19th – 25th May 2014
A star in the west
This week we slowed down considerably. Our week started with Bogdan and Anna, our Couchsurfing hosts in the city of Alba Iulia, basking in the late spring sun that bathed western Transylvania.
Alba Iulia is a gem – a huge amount of work has been done to repair and restore the colossal early 18th century Vauban-style ramparts of Alba Carolina, the star shaped fortress of ravelins, demi-lunes and bastions which make the old city unusual in south eastern Europe. Bogdan is an enthusiastic Alba Iulian, who shares his time between his native city and his work commitments in Germany, and he took us out and about in the city.
Reuben and Graham headed out first thing to help with the despatch of a Grandfather clock, obtained for a bargain price, to Bucharest. This necessitated a trip to Dedeman, a giant Hardware/Home Improvement chain so typical of those that now dominate the globe – it even smells the same as Bunnings back in Australia.
The clock safely wrapped and lodged with the courier, we sipped coffee, strolled the ramparts, and imbibed layers of history. Great chunks of the Roman walls have been unearthed, demonstrating the city’s importance as the base of the Legio XIII Gemina as it patrolled the restive populace of recently conquered Dacia.
Later the city was home to a medieval Catholic Hungarian dukedom, which bequeathed a magnificent gothic cathedral. More recently the Habsburgs controlled the area, under whose instruction the present fort was built. Later still large baroque buildings house a University, a Museum and the site of the official Union where Transylvania joined the older Romanian kingdom in 1918.
The modern city seems to successfully shrug off the architectural carbuncles deposited by the communists and glory in the older legacy and its natural surroundings. Volunteers dressed in military costumes of the Habsburg era strut the walls, saluting and presenting replica muskets. On our first evening an orchestra performed on the main square, and deluxe ice cream stalls sit cheek by jowl with cool cafes.
The sunny afternoon among all this, draws toward evening and our hosts drove us out of the city into the forested hills. We stopped at a tiny hamlet for famous local pancakes and fizzy fruit syrup, in a garden cafe, by a rushing mountain stream.
Day two in Alba Iulia and Graham is invited to the partake in Bogdan’s passion for the gym. While Bogdan casually works up to bench pressing 100kg, our intrepid Sabretoothed chicken is content with the 20kg bar and a few of the weight machines.
More exploring, general administrative tasks, a trip to the pharmacy to remedy a slight eye infection for Felix, some geocaching, and another day draws to a close. Bogdan must leave the following day for Germany, but allows us to stay on for a night or two in the lovely apartment he has loaned us. We sip beer and chat as the stars ascend over the star fort and too soon we bid them farewell.
Sibiu: Beautiful, but…
The next day we took a day trip to Sibiu, ninety minutes or so from Alba Iulia by coach, a former European Capital of Culture and proudly showing off its Transylvanian Saxon heritage. It’s a beautifully presented city, but if we are honest, a combination of travel-weariness and other simpler and more spectacular places have spoiled us. There is no doubt the city can be proud of its squares, churches and wonderfully restored medieval and renaissance buildings, it’s Liar’s Bridge and museums, but we were content to sit and munch on Pizza, watch the crew re-tile the church roof, and crunch apples in the shade of the city fountain. The heat is a bit draining, and the streets seem to stretch ahead, so we taxi it back to the Autogare, and slump into the bus seats for the journey home.
I don’t know what this says about where we are on our trip, but what we need is a break from all the history, some fresh air: our next destination hands this out in spades.
To the Hills!
We lock the Alba Iulia apartment behind us, and board a series of buses which take us progressively further away from the big smoke: first to Deva, then on to Brad, where we meet our next hosts Flaviu and Lidia, as they head home, loaded with goods from a monthly market trip. We all clamber aboard a local bus which soon departs for the mountain hamlet of Blajeni, and once there, hoist backpacks and bags for a climb into the hills.
A road scratched from the meadows winds its way up and up, through cool shaded woods and across fields with wild grass full of yellow and purple wildflowers. It takes an hour and half for us all to make it to the cool sanctuary of the house.
The air is fresh, bees buzz among the late spring blooms. There’s no question: it’s a real paradise. Flaviu and Lidia have gone off-grid, converting an old small-holder’s house into a neat home, and dipping into the natural bounty of the green hills. Their food mainly consists of what can be collected, grown and harvested nearby, and they are sustained by the quiet riches of mountain springs and the country folk with whom they share their world.
It was a great three days that flew by: we enjoyed sleeping in the summer house, hiking in the hills and playing with a freshly minted batch of kittens. We ate and laughed and talked long into the night, the perspectives of Flaviu and Lidia adding new colour to the pattern that is modern Romania. We all helped plant tomatoes, picked mushrooms and gather flowers for cooking. The boys sipped on milk so fresh it was warm, and Prunella and Graham took turns in learning to use the scythe to cut grass.
Rumbling mountain storms came and went, heavy with summery rain, leaving early enough for long mellow evenings full of cricket chirps and frog croaks. A magical place to recharge and refresh, play laser tag and sip on fruit wine. We shared a glass or two of home made vina ares (plum brandy) with the lady just up the hill, 80 years old and still breaking the soil in her small but productive vegetable field…
Soon it was time for us all to pack our things and leave again. The mountain air was warm, and clouds left their shadows across the valley. We were sad to leave, the five of us on the road again, once more the great Couchsurfing project having unearthed people we can call friends, from within the mysteries of the internet. We trundled down the hill, gently winding back to the collection of buildings by a stream that is Blajeni, into the world of buses and bags, escorted all the way by Flaviu’s dog Negro.
Once more we strung together three bus trips – we made it onto the last connection back to Cluj by the skin of our teeth – set down our gear and again met up with the warmth of Valentin and Olga, who welcomed us back into their home with a warm dinner and cheerful Moldovan wine. In our absence, they had received some good news on their plans to move to the UK – a long-cherished dream – and we drank to this and friendship as the sun descended for the last time on a fascinating three weeks in Romania – a misunderstood country which deserves a second look.