An Innocent Abroad – Chapter III

Since so many of you have virtually clamored for more, here follows the long-awaited Chapter III.  Well, ok, some of you have bestowed faint praise on my prose.  Would you believe, I bet one or two or have wondered about me?  How about, if a perfect stranger were to ask?  Ok, here it is:


Peles Castle


Yes, this is part of the aforementioned “Driving – How not to get run over,” promised in the last installment; altho, unintentionally.  But first, another language lesson:


That “s” (would that be “es”?) on the end of Peles is not the good ol’ red-white-and-blue ‘Merican “s” – oh no!  It’s one of those letters with something extra (alternatively, given the very long history of Romania, perhaps it is the English that has deleted the little squiggle hanging from the bottom; but, since I am an engineer, and not a linguist, I can comfortably ignore that inconvenient point of view – being parochial does have its advantages – ah, but I digress).  I believe you can approximate the sound of this special “s” by first eating about 20 Saltine crackers and then saying “pe-les.”  I believe the Romanian judge will award extra points for coverage and distance of cracker crumbs.  But, you are definitely seeking a “Pelish” kind of thing.  In other words, no one knew what I was asking for when I went in search of said castle (well, how many castles can there be?).


So, about 9:30, I set out.  First order of business, after making sure I had all the brochures and maps, is to gas up the car (oh boy).  Having been confronted countless times with both Detroit’s inability to standardize the location of refueling stations on their vehicles, I actually (no kidding) checked out where the gas tank was before getting to the gas station.  Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I wouldn’t ask you, Gentle Reader, to believe anything that wasn’t easily checked.  Furthermore, altho stretching the limits of credibility, I asked what kind of gas I needed to put into the car, also, before getting to the gas station.  I won’t impose upon your faith or good humor any more, I promise.


So, I drives into the Agip gas station (obviously modeled after every gas station in America, complete with mini-mart selling beer, wine, and much heavier-duty anti-freeze), and stops at a pump.  How did I know to even look for the fara plum hose?  Simple, my car takes only lead-free gas (according to the key fob), and as surely every seasoned traveler knows, “fara” means “without,” and “plum” is a fruit that comes from a medium size tree (or, I suppose has something to do with “lead” as in Pb is the symbol on the periodic table with Atomic Number 82 – which obviously comes from the Latin plumbum; you might know the Italian piombo, or the Spanish plomo?  I thot as much).  Ok, fine: so it wasn’t intuitive; I asked somebody at work.  Pump, pump, pump.  Wash windshield.  And that was how much again?  Much too many zeros, but then again, not nearly enough.


My 59.66023 liters came to 1,050,020 lei.  Yep, over a million fun-tokens to fill up my little car – I don’t want to hear anyone over there complaining about the cost of gas, ok?  Just a sec, though: 60 liters for a million lei means what in furlongs per fortnight?  Doing the conversion in my head, as any seasoned traveler can do, I found it necessary to multiply by 47.3, divide by the square root of cabbage, carry the one (of course), and I got: $2.12/gallon (15.7605 gallons (guess I was running on fumes?) and $38.39).  Ouch.  Actually, I could have sworn the pump said it was only 105,002 lei; but, the nice man behind the counter insisted on that extra, rather silly if you ask me, zero – and who was I to argue?  And in what language?


Back in little car, swing on down the road, swing on down, swing on down the ro-ode (oops, sorry).


Big road (four lanes total) becomes smaller (two lanes total); eventually to become Norwegian (it is the Bucharest city roads that are modeled after Tokyo).  Speed limit?  Observed only by yours truly.  Neither BMW, nor Mercedes, nor Dacia, nor Daewoo (yeah), nor horse drawn cart pays any attention to speed limits (“Radar” signs included – or ignored entirely, depending on your point of view).  It soon became clear that your faithful correspondent was the only car on the road whose driver took all dem dere cops in their bright yellow/green coats seriously.  Honestly, what do all those guys do?


I saw only one accident the entire day.  One might have thought the traffic ground to a halt to gawk at the little pick-up truck (Dacia) in the ditch with no glass in it at all; but, as I got closer, I discovered the rubber-neckers weren’t the ones slowing down.  It was everyone in the oncoming lane working their way around the police car that was ever so conveniently parked right in the middle of the oncoming lane – no attempt was made by Romania’s finest to pull off the road.  Speed limit?  Fact or fantasy?  Well, the sign sure looked like 80 (that would be kph, or 50 mph); whereas I was pedaling as fast as I could to prevent becoming a hood ornament at about 120 (75 mph).  Exciting?  Bosh!  We haven’t come to the mountains, yet!


I guess Romania has some oil, they certainly have a lot of those teeter-totter pumps that so decoratively dot the landscapes of Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.  In any event, think really ugly and you have a good idea of what the land north of Bucharest looks like (or, speak knowingly of the Wallachian Plain).  More helpful, perhaps, would be: flat, flat, flat.  Little, little towns clotted around the road like so much cholesterol at intervals probably determined by the motive force on the horse drawn farm wagons (yes, that would literally be one horsepower).  Some buildings/houses started and not completed (we’re talking about workers and money either dead or dried up); no house neat-as-a-pin cottage-in-the-woods (well, no trees).  Plenty of stools set up by the roadside with a dozen or so eggs perched on top, or twenty or thirty jars of honey pyramided (I’m sure that’s a verb, too) – mailbox baseball, anyone?  How the stools and eggs/jars stayed intact with the mini-cyclones of the sedans whooshing by is an art form that must be thousands of years old.


Up into the foothills of the immortal Carpathians.  Up into twisty, tiny little roads (altho, unlike the Norwegian mountain roads, there is white paint down the middle of these), ever higher we climb.  Well, not all that high, actually (nope my little car does not have an altimeter – and my watch doesn’t either), but certainly the straight roads on the flatlands are behind me.  Settling down to a comfortable pace, I follow a sedan rather larger than car; not too slow, but neither all that sporting (strange car, strange road, strange, well, everything: strange, strange, strange).  Coming around my left on a blind corner is a small white something or other, followed by (mated with?) a large blue something or other.  Sure enough: coming around the corner, some pilgrim is coming the other way!  The nerve!  The audacity!  The unmitigated gaul! (or is that “gall”?  Well, it might have been a hard Frenchman.)


What are we – there are five of us involved in this high altitude, if not high stakes, drama – to do?  Elementary, my dear: if we are the two passing vehicles, we just simply nip into this whisper of a space between these other two cars also going the same direction!  And we don’t have a head-on collision, and the poor idiot (he does look awfully pale) in the little silver Mondeo is never going to get our license plate numbers while his heart infarcts, anyway.  And, even if he did (do people here do that?), who’s he going to tell?  One of those guys in the yellow/green coats?  Ha!  Good brakes in that little car; not much rubber left on the tires, though….


After about two hours of fun and games, we get into Sinaia (sorry, no pronunciation guide here: you’re on your own), the home of Peles Castle (did you remember the Saltines?)  Which brings us to:


TODAY’S TRAVEL TIP (Vlad’s family was threatening to sue over the implied alliteration, said it would give their illustrious ancestor a bad name):


How many times can you drive thru a sleepy little mountain hamlet and NOT see a castle?  Tick, tock, time’s running out!  If you guessed once, or twice, you obviously don’t know who you’re talking to!  It was on my third trip thru town that I saw the miniscule sign (might have been six inches high by eighteen inches long) that had been blocked by a van.  Must be the place!


40,000 lei to park inside.  Well, since most visitors obviously came on foot, there simply wasn’t any parking outside the grounds (what there was, was occupied by those rather substantial – the whole road belongs to me – tour buses).  Quick: how much in the coin of your realm is it going to cost to park inside.  We’re losing daylight here; think, think, think!!!  Oh hell, just pay the man and drive on; I’m a rich tourist (on the company’s nickel) I can afford the, what was it again, $1.27?, to park the car.  “Second left” I was told – wait a minute: “second left”? – nobody here talks like that!  Yeah, no kidding, he said “second left.”  And you want to know what blew my socks off?  He was right – I mean correct: it was the second left.


I park and begin my assault, or should I say defense?  No, not a particularly long walk, measured in feet, meters, or cubits, and, not all that steep (measure steep any way you want to).  But, counting the number of people, of all ages, who are trying to sell you irresistible toys, trinkets, do-dads (huh?), shawls, table cloths, soft-drinks, and some things that haven’t been classified yet, and it gave me an appreciation for running the gauntlet that I never had before.  The little wave, nod of the head, slight smile, and polite ‘no thank you’ quickly became, well, let’s just say I’m glad my mommy wasn’t there.


Get to the “castle.”  Well, if you’re picturing crenellated walls and turrets and drawbridges and moats, you’ve obviously seen Wizard of Oz too many times.  Think more in terms of a small, summer, cabin, high in the wooded mountains – Bavaria, or Leavenworth, that kind of thing.  Edelweiss?  Yeah, toss some of that in there, Julie Andrews won’t mind.  Not working, huh?  How about something that took 400 workmen 39 years to build (no conversion necessary, take it the way you see it).  Lavish?  Naw.  The veritable epitome of tasteful understatement.  But, I get ahead of myself (doesn’t happen often, I know).


Front door.  How do we know it’s the “Front Door” if there’s no moat, portcullis, drawbridge, or Swiss guard (oops, that’s the Vatican, sorry)?  Perhaps, it is our traveler’s instinct, finely honed over the years?  That sixth sense that puts us immediately at home in every clime and culture (except for Jeddah).  How about the sign that says “Foreign Visitor’s Entrance”?  Presto!  I can do this.  Of course, if I wasn’t a “foreign visitor,” I don’t have a clue in the world where I would go, because there is no sign for those people.


Wait, wait, wait.  Why?  ‘Cause the sign on the door is written in Romanian, and there are about fifteen other camera and mobile phone toting folks milling smartly about (surely this isn’t the queue for the lieu, lue, lui, bathroom?).  Door opens.  No, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman, alá Young Frahnk-en-steen) does not open the door and there are no…wait, I did hear horses.  Anyway.


Quite a grand foyer; not The Grand Foyer, more of a “Oh, it’s you,” kind of foyer.


Someone reaches into a large wooden box and pulls out “booties.”  Well, more like “half-booties”; the one-size-fits-all shoe covering made of wool with a fashionable ankle strap to keep our infidel shoes from soiling the marble floor.  But, wait!  The booties are not identical!  Oh, this just won’t do.  We must have on matching booties (they “match”?)  Dig, dig, dig.  Wait, wait, wait.


“May I have your camera?”  “Huh?”  “Your camera.  Sorry, no pictures.”  So, Frau Blücher exchanges my $1,000 company digital camera (well, I need to learn how to use it, right?) for a slip of paper with the number “5” on it.  Seems like a fair trade; I can probably redeem my number 5 for a Brownie Instamatic or a Batman decoder ring when I finish the tour, ‘cause I’m never going to see my, oops, the company, camera again.  Grit teeth, suck air, mutter incantations to the gods.


“English tour,” barks the man in uniform (at least he doesn’t appear to have a bazooka hung from his shoulder like the nice man outside).  It soon became apparent that he was referring to the tourists who might have a passable understanding of English, not to himself.


Other than the some 4,000 pieces of museum grade armaments (I mean, who knows if those broad swords, pikes, hooks, clubs, spears, really work, anyway?), this was NOT a castle, not even a Sear’s castle (or was that a Sear’s poncho?  Somebody give Frank Zappa a call, huh?).  On the other hand, that Vanderbilt thing in North Carolina has nothing on this place (honestly, the Vanderbilt summer home is just a tad larger).  Allegedly, there are over 40 kinds of wood used thru-out; lost on me, I could identify only about 20.  Marble, silks, gold, silver, brocade, tapestries, leather (ceiling), paintings, sculptures, am I boring you?  And that’s just the foyer!


The tour lasted less than an hour, covered only the first floor (or, ground floor; 1 Etaj here, would be the second floor back home in The Colonies), was utterly fascinating, well worth the 60,000 lei to get in, and I can’t wait to go back.  It cost me 100,000 lei to walk around King Carol I’s home for an afternoon and was intoxicating.


Now to gird myself for the drive home….  But, first, just exactly where was the water closet, anyway (there are no trees between Sinaia and Bucharest: go now)?  What’s that?  Do they really say “water closet” here?  No, of course not!  “Water closet” is hardly a Romanian word (puh! some people).  The Romanian word is, as you might expect, far beyond the simple capabilities of your humble correspondent.  But, I have a sneaking suspicion that The Gentle Reader could handle, are you ready?: “toalett.”  Want to try that again?  Well, do so on your own time; Mother Nature is not going to wait.


Accustomed as I am to traveling abroad (how hoity-toity can you get, anyway?), I fully expected to have to pay a toilet tax.  Nope, no idea what they call it here.  But, I figured the little ol’ lady sitting in the booth inside the, um, trying to be delicate here, toilet “area” was not doing so to stay out of the sun.  Simple scrap of paper prominently posted (hey! finally, some decent alliteration – and who said I couldn’t read?) with “1,000 lei” on it.  Well, here’s 2,000 lei, I’m in a hurry.  Next time you think you have the worst job in the world….


Like a salmon swimming upstream, I make my way thru the “vendors” (Hey Joes! to those who have been to Napoli), back to my car (and yes, it is still there).  Oh yeah: mit camera.


An uneventful, if not hair-raising, drive back to the center of town, to the legendary Athénée Palace Hotel (well the brochure says “legendary”), and a glass of pinot noir.  The locals never knew how close they came to an untimely end.  What is all this stuff on my car?  Remember the horse drawn wagons?


La revedere!

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