Images of Romania

Danubemap.jpgAs my plane sets off from Vienna Airport, heading south-east towards Romania, I am reminded of the fact that the river Danube travels through large parts of central Europe. Keen enthusiasts will know that if you follow ‘the great blue’ from start to finish, you will pass through cities such as Linz and Vienna (both in Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary), Vukovar (Croatia), Novi Sad and Belgrade (both in Serbia) until it finally enters Romania, before eventually it pours into the Black Sea. As I look out of the airplane window at take-off, I can follow the Danube quite easily as it snakes its way down to Serbia, until eventually it goes south while we head further east to Iasi, on the border with Moldova. I am tempted to say that this is the European Union’s most eastern border, but that would be a lie, as Finland, up in the north actually spreads slightly further east than Romania does. Still, coming from the UK, it’s pretty far East!

Memories of an earlier visit

I first visited Iasi 11 years ago, on a visit which combined both a work trip and a family visit to my mother, who was living and working in Romania at the time. On that occasion I flew to Bucharest, and then travelled on to Iasi by minibus, coming back on the train, which alone took me 6 or 7 hours. By now, in 2010, Iasi has developed its own international airport and although it is small, it has regular flights to Bucharest and Vienna, which makes it relatively easy to reach from most places.

RIMG0019.JPGMy previous visit was in February of 1999, just 10 years after Ceauşescu was removed from post. At that time, the most obvious change was the establishment of glitzy new buildings, mostly owned by banks and other financial institutions, but in many other respects it seemed that the development of the country had made slow progress. This time, things were very different and I was in for a treat.

The Annual Conference of the Coimbra Group, which I attended as a guest of  the University of Iasi, was hugely successful, brilliantly organised, and allowed our hosts to show us the very best of Romanian culture and warm hospitality. The welcome event in the gloriously beautiful botanical gardens, complete with big band, is something that will live long in everybody’s memory.

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King of the Pan Flutes

The second night we were treated to a special concert by Gheorghe Zamfir, aka ‘King of the Pan Flutes’. You may shudder at the thought, especially if you all have ever heard is a pathetic attempt at pan flute music being piped into a restaurant while you were on holiday somewhere.  Well, think again, is all I can say. When Gheorghe Zamfir gets going on his Romanian traditional music, you can tell his heart and soul are on fire, and so are those of everybody in the concert hall. His music is full of passion and despite his advancing years, brilliantly played.

Much as I loved all this though, one of the absolute highlights of the visit for me came when we set off on a weekend excursion into Bucovina, a region to the north of Iasi famous for its huge number of Orthodox monasteries. The area is flanked on the west by the Carpathian Mountains, and as our journey snakes northwest, we get some real insight into Romania’s rural communities.

Romania Walls.jpgFarmhouses in this area are beautifully decorated on the outside, with wonderfully crafted woodwork which makes the farms look so very attractive. The shapes of their windows can be traced back to the times when this part of Europe was part of the Turkish Empire, and the sight of the newly constructed and very elaborately decorated villas by wealthy Roma people is something to treasure! The farmhouses themselves are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside. Interior walls are usually covered by stunning, brightly coloured tapestries that are often handmade. They are fixed to the walls in lieu of wallpaper and presumably much warmer in winter than their paper cousins. In the main rooms you usually find a stove in the corner, stretching up from floor to ceiling, which in true central European style will be decorated with beautiful tiles.

My first taste of Moldovian hospitality
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On my previous visit 11 years ago I stayed in just such a farmhouse. Maria’s parents, who owned the house, were quite elderly and could not afford to live there, as poverty in those days was rife in rural communities and the heating costs were simply too high. Instead, the couple had built themselves a small one-room hut in the courtyard, which by day was their living room, kitchen and became their bedroom by night. As is often the case, those who have the least to give, are often the first to share, and that time was no exception. A lavish traditional Romanian meal had been prepared, supplemented by home-made wine and local grappa, and the stove in the big house had been lit earlier in the day, in anticipation of our arrival. And so it was that our little troupe of 5 spent the night in a beautiful, warm Romanian farm house, surrounded by beautiful tapestries, while their owners slept in their courtyard home.

The new Romania

RIMG0306.JPG11 years further on, and Romanian rural life – at least in the part that we are visiting – has changed hugely. True, there are still plenty of roads leading off the main road we travel, which consist of no more than sand and gravel. It is also true that our coach is regularly held up by horse-drawn carts laden with hay just fresh off the land. But there is a real charm to this place that draws you in and makes you want to see more. There is also plenty of evidence of newly-found wealth. Cars are modern, many homes have been freshly painted, new pavements are laid and everywhere you look, fields are being worked and hay is being gathered. Bundles of hay are stacked in a typically Romanian way, and as far as the eye can see, fields are filled with hay stacks – hundreds of them.  Granted, much of the field work is still not mechanised, but everywhere you look people are working hard and it clearly pays off. Gone is the rather sad and depressed look that this area had when I visited it 11 years ago.  Instead, it’s been replaced by renewed pride, shiny new hotels, ‘pensions’ and ski-slopes. It’s not difficult to fall in love with this Romania, which is so busy rediscovering itself.

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Celebrating folklore

During the evening we are entertained by a troupe of musician accompanied by dancers and singers, most of who are no more than 17 or 18 years of age, all dressed in colourful costumes typical for this region. The ease with which they perform their traditional folklore songs and dances hides years of practice which must have gone on before reaching this level of performing. But what struck the most was the fun the young performers were having, their enthusiasm and obvious pride in showing us their cultural heritage. I can’t help but wonder how many youngsters in Western Europe would feel equally comfortable performing folk songs and dances. It’s not a happy thought for a European culture vulture (which I admit I am!)

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The Bucovina Monasteries

And then there are those monasteries. We visited four on our trip, every one more beautiful than the previous and all but one refreshingly free of the usual tourist trappings and souvenir stalls. Many of the monasteries still provide a home and way of life to the nuns who live there, just as they have done for many centuries, and the overall feeling is one of pure peace and tranquillity. It is the perfect retreat if quiet and solitude is what you long for. And such a retreat is perfectly possible, as many monasteries are very happy to take in travellers who are in the right frame of mind, and they will provide you with a bed and food at a very reasonable price. There were virtually no foreign tourists in any of the places we visited, but this will not last much longer. The beauty of the Bucovina Region coupled with the unique aspect of the monastery trail will surely mean that tourists will come flocking before long. At the risk of speeding up this process, I would urge you to explore this region before others do so too.

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Pushing Boundaries

As I adjust to a change in temperature from 38°C down to 17°C and rain has welcomed me back to the UK, I find myself contemplating the need for us all to push at our own boundaries, to see unusual places and get outside our comfort zone. So if you’ve never gone further east then perhaps the ski slopes in Austria – perhaps it is time for you to try Romania’s Bucovina region. You will find the warmest of welcomes there.

PS. I would like to dedicate this story to staff at the University of Iasi, several of whom are not only friends, but are also faithful readers of my blog. I am hugely grateful to them for showing me the heart and soul of Romania, the warmth of its people and its wonderful culture. It’s enough for anyone to want to plan a return visit. Further exploring is definitely required…
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7 Comments

  1. Alison Paton
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow what a great episode!
    Thank you for sharing this – I loved the Bucovina Monasteries!

  2. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting to read about the changes in Romania. The people deserve this.

    Maybe one day I will tour the country again just to see for myself !

  3. Brian Staines
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    It all sounds absolutely fantastic and you seem to have captured the soul of Romania.
    I was really sorry not to be at the conference in Iasi but your description of brought a little of it to me in Bristol

  4. Annemieke Waite
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks Brian! You were missed by many… 🙂 Glad you like the story, I was really inspired! 🙂 See you soon!

  5. An
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The Botanical Gardens of Iasi really are a highlight in any trip to the region. As a member of the Coimbra Group flock I also participated in this great evening of friendship. You described in perfect words my own impression of this trip. GREAT!

  6. Catherine
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    This is great Annemieke.Unfortunately I missed the monasteries but this and your photos gave me a ‘virtual’ peep!

  7. Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    thanks for sharing it with us. Romania is on my list of countries I must see – sooner the better.

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