Thursday, January 5, 2012

Winter Vacation

My winter vacation turned out so amazingly that Im not sure I can do it justice in a blog post…even with a couple blog posts, but I will do my best. Everything did not always go according to plan but the trip actually turned out to be more fun and interesting because we did hit a few bumps along the way. Also because it was a long trip and each place we visited was so different Im pretty sure this blog post is going to lack cohesion and wonder aimlessly from one topic to the next. I apologize for that.

My travel group: 
From left to right: James, ME, Cassie, Anton, Maggie, Courtney, and Dahnika. (Dahnika followed us for the first train ride and half of the day in Bucharest until she had to catch a plane from Bucharest to Ireland.)
My trip itinerary: 
Dec 26 Chisinau – Overnight train to Bucharest
Dec 27 Bucharest – Overnight train to Sofia
Dec 28 Sofia – Overnight train to Istanbul
Dec 29 – Jan 2 Istanbul – Overnight train to Bucharest
Jan 3 Bucharest – Overnight train to Chisinau

First off after looking at my trip itinerary the most obvious detail is the fact that we choose to use trains as our method of travel. Many reasons for this but mostly it came down to the fact that trains, while slower than planes are also a lot less expensive, and while they are not as cheap as buses they allow for you to have more room to move and sleep on a horizontal bed (at least most of the time).

Our first train to Bucharest was awesome because it reminded me of the Hogwarts train from Harry Potter. It had an age to it and was mostly made of what looked like polished wood. We also realized that one reason why the train takes so long to get to Bucharest is because it takes three hours to move a couple hundred yards when you get to the border because of passport/custom checks and because they have to switch the gauge of the train to match the tracks in Romania.  

Bucharest itself was especially interesting to all of us because it is a more developed city than Chisinau and the people speak mostly speak the same language and have the same ethnic background as people in Moldova. But besides all of this I found it difficult to find the similarities between the two countries. The language was vastly different and while Romanians tend to speak clearer their speech doesn’t seem to take on the rhythmic cadences like Moldovaneasca which to me sounds a lot like spoken Italian. Also the people bared almost no resemblance to Moldovans both in their look and their fashion. It was fairly disconcerting because I was kind of looking forward to being in a place that would be more like a more developed version of Moldova. But instead the city was not as developed as I thought it would be and the people did not remind me of Moldovans at all. 

But the city itself was interesting for a couple of sights that we stumbled upon. The biggest and most impressive being the Presidential Palace built by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The building is the 2nd largest building in the world after the Pentagon and was only 70% complete when the revolution removed Nicolae from power. Another fun fact about the Palace is that all of the materials used to build it were from Romania. Everything, the stone, marble, curtains, gold, rugs, crystal chandeliers all were made in Romania with Romanian materials.

Bucharest is also lucky enough to have a metro system and it has to be one of the most interesting for two reasons. One, you can walk through the whole subway train as the cars are all connected. Two, there is a police office on every subway train and because all of the cars are connected he can easily see all of the cars and keep mischievous behavior to a minimum. 

After we had wondered the city all day we ended up in a park randomly and as we were walking through it in the dark we started to come upon more and more brightly lit areas and as we approached we found that it was a Christmas market. How perfect? There were Christmas trees, lights, decorations and a ton of vendors selling Christmassy things, winter apparel items, and lots of food such as corn and gingerbread and also hot wine. Our train left late in the evening and we were sort of worried that it would be hard to find something to do after the sun goes down but I don’t think we could have found anything better to fill our time with than that Christmas market. 

When we finally did make it back to the train station we all nearly had a heart attack when we realized that our train left at 10 AM and not 10 PM. We luckily were able to transfer our tickets to a 11 PM departure. Although the day was not completely saved by this new train because when we got on the train we found that it was not a sleeper. So we would be spending the whole night on uncomfortable seats trying to catch a few winks in between the border crossing nonsense and people asking to see our ticket every two hours. Needless to say we received little to no sleep on that train but who needs sleep anyway? It also gave us more time to enjoy the scenery, a lot more mountainous than Moldova.

Sofia showed its true colors immediately as we arrived at the train station. All around were very friendly Bulgarians who conveniently spoke English and had all the answers to your questions….for a small tip. It was incredibly frustrating to find out how to do anything in the Sofia train station such as buy our train tickets to Istanbul or find a place to lock up our bags without having at least five people approach us ask us if we were lost and offer to help us find our way. By this experience alone I figured that Sofia was a city that did not receive tourist too often but when it did it tried to make the most of them…which I would say applies pretty well to the whole city.

The soviet block buildings and architecture that is everywhere in Moldova was also everywhere in Romania and Bulgaria and other than being larger and a little more developed did not look too far removed from what we were used to seeing in Moldova so it was sort of a let down to us and our aspirations of escaping for a week. Sofia was not a city that I feel like I will return to. Mostly because it was the coldest city we visited and also because we had trouble finding things to do just for the several hours we were there in between train rides. However, it did have a Dunkin’ Doughnuts so it was not a complete waste of time.

Ok. My hand is starting to hurt from typing and my head hurts from trying to sort through all these pictures...Im going to end it here and add another blog post later about Istanbul.

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