Romania. Running on plums. And other stories.

Plums.

Arriving in Romania at this time of the year you might think that the country runs on plums.

Trees are purple with the fruit everywhere you look.

And in a way you’d be right.

Apparently 75% of them end up bottled, as palinka. Palinka is their lethal plum brandy. It comes out to help say hello, to help say goodbye, and, most importantly, to get the party started.

Sweets grow on trees, and we like sweets.

Other fruits are available. 

From where I sit in the Robinson campsite above Oradea I can see trees heavy with apples, walnuts, cherries, elderberry and apricots. Vines with their grapes. And in the veg patch all manner of things I don’t even recognise.

We have harvested well this week.

Border crossing.

Hungary was better than we expected.

But the excitement notched up as soon as we crossed into Romania.

The border was easy, a quick passport check, nothing more.

Curiously the kiosk for the road vignette didn’t take cards or even local currency – only euros, or US dollars.

The roads into Oradea are lined with ghost factories. These crumbling abandoned concrete monoliths from decades past. Alongside the old are their modern replacements, gleaming new, small manufacturing units.

Factories. And fuel stations. I’ve never seen so many. And fuel’s cheap, just over a pound a litre.

The easy border at Bihors.

Language.

The language becomes easier. Romanian is Latin based and so it’s easier to pronounce. You have a fair chance of guessing what the signs mean too.

So far the drivers are no worse than we’re used to.

Chewing the Latin with the locals.

Oradea.

Who’d have thought it?

The first city, Oradea, is only a few miles from the border, and much of it is beautiful. Many buildings boast the late c.19thart nouveau architecture of Vienna and Budapest. 

OK, much of it is crumbling, but that adds an air of mystery and interest. Its value is understood and there are renovation works going on all over the centre – come now before it all looks perfect again.

Come while some of it is still crumbling.

Crumbling concrete.

In Eastern Europe it’s a common theme.

Here it’s interesting to see sparkling new and expensive restaurants at the base of sorry looking towers, and misplaced low rise in the middle of the glorious old buildings. Romania may never fully erase its Eastern Bloc reminders, nor should it.

Look closely, the shiny restaurant is topped by a crumbling tower.

Crisul Repede.

The wide Crisul Repede river separates the centre, both sides warrant exploration.

The long pedestrian Calea Republicii is lined with restaurants and architectural gems that take you to the river. Over the bridge the Piata Unirii is a vast square Banks bask under quite remarkable buildings that have mostly been restored at vast cost. We were there on Saturday afternoon and the whole place was a big wedding party with bands, traditional dancing, parades, and a fair bit of turf war.

Weddings wherever you look on the main square.

Oradea is unusual, special and it provided a gentle introduction to Romania.

Camping Robinson Country Club.

It’s a grand name for a simple campsite, but it served us well.

We succeeded in getting the van into a roadside spot in town, but then decided that the comfort and security of a site would be worth 25 euros a night.

The enterprising young owner, Adam, speaks many languages well. He’s full of enthusiasm and that makes up for the unfinished nature of the site. The fact that it’s only 15 minutes walk to town makes it a winner.

Restored and ready.

Churches, monasteries, and the horse versus five hundred horse power.

Maramures is Romania’s most traditional region. Steeped in folklore, religion and a handed down, more basic way of life, this is said to be Europe’s last peasant population.

If that interests you then you should visit soon. This area is witnessing change faster than anywhere we’ve been so far. The old way of life can still be found, but you’ll need to turn a blind eye to a fair bit too.

Fathers drive their horse and cart as their daily transport. Sons come back from their jobs abroad in sparkling Mercedes and BMWs.

This is a regular sight in the north east.

The long straight road north east across the plains is boring. Fields of sunflowers and maize are punctuated by roadside stalls selling mammoth melons and other produce, but there’s little else to break the monotony. 

Villages stretch for miles with no obvious centre, mostly they’re just a single house deep. The large modern houses are uninspiring, built to plans bought online. They serve their occupants well, but they are the same across so much of eastern Europe.

One hundred or so miles from Oradea the scenery suddenly changes and we start climbing. 

This area with a view, and a breeze, is clearly sought after. 

The houses change from the large places we’ve seen so many of, to utterly massive vulgar creations with multiple balconies, curved walls and glass, extensive gates and vast gardens. Places that would give the Beckhams agoraphobia, places bigger than anything you’d see in the worst (most expensive) parts of Cheshire.

It happens everywhere. Tiny cottages that look so pretty are bought to be bulldozed and replaced with something utterly out of place. Suddenly another golden egg layer is dead. I know it’s progress, I know it’s all around us in Cornwall as well, but I’ve never seen it on this scale.

Sapanta.

This little village is a must visit destination, yet without being told it’d be easy to drive through and not notice.

We first turned north off the main road to visit the Sapanta Peri Monastery. 

Unfortunately there were no monks to be seen, and I haven’t had signal to research the place since. Their life fascinates, it even draws me.

No monks. But there was their awe inspiring monastery to enjoy. Apparently its 75m tower is Europe’s tallest wooden structure. Whether it is or not hardly matters, it’s an incredible piece of work, covered in thousands of vaguely fish shaped shingles.

We slept outside of its car park from where I ventured across the border to Ukraine by wading through the river. It’s the closest to visiting that we’ll get on this trip.

Sapanta Peri Monastery. We slept peacefully in the grounds.

Cimitirul Vesel – the merry cemetery.

Having such a monastery should be sufficient claim to fame for any village, but not for Sapanta.

In the centre, just off the main road, is its merry cemetery. Famed and flocked to for its humorous carved wooden crosses of which there are hundreds. Each grave has a wood carving depicting the dead, along with a ditty about them. They’re carved front and back and truly exceptional.

My favourite is this girl’s which depicts a simple village girl on one side, then this vision in red knickers, with lusty admirers on the other.

Pioenile Izei.

A small village a few miles down a dirt track.

A small village with a dark secret.

We peeled off the tarmac and onto a gravel road that was being made as we drove it. These unmade roads are far more common here than at home, yet still, each time you do so with heart in mouth.

We’d left all the ugly McMansions a long way behind, and now we were deep in pastoral countryside. Most houses are wooden, and most have a small zoo of animals hanging around the yard, seemingly entering the house at will.

Everyone has a wave, and the sight of hard working people, chatting by the roadside, or avoiding the sun, warms the heart. The women wear headscarves, the men trilbies. And there are a fair few people in more traditional dress, not for show, but because that’s what they wear.

Hell. And a sore arse. Illustrated.

Our destination was the reasonable sized village of Pioenile Izei, but more precisely the frescoes of its wooden church, built in 1630.

If you’re easily offended I’d skip a paragraph or two now. The scenes depicted are gruesome indeed. 

The church frescos included the scenes we’re used to of Jesus, his disciples, probably a pope or three. 

And then, by the door, were the depictions of hell.

The c.17thartist had clearly suffered punishments that involved extensive abuse of his bottom, for all over the devil was hard at work penetrating every sinners’ arse.

Stepping in from the bright daylight to the gloomy church the faded pictures took time to reveal themselves. Thankfully.

The first to grab my attention was Satan hammering a stake up someone’s rectum.

In the next a plough was being dragged to split someone in two. You guessed it, arse first.

We howled with disrespectful laughter at the poor miscreant who had a bellows shoved where the sun shone neither then nor now, with two devils working the handles.

There were more. They were gruesome, but you should get the theme by now. Photography was not allowed.

The Grim Reaper in another church.

Botiza. Ioan and Maria.

After a taste of hell in God’s holy house it’s a welcome relief to now sit in the garden of Ioan and Maria who open up their Botiza home to guests.

We’re actually parked in their simple drive. It’s calm. It’s beautiful. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Every dinner starts with soup.

Maria cooked us a great dinner, preceded by, lubricated by, and digested with the aid of her son’s plum and cherry brandies. Wow, that stuff packs a punch.

We’ve learnt so much about rural life from this short stay in Botiza. 

It has made me consider beauty. 

The village isn’t obviously beautiful, but spend a little time and its charm becomes infective. People from my age onwards dress quite traditionally, they’re as likely to be seen carrying a scythe as a strimmer, and life revolves around crops, animals and strong liquor. 

Give us a kiss.

The evening is for sitting out, chatting to whoever is passing. Oh, and taking the goats for a walk. The village is more alive in the evening than anywhere I know, and everyone has a smile and a buna seara (sounding like the Italian) for the strangers.

Barn at Ioan and Maria’s.
ArchieVan in Ioan’s garden.

The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina.

We’re now in Moldavia.

We’d read about the painted monasteries.

They’re a long way from most things.

A long long way.

But hey, it isn’t every day that you get the chance to see a monastery built in the early 1600s, that’s (generally) still in use, and that has some quite amazing frescoes painted on pretty much every surface.

The Lonely Planet guide describes them as the most distinctive in all Christendom. It’s a big claim. But it’s probably right.

Our first painted monastery at Moldavita.

There’s a circuit that takes you to seven of the monasteries. We’ve visited three today, and we’re parked at a fourth ready to be first in tomorrow.

Monasteries?

These are more like castles than most castles.

All but the tiny Arbore have huge defensive walls. At Dragomirna where we are now the eleven metre high walls tower above us. Tower? Yes, there are a few of them too.

Across the orchard to the defensive walls on Dragomirna Monastery.

The themes of the frescoes include many biblical stories that you’ll be familiar with, but also demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with damnation and persecution. 

Many decapitations are graphically illustrated (including rolling heads spurting blood while still bearing their halos).

The tiny Arbore monastery church.
And its least ravaged west wall.

Leaving the Carpathians.

We’ve crossed the south eastern edge of the Carpathians.

Tall mountains. Basic ski slopes. Long views and some incredibly winding roads.

Looking back across the Carpathians.

This country is mostly agricultural. Most of the agriculture is (currently) cereal, sunflowers and maize.

At any one time a road might hold half a dozen horse drawn vehicles (most appearing to carry a load of weeds), a few huge trucks, and some very flash cars. The mix is interesting. 

Stickman tackles the A1.

Best yet was a cart we saw yesterday with father and son in working clothes, but glamorous mum in the back, dressed to thrill, Jacqui O sunglasses and a premium handbag that she wanted all to see.

The housing. 

Tiled house, tin roof.

Pretty wooden houses, often painted, sit alongside massive non-descript modern block built places. As we travel east so the massive ones have become less common. Occasionally a traditional house is tiled, beautifully, colourfully and completely.

Exhausted.

A few years back I had a silly work rate. I understand that now. I’d go full speed for weeks on end, then have to stop completely to rest when it all caught up with me.

Yesterday fatigue hit me in a similar way.

We haven’t driven silly distances, but it has been high concentration stuff all week. Sometimes unmade roads for many miles, some city driving, duelling with trucks, and always on the lookout.

When we pulled into Sturdza Castle’s grounds I knew I couldn’t go any further for a while.

Sturdza Castle, home for a couple of nights.

Sturdza Castle and Sebastian.

What a special place to drop anchor for a rest day.

We met the property and events manager, Sebastian. With a bottle and three glasses we chatted through a couple of jolly hours as the colour gradually drained from the sky.

Sebastian is so bright, so knowledgeable and keen to share his Orthodox based philosophies. He also took us for an interesting tour of the house with stories of the family, and it’s pending restoration.

ArchieVan in his rightful home. The castle grounds.

The castle served as a family seat and home, but with no heirs it was given to the church towards the end of WWII. The Soviets purloined it and stole everything they could move. It was raided by the villagers who removed its fixtures and fittings. It was used as a hospital. Then finally good times came again. It is now cared for by the diocese and managed by the affable Sebastian. There’s a ten year programme of restoration that will restore some of its grandeur.

Depalidated and beautiful. Sturdza Castle, Iasi.

Sebastian’s building a programme of events and has big plans for the grounds. Expect a little Glynbourne here in years to come.

We’ll return his hospitality with notes on North Wales for his visit to his sister in Telford in a few weeks and we hope we’ll meet him again in life.

Wells are everywhere – most still in use.

Romania has been an exciting surprise. I expected excitement, but I didn’t expect the pastoral beauty. Fortunately we haven’t seen the mounds of litter and packs of dogs that plagued my drive through the west of the country last year.

Genius. Wine vending machine, dispensing 2 litres at a time.
The old man needs some support now and then.
Craft can be detailed, these are ceramic and life sized.
Craft can be simple. Painstakingly carved stairs.
A simple alternative to a bell that I hope to copy some time.
Pantry? A (fairly) common garden decoration.

Last days of a favourite shirt.

The favourite shirt.

I’ve had many.

But few have given such long and outstanding service as this one.

I found pics of it from ’06 when we got our first digital camera, but I know I bought it long before then (from Rocket on Brick Lane, probably in 2000).

It was old when I bought it.

Contemplating with Dr Steve, as Rothko, and above Gwenver.

What to do when the armpits are falling out and its core is gossamer thin?

I could preserve it for special occasions.

But there’s no room for such decadence on board ArchieVan. I suspect I’ll alternate it with my other tatterdemalion old stager until both fall to bits.

I know I bought Outdoor Baked Beans Taste Better in 2005.

Knocking on for 15 years old.

While searching for shirt pics I found this 2011 beauty of the first time we met Polly, aged 8 weeks. I may have been bloody annoyed with her many times since then, but I haven’t stopped loving her.

10 Replies to “Romania. Running on plums. And other stories.”

  1. Mark Alexanders says: Reply

    Hey KC! Sat in Faro on the 5th floor having lunch. Killing time before our flight back to Newquay (which is a god send). Had a lovely time doing lovely things. Your adventure looks more adventurous. Nice bit of history and cool pics.
    Life I often think is about memories. You and I share plenty and your new ones with your family look special and should keep you going for a long time. Keep enjoying and loving!
    Acki xx

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      Cheers Mark.
      Yes. You’re right. We’re hugely aware of how lucky we are to be on this trip.
      Sometimes it’s harder than work used to be. But it’s all learning and it’s all an adventure.
      Safe home for you all.
      KC.

  2. Rachael Smart says: Reply

    Absolutely intriguing read. You’ve drawn Romania so vividly I feel I’ve seen a snatch of it. Sounds like a slow, quaint sort of beauty that goes right back to basics. Now want a mug tree in Nottingham and a trip out there. Sad to hear of the shirt’s demise. I, too, get very attached to recycled clothes. Keep travelling well, both, and keep safe. Rachael.

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      An item of clothing can’t achieve “favourite” status for at least five years!
      Great to have you onboard, thanks for joining us.

  3. Little did tiny Polly Pumpkin know what an exciting life she would lead when she met you up on her moor.
    Romania sounds truly fascinating.. Some great people along the way this week too.
    Jxx🐾

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      You’re right Sis.
      Not many dogs clock up the miles like our Polly.
      There’s a lot here that’s simply boring, but then the other bits are so wild that it makes up for everything else.
      KC

  4. The shirt… well, well…. let’s not talk about style – that’s a highly subjective matter….
    But obviously of sentimental value…. more precious than the dotted underpants from last year, I guess……………………You could bury it!!! ………….”there shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed; a dust whom England bore….” (forgive me, if mockery with these traditional lines is utterly inappropriate – I know little about the english soul)
    Or – in case you will ever own a compost heap – compost it! Seriously – that’s what I sometimes do with loved items. I rather like the idea of “earth to earth, ashes to ahes”. Tom’s old guitar is rotting in our hedge, because he couldn’t bring himself to throw it in the garbage.
    M

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      I look forward to having a compass pile to donate my items to, and as for the guitar rotting in the hedge – that’s poetry.

      I love the way the wooden houses here slowly return to the soil, perhaps just a gate left standing as a reminder of a once loved home.

      Blimey it’s hot here now. We’re hiding under a willow tree, too hot to carry on.

      Best to Bliefeld.

      KC

  5. Lovely post and Romania sounds lovely and unexpected. Genius vending machine and adorable pup picture of Polly.

    We have similar pics of Daz’s t-shirts gong back to when you were Howies boys.

    If you throw it , keep a square for a patch on another shirt.

    💕❤️ keep us posted xx

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      That’s a cracking idea Pop, I love it and I will do just that.

      Romania is often boring, but the good bits are so wild that it makes the wait worthwhile.
      The botty prodding church was beyond belief.

      Love to you both from a very hot van somewhere that feels like nowhere.
      KC and The Wanderers.

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