Welcome to Romania

Tuesday 7th September 2010, Debrecen continued
We have now been joined here at the campsite by Kati and Peter and, as the rain pattered on the roof, we have spent the evening pouring over maps around the table in their camping car Huba. Tomorrow we start our big adventure into Romania, concentrated mainly on the area known to Hungarians as Erdely and to us as Transylvania.

For most of today the weather has been bright and sunny. We spent the morning catching up on laundry and preparing photos for the blog. After lunch we took a brisk, much needed walk around Vekeri tó, a nearby lake surrounded by grassy fields and pine forest.

No sooner had we returned to Modestine than István arrived, nearly two hours earlier than we'd dared hope. He'd been busy all morning with examinations for the new medical students at the University but had managed to get away early. Thanks to this, he'd driven out from Debrecen to find us and take us back to his home where Ibolya was waiting. We found them both well, and as warm, friendly and happy as we remember them from our previous visit four years ago. Ibolya understands a lot of English but does not speak it and István acted as our interpreter. Ian though is discovering he has a wider understanding of Hungarian than he realised. I am really very proud of him!

First we were welcomed with glasses of Unicum, a traditional sweet Hungarian liqueur containing aromatic herbs. Later we ate an early supper of goulash with vegetables and lamb in a mild paprika gravy. As we are on our way to Transylvania Ibolya had prepared us a dessert typical of the region. Made from cream cheese, eggs, raisins and macaroni it was both delicious and substantial.

Ibolya serves a typical Transylvanian cake

We had finished eating and were discussing our children and grandchildren when István's elder daughter arrived. She is an English teacher in a large secondary school in Debrecen and welcomed the opportunity for some practice. She does not really need it as she is completely fluent. The Hungarians really are a very gifted nation in so many ways. How can young people learn to speak so well when they have never had the chance to visit an English speaking country? It makes us feel very insular and lazy as a nation. We were delighted when she told us she is a follower of our travel blogs.

The afternoon and early evening passed all too quickly. Our friends are so warm and friendly and who knows when our paths will cross again. We all exchanged gifts – sloe gin from Devon and Tokai wine from Hungary. Istvan had also bought us a wonderfully illustrated book about Transylvania in preparation for our visit.

Istvan at home with Ibolya and their daughter

We'd left a message and phone number in Modestine's window for Peter and Kati when they reached the campsite. Around 6.30pm they phoned to say they'd arrived. We bid farewell to their daughter and István and Ibolya drove us back to the campsite. Both groups of our friends had previously met through us some twelve years ago when István was at the medical school in Exeter. It was a very pleasant feeling to be instrumental in bringing them all together once more, however fleetingly.

Köszönöm szépen István and Ibolya for finding the time in your busy lives to make us feel so welcome and happy in Debrecen. The problem is that you have also made it hard for us to leave!

Wednesday 8th September 2010, Sâncraiu, Transylvania
We have at last made our way into Romania, ticking off the penultimate country in Europe that we are allowed to visit with our current car insurance. Only Bulgaria has so far eluded us, (and the Vatican City!)

First impressions were much as we expected. At the border we purchased the vignette necessary for us to use the roads in Romania, and changed some of our Hungarian forints for Romanian lei. There would seem to be around five to the £ though we received a poor exchange rate. Stopping later for diesel, our bench mark for prices, we found it is almost exactly a £ per litre.

The road from the border into the centre of Oradea, one of the larger Romanian towns, is lined by elephantine concrete ruins of abandoned factories with broken windows and rusting pipework snaking along beside the road. Ugly pretty well sums it up.

The road was crowded and broken but far better than we'd expected and drivers were surprisingly sensible. Having struggled slowly through the centre of the city and crossed the bridge over the river Crişul Repede we eventually found somewhere to park and walked back to the centre to meet Peter and Kati outside the Greek Orthodox Palace as arranged. There was no way we could have kept together in the maelstrom of the city centre.

Greek Orthodox palace, Oradea

Despite dire warnings that snow had been falling in Transylvania, it has been uncomfortably hot. Oradea lies on the flat lands that extend from the Hortobagy of Hungary well across the border into Romania.

In a baker's we bought baked bread filled with a kind of curd cheese and chopped ham which we ate in on a shady bench in the public gardens of Piaţa Unirii, the town's central square. This was surrounded by once elegant Art Nouveau buildings. The city hall, the Greek Orthodox palace and several other buildings flanking the square had been beautifully restored in bright rendering, ornately decorated with colourful floral designs, turrets and even a couple of huge chickens! In the Vulturu Negru (Black Eagle) there were glass-roofed arcades with pleasant terraced cafes and Art Nouveau stained glass decoration.

Art Nouveau building, Oradea

Art Nouveau archade, Oradea

Wandering the streets we passed countless other buildings of the same époque - 1900 to 1910 - all designed by the great architects of Vienna and Budapest. Once Oradea would have been one of the leading cities of Secessionist architecture in Romania. Slowly the buildings are being restored but there is too much still to do and many are in a parlous state of decay with the rough brickwork showing between the gaps as the plaster has crumbled away. Wrought iron balconies are rusted and decayed and window mouldings are crumbled and dirty. The theatre has been magnificently restored but only now is work beginning on the interior.

Synagogue beside the river, Oradea

City Hall on the banks of the Crişul Repede, Oradea

Restored Art Nouveau building, Oradea

Neglected Art Nouveau building, Oradea

There are many gypsies on the street, the women in colourful skirts, the men swarthy and shabbily dressed. They can sense us immediately and we are constantly accosted with demands for chocolate and sandwiches while small children beg around the tables of the street cafes.

For us, looking at the signs, we can understand far more in Romanian than in Hungarian. It really is very similar to French in many ways. Of course this area was once part of Hungary and the population in some areas is made up of around 80% Hungarian speakers. Peter and Kati have had no problem at all. All the Hungarian speaking population are bilingual whereas the Romanians in this area generally speak only their own language.

The streets are a chaos of road works, but then we are used to that as streets in so many French towns are just as cut about and permanently under construction. Generally the run-down state of the city with its charming but neglected buildings from an earlier age reminded us of our visits to East Germany back in the days of the DDR.

After stopping for a coffee during the afternoon we each made our way out of the city heading for the hills towards Cluj-Napoca, arranging to meet at the top of the pass, high in the first range of hills. Pausing to let a horse and cart out from a side road Modestine found herself pulled over by the police as we passed through one of the small towns. I'd forgotten to turn on my lights again after stopping for diesel. This is an offence in most of the countries of Eastern Europe where headlights are compulsory at all times. We were lucky. Once the police realised we were English they reminded us we should be using headlights and let us go. In fact they were quite charming about it though neither they nor we spoke a word of each other's language. We've since noticed police cars lurking in many of the villages stopping drivers for exceeding the speed limits.

As we left the towns behind and reached the countryside we passed through villages strung out along the roadside. Houses were single storey buildings set in individual gardens, as in the Hungarian villages. Everywhere looked scruffy and broken and there were countless dogs scavenging in roadside ditches and rubbish bins. There were also chickens running along beside the main road and sometimes even a cow at liberty. People sat on the garden wall beside the road to chat with neighbours, there were bicycles, people walking along the broken edge of the road, occasional horses and carts carrying piles of wood or hay and even donkeys tethered to a patch of grass on the edge of the village. We saw a shadouf in a front garden for raising water and many elderly women sitting at their open doors, right on the road, dressed in dark clothes with socks and headscarves. It was a step back in time.

Countryside with hayricks on the route between Oradea and Cluj-Napoca

Our friends had discovered the existence of one of the remaining Hungarian villages that has escaped the disastrous reforms of Ceauşescu in the 1970s as he forced people to uproot and move to the cities, turning the land over to collectivisation. These little villages are almost completely Hungarian speaking and offer accommodation in people's homes. Arriving at the village they had selected we found ourselves in a bygone world. The roads were thick with mud, a mixed herd of long-horned buffalos and cows were wandering down the street, returning from the fields for the evening to be milked. In the centre of the village each cow wandered off to its own home and in at the garden gate. It would seem most houses owned a cow and they were cared for communally each day by the village cowherd.

Welcoming committee in the village of Sâncraiu

Wooden gabled houses fronted the streets and fruit trees lined the roadside. Chickens and children scrabbled in the grassy roadside ditches and all heads turned as Modestine and Huba made their ceremonial entrance down the main street, buffalos banging against their flanks!

Opposite the wooden-tiled Calvinist church we found a large wooden farmhouse with grunting pigs in the yard and an apple tree overhanging the gate. In no time Kati had charmed the owners into allowing us to park our vehicles in the yard, run cables from the house and have the use of the bathroom and loo, plus breakfast for all of us tomorrow morning! The children immediately clambered all over the inside of both Modestine and Huba and we were offered glasses of their home made pálinka. We were left with a pile of wood to light the boiler in the bathroom for hot water and given the use of a tiny room with a table and chairs where we sat for our Hungarian supper of paprika, sausage and onions followed by plum dumplings, cooked by Katie in Huba. Peter has been chatting with the farmer, who, when he saw me, clasped my hand to his lips, looked at me and said earnestly "my heart is beating for you". It was all the English he knew however. Pity, I could have listened to more of that.

Home of our hosts in the village of Sâncraiu

Wooden tiled Reform church, Sâncraiu

So now we have each retired to our camper vans. Romania is an hour ahead of Hungary and breakfast is at 8am so we'd best get some sleep. The pigs have ceased grunting and squealing but may well wake us when they have their early morning feed tomorrow. Chickens and dogs are sleeping somewhere around the yard, possibly under Modestine's bumper. It's a very different world here.

Thursday 9th September 2010, Gilau, Transylvania
Generally we all slept well in the farmyard, stirring occasionally as the odd apple fell from the overhanging tree with a thump on the roof.

This morning the main village street was wreathed in mist while at several of the gates to the homesteads a cow or buffalo looked up and down the street waiting to join her friends in the herd as it passed through the village on its way to the pasture. They were, for all the world, like children waiting to go to school for the day!

A couple of grim reapers on their way to mow the cemetery, Sâncraiu

Around 8am we were called in by our hosts who had prepared a typical Transylvanian breakfast for us. Bread, butter and tea of course, but also a bowl of fresh red peppers from the garden and a plate of cheese, hard boiled eggs, sliced sausage and home smoked slices of pig fat and crackling! The smoke house was in the yard beside an open air shower. None of us were too eager to eat the pig fat but try anything once. It was just as inviting as it sounds on a damp morning with other pigs grunting around outside awaiting their own turn to be sliced and smoked! It was very chewey and still had the skin attached. The crackling seemed similar but roasted and slightly crispy on the outside.

Transylvanian breakfast, Sâncraiu

However, the peppers, eggs and cheese were nice, as was the mixture of home-made cottage cheese, mashed beans, onions and paprika spread thickly on the rather heavy white bread. We were also given a dish of rosehip jelly but Kati said it reminded her of her childhood when all Hungarian children were given it by the spoonful as a source of vitamin C after the war. Personally I found it too sweet.

After we’d finished, finding me alone in the farmyard, my paramour from last night put his hand to his heart and lead me into the pig pen, ankle deep in mud, to show me a litter of six tiny piglets.

Before leaving we explored the village. The river had recently flooded, creating more mess and debris in the centre than there otherwise would have been. The houses along either side were either single storey or brick based with an ornately decorated upper floor. At the bottom of the village was a small ethnic museum with assorted pieces of weaving and bread making equipment plus faded photos of village residents back in the 1930s and several items of traditional clothing.

Village house, Sâncraiu

Village houses in the rain, Sâncraiu

In the village museum, Sâncraiu

Attempts to visit a typically characteristic Hungarian village had to be abandoned as the winding track through the countryside and tiny villages was so pitted and waterlogged we risked breaking an axle on one of the hundreds of huge potholes. Add to this the floods had swept away the bridge leaving a broken and unprotected parapet above the fast flowing water.

So we turned back and made our way into the town of Huedin where we parked in the teaming rain to explore the uninspiring parade of shops in the single storey buildings lining the main street. The pavements were broken, the roads flooded and broken, dogs wandered freely, drain covers were missing and - hey, it was just like provincial France in many ways!

The library building was dark and deserted inside with no sign of any books. Perhaps it had moved elsewhere. The church was locked while outside a stocky little old Romanian lady in black head scarf and jumper with a flowery skirt and apron stood in the road talking on her mobile phone! With nothing else to do and already soaked through, we decided an early lunch would pass the time. The restaurant offered a menu of meatball stew followed by panfried pork cutlet served with greasy rice and cabbage in sweet vinegar; but it was only £2.50 each. The room was lit by no more than a couple of 25 watt bulbs and it seemed very dark and dingy. You certainly would not eat there for the ambiance. At a neighbouring table was a gypsy family, the mother very pretty in her colourful dress and bright bangles while the father was swarthy, bearded and smoking a cigarette. As they left the son spat on the floor of the restaurant.

At the entrance to the town last night we'd been very amused to see several partially built gaudy palaces with ornate tin roofs. Our guide book informed us they were built by gypsies who had decided to settle down. We asked our Hungarian speaking waitress about them. She scowled as she told us they were built by the gypsies but none had ever been finished and they were an eyesore, ruining the town. We asked how they could afford such incredible houses, to which she replied bitterly, "by stealing"! She obviously hated them, accusing them of taking absolutely anything left unguarded. We've since realised they are disliked by both the Hungarians and the Romanians and lead very separate lives. We were also told that the gypsies had many children so that they could receive financial support from the Romanian government. They then abandoned their children but continued to claim the support, leaving their children to end up as anonymous infants in the orphanages here!!! How true this might be we do not know.

We drove down to the entrance to the town. The road was really busy being one of the major routes across Romania towards the Black Sea. The Gypsy palaces were deserted, empty shells with elaborate, shining tin roofs in pagoda style and partially constructed marble balconies. The lower floors though were empty concrete shells standing amongst rubble and weeds with rusty iron gates.

Gypsy palace, Huedin

As we took photos and stared in wonder at these incredible buildings a man came out from a cottage opposite and shouted something across the road to us. We'd left Peter and Kati further back up the road so couldn't understand him very well. We gathered though that he was warning us we were trespassing and would be in trouble with the gypsies. Realising we were not prospective purchasers and meant no harm his face softened. He made it clear he didn't like his cottage surrounded by brash gypsy buildings and signified his opinion of his neighbours by sliding his finger across his throat in a classic gesture of dislike.

Two very different Romahomes, Huedin

Pausing by the roadside later to check our map, a group of gypsies came up beside us shouting through the window and banging on the side of Modestine. We decided not to linger to enquire what they wanted. This does all sound prejudiced but we do find them both annoying with their begging and rather frightening with their determination not to leave us alone. Everybody else though has been delightfully friendly and helpful.

Leaving the town we made our way through pouring rain towards Cluj-Napoca, Romania's third largest city. On the way we discovered this excellent campsite and decided to stop here, catch up on the free wifi and hot showers, and leave Cluj-Napoca for tomorrow in the hope the weather will be better. There is even a bus we can use to avoid the chaos of driving and parking in the city. The rain has hardly eased all afternoon so it has proved the right decision.

Friday 10th September 2010, Gilau, Transylvania
The noise from the main road continued throughout the night with heavy lorries thundering past. So this morning we felt rather jaded for our day around the city of Cluj Napoca or Kolozsvár as the Hungarians call it, and Klausenburg as it was known to the German population who established the city in the Middle Ages. Because of its confusing history most of the towns in Transylvania have three completely different names. (It becomes very confusing when map reading.)

We caught the battered bus with its badly cracked windscreen for the 45 minute ride into the city from the petrol station along the main road. The campsite had offered to drive us in and collect us for the equivalent of £18 assuring us we would have trouble coping with finding the return bus stop in town. Our bus driver was friendly and helpful, the bus crowded with locals, some carrying buckets of something wet and suspicious, and although nobody seemed to speak Hungarian, the driver managed to point out to us where to catch the bus back. Everything worked out fine and the total return bus fare for the four of us was around £6!

In town we went our separate ways until lunch time. Peter and Kati looked in at the synagogue and were invited to take part in the Jewish New Year service. The congregation was pitifully small for such a special service and Kati was the only woman present and therefore had to sit alone in the area reserved for women. They heard the special blowing of the ramshorn that takes place during the service and afterwards people were celebrating New Year with little cakes.

Synagogue, Cluj Napoca (with cabling)

Meanwhile Ian and I bought enormous cheese straws still hot from the oven for next to nothing. We explored the sad little shops along beside the main road leading down from the station, admired the huge eclectic style buildings, generally shabby and grubby but some had been renovated. The Chamber of Commerce was an interesting contrast with an attractive 1920s Art Deco facade. Initially we were aghast at the number of black cables that festooned buildings and telegraph poles and were slung across the sky from pylon to pylon throughout the city – cables for electricity, cables for telephone and cables for trolley buses. It ruined almost every photo but then, it works, so hiding it is hardly a priority in a land where so many more pressing matters need attention first.

Chamber of Commerce, Art Deco building, Cluj Napoca, (with cabling)

Eclectic architecture on the Piaţa Unirii. During 2nd World War the former Hotel Continental was the German military headquarters in Transylvania, Cluj Napoca

We looked in at the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicolas. Not particularly old but with some interesting mosaic icons. Later we found the main square with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael. Of interest inside were an extravagant baroque pulpit and a lovely painted organ dated 1770 with a German inscription. Round the back of the Cathedral, swathed in scaffolding and protective wrappings, the statue of Mattias Corvinus, so important to the minority Hungarians in the city, has been hidden from view for many years with little chance of it reappearing for years to come. There may be politics involved as the former mayor of Cluj was vehemently anti- Hungarian.

Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, Cluj Napoca

Roman Catholic Cathedral, Cluj Napoca

Searching out the birthplace of Mattius Corvinus, considered by Hungarians to be the most famous ruler of the kingdom of Hungary, we bumped into Peter and Kati, determined to trace their Hungarian roots back to their source. Nearby was the building in which it is claimed the first printing press in Transylvania was established.

Birthplace of Mattius Corvinus, Cluj Napoca

Supposedly where the first printing press in Transylvania was housed. Now part of the University, Cluj Napoca

As it was practically lunch time and Peter had discovered a sort of public canteen he wanted to try, we willingly followed him. The place was functional and very popular with less affluent working people and those who were older and probably retired on a limited income. It was, however open to anyone so we joined the queue for the menu of the day – soup, chicken escalope with mashed potatoes and gravy accompanied by grated cabbage salad served with a roll and a glass of water. It was very cheap and very substantial. Afterwards Ian had his usual sticky cream cake, this time with chocolate topping and pink, strawberry flavoured cream. Yuck!

Round the corner we explored the ethnographic museum with its collections of Romanian ceramics, textiles, costume, rugs, wall hangings, lace and embroidery. There were exhibits about family life and customs surrounding birth, marriage and death. There were collections of farming and fishing implements and those connected with domestic life – cooking, child rearing, furniture making, etc. The woven textiles in particular were colourful and accomplished. This is Transylvania, formerly part of Hungary, so the folk art is very similar to that to be found in Hungary - though to Kati, something of a Hungarian ceramics and textile expert, there were regional differences as well as similarities.

For the rest of the afternoon we again went our different ways though our paths crossed a couple of times in the city centre. The renovated National Theatre is an impressive building overlooking the Piaţa Ştefan cel Mare square where pretty fountains played to the accompaniment of classical music. High above on a pedestal Avram Iancu, leader of a revolt against the Hungarians in 1848, presided over the city in the adjoining square.

Restored National Theatre, Cluj Napoca

Statue of Avram Iancu in the Piaţa Avram Iancu

We explored around the University area, discovered the Tailors' Bastion – the last remnants of the Saxon city walls established by the German founding fathers - and entered the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which, on the outside resembled the Sacré Coeur in Paris. Inside the walls had been decorated, there were mosaics of the saints and there was a very large painted iconostasis with icons.

Tailors' Bastion, Cluj Napoca

Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Cluj Napoca

Modern bronze monument commemorating those killed in the uprising against the Communists in December1989

Returning to the bus stop we visited the vegetable market. All the stalls were selling similar foodstuffs. Grapes, water melons, cranberries and blackberries; aubergines, tomatoes, yellow runner beans, gherkins and paprikas. Nowhere however could we buy lettuce or courgettes and egg cartons only seem to be used to sell quails eggs. Hens eggs were sold in half dozens tied up in a thin plastic bag.

By 6pm we were exhausted when we all met up at the bus stop for the journey back to the campsite. It had though been a successful day all round and a delight not to drive for a change.

Modestine entertains a couple of young friends at the campsite