Before arriving in Romania, we spoke to countless Romanians, all of whom were most disparaging about their capital city, Bucharest, and most of whom were unimpressed with the rest of the country as well. Once we arrived here, we discovered the Romanians left behind agree with the capital verdict, but they have a special place in their hearts for the rest of the country.
We cannot comment on the biggest city, having not been there, but just a few short trips from Brasov have shown us amazing countryside. Mountains as spectacular as any of the other alps in Europe. Canyons rivalling all others we have been through. Hairpin bends as tight, even if not as frequent, as Italy. Tunnels chiselled out of rock. Bridges to impress. A dam, so still it revealed a reflection of trees and mountains, so perfect, it looked unreal. Quaint villages with intricate woodwork, colourful paint, benches inviting conversation, decorated window frames, delightful rooflines. Monasteries, churches, and even a castle (popularly known as Dracula’s, even if this detail is historically inaccurate).
7am Saturday, before the sun rises, while the night’s coldness still grips Brasov, we set out. Two cars and a van. Most of the group we went hiking with last weekend.
First stop Bran, for Dracula’s Castle. We don’t actually visit – we, in the first vehicle, just stop to let the others catch up. Kids bounce out of the van to play on the playground while we wait. It does not take long for them to return to the van to don thermal underwear and knitted vests, gloves and hats. On we drive over the hills, looking down on shepherd’s huts and people’s houses, buried far in the valley we leave behind, shrouded in mist.
Second stop, a rock. But this is not any old rock. It’s a rock with a path beckoning us to clamber up and over. And down the other side. To a chapel, first mentioned in literature in 1512, but most probably dating back to the 1300s. Various scenes painted directly on the cave ceiling are peeling off, but still awe-inspiring. Religious icons are simultaneously rich and simplistic. For sale in the adjoining room, are not only beads and pamphlets, but knitted slippers and vests. Do you have trouble imagining monks sitting around knitting? I did, too! I know men can and do knit, but it turns out this particular monastery is actually a “nunnery”, the very first “women’s monastery” in Romania.
Third stop, a dam, lake and lunch.
By the time we set off again it’s 2:30pm. The moon has just risen and it looks like the sun is about to set. That’s because it is! In just two hours it will be gone. But that still leaves us time to wind our way up the mountain to the beginning of the snow, engage in snowball fights, make a teeny-tiny snowman, slide down the slope, get wet and cold, and watch the sunset in awe.
Rob thinks we’re driving directly to our accommodation for the night, a fair assumption, given that it’s two and a half hours away, it’s already 5pm and when we arrive we need to cook for 25 people. But he’s wrong.
On the way is another monastery. Even under cover of darkness it is impressive. The huge wrought iron gates are firmly shut, a sign notifying us of opening hours and cost. One of our party has a word with the guard, and we find ourselves being admitted, free of charge as it is outside visiting hours! “This is Romania,” our host explains. With the sun now a distant memory, it is cold; chattering teeth cold. We stay only long enough to take note of the distinctive orthodox Romanian architecture.
Rob’s tummy might be rumbling, but it was a stop well worth making!
On to Pitesti (pronounced pi as in pip, tesh, t……you need to imagine a little dot under the s for it to be authentic). The last few kilometres are driven on Romania’s motorway. The speed limit might be 130km/hr, but with no street lighting, we avoid that kind of speed. The road, however, is much better than others we have driven on over the course of the day.
We had been warned about Romanian roads when we were contemplating driving here in the motorhomes – atrocious, we were told. “Italian,” we would now reply! If you’ve driven in Italy, you are prepared for Romania – it’s really not so bad. Yes, it’s bumpy, but it’s not *that* bad, not for long stretches at a time anyway! Actually the two worst menaces are stray dogs, which appear out of nowhere, and real live humans in dark clothing, who materialise on the road – not on the verge, because there often isn’t one, but right on the road where you are driving in darkness. At dusk you are also likely to meet cows returning home for the night, but they are big enough to see easily.
We get to Pitesti, where we are welcomed by the parents of one of our group. They have kindly opened their home to us for the night. Great-Grandma of our group’s baby is also there. Four generations.
We take over the kitchen. I am under strict instructions that I am a guest and not permitted to do anything, but no-one objects when I peel the garlic for the ubiquitous garlic sauce. I am, however, severely reprimanded for considering to hep with dishes after dinner <wink> But that’s a while away. Cooking for twenty-five takes some time! Rob pokes his head in to the kitchen periodically in hopeful anticipation, but he has to wait for the dozen children to eat before the adults are permitted to. Again, it’s well worth the wait. Every time we have mamaliga it gets better and better – this time is the best. Probably due to the accompanying sausages (by the way, you know how everyone talks about German sausages being so amazing – well, we much prefer Polish or Romanian ones – they are in a class of their own – no offense intended to our German friends)….yes, sausages and garlic sauce and eggs and cheeses (yes, two different sorts of cheese, piled on in quantities we would never consider using at home! Another “by the way”….by the way, Romanians don’t use “spreads” on their bread – they use “piles”….jam, honey, nutella, cheese, pickles – all are piled on at least a centimetre thick. This is one tradition our children would like to take home with them!!) And while we’re talking about the cheeses. One is a name we were told was too difficult for us to pronounce or remember; it’s a creamy white ball of cheese contained in a sheep’s stomach (or something similar), with a hint of “blue” about it. Delicious. The other was a very light yellow cheese, which in a few days’ time I will try to discover how to make, so that we can use handfuls of it, Romanian-style. But tonight, we just enjoy.
10pm and we finish eating. Kids are sent to bed under strict instructions not to make a peep before 8am, and all the adults follow suite immediately. We wonder, did the Romanians we met in the rest of Europe not visit this part of their country?
Tags: 2008/09, children, food, history, postcard: Poland, tradition, weather