Into the Carpathian Mountains

We are back in Nyiregyhaza (Eastern Hungary) after our trip over the roof of Romania almost (but not quite) as far as Moldova. It has been wonderful to have Grahame with me for the last week of this exhausting trip. I have been feeling a lot better but the  wonderful experiences all came so thick and fast that the blogging will have to wait until I get home the day after tomorrow.

(completed later)

We set off to leave the region of Maramures, heading east on the route 1B towards our next destination; Campulung Moldovensc. Don’t let the low number fool you, this was one of the worst roads we’d ever travelled, the partially completed roadworks competing with unsurfaced and deeply rutted sections where the workmen had apparently given up altogether and gone home. I hesitate to surmise that this may have been a symptom of the EU money drying up but for once I have a good excuse for many of my roadside snaps being out of focus. Even so, they still record a delightful frieze of spiky, turreted churches and even more spiky pine forests; the wave of a passing shepherd in the foreground and the glowing viridian of the hills in the distance.

Despite finding the occasional refreshment stop (strawberry tea, of course) and sharing the expletive-punctuated driving as best we could, we were absolutely exhausted by the time we reached our Campulung guesthouse. The cerise counterpane, pink sheets and gargantuan pile of teddy bears in our room hardly proffered a traditional Romanian ambiance but we found ourselves completely charmed by the proprietress when she finally made an appearance from her steaming kitchen domain. Since we could only communicate with a bit of fractured French she rapidly became known as “Madame” and it seems that her sole mission in life was to feed her guests until they waddled around like Christmas geese. Over the years, she may have relinquished her figure to something resembling a pile of pillows and covered it with a grubby violet T shirt but this lady had also metamorphosed into the very soul of hospitality.

After elbowing the stuffed toys out of the way we slept very comfortably and by the next morning we were ready for some serious sightseeing in the picture postcard region of Bukovina. After all, I had dragged Grahame all the way from Budapest to a part of Romania not far from the border with Moldova and I had better set about convincing him that it had been worth it. Distracting Madame from forcing a third helping of toast upon us because there were more flavours of jam to be sampled, we enlisted her help in planning a suitable itinerary. And it began with some much needed fresh country air and exercise.

We drove out of town following some clear directions over rolling hills and hairpin bends up into the Rarau Mountains (a part of the Carpathian chain) to the starting point of the Circuit Pietrele Doamnei. What these “mountains” lack in height, they more than make up for in scenery and the two hour trail (something between a walk and a climb) was quite beautiful. Snow lingered in the steepest ravines and wild flowers dotted the meadows, as we scrambled around the rocks we were treated to views of towering granite needles on one side and endless rolling hills on the other. This particular rock formation is known locally as the Lady’s Fingers after the local legend of a fleeing noblewoman who left her jewels buried here for safekeeping.

After this exertion we went In search of a hilltop monastery that Madame had recommended but it seems that we must have chosen the wrong sign to follow because, after a very steep climb, instead of a “Weeping Madonna” we found only the tiny, deserted church and plain accommodation blocks of an obscure contemplative order. Refugees from some hundred year old conflict or other, these monks apparently now drew their spiritual inspiration directly from the ravishing views of the surrounding hills. While the lower reaches of this region are justifiably famous for their medieval painted churches, I knew it was very important not to overload Grahame with religious iconography. He particularly dislikes the gruesome type of hell fire depictions to be found in some Roman Catholic cathedrals or Buddhist temples and recollections of his reaction to the painted churches of Ethiopia had me on my guard.

In the end we compromised and visited just three of the World Heritage sites: Voronet, Manastirea Humorului and Moldovita. Guide books wax lyrical about the distinguishing features of these sumptuously decorated, late Byzantine churches but their distinctive mushroom-shaped roofs and jewel-coloured biblical illustrations made it difficult to remember which was which. Instead of focusing on the profusion of ultramarine and gold leaf I found myself taking notice of small details like the adroitness with which an elderly nun managed to start an old fashioned petrol-driven lawn mower or engaging in a frosty exchange with a young tourist who thought that the “no photography” sign did not apply to him.

I did have cause, however, to be grateful to one particular schoolteacher/guide. She sat her charges down and explained how all of these churches had been built in the late 15th or early 16th century to commemorate the victories of Stephen the Great and pointed to his oversized portrait, taking up a prime position on the Sacristy wall. I can’t remember what language this lecture took place in but I was able to follow just enough to enable me to look up the details later and save myself from the embarrassment of complete ignorance.

Stephen III, Prince of Moldova from 1457 to 1504 fought some of the most successful campaigns against Ottoman incursion into Central Europe and is regarded, somewhat paradoxically, as a paramount symbol of Romanian nationalism. During his long reign he fought at times alongside the eponymous Vlad Dracula and against the equally legendary Sultan Mehmed II, he formed alliances with the Hungarians and enmities with the Poles; his campaigns criss-crossed the landscape of Central Eastern Europe with such regularity that the churches built to commemorate his victories are scarcely a stone’s throw apart.

If the population ever grew tired of his military conquests Stephen had another way of imprinting himself upon its collective memory. During the course of at least four marriages and countless liaisons he sired great quantities of both legal and bastard progeny and was not above retrospectively bestowing legitimacy on anyone who pleased him most. On the church walls, he is usually depicted (considerably larger than the prophets and just a tad smaller than Jesu Pantocrator) in a classic saintly mode with just one wife and daughter. But which ones they are, few can say for certain. All this information about the paintings would have been much more interesting to Grahame than the torturer’s almanac that illustrates the martyrdom of the saints, however beautifully executed (excuse the pun) but I got him back into the sunshine with appropriate haste.

Madame had also made a contribution to the streamlining of our ecclesiastical tour. She just happened to have, available at modest cost, a small collection cabinet of the locally produced souvenir of choice: painted eggs. This was invaluable as it allowed us to run the gamut of vendors on the approach to each church without looking either left or right. But such a short trip meant that we were always making farewells and we had to set off the next morning on our route back to Budapest from the Moldova River Valley, the furthest point East of our trip.

We took the fairly direct route which runs along the Ukranian border and stopped for coffee, as many who pass this way do, at the Dracula Hotel. This proved to be both corny and disappointing and the only thing that can be said for it is that they have laid on plenty of coach parking for tourists. The coffee was acceptable but otherwise the décor pretty much lived down to expectations and made me heartily glad that I had had the foresight to avoid Transylvania altogether in our first Romanian trip.

The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful; the carved and painted wooden headstones are the work of just two artisans over a period of sixty years and their colourful, naïve portraits seem almost to bring their subjects back to life in front of you. Perhaps it is just as well that this village is so remote because, as its reputation grows, visitors now come from far and wide. If there are some places that feel heavy and mournful with the presence of death, then here is one to put a smile on the face of even the most tragically bereaved. On the other hand, the less said about the Soviet Era architecture of Sighetu Marmatu, our stopping place on the return journey, the better. It was a hideous place and, to make matters even worse, poor Grahame had to go out and find himself a disgusting veggie burger for supper while I rested from the effects of a little too much of Madame’s delicious cooking.

Over the border and back into Hungary, we met up with Suzanna and Zoltan again for another night’s stay in Nyiregyhaza. I must admit that by this time I was definitely longing for home and so few details of the final leg of the trip stay with me. I managed to share the driving without missing a turning or incurring the wrath of one of the lorry drivers whose huge pantechnicons ply this arterial East West route but I did have a small run-in with the security staff at Budapest. A scan of my luggage turned up an engraved shell casing from Sarajevo: “Goodness me! That was how many? seven countries ago?” But no amount of pleading was going to let me take this piece of ordnance home with me as a souvenir. Perhaps it was just as well: some memories will never fade.






Categories: Europe

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