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Published: June 19th 2013
The jury was still out on Romania after the 2010 trip to Bucharest. As described in Red Dogs & Englishmen and the very worthwhile book on all things football in Eastern Europe, Romania is not a very easy country to like - a cross between the appalling and the appealing. The five days in Bucharest elevated it’s status in our minds, so we thought we’d give it another go for the "special occasion". There would be no football this time anyway to bring us into contact with the less sophisticated members of society and the Henri Coanda Airport at Otopeni is a step up in class from the less than luxurious cousin down the road at Banesa.
The EU funds had been well spent and the bag pick up was swift and efficient. Terminal 4 had lessons to learn. The group was assembling .... soon to be the reincarnation of the 7 dwarfs. Happy and Doc had spotted us as likely dwarf members and we'd spotted them. If the hiking boots don't give it away, luggage tags certainly do. Sneezy was also on the flight, but no sign of the other two members. They had rolled in or possibly slept
in via Manchester and Sydney respectively. The guide marshalled his forces and we soon on our way north towards Brasov. The outskirts of the city soon gave way to the bread basket of Romania. Flat with fields of grain............. and then the nodding donkeys appeared. Shades of Texas. This is the oil country around Ploiesti that became the attraction long for invading forces long after the Turks had gone home. In a bid to keep the tanks rolling east, Ploiesti became the battleground for the underground mineral wealth in 1941. 50 years of Communism had turned it into a passable impersonator of Teesside with a few more tower blocks thrown in for good measure. The floodlights of the obviously named Petrol Ploiesti appeared into view from the right of the van. It was the closest I would get. There was no sign of Astra Giurgiu, which was technically closer to the road. The darkness descended and so the steady climb towards the mountains remained shrouded from sight.
The darkness descended soon after Poliesti, so the transformation from the flat lands to the mountains was not evident until the morning. The only visible landmarks were some rather sinister looking Communist
flats in Zarnesti, that were apparently the mainstay accommodation for the former workers of the adjacent weapons factory. There was a marked deterioration in the road surface as we crossed the train tracks on the edge of town. The road surface disappeared completely at the other end of town, as we headed up the mountains to our destination at Magori.
It was late when we arrived at our mountain retreat, so after a 2 minute settle in it was time to investigate the bar. The bar was a loose description and comprised of an honesty fridge. Serve yourself and tick the sheet - 5 Lei a large bottle. We had no Lei at this point anyway, as it was acknowledged that there was little to buy. There was an issue with the temperature – the beers were not as cold as they could have been, but at less than a pound a go you can’t complain too much. Happy and Doc identified another minor problem – their beer box on the sheet didn’t look likely to cope with their demand. It probably lasted until Tuesday, before additional space was required. Happy and Doc set the trend with a late
night. Sleepy lived up to his name.
Villa Hermani transpired to be a small hotel, perched on a ridge with a view over the valley. The owners were German and the other guests were a private group of Germans. A few other guests came and went over the week. We had a large room on the ground – others had less room to swing the proverbial cat. There were 2 cats to swing, one of which had a place booked on reception just next to some Whiskas that had been delivered. It appeared every house had at least 1 dog. Villa Hermani had 2, stationed by the car parking and ready to make an enormous amount of noise in the direction of any uninvited guests. The uninvited guests never materialised, except a few other “stray” dogs who sneaked under the radar in search of a free feed.
The rain that had been falling around the time of arrival had disappeared by the morning, although a few ominous looking clouds lingered. They would do more than linger later on. The initial walk on our programme was essentially a stroll round the valley. We looked into the local Church, where
people were starting to arrive for Sunday service. The majority appeared to have walked. The old Communist “shop” or distribution centre was nearby – now not surprisingly derelict and empty. In the Ceaușescu days, there was apparently little to buy. The locals now have the option of a trip to the shops in Zarnesti, where incidentally there still appears to be little to buy. A common theme develops!
We meandered slowly along the main road, which was unsealed. A few random people passed us on their way to Church and others stood waiting for a lift. There was a wedding in the village and most would be attending. It was actually the last day of a 3 day wedding, although this was presumably the day when everybody concentrated solely on necking as much alcohol as possible as opposed to a ceremony interrupting this primary purpose on the other days. A little like every other day, then! We were passed by a shepherd’s son, who was making a very good attempt to destroy the underside of his Opel Astra he had just acquired from a working trip to Germany. He got stuck in the mud on the way up to
the wedding venue. The passengers piled out and a 4 x 4 came to the rescue. An almighty thud ensued 5 minutes later, as another piece of the German engineering came off second best to the remains of the road.
There was the prospect of some quality sepia people to snap at the wedding, but alas we cut off the road and headed across the meadow. Meadows and wild flowers abound – ideal then for the hay fever sufferers. The Huntsman, our guide, continued a running commentary on the various flowers, their latin names and their uses. We learnt this when we were young, he shared. It made you feel a touch ignorant in terms of our knowledge, but then wild flowers and meadows never featured much in early life in the UK’s equivalent of Ploiesti. The next stop was a detour into a typical Romanian house of the area. The design was possibly typical with a central defensive courtyard originally for the livestock, but the expenditure on this particular example property looked to far outweigh the average Romanian’s pocket. It transpired that beautiful wooden exterior was the product of a Berlin pay packet.
The heavens opened shortly
after. We sheltered for a while under the roof overhang, after the Huntsman failed miserably at a spot of breaking and entering. After a slight break in the torrent of water, we set off and promptly got soaked. We abandoned the trip to “bat cave” and the owner of Villa Hermani came to the rescue in the van. An afternoon nap was the order of the day, as we fitted instantly into the Romanian way of life. We’d just missed sorting the cows and sheep, having a couple of morning beers and a bottle of schnapps for lunch.
The clouds lifted and bright sunshine returned to the valley again. We set off up the hill in search of bear poo! There was no evidence of bears, but the lesser spotted black woodpecker gave a lengthy demonstration of ant eating. The ground was wet after the rain, prompting Miranda to nose dive to the floor on an uphill stretch. An another unfortunate scrape with a rock ensued. The downhill stretch was less incident packed. A Romanian cowboy galloped abandoned herding his 2 cows to ride across. He seemed impressed with his Morrisons chocolate éclairs.
There was plenty of bear
poo on offer the following morning at the Liberaty Bear Sanctuary. A home for abandoned and captive bears in an outdoor environment. It wasn’t a zoo, but then it had fences. I guess it is impossible to release a fully grown bear into the woods that has no idea how to fend for itself and has become accustomed to human interaction. This was the best solution for all concerned. The bears are not exactly mini-Paddingtons, although Romanians still apparently think it is a good idea to bring a cub home.
Bran was a brush with commercialism. There had been none up until this point and it seemed that Bran Castle is on everybody’s tick list on the bus tours of Romania. The picturesque castle has successfully cornered the Dracula market in the locality, despite the fact that Bram Stoker never set foot in Transylvania. Of course, that would spoil a good story and get in the way of the profit. The real Dracula was obviously a Whitby boy! The immediate observation about Bran would be that it was a tourist trap. The base of the Castle was surrounded by various cafes and markets, offering all things at
............. on the way home from a hard days drinking
the tackier end of quality to complete your souvenir purchases. We proceeded to tour the Castle – former royal residence, army barracks and communist administration centre. Dopey found there was too much information to read and would have liked more time to read the displays. The tour buses were very much in evidence, which didn’t help. We settled for an executive coffee in one of the many places on the main street, before indulging in a local bus to the end of town. The timetable appeared at best flexible.
The bright sunshine of the morning had disappeared by this stage of the afternoon. If we had learnt nothing in the last 2 days, it was that the weather in Transylvania is “changeable”. It promptly started to tip down with rain. Dopey had already discovered that the ageing Berghaus waterproof was not only disintegrating from within, but had become less than waterproof on the shoulders. We sheltered by another barn, next to a pile of fresh countryside smells. After an hour or so, we’d walked back over the ridge into our valley and arrived at the bat cave. There was no Batmobile, Batman wasn’t at home and neither were the
bats. Dopey gave the mission into the darkness a miss, which was probably wise given the lack of balance displayed the previous day.
Sneezy had a birthday and the Villa excelled itself with a cake of significant proportions laced with enough spirit to start a small bonfire. A whole new world of Lego figures opened up and Vlad the Impaler made an appearance! The drinks flowed, the beer stayed at above the optimum temperature and Happy and Doc once again showed the rest of the group a clean pair of heels when it came to late nights.
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