Tuesday, June 26, 2007

When in Romania

Buna ziua!
Just after we arrived in Romania from Hungary I wrote to a friend that it was a bit like going from Didsbury to Wythenshawe (or from Oxton to Birkenhead for those on the Wirral). Despite the shabby towns, trains and environment and sometimes shabby inhabitants, all no doubt reflecting a poorer country but perhaps something else too, we have found that Romania has grown on us - like mould perhaps. Ironically, after just over a week here, I went to see quite a grim film shot in Glasgow called Red Road. (Gayle wisely preferred to stay and read in the botannical gardens.) When I left the cinema and walked through the city everything in comparison seemed to be in glorious 3-D technicolour with surround sound and scratch 'n' sniff thrown in for free. In fact, it really did me the world of good, because we were both wondering whether Romania was going to be just an expensive and unsatisfactory time-filler on our route. Now I know Glasgow can be incredibly drab and ugly, but when we talk to foreigners about Britain, we always say Scotland is the most beautiful part. We also know that sometimes it takes a while to explore a country and find the best parts. And so it has turned out to be. After a couple of treks in the mountains, and a couple more relaxed and pretty towns, we now find that half of June has passed and there is still lots more that Romania offers........

We arrived in Oradea, a non-touristy city full of Art Nouveau buildings in the centre. We were heading for one of them, the Black Vulture Hotel, a run-down backpacker's favourite, but found that it had been renovated and is now a four star hotel. Never mind. Instead we found another run down Art Nouveau hotel and took a huge room with a private bathroom and a bath with a plug. Joy unconfined. Even better, a buffet-style restaurant where we could point at what we wanted and paid for it by its weight. Perfect for those who haven't grasped the Romanian language. This is in fact very close to Latin. Unfortunately this was not an option for me at school and Gayle chose Geography instead, but we have mastered some essential phrases such as "Where can I buy cous-cous?" and "Does that come with vegetables?". We quickly learned from the big grumpy receptionist with a fake bun in her hair that, like Hungary, the older people speak German to us, but thankfully, the youngsters have learned English at school, and despite denying all knowledge of the language when asked directly "Do you speak English?", they can in fact understand us and answer most of our questions fluently.

We spent a couple of days getting to grips with the lack of tourist information and trying to find essential things like how to get to the bus station in the pouring rain. When there aren't thunderstorms in Romania it's baking hot in June. We also had some fun finding a supermarket where we could buy food for trekking. As dedicated self-caterers, we find that Romania is much like Italy - full of small grocery shops and a central market with fresh local produce, but when you want dehydrated meals, powdered milk and Jaffa cakes you've got to get to the edge of town supermarket. With our backpacks fully stocked we took a bus into the Apuseni mountains. It was Saturday, the bus station was a dusty deserted place, but a bus appeared right on time, driven by a friendly Ryan Giggs (for it was he - obviously got a summer job.) It took us to a market town with another dusty and deserted bus station where we learnt that there was no connection to our starting point. What to do? Well, when in Romania, do as the Romanians do - stand on the side of the road and hitch. We joined an old man and a mum with her child at a road junction and before we could stick our thumb out we were spotted by a farmer in a battered Dacia jeep pulling a trailer with two cows. "Stana de Vale? Get on in!" (or something like this), and along with the old man we squeezed in. The farmer hung his sausages over the handbrake and put his beer in the boot to make space, and we were off..........very slowly. It soon became apparent that we might be asphyxiated before we even reached our mountain destination as the exhaust fumes entered the cab from under the dashboard and our windows didn't open. We had a disjointed conversation with the farmer who seemed very jolly and kept saying Newcastle to us, and waved a horse brass off his dashboard at us. Over the next hour we climbed up a forest road into the misty mountains and passed herds of cows and families driving them up the road. It rained heavily and was still raining when we stepped down from the jeep, dizzy and gasping for air, at the saddest-looking andmost deserted campsite I've ever seen.

We checked our map, waited for the rain to stop and instead of staying set off along a track to find a better pitch. It rained again as we climbed through beech and pine forest but stopped when we reached the tree line. We pitched our tent on a flat grassy patch above a river, but not far from a sheepfold. This turned out to be a mistake because when the shepherds returned with their flock, they let their dogs loose. It didn't take them long to discover us, and after half an hour of barking, we decided to pack up and climb higher. This turned out to be a good move, and we ended up on a peaceful grassy saddle with views of our intended walk. The next three days was spent walking a horseshoe ridge covered in grass and juniper bushes, sheep dung and a million flies with nothing else to do but follow us. The views over the surrounding area were wonderful and we only had one heavy thunderstorm where we found shelter under a pine tree. The paths are waymarked here, but a couple of times we found no way through neglected forest, or lost the track on large grassy clearings. Each time, close to giving up, we finally located the path. Apart from shepherds, we also met locals cutting trees and herding cows and grazing horses. One afternoon we walked past some untended cart horses as big as houses, who feigned indifference to us, but then appeared on the track behind us when we stopped for a break. I think I might have broken into a trot at that point to put some distance between us and them, and had to climb over a "gate" of fallen trees that was obviously there to stop the horses wandering. This was the only fence we saw anywhere, except for the picket fences around the houses in the valley-bottoms. Our walk ended with a climb up to Vladeasa, an 1800m peak, and the next day we had a long walk out back to the train line. This was shortened when we hitched a ride off a local policeman who breathed alcohol and drove too fast, but who took us to the next town where there were more train connections back to Oradea.

After a hotel room laundry session and a long soak in the bath, we left Oradea and headed west to Cluj, Romania's second city. After a tiresome sweaty search for what turned out to be expensive accomodation we had a discussion about cities and their worth. We are rarely thrilled by a church or a museum, and only occassionally is there a film we may want to watch. (It was here I saw Red Road as part of the Transylvanian Film Festival. There was a buzz around the place, as a young Romanian director had just won the Palme D'Or at Cannes.) Without reaching a conclusion about the matter, we moved on to a small Saxon city called Sigisoara, in Transylvania. This part of Romania was settled by Germans around the 13th century and was annexed by Hungary in the 19th century. There are three names for every place (German, Hungarian and Romanian). Most of the towns have traditionally been run by Germans (all very neat and tidy as you can imagine), with Romanians being virtual serfs up to Transylvania joining Romania after the First World War. There are still many ethnic Hungarians living here, but apparently a large number of Germans left in the 90's to go to Germany.

We were persuaded by a polite young dude called Jan to stay in a room in his house at Sigisoara, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in conjunction with a clutch of fortified churches in the area, built as a defence against the marauding Turks. Despite our declaration that we would not visit any more churches or castles, we found ourselves on a daytrip to Biertan, an old village, to visit a church fortified like a castle. We took a slow cattle-truck of a train to a stop in the middle of nowhere, got off and hiked along the road. After passing through one village we hitched a lift off two moustachioed men in an old VW camper van, with beer bottles rolling around in the back. They spoke no English, we spoke no Romanian. There was no conversation. When they dropped us at Biertan they declined the money one would normally offer for a ride. After refreshing ourselves with 2 litres of pop from the local shop, we climbed up the hill to the Lutheran church surrounded by three walls. Its bell tower was designed as a watch tower and the grounds were big enough for the whole village to seek shelter in, should any furniture-sellers from down south cold-call.
The village was a quiet place, virtually unchanged from medieval times (except for the cars, tractor, telephone box and satelite dishes etc. etc.) We watched as a collection of VW 4X4s drove into town on a promotional Off-Road race - wealthy Romanians from Bucharest - all very entertaining to us and the locals. We doubted any of them would have given us a lift. With this in mind, we set off on our return walk, through a wide valley full of corn fields. Along the way we passed families taking lunch and a rest in whatever shade they could find. One woman asked us for water. We reckon they would have been working the fields from very early in the morning - by 10 in the morning the sun is fierce and relentless. We passed people hoeing, men ploughing with a horse, scything huge fields of hay and stacking it onto carts - all of it back-breaking work. We stopped for another 2 litres of pop at the next village before catching another worn-out slow train.

The next day we strolled Sigisoara and stopped for beer at a little cafe tucked away down a side street. Not long after three posh English sat down at the next table. We earwigged a bit and then Gayle enjoined them in conversation. It turned out the ambassador of Moldova and his wife were on a weekend trip with his sister. They were very friendly and the ambassador quite funny. At first he just said he worked at the embassy, but when Gayle asked what he did, he admitted he was ambassador. "So not a lot then", was Gayle's immediate reply. He seemed a bit Graham Greeneish - his previous posting was Luxembourg, so he obviously couldn't take his job too seriously.

Next stop Sibiu, another nice Saxon city, overlooked by the mountains of Fagaras and Cindrel , part of the Carpathian chain. The city centre is small enough to walk around, with little traffic, and cobblestoned streets that lead down into the old town. This all looked a bit faded and crumbly next to the bright clean centre, and was full of second-hand clothes shops and "NON STOP" off-licences. We stayed here in a small pension with a bar in its patio, frequented by quiet elderly drinkers who would call in for a beer anytime between 9 am and 9pm. After a couple of days of culture (Sibiu is the European City of Culture 2007), and the obligatory supermarket trip, we headed for a trek into the Fagaras mountains.

We started with a slow train and a fast taxi ride to a village from where we walked into a forested valley. We walked past an old road sign that said NO FOREIGNERS. It rained heavily and we sought shelter in a sentry box outside some deserted buildings - I imagine some abandoned chemical weapons-testing facility or something of the sort. The rain eased off a little and we carried on along a forest track,meeting no-one but spotting four black and yellow salamanders. It was too wet to photograph them. After a long uphill slog we emerged from the forest to a clearing and a forester's cabin, with a view of a distant cirque and the mountain ridge in the distance above us. The cabin was closed and deserted, but everywhere around us signs of fires and litter. We came to a river that we had to wade, and feeling tired and still some way from the mountain ridge we decided to camp. Only then did it stop raining. It felt a little too quiet and spooky and we both thought of bears, but said nothing. In the morning we waded the river and climbed steeply for two hours, finally reaching the mountain ridge at 2100m. The ridge was grassy, and paths trailed off at all the compass points - not a road or a house to be seen. And not a single person. We walked until 2pm when a thunderstorm forced us to pitch our tent, near to a spring, on the ridge. After two hours the skies cleared and we got out to enjoy the views - ahead of us big scary mountains with snow on the upper slopes, below us deep narrow forested valleys. We stayed there for the night and the next day set off in glorious sunshine heading towards Moldeveanu, Romania's highest peak. The walking was wonderful, and fairly easy. We met a couple walking in the opposite direction. They had walked up from a cabana and said they were going to Moldeveanu. But they'd been going in the wrong direction for 2 and a half hours. We showed them on our map - they didn't have one. They immediately turned round and retreated. We passed them just before a tricky narrow arete that had me in a sweat. A chamois bounded down off the top and into the valley 500m below in seconds. The clouds gathered ominously and we quickened our step. We reached a pass with the path down to the cabana. Other walkers were heading down. We decided to carry on to the next pass, but the presence of sheep and sheepdogs put me off, and instead we camped on the top in between both passes. It rained in an Old Testament manner. The lightning lit up the tent and the we felt the thunder vibrate the mountains around us - so loud we could not talk. We lay on our Thermarest mats and ate our lunch. And then I started with an electric shock. The air was blue with electricity and expletives. Gayle smelt burning and leapt out of the tent to see what was on fire. My Thermarest deflated - a lightning bolt had run up my leg and left through my hand, putting three holes in it as it passed through. Miraculously that was the only damage. More foolishly, we stayed where we were, too confused and a little frightened to expose ourselves to the elements, but unknowingly still vulnerable where we were. (Gayle checked this later - lightning CAN strike twice in the same place.) We slept and after three hours of rain and thunder, it was good enough for us to pack up and descend to the valley below the pass. We had lost the heart to stay in the mountains with such a daily risk. After two hours of steep descent we reached some walkers heading to the Mountain Rescue hut, near to the cabana. We were invited in for tea and the man in charge said it was okay for us to stay. We ate our food and talked with the others staying there, a German translating for us. Our map was passed around and examined as if it was some sort of modern marvel. After the torment of earlier, it felt a little dreamlike and wonderful. The skies had cleared, the mountains were at peace, we went to sleep late, and it took us a while to get off. In the morning the barometer was at rock bottom, and we decided to descend to the train line. It rained and we felt vindicated of our decision to retreat. The tarmac road at the end of the forest disappeared through flat endless fields and we plodded along trying to hitch lifts off local daytrippers. Fortunately we got two lifts, and the second one, from an elderly couple saw us deposited at a train station with 10 minutes to spare before one of the rare trains.

We ate well and rested in Sibiu before moving along to Brasov, probably the most visited provincial town in the country. It's a big city with an old heart, and here we have pootled about whilst trying to arrange to meet two friends. Val, who has our car, is visiting Bucharest with work and we plan to meet her here on her free weekend. We asked Lance if he fancied walking some mountains, and we plan to return to the Fagaras with him next week. He's bringing a lightning rod with him.

One morning we climbed one of the wooded hills overlooking Brasov, up an old path. There is a cable car to the top, but we thought we needed to stretch our legs. At one point, looking up through a space in the trees, we saw a baby bear. There were three other tourists above us on the path and they started to retreat. We then saw Mummy Bear crashing through the trees, but thankfully not towards us. She was leading her cub away from us. Needless to say we have no photos of this episode - it all happened too quickly and we were just too excited. Bears!!! Eventually we all carried on up the path, with me jumping at every snapped twig or rustle of leaves in the undergrowth. The bears are known to wander into the town in the winter to scavenge for food, so in this patch they are obviously used to humans, but they are not tame. Wow, Bears!!!!!

Now this is far too long, so I'll sign off,
La revedere,

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Spars of Hungary

from John:

(Due to personal reasons, i.e. I have been very lazy, this posting is now two weeks out of date - but what's two weeks between friends and family?)

Jo napot!
Greetings from Debrecen, Hungary's second but dullest city. This is our stepping point to cross the border into Romania, and we have decided for a change only to stop the one night. Our hotel is a big old run-down communist-era hotel run by very nice people. It's totally empty. The town's saving grace is a Kashmiri Indian restaurant - so we'll be dining out tonight. Hurrah!

We arrived in Hungary just over three weeks ago. Our train journey from Sarajevo started badly - with the conductor explaining to us in German why we had to get off the train in Croatia, before we crossed the border into Hungary. He was very nice about it, but we spoke no Bosnian(/Croatian/Serbian) and he spoke no English, and I was indignant in the knowledge that I held a ticket for the journey all the way to Pécs in Hungary. The conductor smiled and with a "No problem" look, left me fuming in my seat. Gayle meanwhile had a look in the other compartments and found a young Hungarian woman who was able to explain in English that there were track repairs, and so there would be a short transfer by bus. The young woman was called Nora, and she had studied architecture for two years in Edinburgh, and spoke good English. In fact, she didn't shut up for the rest of the journey. She was friendly and helpful and a little excitable, but left us stony-faced when she made a subtle reference to "the Jews" who charge for entry to the big synagogue in Budapest. We got off at Pecs in a rainstorm feeling quite depressed.

It was Saturday afternoon and the town was deserted - the rain had driven everyone indoors. Our cheap hotel in the centre was closed up - but with the aid of my O level German we spotted a sign next door for "Rooms" (in fact we saw "Zimmer Frei" all over Hungary). It turned out to be a great find - a room with private kitchen and bathroom in a lovely old house with a patio (although the dogs put me off using the latter). Did I mention the dogs? A little terrier like Tintin's Snowy, a dreadlocked small Hungarian sheepdog, so shaggy you didn't know if it was coming or going, and something the size of a small pony. The owner was very nice and thankfully her daughter spoke English and we stayed five nights. Pecs is full of museums and galleries and lovely fairy cake buildings and the centre was green, quiet and pedestrianised which made it even better for wandering around. Our days here were spent working on our Hungarian phrases - hard work because even small words seemed to have about four syllables. ("Which platform does the train leave from?" when translated takes about five minutes to ask in Hungarian.) However, Gayle had only to learn "Do you speak English?", which everyone under thirty seemed to, and she was away. As determined self-caterers we were also delighted to find a plentiful supply of supermarkets, including Spar, and even Tesco's - the latter being an out of town affair, too far even for us to wander to in search of Jaffa cakes. We were also delighted to find that the Tourist Office was very helpful and a useful point of enquiry.

Whilst wandering around Pecs we came across an old 'arthouse' cinema - we searched their programme for anything in English and saw they had a season of Indian films. We went in and checked whether a film had English subtitles, and then went back at tea time to watch "1942 - A Love Story". As it turned out, it was as bad as it sounds. We double-checked the subtitles were in English and then tried to buy our tickets. This took about 15 minutes as the young man had to type in all the details - film title, director, category of film etc. into his computer to produce the tickets. Fortunately for him, there only four punters, us and two students who sat next to us in the little cinema. It was all kind of homely, with some reclaimed armchairs along the front row. We all sat and munched sandwiches and cake during the three hour song and dance epic about the insurgency to defeat the imperial British. It began with a Romeo and Juliet storyline and ended with a polite request to stand for the (Indian) National Anthem. Brian Glover starred as the brutal and savage British General. I don't think the phrase "War on Terror" was used (the film was made in 1994), but there were some remarkably topical coincidences, in between the cheesy bits. The Indian Himalayas were the real star - serving as the picturesque backdrop to the comedy, romance, action, dancing and horror - oh, it had it all!!

From Pecs we travelled straight to Budapest, which warranted half the pages in our guidebook. We camped in an expensive and dump of a campground, which thankfully was very quiet. One night we had two separate visits from the resident hedgehog. Or were there two? Made me jump in the dark, either way. The weather has been very hot, with occasional brief rainstorms clearing the air and we tried to not overdo it in the Big City. But the public transport system was efficient and easy to get around and the streets seemed remarkably uncrowded in the centre. We met up with Isabell and Bill here and stayed in a spacious appartment overlooking the Danube. There was a handy Spar in the basement of the building. What more did we need?

Budapest offers plenty of sights and we sampled a few - the Holocaust Memorial Centre unsurprisingly being the most memorable. In a detailed and fascinating exhibition it describes the lives of Jews and Roma in Hungary before and during the war, and the frighteningly efficient removal of 440,00 to Aushwitz in the space of 3 months in 1944. The combination of personal stories and the enormity of the statistics is horrifying. It made clear that the Germans could not have achieved this crime without the assistance of thousands of Hungarian officials and transport workers. In fact, Hungary's post First World War history has remarkable similarities with Germany's. The peace treaty removed huge areas of their territory and in 1919 there was a Communist takeover (Bela Lugosi was Minister of Culture), followed quickly by a right-wing backlash and a de facto dictatorship, which led to the Hungarians joining the Axis powers. There are some Jews still living in Hungary, and Budapest has the second largest synagogue in the world, but its the Roma who still live here in large numbers and appear to have become second-class citizens, lacking education, missing out on employment, living in poverty, victimised and ostracisied, a depressing vicious circle. The Roma are thought to have originated in India, and there were several occasions when we did a double-take, thinking we had seen an Indian family on the streets of Budapest (for a large European city, it is remarkably uncosmopolitan). Isabell and Bill's visit seemed to pass very quickly, and we think we tired them out with a busy schedule.

After they returned to Blighty, we headed west to Lake Balaton, the largest fresh water lake in Europe and with possibly the largest mosquitoes too (think Black & Decker drill with wings). We camped here and met two very friendly Americans, Lyn and Jeannie, travelling the world in 6 months, with whom we passed a couple of pleasant evenings. Here we also visited the thermal baths of Heviz. Hungary is famous for its spas - thanks to a geological fault and those pesky Turks there are hot baths and swimming pools everywhere - you really have to look where you're going. Heviz is a huge natural open air pool where you can float around on rubber rings or just hang off rails and let the hot mineral waters do their stuff. Apparently people come from all over to seek cures to various ailments - but I confess they did nothing for my piles. We spent a few more lazy days by the lake before coming east to Eger.

Eger is famed for Bull's Blood red wine and (but probably only in Hungary) a defiant resistance against those aggressive furniture salesmen from Turkey in 1552. The story is the stuff of legends: 2,000 locals stuck in the fortress and fighting off 50,000 infidels, women pouring pitchers of boiling oil over the walls, the men fighting with all their courage and skill. And they won, improbably. The Ottoman Turks retreated but came back forty years later and tonked them. And now the Kebab is King. There are some gaps in this history of Eger, but judging from the guff produced by the local Tourist Board I guess you would not be that interested.........

We were lucky to find a nice appartment to stay in the old centre with its fairy cake buildings. On the Pentecost holiday we headed into the forested hills along with half of Hungary for a walk. We followed waymarkers up through thick woods and left the crowds behind, to reach the highest summit in the range, about 950m. After a tough sweaty climb we were rewarded with fantastic views of, er, more trees. We met someone with a map and took digital photos of it, so we could navigate another way down - quite a bizarre way to walk. The next day was spent relaxing at the thermal baths and swimming pools along with, I am convinced of this, half of Hungary - again.

On reflection we have found Hungary rather dull - despite the best efforts of our guidebook authors to convince us that there is plenty to see - Budapest is definitely the highlight for me. However, it has also been one of the easiest countries to visit because the public transport has been excellent and it's easy to get information about things. Once again, we have been helped by a well-educated population, many of whom speak English. Phew. Oh, and such marvellous weather!

Viszontlatasra for now!