It was nearly time to go and find out if Dracula existed, but first I had a 8500km date to keep with my wife in Malaysia.
The night before I had slept in the beautiful city of Ruse in Romania. I had only planned on spending one night in the city as I thought that it would be a bit of a rough border town but how wrong I was (read my last post here)
The border between Bulgaria and Romania is the majestic River Danube which has its source in Germany before flowing nearly 3000km to the Black Sea. The border crossing across the river was via “The Friendship Bridge’ (communist name) or ‘Danube Bridge’ (now called since independence) which lay 10km from the city centre.
As I approached the bridge there was a toll booth which was slightly awkward as I had absolutely no Bulgarian Lev left having spent the last of it the night before on a beer.As I cycled up to the booth thankfully the lady just waved me through. I got the same reaction at customs and as I was leaving the country nobody was remotely bothered about checking my passport.
It seems that as the bridge is narrow they send trucks over in convoys and as I cycled onto the bridge I passed a long line of trucks waiting for their turn to cross. This meant that from the Bulgarian side I had the bridge to myself.
As I crossed the half way point of the bridge a sign welcomed me into Romania
As I descended off the bridge I saw two cyclists cycling towards me and thought that after nearly 4 weeks I had found fellow tour cyclists
My ‘tour cyclists turned out to be two Romanians who were on their way to work in Bulgaria. That was my sort of a commute !!!
Bulgaria may have let me out but I still needed to clear customs and passport control in Romania.
As Romania joined the European Union in 2007 then, for now at least, my entry was a mere formality.
Just past passport control there were official money changers sat in booths. The rate was marginally below the ‘official’ exchange rate, but as changing 5 euros would be enough to get me to Bucharest then I wasn’t worried.
It was then time to get to Bucharest which is the capital city and lay just 80km from the border. If you have ever looked at a map of Romania the first thing you may notice is that there are not actually that many ‘side’ roads in the country and from the border I had no real choice than to take the E85.
For some reason the road sign showed two completely different road names to the map, but in reality they were both exactly the same road.
The road to Bucharest was totally flat and made a nice change from the mountains.My memory of this road would be the colour yellow, as for nearly 80km I passed fields upon fields of yellow crops.Now that I was back in a country that the language was based around the latin alphabet it made getting a coffee much easier.It was only 80km from the border to Bucharest and as I had left early I had rolled into the city by lunchtime.
I had arranged to stay that evening with Anca and Paul who were warmshower hosts. They would not be back from work until early evening so that gave me the afternoon to explore the centre of Bucharest.
Bucharest may not be the ‘sexiest’ cities given that much of the centre is modern, with the majority of the buildings built during the communism era. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the gargantuan Palace of Parliament building.Covering 330,000 sq m, and with 3100 rooms, it is the second largest building in the world. When it was built in 1984 it was estimated to have cost a staggering 3 billion euros to complete.
At least in the very heart of the city there were still a few historic buildings left standing. The recently restored façade of the National History Museum is beautiful:Opposite the National History Museum is the CEC Palace which is home to the headquarters of CEC Bank.
The ‘historic’ centre was a labyrinth of traffic free cobbled streets where I cycled through without much of a plan.
There were plenty of beautiful places to stop for a coffeeOutside the National Military Museum hardware from previous campaigns were on display.
Other beautiful buildings of note were the Romanian Atheneum, which also serves ad the city’s opera houseAnd as the majority of the population in the country are Eastern Orthodox Catholics there were a fair few stunning churches
One of the other slightly surreal structures was Bucharest’s very own Arc de Triumph.An arch has stood on this site since 1878 when a wooden arch was built for soldiers to parade under following Romania gaining independence. The current arch was built in 1936 and each year on 1st December troops still march under the arch to celebrate Romania’s National Holiday.
Bucharest wasn’t exactly bike friendly, and with very few cycle lanes it was a case of having to share the road with the busy traffic, but the drivers gave me lots of room. To try and encourage cycling in the city during the summer months you can rent bikes for free at a number of parks in the city.As with most ‘developing’ economies cycling is often perceived as transportation for people with limited financial options, while an expensive personal automobile is often seen as indicating a wealthier social status.
Hopefully the ‘I love velo’ scheme will help to change the perceptions’ towards bicycle use by providing citizens the opportunity to experience the benefits of cycling.By the queues of people waiting to rent bikes at each of the rental locations I passed perhaps there will be soon a lot more infrastructure for cycling in the city.
After a great afternoon cycling around the city centre I headed to the south of the city to find Paul and Anca’s house. To avoid rush hour traffic I cycled through Tineretului Park which acts as the main recreational space for the heavily developed southern end of the city.Aside from green areas, the park contains a number of playgrounds as well as a boating lake that was teeming with fishThe aim of the park seemed to be for families to use as was home to numerous children’s play parks and an area called ‘Orăşelul Copiilor’ that translates as ‘Children’s Mini-town’.Within Orăşelul Copiilor there were fair ground rides, a small rollercoasters and other stalls that you would expect to find at a kids fun fair.
Paul and Anca’s place was just outside the walls of the park and I was made to feel very welcome by them and their 3 cats – ‘Mr President’ and his 2 politically named companions – Shoshanna, the Lady Mayoress and Mr Michkin, the Shadow Minister.
As you may guess from the name of the cats both Paul and Anca are fairly engaged political activists, and we spent a great night getting pretty drunk. At about 2am Paul opened his Romanian ‘moonshine’ and we discussed great places to cycle in Transylvania.
I think finished us both off and at about 3am we crawled into bed.
The next morning I was flying to Malaysia to meet my wife for a long weekend, and so I left my bike at Paul and Anca’s place and caught the metro out to the airport.Without the hassle of a bike, or even any luggage, check-in was a breeze. It would take 3 flights and 2 days to get to Panang in Malaysia, but as I hadn’t seen my wife for nearly 4 months it would be worth it.
The first flight left on time but when I reached Istanbul in Turkey to connect with the flight to Malaysia there was a 6 hour delay due to a technical fault with the plane.
The flight should have left at midnight but would now be leaving at 6am. I was flying with Turkish Airlines and they offered to put me up in a hotel for the night in Istanbul and I could take the same midnight flight the following evening, or I could wait for the 6am flight and hope I made the next connection in Kuala Lumpur.
I decided that I would have more options once I was in Malaysia and so slept for a few hours at the gate with the rest of the passengers who were waiting for the 6am flight.
The flight eventually left at 7am, but as many passengers had chosen to sleep the night at a hotel in Istanbul rather than wait all night I had 3 seats to myself.
I was able to sleep for a good part of the 10 hours it would take us to get to Malaysia.
Once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur I still needed to take another flight to my final destination of Penang Island. By the time we arrived though I had missed the last flight of the day and so had to spend the night at Kuala Lumpur airport. This time though the airline gave me a room for the night at the 5* Sama Sama Hotel.After an early breakfast at the hotel it was time to walk back catch a hotel buggy back to the airport terminal and catch the first flight of the day to Penang.As my wife was not due to arrive until the following morning then it didn’t really matter that I had been delayed on the way over.
The other great thing about going to see Deirbhle was that she had booked the hotel and so my accommodation was a bit better than I was used to
For those that know me you will know that I tend to try to get upgrades wherever I stay but this time it was my wife who ‘blagged’ an upgrade to a villa by telling the hotel we were there for the weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
The staff had even gone to the trouble of decorating the bed with flower petals.It was only a little ‘white lie’ though as in a few weeks time we would be celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary.
Penang is a small island of the north west coast of Malaysia, and the hotel we were staying in was in Georgetown, it’s ‘capital’, named after the British King George III.
There are a few small beaches on the north of the island but most people come to Penang to visit its hawker stalls and heritage houses. As the population of the island is predominately of Chinese origin many of the houses and temples in the area reflected this history.
I was just happy to get back to a country which served ‘South Indian’ street food for breakfast.The next day Deirbhle arrived and it was fantastic to see her. We spent the next few days wandering around, drinking coffee, eating great food and lazing about.Penang has also recently been known as a centre for eclectic street art, and here is a selection (photos courtesy of my wife)
On the Saturday night we went out for an ‘anniversary dinner’ at a wine bar in Georgetown.
After dinner we got talking to Nardya and Roberto who own Campbell House Hotel in Penang, and they had a night off as their friend Vijay was visiting from India.They loved that I was cycling my way around the world and unbeknownst to us, until we came to pay, Vijay had already paid our bill and as it was nearly 100 USD he was either a bit eccentric or very rich. (after spending the rest of the night with him I think both were true!!!)
After settling our bill it would have been rude not to buy him a pint so we all jumped in a taxi (I was in the boot as taxi’s can only carry 4 passengers) and went in search of live music at a bar called China House.
By the time we arrived the band had finished but the bar was still open. We stayed until they threw us out. We fancied a couple more and a spot of dancing so Nardya phoned one of her chef’s at the hotel to find out where would still be open at 2am. His recommendation was to find a ‘hidden bar’ – a place which has no ‘bar’ front and was housed in a ‘plain’ building.
Her chef knew roughly where one was so we jumped another taxi and drove to the street. After doing a couple of laps of a block we thought it was located without success we did one final lap and pulled up outside a building where there were a lot of very posh cars parked.
Success – we had found our ‘hidden’ bar and danced the rest of the night away.
It wasn’t quite light by the time we walked home, but it wasn’t far off, and it was mid-afternoon before we finally surfaced again. It was great to see the wife again !!!!
Another couple of lazy days in Georgetown and it was time to say a sad goodbye to Deirbhle. There was time for one more ‘south Indian’ breakfast feast before we had to go to the airport.
It was then time to go our separate ways as Deirbhle flew back to work in Vietnam and I headed to Romania for a final couple months of cycling through Europe before my time was up.
My flight this time left on time and I made each of the connections to reach Bucharest on time. I had already arranged to stay one more night with Paul and Anca before cycling off the next day. I met Paul in the city after he finished work and we went to a protest march that had been organised against corruption in the country.
After making our voices heard we went for a couple of beers and food before heading back to Paul’s for a night cap. Thankfully, we were in bed slightly earlier than the night I had arrived in Bucharest.
In the morning it would be time for me to cycle into the Carpathian Mountains where I had arranged to meet Andy and Eoghan, two friend’s from England who were flying in to spend a week cycling with me through Transylvania.
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