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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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