Romania. From pasture to city.
Last week was a gentle ramble through the rural idyll of northern Romania. Calm. Bucolic (such a strange word). Ancient.
On Saturday afternoon we rolled into Iasi (pronounced as Yjash) and everything changed.
The grey concrete outskirts of Romania’s second city would be truly grim in drizzle, but with the sun beating down the first impression was of the heat reflected from the buildings.
We wound through small back streets to pop out in the very heart of the city, instructed by the lady at Google who is determined to squeeze you through the smallest gap if it saves a second.
A space in the car park of the Palace of Culture. To bag a space in a huge car park doesn’t sound like an achievement, but in the centre of a big city it is a wonderful thing to slide your seven metre van onto the only available sliver of tarmac.
When people have asked about how we deal with the heat I’ve suggested that we’ve got used to it. That idea was put to the test in Iasi.
Mid 30s in grassland is very different to mid 30s in town. Our first exploration saw us flagging badly. In fact Polly did better than either of us. On a hot day we rub her down with water and leave a fan blowing onto her. It takes her coat a couple of hours to dry and so she’s cool for a lot longer than we manage.
After a few weeks of weird traditional foods, and our super healthy van meals, we crave something a little lower on the good food scale.
Vivo Burgers in a run down area just past the gleaming new Palace shopping centre was exactly the dive we sought.
Several cold beers, good tunes, great service and a fantastic burger with shared fries hit the spot. It was near perfect yet cost less than £20 for us both.
Summer in the city. Saturday Night.
Iasi parties on Saturday night.
Because it’s so hot during the day they don’t even start until 11pm.
An open air concert behind the Palace of Culture was pumping until 4.30 next morning, but it was the heat that kept us awake rather than the music.
Iasi is the cultural heart of the country, and was once the capital. It has a good share of Soviet concrete high rise, but also a beautiful pedestrian boulevard lined with fine buildings. The Palace of Culture is at the head of the boulevard.
The city has the first high street style shops that we’ve seen since Austria. The culture shock of this place for a peasant’s first visit must be severe. My St Just to Manchester switch has nothing on this contrast.
We loved it.
We’re both shadows of our Wandering selves today, and the mercury is still rising. After only 60 miles we’re hiding in a willow’s shade. A hundred metres away there’s a swimming pool so rammed with people it’s hard to see the water. The cool is so tempting. The crowd so off putting.
Padureni is just another of many many villages that line the main road. We’re heading to the coast, to the Danube Delta, but it seems that there’s little of interest on the long drive to get there.
Drive drive drive.
Hot, hotter, so chuffing hot that we have to stop – but where?
There’s no shade.
Minty pours over the maps on the Park4Night app, but there’s little help there.
At first the campsite at Plaja Doaga said we couldn’t stay because we had a dog, but smiles and charm won the day. Just 45 Lei (about £9) and we were in.
45 Lei, hardly anything, but given the state of the facilities that still may have been expensive. People are scathing about it on the app and there are certainly two ways to view it.
The good. A lake with a swimming beach. Trees for shelter (thank god). And so much wildlife including our first meeting with ground squirrels.
The bad. The stinking piss pot they call a toilet. It would be so easy to improve (or maybe just clean t now and then).
We were kicked out early next morning, with no offer of another night. They really didn’t like having the dog on site. Their loss.
Back on the scalding tarmac. Within an hour we were flagging again, or at least I was.
After only two days of near featureless plains I’m beginning to feel a deep boredom seep in. The trouble is I don’t envisage a change for a while yet.
There’s rarely any rest. There simply aren’t places to pull up, even laybys are rare.
We move more slowly than most of the traffic. I’m always aware of the next car trying to overtake. I stay tight to the right verge to make it easy for them.
The right verge isn’t a good place to be.
All the debris from a thousand minor prangs lies there.
The roadkill dries to a crisp there. Yes it’s already dead, but still I can’t bring my self to drive over it.
The truck ruts are sudden and often six inches deep – if you’re caught unawares by one it’ll throw you off the road.
And then sometimes the road side simply isn’t there. It has collapsed, there’s a big hole, but there’s nothing to warn you of the abyss waiting to swallow your van.
After driving on edge for too long we approach the ship building city of Braila.
If a country road demands full attention then a city moves it up to Top Gun level.
Like in India everything happens in relatively slow motion, but those slow motion happenings never let up.
Huge junctions are a swathe of hot tarmac, all indications of lanes long since obliterated. Belching trucks, impatient fast cars, even the occasional horse and cart, but we’re the only ones who don’t know where we’re going.
This town feels particularly manic. Particularly hot.
Our directions take us into an industrial area that we’d have been scared by last year.
Worse, it then morphed into a military zone with bored hot soldiers leaning on their killing sticks.
Then this happens…
Our destination was a smart boat yard, hotel and restaurant called Nemo.
In the post industrial landscape this place stood out a mile.
Drive between two ghost factories and there it is, a modern hotel, with the Danube as its backdrop.
Even though ArchieVan is now dirt encrusted and looking more New Age than elegant camper we were welcomed and offered a huge splat of green on which to park.
I’d no sooner pulled up than Vasilli, the hotel owner’s dad, came to say hello and, curiously, offered me a bag of biscuits. I wasn’t sure if they were for me or Polly, but I took a couple. No, no, take more. Vasilli thrusts a handful at me.
Moments later he brings beers.
Then drags me to look at his pontoon house boat and to meet his Russian girlfriend Pasha.
Minty joins us. He offers us coffee. Before the coffee is made the beer comes out. We haven’t sipped the beer before more glasses come down and he’s pouring Jack Daniels.
That set the tone for a brilliant afternoon. Not drunken, just tipsy and regularly topped up.
Six hours with barely any shared language, but a great meal, a good few drinks. and an exciting skeet down the Danube in his speed boat.
I can remember every small boat I have been in, there have been so few. This was definitely the fastest. Clipping along at 50 knots it’s surprising how hard the waves are. And how different a city looks from off its shore.
The hospitality of Vasilli and Pasha was heart warming as well as fun.
It utterly lifted our flagging spirits, and increased our love for this nation that had already touched our hearts.
Thank you both.
Parked at Nemo.
In the garden a mass of dragonflies resembles the helicopters during the madder moments of Apocalypse Now.
In the river as Polly takes a cooling dip I’m surprised to see the biggest water snake swimming away from her.
Frogs bring the grass to life.
And now it’s the time for the mosquitos’ two hour shift, so I’m packing up and heading for cover before I’m eaten alive.
Romania is maligned at home and I don’t know why. The English news is reporting the case of two girls killed by a neighbour here as if it shows how evil the place is. Thankfully I can’t understand what their news may be saying about us.
A Fear of Ferries?
I don’t have a fear of ferries, but I could be forgiven if I did.
Our worst ever driving experience was leaving the ferry at Brindisi, I hope we’ll never have to repeat anything like that.
The ferry across the Danube near Braila looked like it could be as bad.
Ten small ferries cross the river here shaving hours off the round trip time. What’s unusual is that due to the speed of the river the ferries constantly face the flow, and vehicles drive onto the side of the boats. Watching trucks loading is both impressive and frightening.
We were lucky to be the biggest vehicle boarding our boat and were asked to wait until last so that we could slide into the centre position – no manoeuvring, excellent.
The Wild East.
After a quick dip for Polly and me in the Danube (dirty, warm and a bit smelly this far along its length) we entered cowboy country.
The drive to Tulcea, the last city before the delta, is hot and arid. Wild countryside, ripe cereal crops parched in the punishing sun, many horses, little else.
At the town we found a vet for Polly’s final jab. DMA Vetland’s lovely team of a vet and two nurses brought Polly in, sorted the necessary, then gave me recommendations for places to visit on the delta. All of the vets we have dropped in on have been great, this was probably the best – and the cost? About £4!
Murighiol. The Delta’s last stand.
The delta is protected, and it’s mostly ever changing marshland. The last roads finish at Murighiol.
When sites are as cheap as they are here there’s little point in wild camping. Even the most basic sites usually offer a degree of shade. And it’s easy to empty the loo and fill up with water.
At Murighiol we found the lakes, but we didn’t find the joy. It’s a hot dusty place where the vegetable gardens are bountiful, but there doesn’t seem a lot else to hold people.
The Eastern European countries rue the loss of their youth to Britain and Germany, but you can see why. Just as I left Cornwall, and Amanda left Yorkshire, to get on you have to get out, at least for a few decades.
At the bar we met Olli, Andy and Jackie from Worcester and had our first easy English banter in a while. I love those chance meetings with people where you briefly enjoy each other’s company and stories, yet you’ll probably never meet again.
There’s one more road deeper into the delta, we’ll try that now.
At a landing stage we see the little boats speeding deep into the delta. It convinces us that we don’t need a boat trip.
Jackie and Andy described it as fun, but too fast to see much wildlife – we understand.
After here there are two towns on the coast, both a few hours away by boat. We’re intrigued, but suspect they’re not worth two day round trip.
Lacul Razim and Sarichioi.
Our last delta stop has restored a little faith, aided by a big lake and a cool wind.
We’ll camp on the shore and hope the breeze keeps blowing into the night.
Although the water is too dirty to temp me, Polly is nowhere near as fussy. After a long swim she is cool for the first time in days.
Fishermen load big nets into small boats, while a hundred tiny water snakes skim the surface.
In the evening families come to fish and promenade.
Just now a guy came to tell me about places I should see in the area.
How good is that?
He’s a wine maker and musician, with great English, and a good knowledge of the place where he grew up. He told me that the town’s name, Sarichoi, means yellow town in old Turkish, because all the houses were once thatched.
He explained how the town was established by Russian old believers fleeing from Tsar Peter 300 years ago, and consequently how the church’s calendar doesn’t fit with the Georgian calendar we all know. I feel humbled by folk who have such as grasp of their heritage, especially when something so old holds meaning for them still.
During the night, 2am, a gang of lads turned up in their cars, all spinning wheels and revving engines. At home we’d expect them to smash a few bottles and smoke some weed. These guys got out an accordion and started singing.
We’re not quite at the Black Sea, there’s a narrow causeway that has made Lacul Razim into a brackish lake.
I have never gone such a long time without seeing the sea, my expectations are high – I hope it delivers.