I didn’t know just how much I was dreading it, until earlier this year my husband brought up the subject of a return visit to Romania. My rational mind (the one I apparently leave at the back of the cupboard to gather dust for the most part) told me that it was highly unlikely the trip would be a repetition of last year’s fiasco. My irrational, anxiety-ridden (and even slightly paranoid) every-day psyche, however, was spinning me an entirely different line.
So from booking the plane tickets (we’ve been put off the idea of road trips for about the next twenty years) in May, until we got up at 4am on the 27th of September to drive to Turin airport, memories of pain, heatwaves, misery, whiffy long-drop toilets and having my child incessantly whisked away from me by in-laws I was unable to communicate with effectively, ensured the panic bubbled never far from the surface.
Ensuring she wouldn’t be forgotten.
The journey to Torino went suspiciously smoothly, as did the flight to Bacau, the car hire pick-up and the drive to Mother-in-law’s village. But there would be no lulling me into a false sense of security. Not a chance: things could still go tits up and the butterflies tanking around my midsection were assuring me they probably would…
But who could ever have imagined? The fatalistic lepidopterans had got themselves in an abdominal flap for no reason at all – our suspiciously smooth journey was followed by some of the most straightforwardly enjoyable seven days I have every spent away from home.
Not the hire car, sadly.
The first few were passed reacquainting Maya with her Romanian family (and reacquainting my backside with the whiffy long-drop: a surprisingly liberating experience when not crippled by serious illness), slightly awkward given that she is currently going through a clingy, anti-social phase that involves much wailing of “Muuuuuummy!” and “Muuuuuuuummy Milllllllllllllk!” whenever someone else so much as looks her way, a state of affairs that led to her Romanian family being deprived of longed-for cuddles whilst being repeatedly visually reacquainted with my breasts. Oh well.
Giro giro tondo…
Bigger cousins can be useful!
Mamaia and the wheelbarrow queen…
Apples taste sweeter en famille, even if cuddles are off the menu…
When released from familial obligations, we even managed a leisurely trip into Bacau, the nearest town. Bacau may be far from the prettiest place in Romania, but I was pleased to discover that it is home to a fantastic bookshop that enabled me to overheat my bank card and quadruple Maya’s Romanian book collection in an unstoppable orgy of literary acquisition.
Bacau is also home to A LOT of pigeons.
On Day Three of our trip we hopped back in the hire car, waved goodbye to Mamaia (Romanian granny) and tootled off towards Transylvania and the lovely city of Brașov.
Brașov’s Tâmpa mountain
I would love to say that endless cultural exploration was undertaken, but we were there for less than 24 hours, it was damn cold and we are the perma-knackered parents of a small child. So it wasn’t.
But we did manage to visit the famous Biserica Neagră (Black Church), which had long been on my list of things to do.
Biserica Neagră being admired by babywearing father and roundly ignored by his sleeping sprog.
And enjoyed a relaxing wander around the genteelly attractive historical centre – so very different from the unloved scruffiness of Bacau.
Piața Sfatului (Council Square)
Biserica Buna Vestire (Orthodox church) with the old fortress on the hill behind.
For Maya, once she had woken from her sightseeing-induced nap, the highlight was without doubt the fun-filled delights to be found in Nicolae Titulescu park.
Horses vs Ladybirds
A dolphin slide. As you do.
And a “proper” playground!
Next stop after Brașov was Bran, and the castle now renowned the world over thanks to the bloodthirsty writings of an Irishman. With this in mind, I was relieved to find it hadn’t been turned into a tacky vampire theme park and we instead enjoyed a mooch around a very pretty (and utterly unscary) castle, whilst reading about its history and that of its inhabitants and the surrounding area. Mentions of Bram Stoker and his twisted count were restricted to one room, and were factually informative about the lives of both the writer and Vlad Țepeș (the real-life prince of Wallachia on whom the character of Dracula was loosely based), as opposed to a titillatory insight into the lives and loves of fictional bloodsuckers.
Nowt scary about this…
Stairs (a recurring theme)
One snoring ignorer of sights (another recurring theme)
A view from the castle
The next leg of the journey was the one I had most been looking forward to: in fact the prospect of two nights in the depths of the beautiful Piatra Craiului national park was almost the only thing that had kept me going during the those final few weeks of dread as the Romanian holiday loomed.
View from Măgura Village
I had long been dying to explore the fabulously unspoilt countryside; and with a little help from my mate Google I came across the webpage of Carpathian Nature Tours. Based in a lovely little village by the name of Măgura, a German couple have created a simple but functional guesthouse (Villa Hermani) from which they offer their guests the opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside through walking tours which they run themselves, before filling them full of freshly-prepared Transylvanian cooking back at the pension.
While we didn’t opt for any of the tours on this visit, I have promised myself the luxury of returning for a longer stay when we next go to Romania. I shall definitely be dragging the Mothership along with us – there is nobody else I would rather wildlife spot with. I shall also enjoy another opportunity to brush up my smattering of German – we were the only non-Deutsch speakers in the guesthouse, which soon had me morgen-ing, danke-ing and tschüss-ing as if the nearly-twenty years since I was serving kaffee und kuchen in the restaurants of Mallorca had simply evaporated.
I love sheep…
Awake, for once!
The winding drive back to Bacau was only slightly marred by my daughter chundering all over us both, necessitating a full strip down by the side of the rather busy hairpin road.
Once the smell of regurgitated stomach acid had subsided, we were able to enjoy the sights as we trundled through villages – seemingly every house selling potatoes and other products from outside their back gates. One village almost exclusively sold Kürtös Kalács (chimney cake), a lovely sweetbread baked in the Hungarian tradition.
Or onions, perhaps?
I would certainly recommend some Kürtös Kalács…
Gypsy girls selling soft fruit.
I became rather gate-obsessed…
It is important to add to this, however, that not everything you will see on a drive through Romania is pleasant. For all the ornate wooden gates, home-made delicacies and stunning views there are also disturbing traces of the country’s communist legacy. The abandoned farming collective buildings are harmless, but the starkly hideous and depressingly soulless apartment blocks that visually pollute almost all Romanian cities are a reminder of the life changes people had to submit to in the name of Communism.
And it was not just humans who suffered the change – those forced from self-sufficient individualism into the monotony of cramped identicality were also forced to leave behind their four-legged companions.
The legacy of this widespread and sudden abandonment can be seen almost everywhere you go, especially when close to human habitation. Packs of semi-feral dogs wander in search of food and shelter, lie listlessly at roadsides or cross them to their pitiful deaths.
Life in much of Romania is still hard, and many Romanians have neither the means, nor the culturally-imposed compulsion to concern themselves with the welfare of these hopeless canines: animals that were bred over centuries to be the companion of man, only to be kicked once again to the fringes of human existence.
A group that is trying to help where they can is the Romanian Rescue Appeal. Visit their website or their Facebook page to see what they are doing – perhaps you could even be persuaded to sponsor or adopt a pooch!
Back at the ranch…
Our journey ended where it began; back at in the bosom of my husband’s family where we spent the last few days of our holiday enjoying the sight of Maya tentatively interacting with her cousins, granting her Mamaia the odd cuddle and generally enjoying life in the fresh clean air of the Romanian countryside.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing my daughter’s Romanian vocabulary and comprehension increase daily, and even got a bit of practise in myself, although my 21-month old understands considerably more than I do.
Perhaps she will teach me one day.
…small concessions were granted.