Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Little Saxony

The Făgăraş Mountains, part of the Southern Carpathians, form an imposing and almost impenetrable barrier running east to west. These mountains have always been the southern border of Transylvania, the first and most important line of defence for the region. In the 12th century, to strengthen and protect the border marches the Hungarians invited Saxon (German) colonists to set up shop in the valleys on the northern foothills leading to the important mountain passes. For this the Saxons were given trading and social privileges and they soon became the urban elite, along with the Hungarians.

It wasn't all fun and games though, and after the Mongols came hordeing through in 1241 they decided to beef up their defences. Instead of building castles (which are usually for nobles anyway, of which there were not many amongst the Saxon settlers) they decided to make their churches into veritable fortresses. It seems like every town and little village between Sighișoara (Schässburg in German) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt) has its own, über-Gothic fortified church, some of them surrounded by up to three rings of defensive walls up to 12m high. Their interiors and graveyards are also almost entirely German affairs, with solid names like Wagner, Schmidt and Kohler peering back at you through the ages, a testament to what once was. It was a joy for me to potter from one village to the next, sometimes hitching a ride or otherwise taking a small path over from one valley to the next, enjoying the bucolic scenery and gorgeous woods in their golden autumn finery. It's not just the churches that indicate this western transposition mind you, the villages and houses here are also set out in a very different form from ordinary Romanian villages: the farmsteads have a central courtyard enclosed by high, contiguous walls, there are no gardens and, most strangely for Romania, there are no grannies sitting by the side of the road commenting on life as it passes by.

The fortified church at Biertan dominates the village and can be seen, looming, from miles around as you approach.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves?

It is common, no matter where you travel, for locals to ask you what you think of their country. Romania is no different, but with an added extra: people declaim that Romanians are not all gypsies and not to judge the country because of them. This is telling for several reasons. Firstly that this is the impression that many in the West have of Romania and Romanians (if they have an impression at all); secondly that ordinary Romanians are embarrassed by this preconception; and thirdly that this is a negative image. It is sad that in today's world where we have done our utmost to banish discrimination against blacks, Jews, homosexuals, the disabled and women, that prejudice against gypsies, or Roma, is not only widespread, but also accepted amongst many, otherwise liberal, sections of society. As a people they are the poorest and most disadvantaged in Europe. How did this come about? and who are the Roma anyway?

Colourful Roma clothes worn by the friendly Gabor family with whom I stayed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Hate Mondays

When I was still gainfully employed I, like many of my office-rat peers, was not generally pleased when Monday came around and woke me out of my weekend-induced torpor with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Now that I'm on the road I am no longer beholden to the Mon-Fri working week and generally lose track of which day it is. Nevertheless I still manage to find reason to hate Mondays. It's common policy in many places, especially those not on the well-trodden tourist path, to close their musea one day a week, which usually happens to be a Monday. And so it was today as I ambled around Târgu Mureş, every place I wanted to visit (admittedly not many, but still) was closed for the day. So I was limited to just wandering the streets and watching the people pass by as I sat in the main square and basked in the rare October sun. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Maramureş.

The road from Maramures to Transylvania passes some beautiful mountain passes, decked in their autumn raiment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death Valley

When planning a longer trip, such as this one, it is impossible to draw up a detailed itinerary. You roughly know where you want to go and some major points to hit along the way, but there are so many variables, unknowns and things that could happen along the way that anything more is a waste of effort. One thing, however, that is important to take into account is climate. Travelling in the cold, especially when camping or hitchhiking, is not much fun, and so it is important to oscillate north and south depending on the seasons. So I went to Scandinavia in June and now I'm heading south to the Mediterranean as Autumn has well and truly displaced Summer and is being hounded by Winter to get a move on. I may, indeed, have tarried a bit too long on the way as the past few days camping out in the Carpathian foothills in northern Romania have seen temperatures plunge to freezing. (The silver lining to this cold cloud is that I have to wear more clothes and so my rucksack is getting lighter.) Furthermore, days are getting ever shorter, which means that my time to explore is getting more limited as I need to find a place to pitch my tent and sleep before it gets too dark. But things should hopefully get better soon as I've reached a turning point in my travels and it's (more or less) south from here. So where am I?

Suceavita monastery. Not just a piritual centre, but also an important defensive bastion, guarding one of the passes to northern Moldova.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I have been rather disparaging about Moldova's lack of touristic sights, which I plan to make for in this post. There are two things that any visitor to the country really must see: the historic complex at Orhei Vecchi and one of the giant wine cellars near the capital, Chisinau.

In the West France, Italy and Spain are seen as being archetypal wine countries, but that's only because Moldova was locked away behind the Iron Curtain. During Communist times this small triangle of land produced all the wine the USSR needed and then some. As I mentioned before, wine is a way of life here, and the biggest cultural event in the whole country is the wine festival. Unfortunately I will miss that (it's this coming weekend), but I made up for it by visiting the wine cellars at Milestii Mici. Situated on the outskirts of Chisinau among gently rolling limestone hills Milestii Mici isn't much to look at, but burrowed away in those hills are some 200km of tunnels that are home to over 2 million bottles of wine (and that doesn't count the numerous casks, barrels, cisterns and vats). Welcome to the largest wine collection in the world. (And just in case you were wondering, the second largest wine collection is 20km up the road at Cricova.) The conditions in the Milestii tunnels are said to be ideal for maturing wines and so the winery's business is not about growing grapes, but instead they buy grapes from all over the country and then mix, ferment, store and age them. Their creations are supposedly (as I'm no oenologue) among the best in the world and give any Chateauneuf du Pape or Margaux a run for their money. Unfortunately, most of it is shipped off to Japan so you'll have to scout around if you want to find any in your local Tesco, though there might be more if it around from now on as a few years back Russia, which was the biggest purchaser, in an effort to force the Transnistria issue, decided to ban the import of Moldovan wines thereby causing a crisis in the Moldovan economy (as wine is the main export). The wine tunnels are so extensive that you have to visit with your own car (with an extra seat for the guide) as you drive several kilometres into the bowels of the hillside. The tour finished with the obligatory wine-tasting and visit to the winery shop, but I didn't mind that much as it's not often I get to try 25 year-old booze (with nibbles thrown in for good measure). And to give an idea of how ridiculously cheap wine is in Moldova, a 1992 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon was a measly $3.

One of the myriad wine tunnels in Milestii Mici. Here grand crus are matured in ideal conditions so that they can then be sold on for ridiculous sums of money.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hello Lenin

I was talking to my father a couple of days ago on Skype (bless the internet!) and he was surprised to learn that I was still in Moldova. What could there possible be there to keep me so long? he wondered. And it is true that touristic sights are thin on the ground; but what Moldova lacks in castles and museums, it makes up for in geopolitical quirkiness. Not only is it home to Gagauzia, but it also has its own breakaway province, the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), although it's more commonly known as Trans(d)nistria.
There's not much in the way of pretty public spaces so young couples about to get married must make do with what they have for their wedding photos. A tank certainly says romance to me.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Moldova On My Mind

Moldova is not a country one hears about often. It briefly surfaced in the consciousness of the world's media last year when riots protesting the results of the elections forced them to be held again. And, just as quickly as it had appeared, Moldova sank into media oblivion once more as pictures of crowds on the streets opposing policemen dried up. And although the ruling Communist Party had finally been ousted from power, the political stalemate that followed has dragged on until now with no signs of being resolved any time soon (there is still no president 18 months on after several failed votes and referenda). The political deadlock is just one facet of Moldova's biggest problem: corruption. Stifling bureaucracy, palm-greasing and exploitation have decimated endemic industry (almost every factory I've seen either closed or boarded up). Instead everything seems to be going on in the grey or black economies. So despite its official GDP being less than that of Malawi or Benin, the country is still far more developed than almost every African country. So much that goes on here is unaccounted for and it is thought that up to 20% of the entire population (so around a third of the working population) is out of the country and working abroad and sending remittances back home. This becomes very obvious when you walk through some dusty, anonymous neighbourhood and spot an immaculately clean, recently-constructed, 2-storey house, bristling with satellite dishes; the product of a wandering son who made it in either Italy, Russia or Turkey. These remittances make up about a third of the countries GDP and, in effect, allow it to keep from drowning. The drift abroad seems to be all-pervasive with younger people, many of whom are applying for Romanian passports (or Russian ones for Transnistrians), entering the Green Card lottery, or simply making their way to neighbouring countries, where jobs exist, illegally. The only people left in Moldova are the old(er) and young who have started families. The number of teen girls pushing prams in parks, whilst their boyfriends have probably scarpered abroad, is quite overwhelming. Most Moldovans seem to be looking for any way they can out of the country.

A new addition to Moldova's freedom of speech landscape: a large, white wall opposite the parliament building. People are free to write down any comments, gripes, criticisms or suggestions aimed at the politicians across the street.