16. Romania 1
Justine – As one of the natural highlights of Europe, we were expecting the Danube Delta to be mobbed with summer tourists, but in fact very few people seem to come to this part of Romania. We arrived in Tulcea, the main town of the Delta, on a Sunday and found the tourist office closed. Not to worry, the souvenir shop next door called someone he knew, who knew someone who worked there and she proceeded to give me a full rundown of all there was to see and exactly how we could find a boat and where we could camp. I cannot
envisage someone from the Biarritz tourist office being so friendly when bothered at home on a Sunday morning by a random tourist. This friendly helpfulness has accompanied us wherever we have been and is something we were not expecting. Interestingly all the ex-Soviet countries have had very friendly people, with the possible exception of Sothern Armenia. Whether that was just the contrast to the ridiculously lovely Iranians or whether they all just enjoy eating lemons, I am not sure, but even they were friendly enough after some persistent smiling and waving on our part.
After a quick tour round the Delta Museum to get our eye in for all the wildlife we hoped to see, we headed to Murighiol, the only place you can get to in the Delta by car. All other areas have to be accessed by ferry or by hiring a boat off a fisherman.
Little campsites lined the main road in Murighiol. They were in people’s gardens and were perfect as we are not fans of formal campsites. This was the first paying campsite we had been to since leaving Greece three months ago. There are no formal campsites where we have been and we much prefer wild camping anyway. One man offered to take us on a boat trip for 300US$ which seemed extortionate, so we sniffed out the tiny port ourselves and found a lovely man who took us for a fraction of this. We set off into the Delta, Hector very excited that our boat had an engine with 50 ‘horse backs.’ Speeding through the reeds and lily pads, green frogs leapt in a Mexican wave in front of us and pelicans took to the skies, their incongruous bulbous bodies and oversized beaks lifting out of the water with a great wobble then taking to the air with extraordinary grace. They look as unlikely to be able to fly as an aeroplane must have looked to the first onlookers.
There is something hugely exhilarating about whizzing through reed-lined channels at speed – it is not just the wind in one’s face, but the terrifying risk of another boat of exhilarated passengers coming the other way round a blind corner! We stopped for lunch and a swim at a little hotel with a gorgeous empty pool which you could only get to by boat.
The afternoon was spent whizzing across lakes or puttering slowly as close as we could towards white tailed eagles, glossy ibis, egrets, pelicans, herons, black head herons, families of swans and a whole host of other birds that sadly I can’t name. As evening drew in, we saw eight kingfishers one of which sat patiently for a whole five minutes as we gawped at it.
There are many wonderful places to visit in the Delta, but we only had time for one other fabulous boat trip. The next day we got up at 04.30 in the hope that a boat trip to an ancient forest, strangely dissected by eight rows of sand dunes and roamed by herds of wild horses, would take us past 300 pelicans. Alas the birds were not playing ball and were not in a vast pelican flock. All the same it was glorious seeing the sun rise over the waterways.
We headed next to Transylvania and marvelled at the beauty of the Romanian countryside. Rolling hills scattered with picturesque old fashioned, trickling clear streams, fluffy sheep which are so clean that they look like toys – and then the wonderful Carpathian mountains. The villages are incredibly picturesque and out of yesteryear, pretty little houses and flower filled gardens. Hay-bailers have not made it to Romania in abundance yet. The fields are scythed by hand and then the hay is pitch-forked up into a mound around a pole or transported on horse-drawn haywaynes back to rickety farm buildings. Flipping hard work, but many rural people here seem to live at subsistence level. They all have their one cow for milk and cheese, a field that the family scythe to feed the cow, a few chickens and a vegetable plot. All the villages we have passed through since Transdniester have a village well. We naturally hope that all the houses have running water but the wells seem to get a worrying amount of use with old people hobbling back to their houses carrying bottles of drinking water. The cities, on the other hand, are modern, although unlike in Georgian and Armenian cities it seems as if every car on the road is a new one, giving the impression that there is a cavernous gap between the haves and have-nots.
Around every corner in Romania there seems to be another geological phenomenon. After some very bumpy roads, we found mud volcanoes which delighted us so much, we went in search of others in the same area. They are shaped like perfect volcanoes, just in a miniature, and instead of hot lava, they bubble with cold mud that makes you want to smear it all over yourself (which you are advised not to do.) Instead, you can pretend you are the chocolatier in the Lindor advert as I did – Umummmmmmm.
Mud smearing cravings over, we went in search of the ‘Focul Viu.’ More bumpy roads and no signs anywhere but we found them eventually with the help of a one-legged farmer who was hopping about his field as he and his family pitchforked hay onto his horse-drawn cart. Now that really is hard work! The farmer kindly sent his youngest son to be our guide. The six year old Y-Noot (I have guessed the spelling) led us on a 30 minute hike up a wonderful flower covered mountain. There, in the middle of a field, was a brown earth circle with several flaming holes in it, escape holes for flaming natural gas. What was bizarre was that no one had used this wonderful source of free energy to heat homes, or bbq food, or even create a tourist attraction. There was just us and Y-Noot, lighting sticks and wishing we had bought the marshmallows. Whereas the Lindor mud pools were my dream come true, the Focul Viu was Hector’s. He is constantly being told off at home for lighting candles and poking sticks into them. Here his pyro-maniac tendencies could be well satisfied.
The “Trovanti” in Costesti are yet another bizarre geological curiosity. These are rocks which apparently grow when it rains. However to my dismay Tom went ‘mongy’ (hunger induced idiocy) and had a sense of humour failure on the bumpy roads at the critical moment, so we had to forage for food rather than for growing rocks. Arrrrrrrrrgh!
Luckily the next day brought another geological wonder – the salt mine of Slanic. Having descended deep underground, we went through a small doorway and stepped into a truly vast chamber. Fifty metre-high walls soared above us, marbled with white and grey salt strata. We estimated you could fit the nave of every cathedral in England into the mine. It really was arresting. There was a small exhibition of how they mined for salt and the most interesting bit was the size of the chainsaw they used to cut salt blocks – see picture.
The Carpathian mountains beckoned and we headed to Sinaia. The pretty, royal town offered no camping opportunities so we headed up the valley where we spent three nights trying to spot bears and going on fantastic hikes and swims in the icy rivers during the daytime. One night we were in an area where some other campers had told us bears would come down and eat at the bin. They indicated to us the best place to spot them which was between them and the bin, where no one else was camping. Only after putting up the tent did we suspect that they wanted us there so we would get eaten first! Other people in ground tents had put electric fences around their camp to keep wolves and bears out. Another person showed us his flare pistol to ward off the wildlife. We were told our roof-tent would be fine as long as we pulled the ladders up, and looked slightly alarmed when we said we couldn’t. Thanks to the overlanders we met in Georgia who filled our hard-drives with movies, we no longer have to watch films in Hindi and that night we were watching the last Harry Potter after a marathon week of Hogwarts. We snuggled in the roof tent watching the Deathly Hallows and I am not sure what was more scary, Voldermort or the thought of a bear climbing the ladder into our tent. Tom had brought the shovel into bed with us to bash the bear with if one came in and we were so excited that we interrupted the film eight times to all peer out of the tent windows with our torches. Alas none were seen but we did see a wolf, which was definitely a consolation but enough to make us reluctant to go for a pee in the night!
The next morning we packed up and rolled down the long hill to Bran, the site of the famous castle which inspired Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ Since leaving home we have been blissfully alone on our travels giving us the illusion that we were in some way pioneers. In Bran the spell was broken. We found ourselves bogged in the swamp of summer holidays mass tourism. The castle is not big and was dangerously full of tourists rammed shoulder to shoulder in every room and corridor in the sweltering heat. We could not get out of there quick enough – and there was even a queue to do that.
Back in April, just after setting off on our adventure, we had crossed paths with our old friends Tom and Heather Verity and their kids Lyra and Xanthe. They had just finished 3 months living in Chamonix and were setting off on a European adventure of their own in their campervan. We had been in such a rush to get to Iran that we had only managed a rapid coffee in a kids play park near San Tropez before belting off to Turkey. Several months on, we found ourselves in neighbouring countries, both families heading back west for school in September. With the Bulgarian heat fraying their tempers, we managed to persuade them to come up to the cool of the Romanian mountains to do some Vampire Camping, an excellent place for catching up and swapping stories. It has been wonderful to see them and hear all about the Balkans where they have spent the majority of their time. Tom has spotted me eying up the bespoke French-made leather seats and air conditioning in their van. Surely they have been admiring Kabylie’s rugged lines too, but it won’t be because of the comfy seats, speed or windscreen wipers!
Teaming up we hired a super-knowledgeable but rather grumpy guide to take us on a nature walk. We headed up into the mountains in search of bears just as I was overcome with nausea and proceeded to vomit out of the car. Alas no bears were spotted on the walk, but we did find lots of bear poo and fresh foot prints. At this time of year bears eat raspberries almost exclusively, but despite scoping out their favourite bushes they must all have been asleep. Between waves of nausea and vomiting I had an image in my head of a bear delicately picking raspberries and popping them into a basket, but apparently they eat the whole top of the bush so a basket is not needed. As the day cooled off we were taken to a forestry commission hide. Here we were fortunate enough to see about seven big brown bears and were alarmed to learn how easily they could have climbed up into our tent!
Tom – One final observation is that in Romania the tradition is to colour the wool while it is still on the sheep. They do this by dipping the sheep in dye holding onto the tale. Its the strangest thing we have seen but flocks of sheep like this are a common site in the mountains.
Insight into life on the road:
A few people have asked how we wash when we are camping. Well the truth is we are probably never as clean as we would like to be but disturbingly we are getting used to that. Usually we do a lot of swimming and washing in rivers (see photo of Petra in shower tent.) Petra and Tom are always enthusiastic for this icy experience. Hector is a reluctant washer (boy) and I can’t stand cold water and thoroughly disturb the wildlife with my shrieking as I dowse myself. Sadly apart from clear mountain streams the rivers on this trip have usually been an uninviting murky brown, so we often fill a bowser with water and have a syphon shower next to the car playing roulette with the Mosquitos. In Romania we have found a few restaurants with swimming pools so we get our money’s worth and give the pool filter something to do!