Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Petrosani, Timisoara, Belgrade, Cluj-Napoca, Sovata, Mangalia, Vama Veche, and Bulgaria: The Long-Awaited Conclusion to My Journey

So... I never finished my blog.  At least, I never finished the journey of my time in Romania.  Over a year later, it's about time I get some closure!

As the train approached Petrosani, I saw these surreal, misty mountains.
 Two weeks after the Conference in Sibiu, I taught my last class and then took the overnight train (again!), this time to a conference in Petrosani.  Petrosani is a small city in Hunedoara County.  It is a poor coal mining community, more or less equivalent to West Virginia in the United States.  The conference was hosted by the University of Petrosani and organized in part by Karla Buru.  The focus of the conference was social work.

A beautiful Orthodox church in Petrosani.
 The conference was attended by both Romanians and Americans, college students, professors, and volunteers, as well as a few guests from other countries.  On the first day there was a series of lectures, workshops, and a panel of volunteers who have worked both in Romania and abroad.  There were four of that year's Romanian Fulbrighters in attendance, plus one Fulbrighter in Moldova and one in Macedonia.  We were graciously put up in some rooms owned by the Catholic charity Caritas.  All the Fulbrighters, plus three Peace Corps volunteers were all housed together.  On the second day of the conference, we went in groups to visit two daycare centers.  One is specifically for children with disabilities (but accepts other children, too) and both serve poor families.  That evening there was a dinner party for us, with plenty of food and traditional Romanian singing and dancing.  It was such a treat to get to join in the dancing.  It was so much fun!

We played games with some kids in Petrosani.

A beautiful cave that we visited near Petrosani.

Typical Romania haystacks.  This was a picture I wanted for so long!

I just think they way that they're made is so interesting.
 After the conference, I took a trip to Timisoara with fellow Fulbright ETA Jessica.  She showed me around the city (which is beautiful!), and then we plotted a day trip to Serbia.  It was a crazy, hectic day.  Our schedule: 6:00 am train to Belgrade, arriving at 9:00.  We explored the city, visiting the fortified ruins overlooking the river, stopping at some street vendors, buying delicious pastries, and enjoying a very high-class brunch for an excellent price.  Our return "train" departed Belgrade at 3:30 pm.

The main square in Timisoara.  A bloody protest was held here during the Communist Revolution.  You can see the new buildings on one side and the old ones on the other.

I think this is a Catholic church.  It is definitely in Timisoara.
 You may have notice the quotation marks surrounding "train".  This is quite intentional.  This journey between Romania and Serbia was the most suspect and confusing journey I have made in my life.  I have a feeling the same is true for Jessica.  When we departed Timisoara in the morning, we boarded the oldest and most run-down train I ever saw in Romania.  It was abysmally hot because the heat was jammed on, and our window wouldn't stay open.  The seat cushions were one massive, bulbous mound of pleather.  We got ourselves situated for the trip, and only an hour later, we arrived at the border.  There was some waiting around, then some border officials came for our passports, which they took with them into the station.  Our passports were returned and we were just waiting for the train to start back up.  It's a bit fuzzy at this point, but I believe a man came passing through the corridor shouting something about the "autocar".  Autocar means bus in Romanian.  We slowly gathered that we were supposed to get off the train.  We clambered down to the platform, passed through the station, and discovered a dated bus waiting in the parking lot.  By this point, the number of Romanian speakers had seemed to plummet, and Jessica and I found ourselves climbing aboard, without much idea of what was happening and where we were going.  We were eventually deposited in front of the train station in Belgrade.  Before heading out to explore the city, we needed to figure out how exactly our return fare worked.  Did we board a bus?  Where would we would we find it?  Were our tickets any good or were we going to have to thumb it back to Romania?  We made a beeline for the international sales office, where the clerk spoke English.  She was able to tell us that our bus/train would be waiting to pick us up in front of the train station, in the place it had dropped us off.  On our return trip, the bus left us at the border, where we hopped back on a train to Timisoara.  In contrast, my return train from Timisoara to Constanta was on the nicest car I ever rode on during my Romanian year.
Jessica, enjoying the comforts of our train to the Serbian border.

I'm jolly but confused about where on earth this Serbian bus is taking us.

Living on the edge in Belgrade.

The proliferation of birds on the citadel's walls was very unsettling.
 I should also mention our mild run-in with what could have been some sort of military or revolutionary faction...or not, we don't really know, but I guess I might as well make it sound far more exciting than it was in reality.  Jessica and I were walking down a street in Belgrade when a car drove by, with men hanging out of it, with a Serbian flag, and some sort of mild explosive.  It was probably firecrackers.

The cars of the men with the firecrackers, in Belgrade.  They stopped at a traffic light, so I was able to take this shot.
 Sooooo... I went back to Constanta, for the month of June.
The following week, Josi and I took the bus down to Mangalia and Vama Veche, near the Bulgarian border.  Mangalia is a nice little city, like a calmer version of Constanta.
Another week later, our friends Sorin and Flory took, Josi, me, and some other friends on a car trip to northern Bulgaria for the day.  It was beautiful!  We went to the beach and had lunch at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant.  On our way back to Constanta, we stopped at Vama Veche, a famous party village and beach on the Romanian side of the border.

The boardwalk in Mangalia.

The Bulgarian coast is just beautiful!

Who can walk through a field of wildflowers and NOT have a shot like this taken of them?
We had some good fun, and Josi and I took another trip to Cluj-Napoca.  Our ever-wonderful hosts Laszlo and Timea (who are now married, woohoo!) and Judith explored the city with us some more, and then took us on a trip into the countryside.  We stopped in Corund, which is the most famous town in Romania for making pottery.  I have an obsession with Romanian pottery, so of course, I bought some, plus a really cool magnet..made out of mushroom.  We continued our scenic drive, meeting up with Eniko, then heading up to a dam and a lake where we went in a row boat.  It was just perfect weather and so beautiful!  We stayed the night at a summer home belonging to Laszlo's brother, I think.  The town was Sovata, which is famous for its salt lakes.  In the morning, Laszlo decided to play a trick on us.  He went up to one of the salt lakes (more of a tiny pond) ahead of Judith, Josi, and I.  He had smeared himself with the mud and then waited for us in the bushes, jumping out at us when we walked by.  When we got to the salt lake we had to be careful of where we put our clothing, since the black mud and dirt was everywhere.  Josi refused to go in, so she made the perfect photographer.  Laszlo brought over some mud from the far end of the lake.  Judith and I had tons of fun covering our bodies with it, buy goodness gracious, it stunk!  We washed the mud off as best we could while enjoying the buoyancy of the salt water.  We were able to sit in the water with our hands and feet out, without sinking.  After our swim we walked some paths around another salt lake, as well as some tall salt hills.  There may be some sort of official name for those things, but I have no idea!  We also went to another, smaller salt mine.  It had a chapel inside, which was very beautiful in the carved out cave. We returned for a final day in Cluj, and I got to meet with my Kellerhaus friends one last time.  That night, we splurged and took a sleeper car back to Constanta.
Kellerhaus friends in Cluj

The salt lake in Sovata

We were thoroughly covered in the mud in Sovata.

Swimming was easy, thanks to the high salt content.

Me. Laszlo, and Timea at Bear Lake

Constanta, again! (Sorry this lacks the finer details and continuity of the other posts.  I'm doing a poor job of remembering chronology.  I'm relying on my pictures to help me remember the order of events.)  My group of friends through us all a goodbye party, which included games wherein Josi and I gave away things we weren't able to bring home with us.  Josi and I had made a movie on our trip to Cluj.  It had a bunch of pictures of our friends and us over the course of our year in Romania.
I just love the public notices in Romanian transportation!
I seriously wonder if Constanta's buses had past problems with people sawing at the bus seats...
 The last few days I moved in with Josi, since my rental period was up.  We planned a trip to go to Varna, Bulgaria.  We looked up bus times online, booked a hotel, and were all set to go.  When we arrived at the bus station...there was no bus, at all that day.  Or the next day. Bye, bye trip!  We went back to Josi's apartment and just hung out!  When it was time to leave, Mihaela came by Josi's apartment, to drive me to the airport.  We had a tearful goodbye, and then I was off!

This was just the most quaint little Romanian boat, in the harbor in Constanta.
 I think I covered all the main things that happened during my last month in Romania.  Now, two years after I began my grant period, so many things have changed.  I'm now living in Connecticut, teaching middle school English and in two and a half weeks, I'll be marrying the man of my dreams (Nate, of course!)  In five days, I have the pleasure of picking up Josi at the airport.  She'll be staying with me for two weeks, then she'll be a bridesmaid in my wedding, and return home to Germany just in time for her first day of a new semester.  It will be the first time we've seen each other since I said goodbye in Constanta.  I'm so excited!

The Constanta Harbor at sunset.

Thanks to all who read my blog.  Welcome to people who are stumbling upon it or who wind up here through Google image search!  I hope my ramblings made sense, and I hope to visit Romania again someday.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sibiu and Some Odds and Ends

Boy am I behind!  I hope I can catch up now, post by post!  I don't want to have to skip over anything really important.

That Thursday evening (May 10th), still groggy from my two days of an Atlantic crossing and two days of teaching, with only one night of sleep, I boarded an overnight train to Sibiu.  I was headed to the East-West Conference at Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu.  The Romanian-US Fulbright Commission was one of the sponsors so all of the American Fulbrighters in Romania were attending.

Around 3:00 am I got off the train at a small station, in a town called Copsa Mica, which was once infamously the most polluted town in Europe, or so I have been told.  It was NOT a nice place to wait for my second train, but luckily my first train was running an hour late, so my layover was only one hour, rather than two.  When my second train arrived, I boarded an extremely ramshackle train with at least thirty other passengers, a bigger number than I would have thought.  Over the next hour and a half the train stopped at many small towns, at each station collecting at least a dozen passengers, far more passengers than I expected on this early morning train.

 When I arrived in Sibiu around 5:30 am, I took a taxi to the apartment of Nick and Naomi, a couple in the Fulbright program who live in Sibiu.  The rest of the Fulbrighters had arrived the previous day and were staying in pensions in a nearby village, so it made more sense for me to just stay  in the city until the conference began later that morning.  I took shower, changed into my conference clothes, and had homemade pancakes.  Nick and I were about to leave for the conference when I came to the realization that I had only brought sneakers on my trip.  Sneakers would NOT match my dress.  Naomi offered her shoes, but my feet are enormous, so they were all far too small.  Nick, however, had a similar size to me, so I wore men’s dress shoes to the conference. 

Notice the eyelid windows that really give the houses personality.

The Fulbright ETAs
We met with the other Fulbrighters at the first session of the conference.  I hadn’t slept much on the train, so I was extremely tired, sitting in one place, and…falling asleep.  The first speaker was bizarre.  She was talking about some sort of “new age media.”  I’d be happy to harp about it in person next time you see me, but I’ll spare you know.  One of the other speakers was a Fulbrighter named EJ, who certainly gave the most interesting lecture of the session.  There was a third lecture…by a man…about something; if I’d been awake I’m sure I’d be able to tell you about it. 

Fulbrighters Nick, Jennifer, and Karla
After the first session there was a (much-needed) coffee break.  The Fulbrighters were all given the option to skip the next sessions to explore Sibiu; and most took up the opportunity.  The weather was beautiful, and we had ice cream, had drinks at an outdoor café, and did a bit of shopping and walking around.  We went back to the conference for lunch, then back out in the city center again.  We returned to take a bus to the pensions in the nearby village.  There, there was a delicious, traditional dinner for all of the Fulbrighters.  The next morning we all took a little excursion to a nearby fortified church.  We then dropped off half of our group in Sibiu, while the others, including me, travelled by bus to Bucuresti.  At lunch time, we stopped in Brasov, had lunch, and browsed some stalls at a special open-air market.  I stayed in a hotel in Bucuresti that night, and I got to spend my evening at a concert and then a café with Raluca and Maria, two friends I met when I worked at Kellerhaus. 

Josi was returning to Bucuresti from her trip the following day (a Sunday, FYI), so I waited for her, so we could travel back to Constanta together.  Since she didn’t come until the evening, I spent a day walking around the old city, visiting the history museum, and attending mass.  I really enjoyed seeing the collection of gold at the museum, as well as a replica of Traian’s Column, and enormous structure that depicts the conquering of the Dacians by the Romans in over 100 massive panels, spiraling up a large column.

I spent much of the next two weeks grading assignments as the final semester for my third year students wrapped up.  One particularly bright and sunny day Josi and I went to the beach at lunch time and had the whole place to ourselves.  Josi and I also went to a special museum night in Constanta.  We visited the archaeological museum with free admission around 8:30 one evening.  Since it was a special event, many others were there, and it was quite crowded.  We also had a notable dinner, prepared by Daka.  He made us a Bulgarian dish, Kavarma.  It was really delicious, and now I have the recipe.

Bulgarian Kavarma
There was an entire room dedicated to pipes in Constanta's history museum

Thursday, May 31, 2012

More Travels

Where was I… my last post ended with a bit of cliffhanger.  I mentioned that our fortunes had shifted when Josi and I returned to Romania.  As a refresher, we were taking a two week trip around Romania, Austria, Germany, and Slokaia as part of our Easter vacation.  We just finished our visits to other countries and were returning to Romania.  Since there was time left in our vacation, we took the opportunity to visit Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Dracula). 

We arrived at the Otopeni airport of Bucuresti and took the city bus to the train station.  I had a card with multiple rides on it, so Josi and I shared.  First I scanned the card for me, then I pressed the “2” button and scanned it for Josi.  All set, we sat back and enjoyed our ride.  Several stops into our 40 minute voyage downtown, a set of controllers boarded the bus.  I confidently handed one my electronic card, he did a verification scan, which says only 1 ride has been deducted, so we were short one pass and needed to pay a fine.  Terribly confused, Josi and I tried arguing a bit.  He even demonstrated the proper way to use one card for two riders (which was exactly the process I thought I’d followed…)  Finally, we gave up; there was no way to argue our way out of it, so we paid the fine of 50 RON (lei), thankful that it wasn’t as expensive as the fine we’d avoided in Vienna (90 Euros each).  Although upset we’d had to pay a fine for something we’d been confident was in order, we put it out of our minds for our long train ride (nearly 6 hours) to Sighisoara.

Sighisoara is actually only one stop before the station where we’d gone off the train to visit Dambau only a week before.  We had found a very cheap pension, and we had the address, but we weren’t entirely sure how to get there from the train station at night.  We needn’t have worried.  It was directly across the street.  It was actually only a few steps further than the nearest taxi.  It was late when we arrived, so we planned our day for the next morning and stayed in for the night.
I am taking the photo from the train station.  Our pension is where the red sign is.

The next day we explored the small city (more of a town, depending on your personal opinions of the size, I think it has approximately 20,000 residents)  After wandering the lower part of the city for a while we ventured up the stairs into  the fortified town area.  Most of the buildings date back to medieval times, and many of the towers that stood along the wall are still standing.  We visited the birth house of Vlad Tepes, went into the town museum/clock tower, and generally explored the place.  The crowning building is a German church, but we decided not to pay an entrance fee to visit it.  We also ate some good Romanian food, visited some shops with  nice folk art crafts and others super ridiculously kitschy Dracula souvenirs.

Yep, kitschy dracula stuff.

The Plaque on the Vlad Dracula House

The clock tower in Sighisoara by night.

We stayed a second evening in Sighisoara, but by this point it was Friday, so on Saturday we slept in, revisited the city for a short while, and then Josi and I parted ways.  I returned to Constanta, and Josi went to Medias, where she had a conference with her school and some other schools about a drama project.

Back in Constanta I had a busy week.  I was teaching double the number of classes, so that I could take a special leave the following week, the week straddling April and May.  Having double classes meant I spent a lot of time planning lessons and doing my laundry from a long trip.   Josi returned to Constanta late on Wednesday, and I was leaving again on Friday, so we made sure to have a night out with our friends on that Thursday.  We had dinner with Angelina, Atilla, Achilleas, and Daka.  Daka’s birthday was April 18th, so he and I wished each other a happy birthday, and I cautioned him to use my gift of the age 22 wisely.  Next year I think I’ll give him my hand-me-down 23.
Daka and I each had our birthdays over Easter vacation.

Friday after class I left for Bucuresti, where I stayed the night at the apartment of a couple in the Fulbright program.  They actually were gone to Greece, but I stayed with their dog sitter, who was a very nice graduate student in American Studies in Bucuresti.  The next morning I took a flight to Boston, via London.  My flight arrived in Boston only 30 minutes before a flight from Baltimore, which was carrying Nate!  My dad picked us up from the airport and took us to my parents’ house in New Hampshire, where I met a special someone: my new nephew Royce!  Royce was born a week after my birthday, on April 22nd.  He is a beautiful little boy, and I was thrilled to be able to visit him. 
Me and Royce

Nate stayed for the weekend and flew back to DC for his classes on that Monday, but not before I had a Skype interview with a school in the DC area, for a middle school teaching position.  It went so well that the next morning they called and offered me the job, requesting that I come to visit the school before I returned to Romania.  Using my dad’s award miles on Southwest, I flew down Thursday evening, and Nate picked me up at the airport.  The next morning, Friday, Nate drove me to the school and waited in the parking lot while I toured the school.  I loved the school and signed on to teach there next year.  Victorious, I went back with Nate to his lab at the University of Maryland and got so see where he works.  I then took the metro to the school where I completed my student teaching and got to visit the teachers and some of the students, sharing my news that I would be teaching in the same school district next year.  That night I went out with Nate and some other friends who I hadn’t seen since graduation in May 2011 to an Ethiopian restaurant.  The food was delicious, but it was a very different style.  Instead of forks and spoons, you use a sort sourdough crepe and scoop up the food in that. 
The courtyard and garden behind my new school

The next day I returned to New Hampshire to spend some more time with my family and Royce before returning to Romania.  The next day we even had a family reunion of my dad’s family, with all my aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and my grandparents, with the exception of one person.
The Browher clan

I flew back to Romania via London, where I had an 8 hour layover.  When I arrived in Bucuresti, it was 11:30 pm.  I took a bus into the city center.  My plan was to wait at the train station until the early bus left for Constanta at 5:30 am, but it was closed, so I camped out in a little 24 hour café/bar attached to the station.  I took the early bus, arrived in Constanta at 9:00, then took the bus to the University to get my apartment keys from Achilleas.  (Josi and some friends from her program borrowed my apartment when I was gone, but Josi had now left for Germany and couldn’t hand off my keys.)  My phone was dead, so I had to charge my phone for 5 minutes in the university lobby before I could call Achilleas and tell him I was there.  He came out of class, got me the keys, and helped me and my baggage to a taxi.  I went to my apartment, showered, and headed back to the university to teach from 12:00- 4:00pm.  This was Wednesday—I hadn’t slept since the night between Sunday and Monday.  After class I slept until 6:00 am the next day, because I had class from 8:00-12:00.  I went home, packed, and took an overnight train to Sibiu for a conference with the rest of the Fulbrighters.  More about that conference to come!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Excursions in and around Austria

My trip has come to an end.  I sit drafting this blog on the train back to Constanta. (That was over 3 weeks ago and I’m just getting around to finishing this up.)  When I left off, I’d told you all about my Easter in Dambau, a village in Mures County, in Transylvania.  I had one day left of my stay, so I’ll start there.  

The night before (the day when the boys came around with perfume), Timea and Laszlo had returned to Cluj-Napoca, where they live with Judith, because Timea had to go back to work.  Judith stayed in Dambau longer and showed Josi and I around on our last day there.  We got to sleep in and then we spent the afternoon walking in the hills around the village (whose name fittingly means hill).  The weather was beautiful, and we got some really great pictures.

Our Four Star Hotel.  It doesn't all that amazing from this angle in the rain, but I promise it's top notch.
The next morning--a Wednesday—Judith’s father drove Josi and I, bright and early, to Targu Mures, where we took a microbuz (the same thing as a maxi taxi, except for long distances) to Bucuresti’s big airport, Otopeni (AKA Henri Coanda).  From there we flew to Vienna.  It was delightful to be travelling with Josi in Austria, because she can speak with everyone there in German (even if the accent and some words are different).  We made it from the airport to our hotel.  Our hotel was a four star accommodation.  It had a fancy lobby, fancy rooms, comfy beds, a sauna, a steam room, and an exceptional location near the great palace in Vienna, Schloss Schoenbrunn.  How did we afford such a nice place?  We got lucky.  Josi found the one night available for an extreme discount of 40 euros, which was cheaper for us to stay in than about half of the hostels (over 20 euros/person for one night).  Our general rule was “as cheap as possible” on our trip, so this was a big treat.  Josi was travelling with her father’s enormous, Army-green backpack, so we couldn’t help but feel a little bit out of place as we walked through this lobby and as the bellhop loaded Josi’s backpack and my suitcase onto the luggage cart.  That evening we went to the big cathedral in the downtown area and had some drinks at a cafe.

A blurry me in front of the cathedral, which was lit with colored projections.

This market specializes in Austrian and Bulgarian food.
Since we were so close to the elaborate palace, we visited Schloss Schonbrunn the next day.  It is an enormous building sprawled across a large estate with hours of gardens to explore.  We stuck to the inside tour, since it was raining out and a bit pricey.  It is preserved and decorated very beautifully.  The palace’s most famous resident is probably Empress Maria Theresa.  Afterwards we checked out of our luxury hotel and transferred our luggage to our new accommodation—a hostel.  We had an early dinner at an Austrian restaurant; I had a Wiener Schnitzel.  (FYI: Wiener=Viennese, so wiener schnitzel= Viennese fried chicken breast.)
A view of a small portion of the garden.

The ceiling of one of the great halls in the palace Schonbrunn

There are mountains just sitting in the middle of Salzburg.
After dinner we went to the main train station (also a shopping center) to figure out how to get to our next destination…and WHAT our next destination would be.  We wanted somewhere we could get cheaply, that was relatively close to the German border.  The guy at the information desk was very helpful and helped us figure out how to get to an acceptable destination.  After also verifying we could find cheap accommodation, we settled on Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, the setting of the Sound of Music, and generally “the City of Music”.  When people heard that we bought the super-cheap, only-take-the-slow-train tickets, they were shocked; who would want to spend 6 hours travelling by train!  But after using trains to travel Romania (our trip to Dambau was a 9 hour trip, as was our trip to Suceava), it didn’t really seem that long to us.

The walkway surrounding a cemetery.
When we arrived in Salzburg we were picked up at the train station.  “By whom?”  I’m sure you are wondering.  By Josi’s dad, Joerg!  This was the reason we wanted to choose a destination for our weekend trip that was near the German border.  Even though Josi is from the north of Germany, her dad was doing a special training session in the Alps for a few weeks (he’s in the Army), only 3 hours from Salzburg, so he was able to join us for the weekend.  We visited the city that evening and the next day (Friday and Saturday), focusing on the beautiful historic part.  The weather was overcast and a bit drizzly most of the time, so we didn’t get to see the full grandeur of this city, which is nestled in the mountains.  Josi and her dad spent Friday night at a concert of one of their favorite bands; while I spent waaaay too much time poking around online, but certainly enjoying myself. 

The skyline of the Old Town of Salzburg

The castle.  We didn't go inside because it was too expensive.

Zesty and delicious Nepalese food.
Saturday was tragic.  I accidentally deleted all my photos (around 10,000!) from my computer.  I fretted all over a delicious dinner at a Nepali restaurant (Josi and I have been a bit starved for high-quality Asian food and made eating Asian food a high-priority item on our to-do list while in Austria.)  I found a free undelete program online and was able to recover about 75% of my deleted files, but they were all recovered into one giant, unorganized heap, which I have yet to fully sort.  About two pictures from the time in Vienna I’ve mentioned and from our first night in Salzburg made it, and I hadn’t given copies to Josi, as I had with all the other photos from our trip, so there’s a bit of a gap in the photo record.

The Catholic church I attended in Salburg.
Sunday was a special day, because it was my 23rd birthday.  (April 15th, so you know when to send gifts.)  I started off the day wandering towards a church spire I’d been promised was a Catholic church having mass that morning.  I found it and settled in.  I’m not sure if it’s just a delightfully youthful and vibrant parish or if it was a bit of an aberration since they were celebrating the sacrament of First Eucharist (and maybe Confirmation, too, I have awful German, by which I mean nearly non-existent) for many children, but there was standing-room only and probably ¾ of the families had children with them.  They also had a very good folksy sort of choir, full of teenagers.  It was a refreshing start to my day.  I rejoined with Josi and her dad at the hostel/hotel where we were staying and we drove outside of the city to a salt mine.

This salt mine was very different from the salt mine I visited when I went to Cluj.  This was a museum that preserved the historical mine feel of the place and gave lots of historical information.  We wore the least flattering white jumpsuits imaginable, to protect our clothes (and damage all our self-esteem, since they made you look about 50 lbs. heavier once you put them on over your jacket (the mine was cold inside).  The tour began by riding on a little mine train-thing (there must be an official name for it, but I lack the motivation to look it up).  It was interspersed with videos, a boat ride over an underground lake, two slides of the variety actually used by miners, and an underground border crossing.  The mountain the mine is dug out of is shared by Germany and Austria, so even though the entrance to the mine is in Austria, parts of the underground caverns are located under Germany territory. 

The little train into the salt mine.

The wooden slides for going down to different levels in the mine.

Crossing the border of Austria and Germany...looking enormous.
Over the border, in Bavaria.
After our mine tour we visited some of Germany topsoil.  It was a very anti-climactic border crossing.  Because of the European Union’s Schengen Zone, you can freely pass from one country in the zone to another, the system operating on the assumption that when you first arrive in a Schengen country from a non-Schengen country, your credentials and whatnot were thoroughly scrutinized.  (Romania and Bulgaria are trying their very hardest to be allowed in the Schengen Zone now.  At the airport in Bucuresti they even have the signs all ready to go.  When you disembark from your plane there’s a sad little sign poorly covered up directing arrivals from Schengen Zone countries to bypass the standard customs area, in anticipation of the day Romania will belong.)  So since there’s nothing to check when you cross the border, you just pass a modest sign welcoming you to the Bavaria region of Germany.  It was about as exciting as crossing a state border in the US.  Still, I was cool to add another country to my list.  We walked around a town a bit and had lunch at a restaurant with Bavarian cuisine.  I ordered something particularly German-sounding and received a sampler platter I could have shared with two friends, piled with four types of meat, a giant dumpling, and gravy.  After lunch Josi gave me my gift, which a bunch of people pitched in for: a handmade, embroidered purse I had been admiring at a gift shop back in Constanta.  Josi went and bought one day after I’d talked about how much I liked it and how I wanted to go back for it at the end of my stay if I still had any money.  It’s really pretty and I’m thrilled to get a gift that is exactly what I wanted.  And kudos to Josi for carting it around on our trip so she could give it to me on my actual birthday.  Josi’s dad had to go back that afternoon, so Josi and I were on our own back in Salzburg for the evening.  As a continuation of the birthday festivities we bought an ice cream log and ransacked the pastry shops, walking the streets of historic Salzburg in the rain (without umbrellas) for two hours.  It was decadently delicious and totally justified, cuz it was my birthday.
My Bavarian lunch, complete with Bavarian flag.

Bright and early the next day we returned to Vienna, again on the slow but cheap train.  We got to stay at the luxury hotel again at the same cheapo rate.  We went to Vienna’s most popular open-air food market—Naschmarkt—and bought some food, which we ate in, after a relaxing evening trying out the steam room and sauna.  We might have stayed longer in the steam room, but a naked couple went in, and we just couldn’t muster ourselves to join some nude strangers.

Just one of the sweets we enjoyed for my birthday.

The Naschmarkt.
In front of the Hrad in Bratislava.
The following morning was Tuesday and we went in the morning to Bratislava, Slovakia.  Only 50 km from Vienna, Bratislava and Vienna are the closest capitals, geographically (I think Rome and Vatican City don’t count or something…)  So we took the bus, and had an only-slightly more exciting border crossing.  We passed a border check area that seems to only function as an information center or rest area now, but must have been quite the happening place in the past.  Prior to this, I had been struck over the head that Bratislava is the same city as Pressburg, which has historical significance and which no one ever told me was an alternative name for Bratislava.  There I was, thinking nothing of great importance had really ever happened in Bratislava, but it was significant, particularly when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When we arrived in Bratislava we were deposited at a bus station…somewhere.  We hadn’t looked up directions on how to get to our hostel and the taxi were all unmarked, none of the drivers spoken English, and they wanted to completely rip us off, so we decide to be brave explorers and wander in the direction we thought our hostel was in.  We had an address and knew it was a 5minute walk from the castle and the historical center of the city, so we got a local to point us in the direction of the old city and then followed road signs to “Centrum”, once asking for help from a street vendor.  We found the cobbled streets, which filled us with hope and then we saw it—a glorious beacon—a sign for a tourist information center!  We slugged out way to it, I pulling 50lbs of bag across cobble stones and Josi lugging about 35 lbs. on her back.  They gave us a map and gave us directions to our hostel, which was only a 10 minute walk away, even with our luggage.  Josi and I traded bags for the walk to the hostel and got there in one piece.  Somehow we had miraculously wandered in completely the correct direction of our hostel from the bus station, which was in a particularly communist-looking area of the city.
Overlooking the city.

Looking up at the castle.

But the old city astounded us.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  Josi and I both loved Bratislava.  The weather was beautiful, the architecture was amazing, and we both agreed we wanted to take people to this city which just doesn’t get enough credit.  We spent the night and returned to Vienna the next evening.
The main square in Bratislava's old town.
In the U-Bahn in Vienna.
 We were leaving Austria to return to Romania the next morning and spent our last evening in Austria at an amusement park on an island in the Danube in Vienna.  We were only there a short time and didn’t go on any rides, but it was really nice to see.  And we got a great story out of it.  On our way to this park, we were stopped on the U-Bahn (subway) by the controllers (who were all quite attractive young men, not at all looking like the sort who catch unsuspecting free-riders.)  Josi and I had punched a day pass for each of us earlier that day, when we took the U-Bahn to our hostel.  I had taken ownership of the tickets and tucked them into my purse for safe-keeping.  At the hostel I had decided it was a brilliant idea to switch purses and had left the tickets behind.  So when the controller came by, we had no ticket.  Our hearts were racing as we used a feverish combination of English and German to explain that we had bought and validated a ticket, but forgotten it, desperately trying to avoid a fine of 90 Euros per person.  He must have taken pity on the two blonde tourists, frantic because they lost their tickets, because he believed us and let us off the hook.  The next day our fortune was reversed.