Story and Photo by Scott Mullen
My first glimpse of Romanian soil was about exactly as it ought to have been. This came as a bit of a surprise, considering I had no idea what to expect from this Eastern Bloc home to gypsies and vampires. I envisioned a bleak landscape under a perpetually dark and foreboding sky, crossed with dirt roads and dotted with deeply shadowed pine forests and villages straight out of 1100 C.E. And, as the plane dropped beneath the clouds, that is what I saw. It wasn’t raining, but the coffee-colored puddles that covered dirt roads indicated that it had been, and the flat gray sky indicated it could soon be again.
It wasn’t until our wheels hit the ground at the Cluj International Airport, an event that was accompanied by enthusiastic applause from the mostly Italian passengers, that I started to see signs of urban civilization. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
After acquiring our car, a silver sedan with a manual transition, we set off east towards the city. At first, we drove through mostly residential areas, past rows of small houses with steeply slanted roofs, but we soon arrived in the city proper, a predominantly gray mass of buildings constructed in the soviet functionalist style. Our plan was to meet up with a cousin of my roommate, a university student living in Cluj, so we soon found ourselves in exactly where you might expect a bunch of young people to meet up – the mall. The Iulius Mall in Cluj-Napoca, I was surprised to discover, looks more like an American shopping center than anything I’d seen in Europe to date, with international department stores, fast-food restaurants, and mobs of preteens. We took full advantage of these unexpected comforts, which seemed a sharp contrast to both the rest of the city and the notions that I had been entertaining about my location, and sipped Starbucks cappuccinos while struggling to get in touch with my roommate’s cousin.
The struggle, in the end, was in vain. After an hour or so of driving around looking for him, an activity which took us through some older, more aesthetically pleasing parts of the city, we gave up and decided to start on the two and a half hour drive that would take us south into the center of the country to a city called Deva. These were the first of many hours that we would spend in our car on the narrow two lane roads that wind through the Romanian countryside.
When we arrived in Deva, a city of about 50,000 people, it was late. We drove straight to the apartment building in which we’d be staying, unloaded our things, and then tucked in to the meal that our hosts, my roommate’s grandparents, had waiting for us. His grandmother was an incredibly sweet little woman, probably half as tall as I, and, after having us remove our shoes, she sat us all on benches around the table and served us a delicious, if a tad eclectic, Romanian meal. As we ate, she and her husband stood near by, watching, smiling at us, and occasionally saying things in Romanian, the only language either of them knew.
Sitting in the kitchen, I was struck again by the feeling that I had at the Starbucks in Cluj; a feeling that I’d suddenly stepped to the other side of a curtain. The Romania that I’d expected existed, but at that moment I felt as if I was somewhere completely different.
The next morning, we hopped in the car again for the short drive to Corvin Castle, in the nearby town of Hunedoara, and it was back to the Romania I knew and was beginning to love. We spent a few hours wandering around the 15th-century castle, exploring the great halls and ruined armories, leaning over the battlements, and all the while listening to the clanging of two young boys in knight’s raiment practicing their sword fighting in the courtyard.
Before too long, though, the sky, which had been threatening us all morning, started to open up. We crossed the long, narrow drawbridge over the Zlaști River and headed back to the apartment, the castle on its hill looming out the back window for a good part of the drive. Back in the cozy kitchen, we lunched on a delicious meal of sarmale – spicy, stewed meat wrapped in cabbage leaves – before setting off to one of Deva’s most prominent attractions.
And I mean prominent. Balancing atop a mountain that punches into the sky from the middle of downtown, the Citadel is easily the most notable feature of the city. Its 13th-century walls rise hundreds of feet above the Mureș River Valley and support a large, white Hollywood-style sign that reads “Deva,” a feature that seems a bit out of place, but is oddly common in Romanian cities. To reach the Citadel, we parked our car outside of the Olympic gymnastics training facility that gave rise to Nadia Comăneci, the first female gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, packed ourselves into a glass box, and scooted up the mountainside on a steep, rollercoaster-like track. The fortress, which is currently being renovated, is now not much more than a large pile of stones, but we hiked around the crumbling walls and took in the views over the city and the valley before it started to rain once again. On the way back down, we looked out over the road that would take us to our next destination, a very small village to the west of Deva.
A few hours later found us in the car once more, going farther into the countryside, passing wide, green fields full of grazing sheep and rundown, abandoned, Soviet-era factories. Finally, we began to get close.
Fintoag is a farming village of perhaps fifty people. We pulled the car into the gravel drive of one of the farmhouses, were ushered inside, and presented to a slew of grandparents, aunts, and cousins. The inside of the house was brightly lit, and the beams bounced around the low ceilinged room, off of walls that were painted with fluorescent greens, yellows, and pinks. After a brief tour and introductions to a variety of people and animals, we decided to take advantage of the rest of the rapidly expiring day and walk up through the cherry and plum orchards to the top of one of the nearby hills. From our vantage point, we watched as the light slowly faded over the distant Carpathian Mountains, and dusk flowed sluggishly down the valleys.
We made our descent in the dark, half walking, half sliding in the mud, but all thoughts of chilly night were pushed out when we got back inside, where we were cleaned up and treated to a modest feast of roasted chicken, pork, and duck, as well as a mountain of pastries. Conversation during the meal was slow, as we only had one translator, but the family made it abundantly clear how happy they were to have us. The ride back to Deva that night was quiet; we weren’t in the car for more than ten minutes before I drifted into a satisfied, food-induced slumber.
The next morning, we woke up early to get started on yet another drive, this time far to the east, to a town called Bran and one last castle. After a gorgeous drive through the mountains and a short detour through a beautiful little city called Brașov, we arrived at the castle, which is advertised as the home of Vlad the Impaler, the notorious Romanian noble and inspiration for Dracula. At first, it seemed like a tourist trap. Cheesy vampire cutouts and souvenir stalls cluttered the first part of the walk from the parking lot. Once inside, though, the castle turned out to be a nice museum focusing on the history of the castle and the region it defends. Vlad and Dracula were appendices to the attraction, as they are to the castle’s history. In this I saw, once again, a peek behind a veil.
I had come to Romania with certain ideas in mind, fully expecting that they were not going to match up with reality, as had been the case on many other travels. But strangely, they did. I was thrown, but before the weekend was over I discovered that the Romania I had imagined only matched the Romania that you might see when you drove through. Yes, there were sheep grazing in open pastures off of dirt roads and farmers plowing with a team of horses. Yes, there were gypsy houses, gloomy castles, and reminders to the Soviet Bloc. But these things were only the things you’d see if you slept on top of the covers. Pull back the sheets, however, and there’s unexpected vibrancy; in the elaborate fountain at the mall in Cluj; in slightly lemony tea served by a woman who wants nothing more than for you to enjoy it; in shocking, neon-hued interior design.
After our day at Castle Bran, there wasn’t much left to do but take one more long drive, this time to the western edge of the country, to a city called Timișoara, where we spent our last night before hopping an early flight back to Bologna.
The morning of our departure was bright and clear – the first such day that we had. It was as if Romania had finally decided to open itself up, making sure I knew that its true character would take some digging to find.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baedeker.