Saturday 25 November 2017

Romanian holiday

The only problem with this beautiful place is there is too much to do and see.

A step back in time: Capra lake in the Fagaras Mountains
A step back in time: Capra lake in the Fagaras Mountains
Bran Castle, commonly known as Dracula's castle

Pat Costello

Andrei held a basket close to his chest and gently stroked the occupants. We peered in and he proudly showed us the two snuggled-up breeding ducks he had for sale. He smiled as our guide introduced us. "You are my first Irish," he grinned and shook our hands and posed for a photograph. "I hope I will meet many more from your country."

We were just a little more than three-and-a-half hour plane ride from Dublin, still in Europe and yet we had stepped back more than a hundred years in time. This was Transylvania in the heartland of Romania and market day in the village where we joined the crowds around the spicy sweet cheeses and cured meats.

We travelled in September before the chill winds of winter and the snows arrived in the Carpathian Mountains. In the fields men and women were stooping and gathering the harvest. Farm machinery is still pulled by animals and we saw farming as it must have been centuries ago in rural Ireland.

I never associated Romania with delicious food, but the variety and freshness of local, seasonal produce is mouth-watering.

Every area has its speciality, all dishes wholesome and flavoursome as can only happen when the ingredients are produced in a field down the road. Now, back home, we long for those meals: the rustic potatoes smothered in spicy tomato sauce; the smoked pork and onion soup served in the hollowed out loaf of bread; the infinite variety of cheeses; the home-made sausages, the salamis, the cured meats, the beetroot with horseradish, the crushed white beans, the meatballs, the polenta – all meals with wine or beer costing under €10.

There are seven Unesco world heritage sites in Romania and you can choose trips from the wildlife areas to beautiful cities.

We had asked for varied accommodation and this we got, from luxury hotel to basic B&B. In Bran, former residence of Vlad the Impaler, now famed as Dracula's castle, we stayed outside town in Mama Cozonacilor's home. Her name literally means Mama Christmascake! Here we savoured her home cooking and her special breads. Her son now runs the family bakery. When we were leaving, he filled bags and bags of delicious, still warm cakes and breads "for our journey".

Romania has everything – a vibrant city life with all the modern conveniences, shops and culture in spades, but it also offers the opportunity to go back in time both in terms of rural life and great value for money.

Our trip took us through rolling, green countryside, high into the Carpathian Mountains where bears, wolves and lynx still roam.

We saw goatherds and shepherds who stay for weeks up in the hills tending their flocks as they have done for generations. At times, we left the main road and drove on tracks through dark green forests and rocky landscapes so we could look down into the villages and valleys below.

One day, as we drove above a lake shining black in the valley below, we rounded a bend in the road and came on the hunting lodge of the former notorious dictator Ceausescu. The lodge is now a hotel and we ordered trout, fresh from the lake.

The only other diners were an elderly couple whose son was visiting from Australia. He had escaped 30 years before, through the former Yugoslavia, swimming across the Adriatic to Italy where he sought asylum. Romania's troubled past still casts its long shadow.

At the end of our trip, we stayed in Bucharest for a few days. Bucharest, nicknamed Little Paris, has its own Arc de Triomphe and avenue even longer than the Champs Elysées, which in spring is lined with trees in blossom. It has magnificent buildings, a lively cultural life and parks and gardens.

One day, we were collected by our guide who brought us 135km from the city to see the Muddy Volcanoes, a lunar landscape with underground gasses erupting from 3,000 metres below and pushing up grey, cold, plopping mud – a rare natural phenomenon we had never heard of. That evening we had booked tickets for the opera and enjoyed a magnificent production of Verdi's Macbeth.

The big problem about Romania is there's so much to see and many inaccessible places, so hiring a car is highly recommended. But if you're nervous about driving, as I was, for little more than the cost of a rented car, we got our very own Romanian guide and driver who spoke perfect English! Our sightseeing had no limits.

Irish Independent

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