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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Kaleh 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.
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