Travels with Stephen Part 2


Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.

There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.  

An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.

What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.  

There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.

In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.

Then the silence was broken.

Someone yelled.

The sound echoed in the cold air.

It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there

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‘Big Walk You’ – Part 2



For a good 20 minutes, we drove down that road, dense forests either side of us.

The view was amazing.

Well, it was the same view we had seen close-hand during our frantic descent from the mountains, only now it was different because we had the luxury of sitting in the back of a car and looking at those forests as spectators. And when you saw it from that perspective, you could appreciate its sheer extent, the beauty of tall trees and autumn coloured leaves, seemingly endless.

This kind of wilderness – you didn’t see it anymore in Western Europe: the kind of wilderness which offered sanctuary to bears and wolves and packs of wild dogs.


As we descended, the forests receded and in places, there were fields. In one we saw a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Nearby was a rough low hut and smoky little fire.

Then a little way further, on our left, we saw them, a short way back from the road and near some tall trees: a big group of gypsies in two open, horse-drawn wagons. The men had long beards and the women were dressed in very colourful long dresses. The wagons were packed with people. Some of them were walking next to the wagons.

What were they doing there?

We tried to ask but got only: ‘gypsies!’

They looked like something out of a dream.

We had seen gypsies before in Romania, some of them living in houses, some of them begging, some of them on the move.

But this was bizarre: out here in this wilderness, in this cold.


At 7pm we came to a village.

The air was heavy with dust and smoke. In combination with the twilight, everything seemed other-worldly. Scenes rolled before my eyes, images which I could not believe I was seeing, which reminded me of travelling in India, not Europe.

There was a long unsealed road and on either side of it, small houses. Most of the houses consisted of weathered, vertical wood palings and long, sloping, red tile roofs; the roofs were warped and looked like a painting from the hand of Van Gogh (only without the colours). In some places, there were groups of people sitting on bench seats at the side of the road.

Then I noticed it: there were no cars. No cars on the road and no cars parked at the side of the road. No one could afford a car. Many people rode bikes. Others were on horse-drawn carts. Some of the people I saw were gypsies or of mixed heritage; others were Romanian.

In a field, I saw women wearing headscarves and woollen vests and long dresses raking piles of dead grass into heaps. In another field, I saw people scrabbling in the dirt to find potatoes, which they put in to an old sack.

We passed a small church and graveyard. Behind it was forest. There was no fence or wall around the church and graveyard. I watched a group of people carrying implements like rakes, spades and hoes, walk through the grave yard, passed the small headstones; death and dying was a part of village life. It was like a scene from medieval times.

We came to an intersection where there were several horse- drawn carts pulled up at the side of the road. There was a group of people standing in the middle of the intersection talking. The car edged slowly around them and a little later came to a halt because a shepherd was bringing his herd of cows down the street. We drove a bit further before having to stop for another herd of cows, this one far bigger.


With the flood of impressions which greeted me as we drove through that village, the physical exhaustion I felt after we first got into the car seemed to vanish.

All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. I felt alive, excited, curious and at the same time, there were questions I was grappling with.

Approximately 50 kilometres away was the city of Brasov – where we had stayed only two days before. It had a beautiful old historic centre and it was one of Romania’s major tourist attractions. The busiest area was around the square and an adjoining street – closed-off to traffic – called Republika Street. On either side of Republika Street were elegant buildings constructed during the 19th century and early 20th century when Romania was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the street level of these buildings were upmarket shops, some of them orientated towards the tourists, but most of them towards the local middle class youth. Brasov was a university town and there were crowds of students among the tourists. In the front windows of these shops were slick images of sophisticated, cool people wearing the right clothing, the right jackets, the right watches, the right jewellery, the right perfume; you felt old walking along that street if you were over 25. The sons and daughters of the newly emerging Romanian urban middle class were the ones who had money to spend – much of it black. Here we were two days later driving over brutal roads passed villages where no one had a car, which in many ways were living in a time belonging to a distant past.

This was a country of compartmentalized worlds, involving not only rich and poor but also city and country, ethnic Romanians and gypsies, the legal economy and the illegal. It was a country of gross inequality and endemic corruption. There were enormous differences between different areas of society co-existing side by side. Somewhere in a part of my brain I was wrestling with the issue: would I want Romania to be Scandinavia? Would I want to level this society and thereby also remove its colour, its differences, it’s all too vivid contrasts? I suspected that there was an unequivocal connection here: poverty and culture, prosperity and sterility. I hoped I was wrong but I’d seen it before – many times.

As a progressive human being, I would want to level the entire world, to reduce the economic inequality within nations and between nations; to create a world society in which everyone, the poor and the rich, men and women, gays and trans genders, had equal opportunities in life. Ideals were precious to me. Yet as a traveller, honesty forced me to admit that the last thing I would want to do is turn the world to one big antiseptic ball park. As a traveller, the very last thing I wanted was to live in a world without differences, a world sterilised into a kind of decent mono-culture where everyone lived as a consumer. In the drive from the mountains down through that village, I felt a surge of exhilaration, of wonder, of intensity; my eyes feasted on the scenes outside the windows of that beaten up old Opel. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking about what I had seen in Republika Street only two days before: the ugly reality of some people, an arrogant elite, living the Western Dream and many others, in grinding poverty.

How many of the people in these villages would be worrying about their appearance, about what was fashionable and cool?

I could not resolve these contradictions – and so I gave up and just went along for the ride…….


After that village, came another.

By that time, night had fallen and it started raining.

This village was, in any case, somewhat more developed. There was a typical, blunt communist era apartment block, chipped and cracked. In the light of a street lamp it looked like a massive, gaunt, tombstone. Near the apartment block there were a few old communist era cars and, a few wrecks of cars. In unsealed side streets, I saw pools of water and rows of wood and tile houses with light glowing from their windows; they looked like lanterns. We drove through a town centre where there were a few small shops, a communist era statue of a hero, and an old, stately looking building hailing from the Austro-Hungarian times.

We crossed a railway line and finally reached a sealed road.

We told the driver to drop us there and we could hitch back to Baile Tusnad.

The driver said: ‘No…not possible…. we take you to Manpas Bai. There you get train to Baile Tusnad.’
Shortly after he said that, we realised that the road we had turned on to was not the road to Baile Tusnad. It was another road entirely. It was deserted. There was no traffic.

Once again, I ran the scenario through my mind about what would have happened if we hadn’t been picked up by these men. We would have walked all night, got to the road the following morning very much worse for wear – and then discovered that it wasn’t the road we wanted.

That we still had a hell of a long way to go – with no hope of a lift in sight.


In the dark and wet, the car drove up a hill, back and forth around sharp bends. There were forests all around us. The drive to the station at Manpas Bai seemed to take forever. It was a hell of a distance. The time ticked by.

At 8pm, we turned left down a pot- holed side street and there it was: the little railway station at Manpas Bai.  

Anya and I travelled often by train in Romania. It was far more reliable than the bus service (which is why hitch-hiking was so widespread in Romania).

Some of the train stations were big, like grand halls, with high ceilings and waiting rooms and upstairs lounges; they were relics from the communist era when few people had cars and most used the trains. Others, like the one at Manpas Bai, were very small, like the forgotten forward posts of a once great empire. Manpas Bai consisted of a rectangular, flat-topped, white-painted building; there were no platforms let alone sheltered platforms. A train arrived and you walked over there and literally, climbed aboard – quite an effort with a heavy rucksack.

The next train for Baile Tusnad left at 9 pm; we had a long wait ahead of us.


The trout fishermen made their way back to their car.

We insisted on giving them money – 150 lei or around 35 Euros. This was a large sum indeed for the locals. We were not in the habit of handing out this sort of tip but in this case, it was different. These men had gone out of their way to drive us to the station; we had been in their car for an hour and a half. Without them, we would have been in a very sorry, not to mention, dangerous situation. If someone had appeared at 6.30 that evening and offered to drive us to safety for 200 Euros, we would have paid it – especially if we had had the slightest inkling of what lay in front us.

The men refused to take the money.

We refused to let them go without them taking it.

In the end, they did take it and we were incredibly glad that they did.

We owed them a debt which could not be put in monetary terms – still, money was as close as we could get to say ‘thank you’ and it didn’t strike me that these guys were exactly wealthy.


By the time we reached Baile Tusnad – 9.30 – the rain had become a torrential downpour.

Our guest house was situated at the end of town (not that Baile Tusnad was very big), high on the mountain side, amidst pines. Normally it took around 20 minutes for us to reach it from the station – during the day. At night, with the heavy rain however, it was a different matter.

At the station, we put on our ponchos and walked up to the main road. This was well illuminated, but the streets which we had to follow up the slope after that had no lighting. We kept losing our way and had to retrace our steps several times. It was so frustrating. As if the day hadn’t been long enough. We were so close and yet so far.

Finally, we got there.

Then the next little hurdle: getting the key to our room.

That morning, we had just got out of the door when the owner of the guest house came running after us, yelling out ‘You! You!’

The ‘You!’ annoyed me. It sounded rude. Then I remembered that he knew only a few words of English (about as many words as we knew in Romanian).

‘You!’ was his way of catching our attention.

He asked us to give him the key to our room so that it could be cleaned. We didn’t want our room cleaned and preferred to have the key with us so that we could get into our room when we liked.

Did he not have his own set of master keys?

Given the communication problem – and that we wanted to start walking instead of wasting time – we just went along with it and gave him the key.

At 10.30 pm at night, wet, cold, and exhausted, we opened the front door to the guest house. There was no one at the reception desk.

I was not amused. The last thing I wanted to do was knock on doors and get the owner out of bed to get our bloody key.

Why had we given that moron our key in the first place?

Hearing a booming TV set coming from behind a door directly opposite the reception desk, we thought we might as well try and knock on the door and find someone who was awake – and might be able to locate the manager.

I knocked loudly on the door a few times.

The manager appeared. He was an elderly man with an aquiline nose and a head of thick grey hair cut short.

He beckoned us inside.

I’d thought that behind the door was someone’s room. It was much bigger. There was a bar and some tables and chairs nearby. We didn’t even know this bar area existed.

There was no one there, only him, drinking a beer and watching TV.

On the surrounding walls were the hides of bears. It made me sick. All that hunting stuff was pathetic. If it wasn’t bear hides it was deep antlers.

When the owner grabbed the remote and turned the TV off and turned the lights off and head towards the door, I realised that he had evidently waited up for us.

I forgot about my anger at seeing the bear hides.

Closing the door behind him, he handed us our key and said:

Big walk you!’

Was it my imagination or was this a classic example of dry understatement?


See also Serious Travel Images:

A Weekend in Bucharest – Saturday (Romania)


A Weekend in Bucharest – Sunday

Walking Romania


Anya and I went to Romania to go walking and as far as that went, we knew long beforehand that a good place to do this was in Transylvania.

So our plan was fairly simple: fly to the capital of Transylvania – called Cluj Napoki – look around for an outdoor shop, buy some maps and make a few plans.  We had a good map of Romania, but it seemed to me, after a doing a bit of research on the net, that we needed a map of Transylvania and then also, some more detailed maps showing walking trails.

Only when we were in Cluj and bought the map of Transylvania did we realise that firstly, Romania is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe and secondly, that Transylvania was a lot bigger than we thought. We were forced to scale right down; we ended buying  a map of one part of Transylvania – west of Cluj – and four maps covering most of the trails in that region.

Our approach to walking is to find small towns or villages in areas where there are trails and start there. Access to the trails is crucial. We avoid big towns like the plague. The worst scenario is being in a sizeable town and having to walk along busy roads or suburban streets before we can start a trip. So we usually end up in small, remote places. The problem here is usually finding accommodation and food (the eastern European diet is pretty limited). The attractive side to such places is the ‘cultural dividend’: that wonderful feeling of being a stranger in a strange place, of experiencing something very different to one’s own country. In that sense, Romania was a revelation.

We walked two different kinds of trails – hills and mountains.

None of our maps were in the least bit accurate. They gave us an indication of where trails in general could be found. We soon became adept at improvising: following trails with only a general idea of where we were going and often no idea where we would end up. Sometimes locals on the way gave us directions. In the mountains, there were marked trails although most of the time it was very difficult to find the first markers (because they weren’t there) but once we found them – after an hour or two of taking wrong turns – they were fairly reliable. The marked trails were made for the Hungarian tourists – Romanians in general don’t walk.

Whatever kind of trails we followed, the ones we liked best took us through remote villages. This was where we encountered a way of life which had disappeared from Western Europe 50 or 60 years ago; traditional wooden houses and barns, heavy work horses used to plough fields and pull carts, fences of wooden palings, old women dressed in headscarves and long colourful dresses; shepherds and cow herders. Most of the people living in these villages were old; their kids had long ago departed for one of the cities – or for Western Europe (in the last decade especially there has been a mass exodus). These old villagers knew no other way of life and they were determined to live that life until the end. It was a hard life, especially in winters when temperatures can drop far under zero, yet somehow I couldn’t see them resigning themselves to life in a typical drab communist-era apartment block in one of the cities.

Not so long ago, millions of Romanians lived this way of life. Romania had lagged behind the other Eastern European communist countries. The age of Marx was a schizophrenic time for Romania: on one hand, there was a nation engaged in a Long March to the glories of industrialisation – smoke belching factories, the planned economy, free medical care and public transport, an industrial working class – and on the other hand, millions of peasants, especially in the mountains, living a way of life unchanged for centuries.

25 years on and Romania had joined the E.U. and the younger generation had left and the factories and mines had closed. A new middle class was on the rise. The western consumer revolution had arrived. For millions of Romanians now living in the cities there was a longing for the traditional way of life of the villager; it was a kind of dream image. There were three TV channels devoted to satiating this national nostalgia for a mythical past: traditionally dressed ‘villagers’ singing and dancing and playing their instruments, with cows and horses and grassy fields and wooden houses in the background. Traditional village based music was more popular than ever before. No one of course wanted to ever actually go back to the land and relive the old life – though the middle class were buying up land and old houses and renovating them.

None of this nostalgia was permitted during the communist era. The only dream image permitted was the Socialist Man. Then after 45 years of dictatorship and a failed economic model, the Socialist Man was tossed aside. To be replaced by singing and dancing peasants.

Our flight back to Rotterdam left from Budapest. On the way to the Hungarian border, we left the mountains and took a bus south, passing though big towns constructed during the communist era and now very run down and dilapidated. We stayed for 3 days in a large town called Deva. Amongst other things we took a local bus out to a place called Hunedoara; there was a finely restored medieval castle near the centre but just as interesting were the remains from the communist era: abandoned factories and a huge railway siding, rusted, overgrown with weeds. Then there was the beautiful old railway station at Hunedoara, which had been abandoned; on the walls of the main entry hall were paintings of the Communist Dream probably done about 50 years ago. They seemed valuable to me those paintings. They were a part of the nation’s history. Yet as far as Romanians were concerned, it was a part of their history which they wanted to forget. As if the Lords who had occupied the castle – on which millions had been spent – had been a part of a benevolent age.

Romania was many things, it had many sides to it.

We left the country resolved to come back as soon as possible; for us it was one of the most interesting countries in Europe.










For more photos of Romania see: Serious Travel Images, Romania: Country of Contrasts Parts 1 and 2


For blogs about travelling in former communist nations try:

‘Hitching with Raiko’ (Macedonia):

‘The Conversation’ (Albania):