If you’re expecting vampires and werewolves, know this: Bram Stoker never took one single bloody step in all of Transylvania. And if you’re listening for the children of the night, you’ll likely hear students listening to their iPhones in Cluj Napoca. The capital of the Romanian region of Transylvania happens be a blast of a student town, pulsing with fine-dressed locals, loud techno, and the odd lucky tourist. But before I skip the line-up to sidestep a meathead bouncer at the trendiest club in town, let me settle a few key issues:
Good, now we can forgo the horror and hit the real Transylvania. Remember the opening scene in the film Borat, set in a small village in Kazakhstan? That was actually rural Romania, and the town of Ture, an hour’s drive outside Cluj Napoca, proves it was no movie set. Horse and buggy carts pass rotund old ladies with fingers like pork sausages, milking water buffalos at sunrise. String bands play traditional music inside old wooden houses, most of which have electricity, but no plumbing. My overnight train from Bucharest deposits me in Ture when the cows came home having grazed overnight in the hills. Their bells ring in the early morning mist, and Christopher Walken was right, we do all need more cowbell. I find the 250-year-old stone house where I will spend the night, finding it cool even as summer heat bakes the dirt roads outside. Awaiting me is a pot of strong coffee, homemade sheep cheese, and some homemade palinka - the local moonshine that accompanies breakfast, lunch and dinner. My homestay host insists I leave the dishes (even offering to help is deemed an insult) and so I wander off to help a 75-year-old man shovel hay onto a buggy cart, all the while flirting with two old ladies cackling on a nearby wooden bench. Life hasn’t changed much in Ture’s long history, but the very idea of bloodsucking vampires and ravenous werewolves feel like miscast monsters in a fairy tale.
At sunset, the village band and dancers gather inside the village hall, bringing a large crate of beer. Local musicians live and breathe their music, performing for days on end at celebrations and festivals, and always at the beck and call of the villagers. They strike up a folk song, the accordion bouncing a rhythm off the violins, a tall double bass building a deep foundation. My pal form the hay buggy is here with an enamel sparkle in his eye, dancing, slapping his boots, shaking his hips, and gyrating with an energy that belies his age. The ladies applaud with approval. This old dog is teaching me new tricks.
Each house has a “Good Room”, set aside to show off the talents and domestic skills of Ture’s maidens for promising bachelors. It is laced up in red furnishings, painted plates, blankets, homemade food, and all the qualities one looks for in a Transylvanian wife. The matriarch of one house insists I dress the part of bachelorhood, providing some 80-year-old threads with the leather boots that creak when I walk. I may look like a leprechaun, but one must do whatever it takes to woo Transylvanian beauties. Just a pity all the young ones have moved to the city. No bother. We will drink. We will eat. We will toast with the battery-acid palinka, powerful enough to thin paint: Aga-shag-adray!
Astute readers will recognize that as a Hungarian toast. The villagers of Ture are ethnic Hungarians, the largest minority in Romania, most of who live in Transylvania. Fertile with forests, farmland and mountains, Transylvania has been used as a pawn on a geo-political chessboard for millennia, being annexed here, gaining independence there, attacked and conquered everywhere. Today it is part of Romania, although relations between Romanians and Hungarians can be a little turbulent. Transylvania nowadays is full of small villages that continue to exist as they have for centuries, but thousands of students descend on Cluj Napoca, the third largest city in the country, for its academic and nightlife offerings.
Back in Cluj, I accost some girls on the street that lead me a reggae bar, the walls lacquered with old newspaper clippings, the bass heavy, and the beer cheap. Everyone speaks good English, and you can get papercuts running fingers along those Transylvanian cheekbones. “You know, the world thinks Transylvania is home to vampires and werewolves and not much else,” I tell a group of new friends, their hair styled like Brooklyn hipsters. After a good laugh, they imagine the world to be as old fashioned as the farmers I met in Ture. In modern Transylvania, both farmers and city folk reckon its time someone drove a stake through the heart of Bram Stoker.
lYou’ve saved up the money, you’ve freed up your time, and your dreams of traveling to an exotic destination – South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia – are about to come true. But there’s one more crucial decision that needs to be made. Do you travel solo, arranging your own itinerary, or do you join a tour, which takes care of everything for you? Both have their pros, both have their cons.
If you’re on a tight budget, there’s no doubt you’ll save money doing it yourself. Group travel, through companies like Contiki, Gap Adventures or Tucan Travel (who I joined for six weeks to explore Central America) can cost considerably more than if you put in the time searching for the best transport, accommodation and food deals. But, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Having your transport organized saves hours in the waiting line, while a helpful guide usually steers you to the right places (and away from the wrong ones). For the luxury of having someone else deal with your travel headaches, expect to pay 20 – 50% more than if you’d do it yourself. My Tucan trip included accommodation, local transport, and a few national park entrances, but activities were extra, and could be expensive. If you’ve got time, more money earns you more travel, adventures, and activities. However, if you want the least amount of headaches possible, especially for a short holiday, it’s might be worth it to pay the premium.
It’s fun to explore new foods in new places, but anyone who’s experienced Delhi Belly or Montezuma’s Revenge might think otherwise. Guide books point you in the right direction, but there’s nothing like the sincere suggestion of a local, or guide, to deliver the best dining experience. Remember, when you’re on the move, you only have one or two nights to find the best meal you can find in town, and when a guide says, “I’ve been here a dozen times, and the food is sensational” you’re not going to be disappointed. Then again, there’s something to be said for discovering a family restaurant which surprises you with the best guacomole/pizza/pad thai you’ve ever tasted. Especially when it’s not in the guidebook. It all depends how much you want to mission for a meal (I once spent hours looking for an alternative to the cheap joint on the corner, only to end up at the cheap joint on the corner). It’s also worth noting that some guides get kickbacks and free meals for bringing in tour groups. My dining experience in Central America was amongst the best I’ve had anywhere, thanks to the excellent recommendations of our guide.
Any seasoned traveller will tell you that people make the places. You can be in paradise with idiots, and you can laugh yourself silly in hell – it all depends on whom you’re sharing your adventure with. Travelling alone, or in a couple, does not mean you’re going to be isolated. Everywhere you go, you’ll meet people, both locals and travelers. It is common for solo travelers to join together, sometimes swelling into a fairly large group of like-minded people (Israelis are infamous for traveling in “waves”). Best of all, if you want to change your plans, or take a social break, it’s in your hands. Still, the sight of a solo traveler reading a guide book at a bar, or couples not saying a word to each other at a table, is all too common.
Travel is a social affair, and depending on your tour group, expect to share your journey with anywhere from 6 to 60 people. In some way, it’s a gamble. If your group gels, you’re bound to have a fantastic time. But you can also find yourself being forced to share 8-hour bus journeys with an obnoxious twit you’d normally avoid at all costs. The success of groups depends on many factors, and while some tours are age limited (typically 18-35), I personally found age to be less of a factor than attitude. Young travelers are generally out to party, older traveler to explore, but this does not mean they’re incompatible. My Tucan group age ranged from 22 to 38, between 10 and 18 people depending on the segment (some tours allow people to join and depart for particular segments). We had a blast, primarily because everyone was on the same wavelength, and our guide made exceptional efforts to get everyone to bond. That being said, I’ve been on other trips where people end up hating each other by the end, and one friend of mine actually left a week early because she couldn’t stomach her travel group a day longer. Besides the benefit of camaraderie, groups also help with costs (group rates) and security. The question is, do you choose your own as you go, or try your luck by joining a tour? I’d suggest asking your agent for more information about the people you’ll be traveling with before buying your ticket. The size and general age of the group may shed some light on what to expect.
It’s easy to laugh at those horror bus rides years later (like the time I sat for 14 hours alongside a broken toilet and three chain-smokers in Egypt) but it’s no fun when you’re there. From chicken buses in Central America to trains in India, local transport offers a curious mix of discomfort with discovery. I once awoke atop a bunk on a night train in India to find two men sitting between my legs, but they ended up telling me the correct station to get off (even waking me to ensure sure I wouldn’t miss it). If meeting and interacting with locals is important to you, you’ll really feel the distance by being on a big, luxury bus. On the bus, off the bus, it becomes a bubble of tourist reality as you drive through a country. But, it’s comfortable, it’s more likely to depart and arrive on time, you can watch videos, and usually there’s a toilet. These are things I dreamt about on hell journeys in Bolivia and Albania. Ultimately, you want something in the middle. In Central America, Tucan cleverly offers a mix of local and private transport, so you experience the chicken buses, but take advantage of mini-vans where it works. After two 11-hour days on a chicken bus, squashed four to a seat, anything would work just fine.
Ultimately, going alone or joining a tour group is a personal choice, based on time, budget, and whatever it is you want most out of your journey. A solo traveler at the Taj Mahal will experience the same thrill as someone on a tour group, even if the tour group gets back on the bus (reliable comfort) and the solo traveler gets back on the train (unforgettable adventure). Personally, if you’re on a two week vacation and don’t have much time for figure out where to stay, how to get there, and what to do, you’re better off joining a tour. If time is your friend and your plans are flexible, you may find yourself in places you never dreamed of. Either way, you win.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.