17. Romania 2
Justine – We left you as we were looking for bears in the Transylvanian mountains in the company of our friends Heather & Tom Verity and their two kids. Having not had enough time to catch up with them, we continued our journey in convoy to the Saxon town of Brasov. Romania being a relatively new conglomeration of territories created after World War 1 has large areas of ethnic German and Hungarian populations.
Local legend has it that the Pied Piper re-emerged from Hamlin in Brasov and we could certainly imagine it with its cobbled streets, turrets and gingerbread houses. Much out-of-tune singing and out-of-step marching drew us into the main square which was filled with uniformed men and women. As flags fluttered we watched the passing out of the local military division’s latest recruits. Amidst great military pomp three bi-planes roared overhead to mark the occasion. Though more quaint than the red arrows I’m not sure NATO will be rushing to enlist the Romanian air force.
After a night in a rather nice apartment that we shared with the Veritiys, we all headed off in convoy to the village of Viscri, in the heart of Saxon-land. In 1123, the beautiful rolling hills that we were driving through had tempted several thousand ethnic Germans to emigrate to Transylvania. Though still called “Saxons” they came from all over southern Germany and few of them were actually Saxons. It was not just the scenery that bought them here, but an invitation from the Hungarian King (Transylvania was part of Hungary up until the end of World War I) who needed some trusty souls to defend the Transylvanian border from Ottoman invasion. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the ranks needed bolstering as Turkish attacks seemed more likely and more Saxons Germans came to build huge walls around their towns and fortify their churches.
Viscri is a perfectly preserved Saxon village with not even tarmac on the road to hint at it being from the 18th century let alone the 19th and to our surprise we discovered that Prince Charles has a house there which he has turned into a guesthouse . We peered through his gate but he was not there serving tea to his guests. We were relieved as in a few days we planned to stay at his other guest house in Zalanpatak and we wanted him to be free to serve us tea there instead.
The Saxon villages are very distinct and the houses all have a very pretty defensive architecture, the house gables facing the street and next to them a large gate. Behind the gate, each house has an attractive garden leading to a number of barns. We arrived in the rain, and went running up to one of these gates to ask if it was a guesthouse. An old man let us in saying something about us being ‘the dancing troop.’ Thinking he was mad, we hurried down to the end barn to see if they had a room. The occupants were in a flurry of excitement getting ready for a wedding but the bride kindly said we could camp on the lawn and a guest invited all 8 of us to share her bedroom. I thought this was remarkably friendly and so did they until they realised we were not wedding guests at all, nor for that matter the dancing troop!
While the bride generously gave up her precious time to try to find us a guesthouse, we discovered that the happy couple and many of their guests were from Mawson Road in Cambridge and as more guests arrived, we were expecting to see someone we knew at any moment. It turned out all the guesthouses were full of wedding guests, so we braved the sheeting rain and pitched camp on a verge outside the wonderful fortified church. The little artisan café opposite was closed, but the couple who owned it took pity on us and invited us into their kitchen for a bowl of soup and many glasses of beer. We wondered how rude it would be to sneakily have a shower when we used their loo – too rude was the conclusion.
The next day, the clouds parted and we partook of the hospitality of the artisan café once more for a fabulous breakfast (thank goodness we had not risked the shower!). We sat out in their gorgeous three sided wicker-walled barn with flowers cascading from tubs and chickens pecking around the trestle table legs. The Saxons, Romanians and Hungarians all have a wonderful architecture – beautifully rustic and pretty. Deciding we all needed a wicker-barn in our gardens, we peered into the barn next door and found it full of baskets of fantastic multi-coloured felt slippers. The little shop sold slippers all made by the women in the village. Each pair had the maker’s name on them so the money would go back to her. A breakfast of home-made jam, fresh cream and eggs in the midst of a cottage industry of felt slippers – could anything be more perfect and right up my street?
Having been dragged away from my slipper idyll, we investigated the beautiful white fortified church. This region is famous for them. A large tower had served as a look-out post and you could imagine the villagers scurrying behind the fortified walls to defend their church against the Ottomans. These churches are like English churches but the steeple or tower is a fortified keep and the whole complex is surrounded by a vast wall with towers. It was a very clever solution as these Saxons did not need some feudal lord in his castle agreeing to protect them in exchange for the majority of their produce. With a communal fortification, they could run the village themselves and avoid any feudal servitude. Each family had a place in the church grounds where they could keep their goods, but it also meant they could keep an eye on each other. A woman who had to keep going to the church for more supplies would get much tut tutting and medieval curtain twitching as it meant she was not good at budgeting for her familiy’s needs. We thought it more likely it meant she had a Ukrainian pot-bellied husband who ate all the pies and the poor wife had to bear the brunt of village disapproval.
The next morning we felt a bit bad that the wedding party had to pass our Roma encampment but we were good entertainment for them and they all took photos without throwing us coins so we can’t have looked that bad. We wandered the cobbled streets soaking up the yester-year atmosphere. A horse-drawn cart full of milk churns went from door to door, clattering along the mud main street, its horses decorated with red pompoms. Could this village get any more idyllic? Across Romania horses and carts are used for everything. Local builders move materials by horse-drawn cart and villagers pitchfork hay onto over-stacked haywaines. It seems that parts of the countryside have been entirely left behind by the modern world. Much of Romania is as developed and rich as the rest of Europe but then round the next corner you are back in the 18th century, men scything the fields by hand and using wooden pitchforks to heave the hay onto high wooden stooks.
Flushed with rural fervour we headed to the hills for some wild camping. It was also an opportunity to save some shekels as we had just paid the deposit for Charlie’s guesthouse. As it included all meals and activities, it was rather pricey, but hey, if he made our beds in the morning it would be worth it.
We turned off the road onto a dirt track that led up onto a plateau in the hope of finding somewhere to roost. It looked rather like the African savannah, but the only wild animals were sheep and a rather mongrel collection of sheep dogs. Whereas the sheep dogs of Turkey, Iran and the Caucusus are vast and terrifying and for two pins would chew you to the marrow before crapping in your rucksack, these Romanian sheep dogs were a mottly crew of skinny white Dulux dogs and poodle/dachshund crosses. Romania has more wolves and bears than anywhere but it would be hard to imagine these dogs keeping a guinea pig away from the flock let alone a bear – unless they were going to lick them to death. The dogs have a horizontal stick which hangs around their neck. This stops them chasing anything as if they try to run fast the stick bangs in to their legs. Throughout our travels sheep dogs have been used in a very different way from the UK. Whereas a collie in the UK is used to round up the sheep and direct them, in this part of the world, dogs are only there for protection. How does the east European farmer round up his sheep, you may ask? The answer was soon revealed to us by the shepherd who drove his sheep past our excellent camp spot.
For a while, Tom had been formulating a theory about goats playing the role of sheep dogs, as in every flock we had seen there seemed to be five or six goats. His theory was confirmed when the shepherd started shouting some strange words and the goats trotted out of the flock towards him. He stroked their ears and then commanded them to lead the flock down the valley. The goats made their way though the flock and out the other side, and all the sheep then followed them in the chosen direction – ingenious!
We set up our camp with Kabylie and Violet (the Verity’s VW camper) linking their awnings. The kids spent hours making a den with a fire pit in it, modelled on the ones in the ancient cave cities of Georgia. Their pit was a bit too deep to provide under-floor heating for the den, but it did produce some excellent flambéed marshmallows. Petra and Tom Verity went for a run over the hills and as they ran past the shepherd camp they were offered a drink of ewe’s milk fresh from the udder, and a piece of fresh cheese. Part of the job of the shepherds is to make cheese every day. There seem to be two types of shepherd. Type A works for one farmer who pays him to look after his entire flock. Type B is a village shepherd, who collects sheep from every family in the village and looks after them on the hillside (just like in the book Heidi). Every day shepherd B makes cheese with the milk, a proportion of which he keeps and the rest he gives to the villagers in proportion to the amount of sheep each family has given him to look after. I am not sure which villager’s portion of cheese Petra and Tom returned with but it was most delicious. They also returned with two poodle puppies and a mangey Dulux dog who had decided they would be better with us than the shepherd and his large stick. We often find that when we camp we wake with a stray dog under our car but this Dulux dog was very persistent and we ended up naming him Roma. Tom V let slip that they wanted a new dog, so we decided Roma was the perfect gift for his birthday the next day. He was not so sure.
Whilst the runners had been away, I had taken the opportunity to rustle up a birthday cake for Mr Verity. With limited ingredients and no coloured icing my first idea was to make a cake in the form of a pea-pod (Mr Verity is a Yorkshire pea magnate). This proved too difficult. The team had a communal head-scratching. No nits were found but a brilliant idea was. What shape could be made out of rocky-road biscuit cake and remain chocolate biscuit cake colour?? A bear pooh! While pitching camp a nice fresh one had been discovered by the kids between the cars so we had something to copy. The following day we presented the birthday boy with a shovel on which his pooh cake was served. It looked disgustingly realistic and any bear would have been proud of it. Tom was duly delighted and we all spent a heavenly day playing games, sketching, lolling about and gorging on bear stool.
It was time to make our way to the valley of Zalanpatak and Prince Charles’ other guesthouse. We stopped for a night in the Saxon towns of Biertan and Signasoara which were immensely pretty and had just the right amount of things to see, from Vlad the Impaler’s place of birth to the wonderful clocktower that we all climbed. From there you could see the sturdy walls of the fortified citadel interspersed with towers, each belonging to a guild, which would have rush to defend it whenever the Turks came pouring into the valley. Biertan was famed for it’s solution to divorce. For the past five hundred years, any disgruntled couples wanting to separate were locked in a room for two weeks. The room only had one bed, one plate, one cup and one fork. Faced with either death by fork or reunion in the one small bed, Biertan has had only one divorce since this innovative remedy was introduced half a millennium ago.
As we bounced along the rubble road to the Zalanpatak valley, we realised we were driving through a living museum. There was not one piece of farming equipment that was newer than a hundred years old. The horse drawn hay turner (tedder) was the most state-of-the art piece of machinery we saw. There is certainly a role for the EU to try to preserve this rural paradise by paying the locals to preserve their farming practices, which need no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Easy to say from a comfy(ish) car as we watch the peasants toiling in the heat but practically all the small holdings are organic, simply because they have always farmed that way. No wonder the country has struck such a chord with old Charlie.
Our own rural idyll awaited us in the form of a number of rustic wooden cottages with very pretty rooms, all decked out with traditional furnishings. The Three Feathers, the crest of the Prince of Wales, was carved into the gable ends of the main buildings and a little three-sided barn with a roaring fire and a big table with a linen cloth was the venue for all our meals, along with other guests who were staying. Alas Charles was not there to meet us or indeed make our beds, nor sadly was there a Duchy Original Chocolate Ginger biscuit on our pillows. But he had taken the time to put name stickers on the back of everthing to stop us nicking things. The other guests made up for Charles not actually being there as they were great company. An immensely interesting and high-powered couple from Barcelona were excellent value and very amusing and we were up late into the night absorbing their fascinating tales and discussing Brexit. It turned out that she was an ex Spanish Government Minister. Like many people they had come to see what on earth this strange Prince Charles was doing with a guesthouse in Transalvania. The other couple, Schnitzel von Crumb with a very large tum (a Romanian Oligarc) and his young wife were also very nice, and treated us to wine from their own vineyard and medicinal schnapps for breakfast, bringing back fond memories of breakfast cha -cha in Tusheti.
We had three super-relaxing days at the Royal Guest House and while Mr Verity choreographed a blockbusting play with the kids, Tom and I snoozed and read our books realising that this was the first time on the entire retroroadtrip that we had stopped and relaxed! The Prince of Wales had laid on an activity every day for his guests and though it was raining we all decided we did not want to forgo the horse and cart trek through the forest. Our guide was extremely interesting and really knew his stuff about everything, from the mineral make up of the land to every wild flower, animal pooh, foot print, tree, bird and historical anecdote about the area. A large proportion of Transylvania speaks Hungarian and the population see themselves as Hungarian rather than Romanian, mainly because this area was part of Hungary until World War II. There is a begrudging undercurrent. Many Hungarians refuse to speak Romanian and would like Transylvania to be part of Hungary again. In the early 1990’s, Germany paid $5,000 per Saxon to be ‘rescued from Romania,’ hence most Saxon villages have Romanian inhabitants now. The Israelis paid for the Jews to leave too, but the Hungarian government would not pay for it’s Hungarians, probably because it still sees Transylvania as its territory.
Day two’s activity was a guided walk through the woods, past a spring of naturally carbonated water, and some fabulous charcoal burners with a wonderful spiral of wood logs which they covered and set alight to smoulder slowly for days. Milking cows was the evening activity. Heather proved more successful than the rest of us, but we all loved it and obviously now want to get a cow. The afternoon was spent damming the mineral water stream and bathing in the rather murky-looking mineral bath which promised to cure all ailments. Apparently when Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, every village had medicinal mineral water pools, either in spas or dug into the rivers. It would be interesting to see from old records if the health of the population then was better than today.
I was the only one who had the urge to try the ‘Moffat.’ This is a natural gas exhaust with a hut built over it. The sign outside warned that inhalation of the gas could cause instant death hence no children were allowed to use it. I was told that on entering I needed to light a match and lower it towards the ground. When the match extinguished, this indicated the level of the gas which, being heavier than air, sinks to the ground. Alas I could not find the matches, so as the kids stood outside wailing ‘Mummy come out! Don’t die,’ I had to resort to sniffing the air gingerly as I lowered my nose towards the floor. About 60 cm off the ground, I caught a nose-full of gas, but managed to sit up quickly before the grim reaper sent me the way of the dead cockroaches on the floor. The point of risking death by gas is that the gas is meant to seep into your legs and cure you of all manner of things including arthritis. I don’t have arthritis but I could not resist the strange experience and found it extraordinary that no one else wanted to join me.
We waved a sad goodbye to our three nights of immense comfort and crisp white sheets, but we did manage to farm five loads of laundry through the royal washing machine. Though its mattresses may be thin and its walls a bit damp, our roof tent at least had the waft of royal detergent.
We headed to the Transfagaras Highway, heralded by Jeremy Clarkson and the TopGear team as the best and most exciting road in the world. Even the officials at the Romanian border control had given us the thumbs up sign shouting ‘TopGear road?’ Now, thanks to this Top Gear endorsement this is a driving hell of hairpin traffic jams that wind up the undoubtedly magnificent road. We found such a great camp spot at the bottom of the mountains that we nearly could not be bothered to drive up the hairpin bends. Eventually we made it to the half-way point where we took a cable car to a lake right at the tippy-top but it was so expensive that we decided a bowl of soup and a small “rustic platter” would suffice at the restaurant
Stuffed with stodgy pudding, we decided to walk back to the car, particularly as the small rustic platter of jellied tongue and other unmentionables turned out to be the price of a modest cottage by the sea. The stroll back transpired to be three hours long with a few, near vertical, scree precipices to negotiate, but it ended with a gorgeous walk through a pine forest strewn with fresh bear pooh. We felt sure bears were all around us but annoyingly (or thankfully) just out of view.
We retuned to our glorious wild camp spot with its crystal clear river, the perfect environment for the kids to create an excellent blow-up mattress water flume.
On the way back, we stopped at a trout farm to buy supper. The lady scooped six lovely trout from the pond and put them in a clear plastic bag for me. I asked if she was going to kill them first and she grinned and said ‘no way.’ I felt hugely guilty as we bumped back to our camp with the six fish slowly asphyxiating and flapping jerkily on my knee. The fact they were in a clear plastic bag looking at me as they slowly died did not help my conscience. Thankfully Mr Verity and, surprisingly, Petra agreed to dispatch them. Petra who is edging towards vegetarianism declared she needed to know where her food came from and proceeded to gut them – watching a horse sacrificed in Indonesia last year obviously paid off!
The trout had not died in vain as they were utterly delectable, cooked on the fire with lemon slices and wild thyme picked from under our feet (well slightly to the left of them). We were truly grateful for their short but worthwhile lives – thank you fish.
As the kids squealed and dammed and undammed the mattress flume, the adults pondered the map of Europe and were surprised to see quite how far Romania is from both Yorkshire and Biarritz. We were running out of time to get back to our respective homes in time for school. It was time to head to Hungary. We stopped in at Sibiu and wild camped on an abandoned railway line. The next morning we could not resist exploring the old Soviet era tunnel at the end. It turned out to be blocked with undergrowth at the far end so unable to turn round we had to reverse all the way back down it again.
Just before crossing over to Hungary we camped by the wonderful Cave of the Bears where the remains of 140 vast prehistoric bears were found, trapped in a huge cave complex by a rock fall. We also stopped in at Corvin Castle, mainly because it said you could dress up in medieval costume and shoot cabbages with a bow and arrow. I have always had a yearning for a wimple so was most disappointed that none could be found: dressing up and cabbages were only offered on Saturdays – damn it! Corvin Castle was very impressive though and quite different from when Tom had visited it 23 years before, with Meriel Fawcus, a
friend from Uni. In 1992, just after the demise of Ceausescu, the castle was surrounded by vast factories pumping out thick black smoke. Everything from the buildings to the grass, the sheep and the people were black with pollution. Happily Romania’s black years (literally) are over and it is now a paradise of wild flowers, horse-drawn carts, hand-scythed fields, breath-taking scenery, abundant wildlife, pretty architecture and smiley people delighted that you have visited their country. Book your tickets now before the modern world catches up and this living museum of ethnography is lost forever.
INSIGHT –education on the road
Several people both at home and on the road have asked how our children keep up with their education. Obviously there is a plethora of cultural, historical and life lessons that Petra and Hector are learning every day, but formal school work is a different thing. It is easier to find time to do this when not touring in convoy with our friends the Verity’s as life is too much fun to do schoolwork when there are other kids to play with and adults to quaff wine with, but on our own, most schoolwork is done in the car when driving or on the occasions when we stop in a place for more than one night.
Had our children been at school in the UK, it would be a lot easier as I would have at least understood what I was endeavouring to teach them and could explain the things they did not understand. As they are at school in France and I was born in the 10 years when the UK decided to bin all teaching of grammar at school, I have not the foggiest what a pluperfect, subjunctive, conditional or a gerundive is in English let alone in French. Thus education has been more tricky than anticipated mainly because internet has been intermittent so sending things to teachers etc has been pretty well impossible. Luckily, because we changed route, the kids have only missed two months of school and have revised their school books and written journals. We are trying to do the CNED revision programme which is a French programme for schooling online. Below is a selection of schooling environments: Photos