Sunday, May 22, 2016

La Țară! Into the Heart of Romania

La Țară* = To/at the country! 

Țară means country (as in the country of Romania), and also country as in "let's go out to the country." 

I find this a very appropriate coincidence as about 11 million Romanians (over half the population) live in rural areas in a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. And according to recent figures, 40% of the nation's population rely on subsistence farming to put soup and veg on the table. This means that it doesn't take much in terms of time or distance to leave 21st century urban Bucharest and travel deep into țara, quickly rolling back time through the centuries.  

I've been waiting to see the heart of Romania since we first got our assignment 18 months ago.  We've been here nine months now and have begun to make inroads, literally and figuratively, into the country to understand our temporary home and its people a bit more and particularly to see just how the rest of the folks live.  This map (and the pink highlighted routes) shows how far we've gotten so far.  Except for our train trip to the Black Sea city of Constanța and my flight to the city of Iași - all of our travels have been in our car.  

A few weeks ago, we headed into the center of the country to Transylvania, probably the region people think of first when they hear "Romania."  We drove along the Olt River valley, with the Southern Carpathian Mountains (aka Transylvanian Alps) rising steeply on either side of the two-lane highway. We'd heard that Romanian highways are horrible, but thus far I have zero complaints. But what does make distance driving difficult is not so much the roads themselves, as what's on them.  Recent experience has taught us that there is a 100% chance of becoming wedged between a truck picking its way slowly through a mountain pass, and a mob of aggressive drivers in $75K cars, revving and flashing and trying to pass the whole convoy of equally-frustrated drivers in front of them. It freaks me out just a little as I wait for the inevitable head-on, and just hope that it's not my head they on.  The highway planners pop in a passing lane here or there for these situations, but they're almost always on the steep uphill grades, which makes it all the more difficult to zip up to passing speed for those of us driving less expensive engines. Therefore a short distance can still take a relatively long time, even on perfect pavement. 

However, when I can relax and look out the window, I love what I see.  Small towns are separated by pure greens: the yellow-green of rolling cropland, the rich dark green of conifer forests or the bright spring green of deciduous forests still carpeted in last-year's autumn.  Instead of billboards, strip malls, and hotel chains, I see chalet-style mom-and-pop guest houses, small restaurants with grills full of sausages and chicken alongside patios of umbrella'd tables. We pass stand after stand of folks selling goods along the shoulder of the road, which, depending on the season, can be fresh fruit, vegetables, massive bags of potatoes or onions, copper pots, sheepskin anythings, honey, wheels of cheese or potted plants.  Sadly (and it took us passing a few to figure it out), we also saw about a dozen individual young women in shorts and tank-tops.  My husband and I debated over whether or not they were just waiting for the mini-bus to go to their friends' houses in the next town (my hope) or if they were, well, going to work.  All doubt was erased when we saw two of them get out of said mini-bus wearing nuttin' but lingerie.  Oh dear.

Windshield tour of town along the Olt River Valley

Relying on one or two HP just 30 minutes outside of Bucharest.

Selling cheese alongside the road (with satellite TV)

Witches' carpool?

Orthodox priest oversees the reconstruction of his church. 
In the center of Transylvania is the storybook city of Sibiu, home of the current President, Klaus Iohannis.  The region was a Saxon stronghold back in the day and maintains much of the flavor, language, some very Germanic architecture and Teutonic tidiness.  We checked into our historic hotel right on the central plaza only to find that we'd be sharing this plaza with a road rally pit and race staging area.  (Note to self: check which festival is in town before booking a quiet weekend getaway.)  Later that afternoon we climbed the centuries-old bell tower for a 360 degree view over the steepled city and its red-tiled rooftops and the next morning ate breakfast in the cobbled plaza.  While my husband went to pack up the room, I couldn't resist a little Alice in Wonderland adventure and followed a stairway down into a hidden courtyard surrounded by pastel plaster houses.  It was Saturday-morning silent and as I looked at each shuttered and lace-curtained window, I tried to imagine the stories and lives behind each.  In a way, I already had an idea as I've chatted with these folks at my own window at work each day.  Often, when I ask why they want to visit the U.S., they tell me that it's been their dream to see New York, Chicago, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or Miami.  Picturing them on their dream vacations, I wonder if they sit in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood and just soak in the American-ness of it all as I did in their neighborhoods. Here's what I saw that day:

View up the stairs to the steeple-lined plaza.
Yeah, that's our hotel just beyond the pits...

View from the top of the bell tower of Sibiu's skyline

Tangled lanes and steep-gabled rooves

A waiter keeps an eye on his breakfast tables in the plaza.

What stories are behind each window?

An irresistible alley.
Heading out of Sibiu, we drove north towards the smaller city Sighișoara, about an hour and a half away.  But shortly out of the city limits, my husband pulled the car off the road and on an impulse, drove straight up a two-track along the uphill face of a sheep pasture.  Up, up, up under the power lines - with the little tune "the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see!" now caught in my head, we drove to the crest of the hill and found this.  

Snowy peaks in May!
Why does anyone leave this country?
I reveled in my own Sound of Music moment, taking in the uninterrupted horizon before reluctantly getting back in the car and heading northeast back on the highway.  We began to wind our way through the hills until we found the oddly-named town of Slimnic.  We'd been told already that this area is rich (as in filthy rich, they're everywhere!) with fortified churches, and inspired by our success with the first off-road adventure, we pulled off the main road again when I caught glimpse of some church ruins above us through the trees. We turned over a small bridge and drove carefully up a dirt track that wound its way up to the base of the semi-ruined structure.  It first appeared to be simply abandoned ruins, but a bit of a nosy walk revealed a small entrance where it looked like a family was living. 

Situated on a nob of a hill, the grounds gave us an incredible view over the valley and town.  Utterly peaceful, the only sounds from this purview were the chattering birds and the single horse occasionally stomping at flies.  I'm surprised I'm not still there, it was that lovely.

First view of the ruined church. 

The "garage" with horse and cart. 

Now THERE'S a job for you!
Springtime in Transylvania. 

Village of Slimnic. 

Oops, I guess someone does live here! We quickly backed out the door. 

Something I always struggle with is balancing the urge to photograph the people I see as we pass through their towns, with the fear of being the ugly tourist and having my subjects feel self-conscious, or like freaks.  I remember once in Mozambique having someone who declined my request to photograph him saying something to the effect of, "You want pictures so you can show Americans how poor we Africans are?"  His words have resonated in my head since then, but I still can't resist wanting to capture lives that are so different from what I see everyday.  I'm left with the compromise of taking quick shots from the moving car, or while pretending to shoot something behind the subject, as unobtrusively as I can.  And only sometimes does this result in a savable picture:

Roma guy, ahead of him were three friends all wearing the same hats. 

Roma women along the road near Sighisoara. 
Workin' man with the classic Romanian hat.
Sighișoara is less than one-tenth the size of Sibiu, and as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is said to be one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. We parked in the lower town and then walked up the cobbled streets to the 15th century fortress that tops the upper city.  Inside this fortress is not just ruins or partially-preserved stone walls, but rather life as we know it with stores, houses, churches and ice cream stands.  Not to mention just a few souvenir shops.  

14th Century Clock Tower presides over the upper town. 
If you want a wedding in a UNESCO World Heritage Site - book ahead.

"In this house lived between the years 1431-1435 ruler of the Romanian Country Vlad Dracul, son of Mircea the Old."
Typical antique Romanian pottery styles.

Building corner gets a 3D sign.

How could I NOT take a picture of this lane?
After poking around a bit, we vowed to return to Sighișoara over Christmas by train and decided to save some of the best sights for the next visit.  The next morning we headed south back through the countryside towards Brașov and finally home to Bucharest.  En route were, once again, more fortified churches than one can shake a stick at, so we decided to pick just one or two more to visit.  Less than an hour south of Sighișoara we followed a sign for one such church and turned off the highway onto a dirt road that made it's way about a mile to a tiny village.  Unfortunately the church grounds were locked up and apparently unexplorable, with structural damages or something noted on a sign on the gate.  Not surprising, however, as this town had a back-water, almost Mosquito Coast feel to it, with people staring at Those Who Ventured In (e.g. us) as we parked and got out of our car.  Stray dogs seemed to be in equal numbers to two-legged residents and my husband quickly summed up the place as being a Peace Corps kind of town, which immediately made me question his romantic notions of our becoming PC volunteers in our next career lives. 

In the center of town was a muddy round-about around a fountain. Alongside the fountain was parked a regular car with what appeared to be the whole town gathering around a man at the hood of the car.  We quickly realized that it was the mail delivery as the man was reading off names from red-and-blue striped air mail envelopes which were quickly snatched up by a hand in the crowd.  Ah yes, the remittances.  Now my mind jumped to Italy, Spain, England and even the U.S. and how many families were supporting these folks back home la țara as they made-do in their centuries-old pastel-colored, postcard-worthy houses, running water and electricity optional.  A large government-made sign in the center instructed residents on the dos and don'ts of living in what should probably also be a Unesco World Heritage Site village. Things like, "Don't attach satellite dishes to the 14th century plaster" written with an optimistic/please God don't ruin this town tone. 

Fortified church we couldn't visit.

Typical architecture, this house dated late 1800s.

Mail delivery saves the day.

The village store in the background no doubt does good business on mail day.
I could have stayed for hours just people-watching, but only if I could do so invisibly.  Barring that superpower, we took back to the highway and continued the drive south.  
We stopped at yet another citadel, this one well-maintained and with a tour bus unloading high schoolers into the parking lot.  Like kids anywhere, they were flirting with classmates, taking selfies and generally being happy to be out of the classroom and on a field trip.  

The well-preserved citadel at Rupea. 

Finally, we arrived back to our modern apartment in Bucharest, satisfied with having had a good look into the heart of Romania, into the faces of people living regular lives in street-side cafes, behind lace curtains, in muddy, stray-dog towns and in bucolic farm houses.  It's a country still trying to recover its rightful reputation as an intellectual, artistic and scientific European center with roots reaching into the dawn of western civilization.  Romania carries the heavy burden of trying to live up to its potential, incredible potential, which hangs over its head just out of reach as politicians are arrested for corruption, as doctors earn $1000/month and have to accept "tips" to treat patients and as its well-educated youth head to EU neighbors for better salaries.  But it's also the safest country I've ever lived in (even in the center of Bucharest), with amazing natural beauty where one can live in two or three different centuries simultaneously. Yes, Romanians are cool and distant on the outside, perhaps still carrying the defensive habit of suspicion from its Communist days, but as soon as the shell is cracked, there is țuică to go around for everyone and bunches of flowers picked from the garden for a stranger.  Everyday Romania makes me laugh at its quirky ways, its utter Romanian-ness, and it makes me sad when I see its people putting themselves down and asking me honestly "Why do you like it HERE?" while idolizing superficial brand-names and American style commercialism. This country has so much to be proud of and I look forward to seeing this realization come true, even if it means  we have to come back in 15 years to see it happen.

(In Romanian Ț = a tz sound, so it is pronounced "Tzara")


  1. lord, lord, lord, what a GORGEOUS country and your pictures catch all the juicy bits. This rich mix of reporting and illustrating is even worth all the lean weeks of no Tabbies, when everything was a blur of work. Thank you for it, deeply!!!!

  2. I used to live in a village near Sighisoara which you will have passed through on your trip. I'm pretty certain the 'Peace Corps Town' was a village called Roades (with the 'sh'), which is where the author William Blacker lived for a while - in fact the blue house in your picture might be his. He wrote this book about his time in Transylvania*Version*=1&*entries*=0

    There is great agritourism in the area, radiating out of the village of Saschiz. This is the local 'brand', set up by a local NGO but there are great spin offs too: and If you do return to Sighisoara, do try to go to Saschiz, even just for a day!

    1. Daring Peach - You're right about the town! This is very interesting and I'll look for the book, thank you.