Halloween in Transylvania

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A well-timed business trip to Romania turned into a perfect long-weekend getaway for our family. Just in time for Halloween, we booked a private tour of Bran Castle, famed residence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Peles Castle in Transylvania. We’d be staying in Bucharest for a few days, and I managed to find what turned out to be the perfect hotel for our family. The Orhideea Health & Spa offers spacious two-bedroom apartments for about 100 Euros a night. A large Carrefour down the street and numerous take-away restaurant options meant we could focus on fun family sight-seeing without worrying about what to do for dinner. Breakfast was included, which made me and the kids happy. They also serve dinner in a restaurant on the top floor, though we didn’t think the food was very good. We ended up not using the spa or the indoor pool, but it was nice to know those options were available.

Our flights were all kind of wonky this trip. James had to fly in from Timisoara in the afternoon while the kids and I flew Tarom Airlines (Romania’s premier, ahem, only airline) from Athens in the middle of the night. We didn’t make it to the hotel until 2 AM. Uncharacteristically, I’d not done a lot of vacation planning for this trip, so we hurriedly scoured Trip Advisor for some kid-friendly sight-seeing options.

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First stop, the train museum! Because…Liam. The Muzeul CFR is housed in the Gara de Nord train station, sort of the grand central station of Budapest. After admiring the big trains and watching a couple of them pull out of the station, we mosied over to the museum at the end of one of the platforms. Inside we found all sorts of artifacts, maps, and models of trains throughout history. But the most impressive of all was a huge model train that was an actual scale model of real areas throughout Romania. We met a wonderful docent who delighted Liam (and us!) with fun facts about the model and about trains in general. I asked if I could take photos, but he said we would have had to pay a fee when we bought our ticket. (We learned later this is common at all of the museums.) We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and because the museum was so small, I think Liam took his time really looking around.

Next, we decided to give the subway system a go. We find it so interesting how different cities and countries manage their transportation systems. While Athens works on an honor system, with simple ticket validation and a hefty fine if you’re caught without a proper ticket, Budapest uses a scanner and turnstile. The train cars were quite nice, with benches running along the walls, and the cars were wider than in Athens. The space between cars was completely open, so as the train made a turn you could see the bend in the cars all the way down the track. Quite a sight to see!

We spent the rest of the cold, dreary afternoon looking for a good museum. Liam spotted a huge Triceratops skull in front of the Muzeul National de Geologie, so we ended up going there. The skull was a bit misleading — there were a few dino models inside, but mostly it housed a vast collection of rocks. As you can imagine, that only took about 30 minutes for Liam to breeze right through. Just as well — we had a big day ahead of us in Transylvania the next day, so best to pace ourselves.

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By the end of our first day we were marveling at how affordable everything is in Romania. Museum tickets were all less than 5 Euros, we got a HUGE two-bedroom apartment for the cost of a single hotel room, and groceries cost half of what they would in Athens. Perhaps this is because Romania opted to keep its currency, the Lei, instead of switching to the Euro. Interestingly, Romanian leis are made of plastic instead of paper, and each bill has a small, transparent shape, like a little window (that’s what Liam called it).

Cristi, our private tour guide, met us bright and early Friday morning in our hotel lobby. The service we booked through Viator actually contacted us to suggest we switch to a private tour because we had a small child, and it was definitely worth the extra 50 Euros. They provided a car seat free of charge, and our guide was fantastic. As we drove out of the city, Cristi told us all sorts of facts about Budapest, some history about Romania, and we talked at length about his experiences as a child living under the Communist regime. He was only about nine when the wall fell, but he remembers his parents and grandparents having to stand in long lines for food. And he remembers how excited he was to try McDonald’s for the first time! He said he dreams to one day visit New York City, and he was thrilled to hear that we’d lived there once. I guess it’s very difficult for Romanians to get a US Visa these days. He hopes that will change soon. He also told us Romanians love almost anything American, especially the holidays, like Halloween. No trick-or-treating there, but lots of decorations up around town!

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As we approached our first stop, Peles Castle, we were told about its grand history and even grander rooms. It’s really more like a palace, with 170 ornately decorated rooms,  30 of which are bathrooms. James and I would have thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour if we could have ditched the kids. First off, it was still quite dreary and cold, even colder in the mountains, and Liam was NOT HAPPY about this situation. Then, Liam was under the mistaken impression that we’d be getting a private tour of the castle, so he threw a fit when we had to crowd in with a huge group of strangers for the English-language guided tour. He finally calmed down a bit when I exasperatedly handed him the camera and told him to start taking photos. But then Violet decided she wanted to nurse RIGHT NOW. Thankfully there was a female docent who overheard Violet’s pleas and motioned me to come around a curtain where there was a chair and a little bit of privacy. I say “little bit” because from the tour group’s vantage point, I probably looked like part of the exhibit. Sheesh. When we finally made it out and met Cristi in the courtyard, he asked if we’d like to tour the grounds. We opted for hot chocolate at the café instead.

Refreshed and in slightly better spirits, we stopped for lunch at Halewood Winery in Prahova Valley. Cristi recommended a few Romanian delicacies on the menu — the tripe soup (we opted for the less, um, intestiny option, beef soup), the “skinless sausages” called Mititei, and a Romanian dessert which was like a large, round donut covered in cream and blueberries. Romanian food is soooo good!

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Bellies full, we continued our trek through the Carpathian Mountains to Bran Castle. The clouds cleared out and the temperature rose. Beautiful fall foliage followed us up, down and around the curves, while craggy, white rocky outcrops rose impossibly high up ahead.

Now, clear your minds of all that spooky Dracula stuff. Bram Stoker set his infamous vampire tale at Bran Castle, but he’d never actually been here. And subsequent renovations by Queen Marie have transformed it into an almost quaint neo-classical cottage. But no bother — it’s still way up on a hill, and the tourists love it. No tour groups — we were free to roam around ourselves, and Cristi served as our private tour guide, pointing out various rooms and telling us of the history of the place. Liam loved walking through the narrow halls and peeking into the tidy rooms. dsc_0112 He especially loved the secret staircase through the walls discovered behind the fireplace. At the base of the castle stood a huge collection of souvenir booths. Cristi said that until the movies, Romanians hadn’t even heard of Dracula. This tourist industry sort of cropped up when people started showing up wanting to see the place. It was all a bit kitchy, but we couldn’t leave without getting a magnet, a statue of the castle for our mantel, and couple of T-shirts. Liam picked out a bell with Vlad the Impaler’s picture on it. We explained to him all about Vlad and the Dracula myth. He seemed to get the gist.

dsc_0153 On our final day we went to the Natural History Museum, which was VERY COOL! Better than I’d imagined it would be. Very modern, like a museum you’d see in the States. From there we took the subway to beautiful Herastrau Park. After riding the little choo-choo train (seems like we’ve always got to do that wherever we go!) we discovered the best Romanian street food ever: spiral potatoes. Actually, who knows if these are really Romanian, but who cares? They totally hit the spot. And of course we had to try the Kurtos Kalacs, fried bread molded around a thick rod, then coated in sugar. Sweet crunchy deliciousness!

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Lunch and done. Let’s look at some little houses! Next we took a lovely stroll through the Village Museum, an outdoor display of quaint little houses they moved from the countryside dating from 18th-early 20th century. You couldn’t go into most of them because they were too fragile. But with the falling leaves, lovely lake, and traditional music, we really felt transported in time. I spotted a sign for hot wine. Wine…for a cold fall day, you say? Sure, let’s give it a whirl. It smelled great, like cinnamon apple cider with a hint of tannins. But it tasted kind of revolting. I thought as it cooled it would taste better. It didn’t.

Our trip ended too soon. I wish we could have had just one more day. Cristi highly recommended seeing the Parliament Palace, reputedly the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. But we were worried the kids wouldn’t do well on another lengthy guided tour. We also missed seeing the Old Town, a few blocks of medieval buildings in the heart of the city. Perhaps when we return to Budapest someday we’ll be able to see them. Maybe we can leave the kids at home, ha!

We’re actually thinking of making a return trip to Romania in the spring, this time staying in Timisoara and seeing some of the more medieval castles associated with Vlad the Impaler. Perhaps they’ll scratch that spooky Dracula itch that Bran Castle didn’t. Budapest, Hungary is a relatively short train ride from there, too. This trip went so much better than Malta, I have high hopes that our family will be able to survive more travel!

Halloween in Greece

Halloween is kind of a non-holiday in Greece. I was told it’s been gaining traction the last five years or so, mainly because children love it. But come Halloween night, you won’t see roving bands of costumed half-pints ringing bells and demanding candy door-to-door. You will, however, see a pretty sizeable Halloween section at the Jumbo. This came in handy for the Halloween party Liam decided he wanted this year. I called it Liam’s Halloween Spookfest. We’ve never thrown a Halloween party, so I figured I’d keep it simple, especially because James would be out of town. Throw a couple of snacks on the table, invite a few close friends, plan a couple of games, and be done with it.

Except…Halloween is so much fun! And once Liam and I put our heads together, the plans got bigger…and bigger…and bigger.

Next thing I know, I’m scouring the city for dry ice to create spooky fog in our “haunted attic.” I messaged one of the Greek moms I know to ask where I might find some, and she suggested gas stations or liquor stores.

Here’s me trying to explain dry ice to the gas station attendant:

“I’m looking for DRY ICE. No…not the ice in the machine. It’s very cold, colder than that. No, it doesn’t go in your car…it’s for…um…keeping things extra cold. It’s made from carbon dioxide, completely frozen. It turns to gas when you pour water on it.” (Pantomime pouring)

I got a lot of puzzled looks. One guy, who seemed to know English the best, replied, “I do not think you will find this thing you describe.”

Indeed. Turns out my friend misunderstood me, thought I was looking for regular ice. Back to the drawing board. I reached out to the science department at Liam’s school and to some folks at the embassy to see if they knew where I could find some. And finally, two days before the party, I called a guy who said he could deliver some right to my front door for 11 Euros. Alright! Friday evening he pulls up to the door, dumps 10 kilos of steaming dry ice into my cooler, only charges me 10 Euros, then shouts back over his shoulder as he runs back to the van, “Remember, don’t touch it!”

I’m really starting to love this country.

Liam and I spent more than a week planning and decorating. We tacked red tissue paper over the lights in the elevator and hung a spooky sign over the ground floor door. We strung spider webs, carved a few pumpkins, and hung a motion-activated ghost in the top floor vestibule (AKA haunted attic). I looked everywhere for a black lightbulb, but had to settle for red and blue, which was still pretty eerie. We ordered a super gross severed hand online, and found some tombstones and skeleton hands at Jumbo. I looked up fun Halloween games for his age group online. I asked each family to bring a spooky dish to share, and I made little ghost-shaped turkey sandwiches. I even decided to get a little mileage out of my new smoothie machine by making strawberry slushies for the kids (with a shot of Grand Marnier for the adults).

I pushed the party up to October 22 because October 28 is a major Greek holiday, and many families (including ours!) plan to go out of town then. We had five kids (six if you count Violet) and seven adults, and although Liam was bummed his three best buds from his class couldn’t make it, he still had a great time. After the kids ate, they ran around the house playing hide-and-go-seek. We had planned to reveal the haunted attic at the end of the night, but most of them ran up there ahead of schedule. I eventually had to call them all back to play some of these games we’d planned. Pin the Eyeball on the Zombie was a big hit, but Liam got upset during the Spooky Walk when one of the younger siblings wasn’t following the rules, and we completely forgot to do the Mummy Wrap Relay. By the time we got all the lights out and started telling spooky stories, no one wanted to sit still or take turns. Time for some dry ice fog!

Liam and I had rehearsed how this part was going to go. I would go upstairs with some hot water and a walkie-talkie, then call him when it was time to send all the kids up. Just as the doors opened I poured the water into the cooler and got a tremendous blast of cold, white fog. The kids were all super impressed. Laid out on a table with a creepy talking skull was a party favor bag for each of them full of candy, plastic bugs and little practical joke gags.

Aside from Liam’s little screaming match with a four-year-old and the general chaos, I’d say this was a hit. The adults had a great time, too. Liam is already planning the second annual Halloween Spookfest, and if it’s anything like my rooftop parties, we’ll have an entirely different set of kids at the next one!

The American School plans a big Halloween celebration, too, with a costume parade, classroom parties, and a fall carnival in the evening. However, we’re going to miss it because…

We’re going to Transylvania to see Dracula’s Castle! Squee!!

Liam’s been watching Hotel Transylvania and episodes of Count Duckula to get him up to speed on who this whole “Dracula” character is. We’re staying in Bucharest, Romania, then taking a bus tour up to the mountains to see two famed castles of Vlad the Impaler. And lest the kids not find this as fascinating as we do (which is entirely possible), we’ll be back in time for the big Halloween party at the embassy on Monday.

So, stay tuned for updates from Transylvania…transsexual or otherwise.