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.
Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile Herculane – Roman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba Iulia – Turda salt mines, Sighișoara, Brașov – A Brief Interlude on the History of Transylvania – Black Church, Peleș, Bran Castle