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Travel

A country life

(So internet cafes haven’t been that accessible. And searching for them hasn’t been such a priority. So I have a lot to say, sorry).

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After the rigours of Bucharest and the routine of towns and museums and churches in the towns of Transylvnia, I wanted to head for the countryside, to see if the old agrarian Romania had survived collectivisation and Aldi and depopulation, to pander to my patronising visions of donkeys tied to a tree and children playing in dusty roads by fields of cabbages.

I took the train from Sighişoara, to Mediaş, travelling the few kilometres very slowly, stopping at small villages where geese and roosters greeted the train, where passengers descended onto rough platforms of concrete blocks, with no ticket offices or waiting rooms or coffee outlets. The imposing Communist era station at Mediaş was not much of a welcome to what proved to be a lovely old town, with one of the finest churches in the area – an area of many fine churches. I wandered a little and had lunch in a restaurant in the old Party dining rooms before heading for the bus station and guessing which was the 15.40 coach to Biertan village.

The bus got full and started up, soon leaving the town, heading into the countryside of fields of maize and low hills. Tracking the railway line back to Sighişoara for a while, we then turned sharply south into the hills, passing Gypsy villagers and overtaking a farmer and his roughly made horse-drawn cart stacked high with freshly cut hay.

Biertan (Birthälm in German) is a large village, widely visited by daytrippers but very quiet when I arrived in the late afternoon. I got off at the start of the village, having no idea of its size or where else the bus would stop. I walked past a long row of characteristic Saxon houses, painted different colours, with their large wooden gates and small windows giving no indication of the dwellings beyond; the great Patrick Leigh Fermor described them best – having “flattened cart entrances, shingled lynch-gates, hipped roofs and rows of gables … here and there with a rather daring frill of baroque”.

I reached one with white walls and tall blue gates, marked Otto’s Pension. With little idea of how many rooms for hire there would be or how I would find them, I turned the handle and found myself in a large courtyard with a pretty garden bounded on two sides by old whitewashed farm buildings, terraced hills looking down from above. I knocked on an open door and out came a woman of about 40 with short hair, her stern face prematurely aged by cigarettes and frustration. She showed me to a room brusquely, pointed out the shared bathroom and scratched the figures ’45’ into the skin on the back of her hand with a key to indicate the price. I agreed this – 9 pounds didn’t seem bad – and she mentioned breakfast at eight in a manner that didn’t suggest I should disagree.

I wandered through the village, with its large square, a couple of general stores including one signed ‘Mixt Magazin’ that had faded boxes of toys in the cobwebbed windows and a massive display of plastic buckets just inside the curtained doorway. An ancient looking bar had men sitting on the wall outside drinking beer from 2 litre bottles. On the other side, Biertan’s famous fortified church imposed itself on the rows of austere Saxon houses. Turrets, ramparts, crosses and arches gave it a stern appearance from below, but inside it was a grassy warren of stairways and frescoed interiors. This was the sight the coaches stopped for, and rightly so, for it is magnificent. But I wanted to see the Biertan the coaches missed, and explored some of the backstreets, getting a feel for the village where I would have time to slow down for a few days.

I ate in the fine ‘medieval’ restaurant, all decked out in thrones and elaborate ironwork. It was perhaps the best restaurant I had been to so far in Romania, surprising given it was in a village not the capital or larger towns, but very welcome as it was the only place to eat in a place I would be staying for three nights.

I walked back to the pension full and happy (with half a litre of village wine to thank), in the clear darkness. The Milky Way was clear and bright in the sky above, and a horse still attached to its cart was nibbling grass outside a bar, trashy music blasting from within. Otherwise the village was silent, but for treefrogs quietly calling from their leafy hideaways.

I went to sleep with the window open, listening to the silence, content that I would really be able to take in the peaceful atmosphere of village life.

Five minutes later, my phone bleeped with a text message. A trivial yet welcome message, the sound carried through the empty streets and set a dog barking, then another, then another.

It took a few minutes for the silence to return, this time it seemed for good.

At half past four a rooster began his morning calls. He was not the only cockerel in the village, it turns out, just the earliest. Soon the oh-so-peaceful village was awoken. The church bells rang out at ten to seven. Motorbikes were started by seven. Breakfast at eight now seemed a luxury of a lie-in compared to the other villagers – fowl, beast, machine or man.

When breakfast came, it was more than welcome – lots of strong black coffee. The stern landlady seemed to be warming to me and put an extra slice of sausage made from indeterminate meat by-product on my plate. It seemed rude not to indulge her generosity as I sat at the farmhouse table laid out for 14 but catering just for me. Sheep’s cheese, tomato and lovely bread were the other ingredients, along with a jam of a fruit I couldn’t discern – it had a touch of the institutional mass-made jam about it, but turned out to be delicious. She watched me with a cigarette, keeping my passport in her handbag on her lap so that I wouldn’t run off without paying.

So I set off for my country jaunt, following a path a lady with good English had suggested, leading from the outskirts of the village where I had got off the bus. It started promisingly uphill into woodlands, with a blue church shaped blob painted onto trees to mark the way. But soon the path became ever more littered with cans and bags and old shoes and socks and other muck. This was the village dump. I was glad not to be in flip flops and persevered. The woods were pleasant, the shade welcome, and I consoled myself that the rubbish would not go on forever.

After a half mile or so, the woods and the rubbish ended and the path opened into a valley of pasture. Bumble bees and butterflies danced over the field of red clover on one side, corncrakes krek-kreked from the cornfield on the other, with an eagle soaring overhead. Finally the Romanian countryside I had been after, no noise or coaches.

After getting lost in that easy happy way discovering hidden sights and sounds, I followed cart tracks along the path back into woodland, rising higher. Hills with pasture in turn rose above me. All of a sudden, as I was looking down to keep my footing, a movement caught my eye. On the hill above me was the largest stag I had ever seen, running for cover. Its antlers must have been a metre long. An impressive animal, it was gone into the trees before I could reach for my camera. From then on, I had it out of my bag and turned on, but I wasn’t to see another stag like that.

I made it to the next village of Dupuş, a sleepy place only accesible by dirt road from the highway or by cart along the way I had come. On the way back, I lay in the grass, until a shepherd whistled at me from the lane below followed by twenty or so goats. I waved back and headed on, later annoyed with myself that I hadn’t given him time to approach me and say hello. On the way back a little roe deer burst out of a woodpile right next to me and leapt up the hill to escape me.

Back in the village, I stopped in the pharmacy for some aspirin – sunstroke slightly taking advantage. It turns out that Transylvania is a centre of pharmaceutical history and that Biertan’s chemist had first been mentioned in the 17th century and that the shop I was visiting had been in operation for 200 years. Suitably refreshed, chemically at least, I headed to the other side of the village along a hot road.

This side of the village was not nearly so prosperous or grand, although most houses were of the same design. Each cluster of houses had a handpump or a tin-rooved well with a bucket to draw the household water. Children and enormous, very old-looking ladies sat together in the shade watching me. The heat from the tarmac was overwhelming, but I wanted to explore, turning down a lift from the beer delivery truck heading to the next village of Copşa Mare.

Eventually I made it by myself, and this village too was poor looking and somewhat neglected, although it had clearly been prosperous in the past. Another fortified church was the highlight of the village. An adder and lizards basked in the heat of the road and I didn’t look forward to making my way back on the same road, now in the hottest part of the day. I had missed the beer truck. The lady who had suggested the walk said there was a path back through the woods and I made a plan to find it.

I took the first path off the road through a cornfield and headed to a few points, each way blocked by heavy undergrowth. Suddenly I broke through one set of shrubbery to find a wide cartpath completely hidden from view. I followed this up to another set of pasture, pleased with myself. At the field it was again unclear where to head, but I wandered into the woods and soon found a path marked by two red lines on a tree. Hopeful, I followed the path along a ridge, higher and higher, until it reached a point. From this peak, marked with a little cement block, I could look down to the village I had just visited, a great view, but completely the wrong side.

I pressed on, now down following another path made by goats perhaps, through woodland covered in huge foot-high parasol mushrooms then into grass and scrub. By the time this came to an end, I realised this was completely the wrong way.

There followed another hour and a half of false paths, dead-ends, red lines on trees for half a mile then ending starkly, the sound of shepherds in the valleys below wafting up, my legs scratched by undergrowth. My stubbornness pushed me on, but eventually the cooler air, lower sun and more reasoned mind turned me back to the very start. All in all I had enjoyed the adventure, spotting valleys and woods that noone would see again for years, but I had not succeeded in making my way back without the reassuring guide of tarmac and motor oil.

Back in the village I felt like I had earned the enormous medieval platter of grilled meat and potatoes and pickled cucumber. I felt even more like I deserved the next day of reading in the farmyard and soaking up some sun and drinking plenty of water. As I sat on the bus back to towns and trains, watching a gypsy family thumb a lift to the next fork in the road, I felt ready for city life again, renewed and refreshed, although scratched and a little humbler.

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