Transylvania 5

This is our last blog for Romania but before we return to Hungary we want to draw your attention to the Romanian blog put up by our friends Peter and Kati. As they are Hungarians their account provides a different perspective from ours and the pictures are excellent. Peter is an Apple Mac fiend and his approach is very professional. You can access their travel account at

Wednesday 22nd September 2010, Timişoara, Banat
Today has not generally been one of our more successful days. We left the campsite late having spent time loading up another travel journal on the free wifi. The campsites are few and far between on our list of well managed sites in Romania. When we told the very friendly campsite owner that we hoped to visit Hunedoara He suggested we would do best to return to his site for the night rather than press on to Timişoara as we'd planned to do. However, it seemed a waste of time to drive forty-five kilometres to Hunedoara and then drive all the way back again, only to return the same route the following day. So having visited the castle we pressed on towards Timişoara some 200 kilometres further on. The route was dreadful. We were squashed between container lorries on the busiest route in Romania for most of the distance, with no dual carriageway, while in the opposite direction Romanian drivers with a death wish were occupying our side of the road as they fought to overtake the massive container lorries on the other side. It was boring, hot and unpleasant with nowhere to turn off except the dusty forecourts of fuel stations, already crowded with juggernaut lorries. We stopped for some soup at one of these. The waitress was friendly and helpful but the motley collection of mongrels that linger around the restaurant tables made it all a rather unpleasant experience. We then discovered we'd missed the turning we needed and had to return several kilometres the way we'd come. This was a quieter road but bumpy, hilly and winding with many road works. Entire stretches of the route had been scrobbled and left. There was heavy road equipment, men with red and green flags and very long delays. With police carrying out speed checks in many of the villages we passed through so we dare not go faster than 50 km.

Shepherd with his free roaming flock beside the main route leading to Timişoara, Banat

We were driving west, The sun was low in the sky and it was altogether horrid. Just outside Timişoara we were held up for half an hour because of road works on the bridge. We were greatly relieved to arrive safely at this site but shocked at the high price to camp – 80 lei or around £16. We've found cheaper places in Italy! On average we've been paying around 50 lei in Romania but what we have got for it far exceeds this dilapidated, smelly place which has quite literally been left over from Ceauşescu's time. On an autumn evening when we are almost the only people here it is very dismal indeed. There are no washing up facilities, no washing machines, nowhere has been cleaned for ages, the restaurant is closed, there is very little lighting around the site, we cannot find anywhere for fresh water and it's the only campsite we have used in Romania where there is no free wifi. The man on reception sold Ian a map of the town. Most places will just give us one as part of the service. It had the price, 4 lei, marked on it. It was only later, back in Modestine that we discovered it was dated 1983, long before the Timişoara uprisings that led to the fall of the Ceauşescu regime! There are street names glorifying Lenin, stirring monuments that we bet no longer exist, a People's Park and lots more. The campsite man must be making a nice little income selling off communist maps! Ian is tickled pink with it but it's hardly likely to help us much around town tomorrow!

The staff are also left over from pre 1989 and are generally surly and unfriendly. The site is supposed to be open all year but on the restaurant terrace the only activity was three rotund east European ladies pickling huge jars of cauliflowers and red peppers! This evening when I tested out the terrace for possible wifi they promptly turned off all the lights and went inside. So all round, this site is amongst the most unpleasant and poorest value for money we've found anywhere. It's our only really dud one in Romania, but then most of the others we've used have been Dutch managed.

During the day we have visited the town of Hunedoara. Generally it is a sprawling, unattractive town of high rise communist style flats though with a few tree-lined streets of pleasant houses. Iron ore is to be found in the surrounding hills and in the 1980s a massive, hideously ugly steel works was set up on the edge of the town, bang in front of the castle – the only place of real merit to be found in Hunedoara. Now the steel works, like so many other heavy, Soviet-style industries, has been abandoned. All that remains is the chaos of dilapidated buildings, crumbling, towering chimneys and the skeletal framework of factory workshops surrounded by broken glass, twisted, rusting ironwork and ugly, obsolete machinery.

15th century castle walls with abandoned Communist era steel works, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Not far away we discovered another group of Gypsy palaces. These were only half constructed but they all had their roofs completed, using bright and gaudy tiles and a great deal of silvery metal ornamentation. Generally however, gypsies have been less in evidence since we left the Hungarian homeland area of Transylvania. There has been a great Hungarian influence on this area but here in Timişoara only 7% of the population is Hungarian speaking. Indeed, we are very near to the border with Serbia here and there are probably more Serbs than Hungarians on the streets of the city.

Gypsy Palace, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Corvin Castle is the greatest fortress in Romania. Founded in the 13th century it was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century by Iancu de Hunedoara (Janos Hunyadi) and his son Matyas Corvinus, the great king of Hungary, who added Renaissance embellishments. The Bethlen family, owners in the 17th century added Baroque touches. However, little of this ornamentation remains. Gaunt and formidable with a warren of staircases and passages linking the unplastered shells of rooms, it has an echoing empty feel. As we moved around from room to gloomy room we stumbled across little booths with bored vendors hoping to sell souvenirs or hunting trophies to passing visitors. In the Knights' Hall with its impressive gothic vaulting a cimbalom player was tapping out medieval music as we stopped to read the pompous inscription on one of the columns: "This work has been performed by the great and handsome Iancu de Hunedoara in the year of our Lord 1452". The towers, machicolations, grim vaulted rooms, winding stairs and narrow passageways made it much more a candidate for Dracula's castle than the cosy lived-in atmosphere of Bran Castle.

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Janos Hunyadi or Iancu de Hunedoara, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Interior furnishing, Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania

Thursday 23rd September 2010, Timişoara, Banat
Still irritated this morning at the way we are being exploited at the campsite I was further angered by the cold water in the showers which trickles red with rust from the corroded shower head onto the broken concrete floor.

Inviting cold shower anyone? Timişoara, Banat

Then I got stuck in the loo! The handle came off in my hand and the rod through to the far side fell out! Yelling, kicking, swearing and screaming had no effect whatsoever as nobody was around and Ian was too busy gloating over his communist map with his breakfast coffee to even notice my long absence. Grovelling on the dirty floor I managed to reach under and pull the metal shaft towards me and eventually escaped. Reception here simply shrugged when I thumped the bits down on the desk and gave them an earful. This is the only campsite for the city and we've travelled a long way to investigate Timişoara's role in the downfall of Ceauşescu and the end of Communism in Romania. Driving around searching for an hotel with safe parking would eat into our only day here. At least Modestine is safe on the campsite with so many staff around busy pickling their vegetables. How on earth did this site ever get rated as good by both Alan Rogers and the Rough Guide? They cannot possibly have actually visited the place.

Reception helpfully told us we could buy a ticket for the trolley bus into town at the tobacco kiosk 1,800 metres down the road! The actual bus stop was outside the campsite! The idea of selling tickets to campers does not seem to have dawned on them. Everything, including the staff, is just as it would have been when they were busy producing their communist maps back in 1983!

So we walked into town, along beside the arterial road with broken, frequently non-existent pavements. Litter, broken glass, graffiti and protruding spikes of rusty iron added to the city's charms. On either side of the highway were grey concrete block of hideous flats where people are still living in conditions that cannot have improved over the past twenty years.

Pavement leading to one of Romania's major cities, Timişoara, Banat

Jill negotiates the pavement beside a major road leading in to the city, Timişoara, Banat

Homes of the residents of Timişoara, Banat

Tram depot, Timişoara, Banat

Once in the centre, where tourists are likely to visit, things were much better. There are numerous attractive public parks and gardens and several large squares. The first, Unification Square, was lined with attractive baroque buildings. Most had seen better days and could do with restoration. On one side stands the Roman Catholic Cathedral while on the other is the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.

Park in Liberty Square, Timişoara, Banat

Unsympathetic communist town planning. Flats overlooking the baroque buildings of Unification Square, Timişoara, Banat

Unification Square with the Serbian Cathedral and Serbian Episcopal Palace, Timişoara, Banat

Plague column in Unification Square, Timişoara, Banat

Dismal street leading off from Unification Square, Timişoara, Banat

We later discovered the impressive Romanian Orthodox Cathedral at the far end of Victory Square, the scene of the unarmed protests by the residents of Timişoara between the 16th and 22nd December 1989.

Romanian Orthodox Cathedral, Victory Square, Timişoara, Banat

In Britain back in the 1980s we sat glued to the television watching the events in Eastern Europe unroll - the protests at the Gdansk shipyard; the break-up of Yugoslavia; political changes in the Soviet Union; Hungary's steps to freedom; the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany; and finally the protests in Timişoara against the oppressive regime of Ceauşescu which had kept Romanian citizens living an almost mediaeval existence at near starvation level. Almost everything the country produced was exported in order to pay off accumulated debts. Today we have learned much more about this.

In December 1989, a Hungarian Romanian priest Lázlo Tökes dared to speak out in support of minority groups from the pulpit of his church in Timişoara. For this he was ordered to leave the city and take up a small rural parish where he could cause no further problems. The priest refused to leave and read the letters ordering him to do so from his pulpit. Strangely, it took some time for the authorities to take action against him and during this time popular support was raised with the people of Timişoara gathering each evening on the main square, daring to shout out "Down with Ceauşescu". The anger of the people grew rapidly and the government sent in the troops to quell the uprising. The people refused to disperse and the army was ordered to open fire on the unarmed protesters. Hundreds, including many children, were killed and wounded over the next two or three days but each evening the square was packed with ever more residents calling for the overthrow of Ceauşescu. The dead and injured filled the city's hospitals. How many died is unknown because their bodies disappeared, though it ran to at least 100. Distraught families were told their missing relatives had escaped over the border into Hungary or Serbia. In reality, the army had been ordered to remove the dead from the hospitals and incinerate them at night. Cremation is a practice alien to Orthodox Romanians and Serbs as well as to Hungarian Catholics. When it became known what was happening it united all factions of the community against Ceauşescu and his tyranny. Even the army defected to the side of the protestors on 22nd December.

Incredibly, although we were able to watch all this on British television at the time, word of the troubles in Timişoara was kept secret from the people of Bucharest. Over the following few days however, neighbouring cities started to protest as well and a groundswell of anger spread across the country. On 22nd December Ceauşescu addressed crowds from his palace balcony in Bucharest. The crowd, timidly at first, then louder, began to chant "Down with Ceauşescu " and the President stumbled with his words, looking frightened. Realising he had lost control and the army had started to side with the people, Ceauşescu and his influential wife Elena tried to escape from their palace by helicopter. They were later captured and brought to trial. They were both executed on Christmas Day, so great was the hatred of the oppressed people throughout Romania.

There was rejoicing throughout the country but uncertainty about the future. With a power vacuum to fill and many communists anxious to take over from Ceauşescu under a different guise, the events in Timişoara turned out to be the start of a long and bitter struggle. Terrorists ranged the streets, shooting and killing. Nobody seemed to know who they were or what political faction they represented. Twenty years on it is questionable just what was actually achieved. Many of those same Communists have found their way back into power having founded parties under a different name. As somebody told us today, St. George is the patron saint of Romania. He fights dragons. Communists are Romania's dragons. You cut off a dragon's head and he grows another one. The same applies to communists – they return under a different name and the people believe there has been a change and re-elect them.

We have spent an extremely interesting morning with Dr Traian Orban, the President of the Memorial of the Museum of the Revolution of 16th-22nd December 1989, which is the only documentation centre in the country for the events of that fateful week that finally released the Romanians from the tyranny of a police state. Seeing us looking at the chapel in the courtyard where the martyrs of the revolution are honoured, he came to explain to us the events recounted above. He took us around the centre, showed us archive film of the events in Victory Square and the trial of the Ceaucescus, and a display of photos. There were paintings done by local children immediately after witnessing the shootings and the tanks sent in amidst the crowd. Families have given mementos – the blood stained, bullet ridden shirt of a victim for example.

Memorial chapel to the Martyrs of the 1989 Revolution, Timişoara, Banat

Paintings done by schoolchildren from memory shortly after the protests, Timişoara, Banat

Museum exhibits showing the Romanian flag with the communist symbol cut out and the Soviet flag hung upside down, Timişoara, Banat

When the director realised we were retired librarians he immediately took us to the archive room to show us the original newspapers - now faded and crumbling, as well as boxes of cuttings recording the events. He explained they are scanning all the newspapers to preserve them We were then invited into his office to look at some of his computer files of scanned documents, photos and films. Somehow Ian ended up being filmed for the archives, talking about his memories of the reports reaching England at the time and British reaction to what was happening in Timişoara and Romania as a whole. We have also been asked to seek out material about Romania in the late 1980s in British newspapers once we get home as they are trying to build up a wider view of the events that took place here.

The flag of the museum shown to Jill by the museum director, Timişoara, Banat

Our guide, Dr Orban, was a delightful gentleman. He had formerly been a vet in a rural village and had come into Timişoara to join the protests in the square on 17th December 1989. The tanks and the army had entered the square but nobody knew of Ceauşescu's order to open fire. He stood there watching the events, near a group of children gathered on the church steps. Suddenly bullets were fired into the crowd and even at the children. He himself was shot twice in the leg! That explained why he had been hobbling with a stick as he showed us around.

He said that night changed his life. He was born again and now he is just 21! Since that time he has devoted himself to gathering and organising material about the fall of Communism here. He says he had no choice. He kept asking himself, again and again, why did the military open fire on unarmed citizens? Why was he shot? He was simply standing with thousands of others in the square taking part in a peaceful protest. He has struggled ever since to understand and that is why he has gathered so much evidence together.

It has been a great privilege to have met such a friendly, sincere person, determined to explain it to us as it really happened. I hope I have done justice to his explanation. He spoke a charming but sometimes hesitant English. If anything here is inaccurate it is the fault of my misunderstanding rather than his recounting.

If anyone reading this has any information, slides, films, newspaper reports etc. about Romania around that time or the events that happened that week, please let us know and we will ensure they reach the Timişoara archives. They have good coverage from the Guardian but little from other British sources. They are also interested in reports from other countries around the world.

After such a morning the rest of the day seemed a little strange. We explored the city centre, found the street market and bought vegetables, discovered that Timişoara was the first city in Romania to have gas lighting and the first place in Europe to use electric street lighting, installed on 12th November 1884. We found the theatre where they are currently showing "Who's afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" in three languages simultaneously - Romanian, Hungarian and German!

The first city in Europe to have electric street lighting, Timişoara, Banat

National Theatre on Victory Square, Timişoara, Banat

Around the city too, we discovered several monuments to the victims of the revolution.

St. George. Memorial commemorating December 1989, Timişoara, Banat

Memorial commemorating December 1989, Timişoara, Banat

Memorial in Victory Square commemorating December 1989, Timişoara, Banat

Memorial near the market commemorating December 1989, Timişoara, Banat

Memorial at the entrance to the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral on Victory Square, Timişoara, Banat

There are some spectacularly lovely buildings in the centre so the lives of the people have not always been so sad and grey as they have obviously been over the past fifty years or so.

We found the tourist office and showed them the map Ian had been sold at the campsite. On the back is a statement that the tourist office may be able to arrange for a visa extension to stay in the country a little longer. Ian asked them if they could arrange this for us! There was much hilarity and they were astonished that such maps were still in existence. The price of 4 lei we had been charged was actually far higher than the original price of 4 lei as the currency has been devalued 1,000 fold since then! They agreed the campsite is dreadful and charges almost the same as a hotel but says the management refuses to have anything to do with the tourist office and has refused their offer of free maps to give out to campers. No wonder if they still have boxes of soviet era ones to sell off! We felt better for a moan and some sympathy and went off to cheer ourselves up with an ice cream in the Unification Square before facing the long hike back to the campsite.

Friday 24th September 2010, Szeged, Hungary
We left Romania this morning with no great regrets but with a lot to think about. We have greatly appreciated the opportunity to visit the country but have been disappointed to see how little the lives of many of the Romanian people seem to have improved over the last two decades. Most of the people we have met have been helpful and friendly. Certainly in the Hungarian speaking area of Transylvania we have had some fascinating encounters and thanks to Peter and Kati have experienced far more than visitors might normally expect. Since they left and we have travelled alone, we have mixed more with Romanian speaking people and have experienced a different point of view. The Hungarian regions are more colourful, the villages more attractive and the way of life generally more traditional, and we have also realised that the gypsy population seems to be concentrated almost entirely in the Hungarian region of Transylvania.

Romania is a country that seems very much divided between those who have and those who have not. There are those who drive around in huge new 4x4 Dacias, or have extravagant weddings attended by well groomed guests wearing expensive clothes. There are those who build themselves extravagant, ornate gypsy palaces. Then there are those who drive around in a rickety cart filled with grass, pulled by a small pony. They may live in a little house with a well in the garden in some remote village facing onto an unmade road. Then there are those who queue for an overcrowded, dirty bus, squashed in with their vegetables and huge bundles. There are also those who carry their goods in sacks on bicycles and those who never go further than their front gate, trying to make a living selling the produce from their garden. Then there are those who live in the suburbs of dirty, dusty, decaying cities in soulless blocks of flats that should have been condemned many years ago. Finally there are those who seem to have nothing at all and no home to go to. They live by whatever means they can, cleaning windscreens at traffic lights or begging at church doors.

This morning we eventually found our way out of Timisoara after a couple of wrong turns, and drove across the flat plain near where Serbia, Romania and Hungary come together. Just before the border with Hungary we stopped in the pleasant little town of Sannicolar Mare to use up our remaining Romanian lei. Most of it went on Diesel for Modestine. It is cheaper in Romania than Hungary. The bustling market was enjoyable to browse but had nothing we needed. An early lunch on the sunny terrace of the main cafe sorted out most of what we had left. Finally Ian went into a general grocer's shop, put everything down on the counter and pointed up the road saying "Hungaria". He came out clutching four little packets of horrible biscuits. I'd have preferred to give the money away. Why can you never find a gypsy when you want one?