‘Along the Enchanted Way’ : a short trip in Northern Romania
July 13 2011
As part of a visit to our daughter in London, we cast around for a side trip in Europe, and after reading a book of the above title by William Blacker, (published by John Murray), we decided Romania sounded do-able, but different. Blacker spent the best part of eight years, 1996-2004, in the northern area called Maramures, and as his book was published in 2008, we were hoping that the scenes of an agrarian lifestyle still resonant with the middle ages might await us. July 13 found us on an Easyjet from Madrid to Bucharest, and later that day we flew on to Baia Mare, the provincial capital. We arrived at 10.15 pm, but Simona, (Rentacarbaiamarie,) was waiting for us at the airport with our car. She loaned us her maps and we gingerly negotiated the darkened streets. Next morning we located the one mountain sports shop and purchased some hiking maps before heading for the countryside. We had planned a loop going as far east as the painted monasteries of Moldavia, then back to Baia Mare a week later. We were delighted to find there was a pension in the village of Breb where Blacker had spent much of his time as a sort of adoptive son in the home of an elderly couple. Our host was able to phone ahead to book a room for us, and this became the most enjoyable and exciting section of our travel. It was with relief that we departed the neglected streets of Baia Mare, travelling up to the Gutai Pass, 987m, and a walk along one of the many marked trails into the mountains. The hills were gently rolling, grassed with stands of trees and grazed. We lunched above a pastoral scene of sheep being shorn in the near distance, and a landmark peak, the ‘Creasta Cocosului’, in the far distance. From here we back-tracked to visit two of the many wooden churches; we decided to visit those which are UNESCO sites in order to make the selection manageable. The Hungarian rulers forbade churches to be built of stone in the centuries they ruled the Maramures, so these unique churches with towering spires are in many villages. The rationale for the out-of-proportion spires was that the higher the spire, the closer the prayers were to God. A group of men were scything the grass outside Plopis Church, stopping every few minutes to sharpen their blades with a stone strapped to their waistbands. We then travelled over another pass, the Neteda Pass, to drop off the main road and into medieval Europe. Breb is lucky to have no through roads, and its old thatched houses sit among hills topped by forests, among fields of hay stooks, being constructed as we passed. Our room was in a historic Maramures house, and we spent a lovely late afternoon walking along tiny paths between houses, chatting to an ancient local still wearing a traditional smock, greeting people returning from the fields with scythes and wooden pitchforks on their shoulders. There were no shops, no beggars, no mechanised farm equipment.
Friday we spent visiting more wooden churches in the Izei valley, before heading out on Saturday for Moldovia (or Bucovina as it tends to be known locally). As we climbed into the Rodna Mountains the geography changed to steeper mountains covered in dense conifers. The Prislop Pass, 1416m, heralded the worst surfaced road we have ever travelled on, but the wildflowers were spectacular. We planned to visit three of the monasteries, which are world heritage sites. The monasteries were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on outlying ridges from the Carpathians as an orthodox reaction to the raids by the Tartars. Their unique feature is that they are painted not only inside but outside, with biblical stories in a Byzantine style. The reason was to instill proper reverence in the illiterate peasants, and they are full of beheadings and dire events. Remarkably the paint has survived over four hundred years. Unlike the little wooden churches, where we were usually the only visitors, these active monasteries bustle with tour groups. The following morning, being Sunday, we visited the largest and last built monastery, Sucevita, and were lucky to see a four hour service in progress. We followed the locals, who wandered around amongst the worshippers, and enjoyed the nuns singing the responses to the priest.
Sunday afternoon found us back on the Prislop Pass, where we walked along the ridgeline path to the south west, dodging the four-wheel drivers on the track. We drove from the pass to the ski village at Borsa, from where we intended to do a day walk in the Rodna Mountains next day. We left the village at 800m and ascended quickly to 1300, the top of the ski-lift, which we had intended to use, but due to lack of patronage it was not running. We then followed the blue marked route up past summer pastures with cattle and sheep, through high grassland with lovely wildflowers, to the Gargalau Pass at 1907m. The markers were painted mostly on rocks and were generally easy to follow. A group of twenty Polish hikers came along behind us, but mostly we had this high area to ourselves. We hadn't taken our boots; Russell walked in his sandals and I wore running shoes. We wanted to get back to Breb as we had enjoyed it so much, so made a loop back by a different route to our car.
We spent our last day in Romania back at our pension in Breb, yet again amazed at all the agrarian splendour around us. A flight back to Bucharest and on to London the following day left us with many exciting images of a very different place.
- Party members
- Russell Cooke & Janette Roberts (scribe).