Bușteni

June 5, 2015

Breakfast was at 8:30 am, after which we did a bit of laundry. Since the clouds were still down over the mountain tops, we postponed hiking in the mountains until tomorrow. Instead we headed out in Neil’s car to Sinaia, to visit Peleș Castle.

Caraiman Monastery

Caraiman Monastery

It didn’t take very long to get to Sinaia and parking was very easy there as it was along the main road. We paid 10 lei for all-day parking and walked up a long cobbled drive towards the castle, paralleling a stream through the forest. Peleș Castle is in an open meadow setting and looks very grand from the outside. It was built by King Carol I in the late 19th century and so it had modern conveniences like telephones and elevators and central heating.

Peleș Castle view

Peleș Castle view

Upon arrival we purchased our tickets to get in, and then went to join the mob clustered around the door. Group after group entered, and after a while we found out that if you weren’t in a group with your own tour leader, you had to wait until a tour leader was available to take you around. Finally after about 45 minutes an English-speaking guide arrived, so our “group” entered. That was us and some Slovaks in heavy-metal T-shirts and a few others. The tour lasted about 40 minutes and went through about a dozen very elaborately-decorated rooms on the main floor. The castle is not large, and the rooms are for the most panelled with intricately-carved wood. One room had magnificent chandeliers made from Venetian Murano glass. All in all it was worth the wait, because all of us enjoyed seeing the opulence inside. It looked like a castle you could actually live in.

Peleș Castle interior (carved wood)

Peleș Castle interior (carved wood)

Peleș Castle interior (desk)

Peleș Castle interior (desk)

By now it was lunchtime, so we sat on a stone wall and ate some bread and cheese which Neil and Christine had bought, plus some fresh cherries we had purchased. We then wandered among the vendor stalls, not seeing much of interest. Rosemary looked for a blouse for Caroline, but didn’t want to pay the prices they were asking. Probably we were spoiled by the lower prices we’d seen back in Maramureș.

Peleș Castle exterior

Peleș Castle exterior

So we all walked back down past the Sinaia Monastery and back to the car, deciding to return to the hotel. After reading for a while the two of us went for a walk through the woods, to find the short way to the cable car station. We found that the last trip down is at 3:45 pm, which we’ll have to pay attention to tomorrow. While over there we bought some lunch fixings and treated ourselves to ice cream. Dinner tonight was at about 6:45 pm; the owner’s wife was serving and she spoke French but very little English, but we did all end up with the dishes we’d ordered.

June 6, 2015

We woke up to blue sky and sunshine, which was perfect because today we were taking the cable car up to the Babele hut to go for a hike. Breakfast was at 8:30 am, and afterwards we walked over to the cable car station. As we were leaving we told the waiter our plans, and he said “Oh, you’re late, there will be a big lineup!” Well, it was Saturday and we had read that there can be two-hour lineups in the summer. But we were lucky to arrive when we did because several large groups of school kids arrived just after we had joined the queue.

Babele cable car

Babele cable car

It turned out that we didn’t have to wait too long for our turn. The trip took about 11 minutes and gained us 1,500 meters of elevation. Because we didn’t really want to walk back down that amount of elevation we decided to pay to ride the cable car both ways.

Babele (The Old Women) rock formation

Babele (The Old Women) rock formation

Our plan was to follow the yellow-marked trail to the Omu hut. Christine was having breathing problems left over from a terrible lung infection she had contracted in New Zealand, so the two of us headed off on our own. The trail was easy to follow, and as we were on a grassy plateau above tree line the wildflowers were starting to bloom. In particular there was a lovely alpine violet which was very abundant, and there were numerous species which we had at home including moss campion, yellow cinquefoils, and some sedums. There were hardly any birds except Meadow Pipits and a single Horned Lark, and apparently the Bucegi Mountains don’t have ground squirrels or marmots.

Purple alpine violet (Viola alpina)

Purple alpine violet (Viola alpina)

The trail climbed for a while and then levelled out as it contoured around a hill, then climbed to the Omu hut which was at 2,507 meters. We bought some tea and sat outside, eating lunch and enjoying the view. From here we could look over to Zărnești and the Piatra Craiului mountains, and we could even see the Curmătura hut where we had been a few days ago. We were just about to leave when Neil and Christine arrived. Her breathing had improved somewhat, so they had taken their time to reach the Omu hut.

Omu hut

Omu hut

Piatra Craiului view

Piatra Craiului view

Heading back down we decided not to do any side trips but to just return to the cable car. On the way back we met a couple of Canadians from Maple Ridge, one of whom had grown up in Romania. He told us that in 25 years of hiking in this area he’d only seen three or four days with weather this good!

Forget-me-nots

Forget-me-nots

Back at the hotel, dinner was at 7 pm at our usual table. Tonight they had pork tenderloin as their special, so we decided to order that for the four of us. That turned out very well; it was an excellent pork loin and the quantity (and price) were just fine. After dinner we sat on our little balcony with Neil and Christine and finished off the remnants of their bottle of Bailey’s. A great way to finish off our vacation; tonight would be our last night with them and tomorrow we would be heading back to Bucharest to fly home.

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Transfagarasan Road

June 4, 2015

We were all moving on today, but only to Bușteni, which is only about an hour away. So we decided to drive back towards Sibiu to see if we could drive part of the Transfagarasan road, which is famous for its spectacular twistiness as it climbs over the Făgăraș range. So after breakfast we paid our bills and went out to pack the cars and leave.

It took over an hour to reach the turnoff, then another half hour to drive to the start of the road. The sign said that it was open as far as the waterfall, Cascada Bâlea, so despite the low cloud cover we decided to head up there.

Transfagarasan road

Transfagarasan road

This lower section of the road goes up through forest, and it does twist and turn as it gains elevation. When we reached the cable car there was a sign saying that the road was closed, so we stopped there. It was lunchtime, so we found a garbage-strewn picnic site and ate our sandwiches there, with a view of the waterfall. The cable car runs up to the lake at the summit, Lacul Bâlea, so we decided to take a ride up there. It was a pretty amateurish setup, as they were waiting for ten passengers so we had to wait over half an hour before we could go.

Lacul Bâlea

Lacul Bâlea

The cable car went over a forested area, then past the waterfall and finally over the alpine area. Here we could see all the twists and turns of the road below, and we could see other cars going up and down it. Once at the top the temperature was surprisingly warm, despite the lake still being partially frozen over with clouds swirling just above it. We looked around for a while and then headed back to the top station, where we were welcomed as we increased the head count. Neil and Christine had gone to buy ice-cream so we hurried them up, and back down we went to the cars.

Anemone

Anemone

The “Closed” sign only blocked half of the road, so we drove right past it, as we had seen others doing. The road was clear except for a bit of snow near the top, and even that had been recently ploughed. But at the top the tunnel through the pass was thoroughly blocked with a solid door, so we drove back down, taking pictures of the view as we went.

Road closed

Road closed

It was getting late now, so we all headed off towards Bușteni. We did get a bit lost in Rașnov but using the GPSNav app in the iPhone put us right. But now the rain was coming down in buckets as we drove through the mountains, and finally we reached Bușteni and found the road to the Caraiman Monastery. Our hotel was right next to the monastery; we checked in and as we went out to get our packs Neil and Christine were just arriving, having successfully wrangled their satnav into finding the hotel.

We chose a room on the second floor overlooking the patio, and as it was after 7 pm we quickly settled in and then went for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. It was quite fancy and the food was very good, but a bit more expensive than what we’d become accustomed to paying. By the time we finished it was late, so we went up to our room to write up our journals.

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Zărnești

June 1, 2015

We had left Sibiu at about 2 pm and followed the main highway towards Bucharest before turning off on the road to Zărnești, where we had agreed to meet our friends Neil and Christine. When we arrived at Pensiunea Mosorel we found that they had just arrived minutes before us!

Pensiunea Mosorel

Pensiunea Mosorel

There seemed to be some confusion, but after a while our hostess became convinced that we did really have reservations there. From outside the pension didn’t look like much; it was in an unpaved street and had a small rusty sign on ratty-looking buildings. But inside it was a very nice guesthouse. We were shown several rooms to choose from, so we picked the one at the back with a good view of the Piatra Craiului Mountains. Once settled in, we sat on the balcony and caught up on what we’d been doing.

Sunset at Zărnești

Sunset at Zărnești

Dinner was part of our guesthouse deal, because of the lack of restaurants in Zărnești. We’ve always had good dinners at guesthouses in Romania and this was no exception. The meatball soup was excellent and the pork cutlets were very good too.

June 2, 2015

Our breakfast was at 8:30 am, with a great choice of meats, cheeses, cereal, bread, as well as our choice of eggs. We had a modest goal today, to walk to Bran and visit Bran Castle, which according to our hostess was about 5 km away along quiet roads.

Hay drying

Hay drying

The day was lovely with blue sky and sunshine as the four of us set off. The route to Bran followed the public road, which started off being paved but soon became a dirt road. Fortunately the road wasn’t especially busy with traffic. After going uphill a bit the road went downhill through the village of Predeluț and into Bran after a couple of hours. The distance turned out to be more like 8 km, but it was a quite nice walk nevertheless.

Transporting hay by cart

Transporting hay by cart

We could see the castle as we approached the town, since it’s on top of a hill where it was built to guard the pass. It took us one wrong turn before we found the entrance to the castle. The admission was relatively expensive, costing the two of us 50 lei to get in, but after all it’s one of the top tourist attractions in the country.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

Walking through the castle was fun because it was like a maze, with corridors and secret stairways going off in different directions. It’s basically what was left when the last of the Romanian royal family was sent away in the 1940’s. Throughout it there were rooms decorated with furniture from the days when Queen Marie lived there. There were also displays and information panels about why the castle was built on the hill, and of course displays about the Dracula legend. Although Vlad (the Impaler) Dracula was only there for a few days as a prisoner.

Bran Castle furnishings

Bran Castle furnishings

The four of us found a bench in the adjacent park and ate our lunch while sitting on a bench there. Afterwards we went to the souvenir stalls to buy some things for Christmas presents and as we did, the looming thunder-clouds started to dump on us. So we stood under an awning to wait it out, and the rain stopped after only about ten minutes.

Ceramic stove

Ceramic stove

Neil’s foot had been bothering him for a while, so he and Christine decided to take a taxi back to Zărnești. Our walk back seemed quicker than the morning’s walk, and we were back at the guesthouse by 4:30 pm.

Guineafowl in the field

Guineafowl in the field

As usual dinner was good, a potato and sausage soup followed by turkey stew. After dinner we went for a walk around the village. Neil and Christine had already been there in their car (courtesy of the satnav directions) but we hadn’t. There wasn’t much to see, so we were soon back at the guesthouse, where we retired to our room to write our journals.

June 3, 2015

Today was supposed to be a hiking day, so after breakfast and a quick bit of laundry we headed out in Neil’s car towards the Piatra Craiului national park. We had planned to walk up the blue-marked trail to Cabana Curmătura and then back down the yellow-marked trail. It wasn’t far to the Zărnești gorge, where our walk would begin.

Zărnești gorge

Zărnești gorge

You can’t drive up the gorge, which is a good thing, so we parked by the spring near the start of the gorge. It was a lovely walk up the gorge with its sides towering over us. We were looking for Wallcreeper, a little grey bird which lives on cliffs in the mountains of Europe and is very hard to see. And unsurprisingly we didn’t see any. At the far end of the gorge our blue trail turned off and had us climbing steeply up the side of the mountain.

Ragwort (Doronicum austriacum)

Ragwort (Doronicum austriacum)

Christine was climbing slowly, still not having recovered from the terrible lung infection she had caught in New Zealand, so Rosemary went on ahead at her comfortable pace. The steep climb continued for about half an hour, and then it reached a ridge and climbed gently through deciduous forest. Paul caught up to her just as the trail reached an open meadow, from where it was only about 20 minutes up to the hut.

Curmătura hut

Curmătura hut

Hut paraphernalia

Hut paraphernalia

At the hut there were a lot of picnic tables, along with two large St Bernard dogs. We bought some tea and a chocolate bar to augment our lunch and sat at one of the tables waiting for the other two to arrive, which they did just after a large group of Germans had departed. Once the Germans had left we had the place to ourselves, we enjoyed the views in peace and quiet. The distant Bucegi mountains were a bit in the clouds, as they had been all day, and the Piatra Craiului cliffs behind us were very steep and daunting.

St Bernard dogs

St Bernard dogs

8636—

Piatra Craiului

Piatra Craiului

We spent quite a while there, finally leaving at about 2:45 pm to follow the yellow trail down. The first part was through a forest and then across open meadows where cows were grazing and the last part went down through deciduous forest to the place where the car was parked. This time Christine beat all of us down to the car.

Drinking trough for cattle

Drinking trough for cattle

Before returning to the guesthouse we went for a drive through the nearby village of Măgura, just to have a look. Unlike all of the other villages we had driven through, this one was actually rural, with houses spread all over the hills instead of being clustered along a street. Dinner tonight was cabbage rolls, stuffed with ham rather than pork, and after dinner we sat on the balcony with Neil and Christine and helped them finish their bottle of Bailey’s.

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Sigișoara and Sibiu

May 30, 2015

Today dawned sunny and clear, but it was time for us to move on from Breb. So after breakfast we said our goodbyes and headed out. Strangely our Google Maps route had us heading back towards Săcel before turning south, which supposedly was faster than following the main road through Baia Mare. But we decided to go along with that anyway.

Agriculture in Maramureș

Agriculture in Maramureș

Leaving Maramureș

Leaving Maramureș

Once we turned south we were in new territory. Over the pass the next valley was wider than the Maramureș valleys, and as we continued through Bistrița and Reghin and Târgu Mureș the farmers started to use machinery to bale their hay and the alfalfa fields started to become larger. The whole day was sunny, a welcome change from our recent clouds and rain.

Green valley

Green valley

At long last we arrived at Sigișoara, at about 5 pm. Not surprisingly our actual driving time was nearly two hours longer than the Google Maps driving time. Our pension, Casa Lia, was inside the Citadel so we found a parking lot at the bottom of the hill and walked up to find it. With the help of the map we had printed off it was easy to find, and our host Marcus greeted us very warmly. He even came back down the hill with us to direct us to a closer parking lot. It was lucky for us that it was late on Saturday afternoon, because we only had to pay for parking until 6 pm and then parking on Sunday was free.

Entrance to Sigișoara (Tailors’ Tower)

Entrance to Sigișoara (Tailors’ Tower)

We were given a welcoming glass of țuică and some delicious homemade cake, and then we went out to look around the citadel. Marcus had given us a map but in actual fact it wasn’t too helpful because it was a poor photocopy of the original. However we did manage to use it to find a few things.

Residential street in citadel

Residential street in citadel

The citadel area is quite small so wandering the streets and seeing the sights was done quite quickly. Around the citadel are gates which were assigned to various guilds, such as the furriers and the carpenters, and on the very top of the hill is a fortress-like German church with an adjacent cemetery. And right in the middle of the town is the building where Vlad (The Impaler) Țepeș was allegedly born.

Clock tower

Clock tower

Central square in citadel

Central square in citadel

Marius had shown us a place on his map which he said was the best place to go for dinner, but despite looking for it we couldn’t find it. So we ended up at a pizzeria on one of the busy squares. After dinner we returned to the pension; the evening was lovely so sitting outside was a treat. We were only staying in Sigișoara for one night, but after seeing the citadel area we realized that was quite adequate.

May 31, 2015

This morning was sunny again, so things were improving, weather-wise. We hadn’t quite seen all around the citadel yet, so after breakfast we went for a quick walk around the parts we had missed. We were surprised to meet up with the German couple who had stayed in the Village Hotel with us, and we chatted briefly with them before going our separate ways. In the central square we found a shop which sold Corund ceramics, so we bought a small piece.

Sándor Petőfi, Hungary’s national poet

Sándor Petőfi, Hungary’s national poet

By now it was 9:30 am so we headed back, paid our bill, and walked down the hill to the car. It was very easy to find our way out of Sigișoara and onto the highway. We only had three hours of driving to get to Sibiu, our destination for today, so we could take our time. Our plan was to visit yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, this time the fortified Saxon churches of Transylvania. There were six churches on the list, but we knew by now that we didn’t need to see all of them.

Farewell to Sigișoara

Farewell to Sigișoara

Today was Sunday so road traffic, in particular horse and cart traffic, was lighter than usual. Our first stop was the church in Biertan, which is probably one of the best. Finding it was very easy, much easier than the wooden churches in Maramureș, because it towered over the village! We bought our entrance tickets from the lady in the bookshop and then walked up the covered steps to the hilltop. Of course there was scaffolding around part of the church, but we could still go inside. The German churches don’t have nearly as much ornamentation as the Romanian ones do, so maybe that’s why you don’t have to pay extra to take photographs inside. But there were a few wall frescoes which were in quite good condition.

Door in Biertan church with 19 locks

Door in Biertan church with 19 locks

Biertan church pulpit

Biertan church pulpit

We walked around part of the outside, getting lovely views of the surrounding area. The day was sunny and warm and the fields were a lovely green. After buying a Romanian cookbook (in English) from the bookshop we carried on back to the main road.

Biertan village

Biertan village

There was another fortified church in the village of Valea Viilor, so we went to have a look at it. This one was not open, and if we wanted to gain admittance we would have had to telephone somebody and pay a 30-lei fee. So we just walked around it to look at the exterior before driving on.

Valea Viilor church

Valea Viilor church

Field near Valea Viilor

Field near Valea Viilor

We arrived in Sibiu at about 2 pm, and to find the Old Town Hostel we followed our Google Maps directions. They sent us along some narrow cobbled roads and through a ridiculously narrow alley with cars parked in it, and finally into Piața Mică, which had (expensive) places to park. We checked into the hostel and asked about parking; after finding out how to pay and messing about with cars driving in all directions at once we finally escaped from the parking lot. Down the hill a bit we found apparently free parking, and luckily an English-speaking local confirmed that it was free.

View from hostel window

View from hostel window

So we collected all our stuff, locked the car, and walked the five minutes back to the hostel. Our room was very large and overlooked the square, where there was a festival going on with music and children dancing. So we headed out to explore. The Piața Mică was filled with outdoor restaurants and the adjacent Piața Mare was lined with upscale shops. There are several museums in Sibiu, but neither of us felt inclined to visit any of them. We felt that a late lunch of ice cream would be more appropriate.

Liars’ Bridge

Liars’ Bridge

Piața Mare

Piața Mare

We strolled around the town in the sunshine, looking at the well-kept buildings, and about 5:30 pm we decided to get dinner. There was a restaurant almost next to our hostel which served traditional Romanian food and it was quite good.

Orthodox cathedral

Orthodox cathedral

Later we decided to go out walking again and to get ice cream for dessert. We walked down to see the old ramparts as the sun set before returning to our room. Outside the room it was very busy and noisy in the square, but later in the evening it quieted down and we fell asleep quite easily.

June 1, 2015

Despite the curtains in our room being little more than sheers, we weren’t really woken up early by the sun. When we looked out onto Piața Mică all was quiet there. For breakfast we ate the cinnamon kürtőskalács which we had bought from the vendor in the square, then checked out and walked down the hill to find our car. We were both somewhat relieved to find it undamaged and with no parking tickets!

Old farm buildings

Old farm buildings

We had another short drive today, so our plan was to visit the ASTRA open-air museum which is out on the edge of the town. Officially it’s the ASTRA Museum of the Traditional Folk Civilization. Navigating there was easy, and we only missed one turn. Parking was also easy; we noticed that people were parking at the side of the road so we did that too. We had arrived before the posted opening time, but that didn’t seem to matter as the ticket office was already open. We bought the little guidebook which had a very helpful map to get us around the whole site.

Going to church

Going to church

The site contains original buildings from various parts of Romania which represent different activities such as pottery-making, gold-mining, weaving, iron-working, etcetera. We wandered around the area, which is divided into two large sections separated by a lake. The day was hot and sunny and there were a surprising number of people there considering it was Monday. Most of the buildings were static displays but a couple had interpreters there to explain things (not necessarily in English).

Water mill

Water mill

We stopped at a refreshment stand and bought some mint lemonade—what a refreshing drink! We also bought 100 grams of chocolate fudge and sat at a table listening to a really bad violin player. We visited most of the buildings in the park and then decided to have lunch at the restaurant there, which serves standard Romanian dishes. This turned into a frustrating experience. We waited a long time to be served, and then an extremely long time to get our meals. And when they arrived they weren’t what we had ordered! We sent the salad back to get it changed, but didn’t dare to ask for the right kind of potatoes.

Restaurant kitchen

Restaurant kitchen

By now it was after 2 pm and we were finished with Sibiu. So we found the car and headed off towards Zărnești and the next part of our adventure.

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Maramureș, part 3

May 29, 2015

We had signed up to go on a hike today, led by our host Duncan. He was guiding Steve and Alison and we were allowed to tag along. (For 15 euros each.) Penny had made packed lunches for all of us, which we put into our packs, and by 8:30 am we were ready to leave. We all got into the Land Rover and Penny drove us up to the trailhead, which was at a small reserve. Today it was finally sunny, which was great because today was our last chance for a hike.

Working in the field

Working in the field

For the first part of our route we climbed gently uphill along a trail and then a wider track. The pace was quite slow, but we had the whole day so that was fine. About 11 am we stopped for part 1 of our lunch, which would fortify us for the steep climb up to Creasta Cocoșului (the Rooster’s Comb). The climb was quite steep, but it didn’t seem to take very long. Once we were up at the Comb we stopped again to have part 2 of our lunch. Near us there was a couple with two very young children. While we were eating we watched as the father put a climbing harness on the 3-year-old and took him to one of the rock pinnacles, where they both started climbing with the aid of a rope.

Creasta Cocoșului

Creasta Cocoșului

Lunch, part 2

Lunch, part 2

The weather was still clear and we had a good view all around. On one side was the village of Breb with its shiny new church spire and in the distance on the other side was the city of Baia Mare with the chimney of its Communist-era smelter.

Father and son climbers

Father and son climbers

Three Apostles ridge

Three Apostles ridge

The next part of our walk followed a broad ridge which ran eastwards away from the Comb. There were a lot of pipits flying up and singing in the high country here. The trail went towards a group of smaller pillars called the Three Apostles, which looked rather like the Easter Island moai. Once past the third of the Apostles we went down through an open beech forest with a lot of birds singing. A ski area under construction had changed the trail since the waymarks had been painted, but Duncan knew the area so we got down to the road with no trouble.

Limestone pillars

Limestone pillars

The whole hike was good and we were lucky that we had been able to join in with Steve and Alison’s hike, as we wouldn’t have been able to do it on our own. Not only that, but the weather had cooperated for once and the temperatures were good for hiking.

Purple wood violet (Viola declinata)

Purple wood violet (Viola declinata)

Penny came to pick us up in the Land Rover and soon we were back at the Village Hotel, where we had some tea and sat on the bench outside our house. We had dinner at 6:30 pm, and since everybody else had gone out for dinner we had the whole place to ourselves.

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Maramureș, part 2

May 27, 2015

Breakfast was yogurt, cereal, and toast this morning, and afterwards we collected our jackets and headed out. The weather forecast wasn’t promising, with rain possible throughout the day, but so far it wasn’t raining.

Our plan was to see some of the wooden churches which constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site; the nearest was in Budești, just down the road from Breb. Budești was the usual maze of twisty streets, but we saw a sign pointing down one of the streets to a wooden church. It wasn’t the one on the UNESCO list but luckily for us there was Duncan with the British couple he was guiding, and he phoned the caretaker to let us in.

Old wooden church

Old wooden church

Inside the church near the altar were paintings on the walls, plus numerous needlework pictures. The pictures were more primitive than those we’d seen in the painted monasteries, but then they were painted on wood rather than plaster. The log walls gave the place a rather primitive feel and even the icons at the front were wood rather than metal. According to Duncan, men worshipped at the front of the church and women at the back, and the balcony was used for both sexes.

Overgrown cemetery

Overgrown cemetery

From here we continued down the hill to the Cosău River. Duncan stopped at a mill site (later we found out that it housed a horincă still) but we didn’t stop, carrying on to the UNESCO church. It was larger than the other church, and it was also locked. We spent some time looking around the outside and around the cemetery, but just as we were about to leave two Germans arrived and they telephoned for the key. So we waited with them so we could see the interior. Unlike the other church the paintings were much better preserved and also much more extensive.

Wooden church interior

Wooden church interior

After that we followed the river through several villages. There were supposed to be more wooden churches here, but we were unsuccessful in locating them. But by now the rain was teeming down, so we headed back to Breb to have lunch. We were the only ones there, so we had the whole house to ourselves.

Wooden church paintings

Wooden church paintings

Later in the afternoon the rain eased a bit, so we put on our rain gear and went out for a walk around the village. The roads were very muddy but with little car traffic we didn’t get too muddy. At the large modern church we were taking some photos when one of the locals stopped to greet us. He seemed quite surprised when we told him we were from Canada and we came by airplane.

Breb church gate

Breb church gate

Our walk took us around a loop in the village, and coming down the last hill we were hailed by the local basket weaver. He beckoned us into his yard and showed us his wares, demonstrating what each type of basket might be used for. He also showed us a book containing pictures of him and other local artisans. Finally we ended up buying a small basket which would fit into our packs—we don’t have much space for souvenirs.

The basket man

The basket man

For dinner we had pasta and vegetables again, and we also organized our lunch for tomorrow. We would be driving to Viseu de Sus to go on the logging train in the mountains, and that trip takes most of the day.

May 28, 2015

We got up early this morning, at 6 am in fact, so that would be in time for our steam train trip in Viseu de Sus. The drive was at least an hour and 20 minutes, plus time for road work and potholes and getting lost, so we allowed ourselves plenty of time.

At any rate we arrived about 8:20 am, plenty of time to get our reserved tickets, go to the bathroom, take photos, and board the train for the 9 am departure. Our train was pulled by a wood-burning steam locomotive which ran on narrow-gauge tracks alongside the Vaser River. There was a mixture of new cars and old cars for the passengers to ride in, and it appeared that the bus-tour people were getting the new cars and we were being sent off to the old cars. But all of the cars were enclosed, so it didn’t matter much.

Steam locomotive

Steam locomotive

Shortly after 9 am the engine lurched into action and off we went, up the valley. For a long time we went through the outskirts of the town but finally we were out in the fields. We stopped at the 15-kilometer mark for a water stop, where they took a large tube and used it to pump water from a clear pool into the engine’s tank. The valley was mostly quite narrow and after about two hours we arrived at the Paltin station, our destination.

Train under way

Train under way

Water stop

Water stop

We had both misjudged the weather, and it was still cloudy and colder than we had expected. So we were both freezing. We bought some hot chocolate from the café there, which helped a bit, and ate at one of the picnic tables. We had hard-boiled some eggs last night, and together with some bread and tomatoes they were our lunch. The café was doing a good business selling drinks and snacks and lunches, and it was playing what we guessed was Roma pop music at high volume. There were a lot of people dancing to it.

Dancing couple

Dancing couple

After an hour or so we all boarded the train for the return trip. It seemed bumpier going downhill, and since the scenery was the same as the uphill ride we sort of dozed on and off. We were both glad to get back to the car.

Train at Paltin station

Train at Paltin station

Transport for rail workers

Transport for rail workers

On the return trip we went looking for more of the UNESCO wooden churches. In Ieud, which was only three kilometers off the main road, we followed the signs but they led to a road bridge which had collapsed. We couldn’t find a different bridge across the river so we abandoned that idea. Farther along the road, at Bârsana, the official sign led to an informal sign which led up a lane to somebody’s house. We could see the church on top of the hill behind the house, but couldn’t see a way up the hill. So we gave up on wooden churches and headed back to the hotel for dinner.

Tour bus passenger

Tour bus passenger

When we got back Penny was waiting for us. She had suggested we could move to a different room because of the loud snoring from Steve, who with his wife Alison was in the double room directly below us. The Painted House was available, and that suited us just fine. There was a small kitchen, a sitting/eating area, and upstairs a bedroom with twin beds and a full bathroom. All decorated with tapestries, needlework runners, pottery, and of course hand-painted furniture. It was actually much nicer than our previous room in the big house. (The bathroom did have a rather low ceiling, but we’re not very tall so that didn’t bother us much.)

It was still cold in the Painted House, so we ran the space heater for a while to warm it up. Dinner tonight was rice with vegetables and chips and we had cookies for dessert.

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Maramureș, part 1

May 25, 2015

After a good breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts and then we were on the road again, bound for Breb in Maramureș. From Sucevița we headed past the monastery and over the Ciumârna Pass, where we had come the other day. The toothless man with the painted wooden eggs was still there, but we didn’t stop. We followed Highway DN17 for a while; it was one of the main highways in the area so its condition was good. As usual we passed through numerous small villages, which made slow going.

When we reached Highway DN18 we turned onto it, heading for Prislop Pass. This road was not nearly as good as DN17, and we passed several work crews vainly trying to fill the potholes. One of the first villages we came to was Ciocănești, where the houses were decorated with geometric Hutsul patterns on the sides. But that was the only place we saw houses like that.

Hutsul style decoration

Hutsul style decoration

The road to the pass became more twisty and turny as we climbed, and when we reached the pass we paused there for a rest. There was a ski area here, and a couple of mountain hotels, but mostly a shiny new monastery. The main buildings were finished but workers were still busy building the large ceremonial entrance gate. We looked at the monastery and the views for a short while, but decided to continue down the other side to look for a lunch spot because it was cool and windy at the pass. It didn’t take long to find a picnic site with a table and a good view.

Prislop Pass monastery

Prislop Pass monastery

On our way down we met a very large flock of sheep, with their shepherds and dogs guiding them up the road. It was easiest for us to stop and let them go around us, rather than risk hitting a sheep or lamb. Here the road was much smoother, but the village of Borșa with its associated ski facilities must have been twenty kilometers long. Eventually we passed into the lowlands and after driving through a thunderstorm and heavy rain neared the village of Breb.

Herd of sheep on the road

Herd of sheep on the road

The roads around Breb all seemed to be in various stages of construction, and between horses and carts, people, and construction machinery the going was even slower than usual. We had been following a Google Maps printout but it was a bit confusing, so we turned on the iPhone app to see how far we had to go. Not far, really, but the app’s instructions differed from the map! Following the voice on the phone we took a slightly longer route which included driving down a one-lane track from the village of Hoteni. As luck would have it we met a tractor pulling a loaded hay wagon! Luckily we passed each other without incident but it was a tight squeeze.

Once in Breb it was easy for us to follow the signs to the Village Hotel. There was nobody at the reception office when we arrived, but one of the staff arrived shortly and showed us to our room. We were upstairs in the main house and would share the kitchen with anyone else who happened to be staying there. As it turned out the double room downstairs would host Adi and Bianca, a Romanian couple. They spoke good English and it was interesting speaking with them and getting their take on life in Romania.

We were surprised to find out that breakfast was included in our room rate, and that we were signed up to go out for dinner at one of the houses in the village. Both of those were good things as we hadn’t stopped to buy any food. We walked down to the house at 7:15 pm with our fellow guests. Besides Adi and Bianca there was a couple from London. Dinner was noodle soup followed by sarmale (cabbage rolls) and sausages, which were all very good. Dessert was doughnuts and after some discussion among the Romanians it was decided that they were “gogoș”.
Back at our little house we had some tea and chatted with the others while listening to the rain pouring down outside.

May 26, 2015

We slept very well last night and didn’t go down for breakfast until about 9 am. In the refrigerator were bins labelled for each room, containing butter, cheese, and yogurt. And there was a sharing section containing eggs, juices, and some condiments. Luckily for us the cupboards also contained cereals, pasta, rice, and basic vegetables so we would be able to make our own dinner. Adi and Bianca were there too; their plan was to look around a bit and then head home. Their mode of transportation was a motor scooter so they were hoping for no rain.

After breakfast we gathered up some clothes to be washed. For 20 lei a load would be washed and dried for us, so we thought that was a good way to catch up with our laundry. Then we got into the car and headed out, this time following the better way out of the village. Our plan was to visit the “Merry Cemetery” in the village of Săpânta, one of the most famous sites in the area. So we drove to the border town of Sighetu Marmației (universally referred to as “Sighet”) and beyond, along the road parallel to the Tisa River with Ukrainian villages visible beyond.

The Veterinary Doctor

The Veterinary Doctor

The Merry Cemetery is a different sort of cemetery. It was started in the 1930s by Stan Ioan Pătraș, who decided to do things differently. Instead of dour stone crosses with only birth and death dates, there are brightly painted wooden panels with paintings of scenes depicting something in the life of the deceased. This could be a lady weaving or a man driving a tractor, for example. And below that is a little poem written about the person. Although the Romanian text was mostly beyond our ability, you could tell a lot just by looking at the picture. The cemetery was absolutely full of graves, with very little space between them. Even Stan Ioan Pătraș is buried there, having written his own poem.

Brandy and Women

Brandy and Women

Stan Ioan Pătraș

Stan Ioan Pătraș

The main colour of the panels is Săpânta Blue, symbolizing hope and liberty. The other colours, green (life), yellow (fertility), and red (passion) are obtained from natural pigments used by the women of Săpânta to dye wool. The graves were on three sides of the very large church, which was being reconstructed. We went inside to look, but the painted interior was hard to see because it was mostly behind the scaffolding.

Church with scaffolding

Church with scaffolding

We went across the street to look at the souvenir stalls; most of them had similar wares but one had some woven wool rugs. The lady sitting there was spinning wool from a large bundle of carded wool; she showed us some of the blankets and rugs and told us they could be washed outside and left to dry. We ended up buying a doormat-sized rug. As we left we saw Adi and Bianca just arriving—there was a bit of a rain shower but fortunately it didn’t last.

Spinning wool

Spinning wool

Back in Sighet we found a free parking spot and then set out to find the Memorial Museum for the Victims of Communism and the Resistance, a highly-recommended museum. It was frustratingly hard to find using the map from the Rough Guide but on our third try we found it.

The museum is housed in one of the Communist-era prisons which were used to hold political prisoners. The displays take up three floors and are actually in the prison cells. We paid our admission fee and were shown to an English-speaking staffer who gave us an English-language guidebook which explained each of the displays. Considering that the museum was almost entirely in Romanian, this book was extremely helpful. It chronicled the history of the prison and its inhabitants through the Communist years, and it took us about an hour and half to go through all of the displays. It was very sad to read about what happened to so many people who were imprisoned and tortured for their views.

Victims of Communism museum

Victims of Communism museum

Luckily the sun was shining when we left the museum, as it cheered us up and made us realize how lucky we are to live when and where we do. We had heard that there are still Romanians who are nostalgic for the “old days” when everybody had a job and the country would support you for life. That seemed terribly naïve to us now—they had forgotten about all the evils which had to take place to make that possible.

We bought a bit of food at a supermarket and headed back to the hotel, where we cooked up some pasta and vegetables. We also made a fruit salad from the fruit which is also part of the kitchen’s provisions. A simple but filling dinner.

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