Transylvania, late afternoon. The landscape is one beset with huge, forest-covered mountains, tiny villages with red-roofed houses sprinkled all throughout the valleys in between. The setting sun is reflected in the stillness of the river water, and the haze of twilight is slowly starting to overtake the sky. The scene is almost perfect, as we’re cruising through the winding mountain roads of Romania’s heartland in our fully adequate white Ford Fiesta, trusting the rented GPS to take us to our destination, a town just 70km away, just past Count Dracula’s famous castle. As I’m driving, Maria snoozing next to me, I’m reminiscing about the insane drive this day has turned out to be, on some very cool and highly dangerous roads, when suddenly, I notice the ground has turned to gravel. It starts to narrow, and before we fully realize, we’re trapped all around by tiny houses separated by even tinier roads. Tiny women are coming out to their tiny porches to look at us, and at my desperate attempts to get ourselves out of this predicament. Going back is not an option, and so with a resolve not at all warranted by the circumstances, I take aim and hit the gas hard, and we shoot up and out, tires spitting gravel, engine roaring. Almost killing one of the tiny ladies in the process. And that, in some strange way, sums up Romania quite accurately; incredibly beautiful, vast contrasts, crazy traffic situations. And tiny ladies.
I had been home a month and still not seen Maria. She was working in Norway at the time of my return, and visiting her didn’t seem to make much sense as it’d be expensive and she’d be working anyway. So instead we decided to travel to Romania for two weeks. On the cheap, bringing tent and camping gear, enabling us to also hike for part of our time. Packed to a beautiful approximation of the Wizzair luggage restrictions, we arrived in Timisoara late afternoon. I didn’t know we’d be renting a car to get around, as that had been kept expertly secret by Maria, it being my belated birthday gift. Next thing I know, we’re veering into traffic leading away from the airport, and I have my first major realization about Romania; their traffic situation is simply ridiculous. And not India or Vietnam ridiculous, because at least they don’t really have much infrastructure and it’s just general insanity, and you’d never even dream of driving there. Romania has lanes, roundabouts, traffic lights, speed limit indications, the whole nine yards. It’s just that nobody really cares about any of it. The name of the game is freestyling, and what’s even more paradoxical is that there isn’t generally any tolerance for any form of delay. Pull up half a second late, angry honking. Drive half a kilometer under the speed limit, angry honking. We decided it would be easier to just ignore all their anger, and that policy saved us many times down the road.
In general, this paradox also extended to people’s attitudes. While random strangers we met were delightfully friendly and helpful, people working in the service industry were so rude it was often hard to not laugh at the ridiculousness of their behavior. And I’ve lived in Poland. It’s not all that surprising in a country that suffered a period of brutal dictatorship by Nicolae Ceaușescu on top of decades of Communist labor philosophies. Romania to this day is not a wealthy nation, or rather a nation where wealth is very unevenly distributed. While a quarter of its population lives in poverty, the highest rate in Europe, Porches are all around, not just as a flaunting testament of the wealth of the few but also a cover for the lack thereof of many others. Someone told us a family might own an expensive Audi, but not have food on their plate or money for gas to drive it.
We made our way down to the southern Carpathian mountain range called Retezat (which, coincidentally, in Dutch means “drunk as f*ck”) for an intense four-day hike in this stunning landscape. Stark mountain slopes were rising from fairytale-like forests we passed through on our way up the foothills, slowly getting to about 2000m altitude and the mesmerizing glacial Bucura lake. Maria came up with this amazing risotto-cheese-pesto hiking meal that we cooked on our camping stove. Because we had not found anything but lamp oil to light it with anywhere in Romania, we used that and completely blackened the stove with a flame we could barely control every single time we lit it. We never lit any precious national park property on fire, but we definitely came close.
It was there, after hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the region, that I asked the most important question I’ll ever ask.
We made our way back down, and continued by car all the way through central Transylvania, over the wild and windy Transfăgărășan mountain road, elected by Top Gear as the world’s best drive. We saw the Count’s castle by night, and Sinaia’s overwhelmingly opulent stronghold the next day, before continuing on to the mandatory final few beach days, camping right next to the Romanian Black Sea.
Surrounded by what we assumed was much of the country’s relative elite, we rented beach chairs in front of fancy hotels, and brought our black-potted camping lunches along, while the artificially enhanced women and men around us were sipping champagne and smoking fat cigars. We got the last-tan-of-the-summer there and then, along with blissful afternoons and cozy evenings.
One last day in Bucharest, with a delicious, delicious meal and an equally satisfying shisha, and we’re on our way back to Timisoara, having now driven nearly 2000km. It’s been an epic two weeks, in a beautiful country and alongside the best companion I can imagine.
Travel and otherwise.
September 18th, 2017