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.
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