I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.
N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.
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.
Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been knee-deep in non-creative stuff lately, so this is my attempt to remind myself to be creative. Or to remind myself that I do have a book in mind! Here is the opening of Chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress, introducing the policeman who will help our two main protagonists to resolve the murder mystery. The action takes place in a small town in the sub-Carpathians in Romania. This is a slow, descriptive start to a chapter after some rather action-packed scenes, because it introduces a new character, one who will become important in the course of the investigation. Do you feel it gives you a bit of insight into the character – too much, not enough? Would you read on? And does it give you a bit of the local atmosphere?
Sergeant Dinu Vlăhuţ was up the stepladder, adjusting the flags in front of the Town Hall. One of the flagpoles had got stuck again, so he had to get fiercely manual with it. After all, you couldn’t have the national flag flying half-mast, as if it was a day of national mourning.
He’d climbed up there while it was still early and relatively cool, and he was in no hurry to get down. It wasn’t like he had any exciting cases waiting for him in the office. Meanwhile, Gina and Lili at the public counter were more than capable of dealing with the ID card applications, criminal records checks and traffic fines. Not that many of those ever got paid.
The Curtea de Argeş Police Station was located on the ground floor of the Town Hall, on the left. It didn’t even have a separate entrance, and they’d often get people wandering in asking about permits to open up shops or property certificates. Dinu believed in helping people out and mucking in, but he did wish he could have a more slick, streamlined operation. A couple of computers wouldn’t go amiss, either.
However, according to the American cop shows he liked to watch on TV – and which now, after the Revolution, were plentiful on all TV stations – NYPD didn’t have much better premises either. Lots of open-plan offices with dingy furniture and everyone talking over each other while manning the phones… Let’s face it, a darn noisy and tiring environment! Surprising anyone ever got any work done, let alone solved complex crimes and hunted down serial killers, as they all seemed to do on a weekly basis.
He surveyed his surroundings from his superior vantage point. Although Curtea de Argeş boasted a history dating back to the Middle Ages, the Town Hall was a modern building, designed to be functional rather than architecturally memorable. It looked exactly like a school or a hospital, or pretty much any public building in Romania since the 1970s. But Dinu was quite fond of the old place. At least it hadn’t been painted over in garish colours, like some other public buildings in recent years, in an attempt to freshen up after years of Communist decay. There were even some flower arrangements on either side of the steps. And, because the gardener was paid directly by the Town Hall, he did actually bother to use the sprinkler every other day, so the grass was much greener than anywhere else in town in mid-August. And…
‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from below, ‘Are you a police officer?’
Dinu looked down. A pretty young woman was looking up to him. Instinctively, he put his hands up to adjust his hat, then realised that he had left it down at the bottom of the stepladder. It had the annoying habit of falling off, being ever so slightly too large for him.
OK, time to get down. He scooped up his hat as he descended and set it smartly on his blonde wavy hair, his mother’s pride and joy. He folded up the stepladder. ‘Yes, I’m a policeman. How can I help you?’
‘I wanted to find out more about the accident that occurred here a few days ago. I am a friend of the deceased. Who would be the best person to talk to about that?’
She was indeed quite a looker. Surely there was no harm in being polite and helpful, although he was – of course – a married man.