Saturday, 27 November 2010

Romania 2 – A Taste of Transylvania

20th to  25th November 2010

In comparison to Maramureş, Transylvania instantly felt like a return to the 21st century – OK, maybe the 20th then – and a coffee break in the town of Bistriţa had us sitting on white leather sofas surrounded by the young and beautiful. We felt a bit peasanty to be honest, aware that both of us needed haircuts and our trousers were a bit mud splattered, but that’s what you get from nearly 200 days on the road in a van.
Bistriţa – Şugălete row of terraced merchant’s houses and street art installation reminiscent of Antony Gormley

We didn’t really have an auspicious start to this next area. A long and fruitless evening’s search for a pension happy to accommodate us and our need for electricity left us feeling a bit down. Our solution was to park up in Reghin’s very attractive main square, draw our blinds and spend the night there. Actually, for us the centre of a town often feels a surprisingly safe place to stay, and in this case we were 200m from the police station. Besides, Reghin felt quite sophisticated, with a long, neat and tidy main street lined with burgher’s houses from its Hapsburg past. There was a bit of night life going on around us, but none of it interfered with a restful night and we woke on Sunday morning to the sound of church bells.
Reghin doorways

Can you spot a motorhome here?

We set off through gentle hills with strip fields and a new style of haystack, more like the ones I (Lesley) remember from my childhood, with rectangular bales piled high in a vague house shape (I’m not sure where I’d have seen these though, growing up as I did in London). Village houses were no longer wooden and there was far less new building going on. There were also fewer cars with foreign plates. Conversely, there were more elderly Dacias from the communist era on the roads. It made us wonder whether people round here were just not working abroad so much.
Târgu Mureş – Palace of Culture

By lunchtime we had reached the city of Târgu Mureş, where the centre had been closed to traffic and was gradually filling with strollers as the church services ended, to add to the array of people already out on a sunny Sunday, roller-blading, cycling and even uni-cycling. It reminded us of Sundays in Madrid and we stopped there far longer than we’d planned, staying for lunch and joining the strollers. The architecture impressed us greatly, especially the Palace of Culture and the town hall, which were very Art Nouveau, and built around 1910 when Transylvania was part of Hungary – thank goodness Ceauşescu didn’t have any crazy ideas about tearing those down.
Târgu Mureş – street views

Transylvania was transferred to Romania after the First World War. Large areas have Hungarian majorities, and have done for many hundreds of years; in other parts Romanians have dominated for centuries too. Who has the best claim to rule the province is a bitterly sensitive topic in Romania and Hungary, and is normally based on the ‘we were here first’ line of argument – quite idiotic and irrelevant when everyone knows that they have all been living there for centuries.
Târgu Mureş – this is some apple stall

Târgu Mureş, or Marosvásárhely to give it its Magyar name, lies in one such ethnically Hungarian area, and it struck us that a number of monuments erected after 1920 sought overtly to stake the Romanian claim to this region. A statue of Romulus and Remus sat outside the town hall, a reminder of the Romanian belief that they are directly descended from Roman settlers in this very area – and therefore here first. A huge (and very impressive) Orthodox cathedral was also built on the main square in the 1920s, and its murals pointedly depict the scenes of the Passion with Hungarian nobles in the roles of oppressors, and Christ’s followers dressed in traditional Romanian peasant garb.
Târgu Mureş – Orthodox Cathedral

Beyond the land of the Transylvanian Hungarians we entered an area that was, until quite recently, home to the Transylvanian Saxons. These German-speakers first settled here first in the 13th century, and formed a thriving community in the towns and villages more or less until the 1980s, when deteriorating conditions in Eastern Europe’s second maddest country (never forget Albania) led many of them to seek to emigrate to West Germany. The Romanian régime let them go, as it received a payment from Bonn for each German thus released. Then, after the 1989 revolution, all the restrictions were lifted, and whole villages departed en masse at the start of the 1990s, all but ending 700 years of German history here at a stroke. Very few remain, but their monuments are everywhere.
Saxon village streets

The monuments we were particularly seeking out were the fortified Saxon churches and their accompanying villages, which are typically composed of one long main street, often bordered by a wide swath of grass, and lined by single-storey stone houses placed end on to the road with their frontages joined on to the next by an archway. The impression they give is of one long, unbroken, colourful wall.
Saxon village streets

The churches certainly were striking, being generally situated on a hill and having a large defensive tower and a ring of high, thick walls. You could easily see how the villagers would be able to pile into the church, carrying all their valuables and stores in large wooden chests, when the invading Tartars and Turks attacked in the 15th and 16th centuries. We saw an exhibition of just such chests in Sighişoara’s Lutheran church. They were part of a collection of over 100 chests, found in the attic of the fortified church at Brădeni, and restored by German archaeologists. Unsurprisingly, much of the restoration work to do with these churches has a German connection.

Saxon churches (Apold, Bradeni and Merghindeal)

Inside the defensive wall at Şaroş

In Şaroş, visiting inside the church proved quite easy as the keyholder lives next door. Just go up the covered wooden staircase and knock on the green door. The very plain interior still had its simple benches laid out, hymn numbers remained on the wall boards and it was hung with fading banners covered in German writing. It all gave the place a sort of Miss Haversham feel, frozen in time and almost as if it were just waiting for the congregation to reappear. Mind you, I expect quite a lot do return every summer, on coach tours of the old homeland. We had a wander around the walls of Şaroş church, and were interested to find that the sturdy tower’s steps begin about 6 foot up the wall, requiring a ladder to reach them, which was presumably pulled up in times of need. There are good examples of these fortified churches all around this area. We stopped by those at Apold and Merghindeal, but by far the best was at Biertan, known to its former inhabitants as Berthälm.
Biertan from afar

Approaching the village, Biertan looked to have not so much a fortified church as a gothic castle, rising out of its misty valley setting, surrounded by a higgledy piggeldy collection of red tiled village roofs in a very medieval looking street pattern. Arriving on a wet November day to almost deserted streets, with a few villagers watching us driving past, made me think it would make a great setting for a Dracula film – well, it’s the right area anyway! Close up it was no less impressive, with a long covered wooden staircase taking you up through two sets of walls to the central area at the top, where the large church stands, surrounded by several defensive towers and outbuildings.
Biertan up close – castle, village and inscription in German on a village house

These covered wooden staircases seem to be a feature of this Saxon area and there was a pretty long one in the citadel at Sighişoara, which takes you up to the Lutheran church on the hill. Rob had been to Sighişoara before, twice actually, the first time before it really began to get restored. A lot of work has been done to the citadel, and, while it is definitely the tourist heart of the town, I (Lesley) felt that it hadn’t been turned into a themed gothic centre. Rob says that in the summer, with cafes and gift shops spilling out on to the streets it gives a very different impression, but on a damp November day it looked quietly understated, with its cobbled streets overhung by the steep, tiled eaves of Germanic-style houses from the 16th century.
Sighişoara – views of the clock tower in the old citadel

The lower town in Sighişoara has a completely different feel. It is a lively place, with many buildings almost as old as in the citadel, but here there were ordinary shops and lots of people out and about. We managed to have the most enormous lunch of stuffed cabbage leaves and mămăligă (polenta) at £2 per portion, and we found a replacement tube for one of the van’s interior lights, which cost 70p. We had found the campsite we were staying on quite by chance as we were driving out to find one we’d heard of on the hillside, but had no idea if it was open in November. Camping Aquarius is near the station, is a ten minute walk from the citadel, has a pension, a swimming pool and, of particular interest to us, is open all year with electricity and lovely hot showers – all for 40 Lei (£8).
Sighişoara – ripe for renovation, look at what’s under the plaster, and street scene in the lower town.

We noticed a new group of Roma in these parts of Transylvania, who wear a distinctive dress of very broad-rimmed black hats for men, and long brightly coloured skirts for women, often with knitted tops and headscarves in similar patterns which give them an uncanny resemblance to women in Indian villages.

The weather turned rainy again from Tuesday 23rd, and the next morning, while at the charming little Dutch-run campsite at Cârţa, in the far south of the Saxon area, we got the first flurries of snow. The high mountains of the Făgăraş range were invisible under a blanket of cloud, and more snow was forecast. At this point we decided to miss out on our visit to Sibiu (I, Rob, have been there before and know it’s great, but so it will be next time we come) and push straight on south through the mountains, and one step closer to Greece.
Turnu Roşu pass

The route south from Sibiu crosses the Carpathians at the Turnu Roşu pass, and stays at low altitude by following the narrow valley of the River Olt. Inevitably this has become the main truckers’ route, and we joined a constant stream of heavy lorries thundering along the winding gorge. Despite this and the low cloud, it was an impressively scenic route, which snaked past both high cliffs and pastoral, haystack-dotted slopes over a length of nearly 80km, until we emerged onto the Danubian plain around Râmnicu Vâlcea. We were now out of Transylvania and in the province of Wallachia.

Cozia monastery

The road towards the Danube then became very flat and straight. We passed through endless strings of one-storey villages, not wealthy-looking but well maintained. Many stalls had been set up by the roadside, in some villages selling wine, in others onions and in yet others cabbages. Rarely was the produce mixed in the same locality. Our contribution to the Wallachian rural economy was in buying a 2-litre bottle of white wine, of the fetească albă grape, for 10 lei (£2), straight from the producer. As darkness fell we found a motel that agreed to let us park up for a few lei, and rather begrudgingly agreed to an electric hook-up too.
Dranovăţu motel – parked up round the back

Waking to white frost covering the van windows and the temperature down to minus 2°C told us we had made the right to choice to decide to head south and take a ferry across the Danube on Thursday 25th November. It took us a few hours driving on long straight roads beside the river Olt, passing on our way through more very rustic villages set amid strip fields and vegetable plots – they seem to be big on cabbages and peppers if the roadside sellers round here were anything to go by. We saw a couple of sights new to us - several carts pulled by donkeys, and children in school uniform of sorts, who were emerging from one village school after another for their lunchtime break. At Turnu Măgurele we easily found the port, and were initially confused as the passport check came before the ticket office when we wanted information about times and prices first, only having a limited amount of lei left in our pockets. We were in fact the only people there, and a helpful customs official acted as a liaison for us, explaining that we wanted to pay half of the 49 euro fare in lei. For a 10-minute crossing, that was some fare! We just happened to have turned up as they were putting on an extra ferry for some businessmen, though we thought at first it was just for us. They were foot passengers though, making us the only vehicle on the ferry.
Turnu Măgurele to Nikopol ferry

As we waved goodbye to Romania from the Danube, we were feeling chuffed. We’d managed to get by pretty well linguistically, or at least Rob had. It’s a Latin language, and anyone with knowledge of Italian will recognise a surprising amount. Even I (Lesley) could recognise some items on menus. Plus which, after a few trips here over the years Rob found he could have a stab at most things in the language, although, as elsewhere, they do confound him by speaking back with words he doesn’t know! We were also pleased that we’d got the ferry at a reasonable time and got our gas bottle filled up. Oh yes, we forgot to mention that. We stopped at a small GPL station (LPG) and a chap just stuck in 5 litres for us for about £3, and that means that once again the Hales are cooking on gas!
Danube mid-stream – and it’s actually looking blue! Turn left for Romania, right for Bulgaria.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Romania 1 - Mainly Maramureş

15th to 20th November 2010

Entering Romania we passed the first manned border since Sweden, but after a brief passport check we were through – luckily you no longer have to drive through the disinfectant trough! €7 then went on a ‘viniete’, or our slice of Romanian road tax for a month, and we were on the road to Satu Mare.

Satu Mare lies only about 10km from the Hungarian border, and is in reality a Hungarian city located in the wrong country. The language on the streets is Hungarian (although the signs are mostly Romanian), and the buildings include some wonderful art nouveau specimens from the last years of the Habsburg empire. Despite this, the years in communist Romania with its crackpot economy have taken their toll, and the level of disrepair is subtly greater than it would have been in Hungary. The city’s central square is laid out as a leafy park, and people were sitting out on the benches enjoying the warm late autumn sun, as the thermometer touched 20°C. 
Satu Mare cathedral and detail on Hotel Dacia

Our next destination in Romania was the region of Maramureş. To get there we headed east from Satu Mare, which took us first through the Oaş area, where the plain gives way to the first wrinkles of the Carpathian mountains. Around sundown we arrived at Călineşti-Oaş, where a quiet carpark by a dam, popular with fishermen in the daytime, gave us a place to stop for the night. The morning revealed wonderful views across the water to Călineşti-Oaş itself, which looked magnificent with its tall Orthodox church, but turned out to be far less from up close - more a long straggle of village houses than the town we had imagined.
Călineşti-Oaş lake

We visited the hilltop monastery at nearby Bixad – a surprisingly new affair, given the 1770 vintage of its little church. The village was busy, with a lot of bustle on the streets, but we had to go on to the town of Negreşti-Oaş to find a decent range of shops.
Bixad monastery

There were a quite astonishing number of new houses in these villages and towns though, and often huge three-storey affairs had gone or were in the process of going up, occupying the whole width of the old housing plots. Sometimes there was even a second new building glimpsed through an archway, built in the yard behind. This construction work is transforming whole villages from one-storey rustic and we concluded that this must be linked to money sent back by family members working abroad. Judging by the many foreign-registered cars we saw in these villages, they are largely working in the UK and France. Indeed, we did not feel that odd at all driving round with our UK plates – and our panel van cannot have looked that unusual, for many times people attempted to flag us down, thinking we were a local minibus-taxi.
New houses springing up everywhere

We crossed into Maramureş at the Sâmbra Oilor pass, and were immediately aware of the difference. Suddenly there were no more large new houses, and the initial impression was poorer and less developed. Maramureş is indeed one of Romania’s most rural and isolated regions. Many villages retain a very rustic and unmodernised appearance, and local customs are still maintained, in for example the wearing of some features of traditional dress, and in the observance of seasonal festivals. Agriculture remains in many places unmechanised, and draft animals are extensively used. The area is also known for its craftsmanship in wood, especially in its many traditional churches. These are the aspects that have attracted a certain kind of visitor for many years, but in small numbers, for it was tourism for the hardy. These days, rural tourism is being actively promoted, but it has made as yet only limited inroads into the remoter parts.
‘Welcome to Maramureş’ – Charlie at Sâmbra Oilor pass and us following a horse cart

One place that has been on the tourist map for many years is Săpânţa, a large village by the Ukrainian border, where we arrived late on Tuesday afternoon. Its claim to fame is its ‘Merry Cemetery’ around the village church, where the graves are almost all decorated with brightly-painted wooden crosses that feature cartoon-like images of the deceased in their prime, and humorous rhymes that relate something about them, including sometimes how they met their end. There were many women spinning and preparing food, or men with sheep, horses or tractors, the people overwhelmingly wearing the traditional costumes of the area. In more contemporary dress were the teacher, the doctor, the soldiers, or the young man on the Paris metro – did he come to grief there? This tradition however only goes back to 1935, and appears to be the work of only two men. Local carpenter Stan Ioan Pătraş fashioned the first grave marker in the style in that year, and enthusiasm for his work just grew and grew. It was carried on by his assistant after Pătraş’s death, until now the village seems to live off the fame of its cemetery, sporting several souvenir shops, pensions and restaurants. It is a large village, with a maze of very rural unpaved back lanes, but also some large new houses along the main roads, and foreign-registered cars in the drives.

Săpânţa cemetery

We never found Săpânţa’s campsite, for the village street was closed for resurfacing and we couldn’t find the diversion, but tried instead at a large pension on the main road who let us park up with electricity for €10. We suspected that this was quite dear for Romania but were pleased to have a place to stay.
Some Romanian foods just didn’t sound tempting!

Moving on from Săpânţa was like stepping out of the 21st century into a Breugel painting. Layer upon layer of fields stretched over the hill sides, dotted with haystacks. Oxen pulled carts. Shepherds tended mixed flocks of sheep and goats, accompanied by large shaggy dogs. Women sat outside their houses on little benches spinning wool from spindles made of long sticks. Little old ladies trudged up the dusty earth streets with large cloth bags over their backs, wearing knee length skirts in a full gather, over thick tan tights and slightly incongruous stripy socks. Some men had little straw hats, some had more boxy astrakhan affairs. I (Lesley) felt a bit out of place, as well as out of time, and Charlie got lots of attention – a dog in a van, on his own seat, walking out on a lead – whoever’s heard of such a thing!
Săpânţa – traditional Romania is hanging in there - haystacks with roofs that can be raised and attractive tiled villages houses

Being at the Thursday morning market at Ocna Şugatag was like actually taking part in a Breugels painting. Hundreds of people milled around, browsing at stalls, queuing for beer or langos (those big flat wedges of fried batter topped with cheese that you get in Hungary), or checking out the animals on sale. Most of the people wore some kind of headgear – bright headscarves for the women, different hats for the men – cylindrical căciule in black astrakhan wool, little straw clopuri that sit high on the head, long felt hats or modern woolly hats in the same shape. Piglets were being sold from crates and carried away in sacks, and elsewhere horse carts stood around, with a fat sow or four small sheep waiting in the back while their human owners negotiated with potential buyers. Clothing stalls sold the necessities of rural Maramureş, the soft boots and headscarves, and căciula hats at 150 lei (£30) each. 

Ocna Şugatag market and căciula hat stall (lucky we’re not buying Christmas pressies this year!)

The regional town of Maramureş is Sighetul Marmaţiei, or just plain Sighet for short, which lies right on the Ukrainian border. In some ways it feels a world away from the villages, in other ways the villages come right to its heart. It is a not unattractive place, with its elongated main square, 18th century buildings, and a vague Austro-Hungarian feel that reminded us of places in Slovakia, and life there seemed positively cosmopolitan after a day or two in the Maramureş hinterland. The market though is an abundantly rural affair, with a marvellous selection of fresh wares. We came away carrying old plastic drinks bottles refilled with home-made cherry ţuica and 2 litres of the creamiest milk we’ve had for a long time, as well as fresh white cheeses and a huge bag of red peppers.

You might think we’d been partaking of too much of the ţuica, which is basically a home distilled moonshine of fruit brandy, when we say we saw two elephants walking down the main street of Sighet – but they were. We have the photos to prove it. The circus was in town and everyone had a smile on their face as the animals progressed along the road.
The circus comes to Sighet

Some of the old wooden churches contain impressive wall-paintings and icons, but getting to see them is not always straightforward. We spent half a day in the Cosău valley villages of Budeşti and Călineşti, which have some of the biggest areas of traditional wooden architecture, but finding someone to open their reputedly stunning old churches defeated us. These wooden churches are in any case little used these days, made redundant by the new churches that their congregations have competed to construct in recent years, ploughing no end of money into the enormous concrete basilicas.
Old and new church in Budeşti

The next day at Ieud in the neighbouring Iza valley we had more luck, and saw two particularly impressive interiors. In the main street, the Biserica din Şes, or Church in the Valley, contained a large collection of icons painted on glass, which had been collected from the area and particularly a nearby part of today’s Ukraine. The styles were very naïve, reflecting the home-made and popular nature of this devotional art of the villages. Not far away, the Biserica din Deal, or Church on the Hill, was in a different league. Its every interior surface depicted a religious scene, in brightly-coloured images painted directly onto the wooden walls and ceiling in the 1790s, culminating in a day of judgement tableau all around the door as you turn to leave, heaven to the left and some imaginative torments of hell to the right. This church is on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Ieud churches

I (Rob) came this way in 1995, and stayed a night in Ieud. This village brought home the rapid changes occurring in this region. In 1995 Ieud’s main street was unpaved, and a walk (or splash) up it led past countless tall wooden gates standing in front of well-maintained wooden houses, with logpiles and outhouses and mini-farmyards behind the tall wooden fences. There were few cars, and only a few breezeblock houses intruded on this scene that felt age-old. Today the same walk is made on tarmac, past the same elaborate wooden gates, but the buildings behind are increasingly of concrete or breezeblock. Plot-by-plot this village is leaving wood behind, relegating it to sheds and the less-developed backstreets.
Maramureş gates – size matters if you’re status conscious

One area where wood is not on the retreat is church-building. Church building has been BIG here, since the revolution of 1989 removed official constraints. At first they were all built in the new materials, and this continues, but a counter-trend has seen the construction of ever bigger and ornate churches that mix traditional Maramureş styles with a hint of Disneyland. At Bârsana a new monastery sets a double-tier wooden church with a towering needle-like spire opposite a sort of vast wooden-tiled bandstand for outdoor masses, and beside accommodation complexes that appear to be modelled on Dracula’s castle. There is a lot of kitsch and parody in it, but kitsch can be good – think of St. Pancras station. We decided finally that it was actually a very attractive place.
Wood is still being used for “traditional” new churches - Săpânţa and Bârsana monasteries

Another place where I noticed the changes was at the town of Vişeu de Sus.  I spent a whole day here in 1995, held as a sort of hostage of hospitality (it’s a long story), and remember it as a grim, muddy town with poor shops and few facilities, full of rotting communist-era housing and enlivened only by the horses that trotted down its streets. Now, well it’s not quite Milan or Paris but the centre has had a facelift, the shops are busy and plentiful, there are cafés you’d want to go in without being an alcoholic, and the clothing styles, especially of the young, could be anywhere in Europe. It felt like a different place.
Maramureş pot tree at Dragomiresti peasant women's museum – the number of pots indicates your wealth and a red pot is put at the top if there’s a girl of marriageable age in the home. This tiny museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

We stopped over at Vişeu de Sus to have a look at the narrow-gauge logging railway, or ‘mocaniţa’, that still transports logs down from the hills on long trains that clank and rattle down the lightweight track. In 1995 it was fully steam-operated, but steam is now limited to summer tourist runs (there were none of them in those days!). Nonetheless, we spent the night in the garden of a pension right by the track, and saw the weirdest trains pass, such as a Ford high-top minibus converted to trundle along on train wheels, and a lone workman returning from the lumber camps on a little 4-wheel rail trolley, controlled only by gravity and a big brake-lever.

This is what everyone comes to Vişeu de Sus to see - mocaniţa

Strange as it might seem in such a rural country, we have done proportionately less wild camping here than anywhere else so far. This is because there are few places to pull safely off the road that are not in use as tracks or private access, and the muddy November weather is making us think twice anyway about putting our 3.5 ton van on any unstabilised surface. In part too, it is because it has proved quite easy to find pensions or motels that will happily let us stay and hook up to the mains for a few – sometimes very few – Euros. Unfortunately the pensions are not evenly spread, and it has sometimes taken a while to find where they cluster, but so far it has worked fairly well for us. Just don’t expect any restaurants to serve food in the evenings – stock up on the markets and you can’t go wrong.
Early morning in the village of Rozavlea.

Our last view of Maramureş from the pass between Sacel and Romuli.