Whatever you do, when going to the Maramures, don’t go through the Prislop pass…that was the advice from the British couple we met at a campsite in our first week in Romania. They warned of interminable roadworks which meant they couldn’t travel faster than 15 miles per hour in their motorhome.
We relayed this to Sorin, our guide to the Painted Monasteries last week. He pooh-poohed the suggestion. “You are not in a hurry are you? Yes the roads are bad but you’ll manage in your van. And why would you miss the views?’
No, we weren’t in a hurry and his faith in Molly was touching. We headed west from Suceava, by now blasé about the steady stream of horse drawn carts on the road…
…past so many houses with distinctive tin roofs instead of tiles….
…and so many churches.
Coming into Ciocesanesti, the houses were chocolate-box pretty…
….but we stopped off not to admire the architecture but to rectify an oversight. Already a week in Romania and we still hadn’t tasted any local food. And Stuart was a tad jaded of the spicy rice/spicy pasta combo being churned out daily by the Campervanmatters kitchen – by now showing a distinct lack of imagination on the catering front.
Neither of us were up for Ciorba de Burta. That’s tripe soup which reading about it sounded like the marmite of soups. You either love the sour taste or hate it. Not being a marmite lover, I went for the more conventional ciorba, a bowl of chicken soup served with a jug of cream and crushed garlic….
…with a side dish of mamaglia which is….
….and looks like this.
With its almost bland flavour drenched with rich cream, it has a stomach coating quality which makes it the perfect comfort food or hangover cure.
Stuart had hunks of pork with his and you can see the common theme….
…the portions were huuuuge and impossible to finish, something we experienced in other restaurants this week. We were told it was a case of making up for the Ceausescu era when food was scarce. Whatever the reason, it was stretch kaftan time in the van.
And finally, we reached the Prislop pass which connects Bukovina with the Maramures region. We had by now both read William Blacker’s book ‘Along the Enchanted Way’ which tells his wonderful story of the time he spent living there just after the fall of communism. As well as telling his own story of falling in love with a gypsy woman, he paints a picture of a world hardly changed since medieval times.
We expected it would have changed considerably even in the few years since Blacker was there but still it did sound remote and interesting.
The road up to the pass was pretty dire and the roadworks interminable. Every few metres it seemed there was another team hacking up the asphalt. But the views over the snow capped Rodna mountains in the Eastern Carpathian mountains were impressive…
…and then we were over and on our way to the town of Viseu de Sus. We were following up on a tip from another Brit couple we’d met and were planning to travel on the “Mocanita”. This Carpathian Forest Steam Train is the only logging railway still in operation in Europe.
The cart traffic was building up as we pulled into the railway yard where conveniently we could stay overnight and so be on site ready for the 9 am departure of the train next morning.
There was even electric hook up which was very handy and VERY CHEAP. Sorry – I’m still staggered at the couple who pitched up next to us in their enormous white van. The Mr of the couple was checking in at the same time as me. ‘So that’s 40 ron with electricity and 20 ron without.’ ’20 without? Ah, we have no need of electricity’, he said slowly, handing over his cash. I tell this because then he returned to his enormous white van AND PLUGGED IN TO THE ELECTRICITY. Jaysus, just how cheap can you be to want to cheat on the equivalent of £4. Molly’s curtains were twitching with outrage I can tell you (arms folded Les Dawson stylie).
Next morning, we boarded the train and chugged up the mountainside towards the Ukraine border…
…the sights and sounds of the logging business all round us.
We had a few stop offs along the way, time for grilled meat barbecue lunch up top….here’s our chef…
..as well as some time to stretch the legs or let the occasional van using the tracks pass through.
The train got back to the yard a bit early which was good for us as we’d decided we were going to stay that night in the Village Hotel in Breb. We wanted to find somewhere on the lines of the farm stays we’d had in Bulgaria and this looked ideal.
Calling earlier to book in, the owner Penny told us she was taking other guests up the sheep station at 5 pm. If we were back in time, we could go too. Sheep station? That sounded great.
Within two hours, we were pulling off the main road and heading in to Breb….
…past the farmers at work…..
…and the region’s distinctive cone-shaped haystacks…
…and up the drive of the Village Hotel….
….in plenty of time to join the other two guests with Penny as our guide.
We headed up the hill overlooking the village, saw the sheep station looming up in the distance and stopped dead in our tracks. Penny’s orders. We had to stay still till she got hold of the shepherd by phone to come and escort us up.
Why? Because that little dot in the distance is a natural born killer.
Well maybe that’s wildly exaggerated but still the warning was clear. Romanian shepherd dogs may look adorably cute and teddy bear like as puppies like this little fellow…
..but they are bred to protect the flocks from the wolves and bears who inhabit the forests in the Carpathians so pet them at your peril.
They are strictly working dogs and never cosseted or touched like a family pet.
And besides it was their dinner time…here it is, a steaming hot bowl of whey mixed with cornmeal. No meat for these dogs, it’s just too expensive.
It was an idyllic evening. We tucked into the sheep cheese made by the family…
….toasting it over the fire with hunks of pork dripping (an acquired taste)…
….followed by a bowl of goulash soup.
Then we watched the hugely efficient milking operation….three men, around 200 sheep…
….about two minutes a head.
The family live up here all year and their sheep are used for milk only. Penny told us that they had to convince the shepherds that any tourist would be interested in coming up to have a meal with them.
We were very glad they were persuaded. Our evening up at the sheep station will be a stand out experience for us when we look back on this trip.
Back in the village, we had another special evening when we had a meal in the home of one of the local women. Viorika served us up a meal of rice with cabbage served with chunks of tender pork.
It was one of the best meals we’ve had on the road so far.
For the rest of this week we had one afternoon walking the hills around Breb with local guide Roland….
….who led us us along farm tracks and through the alder woodland above Breb…..
….for a picnic up by the pond.
We went to the weekly market in the nearby town of Ocna Sugatag…
…where the local farmers….
….and their wives…
…come to buy everything from wooden tools to balls of wool.
And, of course, the market is the best place to buy new material for your summer wardrobe.
The Roma families too were at the market buying and selling.
Our shopping wasn’t altogether a success. So here I am thinking I’m buying a big hunk of hard cheese….
….but something got lost in translation. On closer inspection back at the van, we realised it’s a hunk of smoked pig fat. Spicy rice with pigfat anyone?
We spent a more sombre day in the town of Sighetu Marmației visiting The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance.
The museum which is set in a former prison commemorates the many, many thousands executed, tortured and imprisoned under the communist regime in Romania.
And we visited the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta which was a strange place. It’s a graveyard still in use by local families who follow the tradition of having a personalised poem and illustration inscribed on the headstone of loved ones who have passed away.
Some like the one below seem straightforward – a few couplets praising Dad’s skills as a farmer most likely?
But this one? What tale is being told after death of this woman’s complicated love life?
From the Village Hotel, we moved to the campsite of Babou Maramures to spend the rest of our week in Breb. Well, it was hard not to after the enterprising owner spotted our van at the market and slotted her card on our windscreen.
So that was our second and last week in Romania….a country we’ve only skimmed through and one we would love to return to. So goodbye Breb…
…and hello Hungary….
….where we got to the border and I was breathalysed.