Horse-drawn carts are not an unusual sight in Romania, where for many they’re a familiar mode of transportation. But the sight of two lipsticked, middle-aged women pulling wheelie suitcases along a country road … that’s a little more rare.
We wanted to rent a car but there wasn’t a car rental place to be found in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár)* that (a) had a car and (b) opened on a Sunday. So we booked the next best thing – a car with a driver. We’d agreed by email on 100 lei, which is about €22, for him to pick us up at the hotel and then drive us about 60km to the village of Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly)- where villagers once needed a passport to work in their fields, scattered as they were back then between two countries – Hungary and Romania. Then we called to confirm and it had gone up to 120 lei. And then he arrived and said 200 lei minimum. Now, I’m all for paying a fair price and had it been 200 lei from the outset, that would have been grand. But I hate to feel that I’m being taken advantage of. So we decided to take the train to Heudin and hitch from there as there are no taxis and buses don’t run to the villages on a Sunday. Or so we were told.
Walking up the main street of Huedin (Bánffyhunyad), with an amazingly decorative (and quite empty) tin-roofed house sitting across from an equally wowy Orthodox Church, a couple of people stopped and asked where we were heading (suit-case-dragging strangers are obviously not run of the mill on an early Sunday evening). Both were helpful with directions. At worst, we had a 5km walk ahead of us. At best, we’d get picked up. And we did. An old chap was dropping his mate home and said he’d take us along – for 10 lei. A bargain.
He dropped us in the middle of the village and from there it was a case of wandering like lost sheep with the intention of asking everyone we met where Erika’s Pensiunea was. ‘On the second hill’, the first old dear said, pointing vaguely into the distance beyond the church. So we walked some more. ‘I’m Erika’s mother’, said the second. Happy days. Could it get any better?
Apparently the village was razed by fire back in 1848 with only one house surviving. It was rebuilt since then and now has some beautiful examples of the region. But I swear, for a population of about 1500, I saw just one huckster shop, one bar, and two churches. No post office, no restaurant, no café. Every house has a bench outside where elderly villagers sit and watch the world go by. They aren’t half backward about coming forward and quite happily give you the third degree in stares – curiosity mostly. Nothing like feeling like a tourist. I suppose it’s fair play really – they must be sick to death of being photographed (and no, I didn’t dare).
The village fete was on that evening and so we had to go and have a look-see, as that’s where all the life had gravitated to. We had our wine and our langós and sat for a while listening to the local Country and Western band do their thing and then we left them to it. Too much excitement for one day.
Romanians mightn’t have much, especially those living in the villages. The average monthly wage clocks in at about €345 ($400) Sâncraiu (Szentkiraly) has at least 22 B&Bs and this is how many make their money. They’re happy to cook for you, too. Simple food, but good food. In order to get the most out of the experience, you have to leave your wants at home and simply accept that this is how life is in this part of the world. This is what’s done. No wonder there’s no need for taxis if any local passing by will pick you up for petrol money. And who needs TV when you have tourists to watch and talk about. It really is another world, one that trundles along at its own pace, making the most of the occasional agritourist and passing stranger.
Most of the houses have a best room – a parlour of sorts – where they keep their old traditional costumes and linens. It’s not for living – it’s for show. [That takes me back to my granny’s day and her parlour or sitting room with its tablecloths and fiddedly ornaments.] Their gardens are a treasure trove of times gone by. The detail in the wattling on the walls. The abundance of wild flowers. The fruit trees. The woodsheds. The quiet. Acres and acres of silence with nothing but the odd passing car to disturb you. I don’t think I could live there permanently, but I could surely spend a couple of weeks or so enjoying the disconnect.
I was struck by how connected I think I need to be when I stupidly locked myself out of my phone and had to do without for day – not even a day – a night. I was so pissed off. And then I thought – those who need to know, know where I am and those who don’t could find me if they tried hard enough, so what was I worried about?
The network of cables visible in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) is also on show in the villages, an ugly reminder of progress. An irritant. A blight on what would otherwise be a little slice of picturesque heaven. That said, after a while, like everything else, it sort of blends in. A shame though. And speaking of progress – I’d trade their BBQ for the best Webber has to offer any day.
*Hungarian names given in ( _)