nihil sine deo

We woke at 8, but Brașov was still asleep; everywhere we looked for food in the now snow-blanketed town was still closed, except the KFC on the central square. There, the prices were exactly like KFC back home – which is to say, by Romanian standards, insanely overpriced. Possibly even worse than home, as I don’t think KFC in Britain ever dared to charge 2 lei for a sachet of mayo. In the end, our indifferent fried chicken breakfast cost as much as the previous night’s fancy sit-down with wine. We wouldn’t have minded so much if the theft wasn’t so incompetently committed, but the shop was a model of stereotypical gormless fast-food-chain incompetence, with eight staff blithely doing nothing behind the counter while rubbish piled up on the tables, no change behind the till, and having to be reminded twice to give me my cup of tea. In high dudgeon, we proceeded to the Biserica Neagră, the Black Church, where Ionut threw snowballs at schoolgirls while we waited for it to open. The church was thoroughly Germanic and very impressive, huge and squarish, its interior filled with painted box pews sponsored by seventeenth century guilds and war memorials to the lost of a hundred wars; it boasts the largest bell in Romania and one of the largest organs anywhere. It’s not very black any more – a sullen grey gritstone with red roof tiles peeping through the snow – the name is from a fire in 1689 that torched the place, and if you look closely you can kid yourself some of the soot is still there.

Downtown Brasov. This isn’t the Black Church (which was difficult to photograph well), just a building on the square.

We drove on through the mountains, on the road to Sinaia, and our next stop was Peleș Castle. Up a well-maintained cobbled path, with pretty old streetlights and iron railings painted dark green, past sword-sized icicles dangling from alcoves and figures in padded jackets hawking tat from wooden stalls – and then it suddenly appeared, surrounded by snowy Carpathians, an unbelievable piece of fin de siècle architectural decadence. I have a great weakness for over-the-top royal bling, especially that of the modern age, and this was very explicitly an electric palace, all designed to show off the wealth and splendour of the then-new nation of Romania (with its new German kings of the House of Hohenzollern – I recognised their motto, “Nothing Without God”, the same as their cousin Kaiser Bill’s.)

Peleș Palace.

The courtyard where we bought our tickets was OTT enough: ground floor in the Italian style but far more intricate, with wrought iron guards for the windows and obsessively carved marble stuff slapped on to fill any blank spaces more than a foot wide; first floor covered in murals of romantic landsknechts against classical backgrounds; second floor an enormous concentration of dark carved wood, more three-quarters-timber than half-timber. But it was nothing compared to the interior: through a marble hall and up a red-carpeted staircase we came to the main “Hall of Honour”, a dark wood baroque fantasyland of utterly obscene detail and intricacy: electric lights and brass heating vents under marble statues, panelled by marquetry from the finest craftsmen in Romania, oil paintings, marble friezes and hanging tapestries on every free surface, statues and carvings of wood, bronze and marble stuck on plinths or tucked into alcoves, under a fun little wooden spiral staircase and a great stained-glass roof – one, apparently, fitted with an electric mechanism so that it could open in the summer.

There was a “Moorish room” with about as much concentrated decoration as the entire Alhambra, a “French room” of full-on rococo and pretty naked ladies, a library of antique books that had probably never been read and museum-pieces to rival any national museum, and the rest, heaps on heaps of it. Best of all, of course, was the armoury. I’d been excitedly pointing bits of history out to the Cucus to the point that our guide asked me to tell her something about the armoury. I initially thought she was being sarcastic, but she really wasn’t – so I pointed out the different periods of Western weapoins proceeding around the wall and started pointed out a set of Indian blades – pata, talwar, khanda, katar – before she regained control and moved us all on to the next room.

I really, really enjoyed Peleș. It was excess in the grandest Victorian style – the unhistorical, overwrought, thoroughly mawkish sort which runs to the point of downright silliness most of the time, and which will probably never be back in fashion – but which is still wonderful for the sheer concentration of craftsmanship and effort and just plain Amount of Stuff, the perfect playground for a king with unlimited money and an endless sense of fun. It was all beautifully kept – preserved during days of communism, the Ceausescu government apparently not caring for it much but not – in a way we don’t see much these days back home, most of our buildings from that era either still in use (but refitted to more conservative tastes) or gone to ruin.

On the road to Bran, talking about history, in the heavy snow; cross-country skiiers off in the woods to one side. The road wound this way and that, then down to the blank white snowfield of the valley floor. Râșnov, individual village houses with snow on terracotta turning to streets lined with multicoloured buildings of all shapes and a core of pastel-striped communist tower blocks. A castle above it, but that wasn’t our destination – we turned up a mountain road to a car park crusted with fresh snow, and a sign to the Valea Cetatii (“fortress valley”) cave. A sign said the cave was 450m away – 450m away up a steep slope of snow just packed enough to be thoroughly treacherous, which I thought was the most difficult 450m of my life until I had to go back down.

One of many, many occasions where I wish I'd brought a helicopter.
One of many, many occasions where I wish I’d brought a helicopter.

We paid a guide to unlock the door, and the big glassy icicles outside gave way to nubby little stalactites inside. The cave was wonderful – huge, echoing, enormous, filled with fascinatingly discoloured rocks, puddles lined with shining minerals, ash from past fires now half-petrified into the floor; a solitary bat half the size of a hand was curled up and sleeping just above the footpath, someone had carved a horse into the mud at the bottom of the main chamber. Our guide explained that they held concerts here, sometimes, and that the passage we entered through had once been blocked with the cave itself once full of water – the day the blockage came loose and the whole cave emptied out gave the place its other nickname, “Vortex Valley.” Then, of course, was all the fun of going back down again.


Bran Castle has a curious and entirely undeserved reputation as “Dracula’s Castle” – and it’s both very touristy and surprisingly empty of actual stuff. Most of the interior exhibits are actually about Princess Marie, the British royal who married Ferdinand of Romania in 1893 and seems to have more or less run the country for the next three decades, who was interesting enough (and the Romanian newsreels from the 1910s and 20s were fascinating) but not what we, or it seemed anyone else, came for. One note, quite far down in the rooms full of stuff about Bram Stoker and the Dracula legend, sheepishly admitted Vlad Țepeș probably only spent a couple of nights there, and nobody mentioned that Stoker knew nothing about the place. It was a very fine castle in its own right, but quite weak compared to the martial immensity of Hunedoara or the ostentatious glory of Peleș.


We were hungry, and all the food shops were shut, so after 10km of driving through mountains covered in conifers and snow we stopped at a little roadside caff for mici and pink tea. There was a pretty girl standing in the car park, and I thought she was a hitch-hiker until I saw her waving at cars going both ways.


Down the hills in the driving snow, visibility terrible, the best indicator of altitude the exterior thermometer, which gradually wound up from -5°. At -3° the slush on the road disappeared and we could go twice as fast; at -2° the giant grey shadows of other mountains could be seen; at -1°, we could even make out the colour of the ground. At 2°, dusk was falling on a landscape that looked as though the snow hadn’t even touched it, and it was like that all the way back to Severin.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle


the land beyond the forest

for anyone wondering why I keep talking about Germans and Hungarians. Wasn’t I in Romania?

In ancient days, the place we now call Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of the Dacians, of which much is claimed. In the early second century, Trajan’s legions overthrew the last king of the Dacians, Decebal (“strong as ten men”) and made it part of the Roman Empire for a few centuries. When the Romans withdrew, Transylvania (as with most of Europe) was overrun by a succession of large groups of violent nomads who didn’t leave many written records. Last in this sustained sequence were the Magyars, proto-Hungarians, who settled in the Carpathian basin under István I, but over the next few hundred years it spent as much time acting independently as it did as being part of the various Kingdoms of Hungary. This put it in an interesting position throughout the eons of horrible warfare between Christendom and the Ottomans, and Transylvania took both sides at various times (Vlad the Impaler’s modern-day rep is firstly Dracula shit and second his penchant for killing tens of thousands of people and sticking them on spikes, but he was also famously a highly canny and effective operator who played both sides) but largely falling within the Ottoman sphere of influence as a generally-unreliable vassal state.

The Ottoman Turks, who once occupied almost all the Balkans, went steeply downhill after the enormous Battle of Vienna in 1683 (which also featured a real-life version of that ridiculous cavalry charge in LOTR) and were cleared out of half the Balkans in the next few decades, although there would be centuries of fighting before the issue was completely settled. So for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Transylvania was part of the Habsburg empire, a highly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic entity notable for its enormous longevity and great stability despite a legendarily inbred ruling family and a habit of haemorrhaging money, men and power by losing wars against basically everyone, basically all the time.*

The Habsburgs encouraged craftsmen from all over their vast holdings to settle everywhere, so as well as a majority of ethnic Romanians (known as Wallachs at the time), Transylvania had a substantial population of Hungarians and Germans, and countless minority groups of Serbs, Croats, Poles, Jews etc etc etc. These were largely concentrated in the cosmopolitan towns, or alone in small monoglot villages.

The modern Romanian state is a successor of the Socialist Republic of Romania, which itself was created from the Kingdom of Romania. This kingdom, like the countries of Italy and Germany, came about in the romantic-nationalist wave of the mid-late 19th century,** built around a shared language, a largely invented folk history, and a German prince. Due to shared Wallach heritage, it always had its eyes on Transylvania, and its chance came at the end of the Great War; Romanian troops seized the area from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had been militarily ruined by the Russians, and the occupation was formalised by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (which gutted Austria-Hungary and [literally] Balkanised the resulting territory).

Modern Romanians, for reasons varying from basic Wallach ethno-linguistic majority to claimed kinship with the Kingdom of Dacia, claim Transylvania is and has always been theirs by moral right. But all over Transylvania there are towns which frontiers have swept across dozens of times, towns with five or six names in five or six languages, the graves of people called Schmidt and Esterhazy in the churchyards, echoes of Saxony in the architecture, a long, long history of complex and frequently violent racial tensions (most of which were only really resolved, and the “solution” here usually had a certain final quality, in the Second World War) and, above all, an absolute shedload of fortifications everywhere. This was for centuries the happy hunting ground of raiding parties, the Military Frontier in the war for the soul of southern Europe, and the playground of noble rivalries, ethnic rebellions and local wars in the off-season.

* It contained the hundreds of little independent states that made up most of modern Germany until Napoleon tore the Empire apart in the 1800s. After his defeat, they were courted by both Austria and Prussia, eventually snapped up by Prussia in the 1860s and 70s for German unification.

** For the casual reader: in the 19th century most of Europe was swept up in nationalist movements, cultural memes where everyone decided that the language you spoke and ancestors you claimed added up to a collective National Identity, and as with most group identities, everyone decided to celebrate it by attacking different identities. This wasn’t much of an internal issue in places like England and France, where the dominant ethnic/linguistic group had long ago destroyed or overwritten local smaller groups like Cornish or Breton and created fairly homogenous “countries”, but a lot of Europe – especially in the East – was far more messily diverse and state boundaries had little to do with ethnic/linguistic ones. The upheaval led, eventually to a very different (generally simpler) map, a lot of attractive nationalist bling, a lot of fakey fake folklore, a lot of murderous, violent sectarian tension, and the occasional apocalyptic war. Some of the most brutal excesses of the world wars resulted from small ethnic groups left on what had become the “wrong side” of some border or other, and it’s echoed in recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; same shit, different decade.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle

green glass and basalt, salt and silence

The Turda salt mines took my breath away. We paid our lei at a building that looked like the vestibule of a modern Tube station (complete with turnstiles), and descended down a long staircase hewn into the salty ground and along a corridor that belonged in Echo Base. Then we came out onto a brilliantly lit artificial cave you could have built a small town in. IMG_20150319_093209 The phrase “indoor Ferris wheel” should really sum the scale of the place up; there was a whole amusement park built in the main chamber (really two overlapping chambers a bell-shaped one and a sort of loaf-shaped one, one bottom corner of the loaf intersecting with the top half of the bell). The actual attractions there – aforementioned wheel, crazy golf, a bowling alley, little rowing boats around the round, brine-filled base of the bell chamber – were admittedly nothing unusual, but the setting was unbelievable: immense, echoing caverns of drill-polished stone, glistening black like an Alien nest; roofs speckled with stalactites and walls veined with great whorled wood-grain patterns of white and grey – and salt everywhere, crunching underfoot, everything encrusted with it, frosted with it, like the morning after a winter storm. The attractions were shut (apart from the boats, which provided a diverting fifteen-minute flail-and-paddle while testing the acoustics of the cyclopean chamber) but I could have spent all day there with the curious echoing serenity and cool, dry air. IMG_20150319_093832 We drove back to Turda, the cold light of day revealing a number of unlit signs to pensiunes we had driven straight past in the night, and a very fetching fortified church encircled by stout whitewashed walls. Lunch at a roadside restaurant started with potato soup, followed by a thick rasher of bacon on a mess of broad beans served with pickled tomato, pepper, cauliflower and cucumbers, with a little slice of cake to follow, all for 15 lei. Then, the road towards Brașov, a big modern A-road cutting across an enormous flat valley floor. Some sights were getting familiar above every town: the concrete mushroom of the water tower, the gleaming cupolas of two or three Orthodox churches, the plumes of white steam and grey smoke from some still-functioning piece of industry. Across the valley, over little old orange tractors churning up the rich brown earth, we saw hulking factories and power stations, some still looking like they worked. A MiG-21 with Forţele Aeriene roundels on its wings sat on a stand next to a roundabout. Here and there, reminders of a landscape shaped by science and industry on an invincible scale: chains of marching pylons painted red and white, filthy, scummed-over lakes, huge concrete sluice mechanisms, dark rivers with the foliage at their margins bleached and rubbish-strewn. Sighișoara (Schässburg, Segesvár, once the prosaic Roman “Camp Six” – another ancient town, Holy Roman Empire by way of real Roman Empire, went Austro-Hungarian with the rest of Transylvania when the HRE fell apart and gobbled up by Romania after the Great War) was beautifully preserved, a classic Saxon walled town with an exquisite gatehouse and public buildings at its heart. At one end of the citadel, an extremely long covered stairway with a wooden roof dating from 1642 led to a church on the mountaintop and, sadistically, a school. Classic Luther. The church was ugly on the outside, merely Protestant on the inside; a guide with good English (he’d lived in London for a while; we reminisced about rush hour) showed us around the restored friezes, 600-year-old wooden figures, and the only burial crypt of its type in all Romania. The graveyard was brimful of German names. Caught by a sudden snowfall as we descended, we found a cosy joint called Casa Cositorarului for tea with honey in the company of a friendly cat. We wandered around the citadel, taking in the clock tower, the German street signs, the old fortifications and town hall; gypsy girls came to beg off us and Ionut chased them away with his BB gun. The Cucu boys got distracted by fruit machines in a dive under the town hall; I used the wifi there for a bit before getting bored and going out to explore some more, the bulgy-eyed bronze of Vlad the Impaler somehow even more cold and haughty in the tumbling snow.

sad vlad in snow
sad vlad in snow

Continuing towards Brașov, the German influence gets more obvious than ever: towns have two names on the signs as well as five in the history books, pointy-spired Lutheran churches join the onion-domed Orthodox ones (the spires are familiar, but most of the parish churches back home lack the curtain walls and the fighting platforms, and our loopholes and crenellations are largely for show). I have no idea how many times the places have changed hands. Above the town of Rupea an enormous blocky castle dominated the landscape: its yellow walls and red roofs looked marvellous in the late afternoon sun as we approached from the west, but from the town in its shadow, it was a dark, monolithic martial silhouette. Past Rupea, the fields were suddenly white with settled snow; we travelled through woods thrown into beautiful monochrome for a spell, before everything turned back to fields.

Cetatea Rupea.
Cetatea Rupea.

Brașov is nestled in the crook of the Carpathians; the land around it is shockingly flat but full of infrastructure. We passed immense radio masts contrasting with the now-steely sky, and massive factories with empty windows next to a towering blast furnace as we approached. A martyr town, Ionut told me, important in the ‘89 revolution. Snowy mountains covered in fir trees loomed above the city, their peaks hidden in thick grey clouds – and, incongruously, huge Hollywood letters spelled BRAȘOV at the top of the nearest and lowest. The streets were full of heavy, well-made Germanic buildings, the gathering dark and the patches of settled snow on their eaves giving the whole place a gloomy fairytale air.

“The Hollywood of the Carpathians.”

We spent a while looking for somewhere to stay and found the “Pensinuea Italiana”, which had the flags of every tourist-producing nation in its tiled mews and a Venus de Milo staring damply from a little fountain; the room they had came fitted with a jacuzzi and a bidet, but only a gauzy curtain separated them (and the loo) from the rest of the room. An ideal nest for a couple in love; not perfect for three garlic-filled men with smelly feet, but it would do, and we accepted a suggestion of a local restaurant and strolled on out. A good section of the old city walls (once built to keep Turks out) still remain, and I got to blather excitedly to Ionut about sally-ports and overlapping fields of fire while we walked in their shadow. The restaurant was nice, ticking off what I was told are the important signs of quality in Transylvania (“good food, live music, no sportswear, no gypsies”). We plumped for the most expensive dish on the menu, a medley of pork bits and sausages aged in fat with polenta, egg and a stunning selection of pickles (including my first, and last, pickled watermelon.) With a jug of decent red wine (a kerchief-style napkin round its neck made it look like a little glass desperado) it still only came to about £20 between three of us. The waiter, who looked like Giaconda from 9th Company, told us the nightlife was rubbish but he knew a place we could have fun – so a taxi to a shopping centre in the middle of town (now buried under a heavy snowfall) found us a bowling alley with pool tables. Ionut and Adi proved utterly, stunningly amazing at pool; I did alright bowling, but contrived to get my finger accidentally mashed by a stray ball, which was my excuse for not joining in and getting inevitably destroyed. They were a joy to watch.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle

welcome to the hotel transilvania


Breakfast at the Afrodita was a variety of cold meats, pickled veg, assorted bread and the same sort of veggie pastes as in Severin (but not nearly as good as Mrs Cucu’s), all washed down with the same curious fruity red tea. It was a bright, chilly morning, and we wandered around the old quarter of Băile Herculane, which was full of huge decaying public bath buildings and pavilions from both before and after the communist period; down one street, a bronze statue of Hercules looked down gloomily at the weedy pavements and wild dogs between two crumbling rococo palaces. There was something of VDNKh in the “gorgeous commie stuff going to seed” atmosphere, although the real star was the enormous spa pavilion from Habsburg days, thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly neglected. A wrought-iron bridge, with a single graceful arch and rotting wooden planks, had DANGER signs wired haphazardly to its handrails, which we ignored. Unlike VDNKh, apparently the sad state of the city is due to land disputes from the fall of the regime rather than a collapse in enthusiasm – it’s still a thriving tourist resort in the summer.

We drove up the gorge and into rolling highlands, small strips of field by the side of the road worked by antique tractors and headscarved women with backhoes; yellow soil, dark yellow trees, green and yellow grass, herds of fat round yellow sheep. The haystacks aren’t yellow: they’re brown, in the Russian style, with the hay piled up in conical shape around a central pole, like squat muddy termite mounds. Every so often we came through low villages with brightly coloured tiled housefronts, and once caught a glimpse of snow on one of the higher hills. We stopped at a roadside stall boasting lots of wooden handicrafts, tourist tat of every description, and several big baskets of menacing flick-knives. “I think these are illegal in England.” “Yeah? Here, too.”

At the city of Caransebeș, we turned right, heading directly into Transylvania. Passing through Oțelu Roșu – an old, old metalworking town, given its current name of “Red Steel” by the Communists in ’47 but called Ferdinand by the Germans, Nándorhegy by the Hungarians before them, and Bistra under the Turks – I learned about Romanian politics. “If you want Vlad the Impaler to be president, everyone will say yes. We miss communism.”


At a place called Sarmizegetusa, we stopped to visit one of the biggest sprawls of Roman remains I’ve seen outside of Rome itself: a huge amphitheatre and, some ten minutes’ walk away through shady country lanes, the remains of a grand forum. They had the full gamut of Roman Things: colossal grids of now-ruined stone foundations, the familiar tile-stacks of hypocausts, and occasional pieces of the traditional shockingly perfect columns and marble sculptures. A stone plinth engraved with writing had been broken into fragments and then carefully restored with cement; the letters shaped in the new composite were noticeably less elegant and clear than those cut into the two-thousand-year-old marble. There was also a small attendant museum (dark, as there’d been a power failure somewhere) full of artefacts I automatically recognised: there’s a wonderful universality to Roman culture, the brooches and cameos and lorica segmentata identical to the ones you’d find in the museums of Berlin or Bristol.
Before heading off, we lunched on “Mici” (literally “littles”, grilled bits of minced lamb – like kofte without the sticks or sausages without the skin) with white bread, mustard and beer – not the cheapest food in Romania, but still far cheaper than anything at home, filling and thoroughly delicious with an unfortunate garlic-burp side effect. Across the road, a schoolhouse flew the flags of Romania, the EU, and NATO.


Next, we diverted towards a monastery in the hills, driving through a town full of people selling flowers and swerving to avoid potholes in a winding hilltop road. The monastery was far busier than expected, with a car park full of coaches and a collection of stalls selling snacks and religious memorabilia; we passed its ornate gatehouse and a little stream full of shining coins falling to a pond full of green 1-leu notes (polymer money has its advantages) and proceeded uphill, but didn’t even get to see the monastery: a vast queue of Romanians clutching flowers blocked off the entire path, and it was join them or turn back. We chose the latter. My guides reflected on reasons as we went back to the car: perhaps there was some sort of ceremony, or the priest here was known to cure an ailment. It all added up to a total waste of time and petrol, although the air was remarkably clean and refreshing.


We backtracked across the River Cerna, through another small town full of amazing Gypsy palaces, and came to the town of Hunedoara, dominated by the enormously impressive and impressively enormous Castelul Corvinilor (named for Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian king, although built before his rule.) It was magnificent, pointy red-tiled roofs capping soaring towers which extended above a crenellated curtain wall. I explained to Ionut that we didn’t really have many great castles back in England, due to 1) the relative lack of mass ground warfare in Britain, 2) the gunpowder vandalism of Cromwell after the Civil War. This was a fighting fortress, built with the constant and terrible threat of the Ottomans in mind, and while plenty of people have tried to destroy it, none owned it at the time. Inside, there were exhibits on hunting, torture implements, heraldry and history; above the battlements, grotesque bronze crow’s heads cackled at the end of rain pipes. Adi bought me a present from Romania: a nice wall hanging at a gift shop, a carved wooden map of Romania with important castles illustrated and a smirking carved Vlad Țepeș up in Moldavia.

As we came to the outskirts of Alba Iulia, things felt more prosperous than most of Romania so far: better houses, bigger fields, a new high-speed railway line being built on an embankment so straight, flat and clearly delineated it could have been in TTD, even some fresh paint and big new commercial buildings in among the industrial decay. The Alba Iulia city emblem looked curiously like a trace italienne fortress to my war-jaded eyes – and it was. The star fort blew my socks off, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and recently restored with a great deal of money, effort and love, with shops and bars among the ravelins and pedestrianised areas full of kids on skateboards in moat areas designed to be swept with musketry. At one end was a collection of civic buildings, big churches and government-minded like a little Romanian Kremlin; an Orthodox cathedral, a more familiar Protestant one. Throughout, bronze statues in Habsburg period dress gave a sense of time and place. Everything was clean, well-made, beautiful, possessed of a strong sense of its own history – the upside of a clear outbreak of national pride.


I could have spent a full day there, but the sky was getting dark, the air was was getting chilly (moreso to the hot-blooded Romanians than me) and we were getting hungry, so headed back to the car – stopping briefly for a round of dodgems (completely free of all those stifling regulations, like “put the seatbelts on” and “no headlong ramming”, that you’d expect in a British establishment) – and a sit-down meal at “Bosfor Kebab”. I rate Alba Iulia’s kebabs better than Emerald’s but not quite as good as Berlin’s: fragrant herbs on the shredded beef (not lamb), chips wrapped in the pitta, half the salad pickled.

It was dark when we approached Turda, and we drove around one particular roundabout (swarming with guys in leather jackets trying to hitch rides home) five times in our dual quests to find Ionut a mouse to play LoL and to find a pensiune to sleep for the night. We found the Hotel Ciprian, cheap’n’cheerful but comfortably appointed, boasting bed and wifi for about 80 lei – £4 each – and then it was time for the wine and soda and the computer games.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle

an der schönen blauen Dunărea

Ionut’s parents live on the first floor of their block – three flats to a floor, fifteen to a staircase, with a pretty Orthodox church visible through the kitchen window. It was nice to have the vague stereotype of bleak communist hab-units completely refuted: the place is spacious, comfortable and clearly very well-loved. Breakfast was vast and amazing: chicken soup, salt pork, white bread, salată de boeuf made of mayonnaise and pickled vegetables, another lovely salad of smoked aubergines, salty white cheese, all the murături we could eat. Pickling vegetables is a Romanian tradition. A fantastic one.

After sleeping all morning, we went on a wander across Severin in the bright spring sun. Through the school district – educational establishments for all ages clustered around a nicely made pedestrian boulevard, shining silver Socialist-realist statues and bronze busts of various Romanian greats – and to the old water tower, a fetching piece of 1910 gothic, now empty of water but full of paintings by local artists and with views of all Severin from its balcony. And it had free wifi. By the police station, where Adi was sorting out his week off, a wild dog – there are hundreds of them – came and snuffled around the car. Fifty metres down the road, a car pulled up to two prostitutes by the side of the road, and one got in.

At the centre of a roundabout on the edge of town, there’s a huge piece of public art: a scale section of Trajan’s famous bridge, the remains of which are just downriver from the city. But we were headed west, upriver, past huge empty factories and the skeleton of the old port district, Ionut and Adi pointing out various models of Dacia cars, Romanian-made. Vehicles on the other side of the road flashed their headlights at us – a warning, police ahead, and once we passed the white squad car we flashed our own lights at the oncoming traffic. A most courteous people.

Past a forest of electrical chicanery on the side of the river, the vast Iron Gate I dam rises sixty metres above the blue water. The complex is immense, more than a kilometre wide, with separate ship locks and power stations on the Romanian and Serbian-nee-Yugoslavian sides, and tall border towers watching the road across its back. There was a museum at its base that we were all excited to see, but we’d arrived only a little before closing time, and the guard was in a bad mood, so we piled back into the Adimobile and carried on.

Past the dam the Danube rises hugely, shockingly – as we snacked on pears and homemade ham and cheese sandwiches the Cucus told me about a drowned village down there, whose spire is visible when the waters are low. ( Further reading – a wonderful historical curio.) A heavy river tug pushed a clutch of empty barges by. At the port town of Orșova, where the Cerna flows into the Danube, locals gave us directions to the monastery of St Anne, and the winding road into the hills took us past another church whose entire roof and tower were burnished golden metal.

The monastery was serene: squat buildings made of varnished pine logs on three sides of a courtyard, sun shining off the silver metal roof and the two candle-boxes for the living and the dead. Nuns all in black, a couple of bearded priests, and inside the dark chapel a beautifully painted interior in the “Orthodox bling” style, long-faced saints staring down with sad oval eyes. Opposite a beautiful old mosaic, a nun sold embroidered priest robes, bibles in many languages, metal plaques, little plastic devotion plates and glow-in-the-dark plastic rosaries. Next to the gift shop, men in blue overalls and leather hernia belts had a Romanian car, a Dacia Logan, up on three wheels and a log. We drove away past a carved memorial to the dead of the World Wars, a Romanian flag flying above it.

Heading upstream, the road grew narrow and winding, with many areas cordoned off – rockfalls on the hill side, subsidence on the shore side – and littered with fallen rocks, some large enough to be alarming. The narrowest point of the Danube, the “Cazane” (“cauldron”), consists of two very narrow passes with a broader basin in between them, where vast rocky cliffs tower above the turbulent water – not grey here, but churning green-brown. My phone pinged a “Welcome to Serbia” roaming notice. On the Serbian side of the Cazane, the road is well above the river level, but on the Romanian side it’s on the shoreline, and so falls beneath the forbidding gaze of the enormous carved face of Decebal, once King of the Dacians and a major figure in Romanian nationalism – built by the late Iosif Drăgan, petrol magnate and also a major figure in Romanian nationalism (promulgator of the idea that Romania is the cradle of civilisation.) Decebal is forty metres high; his big square moustache and nose are a slightly different colour to the surrounding rock. Under his scowl is carved “DECEBALUS REX/DRAGAN FECIT” – “Decebal, King/Drăgan made me.” We took selfies, watched a tugboat flying a Ukrainian flag shepherd its barges through the Cazane, and threw stones into the churning water.

Back to Orsova, behind huge log trucks and hunters’ Dacia pickups with excited hounds in their flatbeds, and then turning left away from the river, into the Banat. While we argued about whether water could flow uphill, the journey took us past roaring rivers and high, rocky mountains, through dilapidated villages where the only two-storey building was the Orthodox church, and around a road curve which is apparently the longest in Europe. A freight locomotive hauled a massive string of oil tankers inland.

We came to the town of Băile Herculane (Aqua Herculis in Latin or Herkulesbad in Deutsch, if you need a hint) around dusk: a spa town nestled in the mountains, featuring a grove of enormous Communist-era multi-storey hotels. There was a hotel Ionut remembered as having good mineral baths, but that was no good in the off-season, so we took a room for three at the towering Hotel Afrodita (there also being a Minerva, a Diana and at least two Herculeses), and, after tremendous amounts of dickering with bored and incompetent hotel staff (some professional pride from the White Hart came to the fore) enjoyed its pool and jacuzzi for a while before descending to the town and having a dinner of schnitzel, chips and polenta. Full and clean, we streamed a B-movie about Dracula over a bottle of wine with soda water, and turned in.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle

nu te pui cu pui de lei

Half the plane applauded when we landed outside Bucharest; I noticed nothing to warrant it, but apparently it was Romanian custom, and you can’t argue with that. Halfway through the journey, somewhere over Slovakia, I’d asked for tea and got a fruity pink infusion with powdered creamer; the hostess, who had a Hungarian accent and a loud pink uniform, lacked 50p in change so in lieu gave me lei, three green polymer notes with clear windows just like Australian cash. Henri Coandă airport (he of the Coandă Effect, who also [falsely] claimed to have invented the jet engine) had a big modern terminal building among a massive collection of hangars and twinjets. Inside, it was like every other major airport, save for the blue-gold-red tricolours on the guards’ shoulders. In the car park, we waited for Ionut’s brother Adi, a border guard at the Iron Gates, who was going to drive us the 350km to Severin.

We found him at around midnight local time, and the five of us piled into his VW any old way, seatbelts not being as much of a Romanian custom; the radio blasted out gypsy hip-hop and fifteen minutes out we were already lost in the dark. Unseen chemical factories made the air stink of sulphur and solvents; the TomTom, whose robot voice sounded exactly the same in Romanian as in English (apart from the obvious), eventually got us back on our way, and having found the right road we took a break at a small petrol station. I was overjoyed to find that they had Twisters there, for a mere 3 lei, and was tucking into mine (heedless of the frosty air) when we discovered that we had accidentally locked the car keys inside. My response was along the lines of “I haven’t been in this country two hours and already you want me to help break into a car?”

After thirty minutes of angry cigarette-stubbing, conferring with the service station staff, swearing in Romanian and miscellaneous beating and flailing at its doors, we managed it: having wedged the driver-side window open a crack with screwdrivers, we then ran a long metal dowel with a bent end through to pull open the passenger door. There were many failed attempts beforehand; it was like a claw machine at an arcade, except at 2am, and cold. I’m glad nothing like that happened at the Alpha Gateway on my watch.

There are a great many all-night service stations in Romania, and all of them seem to have free wifi. We stopped at another, after a long, relieved drive, for more fruity red tea and some pastries – a ham and cream slice, a sort of minced chicken sausage roll. It was wonderfully cheap to me, though I was told these were jacked-up service-station prices. Adina and Mirela fell asleep; Ionut, Adi and I talked about onions and bonfire nights. The road grew flat and straight; I was told that this was a northern part of the Romanian Plain, an area they called the “Crow Plain”. At a bridge over the river Olt, an immense expanse of shining black water, we got out for a brief stroll, past the lantern-topped stone pillars and across its span, careful of the bent or missing iron footplates. Ionut sang a song about sons of lions (referring to Oltenians), and why you shouldn’t mess with them. The night was clear, and as well as the windows of factories and the red aircraft-warning lights outlining chimney stacks, we could see the stars.

The pre-dawn light found us shivering the fatigue away at yet another service station, pulling away through drifts of thick fog the colour of the sky. We came through a small town with lots of big houses, many sporting clutches of amazing red-and-silver pagodas, and on through a landscape recognisably rural but completely foreign: the shape of the buildings, the configuration of the pylons, even the colour of the soil, a dusty dun made even paler by the rime of frost and the grey morning light. The architecture – terracotta tiles, white plaster, brown wood – was fascinating, lots of exposed skeletal beams, exterior staircases, open terraces biting back into the first floor; but the condition was mostly very poor. Ionut told me most of the people here were peasants, subsistence farmers. At the edge of each town clusters of hitch-hikers in black clothes tried to wave us down, ignoring the forlorn bus stops. I don’t remember seeing any buses.

We came upon Drobeta-Turnu Severin as dawn proper washed the taller buildings pink and lit orange reflections in half the city’s windows. I got my first glimpse of the Danube; blue, like they say, and enormous, a sea in motion. Docks along the riverside, massive factory stacks and the famous heavy water plant further inland; we swept along the main thoroughfare and turned into a collection of five-storey tower blocks painted pastel orange, communist-era but in good nick, just in time for breakfast.

Romania 2015

Night Drive through Oltenia Severin, Iron Gates, Baile HerculaneRoman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba IuliaTurda salt mines, Sighișoara, BrașovA Brief Interlude on the History of TransylvaniaBlack Church, Peleș, Bran Castle