Return to Romania

Saturday 28th May 2011, Brasov, Romania
We've closed the circle! Tonight we are camping on the same site we used back in September 2010. We have that very strange sense of déjà vu; everything comes flooding back, the memory stored somewhere in the brain even though we never expected to return here again. Not that we like the campsite. It's Romanian run, overpriced, populated by groups of giggling schoolchildren and we've been told that we need to run the water for ten minutes before it will come through hot in the showers! It costs almost as much as our huge, comfortable Bulgarian hotel room last night. This campsite is called Camping Darste at Brasov – we call it Camping Ghastly at Brassed off.

Before leaving Bulgaria we spent our few remaining levs and stontinkis on vegetables in Ruse. Then followed a wild goose chase around the town trying to find the road leading to the bridge crossing to Romania. When we eventually found it, our complacency in having selected the only bridge crossing between the two countries, thus avoiding exorbitant ferry charges, was short-lived. Six euros please. What for? To use the bridge. Again Euros were the only acceptable currency and again we were given a receipt we cannot read that apparently states that we are paying for the damage we are doing to their lovely bridge! I tell you, it's the worst bridge I have ever crossed in my life! Rubble, wrinkled tarmac and potholes are only the beginning. The bridge is in sections with large gaps between them into which our wheels crashed every few yards. Then there were the metal spikes sticking up out of the tarmac! It was a narrow, two-way bridge with heavy vehicles coming the other way. We were all crawling, weaving from side to side to avoid the worst pitfalls. The Danube is wide and beautiful so near its estuary but there was no chance of admiring it. I was, frankly, very relieved when we eventually reached the far bank and entered Romania.

Friendship Bridge, 1952-54, linking Bulgaria and Romania across the Danube

Here we had the back of Modestine peered into before our passports were returned and we were ushered through customs and directed to where we could change some money to buy the road tax we have to pay to use Romanian roads. So another 50 euros disappeared in exchange for a huge handful of grubby, low-denomination lei. Much of this was then taken back as our details were recorded onto the national computer of road users. Our receipt states that we must be out of the country before midnight next Friday or buy another vignette. We'd planned on leaving Saturday morning but decided we'd save a day by skipping Bucharest. Meanwhile, gypsy women with bottles of water and dirty cloths insisted on washing the rear lights of vehicles and demanding money for it.

At last we were heading north towards the capital. Eager to avoid driving in a city of 2,000,000 people we turned off along a pitted road with villages and dead dogs scattered along either side. Suddenly our route ended on the banks of an enormous reservoir! The road marked on our fairly recent map simply no longer existed! Ian gets very upset by such matters. Believe me, if there is an error anywhere on a map, he will find it! Time to implement plan B. Skirting the reservoir we eventually picked up the Bucharest ring road and after unbelievable delays, where people tried to sell waiting drivers anything from sunglasses to sandals, we got clear of the city and continued our route up through Targovişte.

In Targovişte I was far too weary to be enthusiastic about visiting what did not appear to be a particularly inspiring town full of boring museums and ruined buildings. So while Ian went off to explore for an hour or so, I went to sleep in Modestine, only waking when Ian hammered on the door to be let back in. The account below is therefore from Ian.

Targovişte was quite lively on a Saturday afternoon with a theatrical performance for children in the park and groups of young people gathered round cars with Romanian rap blaring from their radios.

Children’s entertainment in the park, Targovişte

The town is infamous as the place where the Ceauşescus were executed on Christmas Day 1989 and famous as the place where the Princely Court of Wallachia was located from 1415 to 1659. Vlad the Impaler was enthroned here in 1456 and three years later, at various places around the town, he merrily impaled the boyars who had murdered his father. His bust stands near the Princely Court.

Vlad the Impaler, Targovişte

The palaces are now ruinous but can be visited. The Sunset Tower, built as a watchtower by Vlad offers a good view over the whole complex, which includes the Princely Church, built in 1583 by Prince Petru Cercel at the same time as he built a second palace on the site. It is currently under restoration and the iconostasis has been removed, but most of the magnificent murals can be seen. Commissioned by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu, they were executed by the Greek painter Constantios and as well as saints and martyrs, depict many of the Wallachian princes.

Sunset Tower, Princely Court, Targovişte

Remains of the Princely Court, Targovişte

Princely Church, Targovişte

Murals in the Princely Church, Targovişte

There is an interesting museum of printing in the complex, showing that the area had active presses from the early 16th century, although they mainly printed in Slavonic using Cyrillic characters. There was an interested group of children being shown round. Nearby are several other museums and an art gallery. The Museum of Local Writers is in an attractive old mansion but means little to those unfamiliar with Romanian literature. I was the only visitor and the custodian looked surprised to see me. The History Museum was set up by Ceauşescu in the former law courts in 1986 and was originally intended to glorify his achievements.

Local printing from 1508 and 1510, Princely Court, Targovişte

Museum of local Writers, Targovişte

History Museum (right) and Art Gallery, Targovişte

Over the road is the impressive Stelea Monastery, dating from 1645 and built by the Moldavian ruler Basil the Wolf - they had such endearing names in this part of the world. Entering the compound I noticed a monk combing his long beard, so realised that it was still active as a monastery and the church with its early iconostasis and murals also commissioned by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu was closed for restoration, only allowing a tantalising glimpse through the open door.

Stelea Monastery, Targovişte

Our journey continued throughout the day, steadily heading north along roads that made us appreciate how much better they are maintained in Bulgaria. One linear village with its horses and carts piled with hay or with families out for a ride, rapidly gave way to the next, where goats and cattle wandered loose along the wayside and people would stand talking in the road, oblivious that they no longer lived in the 19th century and were at risk from heavy lorries. Everywhere there were wild dogs, some dead and in various states of decay, many more living. We are told they result from Ceauşescu's policy of bulldozing the homes of peasants to force them into soulless flats in cities. They took with them their chickens and pigs to live in the flats as they were their livelihood but had no option but to abandon their dogs which then bred rapidly, leading to the scourge of the countryside to be seen today. How the dogs live is unclear but with so many lying around dead they are probably cannibals, as we saw down in Greece. Most hang around picnic sites and car parks but some insist on chasing passing cars.

Eventually we found our route winding high up into the green, wooded hills of the Carpathian Mountains. Buildings were constructed from wood with decorated roofs. Up here there are supposed to be brown bears and wolves but we saw only mongrel dogs and cattle wandering unattended on the winding roads.

Carpathian foothills

Passing over the col we descended in a long series of sharp bends through pine-clad hills, the road rutted and broken, melted by the heat of summer and washed away by the rains and snows of winter. So hard were we concentrating that it came as a surprise to me to suddenly recognise the town of Sinaia which we visited last September. So on this trip we've finally joined up from the south with the route we made down from the north just eight months ago!

Monday 30th May 2011, Fundu Muldovei, Moldavia
We arrived here at dusk last night, far too weary to be bothered with blogs so time for a quick catch-up. We are in the north east corner of Romania, wedged in between Moldova and the Ukraine.

From Brasov to here is 250 miles – the roads are appalling so it took all day and so much concentration attempting to avoid the worst of the cracks and potholes that we were only vaguely aware of the beautiful green scenery of the pinewoods and flowery meadows of this mountainous area of the Northern Carpathians. Along the roadsides cattle wander on their own browsing the roadside grass. Sometimes they are attended by their patient owners who pass the time guarding the family cow by chatting on their mobile phones. Horses too are frequently tethered to trees or even left between the shafts of carts while their owner disappears into the village bar. Otherwise, on a Sunday, there is not a lot of traffic around. The villages though are a bustle of activity. Frequently several kilometres long they hug the roadside with the village bar, cafe and general store somewhere near the middle. Thus people from the outer end either walk, cycle or use the pony and cart to reach the centre. A few, but not many, have cars. Outside most dwellings - we'd hardly recognise them as such they look so run-down - there are benches beside the village ditch where several generations of a family gather to watch a strange English camper van go past. We have a theory that people phone the next village to alert them we will be passing in so many minutes and they all rush out to sit on their benches and wave.

Some buildings though can be quite elaborate with high tin roofs and decorative finials - trademark of the Romanian gipsies. Others have wooden balconies and gardens surrounded by wooden fences with the elaborate carved gateways that so impressed us last year. Often there is a well in the front garden of the wealthier properties. It is sometimes covered with a miniature elaborate roof reflecting that of the main house.

Elaborate well typically found in many gardens as a safe water supply

Decorative church with tin roof, Grinties, Mures valley

Out in the fields Sundays seem much like any other day with whole families out with the horse and cart gathering in the hay. The menfolk work as a team using lethal scythes with long wooden handles as they cut swathes across the hillside at an astonishing rate. Meanwhile the women gather in the grass using rakes made entirely from wood. The mountain of grass towers on top of the cart as it is eventually pulled down into the village by one or sometimes two horses with red tassels on their heads to shake away the flies.

Much of our journey though has been across flat open plains with the wooded hills at a distance. This has meant little or no shade and nowhere we can pull off the road to rest or cool down. Our average speed has been around 25 miles per hour, less if we count the time queuing behind wooden carts to cross the hundreds of small bridges along our route which have been completely scrobbled up ready for renewing before EU funding and enthusiasm seem to have evaporated. Why not complete one bridge before destroying all the others across the country? The communist mindset lingers on is so many ways.

Romanian trunk road

Typical bad road and good scenery, Bistritsa Valley

Sometimes we'd pass through small towns where the roads never even seen to have been established. Here there would be hideously ugly discoloured concrete blocks of flats, the fabric rotting and dangling dangerously. These are the buildings into which Ceauşescu forced peasants from the countryside to live. They are still living there, in buildings that we at first thought were abandoned factories.

After Topliţa we turned east to cross the Carpathians at the pass near Borsec, over 1300 metres above sea level, then descended the Bistricioara Valley to a large reservoir, after which we drove north up the Bistriţa, a lovely wooded valley with small fields surrounded by wooden fences and with hayricks supported on wooden frames, passing through a chain of villages strung along both sides of the river, linked by insubstantial suspension bridges, three or four planks of wood wide, slung, often at a precarious angle from rusty cables.

Rotting wooden bridge – a lifeline between communities on opposite sides of a river

But the scenery here is sublime. It has to be amongst the most beautiful we've experienced anywhere. Up in this mountain village the pine trees sweep down from the mountain peaks to the grassy valley with fruit trees and charming little wooden houses set in their own productive vegetable gardens. Astonishingly, shortly after experiencing a lightning storm high in the mountains, we descended into one such village, Iacobeni, to find snow piled up beside the roads, villagers out with shovels, trees washed down in a mud slide, gardens flooded with the melted snow and a thick fog caused by the evaporation in 28 degrees of heat from the rapidly melting hailstones!

This campsite is run by a delightful Dutch couple. Almost everyone staying here is Dutch. Most have moved on this morning as a group down to the Black Sea. The owner has just come to invite us to join his Table d'hôte this evening. Sounds fun and as he's promised it will be Romanian food but will definitely not include any of what we've termed B foods - brains, bollocks, bladders and bowels - we've accepted.

It has been very hot and sunny today. It is now 6pm and we are sheltering from the heat in the campsite "library" where guests can borrow and return, mainly Dutch books, or spend a wet afternoon doing one of the jigsaw puzzles.

I was so weary after yesterday's marathon drive that we decided to linger here an extra day – it really is such a pretty, friendly and tranquil place – and explore the locality. So this morning we walked up to the top of the village where almost every house is made from wood, even if sometimes they had been plastered over to disguise the structure. Mostly though, they were proud to be wood and flaunted turned wooden balustrades leading to flowery balconies, lozenges of wood to protect the walls and even the roof tiles were made from wood. Horses and carts were left by the roadside, one outside the village dairy delivering the churns and waiting to carry away the treated milk. Every house had wooden palings around it with long grass full of buttercups waiting to be scythed and hung out along the fences to dry.

Scything and gathering the grass

Scythed grass drying on wooden fencing

Some of the more elaborate properties and one of the churches had decorative roofs made from hammered metal shining silver in the sunlight. Such work is traditionally the employment of gipsies. Everybody smiled and said hello to us. It was lunch time and the children were pouring out of the school. They all giggled, waved to us and called "hello", laughing when we called back to them. They were lovely children, obviously enjoying school. How very different from the gipsy children we saw in Transylvania last year who never attend school and only know how to beg. Nothing remotely like that here. We have learnt that because of the proximity to the Ukraine, many local people have a way of life and traditions slightly different from the rest of Romania. To us they just seemed lovely children aged 10 to 14.

Well and matching house, Fundu Moldovei

Delivering milk to the dairy, Fundu Moldovei

Typical wooden entrance gate, Fundu Moldovei

Decorated house facade with black ribbon indicating a recent bereavement, Fundu Moldovei

Main street through the village, Fundu Moldovei

Wooden cross, Fundu Moldovei

Well and gateway covered with metal plate, Fundu Moldovei

Typical wooden house and well, Fundu Moldovei

After lunch back with Modestine we drove up into the mountains to visit one of the painted monasteries.

The monasteries were established during the 16th century when the country was under the threat of Turkish domination. The walls of the monasteries were decorated, inside and out, with paintings from the lives of the saints. This was a way to ensure the local population could see and learn about their religion without books and teaching aids. Inside the monastery the paintings were still bright and fresh, though outside they had suffered weathering and those along the north wall had deteriorated to the extent that we could not understand why time and effort was being spent cleaning off accumulated dirt to reveal the original blank wall from which the religious murals had long disappeared. Spend the money on the roads say I!

Pascanu Pass. 1040 metres

Moldovitsa Monastery

Restoring the wall to its original state, Moldovitsa Monastery

Nun walking around the church with a wooden sounding board, praying at each corner, Moldovitsa Monastery

External wall with murals, Moldovitsa Monastery

The monastic buildings were beautiful, set in lovely grounds full of lilac trees in full blossom. One of the nuns, speaking a very strange French, showed us around the museum with artefacts dating back earlier than the existence of the monastery.

Museum of religious artefacts, Moldovitsa Monastery

Moldovitsa Monastery garden with lilacs, long grass and wooden tiles on the walls and tower

Next we drove to the nearby village of Moldoviţa where there was an egg museum! Eggs play an important part in Moldavian folklore decorated with traditional designs. This collection turned out to be the work of one lady with over 2000 eggs on display, everyone exquisitely painted by her. We were shown around by her proud husband who spoke good French. He explained the different techniques and the various symbolisms. His job was to blow the eggs ready for his wife to use creatively. I asked whether he was fond of omelettes. He took me seriously explaining that the eggs were mainly from ducks as they were less fragile than hens' eggs. They were bad for the liver but goose eggs made excellent cakes. His wife has become famous throughout Europe exhibiting at various international exhibitions. He was obviously very proud of her. Photography was not permitted but he made an exception when we pointed to one with the three rabbits sharing ears. Across Europe this is a sign of the Blessed Trinity. We have seen and photographed it in various places including the cathedral in Szeged, Hungary.

Egg museum, Moldovitsa

Rabbit roundel in the Votive church, Szeged

Ian uses a similar symbol for his works on printing history but his is taken from the initial of a medieval manuscript once in Exeter Cathedral Library and has four rabbits.

Ian's Book History logo

We have just returned from a very agreeable supper shared on the wooden patio with our Dutch hosts, a couple of Dutch campers and a couple from the former DDR. Conversation drifted from English to Dutch to German and back again. Excellent food, excellent wine and most enjoyable company. The evening has been greatly appreciated by us and we have been offered a deeper insight into the way of life here by our resident host. The more we discover the more complex it all seems. Central Europe has had a very turbulent history with changing political boundaries that have resulted in villages passing from one country to another and back again. This area of Southern Bucovinia is in Romania but the northern part is in the Ukraine. Whole villages here are Slav speaking while others speak Romanian. Over in Transylvania, once part of Hungary, a large proportion of the population is still Hungarian speaking while many villages there were formerly entirely German speaking until the population was returned to Germany after 1945. And then there are the Romas....

Related links:
Sinaia and Brasov