Bucovina


With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

After a seven and a quarter hours drive, including a couple of stops, I’m back in the city, Romania’s second largest city (after the capital) in terms of population – Iași. I’m not happy.

Iași is not a bad city as cities go, but I would not choose to stay in it, nor any other, for any length of time in the summer. The things which would attract me, the theatre which is also the opera house and the philharmonic hall with its superb resident orchestra and choir, have no programme in the summer.

Bucovina

The summer is a time to spend in the beautiful countryside of northern Romania, for me the area known as ‘the Bucovina’ – basically the ‘county’ (județ) of Suceava – and the neighbouring ‘county’ of Neamț, where we have just spent a few days. The motivation to visit there was two-fold: to take Petronela’s parents to visit three monasteries in Neamț ‘county’ – Neamț, Agapia and Varatec (my favourite) – and to visit another former pupil from 24 years ago, Paula (see post, post and post).

Highlight of the trip

Paula lives in the beautiful valley of the river Bistrița, so after visiting the three monasteries, staying two nights near Agapia, we continued south to the large lake of Bicaz, then turned up the Bistrița valley to Vatra Dornei, staying a couple of nights in Broșteni and visiting Paula and her family in Borcă. Needless to say, the highlight of the trip for me was the visit to my former pupil, now a teacher of English in Broșteni.

Varatec monastery – my favourite

Petronela and me at the Varatec monaster

Petronela and me at the Varatec monastery

The Varatec monastery is not one of the famous painted monasteries of the Bucovina; apart from it being a particularly beautiful monastery tended by its resident nuns, not monks, it has fond memories of taking Petronela’s grandmother there for Easter (whatever your faith, or none, the night before Easter Sunday at a monastery is an experience not to be missed if possible).

If you are just having a holiday in Romania there is little reason to stay in a city. None of them other than Bucharest is so large you cannot stay in a bed and breakfast outside the city and go in to visit places of interest, eg the open air museums with their collections of traditional houses or those castles which are within the cities, eg the ‘cetatea’ in Suceava, Bucovina, or the old city within Sighișoara in Transylvania. Even Sibiu has lost its charm for me, the craftsmen and women with their wares around the large central square in the 1990s being completely replaced by bars and restaurants.

Transylvania and the Dracula nonsense

Don’t be misled by the concentration on Transylvania; parts of Transylvania are certainly beautiful but what drags so many tourists there is the myth of Dracula but, for example, Bran castle near Brașov has little if anything to do with the real ‘Dracula’, Vlad Țepeș, who in turn has nothing to do with vampires, and the Dracula hotel at the top of the Tehuța pass between Bistrița and Vatra Dornei is even more of a nonsense.

The decorated monasteries

Of course if you visit Romania I would say ‘a must’ is a visit to the decorated monasteries of the Bucovina but be careful; everything around them and within them is unjustifiably expensive. The most renowned, Voroneț, is not for me the most attractive – I prefer Moldovița or secondly, Sucevița.

Humor monastery

An attempted visit to one of the less renowned, Humor, on our way ‘home’ was abandoned when we saw the entrance price and the levy to take a photograph (I visited it more than once many years ago when there were no charges). Having said that, Humor is one where the external images are best preserved despite being one of the earliest to be decorated. It is also perhaps one of the most interesting (just Google ‘monasteria Humor’ for more details why), but in my opinion that does not justify being ‘ripped off’ (the craft items on the stalls around are also overpriced and the genuine items mixed with a lot of rubbish from maybe China and India). There are no entrance charges or fees to take photographs in the Neamț monasteries.

Bureaucracy – Romanian + EU

Apart from visiting Petronela’s parents in Iași city, we unfortunately need to spend a time here to attempt to complete various ‘administrative’ tasks which can only be completed in a city, in our case only in Iași. Despite Romania being one of the best internet connected countries in Europe, there is little you can do to tackle the formidable bureaucracy on line, made all the worse by Romania now being in the European Union.

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First haibun written in the open notebook, with Japanese characters for ‘haibun’ on facing page

This is my first attempt at haibun.

Discovering an old ‘diary’ of my first two months in Romania, in 1993, bringing to mind events and emotions I had entirely forgotten, and reawakening those I had not, I had the urge to record my forthcoming visit to Romania in some form of diary. But Romania, particularly the northern area known as the Bucovina, has had such a life-changing effect on me a normal ‘travelogue’ seemed entirely inadequate.

Haiku and haibun

My love of haiku is well documented on this blog, I even endeavour not only to write them but to experiment with them, so haibun – a mixture of sparse prose with haiku – seemed the ideal form in which to attempt a ‘diary’ of my latest visit.

Though this is my first venture into the ancient Japanese world of haibun, albeit necessarily in a westernised form, I cannot resist experimenting. So, just as my haiku sometimes became what I called ‘picture haiku’, some of my haibun may become ‘picture haibun’.

#0 because the journey has not yet begun. A trial run if you will. My aim (I won’t say ‘hope’, a word I’ve eliminated from my vocabulary) is that they get better as I journey through the forty seven days.

What remains of herbal teas brought back from Romania last summer, foraged by my ‘honorary grandmother’

I began to appreciate herbal teas only due to an experience during my second year in Romania, 1994. They are relatively little drunk in Britain, at least by the general population, compared to Romania and, I know now, Latvia.  The Romanian experience changed my view and what followed changed my life.

I’ve posted before about how I began to teach in Romania (due to mistaking the word ‘marfă’ for ‘mafia’). I’ve not posted before about two life-changing experiences. The first was an introduction to herbal teas; the second, in the same place, was when I say I was ‘born again’, half Romanian.

Introduction to herbal teas

The ‘county’ inspector for English, who persuaded me to stay in Romania to teach English in a top high school when my planned six month stay finished, invited me to accompany her on a visit to a village school, in a village called Sadova, not far from the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc. I was feeling really ill with a dreadful cough, sore throat and high temperature which I had not been able to shake off as I usually could. I almost called the visit off.

At some point we visited the house of a/the young English teacher. I  was clearly suffering and struggling to eat something (obligatory when visiting any Romanian home). She asked to be excused, went out the back and climbed a little way up the steep grassy slope to the forest, seeming to be picking flowers. She returned with a handful of leaves and flowers. She boiled some water, poured it on the plants, added some honey and after a few minutes gave me a mug full of the brew to drink. A strange taste for me then but it seemed discourteous not to drink it.

An hour or so later I felt completely well!

I’ve no idea what those plants were – at the time my Romanian was sparse – but now I’d call the brew ‘ceai de multe plante’, ‘tea of many plants’.

Born again in Bucovina

View of Sadova and surroundings

Sadova

The second experience I find impossible to describe adequately. I was back in Sadova but alone. I cannot remember how I got there but I climbed up the steep slopes through the forest and came across a grassy clearing, sun filtering through the tall fir trees, the air full of the scent of them, so sat to catch my breath. An extraordinary peace came over me and the light seemed to change to what I can only describe as magical. The cynical might say I hyperoxygenated from the climb. I’m sure that is not the explanation. I’ve no idea for how long I sat but when I left I felt a different person and I still have that feeling every time I cross the border into Romania, more so when I enter the Bucovina.

I say I was ‘reborn’ there and have been in love with the Bucovina ever since. Several years later I managed a project there with egg decorators, made many friends, and now visit the region and those friends every year.

Romanian herbal ‘teas’ – collecting romanița

I said above that I was introduced to herbal teas in Sadova. That is not quite true though that was the first time I drank one. In the first couple of months in Romania I collected ‘romanița’ (chamomile) beside the impressive river Prut in a little village called ‘Broascăcești’ (which no one I tell of it believes exists – maybe it’s a local popular name – my translation, ‘village of frogs’). I was taken there by my wonderful host family, at or around Easter 1993, to visit relatives. A lady, perhaps I met her/danced with her at a wedding, persuaded me to collect romanița with her the following day. My memories are fragmented but I do remember the village was flooded when we arrived and we had to abandon the car (ubiquitous Dacia, one of only two makes of cars seen 25 years ago, Romanian Renault 11) and take to a cart pulled by a bullock.

Now we bring back to UK ‘teas’ gathered by my ‘honorary grandmother’ each year (those remaining from last year are pictured). More recently I’ve learned about many more from my good Latvian friend Ilze, from her blog ‘a day in the life of a latvian mom’, along with fungi (‘mushrooms’) of various kinds, vegetarian recipes, about her fascinating country (of which I knew little) and much more.

Romanian foraged ‘herbal teas’ I know (I may not always spell correctly):

Those brought back to the UK
Păducel – Hawthorn
Ceai de tei – Flowers of the Linden tree
Mentă – Mint
Salcâm – Acacia (also my favourite honey)
Soc – Elder flower
Gălbanele – Marigold
Cimbru de câmp – Wild thyme
Coada soricelului (mouse tail) – Yarrow
Sunătoare – St. John’s-wort
Trandafir – Rose

Others I know
Romaniță (mușețel) – Chamomile
Coada calului (horse tail) – Field horse tail
Patlagină – Ribwort plantain
Bradul – The fir tree
Leurda – Wild garlic (we collect in UK for salad)
Osul iepurelui (rabbit’s bone) – Restharrow
Țelina – Celeriac
Urzica – Nettle (we collect in UK, young, and use like spinach)
Vișinul – Sour cherry (my favourite fruit, especially in Romania)
Zmeurul – Raspberry (another favourite fruit)

There are good reasons to bring back herbs and fruit even if available in the UK: both soil and air are cleaner in the Bucovina, truly ‘organic‘ (a stupid term, all food is ‘organic’ – recently adopted ‘bio‘ is as bad – but you’ll know what I mean).

Ricardo Muti, this year’s conductor and in the year of our marriage, 2000

I’d usually write about my New Year experience in one post but this time was persuaded to break it into two parts, so here’s the second instalment.

New Year’s Day became ‘special’ for me 20 years ago when, then living in the student hostel of the high school in which I was a volunteer English teacher, I was invited to spend New Year’s Eve with the family of a history teacher, urged on by her younger sister. Having followed the Romanian tradition of a ‘midnight feast’ I was invited to stay the night rather than return to my chilly hostel room 7km away. Little did anyone know, least of all me, to what that would lead, or did I? Two years later that history teacher became my wife and a tradition for us was set.

 

 

 

Romanian traditions and Vienna New Year concert

The following morning was spent with a background of New Year dance and traditions on the tv, something I was well versed in having spent a few years in the Romanian Bucovina, one of the regions where traditions are best preserved. Then in common with tv stations throughout the world the Romanian station switched to covering the Vienna New Year concert. Petronela and I have followed that every year since, the following year at a mutual friend/colleague’s home where a month or so later on that friend’s birthday you might say that the romance was perhaps recognised as ‘serious’.

 

 

 

So, back to this year. The kitchen had been left a ‘disaster’ as we fell into bed at 2am, bubbly consumed with the background of Nile Rodgers (see yesterday’s post) then Jools Holland with truly amazing artists like Ruby Turner and Mavis Staples (and I’d better mention Ed Sheeran who doesn’t have such a bad voice 😜).

As I said, the ‘kitchen’ was left a disaster but in fact we don’t have a kitchen as such, the sitting room area and kitchen being ‘open plan’, separated by just a counter, next to which we have our dining table – a beautiful mahogany drop-leaf amalgamation of a modern top in classical style and a base from the mid 18th century. You can see it with one leaf up in yesterday’s post. First to be cleared in the ‘disaster’ zone was the table; I just ate what remained on it from ‘the feast’ for breakfast 😂).

Eclectic musical taste?

But to return to the Vienna New Year concert (you get the idea I have a somewhat eclectic taste in music? Though ‘classical’ is top for me). The tv on which we watch and listen to the New Year concert is in what I term our ‘musical corner’; you might see two Romanian nai (panpipes) in some pictures, one tourist and one for a musician, as well as a harmonica; under that, unseen, is a piano, ‘hifi’ and a large collection of LPs, orchestral and opera. CDs are next to it.

One of the things I love about the Vienna concert is the ballet sequences; I’ve been an avid follower of ballet since my Grandmother took me to my first, Swan Lake, when I was seven years old (so you can imagine how pleased I was that Darcey Bussell was made a ‘Dame’ in the New Year Honours). The grace and beauty of ballet I saw in gymnastics when the Romanian team was preeminent so gymnastics are now the only sport I’m really interested in. You might say that ballet is now my second favourite art form, the first being music itself, whether instrumental or sung.

 

 

 

An innovation this year was an informative trip through Vienna with a young lady on a bicycle, calling at many of the most notable venues in this wonderful cradle of music. I enjoyed that.

This year’s conductor of the New Year concert was Ricardo Muti, not who conducted the first one Petronela and I saw together in 1998 but he who conducted the concert in the year of our marriage – 2000.

Daniel’s cafe/bistro Ilkley is not run by Daniel but by his daughter Miruna and her husband. The name is a tribute to Miruna’s father who runs a hotel in our other favourite place, the Romanian Bucovina, specifically in the spa town (a bit like Harrogate) of Vatra Dornei.

We decided to visit this small but cosy coffee shop by day, a ‘bistro’ in the evening, yesterday afternoon. The cakes are ‘interesting’, yesterday’s were with butternut squash or pumpkin, but neither is ‘my cup of tea’ as we say so I opted for the Romanian sponge with apple and plums, the only truly Romanian cake on offer. With the first taste it took me back to my ‘honorary grandmother’s’ house near Câmpulung Moldovenesc, about 30km from the spa town, where we twice stayed for a while during our summer break. She makes an identical ‘cake’ (in fact it’s more like a pudding).

If a new visitor to Ilkley don’t stop at the Cow & Calf rocks and a walk on Ilkley moor but continue on the moorland road for some wonderful views. Here’s as we decend into our village

Romanian chocolate cakes

Unfortunately, not liking anything with fruit Petronela settled for just one of the excellent coffees. It’s a pity there are not more Romanian cakes, particularly chocolate cakes of which there are many: chec negru (black cake), amandine, mascota and others. All excellent and any one of them would have suited Petronela. There had been brownies, sold out, but for me the Romanian version is better: boema, chocolate cake soaked in a caramel syrup and topped with a ganache and ‘frișcă’ – sweetened whipped cream. It’s certainly more indulgent for any chocoholic.

But the main reason for a visit to Daniel’s if you are in Ilkley is the Romanian (more exactly Bucovinian) welcome. You will not find a more hospitable, friendly people anywhere and it hasn’t been diminished at all by being transplanted in Yorkshire.

Something I particularly like is Miruna’s tribute to her father, posted on a window. That also is very typically Romanian. Having been lucky enough to meet him on a previous visit, we can confirm he’s a great guy.

Daniel’s cafe/bistro has a website:

https://www.danielscafebistro.co.uk/

Don’t miss it (not open every day – see website) if you visit this lovely small Yorkshire town. If you’re lucky Miruna will have taken my hint and have more Romanian chocolate cakes!

As so often in Romania, things are not as they seem nor as you have been told.

The necessary legal documents to buy the ‘dream house’ (see previous post) were not in order as we had been assured they were and, more important, the elderly lady – D-na Saveta – owning it has two daughters, one of whom was keen for her to sell it but the other – who wasn’t answering the phone or communicating in any way – didn’t want her to sell it at all it turned out. She needs ‘permission’, and a legal agreement, from both to sell it.

We haven’t yet given up entirely but it seems unlikely; to get the documents in order would take at least a year (though that time scale would not be a problem for us).

Tomorrow we’re hoping to have another chat with D-na Saveta after erecting the tents in the garden here to dry as we packed them rather damp in Săliște. It should be sunny here tomorrow morning.

The route back – first part

Map of route we aim to follow from Campulung Moldovenesc to Budapest

So, we are back in the Bucovina having spent about a week in Săliște, Sibiu, returning to Iași on Thursday. The villages and small towns around the city of  Sibiu are quite wonderful with their multi-coloured, well maintained saș (saxon) architecture. I put a few pix on my Facebook journal, Dusty2Romania, but Petronela has put far more on her Facebook. Having ‘done’ the spectacular ‘Transfagărășanul’ last year we thought we’d try Romania’s highest main road – Transalpina, 2,145 metres – this year. I wasn’t so impressed though it seems extremely popular with motorcyclists and occasional cyclists.

Very noticable throughout Romania was a massive increase in the number of cyclists – lycra, helmets and all – not only foreign tourists but many Romanians.

Back in Bucovina

We arrived at my ‘honorary grandmother’s’ house, just 7km before Câmpulung Moldovenesc, a couple of hours ago. We will leave most probably on Monday to follow the route shown above rather than the way we came, via Baia Mare, Sighet and Borșa, so then skirting the Ukrainian border. There is camping at the spa town of Marghita (not named on the Google map above but the last thick black circle before the Romania/Hungary border I think) so we aim to spend a night there then on to Budapest, where we have selected another campsite.

We will then go through Budapest, hopefully avoiding the M0 motorway around the south of the city which is a really scary drive – maniac Hungarian drivers sticking 2 metres from your boot at 90mph – on the way to Austria then Germany but haven’t decided on a route yet. So far we have seen four bad accidents this trip, one on that Budapest ring road and one today on the way here from Iași which, to get round it, took us on what was really a forest footpath – fun in other circumstances.

We fancy trying to pick up the Rhine valley which we really enjoyed in the classic mini in 2006, where there were some excellent campsites. I’ll probably be able to do another post somewhere along that route.

My love affair with Romanian entered a new phase a few days ago when we visited friends in the Bucovina town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc. These friends knew we were looking for a house in the region with idea of moving from the UK to Romania to live. At that time we were not thinking the chance of moving was better than 50/50; there were, and remain, many questions to be answered.

A traditional Bucovina timber house

Traditional Bucovina timber house we're considering

The friends, Cătălin and his wife Carmen, knew also that we were looking, for preference, for a house in traditional Bucovina style, with a reasonable plot of land, at a price we might be able to afford. We also wanted it close to a major tourist route for Maramureș and Bucovina, two regions of Romania where Romanian traditional culture is best preserved.

When we arrived they told us they might have found the house we wanted, a few minutes on foot from where they lived. For me, it was particularly interesting as it was basically built of timber. We set off to see it, noting the location was just what we wanted, on the major route but far enough from the road to not hear the traffic, on the edge of the forest but only a short distance to the town centre.

Crossing a rickety wooden bridge over a stream then walking a short distance along a ‘street’ of grass, we looked over a fence to see a house from a fairy tale. Built from substantial timbers, infilled with clay, it has none of the environmentally unsound characteristics of houses built of ‘modern’ materials. As I said recently on my ‘journal’ of the present trip to Romania – Dusty2Romania – I can sense immediately I enter a house built of timber, the only other form of construction giving the same sense of peace and well-being being a strawbale house, and there are few of those in Romania.

Preserving a 100+ year old house

This house has stood for more than 100 years and will probably, with care, stand for another hundred, certainly for far longer than I or Petronela are living. Most Romanians would, unfortunately, demolish it and build a concrete, brick and plastic monstrosity in its place. If we are lucky enough to acquire it, we would preserve the existing house, only building a sympathetic extension on the rear.

Today we made a second visit, measured the rooms, outbuildings, examined the legal documents of title etc and, most important, talked a lot with the 85 years old present owner, leaving already calling her ‘Bunica Saveta’ – grandma Saveta.

Maybe we are a step closer to realising our dream.

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