten farmers.  Old women gossiped in front of what was often the only store in town.  Kids rode their bikes nearby and cast suspicious glances at the strange car with foreign plates.
Incredible Voronet Monastery in Guru Humorului
No matter what we did during the day, we always tried to make it back to Miklosvar by the time the cows came home.  And I mean this literally.  In that village and, as far as we could tell, in most of the surrounding ones as well, the cows come home at 7:50 on the dot.  That is to say, just a few minutes before the magic hour, the resident cowherd rounds them up from the pasture just outside of town and parades them slowly down the street.  Each cow seems to know where he or she lives and so, with no prompting from anyone, will turn off upon approaching the right house.  I think it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe.
Beautiful Humor Monastery
The painted monasteries of Romania’s Southern Bucovina region also fit into the so-much-more-amazing-when-seen-firsthand category.  Listed among the greatest artistic monuments of Europe, the monastic churches are covered inside and out with colorful, biblical-themed frescoes that were rendered in the 1500s. They are located inside fortified monastic complexes designed to stave off the attacks of Turkish invaders that were all too common in those days. During the attacks, the complexes sheltered both armies and peasants, many of whom were illiterate.  The frescoes were intended to educate and entertain this audience and, centuries later, they certainly delighted us.

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  1. A communist who was president of Romania for more than 20 years, from 1965 to 1989, Ceausescu brought Romania to its knees with idiotic and often cruel policies.  In an attempt to eliminate foreign debt and look good in front of the world, he exported Romania’s food while his own people were forced to ration what little remained.  In hopes of increasing Romania’s birth rate, he instituted a tax on childless women and men over the age of 25 and gave significant benefits to mothers who had at least five children.  Finally overthrown by revolutionaries, he and his wife were executed, after a two-hour trial, on Christmas Day in 1989. []