This is written for our friends, far and wide, who feature on this blog and have asked to know more about our lives back home……
Welcome to Romania!
A parental visit is always preceded by a fair amount of flapping, a time to do all those things you’ve been procrastinating over. In our case this involved investing in quite basic things to make our flat more habitable – plates, glasses, towels etc. We have been slow to adjust to our newly found domesticity; content to eat from the two plastic dishes upon which our nourishment has been served for the past year. I begin to fret, seeing everything from the supposed view point of my parents – the leak-stained bathroom ceiling, the dodgy lift, the accumulating bicycles on the balcony. This preoccupation extends out to include my adopted country as a whole – will they like Romania?
It was the promise of meadows full of wild flowers, which are still hand-scythed and formed into haystacks by villagers working communally, that first drew me to Romania. Of wild forested areas where Europe’s largest populations of bears, lynx and wolves still roam. Back in 2012 I read a Guardian article about an idyllic sounding cycle trip around the Carpathian countryside – a tale of harvesting wild sour cherries, of sleeping under the stars on the top of haystacks, of dead nuns laid out in open-coffins – and my head was filled with the romance and myth of it all. Three years later in the autumn of 2015 I made it to this misunderstood and over-looked land for a cycling adventure of my own. For 6 weeks I peddled the lesser-known roads, I climbed the mysterious Omu Peak in the Bucegi Mountains (a hot bed of paranormal activity), I stepped in bear poo and out-peddled persistent shepherd dogs, and time and again I was taken home by generous souls who gave me shelter, food and company. Oh and I fell in love with the sweet man in Bucharest who helped me find a bicycle. A spell was cast over me during that first visit, from which I have never been, or sought to be, released. (I will write more about those adventures another time.) I had waxed lyrical about the place and now my parents were coming for two weeks, to inspect where I am to ‘settle down’.
As you may imagine my mum (Sue) and dad (Roger), like me, are adventurous and curious souls who are unafraid of the unknown. They are however, like us all, aging (gracefully of course) and require a certain level of comfort. The up-until-now temperamental lift, quite predictably, stopped working altogether on the day of their arrival and so their initiation into Communist block living was a climb to the 9th Floor. A ‘tour’ of our light-filled apartment with it’s wooden parquet floors was met with approval and then Ioan looked wide eyed at my Dad as he inquired about the fire safety procedures for the block. ‘There is no plan. Welcome to Romania!’ My father nods and continues his inspection, we are pleasantly surprised to hear we have a very good fire door.
The land of Nevermore*
Whilst cycle touring and camping weren’t an option, Ioan and I wanted to give my parents a taste of the wilds and a glimpse of the tradition way of life that is still very much alive here. So we set off, in the 4×4 we had hired, to explore the Apuseni Mountains with no set route and a vague hope of finding a home. Our first destination was the Raven’s Nest guesthouse, near Salciua de Jos, which promised “adventure, recreation and amazing views…at a remote village in the land of fairy tales”.
You reach this fabled land by turning off the main road, crossing the Aries River, navigating a section of road that has been part washed away by a recent flood. Keep going until the tarmac ends, collectively coo in delight at the stunning views and the flower-filled meadows, hold your breath before going up the steep track until you reach your destination. Rest a minute at the top to congratulate yourselves on keeping your nerve (when other people you know would surely have given up!) Pass through the gates and marvel at the dedication, craftsmanship and attention to detail that have gone into creating this traditional ‘village’. The rooms are beautiful, the food is delicious, there is pink fizz, our hosts are fun and welcoming, there is a hot tub, and we are on the edges of the wildness we are seeking. Everyone is happy and I fear we have peaked too early!
*Nevermore is the visitor that taps upon the chamber door in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven.
We are in the Trascau Mountains, the area where Ioan and I dream of finding a house to call our own. We set out on forays by foot and by car in search of secrets and we are not disappointed. There are unused shepherds huts and abandoned houses, caves and waterfalls to explore, there are birds, butterflies and wildflowers to identify. Roger does not believe he has ever been anywhere so quiet and Sue reminisces about playing in meadows. Apparently, Scorton, the village in the North of England where they live, was like this when they were children. It is hard to believe that those sterile lands of pasture and drained moorland, so abused by mal-farming practices and unsustainable gamekeeping, once bloomed with diverse life. But even these hills are not some untouched idyll and our heads hang as we see the recently flooded river banks full of plastic bottles. The hand of modern man falls heavy.
But there is still magic here in these lands where folklore has it that Zalmoxis, the former slave turned divine god of the Dacian people, had his secret cave. As we walk through the beech forests Ioan and I are drawn off the path to explore rock formations, we find sealed entrances to the underworld and our hearts pound with exertion and exhilaration. At Sub Piatra, in the valley below us, there is a monastery built in 1700 to protect villagers from the dragon that inhabits the Huda Iui Papara cave.
We watch the full moon rise and warm ourselves on a fire, it does not matter if you believe in gods or dragons they take no heed. But take time to be grateful, fill your hearts with awe, and see the blessings flow.
We head south to the star-shaped fortress city of Alba Iulia and are lucky enough to arrive as a traditional fair is in full swing. Villagers from all over Alba County have descended on the city to share their produce, to dance, play instruments and sing. Sue strikes up conversation with a friendly hat making couple; proud men and boys pace the square waiting for their time to represent their areas on stage; young women carry their Bucium’s to the fountain to wet. This is not a forced scene, it is not a performance for tourists, it is a celebration of a way of life that has remained. In the evening we return to the square to see more traditional songs and dances, I watch as my Mum falls deeper under the spell that was cast earlier in the meadows.
Walks on the Wildside
The city cannot hold us long, the countryside is calling. ‘Whatever we do, I would like another walk‘ says Dad. And so we take them for walks on the wildside (invariably involving many steps) down into the Saltmine at Turda, through the slippy Turda Gorge, down again into the icy depths of Scarisoara Cave, up to Rachitele Waterfall.
We see butterflies, snakes, foxes, bugs, birds, bats and semi-wild horses. We forage for wild strawberries, bilberries and sour plums. Roger is thrilled to show us his rallying skills on gravel roads that wind through huge swathes of eerie forest; Sue drives us safely along wet muddy roads, wheels slipping, as we all squeal in delighted fear. Roger is thrown out of a monastery by an overzealous nun; Sue holds her nerve at dusk as we wait at the entrance of the Huda Iui Papara cave to catch a glimpse of the largest bat colony in Europe take to the skies. Ioan and I are aware that we only touching the edges of the wonders that Romania has to offer, but our charges are smitten. I think they will be back!