In praise of Romania (by van), and Zsolney’s ceramics.

    The simple luxuries of a campsite.

    At our campsite in the morning the French were all complaining about the dogs barking through the night. Hopefully they’ll get used to it. It’s such a feature of Romania that we’ve stopped noticing.

    The campsite looked after us well.

    The campsite at Minis. Washing done, bodies clean. Onward.

    Showered, with a bit more hand washing done, with the water tank full and feeling revived we set off for the short trip to Arad, via a swimming lake perhaps ten miles out of town.

    So much of this country looks as if it was designed for a whole lot more people.

    We pass facilities such as huge roadside restaurants, with only a few customers. Or sports grounds where the weeds are the only guests.

    At the swimming lake a large beach bar with plenty of tables, sun beds and showers was closed, on a Saturday afternoon when it was about 34 degrees.

    We partook of their facilities anyway, initially scared by the redneck hobo fellow who shambled along with his wolf dog, but when we asked if we could swim he seemed happy.

    Swimming lake outside Arad.

    Learning through experience.

    Travel is so valuable for teaching us to open our eyes wider, to wander in wonder.

    Last year when I came to Arad it was my first Romanian stop. I had driven for hours. The road is was a mess of trams, trucks and abandoned cars. Trees were bare, the area where we camped was all closed down for the winter. I hadn’t previously experienced free roaming dogs. And I was nervous.

    After five weeks or so in the country we feel so very different about it.

    It’s no nirvana, and it’s struggling, but the people are among the best we have met anywhere. They’re generous, helpful and ready with a smile, a handshake and a greeting.

    There’s beauty among the crumbling buildings, and if you pick your route well then the countryside is special too. Although heading across the plains is monotonous, and the roads are not fast.

    For us it’s very cheap, but it must be hard on the Romanians. Diesel is about £1.10 a litre, lpg is around 50p, so more than 10% cheaper than at home. That makes it sound attractive, but then consider that average income is a mere £550 a month, less than a quarter of that in the UK. Low average income means lower taxes to top up the coffers, even before you account for the corruption that’s creamed off much government spend.

    Their other big issue is the diaspora. 17% of people born in Romania now live in other European countries, and the ones who leave are generally those with the most oomph, the go getters who have gone and got.

    Arad revisited.

    Today Arad is a different place.

    The sun is shining and it’s blinking hot.

    The pool where I parked last year is heaving with people.

    And the town, while still crumbling, is beautiful to my eyes.

    Crumbling beauty – Piata Avram Iancu.

    Board meeting.

    My oasis last year was Ratio, a long established restaurant on the Piata Avram Iancu. The gruff winter border guard who inspected the van eventually warmed to me and suggested I go there. I did what I was told. I was well looked after, well fed and I drank an excellent local red.

    Board meeting. Ratio.

    Revisiting it yesterday with Minty was a joy. We talked freely and planned ahead, something we don’t always manage. Planning for us tends to mean that we set ourselves challenging goals. Board meetings in the past have moved us out of jobs. One meeting determined when we’d upsticks and head back home to live in Cornwall. We have bought or sold big projects after discussions over dinner. And the previous big meeting resulted in us hitting the road full time last year. Yesterday’s was pretty good too.

    Hungary – a new perspective.

    I admit that I wasn’t bothered about our forthcoming time in Hungary. I saw it as something we had to do. As I crossed the border I said that I hoped to be wrong… and wrong I was.

    Border crossing.

    The central European steppe extends from Hungary across Romania and further east, so no surprise there’s little visual difference. Both are predominantly scorched maize and sunflowers, there’s not a hill in sight, only small stands of trees break the monotony.

    Yet still crossing the border is a big thing. The roads in the east of Hungary are superb. Super smooth. Wide. With a hint of emergency verge before the deep ditch. 

    The speed is very different too. People drive through villages at the required 50 or 60 kph here, and the villages themselves are far more orderly places. 

    At 376 HUF (Hungarian florints) to the pound the currency conversion isn’t spontaneous, but prices are generally low so there’s no need to think about it too much.

    The language is beyond comprehension. I learn “’cause I’m a gnome” (kozonom) for thank you and that’ll have to do.

    Simple beauty. The steppe, with trees.

    Bert’s Homestay.

    Bert is Dutch. Donkey’s years ago he married a Belgique girl and moved to her country. Then when the doctors told him he had to get his crumbling lungs to somewhere with warm dry air they upped sticks and moved to Hungary.

    Now he has a good few hectares of land and welcomes vanners to his lovely garden at a most modest rate of 5 euros per night.

    We bantered on subjects far and wide then in the morning I swam in his just filled pool. At about 16 degrees it was the first cold water I’ve been submerged in for a very long time. I haven’t felt as alive in weeks.

    Bert’s is a happy friendly place to be. 

    Walking through the forests and fields of the surrounding few miles I’m interested at the deep sandy soil, apparently an alluvial deposit from when the Danube once flooded this land. 

    I see soya, cabbages, maize and sunflower (always) and birch. Miles and miles of birch. Bert gives us loads of wallnuts and hazel nuts fresh from his trees.

    ArchieVan in Bert’s garden.

    Baja on the Danube.

    40 miles or so down the road the city of Baja sits on the Danube. The Danube before it gets too dirty. A simple riverside stop is about as perfect as we could hope for. There’s a beach, a restaurant, a portaloo and shade. 

    Later we discover a smart toilet block that has showers too.

    We’re on a canal off the Danube. Half a mile up the canal is the 100m wide river itself, lined on this side with little holiday cabins, and on the Serbian side just trees.

    Already Hungary feels good.

    It feels like a leap forward into the west.

    Villages are neater. They have pavements. Shops are identifiable as shops.

    And here’s an interesting difference: people exercise because they want to.

    Cyclist. Runners. Outdoor gyms. Five a side (including an old boys team, no player younger than me). 

    On the river, Dragon Boats paddle to the beat of their own drums. As I’m swimming widths a mixed team of 20 veritable olds sped by.

    When we crossed into Hungary from Slovakia it felt poorer, but here in the east it feels like it’s thriving.

    View from the van. The Danube Canal at Baja.

    Temperature switch.

    In the night the evening breeze grew into a wind. The wind rolled up the heat like a carpet and floated it east. 

    Overnight we pulled our covers up and woke to a pleasant seventeen degrees. Polly and I heaved a sigh of relief at the cool. Minty heaved a sigh of relief that her two heat shirkers might actually show signs of life again. 

    Minty pulled on trousers and kept the van door closed. 

    PDog and I stanked a couple of miles past dachas facing the river. The further from town the higher the prestige, the cleaner the Mercedes, the newer the tender sitting on the river.

    Tiny cottages are being ripped apart to create grown up houses for new generations. But despite their perceived status, everyone has a wave, a hello.

    ArchieVan in stealth mode, above Pécs.


    Bert recommended many places, but our route is largely determined, many we’ll have to come back to.

    Pécs was possible.

    We swerved south to include the ancient Roman city and were impressed by what we saw.

    Wild camping is illegal in Hungary, but our spot under the TV tower that dominates the town was subtle. The tower has a restaurant that we didn’t get to, but it was the town that excited. Culture oozes from the bars, coffee shops and fountains of this southern Hungarian town. Empty stores become galleries for challenging art. The streets themselves are galleries of buildings.

    The TV tower by night. Pécs.

    There are young people, lots of young people. That might sound obvious, but we haven’t seen many of them in a lot of weeks, probably not since Vama Veche, and before then, perhaps Freiburg. 

    There are old buildings, and new, they sit together well. There is beauty here.

    Central square, Pécs, with the mosque dominating.

    Zsolnay Ceramics Factory.

    Oh my. I was already delighted by Pécs.

    Then Minty took me to the Zsolnay Factory.

    Think of the Satanic Mills of Northern England.

    Think of a similar period in Hungary. 

    The Zsolnay family of ceramicists were true artisans. They took their art to (fairly) mass production, building a complex of truly beautiful factories, and their own family houses, on a hill above Pécs.

    Zsolnay, not your average factoryscape. Check the chimney detail and roof.

    Roofs, walls, floors, griffons, lions and every other decoration are in glazed ceramics. There is so much, yet it doesn’t overface, in fact I suspect many walk through this place and barely notice.

    Today production continues on a small scale, while most of the old buildings now house new artisans, the ballet company, a concert hall, work spaces, and great cafes.

    Bridge at Zsolnay Cultural Centre.

    Tranquil Pines.

    I have pretty much resigned from social media.

    It’s not a protest. Despite all its ills that our media loves to exploit, I see it as a potential force for good, and I consider connectivity an essential part of progress (hence in part my Remain stance), but with Facebook I just can’t be arsed.

    Polly guards while Aya weeds.

    Thankfully Minty is our social media secretary, and it’s through her diving into Facebook that we found Tranquil Pines

    This small campsite between Pécs and Lake Ballaton is run by Andrew and Sharon who started their new life here a few years back.

    It’s kind of nowhere, but if you seek a degree of tranquillity, without the risk of the wild, this could be your ideal. It’s a friendly site with 20 pitches, good walking, and easy going. Andrew and Sharon have good knowledge of the country, and can arrange tours if you’d like something planned for you.

    The 10m pool is a sanctuary from the afternoon heat, although that heat is a reasonable 25 degrees now and even I can function. 

    Contemplating 55. Birthday boy is overwhelmed.

    Here too we’re impressed by WorkAway girl Aya. At 22 she’s working her way through cultures and countries so very different to her home in Japan.

    Food on trees, food on its feet.

    The surrounding hills are teeming with life, especially our evening walks as darkness falls. Deer are startled as we move silently on sandy soil, we’re buzzed by bats, and a large silent owl, scurry mongers crash through the undergrowth. Our day time walks are a feeding fest not stopping at merely 5-a-day as we harvest green, red and purple plums, peaches, apples and more. There are the beautiful lanterns of physalis fruit, but these aren’t ripe yet.

    Silky soft seed pods.

    Self help.

    Andrew tells me how the village looks after itself. How the Roma are able to double their meagre benefits by taking on tasks. That’ll explain the gangs of people cutting grass, strimming hedgerows. How there’s a kitchen cooking tiffin boxes of meals for the elderly who hang yesterdays tin outside their house around midday, waiting for the next. Each delivery van has its own air horn tone that you hear through the day. The gas man, the animal feed, the butcher, baker and yes, the ice cream maker (who brings cake in winter). It’s these stories that I want to hear more of and I’m grateful to him for sharing some.

    Today we’ll head to lake Balaton. We were there in the mid-90s when all of the east was so wild and new to us.

    And I’ll carry my new maturity with dignity, and perhaps a little wisdom.

    The Zsolney family mausoleum crypt at Pécs.
    Because we make tiles, a pavilion at the factory.
    If it’s flat we tile it.
    And we make lions, friendly lions.
    The cleaner immortalised.
    A fountain by the Zsolnay company in the town.
    Shabby Trabby.

    10 Replies to “In praise of Romania (by van), and Zsolney’s ceramics.”

    1. Kelvin, Amanda and Polly thank you so much for our mention of your stay with us at Tranquil Pines it was a pleasure to meet you all and hear your travelling stories. Enjoyed reading your adventures so far, carry on as normal happy and safe travels x

      1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

        Hi Sharon
        Thanks for popping a comment onto the blog.
        And please thank Andrew for sharing the post as well.
        We’re now in Austria where it’s more different than I could have imagined to your calm surroundings. And the prices are rather different too!
        Best wishes. Kelvin. 

    2. Wow, Zsolnay…what wonderful things they made, the buildings decorated by their wares and since 2009, just to replenish the coffers, a deal with IKEA! The bridge of the Cultural Centre is certainly cool.
      Silky soft pods – what are they? Somehow I think it would be better eating physalis fruit; probably healthier as it has antioxidant properties, apparently.
      This sounds like a week in which you have gradually been reacclimatised to the more affluent Northern European realms.

      1. The ceramics factory was the high point of Hungary for me. It’s a good buffer between east and west, but it’s a bit too flat for my liking.

    3. I lived in Romania for 3 1/2 years. Be nice to return. So much to see still.
      Love to live the van life.
      Pity don’t have the money or type of skills to do it.

      1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

        Thanks for popping a comment onto the post.
        Yes, there’s a lot to see in Romania, and much of it is beautiful.
        It’s possible to do van travel cheaply. Some people we have met are having an amazing time in the most basic set ups.
        I hope you get back there sometime.
        Cheers. Kelvin.

    4. The fruit and the nuts and the pool and cooler twilight walks sound divine after the former baking you had. It’s good when you can hear stories first hand, it definitely fortifies that sense of place when there’s a ribbon of history, too, in an authentic voice.

      1. I’d love to travel more slowly, or better still, live somewhere truly foreign for some time.
        It’s best done as a teenager, but perhaps now I’d absorb more.
        Though I hope the need to travel alone won’t happen again.
        Thank you Rachael, I look forward to reading your work when I get back.

    5. Hi KC and Minty, hi Jay – I was curious about the silky seed pods…….Asclepias physocarpa/Milkweed?
      En gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag, oude man!

      1. Thank you M
        This getting older lark isn’t as bad as people suggest.

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