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Romania Day 2: Dracula politics in Bucharest

· Travel journal,Romania,Joey

Sharing breakfast with a workawayer

I decided to have breakfast at the hostel and catch up on my writing. At £4 (20 lei) for a coffee and a sandwich, it wasn't cheap (it was good though!), but I wanted to save time as I'd planned to join a mid-morning free walking tour of Bucharest.

Miku, a Workaway volunteer, was on duty later that morning and asked if she could join me for breakfast after making me coffee. We had been chatting in the same group the previous night but I hadn't had the chance to hear about her story and how she came to be working here at Podstel in Romania. She noticed my journal that I was writing in and took out her own, which she had carefully wrapped in a colourful, silky cloth - it almost seemed like a ritual. I was grateful for the company and we exchanged conversation in between our eating and journaling.

Miku left her home on the Gold Coast in Australia 18 months ago after finishing her degree to explore the world. In that time she'd travelled across several countries and even had a stretch living in London working for a hostel. She'd loved the experience in London, but felt that her experience there was missing something (a vibe?) that she desired - something she'd found here at Podstel.

I commented that London was a great place but that I thought most people in London didn't have access to spaces like Podstel. Miku challenged that, saying that London did have places like this, if you knew where to look. On reflection, I think it was a fair challenge. I asked myself how much time I dedicated to actively seeking these places back in London. I realised that she was right, with projects such as Trigger Conversations (with their mission of ridding the world of the evil that is small talk) popping up. I shared my dreams of adding to such spaces, harnessing the transformation power of open mic events and the sharing of stories.

Miku then told me a little about the guys running Podstel, Dan, Sam and Jason. Dan, I found out, runs a blog called The Zen Nomad, which instantly captured my interest (Iris is very into her Zen). I noted down the address to look over the site later and was determined to have a chat with Dan about it later.

Having finished our breakfast and journal entries, Miku went to start her shift at Podstel and I headed out for my first ever free walking tour (with a handy tip from Sam about the usual range for tipping the guide, and you should tip unless you want to be a dick, from 20 - 40 lei which is the equivalent of £4 - £8).

Walking tour

The tour started off in the middle of Piata Unirii, just north of the Pokéball-shaped water feature (it's on Google Maps, and you'll see what I mean) and a 5 - 10 minute walk away from Podstel. I noticed a group of tourists, and you can always tell who they are by the unsure gait of their walk, and I strolled over to join them.

(Travel tip: Practical note, there are portaloos at the time of writing in Piata Unirii near the meeting point. I'm not sure how permanent they are. There is a toilet break about an hour / hour and a half into the tour.)

Livia was our guide for the day, and she was absolutely brilliant! The tour lasted around two hours and covered a brief introduction to the history of Romania, which included the deconstruction of the myth of Bram Stoker's blood sucking character Dracula, and a lengthy discussion of the impact of Communism on Romania and the city of Bucharest.

I'll just give a special mention to Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes), who is supposedly the inspiration for Dracula. He was a 15th Century ruler of Wallachia (pronounced "Valakia"), which comprised of the South Eastern part of what is now modern Romania (Transylvania and Moldavia make up the other two parts). I won't go into much detail about him, as Wikipedia has a good section on him, but he's famous for keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay during his rule and for his particularly cruel method of killing people that makes crucifixion look kind. He would impale them with a sharp wooden pole up the person's anus and gravity would slowly force the body down the pole, eventually hitting the major organs and killing the victim.

Random statue of Vlad in the Old Town of Bucharest. Random because he never lived (or even ruled?) here!

What was interesting about Vlad the Impaler is the respect he still draws from Romanians to this day despite his cruelty (which they fully recognise as being pretty awful), for freeing Romania from the Ottomans occupation, and for completely wiping out corruption during his reign. There is even a bust of Vlad the Impaler in the Old Town to celebrate this. Even now, you will find images of Vlad the Impaler being held up at political rallies that happen at least once a year (apparently there is an annual one in the winter) as a message to Romania's political leaders, in the Romanian people's continuing fight for greater democracy and freedom.

Another notable stop of the tour was the Church of St Anthony, towards the beginning of the tour. St Anthony is the saint of lost things, and they say that you can pray to St Anthony to help you find something you've lost. The story goes that soulmates who "lost" each other in this life and so St Anthony is a popular character among single people. However, he has a good idea of a work-life balance and only works one day a week on Tuesdays! This apparently is why the church gets very busy on Tuesdays - perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy with a church full of single people.

Bucharest's architecture provides a fascinating reflection of the city's rich history. You see the heavy German influence intermingled with beautiful Orthodox churches, providing a stark and sudden contrast to the very Soviet, functional buildings of the communist years. I found particularly ironic a giant Pepsi can place on top of a giant Soviet block - Stalin must be turning in his grave.

As Livia told us about the communist period, I could sense the pain of the totalitarian rule that the people suffered during those times but also an acknowledgement of its achievements at the same time.

How the Romanian dictator managed to pay off the entire debt of Romania so that the country was in surplus, one of the first / only countries to have done that following the Second World War - of course this came at a great cost to the people, as we're seeing (probably to a much severe degree) in the UK now. How the leader then decided to build the (second) largest municipal building in the world (with an annual electricity and heating bill costing $6m), complete with an upgraded (or larger, by a few centimetres) version of the Champs-Elysee that would stretch out from it. How to complete this vision he had to MOVE ENTIRE BUILDINGS on train tracks over several years to make room for his project.

Livia showing us how they moved an entire church on train tracks...

The tour was very thought-provoking. It gave me a further insight into communism and socialism, whose ideals I do appreciate (socialism at least), despite noting some of its failures in the countries I've visited so far, and its links to totalitarian rulers.

Meeting the Zen Nomad

After the tour, I grabbed a simple lunch of an aubergine paste starter, mici (basically sausage meat, like an adana kebab but not as tasty), fries, vegetables and a Romanian lager at the historic restaurant of Hanul Lui Manuc. I'd recommend trying something other than the mici but the lunch menu was very well-priced at 30.90 Lei (£6) excluding service, which you should leave 10% for. Tummy full, I headed back to Podstel to chill out for the afternoon there, catch up on my blog posts and hopefully speak to some of the guys at the hostel.


Veni, vidi, mici

Back at the hostel, I managed to catch up with Dan for a chat. Dan's story is an interesting one. On graduating from university with first class business degree, he turned down a job offer in investment banking to go travelling with his school friend. During his travels, he gave himself the permission to shed the laddish ideas of "success" and "manliness" that he'd been provided growing up to discover what he wanted a meaningful, fulfilling life to mean to him. I didn't have the pleasure of knowing him before, but I had the privilege of getting to know the new Dan and could see in my short talk with him that here was a man who's had a transformative experience, living a somewhat enlightened existence.

Dan the Podstel Man (Zen Nomad by night)

Podstel was the birth child of several years of backpacking, hitchhiking and couch surfing across the continents. Sharing their vision with people they met along the way, it was a community long before they had a physical place to paint the sleek logo on. Dan shared his vision for Podstel, as more than a place to sleep. Education and travel, for him, goes hand in hand and acts as catalysts for people's self-improvement, as well as for creating positive change in the world. The vision is to extend and build Podstels around the world, that people can travel through while learning from each other and sharing their experiences with fellow travellers as well as the local community. (The local aspect was one thing that really stood out for me - the local Romanians are a crucial part of the Podstel community and I'd never heard of any other place doing this anywhere else.)

I don't think I'm doing either Dan nor Podstel justice, so do check Dan out here and Podstel here. It's fair to say that in Dan I found a kindred spirit, and if I could experience half the transformation that he did on his travels, I'd be a happy man.

Like all cool spaces, Podstel had an inspiration board, which inspirational quotations that guests could add to. I added the quote from Viktor Frankl. And like all cool spaces, they had a table tennis table and Dan challenged me to a game. He plays a good game - ask him for a round if you're ever in town!

In the evening, one of the guests (who was cycling with a mate from Germany to the Black Sea, but had gotten held up at Podstel the past week because it's so awesome) cooked vegetable soup for everyone staying at the hostel. I spent the rest of the evening kicking ass at table tennis and enjoying the company of fantastic individuals. When darkness fell, I got a bit peckish (soup is good, but it's...soup...) and so headed out to sample some more Romanian food. A fellow traveller, a Frenchman from the wine region of Burgundy, decided to join me in my culinary exploration and introduced himself, Antoine.

(Travel tip: If you're checking out Crama Domeasca for dinner past 9pm, make sure you sit inside or go somewhere else like Carru'cu Bere or Lacrimi si sfinti. Crama Domeasca has great food but it's right on the party street and the music is turned up to the MAX at night. On the other hand, it's a pretty funny sight watching the guys being tricked into coming into the bars by the hot women hanging around...who work for the bar and go outside as soon as the guys have ordered their drinks)

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