Up around the Bend

We needed to linger in the Budapest environs between Adrian’s dental appointments. We’d spent several days in the city, so it seemed time to head up river. The Danube Bend is, as the name suggests, a dramatic bend in the river as it wends from flowing eastwards to southwards forming part of the border with Slovakia. We’d heard that it was a scenic area with lots to see and do. So we set off to see and do it. Our first call was the town of Szentendre about 40km north of Budapest.

It was a centre of Serbian immigration during various periods of history when Serbia was being overrun by Turks. Pastel-coloured buildings line the streets and face the river, with several picturesque churches perched here and there. Since the 1920s though it has become home to many artists and has a lively café life, lots of craft shops along its narrow cobbled streets.

It was Monday though, and most of the churches and most of the galleries were closed. We headed on along the river, finding a nice looking campsite open when we thought it would be closed just outside the town. It was too early to stop and we continued to Visegrád, a small town sitting right on the curve of the bend, with a citadel high above it, and fortifications below reaching down to close to the river.

Visegrád means ‘high castle’ and it dates from the 13th century when it was built to withstand Mongol invasions. We found the lane up to it, thankfully we didn’t have to walk all the way.

It afforded fabulous views of the bend in the autumn afternoon sunlight, and had a few rooms with exhibits in, amongst the ruins. It was the once the royal residence, and housed the crown jewels until they were apparently stolen by a maid in the 16th century, and our old pal Vlad the Impaler was once imprisoned here for several years in the 15th century. There is also a Royal Palace far below in the middle of the town.

We pressed on to Esztergom. It was getting to be time for a campsite and we hoped there might be one open just south of the town. We saw a couple of motorhomes driving around looking rather lost, but eventually found the way to the site, but it was closed. A shame because it was a stone’s throw from the centre of the dramatic looking town.

We have been using a rather ancient Rough Guide to Hungary – the information is around 15 years old, but as it has the main things we have hung on to it. It mentioned the ruins of a bridge nearby but we hadn’t spotted this. As we took the road we thought was leading us back into town, we found ourselves on a bridge across the Danube, and totally unintentionally arrived in Slovakia. Not quite where we wanted to be, not yet anyway, but we still felt a bit rude just entering the country and doing a U-turn. We weren’t the only ones though – at least one other disappointed campervan had found themselves in Slovakia by mistake. Fortunately both are Schengen countries so there was no border control. Being the other side of the river though also meant a terrific view of the city. Its cathedral and castle walls create a dramatic imposing skyline for this centre of Catholicism in Hungary.

More reading up found that the ruin of the bridge mentioned in our guidebook had been rebuilt. Destroyed in the Second World War, and never rebuilt due to ambivalence between the two countries during the Communist era, harmony has obviously been restored and the new Mária Valéria bridge was opened in 2001. It was built with a grant from the EU, to help applicant countries with their joining preparations.

We pootled back to Visegrád again where we thought we’d spotted a campsite open. It would have been nice to camp wild by the river and there were good spots to be had, but there were stern no camping notices.

The campsite was open, but deserted. We were the only people there in fact, but it was lush and green and we parked amongst the trees. In the early hours we awoke to one of the most dramatic thunderstorms we’ve experienced, wildly flashing lightening and rolling of thunder fit to wake the dead and shake the van where it stood. Torrential rain followed, the remains of which lasted all the following day.

Downhearted by the change of weather, and the low cloud that obscured the hills, we drove back to visit Esztergom properly, relieved  that we had seen its best view in the sunlight the previous evening. We parked near the huge basilica and traipsed in the rain towards the ticket office.

It was on this site that King Stephen (or Istvan in Hungarian), later Saint Stephen, was crowned in 1000 AD and where Hungary was brought into Roman Catholicism. Subsequently the area fell under Ottoman rule and it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that the town recovered and the cathedral was rebuilt. It is as huge and impressive as you would expect such an important place to be.

There is also an important shrine in the crypt to a more recent figure, Cardinal Jósef Mindzenty, who bravely opposed Communist rule. He was arrested in 1948 and tortured for 39 days before being sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Released during the 1956 uprising he sought refuge at the US Embassy where he lived for the next 15 years. Eventually exiled to Austria where he died, he was reburied at Esztergom in 1991, the year that also saw a visit from Pope John Paul II. We also paid to see the Treasury which we’d heard was something special. We spent ages there marvelling at the fabulous treasures, from clerical garments with three dimensional embroidered scenes on them, to the gold goblets from all periods of decorative arts history from medieval to art deco.

After lunch, still raining, and lacking the enthusiam for more museums after such a visual overload, we drove back towards Szentendre and the campsite we’d spotted there the day before. To cheer ourselves up, we stopped in the town to buy some cakes, rather apalled by the fact that council contractors appeared to be hacking down all the trees along the river front. They’d not pollarded them neatly, yet seemed to be leaving the trunks there. Too rainy to find out more about what was going on, we headed for the campsite for an evening cooped up in the van.

A bright morning greeted us and lifted our spirits as we set off to see Szentendre’s must-see Village Museum or Skanzen, the latter name often used for open air museums in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, named after Stockholm’s famous Skansen open-air museum of vernacular architecture and way of life.

After waiting for umpteen school groups to enter, we were in and it was a big enough site to disperse all the groups nicely. The school groups all had activities laid on, such as trying their hand at butter churning and jumping up and down in a hayloft. We had most of the old houses and cottages to ourselves as we spent several hours wandering around village settings from different parts of the country. Beautifully set up and furnished, it was a lovely place. Sadly, we don’t have time on this trip to really explore rural Hungary to the full, so this gave us an insight into what villages in different areas and from different points in time might be like.

The farm in the centre of the museum had Hungarian breeds such as the longhorned grey steppe cattle, a flock of whimsical twizzle-horned Racka sheep who we managed to coax out of their barn, and three curly haired Mangalica pigs languishing in their muddy pen who weren’t taking any notice of anybody.

Just a small fly in the ointment, we were charged for parking, which took us aback a bit as the entrance fee wasn’t cheap and it was way out of town, but then they couldn’t seem to get their act together enough to take the money for it so we could leave without hanging around for an extra few minutes. We had stayed a little longer than planned in the museum and had a pressing engagement with Adrian’s dentist back in the city so had to dash.

In spite of the mixed weather, we really enjoyed this interlude up around the scenic Danube Bend.

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A tale of two cities

When we got to Budapest, our first priority was to locate a dentist – the toothache that’d started to gently nag was becoming difficult to ignore. The staff at the campsite were helpful – not only did they recommend a dentist in the centre of town, but they phoned them and made the appointment, making sure that all was as sorted as it could be.

Whilst waiting for that, we headed into town and found our bearings. The first battle was simply getting there – from the wodge of tourist guff we’d picked up at the campsite, we’d decided that a “Budapest card”, giving discounts on entries in return for a premium over a normal straight travelcard, was worthwhile. But how to actually buy one? Budapest tube station staff seem not to have noticed that the communist era’s ideas of customer service have passed by. Actually, that’s unfair – I think they pine for them, and are trying to single-handedly reintroduce them. Eventually, we got in to the centre and found some tourist office stalls staffed with lovely friendly people who not only sold us the cards but gave us free chocolate, too…

Budapest isn’t just Budapest, it’s Buda and Pest. Two banks of the Danube, linked by several beautiful bridges, all rebuilt after every one was destroyed as the Soviet Red Army fought to recapture the city from the Nazis; but are they one city – or two cities?

Buda, the left bank, is the pretty half. The castle sits on top of a solid bank of rock. Just next to it, another bank of rock is crowned with the citadel. Behind them, hills rise with expensive green-fringed suburbs.

Buda’s castle with the surrounding area, enclosed in the walls, wasn’t quite our first port of call, but it didn’t take long before we found our way up there. Slap bang in the centre, the Matyas church, scene of coronations whilst Hungary was a monarchy. Inside, it’s being restored, so most of the interior was blocked off from view – no reduction in the entry price, of course…

To one end, the 18th century castle complex (right next door to the President’s office, complete with uniformed guard trying very hard to keep straight faces and ignore the tourists posing for silly photos) houses several museums, including the Budapest History Museum – which started off as a bit of a ho-hum wander past the usual collection of historical footnotes, before a set of stairs led us down to the cellars of the original medieval Royal Palace. The trail led us through various quarters, from Baroque hall to chapel to gardens and fortification walls.

An unexpected bonus had already greeted us – the courtyards of the castle were hosting a food fair! Oh, dear. What a pity… Stall after stall of small-scale, high-quality food producers. Strangely, though, very few were actually giving tastings. Our first wander through was just about opening time, with most stalls still setting up – not a problem for some, especially one stand selling home-made cheese who virtually press-ganged us to taste their wares. We did not leave empty-handed, thanks in large part to the translation skills of their neighbour, selling wonderful home-made cordials (the Elderflower & Mint was acquired), who had previously worked as a hospital porter barely ten miles from our home!

Whilst it didn’t give any discount for the wonderful wooden funicular heading down from the castle to the river, one of the “benefits” of our Budapest card was a free walking tour – alternate days, Buda and Pest. We thought this sounded like a good plan, so stood waiting for the Buda tour. We weren’t the only ones – an Italian couple were there, and we were joined by an American couple. No guide showed… We waited, we waited – we ended up phoning the number in the booklet. No answer. Hey-ho.

With stress like that, there’s only one thing to do – and that’s take advantage of the thermal spas rising underneath Buda. The city has umpteen baths, with a legacy back to Roman times. We decided that a wonderful way to waste an afternoon was just lolling about in the Rudas baths, dating back to the 16th century. We sprawled in a variety of mildly-sulphurous pools, ranging in temperature from warm to teabag, underneath a beautiful domed ceiling studded with coloured glass, back-lit by the setting sun. Occasionally, we stirred ourselves to wander through to the ridiculously scorching saunas and scalding steam-rooms, punctuated with dives into the cold plunge pool.

Pest, on the other hand (or bank) is the dynamic half. We wandered around, back and forth, from Szabadság Ter, a large green square just at the back of the Parliament building, with a dramatic Art Nouveau house and museum at one end, and one side barricaded off due to rebuilding the US embassy, right next to the soaring and colourful National Savings Bank building; all the way to the huge, lively and thriving market hall at the other end of the centre.

Throughout the beautiful old hall, stalls groaned under the weight of bright-red paprika or large sausages hanging above the massed heads of customers and tourists. Upstairs, stalls selling a variety of genuine craft and utter tat, together with hot food stands, were barely visible through the wall of people trying to squeeze by.

We just missed the premiere of a new opera, shown to the public for free on big screens in the middle of the main Andrassy Utca avenue. Way off at the top end of Andrassy, the wide open Heroes Square is a dramatic space, with the Millenial Monument colonnade curving round the back to celebrate a thousand years of the country’s foundation in 896, and flanked on either side by art museums. We wandered around the Fine Art Museum, and got lost in room after room of big-name Old Masters, with no fuss or shouting about them. Just a Rembrandt or an El Greco or a Tintoretto or three, quietly taking their place amongst lesser-known contemporaries.

Behind the square, the Városliget or City Park surrounds the Vajdahunjad castle, a gothic fantasy now containing the remarkably prosaic sounding Agricultural Museum, and acting as backdrop for some wedding photos when we were there.

After getting thoroughly lost in the park, we found ourselves at a modern sculpture, taking the place of the gigantic statue of Stalin ripped down in the short-lived 1956 revolution.

The long boulevard of Andrassy sits above the yellow metro line – Budapest’s first, and the first in the world apart from that in London. Most of the stations have never been rebuilt, and you descend from the road straight onto wonderfully cosy wood panelled and tiled platforms.

By the main Saint Stephen’s cathedral – with dramatic gilded fixtures and fittings, and a small chapel containing the “Holy Right”, the mummified hand of Hungary’s patron saint and 10th century king – we found a wine bar stocked only with the produce of some of the country’s small vineyards. As a contrast, we then headed off to a “Ruin Pub” – a Budapest speciality, semi-derelict buildings being taken over for bars that sprawl through umpteen scruffy and randomly-decorated back rooms. This one also had a huge central internal courtyard, with large owl sculptures suspended above you, staring down… We stopped in at a cake shop and tearoom unchanged for a hundred years (apart from the large flat-screen TVs, trying to fade into the background in huge gilded frames, showing dubbed Jamie Oliver) and a cool restaurant-lounge with excellent modern-traditional food.

Between Buda and Pest, we wandered the length of Margaret Island, a giant park in the middle of the river. And, yes, we did also find the dentist, where I endured quite literally four hours of work on an inflamed root canal across three appointments. The treatment was superb, though, and an absolute bargain compared to the likely cost at UK private dental prices! A week’s delay was needed in the middle for the antibiotic tablets to take effect (once we’d trekked around the city to find the late-night pharmacy), so we headed out for a few days to the Danube Bend – and changed campsites on our return, as the first one had closed for the winter.

A pity, as we’d met some great people there – Casper & Chloé, heading by Land-Rover to Cape Town from Copenhagen; Glynn, heading from the UK by Harley-Davidson for a weekend bike rally in Bulgaria; A couple of Norwegians taking their seven (yes, seven) dachsunds to a dog show in Bucharest; Benjamin, a local resident who also runs motorbike tours of the surrounding countries.

The one “sight” we visited on our return trip was Memento Park – a surprisingly small out-of-town venue to which many of the big communist statues were relocated in the early ’90s. At the entrance, Stalin’s boots greeted you, near a somewhat sad looking Trabi, sagging from all the thousands of tourists who’d sat on and in it. The statues inside ranged from plaques commemorating long-forgotten socialist heroes to a dynamic, thrusting figure soaring high above us mere mortals. A hut outside contained a temporary exhibition including a series of Secret Police training films – you want to know how to recruit informers or search a flat? We’re your experts now!

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After a month in Romania

Back in the mid-eighties, I read a magazine article about the plight of Romanians under Ceaușescu. I remember being shocked by the state control over the most personal aspects of people’s lives. In reality families couldn’t afford or find available food for all the babies they were expected to bring into the world, many women died having illegal abortions, and everyone can remember the horrific stories of the Romanian orphanages. The bleakness of life under this regime coupled with the attempts to eradicate the rich folk history of the country, deeply saddened me. With a population under such repression, it seemed impossible that things could ever change.

In 1989, when the Eastern Bloc began to crumble, I hoped and prayed that Romania would be free too and was overjoyed when the Ceaușescus were finally ousted. It’s been 23 years since those events, and we’ve finally been to see Romania. So stark were the reports of the time that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be a desolate post-industrial wasteland? Were there still historical sights left to see or was everything concreted over? Were there any pretty villages and churches left at all? Romania’s an EU member, but there seems to be a feeling that it wasn’t ready to join when it did. Is it benefiting from its membership? People told us that the roads were bad. Would it be similar to Albania then?

The month we’ve spent in the country has been incredibly rich in experiences and impressions. There’s plenty we didn’t get a chance to see, we eschewed the busy Black Sea coast for more inland wanderings, and in spite of zigzagging our way around, there are places we had to miss out. The villages are well kept, with very few neglected or abandoned buildings, we’ve seen so many of elsewhere. We’ve spotted the granny mafia litter picking, and there is much pride in keeping houses and gardens up, even if the hens and geese scatter everywhere.

It is more than two decades since systemization plans threatened to wipe out not only this way of life, but the very villages themselves. This programme did start though and some villages were razed, their precious ancient cottages, churches and cemeteries lost forever. The people’s history removed while they were forced to live in flats in towns, with little land to cultivate the much needed food that the country was dependent on. Nowhere to keep their dogs, which became strays. Descendants of these dogs roam far and wide in the greatest numbers we’ve seen in any country so far, with many seen dead by the side of the road.

Thankfully the revolution stopped this damage and many villages remain largely unchanged. Or do they? It turns out that EU membership is one of the factors affecting rural life adversely, local small food producers cannot meet the demands of the new rules and regulations and the big buyers that are used to dealing with the large commercial farms can’t depend on small suppliers, where local herds may only be a handful of cows among several farmers. Local agriculture is declining rapidly, there is unemployment and surely depopulation will follow. Some are calling it economic genocide.

Is it backward though? Isn’t a simpler greener life what so many people in the supposedly highly developed Western world are striving for? Use of horses must be the most environmentally friendly way, and it’s food metres not kilometres. The number of Dutch campsite owners we met have come to Romania for a chance of a simpler but richer life. The Romania of towns and cities, and the Romania of the countryside are two very different countries, with little crossover. The urban sophistication of über fashionable young things with the latest gadgets, and the wide margins between those with money and those with little.

During our first few days we travelled between small towns and villages. Shops here are harder to navigate, you have to ask for things from behind the counter with no common language. There is little fresh food other than dairy and deli products on display. They sell a little of absolutely everything you can imagine though, if you look hard enough. Many items can be bought loose, an indicator of low incomes, from biscuits to loo rolls and disposable nappies. Grey crêpe paper toilet rolls wrapped tightly without an inner tube – ultra scratchy, or the slightly more expensive pink ones with tube offering just a little bit more comfort. (You can of course buy top quality brands in large supermarkets.)

Another indicator is the amounts you can withdraw from a cashpoint – the lowest being 10 Lei – about £2. The first Romanian supermarket we entered in Targu-Jui, felt dark and dingy and you still had to buy a lot of stuff from over the counter. Anything imported was at Western European prices. Local goods were cheap… to us, but were they cheap to the locals? The average salary here is still only 350 Euros a month, with many trying to survive on much less – up to a quarter of the population only earning 100 Euros a month. But somehow all the international chains that have moved in big-time with their large shiny impersonal aircraft-hangar stores must be selling to someone.

The far-reaching effects of living under a brutal Communist dictatorship for four and a half decades leaves its scars. Suspicion of foreigners, for example, is understandable. Contact with foreigners was forbidden, and old mind sets die hard. The roads are bad in places, but not as bad as some of those in Albania, and there is a huge programme of road repairs and rebuilding going on. They don’t have cones here though – to stop traffic using a carriage way, equally spaced tree branches had been carefully laid on the fresh tarmac. We managed to avoid places which are likely to show signs of industrial wasteland – although parts of Suceava came close. Some ‘Communist tourism’ is inevitable, but it’s the faded grandeur hinting of past glories in Bucharest and other cities that captures the imagination.

The influences of old empires are evident, the Ottomans were here, and it was part of Austro-Hungary too. Hungary still mourns the loss of Transylvania, which in spite of the Communists’ best efforts, still shows Hungarian influence, as well as German from its Saxon past. It’s proud too of its Latin heritage, in its language, and the statues of Romulus and Remus in so many town centres. It’s the cross-over point between central and southern Europe and like so many countries in the region the borders don’t always make sense.

Romania has survived, and with all its flaws it’s beguiled us. A fairytale land with its slow pace of country life, its rich traditions and its friendly people – the rewards of waves and smiles. It leaves us wanting more. We have promised to return, but for now our time is getting short, autumn chills and drizzles are already making their presence felt, and reluctantly we are turning westwards and slowly northwards again. Slowly homeward bound.

Interior of Arbore church, Moldavia

Posted in By Country - Romania, Personal stuff, Travel stuff | 2 Comments

Towards the plain

When we arrived in Cluj, evening was about to settle in – so we headed straight for the campsite. There’s two – one that we’d been told was the best site in the country, but a good distance out of town; and one that was handy for town. So, of course, we went to have a look at that one first. It had kerb-appeal, so we stopped in to have a better look. Yep, it looked quite pleasant. It wasn’t deserted – there was a Dutch caravan just being set up. No sign of any staff, though. By the time we did meet the management, it was too late to back out… He was, umm, a character – let’s just say that he’s clearly no stranger to a bottle. Still, when he saw us sat at our camping table, as the sun started to set, it was clear to him that we needed a little extra something. So out came the chequered tablecloth and a large vase of flowers – presented to us with all due pomp and circumstance. We’ve had a laugh at some of the fridge-freezer campers, with their camping pot plants and tablecloths – now, we were they!

In the morning, we headed into town – the second biggest in the country. It’s a very livable sort of place, just big enough to quickly acclimatise to, but with plenty of life buzzing around. There’s not much in the way of big-name sights to see, especially on a damp Tuesday morning, but we quickly decided the pharmacy museum sounded worth a visit. A pharmacy since the 16th century, the first two rooms show off many of the jars and shelves that would have stored the lotions and potions across the centuries. From one of the rooms, there’s a narrow and almost vertical set of stairs downwards… into the days before pharmaceutical companies, when the pharmacist would have needed his own laboratory to prepare the medicines. As our eyes acclimatised to the gloom, a series of arches turned out to contain a myriad of implements and glassware.

Our wander through the rest of the town took us round the usual selection of attractive old buildings and cathedrals – the Orthodox cathedral, facing the monumental theatre building down one end of the centre of town. The main square with a large Catholic cathedral and (apparently, we couldn’t find ’em anywhere!) a series of stone columns remembering those who’d been shot in the 1989 revolution. Off to one side of there, a series of pedestrianised squares and streets contained some pleasant restaurants, cafes and bars.

Towards the border, Oradea was our next and final stop. After another thoroughly mediocre campsite at the nearby spa of Baile Felix (Happy Spa – which it certainly didn’t seem), a quick once-around of town found a much more pleasant place. We parked right on the main square, just as the majestically over-the-top city hall sounded the hour with a series of chimes to the tune of an anthem to Romanian national hero Avram Iancu – a bit of a subversive act when the hall was built, whilst the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A meander round the centre found the Orthodox cathedral, known as the “Moon Church” due to the lunar phase clock in the middle of the facade. Just up the square from there, the Black Eagle building contains a sinuous and beautifully Art Nouveau glazed passageway – but, unfortunately, building work meant it was closed except for a quick peek in at the far end. Continuing our bimble around the back streets found more beautiful “Secession” architecture and detailing.

And that was Romania. A month which Ellie’s summed up in another post, but we’ve absolutely loved.

Our final mission before leaving the country was to get rid of our last Lei cash – easy enough, the van always needs a drink. Except after a very awkward moment leaving Croatia, when I managed to miscount what I thought was left, put more fuel in than we had cash for – and was only saved by finding another coin in the bottom of a pocket – I thought “I know, I’ll fill it, and pay part-cash, part-plastic.” Nope, that didn’t wash. So we had to pay on plastic, and were left with too much cash to really want to keep as souvenirs. As we approached the border, thinking that what we needed was a shop so we could just stock up on beer, wine and other non-perishable consumables, we noticed huts at the side of the road advertising Hungarian road vignettes… We’d heard, half way through our time in Romania, that vignettes were needed there – but no sticker or other physical evidence was issued, the purchase was just logged on a database. The one dealing we had with a Romanian traffic policeman just confirmed our belief that there was little risk of being called to account for it. Hungary, however, we thought would be better organised and equipped. As it happened, a quick visit to a deeply nicotine-stained PVC conservatory-cum-bedroom revealed that the minimum vignette purchase was almost exactly the amount of cash we had left.

With the exception of all the trucks being filtered off into a monumental queue on one side, and a semi-derelict series of huts with a desultory passport glance, there was little actual evidence of a border. We were in Hungary. Ahead of us, Budapest – but only after several hundred kilometres of the Great Plain. If ever there was a region which lived up to the name, it’s the Great Plain. It is huge. It is flat. It is the same big, boring flatness that we’d met almost as soon as leaving Zagreb and which we’d crossed all the way to Belgrade. Whilst the physical border infrastructure was easy to miss, the effect on the human landscape was impossible to miss. Instantly, we were among industrial-scale agriculture, with massive monotonous fields almost as far as the eye could see – and farm machinery to an appropriate scale. The one (and not altogether welcome) relief to the tedium was rapidly developing toothache.

Perhaps, to British eyes, the most glaring and interesting change in crossing into Hungary, though? A Tesco in every single town. For most of the trip, we’ve been bouncing up against the same few predominately French supermarket chains – Carrefour, Leclerc, Auchan; and the ubiquitous German embassy (Lidl) – all the way from Spain and Portugal, through Tunisia, to Romania. Now, for a change – a British supermarket chain! I’m making no comment as to whether this is a good thing or not… but they didn’t have Cheddar, and whilst they did have teabags (and just in time, too!), they’re not exactly Yorkshire.

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Up the path to the wooden churches

We had feasted our eyes on the painted monastery churches of Bucovina, and now it was the path to the wooden churches of Maramureş that we followed.

The time spent in Sighet and at Viseu de Sus provided a welcome gap between the two lots of intense church visiting, and as the weather improved to let us enjoy our train ride, so the viewing of wooden churches beckoned. The monasteries were nearly all active places of worship and contemplation, and therefore most of them were open to visitors every day, and expected the tourists that visited them. Only the odd service had affected our visits. Many of the wooden churches on the other hand are surprisingly hidden away from view as you pass through the villages, often on a rise hidden by autumnal trees, and blending in with their surroundings. In general they tend only to be open if there’s something going on, a service or for restoration, for example. Some have the keyholder’s number on the door, some don’t and it’s not obvious where to start looking. So inevitably we had some disappointments, and although we’ve come to love the exteriors – the organic flowing shingle roofs, graceful spires and ship like bodies – it is always wonderful to see inside too. When you do get the chance to go in though, you appreciate it all the more.

Maramureş is a very traditional area of gentle undulating green hills, dotted with haystacks and with a hardworking largely peasant population – very much people of the land. Horse carts proliferate, and many roads are still unmade up and rough in places. Many villagers apparently still believe in vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night, and there are still plenty of wooden houses with carved wooden gates, although in some places they are gradually being replaced with new rendered brick houses. Take photographs in black and white and you could be back 70 years, and things probably haven’t changed so much in a couple of hundred years (ignoring the odd satellite dish). You still see people in traditional dress, especially on Sundays – men in straw hats, elegant younger women in flowery flouncy skirts sitting just above the knee with matching scarves, the barrel-shaped old ladies in their uniform of black skirts and headscarves, white blouses and green cardigans.

We used our return visit to Matthijs and Eveline’s idyllic campsite at Breb as a good central base for exploring the churches, and the area in general. The churches generally date from the seventeenth century onwards, during a period when this area was controlled by Hungary and building of stone churches was forbidden. Although wooden churches were built across Eastern Europe, it is acknowledged that the tradition here in Maramureş offers the most valuable examples, and eight are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

On the way there from Viseu de Sus we passed cross-country into the Iza valley, one of the prettiest areas and visited the church at Ieud. Luckily signs pointed the way, and  there was a small group of young restorers working on cleaning icons so it was open. Like the stone-built churches, there is a pro-naos or anteroom before entering the naos – the main area for worship. Beyond this, usually hidden from public view behind the iconostasis screen, is the half-circle altar area. The interior walls and ceilings are painted, and there is a gallery above reached by a ladder, often a whole tree trunk, with steps cut into it. The imagery is of course biblical – again the day of judgement features strongly – and often quite primitive in style. At Ieud many of the precious pictures had faded or flaked away.

From here we drove to the next village of Poienile Izei, renowned for its wooden church featuring predominantly red coloured pictures of the punishments meted out in hell for misdemeanors great and small. The images were to remain a mystery to us though, it was getting to be late afternoon, and the village was thronging with beautifully turned out people in costume. There was a wedding in the offing and everyone looked to be involved.

Unfortunately for us, the wedding wasn’t to be in the pretty wooden church perched on the hill, but in the big modern church in the village centre, and no one was able to open the old one up for us. We hung around a little to see what would happen, there was a group of musicians on hand too, and we got talking to some French people from Réunion, who were living in Romania. One of them was hoping to work to improve things for the Roma population.

It looked like there was plenty more hanging around to be done, and we needed to push on to Breb while it was still light. The road to some of the villages we wanted to visit, was too rough to contemplate for a long stretch, so we went back via Bârsana, where an impressively ‘in-keeping’ new wooden monastery complex distracts visitors from visiting the old wooden church hidden away elsewhere.

On the Sunday, we went first to Breb’s wooden church, passing many traditionally dressed parishioners on the way, picking their way along the muddy lanes in their finery. Having been back and forth in Breb several times by now, the villagers’ reserve was beginning to falter and we got big smiles and waves from folk of all ages. The church is tiny, and a sort of open come and go as you please service was progressing, we entered discreetly to see the homely interior with rugs everywhere and highly embroidered clothes draped over the top of the icons.

At Budeşti, a few kilometres over the hill, its two churches, one upper and one lower, when we finally found them, were both closed but peering through windows gave us a few hints as to the delights we were missing.

A chunk south to see Surdeşti church, which once had the tallest spire in Maramureş, and is on the UNESCO list. Built in 1721, it is covered in oak shingles. Our luck was in, the service was ending and the congregation was pouring out. At the gates people received bread and cake as they left, and shots of ţuica (the local firewater) were also given out. Crate-fulls of bread were ready to give away, and the old lady in charge insisted we take some too.

We waited until nearly everyone had left before entering the church itself. It was a gem, stunningly beautiful. The priest was happy for us, and the three other (Japanese) tourists to take pictures inside. He was busy getting the church ready for an imminent wedding. In fact, as we drove out of the village, we gave way to the wedding convoy.

There was another UNESCO wooden church in the next village, Plopiş, but it was closed and after walking around it, we had a picnic on the grass outside its walls.

We headed over the hills into another valley and visited the church at Desişti, with the trackbed of a disused logging line running past its gate. We were able to go inside as there were some other visitors there. This was another UNESCO gem, built in 1770, with exquisite paintings on the walls by Radu Munteanu, a key painter of the time.

The keyholder was involved in deep discussion in Romanian and German with the other two visitors about the finer points of the difference between Greco-Catholicism and the pure Orthodox tradition. Greco-Catholicism also known as ‘Uniate’ takes elements of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox doctrines and is the form of Christianity practised in many of the Maramureş churches, having been revived since the fall of Communism.

One last quick visit to the tiny (and closed) wooden church at Sat-Șugatag, along the road, where it was hard to keep the goats from following us through the wooden gates into the cemetery – the chickens were there already after all. The weather had turned dull again, the scent of windfall apples drifted on the damp breeze and we were just about churched out for one day.

Monday morning dawned bright and fine, and we were barely awake when a succession of villagers from young men to old ladies walked through our camping field on their way to work in the adjoining meadow. The potato harvest was in full swing, the horse and cart was already in place and it looked like they would be gathering in the odd pumpkin too. Visualise Van Gogh’s famous potato picker drawings and the scene would be the same.

As we said our goodbyes, Matthijs suggested a route to Cluj-Napoca, our next destination, via another valley we hadn’t thought of trying not knowing how good or, more likely, how bad the road would be.

It was scenic and spot on, it took us via another UNESCO church – the one at Rogoz.  There was a number scrawled on a paper by the door. We rang it, and admired the exterior, before the priest, Ioan Chirilă, arrived about fifteen minutes later. It was clear right from the start that this wasn’t going to be a simple unlocking of the door. We were treated to the most wonderful personal in depth guided tour outside and inside the church in a mixture of French and Romanian. Ioan Chirilă’s enthusiasm was infectious as we were allowed free reign to photograph and ask questions, and he used my sketchpad to write down dates and diagrams for us.

Built in 1663, of elm wood, the orientation of the church is important. The round window at the end of the apse is lined up so the sun will shine through it at a certain time of day from 7th to 15th of August.

A particular feature is the lop-sided roof, one side built further out to shelter a long table and benches made out of single lengths of tree. Here food was provided for the poor of the parish.The table was marked by lines indented across it. These showed the areas allotted to each family, and the family name was cut into the wood of the wall above. The horse-head shaped eaves supports are also peculiar to this church.

Inside the layout was familiar and the paintings breathtaking, and we were taken into the usually blocked off apse to see the other treasures, including ancient bibles and a painted chest. All the imagery, mostly painted by Radu Munteanu, was explained to us, and the story of the Good Samaritan is a less usual feature here. He showed us the scorch marks inside the church from a lightening strike. Thankfully there are now lightening conductors in place. Apparently Princess Anne once visited and we think she offered to do a swap for St Paul’s, but the priest was having none of it.

After the church, there was another surprise. There was a small museum nearby of ethnographic items in a recreated kitchen and bedroom/general living area. The priest’s favourite item was a long horn used to call in goats from the hills. If we understood correctly, he had once been responsible for using this to call in the family’s goats. He demonstrated its haunting sound before handing it over expecting both Adrian and I to be able to play at least as well, which of course we couldn’t.

This man’s generosity of spirit and time, and fond wishes in several languages as we set off again, stay with us. One of the most fascinating and heartwarming interludes of the trip. And a high point on which to reach the end of our path to the wooden churches.

Maramureş is the part of Romania that calls us to return with more time to spend exploring its back lanes on bikes, perhaps in springtime, before the simple way of life here disappears forever.

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Romania | 4 Comments

The Țuică-Ciuc choo-choo

Having spent a day and a half sat in the carpark of the Vișeu sawmill, we’d got familiar with the rhythms of life there.

In the early morning, the carpark spent an hour or two filling with tourists ready to get on board the Mocăniță. Once that was out of the way, it all quietened down until they returned in the early afternoon, at which point there was five minutes of frantic activity whilst everybody tried to leave as soon as humanly possible. Shortly afterwards, the real entertainment started as the logging trains started to return.

I call them “logging trains”, but they were lacking one usually essential component of a train. A locomotive. Instead, four or five carriages of logs suddenly and almost silently slid to a halt right beside you, one man stood on the front of the second carriage operating the brakes. Each carriage was just a set of wheels – let’s get technical, they’re “bogies” – strapped to each end of a bundle of tree trunks. There’s no need for a loco, since the whole point of the railway is to get wood down from the hills. Which means, of course, there’s something far better than a locomotive – gravity. There’s a second reason – since the railway follows the curve of the river up the valley, many of the bends were just far too tight for a standard gauge railway, hence the narrow gauge. And a narrow gauge railway means that big heavy powerful locos are a bit of a non-starter, you can only really use little ones. So they wouldn’t have the oomph to be moving large piles of trees up much of a gradient, either.

However, once all the log trains were safely down the hill, the shunter engines started to work hard for their money, pulling and pushing each of the log trains towards the unloading areas. Since there was nothing but the trees joining the front and rear of each carriage, it was easy to just reach underneath the logs with a set of heavy wires and lift, pulling the whole lot at once over a ramped side.

Other trees were unloaded by the fistful by large JCB-like vehicles. Once they were all unloaded, the shunter disappeared back off up the hill, with a whole set of little bogies closely coupled together, ready for the next day’s work. This went on deep into darkness, with the quiet pierced by headlights, floodlights and the roar of heavy diesel machinery.

But, of course, we were here for a much gentler soundtrack – that of a small steam locomotive. The “Elveția” was a cute little thing, far younger than it appeared – it was only built in the mid ’50s, but the Romanian railway continued to build new steam locos until the mid-70s, especially for forestry use. It, together with several similar sister locos, were restored for tourist use a few years ago by a Swiss company, still involved in the running of the railway – hence the name.

Alongside our overnight parking bay were several open-sided passenger carriages, but fortunately they weren’t in use… Instead, there were closed carriages of two designs, one slightly posher than the other. As soon as the train was manouvered alongside the carpark ready to board, we dived on and earmarked a couple of seats in the rearmost carriage, thinking that we’d get some cracking views from the open platform at the back. Duly fortified with piping hot Gogoși doughnuts from the counter next to the ticket office, we sat back and waited.  As time got closer, the carriages all filled up – and we were off. Backwards. To connect another carriage behind us, since our trip was a bit fuller than they deemed comfortable. Hiho. It wasn’t a great problem, though, since our carriage appeared to be the only one in which the wood-burning stove had been lit…

So off we went, past the rail yard, complete with a stock of derelict locos and carriages awaiting restoration, and out through the suburbs of Vișeu and a few villages sitting on the river bank. We wound up through the trees, with greenery and rocks barely inches from the carriage – another reason for the narrow gauge… As we followed the river, we passed several little groups of men working away, either trimming treetrunks or loading them onto trucks on the dirt track the other side.

Eventually, that track petered out, and we were alone in the woods. A brief pause for the loco to have a drink – a large hose was just dumped into a pool where a side stream fed into the river – and we were off again. The loco wasn’t the only one being refreshed – a small family group in our carriage were being very hospitable, and a large plastic mineral water bottle was doing the rounds of everybody – even being passed over the couplings for the people standing on the outside deck of the next carriage. It was, of course, not water but home-made Țuică spirit.

Grandma was sat by the wood-burner, keeping warm – but her home-made bread with a baked-in crumbly cheese filling was being passed around to mop up the Țuică.

About 20km up the track from our starting point, we reached our destination – although the working track continues much, much further up, branching off to the side a few times as it goes. Paltin, the location for the end point, is a wide and flat area where the rails widen across three or four tracks. To one side, the river drops over a small weir made of logs. The other side, there’s a small terrace with a wooden cabin for workers to sleep in. For us tourists, there’s a row of long-drop toilets, and a bar/outdoor kitchen area under a large roof. Within seconds of the train stopping, there was a hive of activity around the goods van just behind the loco. Staff were busy chain-ganging plastic crates as fast as they could. Barbecues were lit, and were soon smoking and sizzling away – many of the crates contained sausages or pork steaks. The rest of the crates contained nicely chilled drinks.

And so an hour or so passed, before a shrill whistle told us it was time to get moving. The staff wasted no time in packing the left-overs and empties away, and we were off again. Our friends seemed to have nearly finished the Țuică over lunch, but their hospitality didn’t stop there – they’d got a plastic bag full of cold Ciuc beers, and they weren’t planning on taking any of them home with them. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to persuade them that we had to drive on our return, and that whilst it was very kind of them, we really didn’t need another one. Or two. Or three. Still, they didn’t take it personally – and we’re fairly sure we now know the Romanian for “You’re my beshtesht frien’, you are”. I was even offered a job in the furniture factory one of them owned… Clearly, it’s a fairly successful furniture factory, as when the train returned back to base (dropping various hitch-hiking locals home on the way), they all poured into a brand spankin’ new very large Mercedes 4×4… Even Grandma had taken a shine to us, since she paused from being helped off the carriage to grasp Ellie firmly by both arms and have an affectionate but completely incomprehensible chat with her.

And so the yard was quiet again. As we pottered around the van, sorting all our stuff back from “camping” to “driving” positions, ready to head – nothing much moved apart from the yard’s friendly random dog population, scoffing the pink-mystery-meat sandwiches we’d taken up the line with us, but ignored in favour of that barbecue. Everything else just waited for the first of the log trains to sneak in and the activity to commence again for the evening.

Posted in By Country - Romania, Food stuff | 2 Comments

The Sighet garden

After we left Fundu Moldovei, we had to face the best kind of dilemma – which gloriously beautiful mountain pass route to take into the Maramureș region? Do we head over the Prislop Pass, which takes us through tiny villages and forests, or via the Bârgău Pass – the mainer road – which is highlighted as being scenic on the atlas? We choose, of course, the small road. It might not have been flagged “scenic”, but it should have been.

The Bârgău (also known as the Borgo) Pass ruled itself out by virtue of being the main road – we’d been mixing it with plenty of trucks before we got to the Prislop junction – but this wasn’t as easy a decision as it could have been, by virtue of the Borgo also being known to Bram Stoker’s readers as the location for Dracula’s castle in the book. Whether there really is a castle there or not, we’ll have to find out another day.

The other clincher for the Prislop road was the description our guidebook gave of the merits of one of the very first villages up the route – Ciocănești. The Huțul, an ethnic minority group thought to have been nomadic Slavic shepherds from what’s now the Ukraine (barely a handful of kilometres away), have long built houses with very highly decorated and colourful facades. To our great delight, these were clearly visible as we passed through.

After a long stretch of potholes joined by the occasional bit of tarmac, we headed up the pass – beautiful forests stretching for miles around us. However, the crowning of the pass itself was a bit unremarkable, and in the early throes of development, unlike the town of Borșa, the other side of the pass. Borșa hasn’t been in the early throes of development (or even decay) for a very long time, and aspired to “unremarkable”. For about fifteen kilometres, we headed through the town. Somebody, somewhen, must have thought it had merit – there was a whole pile of tourist infrastructure peering out from underneath dust and neglect – but what that merit was escaped us.

Our initial impressions of Vișeu de Sus weren’t too different – then we spotted a little brown sign pointing up a narrow and shabby side road. We wound our way along for a kilometre or two, wondering if we’d missed something, then we started to pass the fence for a large sawmill, and spotted the car park entrance. We turned in – to find about ten large motorhomes all lined up for the night. We’d arrived at the Mocăniţă. One of Europe’s last working narrow-gauge mountain logging railways – and still with working steam engines, but only for the tourist trains. With typical timing, we’d managed to miss the tail end of the summer timetable by two whole days, whilst the winter timetable only ran from Thursday to Sunday. Since it was Tuesday, that meant we had a choice – to sit around doing not much in the carpark for two days, or to find somewhere else for a night in-between. At least we knew it existed, we knew there was space to stay overnight, and we knew for sure what the timetable was.

Onwards, then. Seghet Marmatiei is the biggest town in the area. Better known as Sighet (or, as it quickly got christened in the van, Secret Marmite) it was the location of a prison which, during Communist times, became the preferred detention centre for high-profile political prisoners. Romania’s Robben Island, if you like. Since the fall of the regime, it’s been restored and is now a museum and memorial centre to the victims of communism. After a night spent in a strange local campsite – pretty much the car park of a scruffy motel with a large and noisy factory just behind it – we headed into town, parked up, and went along. From the outside, most of the prison isn’t even visible – there’s only an innocuous doorway in the middle of a block. Once you go in, though, after a quick introduction and orientation, you’re straight into the cellblocks.

Some individual cells are reconstructed as cells – containing just the furniture that would have been there when a particular big name in Romanian politics was held in that cell. Some are empty, with no windows, just manacles on the end of chains attached to a large bolt in the floor. Those were the punishment cells.Most, though, focus on different aspects of the era, the regime, or the prison’s part in it. The museum is beautifully presented, albeit with little information in the displays themselves in anything but Romanian. No matter, we were given books of information, by cell, to take around with us – and they really helped to make some sense of it all. From the effects on the families left behind, to the medical problems faced by those imprisoned and tortured, to the kitsch items produced by the Ceașescu cult-of-personality industry, just about any aspect you could think of was covered – comprehensively but comprehensibly. One cell contained a large wooden planter, with grass growing in it, as described by Ellie when she used a picture of it for her latest Colourboration. Another cell was produced in collaboration with the Polish government, and looked at the timeline of the Gdansk shipyard strikes – how a handful of “troublemakers” led to the creation of the Solidarnosc union, then onwards to Lech Walesa’s presidency of the country. Other rooms looked at the various other revolutions throughout the Iron Curtain – be they abortive (Hungary, 1956 or Prague, 1968) or the successful and almost simultaneous fall of Communism in 1989.

The former yard of the museum now contains a couple of sculptures and memorials, complete with a backdrop of the prison wall, barbed wire and watchtowers. All in all, thoroughly absorbing and involving – we left after considerably more hours than we expected, absolutely exhausted, into rain, with a parking ticket on the van’s windscreen… We did our bit for civil disobedience against the regime, and thoroughly ignored it.

A much more cheerful destination awaited us, a few kilometres further on, in the village of Sâpănța. A cemetery. Not just any cemetery, but the Merry Cemetery.

In the mid 1930s, one of the local villagers – Stan Ioan Pătraș – started to sculpt wooden headstones, with a little illustration from the deceased’s life and a short epitaph. Painted in bright colours, intended to celebrate life rather than commiserate death, the illustrations aren’t always reverent – several are quite graphic about how the deceased met their end, under the wheels of a train, drowned in a river or decapitated by enemy soldiers.

The epitaphs themselves were a bit lost on us, but we’re assured that they’re witty rhymes extolling the praises of the deceased – or giving a salutatory tale about their life or demise… Row after row, their blue backgrounds and gaily painted details sit, surrounded by tourists unloading from coaches and wandering up and down the aisles briefly.

The original sculptor is, himself, commemorated with a colourful headstone – of course. He trained up an apprentice, Dimitru Pop (known to everybody as Tincu). We followed the signs to the house where Stan Pătraș lived all his life, now a museum, and suddenly spotted a strong resemblance between the old chap who sold us the tickets and the young Tincu in a couple of the photos.

Once we’d seen both rooms of the tiny house, with the few bits of wall visible between carved plaques painted to look like wallpaper, we were taken round to the small lean-to at the side, and shown several half-finished headstones in progress. Since they’re all the same basic layout, it looks like a small stock’s always kept, carved and painted blue, for the illustration and rhyme to be filled in when required. Due to linguistic shortcomings, we couldn’t ask what we really wanted to know – when somebody’s getting on a bit, and their own requirement gets imminent, do they insist on editorial control of their own rhyme and illustration…?

We decided to give the train another day for the weather to improve, so headed into the countryside for a night at a campsite that, we hoped, couldn’t be less like the one in Sighet. The village of Breb is way, way off the beaten track, and the camping wasn’t even in the middle of it – small finger-board signs pointed us down a narrow, twisty and very rough dirt track for more than a kilometre before we arrived into a sylvan glade, with a couple of small traditional wooden houses peeking out from the trees on one side of a large grassy area. We were greeted by Matthijs and Eveline, a young Dutch couple who’ve spent the last year renovating and converting a barn into a hostel and campsite. The little old lady who used to own the house still lives there, in a “granny annex” separate building, whilst Matthijs is spending every single spare minute working on the main house – he’s got a fairly strict deadline, as Eveline’s about eight months pregnant.

The countryside around Breb is the centre of the area known for beautiful and ancient wooden churches, but whilst we weren’t enjoying the change in the weather too much, Matthijs and Eveline were – it was the first rain they’d had for far too long, and the wells and springs supplying the village with water were at risk of drying out. We fell in love with the area, though, and decided that we’d return to Breb after we’d been on the train. It just wasn’t worth trekking around the villages in the rain. Instead, we headed back to Sighet, to have a look at a couple of other museums in the town. One commemorated an ex-resident of the town, Elie Wiesel – the Nobel prize-winning author and survivor of Auschwitz. The shop his family ran has been restored to show a reasonably typical early 20th century Jewish way of life in the area, together with a little insight into the scale of the holocaust’s impact on Maramureș. The other, the local ethnographic museum, gave the usual taster of life-through-the-ages, with some beautiul carved wood in particular – but in a wonderfully dusty and down-at-heel way that made you wonder if anything had been changed there since Communist times.

We escaped the town, still with the rain coming down heavily, and headed back to the sawmill’s car park in Vișeu, and settled in to wait the weather out. The station’s refreshment hut turned out to contain a side room, with more information on the way in which the local Jewish community had been devastated – the mill had been Jewish owned, and Vișeu de Sus had had one of the largest Jewish populations in Maramureș. Today? None. Some came back after the war, but then ran from Communism to Israel.

When Friday morning came, we peered out of the van curtains – and were totally uninspired by what we saw. Not the train, but the weather again. We ummed, we ahhed. We decided that it seemed daft to spend a good chunk of a day freezing our damp bits off and not seeing anything much from the train – the hills the line headed into were playing hide-and-seek with us through cotton wool. We’d spend another day in the carpark, doing nothing much apart from playing catch-up with our way-out-of-date blogging.

As evening started to fall, the power went out. Not just the van. Not just the sawmill. No lights visible anywhere around. Oh. Our leisure battery’s not in the first flush of youth – and not really the right type of battery (just a normal car battery, so running it low isn’t great for it’s life expectancy) – so it’s not the most capacious. Sitting in the van powering the lights and some music is one thing, but add in the laptop chargers, and we’d probably be in the dark before bedtime – and we’d lost the sawmill’s WiFi internet, too. Besides, we were about ready for a change of scene after sitting in the van all day.

So we found ourselves in the dining car of the hotel train – several beautifully restored old carriages sat just behind a large steam loco, on the far side of the yard. The chef – a cheerful, rotund Swiss lady – seemed to be coping without electricity admirably with the help of a large gas barbecue in the very cramped dining car’s kitchen… When we arrived for dinner itself (set menu, set time), we found that we were sharing with what appeared to be a single large party of cheerful Germans, who’d all arrived in a minibus sign-written by a local B&B. One couple did a double-take on us, and informed us that they’d spotted us back at Moldovitsa monastery – they were normally motorhomers, so had noticed our van, then been very surprised at the British plates. We got chatting to three Bavarians on the next table, together with a young local chap, Daniel, who we’d already chatted to briefly that morning in the ticket office. Daniel’s English was close to flawless, and we had a very interesting conversation about the realities of Romanian life.

A very pleasant candlelit evening passed quickly. Just as we’d finished the desert, though, there was a final surprise – an elderly chap wandered down the corridor with an accordion tucked firmly under his arm, and started to play. The tunes were all apparently traditional from the local “Zipser” community, of German origin. Some of them were clearly very recognisable to our fellow diners, going by the sing-along that developed at times – not to mention the chef grabbing some of the diners for a dance! We didn’t feel left out, though, since he kept crying “British!” and kicking into a rendition of “My bonnie lies over the ocean”…

When morning dawned, it was quickly clear that we’d made exactly the right decision to wait a day. It wasn’t quite a perfect blue sky, but there was a sky, and it wasn’t leaking. Before long, the car park started to fill up – then, with a hiss and a chuff, the star of the show arrived.

Posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Romania, Food stuff, Personal stuff, Travel stuff, Van stuff | Leave a comment

On the painted monastery trail

The lure of seeing Romania’s treasured painted monasteries took us to Southern Bucovina in the northwest of Moldavia (not to be confused with Moldova, which is a separate country to the east). These lands were long subject to the threat of invasions and claims on them from all directions. Back in the fifteenth century, Stephen the Great (a cousin of Vlad Tepeș) was victorious over the Turks in more than 40 battles, and after every one of these he built churches, each one in a similar style. Subsequent rulers and rich families continued the tradition of building churches, monasteries and other religious buildings. The interiors were painted, the exteriors decorated with glazed brick details or mouldings, typically a rope pattern round the outside.

Detail from Sucevița

Later, it was thought to be the fifteenth century Metropolitan of Moldavia, Grigore Roșca, who had the idea of painting the exterior walls of the monastery churches with biblical scenes for the peasants, an illustrated book open to all to understand. The frescoes are a much thinner layer than those found in Italy, so it is remarkable that any have survived the buffetting of the elements over centuries. The subjects recur and scenes are often depicted in a similar way, the Day of Judgement takes pride of place on many walls, but the tree of Jesse (the biblical family tree) is also seen a lot, then there are the rows of saints and events of the Old and New Testaments. The imagery shows a Byzantine influence, but little is known of the artists. The colours they used are extraordinary and vary from place to place with the blue used at Voroneț being the most famous.

There was a whole list of monasteries and churches to see, but where to start? Should we just do one or two, if so which ones? Or all of them? They were spread round and about across the area to the east and north of the town of Suceava and up close to the Ukrainian border.

After a few days in the area we got to see nearly all the major painted monasteries, as well as many minor monasteries and churches and a lot more besides. A feast for the eyes, the pleasing colours and forms, shapes of the churches and other buildings are among the finest things to see in the whole of Europe, but little known.

As we’ve seen elsewhere in Romania, people are really devout and nearly all these places are active. They don’t exist just as tourist sites. The many Romanians who flock to see them pay scant attention to the frescoes and instead perform acts of devotion – the kissing of the icons, elaborate crossing of themselves, lengthy prayers, lighting of candles. Everywhere has its little candle chapel or ‘cupboard’ outside or in a side-chapel, to protect the interiors from smoke damage. There are usually with two areas within these, one for the living, one for the dead,  as wells as a holy water dispenser of some kind nearby.

Seven of the locations are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and several of these have restoration work underway, wooden scaffolds obscuring some of the interior and exterior images, but tucked away are scores of restorers working painstakingly at odd angles to clean or add in paint where it’s missing.

We have also seen a great number of new churches and cathedrals recently built or in the process of being built throughout the country. The Turks, Austro-Hungarians and Communists may have tried to alter, suppress or eradicate religion, but they did not succeed, and together with Tunisia, this is the most religious country we have visited.

It turned out that our days here coincided with Holy Cross Day, so there was even more going on than usual. This religious day celebrates the cross that Jesus was crucified on and marks the change of season, alms are given to the dead and cemeteries are decorated with colourful wreathes of artificial flowers on each grave marker.

At Rasca, our first painted monastery, but not one of the most famous ones, the car parks overflowed and smartly and traditionally dressed people were everywhere. A service had just finished and as they came out of the grounds, people were being given food – a simple lunch on paper plates – out of a car boot. We felt a bit under-dressed and entered through the passageway into the monastery itself discreetly, and there amid the well-tended gardens was the church, the frescoes adorning the south facing wall were magnificent. Due to centuries of prevailing weather, it tends to be the art of the south facing wall that survives more intact. The interior was busy with people milling about writing prayers on slips of paper or buying candles to light and we slipped in to peek inside.

The big name painted monasteries are Voroneț, Humor, Sucevița and Moldovița and are impressive for the range of art and artifacts both inside and out. Voroneț was particularly touristy. Every conceivable house in the village was a guest house and the car park was huge and heaving. Not with worshippers this time, but tour groups. The late afternoon sunshine was catching the beautiful south side and end of the church, with its special colour blue shown off to its full glory. Voroneț is deserving of the attention it gets, but we were relieved when the groups disappeared and we finally had it almost to ourselves.

After settling into our camping spot in the grounds of a guesthouse in the village of Humor, we went for a stroll up the village road, where at the close of the working day, people sit on the benches outside their houses for a chat and to greet anyone passing by. Sometimes it’s small families, though often a gaggle of scarfed old women gather together, or the older men in hats chew the fat. They were all friendly, but although this area is much frequented by tourists, we did feel rather conspicuous. There were a couple of shops, one in a container, which doubled up as makeshift bars.

It was at the quieter, but no less beautiful Humor monastery, first thing on a dull overcast Saturday morning, that our borrowed camera’s battery failed. It was completely flat in spite of being on charge all night, and the spare was no better. So here we were in a region full of photogenic ancient works of art and places of outstanding beauty, with no viable means of taking photos. We had hoped to limp on with our existing cameras, but it was crunch time. We had to have a new camera like NOW. So with the weather turning from cloudy to wet quite quickly, and being close to Suceava, a sizeable town likely to boast camera retail opportunities, we opted to head there.

Of course, the route took us past two more sightseeing visits. Firstly to Cacica, not a painted monastery this time, but a salt-mining town with a largely Polish population. The mine sounded intriguing from the description in the guidebook, and down a hundred or more steps we went into the cold black-walled tunnels, which lead first into a wide church area. Then after another descent, a chapel, and a passage where figures, religious and otherwise had been sculpted into the rock. We walked for what seemed like miles underground, along the disused railway where carts had been pulled by dogs, and to another surprise. A ballroom. Yes far underground, cold and black, and smelling of petrol, which was used in the salt extracting process, here was a ballroom! Near this was a pond where people used to take a boat to the ball and betrothed couples used it to declare their intentions.

Salt mine pulpit

That was surprising enough, but then after a few more tunnels were followed, we came out at a basket ball pitch. There was an underground sports club too. We walked through this and came out at the café and picnic area in a large open space way below the surface by now.

After gradually climbing up again, it was a relief to get out into the fresh air, as the petrol smell was quite overpowering after a while. We wouldn’t have missed this exciting and rather different experience for the world though. At Părhăuti the bells were ringing, the stone church was a familiar shape but wasn’t painted apart from the porch. It wasn’t open though and the two old boys who appeared at the bottom of the narrow stone spiral stairs from the bell tower didn’t have the key. Oh well, we would see plenty more churches on our travels.

Suceava is a large sprawling industrial town, once known for its chemical works that spewed out so many noxious substances that the babies were born deformed. Hopefully those days are gone and things have improved. Shopping malls certainly seem to be filling in a few gaps in the industrial wasteland. The old part of town, has a fortress and monastery though, and after lunch at a good Romanian-Mexican restaurant, we made a quick dash through the rain to see the Monastery of St John the New. We would have liked to spend longer inside but the priest kept roping bits off separating Adrian and I, as well as the old lady in the zimmer frame, into different sections. It was a large space with spectacular imagery, but we took the hint and hurried back to the van for an afternoon of camera shopping.

The intention was to get a viable ‘stand-in’ camera for the rest of the trip until we found what we wanted, probably back home. Was it worth spending money on a temporary fix though? Our old faithful camera was a Panasonic Lumix TZ5, and after looking in a few other places in recent months, we had given up hope of finding anything like it at an affordable price. We found a media superstore that had a later Lumix model at a surprisingly decent price and were about to buy it.

While Adrian went to check if our existing memory card would work in the new one, I turned the corner of the aisle and spotted a display case we’d missed. These cameras were more expensive, but there was a Panasonic Lumix TZ18, with a far greater zoom plus a lot more scope to play with settings. Very tempting, but it was close to double the price. The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed worth the extra money to get this one. This would be the replacement camera, not a quick solution. And also I hadn’t bought my birthday present yet! So we had an exciting new camera, which turned out to be the same price in the store as on the world famous big South American river named website.

A friendly tourist office guy had suggested a campsite by Dragomirna monastery, about 15km north of town. It turned out to be really quite a nice location, with, for a change a shower, toilet and washbasin all in the same room! The weather had cleared up a bit by the morning, and we strolled across the road into the monastery. Not painted, Dragomirna is famed for its tall narrow church, set inside the fortifications, with rope mouldings around the edges. Very elegant. Being first thing on a Sunday, the service was in full swing, so we didn’t get to do more than peer inside before going for walk round the grounds.

The nearby Pătrăuti church was, like its near namesake, sadly closed but we could see the remains of the painted exterior.

Then it was on to one of our favourites – Arbore. Again this was a ‘standalone’ church rather than a monastery. It was open, and the guardian cum guide was an enthusiastic lady who spoke French, although this was difficult to hear with the echoing acoustics.

She gave us a tour of the imagery on the interior and exterior, and gave us the rare opportunity to take pictures inside. The frescoes here were more luminous and alive than some of the others we’d seen.

Putna monastery was way north within sight of hills in the Ukraine, and although not painted on the outside, it has the tomb of Stephen the Great and his wives, both called Maria. It is an important religious centre and national poet Mihai Eminescu famously stated ‘Let us make Putna the Jerusalem of the Romanian people’.

The service was over but there were monks milling about, and many worshippers, all of whom seemed unperturbed by the metal framed bed with a monk lying obviously in the last throws of life, placed close to the altar. We, however, felt we were intruding rather.

After a picnic lunch in the car park, trying to ignore a couple of scrounging kids, we found Dragoș-Voda. Built in 1346, this is supposed to the oldest wooden church in Romania. It was very picturesque, in spite of being closed!

Further south along a different valley, Sucevița is a huge draw, and its exterior paintings even on the exposed side are in very good condition.The paintings inside were also some of the most captivating that we’ve seen. Time was drawing on, and a nun walked around the grounds playing the call to prayer percussion on a long piece of wood, called a toacă. This tradition stems from the Turks forbidding the ringing of bells.

Moldovița, our last late stop in Bucovina, suffered our, by this time, slight monastery overload, and together with the poor light and rather terse nuns, was rather less enthralling. If we’d been there first though, and if the sun had been shining and the nuns more smiley it could have been our favourite. Weather, mood and cultural overload all affect our impressions of a place!

Getting on into the evening we had a few more kilometres to go to reach Camping de Vuurplaats, at Fundu Moldovei, another Dutch-run campsite, where we spent a couple of nights. We were much in need of a down day to recover from so much beauty and religious fervour, and to try and catch up on the blog.

We met a Dutch couple, Paul and Marlieke, only three weeks into their motorbike trip to Nepal, and other points east before planning to transport themselves and their bikes to New Zealand. Adrian spent the morning changing our worn-out front brake pads and then helped Paul with some bike fettling. We chatted well into the evening over some beers.

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Into Moldavia

Leaving Sighișoara, we were heading eastwards towards Moldavia. First off though we went north to Târgu Mureș, just a slight detour, and spent a few hours there. This was once one of the biggest Magyar cities of Transylvania, though nowadays only half the population is Hungarian. We began tentatively using the Hungarian word for thank you and it brought smiles of surprise and encouragement. With pockets of Germans and Hungarians dotted about in this part of Romania, it’s hard to know quite when to use which language.

Târgu Mureș has a modern thoroughfare where the highlights include the Prefecture and House of Culture buildings with their colourful roofs and ornate frontages. We took a peek inside the latter to view the highly decorated golden walls of the interior.

We couldn’t see much of the fortress, which was being restored, but walked through very pleasant tree-lined streets of villas on our way to find the wooden church of St Michael. It has a wooden shingle roof with onion dome and is daintily picturesque. Unfortunately it was locked to visitors and we had no idea where to start playing hunt the key.

Back in town we found a popular Hungarian restaurant set in a modern rendition of a csárda, or inn, and had the £2.50/€3 for three courses lunch menu – the meatball soup was good, the mains a bit less than thrilling, and the desert eminently forgettable.

Back on the road we managed to find our way out of town heading cross country through some lovely villages, vaguely east-ish, a little bit north and then definitely east and a bit south towards Sovato, which with a choice of good campsites made a logical stopping point. I rested at the campsite, while Adrian jumped on his bike to explore the nearby lake resort of Sovato Baile. A short but steep ride, he said, and not much to really see or do when he got there.

Next morning our route took us very definitely east over the hills and through forests towards Moldavia. We followed the signs to Lăzarea where we stopped to look at the castle, joining the small group of Hungarian motorhomes parked in the car park (another motorhome tour).
Dating from the sixteenth century, with a few frescoes on its facade, the castle is being gradually restored by a group of artists who come every summer.  We entered a large refectory where there is an exhibition of their work, as well as some examples of local ethnographic items.

The cleaner was busy washing the floor, but she beckoned us in. When we had seen the pictures on the walls, she motioned for us to climb onto the podium and go through the curtain behind it. It lead to a staircase and up to the next floor, a beautiful light eaves room. Here we saw everything from prints and paintings to sculptures and installations, some inspired by the location, some not. On the floor above this we could climb out onto a covered roof terrace to get a good view of our surroundings.

Further east we came across Lacu Roșu, formed after a landslide dammed the River Bicaz. This happened in 1838, but you can still see the tops of the trees poking up through the water. The river continues through a dramatic gorge, the limestone cliffs almost touching in the centre of the road above you as you wind between huge rock slabs.

North of Bicaz town, our road crossed a manmade dam and followed the eastern side of the resulting lake, with views across the water to mountains beyond, including the distant hulk of the Ceahlău massif. We’d read about a campsite at a motel north of the lake and were kind of heading there. On our way we saw a sign to a monastery and followed it. The rough track took us through a couple of villages, then wound around through the woods and eventually came out at what looked like a newly built wooden monastery, busy with nuns, and the builders were still there building more new bits. The church itself was in the middle of being cleaned so we couldn’t enter. Back to the main road again.

The camping motel showed no signs of life, and it was hard to see how we would have got the van into the overgrown parking area anyway. Onwards, but where? Another motel that supposedly did camping was closed too. Time to start looking for a wild camp spot. There was a sign to the left to Neamt Monastery, one of our ‘to see’ places. We followed the road up there. It is a large complex,  and with the oldest buildings dating from the 12th century, it’s the oldest monastery in Moldavia. It’s also the largest men’s monastery in Romania and we went through the high walls to see the church and the grounds around the main building.

Outside it sits an onion domed building, which our guidebook said was where the water is blessed and people can take it home with them. Not anymore, it is now a large bookshop. Well there are shelves and piles of books everywhere, trays of soft drinks, rosary bead stands higgledy-piggledy. Perhaps the building is still in transition from one use to the other? We browsed a little while in the silence, then a voice started speaking. It was the bearded monk behind the counter. He was very proud of having learned English from a book entitled ‘English without a teacher’. He’d also taught himself German in the same way. It was Brother Anthony, the book monk.

As we were talking he asked us where we were staying. We don’t know, we replied, explaining that we were in a campervan. Why don’t you stay here? He asked.

The evening service of chanting was on the PA system, so we were entertained by the beautiful sound for two and a half hours, with the odd cow, horse drawn cart, and random dog and monk wandering by.

Expecting to hear more bells and chanting during the night, we woke next morning not having heard a peep to see the monastery buildings in the early morning light.

Agapia was the next monastery on our list. The term monastery refers to religious communities comprising either sex and here were nuns again. On the way there, we caught sight of nun sheep- and cattle-herders, and the monastery itself was lovely, with the flower gardens and deeply holy atmosphere we’ve come to expect.

It was Agapia Veche (Old Agapia) that won our hearts though, a windy drive on a rough old track up the hill and through the forest. It was a serene place with a service going on in the church.

The nun’s chanting echoed round the homely cloister of small cottages, the monastery farmyard just beyond it. Fruit trees groaned with their ripening fruit in the early autumnal morning light.

If I was to become an Orthodox nun, this would be where I would like to live.

At Tărpești, we called in at the Neculai Popa Museum, which houses Popa’s collection of folk art – including many masks and costumes.

The garden shows Popa’s totemic sculptures. Popa’s son was showing a French tour group round and although it would have been good to tag onto the end of this, they didn’t all fit in the rooms as it was, so we followed our own route through.

We then drove north towards Southern Bucovina, famous for its painted monasteries, of which more in the next post.

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Transylvania part 4 – Fortified against invaders

After a night spent camped in the garden of the very nice B&B run by Rudi and Ella (yep, more Dutch), chatting with Richard – an East German-born biker, whose childhood holidays had been spent in then-Communist Yugoslavia and Romania – we headed for yet another different facet of Transylvania.We’d already seen the fortified churches of Hărman and Prejmer, a small taster of those which dominate the area west of Brașov. After a long, slow trek through seemingly endless roadworks, we arrived at Biertan. We’d barely got into the village when the fortifications were visible soaring above the distinctive houses lining the road.

The church sits on a small rise, surrounded by a pair of strong walls and no less than seven defensive towers. From the village’s main square, you walk up a steep, covered wooden walkway through the walls and into the courtyard. When you enter the church itself, the sight is still impressive – the arched ceiling is high, high above, whilst the sides of the upper galleries are painted to signify which guilds funded them. Just next to the large gilded alter at the far end, a door leads through to the sacristy. That door is also fortified – with a complicated locking mechanism with bolts at no fewer than 19 points around the frame!

A couple of the towers are in use as small display areas – one as a lapidarium for some very grand tombstones, whilst another showed a reconstruction of a typical period Saxon household. That particular tower had had a very different domestic role, back in the day – if you had a serious marital dispute, and wanted a divorce, you and your spouse were locked up in there together for several days. Presumably, the intention was to make sure that only utterly irreparable marriages ended, but it seemed to us to be more likely to reduce the divorce rate – at the expense of an increase in the murder rate!

The next village, Richis, might not have had anything to rival the grandeur of Biertan’s church, but the beautiful old (Dutch-owned) Parish House in the middle of the village allowed camping within the courtyard.

With the van settled in place, we wandered through the village as the evening light brought the colours of the house frontages alive, echoing with the clip-clop of the passing horse-drawn carts.

We didn’t really plan to stop in at the larger town of Medias, but since we were heading by anyway, we thought we might as well. Finding the church was easy – the spire was clearly visible – but finding the entrance wasn’t, since the fortifying walls had been built right up to and against over the centuries, placing the churchyard right in the centre of a solid block of shops.

Eventually, we dived up a small and almost anonymous passageway – and we were there. The only sign of life was a couple of other tourists lounging on a bench, waiting for the arrival of somebody with a key. When we entered, it was quickly obvious that we weren’t alone, with organ music echoing grandly around the interior. The backrest on the wooden pews flip-flopped to and fro, allowing people to face forward or backward – just like those in an old tram. The paintings on the altar are anonymous, but believed to be the work of a Viennese craftsman, since one of the saints seems to have a backdrop of Vienna’s cityscape!

Finally, we arrived in the city of Sighișoara. The town’s campsite is a very short walk from the centre, in the grounds of the local swimming pool. The (outdoor) pool seemed to be somewhat dry when we arrived, and the first words of the manager were “I’m sorry…”. Not a great start, they’re closed. Then she went on “…but our motorhome area is full tonight.” Right, so they’re open, but we still can’t stay. Bugger. No, wait a sec… We _could_ stay, but instead of being in a gravelled cat-litter tray with prison-like walls, we have to bring the van in and park it on that nice (and utterly empty) grassed area hemmed in by willow trees. What a pity. How will we cope?

After a slight delay, caused by the gardener insisting on trimming a tree back so we had a slightly nicer spot, we wandered into town to get some lunch and have a good look around.

The old town sits on a small and steep hill, high above the new town. You climb steeply, and enter through the walls, again protected by bastion towers built by the various town’s guilds. The town is almost perfectly complete – very few modern interloper buildings. The clock tower you enter through has a series of small wooden figurines emerging periodically – one side indicating the day of the week, the other day or night.

The two main squares of the town join each other, and are both dominated (of course) by the tourist industry. To one side, somebody sits, carving highly-decorated traditional wooden spoons. Old ladies sit behind tables laden with embroidery for sale. Cafes and restaurants line the squares. One of them really does lead the others in tack and pricetag, though – and no great surprise, since the building is reputed to have been the birthplace of our old friend Vlad Țepeș.

From almost any vantage point in the old town, the ground drops sharply away – except to one side, where it rises just as sharply. Another wooden covered staircase leads you up towards the Church on the Hill. No imagination went to waste in naming that. Inside, the sides of the plain interior are lined with ornate painted wooden chests, restored by students of a German folk high-school.

After more wandering, rounded off with a drink on the ivy- and vine-clad terrace of a little backstreet cafe, we start to head back down the hill to the campsite. Before we do, though, we pause for some more photos of the fortifications. I reach to take the camera (in a padded Samsonite case) from Ellie’s hand, but the strap gets caught on a ring, and my grip on it isn’t enough. It drops, and hits the ground. We’ve been having problems for a few months with the screen on it, going completely white and only behaving with a solid squeeze of the body, probably due to a connector inside not doing its job properly any more. Since the camera has no viewfinder, the only way to take a picture is by looking at that screen. Unfortunately, that shock is too much for the last gasps of that connector, and we’re left with a realistically unusable camera. It’s done great service – in the four years we’ve had it, it’s taken close to 35,000 photos – two-thirds of them on this trip. Fortunately, when we started having the problems, back in Bosnia, Nathan and Anna lent us their spare camera – not in the first flush of youth, but working just fine. So we’re not totally stuffed.

When we get back to the campsite, we find that the manager wasn’t joking when she said the main van area was fully booked – that cat-litter tray is now rammed with yet another organised fridge-freezer tour. And when I say full, I mean _FULL_. They could not, quite literally, fit one more vehicle in. There was a couple of smaller van conversions in there, and it’s just as well – because if they’d been full-size too, there’d have been difficulties in shutting the gate. Smiling at our good fortune in not being squeezed in there too, we saunter through to find that we’ve got company on our grassy area. There’s a largish tent been pitched, next to a quadbike towing a large box trailer. Given the size of the lawn, the tent seems to be strangely close to our van, though. We get closer, and just stop dead in mid-stride as we realise just HOW close it is. It’s so close that we have to step over their pegs – not just guyropes, but the actual edges of the tent – to get to our sliding door. Not only that, but it’s pitched so that their tent door is right next to ours. Inches away. They and us are the only occupants of an area maybe 80 metres long and 10 metres wide. What? Why? Let’s just say that our speechlessness doesn’t last long… We decide the easiest option is just to move the van. Unfortunately, and I still remain baffled as to how, we actually managed to do so without running over their tent. I just wish we’d had the presence of mind to take a photo before moving the van.

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