Tuesday 14th September 2010, Sovata, Transylvania
We have returned for a third night at this campsite, so much are we enjoying it. We have not travelled far today, simply visiting some of the surrounding villages. Somewhere along the way we lost Kati and Peter but text messaging means they should return to us sometime this evening. I hope so as we have a chicken curry simmering in the field here and we are already half way through our bottle of Romania wine. It doesn't compare with the French stuff however and tastes thin and sugary.
The campsite owner is hopeful of winning an award offered by the campsite guide publisher, Alan Rogers. As they do not speak English we have been enlisted to translate the document and support their application for the most welcoming site. We are very happy to do this, they have been charming. Unfortunately they do not speak English, only Hungarian, Romanian and German. It may well affect their chances.
This morning we set off in convoy - not the easiest way to travel. But we managed to keep together fairly well. When we stopped for diesel, a gypsy on the garage forecourt tried to sell us a home-made tin funnel for filling a fuel tank. He cheerfully showed us its merits, ignored our shrugs and head shakes, and signed to us that we should purchase two of them! Eventually we drove off leaving him there. Parking a couple of camping cars between the tethered horses, carts and tractors in a rural village also posed something of a problem when we reached our destination.
Kati is a potter when she is not being a librarian. She creates superb raku pots and vases and exhibits several times a year in Holland France and England. She was therefore eager to visit the village of Corund, famed for its ceramics. The area is almost completely Hungarian speaking and the style of ceramics looked to us to be traditionally Hungarian though there are apparently certain local differences. In the village we browsed the craft stalls – a mixture of rather nice, distinctively Romanian products and those that must have just had the "made in China" label removed.
Kati sought directions to the studio of a reputed potter which turned out to be an Aladdin's cave of beautiful ceramics glazed with many different folk designs and colours. Products ranged from cooking utensils to table ware and the prices were ridiculously cheap for the work involved. Despite our lack of space, we were unable to resist a couple of bowls and a pretty blue vase.
The potter was absent having recently damaged his hand, but his wife, a charming lady full of commonsense chatter, spent a good hour talking with us, Kati acting as interpreter. Having discussed pottery and shown us the kiln, she offered us coffee in her shady summerhouse.
Somehow we then ended up in her kitchen sampling her polenta with curd cheese and sour cream. Conversation ranged over a wide variety of topics.
Of particular interest was the fact that in the village of Corund was a children's home supported by an organisation from Congleton in Cheshire. Helpers at the home came regularly from England and were usually lodged in the potter's home. When we asked, she said the children were not usually orphans but were either from violent homes where there were problems of abuse and alcohol (moonshine apple pálinka again), or were abandoned gypsy children. The village has 6,000 inhabitants of which a third are gypsies. In the children's home, two thirds are of gypsy origin. The children are not integrated into the local schools but are educated separately, the "orphanages" running their own schools. The local home has two classes for gypsy children and one for the rest. Children could stay at the homes until they were eighteen. Some found work, some even went to university or to further training. She spoke though, only of the situation in her village. We asked what the level of literacy was in Romania as a whole but perhaps she did not know. She said that in Corund the gypsies were obliged to send their children to school because if they did not, they would not receive government support. She did not know how gypsies got their money. It was a mystery, though some traded – travelling abroad to buy and sell things. Others worked with metals (tinkers) while others were in the second hand car business.
As she talked, in Hungarian with our friends translating for us, we were overheard by an American lady. She joined us saying she ran a centre for social care in Sighişoara, spoke Romanian but very little Hungarian. She had come with a Romanian colleague to purchase pottery to sell in their shop in Sighişoara to raise funds to support their project there. They were the best pots anywhere in Romania and the potter and his family were very supportive of her work. She has been running the project for many years. It started with American university students spending a year in Romania as part of their course in social care and had grown rapidly. It now employed many local people and she was gradually trying to hand the project on, to be run by Romanian workers, so she could retire. (She was about our age.) We have now promised to visit her and her colleague when we are in Sighişoara and will have lunch in their restaurant to help raise funds. Again it would seem that the main focus of their work is with the gypsy community. Both they and the pottery lady said cleanliness and hygiene were very difficult to instil amongst the people they tried to help. The potter's family "adopted" a teenage victim of violence some years ago. He is now twenty four and looks after their country cottage for them. In reality it seems they look after him, feeding and caring for him, doing his washing and making sure he keeps himself clean.
And on the Romanian news channel for Hungarians today there was a feature about the French President Sarkozy sending back the Romanian travellers. Apparently the government here is prepared to let him do this so long as France also sends money to set up projects here to aid them.
So many people seem to be trying so hard to do good here. Meanwhile, all along the roadsides we see gypsy women, in their brightly coloured skirts, babies on their hips, standing for hours, signing to us to stop in the hope of selling us a bucket full of mushrooms gathered from the woods. In Corund we were accosted by a persistent elderly lady determined we were going to buy either a crucifix or a steak tenderiser. (We are heading towards Bran, the stronghold of Vlad the Impaler, AKA Dracula. Perhaps we should have bought both – stakes and crucifixes are certain protection against vampires!)
During the afternoon we drove in search of a remote village that is trying to get itself on to the Unesco World Heritage list. It's only reason for being on the list is that it has remained unchanged in a changing world. It is so isolated down unmade tracks that you need to be crazy to consider trying to make it in anything but a 4x4. Unfortunately we didn't realise quite how bad the road was, or indeed how far we needed to drive. We were following Huba and soon we were completely smothered in fine dust that choked us as we tossed and pitched through the potholes and ruts. Modestine overheated so we needed the heater running to cool down the engine, necessitating having the windows wide open. Passing through tiny hamlets of gypsy dwellings we passed a man in his garden making the tin funnels we'd been pestered to buy earlier. Tiny children ran to the road to wave at us while their colourfully dressed mothers beckoned to us to stop. A boy of about eleven ran beside us with his hand in at the window, calling to us to give him things. Begging seems to be learned from their mothers' right from early childhood. As they get older a friendly wave becomes a beckon and that in turn becomes a begging palm. There are so many organisations trying to help these people but without decent roads they can never improve their living conditions. In winter life in these remote hamlets must be appalling with ice and snow, and the wind streaming in from the Carpathian mountains. These children cannot possibly be going to school each day. They live in poor homes without either water or electricity, and they have nothing. No wonder when a couple of camping cars come by they think only of what they might get by begging from us. We have more luxury, even in Modestine than they have in their homes. The village may get on the Unesco list because it is unchanged, but for people to reach it, a road will have to be built. Nobody else seems to be prepared to brave the present track, but with a new road the village will immediately change, property developers will buy out the inhabitants and the village will lose its unique status. But should people be obliged to live in mediaeval squalor and isolation because the wealthy people of the west think old customs and ways of life should remain unchanged?
Huba had gone on ahead of us. Modestine makes more of a meal of potholes. We never reached the special village –inhabited mainly by Hungarians. The road had broken away so badly we risked turning over. So we turned and drove the nine kilometres back through the gypsy villages to the main road. Huba meanwhile reached the village where Peter and Kati were accosted by villagers smelling strongly of alcohol, eager to kiss Kati's hand and drag her and Peter into their homes for pálinka! There was no way Peter could drive Huba back the way they had come. He'd never get back up over the point where we'd turned back, so they had to struggle on for many more miles along the broken track until they eventually reached tarmac.
It was dark by the time they returned to the campsite. Both vehicles were thick with dirt which even found its way into our fridge and locked cupboards! It had not been one of our more successful ventures!
Thursday 16th September 2010, Brasov, Transylvania
Last night I felt so exhausted I fell asleep straight after supper, so tonight I have two days to recount. However, as I am quite likely to fall asleep again tonight, this will be a very brief account.
Yesterday morning we left our lovely campsite in Sovata with regret. Our stay there had been idyllic.
By lunch time we were in Sighişoara, and as promised, we made our way to the House on the Rock for lunch. Here we met again the two ladies we encountered on Tuesday back in Corund. They had been eager to show off their organisation right in the centre of Sighişoara, luring us with well founded promises of the excellent food to be found in their coffee shop.
We were made welcome, shown briefly around the centre and its library, and served with quiche in the cool cellars of the historic old building on the town's central square. The organisation runs courses in Romanian language and culture and designs programmes to meet the needs of young American students spending a year in Romania and living in with a local family. Proceeds from the course fees are ploughed back into running activities for underprivileged Romanian children in the city and combating domestic violence. The internet website, Veritas-Romania gives further information if you are interested.
Sighişoara came as quite a surprise after the predominantly Hungarian speaking countryside of western Transylvania. We'd now left that area behind and entered what had formerly been an area of settlement by the German population – now mainly returned back to their German homeland. As recently as the 1970s Ceauşescu was literally selling the German occupants back to Germany as a way to acquire hard currency!
Hungarians only account for 20% of the population of Sighişoara, The rest of the population is Romanian speaking though the German influence lingers on in the architecture and in historic records.
Sighişoara was a perfect example of a German fortified hilltop town from the Middle Ages, protected by ramparts and bastions. Guilds within the city were responsible for managing the ramparts and protecting the city in times of attack by Turkish invaders. The streets rise up from the lower town to enter the city through fortified gateways where cobbled roads wind their way between the red-tiled ancient houses and buildings. The city feels completely Germanic, dominated by a heavy church on the summit of the hill surrounded by a German cemetery, while from the ramparts there are extensive views down onto the river and across to the wooded hills rising further into Romania.
Sighişoara is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, popularly known as Dracula, born here in 1431. His house is now a restaurant filled with tacky souvenirs. Vlad was offered by his father as a hostage to the Turks who held him for years, subjecting him to the permanent terror of torture or execution. He later used the tactics he had observed on the Turks as he led his country into battle against them, impaling each victim on a wooden stake and leaving their bodies to rot in the countryside in their thousands as a warning to his enemies.
The clock tower at the entrance to the old town houses an historical museum. It is poorly displayed and the most important gallery, covering Germanic furnishings, is permanently closed. It includes a gallery commemorating the work of Hermann Oberth, born in the town in 1894. Inspired by Jules Verne he experimented with rockets as early as the 1920s and foresaw the space station and solar mirrors. He was snapped up to work a Peenemünde for the Nazis, and after the war by the Americans when he worked with Werner von Braun.
At the top of the tower it is possible to walk around an external gallery beside the clock face from where there are magnificent views down onto the town. In the neighbouring church there is an excellent display of 17th century Anatolian rugs, a feature that seems common in Romanian churches in this area. Apparently they were brought back by Saxon traders as gifts.
Down in the lower town we met up with Peter and Kati for a stroll through the streets of baroque houses and to browse some of the food shops. We'd acquired details of a campsite beside the river within easy walking distance of the city. Having settled Huba and Modestine we returned to the town for supper in a Romanian restaurant. For the equivalent of £2.50 each the four of us enjoyed cabbage leaves stuffed with onions and sausage meat with polenta and sour cream, plus glasses of beer!
This morning we crossed to the neighbouring Orthodox cathedral, a spectacular recent building in black and white with an impressive cupola. It stands on the banks of the river just outside the main centre of the lower town. Inside it is stunningly beautiful, painted with icons depicting biblical scenes, the apostles and the four evangelists. There are rugs on the floor and stencilled friezes reminiscent of the fabric designs of William Morris, with birds and intertwined leaves.
A priest in pale cream silk robes asked us if we spoke Romanian. Unfortunately for us he spoke neither English, German nor Hungarian but smiled and made it clear we were welcome. Preparations were under way for a service. As we left, people arrived smartly dressed in black, so we imagine it was a funeral, despite the priest's pale robes. Maybe that is the funerary custom in the Romanian Orthodox religion.
On our way into the cathedral we'd discovered a street stall where a couple of Hungarian girls were cooking traditional pastries called Kürtöskalács or Trumpet cakes. We'd tasted them before and for Kati they were evocative of her early life in Budapest. They are long coils of pastry wrapped around a wooden roller, coated in sugar and nuts then baked on a turning spit over hot embers. We ordered one each to be cooked for our return from the cathedral. They were waiting for us, hot and sticky. Delicious!
As we came out of the church we were accosted by a couple of gypsy children thrusting their hands in our faces and asking for money. Ian's response now is to reply with the Romanian word for School! It works on them much as a crucifix does on a vampire! They either scream at you or run away! The older child was around ten years old and the word caused an invective of shouting at us before he distanced himself. His younger brother though, stuck with us, his hand permanently raised, pleading continuously for money or for us to buy him one of the cakes.
The girls on the stall told us they worked there every day, making and baking for tourists. They earned 50 lei a day (£10). They watched the gypsies daily. Their mother had nine children and this was their regular begging pitch. Sometimes they all came together and there were rich pickings for them from the tourists and those attending services in the cathedral. The English and Americans were pestered the most as they were the ones unable to resist the persistent pleading and hanging on. They had witnessed the mother training her children in how to beg, teaching them to ask for money in Romanian, Hungarian and English! The youngest child had only recently learnt to walk but was already earning money! They said it made them very angry, working hard in the hot sun over an open fire for their low wages while the gypsies could earn far more by begging. We have seen hundreds of gypsy children around during the day. Some are helping their parents, sitting on horse-drawn carts loaded with wood, or selling mushrooms by the roadside, but none of them are receiving any education and will inevitably follow the ways of their parents. Depriving their children of a future, teaching them only to beg or steal, is tantamount to child abuse by their parents, who had been abused in turn in the same way. How can this cycle be broken?
Not all gypsies though are beggars or dishonest. Many have settled and integrated with the community and send their children to school. Passing through a little village later, we saw the children tumbling out from the school door at lunchtime. They were a mixture of happy children, some definitely darker and gypsy-like. All the children were well dressed, clean and looked happy. They were such a contrast to those in the streets of the cities. Elsewhere too we have seen beautiful gypsy women laughing and chatting, going about their everyday business. They either ignore us or smile in passing. So there is hope. Perhaps the charitable, helping organisations are achieving something, but I'm not altogether convinced. Perhaps those in the care of children's homes are the fortunate ones. At least there is some hope for their future.
There are lots of dogs scavenging along the roadsides too. They are generally docile but hang around hoping for food. At night, no matter where we are in Romania, we fall asleep to the sound of dogs barking. They are still doing so when we wake next morning. We've seen notices up offering free sterilisation for the dogs as a measure to control their numbers.
Leaving Sighişoara we made our way towards Brasov passing through Germanic villages each with its fortified church. These were massive buildings for the size of the village, protected by ditches, ramparts and one or two high defensive outer walls. They were constructed by the Saxons as protection from the invading Turks back in the 14th century. Together, these churches are on the Unesco World Heritage list. In these villages we found German being spoken, though not as a first language.
At the village of Saschiz the church was closed for restoration. There was though a steep but pretty climb up through fields and woodland to the ruins of an ancient castle on the summit of a hill overlooking the village. There were lovely views from the ruins but the sun made us grateful for the shade of the walls where we sat eating wild walnuts gathered on the way up. I fell asleep while the three energetic ones scampered around exploring the ancient ruins.
Slithering our way back down we encountered a couple of young men driving a wooden cart up through the fields. Lower down we found they'd left one of their horses until their return. To prevent it straying they'd tied its front legs together with a scarf. Its only way to move was to rear on its back legs and hop forward. It was in the full glare of the sun.
We also met a couple of American ladies. They'd returned yesterday from Istanbul. One lived in Targu Mureş. She and her husband had decided to move to Transylvania shortly after the fall of Ceauşescu. They had learnt Romanian and found the people here wonderfully friendly and hospitable. Since her husband's death the lady had made her own circle of friends and although she occasionally returned to the US to visit her children and grandchildren, she preferred to stay here and persuade them to visit her. She says Targu Mureş has an incredible social and cultural environment and she had a subscription to attend thirty-five concerts a year.
Back in the village we stopped for lunch at the only place to eat. It was a pleasant, dark cafe with shaded tables outside and a pretty garden full of wooden agricultural implements and flowers. We had bowls of bean and ham soup with sour cream and chunks of bread for about £1 each.
Next we stopped at the fortified church of Buneşti. It looked in a ruinous state and was locked. German proved very useful here and we were directed to a house in the village where the owner gave us the key and instructions not to clamber around inside the church which was awaiting restoration. It was rather exciting turning the huge key in the rusty lock, pushing open the 17th century door and finding ourselves inside a grassy enclosure with the church at the centre with high, thick walls protecting us from the outside. Everywhere though was in a dangerous condition. Can it ever be brought back to its former glory? Another key opened the door into the church. It was shabby and crumbling but had been in use right up until the 1950s. Work had begun on its restoration but presumably the money was not available. It seemed so sad that the heart of the village was dead and all the native speaking German inhabitants had gone.
Our final fortified church was at Hărman, a village very near to Brasov and was by far the most spectacular. It is in a good state of repair but unfortunately had closed by the time we arrived. Set in the centre of a very pleasant village we were able to walk right around the enclosure where a wide, grassy moat protected the outer walls of the defensive enclosure within which stood the church itself. In times of attack the entire village would seek the safety of the church where food, water and livestock would also be stored.
Finally we drove through the uninspiring flats and industrial area around Braşov, one of the region's largest cities, to find this recommended campsite. It's not very nice, crowded with tour groups from the Czech Republic and a dozen camper vans from France travelling in convoy. There is no public transport into the city centre. However, the site is okay for a night and Kati has cooked us all a farewell supper as this will be our last night together. Tomorrow morning they start the return journey to their flat in Budapest where Peter is expected in the dentist's chair on Monday morning.