Monday, May 24, 2010

Switzerland in our back yard

There's an interesting phenomenon going on in Romania. The ultimate compliment one can give to any cultural or geographical reality is to compare it with something foreign. Comments of admiration like "wow, I feel like I'm in another country" are very frequent in a nation that has slowly started to feel ashamed of its own character.

We fell into the same trap last weekend, driving through the mountains that divide Transylvania and Moldova, by way of the Tihuta Pass. The roads were unusually good, and wide and well maintained, and the scenery was worthy of Swiss postcards.
Until you get to Hotel Dracula and Romanian realities hit you back in the face: kitsch and rednecks. Why Dracula? Because the Tihuta Pass is none other but the mountain pass described in Bram Stoker's novel. The location of the hotel is where Dracula's castle would have stood in the book. Except in the real world it looks nothing like a castle. Not is it exceedingly Gothic. But it was swarming with tourists, so who am I to question their money-making aesthetics?
They even had a statue of Bram Stoker out front, all wide-eyed. I guess even he is amazed at the century-long hype his little novel has created.
After a lunch stop at this most respectable hotel, we stopped for a bit at the roadside to admire the scenery and ascertain which way to go next. Ahead of us we saw a storm, which seemed to be coming towards us very quickly. So we ran back to the car and waited for the rain to stop.
In the meantime, we decided to turn back and go see Lake Colibita. Best decision ever. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. Down by the lake, it's tourist heaven, with little villas and hotels, some of which rent out the gear you'd need to go sailing or wind surfing. The lake is renowned for always having the right kind of wind for such activities.

But we're walkers, not sailors, so we climbed away from civilisation, in order to get a better view. And boy, did we get it!
A lot of the beauty of this place comes from the eerie feeling of being frozen in time. What has been reveals itself to you much more than what is. Evolution and civilization become quite irrelevant when you have this view from your porch:
Traditional villages in this part of the world are very spread out; water is half an hour's walk away and your nearest neighbours are so far away you have to take a whole day off work to go visit them. But nowadays, with everyone longing for civilization and comfort, many of these traditional houses have become deserted, and the neighbours that remain are even fewer and farther between.
We came across about three of these deserted houses on our way up. They look so dignified in their decrepit beauty, they made me think of smiling old grandmas. And their orchards were in bloom too! I loved the contrast.
One of these houses was not even locked, so we took the liberty to tiptoe inside. It felt like breaking in, or opening a tomb.
Behind the house, I found out that, even if vestiges of family life there were still so fresh, the probable owner had died 50 years ago.

Here lies Stefan Badiu (1882 - 1957), master of the hillside, protecting his house and belongings.
We locked his windows and doors and moved on upwards. At which time we gained a cheerful companion and forgot the sadness of the empty houses.

There were a lot of these on the hills:
We naturally asumed the locals love playing rugby, and we even tried some ourselves:
(just kidding, they're just hay stack supports, you ignorants :P)

And up we went a bit further.
Up here, I realized my folly. This is no Switzerland, nor do we need it to be. Chaotic, sad and roadless as it may be, it's home. And it has infinitely more soul.