Monday 20th September 2010, Aurel Vlaicu, Transylvania
This village is named after a pioneering Romanian aviator who came from here. We saw a monument to him recently in Braşov. He also appears on the 50 lei banknote and the central airport in Bucharest is named after him. He died in 1913 crossing the Carpathian Mountains in the aged plane he developed, Vlaicu II.
We are camping in the large back garden of one of the houses in the village. The village is similar to so many others we have seen in Transylvania – a rough cart track winding for a couple of kilometres between the houses which line it on either side. It lies somewhere off the the A7, one of the few arterial roads that hold Romania together. Away from it one takes a leap back in time. Elderly people sitting together at an open door wave as we pass. We weave a way between potholes, chickens, geese, dogs and tethered horses, passing a little shack along the way that is the village general store. On top of the poles carrying the electricity cables to the village are large, untidy, abandoned storks' nests.
Nearly all the campsites we have used here are Dutch owned. Of course it's impossible for them to provide clean drinking water if it has not been laid on in the villages but so far all the sites have all been clean and we have yet to discover any of the camping horrors about which we'd been warned before we came. It has all been far better than many of the French sites we've used in the past. At this site the owner assured us the water came from his own well and it was tested regularly. So we've poured away all our water, rinsed everything thoroughly and restocked. Hopefully that will now be the end of our troubles.
Last night we had the mother and father of storms with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It was still raining as we left the campsite this morning. By the time we'd travelled westwards for seventy miles or so to the German town of Hermannstadt, or Sibiu as it is now more commonly called in Romanian, it was considerably brighter and the rest of the day has been cold and damp, but not actually raining.
All Romanian towns are rather horrid around the outskirts. Sibiu is no exception. Having crossed the centre we parked Modestine in the lower town, not far from the lively, thriving vegetable market. This was a fascinating place to explore, crowded with people doing their daily shopping. Romania has no right to be in the EU when it produces aubergines, water melons, tomatoes, onions and peppers at least three times larger than is legislated for in the directives emanating from Brussels and Strasbourg! Everything was jaw-droppingly huge and looked so inviting I wanted to buy it all. In a corner of the market we found stalls selling brooms and baskets made from natural materials, They were all so much more attractive than the plastic ones we buy in England. Again, it was only Modestine's size that prevented me buying everyone a huge wicker log basket for Christmas! The hardware stalls were selling exciting buckets made from enamelled tin, just like my Gran used to have with a clanky handle and a lid. History stands still here in some ways.
Ian eventually dragged me away and we started the cultural bits. First though we bought a take-away fast-food snack from a kiosk (or as they say in Romania, chiosc) on the corner. Long strips of dough are twisted into a spiral and then formed into a loop, rolled in sesame seeds and baked. Ours were served still hot from the oven. We were too greedy though and ate them before thinking to take a photo. Some people bought them by the half dozen and took them home threaded onto a loop of string - so much more interesting than in a bag.
Sibiu is one of Romania's larger cities with a population of around 160,000. It was the European capital of culture in 2007 and has several important museums and art galleries. All were shut on Mondays however.
The town has a very German feel to it and there seemed to be as much German spoken on the streets as Romanian. Probably many were tourists visiting what may have been their German homeland. Much of the signage was in both languages so there are probably still many German speakers living in the town.
The Romanians had a raw deal in the past. It's obvious from historic monuments around the town and from documents and paintings in the churches, that the city was dominated by the educated German and Hungarian speaking populations while the Romanians were generally from the peasant classes.
Although almost all the city's manhole covers had been replaced with shiny, 2007 Capital of Culture ones with Sibiu/Hermannstadt written on them, we discovered an older one inscribed only in German and Hungarian. This would be prior to 1920 when Romania took over the city and imposed the Romanian language.
The city has three adjoining squares. The main square is huge with a modern central fountain expressly placed there by the city council to ensure the city has the cleanest pigeons in the country. They love it!
The square is edged by very nice baroque buildings and everywhere is smart and clean, as befits a cultural city that has attracted the personal attention of the Prince of Wales. (Perhaps he should also go exploring down some of the broken back roads of the country to discover how the majority of the Romanian people are living, rather than simply expressing his delight in the architecture of what is essentially a German city that has been returned to its former beauty.)
In the centre of the square is a plaque marking the spot where the first victims of the 1989 uprising in Sibiu were killed.
The second square is far smaller with an attractive ramp leading up into the centre from the lower town. It passed beneath an iron footbridge known as the Bridge of Lies, so named because it was said that if anyone uttered something untrue from it, it would collapse. However, Ceauşecu once made a speech from the bridge and it is still standing. He apparently disliked Sibiu and never returned. No doubt he objected to the German feel to the city.
The smallest square houses the German evangelical church, a large gothic building, very pleasing inside and very Germanic. German tombstones line the crypt. The son of Vlad the Impaler is said to be buried there but we couldn't find his tomb.
The city still has sections of its fortifications intact including several of the towers which were maintained by the various city guilds.
We've spent a really happy day in Sibiu. Not being Prince Charles, we dined rather simply in a self-service place with a choice of fixed price menus costing all of £2.50 for pea soup, chicken and roast potatoes, gherkin and red pepper salad and bread. It turned out the delightful young staff had all studied English, one to degree level, but rarely had the chance to use it. They were a bit nervous at first but, seeing us read the menu pasted up, they started to giggle at our attempts to order in Romanian. Soon they were wiping the tears away as they choked with laughter as we struggled to pronounce words we understood but had no idea how they sounded. We got brownie points for trying though and, once they started to speak English and realised how much better it was than our Romanian, their confidence grew. They found it odd that we obviously understood much of what we were reading but couldn't ask for it. They agreed that it was very like French. They were envious that we could come to Romania and visit lots of places while they couldn't afford to visit even one place in England.
After more exploring during the afternoon we discovered a Viennese coffee shop. Inside everyone spoke in German. We were served very nice coffee and a chocolate cake smothered in whipped cream for Ian. Although reasonably priced compared with Vienna, our bill was more than for both our lunches together.
We still had a long drive to make this campsite before dusk so returned to Modestine, stopping on the way to buy some Romanian wine. The lady in the wine shop told us she'd been learning how to address customers correctly in English. She was helpful and charming explaining that she had to wish us a nice day and we were supposed to say we hoped she had a nice day too, to which she had to reply that we were most welcome. So, it looks as if sales staff are being groomed to cope with increased numbers of visitors from Britain and the US.
The next couple of hours were spent driving one of the only decently surfaced roads across the country – and even that only has a single carriageway. There seem to be three lorries for every car and it's not very pleasant. Turning off for the road down into this village with a lorry close behind, we were immediately jolted onto an unsurfaced road where we had to cross the ungated and unmanned railway line with no lights to warn of approaching trains.
Tuesday 21st September 2010, Aurel Vlaicu, Transylvania
We have returned to the same campsite this evening after a very pleasant, warm and sunny day exploring the city of Alba Iulia, briefly the capital of a unified Romania during the 16th Century.
The campsite owner told us of a cross country route, passing through several interesting villages, assuring us the road was not too bad. We found local drivers on these roads are very reckless and the carnage of dead dogs and cats along the roadside around the villages is appalling! Their bodies can sometimes be as difficult to avoid as the potholes! I'd never drive in Romania after dark.
Initially, parking in the city was a nightmare. Once we finally found somewhere we felt was safe to leave Modestine we discovered we were between the marketplace and the old city, located inside the walls of a Vauban style fortification.
The residential part of the town has suffered from attempts by Ceauşescu to forcefully transfer people from the villages to the towns and house them in poor quality blocks of flats. There are large swathes of unattractive accommodation and much of the older population still looks out of place outside of the rural villages from which they came. In the market almost all the stall holders were elderly ladies in headscarves, cardigans, flowery skirts, aprons and socks. They had their vegetables and perhaps a few chickens laid out on the pavement hoping for a sale. Meanwhile the menfolk, all wearing hats, carried on their rural crafts as they waited for a sale. Coopers were busy making wine barrels while others shaped the shafts for scythes, rakes and shovels or busied themselves weaving log baskets.
The fortress had been constructed for the Habsburgs using many thousands of Romanian serfs between 1715 and 1738. The main gateways were very pompous, awash with trophies and statues and looking rather like fibreglass stage sets after their recent cleaning. There was a mass of workmen busy laying cobbled walkways around the ramparts and no expense was spared as this is a Very Important Site to the Romanian state, and a chance to rub the noses of the Hungarians in the mud. They had even laid on a changing of the guard for tourists.
It was here on 1 December 1918 that the Act of Unification was signed which united Transylvania, once part of the heartland of Hungary, with the provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia. It is presented in the Museum of Unification, which is housed in the citadel, as a natural conclusion of the centuries long yearning of all three provinces to become a united Romania. In reality it was due to Austria-Hungary being on the losing side in the Great War and the chance, eagerly seized, to pay the Hungarians back for the rather high-handed way with which they had treated the Romanian (Vlach) inhabitants. So a massive Orthodox Cathedral was hastily erected during 1921 next to the existing Catholic one, using Romanian architects and artists, and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie were crowned there in 1922. It was a highly symbolic act to perform the ceremony in Alba Iulia, as it was here that Michael the Brave had set up his capital in 1599 when he managed to unite the three provinces for a brief couple of years.
Despite the haste with which it was constructed we found the Orthodox Cathedral with its colonnaded enclosure a very satisfying architectural ensemble, well maintained with its flowering gardens, but the interior was dark and its historicizing murals and mosaics less appealing than the decorations of the same period in the Cathedral at Sighişoara.
To rub salt further into Hungarian wounds the University rejoices in the name of the 1st December 1918 University. It is housed in the citadel. We enjoyed a much-needed cup of coffee from the student canteen as we sat outside in the main quadrangle watching an Orthodox nun whirling her rosary as she spoke on her mobile phone.
The Catholic Cathedral is one of the oldest religious buildings in Romania. The foundations of the original structure, dating from the eleventh century have been incorporated in the present church, which mainly dates from the mid thirteenth century in a simple late Romanesque style with Gothic and Renaissance additions. In the church is the tomb of Janos Hunyadi, the great Hungarian warlord of the fifteenth century, who was born in Transylvania.
There are various other monuments scattered around the spacious precincts: a roman sarcophagus found in the nearby necropolis, a dashing equestrian statue of Michael the Brave, assorted busts of the Great and the Good, mostly Romanian judging by the plethora of names ending in -escu, which were aligned outside the Museum of Unification and the Unification Hall, where the treaty was signed.
Outside the main gate, a massive obelisk commemorates Horea and his companions, who led the revolt of the Romanian peasants in 1784 against their mainly Hungarian landlords. Captured after the revolt failed Horea was kept in a cell by the main gate and tortured to death. The place of his death outside the walls is also a site of pilgrimage for Romanians. Add to this the fact that Alba Iulia was an important Roman fort - a clumsily reconstructed gateway can be seen within the citadel - and the heart of the province where the Romans taught the native Dacian tribes the tongue that was to become the Romanian language, long before the Magyar intruders, and the whole place is heavy with national significance.
Nevertheless on a sunny day it was an agreeable place to stroll, spaciously laid out with handsome buildings, much better cared for than in many places, and a complete contrast to the other towns we had visited.
We had difficulty finding anywhere for lunch that was not simply selling pizza but eventually found a restaurant serving Romanian food. It wasn't wonderful but anything is better than Italian international cuisine. We had pork soup with cream and hunks of heavy white bread followed by fried fish with boiled potatoes and a wedge of lemon. This evening we were still so full it saved us needing to cook.
Back here at the campsite we have been talking with the only other campers – a couple from Italy who set off on 1st September and have already been up through Germany and Denmark to Sweden and Finland, crossed to Estonia, been through Latvia and Lithuania and are now working their way down and over to Hungary, Austria and home! It took us nearly five months just to do the countries surrounding the Baltic. They can hardly have seen a thing!