Sunday 27 November 2016

Roaming In Romania: Part 2 - Bucovina

Day 5 – Around Vatra Moldovitei


Today’s notes are quite short as its late and I've been drinking Palinka, the rather flammable Hungarian fruit brandy favoured in these parts. I've tried a few variants of this over the years – grappa, raki, rakija, etc, and Palinka could definitely be classed as the most breath-taking example so far encountered!

Anyway, back to the story. Our first stop was just a two minute walk from the pension – the Moldovitei monastery. It's one of the famous painted monasteries found in Moldavia, and has quite a history. 

Founded in about the 14th Century, frescoes were added inside and out. It eventually fell out of use as a monastery during communist times, but was reopened as such in the 1990s.

It’s undoubtedly interesting and very beautiful, although controversial in that it was renovated during the late 1950's and so displeases the purists. For the layman, though, it was wonderful to see the frescoes, depicting scenes from the bible and notable historic scenes, as they were intended to be seen – bright, colourful and very moving, clear images telling the bible stories and what lay in store for those who transgressed or drank too much Palinka!

Next, we went to the Painted Egg Museum. Now, I can tell there will be some who immediately call to mind Keswick’s noted Pencil Museum. But before your eyes glaze over, worry not: this was another delight. Virtually all the decorated eggs are the work of one woman, and there are several thousand on display. The work is intricate, detailed and time consuming, and requires much skill, patience, concentration and steadiness of hand, and they are quite remarkable. The link below takes you to a short video:

It rained all day, so at lunchtime we popped back to the pension to dry off a little and prepare for the afternoon. I spent time looking at the map of Romania with Costin, getting a better feel for the geography. The country was formed from various areas, all rich with historical significance – Wallachia in the south (between the Danube and the Carpathians), Transylvania to the west (North of the Carpathians, and named so by the Hungarians, not the Romainians), and Moldavia to the north east.

After lunch we took a steam train ride along the valley for about an hour, to a village called (I think) Argel. We came part way back before disembarking for a 9 kilometre hike over the hills back to Moldovita where Gelu was waiting with the van.

It was misty and continued to rain most of the way, involved a steep-ish climb on a muddy track and teased us with fleeting views, but was very enjoyable nonetheless. We talked with Costin about the state of the milk industry and farming in general, and some of the good and bad situations in our respective countries.

Returning to the pension, we had dinner at 7.30pm. The first course was a full dinner-sized portion of goulash and boiled potatoes, followed by another complete meal of forest mushrooms in cream with polenta, followed by a large filled pancake. We were stuffed! I think our hostess thinks we are underfed, although for the life of my rotund self I can't think why!

Day 6 - From Vatra Moldovitei to Pass (Ciumarna)


Today we walked from the pension on a lengthy hike to reach a pass at (I think) Ciumarna.

We began walking at 9.30am after another prodigious breakfast, and immediately started to lug our swollen bellies along a rising ridge with views back to Vatra Moldovitei. It was a misty start, with rain seemingly imminent and low cloud rising from the valleys as often happens in mountainous areas.

We hadn't gone too far when we met a Shepherd whose dogs had come to greet us a bit over-enthusiastically – guardians of the flock whose bite is definitely worse than their bark. He walked with us a short while until we were moving away, and all was well.

The clouds lifted a little, but never cleared entirely. Having finally gained some height, the next few hours were spent navigating a sinuous route by and across a complex arrangement of ridges and hillsides. Sometimes in woodland, sometimes across open pasture, and generally level for the most part, the occasional ups and downs were steeper and more prolonged than expected.

It had all been a bit Led Zeppelin IV this morning - Black Dogs, a Misty Mountain Hop and now Four Sticks (stacks)!

In one section of woodland, we came across a large, clear paw-print, followed by further prints nearby. Too large for a dog, these were wolf tracks. Actual. Wolf. Paw-prints. How about that?

From what we could work out there were perhaps three animals, including at least one of adult size. Other tracks running exactly in line suggest they were tracking a deer of reasonable size. Both sets of tracks followed the trail for some way before disappearing into the woods, so we got to be trackers ourselves.

We knew wolves were present in these mountains, and had hoped to see evidence. The sheer quiet of these woods made the find that bit more likely, but took away nothing of the magic!

We were still awe-struck sometime later when we stopped for a brief lunch. Continuing, we passed villages and hamlets, barns and houses, all well off the beaten track.

Finally, though, we could see our destination through the trees, although the circuitous nature of the trail meant we were still about three-quarters of an hour away. After a final few ups and downs, we climbed to the road to meet the van, followed for those last few hundred metres by a dog of such beseeching look we took pity and gave it a spare sandwich!

The sign at the end of the path suggested approx 7 hours of walking time, so we were pleased with our 5.5 hours.

With time left in the day, we went to look at another monastery – this one at Sucevita. It was similar to the one at Moldovitei in layout and shape, but built slightly later so had different frescos and fortifications.

We also popped into a nearby pottery to watch vases being made – the potter throwing pieces of consistent size, shape and design each in about 90 seconds!

Back at the pension, we got cleaned up then went down for dinner – a regional speciality chicken soup, followed by chicken cordon bleu and mash (with chicken from their own flock) and a meringue and curd cheese sponge to finish. Of course, there was loads of it, and we tucked in while the uneaten remains of our lunch filled the table in our room.

Also on offer was more Palinka  – wicked stuff (that's wicked in the old-fashioned, “evil” sense of the word, not the modern "excellent" definition). If you like drinking breathtaking liquids that burn all the way down your throat, marmalise your taste buds, set fire to your stomach and finally blow your head off, Palinka is the stuff for you!

Still, it breaks the ice and forges friendships through shared adversity, and we had another lovely evening conversing with our hostess and Gelu in a broken mix of French, English, Romanian and any other language that did the job, with Google translate on hand if all else failed.

We retired early. Tomorrow is transfer day, and we shall be in Maramures by nightfall.

Day 7 – Transfer to Maramures

Today involved a fairly lengthy transfer from Bucovina to Maramures, about 6 hours driving in total, and also saw us switch from Costin and Gelu as our guide and driver to Ramona and Dan.

Maramures had been one of the principal draws of this itinerary. Inspired by the book Along The Enchanted Way by William Blacker, amongst others, we were looking forward to seeing this place where the 21st Century had supposedly yet to arrive.

Of course, we would find the reality to be somewhat different, but in this region, right up in the north of the country, jammed against the Ukrainian border, traditions and traditional ways of life feature strongly, as do local food and crafts.

Setting off, we crossed several passes on the way through Campulung Moldovanesc and on to Bistrica. Although primarily following the valley of the Bistrica river, we were surrounded by mountains, and on several occasions wound slowly up and down on switchback roads. Along with poor road surfaces, 50kmh speed limits and frequent horse-drawn carts to avoid, it’s no wonder that journey times in Romania are notoriously slow!

We stopped off in Bistrica around lunchtime, had a quick look round, went up the tower of the main church, ate pizzas and pasta.

It was a further one-hour drive to our rendezvous with Ramona and Dan. We said our goodbyes to Costin and Gelu, and set off across more mountain passes arriving soon after at the border into Maramures.

About an hour later, we arrived in Botiza, the village in which we are staying. Our pension is outside the main village by about 3km, a set of traditional wooden houses of the Maramures region. 

Really, it's an idyllic setting – quiet, rural, traditional, with a big stove and hanging drapes of rugs and cloths. We settled in with a cup of tea, then went to meet our hosts for dinner – another pretty copious affair consisting of chicken soup, pork and rice, and chocolate cakes for afters which proved, as we suspected, just how good a cook our host Maria was.

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