Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).
My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.
However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.
I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.
If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.
If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)
My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!
Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?
There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.
Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.
It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.
The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)
We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.
By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!
One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).
When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).
The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).
We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.
While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.
It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.
I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.
The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.
But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.
This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.
If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!
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.
‘Culture’ might be a bit of a misnomer for what I’ve been doing since April 1st. However, there is such a thing as a skiing and snowboarding ‘sub-culture’ – and no, it’s not the wealthy people posing in their Chanel ski-suits and drinking Aperol in front of an open fire in their immaculate chalets. Skiing to me and my friends since high school is a low-budget, almost alcohol-free, very sporty and fun adventure, with a lot of talk about snow conditions, piste-bashing, skiing techniques and waxing and cutting edges. Sounds absolutely riveting, doesn’t it? Not everyone’s mug of mulled wine, but the upside is a view like the one above.
Sadly, I have to admit that for the first time I truly felt my age, as the altitude and exertions really got to me. I emerged like a warrior after endless wars in Troy: with a strained ligament, a pulled deltoid, throbbing headache, shortness of breath and a cold. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! I mean: how inspiring is this?
I did get quite a bit of reading done and, since I was skiing with Chinese and French friends, it was appropriate to read Chinese thriller Death Notice by Zhou Haohui and Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer. Both have been adapted for the screen, but while the Chinese book is all heart-stopping action, the French book is languid, slow build-up of tension and a lot of personal emotion (the film stars a very young Isabelle Adjani). I have also embarked upon the Asymptote Book Club title for March, Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a sensitive, amusing and slightly disquieting view of the less talked about aspects of the grandfather/grandson relationship.
I was planning to attend First Monday Crime at City University last night, but had to give up and go home early because of creaking bones. However, if you are a fan of crime fiction, this monthly event (twice this April – the next event will be on the 30th) is a must-see: great panels, super-nice people and lots of laughter guaranteed.
More exciting events coming up this week: the launch of the new edition of Poetry Review will take place at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden on Wednesday 11th April. And on Thursday my older son and I will be attending the show we’ve been waiting for, dreaming and talking about, singing for the past year or so: Hamilton. Last but not least, my local writing group will be celebrating two years of existence on Sunday 15th with a feedback session and a festive meal.
I’ve also acquired some books in that short day that I was at Senate House library yesterday. I borrowed George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London to reread for the David Bowie Book Club in April. I also borrowed John Berger’s G to reread for Shiny New Books’ celebration of 50 years of Booker Prize – Golden Booker Week in July. Serendipity again reared its spirited head and introduced me to Brian Aldiss’ Life in the West – mention an ex-spy and hedonist and an academic conference – and I cannot resist! I also found an academic book entitled Tatort Germany: The Curious Case of German-Language Crime Fiction, so you can imagine I had to pick that one up! Finally, the ever-wonderful Europa Editions sent me Iranian-born, French-writing author Négar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental, described as at once a micro-history of Iran, a family saga and a woman’s personal experience of exile.
And finally, just ‘pour la bonne bouche‘, as the French say, here is one more picture to say farewell to winter. Give me snow over rain, I say!
Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.
You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:
06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight
My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.
Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?
Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.
Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.
But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…
Is it time for a holiday yet? As I finally allow myself my one and only week of holiday this year (which will in fact mean finally finishing the first draft of my WIP), here are some wonderful places where you might want to escape, all available for rent.