I visited these two countries waaaay back in 1985, when the Texas Girls Choir was invited to a “Goodwill Ambassador” tour of the USSR and a few surrounding countries. I was only ten years old, and one of my only enduring memories was of visiting Dracula’s castle in the cold, snowy, winter month of January. Now we are here in high summer, nearly 35 years later, with a lot of changes in the region!
From Slovakia, we took a train to Budapest, and spent a few days there. We stayed in District 7, also known as the Jewish Quarter , site of the 2nd largest Jewish synagogue in the world. That area is filled with cafes, pubs, and “ruin bars”, which are combo indoor/outdoor spaces filled with a whole hodgepodge of items- supposedly a remnant of bombings in World War II (although I suspect some of those bars are not anywhere near that old). Still- fun places to hang out and have a drink, especially Simpla Kert.
Budapest itself is a splendid city to walk around in and explore, with a helpful tram and subway system assisting. We walked along the Danube River at dusk and watched the lights come on at the massive Parliament building, checked out the beautiful Matthias Church, and spent some time in the City Park, home of one of the city’s oldest thermal baths.
Gyor and Pannonhalma Monastery
A dear friend of ours was visiting his hometown in western Hungary, and invited us for a visit. We hopped on a train and 90 minutes later were in Gyor. Adam showed us around his town, situated on the banks of two rivers, and took us to the Pannonhalma Monastery. It was established 1,000 years ago, the first in the country, and has one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve been in. Below the monastery, acres of lavender are grown and distilled into oil, producing the most delicious scent all over the area.
Adam drove us to Lake Balaton, stopping at two ancient castles along the way- defenses against the Mongols and the Ottomans. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Hungary, and the second biggest in Central Europe. We stayed in the town of Keszthely, just one of a dozen small towns along the lake. We went hiking, ate langos (fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheddar cheese), and swam in the lake. There was a wine festival that weekend, and a reggae/rock concert that night. We enjoyed experiencing the more personal side of Hungary.
From Balaton, we took two very comfortable and on-time trains to get to Timisoara, a town in western Romania. We stayed at an atmospheric, wooden hotel and did a walking tour of their Old Town. They were having a jazz festival while we were there, so it was nice to wander around to the various stages to catch different bands playing as we took in the 18th century buildings.
The trains in Romania are inexplicably slow, so we took a bus to Sibiu, a small town near the center of Romania. They have a beautiful walking center in the historic part of their town, which features several large, old churches, fortification walls, and the “bridge of lies”!
From there we took a bus ride (in which we were the only riders for three hours!) to Brasov, a town in the heart of Transylvania. This is probably the most beautiful part of Romania, with miles and miles of forests, the Carpathian Mountains, and dozens of castles dotting the countryside. We learned about the convoluted history of the area (Romans, Huns, Bulgarians; Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs; Romania, then Hungary, then back to Romania). Just ten miles from Brasov is the famous Bran Castle, the literary setting of Dracula, although in actuality the castle had very little to do with Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. Still, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s an easy day trip to visit both Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, also nearby.
While in Transylvania, we tried some of Romania’s gustatorial delicacies, including papanasi (fried dough with sour cream and cherry jam sauce), and sarmale (cabbage leaves filled with meat, rice, and spices), served with manaliga (polenta served with sour cream)…. always accompanied by a frosty Timisoarana beer.
Complacent George is ready for some papanasi
Today we head to Moldova, one of Europe’s least visited countries, to see what adventures we can get up to there! And in exactly one month, it’s back to the US for us.