Crossing by footbridge to Transylvania

Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day
Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day

There are paradoxes about Romania and as a visitor who stayed just six nights, I cannot resolve them. Romania had the most bloody 20th century, yet the people are friendly, open and a joy to talk to.

I left feeling that the Romanians know a lot about the art of living and I made a promise to myself to return.

Let me get the history out of the way. Romania took part in the two world wars, suffering heavy loss of life both military and civilian. It entered the first because it wanted to wrest Transyslvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Central Powers fought it to a standstill and it sued for peace in 1917.

With the victory of the Allies the following year the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and Romania got Transylvania after all, in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

In the Second World War, under the leadership of Ion Antonescu, Romania sided with Adolf Hitler. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the biggest invasion in history, on 22 June 1941, Romania was a key ally of Nazi Germany in its onslaught on the Soviet Union. By the summer of 1944 more than 1.2 million Romanians were under arms on the Axis side, second only to the number of Germans.

Romanian authorities took an active part in the Holocaust, murdering Jews and Roma people on Romanian-controlled territory.

Two national leaders were overthrown and shot. Antonescu was found guilty of war crimes and faced the firing squad in 1946. He dressed elegantly for the occasion in jacket and tie and with a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. On Christmas Day 1989 deposed Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena also met their end by firing squad, after a one-hour court session.

The country also abolished its monarchy.

So, all in all quite a lot happened to Romania in the 20th century. Visit Romania today and you can discover a country which feels stable and self-confident.

I set off for Romania from Uzhhorod on April 29, on a wheezing, crowded Ukrainian country bus that will take me to a border town.

We pass a succession of Ukrainian villages set back from the road which somehow are neither picturesque nor ugly, all dominated by tall churches often painted a pale yellow. During a journey of 170 kilometres I observe a densely populated rural area, but its way of life is a closed book. The Carpathian Mountains form a backdrop to the villages.

I leave the bus at the border town of Solotvyno, or rather just after it because I had not realised where we were. Solotvyno has been known historically for its salt mines. It was also the birthplace of the late British press baron Robert Maxwell and at that time belonged to Czechoslovakia.

A walk of about 90 minutes takes me to the border post. Now border crossings can be a time-consuming bore, but this one is delightful.

The border is the Tisza river and after completing formalities on the Ukrainian side I simply walk over a short bridge to Romania, to its region of Transylvania. According to Hitchwiki, the hitchhiker’s guide to hitchhiking the world, this is the only border crossing between Ukraine and Romania where travellers are allowed to cross on foot.

After Ukraine I feel I am entering a land of milk and honey. I check into a rather grand-looking hotel, the first that comes into view, and find a comfortable bed.

I am in Sighetu Marmatiei and a bustling town it is too. Waiting at a bus stop the following day, I am reminded that for many Romanians this is not a land of milk and honey. Stickers on buses advertise rides to Belgium (80 euros) and England (£70). The listed destinations include the London suburbs of Wood Green, Neasden and Wembley. I had not expected in Transylvania to find ads enticing me to Neasden.

I ignore the ads and stick to my plan of travelling to Cluj-Napoca, unofficial capital of Transylvania and the second most populous city of Romania.

This wooden gate is the entrance to a Cluj museum, but gate-making in Transylvania is still a living craft

The bus ride to Cluj is enchanting. Unlike the road in Ukraine, this one goes straight through villages. We travel through one settlement after another for hours on end and now I do get a sense of how local people live.

I am travelling, in 21st century Europe, through a region where traditional subsistence farming and local craft appear to be alive and well. We pass literally hundreds of houses with back yards full of hens. Often the houses have intricately carved high wooden gates at the front.

Now while I accept that one yard with hens looks much like another, the overall visual stimulus in a peasant society, if you are not from one yourself, is extraordinary. There is much to see – a woman washing laundry in a river, a man ploughing with a horse, a family filling a mixer with cement, shepherds minding their flocks.

The most memorable sight is of two women chatting and walking side by side in the early evening with hoes slung over their shoulders. For me, it is the visual equivalent of great poetry, something so simple in its essence that it touches the core of my being. It speaks to me of harmony, naturalness and timeless rhythms on the Earth. The strength of my emotions surprises me.

Of course, if the two women ever read this they will shake their heads in bewilderment or crack their sides with laughter. But I know that it is for experiences like this that the traveller leaves home in the first place.

At Cluj I stay three nights, to rest and to absorb Romania by osmosis. Cluj is a handsome city, full of life and character, with a history and architecture that are largely Hungarian.

For the 10-hour journey from Cluj to Bucharest I take the train, partly to follow the example of Prince Yakimov, the character in Olivia Manning’s “The Balkan Trilogy” who travels the self-same route. In his case, the fictional rail journey takes place in wartime and is shot through with menace.

In my case there is no sense of menace, though I do well to stock up with water and a sandwich since there is no buffet car. I also buy a copy of the Transilvania Reporter, a local weekly. I have no Romanian but I can’t resist the title.

At times during the journey, such as near the town of Sinaia, the Carpathians are quite magnificent, their peaks rising sharply and filling much of the view out of the train window.

Finally we draw into Bucharest. The city is clearly a whole world unto itself and I stay only two nights. But I am charmed to find that it has leafy cycle paths. Why am I so surprised by this? Sometimes travel says a lot about our own preconceptions.

Because I am travelling by train and staying in hostels, I meet a lot of young Romanians. One theme comes up again and again in conversation. Students and even youngsters who are now working tell me that their parents regularly send them food parcels.

In Bucharest, Paula Posea talks to me about this phenomenon. She did a food technology course in the capital and every term-time weekend for four years her parents sent her food. It came by bus from her parents’ home town nearly 200 kilometres away.

The food included milk from her own cow, which was still with her parents, eggs from their own hens, home-made fruit preserves, pork fat called slanina and a full soup known as ciorba.

“But the most important thing in every package,” says Paula, “is ‘zacusca’, made from aubergines and some other ingredients like red pepper.” Typically it is eaten spread over bread.

Several students say that without these food parcels it would be hard for them to make ends meet, but this living tradition also says a lot about the importance of both food and family in Romania.

When I ask Paula why the food parcels, she says: “Romanians like to eat, end of story. So the food you grow up with is very important. I can’t stay in Bucharest without ciorba. I am going to die.”

According to Paula, it is very rare that a student does not receive food from home.

In Cluj, I meet one young man who intends to study in the Netherlands. So what will he do about food? “I will ask my mother to put the food on a plane,” he says with a smile.

I am not at all sure that he is joking.

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