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The Real, Rural Romania – One Man’s Love Affair with Europe’s Hidden Treasure

From my experience a trip to Romania promises to be something quite special. Having led several tours to the country I can categorically state that it is a wonderful destination. Ffestiniog Travel has had the privilege of working in close partnership with owner managed local operator Ramona of “My Romania” which gives added value to all FT’s Romanian operations. This association has enabled FT to become one of the UK’s leading tour operators to Romania. A day-to-day itinerary doesn’t do justice to a tour like Romania so I have written a first-hand account of the ‘Romania at Harvest Time’ tour which took place in September 2013 and I hope it provides a flavour of why Romania is a must-see destination.

When FT’s ‘Romania’s Golden Colours’ escorted tour sold out very quickly we instantly arranged a second tour to feed the demand - ‘Romania at Harvest Time’. We had developed the “life as it used to be” theme from previous tours and took it a stage further by this time immersing ourselves in village life and staying in family run “homestays” enjoying locally produced organic food from the neighbourhood. For those customers who, like me, are of a certain age, it brought back happy memories of childhood.

We flew from Heathrow to Cluj Napoca where we were met by Ramona, together with Ovidiu, our driver for the next 12 days. He had a brand new Mercedes Sprinter mini-coach and would be on hand to take our luggage, even for those journeys we were due to do by train.

After an overnight in a downtown hotel, we left Cluj next morning by train and wouldn’t see another large town until we arrived back in Cluj, 11 days later.

Today’s final destination, Copşa Mare, was typical of the many tiny unspoiled villages we visited on the tour and a useful reminder that to get the most out of a visit to rural Romania, you need a good Romanian guide and some private road transport with a driver who, like Ovidiu, knows where he is going! Copşa Mare is a tiny village in a hidden valley comprising no more than one and a half unpaved streets, a cluster of traditional old properties, two churches, a general store, several horses and carts, a few cows and lots of hens. If ever there was a place to get away from it all, this is it.

Our rather enterprising hosts had bought four properties and converted them to comfortable living accommodation with en suite facilities. We ate together in one of them and a lovely meal it was too!

During the course of the holiday we stayed in or visited many such places – Biertan, Richis and Malancrav with their fortified churches in Saxon Transylvania; Hoteni, Corneşti, Sârbi and Breb in remote Maramureş.

Maramureş lies to the north of the country, near the border with Ukraine and separated from the rest of Romania by a range of mountains. Readers with good memories of school days will remember being taught about medieval strip farming, the three field system and so on. In Maramureş it is alive and well with fields worked either by horses or, more usually, by hand. Of course, if you look carefully, there are giveaways. I don’t, for example, remember any reference in my history book to the old woman with the scythe also having a mobile phone!

Visiting the Maramureş villages never fails to spring a few surprises. These need spontaneity and can’t be planned in advance but the value of having Ramona to handle the language and effect the introductions can’t be overestimated. This time we followed an ox cart with a load of hay into a farm yard and received a short impromptu lesson on farming from the farmer’s wife, met a man busy distilling his plum brandy who was happy to have our group as eager quality testers and watched corn being ground at the water powered mill.

“Who wants to buy a pig?” called Ramona one morning in Bucovina, just as we were boarding the Sprinter outside our guest house. Nobody did but we went to the farmers’ market anyway. Everything you could possibly need if you were a farmer was there – not only livestock but, tools for mending horse drawn carts (you don’t see those at Halfords), cowbells, milk churns and pans of all shapes and sizes – and, at the rear of all this, the largest horse and cart park you have ever seen.

Of course there is much more to rural Romania than the farming, the good food and the plum brandy. Bucovina in the north east of the country has its famous Painted Monasteries – we visited three of the five at Moldovita, Sucevita and Voronet. Maramureş has lovely old wooden houses and churches each with beautifully carved wooden arched gateways and Transylvania has Count Dracula – well, not exactly. His real name was Vlad the Impaler and he was born in Sighişoara, a medieval fortified citadel which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I reckon his real name is more horrific than the fictional one, especially when you remember that he earned it from impaling the bodies of his citizens on spikes to warn his enemies what lay in store for them if they attacked!!!

So, what about the trains in this rural paradise? On the standard gauge, we made two long main line journeys, one of these through the impressive scenery of the Carpathian Mountains, plus a branch train in an elderly ex SNCF diesel railcar from an isolated wayside station which has a manned booking office which doesn’t sell tickets and a timetable display which doesn’t show the time of one of the only two trains of the day which stop there. Ramona to the rescue yet again!

Highlights of the tour were the journeys on three narrow gauge steam lines. Before the fall of Communism, Romania had a network of 760mm gauge railways – most had ceased operation by 1999 as car ownership became common but a handful survive as tourist operations, albeit on a very limited scale compared with their UK counterparts. One such line ran from Praid to Târgu Mureş and we were able to charter a steam train on the section which reopened in 2010 from Sovata to Campu Cetatii. Motive power was a Polish 0-8-0 of the type which once ran regularly on the line. Sadly the weather was cold and wet and the tourist style coaches don’t have windows! Even so, the two hour trip was good and the lunchtime bowl of soup at a nearby restaurant especially welcome.

Next was the working logging railway at Vişeu de Sus. This commercial operation has survived because there are no roads up the Vaser Valley and, better still, it also operates a tourist passenger service with wood fired steam locos. Leaving at 0900 and arriving back around 1400, give or take a bit according to the demands of the logging business, the passenger train runs for some 20 kms up the valley – about half the total length of the line. This enterprising concern also lays on a BBQ at Paltin, the upper terminus, during the lunch layover.

Passenger stock is a mixture of home produced tourist coaches, again with no windows, and a number of former Swiss Wengernalp coaches, still in their green and cream livery and proudly displaying Jungfraujoch as the destination on their classic Swiss “flip-over” destination boards. They had been re-gauged of course to 760mm and, as appropriate for the Romanian winter, fitted out with wood burning stoves.

The journey was delightfully scenic with the fast flowing river and forest backdrop providing a constant reminder that natural resources are still the lifeblood of this remote region.

We arrived back in Vişeu in the early afternoon and, with time to spare, Ramona and I remembered a rather nice café in the main street we had visited on previous tours. It sold a range of nice coffees and even nicer cakes and we recommended a visit. Sadly it had changed hands and been turned into a smoky bar. Even Romania has its disappointments occasionally.

Finally there was another former forestry line at Moldovita. This one, running for some 12 kms up the valley from the village is no longer in commercial service. We had chartered a train (steam loco plus one coach) and the management also took the opportunity to add a couple of small bolster wagons to pick up some redundant permanent way material. The weather was fine and sunny, haystacks in the nearby fields looking particularly golden this morning and the horses trotting along the road with their cart loads of timber for winter fuel looked happy in their work. What an idyllic place this is!

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