Saturday, June 23, 2007

Romania: Once bitten, twice smitten

The Independent

The last time Simon Calder visited Romania, he was arrested and deported. This time, the locals were much more friendly, and the Dracula restaurant even has a vegetarian option


It's like Baghdad here," explained Iulian as he turned from the main road into a side street as gloomy as the gathering dusk. "We pick you up, go and meet some men with guns, and take all your money." Then he roared with laughter – as did I. Iulian was an engineer, civil in both senses, who had rescued me from the roadside 50 miles north of Romania's most beautiful big city.

Highway deliverance in the European Union's latest arrival involves more than picking up a hitch-hiker from an apparently hopeless location in southern Transylvania and transporting him somewhere slightly more sensible. Iulian was travelling with his brother-in-law Ioan ("I" often replaces the English "J" in this island of Romance language amid a Slavic sea) – plus a lamb that bleated from the back of their van.

When Iulian discovered that I was several bookings short of an itinerary, Ioan was detailed to call friends and relatives to book a hostel on my behalf. They dropped me off at the door in Brasov, wished me drum bun – or "bon voyage" – and sped away into the Transylvanian gloom with a farewell bleat from the lamb.

The slaughter in the medieval mayhem of present-day Baghdad bears not the slightest resemblance to 21st-century Romania, despite the truths and myths about the Balkan nation's brutal history. I wanted to test the theory that this Britain-sized country provides the kind of journey of discovery that has long since disappeared elsewhere in the EU.

This time, though, I was taking no chances. Well, all right, I'd made a few time/distance miscalculations as I crossed Transylvania, the province whose name means the "land beyond the woods". But I had no wish to repeat my first experience of Romania, 22 years ago.

Dark days they certainly were. In January 1985, the only light bulbs that Romania's decaying economy was capable of producing had the luminescent intensity of a failing firefly. It was a land of shadows, smothered by the Stalinist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, a regime that made the Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments look benign.

Into this dismal, despotic land arrived a plane-load of British tourists in search of cut-price winter sports. The ski company Inghams had negotiated a smart deal with the hard currency-hungry Romanian authorities to offer a week's all-inclusive skiing for under £200.

The ski instructors were as keen on black-market currency transactions aboard the chair lifts as on providing tuition. Ski and subterfuge school took place only in the mornings, which left the afternoons free for exploration. One unusually sunny day, I set off for Dracula's abode.

The castle at Bran, whose Mitteleuropa turrets teeter on the brink of caricature, is the start and end of what many people's misconceptions of Romania. The Irish writer Bram Stoker took the Transylvanian reality of a 15th-century prince named Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracul, then added gore, a Hungarian legend and some oversized incisors. Next, the tourism authorities alighted on Bran castle as the place for visitors to get their teeth into something vaguely historical in an appropriately faux-Hollywood setting. (Stoker's actual inspiration for Dracula's home was a stay at Slains Castle, now crumbling on the Aberdeenshire coast.) After viewing the unhaunted home, I wandered through the village of Bran and casually took a snap of an impressive 19th-century edifice that looked like one of the final flourishes of the Hapsburg Empire.

Click. Clunk.

The heavy iron gate of what turned out to be the local HQ of the Securitate swung shut, and I was on the wrong side of it. The secret policemen had a ball. Photographing sensitive buildings turned out to be a serious offence in Ceausescu's Romania. Three chilling hours later, I signed a bundle of freshly typed documents that confessed to goodness-knows-what misdeeds against the nation and its people, and walked free.

Freedom lasted only until the journey home. At passport control at Bucharest airport, I was taken aside. After 24 hours that comprised an interrogation, an involuntary stay in a hotel and a minute inspection of my map of Romania for evidence of invisible ink, the Securitate concluded (reluctantly, I sensed) they had detained a foolish tourist rather than a devious spy. I was put on the next plane home.

In 1989, the Ceausescus were executed as the final Communist domino tumbled. And this summer, I sought an adventure without the mis-. So I enlisted the help of Romania's representative in London.

At the start of this year, Raduta Matache was everywhere. The acting Ambassador to the Court of St James appeared across Britain's media, briskly refuting the more absurd tabloid claims about the effects of Romania joining the EU. For anyone burdened with a bit of previous, Mrs Matache was the woman to ask.

Her Excellency prescribed a route through the country, and told me how to stay out of trouble. "Smile. Don't travel at night. And call me if you have any problems." Now that's what I call diplomatic immunity.

LOCAL COLOUR

Everything about this train is brown. The plastic veneer of this compartment is the shade of a manila envelope. The imitation-leather seats are a hue that corresponds with Mid Tan Cherry Blossom shoe polish. The curtains are beige, except for a coffee-coloured motif bearing the letters CFR (the abbreviation for Romanian Railways) and a stylised image of a bullet-like train, not a common sight at this end of the Balkans.

Happily, through the brown film clinging to the windows, the land unfolds as a picture of rich tranquillity: folds of deep green drift past, populated with cattle that roam unconstrained by hedgerows. The view drifts off to a range of hills that, every so often, sports a crumbling citadel.

Romanians are prayerful people, judging by the evidence from the average settlement. Along the Mures valley of the Banat – the western province of Romania – even small towns boast an Orthodox and a Catholic or Lutheran church, or sometimes all three. Much evidence remains of Ottoman domination, too: minarets pierce the horizon, while in the foreground dwellings of brick and terracotta gently subside.

The Orient Express used to rumble through this rural backwater, but the area has remained unscathed by tourism. As a result, finding a place to stay can prove challenging. Never mind guidebooks or internet searches; on the train journey from the Hungarian border that winds beside the broad Mures river, I was reduced to hopping off at every station, asking the railway staff if there was a hotel in the village and jumping back on board smartly when each stationmaster shook his red-capped head.

Despite the ambassadorial admonition not to travel at night, the moon was high over the river by the time the tawny (and tardy) train lurched into Deva – the closest approximation to a city hereabouts.

Next day, next train. This one was bright and blue and new and German. With windows as tall as I am, the latest acquisition by Romanian Railways mirrors the old observation carriages that used to rattle through the prettier parts of Europe. The 21st-century version is the ideal way to see how the land lies. Mostly, it lies very prettily. This is one of the best rides in the Balkans, swooping and swerving through the Transylvanian hills that preface this year's European Capital of Culture. Welcome to Hermannstadt.

Officially, this half of 2007's pair of cultural conurbations (the other is the city of Luxembourg) is called Sibiu. Yet the Romanian city spent centuries as Hermannstadt, thanks to an influx of people from Luxembourg and other locations along the Moselle and Rhine valleys of present-day western Germany. The nomenclature gets even more complicated: these 13th-century settlers are called Saxons, though uo there is little evidence of any strong link with that region of Germany.

Whatever you call it, the city comprises an ensemble of elegance – full of handsome houses painted in pastel pink and mint, peach and cream. Last weekend, though, Hermannstadt/Sibiu was occupied by an unusual breed of cultural tourists. As I scrambled up the muddy bank from the railway track (the station is celebrating the year of culture by being closed for renovation), I noticed that a disproportionate number of my fellow travellers were sporting Iron Maiden T-shirts.

I heard Sibiu's city centre – a trio of Baroque plazas that cluster high above the Olt river – long before I saw it. The British rock band Anathema were in town for Artmania (Romania's Glastonbury), and their sound check shook what remains of the 14th-century walls of the city. A man wearing a shirt urging "Death Metal No Compromise" quietly explained that this festival was the high point in the Balkan rock calendar, and the lady in the tourist office confirmed that every hotel and hostel was fully booked for a radius of around 30 miles. Anathema for adventurers.

BODY COUNT

"My friends call me the Englishman," said Sebastian, as he avoided yet another crater, "because I like to drive on the left."

European funds are slowly replenishing Romania's infrastructure. In the meantime, reasons for tourists not to rent a car include lunar-grade road surfaces, poor markings and signposting, and a lethal cocktail of horse-drawn vehicles and assertive drivers.

Sebastian, a salesman for an American multinational, fits the latter category. His car met my thumb at the town of Blaj, sometime home to Transylvania's intelligentsia and a location where the Romanian identity was forged. It is also home to the Uniate church, combining Orthodox and Roman traditions in a manner that reaches a climax in the town's cathedral where the Virgin stands downstage from an elaborate iconostasis.

The Ambassador had sounded faintly disapproving when I'd mentioned hitch-hiking. Yet, as a result of her motoring compatriots' generosity, Romania has rocketed towards the top of the European Hitching Superleague (of which I am self-appointed custodian). The only thing that keeps Germany in top place is the superior highway network and classier range of vehicles. But give Romania another 22 years...

We sped, mostly on the English side of the road, to Sigisoara – a city that is about to hit the British package holiday map. The UK's biggest holiday company is Thomson. In the firm's Lakes and Mountains brochure for this summer, page 25 is occupied by Spain. In next year's counterpart, that honour goes to a tour called "Heights & Sights of Transylvania" .

Clamber up the steps to the enchanting little hilltop city, perched amid a lilting landscape, and you find yourself trying to shrug off the clichés "fairytale", "Hansel" and "Gretel". Reach the main square, and you are confronted by another stereotype: a be-fanged bat invites you to dine at the Dracula Restaurant. The claim behind the name is that Vlad Tepes was born in a house in the area. Touchingly, the Dracula offers a vegetarian platter (heavy on tomatoes), which you can wash down with "Vampire Vodka" or "Werewolf Wine".

The thick soup of central European tribalism is evident in Sigisoara, which has two other identities: Segesvar in Hungarian and Schässburg in German. The latter personality is preserved in the Lutheran church opposite Drac's place. Along with a fine array of 16th-century carpets draped along the walls, a plaque remembers the 56 men and women from Sigisoara who were deported to die in the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.

ROYAL RETREAT

From the Count of Darkness to the Prince of Wales: the heir to the House of Windsor has a little-known residence in southern Transylvania.

A truck driver dropped me off on the highway at the start of the five-mile drive to the village of Viscri. It turned out to be a five-mile hike, through countryside unscathed by modernity. The soundtrack soon changed from a baritone roadside rumble to a soprano evening chorus of birdsong.

For centuries, Viscri was Weisskirch. Accounts of the 20th-century depopulation of "Saxon" villages across Transylvania vary. Some say Ceausescu sold German-speaking citizens to the West German government, which paid handsomely to ease the suffering of a minority with whom they shared a language. Others insist that the Germans were among the most eager émigrés in the 1990s, escaping the wreckage of Romania's shattered economy for their ancestral homeland. Either way, their villages lay as abandoned and ghostly as the burnt-out shells of Communist-era factories that blemish Romania's otherwise rosy future.

The Mihai Eminescu Trust has fought to preserve the priceless medieval character of these villages, and has secured a lofty patron in Prince Charles. He has bought a property in Viscri and encouraged others to invest in rural tourism. The result: a thriving community that straggles down a wide Hauptstrasse. Each stout house is painted in turquoise or baby-blue beneath rustic tiles with the hue of tarnished copper, and is joined to the next by a wide, arched gateway. The impression is of a village in which all the homes are holding hands.

Charles and Camilla are regular visitors to this royal retreat, but were not in evidence last Saturday night. As the shadows lengthened and the prospect of reaching Brasov that night dwindled, I went to the only bar and persuaded one of the customers to become Viscri's temporary taxi-driver.

Thirty bumpy minutes and 60 lei (£13) later, Vasile dropped me off at the nearest railway station – and promptly picked me up again, when we worked out that the last train south had departed a few minutes before, and the next was not until the early hours. He drove me to a road junction and gave me instructions to draw a sign reading BV (the number-plate abbreviation for Brasov). I was busily doing so, and wondering what I had done with the Ambassador's phone number, when the guardian angels arrived in the form of Iulian and Ioan, complete with the hitch-hiking god's holy lamb

Brasov has been described as "the next Prague". In fact, it is the last Prague – or at least a close approximation to the medieval mercantile jumble of the Czech capital before the stag parties invaded. I could fend off the "fairytale" tag no longer when I learnt from Iulian and Ioan that the Pied Piper and his troupe from Hamelin re-emerged right in the main square – and that Brasov is one of the key locations for the new Harry Potter film. Just to the south, Sinaia looks even more Ruritanian: Peles Castle, the extravagant winter retreat created by King Carol I, is Romania's signature fortress, a folly fronted by a flouncing statue of the monarch himself.

HIPPIE HAVEN

Fast forward? Not on Romanian Railways, at least for a few more years.

One of the EU's slowest "expresses" starts in the far north-west of the country just before 1pm on Sunday and wiggles across the entire nation at an average speed of less than 30mph, ending up in the extreme south-east at the Black Sea port of Mangalia. This is not quite Romania's last resort; that title goes to Vama Veche, a further six miles south past the cryptically named village of "2 May".

Vama Veche is described in the official tourist literature as "a haven for non-conformists". I searched in vain for the successors to John Bunyan and William Blake, and instead met a bunch of old hippies.

Dorin sported a beard, a ponytail, and fewer teeth in his talkative jaw than he had decades under his belt. The EU was a good thing, he drawled: "We had forgotten we were part of Europe."

We met outside the Punk Rock Hotel, a marginally less fragile structure than the other timber buildings that tumble down to Vama Veche's enticing crescent of sand, complete with beachside bars dispensing banana milkshakes. The sunbathers had shaken off more than the chains of Communism; the women had also unshackled their bikini tops. I made my excuses and left the country.

At the border, I was confronted by two border officials, from Bulgaria and Romania respectively: a squat, scowling, shaven-headed official in green, and a kind and pretty rhapsody in blue.

"Goodbye," she smiled. An easier exit than last time, then. In a generation, Romania has transformed from a land of threat to a land of promise.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

Bucharest, the Romanian capital, is served from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Tarom (020-7224 3693; www.tarom.ro), and from Luton on Wizz Air (00 48 22 351 9499; www.wizzair.com); Wizz Air plans a new service from Liverpool from October.

For western Romania, the best gateway is Budapest; the Hungarian capital is served from Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Manchester on a range of airlines.

GETTING AROUND

CFR (Romanian Railways) runs an extensive national network, with low fares. Covering 100 miles on the slowest trains costs 15.50 lei (£4); " accelerat" services 29 lei (£7.60); "rapid" trains 36 lei (£9.70); and Inter City 40 lei (£10.60). Services are neither frequent nor predictable: schedules on station notice boards differ from those printed in the national timetable, which in turn are at odds with those available online at www.infofer.ro.

Private minibuses operate on local and rural routes, and supplement rail services over longer distances; they are more expensive, but often faster and more frequent.

MORE INFORMATION

Romanian National Tourist Office: 22 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 8TT (020-7224 3692; email: romaniatravel@btconnect.com)

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