As in every other Romanian city, just minutes beyond the broad avenues lined with Communist-era apartment blocks, the landscape instantly becomes rural and the clock rolls back a century. We began to ascend the foothills of the southern Carpathians and quickly noticed that we were the only car going our direction. We stopped to take pictures of the idyllic landscape: trees coming into color, shepherds with their flocks, craggy peaks and yellowing meadows. Yay!
|Blocuri! (Apartment "blocks")|
|Shepherds tending their flock|
|Also on the job...|
|What to watch - the incredible landscape or the road?|
|Late September coming into color.|
|Perfect traveling weather.|
|Route DN1A south of Brasov|
Finally the topography leveled somewhat and we continued through little villages in the southern-slope foothills. However, besides the steady oncoming flow of semi-trucks, the trip became more exciting with new obstacles popping up 'round the bends, such as:
I managed to keep the car on the road, not rear-end any rear ends and we made our way down into the valley. En route, we couldn't resist pulling off to check out a roadside monastery:
|As they say, "cleanliness is next to godliness"!|
Which also means it was 2:35 and we hadn't eaten since breakfast. Might as well salvage our visit to this cute town with a spot of lunch before hitting the road again, right? Unfortunately the shawarma spot was locked tight and the wood-fired oven pizza place had just one guy on duty and didn't look capable of producing a pizza in less than 45 minutes. How about that charming little town park under the shade trees with the bench of old timers nursing their beers? We decided to get some food from the market and have a park picnic instead. Indeed!
With our bag of rolls, ham, cheese and drinks we headed for the park to find a good spot. Turning in a circle on the grass, I took in the park and saw table, table, another table...hmmm... there didn't seem to be any... chairs. What? The old timers were watching us, the silly tourists with their grocery bag looking for a place to sit. Sirs, what's up here? Where are all the chairs... or benches? I asked the group. Without hesitation, one guy tossed up his hands and shouted, "Ha! Asta e România!" (like "that's Romania for ya'!") cracking up his buddies. They got another chuckle as we sat down on the curb, balancing our sandwich makings across our laps and sweeping away the ants. Romania wins again.
The second time I visited Slănic was yesterday. It's the May 1 Labor Day long weekend and the forecast called for Sunday to be drizzly, but Saturday and Monday to be blue and sunny. After my first attempt to visit this damn salt mine failed miserably, I'm determined to see it before we leave. My husband and I agreed that if we're going to be going underground, we might as well do it on the dreary day and leave the sunny days for being above ground. Sounded sensible. As Slănic seemed to be just a sleepy town my first visit - I didn't expect it to be too crowded, even on this holiday weekend.
And again, I was wrong.
We got our first clue when the traffic cop directed us to park along the road far from the full parking lot and ticket booth. We joined a steady stream of people making their way over a bridge, through the parking area and towards a little collection of souvenir and snack stands. Provisions - yes! We found a sandwich stand and grabbed a ham and cheese to go.
|At least there are chairs here!|
|Visitors get their salty souvenirs|
|That awning is the head of the line.|
|The now-defunct elevator shaft. I'm thinking the mini-bus is a safer choice anyway.|
Next, the families around us in line begin to endear me. Surveying the crowd, it was clear that we are among the "real folks." I mean the working class, unpretentious types in acid-washed jeans, with raven-black or magenta dyed hair on the women and track-suits stretched across beer bellies on the men. Despite the long wait and the dreary conditions, they were in great humor, laughing and teasing each other while passing around little paper boats of fried donuts covered in chocolate sauce. The fathers held their wives' purses while the mothers took wet wipes to the kids' sticky fingers. When the drizzle got a bit more serious, one dad and son took off for the souvenir stand to buy an umbrella. They returned with one covered in kittens and daisies, causing a good laugh from the rest of the family. "It was the only one left!" announces the boy. His dad told us they're here for a "mini-vacation" and, dragging on his cigarette, proclaimed that the air at the bottom of the mine is some of the purest on earth. By the time we reached the head of the line, we'd second-hand smoked about a half-pack and were looking forward some of that purest air on earth.
|I seriously considered offering to trade my umbrella for his.|
The end of the road was blocked by a plywood wall with two doors cut into it: entrance and exit. We all piled out and excitedly stepped through the doorway into a holding area for the folks waiting to get back on the shuttle, and then through another plywood barrier to the massive cavern itself. Incredible!
|230 ft tall cathedral ceilings anyone?|
|All surfaces are carved salt.|
|Romanians CAN'T resist playing ping-pong or badminton, and the bottom of a salt mine is no exception.|
|Resting rooms in the sanatorium area complete with piped-in bird song emanating from speakers. |
Oh, and a family pic-nicking and playing a board game. Why not?
|Wouldn't be complete without Mihai Eminescu!|
|Perfectly still reflecting pool.|
After about an hour, and figuring we'd seen it all, we returned to the exit, or really, the plywood-enclosed holding pen where we waited en masse for the return of the mini-buses. Like dogs waiting for their people to return home but not able to see down the road, we kept our ears pricked for the sound of the returning vehicles we couldn't see beyond the wall. The "line" was about ten people wide and 30 feet deep. In front of us was the single exit door controlled by an unseen employee on the other side. I was re-united with my tour group pals from the restroom line and they took turns taking pictures of the smiling American who still couldn't quite understand them. Just then the door cracked open and the mob turned ugly. Swelling strongly from behind us, they began shoving forward as if this were the last chopper out of Saigon. It was clear I was no match for pensioners who'd spent their formative years fending for themselves in bread queues. Fearing I was going to be crushed against the salt wall, I called out to my husband who put his hands on my back and pushed me through the Bulgarian rugby scrum and finally the doorway.
On the other side were three waiting mini-vans whose drivers leapt aside as the crowd scrambled to get one of the 48 seats. We were lucky to grab two this time. Seriously, after 37 years of "developing the mine as a tourist destination" THIS was the best they came up with to get us out?
|Moments before the crowd turned.|
So - it took two full days of trying, but I finally got to see the salt mines. And despite risking my life with oncoming semi-trucks and a shoving mob, waiting 90 minutes in the rain and no park benches for lunch, these two days lived up to my motto: Do whatever makes a better story. Sometimes when everything goes as planned, it's just not as much fun.