Saturday 11th September 2010, Gilau, Transylvania
This evening we are still on the same campsite, but we are here without Huba and his devoted owners. After a very enjoyable time together today they have gone to seek out a renowned, picturesque Hungarian village where they hope to find somewhere to pass the night so they can visit family friends nearby tomorrow. We, meanwhile, decided to return to last night's campsite for some comfort, a hot shower and access to the internet. It has been a very pleasant evening allowing us to eat outside in the dusk. We've also been able to wash the concretions of Transylvanian mud off both Modestine and our hiking boots.
This morning we used a stretch of motorway linking Cluj Napoca to Turda. It is brand new and almost deserted. Apart from some motorways around Bucharest it's practically the only other motorway in the country. It's certainly an impressive road but there is still much work to be done. All the turn-offs are marked but the link roads have not yet been built, which can be disconcerting as you try to turn off and discover only a patch of gravel and mud!
The landscape to either side of the route was not dissimilar to the Yorkshire Moors - bare hillsides that have once been terraced, with no buildings, trees or hedges. The only sign of life we saw was a large flock of sheep closely guarded by a shepherd.
The roads of Turda, by contrast to the motorway, were pitted and broken. The tarmac had disappeared and we bounced and jolted over rubble right through the centre of the town.
On the hillside above is the Turda salt mine. Having visited several in recent times we nearly passed it by. How much we would have missed! It has been operating since Roman times until the 1930s though only intensively for the past 300 years. Below ground the temperature is a constant 10 degrees with an 80% humidity level. A two kilometre gallery links the three major chambers. The main chamber, the Rudolph mine, is awesome in its size. It has to be the biggest enclosed space we've ever seen with a state-of-the-art steel and glass lift to carry visitors from the entrance down to the floor hundreds of feet below. So huge is the place that it contains a football pitch, a mini golf course, a children's playground, a couple of auditoriums where marriages, meetings and concerts take place and even a huge Ferris wheel for visitors to view the gallery and salt formations cascading down the walls. Lower still, reached by flights of narrow wooden stairs, is a large lake with an island of salt at its centre. The water is so saline it would be well nigh impossible to drown. We all hired a couple of small rowing boats and paddled our way around the island a few times, cheerfully bumping into each other and anyone foolish enough to get too close. Ian became quite adept at bumping into the cave walls and getting grounded on the salt rocks of the island! By the time we eventually left the cave our clothes were drenched with salt which gradually formed a crust all over us. Young children are not allowed into the mine because of the concentration of salt, but on the other hand, the atmosphere is considered excellent for asthma sufferers and a weekly ticket can be purchased enabling people to spend three hours a day in the mine!
Our arrival at the mine co-incided with a wedding party. The bride arrived in her white, shoulderless dress, along with her bridesmaids. They must have been freezing down there! Somehow we got swept up with the guests, all wearing their very best clothes and carrying bouquets of bright flowers that later withered in the salt. We made our entry, following the wedding couple, to the accompaniment of a saxophone player and someone with an accordion playing Romanian music! How surreal can it get?
The bride went down in the lift while we clambered down the steep wooden stairs, Each flight represented another period of salt extraction, indicated by a date carved in the wall of salt. Millions and millions of tons must have been excavated over the years. Now it was brightly lit with modern fittings and multicoloured lights. Then though, workers would have been down there all day every day working in that dreadful drying environment. We were assured there were no prisoners working there but in the 19th century salt workers earned less even than agricultural workers!
Underground weddings would seem to be a very new feature of the mine. Peter and Kati somehow made their way into the auditorium where a choir was singing as the marriage ceremony took place. We stood just inside the entrance to watch and Ian ended up being interviewed for Romanian television interested to know what the English made of marrying in a salt mine. Ian assured them it was the most interesting underground wedding he'd even attended and the fact that it was in a Romanian salt mine meant it was something he'd remember for a very long time, as, he was sure, the couple concerned would do! If only we had access to a TV! It was expected to go out with Romanian subtitles on this evening's news!
After rowing on the lake and discovering an underground altar made from salt where the miners prayed before their shift, we found an echo gallery where the sound reverberated 16 times! Peter shouted at the top of his voice "Modestine and Huba" and the echo "Huba" came back over and over again.
Too impatient to queue for the lift we climbed all the way back up the dozens of flights of wooden stairs. The cool salt air really did seem to have cleared our lungs and we were less exhausted when we reached the top than we expected.
Back outside again in the sunshine it felt really hot while we felt as sticky as if we'd been swimming in the sea. Our clothes and skin were white with dried salt and we were all very thirsty.
Huba's satnav doesn't like Transylvania much and was reluctant to take us to the nearby Turda Gorge. So we used Modestine's system instead - Ian with a map on his knees! He led us through the steep broken streets of the town, out into the countryside, along unmetalled roads, through tiny, untidy villages, for some 14 kilometres. Barefoot children in the ditches by the roadside waved to us, old men stared as our two vehicles rolled through their villages. We felt very conspicuous in our camping cars where we had so many more conveniences than most of these people had in their homes!
Eventually we turned down to the gorge and the road petered out. Here we parked for lunch while waiting for a sudden shower to end. Donning hiking boots we then walked down to the gorge, a narrow declivity between two towering walls of rock with a fast flowing narrow river running through. Because of the rain the limestone rocks were very slippery and the path was at times non-existent, obliging us to scramble and slither over the rocks at the water's edge. After a kilometre we gave up. The path crossed the river but the bridge had gone. An improvised crossing had been constructed with a couple of branches, some wooden slats and a wire to hold on to. The only people we met were well equipped hikers one third our age and even they were turning back.
Back at our vehicles we went our separate ways and will meet up again tomorrow evening. Our route back to the campsite took us for nearly 40 kilometres along broken unsurfaced tracks, passing through isolated little villages where old men is straw hats turned to stare, sometimes to wave, elderly ladies dressed in black headscarves sat together in front of their low cottages, chickens scrabbled in the grassy ditches beside the track, dogs slept on the track and horses and carts jolted their way between the potholes carrying sacks of maize home from the fields. Women worked alongside the menfolk out in the fields heaving sacks of potatoes into donkey carts or hacking down the stalks of maize with mattocks, scythes and rustic wooden tined rakes. This was as near to a Third World environment as you could find in Europe. What, except the climate, differentiates it from what we have seen in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or Trinidad?
Back on surfaced roads again we shared the space with international freight vehicles heading for Bucharest, tiny donkey carts heading home from the fields and horses pulling cartloads of passengers dressed from a bygone age, returning from a weekend visit to a neighbouring village!
Monday 13th September 2010, Sovata, Transylvania
Yesterday was hot though overnight we have been very cold and the grass around this campsite is soaked with dew. We are back together again having arranged to meet here last night.
Yesterday I again got stopped by the police! Twice in less than a week is some sort of record! There are so many things that need attention here that pestering tourists should be a bit further down the list of priorities. They were doing a spot check on motorists using the motorway. Modestine stands out as different and with so few vehicles on the motorway it's not surprising really that she was stopped. The young policemen probably wanted to practice his English - which was excellent. Our documents were examined in minute detail and a check made that we'd purchased the special vignette for using the roads in Romania. Eventually he beamed and wished us a welcome stay in Romania and we were on our way.
Once the motorway ran out – after some 40 kilometres – we were back to the one, reasonably surfaced road that we followed for the rest of the day. It passes through city centres and villages alike. There are almost no side roads and almost none of them are surfaced. Villages are all linear, stretched along either side of the road. The buildings are often quite attractive with flowers growing in front and ornately carved wooden gateways.
Outside most of the low houses people sat in the sunshine, chatting with neighbours, selling strings of red onions and jars of jam, knitting, spinning wool or just leaning on their stick watching the world pass by. Sometimes men stood in the deep roadside ditch cleaning out leaves. Dogs trotted out into the road while horses and carts held up the traffic. One naked little boy was urinating inches from passing traffic. Meanwhile people filled sacks with the fallen plums from the roadside trees, carrying them home over their shoulders or hanging from the handlebars of their bicycles.
We stopped around lunch time for a rest and lunch in a roadside cafe. As we ate we saw Huba pull up beside Modestine! Peter and Kati were on their way to see friends in Targu Mures. With only the one route through, Modestine could not easily be missed! They were late for their lunch date so could not linger.
We later stopped in Targu Mures to explore. Parking was easy on a Sunday and the centre closed to traffic. The main square was used with great enthusiasm by weekend rollerbladers while families strolled in the public gardens with pushchairs and toddlers.
We found the town a very pleasant place with several huge, attractively restored "fin de siecle" buildings painted in pastel pinks and yellows with glazed tiled roofs. At either end of the main square stood Romanian Orthodox Churches. One was in Byzantine style while the other was the Cathedral, built in the 1920s by the Romanians after the Trianon Treaty whereby Hungary ceded Transylvania to Romania. A plaque in the entrance made it perfectly clear that the church was a sign that Romania and not Hungary now ruled this area. There are however, still many, many Hungarians living here today and they appear to integrate perfectly happily with the Romanian population.
We explored the area up around the citadel, picturesque but now rather scruffy and in need of restoration. Nearby we discovered a statue to the 19th century Hungarian mathematicians Farkas Bolyai and his son Janos who worked on non-Euclidian geometry. The surrounding area has streets named after them and nearby stands the Teleki-Bolyai library, established in the 18th century and consisting of over 40,000 volumes including 60 incunables, works of the philosophers of the French Enlightenment and the first printed bibles in Hungarian and Romanian. A Hungarian couple, seeing us showing an interest in the area, pointed out buildings of interest to us, leading us by the arm to see the music college and a recently restored house in a side alley, anxious that we should not miss anything. The man chatted away in Hungarian though Ian told him he could not really understand very much. Ian was delighted though to discover he is actually teetering on the brink of having meaningful conversations and the friendliness of the elderly couple made the encounter a very pleasurable experience. They shook our hands and wished us a happy stay when we parted. Such things warm you to a country.
As we headed East the scenery improved as hills and woodland replaced the flat fields of maize. It definitely seems prettier here at Sovata where Modestine arrived last night an hour or so before Huba. By the time they arrived it was getting dark, Remoska was busy cooking us all supper and Ian and I were relaxing with the usual glasses of wine. We are the only people staying on this very agreeable campsite and soon we were sitting in the dark with glasses of Hungarian wine around a candlelit table as we waited for supper to cook.
Overnight it was very chilly and this morning the grass is sopping wet. The sun is now warming the pitch and Kati has festooned the trees with washing. Time now to explore the little town, restock our fridges and make our way to the saline baths for which the town is famed. Now where did we pack our swimming things?
Later: This morning we walked the short distance up the road to the shopping area where we stocked up on essential shopping in the little supermarket and discovered a tiny market with stalls of vegetables produced locally. Peter ended up in a deep discussion on the purity of the Hungarian language with an elderly lady in a headscarf, apron and chunky cardigan who sold me some withered, muddy carrots and a lettuce. She held very strong views on the subject and had a wonderfully expressive, wrinkled face. Without understanding a word she said we found her fascinating to watch. We also purchased freshly picked tomatoes, aubergines, assorted peppers and red onions.
In the village baker we bought one of most of the cakes and savouries for sale, cutting them into quarters for lunch back at the campsite so we could experience as many as possible.
The campsite owners are a delightful Hungarian couple who gave us a jar of still warm, home-made plum jam and large bowls of apples and plums from their garden, which actually doubles up as the campsite. It's a very lovely spot with a small river flowing through and a forested hillside on the far bank. With just the two vehicles here we are in luxury. The owner is a wood carver. He says it's a hobby but he has completed commissions throughout the village where there are many beautifully carved gateways. Today we watched him working on a carved oak funerary pole, rather like a totem pole. These are part of Hungary's folk art tradition and are topped with a star for a man or a tulip for a woman.
This afternoon we walked to the salt water spa. Actually it's a series of shallow lakes that are fresh water at the surface and saline at the bottom. The water does not look too attractive though there were people swimming. We were told it's impossible to drown because of the amount of salt in solution. We all changed our mind about swimming and contented ourselves with a walk around the lakes. Here we discovered whole hillsides covered in columns of crystallised salt.
Returning through the village we stopped for ice creams in the little park, to explore the Romanian Church, to browse a small souvenir market and to photograph some of the very attractive wooden buildings.
Back at the campsite Remoska busied herself with cooking us a chicken while Kati and I cooked some of the fruit harvest we'd been given. Soon the warmth had gone from the sun and we were only too glad to share our supper around the table in Huba while making plans for tomorrow.