Romanian Road Trip: Little House in the Forest

For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.

I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.

View of the entire complex from the surrounding hills.

Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.

Early morning visitor at my window.

The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.

The library and conference room, complete with projector.
We played cards in the common room, but you could have a disco in here.

They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.

Our companions as we climbed up towards Dacian fortress Piatra Rosie (Red Stone).

I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).

We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.

You can also camp in the more basic chalets, but you have a kitchen and place to eat in the shade.

While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.

The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.

The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)

Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.

The Eastern Gate to the city

You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.

One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food. 

My two favourite cats of the many friends I made there.

 

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22 thoughts on “Romanian Road Trip: Little House in the Forest”

  1. Your beautiful photos remind me of my younger years in Canada. My favourite time of year is Autumn, and I used to escape Toronto every chance I had to drive into the country and smother myself in it’s vast array of muticoloured leaves and musky odours. I loved the striking contrast of the black spotted white birch trees against the azure sky and the heightened colour of the wet, blood red leaves on the green grass. Your hideaway in Romania is best to be kept secret for the very reasons you mentioned. So many beautiful places are over-run with tourists and on their way to ruin. I am very surprised that the domestic animals of the proprietors ventured beyond their domain knowing that the “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” (a movie reference) could pounce, maim or devour at any given moment.
    Would you ever consider moving back to your homeland?

    1. More and more I think about going back there, Wally. I might head there when I retire and run writing retreats or the like.
      As for autumn colours, I think Canada must be one of the best places on earth for that!

  2. I for one am taking note of the Pensiunea; I’ve loved all my trips to Romania so far and am always on the lookout for another excuse to go. I’m glad you had such an enjoyable time there.

  3. I remember that hospitality when I was visiting a pen friend back in the 70s. Her old gran beckoned us over to her cottage one morning about 8 a.m. and gave us a large glass each of plum brandy. It was obvious it would have been rude not to drink it! Your retreat looks idyllic

  4. Oh, what a lovely place, Marina Sofia! That guesthouse looks like the perfect place to write, or just to relax and get a way for a bit. And the scenery! I can see how you were enchanted. Thanks, too, for sharing that interesting history. I’m glad there are people who are trying to protect the area, its crafts and history, and so on.

  5. What gorgeous photographs! Thank you for sharing these as well as the information about the sites. Sad to learn that fracking is on the cards in this landscape but unfortunately the Romanians are not alone in that threat to the wilderness.

  6. Incredible. Before your posts (those with minor mentions of Romania), Romania just wasn’t on my radar. I was (still am, really) ignorant about the country, aside from the mostly negative press about it, in fairly recent history. Your blogs about your trip amaze me. What a lovely, charming country! As you rightly suggest, undoubtedly it is unspoiled because it is not so touristy. While I will never get there, I will share your photos with family in the hopes that some day they might make that trip.

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