Czech Republic to Poland 7/98


Best restaurant in Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mines
DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”
Auschwitz and Birkenau


We bused to the station and boarded the 7:45 a.m. train for Krakow.  Four hours and four
passport checks later, we changed trains at the border.  This change was a bit confusing and
tense as the train for Krakow was labeled “Warsawa.”  I had rushed to the far end of the track
to gesture with the conductors.  A point and click or two and I knew this was the right train,
but it was going to divide later.  I climbed aboard in the right section, but had to gesture to
Peg.  We both barely managed to get on.

Earlier Peg found about $50 in HUF (Hungarian forints) in her pursed AmEx and many other
places in Prague refused to change them.  Perhaps we will not end up with $50 worth of
souvenirs that, at Hungary’s high inflation rate, would be worth just a few dollars in a couple
of years.  Perhaps we will mail them to our landlord in Budapest if we cannot change them.

After arriving in Krakow, we found a room in a private home not far away.   We paid the
accommodation bureau in advance in zlotys (3.4/$1.00) which we got from the ATM machine
at the rail station.    The cost per night is about $27.00.  You pay the landlord directly after
the first night.

While Peg was off doing something or other, I listened to Polish eurobop while sitting on the
steps in the railroad station.  A woman had set up her radio, hoping the appreciative listeners
would pay her something for her efforts.  I liked the music, surprisingly, and the speakers
were very good.  A young woman sat quietly behind me, her knees almost touching me.  This
worried me at first, for my backpack was behind me and within her reach.  She had a long,
slender, finely chiseled nose and face and was both attractively and modestly dressed.  A
while later when her boyfriend arrived and off they went.

The tram took us to within a few blocks of the house where were to stay.  Our hostess and
her daughter met us at the former’s house.  The daughter is about 50 years old and speaks a
little English.  She is fluent in German, she said.  Both are very pleasant.  So is the room.  It
is big, about 20’x15′.  In the center is a dining room table, and there two single beds, a closet
and a china closet against the various walls.  We share the bathroom across from our door
with grandma.  Grandpa is dead or gone.  The thin curtains will not keep the street lights out
but it should be quiet.

After getting settled, we headed back toward the train station to the center of the old town.
We passed the large main plaza, about 200 yards x 200  yards (about 200 square meters).  It
is dominated by a huge cloth merchant building.

The guide book recommended a cafeteria nearby, but neither the food nor the atmosphere
were appetizing.  We found an Italian place not far away, also in the old town.  The food was
excellent but pricier than in the Czech Republic.  Beer is about a dollar per half liter.  In this
restaurant it cost 4.5 zlotys but in most places it is about 3.5.  On the way home, we stop by
a bakery, still open although it is after 8:00 p.m.  Since we negotiated coffee for the
mornings, we bought some breakfast goodies.

While in the bakery, a couple from the U.S. comes in.  He was born here, she in the U.S.  He
helps us with the transaction, per the request of the bakery owner, and tells us about a couple
of things we should do in Krakow.  We leave with a few new ideas, 200 grams of fruit cake,
two slices of poppy seed cake and 3.57 fewer zlotys.  The clerk carefully and slowly counted
out our change.  Some coins are so small I cannot read them without using my reading
glasses, deeply hidden in my backpack.

As we walked about, everyone seemed well-dressed.  The trams are well cared for and people
seem to use them frequently.  Many people were smiling or laughing as they walked in the
comfortable, 75 degree evening with friends into stores and cafes.

A shop along near our lodging advertises ‘internet’ on the sign.  We asked them about access.
The proprietor says he has very slow connections as his telephone lines are very old.  He
walks outside with us to point out the nearby internet cafe, a block off the main street.

We head for home as the sun slips at glacial speed toward darkness, impressed by the
friendliness and helpfulness of the people we have met thus far.


Best restaurant in Poland

Street lights and some noise make getting to sleep difficult last night.  Things quieted down
around midnight.  To keep out the street lights and the early sunshine, we rigged up a tent
using a blanket and two chairs and I slept underneath.  This helped.

Our Lady of the Coffee Cup is up early enough.  Two large cups of good coffee later, and we
are at the internet cafe.  We connect at about minus 32,000 bps.

At noon, after completing several chores, including the daily hand laundry, we sought out a
restaurant recommended by our hostess’ daughter.  Its sign reads, “Best restaurant in Poland.”
Unfortunately I did not write down the name and address of this place.

They are shooting a commercial when we arrive.  The restaurant looks like a log cabin inside.
A waitress told us that there was a table near the front that we could sit at while we are
waiting for an empty table.  It was only occupied by one person.  Turned out he is from the
U.S., about age 50. He says he is happy to share the table, which is large, wooden looking
like a picnic table.

He retired from his veterinary practice after a Japanese man bought his house in Hawaii in the
1980’s.  At that time, the Japanese would pay just about anything for property.  While on
vacation sometime afterwards he saw a man lose his briefcase.  He was unable to flag him
down.  Inside he found a sizable quantity of cocaine, and a business card or address book.
Our friend called the telephone number he thought belonged to the owner and the man hung
up.  Our friend tried again, saying immediately, “Don’t hang up.”  He returned the briefcase
and its contents in its entirety.  The man said, “You pay the first $2,000 and I’ll pay the rest
of the cost of anywhere you want to do.”  Our diner chose Brazil.  There he made some
friends and later bought a ranch.  I think he sold it later and now has a house in New
Zealand.  His family is Czech.  He likes to travel often and does so on the cheap.  Of our
plans to travel with another couple, he said, “One is best, two is difficult, three or more,

“This is the best restaurant in Poland,” he said, “The portions are huge.  Do not order a dinner
each!  Impossible to even eat half of one.”

I believed him, for in front of us were two enormous tubs.  One was butter with garlic, the
other pig fat with bacon.  He told us not to be put off by the pig fat.  I tried it and it was
excellent.  Peg and I decided to stay at his table and ordered stuffed cabbage with wild
mushrooms and meat pierogi.  Some of the best food  we have ever tasted, and we could not
eat all of the single meal we shared. $11 with beer.

We walked about town, enjoying the weather and the general ambience.  I am checking out
the cost of flights back to the U.S., and trying to decide when to return.  Also I need to
decide whether to buy a car or camper or just rely on public transportation.  Peg prefers that
we not go back to the states just yet, but I want to attend the 30th anniversary of my high
school graduation.

Later, Peg attended a Klezmer concert.  I love Klezmer music but the sore back needs some
time off.  She said the concert was lively, the musicians skillful.  (To readers unfamiliar with
it, Klezmer is a style of music that Jews play.  I think it is of Eastern European origin, but it
could be middle eastern.  There are a violin, a clarinet and other instruments, a small band.)


Wieliczka Salt Mines

The Wieliczka Salt Mines have been in operation for over 700 years.  Peg and I took the train
to get there, about a 45 minute journey from Krakow.  We should have taken the bus.  When
you get off the train, there are no signs to the mine.  We followed other tourists for part of
the way, and asked locals for directions.  You must be accompanied into the labyrinth below
our feet (46z for two, about $15). Tours are in Polish and English.   There are tour guides
you can arrange from Krakow, which would include bus transportation.  But Peg must ride
the train whenever possible.

The mine’s employee guide speaks excellent English, starting with the trip down 300-400
stairs to the main room.   A stock broker and his wife are with us.  They came to Poland to
see the homeland of their grandparents.  They were Jews who lived through the Holocaust.  It
was the husband’s first visit, but the wife was here when she was in college, travelling around
on the cheap.  She said it was one of the best things she had ever done.  She would have
joined us right then, but he preferred the chauffeured Mercedes to the old train we rode on.

The mine’s best production years were 1960-1970.  It is set to close in three years.  There are
144 kilometers of tunnels that are as deep as 1000′.  The tour takes place around 350′ down
(120 meters), of which 200′ was via the stairs.  The passage ways are reinforced with large
lumber beams, which do not need to be preserved as the salt does that job very well. There
are some deep pools of briny water, from which salt is also extracted.  They used to offer the
tours via canoe, but about one hundred years ago, some drunk tourists died when they
capsized their canoe.  They drowned because they were too intoxicated to remove the canoe,
which landed on top of them.  Air trapped underneath eventually was used up and they

There is methane in the mines, and thus some risk of explosion.  In the past, some highly
paid and experienced miners had the task of burning off the methane with torches.  They were
called ‘pentinents’ because they did their job on their hands and knees.  Methane is heavier
than air, our guide explained, so you would burn it off more successfully if the flame was
near the floor.

There is a chapel called St. Kinga’s Chapel.  It is sixty meters long. Kinga is the patron saint
of miners.  There are five chandeliers carved in salt that illuminate a carved salt altar; and a
salt carved version of DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper’.  Another chamber, the Staszic Chamber, is 44
meters high.  The Germans used slave labor to manufacture airplane parts during WWII.  The
Warsawa Chamber has a bar and sports facilities.  There is a salt carved statue of a gnome.
Kiss him and you will be married within a year.

Our friendly guide joked often.  In a more serious vein, he told us that the Poles are not fond
of the Russians since they were subservient for so many years.  He said nothing about the
Germans.  Poland sits right between these two countries and is a ready target for both.

Good tour, well worth the effort.

On our way back to Krakow, a small restaurant beckoned.  Great blueberry pierogies and the
ubiquitous wurst and beer.  Peggy loved the place, a blue collar hole in the wall, and
grandma’s home cooking.  Afterwards, we walked a good distance trying to find the bus stop.
People said we were going in the right direction to my plaintive, “Krakow, Krakow?”  After
about two miles we found the stop, hopped on board the minivan (1.5z per person, 13
kilometers to Krakow), and looked over the scenery on the way back into Krakow.  They had
managed to stuff fifteen seats into the van, and it was packed with quiet people.  There is
only one exit from the van.  What a trap!

DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”

Off to the National Museum, where we saw DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”  So
delicately and finely painted that I cannot understand why it gets so little attention compared
to the Mona Lisa.  The Italian medieval religious pieces look like they were painted a week
ago, so deftly done that the faces of these long dead models seem about to speak.   There is
also Egyptian pottery and jewelry dating from 16th-14th century B.C.  Great condition and
beautiful.  I have not seen anything man-made that is this old and yet this beautiful.


Auschwitz and Birkenau

A gray, dreary, rainy day is a fitting one for visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau.  About 1.5
million died here, most of them in Birkenau.  The Auschwitz facility served as the
administrative center and housed political prisoners, while Birkenau was the site of the killing
machine; there stand the barracks for most of the condemned for their period of enslavement.
Monowitz, a chemical plant run by slave labor, was the third part of the complex commonly
called Auschwitz, itself just a short bus ride from Krakow.

The Auschwitz facility contains barracks with displays about the treatment of the prisoners
who lived and died there.  To get into the barracks you walk through a gate marked “Work
Brings Freedom.”  This cynical slogan greeted prisoners, and was part of the deception of
prisoners.  In one of the barracks, the Nazis first used Zyklon-B, the gas ultimately chosen to
exterminate prisoners.  The victims were 250 Russian prisoners of war.  The museum has
exhibits for French, Italian, Polish, Russian, Jewish and other prisoners.  I do not recall if
there was one for Gypsies, nor if they were imprisoned and murdered here.  Gypsies do not
have a voice that expresses their suffering.

The most extensive displays are in the Jewish section.  Panels with photographs:

Two concentration camp prisoners dragging corpses using large tongs.

People stripping outside the death chambers, and in the next photograph, some of the
same people laying naked and dead on the ground outside the chambers.  Photographs
taken and smuggled out by prisoners.

Written information (in several languages):

“Our aim is the total ‘cleansing’ (emphasis not mine) of the eastern countries of Jews.”
Reihard Heydrich.

10,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1942 were persuaded that they were there to do
useful work and then wrote to relatives of the good treatment they had received.  Soon
they were all dead.

The National Resistance Institute in Jerusalem has awarded many hundreds of medals
to Poles who helped Jews.  I know that many more Poles either refused to help, turned
Jews in or killed them themselves.  There was no mention of this that I saw.

On October 7, 1944, three hundred Sonderkamando workers revolted and burnt down a
crematorium.  All were destined to be killed by the Nazis in the chambers.  They all
died fighting.

After they were done killing all the Jews, the Nazis next planned to wipe out the

Several journals written by prisoners found buried in the soil.

Two excellent videos.

There is an unforgettable movie in the visitor’s center.  It contains footage recorded by
Russians when they liberated the camps.

Then I went to Birkenau by bus.  Row upon row of barracks meet the eye.  Housing for
100,000 tightly packed, enslaved prisoners.  Tall barbed-wire fences.

A rail line starkly penetrates the camp.  A large photograph shows that rail line with several
thousand disembarked soon-to-be prisoners lined up.  Some were sent into the barracks, others
had to walk a half mile or so into the “showers.”  Sophie’s choice would have taken place
here.  A single SS, looking relaxed, is standing at the head of the line.  Towers are a short
distance away, manned by machine gunners.  People are still carrying luggage.

From the railroad disembarkation point, I enter the barracks.  They  are stark.  Bare wooden
beds.  Row upon row of them.  Dirt floors.

Next the ovens.   Hear and feel the now dead voices crying.  Smell the burning hair and the
sickly sweet smell of cooked human flesh.

Later in the war, the rail lines were extended to the death chambers.  About 4000 people at a
time were stripped and herded inside.  When the Russians were close by, the Germans
exploded the chambers, but there is plenty left to see.  You cannot go inside, however.

In nearby pits are bone fragments of a million or so people.  There I put my foot.

7/05-06/98 Sunday and Monday


To Torun via Warsaw (Warsawa), changing trains in the capital.  Not far from the station is
the former headquarters of the Communist Party.  That building is now used for the stock
exchange.  A group of twenty or so people demonstrate in the large lobby.  They lay in or on
sleeping bags.  At their information desk there is a picture of the pope.  Nearby a group sings
Silent Night in English.

We arrive in the near darkness at the tiny station in Torun.  A cab ride to the Hotel Polonia
costs just a few dollars.  The room is about $18 (60z).  It is large, with two double beds, a
sink, table and chairs.  Facilities are down the hall, the lobby is on the first level up, not the
ground level.   There is a television in the lobby, with five or six people watching the Polish
language offering.  The old town (Stare Misto) is moments away.

For breakfast Monday morning the twenty-four-hour store a few meters away sold us pats of
butter, yogurt, cheese and excellent sausage.  Some excellent, seedy breads came from the
bakery a door or two from the grocery store.  No coffee to be found except at the

The City Hall clock is fourteen meters high.  The hall is a large brick structure.  Many of the
city’s other buildings are brick, like ones we have seen elsewhere in Central/Eastern Europe,
dating from and built by the Germans (Teutons) who ruled here in the middle ages.   Poles
arose and ejected the Germans after 200 years.  Brick defensive walls are still visible in many
spots around town.  There are several large, brick churches.  Across from the City Hall there
is a fine brick structure with a multi-colored roof.

The old city walls built by the Knights are on the south side of town.  The castle was ruined
during the war of expulsion.  We only have the foundations.

I learned that movies shown in the theaters are subtitled in Polish, or sometimes the Polish
dubbing allows you to hear the original language.

The Wista River is about 1/4 mile (about .5 km) wide here.  People  fish off the bank using
long poles.  You can cross by bus for 1.2 z (taxi was 10z last night) but there is nothing to do
except look back across the river at the medieval turrets and spires of Torun.  Torun was part
of the Hanseatic League, no doubt in large part due to the navigability of the river.  There is
a 75′ tour boat that plies the river from Torun.  We find it too cold and rainy to take the ride.

As in Krakow, people here are quiet in public; all of the ground floors of buildings are
dedicated to shops; the buildings are not in as good condition as in Praha.  There is no
internet cafe in town.  Pizzerias are everywhere.   Copernicus (Kopernik), the medieval
astronomer who postulated the then controversial notion that the earth moves around the sun,
was born here.


My back responds to ointment and aspirin at 3 a.m. so at last I sleep.  At 6, we are on the
bus going to the train station.  We are controlled by two young men in blue jeans, the first
time we have seen any such effort in Poland.  Notably, they did so on the bus going to the
train station, a perfect place to find people who have not bought tickets for their baggage.
We have the necessary tickets.

How to get accurate information about the trains

Gdansk is our destination.  Yesterday we bought our train tickets at the station.  I used a
piece of paper with Gdansk written on it, along with the following: 1 class ___________ z?
and 2 class _________z?   This worked.  The clerk wrote the prices for both first and second
class, and the departure times.  Having her write it down saved everyone time, toil and
trouble.  First class cost on 10z more so we bought them, 33z each in total

The train we think we should be on does not say “Gdansk.”  Since it is the only train leaving
at the time specified and it is on the proper quay, we conclude that it is our’s.   The conductor
pointed to a specific car when I asked, “Gdansk.”  A man in our compartment nodded yes to
my inquiry, but followed with a long explanation.  We guessed that he was telling us that the
train was going to split.  This is exactly what happened, an hour later.

From Slovakia to the Czech Republic

Czech Republic

06/24/98 (Wednesday)

Brno, Czech Republic

Yesterday on the train from when the conductor said we had to pay a supplement.  Apparently for being on an international train.  The conductor went to get another conductor, and together they discussed our situation.  They told us that we had to pay 550 SK each, about $12.  Then they both left without collecting anything from us.  The first one later returned.  He said in halting English if we paid 550 SK for all of us, “It would be better for us, and better for him.” Sounds to me like he was going to pocket the money.  That he did not give us a receipt confirmed my suspicion.  He also said that this “supplement” was for the Slovakian portion of the trip only.

Later we saw him and the other conductor escorting a stunning blond with a fabulous figure toward the first class section of the train.  I figured that she was paying her supplement with a contribution to the mental health of the conductors.  A short while later she passed us again as we were sitting in the bar car.  Her expression was revealed nothing about what she had or had not revealed moments before.

We arrived without further supplemental payments in Brno.  Our room, located via the accommodations bureau, is in a private house a few hundred meters from the train station.  To get there, we walked up the slight incline of the main street for about 20 minutes through most of  the business section of the town.  The ATM at the station produced the necessary local currency.  A mid-30’s gent greeted and settled us with practiced ease.  Our room is large and connected to Kay’s and Nic’s room.  There are small w.c. across the hall, recent additions.  We share the bath with the washing machine and the family. Our street is busy only with pedestrian traffic, near the center of the old town.

The buildings in the area are adorned with statues.  The best are the figures, called the Four Ninnies, who try to hold onto their loin cloths while bearing the load of the building.  There is a fountain that glorifies Europe at the expense of ancient Persia, Greece and Babylon.  The City Hall has fabulously carved draperies decorating the front.  The architect the city hired to do the Hall became angry when he thought the city was mistreating him and so he made the tower above the statue of Justice crooked.  At least, so legend says.

Today’s tour begins with the 13th century Spilberk Castle overlooking the town.  It has served both as a fortress and a prison where torture was carried out over the course of many centuries.  The Nazis used it during WWII.  After the steep and long walk to the top for the great views, we entered the museum.

Best collection of torture tools that I have ever seen:  thumb twisters, finger smashers, spine stretchers, and more.  Most of the instruments are medieval, while a few were from the Nazi occupation.  In keeping with tradition, the Gestapo used the facility for prisoner interrogation. There are extensive exhibits discussing the evolution of Czech criminal procedures, including those in effect during the Austro- Hungarian Empire.  The corridors are damp and dark, so dark that without light getting lost would not require much effort.  Prisoner cells could be heated. The accommodations for the guards were not much better than those for the prisoners.

During the afternoon Nic and I went to the nearby reservoir via tram.  I hoped to rent a motor boat.  The tram ride is 7 kilometers and takes about 30 minutes for about $.20.  Finding a boat turns out to be a challenge.  We wandered about until I decided to ask at the nearby hotel.  The clerk directed me across the lake where they had rentals. If we had a boat, it was only 1/2 mile.  We walked about two miles along the road in the cool, sunny weather.  There were no signs so I had a point and click conversation with a woman who pointed the way.

They had no power boats.  They had rickety rowboats.  It was not long before we lost interest.  Along the way back to the tram we ate cherries from trees at the side of the road.  The cherries were sweet and flavorful, the best I have eaten.  In the meantime, Peg and Kay went to Moravsky Krumlov.  Here there is an extensive collection of the work of the Czech Alfons Mucha.  He was born nearby, and is famous for his posters.  His fame resulted from the posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s plays in Paris, in the 1920′, I think.  He is also famous for his depictions of Slavic history and was a strong supporter of the Czech Republic between the wars;  he designed the postage stamps and currency.  By the time the Nazis came, he was an old man, but they arrested and questioned him nonetheless.



Small roads through gorgeous countryside take us to Telc on the bus (115 koruna).  The walk to town is about a mile long.  The rough sidewalks make hauling a wheeled bag very difficult.  Telc is clean and quiet.  We find the huge main square after we cross the stream on a bridge.  Peg wanders about and in a shop finds someone whose friend has a B&B very nearby.  He appears quickly in his car, and drives us two minutes to his house.  A connected building houses three rooms, all in excellent condition.  700 korunas (crowns) per night at 34.5 to the dollar, so that’s about $20, including breakfast.

The friendly man in his 50’s speaks a little English.  He just sold the attached shop and is now semi-retired, just caring for his guests. Many of them are Austrian day-trippers visiting the town.  The square is the main attraction and we were there again before long.  The square is about 150 yards long and about 75 yards wide, I figure, and is on a north-south alignment.  The walkways are gothic, while the facades above are baroque.  Many buildings are painted in a pastel green.  Some perhaps all of the peaks have facades extending well beyond the roof line.

At the north end is the castle (hrad).  We are in time for the tour. Our petite, friendly guide speaks German fluently and English haltingly in a faint voice.  The interior is richly decorated and furnished.  I did not make notes and do not have anything in writing to refer to.  It’s worth another visit at a later date.

Dinner on the square is hearty, tasty, filling and inexpensive (108).

The friendly host delivered a mighty breakfast of cold sausages, bread, cheese and coffee.  Everyone but me is off for Prague.  They miss the bus and take the train.  I spend the day sketching, resting and enjoying this town.  I particularly liked gazing at the bridge, stream and castle from a bench behind the castle.



Our friendly host drove me to the station, as he did Peg et al. yesterday.  At the station there are about a dozen stands where the various buses land to embark passengers.  The friendly travelers respond affirmatively when I say, “Praha?”, so I am sure I am on the right line.  The big bus cruises through beautiful countryside.  There are more teenagers than I have seen before.  The summer vacation must be beginning.  Most people sit quietly, reading or staring out the windows.

It takes us about four hours to get to Prague (Praha).  My bus lands at the Florenc metro/bus station.  I am supposed to meet Peg at the Hlavin Nadrazi.  It takes me a while and some long walks inside the station, but I finally figure out how to get to the meeting point via metro.   A young and inexperienced traveler might have had a panic attack.  I had a beer instead, focusing on it while the little gray cells did what they love to do, when left alone long enough.  Even managed to buy a day ticket from the machine, and confirmed with the clerk that I did not need a ticket for the damn back pack.  She happily answered my gestured question. They have big signs saying in English, German and other languages that if your bag is bigger than 70 cm in length (and they gave the two other dimensions, but I do not recall them), you have to pay extra.  I was not sure of the size of my pack in metric measure.  Were there such signs in Brataslava ,but just not where we bought the tickets we used?  Perhaps that is why we did not know.

The next round in the battle is with the lockers at Hlavin Nadrazi. After ten minutes trying to find them, I then spend another five minutes looking for the instructions.  When I finally find them, they are in Czech.  I ask a fellow backpacker.  Following his instructional gestures and grunts, which takes another five minutes, I lose 10 kroners.  Then I have to find more change.  That takes another five minutes, not including the time it took to eat the sausage.  So back to the lockers.

Finally I figure it out.  There are numbers visible from the front of the locker and another set visible from the back.  You choose your own combination.  It makes the most sense if you choose from the inside; it is easier to hide the combination from your neighbors.  But how does the machine know what you chose if the outside set has differing numbers from the inside set?  You have to put the coins in after you close the door, otherwise you lose your money.

There is some really neat stuff nearby and I have time, so off I go. Flying right past the Pizza Hut, McDonalds and KFC, I make for the Staromestske namesti, the Old Town Square.  It is an enormous and beautiful plaza.  Here are Tyn Church where Tycho Brahe’s tomb is, the Jan Hus monument, House by a Stone Bell, Powder Tower, King’s Way and a gigabyte of tourists.
After walking about 500 meters toward the Plaza, it dawned on me that after closing the door to the locker, I did not move the tumbler.  It might be possible for someone to just open the door!  The computer! No insurance!  A brisk ten minute walk back revealed that there was no problem.

The Staromestske namesti is an impressive sight.  I have never seen so many attractive centuries old structures gathered around a plaza of  this size.  Most buildings appear to have been recently repaired, renewed or cleaned, or all three.  I could easily imagine Tycho pondering bodily motions from this spot, as celestial and earthly bodies both would look more magnificent with this plaza as a setting.  If I knew more history and architecture, I would love to say more about Staromestske namesti.
Some British women told me where to find an internet cafe called the Terminal Bar.  Along the way I pondered an old, thick, squatty tower not far from the station.  By time I found the cafe, a high-tech, cavey looking joint, it was time to meet Peg.  She was waiting for me at the station.  When I returned with the backpack, she was gone.  It took me fifteen minutes to find her seated on the opposite side of the kiosk, not five feet from me.


Last night’s accommodations had some unusual features.  It wasn’t that the showers down the hall were odd in appearance or location.  It’s odd that you can’t get out of the hotel before 8:00 A.M. without getting someone sleeping in a room on the other side of the locked exit door to let you out.  To arouse the gatekeeper you have to bang on the door.  They don’t want you to leave in the middle of the night without paying. This could mean that leaving in an emergency could be a problem. I guess the fire department does not do safety inspections here, or their exit standards are a bit low.

Their restaurant offers good dining at lunch and dinner (400k for Peg and me including beverages), but breakfast is not served.  We have to go about a mile to get a cup of coffee, and then the only choice is McDonalds.  Nothing but burgers and the rest of the regular menu is available there.  First time I have been in an American fast food place since I left the states.  We assembled breakfast with the McD’s coffee and various roles and sandwiches from a little store in the metro station.  Convenience may not be a household word here.  But who cares when you are in a city as charming as Prague in June?

We found another B&B on this end of town but on the other bank, not far from the river, well served by tram and bus.  Nearby are various camper/tenter B&B’s.  These are odd combinations of backyard campgrounds for tents and caravans and regular rooms.  Some of them serve breakfast and other meals as well.  Our rooms are in an older house.  Our room overlooks a garden and pool.  The bath is across the hall, the homeowner’s living room next door.  Kay and Nic are in a neat basement.  The walls are lined with hunting decor, the usual horn and stuffed body, along with a few swords, hovering over us.  Also not far away there is a boat doc for river cruises, and a renovated mansion shining pink in the sun.   We walked and walked and never found the boat doc.

Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle)

Today is Kay and Nic’s last day in Wonderland, so it is fitting that we are visiting Prazsky Hrad, Prague Castle, the medieval center of the city.  The Castle is actually a complex of buildings, some of which are museums, and monuments.  There are many sharp spires and steep roofs, defining features of the City.  Here you find the Royal Palace, Vladislav Hall, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, Zlata ulicka (ulicka means ‘street’).  The latter is full of tiny houses built into the castle wall, and the offices of the President of the country.  The castle complex has three major courtyards.  Wandering about takes a few hours.  It would transport you back in time, except it is too clean, well cared for and not smelly enough to be medieval.

St. Vitus’ Cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture, even though it was not completed until 1929.  Its windows are flamboyant, very flowery and free-form.  Inside there is a room that contains a tomb of someone famous, but I failed to write his name down.   This room is the most bizarre one I have seen to date.  Peg says that the ceiling is elaborately carved wood, the walls painted with an enamel made the room look like it was decorated with mosaics.  The enameled colors were bright and rich.

The current structure is the third one to stand on this site.  First was a rotunda built in 929, then a basilica in 1060.  The current structure was started in 1360.  There have been 30 coronation ceremonies, and fifteen kings are buried here.  We wandered about in this part of the city, outside the castle complex using the trams.  Peg likes to just take off without really knowing where she is going, which is not my favorite thing to do in a new city.  If I know we are going to be doing this in advance, I can more easily go along with it.   But since this was not part of the plan, we ran into our usual conflict.  We resolved it by heading back into the main part of the city.  I argued that where we were headed did not look too interesting.  But I was not sure.


Peg goes with Kay and Nic to the airport.  I go with the laundry to the laundromat.  That journey takes about 45 minutes in each direction via metro.  Laundry facilities are rare here.  There are machines a block away at the B&B/campground where we had breakfast but they were available to their guests only. A woman helped me with the laundry, although this is the self-service section.  Apparently lots of English speakers come here because there are many books and magazines laying about for you to read while waiting.  She came and got me when the washing machine was done.  Then you put the clothes into a heavy-duty centrifuge that lowers drying time to fifteen minutes per load.

When Peg and I reunited, we visited Staronova Synagog, the oldest synagogue in Europe (1270).  They gave me a yarmulke to wear while in the temple.  The columns are of a bluish marble.  The presence of stained glass in the ceiling and on the walls surprised me.   It made the place look more like a church, an effect also produced by the rows of wooden pews.  It occurred to me that I have never been in an actively used synagogue.  I do not know what they look like.  Maybe they all look like churches.
From about the 900’s Jews have been seeking refuge in Praha from persecution elsewhere in Europe.  By the 18th century, one quarter of the population was Jewish, living in Josefov, the ghetto.  In the 19th century, much of the ghetto was razed, including synagogues, to widen thoroughfares.  By the second war, there were only 35,000 Jews living in the ghetto.  At the war’s end, 13,000  or more had died.  Only 1300 returned to live there.  There are several Jewish museums here.   We did not go in any of them, although they sound worthwhile.

06/30/98 (Tuesday)

The decorative arts museum features an exhibit entitled, “Czech Art Deco:1918-38.”  It is housed in a beautifully art-deco decorated building shared with the symphony.  The symphony was rehearsing for its “Best of Mozart” concert as we climbed the marble staircase, itself used for part of the exhibition.  Hearing some sections of the Magic Flute while added to the great pleasure this museum provided.

Inside: cabinets, chairs and other furniture, 1920’s high heels, sequined dresses, decanters, drinking cups and more.  The art deco movement in the Czech Republic started in 1918, “…and constituted the backbone of artistic work during the early years of the Republic…” (on-site pamphlet).  Art deco fell out of favor when the communists took over in 1948.  Too rich, too decadent, too wasteful, too non-functional for their taste.

At 1:30 we boarded the river boat (40k).  It disembarked upstream from our B&B, on the opposite bank, and went downstream toward our residence.  The 90 minute cruise takes us through two locks, a great view of Charles Bridge and its many statues, as well as of Prague in general.  Some areas we passed by contain large warehouses.  Children were swimming and kayaks maneuvering in a part of the river isolated from boat traffic by an island.  If the river did not seem dirty and was safe, a swim would be attractive.  The temperature is in the mid- 80’s and there is not a cool spot on the boat, and very little to
drink.  We disembark near the zoo, not 25 yards from where we were the other day when trying to find this boat.  We see no sign anywhere advertising the boat’s presence.  Here’s another business opportunity wasted, one that would not take much to fix.

Under threatening rain clouds we walk to a Portuguese Restaurant.  Hot in the dining room.  Slow service.  Decent food, more Italian than Portuguese, and good wine (50k for a liter of red). Tomorrow we leave for Poland on a 7:45 a.m. train.

Prague is definitely worth another visit.

After Romania, Slovakia 6/98


06/21/98 (Sunday)

The train to Bratislava, Slovakia leaves at 10:30 and arrives at 1:30
for a price of 3500 HUFs ($17).  Our train is destined for Italy.  It
is far more attractive than the trains restricted to Romania.  There
is a dining car.  The attractive countryside we see on the journey is
littered with small farms.

There is a hotel reservation bureau at the station in Bratislava.
They at first only offered rooms at $10 per person or $20 per person;
the former was one large room for the four of us in a private house.
We continued to talk to them and finally, after making a phone call,
the place that wanted $20 agreed to take the four of us for $15 per
person.  The number one trolley took us to the center of the old part
of town (Staré mesto) within a few blocks of the hotel.  It took us
about ten frustrating minutes to figure out where the hotel was from
where we got off.

The hotel’s exterior is another in the Communist-block style, 1950’ish
modern, dull with concrete and gray with dirty windows.  Inside it was
obviously upscale, for this part of the world.  Everything looked well
cared for, the booking was done on the computer, there were
televisions (local channels only) and telephones in our rooms.  The
bath and shower were also in good condition.

We were expecting to see many restaurants on the nearby streets, per
the guide book.  But Sunday finds most of them closed.  We find one
open, offering our first glance at the cuisine.  For 44 SK ($1.30) I
got a below par but acceptable wiener schnitzel and some form of
cabbage.  An unexciting experience for all, a notch below anything we
had experienced in Central Europe to date.

Volkswagen is sponsoring a jazz concert in a small downtown plaza,
just a few blocks off the Danube.  The band is excellent and the
sounds fill the plaza.  Jazz seems as popular here as it is in Romania
and Hungary.  The buildings in the Staré mesto (there is an accent
mark on the ‘e’ of Stare) date from the middle ages.  The castle
(hrad) dominates the hill that in turn dominates this part of the

This area was settled first by Celts.  The Romans added
fortifications.  The Great Moravians, about whom I have learned
nothing so far, came in around the 5th century.  I think Slovakia was
ruled by the Turks before becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian

We found a store open and bought some yogurt, cereal and milk for
breakfast.  Food stores are spare in this area, and that this one was
still open seemed miraculous.  The store was clean, well organized,
well stocked with vegetables, lots of apples but not much in other
fruits, and generally well provisioned for a small store.  The prices
seemed low to us.



The castle was burned down in 1811, reconstructed in 1954.  To get
there we took the tram.  The tram costs about $.20 per ride.  We
missed our stop (we should have gotten off on the downtown side of the
tunnel), we got to see the newer sections of town.  It was filled with
communist era block apartments.  After choosing a place to disembark
on the way back, we climbed to the summit in 30 degree (85F)
temperatures;  fortunately the humidity was low.  From the summit we
enjoyed the view of the fat Danube below and the flat countryside that
stretches endlessly outward, the undulating hills receding into a
distant mist.

There are two museums in the castle.  We did not go in either one.
One is called the Treasures of Slovakia’s Past, an archeological
museum.  The other is the Museum of History.

That afternoon I spent resting my back, still painful and stiff.

We ate dinner at a Jewish restaurant.  This is the first time I have
eaten at a restaurant so designated.  It was good but pricey compared
to most places we have eaten in ($19 for two, including beverages).  I
can’t remember what the food was like in detail, although I remember
fish on the menu.  Peggy can’t remember anything either, as I write
this in September from my handwritten notes.  There was a sink in the
dining area for washing your hands, a feature we noted in some other
restaurants as well.  The service was elegant.  They had a hotel at
$19 for a double.  This hotel was not mentioned at the accommodations
bureau.  The hotel was attractive on the outside, far more so than our
communist block, and overlooked the old town.


A Fine Day

After the buffet breakfast at the hotel and on the way to the train
station to catch the 9:00 a.m. train for the Czech Republic, the
ticket police stopped us.  We all had tickets.  He asked, in fair
English, if we had shown him all the tickets we had for the tram.
Yes, we had.  He said we had failed to buy luggage tickets.  What?  We
had not seen anything telling us to buy tickets for the luggage, and
did not recall seeing anything in our guide books telling us we needed

Yes, there is a fine, he said.  Kay offered to buy the tickets,
pulling out some money.  Too late, he said, we had to pay the fine,
700 SK’s I think, about $20.  But after a moment, it became apparent
that is was $20 per bag, $80 total for the four of us!  I became angry
at that point.  I said that it is a bad idea to fine tourists.  They
will not come back to the country to spend their money, and will tell
their friends not to go.  He said that he had to pay a fine in
Switzerland.  If we wanted them to be treat us with respect, then we
had to treat them with respect when they visited our countries.  I
told him that the Swiss were silly to fine him for riding on the wrong
side of a road on his bicycle.  Did he want to go back to Switzerland
after his experience, I asked, and answered “No,” for him.  So why
make us not want to return to spend money in Slovakia?  None of my
arguments worked.  We had to pay him.

I wasn’t planning to go back anyway, as there is not much to see and
do.  But now I will make sure I don’t.  Not that they would miss a big
expenditure from me.

With a bad taste in our mouth but with time to spare, we made our
train.  We had changed a little too much money (via the ATM’s) so we
had to waste some at the train station.  Changing SK’s (Slovak Crowns)
outside the country is very difficult.  Peggy discovered about $50 in
HUF’s (Hungarian) in her purse that we couldn’t exchange in Slovakia.
On the train in Hungary, we were asked if we had any HUF’s left.  Now
we know why they asked.

Romania 6/98



Peg writing:

We flew from Izmir into Bucharest on June 4, and took a train out of
Bucharest into Transylvania as quickly as we could get to the train
station.  Our guidebook and several first-hand experiences related by
various Turkish acquaintances had convinced Gary that Romania was full
of thieves and ex-Communist thugs.  He would have been happier flying
over Romania and directly into Budapest.  But as this may well be our
only foray into ex-communist Europe, I was determined to see Romania.

Gary again:

A I recall, it was Bulgaria that I was convinced was full of thieves
and ex-Communist thugs.  I read about the thieves and thugs in the
guide books and several travelers recounted horror stories.  Our desk
clerk in the first hotel in Istanbul said, “Bulgaria very cheap.  Good
for me.  When I came back, I did not even have to carry my luggage.
Some people I met befriended me, found out where I was staying, broke
into my hotel, and carried my luggage away.  This is a common thing to
do in Bulgaria.”  My main concern about Romania was having to live in
either abject poverty with the locals, or pay big bucks for barely
middle-class facilities.

Peg again:

In fact, we have found nothing but kind, helpful, scrupulously honest
people.  They live in a world so derelict that to describe it as
pre-World War II would be a compliment.  [I don’t think it’s that bad;
it’s generally clean although polluted- G]  We visited four cities,
and everywhere the story was the same – the taxis are 30 years old
[they are early 1970’s Daccia, which are Renault 12’s built under a
license with France- G] and coming to pieces, due to having been
driven on totally pot-holed roads [they were not great cars to begin
with- G].  Most of the wiring shows, as they’ve been amateurly rigged
when the electrical systems gave out [hey, what’s wrong with a few
yards of duct tape here and there? -G].  The sidewalks and roadbeds
are crumbling, the trains are filthy and falling apart.  Most of the
buildings have not been repaired in 35-40 years.  The towns are
unbelievably shabby.  The air in all towns except for the tiny ones is
sooty and lead-polluted.  I would not put my foot into most of the
rivers or streams – they look nasty.

Apparently, no one has any money.  If you buy something, the clerk
NEVER has change – money is simply not circulating.  I was looking for
a couple of light-weight tops, as the weather was unusually hot and
sticky.  We had made a friend in Sibiu, who took me shopping.  There
was NOTHING TO BUY.  Shops are tiny, with very small selections of
goods.  Granted, we’ve chosen to stay in the smaller towns, but they
are not villages, and towns of this size in western Europe would have
much more stuff available for sale.

Gary again:

And she wants me to have my tooth drilled here!

From the airport in Bucharesti we took a van to the train station ($15
for two).  The driver spoke some English. The van was a new Ford.  We
drove down large, attractive boulevards, past a monster building built
by the previous regime.  He told me that I could find private dentists
where we were going.

Sighishoara, the home town of Dracula

We climbed aboard the train for Sighishoara, home of Dracula, in the
area called Transylvania.  This was after a point and click lunch in
the station.  We find the only sit down restaurant, and by gesture
confirm that there is time to eat before in the 45 minutes remaining
before our 1:00 P.M. departure.  On the menu are such Romanian words
as ‘porc’ and ‘jambon.’!  The menu states the charge per 100 grams.  I
indicated that we want small portions.  We were charge the 100 gram
price.  Very good food, $10 for everything, including a beer and a

While we were in the station, several taxi drivers offered us rides to
Sighishoara.  We got estimates ranging from $40-$100.  The train cost
$4.00 or so each.  Can’t beat that.

But the train was very slow, taking about 5 hours to go less than, oh,
200 miles, at most.  It was too hot, maybe 30 degrees C (85), to
sleep.  There is music to keep us up also:  Romanian rap and folk,
jazzercise.   We arrived in Sighishoara at 5:40 P.M.

At the station in Sighishoara, a young woman came up to Peg and asked
her if were looking for a place to stay.  Peg affirmed, and off we

Meet Marinella and her 1970-ish Daccia, which spits and rumbles
flawlessly over the rough roads leading to the old town.  Marinella
speaks English reasonably well.  She is 23 years old and very
attractive.  She teaches school.  Her students are ages 7-11.  In
their system, a teacher has the same children for four years.  A
teacher must have attended a special high school, and then pass a
difficult exam.  I am not sure if there is any additional education
required after that.

She tells us that headmasters do not usually advertise openings,
hoping to hire someone they know.  So she had to be constantly on the
lookout for positions.  She is not sure if this would be the case
elsewhere in the country.

She said she was waiting for some Russians but since they did not
show, she approached us.  She says that they normally only get
customers through a friend in Bucharesti.  I got the feeling that she
was looking us over while we wandered about hoping someone would offer
us accommodation.

We ascend into the old town, five minutes from the train station, and
arrive at her house.  She lives with her parents, her sister, her
grandmother and Stupid Annoying, the dog that I named as I walked
through the gate.

The house is on two levels, and the neighboring houses are just a few
feet away on the sides.  We walk down to the first level via a
sidewalk into the backyard filled with grape plants, and enter through
the kitchen door.  Our room is upstairs.  It has a big, comfortable
bed that converts to a sofa.  The ‘mattress’ is really the seat
cushions, but they turn out to be more comfortable than most
convertible sofas we have slept on.  This is obviously their living
room, judging by the furniture in the room, and the fact that
Petronella is watching a soap opera when we walked in.  She is 18,
still in high school, and stubbornly refusing to leave the room,
despite her sister’s instructions.  She had to watch that soap!

Petronella definitely has commercial potential.  After the soap opera,
she pointed out to her older sister that the price for the room we
were staying in was $24.  For $20, we would have to sleep in the
hallway on a cruddy bed.  Seemed like they were swindling us a bit,
the good old bate and switch, but then I looked at those sweet,
innocent faces and decided that Marinella had just made a mistake.

We had dinner in a place that Marinella recommended.  It was an
Italian place.  It was quite good and inexpensive as well, $3-4 each.


Breakfast was included in the room price, although we did not know
this until breakfast.  Peg had a very crisply fried egg.  I had good

Bra ov

We went to Bra ov by train.  It is 1 1/2 hours in the direction of
Bucharesti.  We were told we could not buy a first class ticket.  It
turned out to be unnecessary.  The train was much less full and newer
than the one we were on yesterday.  When we arrived, we walked about 2
kilometers into the center.  We could have come by cab or taken the
trolley.  We finally found an ATM.  There were lots of places to
change money, at a rate of 8500 to the dollar.

The old part of the town was built by Saxons.  There is an impressive
number of brick fortifications build in the 12th century.  We visited
Biserica Neagta (Black Church), 1385-1477.  It is now the most
southeasterly Protestant church.  The walls are filled with 17th and
18th century from Anatolia, Turkey.


[Back in Sighishoara]

We were invited to have a typical Romanian supper with the family.
Their supper was white beans pureed to the consistency of mashed
potatoes, with a sauce of garlic, onion and paprika sautéed in oil.
Also served was slaw and crusty bread.  It didn’t taste bad, but it
made me wonder what the poor people eat.  After supper, the girls gave
me the world’s worst manicure. [I figure that this was a ‘ward off
Dracula’ meal – G]

The countryside is fairly attractive – green hills full of small plots
of farmland.  From the train, we’ve seen many people working in the
hot sun, hoeing weeds or scything hay.  Almost everyone uses a horse
drawn wooden cart to get to and from the fields.

The family told us that life in Romania is still very hard, but also
freely said that a big part of the problem is that the people “do not
want to work, or accept responsibility for themselves.”

Gary again:

Sighishoara’s old town looked and felt like it had not changed much in
hundreds of years.  The houses were in good shape, and are row houses
of some medieval style.  Peg also called Sighishoara’s old town a
movie set, ready and waiting for the next Hollywood producer to come

People seem well dressed.  There is some begging but a lot less than
in Spain, and no more than in Turkey.  The stores are stocked,
although they are not stuffed to the brim as they are in Turkey.  The
prices are marked, although I think that inflation was a problem not
too long ago.  The Romanian Lei is at 8500 to the dollar.

Peg again:

What I have found amazing is that every shopgirl working in the
smallest kiosk in every depressing railway station, every young guy
waiting tables, and every child under 12, speaks acceptable English. I
cannot get over it.  And they always have a big smile when they are
able to help you out.

Gary again

Petronella makes a few comments about little things that we own.  A
nail file.  A cheap pen.  There is so much admiration in her voice for
these little things that I can’t help but think that they are hard to
come by.


To Sibiu

I would have gladly stayed with Marinella and Petronella a few more
days.  They were charming and as helpful as they could be.  They found
someone to wash some clothes for us.  Some old lady who apparently
could not see got them back to us quickly.  I say that she obviously
could not see because some clothes were dirtier than when we sent
them.    They also ordered us a cab that never showed up.  So we
walked the two miles or so to the train station, down the steep
hillside, across the river, and past the church.

Point and click and voila!  A second class ticket is ours.  Can’t we
go first class?  Click point click point click click point point.
There ain’t no first class on this train, Bubba.  There ain’t no
class, period!

Toothache has subsided enough that I have not gone to a dentist yet.

Along the way we had to change trains.  We were in the middle of
nowhere that used to be somewhere, for next to us were 1950 vintage
factories.  They are now abandoned, their huge and once deadly
smokestacks idle in the crystal clear skies.  In front of the station
is a small store.  The young woman speaks some English.  She sells us
some bread, sausage and fruit for lunch.  There are tables for those
who want to eat.  There is no prepared food; this is not a New York
deli, ya know.

Eventually we got to Sibiu.  It is a town of some 250,000.  A $.25 cab
ride got us to the center of town.  After a few conversations, we
found the Communist Block Hotel.  It is about 12 stories, concrete,
glass, and sporting a decor that would make a classless society proud;
not bad, but not pretty either.  There is an elevator, however, a
shower and w.c. in the room.  All this and more for $25.

In the communist days, women would sit at the exits and monitor the
comings and goings of foreigners and maybe citizens as well.  Many
were in the employ of the secret police.

That evening we ate at the fanciest place in town. Beautiful dining
room.  English menu (which are pretty common in Romania), great food
and good wine.  $12 or so for two!  The food seems more like French
cooking than any other cuisine.  It is definitely Continental.


Public hospitals, private dentists

No sleep again last night.  I gotta see a dentist or get some serious
pain medication.  I turn my life over to Peg now.  She consults with
the desk clerk.  No dentists on Sundays, and this is a holiday so many
are out of town.

Oh, this is perfect.  Just what I love: testing our ability to
overcome these sorts of challenges while I suck on ice water to avoid
screaming in pain on the floor.

Peg again

In Sibiu, where we stayed for three days, Gary developed a severe
toothache. 6 years ago, the same thing happened in Budapest, this
time, in Romania, for crying out loud!  On a Sunday – on a holiday!!
[Look, I warned her!] Not a private dentist to be found anywhere.  So
we went to the hospital – unbelievably dirty, etc., where the dentisst
offered to pull the tooth.


The hospital:  paint peeling from the walls, pipes leaking.  Bathroom
was locked, but I think that was so they could concentrate the stench
further.  But they did have some pain medication.  The nurse broke a
little glass vial, pouring the contents into a cup while I wondered if
there were any glass shards about to descend into my gullet.  All of
this in point/click combined with a few words in English.

At 8 A.M. the dentist arrived.  I went into her surgery where she
examined me.  Her examination consisted of looking at my x-rays and
wiggling my tooth.  She wiggled it a little, it moved a little.
That’s how she decided a course of treatment.  “The tooth must come
out,” she declared.

Since I probably had $700 in that tooth – why should that tooth be any
different from all the others I have – I declined her offer.  But she
did give me some novocaine, expertly injected, and told me in
Point/Click and a little English that 1) she did not have the proper
tools and 2) I should see a private dentist tomorrow.  She said she
would do her best if I wanted her to try, while pointing to her only
drill bit.  She seemed glad that I decided to wait for a private
dentist.  I said goodbye, wished her a happy 21st birthday when it
finally arrived, and headed back to the hotel.

Meet Spear Chucker, aka  Doru.

After we went to the pharmacy, we hailed a cab, whose driver spoke
very good English.  Doru used to be a physicist.   After hearing about
our situation, he phoned a friend of his, a dental student, to find
out if there wasn’t a private dentist somewhere in Sibiu who would
help.  Her name is Aura, and she is a stunningly beautiful blonde
woman in her late twenties or so.

The first guy who examined me decided that the tooth I thought was the
problem was not in fact the problem.  He looked at my xray (I have the
one’s my dentist in Dallas did in 1995 and the full mouth that I had
done in Spain with me at all times; I am an experienced dental
patient, after all).  There was the arrow that Jaime had drawn,
pointing out the potential problem.  But the pain was definitely
coming from another tooth.

Aura called the pro, who turned up 30 minutes later.  Unlike the first
guy, he knew what materials my teeth were made of.  He confirmed the
diagnosis and in a few more minutes, the offending nerve, or rather
the disintegrated mess that was once a nerve, was removed from my
porcelain-crowned tooth.  Four more visits and voila!  I am a happy
camper again.  All for the unbelievable price of $85!

Doru has a friend for life.

06/08/98 (Monday)

Last night we ate dinner in a fancy hotel, the Intercontinental.  We
were the only ones there for most of the time.  There were two
musicians entertaining us.  One is playing an electronic organ, the
other an electric guitar.  The organist asks where we are from.
America!  He skillfully plays Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”  Then he
plays “Over the Rainbow.”  Peg stands to sing along with him, doing an
admirable rendition.

This white table cloth meal with wine cost us $23.

Today we walked about town in between visits to the dentist for
further cleaning of the root canal.  The old town here is also a ready
made movie set.  Much of it is from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are several large plazas.

We notice that most people in restaurants and cafes do not eat.  They
just drink beer, wine or coke.  I asked Doru the next time he met us
to take me to the dentist. He said that most people cannot afford to
eat out.  He said he had not been in a restaurant in years.  In a good
month he makes about $200.

We took him out later for drinks.  Aura joined us.  We drove in her
Daccia.  Doru’s taxi had broken down.  He said it just refused to
start.  We sat outside, watching a storm develop. Doru told us that he
had several children and a wife.  He hoped that the planned oil or gas
pipeline would allow him to work in his field as it would pay more.
His specialty is the transport of explosive materials.

From the little cafe where we were sitting we could see the Fagara
(pro Fagarash) Mountains.  These mountains are rugged and can be
treacherous.  There are extensive hiking trails.  Accommodations are
about a day’s hike apart.  There are brown bears.

Later he found out that his car needed a battery.  He said that it had
been a slow month so the timing was bad.  I asked him how much the
batter would cost.  He said $20.  I gave him the $20.  It was the
least I could do.

More about Sibiu

Sibiu is one of the seven seats settled by the Saxons in Transylvania.
It was wealthiest and strongest for centuries.  The old town was once
called the City of Seven Towers.  There are five left. The towers and
the walls are brick, the main building material used by the Saxons, as
near as I can tell.  There are many interesting views from the walls,
especially on one side of town, where the hill descends sharply.

Near a church there is a tent in which you can get a beer and a
sausage.  It seemed very German.

There are many tunnels connecting the upper and lower towns.  These
were used to evacuate people during Turkish attacks on the city.  Most
of the tunnels are closed off, but there are steps in use.

Sibiu has many museums that are worth visiting.


On to Timi ora (Timishora)

Aura took Peg shopping for a blouse.  Peg was astounded by how cheaply
made the garments were, how difficult it was for merchants to make
change, and how readily Aura volunteered to help after Spear Chucker
helped translate.  Aura speaks some English but not as well as Spear

I bought a backpack.  The shopkeepers of the camping specialty store
spoke English fairly well, and were friendly and helpful.  For $40 I
bought one that would have cost $150 or more in the U.S.  I am hoping
that a backpack is more convenient than the large, wheeled, and now
battered canvas bag I have been hauling around.  That bag is only half

Doru took me to the dentist again and later took us to the train
station where we made our good byes.  We had arranged to meet at
something like 3 P.M.  He came early.  Aura told him that we would
miss our train if he did not pick us up early so he came looking for
us.  We had figured out the same thing and were hoping he would come,
or we would have to take another cab.

I was astounded when he turned up when he did.  I felt like we had a
friend thinking about us, not just a cabbie wanting to make another
fare.  He didn’t want to be paid for the ride to the train station.
He said he would pay Aura the 1500 or so lei Peg had to borrow when
the shop where she bought the blouse had no change.

Then it was on the painfully slow (6 hours: 1527 depart, 2127 arrive),
hot (85 degrees outside) and pretty train ride through the beautiful
countryside to Timi ora.  More small plots being farmed, sometimes by
women in their two piece bathing suits who seemed to be enjoying the
sun as they hoed.  No pun intended.

It seems that most people prefer to keep the train windows closed.
Despite the heat, the compartments are closed tight except perhaps for
the door.  Some people stand near open windows in the corridor.  Some
of them are smokers, others just there for the fresh air.

The train is French built, but a long time ago.  The toilet seat is
rusted in the open position.  The passenger seats, carpets and
everything else are worn and in some instances heavily soiled from the
sweat of decades of travelers.  The seat protectors, which are white
linen, have not been laundered in quite a while, or the little old
lady who did our laundry in Sighishoara had the laundry contract.

At last we arrived.  We took a cab to the Hotel Banatul ($24), less
than a mile away.  Fortunately there are rooms available.  What’s odd
is that there are small commercial offices on the second landing, two
of them travel agents.  To get to our room we had to go down a long,
bright yellow corridor to what seems to be the building next door.
Our room is pleasant, has a full bath (as did the one in Sibiu) but it
overlooks a street that could get noisy during the day.

A major pedestrian zone is nearby.  We are the last ones to eat at the
restaurant the desk clerk recommended.  Steak, steamed potatoes,
salad,  soup and a vodka tonic came to $10, of which $6 was for the
vodka tonic.  They even served ice with the tonic!

Speaking of vodka tonics, they are served as separate drinks.  You get
a bottle of tonic and a glass (about 4 ounces) of vodka.  You mix it

It is great to have almost no pain; I think the little bit left will
go away.  I will sleep again.

Timi ora is near the Hungarian border in the western part of Romania.
The Ottoman Turks were removed in 1716, and then it was governed by
the Hapsburgs.  There is a Turkish bath and a mosque from the late 16
hundreds.  There are still many ethnic Germans, whose ancestors came
here during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa and subsequent rulers.
I read that there is still a fair amount of German spoken.  In 1869
the city inaugurated one of the first horse-drawn trams and the first
electric street lighting in Europe.


It’s tourist time again!

We start at the pedestrian zone where we ate dinner.  It leads to a
huge Orthodox Church.  We were in one in Sibiu during a service.
There was straw spread about the floors, having something to do with
the service.  Priests sang the service while standing on the front
side of a large, decorated partition through which the congregation
sort of peeked.  On the side facing the congregation there panels
painted with the images of saints.  Worshipers make a sign of the
cross and then touch the floor. No chairs, everyone was standing.
This church is nearly empty but I remember little else about it.

We continued our walk to see what there was to see.  I noticed that
there is more money here than the other places we have seen in
Romania.  The buildings are in better condition, the cars are far
newer, decent looking trams, streets in better condition.  There are
more goods in the stores, more produce, more services available.

We see bulbous domes on churches.  We walk past a synagogue, medieval

Somehow we heard about a beer plant.  We walked several miles to get
there.  You cannot tour the plant but they do serve lunch.  They have
a large banquet hall with music amplification in place.  They serve
their own beer, one a toasty, dark one.  $6 for lunch for two and two
beers.  Peg’s sausages were 5000 lei, beer 3500 (8500 to the dollar).
Wooden ceilings 20-30 feet above, massive wooden braces supporting the
roof and concrete walls.  This is Neal Pointer’s kind of place.  I can
imagine him sitting here. For a very long time.

The Bega Canal runs through town.  It is very muddy with no apparent
signs of life, and no appeal whatsoever.  It is scheduled for
improvements to allow commercial traffic access to the Black Sea from
the Danube.

There is a respectable tourist magazine the city publishes.  One
article I read was “Winter Celebrations.”  Peasants from the Banat
area, which I take to be nearby, once celebrated annual
renewal/enrichment celebrations for twelve days starting December 20.
Each day symbolized a month.

There were  sacrifices (of what it did not say) and they performed a
ritual called “Strigarea peste Sat” or something like that.  This
ritual involved lighting fires on the hills and in the streets.  These
fires were kept burning for six weeks.  On the last night the carolers
are released in the village.  They sing songs about the host’s good
and bad qualities (I never could figure out who the ‘host’ was).  For
their efforts the carolers were given small, handmade bags filled with
nuts, fruits and pancakes.  Pancakes?  I have not seen pancakes of any
sort other than the ones I made in Spain.

The carolers brought with them prosperity and fertile soil.  The fires
referred to above were to purify.  I am not sure what they purified.
During this period (not sure if they meant the 12 days or the 6 weeks)
the sky opens and the spirits of the dead come back to bless the
house.  These beliefs are still alive in Banat villages.  Hey, no
worse a set of beliefs than Santa Claus and Jesus, as far as I am

The gifts at Christmas: food, pancakes and sausage.  Sounds like my
kind of gift.

Erotic shows and escort services in town are given the same treatment
as other business featured in the publication.  This consists of
articles by the magazine’s staff.

There are wooden churches in the area but we have not seen one.  One,
St. Mare Mucenic Dunitrie, was moved into town.  It was renovated
1967-72.  This surprised me.  I thought that the communist regime did
not permit this sort of thing.  The picture in the magazine shows a
small chapel, simple altar and a beautiful ceiling.

Our room was a bit smoky from car exhaust and noisy until about 1 a.m.
Nice shower, but no curtain so the floor gets wet, which is a common
situation even in Western Europe.  This room was recently redone.

We went to a market with $10 (about 85000 lei).  We bought 3 bananas,
2 oranges, 200 grams of smoked cheese, 200 of smoky sausage, a loaf of
bread and some tomatoes.  We spent only $2.50 for all this!  Some of
these items would be left off the shopping list of many Rumanians
because they are expensive.  This includes the bananas and oranges,
which are imported.

At a nearby farmer’s market there are tons of attractive fresh fruits,
including cherries, veggies and other items.  There are a million tiny
stalls.  Deliveries are being made from the back seats of cars.  Lots
of cabbage, peppers of a light green color, tomatoes, green onions,
new potatoes.  No garlic or large onions.  Fresh parsley.  Apples
complete with worm holes.  Squash.  Strawberries.  One row of stalls
has mainly soft, fresh cheeses.  Here come green beans and peas, some
little brown onions.  Kohlrabi.  Cauliflower.  Carrots.  Batteries, a
few tools but nothing else for the car or other hard goods.

We leave this afternoon.  Budapest is next.

The train to Budapest

On the modern, well maintained train headed for Italy there is a boy
age 8-10.  He slides along the floor, begging.  He has only one leg.
He stops at our door and begs for 8-10 minutes.  As he leaves, I
notice that there is no stump showing.  I can tell that he is sitting
on his other leg, which is inside the same trouser leg as the one we
see.  Peg gets up to see if she can confirm what I said.  She finds
him one compartment away, standing up while talking to a friend.  His
friend laughs as Peg wags her finger at the fraudulent amputee.  Doru
or someone had warned us not to give money to any beggars as they are
all frauds.  I did not believe this and still do not, but it sure made
me hesitate to give the little guy any money.

At the train station in Budapest we found an ATM machine.  We went to
both accommodation bureaus and the places they have left are $40 or
more per night.  We hang around in front of the main door of the
station.  Finally someone approaches us to see if we are looking for a
room.  We ask for details.  He says it is a small apartment with all
the amenities except a telephone.  He says it is $30 per night.  We
say we did not want to spend more than about $20.  He says $25 is the
best he can do, and that only because we are staying several nights at
least.  We agree to go with him to look at the place.  He says he will
bring us back to the station if we do not want the place.

His apartments are in a fairly modern building on the fourth floor.
The apartment he shows us is in great shape.  There are laundry
machines in the basement; this seems like a great luxury.  We are on
bus route 76, and can walk to the metro in less than 10 minutes.
There are two single beds that are in line with one another.  We must
sleep head to head or foot to foot.  Hard to snuggle here!  The
shower’s water supply is ingeniously connected to the bathroom sink’s
faucet.  It is obviously a retrofit shower.  It is a modern, molded
shower stall.

He tells us that if he gets someone via the accommodations bureaus, he
gets $40, but must give $12 to them.  So at $25 he is ending up with a
little less but if we stay 3-4 days, he is happy with it.  We agree
and tell him if we like it, Kay will stay in one of his other
apartments when she arrives.  His English was not great but more than
adequate for this job.

The book says that there are lots of soup and salad places in
Budapest.  We find one close by and with a little point and click,
we’ve got a decent but light dinner for about $6.00 for the two of us.

We are to meet Peg’s sister kay and her son Nic Wednesday.  They will
be with us for almost two weeks.

I think I would like to go back to Romania.  Those wild mountains beg
to be explored.  Friendly people struggling to make a living, great
food, great prices, beautiful scenery and some great old towns.