Italian Interlude & Balkan Rendezvous

The Balkan Peninsula. Where the western world meets the east. Where past struggles give way to a new generation of hope. Where great beauty lies unbeknownst to many across the globe. Where you can get lost, find yourself, then realize that losing yourself for a bit is probably for the best.

After spending time in Bosnia and Serbia, and reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, I was convinced that I had some unfinished adventuring in the Balkans. So I set my sights on Bucharest, Romania.

But first, I had a brief stopover in a great Italian city that I had yet to visit.

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Milan proved to be the perfect gateway for my eastbound venture. The conflux of a new city and a 9 euro (!) Ryanair flight to Bucharest was more than enough to pull the trigger.

The morning of my trip I bid adieu to Dad and to Geneva, then boarded a bus that passed through France before arriving in Milan. (This meant two border controls, which was annoyingly time consuming).

My flight was slated for 6 AM the following morning out of Bergamo, which is about 45 minutes from the city center. So I spent a day walking around Milan, which happens to be one of the “Big Four” fashion cities of the world (the other three being Paris, London, and New York). As such, while lugging my massive bags around, dressed in a sullied t-shirt and my long-unwashed “transit” pants, I mostly felt very beneath all the fashionistas strolling elegantly down the streets.

Undeterred by my Quasimodo-esque attire (shit, that’s a Paris joke), I was determined to make the most of this beautiful and ancient city.

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Duomo of Milan + pigeon photobomb
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Can you spot all the selfie sticks?
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Look at those damned fashionable young folk, loitering about, being attractive and whatnot.

Brainstorming what to do with my only day in Milan was quick work when Dad alerted me that there is a certain Leonardo Da Vinci classic to see. As it turned out you have to book a tour for a viewing, but The Last Supper wasn’t something I was about to pass up. (It wasn’t cheap, either, but I can’t really fault the Milanese for monetizing one of the most famous paintings in the world).

Around 3 PM I made my way to the designated meeting point for the tour. Following a walk through the Sforza Castle (pic at the top of this post is a courtyard within the castle), our guide took us to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the painting is housed. After going through three separate containment rooms to keep the elements away from the priceless work, we were finally shown Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

It is much larger than what I always imagined in my head. I had seen zounds of pictures, but seeing it in person was certainly fulfilling. It was cool knowing that one of the greatest artists the world has seen spent over three years at the site, toiling over every detail, trying to depict Jesus’ last night in a new and unique light. (Nicolas Cage and other treasure seekers, if you’re reading this, I did not discover any hidden messages).

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We were allowed 15 minutes of intense art admiring before being hastily ushered out with aggressive Italian words.

I made my way back to the city center and had some delicious, cheesy pizza. The Italians definitely do carbs right. I should have made my way to the train station at that point, but my ear caught some sounds of music and curiosity sent me walking down the cobblestone streets. Turns out they were having a free concert outside the Duomo.

I decided to stick around for a bit. Several bands took turns performing an array of rock, alternative, and electronic music. The Italian went over my head, but music has no language, right?  The crowd got bigger and bigger as the time went by. Once it started raining everyone went wild and the vibe got even more electric.

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Radio Italia Concert

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It was such a fun energy, which made it hard to walk away. But I eventually peeled myself off and made my way to the train station, in lieu of getting at least some sleep in the airport.

In Bergamo, while waiting for the airport shuttle to arrive, I get to chatting with an eager and friendly young Italian man, Carlo. He speaks little English, so we resort to Google Translate for communication, before I realize that a combination of my Spanish and English more or less does the trick (he didn’t speak Spanish either, but it is closer to Italian).

We bond over football, our travels, and his studies (international law). His eyes light up when I tell him my father teaches international law and works for the UN every summer.

An hour goes by and no shuttle has shown up. He calls up his friend to pick him up and invites me along. Eager to get to the airport and to save a bit of money, I happily accept, feeling confident that Carlo has no plans to murder me.

During the drive him and his friend chatter in Italian and ask me questions over Google Translate. They ask me what I do for work, what living in America is like, and another question that I seem to be getting a lot these days.

“Is Trump going to be President?”

Not on my watch, sweet Carlo.

When we arrive at the airport, Carlo doesn’t start to follow me in. I give him a confused look. At that point it hadn’t even occurred to me that he wasn’t also flying that night. I hadn’t asked. Turns out he had no plans to fly; him and his friend just went completely out of their way to help a wayward traveler. I thanked them immensely (must’ve said “grazie!” like 37 times) and gave them both man-hugs. I took to the terminal with good vibes in tow.

For what it’s worth, it would seem the Italian hospitality started and ended with Carlo, for this leg of my trip at least. But more on that later.

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I board my flight in Bergamo shortly around 5:30 AM, well aware that it might be the last time I set foot on the earth. For anyone who has flown Ryanair, you are aware that your safety is never guaranteed. Having paid just 9 euro for this flight, I was decidedly even less confident.

To my delight, we touched down smoothly in Bucharest. To my greater delight, everyone clapped onboard. I remembered this from my last Ryanair flight four years ago. It appears the tradition has not wavered.

I then took a bus into the city and stumbled around until I found my lodging for the weekend, the Pura Vida Hostel. That evening after a much needed nap I joined two other hostel-goers (Vicky, an American from Kansas, and Vasiliy, a Greek guy from Athens), on a walking tour of the city.

Our guide, Elena, met us at the Plaza Unirii in the heart of Buchrest. She was bright and informative. Easily one of the best guides I’ve had in my travels thus far.

She takes us all over old town (where I was staying) and the surrounding areas. Throughout the tour she touches on Romanian history, both ancient and recent, while giving us useful tidbits on the best places to visit in the city.

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She stops the group at a statue of the infamous Vlad the Impaler. Revered as a folk hero by both the Romanians and Bulgarians, Vlad used a variety of brutal tactics to bolster his legendary status and defend the north and south Danube from would-be invaders.

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Big, Bad Vlad.

Elena paints us a vivid picture of how he would kill his captured enemies. (Warning: graphic words/images below).

She tells us that Vlad would tie the prisoner down on his back, restraining him from moving. Then he would use a giant wooden impaler, taller than any man and sharp to a point at the end, and ram it through his prisoner’s anus, all the way through the mans body, while avoiding vital organs. He would then bring the shaft completely vertical, plunge it into the dirt, and wait for the man to die slowly while suspended in the air.

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Elena is not actually three meters tall, just standing on a ledge.

As if we needed more of a mental image, Elena uses a pen and a tiny gingerbread doll to portray the act. (If the above image of a beloved Shrek character getting impaled made you queasy, sorry, you were warned).

Legend has it that in 1462 Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses positioned by Vlad in his path. Mehmed’s army likely would have overwhelmed Vlad’s forces, but Vlad’s brutal cunning won the day. I suppose the nickname Impaler is quite appropriate. More recently, the character Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, and countless adaptations since, was inspired by Vlad’s full name (Vlad Drăculea) and reputation.

After showing us the National Bank, Romanian Theatre, and a bevy of cathedrals, Elena takes us outside Parliament Palace, a massive behemoth of a building worth a reported 3 billion USD. It sits on a huge plot and houses the offices of the 600 members of Romanian Parliament. It is the second largest administrative building in the world behind only the Pentagon. Elena somewhat cheerfully remarks that Parliament Palace was the largest for a brief period after the 9/11 attacks, before the Pentagon was restored (too soon, Elena).

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Parliament Palace

Elena reports mixed feelings about the building. On the one hand, it is beautiful and an architectural wonder. On the other, it is a product of the communist regime that ended a mere 26 years ago. More on her thoughts in a later post.

After the tour was over I made sure to tip Elena handsomely. On the way back to the hostel I indulged in a traditional Romanian dish, Sarmale

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Sarmale: Cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and veggies. Delicious.

Vasiliy and I take to the sky bar of the hostel for a beer with no real plans. He is a bit abrasive and macabre, in a somewhat endearing way. His English is limited, but we talk about the state of Greece and the European Union among other things. He is a music composer, and spent a brief stint in LA, though it was unclear how much work he actually did there.

During our tour Elena had told us about the Romanian cuisine. I tell Vasily this made me quite hungry for some Romanian food, to which he creepily/hilariously responds:

“I was already hungry after the talk of blood and impaling”

We eventually head back down to our room and meet three British girls, Pippa, Holly, and Annelies. They hail from London and are on holiday. Holly and Pippa work in the city while Annelies just finished her studies and is poised to begin her work in the medical field before some South American travels. I hit it off with them immediately and enjoy their witty banter. They ask about my travels thus far and my future plans.

A bit later the five of us head to Food Hood, a park adorned with sand, tables, and hammocks, surrounded by a variety of food trucks. The girls split a pizza. Pippa and I head to the bar to get some cocktails. We ask the bartender to whip up a round of traditional Romanian drinks, to which I drop Pippa a line I had been waiting all day to use.

“When in Rome-ania!”

I appreciate her laughing despite it not being very funny.

As we order more rounds of drinks and get to know one another, Vasiliy gets a bit bold with his game. He proceeds to psychoanalyze each of the young women, telling each of them what he believes their true nature to be, despite having just met, to the point of sheer awkwardness. Still, the girls are good sports.

Later in the night we hit some of the bars in old town. I was shocked at the liveliness in the streets. People are parading around, singing, dancing, chugging their drinks. The bars and clubs are rocking. We are fed shots at almost every venue we arrive to; the perks of partying with three beautiful young women I suppose.

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One of the bars we went to, couldn’t have named it better myself (pic taken during the day).

At one point, Annelies gets hauled over a random guys shoulder, to which I shove him and let him know that’s not okay to do. He put her down and gave me a “it’s all in good fun look”, I then take her arm and we go elsewhere. Aside from that guy, the Romanians seem to generally be all about having a good time.

The group of us drank, danced, and mingled until about 5 AM when we stumbled back to the hostel.

The next day I awoke in a daze in the early afternoon to an uncomfortable scene. A French girl, Noami, whom I had briefly met the previous night, was engaging in a heated discussion with an Italian guy mere feet away from my bed. My ears were ringing from the night before, but I could hear her words loud and clear.

“Why did you come in my bed last night?”

The Italian guy gives a nonchalant response, half apologizing in broken English. She tells him not to to do it again and walks out of the room…

In the moment I am heated and want to tell him things that Noami may have been afraid to say, but that he needed to hear. Then I remember that all my valuables are within reach of him for the weekend.

Such is life in the hostel. As I wrote about in a previous post, there is a difficult balance one must take to preserve personal security in the hostel. This includes not making enemies.

Anyway, other than that incident the rest of my weekend in Bucharest proved to be more enchanting than I could’ve imagined. Check back soon for more Romanian adventures, food, and nightlife!

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